Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is not your typical vacation, but a pilgrimage across Spain with several points of origin all over Europe. It has been an important Christian pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years.
The final destination of the pilgrimage is the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern part of Spain where the apostle St. James the Great is said to be laid to rest.
I first learned about this pilgrimage about four years ago and knew instantly that it was something I wanted to do. Hiking for a month by myself for over 350 miles, in a foreign country (I know only a few words of Spanish), with only a backpack: It sounded exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
My journey began on Sept. 28. I flew from Champaign to Barcelona, and after an attempted night's rest at the Barcelona Hilton, I took a three-hour train ride to Pamplona.
Pamplona is a city along the Camino Frances (the French Way), the most popular route taken by pilgrims (all those walking the Camino are called "pilgrims"). I'm a bit directionally challenged, so naturally my husband was very concerned about me finding my way across a foreign country (not to mention my safety). As far as safety goes, I was never even the slightest bit concerned.
Directions? Well, I did get lost a couple of times, but that was only because I was not paying careful attention. The Camino is very well-marked with either a yellow arrow or shell symbol.
Sometimes the marking was on a sign, but more often it was painted on a rock, tree or pavement. If I was unsure at any point along the way, I simply asked someone, and they always knew the way. I didn't always understand their Spanish, but between the few words I knew and their hand gestures, I always ended up on the right path.
Each day, I covered from 8 to 20 miles depending on the terrain that day. On most days, I finished walking by 3 in the afternoon and stayed at an Albergue (refuge) available only to pilgrims walking the Camino for anywhere from $5 to $14 per night.
The local restaurants offered a pilgrim's menu, usually a three-course meal with a bottle of wine for about $15. Many evenings, I opted to buy fresh fish or pasta from a local market and cook my own meal if the Albergue was equipped with a kitchen (most were).
Not only did I see amazing scenery on a daily basis, but I also met many wonderful and interesting people from all over the world, some of whom I still keep in touch with.
The pilgrimage was a month of reflection, solitude (no iPod or cell phone) and peace. I came to my journey's end on Oct. 25 with a mix of sadness and elation. Sadness because my journey was ending, but elation in what I had accomplished.
The blog of my journey can be found at http://terri-spain-adventure.blogspot.com/.
Terri Decker lives in Champaign with her husband, Mark. Two of her four children still live at home. She runs a machine quilting business from her home. She also enjoys hiking, biking, swimming and being outdoors.