The popularity of walking a camino has gone through the roof over the past five years or so.
What is it, you may ask, and what is the attraction?
In this post I want to tell the camino story. The Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of the crazy passion for tying on your walking shoes, pulling on a backpack and strolling across Spain.
The idea of walking a camino is intricately linked to the Christian faith. Once upon a time, in around 40AD, the Apostle James came to Spain to convert the locals to Christianity. He received a pretty warm welcome from many people who duly abandoned their pagan ways and converted to this new religion.
Later in the story James returned to Jerusalem and was promptly beheaded by King Herod. According to the legend, his Spanish followers gathered James’ remains and spirited them back to the Galician countryside in north-west Spain.
Over time, the burial site of James was forgotten (or hidden on purpose) until one day, a shepherd saw a cascade of stars falling into a field. Yes, this indicated the original resting place of James and from that point on it became a sacred site for pilgrims. From around the 9th Century, pilgrims walked from all over Europe (and further afield) walked to the site to pay their respects and have their sins absolved. The story was that if you endured the hardship of pilgrimage your sins would evaporate and your path cleared for an expressway into heaven when your time came.
As the years progressed and pilgrim numbers increased, the site of James’ remains developed into a church, then an extensive cathedral and now the modern day city of Santiago de Compostela.
You can choose to believe this or not. It is totally up to you and the camino welcomes everyone – believers or no.
NB: Santiago de Compostela is said to translate to Sant Iago (St James) de (of) Compos (Field) Stela (Stars).
Why People Walk a Camino?
There is no one reason why people set out on a camino. Yes, some people hold fast to its religious origins, but for many it is a wonderful way to experience the fabulousness that is Spain and meet a United Nations of interesting and friendly people.
Some people walk for the solitude and the space, and time to deal with grief, loss, change or complexity in their lives. On the Camino Frances we met a wonderful 73-year-old man called Ulrich who was walking on the 10-year anniversary of when he and his wife first walked the camino, and the one-year anniversary of her death. Every day he would read from the journal that he wrote on the camino 10 years ago and visited churches along the way, lighting candles for his dear wife.
Personally, I find walking long distances quite meditative. Those constant steps, one after another, develop into a gentle rhythm that allows your mind to wander and let go of much of the unnecessary mental rubbish we carry around in our daily lives. It is also an unbeatable way to get fit and lose a few unwanted kilograms while still eating and drinking to your heart’s content.
Warning: Caminos are addictive. It is difficult to stop after one and there is a constant pull to return to Spain and just keep walking.
Where Do Camino Paths Go?
It is possible to walk on a pilgrim path from almost any part of Spain and Portugal. Connecting paths also stretch all over France, with some originating in neighbouring European countries. When I walked the Frances and the Via de la Plata (from Seville), I met people who had simply walked out their front doors in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and made their way purposefully towards Spain. Now that is a walk!
NB: Camino is the Spanish word for road.
Who Walks A Camino?
As mentioned previously, the camino welcomes everyone. Depending on your chosen path, anyone can walk regardless of age and fitness levels. Overall, it is an older demographic of people who have retired or those who have the financial wherewithal to afford to take a long block of time off work and not have any regular income as they walk.
Younger people do walk too with a noticeable bubble of Spanish university students etc walking for a couple of weeks during school holiday breaks. I met people walking as a family including a handful of young and very young children. I was inspired on a daily basis by people in their mid-70’s and those nudging their 80’s.
The only thing stopping you walking, is you.
Where Do You Stay?
This is very dependent on the path you choose, but the most popular accommodation is a hostel called an albergue. The albergues, many established hundreds of years ago, provided shelter for the original pilgrims. They exist today in a variety of forms and comfort levels with the simple ones costing about €10 per night.
On most paths there is also a good selection of simple 2-star hotels and casa Rurals (farm stays), right up to luxury beds in Paradores (gloriously restored castles etc). It all depends on your budget.
When to Walk?
Spring and Autumn are the most popular times to walk, when the weather is not at the extremes of hot and cold. Summer is popular for Europeans, especially the Spaniards, who complete part or all of their pilgrimage in their extended Summer break. Pilgrims also walk during Winter although on some paths it is not safe to do this due to heavy snow and much albergue infrastructure will shut down from November to March each year.
There is also an event called a Holy Year, when pilgrim paths attract a greatly increased number of walkers. 2021 is designated a Holy Year, so if you intend to walk next year, I recommend you try to book your accommodation in advance rather than just strolling into a village and hoping for the best. It may just take a little of the stress out of each day’s walk if you know you have a bed already waiting for you.
How Fit Do You Have to Be?
It depends on the path you choose, the terrain and the distance between villages. For your first time, I recommend you start on the Camino Frances. Yes, it is the most popular and therefore busy, but the infrastructure is really well set up to cater for pilgrims and if you only want to walk 10km per day, that will get you to the next restaurant and/or accommodation. You will also meet an amazing number and range of fascinating people.
Another strength of the Frances is that you can have your backpack/suitcase transported ahead to your next town. If you feel your back is not strong enough to carry a loaded backpack, send it ahead and just frolic along with your daypack.
Yes, I am the original camino-bore, but I can’t encourage you enough to take the first step on an adventure of a lifetime.
The Camino will welcome you and it will provide.
Have you walked a camino? What was your experience?
What: The Camino Frances is the main pilgrim path connecting numerous northern and north-eastern European paths, leading all the way to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. It was the route featured in the movie The Way starring Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen.
Where: The Frances starts on the French side of the Pyrenees at a gorgeous town called St Jean Pied de Port and takes in the major Spanish cities of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, ending at Santiago de Compostela. It is approximately 790km long.
When: For safety reasons, avoid walking in the extreme Winter and Summer temperatures. Each year a small handful of pilgrims lose their lives on the path because they have put themselves at risk and not prepared for the conditions.
Why: To walk, dream, talk, laugh, wonder, appreciate, taste, think, and be grateful.
How: Walking is by far the most popular way to undertake a camino, but horse and donkey transport are also acceptable, and bicycles are extremely popular too.
Who: It is a walking United Nations. Just take that first step to opening yourself up to a whole range of new people and experiences. Regardless of your age, you will find wells of resilience you did not know you possessed.
Related Posts: Check out my posts under the TWO FEET tab on this blog for walks all over Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Related Blogs: For an excellent source of information, check out the Camino de Santiago forum. There is not a question in the World that hasn’t already been asked. The answers are here.
Read About It: To get planning your Camino Frances, go to the camino Bible – John Brierley’s Camino Frances guide book. Available from Book Depository.
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