A short stint on Camino de Santiago — one of the world’s greatest pilgrimage routes — brings its own rewards. But you have to learn to tackle it at your own pace to truly appreciate the stories, the characters and the cultural immersion along the way.
By Pól Ó Conghaile. Published on 20th November 2014
I’m passing through the woods, somewhere between Arzúa, in northwest Spain, and O Pedrouzo, when I bump into a man and woman walking a donkey. A sturdy pair of pannier bags straddle the animal. The woman wears a baseball cap, nose stud and T-shirt. The man’s trainers are bound together with two types of tape. I’ve only been walking for a couple of days, but already I’m exhausted. It feels like there are hard-boiled eggs inside my calves. But this pair of pilgrims soon put me in my place. The man and donkey have walked from Lyon.
That’s Lyon in France, some 870 miles away.
I strike up a conversation with the young woman, Stacey. She hails from Melbourne, where she works as a waitress. Her Camino began 280 miles back in Burgos, northern Spain. She met Miguel and Pompon (the donkey) several days ago, and they’ve been travelling together ever since, headed for Santiago de Compostela.
“But that’s just the destination,” Stacey says. “The whole point is the journey.”
Slowly but surely, I’m coming round to that view. The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s great pilgrimage routes, measuring hundreds of miles in length (depending on your starting point) and dating back to medieval times. It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to do it, but work and family commitments have always seemed more pressing than several weeks walking in northern Spain.
In recent years, however, shorter Camino trips have become much more popular. Tour operators can bundle accommodation and luggage transfers in packages starting from the 100km minimum required to attain a certificate of completion. So rather than wait, I decided to scratch the itch with a taster.
Setting it up was easy. Most short-haul pilgrims set out from Sarrià, a market town 100km from Santiago de Compostela on the French Way. Booking with tour operator CaminoWays.com, I was able to pre-book rooms and have my luggage transferred between them as I walked, carrying just a camera and daypack on the trail. If truth be told, however, by the time I was in the taxi taking me towards my starting point — passing a long line of pilgrims plodding through the Galician countryside — I was beginning to wonder whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
My heaviest day scheduled me in for 18 miles (“It takes around seven hours,” a cheery barman told me). But I couldn’t recall the last time I’d walked that distance — if ever. Sure, I’d gotten several big hikes under my belt beforehand, but nothing of this length.