Ursula: 5,000 Solitary Miles on the St. James Way

Originally from Wales, Ursula Martin has spent around three years walking across Europe from Kiev (Ukraine), an extraordinary pilgrimage in the time of COVID-19.

Ursula Martin. Invited to coffee in Bosnia (2019)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin is living proof of the belief that there is a remarkable person hidden inside every one of us. Now in her forties, she arrived back home to her Welsh village in the spring of 2021, having spent almost three years walking across Europe. Her travels were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, and rooted in the feeling that she was a pilgrim on the St. James Way (the Camino de Santiago).

Ursula Martin. Camping at Hoverla, Ukraine Carpathians (2018)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin, traveler and pilgrim

A life-changing experience

Why did she set off on a journey like this? Ursula is clear: "What if I learned to juggle? What if I became a racing driver? Everyone has crazy ideas like that, but lots of people don't manage to achieve them. I didn't give up on my idea. I focused on it. That's the real reason I walked across Europe: because I said I would.”

Ursula Martin (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

This determination lies in a series of interconnected journeys and events. While kayaking on the Danube 10 years ago, Ursula was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She returned home to Wales for treatment and, three years later, began a journey around the country to raise money and spread awareness of the disease.

The folly at Plas Brondanw (2020-07) by Plas BrondanwHistoric Houses

She walked about 3,700 miles (6,000 km) around Wales. That experience led her to write her book, One Woman Walks Wales, and to make a decision. "When I'd finished, I thought, 'What have I been doing?' And I started planning this journey across Europe." In September 2018, she hitchhiked to Kiev, and started walking from there.

Ursula Martin. Summertime kit. Base weight approx 12 kg (2019)Regional Government of Galicia

From one end to the other

Right from the start, she had a clear idea of the route she wanted to take. "I wanted to start at one of Europe's cultural extremes and end at the other: Great Britain." The plan involved crossing the Balkans and Italy, before following the French branch of the Camino (Camino Francés) from France to Santiago de Compostela. She was alone the entire time, carrying in her backpack all that she needed for a journey on which she would be treading her own path.

Ursula Martin. 3000 miles celebration (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

It was while crossing Italy that the coronavirus hit, interrupting her plans. She had to stop and go into lockdown, doing the same in France and Spain over the next few months. “It was horrible. Not just because of the physical difficulty of stopping and then starting again, but also because of the uncertainty. Everyone was really scared. The situation was really tense and no one knew what was going to happen.”

Ursula Martin (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

“It was really hard being on my own at that time, because while everyone else was at home, I was in a foreign country," she says. Despite the fear and uncertainty, she decided to continue her journey. But the world had changed. "People stayed away from strangers. I noticed that even I had withdrawn a bit. You'd exchange glances and say hi, but you wouldn't stop to chat.”

Ursula Martin. At 3000m in the Pyrenees (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

The power of the Camino

Plagued with doubts about her journey, Ursula reached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, one of the Camino's starting points. While she was there, the whole experience took on a new dimension. Crossing the Pyrenees, she felt as though everyone who had ever completed the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was there with her.

Ursula Martin. Pyrenees (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin, traveler and pilgrim

On her first night on the Camino, she discovered that "someone had tucked a little scrap of paper into the wall of the shelter." It was a poem. Remembering the connection that gave her with the pilgrims who had gone before her makes Ursula quite emotional. "I was completely alone, not just walking across Europe, but also because of the pandemic. I kept asking myself whether I should keep going. And then suddenly, on the Camino, I knew that I was doing the right thing. It was such a relief.”

O Cabo do Mundo, meander in the river MiñoRegional Government of Galicia

There was a personal reason for wanting to incorporate the Camino into her journey. Her first solitary adventure had been to follow the course of the Minho River in Galicia from its mouth to its source. It was a Jacobean Holy Year in 2010, which is celebrated when Saint James Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday. On arrival in Portomarín, Ursula encountered the hundreds of pilgrims who had come to the town along the Camino Francés.

Ursula Martin (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin, traveler and pilgrim

The constant flow of people crossing Spain left an impression on Ursula. “I helped a friend who was working in a pilgrim hostel, and I loved it. All the pilgrims were having a really intense experience. They came to the hostel, stayed the night there, we talked about our lives, and they set off again.”

Ursula Martin. Wide open views in Navarra (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

More than 10 years later, she was following the Camino, but this time she was alone. She didn't encounter a single pilgrim in several hundred miles. “In Pamplona, someone wished me a good pilgrimage ("Buen Camino") for the first time. And every time someone said that to me, it was like a blessing, because they were telling me I was right to carry on. And that was really powerful.”

Ursula Martin. Glorious arrival at Finisterre (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin, traveler and pilgrim

In March 2021, Ursula reached Santiago de Compostela. “It was strange, because I really noticed the lack of people. I knew that if I were walking the Camino in normal times, I would be part of a wave of people and I would be sharing in all their energy and emotion. But I was on my own and that didn't feel good." A few days later, she reached Finisterre. “That was when I really knew I had arrived. Being next to the ocean and knowing that I had walked there from Kiev was incredible."

Ursula Martin. Wild camping in Spanish Pyrenees (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

More than just a journey

But her journey didn't end there, at the edge of the Atlantic. Ursula Martin returned to Santiago de Compostela, heading for Santander via the Primitive Way (Camino Primitivo). From there, she took the ferry to the UK. In June 2021, 33 months after she had left, she reached Llanidloes in Wales, where she was greeted with much excitement by locals.

Ursula Martin. Looking from Slovenia into Italy, Dolomites in the distance (2019)Regional Government of Galicia

So, what next? She will spend the next few months writing a book about her adventure, which she hopes to finish in around a year, or year and a half. After that, she doesn't have any plans. “I might stay at home, or I might carry on walking around the world. I don't know yet. It's important to me not to make any decisions right now.”

Ursula Martin. Sunflowers in Provence (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Ursula Martin, viajera y peregrina

The experience of this pilgrimage across Europe will stay with her forever. “I think that, on this journey, I've seen myself so much more clearly than I ever have before. I've shown myself what I'm capable of, how strong I am, and how that can change you as a person. How it can give you more confidence and strength of character. It's been a really powerful journey.”

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