The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James in English) is a network of ancient routes used by pilgrims all over Europe that lead to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain where it is believed the tomb of St James is located. Pilgrims have walked these roads since the 9th and 10th centuries, when conditions were very basic. In the centuries that followed more infrastructure was introduced along the routes (new bridges were built, roads resurfaced and more refuges and hospitals introduced) and pilgrims enjoyed excellent treatment as they made their way to Santiago (free accommodation and food as well as medical care). These days the routes stretch from as far north as England to southern Spain (with the most popular being the Camino Frances which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and runs over 800km into Santiago) and in the 1990s the Camino routes were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.
The reasons why people undertake (portions of) the Camino are so varied but these days I think it’s safe to say that whilst many pilgrims are seeking a spiritual experience (the reasons given for walking the Camino when people reach the end in Santiago and are applying for their official Compostela (completion certificate) seem to suggest this is the major reason), many are there to simply enjoy this very different way of travelling. Some are doing it on a dare, some as a “big birthday” present to themselves. Others are walking as a family or with a family member. Some are there for a digital detox (entirely possible if you wanted) and others are there for the physical and mental challenge this “walking holiday with a difference” provides. Others are walking it in memory of friends or family.
My walking buddy, Yvonne, and I started discussing this a couple of years ago (admittedly over a couple of glasses of wine…) and kind of got it in our heads that we really wanted to do this, I guess for no other reason than the challenge and, to be honest, it sounded like a cool way to see a part of the world I didn’t know very well. I’ll say that personally, the look of incredulity on many people’s faces when I told them I was (thinking about) walking the Camino was a little bit of motivation too (probably not the best reason to undertake a strenuous walking holiday but in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll leave that here). People who know me well will know I can do whatever I want if I put my mind to it (and my body is willing!) but those who don’t know me as well (“She’s a baker/ cook/ writer/ teacher not a hiker!” I could see people thinking…) were a little surprised. This is not the sort of good-food-and-wine fuelled vacation people are used to seeing me take either so I knew it would come as a surprise to a few.
At the end of the day, my nine days’ walking wasn’t the spiritual or religious experience many seek but I’ll say that walking (mostly in silence) for 4-7 hours a day does the mind as well as the body a lot of good. Puts things in perspective.
3. Um – you walked the entire Camino?
See above – I’m a baker/ cook/ teacher/ writer/ teacher. So, while I do have the vacation time (I’d say it would take me around 6 weeks to comfortably complete the 800 or so kilometres), that’s not something I think I would be interested in undertaking in one go. In fact, nine days (around 180km) was perfect – enough walking to make me see I am more capable than I (and others) gave myself credit for and short enough for it to remain pleasant and not “a slog” everyday (though the last couple of days it was hard getting up and pulling on our walking shoes).
To be honest, one of the major reasons I had hesitated into looking into the Camino before now was the idea of carrying all my worldly goods and possessions on my back as I hiked though sometimes very challenging landscape. Though I am sure if my life depended on it, I could make that work, right now in my life it wasn’t something I was interested in proving to myself. I know myself well enough to know the walking alone was going to be a challenge. Nowadays, luckily, there are services all along the Camino which will transport your luggage from hostel/pension/hotel to hostel/ pension/ hotel so all you have to do is, well, walk carrying the things you need during the day.
In keeping with what Yvonne and I dubbed the “Camino Lite”, no, we didn’t stay in the pilgrim hostels. Although these look like they have come a very long way since I backpacked through Europe in the early 1990s (many of them were in gorgeous historical buildings with all the creature comforts like Wifi and laundry services), sleeping in a bunk or dorm bed in a room with up to 50 other people just wasn’t the way I wanted to experience this trip.
(wait, you stayed in hotels and nicer guest houses and didn’t carry your own luggage? Where do I sign up?)
When we first had this idea, one of the very first things I did was Google “self guided walking tours of the Camino” and the very first result led me to the website of the Camino Travel Center. Apart from the fact that their packages were chunked into manageable stages (we were interested in the first stage of the Camino Frances from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Logroño), but there seemed to be lots of different options available for splitting really long days (yes, please!) and baggage transportation. Ultimately I did look at three or four other companies but it was the customer service and price (for what, essentially looked like the exact same services) that sold me on Camino Travel Center.
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit I thought this would be so much easier than it was. I mean, like – 20km in a day? I’d easily walk that in, say, London, Paris or New York on a regular “sightseeing” day. I wouldn’t be carrying my bags – what could be too hard about that. Sure, I knew there were a few steep sections but I also knew there were sections on country roads and farm paths so how hard could that be?
Well actually, our stage was classified as a “difficult” stage on the Camino Travel Center’s site so I should have possibly taken that a little more seriously. There were days when it was “only” 14km but it was raining and we were walking on muddy overgrown paths (with noone else in sight, I might add – not so reassuring!). That was hard. There were days when it was blazing hot (was expecting that) and we were to walk uphill for something like 10km pretty much non stop (guess I wasn’t expecting that!). There were days when it took over an hour to walk 3km because it was on loose gravel. So, “little” things like that made for a much harder experience than a “sightseeing 18km”. But, with a little good humour and a big effort, I did it. So, clearly not *too* hard.
To be honest I didn’t have too many expectations about the food – it wasn’t one of the reasons I was planning on undertaking this journey. I knew that there would be breakfast provided at each hotel/ guest house (of varying degree of quantity and quality but certainly nothing to complain about most days and a delight to behold on many days – think buffet with fresh fruits, eggs, breads and pastries and yoghurts along with local specialties like jamón and sheep’s milk cheese) to set us up for the day.
As far as eating on the road, during the day we mostly snacked on fruits and nuts we had bought in previous towns and along the way we both consumed more soft drinks than we both had for the past year (when it’s hot, there’s nothing quite like a Fanta Limón!). It was simply too hot to stop for any amount of time to eat a complete meal and in any case, that would just have weighed us down and made the “end of day pace” even slower!
At night though, we delighted in the so-called “Pilgrim Menu” offered in most of the restaurants and cafés in towns along the way. This includes three courses – entrée, main and dessert of very acceptable dishes (think salads or soups to start and pork or fish as a main while the dessert options were mostly flan, fruit or yoghurt) along with bread, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine for between 10 and 13€ (those were prices we saw, they may vary in different stages along the way. In most of the towns we passed through (with the exception of Pamplona and Logroño) we took advantage of this “deal” because it was a reliable way to make sure we ate at least one square meal each day. And no, you don’t need to finish the wine – you just drink what you feel like and leave the rest (which if you are like us, you will – noone wants to start a 20km walking day with a fuzzy head!)
As the person who had her luggage transported between hotels, I am hardly the person to recommend gear for those travelling lightly! I will say that next time (because I think there will be a next time) I will pack very differently (much lighter) though I still won’t carry my pack as I walk. So, what do I recommend?
- My daypack was a small one (18L) because I knew I wouldn’t want to carry too much and I am the type of person who will fill a bag if I have one 😉 I loved that it was just big enough for my day’s necessities but that it’s also big enough to carry a laptop and other items as a carry-on item. Pretty happy with this purchase.
- My water bottle. Sure you can buy water along the way but you may as well fill up with the water from the fountains along the way, right?
- My portable battery packs for my iPhone. Yes, although many people tell you not to bring technology on the Camino, I brought mine 😉 Mainly to keep my family and friends updated via social media and photos but hey, Google Maps did come in handy a number of times! My phone doesn’t hold a charge for more than a few hours so a portable battery pack was useful.
- My shoes. THE MOST IMPORTANT ITEM (well, as well as your socks, see below!). These KEEN boots fit like a glove, felt like slippers and saw me through some steep ascents and descents really well.
- My socks. Next to your shoes, the socks are the most important item of clothing you will rely on for a walking holiday. Smart Wool socks mean your feet stay dry and blister-free (and even if they do get rained on, they dry quickly and don’t rub on your feet when they are wet).
- My hat. Loved this hat because it had a wide brim, was easy to pack (it rolls up pretty much) and it’s actually a hat I’d wear on regular summer days. Essential in the hot weather as was my sunscreen.
- Yoga Tune Up balls. Essential for rolling out my sore feet, legs and hips. Easy to carry with a big effect.
I’ll go into more details about other items I found useful in subsequent posts but those were the key things for me.
9. What else did you “do” (sightseeing etc..)?
To be honest, after we’d completed our walking for the day, it was mostly 3-4pm (with one day ending around 1 and one ending at 5) so there was not much time to “see the sights”. Fortunately, most towns you stay in are fairly small so you don’t need that much time to explore with the exception of say, Pamplona and Logroño. In hindsight, I’d have added on an extra day (so, a rest day) in Pamplona so we could have explored a little more because that was a very tough, hot day’s walk and by the time we arrived, napped, showered etc.. it was around 7pm so, apéro then dinner then early to bed. When you are walking the Camino, you don’t stay out partying unless you want a really, really hard day the following day…
There are not many books you can purchase to “guide” you along the way – indeed, most people we saw didn’t have any book or map at all – they just relied on information they’v received in every place they stayed (maps for the day ahead etc…). As part of our package we received one copy of John Brierley’s “A Pligrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” on the first day of our trip and I bought my own copy months before we left so I could read a little ahead. This book has a strong emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the Camino which might not be for everyone but it is essentially the only comprehensive guidebook available (with route information and maps). For information on where to eat (when there is a choice, sometimes there is not) and things to see, you might want to do a little bit more research.
(Bonus) Did you train for this in any way? Sounds like a lot of walking every day – if I am not used to that how can I prepare myself?
I *thought* I trained enough for this trip – walking 3-4 times a week and then walking 6-8 km everyday in the few weeks leading up to the trip. Was it enough? Probably not but I don’t really know what would have prepared me for the inclines and descents (and the heat!) we encountered. So I’d say someone with a moderate fitness level with no known medical issues would be fine on this stage. DO go walking before the trip, get your legs, feet (and shoes!) used to what it feels like. Try to walk in a park where it’s not just concrete you are walking on. And just do what I did, à la The Little Engine that Could. One foot after another. If I can do it… (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional so if you are in doubt, ask your doctor).
Thanks for reading this far – hopefully this answered some of your questions so far. Stay tuned for posts on each day of the Camino over the next few weeks…
Disclosure: I researched Camino trips independently and chose the Camino Travel Center based on a number of features such as flexibility to accommodate a couple of “splits” in some of the longer days, price and customer service. They were, in fact the first company I came across in my very first Google search and the one I ended up booking with. From the initial inquiry to the actual trip, they were a pleasure to deal with and we were very impressed with the service provided (bag transportation) and the accommodation choices. I was not compensated to write about this trip in any way but I love sharing companies and products I believe in with my readers. I couldn’t recommend the Camino Travel Center more and, in fact, am looking at booking another Camino walk with them in the future.
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