By Anthony Fornaro
“Leave to get lost,
Leave to find oneself.
The kindest thing you could,
Leave to come back.”
I found myself writing this poem on a train, at the start of what turned out to be the journey of my life. By all means! Have you ever heard of the Way of St James? Most commonly known as El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James is a pilgrimage old like time. It started more than a thousand years ago, and it settles its deepest roots in medieval times. People from all over the known world (at the time), would embark on this journey that led to the tomb believed to belong to the Apostle Saint James the Greater, laying inside a crypt in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino was, and still is, Europe’s oldest, busiest and well-known route.
Despite being originally pursued for religious reasons, the Camino has now become a go-to for younglings and retired alike – and for all disparate reasons! Whether you’re looking for some long-sought life-balance, rediscover your inner spirituality, find yourself in the lostness of your own life, need some peace and quiet from the distractions of the western world, or simply want to challenge yourself, the Camino is the haven we are all in deep need of.
There are however many routes one could take, and they all have historical origins, different levels of difficulty and are walked by different ‘types’ of people according to their motivations. For instance, the Camino Frances, namely starting from France, is the most known as well as the most walked, therefore is now extremely mainstreamed and mostly done by tourists due to its wealth of facilities and easy-to-walk tracks. Similarly, the Camino Portugues, which obviously starts from Portugal, has seen a high increase in pilgrims walking its paths to the Saint’s tomb in recent years. There are many more and less walked routes, such as the Camino del Norte, Camino Ingles, Camino Frances (Norte), and the Camino Primitivo, to name a few. The reasons to why these aren’t as mainstream are quite simple: they’re mostly tougher, with less facilities, require more endurance and a true willingness to embrace the Camino in all its forms.
One of these very last ones is the Camino I decided to journey on, on my way to St James: The Camino Primitivo. A 320km long route to Santiago, quite hilly and mountainy, with challenging ascents, difficult paths, and uneven trails. The reasons were a few: I was short on time, I love nature and peace, and I wanted to be as far away as possible from Peregringos and tourists alike and experience the true Camino. What are Peregringos I hear you ask? Well, it’s a word coined by my fellow companions before I had the immense luck to join their already fairly formed fellowship – but I’ll tell you more about them! For now, let’s just lift all doubts. Peregringos is a compound word made of Peregrino, Pilgrim in Spanish, and Gringos, the Mexican equivalent of guys/peeps. This was, of course, a derogatory way to address all those “pilgrims” who fancied themselves of such title but never actually lived the Camino the true way and never embraced its true essence. They rather acted and behaved like tourists on a stroll with their small 5L backpacks and their well-polished shoes, walking 5km per day at most or taking taxis and buses when the weather wasn’t of their liking. To tell you one, they would have massive backpacks (sometimes even luggage!) sent ahead to their next already booked hostels by courier services so they wouldn’t have to carry the weight all the way. But what is the Camino if not the metaphor of life, and what is life without our own weights to be carried every day, every step of the way. This not only outraged the other pilgrims, but also meant that the hostels were mostly fully booked and made it difficult for regular pilgrims to find a place for the night and sometimes forced them to walk many kilometres more on already very long days on the road.
The Camino is a surprising thing. As well as changing you very self, it changes your plans too! To give you a little pearl of my journey, my plan was to end my walking in Santiago, right in front of the Cathedral, but the Road was still calling my name. When I reached the city, I knew that couldn’t be the end, I hadn’t achieved what the road had called me for yet. So, I bought new flights, missed the ones I had booked for the following day, and kept walking to the actual end of the Camino de Santiago: Finisterre. This is the so called ‘End of the World’, where the KM 0 plate is posted and marks the very end of the oldest pilgrimage still walked to date.
The journey began with many fears and doubts. I was about to walk more than 400km on my own, for the first time ever, and with little knowledge of the place and of what to expect. But the Camino showed its wonders from the start, and soon gifted me with the best companions I could wish for. John the wise, he always listened and had the right words, but only spoke them when the time was ripe; Maria the all-seeing, a gentle soul who could read you right through with embracing reassuring eyes; Alexis the strong, who would never stop because the road and God called him; Margo the jolly, who would carry sorrows but keep them hidden with a smile; Smilla the always smiling, who sang and laughed under all circumstances; Amelie the gentle, who, reserved and kind, had so much to give, and yet gave so much more; Chris the healer, a good companion and the sign of providence, without whom my journey would’ve had to end earlier; Dave the bearer, the holder of everyone’s secrets and hearts, who would cheer you up if needed and cry with you when the time was right, all the way until the end.
All together we walked, and laughed, and talked and walked more, and then cried and thought, and walked much more. Alone, in groups and in pairs. Everyone walking their own Camino, but everyone doing it together. No matter where the road would take us during the day, we would always find each other in the evening, around the table with our bottle of wine ready to share our Camino and fragments of our lives, tendering to our blisters or cursing our backpacks. It was THE experience, the one everyone needs at least once in their lives. One of those, that if you do not live on your own skin, you cannot fully grasp. The one no one can’t explain or describe, because how can you explain walking with your thoughts? How can one describe walking long distances every day (sometimes as far as 46km) just with yourself and your head, questioning all that is and was and perhaps will be?
What I can try to put in words for you, however, is part of what I understood from this experience. The Camino is the greatest metaphor of life. We are all on our own paths, sometimes they cross with others’, and merge, to then deviate again. Sometimes you find yourself walking with others for the rest of your journey, sometimes it’s just for a little, or a long, while. And you need to learn to let go, no matter how affectionate and fond you’ve grown. We are all on our own, and yet surrounded by so many people – all feeling the same and yet all feeling different things. We all need the other to understand our Camino, we need a pair of fresh eyes and a fresh mind to run our thoughts through; but eventually it’s important to get back on our feet, wear that heavy backpack and, on our own, hit the road and keep walking.
Walking the Camino means being On The Road. It means getting to know ourselves and learn new things about others; to get out of our comfort zone, because that’s when we start learning. Natural development happens when we step beyond the limits of our comfort. A muscle grows when its fibres are damaged, they break and then heal to come back stronger. We learn a language by exposing ourselves to new inputs, not by always using and revising the same grammar and vocabulary. What have I learnt? I’ve learnt to walk. To keep walking, head in the cloud but feet on the ground.
Buen Camino to you all, I’ll see you On The Road!