The Essence of The Camino de Santiago
Why do you wish to go on the Camino de Santiago? This is generally the first question I ask when people look for advice on the best Camino route. Of course there is no “best Camino route”, there is only the most suitable Camino route for an individual, based on what he or she is looking for from the trip. Each of the routes is unique in terms of the scenery, the small villages and hamlets one passes through, as well as the culture and history of the area, but they all have one thing in common – each Camino route brings people together to interact with each other.
While the scenery on route is certainly very memorable, it’s the people you meet that will leave a lasting impression. When I speak about people, I’m referring not only to the other walkers or cyclists whom you will meet on the way, but also the people working in the accommodations, the luggage transporters, or the guy serving you a beer in a little bar on route, all of whom have a special connection to the Camino.
When I think back on the many Caminos I have done, it’s the interactions with people which come to mind first and foremost. I’ll never forgot a wonderful lunch that I had in a tiny café along a beach just north of Porto. There was a lovely woman in her eighties running the café and we tucked into the most delicious plate of seafood as she told us all about her life and family and the history of her little seaside restaurant. After chatting for over an hour, we reluctantly said our goodbyes before embarking on the last 10km of our journey that day to Povoa de Varzim.
On another occasion an Italian man helped to fix a puncture on my bike as I cycled on the Camino del Norte. It was approaching 6 in the evening and I was tired and hungry after cycling a little over 50km up to that point. We didn’t actually have a common language but he quickly saw that I needed help and within minutes I was back on my bike headed for my next stop for the night. This small act of kindness meant so much to me that day.
For me, embarking on this type of trip involving a slow way of getting from one place to the next (in the case of the Camino this means walking, cycling or riding on horseback), forces us not only to drink in and appreciate our surroundings but also to connect with people. In so far as possible when on a walking or cycling route, I choose to turn off my phone in order to really be present in the moment, rather than being distracted by emails, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, the list goes on.
As much as I can, I tend to ask locals for directions (instead of relying on Google maps), to seek advice on where to eat (instead of consulting TripAdvisor) and to ask the waiter to recommend a dish (rather than translating the menu). These may be short interactions but still they contribute to the overall immersive experience. For me, these connections with people allow us to go beneath the surface and to understand the place, as opposed to just admiring its landscape.
I have to admit that this was not always the way I chose to travel. In my younger days, I spent many a trip rushing from one tourist attraction to another, standing in queues often for hours, sometimes only to spend a few minutes viewing a particular attraction. Typically, I tried to squeeze too much into my trips, with the result that I didn’t dedicate the time to really experience the place or get to know its people. Looking back, I realise that I had limited interactions with locals, which is the opposite to the way I choose to travel now. Nowadays, I choose experiences over sights, which for me results in a much more fulfilling trip. This is just one of the reasons why I find myself coming back again and again to travel different Camino routes, as the very essence of the Camino revolves around the connections between people.
I have many friends and family members who have walked or cycled a part of the Camino and each time that I have asked them about the highlights of the trip on their return, “people” features each time in their answer. You could walk the same Camino route 10 times and have a different experience: the route is the same but the people you meet will be different.
A Camino trip is just as much about the journey as the destination, and the people you will meet on that journey will make it memorable and fulfilling. That is the essence of the Camino.