500 Miles in Five Weeks: Walking the Camino from France to Spain

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, SpainFor many people, a summer get-away involves sunning, strolling, lounging and loafing. But Margot Marshall and Laura Evans of Austin, Texas, recently experienced an eye-opening, body-challenging and mind-bending get-away that took them over 500 miles – by foot. The pair recently spent five weeks walking El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The word camino means “the way” or “the path.” There are dozens of caminos that lead to Santiago, including more than 16 in Spain alone. The walk may begin anywhere and follow numerous routes, but it always concludes at the cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James reportedly rest in a crypt.

For more than a thousand years, Catholic pilgrims have traveled by foot or on donkey to reach the cathedral and touch the pillar just inside the church doorway. While most pilgrims made the trip as true believers, others walked as a penance or as a requirement for an inheritance. For some, it was an alternative to prison. And some simply wanted to do business with the large numbers of travelers they along the road.

A Protestant, Margot first learned of the walk nine years ago from her church rector. “A spark went off in my brain,” she said. “I like walking. I’m not sure I’d call myself a hiker or trekker, but I like long walks. I liked the idea of the community along the way. You’re not just off in the wilderness by yourself.”

“The caminos begin all over the world,” said Margot. “There are caminos that start in Switzerland, Belgium or different places in France. Some people say the camino begins wherever the pilgrim starts. I count the start of my camino from when we decided to do it.”

Later, she heard about a friend who traversed it with his daughter, starting 62 miles from the cathedral. “There is magic in that number,” she said. “The camino has traditionally been a Roman Catholic pilgrimage, but in the modern day, it’s a free for all. People of all faiths do it.”

For those who walk the last 62 miles from Sarria to Santiago, the Catholic Church will issue a compostella, which signifies that the individual completed the walk for religious or spiritual reasons and all sins are forgiven. “But you also have to actually walk the last 100 kms – no buses or taxis,” she said. “I am not sure what they do for cyclists and people on horseback. We saw several of those.”

A pilgrim descends into the Meseta a flat, open section of the Camino that takes days to cross.
A pilgrim descends into the Meseta a flat, open section of the Camino that takes days to cross.

Travelers in Training

Margot and Laura planned for an early fall pilgrimage to avoid the tourist-thick summer months and hot weather. They began training in January. “We set up a spreadsheet with mileage goals for each month,” Margot said. “In February, we started walking wearing backpacks with cans of soup inside.”

Veteran trekkers recommend that walkers carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight in a backpack since extra pounds are hard on feet and knees. The trainees started with 8 pounds and worked up to 15. Most of their walking took place in Austin, including one 100-degree hike, and several long walks in New Mexico and West Virginia. Hiking in the heat was a challenge, but it prepared them for the quest. Temperatures on the Camino got up to 80 degrees and some walkers passed out. The Texans were undaunted. “That’s fall in Texas,” said Margot.

In addition, temperatures dropped to the low 30s at one point, forcing to Margot purchase a hat, a scarf, gloves and a fleece vest. Otherwise, they traveled light. She and Laura spent the entire trip with only two changes of clothes, a light-weight jacket, one pair of hiking boots with socks and a pair of Crocs each. Their backpacks also contained duct tape, first-aid items, electrolyte tabs, sleeping bags, a tiny flashlight, toiletries, journal, pajamas, a rain poncho, ear plugs, passports, Epi-pen, towel and clothes line.

“We had the clothes we had on and what was in our backpack,” she said. “We wore our hiking boots on the plane.”

Setting Out

In early September, Margot and Laura flew to Barcelona, took a train to Pamplona and then a taxi for the 45 minute drive to St Jean Pied du Port (which translates to “Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass”), a picturesque town at the base of the Pyrenees and a popular place to begin.

“We were awake almost 48 hours from the time we got up in Austin until we slept in St. Jean,” Margot recalled. “I would not do it non-stop again. We knew we would be pretty trashed after traveling from the U.S., so the first day, we walked only five miles and stopped at an albergue on the French side of the Pyrenees.”

In St. Jean is a pilgrim’s office where every pilgrim may register and receive advice and a cockle shell for their backpacks. The shell identifies them as pilgrims along the route. They also receive a “pilgrims passport” that is required for staying at the albergues along the way. “Here, we would call them hostels,” she said. “They have rooms with bunk beds.”

The first night they slept in a room with three bunk beds and some American and Canadian women. The U.S. pilgrim became one of their best friends along the way, and they have since visited her in South Carolina.

Alberque Accommodations

Each albergue is different. Most have showers and kitchens, and some have Internet connections. A few feature washing machines, but most clothes washing must be done by hand. Some offer a communal meal at the end of the day, but many towns have a bar that serves the “pilgrim menu” for €7 to €10. While some do, many accommodations don’t segregate the sleeping travelers by sex.

Albergues may be private or run by the local municipality. “The private ones tended to be nicer, but not always,” Margot said. “The albergues have a star system but we really couldn’t figure out what the stars meant.”

No lounging is permitted at the albergues during the day. “They kick you out early in the morning and don’t open again until mid-afternoon,” she explained. “Normally, you cannot spend more than one night. They will make exceptions for injuries, but the idea is you are not a tourist. You are on a mission.”

Pilgrims approach the town of Cirauqui.
Pilgrims approach the town of Cirauqui.

Moving On

By the second day, the pair was in Roncesvalles, a small Basque village in northern Spain. “It was a crystal clear day and the weather was beautiful,” Margot recalled. “We saw herds of horses, sheep and beautiful mountain vistas. Laura said it was one of the most beautiful days of her life.”

That portion of the route featured no services, and walkers had to carry their water for the day. They learned this in the book A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean * Roncesvalles * Santiago by John Brierley, a tome they highly recommend.

“This is the bible for anyone who speaks English,” said Margot. “Brierley lays out the walk in stages that make the most sense. Some go by his stages and others mix it up. We mixed it up depending on how we felt.”

Half way through the adventure, they found themselves on flat terrain in high winds, which made walking miserable. “It was the famous meseta,” Margot said. “Think West Texas with a little more variety and some trees. It goes on for days.”

For relief, they took a train 35 miles to the old Roman town of Leon. “Many people do that,” said Margot. “A lot leave the Camino and come back. One couple left their walk, went home to a movie premiere and had some dental work done and then flew back to Spain and got back on the camino. People do different sections of it in different years.”

Why Walk?

Reasons for walking are as a numerous as the people on the path. The pilgrimage is considered a religious act, but for many, it is a spiritual trip and for others, it’s simply a challenging way to experience part of the world.

“Most people go with some intention, I think,” said Margot. “My intention was to empty my mind as much as possible, and I thought the repetition of walking, walking, walking every day would do that. In fact, it didn’t. You’re meeting so many people and exposed to so many things it is not the way to empty your mind. There is so much stimulation.”

“You’re in the present moment,” said Laura. “You think you’d be walking along daydreaming, but you’re thinking ‘should I put my foot over here?’ or ‘am I going to trip over that rock?’ You’re very focused in a mundane kind of way.”

The walk can be slow or fast, social or silent. “Most people are in and out of groups, and you’re not always walking with the same people,” Margot said. “It’s very fluid. Some people create a group and do the walk together. The wonderful thing about it is that everyone is having the same experience at a base level.

“What you do every day is walk. No one carries much. You can’t. Everybody gets up about the same time, stops at the same place to eat and at night finds a place to sleep. You find a shower, wash your clothes and go to bed. That’s the life every single person has. And you don’t know if that person back in England or South Africa has a Mercedes or a bicycle. It’s an amazing equalizer.”

Fellow walkers come from around the world, and “You reach a level of intimacy with people much more quickly,” she said. “There’s a level of trust that develops around these pilgrims that you don’t even know. Even if you like some people more than others, you’re all in it together.”

For Laura, the best part of the experience was meeting citizens of other countries. “It made me feel more at home in the world,” she said. “You meet people from Korea, Australia, all over Europe, Brazil and Africa. You know people are the same, but in a crowd like that, you really know it.

Trail’s End

Five weeks after launching their walk, the travelers arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago, an elaborate Romanesque structure. “I thought it would be a non-event,” Margot said. “But when Laura and I walked into the square, we both started crying. It took me by surprise. It was an extremely emotional experience. And we did what every other pilgrim does. We threw our backpacks on the ground, lay back on them and looked up at the cathedral.”

After reaching this goal, many pilgrims want to keep walking. Some hike on to Finnisterre (“end of the earth” in Latin), which is a Spanish coastal town a three-days away. But after five weeks, Margot and Laura had no time to walk on.

“I made the mistake of buying a new pair of boots the month before we left,” said Laura. “I wanted a larger size because they say your feet swell, but I should have stuck with my old boots. The first day went down a steep hill and got bad blisters, and later they got infected.”

Larger villages along the trail have clinics. Laura visited one that gave her antibiotics and told her to stay off her feet for at least three days. “This is very common,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many I people I met who were on drugs for blister infection.”

During their journey, Margot dropped no weight, but Laura lost 9 pounds and five toenails. She also suffered from shin splints. The pair often passed cemeteries full of pilgrims who had died on the route, some as recently as the prior year. “If I’d been a medieval pilgrim, I would have been in the cemetery,” Laura said.

Despite the physical challenges, she would take another hiking trip. “There are some pilgrimage routes in southern Japan that are supposed to be very beautiful but very mountainous,” Laura said. “Now that I’ve done it, I know how to do it and I would do it better. The guidebooks don’t really tell you how hard it is. But you don’t have to do 500 miles. You can do different parts. Do your own camino.”
Article by Pat Pape – Photos by Laura Evans