Irene Sutherland. A day on our Camino

Jun 17, 2014

In April this year, my husband and I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. For months leading up to the event, we both imagined how a typical day would unfold. For my part, I intended taking a sketchbook and had fantasised that we would pass through many a village and I could wander into the churches and draw the religious objects. Chris enthused how we would set forth at day-break, arrive at our destination around 2pm, locate our accommodation for the night, clean up and attend mass. But as we found out, a number of factors came into play that gave our daily routine an altogether different shape and colour.

Given the limited time we had for the trip, we decided to walk one of the shorter routes called the Camino Primitivo. It runs along the north of Spain and for the most part traverses a range of mountains. We started at a place just before the beginning of the Primitivo, called Villaviciosa, with the goal of walking 400km over 16 days. This meant that we were committed to covering, on average 25kms a day. Like most of the pilgrims, we started our day straight after breakfast. If we had breakfast at the pilgrims’ hostel, we would leave around about 7am. But if there was an enticing looking café (in Spain, these are mostly bars), then we would get away by about 8 or 9.

Initially, we looked at the map of our route and saw that we would be passing through quite a number of villages. It was easy to assume that we could stop off at a café for lunch or even buy something at a local ‘corner store’ on the way to have a picnic. But what we found was that for the most part, these places were just clusters of houses. As we discovered later, Spain has experienced a huge internal migration of people from villages to cities in pursuit of work, so tend to have much smaller populations of mostly elderly people and therefore can’t sustain amenities. Also, with the advent of motor vehicles, people can drive to larger centres to get supplies. As a consequence we had to be smart about stocking up on food at the end of the day in the larger centres where we stayed the night.

The other factor that impacted on our preconceived plans was the lack of access to churches. Even though the spiritual pilgrim had been well catered for in times past with churches and chapels along the way to pray in, many of these are now locked up. Much to my frustration, dreams of doing sketches were not to be – at least not en route. I was confined to doing drawings in museums in the larger centres such as Lugo. My way around this limited source of creative engagement with The Way, was to commandeer Chris’ iPhone and take photos (I had deliberately left mine behind in an attempt to escape the digital world that usually cannibalises my time back home). In addition, we decided that we would actually visit each church anyway (despite their locked doors) and make the sign of the cross in Spanish. Sometimes we would also sit in the porches, built specifically for pilgrim respite, and have a snack or lunch.

Chris’ assumption that we would arrive at our destination by about 2pm each day was mostly stymied by the mountains we had to cross. The reality of this hit home in the afternoon of our first day as we faced a 6km steep climb up a gradient enough to take your breath away. This was the first of many. And if that wasn’t enough to slow us up, coming down the other side was even worse. One foot steadily in front of the other as we had to take care of tender knee and hip joints and the tips of our toes pushing hard against the front of our boots. It might seem counter intuitive, but the effort and pain was something we actually came to relish (albeit in hindsight). I wrote in my journal of one such occasion walking into Lugo: “And when we were about 8km from our destination at the hottest part of the day, wishing like hell we had arrived, we thought about the words of Natasha, our Body Pump instructor. She says at the most intense part of our workout when the lactic acid kicks in and the muscles pinch in a ‘productive’ way, that this is when the benefits take place – that all the exercise is to prepare us for this pain. So, when we were so close to our destination and we were tired and thirsty and our feet were sore, we thought about how all the walking we’d done thus far in the Camino was preparation for moments like this – because we had to dig deep into our faith and motivation for walking the Camino to access the reserves we needed to push on.”

Rather than fight against challenge of the mountains we embraced it for the benefits the Camino promised. Firstly, we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever experienced: wide blue skies arching above lush undulating land. And walking at the slow pace our bodies demanded, we could fully absorb the experience of moving through mile after mile of spring flowers – very often nestled in the ancient rock walls that line many parts of the Camino. As each day passed and we found our rhythm with ‘slow’, we learnt to be totally present with ourselves. Maybe this is why we were so taken by this verse found at the top of the Hospitales route (translated from Spanish): Happy are you pilgrim, if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image of your heart.

In taking our time, our days were long. We tried to get away early, but sometimes delicious looking pastries, freshly squeezed orange juice and the best coffee enticed us to linger a little longer. We didn’t hesitate to wander off the path either, to pay homage to the churches that sat silently with their glory days a distant memory. Sometimes, we ate lunch on the go and other times we chanced upon a country kitchen that served nourishing soup, crusty bread, ensalada mixta (mixed salad) and a jug of wine. And when we finally reached our destination – usually around 4 or 5pm, we headed for the nearest bar for a cold beer. If we were lucky, there was a shop on the way to the hostel, which meant we didn’t have to go hunting for one after dinner. Sometimes, we just wanted a touch of luxury, so we found the nearest hotel and thought it a boon if we could get our washing done for us (packing light, you only take one spare set of clothes, which makes daily washing a necessity).  If there was time and we were in a city (such as Oviedo, Lugo and Melide), we would venture to a church for mass and some sketching. Afterwards we would find a restaurant or bar for dinner. This is where the day really stretches out, because sunset wasn’t until 9:30pm. But we made the best of it because the evenings were lively with families socializing and Asturian barmen putting on a good show with the pouring of cider. We finally got to bed at 10 or 11pm.

Another feature of our days was our blog. Called it was an efficient way of letting people know about our adventures. Out on the track, we would talk about a feature of the day that we could write about.  All that beautiful scenery, architectural features and details of church exteriors, interesting houses and other mood shots we captured on camera. Then in the evening, over dinner, we would compose our blog post together.  Taking advantage of the WiFi flowing freely in most cafes and bars throughout Spain, we uploaded the post and pictures. Like an offering to our friends and family back home, we hoped to share the best of our day.

Even though our typical Camino day didn’t quite work out as we’d thought, it definitely didn’t disappoint. We could not have imagined the wonder and awe, not to mention the pain and the spiritual benefits that came with it. As they say in Spain; Sin dolor, no hay gloria (“no pain, no gain”). So even though we couldn’t get to daily mass or do as much drawing as I’d have liked, we faired even better with all the surprises the Camino promises as long as one submits to the experience and has no expectations of any given outcome.


Irene Sutherland is Communications Officer at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and is a practicing sculptor.


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