I Would Walk 500 Miles: Adventures of a Musician on the Camino de Santiago

I am sitting in a shaded, outdoor café in Santiago de Compostela, only tens of meters from the Praza do Obradoiro, the city’s main plaza where the glorious Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela sits. I have a golden, sweaty, cold beer in front of me and my state of elation is difficult to describe. I have just completed the Camino de Santiago, an ancient trek across Northern Spain. My wife, Kirsten, and I walked the Camino del Norte route, beginning in Bayonne, France, hiking nearly the entire Cantabric coast of Spain, and ending 900 kilometers (560 miles) later in Santiago de Compostela. We are two of thousands arriving to this city on foot today, as peregrinos. As pilgrims.

As such, we carry all we need in our backpacks. Indeed, the first of many lessons the Camino teaches is that the more stuff we carry with us, the greater our burden will be, literally. Imagine that every ounce of weight carried is multiplied by more than a million steps. I have witnessed many fellow walkers suffering the load of overstuffed backpacks, only to stop at the nearest post office in order to ship “extra” items home. 

But on this trip, my wife, Kirsten, and I brought along what many would consider to be a completely non-essential item. A guitar. A Martin LXM guitar, which is a bit smaller than a normal guitar, but is a guitar nonetheless.

I admit that my motives were partially selfish. This walk across Spain would take six weeks, and the thought of not having access to a guitar for most of that time was not a happy one. I am a guitar player. A musician. We don’t take vacations from music! But upon weighing (pun intended!) the pros and cons of traveling with a guitar, other considerations occurred to me. That music would provide an added dimension to the Camino de Santiago, and as is the nature of music, it would be experienced not just by myself, but by many fellow travelers.

I should tell you that the Camino is already a perfect thing. It is absolutely magical, and it by no means does it need improvement. Certainly not by me! But the thought of adding an extra element, the element of music, was irresistible.

Typically, on The Way, pilgrims walk between 20 and 35 kilometers a day. They wake early and walk all day, arriving in the afternoon at an albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) where they can exchange 5 or 6 euros for a bunk, a shower, and a place to wash and hang clothes. Some albergues operate by donation only, some offer a communal meal at night, and some even offer a simple breakfast. Some are farmhouses, some are repurposed elementary schools, some are medieval monasteries. Peregrinos arrive to these refuges tired from the day’s walk. They unfurl their bedrolls, then perform the daily ritual of washing up and washing their clothes. Afterward, many write in their journals or succumb to a nap. Polite pilgrims speak in hushed voices when they are indoors. The albergue tends to be a quiet place in the afternoon. 

That is not to say that pilgrims are introverted, retiring types. There is also a strong social component to The Way. Stories are shared in albergues and bonds are formed. Many pilgrims are jubilant when they reach what will be home for the next few hours, and wait to see which of their friends or familiar faces from the road will rest their boots there that night. (Will that Norwegian lady who snored like a Harley Davidson be among them?) It’s exciting to meet travelers from so many different countries with vastly different stories. They are people who would otherwise never cross paths, from different backgrounds and cultures, yet as pilgrims, they have one very important thing in common. These are people who have endured the same pains, the same exhaustion, and the same euphoria. And they all had to climb the same mountain in the same weather to get there. They are, for however brief a time, on the exact same path as I am.

Most albergues have an outdoor area where pilgrims can relax or have a meal. This is where I would unwind with my guitar after a day’s walk. I would check in with my musical self to see what form the day’s inspiration had taken. My intention was never to draw attention to myself or to put on a show, but it was incredible how others were drawn to the sound of music being played. Many fellow pilgrims were not shy about telling me the names of their favorite songs, or which melodies had been in their heads during that day’s stretch of the Camino. Inevitably, when someone noticed that I had some facility with the instrument, he or she would request a song, and more times than not, I was able to fulfill their request. This would always cause the person to light up, and to sing along. The music was infectious. Others would gather around and join in. I quickly realized that in this setting, with so many people from so many countries speaking so many languages, there is one universal language, and that is, of course, music.  It is something I’ve always known, but I’ve never had it demonstrated so explicitly before. And for me it was awesome.

Many memorable evenings started with a group of us enjoying a communal meal accompanied by red wine. Always a young, fruity wine of no particular vintage. Perfect! The wine would work its magic to loosen inhibitions as well as vocal chords. Then, the night would be taken over by music. The repertoire would change each time, depending on the requests that evening, aside from the classic Beatles and Dylan songs that peppered every night’s session. The spontaneity of set lists was really fun for me. At the very least, a really good and memorable time was had by all. 

But sometimes it was more than that. One fellow peregrina later shared with me that on the day she and I met, she was seriously considering quitting, leaving the Camino and returning to Germany. She told me she had been having trouble connecting in a meaningful way to others on the journey, even to the Camino itself. That night’s sing-along had been a strong bonding experience for her. She had a breakthrough, and she did in fact see the Camino through to its glorious end. 

On another night, a French pilgrim sat on a picnic table while I casually played guitar nearby. She drew a stunning seascape inspired by the view we were both enjoying. She was a talented artist and teacher in Paris. When she finished her drawing, she told me that she hadn’t been able to draw or paint for over a year, that she had been blocked. There was something about the communal energy of that evening, fellow pilgrims coming together to sing and laugh that had affected her in a very positive way. 

I was not the only one who had decided to bring a musical instrument along The Way. I encountered several ukuleles, as well as a handful of other guitars. One happenstance meeting ended in a short acoustic concert in the beautiful city of Mondoñedo. Our group of six met a Danish pilgrim minutes before stopping for lunch. We invited him to join us for lunch and wait out the hottest part of the afternoon. When he set down his pack, I noticed a Martin Backpacker guitar strapped to it. As it turns out, our new friend was a singer/songwriter from Copenhagen. We had a long lunch, which inspired a mini performance with a 13th century cathedral as our backdrop. We each played one of our own original songs, accompanied by the other. My new friend Ulrik is a fantastic musician, and I would have been happy to have spent the rest of the day playing with him, but the Camino had other plans. Ulrik had much farther to walk than we did that afternoon, and we had made him late. I felt really fortunate to get to have this musical exchange. 

On my Camino, I played on top of picnic tables, sitting on steps, at bus stops and beaches, in town squares, even the cloister of a 10th century monastery. I have played to postcard-worthy ocean views, pastures of cows, the greenest valleys, and endless fields of grass. And I have sung songs with pilgrims from dozens of countries (my wife and I counted 31). I am still processing the magnitude of those six weeks walking the Camino de Santiago. It is a deeply transformative experience, and by featuring music so prominently in my own Camino, things have certainly evolved for me and my own relationship with music. I have thoroughly enjoyed the gift of being able to share music with so many. And I am brimming with inspiration.


Thank you, Carlos for inviting all of us along...
Be sure to follow Carlos Calvo on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
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