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 adventure. Read along as I interview Cat Gaa and learn about her experience on the legendary Camino de Santiago.
Hi Cat, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me. First thing, can you tell me a little about yourself? Just the basics, your name, age, hometown, studies/profession, etc.
I’m Cat, a Chicagoan afincada in Seville since 2007. After studying journalism and international studies in the Midwest, I turned down a job in radio and turned up in Andalucía, where I’ve been teaching English, consulting about residency in Spain and blogging at Sunshine and Siestas. In August, I not only turned 30, but also married my long-term sevillano boyfriend.
Where did you hear about the Camino? (i.e. from a fellow traveler, a movie/book)
I first heard about the Camino when studying abroad in 2005. I chose a modern Spanish culture class, and our teacher literally decapitated Spain and wrote CAMINO on the board. We talked about the resurgence in popularity, and as someone looking to experience all of Spain, I knew I’d eventually come back to Spain and walk it.
Eight years later, I walked half of the Camino del Norte in July and August, arriving to Santiago by way of Avilés.
Once you decided to do the Camino, what made you choose the Camino del Norte? How does it differ from the popular Camino Francés?
The Camino del Norte runs along the northern coast, from Irún to Ribadeo, before dipping into Galicia. It’s a bit more rugged and thus posed more of a challenge. My fellow pilgrim and I were looking for a bit of solitude and a real chance to disconnect, and knowing that July and August were prime time on the Way, we wanted a quieter route.
I can’t speak to many of the differences, as I’ve only walked the Norte. However, it’s a lot less traversed, has fewer albergues and amenities and the stages, or etapas, tend to be a bit longer. You can imagine the pilgrim shock we experienced when the Norte links up with the Francés in Arzúa!
How did you prepare for the long hike ahead of you?
I didn’t do enough preparation, physically speaking. Seville’s climate is sweltering come springtime, and I was also finishing my master’s, so even my attempts to hike around town were nulos. The first few days on the trail were really tough on my body, but it’s amazing how fast it adapted! By the fifth day I felt stronger, faster and able to push myself further.
I did do a lot of research, though, and read books, blogs and forums. I found the Eroski guide (in Spanish) to be the most helpful, followed by the Cicerrone guide.
Could you tell me a little about who you were as a person when you started the Camino?
The Camino was a cap to an amazing year for me, professionally and personally. I’d done a lot of traveling, been promoted and had finished a master’s. It was wonderful to wake up every day and just put one foot in front of another – I’ve actually been considering walking during my holidays in March before settling down and starting a family. I consider it a time to be alone with my thoughts for conceivably the last time in many years!
The say the Camino calls, and I see arrows when I’m least looking, from where the Via de la Plata picks up near my house to even Austria and Portugal! It always makes me smile.
Did you have any fears, doubts, hopes or preconceived ideas as to what you would experience before you started?
I had very few doubts or fears before setting off from Avilés, given that I spoke Spanish, was familiar with Galicia and Asturias and had done a lot of research. My friend and I had two major goals: to walk the entire way into Santiago (some choose to take buses or taxis around, though you must walk the last 100km to receive the Compostela certificate), and to enjoy the experience. This meant breaking longer etapas down into two days or caving and paying more money to stop for lunch or visit some of the historical sites.
The biggest concerns we had while walking was not arriving soon enough to get a bed (we had to stay in small hotels or private dorms a few times) and snorers! Overall, it was a positive experience, and because I went into the 14-day hike with little more than the desire to walk, it all turned out to be more than I hoped for.
Can you talk a bit about the Camino community? Did you make friends along the way or was it more of a solitary experience for you?
I did a little bit of both. As the Camino del Norte has far less peregrinos, we ran into the same group of people during our two-week trek. I am an outgoing person by nature, so I talked to just about everyone we met and have stayed in touch with a few.
What really surprised me was how intrinsic the Camino was to those who lived in houses and towns along the way. Most everyone we met – albergue workers, people in bars, townspeople – had a deep respect for pilgrims and the route, so we always felt taken care of.
The Camino definitely gets under your skin, and it’s lovely to know that there’s a worldwide community out there.
What has the Camino taught you about yourself?
I did the pilgrimage for the adventure, of course, but it also as part of a grieving process. There were aches, pains, tears, blisters and everything in between while on the trail, and the cumulative experience brings up a lot of emotion.
I think the biggest thing the Camino taught me is how resilient I am, both mentally and physically.
Biggest lesson learned from your experiences during the Camino?
I learned a lot about myself on the Camino, but one that I still carry is to listen to my body! To eat when it’s hungry, stop when it needs rest, have an afternoon nap because I can.
And finally, do you have any advice for future peregrinos?
Doing your research is great, especially for packing tips and which route might be best for your needs, but go with an open mind and heart and let the experience live itself out. And when the Camino calls again, strap on your boots and go!
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Southern Spain in 2007. A teacher trainer and residency consultant in Seville, she completed half of the Camino del Norte in August 2013 and lives just one kilometer off the Vía de la Plata. She blogs at Sunshine and Siestas and runs COMO Consulting Spain.
Time – 7 a.m.
Location – St. Jean Pied-de-Port, French side of Pyrenees Mountains.
Sweat trickles down my forehead as I turn the corner only to be faced with yet another staggering incline. I tighten the straps on my backpack and take another ascend further up the mountainside. I’ve only been walking for an hour, a little less than 4km. That means I have more than 765km to go. After this realization, I decide it’s better not to pay attention to the distance.
Right here, right now, I remind myself.
And right here is so extremely beautiful that it takes my breath away. The views are absolutely stunning. To my right I see dozens of shades of green mountain peaks, some hidden by the morning fog, and to my left the morning sun ignites the trees with a soft, amber glow. There are flocks of sheep casually grazing along the rolling hills.
As beautiful as the views are, my muscles are doing their best to win over my attention. Each inclining step causes me to grip onto my walking stick with a grimace. But then I think about the millions of pilgrims who have walked this fascinating pilgrimage before me, and that makes me feel very connected to a journey that is much, much bigger than me.
El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, started as early as the 9th century as a pilgrimage to the remains of Saint James (Santiago) in northwestern Spain. In Medieval times, the pilgrims’ journeys began as they stepped out of their doorsteps, whether it was Germany, Switzerland, Northern France, or throughout Spain. A million pilgrims annually would trek across the Pyrenees and through northern Spain, often times falling short of their end goal due to illnesses and injuries. The Medieval pilgrims walked the Camino for closeness to God or a pardon from their sins. Pilgrims today have varying reasons why they decided to walk the Camino: desire for a major life change, mourning the death of a loved one, to discover their purpose, to understand themselves better, to challenge themselves…the list goes on.
But what exactly is a pilgrimage?
In it’s most basic definition, a pilgrimage is a meaningful journey to a sacred place, but it’s so also much more than that. Millions of people travel to different corners of the world searching for some kind of wisdom or a closeness to their God. Regardless of religion, though, a pilgrimage can be a profound spiritual journey for the pilgrim. Every effort and struggle faced to reach the outer destination can be seen as metaphor for the inner journey – full of heartache, sacrifice and a deep and mysterious desire to continue onward, despite the incredibly demanding physical and psychological circumstances.
Personally, I walked the Camino for many reasons. The main one being discovery. I would say self discovery, but that wouldn’t cover it. I wanted to learn about my purpose and more importantly, our purpose. We go through our lives, working, building relationships, invested in our life’s drama, and generally living in a state of constant busy-ness. I wanted to find out what happens when you slow down, stop rushing and start listening to what the world has to say.
I learned this and so much more on the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago.
And I’ll close with a video of my reaction every time I saw cattle grazing along the Camino because the extreme fatigue completely destroyed my level of maturity, obviously. Check out the gorgeous views! Have you ever walked the Camino? Or are you interested in walking it? Contact me on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you have to say!