Remembering The Camino 1 Year Later

Vezelay. Tannay. Varzy. La Charite-sur-Loire. Bourges. Saint Amand-Montrond. These are the names of the first 6 places that I walked through on the Camino de Santiago.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been exactly a year since I walked down a short flight of stairs past a man playing the bagpipes and emerged into the square in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. I wrote my Camino retrospective at a churreria not too far down the street in the old quarter of the city, sipping on hot chocolate. If my thoughts then had any sort of tangible weight, I confess that they were probably too elusive to capture in written form—there seems to be a greater significance to the Camino just beyond what words can express.

As a way to deal with the nostalgia of the Camino I have since followed a few blogs here and there by pilgrims undertaking the walk. My favorite is one written by Nadine, who finished the Camino just over 2 months ago. Already she notes how there is a blurring about the edges—which brings me back to those towns I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

A mental exercise I used to conjure up when I was particularly bored—I didn’t have an iPod or much company to distract me, especially during the first 4 weeks through France—involved reciting in chronological order the names of all the towns I had spent the night in. To challenge myself more I would also try to recall the names of places that I walked through or took a break in; dots on the map that are invisible in my pilgrim’s passport such as Chateauneuf-val-de-Bargis, Thiviers, and La Reole.

By the last few weeks of the Camino it took 30 or 40 minutes to remember these places—700 miles of roads reduced to the bare minutia of names that were brittle like bones of a fish. After finishing the Camino I still thought about it almost every day—that still doesn’t change—but lately it has been many months since the last time I seriously wracked my brain for the names and I can’t get past day 6 without forgetting a village here or there.

I suppose remembering this pivotal moment in my life works the same way that it does when I think about a girl I used to love. Time does not erase her name or the strongest feelings that well up when I hear a certain song or when the wind blows a certain way, but time does blur the edges of her face. The very smallest things—the crinkling around her eyes when she laughed or the light film of hair on her legs when I brushed against them—tend to become lost. So it goes with the infinitesimally precious details of my walk through France and Spain; I can still tell you about the big moments and probably always will. But the memories that occupy the deep strata of my consciousness—events as quotidian as washing clothes, or towns that I walked through—will eventually fade away. And yet as I observed a year ago, perhaps the sum of all the hours and days that I walked was the meaning behind why I walked, just as the impression I am left with today is not necessarily defined by the big moments and people I remember but by the unconscious accumulation of countless small memories gathered like dust on the thousand miles I walked between Vezelay and Santiago de Compostela.

Vezelay. Tannay. Varzy. La Charite-sur-Loire. Bourges. Saint Amand-Montrond. And on, and on, and on.

Road to Fontenay

Path into light

More Asphalt.

Into the Mist

Arboreal Tunnel

Further Up, Further In

The wet road to Orthez

Saint Palais

Welcome to Spain

Back onto the road

Tangerine sunrise, outside of Los Arcos

Racing the clouds to shelter

Approaching Castrojeriz

Entering La Meseta

Ponferrada below, Galicia on the other side

Precipice of clouds

A Vineyard in Bierzo

Peaking

First sight of the cathedral

But you know what? It’s hardly the road that I walked which I remember or recall with much fondness. My journey on the Camino and in the year since has been defined not by the places I go to, but by the people I meet. There you go, readers: that’s the meaning of the Camino, boiled down to fortune cookie size.

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25 thoughts on “Remembering The Camino 1 Year Later

  1. I think that this is how memory works in general. I’m now 3 months in to living abroad and already certain aspects of my life in the US from this last year are blurred. I know that next year, when I move again, the same thing will happen.

      1. No worries! I’m currently living in Tunja, Colombia. Which is northeast of Bogotá. Next year, after I finish my grant period here, I move back to Atlanta, Georgia to finish my degree.

      2. I’m on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship which is a 10-month grant given by the U.S. State Department. I teach English as a foreign language at a university here in Tunja.

        I am working towards an M.A. in Applied Linguistics: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. This year is not an official part of my program, but the work is similar to what I will do when I begin to work after graduation. It’s a good experience because it allows me to travel but it is also reassuring me that I actually want to be a teacher.

    1. Hmm….there’s gonna be snow, so I don’t know how you feel about the Pyrenees. St. Jean Pied de Port, the first stop for a lot of Camino walkers, is super picturesque. I can’t imagine what it would be like with snow–gorgeous, I bet. Also, Toulouse–have you been there? It’s one of my favorite cities in France.

      If you’re going to the Atlantic side of hte border you might consider Biarritz, but I had bad luck when I was there last winter and it mostly rained. San Sebastian isn’t so far across the border and it’s my favorite place in Spain–the cuisine is out of this world.

      1. I’m from Chicago–I can deal with snow, and it’s pretty too. Yes, I’ve been to Toulouse and loved it, esp. the cathedral. I think we will go to St. Jean Pied de Port, but I had an idea that Biarritz is more of a rich people resort–true? If so, not my scene. Thanks for the feedback!

      2. Toulouse is lovely, St Sernin is one of my favorite! Also true that Biarritz is a posh place but you can check out Bayonne, which is medieval and a bit less snobbish. Also, near the Franco-Spanish border is San Sebastian! You MUST go there for the gastronomy–it’s the shit, plain and simple.;

      1. If I wasn’t planning on being in Israel in Feb. I would totally love to meet you somewhere in france–alas

        I’m going to be doing a bit of travel in E Europe/the former Yugoslavia starting mid-November, so there’s a chance I will make it to Romania. We’ll see!

  2. This is such a beautiful post- even though I’m only a few months out from my Camino, I felt like I could have written some of these thoughts (and yet, not really, because what you expressed was done so beautifully that I don’t think anything I could have written would have compared). I’m still mulling over the line- “perhaps the sum of all the days and hours I walked was the meaning behind why I walked”. And the people, of course. More and more I see this to be true for me; I went for myself, but it was what I learned through time in company with others, and the joy I found with others… that’s what’s lingering the most.

    1. Hey Nadine, don’t knock your own writing–I love reading your posts. You have your own way of expressing yourself and it’s great!

      As for the people, I agree–we all do the Camino for ourselves, but we learn so much about ourselves by being with others. A beautiful paradox.

    1. Hey man, thanks for sharing your poem! I didn’t really get much out of visiting the cathedral; perhaps this is because I am an agnostic Jew, but also because it felt more like a tourist trap than a place of worship (for the same reason that Notre Dame in Paris gives me no sensation either). I’m glad it touched you though! At some point you should definitely walk the Camino. Since you mention Northern Spain, have you been to the Basque Country? One of my favorite places in all of Europe is San Sebastian!

      1. Hey, my pleasure man. Yeah I completely know where you’re coming from about these places being a tourist trap. But honestly, even though there were indeed loads of tourists (myself included), for me at least, the specialness of the place seemed to cut through that. For me also it’s not the ‘religious’ side if things that makes the place special, but all the people with all their individual reasons and journeys for being there. Oh man I LOVE the Basque country. Spent a bit of time in Bilbao, Guernica and of course San Sebastian. What a beautiful place!

  3. I walked the Camino in May. Soon it will be 6 months. Yet, I can’t get over it. Every day I walk those roads over and over again. In my dreams I must have reached Santiago a million times. Every night the Camino brings me comfort. Sometimes I wonder: should I go back? Or should I cherish those unique memories?

    1. Well this answers my question! I was wondering how long it had been since you walked.

      It’s now been 3 years since I made it to Santiago. Sometimes I will not think about it for a week, but then some small thing reminds me of it. And there were lessons which I learned which still help me and I imagine will always stay with me.

      Can I still recite the name of each town in France and Spain I slept in for the duration of those 9 weeks? No. But that isn’t really what’s important.

      I’m sure you’ve met fellow pilgrims who say that you should walk it again, and others who have not. Here’s my two cents:

      The Camino is such a powerful, transformative experience. It’s not just something you should do because you miss it. I look at it now like a fire extinguisher — break glass in case of emergency. I might do it when my dad dies or something very monumental happens to me. Otherwise I won’t be walking it again. Just my thoughts about it 🙂

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