If I had to pinpoint an experience in life that I would most wish to replicate, I would choose walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain.
I’ll see the Scallop Shell in some of the world’s most far-flung places. I don’t know how many others notice or know its meaning. But I notice. And it triggers a lot of wonderful memories.
The Scallop Shell is used as a symbol of direction along the Camino, pointing pilgrims towards Santiago. It’s what you look for, day after day, mile after mile. It lets you know you’re on course.
Pilgrims also wear this symbol, sometimes as a real scallop shell around their neck, like medieval pilgrims did. It was even common across Europe for these Medieval pilgrims to be buried with their scallop shells, showing they had completed their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
So it’s no surprise that 21st-century pilgrims have bumper stickers or vanity license plates, patches on their backpacks or teeshirts commemorating their completed pilgrimage. It’s not to brag. It’s a signal to other pilgrims that they are part of this community.
When I see the scallop shell now, wherever it may be, thoughts of my ‘Camino’ come back to me.
Pilgrims embark on their journey to Santiago de Compostela for any number of reasons. Many are at a crossroads of life, in between jobs, have ended a relationship. Some just like to walk. Others love Spain and its history or are just retired and have lots of time. Others are religious or spiritual pilgrims. Most people, like me, have multiple reasons.
When you walk across Spain, your experiences are active rather than passive. If it rains, you get wet. If a bakery is baking their morning bread, you smell it. If you walk past an open cafe, you sit down for a coffee. In a car, or bus, or train, you miss so many of these details.
In the morning you’ll see a village on the horizon and after a couple of hours, you are there, slowly tracking your progress along the way. There’s no faking it. You witness Spain step by step. It’s these experiences that keep you present every day and just one of the reasons why I’d love to make another pilgrimage to Santiago.
It’s the people. But what about the people? How are they any different from the people at home or other people you might meet while traveling?
Pilgrims are both detached from life and living their fullest life at the same time. Most are open to conversation or at least a friendly greeting. Life on the Camino is removed from the responsibilities and duties of everyday life. This is an incredible luxury to focus on something bigger. Whatever you want to focus on. This could be a spiritual quest or just simplifying your life for the sake of less stress.
Your necessities on the Camino boil down to three things: walking, eating, and sleeping. What am I going to eat today and where am I going to sleep? With such basic requirements met with adequate cafes and markets and pilgrim-only shelters to sleep in, that leaves much of the day to ponder the meaning of life. Or just to chat with the pilgrim beside you.
In my experience, the Camino was a perfect mix of meeting new people, having great conversations, and walking alone. Walking alone allows me to process my own thoughts and break down the conversations I’ve had or things I’ve read. It recharges me. It gives me time to meditate. Walking meditation was the most important aspect of my Camino. There are few other times when my life has had so much purpose and meaning.
Why not walk anywhere in the world? Why does it have to be a pilgrimage to Santiago? You could get similar benefits of self-reflection and cultural experiences walking other places in the world. For a pilgrimage to Santiago, the logistics are made easy. There are inexpensive albergues (pilgrim hostels) at regular intervals, villages and towns along the way to eat and stock up on food, and plenty of fellow pilgrims to meet along the way. There’s very little planning, no bookings to make, and no need to worry about logistics. Just follow the yellow arrows and scallop shells!
Growing up in North America, I am used to hiking in the wilderness. That is where our trails go. You hike to be in the woods. In Europe, the (many) pilgrimage routes to Santiago go from village to village and town to town; many times ancient ones. You might be walking down a medieval lane, stopping into a gothic church, or crossing over a Roman bridge. Instead of bypassing settlements, you walk through them. It is a beautiful way to get an understanding and appreciation of the multilayered history of Spain.
I set off on my second Camino trying to recreate my first. This was the wrong mindset. I was a different person and it was a different Camino. Although I was walking a different route, the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago, and it was three years later, I thought the same formula would work. My two Caminos were completely different.
You should still begin your Camino with a plan: something, anything. Even if it’s simply to appreciate life more. That is good enough. Pick something and meditate on it while you’re walking. You can change it at any time.
So while I say at the beginning that I’d like to replicate the experience of walking a Camino, I know in my mind that the only thing that will be the same is the act of walking to Santiago. My experiences will be totally different. My walking companions will be ones I’ve never met, my purpose for walking will be new, and my mindset will be different.
Why I’d Walk the Camino de Santiago Again
Have you walked the Camino de Santiago? Would you make another pilgrimage to Santiago?
Are you interested in a pilgrimage to Santiago, but not sure where to begin? Leave a comment below.