The Subtle Signs
The Way of Saint James, or The Camino de Santiago, is a network of ancient pilgrims' ways across Europe to the Cathedral of St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Spanish Galicia. Each person who takes the path of Camino – as pilgrims and locals call it – is searching for something. Some are looking for God, while others are seeking adventure…and Camino offers many roads to both.
The so-called French Way, leading off from the city of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port through the Pyrenees, is about a 33-day journey. And the unspoken rule is that the Camino journey must be undertaken on foot. There are all kinds of shorter variants of the Camino, beginning from various places around Europe. After some thought, I chose the Portuguese route (260 km), starting from the Porto Cathedral.
Everything went wrong from the start. Camino is an adult quest. The pilgrim doesn't just travel, he is guided by special signs – yellow arrows in fact, and has to constantly search them out on the sides of houses, pavements, signposts and in all kinds of places where you wouldn’t expect to find them. The arrows brought me from the cathedral to the depths of old Porto, and somehow left me there too... They sent me to a beautiful church with a marble heart on the pediment – and then completely vanished. The church was locked and there was nobody around. After some running with a heavy backpack along almost vertical medieval lanes and cursing everything in every language I knew, I despondently descended onto the embankment. So that’s it? Camino is over before it even began. However, once I’d calmed down and thought it over a little, and also by looking at Google Maps, I realized that I just needed to go along the Atlantic Ocean to a town 20 km from Porto, where my first albergue is located (the name given to pilgrim hostel). That's why the arrows disappeared – they say, the pilgrim isn't stupid, he'll work out his own route. At that moment an unfamiliar number popped up on the screen of my smartphone.
“Hi. This is Diego, your guide. Do you have any questions?”
The guide finds the pilgrim himself in the event that it is needed. Diego found me through one of the forums dedicated to The Way, where I managed to leave my Portuguese phone number. It turns out Diego lives in the very town where my hostel is. We agree to meet when I get there.
But the miserable 20-kilometer coastal trek will live with me forever. The thought of packing the whole thing in began to run through my mind about three hours later. The backpack got heavier and the rain, which started quite light, was getting heavier and heavier too.
"Once you pass the sewage treatment plant, its just a stone's throw to our town," the guide had told me. It was already dark, and I was half-dead when I reached the plant. Diego called it "Our Sauron, which is unmissable." Indeed, "Sauron" lit up the night sky, both smelled and sounded like hell, and stretched for about a mile. I spent my last energy literally running past it. After that I collapsed on the sand, complaining out loud to the Atlantic about the weather, my stupidity and life in general. The stormy ocean responded with a bellowing roar. After a while, I realized that, despite the aches and pains in everything that physically can ache in my body, I needed to get up and go on.
“Yes, stand up and go silently on. Sometimes, there's just no choice. This is Camino, it's like life," said Diego, who was waiting for me in a bar by the sea where we sat alone, enveloped by the dark night. Diego told me how he journeyed on the French Way three years ago. There was no music coming from the bar and a sound like a metronome disturbed the silence.
“Can you hear it? This is my new heart beating. There is a computer there now. If I'm being honest, the French Way was supposed to be my last ever adventure. At least, that's what I thought. If you take every step like it is your last, everything changes," my guide said.
"Look, I've told you all the basics, but remember, Camino has something to teach each of us. So just go and enjoy yourself. And next time instead of looking down at your torn sneakers, look up at the stars, the ones here by the ocean are very beautiful, you'll see for yourself. Come on, I have to get up early tomorrow – a tutor is coming, I'm learning the violin. Yes, at 30 it's a bit late to start, but you know before the operation I realized one thing: there is sense only in what you love and what you really want. And I promised myself, if I survive I'm going to do everything that I put off before... There is only one life, and it's a very short one. It's stupid to waste it.
We finished our coffee in silence The stars over the Atlantic – which are indeed truly incredible – sparkled and flirted with the ocean.
“For me every day now is like a holiday. Most people just don't realize what it is... I pity them. And I'm grateful to all that I once cursed," Diego said as we bade our farewell.
The next twenty days were one huge adventure, about which I could fill a book. The arrows constantly disappeared and often I had to revert to my GPS or fall back on my own intuition. As a result, most of my journey ran alongside the coast, by the beach or through eucalyptus forests. I got lost in the mountains, found myself in the middle of nowhere, got caught in the rain and hail. My backpack was coming apart at the seams, my money was running out, and not a single ATM in the county would accept my card...
My best night was in a medieval stone house in a remote village, the owners invited me in after seeing that I was lost. In the morning, I awoke to a horse inquisitively poking its head through the window of my room. In Galicia, I stumbled across a village festival. No one spoke English, but that didn't stop me from having a blast and, as the evening wore on, I even made some friends for life.
In the middle of a national park, several kilometers from civilisation, I was suddenly subjected to a torrent of rain with hail. A thick fog fell, at once both beautiful and terrifying. When all of a sudden, a man in a long black raincoat came out of nowhere, handed me a large umbrella, put his hood over his eyes and disappeared back into the fog with the words “Bom Caminho!” – "Have a good trip!"
They say that there are angels flying over Camino who help the travelers. My guide said the Camino pilgrims “sooner or later become angels for each other.” The Way showed that both can be equally true. At the end, I met some "invisible people", for whom I literally prayed the entire twenty days, – those who paint the yellow arrows pointing the way. There is a "Society of the Friends of Camino", made up of volunteers. My friends – a Russian-Spanish couple, Ignacio and Irina, living in Madrid – spend almost every holiday with cans of paint on one of the legs of The Way, refreshing the markers and repairing the hostels.
“In the past, the Camino didn't have any arrows. Only directions,” said Ignacio. “They were invented by a monk in the 19th century, having seen enough of people losing their way, suffering and freezing.”
“We, along with the other volunteers, are looking for the best routes, the most beautiful and safest ones, away from the highways and the busy cities. It doesn't always work out that way though, unfortunately,” added Irina.
There is an old tale about a Tibetan master of meditation, who traveled the snow-covered mountains from one monastery to another all by himself. The students asked him how he managed to do it. The Master replied calmly: "It's very simple – first one leg, then the other."
If, by the end of the first day I wanted the Camino to end, then by the final day I didn't want it to stop. Standing on the rocks above the ocean, inhaling the scent of pines and eucalyptus trees, feeling the wind, sun and salt spray on the lips, I thought that Camino has shown me the truth, that life is actually a path, not a destination. Right here, and right now, if you are able to move first one leg, then the other, in the direction you want to go, then that's happiness. It doesn't matter if you actually get where you're going. When every step is like your final one, everything changes.
There are many routes for the Way of St. James, and you can begin from various places around Europe. Here are some of them:
- Camino Francés – the French Way. The most famous one, starting from the city of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The longer Camino de Tours (about 800 km) starts in Paris, and then joins Camino Francés.
- Camino Le Puy – begins near Lyon and also connects with the French Way. 736 km, medium complexity, well-marked.
- Camino de Madrid is one of the newest and most picturesque routes. It goes mainly through small towns and nature parks. It runs for 321 km and takes about two weeks. Average difficulty. The ideal time to go is mid-autumn (summer is too hot).
- Camino Portugués – The Portuguese way. There are two versions of it, the long one and the short one. The first begins in Lisbon (600 km), one drawback is that there are not many hostels along the way. The second (260 km) starts in Porto and goes along the Atlantic.
- Shoes are the most important part of your kit. Do not skimp on good hiking boots. Choose ones that dry quickly. Be sure to break them in before you begin on the Camino. And don't forget about plasters and anti-callous products – you will find them very useful.
- The cost of a night in an albergue is €6–15 without breakfast. You will be allowed there only upon presentation of a pilgrim's passport (it must be obtained at the very beginning). Download or ask for an albergue map, with the addresses and phone numbers of the hotels marked.
- Be sure to stock up with at least two GPS-devices, a phone with a local SIM-card and power bank (this is especially important if you plan to go through national parks and reserves).
- Before each leg, make sure that you have enough drinking water and cash with you – small towns do not always accept cards.
- The best time for the Camino is spring and early autumn.
- The weight of your backpack should not exceed 10% of your own bodyweight.
Text: Anna Goryainova
Published on: May 20, 2018