During April last year Dr Graham English undertook the famous Santiago de Compastella Pilgrimage across the top of Spain. This pilgrimage is today possibly the most famous of all pilgrimages in the world. In English it is called The Way of St James. The numbers undertaking the pilgrimage have been ballooning in recent decades and it is estimated that nearly 300,000 individuals undertook the pilgrimage last year. In this commentary Graham shares something of his experience and also provides practical advice for others who might be thinking of making the trek.
I walked from St Jean Pied de Port from Sunday April 3 to Santiago on April 29th. The track over the mountain was open and accessible though last year at this time snow closed the track up until May 10th. I skipped the section between Burgos and Leon, getting a bus over that distance. I had only four weeks and decided that was the best bit to omit. I carried an 8 kilogram pack plus a litre of water and averaged about 23 kilometres a day for the 27 days I walked. Apart from the bus day from Burgos to Leon I walked every day. I stayed in albergues (hostels) every night and I walked with two sticks. I carried one change of clothes except I took three pairs of socks. Good wicking socks [definition] are made primarily of wool and they take longer to dry. My underwear was fine merino wool for the tops, and underpants I bought at Paddy Palin. They advertise these underpants as 'Six weeks, seventeen countries, one pair of underpants'. I did not test this claim! One way or another you need quick drying clothes and cotton is not quick drying. I wore long trousers. Had the weather been warmer I think I'd have worn shorts. I had wet weather gear, trousers as well as a gortex jacket and I needed them twice (rainy days are unpleasant I found). The gortex jacket was also necessary on windy days. I had a good fleece top. Layering seems to be the answer to cold weather.
How far you walk depends on you. I took 27 days to walk 630 kms. A Dutch couple about my age did it plus the bit between Burgos and Leon in two days more than I did the 630kms. They had walked from Holland to France in 2009, the place in France to St Jean in 2010, and from St Jean to Santiago this year. They knew a lot about walking. As a first timer I found it harder to imagine from Australia what it would all be like but I read widely, books and the net, and prepared carefully. This helped.
Indispensible items I found out are: a good small torch, a good penknife, really good boots well worn in, and a water bottle you can get at easily (I had mine strung on a strap around my neck), and some compeed in case of blisters. Once you have good boots and socks blisters I think are largely about whether you have the kind of skin prone to blister or whether you don't. Fortunately I don't. I had two small blisters altogether and otherwise my feet were fine. I did have aches in my shoulders and back sometimes. Tiger balm or some other kind of liniment helps. A kindly Spaniard named Serge told me to lengthen my sticks so my forearms were parallel to the ground when I walked and this helped.
I ate a lot or sardines, oranges, bread, cheese, yogurt, and chocolate and frequently had Coca-Cola with ice when I stopped at cafes, as well as water to quench my thirst. I am not prone to sunburn but lots of people are. Several people got badly burnt wearing the wrong kind of clothes. Even in spring it is hot enough for bad sunburn. I usually wore long sleeves anyway and a floppy hat. In the wet I wore a woollen beanie with the hood of my waterproof jacket up. 'Water proof' is a relative description. I still got wet and am not sure if it was perspiration on the inside or water from the outside. I perspired a lot anyway and lost weight. I am not sure how much. Whatever is happening to the rest of you, do not let your socks get wet! This is to invite blisters.
I also wore photo chromatic glasses which were great most of the time except one day of almost complete fog. The kind of light that tints glasses comes through fog and I ended up with dark glasses which were a hindrance in the conditions.
I am not a big eater and so I found the pilgrim meals, with a couple of notable exceptions were not good value for me. I often did not feel like eating them all. I also ordered paella one night to find that what they served was quite unsavoury savoury rice. I hate eating food that I could have cooked much better myself. I found that tapas in some places, doing some of my own cooking, shared meals with other walkers where we all put in and some of us cooked were a better bet. Some albergues have good cooking facilities, some have basic ones, and some have none. I carried a small plastic fork come spoon that I bought here at a camping shop and a small plastic bowl. I also had a small airtight plastic lunch box for carrying food like cheese etc. I started with a light mug but left it somewhere accidently though I think my subconscious was saying, 'Too heavy, leave it.' One young man carried a guitar. I think he was nuts but it is his back and legs so he could do as he wanted.
The ground is often rough: lots of round stones in some places, slate and other metamorphic rocks in others, limestone chunks in yet others. You need stout boots I think (though some people wore lighter shoes or boots or even sandals), and they must be waterproof. I think you also need sticks. They help both uphill and down. Some people don't use them so it is up to you. I also found that any discomfort with boots or straps or anything else needed immediate attention. Putting up till the next stop usually means that by then it is worse.
The hostels or albergues...
I hated packing each morning but gradually worked out a better system. When packing the rule is, 'If in the slightest doubt leave it behind.' You don't need an immersion heater for example. Almost everyone I met who was a first timer found he or she sent things home, threw them away, gave them away or left them behind. I got quite canny about estimating the weight of things and not getting them if they were at all heavy. I needed a good warm sleeping bag. I think that later in the year a sleeping bag liner would do. Not all albergues have blankets though all I stayed in had pillows. All have mattresses so you don't need a bed roll. You can easily get your bag carried by taxi from place to place if you like. I think it costs about 3 Euros a day. There are little signs along the way giving you taxi phone numbers. You can catch a taxi yourself if you are blistered or otherwise need some help getting to one place or another. This is no disgrace. People on the Camino have the attitude, 'It is your Camino. Do it the way that best suits you'.
I found the albergues generally comfortable. Some are better run than others. The price for a night ranged from 4 Euros to 10 Euros; the 10 being for some privately run albergues. L'Esprit Du Chemin in St Jean and the Albergue at Orisson are more expensive but they include a hearty meal and are well worth the extra.
No advice about snorers...
I don't have any advice about snorers. I had only two nights where there were champion snorers and I found earplugs useless. I couldn't get them to stay in my ears for a start. One night a chap near me snored until five o'clock in the morning. I asked a gentle Belgian near me if he'd slept, 'No, George snored until five o'clock then he stopped. Then you started. And I got up at six.' I used say to people, 'If I snore please poke me. I'd feel mortified if I kept you awake.' I am not an Olympic class snorer and had no further complaints. Maybe the others were just too polite to poke me.
In the second half of the Camino after Leon I met few native English speakers. Though the Spanish on the whole don't speak much English I found that the locals understood my English combined with mime better than my attempts at Spanish. Of course a couple of times the waiter brought things I didn't mean to order, including a large mug of beer when I thought I'd ordered a small one. Whether there are English speakers when you walk is largely a matter of chance, depending on who is walking. There are lots of Germans and Dutch who often have English, lots of Spanish who don't, and people with many other languages who might or might not have some English.
The community that builds up was for me one of the high points of the Camino.
There are some scoundrels about. One woman I was walking with had her wallet stolen whether by a walker or a local she didn't know. There were also one or two creeps. These were an issue for some of the women.
You have to walk from at least Sarria to Santiago to get the Compostella (the certificate you get for walking the Camino). Which bit(s) of the Camino you walk depend on the time you have and your own desires. I found the first half more interesting than the second half. St Jean Pied de Port, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Borgos and Leon are marvellous places as are some of the Romanesque chapels along the way. But it is also the steepest, both up and down hills, and your legs are getting used to the walk too. I found the Camino hard work at times. It is no cake walk.
There are yellow arrows painted along the way telling you where to go. In some places these are really clear and in some they are not. Clear or not I am grateful to whoever painted them. In some places there are bronze shells in the footpath and in one town lights. The locals even in substantial towns are helpful and usually encouraging. They often say 'Buen Camino', 'Hollah' or 'Buenas dias' as you pass. I don't think it matters what language you answer in but in this case Spanish came easily to me.
As a first time walker I walked only to Orisson on the first day. It is about 10kms. As it rained all the way and it is a steep climb this was a really good idea. I have seldom so looked forward to getting somewhere as I did that day to Orisson. Over the next few days I made up the time so my average rose to 23kms a day. I was usually on the road by 7am and on most days was at my destination by about 2pm. Then I had a rest, had a beer and wrote my journal, then looked around the town or village. People had all sorts of routines. In a way the Camino is like therapy — no rules except caring for the other folk and doing it your way.
I had reinforced for me that I like getting on with it and getting there. As a child I often felt angry with God because he made me without asking my permission and now I had to go on forever and ever. I realised one day walking along that I was made to enjoy THIS. This is a lot of things, even struggling up a mighty hill with a backpack and I felt really grateful to be alive. I have also changed a lot of the things I believe but that is for another time.
I kept a journal. I am a natural writer of things. I didn't take anything to read, and I am normally a voracious reader. I didn't need reading material, there were too many things going on. If you want to go to Mass along the way there are pilgrim masses at many places always in Spanish, usually at 8pm — the Spanish keep strange hours to my way of thinking. Many of the people at the Masses I went to were not Catholics. For the religious, the lost and seekers alike the Camino is very ecumenical, crossing religions as well as denominations of Christianity. I don't know how many people do the Camino for religious reasons. For some it is a walking holiday, some lost people are looking to find themselves. I think some people live on the Camino. There are all types. One group I met had a donkey, two horses and six dogs and were like a gypsy caravan. I am not sure what they were up to but a fox terrier sitting regally on the donkey's back was the highpoint of one of my days.
Another highpoint was at Albergue Fenix at Villafranca on Holy Thursday night when a group of young Spaniards were improvising a sort of Flamenco singing and rhythm that was spellbinding as well as warm and inviting. I have long since believed that when the minister is giving out communion he or she is saying, 'You are the Body of Christ'. And one of my favourite sayings is, 'I am a human being, all the rest is rhetoric.' The Camino, time and again strengthened me in these beliefs.
Graham English written 14 May 2011 submitted to Catholica on 28 Jan 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2011Dr Graham English