In October, Sue from our Sydney office walked the final 115km into Santiago de Compostela from Sarria. She wrote this blog post about her experience, including her top 5 tips for walking the Camino like a pilgrim and getting the most out of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Ever since I sobbed my way through the opening scenes of Martin Sheen’s powerful and rather haunting movie, The Way, I have aspired to walk at least part of the Camino de Santiago. Like many others, the 2011 movie opened my eyes to the possibility of embarking on a walk along this ancient pilgrim route.
However, despite my enthusiasm for experiencing the Way, I never aspired to be a true pilgrim carrying all my gear on my back, staying in the classic Camino hostels or albergues, with their dormitory-style accommodation (and snoring occupants).
Rather, I was drawn to the simplistic idea of embarking on a walking holiday through Spain, against a backdrop of ancient villages, rolling hills and farmland, fuelled by Galician food, the occasional wine and with the comfort of luggage transfers, pre-booked accommodation and meals in family-run hotels.
While I may not have met the criteria of a true pilgrim on a journey to a holy place, I was surprised by how quickly I embraced the pilgrim experience. Here are my suggestions on how to have a “Buen Camino”
The Pilgrim Passport
The Pilgrim Passport is your official proof that you have walked the required 100 kilometres into Santiago to obtain your Camino certificate of completion. Issued by Santiago Cathedral, it contains blank pages to collect stamps at various institutions you pass along the way. For the first two days we stamped our passport at our hotel accommodation, but we quickly realized it was much more fun to collect our stamps at the churches, cafes, town halls and even roadside stalls along the way. Now each stamp on my passport serves as a wonderfully personal reminder of the places we visited, the fellow travellers we met and the conversations we enjoyed along the way.
Tip: While the stamps are provided for free, some of the volunteers at the churches and roadside stalls do appreciate a small donation for their service. In some places, you can even choose a cross or charm which is affixed to your passport with a wax seal.
The scallop shell is the most iconic symbol of the Camino and, along with the yellow arrow, is used to point pilgrims in the right direction to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a Camino tradition to attach a scallop shell to your backpack; in ancient times, the shell served as a useful scoop for food or water, while in modern times, they are a great way to identify your fellow pilgrims.
Eat and drink like a local
Our breakfast and dinner was included with our pre-booked accommodation, taking the guesswork out of where to eat. Our hosts were welcoming, the food was outstanding and the portions generous. It was a great way to enjoy the local produce, regional dishes and wine for which Galicia is famous. At the end of each day’s walk, we also made a point of finding a cafe in the main town square for a cold beer and snack so we could celebrate our day’s walk and enjoy the company of other pilgrims and locals.
Tip: Look out for the crazy little pilgrim’s beer garden near A Calle on the final day’s walk into Santiago. Even if it’s not beer o’clock, make sure you stop here for a specially brewed Peregrino beer. Then, when you are finished, write your name on the empty bottle (permanent makers are provided), make a wish and hang your bottle on one of the trees in the garden. It’s quite an experience!
Do obtain your Compostela certificate
After arriving at Santiago Cathedral on our final day of walking, headed directly to the Pilgrim’s Office to apply for our certificate. When they finally handed us our certificate, it wasn’t the proof of our achievement that mattered most, but rather the acknowledgment that we had now become ‘Camino alumni’, joining the ranks of millions before us who had embarked on a journey to the tomb of the Apostle St. James.
Tip: When filling out your form for the Compostela, you will be asked to state your reasons for walking the Camino. If you nominate “religious or spiritual”, your name will be written in Latin on your certificate. If you state “cultural or historical”, it will be written in Spanish.
The Pilgrim’s Mass
Attending a Pilgrim’s mass in the Santiago Cathedral is the traditional way to complete your Camino experience. However, you need to set out very early on your final day if you want to arrive in Santiago in time for the midday service. Rather than rush our final day, we decided to book two nights in Santiago so we could attend the midday mass the day after we finished our walk. The undisputed highlight of the mass is the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a giant 1.5 metre incense burner. Weighing 53 kilograms, it takes eight men to swing the burner on a rope and pulley system. Sitting underneath the Botafumeiro as it swung 21 metres above us, at speeds of up to 80km/hour, was an awesome way to complete a life-changing journey.
>>Browse all of our Camino walks and cycling itineraries here.