The Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St James), is an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches across northern Spain, ending at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Dating back to the 8th century, the Camino de Santiago is an important Christian pilgrimage. Considered one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven, the walk was hugely important for Christians during the later Middle Ages. Traditionally, the pilgrims would begin their route from their homes, however now the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France is considered one of the official starting points.
There are several routes by which you can reach the Cathedral, however the 800km ‘French Way’ remains the most popular. It is believed that the apostle Saint James is buried in the Santiago de Compostela, with legends saying his remains were brought by boat from Jerusalem to Northern Spain. History states that it was King Alfonso II who ordered the construction of a chapel to honour the Saint, which would eventually become the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The popularity of the route grew in the Middle Ages, with an estimated 250,000 pilgrims making the journey each year. These numbers declined rapidly during the 16th century due to the Reformation and political unrest in Europe. By the 1980s, only a few hundred pilgrims were taking the route each year. This changed towards the latter end of the 1980s, when its popularity boomed again, and visitors came from around the globe to walk the Camino.
While no one officially knows how the Camino came to be, it is thought that it was by word of mouth. Pilgrims would give each other advice about which routes to take, or which villages would give you a bed for the night. Over the centuries, paths began to form along the popular routes. The modern Camino we know was created in the 1980s by Father Elias Valiña, priest of the Galician village of O Cebreiro.
The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987 and inscribed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993. Today, the pilgrimage is favored by Christian pilgrims and non-Christians alike. In 2016, 176,332 pilgrims walked the traditional French Way, while 278,232 reached the end point of Santiago de Compostela. One such person who has walked the Camino several times is UCC’s own John McSweeney. The Express sat down with John to talk about his experience on one of the world’s most important pilgrimages. Working in the administration office at the Student’s Union, many students would recognise John as the man behind our student leap cards. Outside of this however, John has walked different routes of the Camino a staggering five times.
What made you decide to start walking the Camino?
My first trip was back in 2004; I had heard about the route from a friend while living in Spain. I was doing research for my book at the time and decided to walk the Camino once it was published. The first time, I walked the Camino Frances, which is the most popular route to take. I started from Roncesvalles, which is a small Spanish village in the Pyrenes. The Camino Frances is the French Camino in Spain and everyone speaks English. I’ve completed this route twice, the 3rd time I started in Lisbon and walked up the coast to Santiago, and the 4th trip I walked the Camino Del Norte. My first trip was an entirely new experience; I was dipping my toes into the water. It was such a fantastic, life-changing adventure, so nine years later I decided to walk it again. The Camino Frances is a daunting challenge; the route is 800km. During my second walk, walking the Camino was becoming part of my DNA, but I felt the need to break out of my comfort zone and discover the other routes of the Camino.
I grew up in Cork City and didn’t really have a lot of experience with walking long distances or hiking. It wasn’t until I was living in Barcelona after graduating that I realised walking was enjoyable; I would walk or jog up to the Castell de Montjuïc on a regular basis.
Can you tell me about your latest trip?
Last year, I left from Seville on September 30th. It’s easier to travel at this time because of the weather; late summer in the south of Spain can be unbearably hot. I walked for 43 days, reaching Santiago on the 5th of November and then arriving at Finisterre on November 12th. The official end (kilometre 0) is at Finisterre, which translates to the End of the World. Here, you can watch the sunset over the Atlantic, and for those coming along the Camino Frances, it is the first view of the sea. On this trip, I walked the Via de la Plata, which is the longest Camino route (1000km) and crosses the whole of Spain from Andalucía in the South to Galicia in the North.
What is an average day like on the Camino?
On average you would walk between 25-30km a day, for 5 or 6 hours. Most people would start walking between 7 and 8am, which allows them to arrive at the next stop by mid-afternoon (I’m a fast walker so I normally arrive by lunchtime). Once you arrive at the next village or town, you usually get something to eat, take a shower and wash your clothes (this is usually done in a sink!). At the beginning of your trip you have to get a Credencial, which is essentially a pilgrim’s passport. In each town or village there are albergues, designated hostels for people walking. These are spread out at regular intervals along the path and are normally very basic, and you can be sleeping in a room with up to 30 other people.
During the evening you might get a meal with your ‘Camino Family’; a group of walkers you bond with along the route. Everyone is in bed by 10pm to rest before the next stage. On the Camino, the general rule is to walk in all weather. I’ve walked through torrential downpours of rain in Galicia (which has more rainfall than Ireland).
Do you travel alone or with a group?
I’ve always gone out to the Camino on my own, however you do form friendships along the way, in particular on the Camino Frances because of the numbers walking. I have made lifelong friends during my time on the Camino; including a group of Danes who I now visit in Copenhagen each year. They have become my family almost, and I have also had friends from the Camino visit Ireland. People walk the Camino for a whole range of reasons, many of them are going through significant events in their lives and are trying to find some guidance. Through this you form strong bonds and support each other along the route. The idea of the ‘Camino Family’ is especially strong on the Frances.
What is your most memorable experience from your trips?
There have been a few! I was in the region of Castilla y Leon, which is basically the central plains of Spain. On one particular day I was walking along a dam with a reservoir; I had been walking through flat cornfields for a few days so coming into a greener, more lush landscape was nice. As I was walking, three trucks drove past full of dogs. I continued on and came to a barrier that read “no entry : hunting”, but this was the Camino path. Further along I got stopped by guys in combat fatigues; holding guns and knives with the dogs. After being told I couldn’t walk through, I approached them and, in my limited Spanish, told them I needed to walk past. They told me to take another route, but I stood my ground, saying “this is the Camino; I’m walking this route”. Eventually they rang someone else and told me to wait, a car was on the way to bring through. I said no, cars were not a possibility because I was walking from Seville to Santiago. They were surrounding me with guns, and I was in the middle of nowhere; eventually they agreed to let one guy walk me through the reserve before they released the hounds. He walked me through, along a wide country pathway, for a kilometre or so. Along the way there were all these other guys with guns, staring at us. At the end I offered the guy €10 for his help, but he waved me on and left. I guess the central message is that I was determined to continue; “whatever gets in the way, becomes the way”.
In terms of challenges, I think the psychological challenge and fear of the unknown are definitely the most notable. Obviously, you encounter different aches and pains, but above all the fear of what could go wrong was the hardest part. I remember having to walk 35km in driving, torrential rain in Galicia; I just had to keep going even though all my clothes were soaked through. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Have you walked any other pilgrimages around the world?
Yes, two years ago I completed the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I spent 3 weeks in the Himalayas, which was pretty gruelling. The circuit has great infrastructure, but the increasing altitude makes conditions quite challenging. It is a good experience, but a very different one. I have other walks on my bucket list for the future, such as the Shikoku Island in Japan which has 88 temples along a 1200km route.
Any lasting impression you want to add?
Everyone says that walking the Camino is a unique experience, and it transforms the lives of all those who do it. The pilgrim’s journey takes them through a series of diverse physical landscapes, and along the way they may also reach places inside themselves they never thought possible. You will find what you’re looking for on the Camino, you just have to look in the right places.