The Way We Walk

Sitting quietly on the edge of the plaza in front of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I allow my heart to expand as my eyes roam over the crowds. Big tour groups intermingle with families and just-arrived pilgrims. To make things just a little bit more chaotic, a classic car club is setting up a gathering, and various shiny cars roll into the plaza at odd intervals. There is a cacophony of sound as human voices compete with revving engines and car horns, amidst the occasional tolling of church bells. Inside the Sunday morning mass has started.

Not far from me a man mumbles and shakes his head. Our eyes meet. He tells me of his pilgrimage from his front door in Porto along the Camino Portuguese. “On the road I was like a ghost, but when I arrived here, Santiago was just waiting for my money.” Disappointed and disillusioned he shares the sentiments of many pilgrims following one of the various routes through Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the place where legend claims the bones of the apostle James have found a last resting place. A place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, it has gained immense popularity since writers like Shirley Maclaine and Paulo Coelho have written successful books about their experiences, and Hollywood has taken it a step further with the movie, The Way. People are flocking like migratory birds to get a piece of the action.

There are many reasons for people to walk The Camino, as it is popularly referred to. Some walk it to find answers to life’s many questions, some to grieve, some to celebrate, some to fulfill a life-long dream or ambition, or to prove to themselves that they can persevere and succeed, and some to simply have a cheap holiday. What I learned during my own Camino ten years ago, is, that what matters most, is not the reasons we walk, or even that we reach the physical destination we set out for, but how we walk.

How we walk is very much a reflection of how we live life. Some people see it is a challenge or a quest, a set of goals to be chased. There is purpose and direction, and no time for diversion or respite. Others walk without a goal, allowing the road to take them to new, undiscovered places. They take their time to pause, to interact, to notice their surroundings. For others, who have a time limit, or who walk with a group, it can become a frustration as they are forced to go faster or slower than they may have preferred to.

How we react to our surroundings and the people we meet, merge with our emotional baggage and history to dictate how we live our lives. And it is only when we become aware of our instinctive reactions that we can choose to react differently and, as a result, change our lives. And this, for me, is the essence of pilgrimage.

“We always know which is the best road to follow, but we follow only the road that we have become accustomed to.”

– Paulo Coelho in The Pilgrimage


  • If you are drawn to walking The Camino, consider the many different routes that criss-cross Spain, instead of simply following the Camino Francaise, which people often think is the true or only one. Although it is easy to find pilgrim accommodation on this route, it is also congested during the summer months. Many people only walk the last 100 km, and getting a bed for the night can become a bit of a race.
  • Read up on the different routes, and choose one that will suit you and the reasons you want to undertake a long distance walk like this.
  • The many different options include: Camino Aragones, Camino de Madrid, Via de la Plata, Camino Mozarabe, Camino Portuguese, Camino Ingles, Camino Primitivo, Camino del Norte, Camino Sanabres, Camino de Levante, Camino Catalan, Ruta de la Lana, Ruta del Ebro
  • When St Jame’s Day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, a Holy Year is declared, and more people walk the different routes, so be aware of this when you plan a trip.
  • A very good website to consult is that of the Confraternity of St James.

Visited:  September 2016