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

Christmas Siesta

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Candles in the Church in St Jean Pied de Port, France

** Reposting this one – enjoy! **

When I walked the Camino across Spain last year, I passed through countless towns and villages along the way.

Okay, somebody probably counted them by now so they’re surely not “countless” at all.

But there were a lot of them.

I got familiar with the Spanish custom of siesta in the afternoon – usually between the hours of 1 and 4pm.

Sometimes, I had arrived at my destination by then and was enjoying lunch and chat with other pilgrims. We could be having a coke or a glass of wine, sitting in the shade or the sun, and relishing the chance to sit and rest our tired bodies.

Other times, I was in the process of showering and washing my clothes in a sink, taking care of logistics in preparation for the next day’s walking.

Sometimes, by the time it came to 1pm, I was still out walking. It’s a hot time in the day to be on the trail but I wasn’t fast enough to walk 25km first thing in the morning, so I often walked into the early afternoon. Occasionally, I was still walking when the clock rolled around to 4pm, too. If you thought it was hot at 1pm, you’d be surprised to find it even hotter at 4pm!

Once, I felt frustrated with the awkward opening hours, hungrily waiting to buy food from the only grocery shop in a tiny village.

When it came to siesta, I often found myself doing something other than sleep.

But on a couple of occasions I happened to be indoors, with a secure bed for the night, and a relatively quiet room around me. On a few occasions, I managed to have an afternoon nap and join the rest of Spain in this glorious custom. Those naps were precious and delightful. Thinking about them even now makes me smile inside!

We all need to rest. We all need to down tools and put up our feet. In Spain, the daily siesta gave us an opportunity to go more slowly in life. The daily siesta gave us a chance to take a break from walking, or take some time to reflect. Life can’t be all “go-go-go” all the time. We are organic creatures and need recovery time.

Christmas is a flurry of activity for many of us. There’s a long list of shopping, cooking, and socialising to tend to, and sometimes that’s before the 25th even starts! For others, it tenderly reminds us of loved ones who are ill or no longer here to join us in celebration. For some of us, it’s a lonely time as we watch other people race about in excitement, but with little excitement of our own. And for some of us, it’s not really a holiday we resonate with, but we have to watch the flurry all the same.

Not everyone likes Christmas, while others would embrace it every day of the year.

It takes all sorts.

In the northern hemisphere right now, it’s winter. The days are short, the nights are dark, and our hibernating tendencies kick in as we try to stay warm, stay fed, and stay cosy. It’s a good time of the year to have a holiday, have a nap, and load up on extra calories.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, it is still a winter holiday – a time to take a break and put up your feet. Whatever your stance around religious holidays, family gatherings, boozy celebrations, or consumerist shopping sprees, this is a siesta in the middle of winter. It’s an opportunity to slow things down a little, take some time to rest, and take some time to reflect. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or involve a lot of cooking – it’s all about taking a break from the daily chaos.

Every day I walked Camino, Spain held its daily siesta in the afternoon. The break was great, but there was always more walking to be done. We couldn’t stay resting forever, however tempting it was!

So may your Christmas siesta give you the energy and strength you need to keep going, too. Whatever you choose to do with this winter holiday, I hope it fills you with peace. May the Christmas siesta be refreshing and restful, and may you return to this blog feeling hopeful and inspired for the year ahead.

I’ll be here to share more tales from my Camino journey, and I look forward to connecting with you then. 🙂

In the meantime, Happy Christmas.

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Three Cheers for Everyone Walking the Camino de Santiago!

Only 589.2km left before I reach Santiago!

Sometimes, even now, I look at those numbers and I’m quietly stunned.

How on earth did I walk 800km across France and Spain?

How does anyone walk such distances, especially in just a few weeks?

I think the human body is an impressive piece of work. We’re built to move and even in this age of high-speed travel, we’re capable of walking hundreds of miles. We’re quite a bit removed from our caveman ancestors but I’m glad we haven’t lost our capacity to walk long distances and go see what’s out there.

Despite all the modern conveniences, we’re still able to go back to basics. I love it.

And to all the pilgrims, past, present, and future – I salute you!

I salute your willingness to embark on the Camino journey. I don’t care how many miles you walked or how many blisters you endured. I don’t care whether you went home after a day, “finished it”, or have walked it a dozen times. I’m hoping it was a positive experience but even if it wasn’t, I salute your willingness to get up from your couch, move away from your desk, and go take your body for a long walk. I applaud your sense of spirit and adventure, and your courage to go do something different.

It would have been easier and quicker to take the train, right? And I’m sure it would have been more convenient to book a beach holiday instead of sweating your way across the Iberian peninsula!

Beach holidays have their place but they’re no Camino. Sometimes the world tells us that the beach holiday is normal and that to walk 800km across Spain is not. Whatever your reason for choosing Camino – whether you wanted a pilgrimage or a cheap walking holiday –  I’m sure there were some people who couldn’t relate to your choice.

Maybe they thought it all sounded a bit dull. They might have thought it was very odd. They might have thought you were having some sort of mid-life crisis.

I’m sure you knew people, just like I did, who thought you were mad to propose walking across Spain, especially if they’d never heard of Camino before. Some of my nearest and dearest hadn’t heard of Camino and thought I was heading off into the wilderness alone, to navigate and trek my way across rural Spain, for however long it took. “Mad” doesn’t even begin to describe what they thought of me! I will always remember their worried looks, trying to decide whether to be more concerned about my mental health or my chances of getting killed in rough scrubland.

It took a long time to convince them that I wasn’t unwell and I would be okay. Spain is quite a civilised country, really!

But I understand their concern and their desire to talk me out of my hair-brained idea.

Maybe some of the people in your life responded in a similar way? I’m sure it made your decision-making just a bit more complex. It’s one thing to head off on Camino when the whole world is applauding your choice. It’s a bit more tricky when the people around you are scared or resistant.

And yet, you did it anyhow. That took courage and faith. And I’m hoping you got to feel what I felt, at least once somewhere along the way:

That walking Camino was one of the most sane things I ever did!

I came home proud of, and awed by, the power of my human body. I came home feeling proud of everyone I met along the way, and of their enormous achievement to have walked the path, too.

I started out with the best intentions in the world but with no idea of whether I would be able to fulfill them.

800km (500 miles) sounded like an awful lot.

Make no mistake about it – 500 miles is a long way to walk.

But like many great things in life, it’s not something to be done all in one go. It takes steady perseverance, one step after the other, one day at a time.

Before you know it, you’ve covered more than 200km.

Before you know it, you arrive in a small village called Azofra and find that you’ve only 589.2km to go.

Magic!

Thanksgiving and Spiritual Inspiration for Camino de Santiago

I heard a prayer recently that really struck a chord and made me think of Camino.

I’m not kidding when I say I know about five prayers in total and I’m not usually fluent in this sort of thing. But I heard this prayer from Teresa of Avila in recent days and it really resonated…especially all the references to feet.

It made me think of Camino and of the walking I did every day over six weeks. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking – it kind of defies belief. Somewhere along the way, I realised just what a profound gift it was to be there at all. I don’t just mean that I was lucky to have the time off or that I could afford the air fare to get to France/Spain. Of course, those things are relevant.

But what a tremendous gift it is to have a body that works, a body that moves, walks upright, and is capable of covering such impressive distances. The world is full of people in various states of ill-health and disability. Some day, I may be one of them. But right now, thankfully, I am healthy and strong. On Camino, my body rose to the biggest physical challenge I’d ever presented, and it carried me across Spain the old-fashioned way – on my own two legs.

How amazing to have such awesome legs!

Hearing the prayer below, I thought of some of the people I know who are disabled or unwell.

I wondered: What would it be like if they could manifest themselves through my hands, my eyes, my feet, and live in my body for a day?

What would they do?

Would they go dancing? Would they drive a sports car? Would they bring the dog for a walk?

It’s a tremendous gift to stand upright and go for a walk. Those of us who can do it every day probably take it for granted.

I know I do.

But on Camino, I developed a growing sense of this profound blessing – that of a healthy body, and the blessing of an open road and an open sky. It was a gift to be there at all and to be able to experience any of it. Lucky me, I was able to experience all of it – day after day, week after week.

I did the best I could at the time. A year later I’m inclined to think I did quite a bit of whining about my sore feet. Only those who walked with me can confirm or deny the volume of my whining. To those of you who were there: I’m sorry if I went on a bit.

Hearing the prayer below has given me a different perspective. It has made me want to go walk Camino again, and this time walk it with more grace and less whining. I think that was my aspiration the first time round too, and I guess I had a sort of “hit-or-miss” success rate with that. But hearing this prayer has stirred my heart-strings in a new way and makes me want to go again, but in a better way.

It’s not that I am having a religious epiphany.

But I’m re-remembering this simple reality: No matter how hard it gets, we all have something to be thankful for.

Even if we ache and hurt, there are parts of ourselves and our lives that still work, still move, still rise to the challenge of being alive in the world. Those parts of ourselves and our lives are a gift.

On Camino, my feet hurt like hell but you know what?

They still carried me 500 miles across Spain.

They did everything I asked of them.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thanking my feet for rising to the Camino challenge. I am thanking my body for carrying me (and my belongings) every day across all sorts of terrain. I am thankful for the gift of Camino, and all that it entailed.

And in the meantime, a word from Teresa of Avila (from Spain):

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?