The Cost of Camino: Is it *Really* that Cheap?

When I first heard about the 500-mile walk in Spain, I was still a student at university. My mountaineering friends talked about the open landscape and the physical challenge….oh, and the affordability of everything along the way. Unlike other long-distance hikes that I knew across the US and Europe, walking the Camino de Santiago seemed surprisingly cheap. Could it be real?

When the time came to walk, I didn’t know how to budget for it. I’d heard and read the stories of people who walked it spending only €20 a day (paying for accommodation, food, and sundries) and I wanted to do the same. I’d just quit my job and didn’t have another one on the horizon so getting the budget right was a necessity. But still, €20 a day, every day, in Europe seemed unrealistic. Would it be enough? And if not, how much extra would I need for 6 weeks of walking?

During my journey, I met a couple who’s combined total spend was €10 per day (wow). I met alleged millionaires who spent thousands of Euro on their trip. And I met every sort of person in between.

Me? I spent more than the rumoured €20 a day. I averaged closer to €35 per day. If were on a super strict budget, that kind of increase would have been a major stress for me. It’s nearly twice the amount that other pilgrims and guidebooks claim is average. So what happened? Did I lose the run of myself and squander my savings on fine dining and lavish spa treatments?

Ha! Not a chance.

From what I could tell, the €20 per day spend was possible only if one did the following:

  1. Walk fast so you can arrive at a town/village early and nab one of the €5 beds before other pilgrims *or* camp out
  2. Cook evening meals in the hostels instead of eating out
  3. Split the cost of private rooms with other pilgrims

Can’t do these things? Don’t want to do these things? Then €20 per day is not feasible and you need to put more money in the purse.

So what did I get for €35 per day?

Things I did:

  • Paid for flights within Europe
  • Slept indoors every night (mostly in dorms)
  • Bought footwear & clothing beforehand and en route
  • Bought pharmacy items en route (Compeed plasters, Ibuprofen, sunglasses, etc.)
  • Sent 1.5kg of belongings home in the mail
  • Contributed to the cost of 2 taxis with other pilgrims
  • Paid for 2 return bus tickets
  • Paid to have my laundry washed & dried in machines on a few occasions
  • Gave between €10-20 to ‘Donativo’ hostels (I could have given less but that was my choice)
  • Stayed in private hotel rooms by myself for 5 nights en route
  • Bought postcards, chocolate gifts, and earrings
  • Bought food in corner shops, supermarkets, and the occasional stall
  • Ate out for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner every day
  • Ate picnics
  • Donated to a photography exhibition & church collections
  • Bought beers & coffee for other pilgrims

Things I didn’t do:

  • Camp or sleep outdoors
  • Plan my route around cheap hostels
  • Book a room in advance (not even my first night in St. Jean or my finish in Santiago)
  • Stay in any of the Parador hotels (alas!)
  • Buy fashionable clothing or anything made of Spanish leather
  • Cook my own food (with the exception of 3-4 occasions)
  • Order the cheapest item on the menu
  • Skimp on pharmacy supplies, food, or a place to sleep
  • Go to bed hungry

All in all, my experience wasn’t overtly decadent but it wasn’t all frugal hardship either.  I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and in the quantities I wanted. I didn’t hold back on the coffee or wine! And I bought whatever clothing/medical supplies I needed along the way. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t really see much that I wanted to buy en route. Sure, I could have bought fashionable jeans and winter sweaters in Leon….but then I would have had to carry them all the way to Santiago. There wasn’t a hope in hell I was going to do that, so the temptation to buy frivolous items disappeared quickly.

I bought what I needed and some of what I wanted, and I did just fine.

And you know, the differentiation between my ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ has never been more clear. It was an eye opener for me, not just while I walked but for everyday life too. It’s just another way in which camino changes those of us that walk it.

🙂

 

Camino Packing List

This post is long overdue but here we go!

Planning to walk Camino is an exercise in lightweight packing and de-cluttering. I wanted to walk 800km over a 6 week period and I would need to carry all my clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies on my back during that time. Packing a light pack makes the long walking a lot easier.

I was advised to carry no more than 10% of my body weight in my backpack. I was advised to carry no more than 10kg but to really aim for 6-7kg. I was advised to weigh out every item of gear before I packed it, and to omit anything that didn’t have at least a dual role. After years of hiking and camping, I thought I had a pretty good handle on packing a backpack. Turns out, I didn’t have *that* good a handle on it because I am used to packing for wind, rain, and cold conditions – and Spain was hot and dry. I found it difficult to resist packing backup clothing and rain gear.

I packed my backpack the evening before I flew out to France.

Last minute packing at its best!

I didn’t test out my gear before I packed it. I didn’t do practice walks with my backpack for weeks in advance. I didn’t know what it all weighed when it was packed away and sitting on my shoulders. I didn’t have time to organise all of this before I left.

The night before I flew to France, I sat on the floor of my spare room with gear all around me – deciding what to bring and pulling labels off my new purchases. I’m sure this last minute frenzy is sweat-inducing for many people but my philosophy was this:

I am going to get this gear list wrong in some way – just because I’ve never done this before and the future weather conditions are unknown. So, I will pack as sensibly as I can but I will allow myself to replace or remove gear along the way if I need to. And I allow myself to figure it out as I go along.

If I do say so myself, that flexibility around my gear gave me great freedom and it allowed me to relax. I didn’t have to get it all perfectly right. I didn’t have to have all the answers in advance. I could make it up as I went along.

So what *did* I pack?

My Camino Packing List – What I Brought to France/Spain:

The Backpack:

  • 45L North Face backpack
  • 1 pair Leki hiking poles
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles when I checked my bag in at the airport
  • Scallop shell hanging on outside of pack, gifted to me (Thanks Jen!)
  • Nite ize buglit flashlight attached to shoulder strap of backpack (Thanks Katie & Jon!)

Raingear:

  • 1 lightweight Columbia rain jacket
  • 1 pair lightweight North Face rain pants

Footwear:

  • Chaco hiking sandals for 10 days then swapped to Salomon hiking shoes. (I didn’t buy the Gore Tex variety because they felt too heavy & the weather/ ground were dry)
  • 3 pairs medium weight hiking socks (2 pairs of 1000 Mile Socks & 1 pair Bridgedale wool)
  • 1 pair of Crocs (with holes!) to wear in the evenings & in the shower. Unlike flip flops, I could wear socks with them (how sexy!)
  • Custom fitted arch supports

Clothing:

  • 1 pair of Columbia hiking shorts for day use
  • 1 pair of North Face long pants for evenings (not the zip-away ones)
  • 2 wick-away t-shirts (synthetic, quick-drying)
  • 1 cotton t-shirt for evenings and bed
  • 1 Lowe Alpine fleece sweater (a really ugly one too that I’ve had for 10+ years & I didn’t mind it getting more scruffy. The fashionista in me sometimes regretted that it was *so* ugly and I felt self-conscious about looking so rough – but it was warm, dried quickly, and worked as expected so I can’t really fault it)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 REI sun hat (thanks Jen!)
  • 1 quick-dry sports bra
  • 4 pairs underwear
  • 1 cotton pashmina
  • 1 pair of sunglasses, which I broke along the way so I bought more
  • 1 extra-large travel towel (the size of a regular bath towel)
  • Bandana (it hid all my bad hair days!)

Tech:                                                                                         

  • 1 wristwatch with leather strap
  • iPhone
  • iPhone charger
  • Earphones
  • Travel adaptor

Sleeping gear: (thanks Jen!)

  •  Sea2Summit pyrethrin-treated sleeping bag liner
  • Homemade blanket of silk fabric and Primaloft

Paperwork:

  •  Printed email confirmation for outbound flight to France
  • 1 money belt to go around my waist
  • Passport
  • Pilgrim Passport (compostella)
  • John Brierley’s guide book from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
  • John Brierley’s guide book from Santiago to Finisterre
  • Cash
  • Debit card & credit cards
  • Hardback A5 journal & 2 pens
  • Lightweight fabric crossover bag (Thanks Jen!)
  • Lightweight money purse big enough for credit cards & cash
  • Medical information printed in different languages & laminated

Food & Drink:

  • Plastic spoon/fork thing with a serrated edge (it was meant to act as a knife but it couldn’t cut butter!)
  • 1 lightweight 1L plastic sports bottle
  • 1 collapsible Platypus hydration system (Thanks Megan & John!)

Toiletries:

  • 1 large double zip lock bag to hold everything (durable, see-through, lots of space)
  • Synthetic face cloth for my face (advertised as useful for cleaning my kitchen or car!)
  • Sunscreen (I used SPF 50 & SPF 30 in generous doses
  • Travel size shower gel (filled up as I went along)
  • Travel size foot cream (Thanks Edel!)
  • Travel size face wash (Thanks Edel!)
  • Shower gloves
  • 2 disposable razors
  • Female sanitary supplies (& bought more along the way)
  • Small tin of vaseline for my feet
  • Normal size toothbrush
  • Half tube of normal size toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Roll-on deodorant
  • Plastic hairbrush
  • Hair ties (I never counted how many)
  • 10 packs of foam earplugs
  • 10 clothes pegs
  • Lip balm

(I saw safety pins listed on other peoples’ packing lists but I couldn’t figure out why, so I didn’t bring any. Turns out, if you need to dry your laundry on your backpack while you walk, then safety pins are more secure than clothes pegs).

First Aid:

  • Band Aids (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Sterile wipes (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Dr. Scholl blister plasters (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Nail scissors
  • Mefix blister wrap (a gift (thanks Jen!) but I never figured out how to use it)
  • Compeed plasters – various shapes and sizes
  • Antiseptic cream (small)
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Antihistamines (never used)
  • Paracetamol (useful when I got a cold)
  • Antacid tablets (never used)
  • Immodium (never used)

Miscellaneous:

  • Several small Ziploc bags
  • 2 large double lock Ziploc bags (for toiletries and keeping my paperwork dry – amazing!)
  • Several plastic bags to wrap my clothes in
  • Keychain REI temperature gauge with mini compass (lost along the way, sorry Jen!)
  • 1 small glass rock to leave at Cruz de Ferro

Things I acquired along the way:

  • 1 travel adapter plug for my phone
  • 1 rain cover for my backpack
  • 1 pair of Salomon hiking shoes
  • 1 bright orange Altus poncho
  • 1 lightweight fleece jacket
  • 1 pair of fleece-lined leopard print leggings (saucy!) (in anticipation of cold mountains but I never wore them)
  • 1 wick-away t-shirt to replace the one I accidently destroyed (Thanks Fred!)
  • 1 cotton Tommy Hilfiger sequin t-shirt
  • New sunglasses
  • Sink plug (thanks Don!)
  • Strong plastic shower gel bottle (thanks Don!)
  • Anti-inflammatory gel
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets
  • 1 new A5 journal
  • 1 pocket book called “Daily Strength”, handed out for free when I arrived in Roncesvalles
  • 1 pair of earrings

Things I sent home (and why):

  • Rain pants – My first 3 days of walking were exceptionally hot & I figured I wouldn’t need them for the rest of the trip. It was a risky decision but it worked out.
  • Long sleeve thermal top – too hot to wear (again, a risk that worked out)
  • Fabric money belt – awkward to wear under my shorts *and* the waist strap of the backpack. It got sweaty and grimy and was very uncomfortable.
  • My hiking sandals – only after I finished with them and had transferred to the hiking shoes. They weighed 1kg and were too heavy to carry just for the fun of it.
  • Old phone charger. I thought it *would* work in Spain but it didn’t, so I sent it home to use again on some other future vacation
  • Used pages from my guidebook. I read (in the guidebook, incidentally) that I could lighten my pack by tearing out the pages for towns I’d already passed through. I did this for a while & sent the pages home so I could read them again in the future. (and we all know this didn’t happen!)

Things I should have sent home, binned, or given away (and why):

  • Mefix blister wrap. I never figured out how to use this (even after repeated Googling) and I carried the weight of it all 800km. Silly, silly, stupid.
  • My rain coat. I carried a raincoat *and* a poncho and didn’t really need both. The poncho was good in mild but wet weather. The rain coat was good in cold/windy, wet weather. I had very little of either and could have omitted some weight by choosing only one of these items.
  • The rain cover for my backpack. My poncho had a special flap to cover the backpack so I didn’t need an extra cover as well. I guess I was paranoid about getting wet (cold, sick, and covered in blisters) but I could have taken this out.
  • My first journal. I filled the pages with writing but continued to carry it in my backpack – afraid of losing it if I posted it home in the mail. It was a heavy luxury to carry.
  • Custom made orthotic insoles – I couldn’t find a pair of hiking shoes that these fit into so I couldn’t use them. Really, if I wasn’t wearing them on my feet there was no point in having them.
  • Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt – I hardly wore it & it only added to the weight
  • Travel size foot cream – I hardly ever used it & Vaseline would have done the same job
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles. Really, it was ridiculous that I even carried this!

What I loved (and why):

  • Nite ize buglit flashlight – powerful light, very portable, very light
  • Columbia hiking shorts – lightweight, quick-drying, very comfortable
  • Altus poncho –even though I hardly used this, it covered everything (including my pack) but allowed lots of air to circulate in around my legs & torso – very important in mild weather.
  • Wick-away t-shirts. I know some people think all this high-tech gear is a load of overpriced marketing nonsense but I felt quite comfortable in 35 degree heat because of these t-shirts. Star buy.
  • Salomon shoes – cushioned, light, and tremendously durable
  • 1000 Mile Socks – They have a blister-free guarantee or your money back. Highly recommended.
  • My €2 shower gloves – magically scrubbed away the day’s sweat, grime, and sunscreen – in seconds!
  • Sleeping bag liner – much lighter than a sleeping bag, comfortable, quiet, and not a bed bug in sight! Highly recommended.
  • My cotton pashmina. This was a last-minute grab as I left to catch my plane for France. The morning was dark, cold, and raining, and I wanted some emotional comfort for my trip (so the scarf was a “blankie” of sorts). I used this every day as:
    • A pillow case
    • An eye mask to block out the light caused by roommates
    • A wrap around my shoulders to keep me warm
    • A wrap around my waist when dashing to the bathroom in the middle of the night & needed some modesty!
  • My Platypus hydration system. People either love or hate these things but I’m definitely in the former camp. I loved being able to drink water while I walked, without having to take off my backpack or stretch around for a water bottle. Genius.
  • Compeed plasters – I used these whenever I got a “hot spot” on my feet and remained blister-free for most of the trip. The reason they are so great is because they are more cushioned than other varieties and the glue on them stays stuck to the skin so they don’t dislodge with long distance walking. Worth the money.
  • My €2 plastic nailbrush – I used this to clean my Chaco sandals, my Crocs, and my clothes. Just like the shower gloves, this removed grime and sweat quickly – loved it.

What I would change next time round:

  • Backpack – The size was good but the item itself weighed 1.5kg when empty. Frankly, that’s too heavy.
  • Hiking poles – They’re 10+ years old and a bit heavier than the new varieties. I’d try to get lighter ones.
  • Arch support for my shoes. I use arch support in my daily life but didn’t use any on camino (because I bought my shoes along the way and my custom-made insoles didn’t fit). Painful decision.
  • Pack 2 sports bras
  • If I were walking Camino Francés (in particular), I’d bring Brierley’s maps but not the full guide book. Everything was so well sign posted & I didn’t read all his extra material, so the maps alone would have been sufficient.
  • I’d carry less water each day. Someone convinced me to carry 4 litres while crossing the Meseta – that’s 4kg of weight – madness!

What do you think?

Religion on Camino

When I came home from walking 500 miles across Spain, I was surprised by how many people asked me about religion on the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to ask for all sorts of reasons:

Some wanted to test whether I’d gone walking because of religion…

Others wanted to know if I’d come home “born again”…

And there were others who knew the camino had a religious history and wanted to know whether this influenced my daily walking in any way.

Sometimes, I felt the questions were inquisitive and open-ended. Other times, I felt there was a snide judgment ready and waiting. I tried to be open-minded about everything on camino, so I wasn’t happy with being labelled one thing or the other. Separately, I felt protective towards the various friends I’d met along the way and I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to pass fun at their beliefs. Whatever we might think about matters of faith, I’m not okay with sneering at someone else’s belief system.

Me? I happened to be reared a Catholic but I use the term with a certain affection and humour. I grew up attending weekly mass but was always at least 10 minutes late and never had a seat to sit on. In truth, going to Sunday mass was a good opportunity to stock up on the Sunday newspapers and chocolate. And attending mass was also a good way to see people (or be seen by them) and keep in touch with the local community. Altogether, none of these things are signs of devotion, are they?!

And yet, I learned some (perhaps simplistic) version of Catholicism – the bit that assured me I don’t need to be in a church to say prayers, and the bit that says what’s happening in my heart is more important than whether I arrive to mass on time.

Do I know when to sit, stand, kneel, and shake hands? Sure. Do I know all the prayers, Bible stories, and feast days? Not a chance.

Am I devoted Catholic?

I don’t really think so.

As an adult, I’m a bit uneasy with the “G” word and there’s a lot of the official doctrine I don’t agree with. I also know that a lot of indefensible things have been done in the name of religions, so I can’t defend (any) organized faith. At best, I’m an À-la-carte Catholic. I have a system that works quite well for me and I find the divine in all sorts of places – both church-y and not. All things considered, I don’t think I count myself as “devoted”.

But am I going to scoff at someone who *is*?

No.

I tried to keep an open mind with all things religious while I walked camino.

I didn’t choose to walk because of religious devotion. True, I had some rather divinely inspired reasons for walking, but were they exclusively Catholic or even Christian? I don’t think so.

I walked because some deep-rooted part of my heart/spirit called me to action. And truth told, I felt more akin to the (pagan) pilgrims who walked this ancient route long before the Catholic church took it over. I don’t know enough about *their* story but I’m intrigued by the force that propelled them to walk from all over Europe and travel to the end of the world, as they knew it.

That strikes me as a rather primal compulsion and I resonate with it more strongly than anything church-y.

But I knew that the camino had, and has, a lot of Catholic significance and that thousands of people treat it as a religious pilgrimage – just like they would treat a trip to Lourdes or Rome. I didn’t feel I was exactly one of them but I didn’t think it fair to want to avoid them either. Anyway, there are good people and bad people in life – irrespective of religion. When it came to camino, I decided I’d hang out with the people I liked and avoid the ones I didn’t – regardless of faith.

I made no plans to attend mass or avoid mass – I figured I would decide as I went along. I also felt amenable to having conversations about faith, spirituality, and religion if they came up. I reasoned that the odds were pretty high but I was neither seeking nor avoiding the topic. Plus, the camino route goes past dozens, if not hundreds of churches, all across northern Spain. It purposefully snakes through small towns and villages to make sure it goes by the door of the church – presumably so pilgrims can avail of /will avail of its services. Separate to religion, many of the churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, so they’re elaborate and ornate buildings – solid, stoic, and architecturally impressive.

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Some of them were as small as my living room, with wild flowers humbly gracing the altar. Some of them were spectacular cathedrals with lines of tourists waiting for a look at their famous stained glass.

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And some of them, when you least expect it, looked non-descript on the outside but reveal something like this inside:

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So, whatever your feelings on Catholicism (in particular) there is no getting away from the church on camino.

Over the course of my 6 weeks, I met people who quoted scripture in my presence (and they knew it off by heart). In honesty, it felt a bit intense to me at the time because that’s not how I roll. But to be fair, they weren’t trying to ram it down my neck. They were saying grace at a dinner table in the way that felt most fitting for them. I’d be an ass to take offense to it.

And yet, I met people who did take offense when I told them about the quoting of scripture. For them, that was a leap waaaay too far and even though they hadn’t witnessed it in person, they were irate and argumentative about anyone having the gall to openly quote scripture. Clearly, it was a touchy subject.

I’m not sure it’s practical to get offended about religion on Camino because then you’re likely to get offended by accommodation like this:

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This was my hostel room in the town of Hospital de Órbigo and incidentally, I didn’t stay in a monastery but there’s no getting away from the big crucifix on the wall. I was so thrilled to have a quiet room and a non bunk-bed that I barely even noticed the crucifix!

I met people who planned their walking schedule and accommodation so they could avail of pilgrim masses in as many towns and villages as possible.

I met people who openly wore crucifixes on their person – and some of those crosses were the size of a coffee cup so there was no missing them!

I met people who had left churches, joined other churches, and knew about theology. I don’t know many people like that in my life and the bookish nerd in me was delighted to learn new information.

I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.

Conversely, I met people who weren’t Catholic at all but attended mass and received Holy Communion in their hands all the same.

I met two vicars, neither of whom wore collars, but both of whom shared very human experiences of their daily work at home.

I met people who’d done missionary work in developing countries and others who had an ongoing despair about their dwindling faith.

I met people who didn’t mention religion or faith from one end of the day to the other – and we talked about a million other things instead.

Religion didn’t dominate my camino but it played a big part nonetheless.

I attended some of the pilgrim masses along the way and in general, I managed to be late almost every time 🙂 I liked the sentiment of the pilgrim blessings and I came away from every one of them feeling fortified in my hopes to carry on.

There was one day, I happened to arrive into a tiny country village just as the bells were ringing out for Sunday morning mass. To the surprise of the locals (who expected me to go straight to the café bar) I went to the church, me covered in dust and sweat, and sat in the quiet darkness. I lit candles for loved ones at home. I said a few prayers of thanks. And even though I was the only pilgrim in the village that day, I didn’t stay for Mass and the pilgrim blessing I surely would have received. Somehow, the vibe wasn’t quite right for me that day and I felt like hitting the trail instead and finding my version of mass out there – so that’s what I did. As I descended the church steps, I met the locals on their way in, dressed in their Sunday best (literally) and ready for action. My departure might have been offensive to them at the time but I don’t believe in attending church just because of what the neighbours think! I felt no guilt or hesitation in my decision, and celebrated a great day of walking instead.

Surprisingly, by the end of my camino I was wearing a scauplar around my neck, neatly tucked in behind my sporty t-shirt. It came as a gift from Liz in a moment of spontaneity and I accepted it with gladness. I had an important decision to make and she felt an impulse to give it to me. She took it from around her own neck and she placed it gently around mine. I hadn’t even seen such a thing since I was a child and barely knew what it was called, but it felt right to accept the gift in that moment. I wore it as a sort of talisman for the remainder of my trip and I happily have it to this day.

Like I say, I tried to be open-minded about all things religious on camino.

My speciality was to wander in and out of churches as, and when, the mood struck me. I started it on my first evening in St. Jean Pied de Port, in France. It was bright out and the town was full of window boxes in full bloom, reds and yellows in the evening sunlight. I took a stroll around before dinner and came upon a church, and decided to pop in for a look. As it happened, there was a mass on (and wouldn’t you know it, I had arrived 10 minutes late!) so I sat down the back and admired the raw stonework and foot-long candles burning in front of the alter. And I couldn’t follow most of it because it was held in French and my high school French is long forgotten!

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That evening, a couple were blessed in honour of their 50th wedding anniversary and later on the church steps, they invited everyone to join them for champagne and pizza. They even invited us pilgrims – knowing well we’d be gone the next day and they’d never see us again but our faces would appear in their photographs. I was too shy to join them but watched their delight as they splashed champagne into plastic cups and handed out slices of hot, cheesy pizza in the evening sun.

I loved their warm welcome and their playful abandon. I loved the sincerity of their kindness. I loved that the church space allowed them to be casual and convivial, instead of formal and stuffy. The tone was good.

All along the way, I was a bit of a pyromaniac and I lit candles as often as I could. I lit them for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of people. Living such a transient life on the trail, there was very little I could do for anyone in the world but somehow, lighting a candle felt like something I *could* do – so that’s what I did.

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I enjoyed the churches because they were cool and shady, and I relished the break from the sweltering sun.

I also enjoyed the churches because they were often the quietest places where I could take some time out. Sure, it may be a religious pilgrimage but the churches are quieter than the hostels, the café bars, and the restaurants. Think about that for a minute – it says a lot.

Towards the end of my journey, I walked for 2-3 days with a woman I’d just met. In the green countryside of Galicia, I gestured that I wanted to stop off in a small country church and light some candles.

“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.

I sensed that she was uncomfortable with the church thing and that she mistakenly took me for being somehow devout. It didn’t matter what she thought but I made a point of explaining my reasons for visiting the churches. I liked the shade. I liked the quiet time. I liked lighting candles. I even liked looking at how they were decorated and arranged.

She nodded in understanding but stayed outside the front door, patiently waiting for me to arrive out so we could resume our conversation about something entirely different.

We lost track of each other for a couple of days and when we reunited again on the trail she surprised me by saying:

“I’ve taken a leaf out of your book and I’ve started going into the churches!”

For years, I ran hard and fast away from all things church-y. The irony that I had influenced anyone to step foot in a church was….well…hilarious to me!

When people asked me about religion on Camino, it was hard to know what to say. Yes, if you want to have a formal religious experience, the framework is there and ready to go. There are monasteries, convents, priests, and nuns. There are blessings and masses, confessions, communions, and hymn-singing gatherings. There’s a rich history and it’s all there for the taking.

Equally, if you want to have an informal religious experience, as I suppose I did, it’s all there for the taking or ignoring. I dipped in and out of services, conversations, and religious accommodations. I accepted some of it, rejected some of it, and followed my own hearty impulses as best I could. Rightly or wrongly, that was my exploration of faith on camino.

And equally, I think it’s quite possible to walk camino and avoid the religion thing almost entirely. I met plenty of atheists who enjoyed the history, the cuisine, the countryside, and companionship, and bypassed the religious elements quite comfortably. They didn’t have anyone force religious agendas down their neck.

I tried to answer the “religion on camino” questions with delicacy and tact but really, the topic was multi-faceted and huge.

How would you answer such questions?

Camino Francés: The First Week

A week in to the journey, I started to figure out which way was up.

Walking the Camino without any physical training was an optimistic endeavour. I look back on it now and think it was beautifully optimistic – what trust, what faith, how sweet! Some people would say it was foolish or irresponsible, but I had done enough cross-country walking in my life to know that I could do it. I can “do” stamina and endurance, I’m not afraid of roughing it, and I am happily myself in the great outdoors. The 8-year old in me was delighted to be outside every day, playing in the sun. Still, I had never attempted to walk so far before and I didn’t take any of it for granted. Every day, I prayed I would be given the resources I needed to keep going. Even though I missed Supportive Husband, I wasn’t ready to wrap up and go home. The fact that he cheered me on from a distance made him even more awesome.

After years sitting at a desk and staring into a computer screen to do virtual work, the daily exertion of walking felt real. It was real effort, with a real sense of progress. I’d replaced full-time working with full-time walking, and my slow progression over land was the stuff of legend.

I was on walkabout

I was on a quest

I was on pilgrimage

I was crossing a country on foot

In our escalating race for speed, there’s something primal about using your body, instead of a machine, to get from place to place. Walking Camino was a great way of getting back to basics.

It also was all-encompassing: my agenda every day was simple: walk as far as I can, find a bed, sleep in it. Eat, drink, and wash, too. There were no politics, no mind games, and no corporate ladders to contend with – all of those things just fell away. The rules for survival had changed and some part of me delighted in recognising them: Ah, I know how to do this. I know how to walk and I know how to keep going. This stuff makes sense.

A week into it, my major concerns had already been addressed and dismissed:

  • Worried about getting stuck for a bed? It happened, but everything worked out okay anyway.
  • Anxious I had too much weight in my backpack? I’d taken some of it out and mailed it home.
  • Concerned about not speaking very much Spanish? No need, I’d already learned a few key phrases in asking for coffee, bathrooms, and beds.
  • Apprehensive about the steep ascent and descent of the Pyrenees? No need, it was tough but the views were stellar and I survived without injury.
  • Worried about being over-stimulated with people everywhere? Well, that happened but I’d learned to walk alone for at least some of the day, and take a private room one night. Problem solved.

To my delight, I had already covered over 100km and had crossed over the Pyrenees on foot, in hiking sandals. Already, I felt I had succeeded within myself. I had slept in a different bed every night, I’d paced myself, pushed myself, cried like a child, and pulled myself together. I’d already met hundreds of people from all over the world. There was no week in the office that could compare!

Would I recommend some physical training beforehand? Absolutely. I may have survived my first week but I probably could have spared myself some of the pain if I had been in better physical shape. Would I recommend crossing the Pyrenees in hiking sandals? No, not really. There were benefits and drawbacks to wearing the sandals but on such steep ground, they weren’t the best. Would I recommend walking with an open heart full of trust, instead of a guidebook full of plans and schedules? Yes, I would, but there are challenges to that, too.

Going on Camino without a lot of physical preparation was somewhat innocent, and I really didn’t know what lay ahead. Still, I knew two friends who separately walked the Camino Francés in the six months before me and they both told me the same thing: You get stronger as you go on.

Whatever else happened, I had crossed the Pyrenees and I’d survived the first week.

And prayed there was more to follow.

The Road to Roncesvalles

 

John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:

Distance: 15km

Elevation Gain: 750m

Descent: 500m

When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.

I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.

I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.

In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.

Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.

My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.

All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.

Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.

On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.

At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.

I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.

Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.

The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.

The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.

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I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.

In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?

It’s hard to tell.

I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.

I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.

I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.

My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!

My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.

He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.

Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!

I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.

They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.

They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.

From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.

I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.

Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!

Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.

Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.

I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?

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Banana Man in a Van (but I’m sure he has a real name)

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Is that the border up ahead?

I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).

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Shady Woodlands

In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.

I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.

For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop,  or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.

Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.

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These boots were made for walkin’…

Staying in Orisson

I forgot to mention (forgive me, I’m new to this) that when I left St. Jean to cross the Pyrenees, I had a choice of two routes: the Napoleon route, which followed high mountain paths, or the Valcarlos route, which followed lower mountain paths. Both go from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side but obviously, they each have different scenery and different stopping points along the way. But they both begin at Point A and end at Point B, so you would think that there’s not much difference between them.

You would be wrong.

It seems that people can spend a long time debating which path to choose and trying to determine which one is the “true Camino”. Whether we admit it, the ego can influence this decision: we all want to demonstrate that we’re fit, strong, and totally able to cross up and over the Pyrenees on the high mountain route. No problem! Many of us start out full of energy and excitement, and want to prove our enthusiasm and commitment by choosing the high Napoleon route. Crossing from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is just over 25km in distance and if you factor in the ups and downs of the hills, the distance amounts to 32km. That’s not a walk in the park. On the Napoleon route, the altitude goes from less than 200m (at St. Jean) to a high of 1450m, before it steeply descends down into Roncesvalles. I don’t know about you, but I’m not used to climbing 1200m every day and then having steep descents too. So the Napoleon route is both steep and long, and it requires fitness and stamina, especially if you’re to walk it all in one day. Many people do, and they experience what’s known as the “baptism of fire”. Many people sprain or break their bodies on the way over. Others survive relatively intact but find themselves unable to walk 2-3 days later, either through exhaustion or delayed injury. Many people survive it and find it genuinely comfortable, and come away neither injured nor exhausted. I met all sorts on the Camino.

I walked in early September when the weather was good and the paths were free of snow. I also walked at a time when it happened to be sunny and clear. It’s not always this way. I met a person who left St. Jean a week after me and found the Pyrenees to be so foggy and misty that she couldn’t see a thing. So, people use their ego, their level of fitness, and the weather report in deciding which route to choose. I’ll say it now: forget about the ego and use common sense. There is no “true path” if you break your ankle on Day 1 from over exertion. There is no admiration for anyone who gets lost in the fog on Day 1 and puts their life in danger from hunger and exposure. Mountains are mountains, and they don’t care whether you live or die, make it to Roncesvalles or collapse in a heap. They don’t care about keeping up with other people or being embarassed. They don’t care whether you cover the same distances as your friends or enemies. The Pyrenees are beautiful and expansive, and more grassy than I expected, but they don’t have any ego about your Camino. The track is the same length and the same steepness every day of the year and those things are not changing. The weather, however, does change, along with one’s level of fitness and stamina, so these are the best measures for deciding which route to take. The Pyrenees are what they are and there is no “easy route”, there is only the route you feel most equipped to handle.

I chose the Napoleon route. I wanted to have the view and in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted that experience. I made the decision with a lot of humility, and a prayer for the necessary stamina and strength. There was no way I could cover the full distance and altitude on my first day out, so I decided that the most sensible thing to do was to pace myself and to stop in Orisson for the night. Ego was not entirely happy – I walked (only) 8km and climbed 600m and by noon I was finished for the day. Ego thought I was being soft and that I should join the dozens of others making their way to Roncesvalles. I even met people who were going further than that, so Ego told me I was definitely a wimp when compared to them. Once I’d confirmed my reservation at Orisson, Ego had to just shut up becasue there was no way I was turning down that bed. I wasn’t tired enough but I’m delighted I stayed because:

  • It was a definite act of self-care, pacing myself, and listening to my own body
  • It was very, very hot that day and I was glad to get in to the shade
  • It gave me a chance to process the fact that I had arrived, I was there, and I was on my way
  • I had dinner with the entire hostel and I met some of my best friends from the whole trip
  • The food was great and the wine delicious

In the middle of the night, a group of 100 or so pilgrims passed outside our window in the dark, walking from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. I already thought that walking that distance and covering that altitude was pretty extreme, but to do it in the dark seemed even more dramatic. Even in my state of half-sleep, Ego really thought I was a wuss. I woke long enough to hear the sound of boots, walking poles, chatter, and laughter pass outside my window. They stopped to have coffee and drinks, knowing that there was no where else to stop in the next 15km. Head lamps broke through the darkness and I thought the light would wake me entirely, destroying my beauty sleep. No fear, I was asleep again in seconds. I thought they were kind of crazy but from my bottom bunk bed I silently wished them a Buen Camino. Walking in darkness? Well done to them. Maybe I’ll do it next time.

Orisson was a chance to catch my breath and ease in gently. Stopping off was the right decision for me.

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The view from Orisson: I expected the Pyrenees to be rocky – who knew they were so grassy?!

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A year ago today…

A year ago today, I set out walking from St. Jean Pied de Port for my grand adventure on Camino Francés. I remember the morning sunshine and the sounds of walking poles tapping on cobblestones. After all the packing and re-packing of backpacks, with bellies full of coffee and bread, we were on our way.

Happy anniversary, fellow pilgrims from September 2013!

Unlike many people on Camino, I left my hostel at the late hour of 8-8:30am, more nervous than excited, and not really sure how far I would have to walk that day. I thought I’d made a reservation at the albergue in Orisson, but my school-level French was so bad that I couldn’t be sure of a bed. I’d heard “You can’t book the hostels in advance” but two days before I started, I learned that Orisson was an exception because it was in France, not Spain, and because it was a privately-run hostel (as opposed to a state-run or church-run one). So I could and indeed, should reserve a bed unless I was definitely going the full distance to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees. I was doubtful of making the trip on my first day and prayed that the lovely people at Orisson had understood my request.

Unlike many pilgrims, I’d planned my trip in only a month and hadn’t had time to physically train my body for what was to come. The previous evening, I told a group of people over dinner that I was relying on “muscle memory” to get me through the physical challenge. I said it with a smile but I wasn’t joking – I’d come from a desk job and I wasn’t that fit; I hadn’t done any training; I had no idea if I could walk the 800km to Santiago. The German man sitting across the table from me shook his head and looked utterly unimpressed.

Without ever asking him, I had a good idea what he thought of me and my plan. I couldn’t disagree with him if he thought me a fool.

But, I also felt that if I could pace myself and let go of trying to plan for every eventuality, I would be fine. My Camino was a daily exercise in letting go. I wanted to “Lean In” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) and trust that somehow, I would figure it out as I went along. I purposefully and consciously decided to “do the Camino” without planning and pre-booking. I wanted to see how it would unfold and how I would manage. In a world full of sat-nav, social media, and endless wi-fi, I wanted to wander without a schedule. I wanted to test myself.

So, on the morning of September 3rd, 2013, I followed dozens of other pilgrims down the hill, over the bridge, and out into the countryside beyond St. Jean.

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No excuse for getting lost

I’d put on too much clothing, my bag was too heavy, and my hamstrings were shocked at the effort of walking steeply uphill to Orisson. I heard afterwards that it was about 34 degrees Celsius that day, and I was a sweaty mass while others skipped past me in effortless style.

In St. Jean, I’d been so nervous about my reservation that I asked a Dutch man, who spoke great French, to phone the hostel at Orisson and confirm my details. He kindly agreed to make the call but wasn’t leaving St. Jean for hours – how would he relay the message to me? By happy coincidence, we met on the side of the road hours later and he told me I had a sort of tentative reservation – if I got there by 1pm they would give me a bed but if I arrived later, they might be full up and I would have to walk on to Roncesvalles. What relief! And what gratitude to him for his kind help. Oh, to live in central Europe and to be fluent in many tongues!

Late morning, I arrived at the famous hostel and gladly stopped for a coke and my first of many, many ham sandwiches. In poorly-accented French I asked the lady behind the bar about a bed. “I have a reservation”, I explained, or at least, I hope I do. While she fumbled in a ledger for my details, I stood nervously, hoping that it would all work out. She looked at me, looked back at the book, looked up at me again and said something that I took to mean: “A guy phoned earlier this morning about this reservation and I told him the details but you’re not him – so who are you?” I explained as best I could and we managed a giggle, before she confirmed my reservation that was not-so-tentative-after-all . Maybe my school-level French wasn’t so appalling after all. She handed me the gold metal token I’d need to use the shower, and told me which dorm I would sleep in.

Hurrah! I had a bed and a dinner for the night, and I didn’t have to walk to Roncesvalles in the heat. It was a good beginning. A year ago today, I walked my first 8-10km, up the steep hillsides, following the friendly yellow arrows as the track passed through lush green fields in the golden morning light. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m not in the office now!” and being delighted.

My leap of faith had begun in earnest.

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Early morning on the way to Orisson