For many, hearing about the Camino de Santiago brings up a yearning, almost a calling that beckons their feet towards it’s trails. Perhaps you know someone else that followed the path, or you watched a movie or read a book that follows the journey. However you stumbled upon your knowledge of this pilgrimage, the fact of the matter is: you became intrigued. Pulled in perhaps.
Yet there are also many others that have never heard of this famed hike in Europe, which is located primarily in Spain, and takes around a month to complete. So let’s dive in to more details for anyone who’s curious to learn more!
We sat down with Gina Cornejo - yoga instructor extraordinaire for our Retreat to Spain trip which is focused in the Camino region - to delve into her knowledge and experiences of the Camino de Santiago. Her multiple trips and hikes along different routes of the Camino have given her a wonderful insight in to the region, the history, and most importantly the feeling of what it’s like to explore this pilgrim’s path.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
Oh my, this is a beautifully loaded question!
To simplify - very sincerely and lovingly simplify - the Apostle James (the Greater) was assigned to preach throughout the Iberian Peninsula, initiating this particular connection to the land. Santiago, Saint James, became the first Apostle to be martyred - he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 C.E. Sneaking his body out of Jerusalem and unsure of where to bury Santiago, friends gathered his head and body and placed him in a “boat that, with no sails, oars, or even sailors, according to some versions, traveled across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and north along the Iberian coast.” They, the disciples, then buried Saint James on a hill.
After which, for roughly 750 years, Saint James isn’t mentioned. Very curious!
Around 813, “the Christian hermit Pelayo, heard music and saw lights shining over a small cave” which led him to find the bones of the almost forgotten Apostle James. Shortly after the relics were discovered, a small chapel was built. Monumental strides were being made in the spiritual healing that many felt was abundant whenever pilgrimage was made to this holy site. Eventually the stunning Catedral in the fabled town of Santiago de Compostela is where pilgrims from far-flung European cities and towns aimed their paths towards to complete their journey.
I urge you, there is SO much more to this story, to this culture, to this phenomenon. The folklore, the politics of Kings, the biblical contributions, the literal connection to the stars, the Milky Way... this pilgrimage to the Catedral where it is said the bones of the Apostle Saint James remain is truly epic and enriching. Anyone truly curious about all realms of the fascinating Camino de Santiago I would encourage to purchase the book, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. This book includes the art, architecture, history and, my favorite, the folklore and saints’ lives that have brought into vivid existence the epic pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James.
Walking the Camino
My first encounter, foot to earth, along the Camino de Santiago, the Camino Frances, was in 2014. From May into June, I walked a total of 35 days, beginning in St. Jean Pied de Port, a well known starting point of pilgrimage for many as they begin their journey.
Yet - many say that your Camino begins when you ‘heed the call’ - that the Camino almost lures you in, is walking you before you walk it.
With that in mind, it made beautiful sense that for 1 year prior to me arriving in St. Jean, I began to experience dreams of storybook landscapes, forests, lush greenery, epic quiet, long rocky trails.
It was the night before I would begin to walk my Camino, and Eric, the host of a sweet albergue very close to the Pilgrim Office, had fed and cared for us very well. The savory food and regional wine offered us temporary comfort. He was well versed in dispelling any anxiety and jitters in our fresh pilgrim minds and hearts. He offered detailed wisdom about how to proceed on our journey in order to truly walk in harmony with ourselves and with the land. What a gift he gave us as he reminded us that we are in the protection of a grand source of love. That those who have walked centuries before us are continuing to guide us all. And, he reminded us countless times to “drink water!” and “go at your own pace!”
But then on the morning of my first day, just miles into the Napoleon Route, being pelted sideways with hail, wet whips of wind gusts, gradually advancing thunder, low dense fog, no one in plain sight... I paused, dug my heels into the mountainside, looked up and shouted, “What am I doing here?!”
Then I immediately burst out laughing.
For me, in that moment, that was it. The realization that ‘Now is the time’. To live fully, to trust deeply, to begin an excavation within that was essential. It was the first of thousands of times along my Camino that I felt/witnessed/surrendered to the blissful opportunity to become alive. Spiritually, mentally, physically, from top to bottom, in and out.
That momentary despair paired neatly with the euphoria - seemingly alone - in that hail storm on a mountain somewhere near the border of France and Spain is something I recall when I am faced with challenges today. I choose to dig my heels in, I choose to be curious, I choose to face the fog. If not now, when?
When you first, and with some caution, inform your family, your loved ones, your bosses, even your dentist, that you will be away for quite some time to walk the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, there it is: “Why?”
I began to give my explanation, divulge my deeper quest for choosing this journey to everyone who would ask, until I realized they had already made up their minds that this was an adventure not suited for them - and therefore, for me - and a beach resort with stellar room service was what I actually should be doing instead.
(During this exciting lead up to my solo pilgrimage, I was also bluntly asked, “...and your husband is going to let you go?” Which is an entirely different topic, one I could discuss for days, but we’ll save that for another blog! Working titles include: Say Yes to Solo Travel!, Solo Female Travel Guide!, It’s Okay To Travel Solo!, and/or Just Because I’m Traveling Solo Doesn’t Mean I Have No Friends.)
The truth is: the Camino de Santiago is for everyone. It has been walked by all.
Along my journeys of the Camino Frances, the Camino Portuguese, Camino Finisterre, and Camino San Salvador, I have encountered a young pilgrim at the age of 7, walking with her neon pink blanket alongside her grandparents. The elder pilgrims I sat to dinner with were two longtime friends from South Korea, ages 85 and 86, who both had husbands that would rather watch TV than walk with them, so they, with glee, exclaimed…
“So, we left them home to watch TV and we are here getting to talk with you!”
There’s a passage written by Edwin Mullins that, to me, beautifully sums up the vastness of the “Why?":
“I know of no other journey--at least not in Europe--which has caught the imagination of millions in quite the same way. And it is intriguing to ask why. There is of course a deep spiritual need which the pilgrimage seems to satisfy, particularly for those hardy enough to tackle the journey on foot. There is something about walking . . . it is a cathartic experience that more and more people have come to value as the world becomes increasingly hectic. The Santiago pilgrimage offers an extra reward in that it is also a walk through history: each day you encounter some relic or some great monument that reminds you that you are treading in the footsteps of an extraordinary past, when millions of people walked the same journey - out of love, out of punishment, duty, fear, or out of simple blind faith. And this, even to the non-believer, is a deeply moving experience. It is a journey peopled by ghosts - the ghosts of great men, of paupers and criminals, minstrels and visionaries, stone masons and painters, saints. All human life was once there, treading along that long road.”
The why is yours and yours alone.
The gifts, the lessons, the clarity, the harmony that the Camino provides for you is for you alone. All you have to do is walk. The treasures are abundant.
Are you curious to learn more about the Camino experience and the inward paths it evokes, as well as the hiking challenges, and of course the feeling of being on these famed pilgrimage trails… but just not sure if you’re ready to dive in for the full month+ journey on foot?
Our Retreat to Spain with 6, 7, 9 or 10-day options will give you a wonderful taste of all the Camino entails, and leave you with a readiness to decide if hiking the full pilgrimage is for you. For 6 days of our itinerary you’ll enjoy daily yoga aimed to ground you in your surroundings while truly exploring your experiences both within and without, as well as daily hiking excursions in the mountains of the Camino region including a spectacular stretch of the Camino San Salvador. You can also add 3 nights to the trip beforehand in order to explore other incredible sights and cities of Spain, and/or a 1-day optional extension at the end to delve more deeply into the Camino de Santiago’s history & routes with an arrival at the famous Catedral in Santiago de Compostela at the end. It’s the perfect taste of the Camino for those who perhaps aren’t able or ready to do the full journey… or those who are curious to find out if it really is for them or not!