Tuesday 11 November 2014

Walking the Camino

Today, I am in conversation with Pat Dorrian who, with her husband Tom, has recently been walking a section of the Camino Francés, beginning in Sarria.

Pat, welcome. I have visited many towns and villages along the Camino, I have spoken to pilgrims and wished the walk, or even a small part of it, was something I’d done when I first began visiting Galicia in the year 2000. Can you tell me how and when you first heard about the Camino, and whether you set out on the journey mainly as a walking holiday, or as a spiritual pilgrimage?
I think I first heard about the Camino at school. I would always have been aware of the notion of pilgrimage. I set out on the journey as a walking holiday and an adventure with close friends, but would also have wanted it to be a spiritual pilgrimage.

I know that you went with a tour company – would you recommend this for less experienced, and/or, may I say, more ‘mature’ walkers? If so, what were the advantages?
Travelling with a tour company meant that we were given a lot of information and advice in advance so that we knew what clothing and equipment to take. We used a company called Camino Ways and they were very organised, providing us with a map and map notes for each day of the walk. Our luggage was always waiting when we got to our hotel, and the hotels had been carefully chosen and were extremely comfortable.

Before we discuss the more personal aspects of your walk, perhaps you can give me a brief itinerary – the number of miles walked each day, and the names of the towns or villages where you stayed each night?
We walked an average of twelve miles a day, but some days we walked fifteen and on two days we walked eight or nine hours. We began in Sarria and arrived at Santiago on day six, having passed through Portomarín, Palas de Rei, Arzúa and Rúa/O Pino.

How many people were in your group? Did you feel that the size of the group was reasonable, and did you know any of them prior to your journey?
In our group there were six; four of us were very close friends and we had met the other two and knew that they were simpatico. A larger group would be fine but there would need to be acceptance of each others’ aims, and a lot of freedom within the group.

One of the things I love about Galicia is that there are still places where you can step out of the hustle and bustle of life and enjoy the solitude of a deserted beach, forest, or hillside, with only birdsong and the hum of insects to keep you company. Did you find more enjoyment in walking with other members of the group, or did you and Tom sometimes prefer to walk alone?
Because each person was free to walk at his or her own pace, it often happened that you had time walking entirely by yourself and this was good because it left your mind free for thought. At other times, we walked with other members of the group.

On any holiday, but particularly with a trip such as this, you meet with people from a variety of backgrounds, did you find the evenings a pleasant opportunity to chat with and form friendships with other walkers – or were you all too tired to be sociable?!
We did sometimes chat with other walkers. Tom talked quite a lot with people he hadn’t met before and we all enjoyed talking with a young Spanish girl who had a drink with us on our last evening in Santiago. She was a private banker who spoke perfect English and she talked a lot with us about the Spanish economy.

As this was your first trip to Northern Spain, did it live up to your expectations, or did you set off not knowing quite what to expect with regard to architecture, scenery, etc? What were your favourite places?
I was amazed at the greenness of Galicia and at the extent of its wooded areas. It felt like authentic ‘country’ Spain. Our walk took us past so many little villages (in one of which I bought my souvenir scallop shell) and farms. We also stayed at several proud country towns. The architecture in Santiago was a delight.

Because Santiago de Compostela is so special to me personally, I am interested to hear what your impression was on first reaching the historic heart of the city – and especially your reactions on entering the cathedral.
I was struck by the proportions of the central square, the age and beauty of the university buildings and, of course, the cathedral itself. As pilgrims have done for hundreds of years, we said ‘hello’ to St James and touched the head of his statue. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the giant botafumeiro as it swung dramatically almost to the ceiling of the cathedral. It was certainly moving to see people of every race, age and colour reaching the cathedral with a good purpose.

My final question is rather a personal one. At the end of the walk, and after the mass at the cathedral, did you feel that you and Tom had taken part in a genuine pilgrimage, rather than simply a pleasant, if exhausting, walking holiday – and if so, what do you think will be the lasting effect upon you?
We both felt that this had been more than simply a walking holiday. It was certainly enjoyable – there were lovely meals and wine and lots of laughter – but at the end of it I felt a lot lighter and a lot happier, and perhaps more integrated as a person. This had not been a ‘heavy’ experience, but a very gentle one, which felt like a true blessing and for which both of us, and the rest of our group, were very grateful. The lasting effect, I hope, will be to retain and seek to continue to be open to such blessings in the future.

Many thanks, Pat, for taking the time to talk to me with such an interesting insight into a modern-day pilgrimage. I only wish I could have been walking alongside you!

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