Lindy at TacPro 2004

The Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James

by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk

Some of the photographs used in this article were taken by Cindy Crochet, and are used by permission.

Pictures in this article are mostly linked to a larger view of the picture. Click on the picture to see the larger version, then use your browser "back" button to return to the article.

Early in 2012, I was approached by my friend Tristan MacDonald with the idea of hiking in Spain on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. My response was, "What's that?"

James, the apostle of Christ, is thought to have preached in Galicia, but returned to Jerusalem, where he was martyed by beheading him with a sword in 42 A.D. That is why the lower arm of the Cross of St. James resembles a sword, and why the cross is traditionally represented in red, the color of blood. He was the first of the apostles to be martyred.

Whether he did preach in Galicia, his disciples decided to bury his remains there. They took him there by boat, so the Way of St. James is not a path that we know James walked, but rather a traditional route for reaching Santiago de Compostela by foot. There are many such paths, but the one we walked starts in St. Jean, France, and hence is known as the Camino Frances.

If you are interested in more historical detail about the Camino itself, see the nice Wikipedia article The Way of St. James. For a more dramatic approach to the Way, the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen, has popularized the walk.

We finally wound up with a group of eight, seven of whom are shown in the photo gathered for dinner in Santiago, from left to right: Cindy Crochet, Ann and Bob Sullivan, Tristan MacDonald, Wilf Cameron, John Tesdorpf, and Alex MacDonald.

People undertake the Camino for many reasons. Some pilgrims just like to walk. Others have deeply spiritual reasons. One pilgrim we met was a Buddhist, but whose reasons were very spiritual. I think I can say with some confidence that no one emerges from the experience unchanged.

The Pilgrim's day is simple: Arise, eat, walk, eat, walk some more, eat, bathe, sleep, repeat, stripped pretty much of everything else encountered in "normal" life. From this, I achieved a renewed sense of what's important and what's not, and gained a resolution to concentrate more on the things which are important to me.

Traditionally, pilgrims, or peregrinos, the Spanish term, hike with backpacks containing all of their clothing and other necessities, and stayed in albergues, hostels which offered beds and sometimes kitchen facilities, restaurants, and other facilities. However, we elected to arrange to stay in hotels, with our luggage transported between hotels for us, so we only needed to carry raingear, snacks, water, extra socks, cameras, and other essentials. Some use the term "slackpacking" for that kind of hiking. We would be hiking an average of about 15 miles per day, so the chance to carry a light pack was eagerly decided upon by the group.

We flew into Madrid, on April 9, 2013, and took a train to Leon, to begin our walk of about 200 miles, approximately due west, to Santiago de Compostela. Upon finishing in Santiago, one may obtain from the Pilgrim's Office a certificate of completion called a Compostela, if one has walked at least the last 100 kilometers of the route, approximately 62 miles, so our plan called for considerably more than required, but we wanted to spend more than the minimum time on the trail.

Pictures in this article are mostly linked to a larger view of the picture. Click on the picture to see the larger version, then use your browser "back" button to return to the article.

The trains we traveled on in Spain were either electric or diesel/electric. They were fast, achieving at times speeds above 120 MPH, relatively quiet, with comfortable - and reserved - seats. The trains were equipped with toilets and a restaurant car offering everything from snacks and cocktails to full meals. On the ride up to Leon, we rode in Tourist Class, and on the ride back to Madrid, we rode in Comfort Class. We found no interesting difference between the two classes, save that Comfort Class offered some pairs of seats facing each other to facilitate conversation. If we went again, we would book only Tourist Class.

In Leon, we stayed the first night in a Parador. Paradors are luxury hotels run by a government agency, and are usually converted monasteries, convents, hospitals, or similar facilites. The one in Leon is magnificent, adjoining a beautiful church. For more information, see Paradors of Spain. The bridge in the picture dates to the 12th century, and is now strictly a footbridge. The Parador, and the bridge, are on the Camino.

This statue, at the base of a cross situated in front of the Parador, is a familiar image of the Camino, with a tired peregrino resting alongside his sandals. The boots to the left of the statue were left by some peregrino who apparently felt they had reached the limit of their usefulness. That was not an uncommon sight on the Camino, and we saw several times shoes or sandals which had been tossed up into the branches of a tree. Cindy is comforting the tired peregrino. The next day, we moved to another hotel, one included in our tour, and spent the remainder of April 10th exploring Leon.

We wandered around in Leon on the 10th, exploring the sights in the old city of Leon, including the market and the Cathedral. The market featured open-air booths selling not only fruits and vegetables, but meat as well. Meat was often displayed in markets and restaurants unrefrigerated in the open air.

The Catheral has a magnificent museum which Cindy and I wandered around in for an hour or so, and could have spent a day there. It features relics from the area dating to before the birth of Christ, so it was not limited only to religious artifacts.

The Walk Begins

The next day, April 11th, we began our walk. The Camino was mostly pretty easy to follow, even without the maps in our guidebooks. It was usually well marked. In cities, the market was sometimes a brass scallop shell, the emblem of the Camino, embedded in the pavement. At other times, it was a painted yellow arrow, a cement marker, like the one in the center picture, which has the distance to Santiago in kilometers on it, and, in one case, a yellow arrow cleverly constructed of shells.

That first day, we found ourselves walking in the rain, and we'd be wearing rain gear the next day and a half as well. Then there was no more rain, which natives of the area regards as very unusual - one of them told us that it often rained every day for months, and the climate guides to the area indicated that the average for the time of the year we were hiking in was one day of rain out of three.

But after the middle of the third day of walking, we saw no more rain.

I am not going to detail what we did every day, just a typical one. We arose early enough to make breakfast at 7:30 to 8:00 AM most days. After breakfast, we dropped our suitcases off at the location designated for pickup by the service which transported them between hotels, then we set off walking. The average day's walk was about 15 miles, with a high of 22, and a low of about 6 miles. We sometimes stopped for coffee in mid-morning, and generally stopped for lunch somewhere like the picture shown on the right. After reaching the hotel, we often got together for happy hour, then rested until dinner. The custom in Spain is for late dinners. The earliest we ate was 7:30 PM, and dinner at 9:00 PM was not unusual. Peregrinos were often given consideration for an early dinner by restaurants, as they knew that we were hungry, tired, and wanted to eat and then sleep.

From left to right, Cindy Crochet, Alex MacDonald, Wilf Cameron, Tristan MacDonald, and John Tesdorpf, at Happy Hour at La Posada de Gaspar in Rabanal del Camino.

Restaurants in Spain, at least the ones we encountered, have a "Menu of the Day" during dinner. That included several choices of starter or appetizer, several main courses consisting of meat and one or two vegetables or other side dishes, delicious bread, choices for dessert, and water and/or wine, the amount of wine being about a half of a bottle per person. The price for all this was between 9 and 11 Euros, or about $12-$14. An average-sized person burns about 100 calories per mile of walking, so we needed many more calories than usual - and we had them. Lunch was less expensive - one day we had sandwiches, chips, and drinks for about $2.00 each, though sometimes it was a bit more.

One was not limited to the Menu del Dia, though, and one could order off a fairly extensive menu in most places, but the Menu del Dia offered enough choices that we almost never did.

The People

The people we met on the Camino were wonderful. The Spaniards we encountered were uniformly friendly, glad to see us, and hard-working. Whatever we asked for was supplied. The pilgrims were also wonderful. There was Juan, originally from Portugal, moving at about the same pace we were, and we encountered him several times, and ate dinner with one night. David from England was likewise moving along with us, and we ate dinner with him one night at the renovated butter factory which had been turned into a wonderful hotel. As David is an accountant, we gave him the task at dinner of splitting the check - they don't do separate checks in Spain - and he did that wonderfully. Three Canadian ladies started in St. Jean. By the time we encountered them, they had already hiked around 300 miles through storm, blisters, and sickness. They were on the Camino because one of them wanted to do something significant to celebrate her 50th birthday. Well, they did - they finished, 790 km, 490 miles, a couple of days ahead of us. There were many more. Those pilgrims who stayed in albergues, as the Canadian ladies did, had opportunities to meet more pilgrims, and they are a major part of the Camino.

Juan, with Bob and Ann

David and his wife in Santiago,
who flew in for the last few days.

The Canadian ladies, Barb, Brenda, and Sally

And so were our traveling companions. We walked together, marveling at the sights of the cities, villages, and countrysides, and ate together, spending long hours over dinner and wine each evening, talking not only about the events of the day, but about everything. The bull sessions were worthy of a college dorm. The backgrounds are diverse, so we brought multiple viewpoints to the table.

So, to my companions Bob and Ann, Tristan and Alex, John, Wilf, and Cindy: thank you for sharing the Camino with me. It means more than I can say. When contemplating this trip, Cindy said that it would be the trip of a lifetime. It was.

The common greeting on the Camino - not only between the walkers, but also from the residents to the walkers - is "Buen Camino", which means, "Good Camino". It was often said, and always meant.

What We Saw

The star of the show, so to speak, was the countryside of Spain through which we walked together, and in the company of other peregrinos. And herein lies the rub - Cindy and I returned with around 2000 pictures of the gorgeous countryside, all of which simply cannot be included here. So, what follows is just a selection of the very best.

While looking at them, please remember that each is linked to a larger version.

A discussion in our group of where to have coffee

Stork nests were everywhere in the early part of
our walk, on top of electric poles and church steeples.
We joked that they were delivering babies...

A 13th century bridge over the Rio Orbigo

The trail often looked like this

On the fourth day of the hike, we came to the La Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross. This is a momument to which peregrinos bring items from home to leave. The items may be relatively insignificant, like a rock - I took two rocks from home for us, and you can see from the mound of rocks at the base how many others have done likewise - or may have special significance to the pilgrim. Cindy brought several items, including a favorite crucifix of her father's made by a friend cleverly constructed from clothespins, and several other items from friends and family.

In the next picture, Cindy is shown placing items on the cross. The crucifix she brought is just to the right of her hands.

Pilgrims sometimes constructed their own monuments

Quiet evening in Molinaseca

There were vineyards. Miles and MILES of vineyards

15th-century castle in Villafranca del Bierzo

Wild orchid


This wonderful hotel is a converted butter factory.
The building dates to 1883

Dinner at the butter factory.
David is barely visible at the right.

Sunset from the mountain village of O Cebriero

The St. Augustine group with a peregrino statue in the fog

Lots of houses have slate roofs

Sometimes roofs have...improvised patches...

Yes, there is snow in those mountains...

One of the largest Benedictine monasteries
in the world

More Green...

Waiting for dinner in O Cebreiro: Wilf, Alex, Tristan,
John, Bob, Ann, and Cindy

To demonstrate having walked the requisite distance,
one needs two stamps per day in the last 100 km
to Santiago in the Pilgrim's Credential

The day after we reached Santiago, we attended the noon Pilgrim's Mass at the Cathedral. It was wonderful, and very moving - standing room only in a venue which seats more than 1000. There were lots of tears. We were fortunate to have the tiraboleiros swinging the Botafumeiro, which is a huge incense burner swung between the side naves of the church. Some say the custom originated in a desire to fumigate the smelly pilgrims, but it is a wonderful sight. Many of the attendees had finished the Camino that morning.

One of our group noted at the end of the Mass that he has often heard Cindy and I say how blessed we are, but that he had not felt that way - until that day. I think that's quite an achievement to get from a little walk in the Spanish countryside...

Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

I mentioned that we came back from the Camino with hundreds of pictures, but I hope what I have shown you here gives you a taste of the wonderful countryside of Spain, and of what we experienced. It would take a thick book to really represent that, which I haven't the time to write.

We walked the Way of Saint James. There is a Chinese term, transliterated in English as Tao, which also means "the way". The character for Tao is also the same as the character which represents the -do, in the Japanese martial arts I have practiced, judo, karate-do, aikido, and iaido. It also means the Way. In the martial arts, we say that there is no end to training, so the Way never ends.

There is also no end to the Camino. Buen Camino.

This file is:

© 2013 by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk

All Rights Reserved