I find that the thing that helps me keep body and soul together is walking every day. In September 2001 I walked the
Pilgrimage Route (the Camino) from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in
Spain. It was one of the better things
I have ever done – and I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience. To give you a bit more of an idea of the whole thing, have a look at:
- the article I wrote when I got back
- various tips I have recently sent out to someone in response to their questions
Walking the Ancient Pilgrimage Route
to Santiago de Compostela
In the Middle Ages, all roads led to Santiago de Compostela. The city, located in north-western Spain, was perhaps the number one centre of pilgrimage in Christendom – even above Rome and Jerusalem. People walked from all over the Christian world to visit the grave of the apostle Saint James ('Sant Iago' in Spanish), even though the historical provenance now appears rather dubious as to whether he was actually buried there. The first recorded foreign pilgrim arrived in Santiago in 950 AD and by the 12th Century a veritable mass were making the pilgrimage. At its height there were half a million pilgrims per year, and this at a time when population levels were much lower than today. Various upheavals (not least the Reformation), saw a decline in numbers, until the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars effectively put an end to large-scale European pilgrimage.
Interest in the pilgrimage has seen a revival in recent times. Many people drive the route, but also there has been a massive increase in the number of people walking or cycling or riding to Santiago (whilst only 252 such pilgrims were recorded in 1983, in 1999 there were over 28,000). In order to be counted as a pilgrim (and get your certificate) it is stipulated that you must at least walk 100 km or cycle 200 km. In practice, many people do far in excess of this – I was to meet people who had started in Arles and Le Puy in France, and a couple of Swiss guys who started in Geneva. The majority, though, start somewhere in the Pyrenees and end up doing something like 800 km along the Camino Francés (the route that the main paths from Northern Europe filter into). It was this route that I decided to do. Only after walking 444 km did I discover that the route that the English traditionally took was to sail to La Coruña and then walk the 57 km to Santiago – but I think I would prefer to walk any distance than sail across the Bay of Biscay.
After a couple of test walks on the North Downs Way, I decided that I was not as unfit as I had thought and booked my bus ticket south. I arrived in Bayonne at 3.30 on the morning of 25th September and accommodated myself in my sleeping bag on the station steps for 4 hours of surprisingly refreshing sleep. I took the first train to St Jean Pied de Port (in the French Pyrenees) and quickly found the Pilgrims' Office in order to get my Pilgrim's Passport (necessary for staying in the refuges on the way and for collecting the stamps required to prove you are worth the certificate at the end). It was here that I had the first of many interesting linguistic encounters – the woman who was doing my paperwork kept forgetting herself and launching into long explanations in German, which given that I was an Englishman in France heading to Spain produced some bafflement on my part. This proved to be par for the whole Camino and much laughter was had by all as a result.
I started walking after lunch and found myself thinking what on earth I had let myself in for – I wasn't feeling sure whether my boots were going to be kind to me, whether my pack was going to be too heavy, and how I was going to take to walking all this way on my own. I must have covered all of 3 km before I encountered my first fellow pilgrim and from then on the whole experience changed. OK, the walk was the focus for everything but what made the Camino something out of the ordinary was the company of people with that same focus.
There is certainly no such thing as a 'typical pilgrim'. Although some were walking for traditional Catholic reasons, others were on a hiking holiday, or testing themselves, or escaping things, or doing something for world peace, or getting over some loss, or wanting to learn something from the simple of discipline of getting up and walking every day, or a combination of all these. I met people from nearly every country in Europe as well as Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and Brazil (the latter providing the most pilgrims after Spain and France – many inspired, I think, by reading Paolo Coelho's bestselling book 'The Pilgrimage'). There were men and women of all ages (the youngest I met was 19, the oldest 74), some experienced alpine walkers but also many people who had never walked with a pack before in their life, people who covered 10 km a day and those who did 50.
What everyone's status outside of the Camino was somehow unimportant. The focus was on walking and the here and now – the practicalities of following the yellow arrows on the trail, dealing with the weather (from baking sunshine to rain that soaked right through to the bones – but mostly pretty good for walking), finding the pilgrims' refuges (varying from the newly custom-built hostel with under-floor heating to the dusty ex-school with ancient squeaky bunk beds and a gas bottle to cook on – whatever, you never complain when it's only costing £2 a night), repairing blistered feet (I'll protect you from a description of the state my little toes got into), discovering techniques for conjuring hot water out of the local plumbing (or in some cases trying to work out how to have a shower without being blown down the plughole by the high pressure jet of nearly boiling water), laundering our pitifully small amount of clothes, finding refreshment despite Spain's very individual opening hours, trying to keep one's pack weight to a minimum, and dealing with people who snored at an Olympic level for their country. My main memories will be of much laughter (especially at the multi-national 'dinner parties' en route – have you ever tried to explain what a turnip is to someone when you have no language in common?), of much kindness (everyone needed relief from suffering at some stage), and of much extraordinary singing (from hymns to punk via Rolf Harris).
Every day was different. At the beginning of the trip I would set a target for the day's walking but as time went on I refused to make decisions until they were required, listening to what it felt like to be where I was at a particular time with the people who were around me. In the end, we each have our own pace and if we don't listen to that, then that's when the trouble starts. Some days were 20 km days, some were 40 km days. The route of the Camino is unlike a lot of modern long-distance paths which are designed to get away from it all and be in the wild landscapes. The fact that this was a path originally used by pilgrims (many walking in sandals) means that it avoids tough walking where possible and tends to go through every village and town on the way, many of which were founded to support the pilgrims. Some places make you want to linger, others to leave them behind in your dust. Some stretches require head-down persistence (or particularly loud singing) such as the mind-numbingly flat and empty meseta between Burgos and León, and the occasional pounding of the hard shoulder in the face of huge tooting articulated lorries. Other days were maybe more physically demanding but took in fantastic mountain views. Whatever the day, though, I would often find myself thinking that my feet were treading the same path that millions of feet had trodden over a thousand years.
I arrived in Santiago after walking 764 km in 32 days. It was certainly a fitting end as we took off our packs and sat on the cold cobbles of the quiet main square staring up at the imposing presence of the Cathedral. There was a sad feeling at stopping walking but soon we were celebrating with people who had got ahead of us and in turn being bumped into by people who were behind. Saying goodbye was pretty grim but if that is the penalty of having more friends then so be it.
If anyone thinks that this is something they might want to try, please do get in touch and I can certainly give a few pointers as to how to avoid some of the pitfalls. Life becomes simpler when reduced to the basics (as Brian Keenan put it, all you need is "exercise, the companionship of friends and above these the gift of the spirit that is divine") and it's amazing how quickly it feels normal to walk 15 miles a day with a 30 lb pack (maybe lighter if you can be more self-controlled than I was in supermarkets – but then mango chutney is pretty divine too).
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Various tips to help you on your way
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- The best time of year is in the spring May/June or autumn
September/October - the summer is too damn hot and crowded (Spanish holidays
are in August and the Camino is apparently unbearably busy with the hostels
en route getting full very early in the day) - I started one week before the
end of September, and whilst it can be occasionally chilly and you're more
likely to get rain, I would rather have that than the roasting sun (which we
did have on a couple of days and I nearly keeled over).
- The Pilgrims' Passport is really easy to get - you just turn up at the
Camino office in St Jean Pied de Port (or any of the major refuges on the Camino)
- Most of the Camino is pretty flat (on same days it seems to neverendingly
stretch into the distance) - in all of the 32 days I took from St Jean Pied
de Port to Santiago, there were only about 5 days where there was any
serious uphill stuff - and after the flat sections, it was often a relief.
Obviously starting in the Pyrenees means that Day One was one of them, but
you can lessen the shock by initially walking a few kms out of St Jean Pied
de Port and staying in the hostel there (the Camino office will be able to
advise you on this and book it for you when you get your passport) so that
you take a bit of a chunk out of your first day of walking proper over the
Pyrenees to Roncesvalles.
- Footcare is paramount - make sure you are happy with your boots and socks
(inner socks help prevent blisters and being smaller and quicker drying than
outer socks make for less day-to-day washing) - and take along a foot repair
kit (including Compeed, a sort of replacement skin) - though if you don't
have something you need then you will be able to buy it somewhere on the way
or a fellow pilgrim will help you out. I would say a pair of well-broken-in
leather boots that you have tested over some distance are infinitely
preferable to trainers - if it rains, trainers are useless - and ankle
support is important.
- Keep your pack weight to a minimum - you don't really need much - and if
you find you need something en route, there are good shops in the major
cities on the way - important things (not exhaustive list) are a change of
socks, lightweight waterproofs, hat, sunglasses, suncream, basic first aid
kit, pack of cards, the lyrics to your favourite songs, your favourite jokes
translated into at least a dozen languages, a pair of lightweight sandals
for walking around in when you've had enough of your boots for the day,
earplugs (many pilgrims are international snoring champions), washing line
(I use one of those bungee ones which don't require pegs), a good sharp
knife, 1 pair shorts, 1 pair long trousers, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 or 2
T-shirts, bar of soap (I used for personal washing and laundry - you just
need to get enough to get you through the walk without stinking too much -
and then you'll probably burn or throw out your clothes at the end of it
anyway), jar of mango chutney (available in El Corte Ingles in all major
cities!). I didn't use a walking stick, but lots of people did - helps
especially when going down hill - some people talk about the need to have
one to fend off dogs, but I didn't have any trouble in that line. Overall,
you will have to make compromises - and that means that on some days you may
not have enough kit, but if you get it right, on most days you will have
enough - and a little discomfort on a couple of days is better than the
chronic discomfort of carrying too heavy a pack for every day of the trip
just to be able to cover every eventuality.
- If you are cooking rather than eating out, make sure you check out the
refuge's cooking facilities BEFORE you buy everything in the supermarket on
arrival in a town - I got caught out in Fromista where the guidebook said it
had a fully-equipped kitchen - it did, but pilgrims weren't allowed to use
it! Also you might want to take a tupperware box to keep certain bits of
- Take a good guidebook - the best guides I saw when I was walking a couple
of years ago where a couple of German ones, but if you can't read German, or
you don't get lucky (as I did) to fall in with a friendly German, then there
is a selection of English ones. I was recently up in London and
popped into Stanford's in Covent Garden and there was one I hadn't seen before - "Walking the
Road to Santiago" by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole which looked reasonably
good, though the maps were a bit sketchy and there wasn't huge details on
the refuges. Have also looked on Amazon and there's another new one by
someone called John Brierley due out on 7th April. There is also the
booklet from the Confraternity of St James which is pretty good (but no
maps). The Alison Raju one is OK but doesn't go into enough detail on the
facilities provided by refuges - and as for the Milla Bravo Lozano one,
don't bother, it is inadequate and inaccurate. Generally, the route-finding
is just a question of following the yellow arrows but having a bit of prior
warning of what facilities are available along the way is the main thing you
want from a guide book. Also a good guide book will give you an idea of
where you can fill your water bottle en route - most villages had some kind
- That said, don't plan too much - just go with the flow and you will be
open to the people and opportunities that you meet on the way
- Don't try and rush it - you'll miss out on the journey.
Won't say any more - you will find your own way of doing it and that's what
it's all about. Hope this helps, and really good luck with it.
PS Further information can be found on the Confraternity of St James website at www.csj.org.uk.