When I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago alone at age 71, it was on a whim. A year and a half earlier, I had had a hip replacement, but felt that I had become complacent in a comfortable retirement, and needed to shake up my life. And that’s what I did.
I knew walking a Camino wouldn’t be easy or pain-free. Then, On my third day of walking, an injury on the trail threatened my ability to finish my adventure. It would be more difficult and demanding than I ever imagined, forcing me to reach beyond physical pain and endurance, battle self-doubts, and draw from a spirit within me to finish the walk all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Along the way, I discover unexpected feelings and surprising emotions.
When I was in an early stage of writing, a friend commented “I felt like I was walking with you, walking by your side.” That comment inspired the book’s title and a promise to the reader to maintain that feeling throughout the journey.
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Discovering the Camino
This book is about my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage at the ripe young age of seventy-one. The Camino is a pilgrimage that traditionally Catholics from all over the world undertake to the purported burial site of St. James at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish autonomous region, Galicia. I say purported because there are historians who speculate that the person buried beneath the altar at the Cathedral might be another person.
Regardless, in 1879, Pope Leo XIII officially declared the cathedral the burial site of St. James when a skull fragment from the remains in Santiago exactly matched a hole in the beheaded skull of St. James in Tuscany.
Santiago is the third most holy site in the Catholic religion after Jerusalem and Rome. And millions of people, including kings, queens, and popes have been making pilgrimages to it for centuries. There are numerous routes to the holy place. They follow age-old paths and modern highways from all over Europe. Most people only know about the Camino Frances which crosses the Pyrenees, and meanders across northern Spain for almost 800 kilometers (500 miles). In Spain alone, there are numerous others some of which are called the English, Northern, Primitivo, Portugues, and the Via de la Plata which stretches all the way from Seville in southern Spain.
A 2010 movie called “The Way,” took place on the Camino Frances, and it inspired a new generation of pilgrims to make the trek. The Camino is no longer solely a religious endeavor. Participation on pilgrimages has mushroomed to hundreds of thousands of people every year.
About 42% of them claim to walk the Camino for religious reasons; 10% for no religious reason at all. The rest fall into a broad category that includes religious and “other” reasons.
I would put myself in the group that had no religious intent. While I experienced a certain spirituality, especially towards the end of my pilgrimage, I could never claim that I was actively seeking it when I started.
Having lived in the Boston area for more than forty years, the annual running of the Boston Marathon always fascinated me. At times, I even pondered running in it. But, in all my years, I never thought about walking the Camino de Santiago. After all, I’m not Catholic. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know about it until a few years before.
When I started researching the Camino, I wasn’t sure which of the many routes would be best for me given my age and physical condition. Eventually, I chose to walk the Camino Portugues, the second most walked pilgrimage route. It starts in Lisbon, and splits into the inland and coastal routes north of Porto. In its entirety, it is 616 kilometers (385 miles)
Because of my hip replacement, I specifically chose a 100 mile (160 km) segment of the coastal route, primarily because it had gentler elevations and seemed as though it would be easier. I planned a moderate pace averaging 10 to 12 miles a day, and built in two days of rest. The object was to get from point A to point B without killing myself. And, being retired, I had no time constraints on my adventure.
My route started in the seaside town of A Guarda at the Portuguese border with Spain and followed the Atlantic coast to the city of Vigo. From there, the coastal route heads inland. At a town called Redondela, the coastal route rejoins the inland route and proceeds to Santiago.
My Camino plans involved not just walking. I wanted my Camino experience to be about the things I discovered along the way. I walked close to the land, the people, the culture, and…the food. Part of my Camino experience included trying the different foods of the places I visited. What better way to learn about the areas I traversed than experiencing their gustatory delights.
However, the journey became more than the physical distance, terrain, and the places I visited. I started the journey with no particular reason for walking the Camino other than the challenge. The challenges that presented themselves on the way, however, transformed the experience in unexpected ways that I only realized near the end of my Camino.
This book is as much a travel narrative as it is a memoir of my Camino experience. It is not a “how-to” about how to plan and walk a Camino. Although, if you are planning to do one, you will find a lot of useful information related throughout the narrative. I didn’t take many photos, but hope this book turns an old adage on its head. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can express so much more than any picture can. This book is about what I experienced.
So join me now and walk by my side as we start our journey from Mexico to Santiago.
John Comando is retired and living in Mexico. He loves to travel. In autumn, 2018, he walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Walk by My Side, a travel memoir, is about that journey and is his first book. He has studied in Spain, adopted children in South America, built houses for Habitat for Humanity, and traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America. For a living John spent 35 years in high-tech marketing, most recently as an independent consultant. Among other things, he ghost wrote dozens of articles bylined by executives that appeared in trade publications in a number of industries. John is also a former winemaker and owned a boutique winery. For fun, John cooks, blogs, writes articles for a local newspaper, as well as short stories and essays, and sings at open mics and karaoke.