There is something about all of the world's long- distance trails that implies pilgrimage, whether or not they include churches or religious sites. A long trail involves introspection and contemplation, promotes meditation and forces you to commit to the completion of a journey. The destination becomes a far off event that seems never to arrive - until it does, often with an impact that can be overwhelming.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route stretching from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and is probably the most well- known of Europe's many pilgrimage trails. Pilgrims journeyed from all over Europe with the tomb of St James, one of the 12 apostles, in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela as their ultimate destination. The trail from France to Spain is often called "the French Way" or sometimes just "the Way" and became the main route over the Pyrenees separating the two countries.
You can start your journey anywhere - indeed it is often said that your pilgrimage begins when you leave home - and many people begin their walk further into France or Belgium. But by the early 80s, only a few pilgrims were completing the route into Santiago. In the mid-80s, it was declared the first European Cultural Route and later gained UNESCO World Heritage status.
Since then the numbers of people completing the journey have increased every year and in 2010, the holy year of St James, 250,000 completed the pilgrimage.
The Spanish have been welcoming pilgrims for a thousand years and on our journey, undertaken in October, we found the people we met along the Way to be very friendly and accommodating. The pilgrimage contributes greatly to the economy of this rural area of Spain and those who walk the Camino are welcomed. The section that our group, from the Peregrine Travel Centre WA undertook, was from the Spanish town of Sarria - the rules state you must complete a minimum of 100km if walking (200km if cycling) for your journey to be considered a pilgrimage and for your sins to be washed away.
After spending a few days in Barcelona, taking in the architecture of Gaudi and all the vibrancy the city offers, we journeyed to our starting point of Sarria. At our hotel we were provided with trip notes describing in detail our journey of 120km spread over six days of walking.
As our luggage was transported each day by vehicle, we were only required to carry our daypacks with essentials such as a rain jacket (hardly used in the end), water bottles, sunscreen and camera.
The next day, our group was keen to get going. Curiously, it didn't really get light until 8am so it was nice to walk in the dawn glow at a respectable hour. A wonderful ritual at this time of the day was the search for our morning coffee stop and, as expected, the quality of the coffee was excellent. Scattered along the route were many small cafes taking advantage of the stream of passing pilgrims looking for an early-morning heart-starter.
The first thing to understand is that the Way is not a wilderness walk; there are farms, hamlets and villages scattered all along its route. All the churches, cafes and hotels have stamps on their counters so each pilgrim can stamp their passport, purchased at the start of their journey for a few euros. It is important to get two or three stamps a day in your Pilgrim's Passport to prove to the church authorities in Santiago you have undertaken the entire journey so that they will issue you a certificate, beautifully written in Latin.
The route can be on farm tracks in-between crops, on country laneways where a farmer's tractor may come trundling along or it may be on a bitumen road that meanders through a village where the farm gates are open to pilgrims to peer inside. Occasionally the route may be a dirt pathway alongside a busy road with moderate traffic and then in an instant leave the road and descend into a cool, calm beech forest. I enjoyed the diversity of the trail, the rural nature of the surroundings, the feeling that we were seeing the real Spain at ground level and at the right speed.
Another extremely enjoyable aspect was the evenings spent in cafes in the village or town where we were spending the night. A well-deserved cold beer or "vino tinto" (red wine) at a table outside a cafe with our fellow pilgrims provided a chance to catch up with the group and hear their stories from the day, chat about what was coming up the next day and get to know our fellow travellers better.
Ours was a mixed group of 11 stretching from mid-30s to mid-70s. All of us enjoyed walking and active holidays, and none of us was really inclined to spend their holidays lying by a pool. Some of us had done serious treks in the Himalayas but some had only done day walks around Perth - but all handled the Way extremely well.
Apart from our group there were many other pilgrims on the trail, probably several hundred on any given day - since the movie The Way came out a couple of years ago, business has been excellent, locals told us. Pilgrims were split roughly 50/50 between men and women and, like our group, ages were varied with old and young alike mixing in and encouraging each walker with the greeting "buen camino". There was even one school group of teenagers on the Way. While most pilgrims we encountered were walking, we did see a few cyclists.
The trail itself was well marked with yellow arrows and yellow scallop shells, symbolic of the pilgrim's journey from the ocean, so it was difficult to take a wrong turn or to get lost. We had booked, through Peregrine, comfortable three-star hotels prior departing so when we arrived for the night we found our rooms ready and our luggage waiting. Many pilgrims doing the Way on their own told us of their worries over whether they would find a good bed that night as they were using the pilgrim's dormitories, or albergues.
The European holiday period of July and August is traditionally very busy on the trail as the weather can be quite warm, making it a good time to cross the mountainous section in the Pyrenees. By the time we arrived in October, the weather was excellent, not too hot and with very little rain. Remote cafes and hotels were still open and there was a joyous enthusiasm on the trail.
Peaceful, historical, cultural, spiritual, well-marked and in our experience very safe, the Way is a walk that everyone can do. And if you want to see the real Spain from ground level, then it is "the way".
Mike Wood is managing director of Peregrine Travel Centre Perth. 9321 1259.