Why not Annapurna or Machu Pichu? Why always the ‘same old’ Camino? A question carried with an almost sigh, a question so often asked of me, me of nine Caminos. And to answer the question, not an answer, but a few sentences of story. Stories whose source, is not found in bustle of Saint Jean Pied du Port at the start of the Camino Frances, or in the bagpipes and sea of backpacks in the Praza De Obradioro in Santiago de Compostela. Rather a source, subtle and silent, like the hidden depths of a slow snaking stream, the source, the modest village of Castrojeriz. A village at the heart of the meseta – the dusty brown prairie midway along the Camino, a place loved, hated, bicycled through, or simply bypassed by many a pilgrim.
For me however, the meseta with its wide expanses of brown flatness offer breath and a stillness of being, beckons one into the furthest reaches of oneself and one’s soul. And the village of Castrojeriz, for me, invites not just a wandering into the place of the soul, but into the territory of the spirit, towards one’s spirituality – the place of our deepest connectedness, to significance, to what really matters. An invitation extended through the Hospital del Alma, the ‘Hospital of the Soul’, a sanctuary of spirit that the village gives home to, directly at its centre, directly along the path. A sanctuary somehow unseen or unstepped into by many pilgrims in their impatience to be done with the meseta, a sanctuary at which I have lingered long and been offered gentle lessons on my fourth and seventh Caminos.
18 July 2016, and I was led by my senses into the Hospital del Alma, by the smell of incense and sound of beautiful chanting. In a Camino which for so many, me included in my ‘early years’, is about speed, distance and achievement, this sanctuary stands in still and quiet contrast. A place in which kilometres, start and end points do not matter; and where being fully in the moment is all that does. It is a place of two incredibly ‘grace-full’ souls – Mau, an Italian man who has been a Camino pilgrim for 20 years, and Nia, a Spanish photographer and artist who met Mau during her first Camino in 2007. Nia felt called to photograph the journey, and whose pictures resulted in an exhibition displayed on the walls of the ‘hospital’. The project, as they refer to it, is entitled ‘Chasing our Shadows’ and originated in their observation that “the way in which we walk is but an external expression of our internal state, an extension of our daily activity“.
It is difficult to find the words to describe how it felt to experience the photographs – of being timelessly immersed in the beauty and simplicity of each picture. After standing silent and still, yet deeply moved, for a long time, I needed to step back onto the practical path, but how much I wanted to take with me, something from this beautiful place. That something turned out to be a small booklet in which the photos and texts had been reproduced, and although it would mean carrying an additional item, I tucked one into the safest pocket of my backpack, in return for a donativo.
On leaving, I explained to Nia, that on each of my previous Caminos I had brought a reading book with me. That this was the first time I had come without one, and now I had a book, my book for the Camino. As I struggled through my emotions, to give voice to my last words, Nia stepped lightly towards me, wrapped her arms around me, and held me, a complete stranger, in the most incredibly gentle and compassionate embrace. Seen and sensed, I truly had been treated at the ‘Hospital of the Soul’.
A return to Castrojeriz. 16 August 2016. A day that started after only about four hours of bad sleep, of having gone to bed way too late, and waking even before the rustling of packets, a pilgrim ‘signature tune’, that started at 4h30. The sunrise brought a gentle and patchy colouring-in of the sky, that made for a lovely walk past the 14th century convent of San Anton before I reached Castrojeriz, then paused at the Hospital del Alma.
This time, I met Mau, who has dedicated his life to “pilgrimage and learning”. There are many signs in the Hospital asking pilgrims to respect the ‘silencio‘, but more so than the signs, the energy of the Hospital itself, asks you to slow down and “go quietly amid the noise and haste” of the path. While I was being washed over by the words and way of the Hospital, another pilgrim came in and trudged around in her heavy boots, with her backpack still on her back. Mau, who resembles something from the Wizard of Oz, said: “take off the pack, you are not on the path here”. Words, seemingly simple and stating the obvious, but a far deeper underlying invitation to pause for thought. Because how often in life, do we step without care or consciousness, and not take the time to reflect, to recognise what path we may be on and what this path might require of us? We trudge along, closed off to possibilities that we cannot see or feel, because of the habit and weight of what we carry in our backpacks of life.
So to return to my starting question of why I continue to walk this Way, and not other ways, it is because for me, there is no teacher that is at the same time, more fierce and more compassionate than the Camino de Santiago. A teacher that calls its learners to walk lightly in their judgements, opinions, and assumptions, yet firmly in their flexibility, curiosity, and wonder, to hold and embrace what and those we do not know, to see and step into what is beyond ourselves. Lessons lived on each and every step of the path, and lessons if integrated, open broad ‘mesetas’ of possibility for us pilgrims, to be a little different in our non-Camino worlds.
Sharon Wakeford is mediator, facilitator, and coach, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Two of her personal passions are writing and walking, and her book ‘Walking the Way in Wonder and Words: Letters from the Heart’, a book of imaginary letters written to people she encountered while walking on the Camino De Santiago, gives a single home to these passions.
‘Walking The Way’ is available on Amazon: and is also available as in audio book (narrated by Sharon) on 40 platforms including Audible, Apple, audiobooks.com, Googleplay, and Nook.
Check out my e-book, A Wild Woman’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago for practical advice on preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago including snippets from my journey and stories from Camino pilgrims. Click the link to download your copy.