Earlier this year we had the fortune of attending a wonderful private birthday concert organised by Patricia Ninian, the founder of St Pauls Opera in Clapham. It was a wonderfully entertaining evening, but one of the highlights for me was meeting fellow Clapham resident Teresa Israel after the event.
She had immediately caught our attention that evening when she arrived wearing a rainbow sequin jacket similar in style to the American letterman jackets but without the numbers - a rather unexpectedly bold and eccentric choice! At the time I wondered what her story and we finally had the opportunity to speak with her after she realised that we were all gathered speaking Spanish and decided to come and say "hola"!
Amazingly, she had some excellent Spanish language skills and we quickly learned that she lived locally, was over 80 years old and was of Polish descent. She had been living in the UK all of her life after arriving here as a small child after her mother fled Poland to reunite with her husband who had fought with the allies in the war. It was during this conversation that she mentioned walking the Camino de Santiago at the incredible age of 73 years old and it was at this moment that we knew we had to meet this amazing woman again to listen to her unique story and hear more about her experiences and insights into the Camino de Santiago.
If you don't know what the Camino de Santiago is, we suggest you take a look at the official Camino de Santiago website as there is more to it than just a walking track. The Camino de Santiago is not a single route but a network of routes that start in different cities, mainly in Spain (some in Portugal and France), and finish in Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia (Spain). It’s believed that in the cathedral the body of the apostle Saint James was buried. The history of the route can be traced back to the 9th century when Spanish King Alfonso II completed the first-ever pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from Oviedo. This particular route is now known as the Camino Primitivo.
Back to Teresa....flash forward to last week, when we finally sat down with her in nue | ground, a lovely cafe in Abbeville Village, southwest London to learn more about her motivations and listen to her tales.
Teresa and her partner Marco began their adventures walking the Camino relatively late in life, with their first trip starting in 2011 when Teresa had just turned 73 years old. The idea was fomented because they heard an inspiring story of a 60 year old man who had decided to walk it and, after much discussion, they decided that they liked the idea of the challenge despite being overweight, unfit and not of the sporting frame of mind! In light of their inexperience and age, they also didn't want to commit themselves to five weeks of walking so Marco, who has a background in engineering and is very precise and organised, undertook some research, after which he suggested a two week trip on the premise of trying it and seeing how it went without too much expectation. Their strategy was to fly into Santiago de Compostela and then catch a bus to one of the stops on the Camino Francés also known as The French Way, the most well known route, far enough away to enable them to fulfill the 100km walking requirement to obtain a Compostela. It was in Ponferrada, Leon where they took their first tentative steps back towards Santiago de Compostela, earning their first stamp in their Pilgrim's Record book.
That very first day taught them a valuable lesson in planning and discussing the day ahead. They started their day early following their fellow pilgrims or pellegrinos. They made the mistake of not speaking about their day's journey and the route. It was a beautiful day and because they were each walking at a different pace, Teresa lost Marco who was walking ahead. She continued walking until she finally arrived at a hostal in the afternoon, dehydrated and running out of water. Expecting to find him at the hostal she was disappointed to find that he had not yet registered them and the hostal was already getting full. In some distress, she couldn't reach him and was very worried that something had happened. Luckily, some fire fighters from Barcelona called his mobile and discovered that the walkers he had followed had taken an excursion off the main route, unbeknownst to Marco. This beginners mistake taught them to always have a plan, ensure that each of them knew the plan and to stick to it!
Teresa's stories are wonderfully inspiring to listen to - from pilgrims on horses and donkeys, to Marco's use of fresh lavender on the beds to repel bed bugs and their theories about what footwear to wear - Teresa loved to spend her camino downtime wearing her MBT (Masai Barefoot Trainer) sandals. Marco's camino footwear preference were traditional walking boots combined with his tried and trusted routine of rubbing petroleum jelly on his bare feet and then wearing two pairs of socks. We were especially impressed by the fact that at the age of 73 she scaled the bunk bed in the hostels to sleep, although she did mention that on subsequent trips they would opt to stay at a decent hotel every couple of days so that they could enjoy a nice shower and properly wash their clothes - this sounds like quite a good compromise!
On that first trip they allocated 12 days to walk 230km, actually achieving it in 10 days - quite impressive for inexperienced hikers of their age hauling 20kg packs. They gained their well deserved Compostela - the document that certifies that a pilgrim has completed the Camino de Santiago. In order to get a Compostela, a pilgrim must have completed at least 100 km by foot or on horseback, or 200 km by bicycle, on any of the routes that make up the Camino. And they must be able to accredit the distance covered. You accredit your travels using the Pilgrims Record book in which you get stamps in all of the places you stop at to certify the distance you have travelled.
For Teresa, apart from the personal challenge, the most memorable aspects of completing the journeys were the many and varied people they met along the way, from so many walks of life and the wonderful friendships they developed. Having undertaken many subsequent Camino journeys, we asked her when a good time to walk the camino was in her opinion - she said May or September, although she mentioned that in September there are a lot of Spanish university students undertaking the journey - it is seen as a life lesson or right of passage in Spain, a little bit like a gap year is viewed here in the UK.
It was a huge privilege to have spent some time with Teresa recounting her stories and learning more about what an amazing life she has lived. She is such a vibrant person who never stops learning. Whatever the motivation, Teresa's experience shows that you are never too old to take on a physical challenge like the Camino de Santiago and there are so many physical, psychological and spiritual benefits that you can obtain. We are definitely excited to start our own research and plan our first Camino adventure!