The Other Camino

About 1200 years ago, a group of devout Christians found a tomb with the buried remains of the apostle, St. James, in Galicia, a region of northwestern Spain. To honor him, Spanish kings built a magnificent cathedral in Santiago where his remains are buried today. Since then, millions of pilgrims — “peregrinos” — have walked hundreds of miles to Santiago’s cathedral along one of several paths beginning in Portugal, Spain or France. Four peregrinos finished the Camino de Santiago last week — Belle (BFF from the 6th grade), Laura (long time Berkeley friend), and Leticia (Belle’s buddy from her days in Sonoma County). And me.

We started just north of Porto, Portugal and walked 8-14 miles a day along marked paths for about 150 miles. The Portuguese “Way of St. James” traverses beautiful countryside, ancient villages, small cities, and farmlands. And some ugly stuff too. Along the way, we met local residents — both encouraging and indifferent — lots of animals, and other peregrinos, mostly from Germany and England. We stopped at outdoor cafes for green salads with tuna, lentil stews, and coffee drinks. We left tiny Mexican babies at the altars and shrines along the way, and identified more than 100 varieties of flowers. We survived sore feet and ankles, a little anxiety, and pouring rain. Pilgrims are supposed to suffer at least a little!

We set out through the cobblestone streets of Portuguese villages.

Before our Camino began, I wasn’t sure why I was making this pilgramage. I am not religious. Did I come hoping for revelation? Reflection? Just a good trek with three powerful women? By the end of the first day, I realized there was no point in pondering my motivations or what I would feel, or whether my aging body would hold out for two weeks. The times I tried thinking about the recent changes in my life, my brain would shut down. The important things became the little gifts along the path — a friendly horse, a bag piper, a stile covered with ribbons and shells.

Most of the Portuguese Way is through quiet villages and small farms. Although the Camino has become very popular, we timed our trek to miss the crowds.

What began as a challenge soon became a rhythm that was comforting and familiar and freeing. During the first week, I wondered how I could finish the day’s journey. By the second week, I wondered why we weren’t walking longer distances each day. And as we approached Santiago on our last day, I cried a little wishing it wouldn’t end. And I know it won’t. As Belle might say, “It’s all a Camino.”

The Portuguese countryside along the Camino. The difference between a village and a hamlet? A village has a town square. Laura’s son Alex says a hamlet is a small pig.

A wonderful moment as we walked through a Portuguese village.

One of many ancient religious altars along the way. On the left, you can see one of our Mexican babies. The yellow arrow and the scallop shell symbol point the way..
One of many tributes along the Camino. Shoes are a big thing for peregrinos. I had great success wearing my Merrel Moabs until the little toe on my right foot made a fuss at about mile 8 and then I would change into Teva hiking sandals.
The yellow arrows indicate Santiago. The blue arrows point to the Fatima church in Portugal. And check out the Mexican baby on the yellow boot.
Scallop shells are perhaps the most important symbol of the Camino. This is one of many altars to loved ones and the Camino’s lessons
Occasionally we would come upon bag pipers along the Camino. Galicia was settled by the Irish and is a distinct culture with its own language and history. Some Galicians don’t recognize Galicia as part of Spain.
Many Galician houses and farms have an “Horreo,” once used to dry and store corn. Horreos are maintained and loved as an important symbol of Galician culture.
During our extra day in historic Pontevedra, Spain, we saw these boys watching a bullfight through a tavern window.
La Iglesia de La Peregrina is Pontevedra honors Camino pilgims, and is designed in the shape of a scallop shell. Churches along the Camino offer respite to pilgrims and also the stamps pilgrims need in their Camino passports.
We walked through a lot of rain during our last nine miles into Santiago. A sweet coincidence: Laura had her mother’s flowered umbrella and Belle had her mother’s mahjong umbrella. The rain felt exactly right that day.
We made it to the cathedral soaking wet and grateful. That’s Leti in her green rain poncho.

Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.”

Pilgrim, there is no path. The path is made by walking.

From a poem by Antonio Machado (Thanks to Wendy Feltham for sharing)

27 comments

  1. I’m not religious either so had wondered if I’d ever bother to do a Camino. Your description though makes me reconsider. It can be more about experiencing culture and traveling through small towns. Thanks for taking us on your journey. Maggie

  2. This post is marvelous Kim… and so are you! Thanks so much for sharing these pieces of your journey. The Machado quote you used in closing this will remain front and center in my consciousness for a long long time.

  3. Buen camino! I almost went there for a pilgrimage some years ago, not as a Christian, but as a mystic (at least partially) who feels connected to all sacred traditions. I so enjoyed reading your post about your journey….and yes, the journey goes on for all of us. Abrazos! Carpe Diem!

  4. Kim, what a meaningful journey! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and photos with us. The quotation is just perfect for your journey as well!
    Xo Janet
    PS hi to Laura!!

  5. Wonderful! I did the Camino by bike many years ago from Leon to Santiago. It poured rain on the ride into the cathedral in Santiago. When we arrived at the plaza, the rain stopped, the sun came out and the bells began ringing. Felt like a baptism.

  6. ¡Felicidades, peregrinas! I loved reading about your journey and seeing images along the way. I wish I could’ve been there with you! When Jane and I finished the Coast to Coast a few years ago, I felt the same way. Despite the hail, blisters, and a couple other challenges, the daily discoveries and beauty and friendship were so intense, I was proud yet teary-eyed to end our adventure and see the North Sea. It must have been thrilling for you to arrive at the huge cathedral of Santiago as your end point!

  7. Had been looking forward to your recap–what a marvelous, inspired adventure! Glad your feet held up. Loved the photos and captions, particularly the last pic of your joyous faces. Felicitaciones Kim!

  8. Not sure my prev comment registered. Gist: lovely writing, gave yourself over to the experience, smart prep on footwear rain sun. But 150 miles?? Yikes!

    1. 150 was nothing once we got used to it. The other three Caminos to Santiago are about 500 miles. Thinking about that for my 70th…. See you in a couple weeks maybe? I’ll be home for a visit.

    1. Your blog is amazing! I want to walk again on one of the longer routes – as you know well, it’s addicting. I think you saved the easy one for last. It is quite beautiful and welcoming. I will be following you online.

  9. Love that you did this. I was set to go in 2020 (frances) and covid hit. A friend found out I was doing it and wanted to come. Two years later, she went and I didn’t!! Then in this summer, I’ve known 5 people to do this one or frances! I’m inspired again

    1. Highly recommended! I want to do more of this kind of “through walking.” There are many good candidates now — Ireland, Italy, France, Britain, Japan, Mexico.

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