Brent Clark had planned the perfect marriage proposal to his love Giselle Oscuro this year on the steps of Spain’s St James de Compostela Cathedral, a special moment to take place after traversing the Pyrenees from France to Spain.
The coronavirus pandemic put an end to that – along with Giselle’s dream of retracing the ancient Camino de Santiago route that she first travelled with her father in 2016.
But determined not to let months of preparation go to waste, the intrepid couple simply took the cancellation in their stride, plotting a detailed local route to bring the spirit of Camino to Australia.
Camino de Sydney is the result, a 29-day, 600-kilometre pilgrimage – mostly walking – that covers greater Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
The faith-filled couple have shared the journey for would-be pilgrims on their website (caminodesydney.wordpress.com) so that other locals and potential overseas visitors can also enjoy the familiar and little-known rich faith and cultural treasures of Sydney.
Pilgrims can view an interactive map and download a passport and a camino prayer with an Aussie touch written by the couple.
“Even when overseas travel is possible, it’s out of reach for a lot of people to take the time off to go to Spain and do the walk, or to be able to physically do the walk day after day,” says Giselle.
“The beauty of this is you can just do a day if you want, or pick a section of day to do.
“For people who live in Sydney, a series of day trips would be the most likely option.”
Brent says he became addicted to working on the project which took 10 weeks at nights and weekends.
“That’s four weeks longer than our original plan to walk the Camino in Spain, but it was such a fascinating process,” he says.
“We wanted it to resemble the experience of the Camino de Santiago as closely as possible and the most common path is the one that starts in St Jean Pied-de-Port in France, over the Pyrenees and ends at St James de Compostela.
“We decided to start at La Perouse at the resting place of the French priest Father Claude-Francois Receveur, the first Catholic priest to die in Australia, which is also where the Reconciliation Church is located, and walk to St James station to catch a train to Blackheath where there is a Camino walking group and a guesthouse dedicated to the Camino de Compostela.”
Coming back down the mountains and across to the Marian shrine at Mt Schoenstatt in Mulgoa, the next challenge was to map out a spiritually-nourishing pilgrimage within Sydney’s urban landscape.
“We decided to include every suburb named after a saint and the St George area where Giselle lives, and also include some interfaith and ecumenical experiences such as potential visits to beautiful Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, and Buddhist, Hindu and Baháʼí temples,” Brent explains.
“Sydney is such a wonderful city and people wouldn’t normally come here except for beaches and maybe the big attractions, but just doing this research we found that there’s this incredible history and things in our backyard we had no idea where there.”
In total, including optional extension walks, the pilgrimage crosses 25 First Nations lands and 164 places of worship, with links, information on accommodation and dining options plus already-established walks meticulously set out for visitors.
The couple will also provide – on request – a certificate on completion.
In the month that the website has been up the couple has received enthusiastic feedback on their accomplishment from other would-be-overseas-pilgrims who are now taking their hiking boots out of storage and getting back into training to cope with the 20km days.
Chatswood parish priest Fr Jim McKeon is one potential pilgrim already spreading the news about this new expression of Catholic life in Sydney.
It’s been a fascinating journey for the two who travelled much of the path they plotted out using online maps by car or walking, making their own discoveries along the way which they now share with future pilgrims.
Documenting forgotten graves, learning the Catholic connection to a popular golf club, searching for the best tapas bars, uncovering Spanish-like nature trails, and praying at the tomb of Australia’s first official saint were just some of their local Camino highlights.
And they were blown away by the diversity that exists within Sydney’s Catholic world alone.
However, in a year of unexpected events, the biggest surprise awaited Giselle on the July feast of St James at the Catholic church in Glebe named after the saint.
“I thought we were going to just commemorate the end of our Camino and read our prayer together there, but as we were standing on the front steps Brent got down on one knee and proposed,” she smiles.
What’s not surprising then is that the apostle has become an important saint for the couple who still pray the Camino prayer whenever they put on their walking shoes.
“It’s still relevant because everyday life is part of our Camino [to heaven], all those analogies about pilgrimage and life are true,” Giselle reflects.
“What you get with a long walk is a lot of space for reflection, and that’s the opportunity we’ve tried to provide.”