Walking the Camino de Santiago

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Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James, follows an ancient Roman trade route dating back to over a 1,000 years. Camino Francés, the Saint-Jean to Santiago route,  is dotted with sites dating as far back as 1 million years. Though it is known as a pilgrimage route for Christians the Camino is a window to cultures and traditions that have existed in Iberia for thousands of years. Today people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds can be found humming the tune of the pilgrims song, Ultreya, as they hike the width of Spain lead by personal motivations.

The Camino has several starting points including those in Lisbon, Seville, and Le-Puy in France. The best known is the route starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Wherever they may start, all pilgrims make their way to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in its namesake city in Galicia. Some even continue on to Finisterre and Muxia on the west coast of Spain.

The distance between Saint-Jean and Santiago is roughly 800km. Depending on an individuals fitness level and pace the journey can take 2-6 weeks. However, the Camino is not about the speed at which you complete it nor is it about where you start or end. I’ve met pilgrims who started walking from their doorstep as far away as the Netherlands and Switzerland! Camino is a Spanish word which means journey. In other words, focus should be on the journey and not the destination. The idea of walking 25-30km a day might seem superhuman but with patience and persistence everyone finds their rhythm. People on a two or three week holiday might find the Camino physically and emotionally tiring only if they insist on reaching a certain destination by a certain date. Instead, it is better to embark on the journey with the intention that wherever you are, it is the place they’re meant to be. If you don’t complete the journey as you had planned it, you can always return and continue another time. I’ve met several pilgrims who’ve walked the entire length of the Camino in stages spreading over 2-3 years.

The terrain is fairly easy to walk. Wherever it may seem challenging, for example the climb up in to the Pyrenees, pilgrims can opt for alternative routes to match their fitness level. It is best to work with your physical capabilities to prevent injuries and additional obstacles during the journey. The Camino is not a hike in remote wilderness. While some areas in the Pyrenees and Galicia might seem isolated, civilization is always a stones throw away. Stay focused and don’t be stressed about getting too tired or not having access to water. Things have a way of working out on the Camino. Just ask anyone who has walked the way.

On the Camino Francés the landscape ranges from mountain starting in St. Jean to a stretch of roughly 190km of meseta between Burgos and Leon followed by mountains in Galicia until the final descent in to Santiago. Many pilgrims find the flat meseta the most challenging portion on the Camino. Heat during the summer months and repeating landscape are usually the main cause. As a result many people try to rush through the meseta. This is also when many people get injured and exhausted. In contrast, the mountain and hilly areas offer a more picturesque landscape. The risk of getting hurt are greater and more obvious. Therefore, pilgrims take more precautions and time feeling uplifted by their surroundings. The best is to find a balance and maintain a steady pace throughout the Camino so that your body can adapt.

Over 100,000 people walk the route every year. Camino de Santiago can be a very social experience. That doesn’t mean that you can not find time for self reflection or silence. Opt to walk during times when fewer people are on the trail, for example, very early in the morning. You can also choose to walk/bike sections that are less popular or make your own path wherever possible. Most pilgrims avoid sections like the Dragonte route between Villafranca and O’Cebreiro due to the level of difficulty. Such sections are ideal for pilgrims who seek a more solitary experience. As you get closer to Santiago, however, it becomes more and more challenging to be alone. Pilgrims need to walk a minimum distance of 100km (200km for bikers) to receive a compostela – a type of “certificate of accomplishment” issued by the cathedral. As a result the final stage of the Camino can be very crowded.

Nearly every town and village is setup with private and public accommodation. Special hostels called albergues or refugios are set up especially for pilgrims walking the Camino. Conditions are fairly good across all options and budgets. Some pilgrims still choose to camp at designated camp sites or wherever they may find themselves at the end of the day. The route is very safe, though everyone must take standard precautions to protect their valuables. When I walked the Caino, there was only one instance of theft near the end of the journey at a beach in Finisterre. A group of Slovak pilgrims decided to sleep at the beach and left their backpacks unattended overnight. There’s a saying, don’t tempt the poor.

Food is readily available every dozen kilometers except on Sundays when practically all commercial activity comes to a halt in rural Spain. Still you can find at least one cantine or corner shop to buy supplies. It is wise to carry some food in your backpack at all time. Some albergues offer kitchens so pilgrims can prepare their own food, while others offer food at in house restaurants. Fellow pilgrims are also always happy to share their food and water. If you’re really stuck you can also try your luck by knocking the door of a local. Spaniards, especially those who live along the route to Santiago, seem to have a great deal of respect for people walking the Camino. Some of the earliest stories about pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella document the warm hospitality of locals who would feed and provide shelter to the pilgrims.

UNESCO World Heritage SiteCamino de Santiago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was declared to be the first European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1987. The route played an important role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. According to UNESCO records, some 1,800 building along the Camino Francés are of great historic interest. Camino de Santiago is an unique experience that holds a personal meaning for each individual who chooses to to walk the way.

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