THE JOURNEY TO SANTIAGO: A PATH FULL OF LIFE
The first part: a new beginning
I begin my journey in France, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where the Camino shows its toughest face in a big way. I have walked these paths before, the first kilometers are the hardest, they test you right away, but that's okay: we must take it one step at a time, live in the moment and overcome the difficulties. Fatigue is part of the game; we just have to accept it and walk with it.
The first stage is the hardest and makes you realize that you have to endure from the very beginning. To get to Roncesvalles you have to walk 29km climbing 1450m of elevation gain. Despite the fatigue I found that this is also one of the most beautiful stages because it immerses you in the beautiful landscape of the Pyrenees. The heat and lack of water tested me, I have to admit, but I knew I could do it and kept going.
The second stage was definitely less challenging and ended in Zubiri, where I recommend seeing the Bridge of Anger and taking a swim in the river. The third stage, on the other hand, ends in Pamplona, where a visit to the Magdalena Bridge and the cathedral is a must.
The fourth stage, which connects Pamplona to Puente della Reina, is one of the most beautiful stages of this first part of the Camino. The paths cross expanses of cultivated fields, and if you choose the right time, you can admire the blossoming of sunflower and canola crops. On this stage we also reached the Alto del Perdon, a symbolic place where the Pilgrim's Monument is located.
My journey then hit a snag so I could not tackle the fifth stage. Just after Puente della Reina, the authorities notified us that there was a fire that made the path completely impassable. Therefore, I and other pilgrims were forced to take a bus to Estella, the starting point of stage six. The sixth and seventh stages are relatively short and mark the end of the Navarre region. Shortly after Estella, I recommend visiting the Bodegas Irache winery and seeing the Fuente del Vino, a double fountain from which both water and wine flow.
The first few kilometers in the Rioja region were not particularly challenging, except for the tenth stage from Najera to Granon. This 28-kilometer stage runs through huge expanses of cultivated fields and does not offer many shady places or rest stops. Fortunately, I always set out in the morning at 4:30 a.m. This meant that I arrived at my destination by late morning and avoided walking during the hottest hours.
The first part of my Camino ended right in Granon, where I experienced one of the most significant moments of this journey: the community dinner at the parish albergue. During the dinner there was an atmosphere of harmony and peace, and after the meal there was a moment of sharing in which all the pilgrims told their stories and life experiences with open hearts. The parish albergue in Granon is a special place. Here they do not stamp the Camino on the Pilgrim's Passport; the real seal, I am told, is stamped on the heart.
The second part: the turning point
After the first 200km the Camino becomes introspective. I entered the Meseta, an endless, sunny plateau planted with wheat and corn. From this point the landscape became repetitive, with immense expanses of grain, always the same, unbroken. The walk here challenges you psychologically and requires a lot of inner strength, especially if you are walking alone. Many people here are tired, some run out of water, I even saw someone panic in fear of not completing the trek.
The stages of this second part, from stage 11 starting in Granon, to stage 20 arriving in Leon, are almost flat but are very long and not at all easy. The heat wears you down and the fatigue weighs on every step, but it is through this effort, in front of expanses of nothingness, that your mind is rekindled, and you begin to think about yourself, to reflect, to dig in. This part of the Camino brings you to a moment of true understanding, where you can look inside yourself sincerely and without distraction. In the Meseta there are those who cry from happiness and those who cry from fatigue. I cried from happiness.
The stages of the Meseta do not pass through many towns and villages but mainly run through the fields. It was almost difficult to remember where you were the previous day. One of the moments that I kept coming back to was the community dinner at the parish albergue in Tosantos, where I was taught the Pilgrim's Song.
The most beautiful stage of this second part of the Camino for me was the fifteenth, which leads from Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino. Here we passed through Castrojeriz where we visited the Monastery of San Anton, a deconsecrated church now in ruins but where it was possible to stay overnight with a donation. A few kilometers further on, there is also another deconsecrated church: the hermitage of San Nicolas. Here too it was possible to stay overnight with donation and I was moved by the sign displayed by the managers of this albergue that reads "here there is no wi-fi, only hugs exist."
The 100km divided into 4 stages from Boadilla del Camino to Mansilla de las Mulas was interminable. Leaving every morning at 4:30 a.m. saved me as the temperatures became increasingly sweltering as the afternoon approached. If you are going to undertake the Camino remember to always bring plenty of water because you are unlikely to find any water sources for many kilometers.
The last stage of this second part is number 20, which arrives in Leon, a city that I found beautiful and in which I recommend visiting the cathedral.
The third part: I feel the pain of the people
The third part, 5 stages from Leon to Villafranca del Bierzo, showed the more emotional and spiritual face of the Camino. In Astorga I met David, a young man who dropped everything 13 years ago to dedicate his life to helping pilgrims. I talked to him and sensed the dedication he puts into what he does, and was able to understand the true meaning of the Camino. David taught me that the Camino is simply a path, but if you want to find what you are looking for you don't need to get to Santiago, it is just a place, you can find it even 100km before. Also, in Astorga you can visit Gaudi's palace and the wonderful Cathedral of Santa Maria.
On stage 23 the path climbs through green countryside and small villages until it reaches Forcebadon, where the 24th stage starts. This stage, which ends in Ponferrada, is also one of the most symbolic of the entire pilgrimage because it passes the Cruz de Hierro, the highest point of this variant of the Camino (1504m).
Not everyone knows this, but there is a tradition that when setting out on the Way of St. James, you can take a stone proportionate to your sins and carry it from the beginning of the pilgrimage to the foot of the Cruz de Hierro (Iron Cross). This gesture symbolizes deliverance from sins, or from a burden, through sacrifice. The accumulation of stones over the years has led to the formation of a veritable mound at the foot of the cross and has contributed to the mystical aura of the place. The feeling you get as you arrive at the Cruz de Hierro is indescribable; it is as if you can feel all the pain and suffering of the people who laid their stone. When I laid mine, I felt lighter, I felt better, and I burst into liberating tears.
After the cross you have to be prepared for 20km of very challenging descent and following that you can ride the twenty-fifth stage until you reach Villafranca del Bierzo.
The fourth part: «If You Walk... You Live»
The last part of the walk opens with one of my favorite stages, the one from Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro. This stage can be walked in two variants, and I chose the more difficult one, which starts with 600 meters of positive elevation gain, continues with another 600 meters downhill and finally ends with 1100 meters uphill. This is one of the hardest stages, but it repays you with the beauty of the beautiful village of O Cebreiro, located on top of the mountain "Alto do Cebreiro."
Another stage I really enjoyed is stage 28, which goes from Samos to Ferreiros and is a pleasant up and down through a mountain landscape full of bridges and rivers. On this stage I passed through Sarria, which marked the last 100km of the Camino de Santiago and is the point from which many pilgrims start because it represents the minimum distance to be done to obtain the Compostela.
The last 100km are drastically different than the previous ones. The Camino becomes more crowded. Before I would walk alone and meet a few pilgrims in the albergues, while now I found myself walking amongst dozens of people who decided to walk only a small part of the pilgrimage. All these people can distract from the spirit of the pilgrimage but by this point the only thought in my head is this: I can't wait to get to Santiago.
After Ferreiros, I walked two more stages living with the many pilgrims who decided to start their Camino from Portomarin. I arrived in Ribadiso, where I stayed in a beautiful municipal albergue located near the river. The penultimate stage, from Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo, is very beautiful and passes through an almost enchanted forest where it felt like being in another world. The more time passed the more the excitement grew until in the evening I found myself in a newly renovated albergue in O Pedrouzo. We talked exclusively about the next day and what it would be like to get to Santiago.
The next day arrived, and it was one of the best days of my life, as it is for all pilgrims. The last stage is 19kmof pure adrenaline where you feel no pain or fatigue. Ifyou have met other people during the Camino you walk the last stage with them, remembering the previous 800km in joy, laughter, and fun.
When I reached Santiago, I remembered something someone taught me a long time ago: when you get to Santiago you must not look at the basilica right away., You must reach with the center of the square with your head donw, and only then can you look up. I followed the suggestion as if it were a commandment, I reached the center in front of the cathedral, and I looked up: I had made it.
A mix of emotions ran through me, immense joy at having arrived after so much effort and a slight sadness because the adventure had just ended. In my head was a single phrase: "If you walk ... you live."
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