The Way

A couple of weeks ago I decided to swap the litter-strewn pathways of central London for the rolling cornfields of the Spanish Pyrenees. A few days had become free in my work schedule and, in a last-minute burst of spontaneity, I booked a flight to Bilbao, took a bus to Pamplona and joined the steady stream of pilgrims (or Peregrinos) walking from San Jean to Santiago.

I first heard about the pilgrimage after watching a film called ‘The Way’ some years back. It told the story of an American man (Martin Sheen) walking the Camino de Santiago in memory of his son (Emilio Estevez). I recommended the film to my parents, who spent the next five years talking about how they were going to do it one day. And then, blow me down with a feather, they actually did, well at least a section of it! So impressed was I by the adventurous escapades of my usually risk averse folks, and intrigued by the stream of videos and selfies they shared on the family Whatsapp group, I decided to go see for myself what all of the fuss was about.

I arrived at my hostel in Bilbao late on the first night and ended up going out on my own for an over-priced and under-cooked steak. I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake, but after arriving in Pamplona and befriending a tubby taxi driver from Barcelona with a tattoo sleeve and a cheeky smile, I knew it was going to be a fun week. The next morning, my new accompañero and I set out before the sun was up and headed for the hills. After we picked up the trail, marked by the sign of a cockle shell, we soon stumbled into another bunch of Peregrinos, mainly retirees clad with walking poles, rucksacks and knee supports. And so the journey began. The next five days were spent progressing from one Menu del Dia and glass of Rioja to the next, in the most incredibly beautiful and immaculately maintained medieval Basque pueblos. 

What surprised me most about the experience was quite how much I actually enjoyed the walking. I’ve always hated walking. Mostly down to the fact that I had my knees transplanted at birth with an alternative design made entirely out of babybell cheese! Strangely, my prematurely arthritic joints held up and, despite the undeniable agony that accompanied the last few kilometres, I always ended each day looking forward to the next.

I’m aware that it would be a complete cliché to compare the Camino to our journey through life, its steep inclines and easy down-hill slopes; the temporary joy of pausing at the summit to assess your progress, only to descend back down the hill and onwards along the journey. Obviously I wouldn’t dare to go for such literary low-hanging fruit as this. But I would venture to say that, whether walking alone or in a group, the Camino, like life, is best experienced as a community. The unquestionable highlight for me was meeting a collection of people from all corners of the world, with a thousand different motivations for being there, yet united by a single objective.

The Camino marked almost exactly a year since I returned from the Dominican Republic with a broken heart and an idea for change. It was amazing to reflect on quite how much has been achieved over the past twelve months. I came away at the end of the week without having experienced any profound sense of revelation or enlightenment. I did however return with a peaceful assurance to keep plodding on, one step at a time, and perhaps a gentle reminder to enjoy sharing the journey with those who happen to be travelling alongside you.

Bryn Frere-Smith

Founder Blue Bear Coffee Co.