THE RAIN IN SPAIN Dark clouds loomed for much of Paul O’Brien’s first ten days on the Camino Way. Pic: Aitor Lanas/Flicker
Walk this way – A Camino journey
Recently I fulfilled a long-held ambition by walking the famous Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. ‘El Camino’, as it is known, stretches 800km from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and over the mountains into Basque region and beyond.
The journey, thought to be the route taken by the apostle St James when bringing Christianity to the Iberian peninsula, finishes in the city that bears his name – Santiago de Compostela – where the apostle is said to be entombed.
On May 27, I started out with my brother from St Jean. We had both packed light. My rucksack weighed a little over 8kg, including a kilo of water. I had decided not to wear hiking boots and was undertaking the walk wearing a pair of minimalist running shoes. My strategy was to travel light and try to avoid beating my feet up too much.
I had no expectations of what the journey would provide, I simply wanted to ‘unplug’ from day-to-day life and reconnect with nature and, perhaps, others. Our first day out took us over the Pyrenees, offering spectacular views and some challenging trekking. We met plenty of fellow pilgrims, got soaked a couple of times and administered first aid to a pilgrim who had dislocated his finger after a fall. An interesting start!
The first week of the Camino throws up some challenging trekking, with a few steep climbs and somewhat treacherous descents, especially in wet weather. Without a base level of aerobic fitness I would suggest the first week may be a struggle. However, by the end of the first week most people are into their stride and their bodies have adapted to the stresses of repetitive walking.
Wet, wet, wet
We experienced a good deal of wet weather in the first 7 to 10 days of our walk and I began to question the wisdom of not bringing waterproof boots. However, my feet were blister-free, which spared me from a great part of the conversation on this subject at each days stopping point!
Physically, I was beginning to feel the strain in my hips and began to include some hip mobility and stretching exercises in my daily post-walk routine. Stretching and mobility exercises are definitely recommended at the end of each day.
Over the next couple of weeks, as the weather improved, El Camino offered us a unique experience, very different to anything I have previously experienced while travelling. Though everyone has their own reasons for doing it, there is an unmistakeable bond between pilgrims. People openly discuss their lives, sharing and learning from each other. The Albergues (hostels), where most pilgrims stay each night, are abuzz with conversation over communal meals and sometimes music and song.
A sense of connection
Then there is the walking. I awoke every morning with excitement as I anticipated the days walking. The terrain and environment were constantly changing. One day you are walking in the mountains, awed by the views and exhilarated by the struggle. The next day, you are immersed in forest, or ambling through vineyards, accompanied by a colourful tapestry of wild flowers and shades of green to compare with Ireland’s forty.
The real joy is that you are completely immersed in the experience. With no emails to check, or calls to take, you are occupied solely by walking and enjoying the natural world. I felt a deep sense of connection with nature and with others that is hard to grasp in a society driven to distraction and the need to succeed.
As I walked, I reflected upon that word – success – and coined my own definition – the ability to live in each moment with no mental burden of past or future, only what is. That is success. The Camino is calling.
Paul O’Brien is a personal trainer and life coach based in Westport.
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