“There’s something badass about walking off a plane wearing a backpack, and then to just keep walking.”
So said one of the badass women I met along the Camino de Santiago with my Mum back in September.
Whether it’s to reflect on life, heal heartache, or simply to take a step back and spend time in nature, more and more women from all over the world are heading to Spain to tackle the famous pilgrimage.
Our trip was a milestone birthday celebration and a bucket list adventure, all rolled into one.
After five gorgeous days spent walking through rustic hamlets, wooded paths and familiar-smelling farmland, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela feeling uplifted, exhausted, and remarkably, blister-free.
Here are 10 tips for anyone thinking about doing the Camino in 2016…
1. How to get there:
Aer Lingus fly from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela from March to September. From Santiago, take a bus or train to where you plan to start your route, and walk your way back. We began at the most popular starting point along the French Way in Sarria, 113km from Santiago.
Before you go:
2. Invest in a decent pair of walking shoes
This should be your first act after you book your flights. Shop around, find a pair that suit your feet and break them in well before you leave.
3. Buy a guide-book
John Brierley’s ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino De Santiago‘ acted as our virtual guide. This magical book outlines every café, restaurant and albergue (pilgrim hostel) along the route. Use it to plan your days and find accommodation that works for you and your budget. (We didn’t open our copy until we arrived in Spain. Don’t do that.)
Side note: It’s fair to say that John took an altogether more spiritual approach to the experience than we did. Any spiritual moments we experienced were fleeting, and usually prompted by the sight of a cortado, the Spanish take on a caffè macchiato.
4. Get your Pilgrim Passport
In order to get your official Camino certificate in Santiago, you’ll need to have walked at least 100km and collected two passport stamps every day along the way. It makes for a great momento of all your hostels, coffee stops, lunches and dinners along the trail. The passport will set you back €10 and you can order it here.
5. Be prepared
If you’ve never undertaken a 100km + walk in a short space of time, chances are something is going to hurt at some point along the route. Bring ankle and knee straps. Hopefully you’ll never have to use them, but when you’re out on the trail, it’s reassuring to know that they’re there in the bottom of your backpack in case of emergency.
When you get there:
6. Look after your feet
Start every day by plastering and powdering your feet – even when you don’t have any blisters. Bring more Compeed blister pads and socks than you think is sensible. Halfway through each day’s walking, change your socks, put on fresh plasters and powder your feet. It might sound like a lot of effort (because it is), but your tootsies will thank you for the care and attention.
7. Start your walking early in the day
Get up early and have a decent breakfast, even if you’re like me and (a) you’re not a morning person and (b) you never eat breakfast. If you get nice weather like we did, the early morning walks are the nicest part of the day. The light is gorgeous, the air is fresh and energy levels are at their highest.
8. Indulge in the great food and coffee
The trail is dotted with endless cafés and restaurants. Stop as often or as little as you like. You’ve got all day to get to your next stop, so enjoy the many little hamlets, eateries and local specialities along the way.
9. Keep a diary
By the end of day two, the Camino will start to blend into one long walk. Whether it’s a great meal, a particularly pretty stretch of countryside, or something someone said to you along the way, jot down a few highlights (or low points!) every evening to keep it all straight in your head. When you get home, it’ll make for great reading and bring you right back to how you were feeling along the route.
10. Talk to people
All kinds of characters walk in and out of your life along the trail, and the funny thing about it is that to some degree, you become invested in all of them.
Running into someone you may have exchanged only a few words with on a previous day can feel like a reunion with an old friend.
Getting (and giving) updates on the status of sore feet, brewing blisters, achy backs and dodgy knees becomes an integral part of the day; lovely gesture-laden, life-affirming interactions between relative strangers from different parts of the world.
The standard greeting along the Camino is a simple well-wish: ‘Buen Camino.’ I can’t think of one person I passed along the way with whom I didn’t exchange these two little words.
El camino translates as ‘the way,’ and for pilgrims walking the trail, ‘the way’ is meant to be a metaphor for life.
Looking back on the experience, there’s something remarkable about having wished a ‘Buen Camino’ to everyone I passed along the way. And even more special to think I received the same good wishes in return from so many people.
So to anyone planning on making the trip next year, Buen Camino!