El Camino de Santiago

18 Oct

¡Hola mis amiguitos!

Firstly, I apologize for the longer absence than usual.  I had been enjoying my fall vacation here backpacking through northwestern Spain, and therefore did not have access to that lovely thing they call internet.   Secondly, now that I’ve returned, I would like to share with you the wonderful adventures I had during the Camino!

For those of you who don’t know, El Camino de Santiago is a religious pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.  Legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie in the sacred tombs within the Cathedral.  That’s right—this wonderful piece of religious history dates back all the way to the time of Jesus.  Pretty cool.  Traditionally, the purpose of the pilgrimage was for Catholics who were seeking cleansing and repentance of all their sins after enduring the “punishment” of the long, harsh trek to the Cathedral.  Nowadays, although there are still people who of course participate for religious reasons, for the modern peregrino the Camino is either a view of culture and history, or simply an athletic activity.  The basics, however, are still the same:  Hiking at least 100 Kilometers—sometimes double—while carrying everything you’ll need on your back, finding places for food and lodging along the way, as well as having a general sense of direction.  Although, I would say it is pretty difficult to get lost during the Camino.  There are piedras, or stones, marked with the kilometer number, as well as yellow arrows that point you to the correct direction.  Also on each piedra is a concha, or scallop shell.   Back in the day, the peregrinos would use the shell for scooping up drinking water from the rivers, much like the modern day cup.  Also, it is symbolic of the first miracle of Santiago, and additionally, many peregrinos returned home with them as souvenirs.  Hence, it still remains both a symbol of Saint James and the Camino.

Now that you have a feel for some of the history, here’s my experience of the Camino.  That early morning starting point in Sarria, Spain left me with no idea of what was ahead.  In my mind I figured it was just a 112 kilometer walk—60 miles!—over the course of the next 5 days.  No biggie, right? Wrong.  In the end, this was definitely one of the more physically challenging things I’ve ever done—and I’m pretty sure my feet, knees, and back would agree.  We weren’t just walking on some flat, comfortable track for five days.  No, it was very hilly with many different types of terrain:  roads, woods, rocks, mud, you name it.  Not even halfway through the first day, I wished I had purchased a legit hiking backpack—you know the ones with the fancy straps? Yeah, they actually serve a good purpose.  My shoulders and back were absolutely killing me, since all the weight from my backpack was pulling down, instead of being held in place by a waist strap.  My advice is that it’s well worth it to spend the extra 25 euro for a comfortable and more practical backpack!  By day three, my knee wasn’t able to quite straighten out all the way, from inflammation.  By day five, the last day, my feet were so sore that my bones literally felt bruised and crushed.  However, the best part (seriously) is that I never acquired a single blister during the entire trip—I believe that would have been the worst thing to happen, above all.

So okay, I’m sure this all sounds really painful and not like any fun, but it was actually quite a blast!  I’m not complaining about my aches and pains, just letting you know what could be inspected if you ever decide to embark on the journey yourself (as I was definitely not prepared for it). Really, it was probably the simplest life I had lived in a long time: Hike, eat, siesta, eat, sleep. Repeat.  I honestly couldn’t tell you which part of the day I loved more.  The change of scenery from the city of Alicante was just like a breath of fresh air.  Instead of cars, buildings, and the unbearably hot sun, I was able to take in the beauty of the forests and rivers, while enjoying the crisp, cool, fall weather.  The food? So incredibly different from Alicante, and better in my opinion.  I took advantage of the fact that red meat was served a lot in this region of the country (a nice change from only eating pork), and additionally, Caldo Gallego is cabbage soup very typical of Galicia, and quite delicious.  Also, nothing beats the amazing postre of Tarta de Santiago.  And I thought it was calling it quits with Spanish food 🙂

Nothing felt better than the sense of accomplishment we all experienced on the last day of our hike, with only 18 kilometers to go.  I remember climbing a large hill and stopping for a few moments to take in the wonderful sight of the city of Santiago below: this is what I had come for.  Once within the city limits, the walk seemed to keep going. I kept thinking to myself, “Almost there, just a kilometer or so until the Cathedral”.  And before I knew it, I was standing in front of one of the largest, most beautiful cathedrals I had ever seen in my life.  All of us dropped our bags and laid down on the concrete plaza—it felt quite comfortable actually—to admire the beauty of this religious masterpiece.  Later, we waited in line to receive our Compostelas.  The Compostela is a religious document written in Latin that is given to each peregrino that completes the pilgrimage, as long as they have a completed “passport”.  This passport is given to you at the beginning of the journey, and along the way, you fill it with stamps of places you have visited—quite fun!  Although I am not Catholic, receiving the Compostela gave me such a sense of accomplishment, and it was incredible to think that people had been doing the Camino for more than 1,000 years all for this document.  My grandmother back in the States is a very devoted Catholic, however, so I shall be giving her the Compostela upon my return.

The next day we spent time exploring Santiago.  Very fortunately, it was the Año Santo, or the Holy Year, meaning the tombs in the Cathedral were open!  They are only open every 11 years, and this is a fairly new practice, as they used to be permanently closed forever.  We were all able to walk up the stairs to embrace the shrine of Santiago, and view the tomb of Apostle St. James down below.  After, we attended a special Mass and explored within the Cathedral.  The entire Cathedral had been built by chipping stone by hand—more than 1,000 years ago, can you imagine?!  My favorite part by far was the architecture a very interesting pillar.  On the bottom, God is carved as the foundation, supporting Santiago.  Then, at the top of the pillar, on either side are two large arches, and along the tops of these arches are the 12 Apostles of Jesus.  I thought the genius behind this architecture was phenomenal.  Also, on this very same pillar, you can faintly see the impression of a handprint—NOT included in the original building of the Cathedral!  Rather, the impression of this handprint has appeared over the years from the tradition of entering the Cathedral, and placing your right hand on a specific place on this particular pillar.  How amazing is that? That after 1,000 years of simply touching something, there is enough friction to wear through stone enough to leave the impression of a hand.  Mind blowing.

Unfortunately, it was soon time to leave Santiago.  Although my aches and pains will soon fade away, I’m sure the memories I have from this amazing vacation will stay with me forever.  It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to explore some Spanish history.  To be honest, I didn’t even know really anything about the Camino before this journey, but I ended up learning to much along the way (I even came home with a concha!). If any of you ever have the opportunity to make the pilgrimage, I highly recommend you don’t even think twice about it—just do it, and I guarantee you will not regret your decision.  Just remember:  “¡Sin dolor, no hay gloria!” Buen Comino 🙂

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3 Responses to “El Camino de Santiago”

  1. Annie Carvalho October 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    Hello,
    I would like to ask permission to use your wonderful photo of your Compostela on my website for amaWalkers USA. We take small groups of people who are not ready to walk alone onto the Camino. You can see your photo on the FAQ page of our website. I hope you will give us permission. It’s a wonderful photo!
    Gracias!
    Annie
    http://www.anniecarvalho.net/

    • Idolina in Spain October 26, 2011 at 1:44 am #

      Of course! Feel free to use any photos from my blog that you wish 🙂

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