by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI Group
When I saw “The Way”, Martin Sheen’s recent movie, directed by his son Emilio Estevez, I knew I wanted to walk at least part of the Camino de Santiago. For over 1000 years pilgrims have walked “the way”, their destination or journey’s end being the magnificent cathedral of St James located in the centre of the Galician town of Santiago. After years of airports and stations I really yearned for a travel experience without excessive luggage and security lines where the journey itself would be as important as the destination. This year, in gratitude for and celebration of 30 amazing years together, we decided to walk a section of the Camino along with our troop of children, ranging in age from 17 to 29.
We commenced our journey in Sarria, a beautiful town on a hill, about 120km from Santiago de Campostela. Walking an average of 25km per day you can walk into Santiago on day 5 and claim your “Compostela” or certificate of completion from the Pilgrim’s Office there. Aficionados who complete the full 836 km of the Camino Frances from St Jean through Pamplona and Leon justifiably look on this as yet another example of falling standards, of contemporary culture’s determination to jump on the bandwagon and sanitise, dilute, adulterate. Whatever! For me it was as much as I could sell to a predominantly Gen Y female demographic un-prepared for daily life without a hair straightener, high speed broadband and a free taxi service. But after 6 demanding days of walking in the August heat all 11 of us, including our 12 month old grandson, arrived into Santiago with blistered feet, aching bones, weary legs and a lightness of heart, mind and soul that made it all worthwhile.
1. You meet amazing people
People walk the Camino for a variety of motives. For many it’s a pilgrimage which they undertake for spiritual / religious reasons; for others it’s an opportunity to spend an extended period “far from the madding crowd”, outdoors, in nature; for others again it’s a personal, physical challenge. In all cases the choice is driven by more than the mere desire to take a holiday or go for a walk in the woods. This deeper motivation acts as a filter for participation meaning that on the Camino you meet open minded people, folks who colour outside of the lines, seekers with stories to tell, free spirits who challenge you … like Rowan from Melbourne who walked with us for half a day and shortened our journey with his cheerful chat and easy manner or Mark from Tipperary, seeker extraordinaire, who reclaimed his life through Buddhism after 10 years in the wilderness or GianCarlo from Imola who played the Galician pipes and knew more about Irish folk dances that we did ourselves.
2. It’s a relatively cheap holiday
Mark from Tipperary managed on less than €15 per day on the Camino and ate so well that, despite the walking, he put weight on during his 4 week walk. While it cost a good bit more to keep the Gilligan Show on the road for 6 days, prices, overall, are extraordinarily reasonable with a 4 course meals, including wine, averaging at €10. Accommodation, too, is cheap and cheerful at around €20 per person per night B&B in modest but more than adequate en suite rooms. On our last night, thanks to a recommendation from long standing industry friend and Camino alumnus, Andrew Roche, we paid slightly more for Hospederia San Martin Pinario. For €35 a head we experienced a magnificent, sensitively restored monastery located adjacent to the Cathedral, right in the historic centre of Santiago. Thanks to a recommendation from my former colleague, the ebullient and garrulous Elle Caffrey of Multiple Sclerosis Ireland, we enjoyed a Babette’s Feast style repast at Bispo Tapas Bar at about half the price you’d pay in Barcelona.
3. Galicia is beautiful
Spain has long been amongst the top 5 tourist destinations in the world but the visitor activity has tended to focus on Madrid, Barcelona, the Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca. Prior to commencing our walk we spent a week in Moana, a tiny seaside town on the Atlantic Coast. Coastal Galicia is a series of Fjords and inlets dotted with small towns that support themselves with fishing and subsistence agriculture. The many beaches are uncrowded and excellently maintained with attractive planting, landscaping and leisure / work-out facilities. Our 6 day walk took us through the beautifully contrasting heartland of Galicia where shaded pathways through tall eucalyptus groves soon yield to roads that twist and turn through traditional granite farmyards where farmers leave out boxes of fresh fruit for passing pilgrims.
There’s a slower, more meditative pace to urban life in Santiago when compared with Barcelona and Madrid. Part of this, undoubtedly, stems from the underlying reality that its visitors are special and different and, over the centuries, the city has incorporated this into its very DNA. Santiago is a smiling, welcoming, friendly city, a true haven where you feel safe. The old city is mix of narrow, mediaeval-style alleyways and wide open spaces where folks gather to sit and rest. Over the two days of our stay there we experienced some amazing street entertainment – a trio from St Petersburg playing mesmerizing classical pieces on accordion, mandolin and bass; a duo of tenors doing Italian opera in an alley beside the cathedral; a troupe in full traditional costume performing Galician folk dances in the cathedral square. All around you’re surrounded by a thousand years of stunning European architecture with the immense cathedral complex dating variously from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras.
5. It’s a metaphor for the journey of life
I know. This trite cliche is cringe inducing in the extreme. It’s unworthy of even the most incompetent vicar or tongue-tied priest. But somehow it does express something of the uniqueness of the Camino, whatever your reasons for doing it. Each day on the Camino involves physical and mental challenges both foreseen and unforeseen. Your map and guide book will prepare you for some but you have to deal with the ad hoc physical discomfort or the random mental/spiritual angst all on your own. And what do you learn? When you walk, talk and share with others the journey is lighter, shorter, more satisfying. When you focus your attention on someone else’s story or concern or worry, your own one retreats into the background and you become enriched by it.