How does one describe the life-changing journey that is the Camino de Santiago? In short, pilgrims from all over the world hike hundreds of miles across northern Spain all to reach the beautiful Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It began as a pilgrimage to the remains of Apostle James, but over the 1,200 years since this tradition started, the solely religious journey has grown into a cultural and spiritual journey. Read along as I interview Camille Panier who shares stories from her Camino experience.

A well-dressed brunette glides through the café with a sheepish smile on her face.

“Sorry I’m late! I couldn’t find parking anywhere near here,” she says through a French accent. She politely orders a tea in Spanish with a quick smile to the waitress. She turns back toward me and tucks her long brown hair behind her ear, signaling her full attention.

Camille Panier, 25, lives and works in Ibiza, Spain as a French language and culture assistant. Originally from La Rochelle on the west coast of France, she studied French literature and then later earned a Master’s in teaching French as a foreign language. Since then, she’s taught French to children of all ages in different countries like Spain, Canada, and England for the past five years.

But our story with Camille starts before all of her worldly travels and language teaching. It starts with a young 17-year-old Camille and her decision to walk more than 500 miles across the rugged landscapes of northern Spain. Our conversation went like this:

Where did you first hear about the Camino?

“That would be from my uncle, actually. He walked it about 10 years ago and came back so wise. It really made me curious about the whole thing. When I did the Camino the first time, he started with me and left me to finish the rest on my own after two weeks.”

Tell me a little about 17-year-old Camille who has just decided to do the Camino.

“I didn’t really know myself before the Camino. I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to ask myself these questions along the way. I can say that I met myself along the way.”

How did you prepare yourself for the extremely long amounts of walking you would do?

“I didn’t prepare very much. Although it’s like doing a half marathon every day, I was OK because I played soccer and stayed active. The first week was really physically demanding because you’re in the mountains, so I tried to focus on the beauty the entire time to keep my mind off the pain.

“The second week, you reach a long stretch of desert. I never cried so much in my life. Not because of the pain, though. I was thinking so much, you know…going deep inside my thoughts. It was the best therapy ever, just walking with myself. I couldn’t be influenced by anything because there was literally nothing around. No trees, no beautiful views, nothing. You have to find your own motivation from within.”

I’ve heard there is a strong community among the pilgrims doing the Camino. Did you make friends along the way or was it more of a solitary experience?

“We helped each other like a family, so this connection is so much more intense than it would be if you met these people in normal circumstances. Everyone helps everyone because on the way, you can’t survive without the help from others.”

Did you adopt a different outlook on life in general while on the Camino? As in, did it change the way you look at the world at all?

“One of the unexpected lessons I learned was the importance of languages. I didn’t speak Spanish or English very well at the time, so I felt isolated at times. I realized that if I wanted to make connections with others from different parts of the world, I needed to learn more languages. I made a promise to myself that I would start learning more languages as soon as possible.

“I also realized what I need and don’t need. The bag I carried was my house, my life for one month. I had to select exactly what I needed to live, and all of it had to fit it this bag I carried with me. For example, during the Camino, I cut my toothbrush in half just to save a little more space. On the Camino, we have to be exactly precise, because you’re carrying everything you need. Sometimes in life we create more baggage than we actually need. It gave me this lesson that you don’t need so many things. [Realizing this,] that’s when I touched happiness, even through the pain.

“And lastly, I have a great story of a lesson I learned. One day I was totally fed up with the Camino. I was so tired. I walked 35 km that day. When I arrived at the hostel, it was full of tourists who just showed up on a tour bus earlier that day. I threw my bag down and immediately started to cry like a baby. A guy took my hand and said to me, “Come on. Keep walking. We’ll find a place in the next town.” And I got up, still crying and complaining the whole time. And suddenly, I looked down and noticed he had one leg and the other was fake. I felt so embarrassed that I was just complaining about myself and never thought to ask this guy how he was feeling. It taught me to always see the positive in things and to always move forward. I try to see my life the same way… If I could do the Camino, I can do whatever is ahead.”

Do you have any advice for someone interested in doing the Camino de Santiago?

“Oh, good question! First, I would suggest to really listen to your body, don’t go over your limit… Sometimes I tried to do more kilometers than I should have.

“Also, prepare the bag very well before.

“If possible, do the entire Camino. The mental process is most rewarding if you start from the beginning and walk until the end. You can see yourself evolving with each part.

“Oh, and do the Camino alone, you’ll be more open to meeting people when you’re alone. If you’re with friends, you might inadvertently group yourself off to meeting and talking to other people on the Camino.

“And finally, I recommend avoiding the busiest times like July and August because it was so crowded. Sometimes I had to sleep outside because the hostels were full.”

After our conversation, we both glanced at the time. She told me she had to run to Spanish class, and I thought back to when she told me about that promise she made to herself to learn more languages. This small instance helped me to better understand how significant the impact the Camino de Santiago holds to its pilgrims.

Have you ever heard of the Camino de Santiago, or have you walked the Camino before? Contact me on Facebook and tell us about your experiences! 

*Feature image by Paolo Camero. Thanks, Paolo!!