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The Camino de Santiago: not just a walk

Donnellys Camino de Santiago

Over June/July in Europe, brothers Matthew and Joseph Donnelly (along with their mother) spent 10 days walking from Porto in Portugal to Santiago in Spain. And no, they weren’t experiencing a bout of crazy – they were walking the Camino de Santiago.

Called ‘The Way of St James’ in English, the Camino is an ancient Catholic pilgrimage. The well-known collection of routes end up in the city of Santiago de Compostela, which is believed to be where the bones of the apostle James are buried. However these days the ‘pilgrims’ are religious and non-religious alike, each with a different motivation for embarking on the journey – and there are movies based around the walk to prove it.

The Donnelly boys’ initial motivation, however? Their mum.

“The funny thing is, Mum dragged us into it,” said Joseph. “That probably sounds pretty bad but it was really good… I always thought it was just a walk that you did, but after doing it, it’s a lot more than that.”

“First and foremost it was a pilgrimage, so it was spiritual,” said Matthew. “For me personally, it was getting away from your day-to-day life. We were walking like five or six hours a day, so…you’re disconnected from everything, which allows you to reflect on things. Without all the distractions of day-to-day life, you really look inside yourself, and look at where you’ve come from and where you’re going, I guess.”

The daily routine started with a 5:30am or 6am wake-up before an hour or so of walking (“I didn’t really expect it to be so picturesque,” said Joseph). Next would be a breakfast stop – either with pre-packed food, or at a cafe along the way.  They then tried to get the bulk of the day’s walking done by around 2pm, since it was fairly hot with temperatures averaging around 30 degrees Celsius.

After a lunch at their new location, they’d relax in the afternoon or explore the place before settling in at their hostel for the night. The Camino has plenty of hostels along the way for pilgrims; very cheap to stay at but well looked after. The boys sensed that the people who ran them felt a kind of spiritual responsibility to help the pilgrims – and there were certainly a lot of pilgrims, from far and wide.

“I didn’t expect to meet so many different people… from all over the world,” said Matthew. “And I guess a different range of people…from all different walks of life, and who have different motivations for doing the Camino. And I didn’t really expect how close you’d get to those other people… You learn a lot about other people.”

“There was one guy I met who walked all the way from Poland to Spain, and he’d been walking because his wife had died,” continued Matthew. “To be very abrupt about it, people were either doing it with their families, or they were doing it because something had happened in their lives, like their partner had died, or they’d got a divorce or something like that… for healing, getting away from everything… A lot of people that did it, I guess, were motivated by something that had happened in their lives, like a major event.”

The boys and their mother walked an average of 23 kilometres per day, with their longest day being 34 kilometres. Tough at times, it’s not unattainable for the average person, especially since walkers can set their own pace. There were quite a few pilgrims aged 60 and over!

“People kind of make it out to be really hard but if you’re with another person, I reckon it makes it a lot easier. People of average fitness could definitely do it,” said Joseph. “Some parts can be really tough; you need to pull each other through some days.”

So what did the boys get out of it?

“I think the biggest thing that I learnt or got out of it was the importance of reflection or taking time out each day.” said Matthew. “For me personally, I’m a Catholic, so I try and do prayer every day. But even for those people who aren’t religious – just taking time out to reflect…  As I said before, over 10 days, you’re quite cut off from day-to-day distractions. And the result of that, I felt while I was over there, was that I became more aware. Of my motivations for things, my strengths, my weaknesses, what I wanted, and where I want to go in my life.”

“And coming back home, one thing I’ve decided to do is take that time out every day to disconnect…from social media, my computer, whatever. Cut that out for half an hour to reflect on things, and I think it brings real clarity to each day, and you become more motivated and clear in what you want to do.”

Joseph had a similar reaction: “I guess I learnt a lot of things about myself… like how I’m going to motivate myself, especially through university this semester.” And also: “It’s a real bonding experience, especially if you do it with your family.”

They wouldn’t change how they did it, but both Matthew and Joseph said they’d enjoy doing it again by themselves: to amplify the sense of reflection, learn more about themselves, and make deeper connections with other pilgrims.

And would they recommend it?

“Yes, yes, definitely, 100%,” said Matthew. “It’s worth it. If you’re a Catholic or not a Catholic – religious or non-religious.”

“I’ve already recommended it to a couple of my friends,” said Joseph. “I seriously think it’s something that a lot of people should do at least once.”