Walking the Camino in northwestern Spain and Portugal this year was in many respects very different from previous walks on this ancient pilgrimage path that has been massively impacted by the repercussions of the pandemic.
First and foremost the Camino has lost nothing of its magic that has become for hundreds of thousands of modern-day pilgrims, a path of introspection, healing and transformation. About half as many people arrive at the destination in Santiago de Compostela compared to normal years. The good news is that with good planning you can still walk it!
We walked from Porto in Portugal to Santiago, alternating between the coastal and central routes, but booking our accommodation two to three days in advance as most pilgrims’ hostels are still closed and will possibly only reopen next year. Unless you are walking the less popular routes cheap accommodation is very limited for pilgrims with a limited budget.
Can you still stay in a pilgrims’ hostel?
Staying overnight in a pilgrims’ hostel is so much part of the Camino experience where stories are shared over a meal cooked together and often lasting friendships are formed. Although a little more expensive than the municipal albergues, some of the better private albergues are a definite must.
We had one of our most enjoyable evenings with fellow pilgrims at Casa da Fernanda with dancing, singing, great food and good conversations. This was all on a donation basis. Certainly one of the most beautifully run private albergues is the La Cala Pilgrims Inn in Oia run by Tanya Valdes. Tanya is a lovely soul from the U.S. who moved to Spain, fulfilling a heart wish in serving pilgrims in her beautifully renovated albergue, overlooking the monastery in Oia.
The chilling effects of the pandemic
Having had to break off last year’s walk on the Via Francigena in Italy because of another lockdown, walking the Camino Portugues was the first longer walk since 2019. It was at times a chilly experience walking through the small villages where public notice boards bear portraits of locals who have died from Covid and bypassing dozens of closed pilgrims’ hostels, restaurants and curio shops.
Families in the local villages along the Camino route have for centuries earned their income from passing pilgrims and obviously many small businesses have not survived the pandemic. Some had invested all their funds in the expectation of a boom on the Camino for this year’s holy year.
The revival of the Camino pilgrimage in modern days can be largely attributed to Don Elías (1929-1989), the parish priest in O Cebreiro near Lugo. Up to the early 1980s only dozens of pilgrims at the most walked the Camino. But Don Elías had a dream that one day tens of thousands of pilgrims would again be walking the Camino. According to the story Don Elías drove across the whole north of Spain in his old Citroën packed with tins of yellow paint, marking arrows leading to Santiago.
We were very much aware that this year we were also walking the Camino on behalf of the many pilgrims from other countries who could not walk the path this year because of Covid-related travel restrictions. The Camino can become an addictive ritual and many walkers on the Camino have been doing it several times over. Many pilgrims, who have been unable to walk this year, have been reliving their past walks in the popular Camino forums and social media groups.
Arriving in Santiago
Arriving at the destination in Santiago is always a special occasion. The Cathedral can be seen in all its glory with most of exterior scaffolding removed after years of painstaking renovation work. The interior is especially stunning: Based on the candle-light from medieval times the naves, transept and the Pórtico de la Gloria have been fitted with new lighting. Social distancing still applies and the number of visitors are limited.
The journey begins after the journey
Every journey at some point has to end. You return home but you will not be the same person. A pilgrimage on the Camino takes months to digest. The real transformation begins at home. Life takes on a different meaning when you are in a different rhythm and feel connected to your higher-self. As Marcel Proust is quoted as saying: “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.”
Reino Gevers – Author – Mentor – Speaker