A Hiking Trip Along the Camino de Santiago
I managed to walk an epic 500 mile (800km) walk on the Camino Frances last year. This route is the most popular walking route of the Camino de Santiago. Folks, if I could do it, you can too! If you’ve ever wanted to go out and be at one with nature, but haven’t a clue how to go about it, I want to remove any doubts and replace them with practical tips and oceans of confidence.
First of all you need to have an image of me in your head as you read this: I’m a middle-aged Irishwoman living in London. I would never be called slim, despite my best efforts. However, I do like to go walking in the countryside, tackling the odd little hill here and there. Before my Camino trek, I enjoyed infrequent walks of 8-12 miles at a time and rewarded myself afterwards with a nice cup of tea and a large slice of coffee and walnut cake, generally enjoyed in a quaint English tearoom. Such treats may indeed account for my lack of svelteness! I always come back from a hike feeling energised and bowled over by getting up close and personal with nature, i.e. green and shady woodlands, meandering rivers, fields of wheat and rapeseed, white cliffs of the South Downs and the glorious blue sea, accompanied by birdsong, bleating sheep and cows mooing.
Planning tomorrow's walk.
The reason I took to the road last year was that I needed time away from my stressful job as a project manager. Not one to do things in half measures, I decided to walk the 500 mile Camino Frances. I had heard so many inspirational stories about the Camino and wanted to be inspired myself. Basically, I was looking for some new direction in my life and felt that The Road could help me with this. I badly wanted an alternative to all my early morning commutes into the City of London, feeling like a sardine packed tightly in a tin, on the train home.
So, I started getting ready for my journey. I was mainly focussed on what profound things I’d learn along the 500-mile path. I really didn’t focus a lot on the fact that I was going to have to go up and over three fairly big mountains ranges, in the process of attaining my divine inspiration.
Did I do much training? Not really. Due to a minor leg injury and battling with post viral fatigue, I didn’t get to do a whole lot of exercising pre-walk. But I decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I had the added bonus of not having to adhere to a finish date.
Packing for the trip proved difficult as I tried to get the best value for the non-clothing items on my packing list. I trawled so many websites, visited so many hiking shops, it was truly bewildering, and frustrating. I eventually put my kit together and was ready to go!
The upshot of my trip was that I had the best time ever!!! I would rank it as the most important thing I have ever done for myself. I met the most amazing people. With some, I had fascinating and profound conversations. With others I had the greatest laugh-out-loud moments. With a small few, we succeeded in being wise and profound one moment and being totally ridiculously silly the next. Very special experiences, and will be etched into my memory forever.
Based on what I learned along The Way (another name for the Camino), Here are my five top tips for enjoying life on the road if you’re not an athlete:
1. Don’t Overthink it and Be Kind to Yourself
My walk started by climbing the Pyrenees from St Jean Pied de Pied in France. I had seen the gradient of this stage of the walk and decided that my rucksack could be transported so that I wasn’t carrying any more weight than I needed to. As I set off up this mountain, wow! I berated myself big time for being so unfit, for being so overweight and for not training enough beforehand. But, somehow, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and finally reached my first hostel, in Orisson (5 miles up the mountain). I was introduced to my hostel bunk bed (vinyl covered mattress and pillowcase), the communal showers, and toilet without a seat. I washed myself, washed my clothes and mingled with my fellow pilgrims that evening. When I went to bed, I was bunking down with 11 others in the 6 bunk room. As the cacophony of snoring started, I stared at the roof of the bunk over my head and kept saying to myself ‘Really, Anne? Really? Are you going to endure this every night for at least 6 weeks?'. But one pair of earplugs quickly and cosily inserted into my ears kept out the non-musical snores, and I was in an immediate deep sleep. The beauty of walking means that I was always tired enough to enjoy a great sleep. Within three nights of kipping down in hostels, I was completely used to it and never questioned my motives again. I learned to go with the flow and not over think anything. I stopped beating myself up for being unfit and replaced my self-criticism with self-nurturing and self-belief. From that self-care came a feeling of strength and confidence. It made all the difference and I knew I would get to Santiago.
Wonderful pilgrim sculptures along the road - the thirsty and the windswept!
2. One step at a time
As I set out on my second day with a 10.5-mile trek up and over the mountain to my next stopover in Roncesvalles (bye-bye France! hello Spain!), I walked very slowly. People were flying past me and hailed me with the increasingly familiar greeting ‘Buen Camino!’ I muttered back the same greeting. At one point, an elderly man breezed past me, and asked where are you walking to?’ I said ‘Santiago’. Then he said ‘And how are you going to do that?’ I replied ‘one step at a time’. He smiled and said ‘now that’s the right attitude to get you there!’ I felt encouraged by that. I learned later that a lot of those speedy walkers I met were on a week’s or fortnight’s trek and some came from hill-walking clubs, so no wonder they seemed to me to be like greyhounds out of a trap, they moved so fast. I decided on that second day not to get intimidated by the fast walkers. Ironically, I generally bumped into them at the hostels I checked into each evening – it just took me a bit longer to get there.
Hiking should never be a race so don’t put yourself under any unnecessary pressure. If you do, you will not experience the total joy of being outdoors. The point is to be at one with yourself and with nature. Take your time and enjoy the moment.
Ancient village and soulful views.
3. Enjoy the view
I found that my first climb over the Pyrenees was a slow one but my goodness, what views! The higher I climbed, the more stunning the views. It felt like I was on top of the world. And interestingly, I physically and mentally felt exhilarated by the effort it took and how rewarding it was to achieve it. This was Ossau-Iraty (sheep’s cheese) country, and to witness the sheep bouncing along the ridge, probably on their way to being milked, with bells tinkling around their necks as they ran along. Jolly bells on jolly sheep! And jolly nice cheese too! As people powered past me, in their rush to get to the next hostel, I wondered if they took time to stop and stare the beauty surrounding them.
The view from mountain tops was breath-taking. Walking along valley floors with ice-cold streams fast flowing alongside was refreshing. Strolling through the most ancient villages and towns prompted memories of the millions of pilgrims who walked these same paths before me, for at least 13 centuries. There are constant reminders of once thriving communities in what are now isolated outposts.
The climbs were worth it!
4. Walk; Don’t Walk
I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to adhere to a defined end date. That definitely helped me to relax more and take the pressure off myself. I met some people who had 30 days to do the walk from start to finish and hop on a plane home immediately afterwards, to far-flung places like the US, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand and Korea. Here’s my advice for people who are on a tight deadline:
You can still cover the distance without having to walk every step. For example, there is one part of the road called The Meseta. I personally found it the most gruelling and mesmeric section of the Camino. But this hot, dusty, flat and monotonous road was also where I had my most profound thoughts and reasoning. If you’re on a time pressure, this 146 mile (234km) stretch of road is where I would recommend you cycle instead of walking. You would cover more ground each day, continue to stay on the road and still have time to let the magic of the road inspire you. You could cycle 25-40 miles each day and get the Meseta covered in 3-5 days. I took 10 days to walk it. Remember, it isn’t a race and it isn’t a competition. We’re all winners who have been lucky enough to experience the wonders of the Camino, and how we do it is our own personal choice.
However you decide to walk (or not) the road, do not let anyone tell you how it should be done. It’s your journey, your experience.
The flat Meseta - Morning and afternoon landscapes – no trees or shade!
5. Talk; don’t talk
I walked each day on my own because it is what I chose to do. As I walked, I felt the energy of the road work positively on my thoughts. I had, in essence, the best of both worlds: I could walk with my thoughts every day and delight in the company of others each evening. That was such a unique element of the journey. I met lots of pilgrims who were walking on the road with friends. I met others who arrived on the Camino on their own and joined up with other solo walkers to form their own Camino Family.
The Camino helps people to enjoy silence even if they are walking with others. I passed lots of people who were walking companionably in silence. If you feel like having company and you’re setting off on your own, the company is there for you. If you feel, like me, you want to dwell inside of yourself for a few hours a day, you can do that too!
So, again, like the rules of walking (or not walking), there are no rules around talking (or not talking) along the road. You will know how you want to respond to the road as you walk along.
I hope these five tips help you and sustain you as you plan for your trip and your personal journey. Just remember, there is no rule book on how you should enjoy the road. Enjoy yourself and respect others for the choices they make along their own journey.
To sum up what the Camino did for me: well, I have found a new direction in my life, fully inspired by the Camino. After my own experience packing for my trip, I have developed an Essentials Kit (due to go on sale in September) that will take the hassle out of packing for future pilgrims, hikers, trekkers, campers, backpackers – basically, anyone who wants to go out there and enjoy the journey, carrying a light load. Leave the kitchen sink at home!
I’d love your feedback, comments and questions. Please share them with me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Buen Camino!
Anne Starr, Owner and Founder of Camino Essentials