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Bon Camino

On pilgrimage to Compostela

Sr. Frances, who is a health visitor by profession and lives in one of our London communities, shares the ups and downs of her Compostela pilgrimage.

After many months of preparation, on June 10th 2009 I was about to embark on the pilgrim walk from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, situated in the north western part of the Iberian Peninsula - distance 100km. The whole walk is about 1600km but time and energy would not permit me to engage in the whole journey. I was walking for one week - it was my pilgrimage.

My friend Eileen and I had prepared for about five months but had never walked for eight hours over 5 - 6 consecutive days. A certain fear lurked in me that I would not be able for a 100km walk. We were to stay in six different places akin to hotels. There we would have breakfast and dinner and our main luggage would be transferred from one place to the next, as I knew I could not walk and carry a heavy backback.

We left London at 8.00 and arrived in Compostela at 11.30, having put our clocks forward one hour. To our surprise, we were met by monsoon rain. We took two buses to Sarria where we found our accommodation easily. That night, we planned what time we would leave in the morning. It would not be early as breakfast was at 8.30. Soon that would change as we realized that it got very hot early in the day so it was better to start before 6.00. We set our clocks and put in our rucksacks what we needed for the day: two litres of water, sun cream, extra socks, foot cream and some fruit.

We had a very good night’s sleep and awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the road. Today, we would walk 22.9km from Sarria to Portomarin. The journey was spread equally between quiet country roads and natural pathways. Apart from the bare flanks around Pena do Cervo at Momientos (above Portomarin), much of this stage was along tree-lined roads and pathways. We had good shade from the sun or shelter from the driving rain if necessary. We passed through many small hamlets that seemed to blend seamlessly one into the next, but these offered few facilities for provisions. We were told this before we left so we had our picnic lunch, fruit and water in our rucksacks.

For the three hours we walked in the forests, it was very pleasant and soothing, with the birds singing to their hearts’ content. As we trekked in silence, I thanked God for this opportunity and blessing. We walked for three hours before we decided to stop and check our feet. All was in order so we were soon on our way again, and by midday we had lost our shade and the sun was beginning to show its face. We decided to continue walking in order to get to Portomarin before it became too hot. As soon as it got very warm, my energy began to wane and I was struggling. My companions seenmed in good shape and had no problem with the sun or energy levels. Soon I was losing pace and I decided to relax. I could see my companions in the distance and they me. Never for one moment did one feel alone on the Camino. Young people on bicycles cheerfully overtaking and calling out bon Camino gave one energy and the feeling that this was one big journey together. The yellow arrows that were our guide were all along the route but one had to pay attention or one could lose them very easily. One could not just count on following someone else as it might not pay!

As I walked I had my lunch so no time was lost in getting to our first destination. We arrived at Portomarin at 4.00 weary but pleased. We were greeted by a most beautiful lake, blue as the sky. Our luggage was in our rooms so after a shower and change of clothes, we went to visit Portomarin. Over a leisurely drink, we shared how we had experienced the walk and how we might improve our timetable. I knew we had to start earlier next day and have some proper breaks as it was clear I would not be able to keep up at that day’s pace for the remainder of the journey. We decided to start earlier each day as we felt the heat slowed and tired us more than we had expected.

Some days, the walk was really difficult and I wondered what I was doing here, walking up and down countless hills. On reflection at the end of the day, I asked myself what inner strength brought us through these journeys. During the actual walking, I could not even think of praying but just trying to survive. I just concentrated on the walking as my body ached from head to toe. When we eventually arrived in Santiago, having endured blisters from day two, I really rejoiced that I had made it and was able to endure the pains and aches. I reflected on how my patients try to bear the pain of their leg ulcers and I got some idea of how it must feel for them.

We arrived in Compostela at 11.00 and Mass is celebrated each day at midday. We rejoiced indeed during that celebration and thanked God for the wonderful journey we had made, the people we made friends with on the journey and the strength we received along the way, the beautiful countryside, the rich pastures and the shade when the sun got too much for us.

We stayed an extra day in Santiago and enjoyed browsing and strolling around, instead of pushing our bodies as we had done for those six days. I thought I could never do the full journey, but maybe if I had plenty of time!!

Thanks be to God for sending me such wonderful companions for the journey and for sunshine instead of rain.