Holiday options for yachties are plentiful, but few are as life-changing as a pilgrimage. So with South Africa’s chilly winter fast approaching, I decided to take a walk in warmer climes. Like most yachties, I always opt for adventurous and natural vacations.
A recent trip to Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the world’s oldest pilgrimage, ticked all the boxes. On average, I walked between 20 and 30kms per day and, like all other pilgrims, my final destination was the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
I chose a two-week stretch of the camino from Leon to Finisterre (255 miles). Nervously, I hit the trail they call “the French way” with just a 7kg backpack. The camino spirit soon came to me; I met four pilgrims within the first hour, followed by an Italian man who handed me a rose, simply for the sake of giving. He left with two words: buen camino.
Those would be the two most common words I’d hear on the trek. Camino is Spanish for “path”, and it’s figurative as well as literal. Everyone who walks the Camino de Santiago travels his or her own path.
During my walk, I befriended a painter from America, a 67-year-old Canadian woman who has lovers on every continent, and a dentist from Switzerland who walked the entire way with his dog.
One morning I had coffee with an American author fighting cancer. I heard about a woman walking the way on crutches and a grandmother completing the way with her granddaughter. I met a number of Polish people who walked for religious reasons and I often bumped into an American history professor and a group of his students there for academic reasons.
I heard about many camino romances. Some were summer flings, while others led to marriages … or affairs.
There were many people who walked the camino to heal from divorces and breakups. One girl spent hours each day walking and crying over lost love. I met filmmakers, chefs, bank managers, surfers, families and candlestick makers walking the way.
During the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked the way to find salvation, healing and renewal. Rituals, tradition and spirituality were the main drivers of the camino experience.
Modern-day pilgrims do it for a range of reasons that far exceed religion; some to find love, some for healing and others simply to lose weight. Some people chose a solitary and spiritual journey, while others (especially the Irish) made use of every bar along the route. The camino really is what you want it to be.
Time alone in nature, coupled with walking alongside strangers, did something good for my soul. Much like life on a yacht, the camino is a microcosm of life. Some people walk the entire way together, whereas others simply say hello and move on. The experience is known to open people up. Perfect strangers who may not share a language think nothing of striking up conversations.
All human emotions are put to the test; from patience to determination to empathy. Pilgrims carry their own load in the form of a backpack and therefore only essentials can be taken. Excess, luxury and a five-day work week become distant memories.
During my journey I walked through landscapes filled with red poppies, vineyards, cherry trees, ultra-modern windmills and snowcapped mountains. Old stone villages lined the rural landscape and from time to time do-gooders would emerge in the middle of nowhere to hand out fruits and wise insights.
Halfway into my walk, I entered Galicia, Spain’s Celtic-infused province. I entered Galicia by way of a steep hill only to be rewarded with spectacular views from O Cebreiro, an old town famous for its cheese. Galicia is a perfect blend of Spanish and Irish cultures where Celtic music, dance and symbols mark the land. As a province filled with folklore, Galicia is famous for its witches. Word has it that these medicine women are still around and ready to cure aches and pains through herb concoctions.
A scallop shell, unique to the Galician coastline, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. People mark their status as pilgrims by dangling these seawares from their backpacks. Today pilgrims return home with the prized Compostela, a certificate of completion, but during the Middle Ages a shell was the only proof.
Other rituals are as strong as ever on the way. At the base of a large cross on a mountaintop, past a town called Astorga, pilgrims deposit small stones that represent sins, burdens, love or whatever is of importance to them.
The religious flavor of the camino is tangible through churches and monasteries along the route. Samos, a quiet village on a detour trail from Triacastela, boasts one of Spain’s most ancient monasteries dating back to the 6th century.
Today’s pilgrimage is a far cry from how it used to be in the Middle Ages. Local residents have long since cottoned onto the idea of making money from passing pilgrims, so cafes are plentiful and beckon with delicious coffee, croissants, tortillas, sandwiches and beer. Pilgrim accommodation is also in high supply and comes in the form of an alburgue, the local name for dormitory-style rooms and communal bathrooms. This was perhaps the most challenging part of my camino experience as snoring and unhygienic roommates often left me sleep deprived.
Besides these humbling discomforts, I found the alburgues to be fantastic meeting places where stories are exchanged, blisters are compared and friendships are made over shared meals.
With aching legs, I finally reached Santiago de Compostela. Walking beside a melting pot of pilgrims I hastily made my way to the cathedral. Its sheer height and intricacy took my breath away and all around overwhelmed pilgrims cried, fell flat on the plaza or simply stared at the majestic building.
Besides its extraordinary cathedral, Santiago is an enchanting European city. Its old town is filled with bagpipers, opera singers and guitarists, while a constant stream of pilgrims flood its streets. I regained my strength in Santiago, before taking on three more days of walking to Finisterra, a coastal village that was thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages.
I crossed mountains, rivers and farms until I reached Finisterra. The last evening was bittersweet, as I bid farewell to newfound friends. With fellow pilgrims, we headed to Finisterra’s vast rock outcrop for its famous sunset. Reflective pilgrims sat all around us, watching the wild ways of the Atlantic. I could feel the energy of this sacred space and for a few minutes I believed that it was indeed the end of the world.
Former yacht stew Frankie Black now lives and works in South Africa. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.