by Ivana Baldelli
After years of marathon running, I was ready for a change. In 2019, I found the challenge I was looking for: to walk a “camino” in Europe, where there is a highly established network of ancient pilgrim routes. The backbone of the network is the French Camino, or Camino Francés. Historians write that this route was originally walked by St. James the Apostle, and thus it is often referred to as The Way of St. James. The “finish line” is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain.
This walking adventure felt like a natural progression after middle-age marathons, Running Room programs and fitness centres. Come September, I was not going to be a tourist on vacation—I was going to be a pilgrim on the Camino Francés.
My starting point was the little village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrénées mountains. The first 30 kilometres of the 779-kilometre journey are in France, while the rest is on Spanish soil. The walk can take between 25 and 35 days—fewer if using a bicycle, and more if desiring rest days along the way. Many hikers choose to walk only a week or two as part of their annual vacations.
The camino experience is flexible and can easily be personalized. There is a great selection of hotels, albergues, hostals, refugios, markets and cafés along the way. Local taxis and buses are standing by for anyone who needs a break from walking or refuge from inclement weather. Travel and tourism companies will help you with the details and logistics, such as transporting backpacks and suitcases. This allows the participants to immerse themselves in the walking experience and enjoy the beautiful surroundings, including colourful wildflowers and mushrooms.
The numerous books written by past pilgrims proved to be of great assistance in terms of accommodations, transportation, study of the landscape, history, packing needs and life on the camino. When I wasn’t able to find any suggestions on how to prepare for the physical demands, I created my own three-month training program where I covered 50 kilometres per week. Although I was unsure if it would deliver its benefits during “the real thing,” I did not suffer any pain or muscle soreness throughout the entire camino. Even climbing the nearly 1400-metre ascents and descending in rocky gullies presented minimal problems to me.
Hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino Francés every year, in search of peace, solitude and relaxation. Some may be at a crossroads, facing a major career decision or questioning what to do with the rest of their life. In my case, I wanted to show gratitude for the productive and healthy life I have had thus far. From the moment I first placed my feet on the path, I became a reservoir of many wonderful memories. I discovered the beautiful Spanish landscape, the charming little towns and the unique local culture. I also formed memorable relationships with fellow travellers from France, South Korea, California, Denmark, South Africa, Peru and Australia.
While walking, one does not detect any particular religious behaviour like praying the rosary or singing religious hymns; however, every evening one can attend the peregrinos’ mass at the local church or Cathedral. For me, attending mass was always a beautiful way to end the day, like an exclamation mark to end a thought. Every homily repeated what many books and previous pilgrims have said: the camino will change your life forever. Walking every day on the camino, you live your life in the present, because there is nothing else to do but walk, eat and sleep. You forget what life was like before you came here. The magic of the camino never ends—its motto is “Ultreya,” which means “moving forward with courage.”