Beaumont Hospital Foundation organised a fundraiser in September 2015, Walk the Camino Way. I wanted to help to raise money for Beaumont Hospital and this seemed perfect for me. But would I be brave enough to sign up? I knew no one doing it, and it was for a whole week, in Spain! Well, I did sign up, and let’s just say we Irish don't just reserve the Céad Míle Fáilte for visitors, we devour each other with our warmth. I met the most welcoming 11 people and shared the most wonderful experiences with them over the seven days.
It was just a short flight from Dublin to Santiago de Compostella. From the airport we were taken by coach over 115km to the town of Sarria, where we began our walk. The coach journey seemed endless, the roads long and winding, and hilly, very hilly. Was this a good idea I wondered? But then the support and fundraising I had from family and friends brought me back to reality. I was sticking with it and doing it, committed.
Each morning we rose at 7am, had breakfast and were ready to walk at 8am. There was something magical about our group setting off for the day together. There was an instant strong bond between us. Once we started walking towards the next town, we would meet other groups and individuals, all setting out on their daily journey with no idea what it would bring. We were all ‘pilgrims’, walking in the same direction for individual reasons but sharing a common purpose to complete this stage of the Camino Way.
The early morning misty dew in the fields was sensational, made me look out for cobwebs twinkling in the light. The beauty, peace and calm of the countryside felt so good and it was a joy to watch the sunrise each morning. The sun creeping through the trees, the country smells, the ferns, fruit trees (grapes, apples, kiwi) rambling roads and paths. Such a simple life, using manual farming methods to produce enough produce for each village to live on. Stone buildings and outhouses, cobbled pathways, flowers and trees, farm animals - all such simple wonders of nature and so compatible together.
Sometimes we would walk in groups of two or three, or sometimes we would walk a few kilometres alone. Cyclists momentarily annoyed us, coming upon us suddenly without warning. But once they passed, we marvelled at how they could cycle these tracks and hills. Then we were all smiles again, full of respect for the cyclists. If we were walking at a good pace, we would weave in and out of the slower pilgrims. Some were engaged in conversation so saying ‘buen camino’ to them would just interrupt. Instead, a raised hand was enough to acknowledge them. There were so many different nationalities walking with their purpose held either privately or shared - it didn’t matter. Every few days we would see the same people again, stop and chat and exchange experiences.
Walking alone for a while gave you the space and time to reflect, to walk in peace and tranquillity. And just as your mind wanders, so too do your feet as they cover the country lanes and dirt tracks. The only thing you need be mindful of is side-stepping the cow dung!
Sometimes the only sounds you heard as you walked, were voices chatting, the clicking of walking poles on the ground and the clinking of the pilgrim shells we had tied to our back packs. It was a great feeling to be free from phones, computers, cars, work... The Camino is a return to traditional values which is why the pilgrims appreciate it so much and why it’s so different to life back home. To just simply walk each day, that was the only thing you really had to do –although it’s not to be underestimated as some of the hills were gruelling. And our reward was an evening meal, glass of wine and a fresh bed to sleep in each night.
We would stop for coffee mid morning. This was where our ‘spread-out’ group would join together again. It was a chance to share medical supplies, offer tips, ask questions, swap advice, exchange plasters, change socks and then on to the more important stuff - what will we eat, is the coffee good AND where are the toilets?
On the daily walk, you get your Pilgrim Passport stamped at each stop you make. At the end of the walk pilgrims get their passports verified in Santiago and you get a certificate for completing this stage of the Camino. You can stop at the many churches to light candles and take a moment to reflect. It’s easy to find your way each day. You just follow the yellow arrows or the shell symbols. Along the way there are stone markers telling you how many kilometres are left to your destination of Santiago de Compostella. Pilgrims leave a stone or memento on the markers and make a wish or pray for a loved one.
Lunch became more leisurely as the week progressed, and before stopping we would have almost three quarters of our daily walk over, so the fun factor was kicking in at lunch time. It was also a time to check-in to the local wifi and send a message home. Keeping contact confined to these breaks enhanced the experience of being away from ‘it all’.
Yes, there were serious blisters, bruises, bites, aches and pains along the way. We had tired, dirty, dusty legs each evening, but the determination and resilience of the group to walk each day was immense. There was a feel good factor when everyone crossed the finish line each day. What got us through on those tougher days, whether emotionally or physically tough, was the overwhelming kindness of people you meet along the way, the comraderie of our group, the trust which built up so quickly and the mix of skills to help each other through. Even if you don’t have a great faith in God, the Camino gives you a great faith in people.
Engrossed in either our own thoughts, or in conversation, you hardly noticed traffic, there was a constant feeling of tranquillity. Many people walked with headphones on listening to their music and I did think about the words of songs and hymns and would hum them in my head as I walked.
What wonderful contentment to be out walking in the peace and calm, just chatting to people as you go along. The up-hill parts were a struggle but there is a feeling of being on top of the world when you arrive. The countryside is beautiful, walking through forests, shaded by the trees in the hot afternoons. We were blessed with good weather throughout the trip with just one day with rain. And yes, that helped a lot!
The places we stayed were simple and clean, food was good and with a group of twelve, we were always the loudest in the restaurant or bar. Dinner was always an event. Twelve people choosing from the menu, exchanging stories from earlier in the day and having a great laugh together. It was an opportunity to hear a whole lifetime of stories and experiences.
On the last day, walking into Santiago was quite emotional. You could feel the anticipation of our achievement. Within a few hours we would be able to say ‘we did it’, and we all did it together. Every single one of us made it. And it was a group achievement, not a personal one. The initial goal to complete the Way had become a group goal.
That evening we attended mass in Spanish at the St James Cathedral in Santiago, which culminated in the swinging of the giant, sixty-three kilo incense burner, called ‘Botafumerio. The Botafumerio was so powerful and strong. It started to slowly swing towards the ceiling until it was eventually only inches from the roof, dispensing thick clouds of incense as it travelled. It gave me that goose bump moment swinging past me - high to the roof, then low again - reminding me of the highs and lows in life and that I had achieved something significant in doing this walk. I had come a long WAY. Life is about making memories and this was one memorable trip and so are the people I shared the journey with.
Roll on stage two of the Camino Way. Buen Camino x
Cathleen Murphy, 2015.