by Vince Winkel
“...no one needs to worry themselves about how long the walk takes. It shows that time, the concept of time, doesn’t matter.”
— Ann-Karin Tellefsen
It’s a very long walk, so let’s call it what it really is: a trek. Better yet, a pilgrimage. Known as the Camino de Santiago, this trek is a pilgrimage to the old cathedral within the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Why do hundreds of thousands of people walk to Santiago de Compostela each year? They started more than 1,200 years ago, when relics and the remains of the Apostle James (as in Saint James) were discovered in the cathedral. Ever since then people have trekked across northern Spain, and Europe, making the Camino the most famous pilgrimage in the world. Today it is more popular than ever.
“We have been talking about doing it for years. People come from all over,” explained Børge Tellefsen of Norway, who recently did the 500+ mile trek with his wife of 45 years Ann-Karin Tellefsen.
“We walked 35 days, but we took days off to see things. To see villages, explore medieval towns,” Ann-Karin said as she and her husband sat on a hillside above Lyons, Colorado.
“You are walking into and through history,” Børge added.
“You walk into churches, you light candles. We walked on old Roman roads where you can see how the wheels had dug into the rock. It is incredible. It is amazing. The buildings are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.”
They began their trek, as many do, near Spain’s border with France in the town of Irun, just south of the Bay of Biscay. The route then skirts the bay and the Atlantic Ocean as it goes east until it reaches the northwest tip of the country, and Santiago de Compostela. Markers in the shape of scallop shells mark the route and are a symbol of the Camino de Santiago (Camino is the Spanish word for road). The shells are seen on signs, posts, fences and in the roads along the route. The shell is even more commonly seen on the pilgrims themselves. Wearing a shell denotes that one is a traveler on the Camino de Santiago. But Børge pointed out that the people who live and work along the route would never let a pilgrim get lost. “Ordinary people help you all the time. They protect you, they help you, and it is wonderful. In all the villages,” he said. The walk for Børge and Ann-Karin took them across two mountain ranges, miles of plains and a whole lot of lush countryside in between. It weaves through fields, orchards and vineyards. Once in a while you cross a highway. Some days are spent exploring villages and towns. Other days the pilgrim finds him or herself in larger cities like Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. The one constant is the walking. “You think a lot. It’s something else. So different from the usual busy life you have. You start to think,” Børge said with a twinkle in his eye and a wide grin on his youthful face. He may be in his 60s, but he and Ann-Karin have the energy and inspiring enthusiasm of those far younger. “Yes, you wake up, and you walk!” Ann-Karin said with a laugh. The couple averaged between 10 and 20 miles a day.
Where to stay
As for accommodations, there are many options. There are small hotels and pensions in virtually every village and town — usually every six miles. However Børge and Ann-Karin made use of the more typical form of affordable housing for pilgrims. These are called albergues. They are basically hostels, or modest bunk-rooms, which are cheaply priced. “Yes, 20 people in a room, with lots of snoring,” Børge recalled.
For a Saint
According to tradition, Saint James, one of the twelve Apostles, was beheaded in the year 44 in Jerusalem during the Christian persecutions of King Herod Agrippa I. It’s widely accepted that after his death, Saint James’s remains were moved from Jerusalem to the northern coast of Spain where they were buried close to the ocean. But the exact location was a mystery until the year 814. For almost 800 years, no one was sure where he was. After the rediscovery of his relics in 814, pilgrimages to his tomb became extremely popular. Compostela even rivaled Jerusalem and Rome as a destination for pilgrim travelers during the Middle Ages. Routes by foot to Saint James’s shrine dotted all of Europe, marking the path to the tomb.
Børge and Ann-Karin traveled from their home in the northern tip of Norway, near the Russian border, for their adventure. The couple aren’t religious zealots, or on a search for the meaning of life. Rather it seemed they were looking for a trek to spend time with each other and themselves in a quiet, reflective setting. And they thrived on meeting so many people along the way.
“You will have and make very good friends like that,” Børge said. “And they tell you the story of why they are doing the Camino. I think the friendships we made are very special.”
“You really meet very interesting people,” Ann-Karin added. “They are from all over, and they all have different reasons for doing the trek.”
The couple carried everything they needed in their Red Fox backpacks, which were stuffed with Red Fox apparel and rain gear. Everything functioned perfectly. “The backpack is so important. It has to fit you just right,” Børge said. “The Red Fox packs, and the rain gear we had, all excellent. If you walk 20 miles a day for 30 or 40 days, it needs to fit well.”
“We shut off the world on this trek,” he pointed out. “We don’t check emails, don’t do texting. WiFi was just not important.”
The couple witnessed a lot of emotion during the pilgrimage from people of all walks of life. “There was this one girl from Poland. She was very tired, and she had a huge backpack, so we helped her to adjust it because I know about backpacks,” Børge recalled.
“When she came into that church in the town of Bilbao, she was down on her knees directly, right away to pray. With her hands up, she wept. She was like that for the whole mass. The respect she has for God, it was incredible, she had a lot of feelings.”
Last year an estimated 262,000 people made the pilgrimage across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, with countless others arriving to the city from other directions. For Børge and Ann-Karin, who have shared the story of their trek with their two children and seven grandchildren, they are planning the next pilgrimage. The destination will remain the same, but they will start from the south in Portugal.
“I think everyone can make the long trek, if they have the will. If they really want to do it. And if they take the time they need. Because it is so different.” Ann-Karin also said no one needs to worry themselves about how long the walk takes.
“It shows that time, the concept of time, it doesn’t matter,” she said with a smile.
For more information about the Camino trail, simply Google “Camino de Santiago”
Don’t forget the 10 Essentials:
We don’t care if it’s one mile or five …
- Navigation (map & compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candle)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag)