Camino de Santiago: When to Walk?

IMG_0879Someone recently asked me for my thoughts on when to walk Camino de Santiago. It’s a great question. I’ve walked the French route, Camino Francés, so it’s the only route I can comment on but there are lots of other paths to Santiago. Each one brings its own set of considerations. I need to point out that I’ve walked 800km, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and across Northern Spain. For some people that’s “all of it” but for others it’s only a section of the journey. The length of the walk is relevant when you have to think about weather,  accommodation, and such.

It’s very tempting to tell you about the weather and the general conditions when I walked. That’s easy to recount but not necessarily very helpful. Instead, here are my tips for trying to decide when is *your* best time to walk.

In no particular order…

  • Get informed. Talk to someone you know who’s already walked a camino – any camino. If you don’t know anyone in your inner circle, see if your friends or colleagues know anyone, ask at your local outdoor shop, or see if there are camino talks in your area where you can meet people who’ve got some first-hand experience. Ask them what route they took and when they walked (what year and months). Why did they choose that route, and was it considered quiet or busy at that time? What was the weather like? Was it typical for that time of year? Some people may have experienced unusually wet summers or surprisingly warm winters – find out when others walked, why they chose that time, and what their overall experience was.IMG_1116
  • Remember that everyone is different. One person’s best time to walk  is another person’s worst. I’ve met people who walked in the July & August heat, and others who walked when there was snow and ice. With the right gear, preparation, and common sense, they all survived just fine. So, take some time to reflect on your own happy medium in terms of temperatures, rainfall, sunshine…that kind of thing.cropped-img_0748.jpg
  • Look at your life. How much time can you give to the trail and when? I’ve met lots of school teachers who, because of their profession, could walk only at certain, very specific times of the year. Do you have similar constraints in your life? If so, how will they impact on your journey? Let’s say you have two weeks vacation (clearly not a teacher, ha ha ha), you need to take a transatlantic flight, walk camino for ten days, then fly home and jump straight back into work and your daily routine. Doable? Sure – lots of people do it because it’s the only way they can experience camino at all. Question is: is this how you want to do it? Take the time to reflect on what you can realistically give, and when. IMG_1266
  • Do some real-time research. I spent a bit of time reading through the Camino de Santiago Forum, here: https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/. It’s a great resource full of up-to-date information about weather conditions, accommodation details, transport links, security topics…you name it. The “up-to-date” bit is relevant here. Already, my experience of camino is outdated because things have changed quite a bit since I walked. Getting information from people who are there right now is really helpful, and hopefully will help you in your own decision making.IMG_1051
  • Consider your route. The Camino Francés is hugely popular but it’s not the only route to Santiago. According to the pilgrimage office statistics page, the figures confirm that the numbers of people on camino are growing every year. In 2013 in the office received 215,879 pilgrims. In 2017, the office received 301,036 pilgrims. That’s quite a jump. Did they all walk the Camino Francés? It’s unlikely, but the growing numbers have an impact on everything – from the structural integrity of the trail to the availability of hot water in hostels. When you’re trying to decide when to walk, also think about what route you have in mind. Maybe you automatically assume you’ll walk the Camino Francés, but have you thought about how busy it may be? Consider the other routes too: they may be a better option for you given the time of year you want to walk, the amount of time you have to offer, and the experience you seek.IMG_0917
  • Don’t try to be perfect. Unexpected things happen on camino and in life, and there is no time of the year that is perfect for a walk such as this. For all the research you do, know when to pull back from it, too. Give yourself some breathing space and know that you cannot control every single detail, so don’t even try.IMG_1133
  • Last but certainly not least, follow your inner voice. It’s very, very easy to get caught up in research and preparation but that’s all “head stuff”. Pay very close attention to the “heart stuff” and “gut” too, because these parts of ourselves can be remarkably clear when it comes to making decisions. Give yourself the time and quiet space to notice how you feel and to listen to your inner wisdom. In my own experience, the call to walk camino was quite clear and I found it impossible to shake off the feeling that I needed to walk from early September until mid October. I tried talking myself into waiting until the following spring so I would have more time to save money, do some training, and do some research. The gut said “Nooooooooooo!” and the heart said it too. So, my decision to go walk 500 miles wasn’t what-you-would-call logical, but I am proud I heeded my own inner voice. I heartily encourage you to do the same! 🙂IMG_0735Whatever you decide, enjoy it  – all of it! In the grand scheme of things, deciding when to walk a camino is a “first world problem” and isn’t one to agonize over. We are remarkably privileged to have the health, wealth, and mobility to even consider such a thing. Count your blessings and celebrate it all. x

Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Hello September!

Hello,

I’m back!

I need to ‘fess up and admit, red-faced, that this camino story has turned into a very long, drawn-out tale. I never intended it to be like this so apologies for all of you who’ve been waiting all this time for the end. It will come, just like the real end of camino did, and I promise I am getting there.

In many ways, I am still catching up on all the ways in which it changed me. Is that an excuse for taking a ridiculously long amount of time to recount my experience? Yes, it is. And it’s also the truth. To tell the story too quickly kind of implies that walking the 500 miles was something I just did one year, casual as could be, with no thought about it afterwards. That wasn’t my experience of walking across Spain. While I am sorry I’ve been so slow with the writing, I know camino wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan experience for me. Somehow, the slow recounting is part of that.

I’ve had a busy summer and got locked out of my wordpress account more times than I could count, so I lost some of my motivation to write. But, I’ve got that back-to-school energy at the moment and I am full of industrious ideas and plans. I’m also reminded of my camino journey, which started around this time of the year. The seasonal change reminds me of it all — packing my bag, getting on the plane to Biarritz, and later, the hours and hours of being outside every day. I look back on it with rose-tinted glasses, I know.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on how my camino experience has steeled me for life. In the time since I finished walking,  there’s been plenty of illness and bereavement, sorrow and loss, overwhelm and depletion. There’s also been tremendous joy, new beginnings, new unions and life, and great connection. Every day, I am so busy trying to do my best with the day, I often forget to zoom out a bit and look at the big picture. I often forget to take stock of all that is going on in my life and how much of it is working well.

There were days on camino when everything seemed to slot together and my entire being hummed with contentment, like one very happy tuning-fork. There were also days when I was so overwhelmed with gloom that the best I could do was draw a line under the day and hope the next one would be better. My everyday life is like this too: some days are full of choral harmonies and other days are a groan from beginning to end.

So, how does the camino help?

Because it taught me this: just keep going. No one walks to Santiago in one clean hop. No matter what way you look at it, 500 miles is a long way to go by foot, irrespective of your circumstances in life. Some people walking have loads of money and others have only some of their limbs. This is life.

So don’t shy away from the challenge of it, whatever “it” is in your life right now. Don’t let fear swallow up all of your best ideas and heartfelt aspirations. Don’t let uncertainty turn into inertia. Just keep going. One foot at a time, one day at a time, one café con leche at a time. Amazingly, the effort all adds up. It doesn’t always seem like it but it does amount to something, it does create something in its own right.

Camino…life…writing a blog about camino and life….it’s all one day at a time. One post at a time, one strong mug of coffee at a time. And isn’t it great to be able to do it? Really, every day I am alive, I still have a crack at living well and making things a bit better. I still have choice.

So, camino made me strong, keeps me strong, and gives me good perspective on how to keep going. I said it before but it re-wired me from the inside and changed everything since.

Thanks for reading, for waiting, and for giving a damn. I’m excited to be back and look forward to more in the weeks ahead.

Buen Camino to you.