I have always enjoyed walking, but the idea of walking with a purpose and towards a destination was something very different.
I read a number of books on the subject and did as much research as I could about the origins, the history and the meaning of the Camino and what it is like today.
It soon became clear that although there were many different options, the main route was the so called Camino Frances, which starts in St. Jean Pied de Porte and goes all the way to the city of Santiago, eight hundred kilometres away.
At first, this distance seemed somewhat daunting, and I was not sure I could manage enough time off from work to do it all - the guide books said anything between 30 and 36 days would be needed - but finally I decided that it had to be all or none.
I reckoned that May was probably the best time of the year in which to go. The preparations started some nine months before my departure. I started buying all the equipment I needed, mainly from an amazing chain of thirty sports shops, all located in and around the Rue des Ecoles in the fifth arrondissement of Paris called Au Vieux Campeur - worth a visit on their own account.
A good guide book was the next step, and the guide by John Brierley proved to be one of the best going. I had been told one should restrict the weight of one's rucksack to ten percent of one's body weight - a task which initially proved to be very difficult, even though I was trying to be very discerning in what I would take with me.
Getting to the start of the Camino was not too difficult. I flew to Biarritz in the south west of France, and from there I took a train to St. Jean. I planned to overnight in the town. The town is most attractive, with its old centre and the rapid River Nieve flowing through it.
I collected my credencial - or pilgrim's passport - and received my first stamp in the pilgrims' office. Very early the next morning, I set off from St. Jean. There were two options - the less hard one of the two through the Valcarlos Valley, and the much harder route over the Pyrenees, known as the Route Napoleon.
The latter can be dangerous in bad weather but it was a wonderful day, albeit very windy, so I opted for the mountain route. It was probably the hardest day of the whole Camino - a veritable baptism of fire.
The path climbed constantly for some 22 kilometres, in places at a very steep gradient. There was only one stop along the way where pilgrims could refresh themselves. The views that unfolded as one climbed higher and higher up the mountains were spectacular.
The climb carried on remorselessly, and there was a stage where my leg muscles were screaming at me to stop due to the strain, but after a short rest I was able to continue and reached the Col de Lepoeder at 1,500 metres above my start point. From there I was able to look down towards the village of Roncesvalles - the first stop in Spain.
It is a small but attractive village with a very large albergue or hostel, which I checked into. Soon after my arrival, I went to the Pilgrim's Mass in the beautiful gothic church in the centre of the little village.
It was my first such experience, and quite an unforgettable one. There was a great sense of companionship and common purpose among all those attending.
"At the end of the Mass, the priest called out the names of the countries from which pilgrims had arrived that day, and I was very proud to hear Malta's name called out".
After the Mass, all of us went to the one and only restaurant in the town where we had the pilgrim's menu - a three course meal with wine thrown in at €10. The place was buzzing with excitement as people started to introduce themselves to one another, comparing the experiences of the day and talking about their plans and hopes for the future.
It was also my first experience of staying in an albergue. This is a type of hostel for pilgrims, and there is a host of them along the entire Camino - some run by the municipality, some by religious orders and some privately owned ones. It was quite a shock to the system. One is normally given little more than a bed - very often the upper or lower of a double bunk bed - in a room with up to 50 pilgrims.
Learning to sleep in such a setting takes some getting used to, and a good set of ear plugs. The bathroom facilities in the albergues range from good to poor, but they are always limited in comparison with the number of users - so I learned to get up very early in the morning to be there first, before the morning rush began.
As a result, I would tend to leave the albergue very early, even before daybreak, so I would have to deploy my miner's torch, which is worn on the head to leave one's hands free to use one's walking poles.
For that first ever Camino I walked, my children, preoccupied at the thought that I would be walking 800 kilometres largely on my own, insisted that I carry a GPS tracker. I used to have to switch this on every morning and it would track my movements so that they could follow me and see where I was.
After leaving Roncesvalles, it didn't take long before I started to meet other pilgrims. The first few I met and with whom I walked for the next few days, were two Irish men and two young ladies, an Italian and a Swede.
"Walking together through the day and talking for a good bit of the time, one soon gets to know one's companions very well, as the Camino seems to remove all the usual social restraints and everyone talks very readily".
After two days, I reached Pamplona, the beautiful walled city and capital of Navarra and well known for its encierro during the feast days of San Fermin in July. On these days, a number of bulls are released from one end of the main street and they race through the town, together with a multitude of local men and visitors.
Needless to say, there are always a number of serious injuries and even people being gored by the bulls - but it remains a very important part of local and indeed, national, tradition.
On the day I passed through the town, there was an event of a different kind - the Fiesta de Pinchos - when the bars and restaurants of the town competed with one another to make the best pinchos (which are similar to tapas). The whole town was celebrating - something the Spaniards love to do!
The following day, we set off early and reached the Alto del Perdon after a very stiff climb. The long ridge is surmounted by huge wind turbines. It was my first view close up of these. I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of these "dragons"?
There is a certain beauty to them that I had not expected to feel and, of course, I was to see many more of them throughout Spain, which has invested heavily in wind farms.
That day saw me experiencing some of the wonderful architecture that one finds along The Way - the beautiful Romanesque chapel of Eunate, with its arcaded porch and further on, the wonderful arched stone bridge at Puente la Reina.
Shortly after this, I met a young Spanish engineer called David with whom I walked, on and off, up to the very end.We were both intent on practising each other's languages - he, English and me, Spanish - so our conversations would sound quite strange at times! He was one of the many young and qualified persons out of a job during this time of high unemployment in Spain.
The countryside was so beautiful - rolling hills, very green with deep valleys and little villages nestling on the slopes, wonderful wayside chapels and high mountains in the distance.
"The Camino generally followed narrow paths from village to village, passing through dense forests or wide open spaces, where the sky seemed larger than life".
We would cross little streams or pass through vineyards, especially in the La Rioja region which came next after Navarra. This region is famous for its really great wines, and it was a much needed treat to drink a couple of glasses at the end of a tough day of walking as one sat chatting with one's companions on the terrace of the albergue, or in a village square watching the locals playing a game of bowls.
Logroño is the capital of the Rioja and it is an attractive and vibrant city set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. Here I took a strategic decision to lighten my rucksack, as it weighed almost twice what it should have.
By now, I had learned what was really necessary, so I packed everything else into a box, took it to the local Correos (post office) and sent it back to Malta. The next day, substantially lighter, I took off to my next main stop.
I reached Burgos at the end of a long trek, which took me through the beautiful towns of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, with its very strange legend about the two roosters still kept in a loft in the cathedral, and San Juan de Ortega - both towns named after the saints who looked after the pilgrims along The Way.
Burgos is a wonderful city, and its cathedral built in a Spanish gothic style is truly magnificent. I spent a very long time going round it because there is so much to see and it was both an emotional and an intellectual experience encountering such beauty.
I was to revisit this city many years later with my choir, the St. Paul Choral Society, when we had the opportunity to give a concert in this wonderful cathedral.
After Burgos, the meseta starts and runs all the way to Leon, some 200 kilometres away. It is an altiplano or plateau at around 900 metres above sea level. There are huge swathes of countryside, which are completely flat, with enormous plantations of grain or other crops and with vast views of a hemispherical sky.
"There are times when walking can seem interminable, but it has a certain sublime beauty".
The mesoclimate is quite different to the rest of the Camino. The diurnal temperature could range over 25 to 30 degrees celsius in the same day so. Starting off in the morning with a temperature of 5 degrees I would have to wear several layers of clothing, but by noon the temperature could rise to over 30 degrees and I would have to shed layer after layer of clothing until I was left with just a T-shirt and trousers.
Occasionally, it would rain for the entire day and I would have to deploy my poncho, which covered all of me and my rucksack together, and which enabled me to go on walking even in heavy rain.
Not only was the weather challenging, but the walking had started to take its toll on the body as well. Blisters started to develop on my feet after nine days or so, while muscular problems, particularly with the calf muscles, took a bit longer to present themselves.
It became quite painful to walk at times, and I had to resort to using some of the medication I had brought with me and occasionally, to visit a physiotherapist at one of the excellent Centros de Salud run by the Spanish health service.
"I loved walking on my own for the first few hours of the day. I loved experiencing the sounds of nature - birdsong and the occasional farm animal, the wind blowing through the fields of grain, or the sound of water in a stream".
I would then meet up with my friends at our first brunch or lunch stop. The two memorable stops on the meseta were the towns of Fromista with its beautiful church of San Martin, and Sahagun's San Tirso.
Leon was the next big city on the Camino. Its cathedral (the Pulchra Leonina) is also magnificent and it has arguably the finest set of stained glass windows I have seen anywhere. It is a much purer form of gothic architecture than the Burgos cathedral - more akin to French gothic cathedrals such as that at Chartres.
It also boasts the exquisite basilica of San Isidoro, the palace of San Marcos, now converted into the most luxurious of the Spanish Paradores hotels and one of Antoni Gaudi's buildings, the Casa de Botines.
I spent a very enjoyable evening with my companions in the so called Cuartier Humido, a picturesque part of the old town full of bars and restaurants where everyone was very getting very excited watching matches of the World Cup, which was then in its final stages.
Two day's walking beyond Leon, the Camino starts to ascend to its highest point on the whole route. First it passes through the beautiful little village of Rabanal del Camino, and then climbs upwards to reach the high point at the Cruz de Ferro.
"There, a small iron cross mounted atop a tall wooden pole marks the spot. Over the years, every pilgrim that passes by is expected to bring along a small stone or pebble from his native country and to leave it at the foot of the cross with a prayer".
This has now built up into a considerable mound of stones, and everyone stops here to pray for a few minutes.
A little further on is Manjarin, the smallest village on the Camino, and probably anywhere else. It has just one inhabitant called El Ultimo Templario and he runs his shop/cafe/museum/home wearing the uniform of the Knights Templar.
Back down into the valley after a steep descent, I got to Ponferrada, where I was to meet my son, Andrew, who was to spend the last week walking with me. It was great to see him and I was really looking forward to him joining me.
He too was taken aback when he saw the albergue where he would be spending the night. We set off the next morning after visiting the archetypal castle of the Templars - a remnant from the time when they were the guardians of the pilgrimage, and we reached our destination, Villafranca del Bierzo, in the early afternoon.
Andrew was adapting well to the walk and he took that first day in his stride, literally. The next day was much tougher as we were about to cross the next range of mountains - the Cordillera Cantabrica.
Our destination was the little mountain village of O'Cebreiro, which stands on the border with Galicia, Santiago's province. After a very stiff climb up the mountain we reached the village just in time to check into our albergue before the start of the Mass.
Like many other Masses before it, it was a moving experience but especially so in this beautiful chapel, reputedly one of the oldest in Spain and with its own very special legend.
The village is one of the most homogeneous places I have ever seen because everything is built out of the same stone - not just the houses but also the street paving and the field walls, while the roofs called pallosas are wonderful thatched constructions with a variety of quite fantastical shapes.
Our stay there was too short lived to make the most of this wonderful place, but fortunately I was to return twice more later.
Once again, a long and steep descent took us down to lower altitudes, where essentially we remained up to the end, six days later. The countryside in Galicia is less dramatic but very attractive nonetheless with rolling hills. It is also very green as it receives a great deal of rain from the westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic ocean.
We were lucky in that it never rained once during that final week. Shortly before reaching Santiago, we arrived in the Monte de Gozo (which translates as the Mount of Joy). It is the point from which pilgrims get a first glimpse of Santiago, some five kilometres away.
Walking into the city proved to be a very emotional experience for me. After walking for the last 27 days through all sorts of weather and having had a multitude of experiences, reaching my destination was both the culmination of it all, and yet also the end, of this wonderful experience.
Andrew and I made straight for the Officina de Peregrinos (the pilgrims' office) to collect our Compostela - which is the certificate one receives after completing the Camino.
We had to present our credenciales, now fully stamped at each stop along the way, to prove that we had walked The Way. Then we went off to the Pilgrims' Mass in the cathedral, which was another very moving experience.
The cathedral was full of pilgrims and the locals, and although we arrived early we only just managed to get places in the transept where we had chosen to sit in the hope of seeing the botafumeiro. It was not to be, however, as it was not deployed on that day and I would only see it a year later when I returned to Santiago - but the Mass itself was an unforgettable experience.
We stayed on in Santiago for a couple of days to enjoy the rest and to take in this beautiful city and the great food it offers.
I vowed I would return to the Camino and so I did, seven more times.
"When I first set off on the Camino, I thought that it was about arriving at one's destination, yet it is not. It is all about the journey getting there".