Kerri Bolger is a good Camino companion! It isn’t everyone you meet that can have a serious conversation with you yet not take themselves too seriously – good fun and interesting company at the same time. Kerri’s one of those gems, though our paths have only crossed once (to be remedied in 2022 hopefully).
We were chatting about the Camino and its meaning one day and we came up with the “temporary suspension of reality” line. There may or may not have been wine involved.
So what is it about the Camino that makes it such a unique experience – something so very different to anything we have in Ireland?
1 – A sense of history
1,177 years ago, the battle of Clavijo saw Christians defeat the Moors in a battle inspired by the appearance of Santiago Matamoros in battle. Now there’s a very Christian name “Moor killer”! But King Ramiro of Asturias was the ultimate tourism chief – it was him that declared that a pilgrimage to the remains of St. James should be established in honour of this great victory.
Ever since then, a pilgrimage tradition has grown and evolved, a beacon of continuity through centuries of turmoil, development, war and peace. What other place or experience can lay claim to this ongoing tradition, 12 centuries long?
2 – The Sesame Street effect – it’s the people that you meet!
Every day is a new day and you just don’t know who you’ll meet at a cafe or fall in step with. No Forrest Gump quotes allowed. The more open you are to talking to strangers, the richer your day will be. When a group travels together, the biggest challenge for them is breaking free of the group and engaging with others – enriching themselves with the stories and lives of strangers.
In 2019, the pilgrim office in Santiago registered pilgrims from 189 countries – evidence of the Camino truly being a global happening. That included 1 person each from countries such as Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Turkmenistan and Yemen. What courage those people had to set off from a country with little connection to the traditions of Spain and the Camino! They all had an interesting story to tell and the experience of those they met was enriched by being open to that.
3 – There’s only one Camino de Santiago
The Camino is a pilgrimage network with all roads leading to Santiago De Compostela. I’ve often been asked a vague question about an Irish Camino – but no such thing exists really! There is one honourable exception – the Celtic Camino is an agreement with the authorities in Galicia that allows you to walk a recognised pilgrim route in Ireland of at least 25km and then continue from A Coruna to Santiago (75km long). For more info on this, the website of Camino Society Ireland is probably the best place to go!If you are starting off from Ireland to reach Santiago, then you’re on the Camino – no matter what route you take.
You might come across a walk in Ireland that uses “Camino” as part of their title – you can be pretty sure that it’s just a marketing piggy-back! We have many beautiful walks in Ireland and they’re all worth checking out – but they aren’t part of The Camino de Santiago unless you’re on your way to Santiago!
4 – The Temporary Suspension of Reality
Worthy of an entire blog post of its own! Part of the excitement of travelling from Ireland to the Camino is that you’re on holiday and you’re going abroad. Whatever your reason for walking on the Camino, you park your problems and worries, even if it’s only for a week. You get to a place in the world and in your being that is not your home or your daily routine – and that allows you to enter a temporary and alternative reality.
Some spend a week on the Camino while others get to sally forth for a month or more. They are very different experiences to each other and the longer you stay away, the longer you have to let your own life at home rattle around. It won’t be a life-changing experience for many, but it just might well be the place you find some kind of peace with what will await you when you return from the temporary to the more permanent.
5 – Cafe con leche – the daily staple!
Walk down the street of your local town and keep an eye open for how many places try to convince you that you’re buying the finest brew in the Northern Hemisphere. They can’t all be right?! Just bring your guidebook with you so that you can decipher the difference between Macchiato and Mocha (I had to look those up!).
But…do you remember when a regular/plain coffee was called that and not an Americano? They were the Dark Ages when we wore loincloth and hunted bears. But on the Camino, ask for a café con leche and you will get what you asked for, no jargon included. Coffee with milk, prepared with the same care as your thrice-as-expensive brew in Ireland, maybe that in itself is the attraction? Don’t want milk? Then just ask for a café solo (you guessed it – a coffee on its own) – just what you asked for.
Marketing messing aside, perhaps the simplicity of the humble café con leche is emblematic of the Camino experience itself – a degree of simplicity that strips away many of the superfluous layers we simply don’t need. Log on to any camino forum and the café pops up time and time again as being one of the things that people miss the most about the Camino. But is it the café or is it what it symbolises?
6 – The great leveller and the destroyer of “notions”
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king”. That describes the variety of life – but no matter what our backgrounds are, we are all equals on the Camino.
Is “having notions” an Irish expression? You know what I mean anyway – it’s the idea of attaching an excess of importance to yourself and your actions. But once you start walking, you’ll get sweaty and tired the same as the person in front of you and behind you, you’ll get the same Camino Tan and your socks will carry the same layers of dirt and clay. You’ll all be exposed to getting blisters – whether you’re in €150 walking shoes or traipsing along in second-hand runners.
Look around you and observe the people that seem to be at their happiest – they’ll be those that are most comfortable in their own skin and seem best equipped to engage with all of those people from point 2 above. Not worried about what someone else might think about them, just being themselves in all that can be.
7 – You’re on a pilgrimage, not just a walk
This is a concept that requires a lot more than a short paragraph – what does going on a pilgrimage mean? The tradition is that the Camino is a pilgrimage to venerate the remains of St. James in Santiago De Compostela. For many people today, that still remains the case. Many others walk for a variety of different reasons, ranging from simple walking tourism to more complex motives involving a range of emotional factors.
Perhaps a pilgrimage is a journey to a specific point for a specific reason? Though we associate the word with religious connotations, the reason for the journey might be for spiritual but not religious reasons. Jim Francisco was an interesting American I met in 2014 – he came up with the line that the Camino gave him answers to question he didn’t know he had.
Maybe sometimes we just need to go somewhere and we don’t fully understand why – that not understanding might very well enrich your experience rather than detracting from it. The specific reason mentioned above might not be clear to us before we set off.