The adventures of Hadrian: El Camino de Santiago

Hadrian Sammut, Chief Officer of Advisory and Projects at iMovo, recently completed the Camino de Santiago and we took the opportunity to ask him some questions. This interview highlights his motivations and preparations (if at all) for the trip, the peaks and valleys of the walk, and his plans for future adventures – when he recovers from this one, that is.  

What inspired you to do the Camino?

I have to admit, but just before I saw the Emilio Estevez’s 2010 movie ‘The Way I had never heard of the Way of St. James (the ‘Camino de Santiago’). The film was unquestionably inspirational and initiated my burgeoning interest in someday following this medieval pilgrimage route; less for the devout and pious qualities as much as the amazing scenery depicted in the film.

If a seventy-year-old actor could complete the Camino without apparently ever breaking into a sweat or getting out of breath, then by sheer inference, how difficult could it be?  To my dismay, I was soon to discover that life does not always imitate art.

Which route did you choose?

When, together with my pilgrimage companions, we commenced the necessary planning, we discovered that there are various routes towards the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela; the movie ‘The Way’ depicted the French Way (the ‘Camino Frances) which extends from the village of St Jean Pied de Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees into Spain, towards Santiago de Compostela – a journey of around 770 kilometres that typically extends over forty days.  That was far more days than I could afford away.

So how much did you actually walk?

We soon discovered that the shortest possible route, and inevitably the most popular, is the latter section of the ‘Camino Frances,’ that runs from the town of Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, a distance of around 125 kilometres.  We decided to follow this five-day route because it not only winds across some of the most scenic stretches of Spain’s Galicia region – across vast tracts of eucalyptus trees, pine forests and beautiful granaries (‘hórreos) – but is also recognised as deserving the much-coveted and official accreditation certificate (the ‘compostela’) confirming the completion of the pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James.

How did you prepare?

Ashamedly, I have to admit that other than the odd one-hour walk across the countryside around my home, I did not tangibly prepare at all.  In my mind, a daily walk of around twenty-five kilometres did not appear to be that arduous and demanding.  In hindsight, I should definitely have prepared better.  Every new blister and reddish area of chafed skin suffered during the walk were, in a way, an indictment to this lack of preparation.

Surprisingly though, I did not suffer too much from sore muscles, possibly because my walking companions and I never missed the opportunity to stop at practically every café, in every hamlet, on every leg of the journey.  By the end of the pilgrimage, we quipped, our respective pilgrim passports (the ‘credencial’), stamped at various stops along the way, could be collectively used as an up-to-date catalogue of every countryside café between Sarria and Santiago de Compostela.

What was the best and worst part of the walk?

Undoubtedly, the first hour every morning, when it would still be chilly and cold, was my favourite part of the day.  I would be all enthusiastic and eager for the long stroll ahead.  Moreover, the knowledge that by the end of the day I would be one day closer to Santiago was motivation enough.

Mornings also brought that all-too-brief fascination of watching the hazy and ghostly outlines of relatively fast-paced, overtaking, pilgrims, as they hastened ahead into the still-dark woods, increasingly shrouded and then disappearing into the early morning mist.

Needless to say, the other highpoint of every morning tended to be the initial coffee, in the first café encountered soon after departure.  Even had it been unadulterated ersatz, out in the open, coffee never tasted so good – and the fresh farmstead crème brûlée (yes! seriously!) was good enough to kill for.

The lowest point of the day tended to be the moment when, as a group, we would perceive the day’s journey’s end only to then discover yet another uphill climb, or another twist in the road or, worse still, to pass some half-hidden boundary-marker (‘mojón) and discover that we were still some two or three kilometres away from the stage’s end-point.  We soon designated this daily, brief, phase as ‘grumpy time,’ customarily characterised by some best-overlooked and bad-tempered retorts with faint and subtle hints at the dreaded T-word; ‘taxi.’  Thankfully, the latter never materialised.

What was your main motivation during the walk?

All pilgrims are invited to decide upon the main reason for doing the Camino.  There are those who do it for religious or spiritual reasons and some as a personal challenge.  Some pilgrims do the Camino to beseech St James for miracles; from a cure to some ailment right to the somehow sacrilegious; such as imploring the Saint for the English Premier League title to finally – some would say implausibly – go to the red part of Merseyside.

I firmly believe that whichever reason one opts for, this is very much a personal decision made and retained within one’s own heart.  However, it would be rather difficult for anyone to maintain a degree of motivation over five grueling days without a strongly-held objective or intent.

Do you have any plans for future walks or pilgrimages?

Having done the final stages of the Camino Frances, I am starting to garner a flickering degree of interest in someday doing the whole length of this same Camino, from France all the way to Santiago de Compostela.  Who knows, maybe it may help me discern that I am not as indispensable as I may conceitedly believe.

What did you learn from It?

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum.  Similarly, it appears, Western culture abhors silence.  We are all the time seeking ways to create noise around us. No wonder we are regularly plugged into our telephone or music source. Ironically, at a time when we most often need it, silence is often treated as a nuisance best avoided; somehow and anyhow.  And the Camino provides a relatively rare opportunity to go ‘off-the-grid’ and enjoy the lost sentiment of silence.

It does not take long to discover that in truth one is often not avoiding silence as much as avoiding meeting one’s self.  At a time of intense social networking, when anyone is just a message away, we tend to avoid encountering ourselves more than anyone else.

Paradoxically, it is as one walks hurriedly across the Camino that one manages to simultaneously slow down the oft-hectic lifestyle and everyday routine that we all appear to have readily (and sometimes rather eagerly) adopted.  And it is often in that very slowdown that one can look introspectively and reflect on what that inner self wishes to convey.

What advice would you give to someone interested in doing the Camino De Santiago?

Go for it.  It is a memorable experience.  Buen camino.

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