In the foothills of O Cebreiro, close to the provincial border between Castilla y Leon and Galicia in northern Spain, the walk was long and steep.
We proceeded steadily for hours uphill through the greenery, and it was in the walking that I felt I was, at last, coming home after a long trip. The Camino de Santiago can be hard and it can be smooth. Today it was hard.
As we reached O Cebreiro, we met people who had been walking for a long time along the Camino – a man who had walked for four months from Poland and was full of energy, a group of Germans who were doing a short six-day stint and all shades in between.
Breaking for lunch in the mountains, we drank Coca-Cola and ate roast chicken and savoured the heat of the day.
This land felt right; it felt like I was coming back to something else within me, something known. Perhaps it was the environment, perhaps it was the verdant green, but I felt like I was home again.
We had arrived in Galicia, the most western region of Spain, and nothing would ever be the same again.
To ‘do’ the Camino is to ask yourself the question: What am I looking for? Everyone comes with a question or the thought of a question.
After much time, many churches and much walking, I am thinking now that the question and the answer are both contained within, that we bring both of them with us.
It is the road of that unending gravel and the earthen path that gives us not the answer but the time to think.
In the afternoon, we walked downhill from the heights of O Cebreiro on the old pilgrims’ path that weaves through small villages and farmland. Alongside the path, oak trees were heavy with acorns.
In a cafe, I met an Australian man who had been walking for weeks. After the bare landscape of Castilla y Leon, he said he was back on the “beautiful” Camino. We talked of Australia for a time and reminisced about the home both of us knew in Sydney.
Galicia is the Celtic region of Spain, with a population of 2.7 million. It is linked to the other seven Celtic regions on the western seaboard, from Ireland to Breton in France.
Perhaps it is the Celtic soul in us all, but Galicia has the feel of a Celtic land – it is green, full of farm animals and, at times, knows harsh weather in the form of cold and snow. Maybe this was the type of weather the Celts liked, the atmosphere that best suited their moods.
The Galicians have their own language, which is spoken daily by all ages. Their region is one that depends on the land and sea for much of its commerce.
I was amazed at all the small farms that had not tried to dominate nature but rather had melded into it – Galicia is still a much-forested place.
That night, we ate dinner in our hotel and dreamed of our next walk and seeing the bell towers of Santiago de Compostela. We had been travelling for so long over so many regions, over so many paths and roads, that our destination seemed like an unreachable place.
Finally, the next day, we undertook the final five or six kilometres into the ancient city, and walked with all the other pilgrims coming from all the different caminos to the Archcathedral Basilica of Santiago de Compostela, the third holiest city in the Christian world (after Rome and Jerusalem).
There was mirth in the air as we walked, a happiness that finally we had arrived. When I laid eyes on the cathedral, which is said to hold the remains of Saint James the Great, I felt I had come a long way.
In walking the Camino de Santiago, we came to know ourselves. In the rhythm of footsteps, I came to think of new ideas and new ways of being.
Looking at the ancient place of worship, I knew I had found what I had been looking for on my journey.
In the afternoon, we toured the interior of the cathedral and saw its wonders.
We went to see the relic of the saint and I offered up my prayers. They were not big lofty things, but simple.
The road, the Camino, had simplified my life. Maybe in that there is a lesson.
That night, tired from all our expeditions, I slept soundly, unaware of the bustle of the old quarter without.
I’m back home now in Longford, but still the Camino calls to me in different ways. I have kept up my walking routine. It would have felt wrong to stop – the movement is liberating in its own way.
On the farm now, I remember the Galician farmers I saw and spoke to and their way of doing things. In the countryside, I look with new wonder on the natural world around me.
I have promised to return to Galicia, my favourite region on the Camino, and walk the final 100km with my wife in the spring. It’s a promise I think we can both make.
Maybe there will be a new question to be asked then. I don’t know, but that’s the beauty of this road.
There’s an answer for everyone who takes the time to walk. It was good to go and it’s great to be back. Its fuel will burn in the long winter ahead.