In May of 2012 I had the good fortune to enjoy a self-guided walking tour of the Camino de Santiago in northwest Spain. From the small city of Sarria to the traditional conclusion in Santiago de Compostela, the 111 km journey was nothing short of remarkable.
If you aren’t familiar with it, the Camino is an ancient pilgrimage route that was initially popularized around 1000 A.D. Today, travelling the route remains an immensely popular experience for Europeans, and increasingly, you’ll find travelers from America and Asia enjoying the route.
One of the best things about the self-guided walking tour of Camino de Santiago is that while the route is well-mapped, the “journey” is full of surprises, and your experience will be completely unique to you. Our pilgrimage was full of wonderful, unplanned moments: the sun glistening magically off a babbling creek; a herd of cows being led by an ancient peasant farmer blocking our path; the young South Korean girl traveling the Camino alone who teared up telling us about her travels; Rosa from Puerto Rico by way of New York, who bought us several rounds at the hotel in Palas de Rei; the amazing polpo (octopus) on the playa in Melide….. and so many more. I had an amazing time on the Camino and will definitely remember it for the rest of my life.
While it hardly pushes a fit person to a physical extreme, it is challenging enough to make each night’s rest feel wonderful and well-earned. Whether you are staying in the standard accommodations or upgraded ones (Zephyr conveniently offers both), you can luxuriate with a wonderful local meal, trade stories with new found friends, or simply spend a peaceful night relaxing in the countryside. And Zephyr arranges for baggage portage to and from each hotel, so you won’t be stuck carrying a heavy pack.
By now you might be wondering what walking the Camino de Santiago all is about. Here’s my take on the journey, section by section.
Sarria to Portomarin: Crossing the old stone bridge out of town, my traveling companion and I found ourselves immersed in the rural countryside, where the centuries-old path rose gently through rolling hills, and was intermittently bordered by old stone walls and ancient trees. Gorgeous grassy fields and gardens of leafy kale abounded.
Portomarin to Palas de Rei: The countryside is still rural, quiet and beautiful. During one short stretch, several cyclists passed us. This is one of the only parts where the real Camino and the cycling route overlap. We chatted with a couple of guys from Germany, who were on their third Camino crossing! No doubt, the journey is addicting.
Palas to Melide: An amazing, beautiful day of walking that ended with fantastic, flavorful food in Melide. Tip: do not miss a chance to enjoy the polpo! The polpo was delicious, but so were the almond tarts we ate at the crowded Melindre Festival. After hours in the quiet countryside we noticed what a shock the noise of the crowd was to our ears! You can expect endless contrasts such as this along the Camino.
Melide to Arzua: We shared the route with more people as we start to converge on Santiago de Compostela. Of course, we always retained etiquette: a smile and “Buen Camino!” followed by conversation- but only if the other party appeared to invite it. We passed a magical and aromatic eucalyptus grove, the inn was charming, and our 12-year old waitress Sara was a particular delight!
Arzua to Rua: This part of the journey took us in and out of deep forest. Sometimes we straddled the highway, sometimes we plunged back into ancient European woods. It wasn’t hard to envision a medieval Spanish Robin Hood romping through this land with his merry band.
We enjoyed a short break reviving with cheese sandwiches at a small cafe. -Some pilgrims start in early with their beer, but we stick with water until night, and then vino it is! Rua is a lovely little village, and even though we’ve been walking all day, the back roads of town beckon us! We are rewarded for our efforts with sights of large, old farmhouses nestled in the forest- quintessential herds of sheep grazing nearby.
Rua to Santiago de Compostela – Our last day on the Camino! The pilgrims at the cafes are either deep in contemplation or a bit manic. The end is near. We try to stay composed, but we experience deep emotion as we approach the close of our Camino travel. The monument to Santiago at Amenal is a striking reminder of how important this pilgrimage route has been to so many millions over the centuries.
Santiago de Compostela – This is a world class cultural city in its own right. It is an incredible city that fills us with light and life after days of walking. To be honest, it is a bit difficult to adjust to the cars and noise, but our hotel is wonderful, the food and wine fantastic, and soon we are relaxed and revived. We meet up with our guide host Reuben, who takes us to the bustling market in the day and a festival in the city park at night. We notice that there seems to be a major festival every few weeks in the summer!
Whatever your spiritual orientation, the Camino invites you to become present with your life on earth, and in the universe. I hope you have a chance to do all or part of a Camino at some point in your life. Go with a friend, several friends, family, or on your own. Many Europeans do the entire Camino over a period of years, a week or two, and a few hundred kilometers at a time. If that is not practical, then doing the final 111 km like we did is a wonderful way to go. But beware; pilgrimaging the Camino can become addictive!
See our separate Zephyr Self-Guided Adventures website for more details about the Camino de Santiago Adventure. In addition, we offer hike, bike, or driving tours through Tuscany and Umbria in Italy and walking tours along Hadrian’s Wall.
This guest post was contributed by Paul Agostinelli who lives, writes, and practices Zen Buddhism in Boulder, Colorado, where he is an internet entrepreneur. He travels the world where and when he can, with a special love of the Mediterranean, the land of his blood, and Asia, the land of his soul. He is a co-founder of Zephyr Self-Guided Adventures.