The Camino de Santiago (called le Chemin de Compostela in France) has become very famous in recent years helped by the release of an American movie called The Way. With a handful of stars but not much budget to promote, the film was a success largely by word of mouth sharing. It’s the tale of a group of modern day pilgrims hiking their way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said to be the burial place of James, the Apostle, hence The Way of St James.
The Camino de Santiago is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s long been a popular route. In the twelfth century, pilgrims walked for months and sometimes years, stopping at churches en route to ask for food. Their symbol became the scallop shell which was proof that they had made it to Spain, the end of the route. Many people today do it for religious reasons, others for the hike or the adventure. Some people take years to do the entire route a little at a time. The walks start from all over Europe but the most well-known are those in France starting from Paris, le Puy and Vezlay.
My husband and I decided to try just a portion of it and we found a company that would take our luggage to each stop so we didn’t have to carry one of those enormous back packs. It was a seven day hike which we started in the village of Barcelonne de Gers, in the part of France known as Gascony. It’s duck, foie gras, prune and Armagnac country along with the Four Musketeers.
We are both in reasonable shape and walk daily but I have to admit we found it very difficult. The first day started sunny and warm and ended up being 90 degrees. We made it, just, to our first stop at a gite in a farmhouse. The gites en this route are known to usually be basic but we almost always had a TV, wifi, and always a shower. Some were very nice, full of antiques, some were basically like a hotel room. We had dinner every night as part of the plan and the gite owner and their family always ate with us. Some of the meals were what my husband called “gite food” which means plain but filling and some were very good. There were always at least four courses usually starting with soup, a main dish, salad and cheese and almost always, a heavy dessert. It seemed like a lot of food but after hiking eight hours a day, I was always hungry.
We hiked on average about 20 km a day and saw some fabulous countryside with rolling green hills, cows and sheep, lakes and streams. It was wonderful to see France in this way, up close and personal, a truly beautiful country. The area which we were in, close to the Pyrenees mountains, was hilly and required a lot of trudging upwards followed by trying not to run downhill. I would have purchased walking poles beforehand if I had known how helpful they are, especially for going downhill which is hard on the knees. I also would have taken shoes one size larger than normal as I was recommended, too late, by a gite owner. My big toe started really hurting after a couple of days. He said everyone had big toe injuries and promptly pulled off his socks to show us his feet which sported two big toes with black toenails. My husband had the same.
Our walk ended in the beautiful city of Saint Jean Pied de Port, the starting point for many pilgrims where the arduous climb over a mountain passes into Spain begins. You enter the city through an ancient gate set in a wall which once surrounded the city and then go downhill on a cobbled street with many places along the way for pilgrims to stay along with shops selling souvenirs. This last night we spent in a hotel with no surprises, a/c, TV, wifi, towels and shower gel. By the way, shower gel was seldom provided in the gites and we had to buy some, not easy to do on a trail. Often, when we entered a village that did have a grocery store they were closed for lunch.
On our last night we joined some fellow pilgrims for drinks and talked about all of our experiences, various parts of the walk and the different gites where we had stayed. During the week we did our walk we often saw the same people either on the trail or at a gite. I don’t know if we will ever see them again but there is a definite link when you have done the Camino.
The next morning we took a taxi to collect our car and drive home. We had the feeling we had been in a completely different world, which, in many ways, we had.