How did I get the idea to walk the Camino?
In 2006, two years before I walked the Camino, I was on a trip to Europe. I don’t think I had even heard of the Camino before this, and I knew very little about ‘pilgrimage’. But looking back, the experiences I had on that trip seemed to lead me inexorably towards walking the Camino in 2008.
My first experience of European pilgrimage was in Assisi, which I stopped to explore for a few hours on a train trip between Florence and Rome. As I climbed up the hill behind the town into the countryside, I had this sense of the almost palpable presence of St Francis walking in the countryside alongside me. I even had to run back downhill to look for shelter in a thunderstorm, as surely Francis must have sometimes needed to do. And this was the first place I stumbled across a ‘pilgrim trail’ as such, where I realised there was a route that people could either walk for several days, or bus, to experience nearby places that were important in the life of St Francis.
A few weeks later I reached France, and here it seems I was destined to keep coming across signposts for the route to Santiago. In Arles I saw quite a few long-distance walkers traversing the path near the river. Then in Montpellier, after following some shell symbols on the footpaths, I happened to be in a church late afternoon when individuals with packs on were arriving, being welcomed, and taken out to some mysterious place beyond the sacristy.
A major experience of a modern pilgrimage place then followed when I ventured to Lourdes. Amongst the many treasures of that experience, I ended up having a conversation beside the river with two young Kiwi women, who were about to take the train to St Jean Pied de Port to start their pilgrimage to Santiago.
Next came the pivotal experiences of Cahors. I had no idea when I decided to stay here that I would be one of the few tourists in a hostel largely filled with pilgrims on the Le Puy route! I was surprised at breakfast at 7.30am to discover that many had already breakfasted and left. In the process of exploring the town, I decided to book for a cruise on the River Lot, but had several hours to fill in before it departed. I walked across the wonderful medieval bridge and saw a signpost that told me how many kilometres it was to Santiago: 1184km! I climbed the cliff path, reached a viewpoint where I had a superb view back to the bridge, then followed a route marked with red and white track symbols for several kilometres. It took me on quiet country roads past some vineyards and many fields filled with poppy flowers: joy! That evening I spoke with a Frenchwoman who had been walking for three weeks from Le-Puy-en-Velay, and her face shone with an inner radiance as she spoke of the joy she felt walking. I was ‘hooked’.
Next up for me in France was a cycling trip along the Loire, staying in camping grounds as I went. I had never done anything like this before, and it was an adventure I was really looking forward to. Who was to know that pilgrimage and St Jacques lurked in my meanderings here as well?! Occasionally I came across markers that showed me I was on the route to Santiago, and later I learned that this was the Tours route. But also, even more importantly, I became a sort of ‘accidental pilgrim’ as I cycled. I came to realise I was in countryside where St Martin had lived and worked. One day I was in a village church that had an altar sculpture depicting the local people carrying the body of Martin, their beloved bishop, through local fields back to Tours for burial. St Martin’s presence seemed to follow me in the Loire as had that of St Francis in Assisi, and I came to especially appreciate the varied depictions of the saint sharing his cloak. I also came to be certain that being in the outdoors for an extended period was something that brought me real happiness.
After France I spent time travelling in Ireland, and experienced two major pilgrim places there. I visited Glendalough where St Kevin had lived, and had several days with superb weather to go walking on the nearby hill tracks. I also climbed the sacred mountain of Croagh Patrick on a day when the weather made it a truly Irish penitential experience! And tellingly, I also met my first real live person who had actually walked the Camino: the woman running the hostel in Kilkenny.
I left Europe after spending a few days with a friend who lived just outside Paris in countryside that I had quite fallen in love with. On the way to catch the RER for my final trip to the airport, she pointed out a local sign for where the Chemin de St Jacques crossed the road. My fate was sealed: I almost knew then that I would be back!
Once I was home, I cannot even recall how my Camino thoughts developed. I know I read a few books, and read entries on the Santiago Forum. Then one day, I just ‘knew’: I would walk the Camino and I would begin in Le-Puy-en-Velay. A year later, I was ready to begin walking. I received the Bishop’s blessing in Le Puy, and was off walking up my first hill….