The Camino de Santiago is a walk or a hike or a pilgrimage, of varying lengths and varying degrees of difficulty depending on your approach. It crosses northern Spain, or Portugal, or France, or anywhere you like really. It begins from wherever you choose to start, and finishes whenever you're finished.
Perhaps, to those of open hearts, this seemingly vague description is more accurate than you'll find elsewhere.
To involve yourself with the Camino is a choice, how you involve yourself, from where and for how long is also of your choosing. The intention of this piece is to give aspiring Camino hikers some things to think about and points to aid in the making of these decisions.
The Camino de Santiago, (also known by the English name 'Way of St James') is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes, known as 'Pilgrim Ways', all leading to the shrine of the apostle 'St. James the Great' in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, North Western Spain.
Traditionally pilgrims would leave their homes, wherever they may be, and travel until they reached the mighty Cathedral in Santiago. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried within the Cathedral.
Many take up this route as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth, hence individuals undertaking this form of journey tend to use the term 'pilgrimage' to describe their journey, and refer to themselves as a 'pilgrim'.
Many non-practicing Christians undertake this journey every year. One should not be put off by the religious history, the way is full of intense beauty both structural and natural. The journey is not exclusive to any one religion or any one purpose. What turns a walk into a pilgrimage is purely your personal intention. That is entirely down to you.
I believe any journey is a pilgrimage, if you choose for it to be so.
Because you fancy it and for no other reason..
Because you are looking to make a change, in your being, in your life, in your surroundings..
Because perhaps, soon you won't be able to..
Because you want to spend time with yourself, or someone else..
Because you have never done anything like it before..
Because you have done something like it before..
Because you enjoyed the feel of 'The Way'..
Because you have bigger, grander plans and this is an introduction to increase your confidence..
Because it's pretty and full of cheese and pastries and coffee is both amazing and on average only 1,5 euros...
Because you enjoy walking, you enjoy yourself and your partner sharing views and tiny beautiful Spanish villages..
Because: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."
Now we have that sorted. When will you go?
When will you have the time?.
When will you have the inclination or desperation?.
When you will have the money?.
After that, think about:
How hot do you like it?.
And how crowded?
I chose May.
I chose May to avoid the June, July and August crowds as well as the greatest heat in the same months. As it is, May is still a very popular month to begin. This worked for me because I was happy to meet people given that I was going alone.
September and October are more favourable months for cooler climates and for meeting fewer hikers - it depends on the experience you are looking for. I personally don't enjoy seeing my path marked before I have trodden it. The Camino can be so busy that it is lined visibly for miles ahead with hikers. However, others may find this a comfort.
Naturally, in Winter, it is cold and many places are deserted. The busy Camino puts these towns on the map. Without the pilgrims, the hostels and cafes are closed.
Pick a busy month or a quiet month, pick the heat or the cool and be ready for either and be patient with both.
When I hiked the Camino in May 2016, I went against my most natural and usual approach, which was to shun convention and began at the traditional and the most popular start of the most popular route the 'Camino De Frances' - beginning my hike at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (literally: Saint John [at the] Foot of [the] Pass).
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a commune in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques Department in southwestern France in the Pyrenean foothills. What a mighty fine place to begin. So mighty, that Charlie Sheen himself began here when filming 'The Way'.
For some wonderful people, their Camino begins at home. I met people who had left their front door in northern Germany. They invented their own route during the first week of walking through local trails, joined some better known National Paths until they eventually met the traditional start of the Camino, some two months later. What an adventure!
One lady I met, having left her home in eastern France, spoke of reaching Santiago then walking back home on an alternative route.
The other end of the spectrum is to join any Camino 100km before Santiago - the 'official' finish and the minimum amount that must be hiked or biked to receive a 'Compostela' (Certificate of achievement).
Anything in between this is possible. There are many different routes to choose from and 12 'main' paths. Some are more remote, where mountains must be climbed and tents must be carried as on these, albergues (hostels) are fewer and further between. Seeing people is rare and bakeries less often enjoyed (and perhaps therefore more appreciated)
There are more populated routes for those fearful of hiking alone, where an albergue can be enjoyed every single night for between 5 and 12 Euros. There are routes by the sea, routes in Portugal, routes in France and routes beginning all over Spain. Some routes are harder to access and some begin in the towns you fly to.
How to Camino and for how long:
You walk, pedal or ride - bike or horse. There is no other way. Navigation is easy. Many guide books with town guides and basic maps are available online although overall, they are not essential. The Camino is one of the best way-marked trails I have ever experienced.
The symbols of the Camino begin to feel like friends, a sense of peace and assurance allowing you to, at times, switch off and just put one foot in front of the other.
On one occasion at the end of a very hot 9-hour day, I found a tedious two-hour conversation (aloud) with myself, interrupted by one of these symbols, reminding me where I was. I was very thankful for this.
Given the plethora of possible routes, you can hike for three days or three months, or more, or less too. This is your choice. 'Traditionally' and probably on average, 4-6 weeks is standard for the Camino de Frances to be completed comfortably. Of course, this depends on what you find comfortable.
Who should you take?This is probably the decision I would pay most attention to. You can make amendments to most of the other decisions you have made, if they turn out to be bad choices. Losing or killing off the person you chose to go with because they are inappropriate or annoying, too fit or too unfit, they talk too much or not enough - is much harder.
My Camino was my first adventure totally alone (except when I was a child, but even then, my imaginary friends were there). I was instantly grateful for this clever decision. I was witness to many an argument and many a prolonged discussion on when couples or groups would stop, break, eat, sleep, nip off to the loo, and my most fearful discussion: how fast to walk; together or apart.
On a few occasions, I was dangerously close to getting into a long-distance hiking relationship - but was confident enough to break it off before it got too serious.
A solo traveller is more open to new friendships, of which I made many.
Every sort of person walks the Camino, so along with there being those to avoid, there are all those to embrace and learn from, enjoy and laugh with, those you will never see again and those you keep forever.
It is easy to join groups when you are alone, and easy to leave them. The freedom is precious and the challenge greater.
The decision: whether to go alone with a partner or in a group - ultimately is made when you have answered question one. Why are you going, what is your intention? After this you can decide if it is appropriate to go alone, or not.
I met a married couple who hike different sections of different routes every year - they do it because they believe there is always more to learn from and about each other. It rekindles their spark and reminds them about what they share. That's a nice reason to go.
I chose to go alone because I came to realise I'd forgotten how to be alone. I'd forgotten if I liked myself, without anyone else.
After I made this decision, my nerves began at home, which is where I left them, and my excitement grew the moment I closed my front door.
Of course, there were moments where I wish for loved ones to share views with, share long sole/soul destroying road walks or carafes of wine with. The realisation that sharing those things with yourself is sometimes enough, came to me quickly, as did the completely remarkable and life altering people and conversations I had.
Naturally your pace will be the same as others and you frequently see the same faces who have walked the same distance and stay in the same albergues. Friendships and families form through this. All the beautiful things that sharing a unique experience with others start to happen and you unavoidably feel a bond that you never would in many other situations. Questions like: 'What do you do?' And 'where are you from?' are rarely asked and replaced instead with 'Where did you begin the Camino?' and, 'Where did you come from this morning?'
And so, now the most challenging questions have been posed for you to try and answer. What is left?
Buy a simple guide book to start getting excited. Book transportation, your first night’s accommodation and pack a light bag. I guarantee the rest will fall into its rightful place.
However it begins, and however you end - there is a path on the Camino to suit every kind of journey.
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