TEXAN PATRICK Ganne, from Alsace, is doing the Camino in stages, on behalf of his mother, who is now too elderly.
Mr Ganne, 71, said: “I first thought about it 15 years ago but got busy doing things. It was never convenient or there were other priorities and obligations.
“Then I realised I had a whole bunch more yesterdays than tomorrows and, talking to my mother, that’s what happened to her. She put it off and put it off, and now she can’t walk.”
Mr Ganne walked from Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port to Logroño (170km) last year over 10 days in June and July. He will do a two-week leg this month and feels this is a ‘sensible’ approach.
He said: “It was more than I expected, in that the courtesy total strangers extend to one another is absolutely fantastic.
“You are thrown together in a room with people you don’t know; men and women. And everyone respects each other and treats each other courteously.
“I remember how an elderly British woman took on a Catholic priest over homosexual marriage and they had lively discussions about what’s right and wrong, and agreed to disagree.
“It just renewed my faith in the human race. The conversations and different people I met were thoroughly delightful.”
Even farmers driving machinery on the dirt tracks were polite: “As pilgrims approached he would stop so as not to create a cloud of dust or disturb them.”
Astrologer Stella Woods, 56, from Australia, walked from Saint-Jean Pied-dePort in 2013, after taking a sabbatical break.
“I realised there was a whole esoteric, Pagan past to it. The French Way runs east to west towards the setting sun, following the path of the Milky Way – it’s overhead when you walk it at night – as well as the path of the sun.
“Now the path is well marked with hostels and shells, but people have done it for thousands of years and would follow the sun in the day and the Milky Way at night.
“You get very close to nature when you’re walking it and it’s true that you can see the stars ahead, marking the path.
“Then, when people reached the coast at Europe’s most western point they would see the sun setting over the sea at the end of their journey, and I discovered that it was a metaphor for the pathway through life.
“There’s something quite magical about treading in this path that has been walked for so many years; there’s a kind of energy created by these millions of people treading the same path.”
She found dolmens and standing stones. “It’s likely too that many of the churches were built on sites that were pre-Christian.”
Like Mr Ganne, Ms Woods was struck by the 'tremendous sense of love and cooperation' among pilgrims and the way people 'started to bond'.
“They’re not your average backpacker. They’re doing it because their partner has died or they’ve had a divorce or tragedy or are finding their work meaningless. We would meet in hostels every evening and it was like the Canterbury Tales. We all had our stories and they were all linked. People all wanted to be their best selves, helping others with their blisters or cooking meals for them.”
She did much of the walk with an Italian man she met and she said a curious aspect was that around a dozen times 'what we talked about during the day would manifest in a kind of magical way later on in the day'.
“To give an example, one day I told him about the cane toad problem in Australia and the rabbit-proof fence and a trip to Scandinavia where I’d seen Viking boats. And at the hostel there was a Viking boat in the front garden as well as plaster casts of rabbits and toads.
“As a result of becoming close, we have since done a business project, making a moon calendar. It’s all about the people you meet, who often become a life partner or business partner or change the direction of your life.
“That happened to a lot of people I met, not just me.”
Eileen Gillon, 67, and husband Chris ended up moving from England, where they ran a pharmacy, and buying a gîte d’étape at Montlauzun in Lot to welcome pilgrims on the Le Puy-en-Velay route, the main French start point.
Mr Gillon cycled it in 2002 and from May to June, 2003 they walked from Le Puy to Pamplona as the weather allowed carrying fewer clothes; then Pamplona to Santiago from September to October, as leaving it to 2004, would have meant doing it in a busy ‘holy year’.
They bought their house the following year.
Mrs Gillon said they had been fascinated by the Camino while on holiday in France as they kept coming across Camino routes.
“The camaraderie inspired us – we met so many interesting people. Everybody is equal – everybody suffers the same and complains about their feet hurting or having blisters or their packs being too heavy...
“It’s a physical and mental challenge to keep going and putting one foot in front of the other.
“The countryside changes too. When you set off from Le Puy the gradients are steeper than further along. After Moissac the slopes are much gentler until you reach the Pyrenees.”
She added: “The first time anyone arrives in Santiago it’s a magnificent feeling of achievement and you feel at peace with yourself. The Camino doesn’t give you answers to life’s problems, but it gives you time to reflect on any problems you might have.”
They met an Anglican priest who had been sacked for being gay; an ex-policeman from Lille walking to decide what to do with his retirement and a stressed France Télécom worker from Paris, who said ‘I’m doing it to clean out my hard drive’.