EL CAMINO DE SANTIAGO   photoMichael Tarte shares his experiences with Fifty Five Plus on his epic journey from France to Spain. This is a picture of Michael in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compestela at the end of the 800 kilometre journey.  Although he says he looks and feels knackered I think it is a fantastic achievement to make the finish line.

Michael’s Story   Last year I decided to walk the Camino, The Way of St James, or more specifically the Camino Francais. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France, a town which nestles up against the Pyrenees and very close to the border with Spain and finishes in Santiago de Compostela where the bones of St James are kept in the Cathedral. The length of this pilgrim’s journey is 800 kilometres. There are a number of Caminos which lead to Santiago but the Camino Francais is the most travelled. I decided to walk because a friend who had completed the pilgrimage that year said that I should. “It will change your life!” he said. I wasn’t looking for a changed life but the idea of walking 800 kilometres across the north of Spain was so ridiculous and almost incomprehensible that it was immediately appealing.

I arrived in St Jean Pied de Port (St Jean At the Foot of the Pass) on Saturday of Easter this year and went to the Camino office to obtain a Pilgrim’s Passport. This document allowed one to stay at albergues which are located all along The Way. They provide simple accommodation ( double bunks, toilets and hot showers) for the low cost of about ten euros for the night. A room may have only four bunks or it may have 50, boys and girls in together. The downsides of this inexpensive, collegiate room sharing are the snoring and other night noises. The passport is stamped at each place of end of day rest and is produced in Santiago as evidence of one’s journey so to be given a Compostela, the certificate of being an honest-to-God Pilgrim.

The Spanish for pilgrim is perigrino and dinner each night could be taken in bars, cafés or restaurants and each of these places would provide a perigrino dinner; three courses with wine and water for about ten euros. Meals during the day would be taken at bars along with coffee, soft drinks, or beer. It mattered little how much you ate or drank as you needed the fuel to walk and you photo 2wouldn’t put on weight. I completed the walk in 29 days with no rest days. A few do it in a shorter time and many take a bit longer. I set out alone on the Sunday of Easter from St Jean. I was told the day before if it was raining in the morning it would be snowing on the high pass and if I went that way ( the Napoleon Route) I would be in grave danger. So I squibbed it and took the Valley Route. There was still a very significant climb. Well, it didn’t snow on the high pass and the many brave souls who walked that way were as safe as houses although there was heavy fog and they didn’t see much.

That first day of my walk I met up with three young lads; Jack from Tenessee, Jonas from Norway, and Hughie from Rushcutters Bay. We had dinner together that night but they went on ahead of me the next day. But throughout the walk we kept meeting up and having beers and dinners together and we met again in Santiago. And that was the nature of the walk. I would meet people, walk with them for a day, have dinner with them, lose them the next day but meet again a week later and continue our conversations. I think the stand out thing about the Camino were the people I met.

They were from all over the world.Michael Tarte climb There were six of us who walked into Santiago together: Guenter from Germany, Dianne from Florida, Bo from Denmark, Vladimir from Moscow, Da’sha from Slovakia, and me. And there were others I spent time with: Gillian from Ireland, James from Seoul, Sauli from Finland, Maartje and Bert from The Netherlands, Margaret and Eileen from Australia and also from Adelaide were another Margaret with her granddaughter Drew and Drew’s mother and aunt. All had stories to  tell. James, the Korean, was a psychiatrist.

I had some significant blisters, one on each foot to begin with, B1 and B2. Late one day I was sitting in the men’s ablutions dressing my blisters and trying to put a needle through them to drain them. James saw me and offered to help. I accepted because it was a bit awkward. Then James took a closer look and drew back in horror and said, “I can’t.” “Oh,” I said. “OK.” Later that night as we were finishing dinner James said, “I can do your blisters now. I have had some red wines!” In the albergue, James sat on the floor with his camping light on his head and lanced the blisters, ran cotton thread through them to keep them drained, and dressed them. Perfect!

The next morning he came to me, shook me by the hand and said in serious way, “Michael, I’m sorry. That is the first time in 25 years I have done that procedure!” And then burst out laughing. He was concerned about the collective guilt the people of Korea were experiencing over the terrible ferry accident when the hundreds of children were drowned. He was writing articles for wide spread reading in papers and magazines in Korea to help in assuaging that guilt. I thought the people of Spain were wonderful, relaxed, friendly, generous and helpful. The countryside was beautiful as were the old parts of the cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and photo 3of course, Santiago).

And now I am painting my walk; a scene for each day and one for St Jean, a total of 30. I shall photograph the painting and make a book with some comments for each painting. I hope to make multiple copies of the book and sell them. The monies collected from the sales will go to buying construction materials and services for my project of building a cultural centre for the remote Aboriginal community of Utopia. I am planning to do this work in 2015 and 2016. If it works out maybe another Camino in 2017, the Portuguese Camino from Lisbon to Santiago? First Photograph St Jean Pied de Port. Second The Climb Back To The Maseta, just after Hontanas. Third A derelict water mill. Cover Image. Puente La Reine.

Note:  A feature film,  ‘The Way’  starring Martin Sheen tells the story of this historic pilgrimage.  It is available on DVD.

Fifty Five Plus will critique and give information on Michael’s Book as soon as it is available.