Reaching a milestone birthday often inspires people to take on a new challenge, and this was the case for installation artist Sara Mark as she turned 60. She decided to tackle a 500 mile pilgrimage across Spain, referred to as a camino (meaning walk), to Santiago de Compostela.
“I was in a little village in South West France on holiday a few years ago and saw pilgrims passing through with shells on their packs – and I thought I’m going to do that,” explains Sara.
She realised that to achieve her dream of completing her pilgrimage she would need to get in shape, and so she joined the gym at YMCA Hawker in Kingston. “I joined the gym in January to try and get fit. I chose to take the del norte route as it’s coastal, but it is known to be a tough route because it’s hilly. I knew I had to get fit and I’m so glad I did, because I would have struggled otherwise. I trained in the YMCA Hawker gym with my backpack on, which weighed 8 kilos,” says Sara.
Becoming fit and healthy was no mean feat for Sara, and her daily walking in Spain continued to keep her lean throughout her trek. “It took a lot of doing to get fit. But I discovered my natural rhythm of walking as I learnt to walk with my walking poles. They are brilliant, they’re like little outboard motors. My shoulders changed shape whilst using them,” explains Sara.
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is ancient – the medieval Church had three main pilgrimage routes, one to Rome, one to Jerusalem and one to Santiago (which is the resting place of the remains of St James). There are many routes across Europe to Santiago and the rich English pilgrims traditionally travelled by ship to Ferrol and then walked the Camino Inglės to Santiago. Last year Sara attended the Greenbelt Festival, where she met a representative from the Co-Fraternity of St James, which is an organisation based in London which gives support to British pilgrims.
“The man explained to me there are lots of routes, about 15 and he was the one who told me about the del Norte, and I knew that was for me,” says Sara.
Sara walked her camino alone, and enjoyed the preparation, researching online about the route and what she should take. “I only took two changes of clothes, one set that I was wearing and the one in my pack. Plus I took a fleece and a long-sleeved top. In May, it was cold. I didn’t forget my silicone ear plugs because you sleep generally in albergues which are hostels with mixed, bunked accommodation, and there is anything from 10 -50 people in a room. You’ve always got a snorer, but the thing is you’re so tired, and with your ear plugs, you go to sleep!” says Sara.
The Spanish take the camino very seriously and people along the way work hard to support pilgrims. There are municipal albergues which have a manager called a hospitalero, who books you in and can give you advice. “Many of the hospitaleros have a great connection with pilgrims as they have an empathy and understanding of what drives the pilgrims and what they have been through,” says Sara.
“I remember I couldn’t find somewhere to stay in Bilbao, it was packed. A Spanish lady was so kind, she got on the phone and found me another albergue but it was a further 2 hour trek. I arrived to find it was a derelict looking school-building, and at this stage I was so exhausted I couldn’t walk on. I climbed the rickety stairs, and at the top was a hospitalero who just said “welcome”. And that changed everything – it changed it to a little bit of heaven. It was very basic, there was no hot water that night,but none of that mattered.”
The del Norte route follows the Northern coast of Spain through a green, rugged landscape similar to Wales; it isn’t dry and arrid as you would expect, but it does have “lovely long beaches and spectacular mountain views,” says Sara. “It’s easy to get lost on the route if you’re not paying attention – mine started in Irun on the Spanish-French border. You have to follow yellow arrows, which can be painted anywhere, which means that you have to concentrate. You’re in the here and now, looking for them!” explains Sara.
Sara completed her camino in 72 days and the most memorable part for her was reaching Finisterre, technically the end of the walk and which translates as “the end of the earth”. “That was a very special place. It was a beautiful day and I walked up to the top of the Cape and all I could see was the silvery blue horizon, which was stunning. I felt I had come as far as I could.”
Sara regards herself now as a modern pilgrim and her camino has had an effect on her spirituality – she tends not to rush now and feels in tune with her body. ”I did it as a spiritual exercise, not knowing what that exercise would involve. I really still can’t tell you what it involved, except you get up in the morning you put your boots on and you walk. It’s a series of encounters,” she says.
Photograph of Sara Mark by Brian Links