Have you ever gazed wistfully out your office window and longed for the open road? If you’ve ever dreamed of a world of calm, devoid of social media updates and the daily commute, you’re not alone. Every year, more than one hundred thousand people turn their back on modern life to walk the mysterious pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Intrigued, I caught up with Steve Marriott whose new book Candyfloss Guitar was inspired by his own experiences walking the Camino de Santiago.
1) What inspired you to walk the Camino de Santiago?
That’s a very good question! The seeds of the Camino were planted in my head some ten years ago on a December’s evening on London’s Southbank during it’s ‘Frost Fair’. I found myself talking to Marion Marples the secretary for the Confraternity of Saint James, who first told me about the mysterious road to Santiago. I’d forgotten about the 500 mile journey until eight years later, when in the space of a couple of days two people both advised that I should go on a ‘long walk’. The second of those people, was a Pole, who’d dreamed of being a film maker but his partner in Poland didn’t share this dream and was pushing him to settle down. Confused at what to do he decided to walk the Camino – after completing his pilgrimage he left his life in Poland and moved to London. The week I met him, he’d just found a financier to back his first film project! At the time I was at a bit of a cross-roads roads, both in my career and my personal life: within a month of hearing the Pole’s story my flat was rented and I was heading to Spain with my back pack.
2) Where did you start the walk and how long did it take you to complete it?
I walked the Camino Frances, which is the classic pilgrimage starting in St. Jean Pied de Port in France on the border of Spain, ending in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It took me 31 days to walk but as I didn’t want the adventure to end I continued after a celebratory party in Santiago, to Finisterre, which is as far as you can walk west before you hit the sea.
3) What was the toughest part of the walk?
I think most people would agree that it’s the very first day. It’s a continuous 1,500 metre all day climb over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Pilgrims legs are fresh with enthusiasm but from the outset legs and enthusiasm are forced to confront the reality of the true purpose of why you’re walking the Camino. But mind, body and soul really do get fitter as you walk the Camino.
4) Did you have any spiritual experiences en route?
I think almost everyone does and I certainly did – I believed I was setting out on a long journey but it wasn’t long before it turned into a pilgrimage. I could mention many such experiences but one thing I’d particularly like to mention is a reconnection with the earth. Experiencing nature under my feet, or on the horizon each day, brought me an inner sense of calm and peace. It had been a very long time since I’d taken the time to observe and feel nature: stopping to smell a flower, watching a bee pollinate a flower, tasting a grape from a grape vine, watching the flow of a river from a medieval bridge etc. And I admit I hugged a tree, more than once!
5) Did you meet any interesting characters on the way?
This is the strongest memory of my Camino. They say that you shouldn’t contemplate the Camino unless you’ve got a purpose for walking it and everyone I met had a strong reason for walking, although that reason as in my case can sometimes change during the pilgrimage itself. For example Massimo, a short Italian was one of the kindest men I’d ever met. I walked with him for a number of days and to begin with he didn’t really say much, but every day his confidence seemed to grow until the point that he confided in me that his outlook on life had been shattered: in recent years he’d lost mother to Parkinson’s disease, his house had been damaged by an earthquake and to top things off he’d been made redundant. But by the time we reached Santiago he’d grown in confidence, he was joking, making fun of his fellow pilgrims and accepting life as it appeared around him.
6) What were the high points of the walk?
This is a hard question to answer because each day had its unique experiences. But I would say the very first day on the Camino is as tiring an introduction to a pilgrimage as you could imagine: a 1,200 metre ascent over the Pyrenees and across a seamless border into Spain. But the climb offered its rewards: mountainscapes carpeted in green velvet, a dozen griffon vultures hovering over a humble shrine on the Madonna and of course a beer and a bed for the night at a monastery in the mountain village of Roncesvalles.
7) What were the low points of the walk?
I wouldn’t say I had any particular low points but self-doubt about my body did creep into my mind on more than one occasion. For example, I remember thinking that I must have been blessed with superb walking feet because unlike most fellow pilgrims, I’d avoided the curse of blisters. But on day eleven as if from nowhere, they appeared and held me back for part of the day until I learnt how to patch them up properly. Or there was another time when out of the blue the thigh muscles in my left leg froze and refused to be subjected to any more walking. I was about half way into the Camino and I thought, this could be it! But as luck would have it, in the village pharmacy where I was forced to rest up, I spotted Arnica gel. Many people doubt the healing benefits of this homeopathic remedy but it certainly got me moving again; within a few hours of applying it to my leg I was back on the trail!
8) What is your favourite memory of the walk?
Again this is another hard question because it really is about the journey and not one single event or destination. But it really was a spiritual moment, finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela after more than a month of walking. I arrived very early in the morning, having slept under the stars on a ridge that overlooks the city the night before, and as a result I was one of the very first pilgrims of the day to be led into the pilgrims office to receive what is my most treasured certificate, my Compostela of completion. A French pilgrim, who previously had met about half way on the journey also arrived in Santiago at the crack of dawn – after the office we then visited Santiago’s cathedral, which we had to ourselves and in its glorious peacefulness I felt like I’d completed a quest of the most highest order!
9) How did the walk inspire your book?
In actual fact three stories came out of the walk: my outer journey, an inner healing experience and of course the book, Candyfloss Guitar. However, initially when I ended the journey many of the aspects from the first two things were quite abstract. But as the weeks went on, I started to make sense of them and realised that I’d learnt some really positive lessons from taking time out from life, to go for a very long walk. And I then felt compelled to share the strongest lesson, that of confidence and fear in the form of my protagonist, Diego, a flamenco guitarist, who finds himself a reluctant pilgrim on the road to Santiago.
10) What advice would you give to anyone thinking of walking the Camino de Santiago?
As long as you go with the right attitude, are of average fitness and break your walking boots in before you go, there is no reason why you can’t complete it and have a once in a life time experience.