“The real Camino begins when you get back home,” my tall, blond Camino companion stated in her even-toned Belgium accent, punctuated ever so slightly by a “Yah!” at the end – an enunciation endemic to most Benelux and surrounding European countries it would seem.
“Really?!” I exclaimed, as I wondered what on earth she could mean. Plumes of vapour swirled from our mouths as we crunched along the countryside of the Camino Route del Norte, leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Our hiking shoes creating a rhythmic sound, all its own. A similar rhythm would see me walking a solitary stretch, before pairing up with another hiker for some lively banter, which slipped just as easily, and without expectation, into silence.
I imagine this ebb and flow must be even nicer during a longer stretch of the +750kms of the Camino de Santiago.
Elvira, or Elvie Splash’s words (a nickname given because she looks a bit like Darrel Hannah) came flooding back a couple of days after I arrived back home from Spain. Elvie is the hands-on guide and business owner of Go Camino! She has done all the routes more times than I’ve taken the bus home from work, I’m sure.
The repeated opening and closing of the MyCiti bus doors signalled something was up and we needed to disembark.
I wasn’t in the least bit fussed by the bus breaking down. As the wind whipped and I walked faster than the 5pm traffic snaking along the scenic R27, I could have easily walked the full journey home. Then reality bit, and I confined my walk to the next station so I could keep good time to fetch my boys from aftercare.
But, in my opinion, the Camino won’t only leave you with a mild obsession to walk. To walk just about anywhere really.
“There is no right or wrong way to do the Camino,” Scottish powerhouse Caroline Dias of Walk the Camino tells me. With an energy brighter than the Correos post office ponchos we were wearing at the time, she was walking the short camino stint we were on with ease. It’s her way of ensuring solid recommendations and a personalised experience.
Caroline has been booking and planning Caminos for more than a decade and she’s clear-minded in how best to approach this travel-with-a-purpose experience.
“One of the reasons why I love the Camino is because every route is totally different and every route has something special about. You can do it in short distances, long distances; with or without your backpack or via luggage transfer. Everybody does it for a different reason and everybody’s reason varies from spiritual to just walking.”
And I couldn’t agree more.
I think once you’ve had time to reflect, stewed together with the arduous inclines of the Camino – irrespective of which of the seven most popular routes you attempt – something undoubtedly changes. I don’t mean like the heaven’s open up with some deep revelation being imparted to you along this pilgrimage. The one thing I got from my short two-day introduction to the hike was that if anything, it’s a deeply personal walk.
Kind of like life itself, no two journeys are the same.
The legend of Saint James in a scallop shell
While all roads are meant to lead to Rome, the various routes of the Camino all converge on the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain.
READ: A different way to experience Italy: The Way of St Francis
It is said that when Christ’s apostles divided the known world into zones for the purpose of preaching the Gospel far and wide, Saint James the Great was sent to the Iberian Peninsula. He spent a number of years preaching there, concentrating on the area of Galicia, and then eventually returned to Jerusalem.
Here, he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD. Somehow his remains found their way back to Galicia - where he had managed to establish a following of devoted believers - and were buried in a small shrine. Many centuries later, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was built around his shrine.
When you start doing research about the Camino de Santiago, you will soon discover that there are two symbols that are synonymous with this pilgrimage route: a scallop shell and a yellow arrow.
Now, there are various myths and legends surrounding the significance of the scallop shell – including the perfectly-preserved body of Saint James washing ashore covered in scallop shells after the ship it was being transported in from Jerusalem had perished in a storm. The most reasonable explanation, however, is the fact that in the first few centuries of establishing The Way, pilgrims would walk beyond Santiago de Compostela all the way to the coast, ending up at Finisterre (the end of the earth).
Here, they would pick a scallop shell off the shore to take home as proof of the completion of their journey. These days, you will see pilgrim’s walking with scallop shells attached to their bags or worn around their necks from the very start of their walk.
The yellow arrow, on the other hand, is a relatively recent and very practical addition. Up until the 1970s, the Camino de Santiago had no signposts to direct pilgrims on their way. It has since been inducted as a Unesco World heritage site, and received widespread popularity and attention.
It has evolved from simple bright arrows put in place by a parish priest in the Galician town of O Cebreiro, into blue and yellow signposts styled on the Council of Europe star, with the rays, similar to the shape of the scallop shells, indicating the direction to take.
Although the Camino Frances (the French Way) is by far the most popular, there are actually many paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela.
Currently, there are eight major routes and several smaller ones, with a number of new ones being developed like the Sail The Way Camino:
Best time to go
The most popular time to do Camino de Santiago is during the European summer months, with May to September being the most popular. We did part of the Del Norte route in late February and while there were patches of rain, the weather was relatively pleasant to deal with – so it might be more suitable if you want to avoid the crowds of peak season.
However, it is generally ill-advised to go between late October to January as conditions are mostly cold, wet and miserable.
Getting ready for the Camino - a few things you need to have in place before you leave:
If you’re travelling on a South African passport, you are going to need to apply for a Schengen Visa. The best would be to work through the embassy/consulate of the country that will serve as your point of entry.
Because you will be crossing borders, it needs to be a multiple entry visa. Keep in mind if you’re going during peak season which makes securing an appointment more difficult.
The earliest you can only apply for your visa is three months before your intended departure. The turnaround time is usually around 18 working days – I applied at the embassy of Spain but this will change according to your first point of entry, either France or Portugal – depending on the route you plan on walking.
PICS: Spain's ethereal landscapes along the Camino Santiago de Compostela
You will need:
Passport valid for 6 months beyond your date of return
A recent passport photo
Return flights to South Africa
Proof of pre-paid accommodation. As a pilgrim, you probably won’t have this, but you will receive a letter of recommendation from the Confraternity of St James.
Proof of sufficient funds (+/- R700 per day)
Cash to pay for your visa (about R1 800 for a multiple entry)
SEE: UK, US and Australia visa costs: What South Africans can expect to pay in 2018
Pilgrim passport & letter
In order to be considered an official pilgrim, you need to register with the Confraternity of St James of South Africa (CSJSA) - there will be a registration fee required. For an added R200, you will also receive your Pilgrim passport/credential which allows you entry into albergues (hostels for pilgrims) and gets stamped throughout your journey in order to receive your certificate of completion at the end.
Apart from getting a pilgrim passport, the CSJSA’s visa letter is hugely valuable in your application process, especially if you have no pre-booked accommodation.
Download the Wise Pilgrim app
This app is recommended for its recent and up to date information. You can find it on Apple and Android.
Gear & packing
Since you won’t have the luxury of accommodation to return to or a rental car with boot space, packing effectively is of the utmost importance. And since you will, basically, have nothing more than the bag on your back, the clothes on your body and the shoes on your feet, having the correct gear is absolutely essential.
A few important things to keep in mind:
You don’t want a huge backpack that tempts you to fill it up with stuff. Look for one that’s under 50 litres. Once packed, your bag shouldn’t exceed 10% of your body weight. This is really tough! We didn’t actually manage to stick to this.
Wear your most comfortable walking shoes. While a well-worn pair of hiking boots work really well.
You really don’t need a lot of clothes. Having two pairs of pants, three shirts, a week’s worth of underwear, at least three pairs of socks, a light-weight rain jacket, a sun hat and a pair of sandals/slops is more than enough.
If you don’t have light-weight luggage organisers, use zip lock bags to divide the contents of your bag sensibly. This really helps cut down time that would be spent rummaging through your backpack for that one shy sock!
And a few essentials to pack:
- Muscle relaxing rub
- Magnesium pills (helps minimise muscle pain)
- Anti-inflammatory pills
- A water bottle
- Very light-weight sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag inner for extra warmth and to keep your sleeping bag clean
- Micro-fibre towel (very important!)
- Insect repellent (especially if you’re going at the height of summer)
- Light rain jacket
What a basic Camino de Santiago package could cost - Via Stap die Camino
7 Nights from Sarria to Santiago
- Per person sharing: R 8 105
- Single Room: R 11 410
- 12 Nights from Ponferrada to Santiago
- Per person sharing: R 12 380
- Single Room: R 16 850
- 15 Nights from Astorga to Santiago
- Per person sharing: R 14 200
- Single Room: R 19 440
- 17 Nights from Léon to Santiago
- Per person sharing: R 16 200
- Single Room: R 22 700
- Extra Night(s) in Santiago
- Per person sharing: R 1 460
- Single Room: R 1 750
- Extra Night(s) in Sarria
- Per person sharing: R 900
- - Single Room: R 1 300
Optional Day Tour to Finisterre
The Package includes:
- Pre-booked accommodation in bed & breakfast hotels with private rooms and private bathrooms (no Aubergues). All accommodation are on or close to the Camino route.
- Luggage transfers daily during walking days. 1 Bag per person included in the price. Extra bags can be booked at Euro 5 per day per bag (20 kg max).
- Registration and Camino documentation by Confraternity or St James (required for the Schengen visa).
- Camino preparation and travel tips as well as a complete 'What to pack' list.
- Camino passport and credentials as well as a day-to-day walking manual with hiking notes, route maps and accommodation vouchers (received before departure).
- 24 hours assistance from our English speaking agents in Spain during your Camino.
The Package excludes:
- Flights: International and domestic.
- Schengen visa for Spain (we do provide assistance).
- Lunch, dinners, drinks and other refreshments not set out in the
- Transfers by train or bus day 1 (please request quote).
- Airport transfer last day.
- Personal travel insurance, medical insurance, passport fees and baggage insurance (travel insurance must be taken as soon as flights are booked and final payment of the camino package by ‘Vellies na die Vreemde’ has been made. If payments have already been made and you cancel your Camino, it is your responsibility to claim from your travel insurance).
- Personal expenses eg. laundry, communication costs, telephone bill, room service etc.
Important to note:
To exclude luggage transfers - deduct R 375 from selling price.
Deposit of R 1000 to confirm booking.
Balance due 6-4 weeks prior to departure.
Exchange rate calculated on final payment date.