The Road to Santiago

I first heard the call to walk the Camino de Santiago back in 2007. Ever since then, and especially during hard times in my life when I find myself questioning my future, my mind always wanders back to this route and the desire to walk it is stirred anew.

I know I mentioned the Camino previously, but I can’t recall if I’ve ever wrote about why I wanted to do it. It’s numero uno on my bucket list, and has been since my grandmother’s passing.

My family had the tough decision of having to admit Philomena to an old aged home because of the severity of her Alzheimer’s. In the time that she was there her condition worsened, and eventually the natural feistiness found in the D’Ornellas gene reeled its head. In August of 2007 she ended up in hospital because she broke her hip — she decided she no longer wanted to sit at the lunch table in her wheel chair and tried to leave on her own. She fell, her hip broke, and faster than I could have imagined she was on her death-bed, fighting to recover from the hip replacement surgery.

The week that elapsed between her accident and her death is a total blur to me. Gran had always been our matriarch. She was the foundation upon which my mother’s family — the only family I have ever known — was based upon. She instilled in me faith, love, and acceptance (she once noticed the huge tattoo I have on my back and simply laughed, asking me what “the writing” meant).

To this day I feel lost without my grandmother. In times of emotional need, I find myself longing for her comfort; if I’m ever struggling at decorating a cupcake or layering the tiers of a cake, I find myself asking for her guidance, seeing how she was a master cake decorator and used to teach me as a child; when I got married I wore a locket with her picture in it, as well as her wedding band; now that I’m trying to make sense of my life post-separation, I dream about her, and try to decipher the messages that she relays to me in dreams.

During that week of limbo when we didn’t know if she was going to live or die, I did a lot of soul-searching, and I have to admit, a lot of drinking. This woman was my rock; she was my foundation, and my foundation was crumbling.

I remember I was up late one night. I couldn’t sleep so I took to the Internet to try to woo some dreams. I honestly couldn’t tell you how, or the order of which I came across it, but during that night I found out two things:

1. Saint Philomena, my Gran’s namesake, was a Greek princess who was martyred at the young age of thirteen (sometime between 284 and 305 AD). Her tomb wasn’t discovered until 1802 in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. She was eventually venerated in 1837 and allotted the feast day of August 11. It was maybe August 9 or 10 when I found this out. Don’t ask me how, but after this I knew Gran was dying. On August 11 I got the call, and in the early hours of August 12 my dear, loving, saint of a grandmother finally succumbed to her illness and her wounds and physically left this earth.

2. There is a pilgrimage route along the north of Spain called The Way of St. James (or El Camino de Santiago in Spanish). James (the Great), was an Apostle of Jesus and is considered to be the first Apostle to be martyred. According to legend his remains lie in Santiago de Compostela, being miraculously transferred to the Galicia region of Spain by boat after his beheading by King Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His tomb was later discovered in “The Field of Stars”, and the pilgrimage route to his final resting place of Santiago has now been followed since Medieval times and is the third largest pilgrimage in Catholicism, only behind Jerusalem and Rome. There are variations on this route, but the most travelled, known as the Camino Francés, begins in the Pyrenees and runs along the north like a major artery to James’ resting place of Santiago.

Now, I’m not the most pious Catholic. I was baptised, but aside from that I have not gone through the other rites required by the Catholic Church to be deemed a full Catholic. Despite this, and because of my grandmother, I still consider myself a follower of this faith.

During her lifetime Gran had gone on many pilgrimages. She’d often bring back rosary or other relics, some of which I still cherish to this day. During the week that I knew her imminent death was approaching, I vowed to myself that I’d walk the Camino in her honour. I’d never heard of this route prior to her death, yet in the days leading up to her demise, it found me. That was six years ago.

Call it laziness, call it getting caught up in one’s own life, call it what you will, but I have yet to walk the Camino.  The route in its entirety is close to eight hundred kilometers long. If one were to walk the entire Camino Francés, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees of France to Santiago in Spain, it would take an average of four to six weeks, depending on how much is walked per day. I have a full-time job as well as a part-time job on weekends — six weeks off work is not an option.

I’m going to admit that during the past few days I’ve gone through a lot emotionally. I’m not going to go into detail about what happened, but I will say this — the call of the Camino has become so strong during this time that I cannot ignore it any longer. Friday night I was alone in my apartment, enjoying some bevies to try to ease the pain of the past few days, when my eyes were drawn towards a particular area of my travel-dedicated bookshelf.


Yes, I’ve amassed enough of a collection of books dedicated to the Camino that it requires its own shelf.

I initially stated on my bucket list that I wanted to complete this task in my thirtieth year. That just so happens to be 2014. I also stated that I wanted to walk the route in its entirety. Alas, I don’t think this would ever be an option for me, unless I’m out of work or retired, so I have come up with a compromise.

In order to obtain a compostela, a certificate issued by the city of Santiago de Compostela stating that you’ve completed your pilgrimage, you have to walk at least the last one hundred kilometers of the route. Doing this would only take about four days. To me, that’s not enough.

For the past few years I’ve been eyeing the city of León as a possible starting point for my own personal pilgrimage. León is approximately three hundred kilometers outside of Santiago. By walking an average of twenty-five to thirty kilometers a day, I’ll be able to finish my pilgrimage in two solid weeks. My ultimate goal would be to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on the day of my thirtieth birthday, March 21st.

I’ll be entirely alone, footing the trail, following in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of peregrinos who have hiked the route before me. At this point in my life it feels like I can no longer delay my pilgrimage and the time has come for me to finally fulfill the vow I took six years ago.

To arrive in Santiago by my birthday I would most likely have to leave Toronto on the evening of March 5. This would allow for flight time, a transfer between Madrid and León, and an evening in León before my hike begins. March 5 is about four months away. This is frankly a wee bit terrifying.

I’ve been researching this hike since I first found out about it. Some of my books, in particular Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off, Then, have been read so many times that they look beat up. I could draw out the route on a map, and I’ve memorized a number of the cities and towns along the way. However, being a geek and reading a library’s worth of books on a topic doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the physical toils of it.

I’d be hiking for about eight hours a day with a twenty pound backpack. I’d be alone in a foreign country, sleeping in pilgrim’s hostels with dozens of other hikers. To save on backpack weight I’d be living out of minimal clothing, most likely having to wash my clothes every night.

None of this particularly scares me, except I may not have enough time to prepare myself physically. Gym membership beginning November 1st? Might be a necessity.

So I’m putting it out there that this will most likely be my next trip. I have a lot of planning and budgeting to do in order to determine if it’s actually an option, so that will be my homework for the next few days. If this hike becomes a reality it will, by far, be my biggest trip to date. It’ll definitely make for some good writing, though.

I think completing the Camino on my thirtieth birthday would be the best birthday present I could ever give myself. I don’t even care that I’d be alone. I’d be in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, attending the Pilgrim’s Mass, witnessing the rite of the botafumeiro. I personally think this would be an epic way to celebrate.


2 thoughts on “The Road to Santiago

  1. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: My First Camino Post | Meandering Mac

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