The Covid-Camino

It’s been a little over a week since I got back from one of the, in my eyes, craziest trips I have ever been on – walking the Camino de Santiago from a small town in Southern France to Santiago de Compostela in the North West of Spain.

For those that don’t know, the Camino de Santiago, or for short The Camino, is a pilgrimage that many undertake every year. The ‘Frances route’, which is the one I took, is a little under 800 km long and is historically a spiritual or religious journey for many that take on the challenge. Personally, I would not say that I fell under this bracket – this was more of an escape from the Covid-19 lockdown, I was desperate to get out of the U.K and felt like I needed a challenge.

It had been on my mind for a while to go and attempt the whole Camino Frances however this trip turned out to be a very last-minute plan. Everything else I had planned had been binned by the world’s lockdown policies so I thought this was the best time to go and so, after a little research and finding out a return flight to Bilbao was only £50, I went.

The first night I had planned to get some sleep to prepare as I still had a long trip to get to the start of the Camino in Saint-Jean-Port-au-Pied, a little village where most Pilgrims start, in France. However, I met two other English guys in the hostel – a hostel which was basically empty, I couldn’t really say no to a drink with them, the plan to get some sleep before traveling to France did not go very well. In fact, we ended up with some Spanish guys who took us to the celebratory speech (there must have been an election) of a politician who was the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party. I got up early the next morning to hitch a lift to Pamplona, about halfway to St. Jean, this was a two-hour journey or so with an older man called Jose, he did not speak English and I did not speak Spanish – but we made it work. I eventually arrived in St. Jean in the evening after getting a bus from Pamplona – I had given up hitchhiking at this point, it was harder than I thought when you don’t speak Spanish. I found an open Albergue, which were hostels along the Camino – usually under ten euros or a donation, which was a huge relief – I was not sure how many of the Albergue’s would be open along the route due to lockdown so I was very happy to find most of them were open in St. Jean.

I woke up at sunrise the next morning after little sleep the night before, a middle-aged German guy had spent half the night telling me about his Camino – which was from his hometown in Germany, and I listened to him not wanting to be rude. I began walking as the sun rose not really knowing what was ahead of me – all I knew was that it would take about a month, which in my head seemed do-able when I had been planning it from the comfort of my room.

The first day was beautiful. A stunning hike over the green and mountainous Pyrenees and across the border to Spain – the first day was a little under 30km mostly uphill, I thought maybe that this would be one of the longer distances I would walk during the whole Camino – little did I know. The first night along the Camino I spent in a converted Monastery in the border town of Roncesvalles. A soundtrack of monk’s singing woke everyone up at about 6am in the morning and off everyone went – I left before everyone, at this point I was still nervous about Albergue’s being open along the route and I wanted to be the first to wherever I was going so I could get a bed.

While walking from Roncesvalles I met two Spanish guys, a little older than myself, called Julio and Antonio. I got talking to them after they had told me that they had met the German guy in St. Jean also – they had even given him a name, ‘the naked German’. After they mentioned this I also realised the German guy had never been fully clothed the entire time we were in the hostel.

I walked with these two for about a week, from Roncesvalles to a little after Pamplona. During this time the green fields and hills slowly started to fade away and the landscape was starting to become more and more yellow. We had begun to walk through seemingly endless fields of wheat. Arriving back in Pamplona felt odd after stopping there for a few hours on my way to St. Jean, it felt very different this time – when you walk along the Camino with other Pilgrims, despite them being far and few this year due to the pandemic, you feel like you are in a big group – which you are, and you all have a common goal – everyone would help each other out and eat and drink together. For me this was one of the best part of the Camino.

After Pamplona Antonio injured his ankle and had to abandon his trip while Julio had to walk 50km one day so he could meet his girlfriend on time further along the Camino. I was on my own again, which actually had a lot of benefits. When walking on your own you have a lot of time to think, can stay in whichever town or village you want, can walk as far or as little as you want and can eat and drink wherever you want. I walked for a day on my own after this and I was eager to keep it this way for maybe a week or so more. It was also around this point where I had realised that this journey was going to be harder than I thought. I had massively underestimated how hard it was getting up at 5/6am every morning and walking 20-40km day in day out. It was not so much of a physical challenge, just avoiding an injury, but more of a mental challenge than anything.

However, this did not happen. Despite my efforts to stay walking alone for a while I ended up with a group – I was a bit annoyed at myself, but this turned out a blessing, I started to realise that the best part of the Camino are the people you meet and the stories they share. I walked with two Spanish girls, both 28, Elena and Carlota, who were friends from home and Itai, a little older than myself, who was from Israel and had travelled all the way from Australia to do the Camino and eventually find a job in France. Theo, an artist from Brazil, also walked with us during these first days we met however ended his Camino in the City of Logrono a little after Pamplona.

We walked for a few days together until Carlota hurt her ankle and returned to Madrid – I might have been a bit of a bad luck charm, Antonio and Carlota had both become injured after I started walking with them. Me, Itai and Elena continued on.

Together we walked through, what was in my opinion, the toughest part of the Camino – ‘The Meseta’. This was a stretch of the Camino, about 8 days or so of walking, which is entirely empty. We walked out of the biggest city we had been to yet, Burgos, into the complete emptiness and vastness of The Meseta. For 8 days it was just enormous yellow fields split in two by the Camino’s path – which at times reached as far as you could see. The heat on this part of the Camino was slowly killing us so we began to leave the hostels earlier and earlier. The days would begin in a impressive way as we would always leave in the pitch black and watch the dark red sun come up as we were walking; although by the time we arrived at whatever town we were going to I was desperate for the sun to go back down again, we always would arrive just as the day was getting to its hottest point. I would always compare The Meseta to a desert however Itai, being from Israel where there are actual deserts, would always remind me that what we were walking through was no desert. I learned as I walked this section of the Camino that many people choose to skip this part of the Camino and take a bus. The Meseta was tough but was made far more bearable by walking with others.

We arrived in Leon, one of the biggest cities along the route, and decided to stop for a few days as it had been a tiring stretch. Coincidentally it would also be my 20th birthday on our rest day in Leon. The first night we arrived we went out to celebrate and bumped into about 15 other Pilgrims who we had met along the way. We went on a pub crawl – they called it Tapas. We celebrated and rested the next day before leaving Leon. After Leon, Elena carried on with a French girl named Natalie on a 50km day but me and Itai had time to kill so we stopped at an earlier town. As we walked for a few more days the plain yellow fields started to fade away and slowly trees and greenery were coming back into our view.

Hills and mountains were starting to come back onto the route of the Camino, something that we welcomed after the plains of the Meseta. Going uphill turned out as a blessing in disguise also – it provided much needed relief for my knees and my blisters. After one of the longest days along the Camino, we had reached O Cebreiro, one of the highest points we had stayed. I will never forget the views from this mountain-top town and the sunset over the hills of Galicia. At this point we still had a way to go but we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, Santiago was only a little over a week away.

Itai and I started walking with a big group who we had met earlier in Leon. Three French: Francois, Jeremie and Gigi and two Germans: Simon and Malena. I walked with this group up until two days before Santiago, these final days we began to walk more and more kilometres each day – more than we had done at any point along the Camino. These guys were really pushing the boundaries of how far you could walk in a day and I was slowly breaking, it was a challenge to keep up with them every day – especially after already having walked about 600km. Despite the challenge it was with this group where some of the best memories where made along the whole of the Camino. Simon, from Germany, would drink a couple of beers every time we stopped – no matter the time, to take away the pain of the blisters, I thought this was a great tactic however I feared if I started this I would never make it to the end.

Eventually I left the whole group in a town named Arzua. They had planned to do the last 110km in 3 days however I was not in a rush so I stopped in Arzua and completed the last 40km in two days. Part of me also wanted to finish the Camino the way I had started – by myself. I walked into Santiago alone and reflected on my time during the Pilgrimage.

It was a surreal feeling finally reaching Santiago. It was more relief than anything. Not having to wake up at 6 the next day, put on my broken shoes and start walking.

Everyone I had walked with seemed to descend in on Santiago within a couple of days with each other – we all celebrated together, drunk together, ate together – everyone was in good spirits after reaching the finish. It was a fitting end to my time along the Camino. I spent the last two days with a big group of people I had met along the way – it was interesting to arrive at the same time as some who had walked an extraordinary number of kilometres from their hometowns and to see their reactions when they arrived. It was surprisingly subdued, I met a French woman who had walked over 1600km, and without money! She had only relied on strangers, yet she was not a fan of Santiago and constantly described how she had wanted to get out of there. In fact, it was a sliding scale, those that had walked for a longer amount of time would always have more of a quiet, almost nonchalant reaction to arriving in Santiago yet those who had just walked the last week or two would be jumping around in ecstasy. I could not tell you the reason for this. Personally, I just felt relieved. I was ready to go home.

Everyone I had walked with decided to continue walking – can you believe it. They walked (some got a bus) for three more days to a coastal town named Finisterre – apparently this is what many pilgrims do as when you reach the sea it is a feeling like no other. It is a physical end, it is the ocean, you can walk no more. Personally though, I was finished, I headed back to Bilbao to meet my friend Sam who happened to be in Spain at the same time as myself before flying home. It was a great feeling getting on that flight home – I had done it and met a lot of great people in the process.

For anyone who has got a free month during their life, or has been thinking about doing the Camino – go! You will not regret it.

Greg Kennedy

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