All across western Europe a network of ancient trails used by pilgrims for centuries are being re-discovered as a growing number of people are realising that taking a long walk is one of the best ways to get your stress level down.
During the Middle Ages it was common practise for at least one member of the family to walk by foot to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to pay homage to what is believed to be the burial place of St. James – one of the Apostles of Jesus. Many did not survive the hazards of disease, bandit attacks and other accidents.
Following a series of recent best-selling books on the Camino including “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho and “I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago” by the German entertainer Harpe Kerkeling, tens of thousands of people are again walking the Camino every year.
The main route, the Camino Frances, from Roncesvalles to Santiago is 737 kilometres long and will take the hiker several weeks to complete. The route is well signposted and the “peregrino” or hiker will find a pilgrims hostel in almost every village on the way where he/she can stay at a cheap price overnight. It is a far cry to the hazardous route from the days of yore.
After taking my first “small” 120 kilometre walk from Saria to Santiago several years ago I have literally become hooked to these ancient paths. Since then I have understood why many a wise teacher has pronounced that getting back into sync with nature “is your best healer”. Walking helps you find your natural rhythm, relaxes your breathing and has many other positive health effects.
On one of my longest trails lasting more than four weeks, which I walked with my good friend Tom, we took the more rugged Camino del Norte along the coast from Urquera to Santiago. It was an exhilarating experience, off the main route frequented by most other peregrinos. The landscape is spectacular with mountains, a rugged coastline and remote villages.
This year my wife Alyce, our Dalmatian dog Klara and I did a short stretch from St. Gallen to Einsiedeln in Switzerland. During the Middle Ages most pilgrims from northern Europe walked the same route, gathering at the famous monastery in Einsiedeln before commencing on the long route through France and Spain. Walking slowly by foot through a country makes you see so many things you would never see when travelling by car, bus, train or even bicycle.
After a long afternoon walk up an Alpine hill during summer temperatures of well over 30 degrees Celsius we found a hut next to the road and a fridge filled with cold drinks and ice cream. You merely put into a bottle the money for the drinks you consumed. I couldn’t help but wonder what such a gesture of trust in one’s fellow man would have meant in my home country South Africa with its spiralling crime rate. Camping sites in the Swiss Alps are spotlessly clean and equipped with all the necessary utensils with obviously no danger of theft and vandalism. People had warned us not to take a dog on the walk but we were positively surprised how accommodating and dog-friendly the Swiss really are.
True, Switzerland also has its problems, but somehow the Swiss for centuries have managed to stay on track with a grass roots democracy based on mutual tolerance for different religious, language and cultural affiliations with a broad consensus on this common value system. A general scepticism in big government is deeply embedded with the cantons or regions having wide legislative freedoms. The result: A healthy and vibrantly affluent society.