As I stood there, alone on a foggy, autumn morning in the middle of a quiet street right along the ancient Camino trail in old town Sarria, the doors to the inn I just bid farewell to shut behind me with finality. It suddenly hit me: "What have I gotten myself into?" Here I was, about to embark on a journey of a lifetime to do a walk of gratitude, placing complete trust in a path I'd never taken before—on foot, on my own, backpack in tow, no maps, no GPS, and on a tight schedule using the limited time I could take off from my normal life. It is said that the Camino forces you to face your fears. Well, hello there, fear number one: surrendering control.
But what was it like for the ancient pilgrims or peregrinos who had gone before me? Imagine the adventures of those who had chosen to go even beyond Santiago de Compostela: the pilgrims who traveled to the ominous Coast of Death along the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean; the ones who headed to a small town called Muxia, which was closely linked to the apostle St. James; or the people who braved the roads to Finisterre—a place the Romans believed was the end of the earth. What possessed these early travelers to venture so far away from home, virtually into the unknown? Santiago de Compostela attracted the faithful from England, Germany, Portugal, France, and many others, and was next only to Jerusalem and Rome as a pilgrimage destination, where one could earn plenary indulgence.
They came, on foot or on horseback, to pay homage to the tomb of the first person ever to be martyred in the name of Christianity—St. James the Greater. For the medieval pilgrim, therefore, walking to Santiago was a ticket to heaven. Today, pilgrims walk the Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago for countless other reasons. Surrendering completely to the road, my goal simply to get to my destination before sundown, I found myself a new friend: the yellow arrow.
FOLLOW THE YELLOW ARROW
To go where the yellow arrows point to is a poignant walk through history, following in the footsteps of generations of peregrinos who paved the way for pilgrims like me. With most medieval pilgrims beginning their journey straight out of their doorsteps, the only Camino travel guide available then was a collection of manuscripts called the Codex Calixtinus. Written in the 12th century, it describes the routes to Santiago from France and what a pilgrim could expect to find along the Camino Frances.
It also mentions the medieval practice of gathering scallop shells from the Galician coast, which have come to be known as the symbol of St. James. Wearing one signified that the bearer was a pilgrim. These shells also served the practical purpose of scooping food and water for the pilgrim. It was a precursor to the modern-day Pilgrim's Passport, or Credencial, a document that serves as proof (through stamps from churches, bars, and accommodations along the way) that the bearer has walked, cycled, or ridden on horseback the minimum distance required to earn a Compostela or certificate. The Credencial, also allows one to stay in accommodations meant for pilgrims, just as the scallop shell once did.
FINDING MY BEARINGS
The walk from Sarria, where most pilgrims like myself begin the Camino, to the village of Portomarin was both exciting and unsettling. I didn't know what to expect. In fact, intent on getting to Portomarin as soon as I could, I made no stops along the way. Even the charming bars in the tiny villages couldn't tempt me. Looking back, this 22-kilometer stretch of the Camino took me through the most diverse mix of terrain and villages found within the last 115 kilometers to Santiago. And if I were to do it all over again, I would take my time and make more stops here.
My haste, however, was rewarded by an early afternoon arrival in Portomarin. This village welcomes pilgrims with a breathtaking view of the bridge over the River Milo, which we eventually crossed, followed by a steep climb on steps that lead to the new settlement up the hill of Monte do Cristo, which had been moved there after the original town got submerged by the river. What remains of the old town still makes a haunting appearance, though, during the summer months. Fortunately, not all was left at the mercy of the river. Several structures were moved, block by block, up the hill to the main square, including the churches of San Xoan and San Pedro. And what better way to cap my first day than to watch the sunset over the River Milk, while enjoying a typical Galician dish of marinated babosa clams, followed by some homemade tarta queso (cheesecake!) for dessert.
GETTING MY GROOVE
The 24.8-kilometer trek from Portomarin to Palas de Rei may not have been as scenic but this was the day I allowed myself to take several breaks—for my caffeine fix, visits to the restroom, and to get those all-important stamps to fill my Pilgrim's Passport.
This day also had its fair share of challenging uphill walks. But what a view I got as I reached the top of the hill of Castromaior—an amazing canopy of clouds hanging over the town below. I even got a kick out of seeing my father's last name, Castro, plastered in several places along this stretch of the Camino—from town names to albergues to bars and restaurants. A typical Galician name, apparently. I then decided to stop for some delicious Galician pulpo or grilled octopus at the cafeteria of, where else, Albergue Castro in the small town of Palas de Rei. I was not disappointed.
THE LONGEST DAY
This was the day that almost broke me. It began with the promise of a cool morning. I was to walk 30 kilometers from Palas de Rei to Arzlia, which I naturally assumed would be easy. I'd walked almost 25 kilometers the day before, a lot of it uphill. So what was five more kilometers, right? As the day progressed, I noticed the fog disappear quickly and the sun come out much earlier than in the previous days. By noontime, the heat started to beat down with a vengeance —and just Would. Not. Stop. The reason I chose to walk in autumn in the first place was precisely to avoid the heat. Where were the woods when you needed them? They certainly seemed few and far between along this stretch.
Then, halfway through the day's walk, I came across Melide—a small town that was relatively larger than most I'd come across till then. The main road was wider, the shops and restaurants seemed more upscale, and the town generally felt busier and more prosperous. And there's a reason for this. Melide happens to be where the Camino Primitivo (the original Camino route) converges with the Camino Frances, bringing with it a constant influx of pilgrims from both routes. Of course, today just had to be the day when all I seemed to do was trudge uphill. Each time I thought I was finally in Arala, I wasn't. Which made me wish I had broken up this leg with one night in Melide—until I got to my accommodations for the night. It was a casa rural (country house) off the beaten path that served fantastic Galician fare, such as caldo gallego, lamb shank Galician-style, and tarta de Santiago for dessert. By then, everything was fine again.
A ROOF OVER MY HEAD AND A WARM MEAL
Fortunately, the Camino Frances does not lack in the area of accommodations or places to eat. However, the more basic the accommodation, such as refugios or albergues—dorm-style hostels that usually do not allow advanced bookings—the more crucial it becomes for one to get there ahead of everybody else, especially during the busier months.
Otherwise, expect to walk to the next village and hope for the best. Or spend a bit more money for a room in a hotel, a casa rural, or a parador. And what of food and water? Though fruit-bearing trees, crop farms, running bodies of water, and water fountains found along the route may have provided sustenance to early pilgrims, I instead took advantage of the food offered by the innkeepers to take with me on the road. There were, of course, places to stop along the way for a meal. Or for a toilet break, provided you return the courtesy by buying even just a drink.
IS THE CAMINO SAFE?
Let me begin by saying that I felt absolutely safe during the course of my Camino. But just like everywhere else in the world, the biggest threat to pilgrims has always been other people. Bandits, for instance, have been an unfortunate part of the road. As a solo female traveler, however, reports of attempted abductions and attacks (and the murder of Asian-American Denise Thiem in the spring of 2015) did cross my mind.
Though these were isolated cases involving sections of the Camino I knew I wasn't going to pass, they served more as a reminder to constantly be aware of my surroundings. I refrained from wearing my earphones, for one, and trusted my instincts by waiting to walk alongside other pilgrims whenever I felt it was the smarter thing to do. The sad reality is, most deaths that occur on the Camino are of pilgrims and cyclists either getting hit or run over by motor vehicles or from heart attacks.
THE FINAL STRETCH
Most pilgrims start out early to get to Santiago before the noontime Pilgrim's Mass and to beat the long lines at the Pilgrim's Office to collect their Compostela. I, however, started my day late. I decided to take my time to savor the wonderful breakfast prepared by the inn's owner. As a result, I was practically alone on the road for the most part.
I walked in silence, reflecting on my journey all the way until I reached Santiago. In fact, it's these final 20 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela that have defined my Camino. Fortunately, I made good time and got a good seat for the 7:30 p.m. Friday Pilgrim's Mass, the schedule pilgrims are more likely to witness the swinging of the giant Botafumeiro, or incensory, originally done in the Middle Ages to clean the air inside the church after weary pilgrims arrived from their long journeys.
After days of battling with my mind and body on the road, a sense of calm washed over me as my Camino came to an end. At least, this time around. And as I stood near the edge of the cliff in Finisterre, close to the spot where pilgrims used to burn items they brought along the road as a symbol of letting go of the past, I gazed down, expecting to find the raging waves of the Atlantic crashing against the rocks. Instead, the waters were calm. Serene, even. I finally understood. This was the Camino's gift. Just as the Camino forced me to face my fears, it, too, gave me exactly what I needed, when I needed it. Buen Camino!
Photographs by Pinky Roxas
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No. 24 2018.