Although they say it's the journey that matters and not the destination, I had my doubts until I heard about the Camino de Santiago.
Traveling the "Way of St James" had its origins over a thousand years ago when pilgrims or peregrinos from throughout Europe trekked across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela to honor the apostle, St James, who is entombed there in the Cathedral.
Early pilgrims had to endure bandits, illness, wolves, difficult river crossings, and dangerous encounters with hostile Moors. Today, those challenges no longer exist, allowing thousands of travelers of every age from around the world to make the trek on foot or bicycle. Some people walk the Camino in one 26-30 day journey, others take it in shorter stretches over years.
Many begin in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the rugged Pyrenees just across the French border, or as I did in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. In Roncesvalles I registered as a peregrino and obtained a Pilgrim's Credencial that allowed me to stay in refugios, small inns along the 800 kilometer (500 mile) path.
Each day pilgrims set out in couples, in a group, or alone, shepherded by well- marked signposts and guidebooks. My solo trek soon became more humbling than expected despite all the aerobic conditioning I'd done in advance. After earning four blisters per foot the first day, I was hobbling in pain. Nothing except rest could help my bloodied feet. Forced to a slower pace, I realized that one-step-at-a-time was the better way to appreciate the journey.
Day one I made 16 km before stopping at a refugio. These inns, as I discovered along the way, are located in unusual settings, from historic 16th century convents, to hospitals run by the Knights of Malta, to modern prefab complexes.
While all provide basic dormitory-style bunk-bed accommodations and showers for 20 to 800 travelers, some include common kitchens, pay phones, laundry facilities, or Internet-connected computers. Charges are modest, from US$4 a night to a simple donation. Bedding is usually not provided, so a sleeping bag is necessary.
Over the next three weeks, I followed the path through fields of vegetables and scented thyme, vineyards, and apple and pear orchards overflowing with fruit ready for harvest. Upward I went over a desolate, windswept plateau, climbing to secluded, mountain Brigadoons then descending to tree-lined Galician pastures.
I met a virtual UN of travelers: Spanish students, a couple in their 70s who'd hiked and biked from Holland, a good humored university administrator in his 60s who had hiked nearly a thousand miles from Dijon. One pilgrim, undaunted by MS, traveled on a specially-designed bicycle.
For many it is the solitude, a chance to shut out worldly distractions, to meditate, to reaffirm their faith, to find inspiration. For others it is the chance to discover little-seen art and architecture, such as the Bishop's Palace at Astorga, built by renowned architect Antonio Gaudi. It's a chance to stroll ancient Roman roads, explore castles built by the Knights Templar, see traditional Celtic round-stone houses, elaborate fountains, frescoes, sculpture, and relics sequestered in tiny Romanesque churches.
For some it is simply the opportunity to take part in a rich tradition of wandering the same path in the same spirit as millions of other peregrinos over the past millennium.
Certainly a highlight is savoring Spain's rich culture. Villagers often graciously filled my water bottle, or surprised me with a Buena Camino! from their modest doorsteps or second floor windows. Lucky pilgrims might arrive in a village during its version of the running of the bulls, or during a Saint's Day festival complete with costumes, lively games, parades, and memorable local cuisine.
I reveled in trying traditional delicacies: the wonderful rustic sausages (chorizo) and hearty sheep cheeses of the distinctive Basque region, the enormous almond pastries decorated with sword and shepherd's staff (torta de Santiago) of Portomarin, the octopus (pulpo) and other fresh seafood delights of Galicia. I sipped delicious viño tinto from Rioja, Burgos, and the Mesa as well as the delicate white wines of Galicia.
It was an emotionally charged finale to arrive in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela and attend the Peregrino Mass then join the throngs in paying a reverent visit to the apostle St James's tomb. But later, with my Pilgrim's Credencial filled with stamps from all of my stops along the way and an official Compostela certificate in hand, I concluded that it was the journey that mattered more than the destination.
Brandon Wilson is a writer/photographer based in Hawaii. His first pilgrimage, a trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu through the Tibetan Himalayas, is the subject of his latest book Yak Butter Blues.