Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Camino de Santiago: or Why I walked my way across Spain

It may sound unusual, but there are few things I enjoy as much as walking.  Quite apart from the everyday transit from 'A to B,' I love walking as a form of travel and exploration.  I've traversed Germany by train, ridden a bus across Belgium, and even meandered through Botswana's Okavango Delta in a makoro, but many of my most memorable explorations have been fueled by nothing more than a sense of adventure and my own two feet; to borrow the words of the immortal Jane Austen, "I prefer walking."

The rapturously green French Pyrenees

My siblings and I used to walk ourselves to school growing up in England, and when I was sixteen, I spent a summer backpacking across the southern tip of Africa.  At eighteen, I planned an end-to-end walk of Great Britain (from Land’s End in southern England to John O’ Groat’s at the northernmost part of Scotland) and only military orders prevented me from trying it.  I’ve walked in the Yorkshire Dales, paced through the desert of southern Arizona and rambled through Bavarian forests.  Even now, in dusty Oklahoma, I prefer two feet to four wheels for most distances under 10 miles. At 26 years old, I’ve never even owned a car.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that I jumped at the chance to walk over 500 miles across the entire width of Spain, following a medieval pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.  This past summer, I had month of free time and the whole of Europe at my disposal, with my home in Germany as the starting point.  My brother was the one who suggested the walk – he’d done it himself in 2001, while I was trekking across Africa – and it took only a few hours of research for me to make up my mind.  Twelve days and many frantic hours of preparation packing later, I was on a flight to Pamplona armed with no more than the boots on my feet (not yet broken in!) and the bag on my back.

The rain-soaked streets of St Jean Pied de Port

From Pamplona, I caught a bus to the French Pyrenees and a little medieval town called St. Jean Pied de Port, where my real journey began.  My first steps on those time-worn, cobbled streets were taken gingerly, and with great trepidation, but I could little know what adventures and life lessons awaited me in the weeks ahead.

A monastery in the Spanish countryside

Over the next month, I walked more than 600 miles in the company of some fascinating companions, I discovered new cultures, sampled new cuisines and even learned a few words of Spanish.  I'm still writing up the journal of this wonderful walk and continually uncovering new lessons and making fresh discoveries as I go.  One thing I know for sure is that sometimes the best trips are born of nothing more than a whim and the determination to see them through; this one was no exception.

Pulpo a la Gallega - yes, it's octopus and it was delicious

One of the best parts (for me at least!) is that this brief summary is just a foretaste of things to come - I plan to write more about my 'on-foot' adventures and also to showcase some of the fantastic foods that nourished me on my walk.  This journey provided a perfect opportunity for me to enjoy some of the things I love best in life - interesting history, intriguing culture, good exercise, great fellowship and delicious food - so I'd certainly recommend it to anyone seeking a memorable and meaningful experience abroad.  As evidenced by my extremely abbreviated preparations, it's also very easy to pull together on short notice and on limited funds.  If you're interested in this or other distance walking opportunities, drop me a line and I'd be more than happy to tell you all about it!  Alternatively, or for those who aren't able to jet off and start walking, just keep checking in and looking forward to the Spanish recipes and traveler's tales to come.

The staff and gourd - two symbols of the pilgrimage

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