Wednesday, May 29, 2024

“Buen Camino”



Well, it’s been almost a month since returning from walking a segment of the Camino in Spain, and I think it’s time to try to capture a few thoughts and learnings from the journey.  Its an understatement to say that I am still processing the experience… and probably will continue to digest and rethink moments of the journey for months to come.  I shared the “walk” with my sweet Jennie, my sister Alice and her husband (my brother-in-law) Jan Willem. 

 We dubbed ourselves the “Four Pilgrims” and shared the time together from the first steps in Vigo Spain, to our destination in Santiago de Compostela (along the Camino Portugues) 103km later.  First, let’s have a bit of background:


As for the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims have been walking to Santiago for well over 1000 years from points across medieval Europe, and numerous “pilgrim trails” (or Caminos) have been established over the centuries.  The most popular path is the “Camino Frances”, that emanates in France, crosses the Pyrenes and ends in Santiago 700+ km later.  We walked a segment of the Camino Portugues, a path that starts in Lisbon.  We started in Vigo Spain, a busy port city in the province of Galicia in Northwestern Spain.  The religious history of pilgrims walking to Santiago emanates from the 900’s, when tradition holds that the body of one of Jesus’s apostles, James the greater, was re-discovered in a small village in Galicia and a local Bishop and King paid homage to the martyred saint and built a chapel to house the stone coffin.  That small church became the Cathedral in Santiago ( built in the 13th century) where the remains are held in a chapel below the main altar.  To learn more about the history of the Camino, (

As for the “Four Pilgrims,” we all came at this adventure by different   paths.  I have been reading about the Camino de Santiago for years and  become focused on it when a friend of mine (my “pal” Todd) walked the Camino almost a decade ago.   Linked to my retirement (Feb 2024) , I wanted to do the Camino as part of that transition.  Jennie was up for the adventure, and we began “rough” planning late last fall.  At a family Thanksgiving gathering, we talked to my sister and her husband about the idea, and they were eager to join in… the reality is that my sister is facing some significant health challenges, so the decision to head out on a 100+km “walk” on the Camino was no small thing!  With the background set, let’s get walking!

As I mentioned above, we kicked off our journey in Vigo, a busy port city in NW Spain near the border with Portugal.  I won’t try to make this essay a travelogue but I do want to share a few of the poignant moments across out journey.  Our first task was to make our way out of Vigo in the midst of heavy morning traffic.  We were walking on sidewalks next to busy streets and traffic circles, losing our way a bit but by mid-day we had worked our way out of the city to much quieter pathways and incredible views of the “Bay of Vigo” and the Atlantic in the distance. 


It was incredible how once out of the city, we spent most of the afternoon in deep forest, and the pace and the quietness really slowed things down.  At numerous spots along the trail we would see “Pilgrim Shrines’(my descriptor) where fellow “pilgrims” had left notes, shells, shoes, photos, money, etc. marking their experiences on the Camino….and while each “shrine” was a bit different, they all reminded us that we were part of a larger “flow” of pilgrims who have been making this same journey for over 1000 years.

A few days in we stopped for a night in a small historic town of Arcade, the sight of a significant battle in the Napoleonic wars of 1809.  Our hotel just 
happened to be across the street from a “Pilgrim’s church,” found regularly on our path.  While beautiful, the image ( a bit blurry for sure) of a dove sitting atop the cross on the church steeple was beyond touching.  With the news filled with war stories coming from the Middle East and Ukraine, it seemed fitting and needed to be reminded by that simple little dove, calling us all to find a straighter path to peace for all humanity.

A day or two later, we stopped in an another “Pilgrim’s Church” which had the “Pilgrim’s Beatitudes” (in English and Spanish) posted in the entryway.  While all ten are worth your time, #9 caught my attention….

“9-Blessed are you, Pilgrim, if on the way you find yourself and give yourself unhurried time so as not to neglect the image of your heart.”


Now that little phrase, old #9, really packs a punch!  First giving “yourself unhurried time” seems hard to imagine in our high tech/high tempo/multimedia/multi-platform world of 2024.  The Camino provided an incredible amount of “unhurried time,” with day after day of 6-7 hours of walking… and most of that time with limited to non-existent connectivity.  Peaceful and thoughtful indeed.  I won’t try to editorialize the idea of “not neglecting the image of your heart,” but this phrase and idea is still revolving in my mind ( and heart) today.  


Back on the trail and we soon came upon a small sign marking that we were walking along the “Via Romana XIX.”  

While I knew we were walking along trails that fellow pilgrims have been travelling since the mid 900’s, I didn’t have any idea that most of our 100+km would be along the old roman road #19, built more that 2000 years ago.  I found that feeling of being a small part of larger and growing history to be an incredible and humbling part of our time in Spain!

One element that we faced across our walking had to do with the dynamic of changing weather.  We had some sunny days, but as we got closer to Santiago, the days became cool and rainy.  Regardless of the temps or the rainfall, the Camino called us onward everyday… so trudge forward we did!  On our last day, with 15km left to go to arrive at the cathedral in Santiago, we awoke to 39 degrees and a heavy rain… a tough start for sure!  After a good breakfast (“you are going to want a hot breakfast”!)  We hit the trail and as the rain got heavier, we were losing our energy for sure. 


Deep in a forest, we stopped to adjust our packs and started considering options… “maybe we could find a taxi in the next village” … you know, that kind of thing.  After a few more km along the track, we did find a small bar open in a village and ducked in to dry off, use the bathrooms and consider our next moves.

We were not alone… the place was full of other pilgrims trying to dry off, dropping their packs, etc.  I ducked into the bar, jammed with fellow walkers, and was able to buy a small chocolate bar… a Kinder Bueno!  Breaking it into 4 pieces, we all had a bite and that small taste of chocolate really hit home.  Rather than calling for a taxi, we looked outside and realized that the rain was slowing… so we decided to “try another few km” as we made our way to the heart of Santiago.  The blessing and power of Kinder Bueno!!


In that mode of “try another few km” at a time, we got to the plaza in front of the Cathedral by midafternoon, and the emotional release was dramatic.  We had made it through the rain of that day…. through the hills and valleys, deep forest tracks and busy streets of the previous week, and we had walked “our Camino” successfully as we rested, cried a bit, and took photos in front of the Cathedral.  I won’t try to summarize the experience… that doesn’t seem appropriate or fair.  I am so glad that we went on our Camino and so glad we did it when we did; and I know for certain that I will be “chewing on” and processing the experience for years to come!  


I will close with the phrase that’s the title of this essay… “Buen Camino.”  As you walk along the Camino, you pass other pilgrims, and local townspeople and as you pass them, they say that phrase… “Buen Camino” ... to you and you share it back to them…. literally hundreds of times a day.  It becomes part of the language of the journey, almost a type of prayer said over and over again on the trail… may we all have and wish for others a good walk of life…. “Buen Camino!”



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