In anticipation of the release of ONCE UPON A CAMINO next month (eek!), I’m returning to where it all began. Each day I’m sharing some photos and memories of my time walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago in October 2010 on Instagram (@Matthew_SWilson). Feel free to follow along.

ONCE UPON A CAMINO is an adventure set upon Spain’s Camino de Santiago. It will be available in paperback and eBook from 25th July 2022. Follow me on Twitter or add to GoodReads to keep up to date on pre-order details

Part 1: Inspiration.

A friend once told me, “when you’re bored of London, you’re bored of life”. I’m not sure this was strictly true for me, but at the end of 2010, I missed my family and friends and yearned for the sun-filled Australian summers of my childhood. So after seven years of cheap beers at Wetherspoons (and even cheaper flights through Ryanair), I decided to return to Melbourne.

I made a list of all the things I’d do upon my return: watch the Pies play at the G; move into an apartment close to the beach; finish my novel. The Devil’s in the Detail was a satirical commentary about good versus evil, played out through a London cabbie’s trial in the Court of Saint Peter. For five years, I’d worked on it, tapping away whenever inspiration arrived. But the long hours in the office at Canary Wharf had taken their toll, causing inspiration to come far less frequently. My story had a beginning and an end but a novel-shaped hole in its middle.

Walking has always been my chosen method to overcome writer’s block – it still is. I’d heard about a hike across Spain called the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of Saint James”), an 800-kilometre trek across Spain. Thinking it might offer the creative tonic I needed and a fitting bookend to my time in Europe, I packed a backpack and bought one final cheap Ryanair to the European continent.

There are several different Caminos – one which snakes along Spain’s northern coast, and another which emerges from the country’s south. I walked the Camino Frances, which begins at the picturesque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Like the other Caminos, mine would also eventually arrive at the city of Santiago de Compostela – the final resting place of Saint James. And while the Camino is traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, thousands of non-religious people like me walk it every year. Some for reflection, others for exercise, many embark upon it to simply marvel at the country’s breathtaking scenery.

The path itself is straightforward. No maps or guidebooks were required, just a series of yellow arrows or clamshells marked the way. For 30 straight days, I woke at first light, ate a small breakfast and drank a bitter café con leche (coffee) before setting off. On average, I walked 30 kilometres a day. On the hottest days, I walked less, while my longest stretch was a gruelling 43 kilometres from Burgos to Castrojerez. Each night I’d sleep in a different albergue (hostel), where I’d have my credencial (pilgrim’s passport) stamped as proof of my eventual journey.

To some, this could easily sound like a month of hell, but for me, it was bliss. Sure, there were trials along the way – golf-ball-sized blisters and sleepless nights in hostels filled with orchestras of snorers, rustlers and farters. But it was also a month devoid of any form of decision-making or planning. When I was hungry, I ate; when I was tired, I found an albergue for the night.

Temporarily unburdened by the usual responsibilities of real life, I found my thoughts beginning to slow and my other senses reawakening. With no pre-determined schedule to keep, I took the time to read the plaques below the statues and paintings in the villages I passed through. Each town seemed to have its own story, and I slowly pieced together more of the fascinating history of the country I was traversing. Walking alone also allowed me to meet people from across the world and listen to how their own paths had temporarily entwined with mine. I made new friends. Sometimes we walked together for weeks, while other times it was just a few hours. I practised my Spanish, eventually talking about topics other than food and the weather. But mostly, I had time to daydream and think. So when I finally reached Santiago four weeks after beginning my journey, I arrived with the remaining plot and characters I needed to finish my novel. And an ill-advised beard which was more ginger than I’d hoped.

A few days later, as I sat at the airport and waited for my flight back to Melbourne, I sipped on my last café con leche and took out my notebook. I began jotting down some thoughts about the novel. I wrote down a few plot points and a handful of scenes I’d dreamt up along my hike. But what I’d written down wasn’t my existing novel; it was a collection of ideas that might one day make a new story. There was an ill-fated marriage proposal, a journey across Spain in search of answers, and a story that could somehow tell slices of the colourful Spanish history I’d learned on my journey.

There wasn’t enough for a new novel – not yet – but it had a name. At the top of the page, I wrote down “Once Upon a Camino”.

Once Upon a Camino is Matthew S. Wilson’s second novel, and will be available in 2022.

The Last Laugh.

I lift my head from the barn’s straw-covered floor. A muddy pair of boots step around my goats, and the suit of bells rattles down upon the ground.

‘The king wants his jester.’

I don’t say a word; they took my tongue many years ago. I simply undress and pull on my second skin. The faded velvet feels ever snug against my expired body. The guardsman leads me through the city and past the East Gate – open for the first time since the infant princess’ sudden death. The streets glint with the polished armour of knights in the morning sun; the ears of noblewomen droop beneath peach-sized pearls. A delegation from the South is heralded by the trumpeting of an enormous elephant, its body wrapped in copper-coloured armour. A procession of dignitaries stride behind it, shaded beneath umbrellas made from peacock feathers.

At the palace gates, a minister measures the loyalty of the King’s subjects by the weight of their purses. I abandon my escort and make the familiar climb to the Great Hall – my aged knees throb with each laboured step. Inside, the hall is thick with courtesans and ambition. I remove my rice-filled balloons from my pocket and juggle them high into the air. My performance begins.

Our King arrives at the middle hour. His sunken cheeks confirm the rumours of untouched platters being returned from his chambers.

The crowd hushes.

‘Five full moons have passed since my Elmeria was poisoned.’ The King of Axes’ voice has withered to weeds. ‘A father ought never know the anguish of burying his own child.’ He turns to the bronzed doors behind him. ‘But today, we shall restore justice.’

The trial is swift. Each of the nameless cooks confesses, undoubtedly desperate to spare their families the horrors of the dungeons. The sentence is clear and immediate. Dinah the Executioner swings her scythe truly, and the palace floor is painted red with vengeance. When the headless corpses are removed, joyous music bursts from the band, wafting up to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. My King’s dark eyes glitter toward me.

‘Cattelus – my trusted performer – would you dance for your King?’

I hobble into the room’s centre and begin my jig. The musician’s quickened pace betrays me, and my brittle bones creak as I rock ever faster. The audience’s complicit grins gurgle into laughter. My King beams from his throne. He has long forgotten the man imprisoned within this suit of bells: the youngest brother of a conquered rival. A man whose own wife and children were slain to avoid imagined future uprisings. My King is right – no father should ever know the horror of burying his children.

The music hastens; the wails of laughter lash my sweat-drenched back. They see Cattelus, the dancing hound – not the childless father who plots his revenge while delivering milk to feed their children.

Or princesses.

I dance faster for my King – breathless and revelling in his sweet laughter.

© Matthew S. Wilson, October 2021

This piece was originally written for October’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.