Camino de Santiago shell arrow

Is It Safe Walking the Camino de Santiago Alone?

One of the most common questions I am asked – is it safe to walk the Camino de Santiago alone?  This became a question being asked more again recently when someone went missing on the Camino. However my opinion remains unchanged – yes, it is safe to walk the Camino de Santiago alone. I would think it safer than most local walking routes in most countries; safer than walking home from Dublin or any large city on a Friday or Saturday night.

Safer Than What?

Camino de Santiago shell arrow

I presume when I am asked this question it is regarding physical security.  I started two Caminos on my own and one with my partner.  She started one with only one friend.  Many, many people start each year on their own and find that they are not alone very quickly.

I, like many others, became part of a larger loose group very quickly, some refer to this group as their Camino family.  You walk each day and many people walk at the same pace, you see these same people in the morning, at cafes along the way, and in the hostels at night.  The conversations I had with these people were deeper, more open, and more honest than I would normally have with people I had just met.

Staying Safe

During the busy times of the year on the Camino Frances, July & Aug, you are rarely out of sight of another pilgrim – yes, it gets that busy – so if you want some alone time start walking late after everyone has started for the day.

Even though the Camino Frances is incredibly safe don’t be crazy.  Perhaps one of the reasons there are so few reports of any mishaps regarding pilgrims is that we are normally in bed by 10pm; and sleeping 5 minutes later, (as long as you have your ear plugs…).

Some of the misconceptions about Spain are quite funny, and being European I laugh at Americans quite a lot in this area – as we snotty Europeans tend to do.  Firstly, Spain is not a third world country, it has a very good internal travel system, its banking system is the same as the rest of the world, you will recognise the food, its healthcare system is great, (I had to use it once), most things that you forget you will be able to buy locally.

Now after all that bear in mind that the Camino Frances goes through some of the most rural areas in Spain.  Outside of the main cities, you will find it difficult to buy much apart from food – but you will not need anything, bar food.

We have the Frequently Asked Questions, on the website that covers many questions and there are some current discussions in the Camino de Santiago forum about women walking alone – here:

http://www.caminodesantiago.org.uk/threads/safety-assaults-crime-on-the-camino.1071/

http://www.caminodesantiago.org.uk/threads/walking-the-camino-alone.776/

Lastly, this is an article written by Sue Kenny back in 2006 on Women Walking Alone

Bear in mind however that most start walking alone end up as part of a loose group as they walk – this is one of the best parts of the Camino.

Do you have anything you want to add to any future newsletter?  Let me know.

Have you written any articles about the Camino?  – send them to us for publishing on the site.

Do you have questions about your trip?  – let us know, either by email to caminoadventures @ gmail.com or by joining the Camino forum.  I will not be able to answer questions individually by email but will do my best to write an answer and add it to the website.

Thanks and Buen Camino

Leslie Gilmour

Transitioning from Camino Life to Real Life

After a couple Camino’s and seeing dozens of pilgrims having a hard time with the Camino Blues, I think it is worth a writing an article about.  I am certainly no professional, but someone who has experienced the transition back to “The Real World” after the Camino twice.

San-Nicolas---Villal-Cazar-de-Sirga-14-shell-stones

Make no bones about it, the Camino will change you.  It does it slowly, and it is very subtle… most the time. One of the things we adjust to on the Camino is the life we have there.  Days are very long, conversations can get very deep. We begin to bond with people we never dreamed of becoming friends with. There are many, quiet, tranquil, and peaceful moments on the Camino, as well some hard and difficult challenges. But, for all of us, when we step back into normal life, the longing of the Camino will eventually come our way.

From conversations with many pilgrims post Camino, I can say for myself and many others that reintroducing yourself into your old life is one of the hardest parts of the Camino.

You Change on the Camino

You change, your daily habits change, your conversations change, your body changes, the food you eat changes, the way you see people changes, the way you see the world changes.  So coming back to your old life can actually be quite a shock and a bit depressing for many. Sorry for the bad news, but for many, coming back into “The Real World” is one of the hardest parts of the Camino.

People won’t understand you when you speak of ‘albergues’, ‘ampollos’, and ‘pilgrims’. The feeling of not having the Camino and pilgrims around you is certain to seek in when you are in a luxurious bathroom, with a nice hot bath….and all of a sudden you miss the small, rundown showers that numerous albergues have. Or maybe you are all alone in your home on a Sunday afternoon, and you long for a packed room full of noisy, smelly pilgrims.

Some people run to do a second Camino as soon as they can. Some people call their pilgrim friends for some type of connection. Some people experience slight depression and realize how much they dislike their lives back home.  Not saying this is a bad thing, just saying, this is what the Camino is for.  It helps us wake up to what we really want in life. It helps us to realize where our life is, and where we want it to go.  It gives us time to think about all the things we haven’t done, and all the things we want to do.  For some pilgrims, it opens doors and propels an avalanche of change in their lives.  For others, it shows them that they do not like what they have created in their own personal lives…..and for some that can be very hard.

Our consciousness changes on the Camino…our energy level changes on the Camino. I am sure most of us have experienced a really great vacation, and then went back to their hometown and saw everything differently. Nothing changed, except you.  Or we might have a really great weekend, and you become so excited about your weekend, you go to work and tell everyone about it….and no one is impressed….they just did the same thing they do every weekend…for the past 3 years. You might start to feel like you don’t belong back in your real life.  Don’t worry, this is a natural part of being a pilgrim, and a natural part of life.

It happens on the Camino because you spend 4-5-6 weeks away from what you are used to, and all of you changes. When you come back to the same thing, your energy starts to drop, and it’s uncomfortable.

Sunflowers on the Camino near Mansillas

Do You Need to Change Back?

So what can we do?  How can we make our transition back to “The Real World” smooth and comfortable and avoid the Camino blues?

Here is what I recommend, it may be for you, and it may not, but I think if you apply this just a little bit, I think your transition will be a bit easier.

When we are on the Camino, it’s almost certain to occur, that you become aware of things in your life that you want to change…maybe good, maybe bad. While you are on the Camino, I want to urge you to write those things down.  Even better to write them down and put a date by them. This will signify when you want to accomplish those things.  Then when you get home, and you are rested a bit, start working towards those things that you wrote down.  One the Camino, we all have a goal, typically that goal is to get to Santiago.  Once we leave, we no longer have a big goal to work towards, and that can leave us with the feeling of being lost and a bit hopeless. If you start working on your new goals, it will keep the progress and your mind focused on where you want to go with your life post Camino.

It has been said that the Camino is the link between who you were and who you will become.  The best way we can serve our experience on the Camino is to start working towards what is next for in our lives instead of letting our experience die.

Chris Reynolds is a blogger and world traveler. He runs TheOneEffect.com which features experiments and adventures to change the world.

And here are a couple of posts on the forum about the Camino Blues, and here.

Wine Fountain Camino Frances Fuente de Irache

Top Ten Things About Camino de Santiago

I was asked recently what would be my top ten things about the Camino de Santiago – so here it is.

1. The people, the other pilgrims. The other pilgrims I met is my number one on the Camino, all Camino routes. I feel I was blessed. I don’t like crowds, however, I do in general like talking, and listening to other people. I, being an English speaker, was amazed at the amount of people that spoke English when it was their second and third language – I felt quite ignorant as the result of this – I can get a coffee in a few languages – but cannot communicate in any bar English. It was the people that made my Camino – people from diverse backgrounds from all over the world. I think I could write many stories about the people, they are what sticks in my head, the places I have to think about a bit more.

meseta

2. The Meseta – this long area is so unlike any other that I have walked. It is quiet, almost eerie sometimes; it has huge open expansive views away to the mountains on the right, as you walk. There was a feeling of going back to another time. Oddly enough many people decide against walking the Meseta and get the bus or train to the other side, really it is not boring.

Granon3. Granon is a tiny little village on the Meseta. Pilgrims sleep on the floor in the bell tower and have a communal dinner together – people again I suppose. I have stayed here twice the first time I was happy and felt free – the second I was in the midst of sorrow; my friend had just died, and here I spoke to someone about it and I spent the afternoon in the church crying. Then later I saw some things that made me think about the cycle of life – I began to think of life rather than death and my friend’s life, how hard he had tried to overcome certain problems and did his best to live a normal life – I then felt grateful for my own life. Image courtesy of Catching Trade Winds

4. Walking into Santiago. It took me by surprise. There is a small bridge with a sign saying – Santiago. That is it, nothing else, no “Welcome to the thousands of pilgrims that walk here every year.” I did not see the sign way in the distance and walk towards it seeing the end in sight – it was the first place that had walked towards me, most of the rest had walked away from me and had taken longer to get to than I had ever thought it would. I was here, wow. It is still a few km’s into the city – but I was there – my god what do I do now – life was simple during the last four weeks (not quite true either, but that was the feeling), what now?

leon-cathedral5. Leon and its Cathedral. Leon is a beautiful city, there is a square in front of the Cathedral; the square appears smaller by the dominance of the Cathedral, a must see. Both times that I stayed overnight here I slept in the same hostel and ate in the same pizza place at night for dinner – with different people though.

6. Santiago Cathedral. I cried again. We were finished, the contrasts of the ragged pilgrims and the tourists were interesting. Pilgrims looked fit and healthy, hardened by walking for a few weeks, clothes generally unkempt by too much use, hand washing, and drying in an unforgiving Spanish sun. Whereas the tourists were squeaky clean – new and clean clothes, jewelry; the looks on the faces were different, I don’t know what I mean by this and will have to come back to it.

7. Finisterre. The end of the world, for pilgrims of old. Finisterre is an isolated village kept alive mainly by pilgrims visiting there at the end of the Camino. It is said that you should do three things here. Wash in the sea, I did, it is not warm. Burn something at the lighthouse that you want to leave behind there are many walking shoes and boots here – for others it is a piece of paper with something written on it, there are places to burn things. The last is watch the sunset. I watched the sunset twice and was so enthralled that I did not take photos of it – I have relied on others for those, (update: I have been back and took photos the last time I was there). Both times I was here I watched the sunset. Until the sun begins to go down there is the noise of pilgrims talking with each other, people eating food that they brought up here with them, then slowly silence fell, all became quiet and the sun fell passed the horizon.

Finisterre

cruz-ferro8. Roncesvalles amazed me. This cannot even be described as a village; it is a monastery at the edge of the Pyrenees, on the Spanish side. The Albergue here contains more than 100 beds in one large hall, (this has been changed into smaller areas). This was my first experience of an Albergue, so many people together in the one room to sleep – hell I thought. However, as on most nights, my body was tired from walking and therefore finding sleep was not a problem. The second time I stayed here I slept in the overflow tents, and walked out of Roncesvalles with about 300 other pilgrims – this was August and the start of the Spanish holidays – a time to be avoided for the likes of me that does not like crowds too much – the crowds dispersed quickly though.

9. The cross of St James sits atop a hill a few days after Leon, (the Iron Cross or better known as Cruz Ferro). Why some places in the world should feel more spiritual than others puzzles me, this is one of those places. The cross is stuffed with many notes that pilgrims leave. I left a note, not a request, a question. I found an answer, later.

10. Walking through the eucalyptus forests in Galicia. Again for me quietness and peace, and an incredible smell. Everyone has a different ten things, I hope this helps you think about your ten, not just on the Camino – but in life – what really matter?

Have you read lessons learned on the Camino and how the Camino changed my life, both are in a similar vein to the above.

Buen Camino

Conques France

Le Puy to Saint Jean Pied de Port

Aubrac, France

Stage Two: Chemin de St Jacques

Le Puy to Saint Jean Pied de Port, March 4th to April 4th

This section, on the Le Puy Camino, took us to the wind swept plains of the Aubrac. Cold, I got frostbite on my nose which took weeks to heal but no snow and so we were able to cross through one of the worst marked sections. Thankfully we had a GPS and a thermos.

Our bodies had settled down a little but we were still struggling. It wasn’t until the end of this section that we felt we could walk forever. But still no feet problems beyond the ache every night and my bunions which miraculously also stopped hurting. Ice covered pine trees and half frozen ponds that crackled under foot, the weather moved into spring and with amazement, we watched as our walk took us past the first flowers, daffodils, and jonquils, then days of golden canola fields and fruit orchards with apples in blossom.

Le PuyFood and wine continued to be plentiful and the highlight of the day. That and the occasions when the room had a bath I can fall into. Each new pleasure was so exquisite, the rest of the world and our lives faded away. This was life.

The highlight was Conques, staying in the Monastery (okay the food wasn’t the highlight) being blessed by chanting monks and crawling into bed between centuries old walls and imagining everything they had seen. A beautiful town and monastery and a charming tradition of ringing every pelerin out of town and onwards.

Conques FranceWe met a few pelerins, the pressured pelerin who didn’t talk to us – later we found out because he couldn’t speak French and we had, of course, greeted him with Bonjour. He came from our home town. A French woman doing her two weeks holiday, picking up each holiday from where she left off a common way for Europeans to do the walk as the longer leave was impossible. Two days where local dogs attached themselves to us for almost the entire way, well suited to the pelerins. Trying variants – my favorite via the canal after Moissac meant a long welcome flat section. Another variant forced on us by a large sign threatening to shoot us. Pelerins are not welcomed by all the French!

Great meals, including ones we cooked ourselves to ensure our vegetable content was adequate. Some tough climbs – including one where the supermarket was at the bottom of the hill so we had to add all of our fare to our packs and all but crawl our way up.

Finally Saint Jean Pied de Port. It was a beautiful day and we decided on two nights at a good hotel and a night at Chez Arrambide to celebrate. We felt great but what to do? We wanted to continue but didn’t want to be with hoards of pilgrims. So it was simple. Take the GR 10 through the Pyrenees (mountains? Huh, we’d done a ton!) to Hendaye, pick up the Camino del Norte and get to Santiago that way. Easy…..

This is the second of four posts by Simone Sinna, the first was Cluny to Le Puy, the third is on the Camino Norte but starting at St Jean and walking to Hendaye, and the final post is along the Camino Primitivo into Santiago.

Reasons to Walk the Camino de Santiago

Pyrenees 19 guidepostYou have to be fairly motivated to walk the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain – as it is 800km.  Usually 800km with your rucksack on your back containing everything you need for a month.  Sleeping in hostels with strangers, communal showers, and no privacy.

To many this does not sound like a holiday or a good use of their precious time, however, more than 100,000 people walk one of the Camino routes in Spain each year – and the numbers keep growing.  Pilgrims, as they are called, come from all over the world and put themselves through physical hardship, subjecting their body to the rigors of walking between 25 and 30km a day – day after day.  It really is quite a feat in our modern convenience orientated life.

So why walk the Camino de Santiago?

Time Out

This appears to be the main reason for most.  Many of us have reached a point in  life where we need time to think, time to get away from life as it is.  Many times I asked pilgrims why they were on the Camino and the simple answer was just getting away from everything.

And on the Camino you do.  The pace of life is slower, you are not subjected to advertising, and social media and the internet seems like another world.  Imagine for a month not being in a taxi, a car, bus or any other mode of transport – only walking.  You don’t have TV, ubiquitous email, and mobile phones.

There seems to be little that compares with walking for a month.  People come out the other end often wanting to make changes to their own life, and having a sense of being refreshed – being washed clean of the daily cynicism that can surround us by hearing too much news.

I went more than a month, twice, without my daily morning check of email and news sites, something I find almost impossible at home and this does not cover the changes in my life since walking the Camino de Santiago.

A Challenge

And it is.  The real problem is not walking 25 or 30km, it is doing this day after day.  You discover if your boots really do fit, if they don’t you learn very quickly how to repair the blisters on your feet.

Apart from looking after your feet, the main challenge is to have your backpack as light as possible.  The first time I walked the Camino my rucksack was 13kg at the start in St Jean; far too heavy.  The next time I had the weight down to 6kg; walking was much easier and I was happier.  Sometimes there are no washing machines, so you hand wash the clothes you wore for walking – I haven’t ever hand-washed clothes at home.

If you manage to just walk in the day and not think about all the days ahead, walk at your own pace, do your own Camino – there can be a tremendous sense of accomplishment at the end.  However, there can also be an anti-climax.  What next, is often a common thought?  What, no more walking? I felt a bit lost not walking- I was so used to walking all day every day.

Religious

Camino PhotosYes, people walk the Camino de Santiago for religious reasons.  There are “holy years” on the Camino where the feast day of St James falls on a Sunday.  During a holy year, the door of Forgiveness in Santiago Cathedral is opened. During a Holy Year, all pilgrims can have a plenary indulgence for the forgiveness of sins – this is dependant on certain conditions. The next holy year is not until 2021, however, 2016 has been declared the Holy Year of Mercy. During the previous Holy Years, the number of pilgrims on the route increases dramatically – expect the same this year.

In the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago, you can request a Compostela if you meet certain requirements – walk the last 100km or cycle the last 200km. The Compostela is a Latin document that states you have walked at least the last 100km or cycled at least the last 200km for religious or spiritual reasons to Santiago.  There is a different certificate for those that do not fall into these categories; this is a certificate of achievement for finishing the walk. Most people religious or not ask for the Compostela – it appears personal spirituality is alive and well along the Camino

No matter your reasons for taking on the challenge of the Camino, most people thoroughly enjoy their Camino experience.  I talked to almost strangers about subject matters that I wouldn’t discuss normally; others pilgrims were the same.  Friendships build as you find yourself walking at the same pace as others; groups form that end up calling themselves a Camino family.  For me, I was especially lucky as I met my wife to be there.

La Faba

The Spiritual Aspects of the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage

,

The Camino Spirit

This is a transcript of a talk I was asked to give at an information session on walking the Camino, presented in September 2016 and sponsored by the Albuquerque, New Mexico Chapter of The American Friends of the Camino. My wife, Janet, and I walked the Camino Frances in the Spring of 2015.

We volunteered to do an informal show-and-tell- things like what boots we wore, packs we carried and why we chose rain jackets and pants over ponchos. But after I mentioned I’d include some spiritual observations, event organizers nudged me toward forgetting about the nuts and bolts and concentrating on the Camino and the soul. Janet isn’t comfortable with public speaking and certainly wasn’t going to attempt a presentation without boots, backpacks and other impedimenta for props, so I was going to have to fly solo. And winging it from a few notes wouldn’t work with this topic for me, so I got to work writing it.

Thank you to the Friends of the Camino for inviting me to speak.

Initially, I offered to share with this group some experiences my wife, Janet, and I had on our recent Camino. Not too surprisingly, since it IS a pilgrimage, I said I would also touch on a few of its spiritual aspects.

Well, like the Camino, one thing led to another, and so here I am, about to devote pretty much all of my allotted time to some random spiritual aspects.

I like to think of myself as a spiritual person; although I’m not a churchgoer, I don’t belong to any organized religion and have not studied theology, philosophy, or the history of religion. To profound questions from such disciplines, I have no answers.

But as Garrison Keillor wrote: “You get old and there are NO answers anymore, only stories.”

This is one of mine.

About two years ago, Janet and I were invited by some friends to see a movie with them at the Guild Theatre. “It’s called ‘Six Ways to Santiago,’” they said, “and it’s a documentary about this pilgrimage across northern Spain. We’ve never done it, but we’ve traveled through that part of the country and it’s gorgeous. The movie sounds interesting- something we‘d probably all really like. Wanna go?”

We went and we did like it. The “six ways” were profiles of six different pilgrims, one of whom was a gentleman, like us, up in years, who was walking the five-hundred-mile Camino de Santiago in memory of his recently deceased wife.

The film had ended and the credits were still scrolling when Janet turned to me. “You know, we should do that. And if that guy can do it, we can.”

I was a bit surprised. We had never even been to Europe, and our travel daydreams had always been of Italy, where Janet’s mother was born, and where she still had distant relatives. And then there was the food! And the art! What was up with this Camino thing?

I didn’t realize it then, and wouldn’t for some time afterward, but that pilgrim’s story in the documentary was the first of many “indirect infusions of grace from the Camino,” as I would come to call them. They were little affirmations, encouragements, and inspirations coaxing us toward what was to eventually become our own pilgrimage.

We later heard about Martin Sheen’s film, “The Way,” and watched the DVD. Many of you know it as the moving story of a father’s pilgrimage to mourn his estranged son, who had died in a fall on the Camino. We didn’t know then that we would eventually see first-hand how that movie, for better (and maybe just a bit for worse) popularized the Camino around the world
Those indirect infusions of grace became more direct and personalized when we began to connect with gracious people, generous of spirit.

One was Sarah Kotchian. I met her when I attended a reading she gave of her book, “Camino,” a beautiful, reflectively poetic account of her pilgrimage day by day. Through her meditations and evocative photographs, she reveals how her journey mirrors her spiritual awakening.

Sarah told me about Albuquerque’s chapter of the organization American Pilgrims on the Camino. Last fall Janet and I attended a Sunday afternoon gathering they held for people who had walked the Camino or were interested in doing so. Slowly the Camino was becoming more than merely an idea for us.

In that day’s discussion groups, we heard not only practical advice about how to prepare for and travel the Camino, but also how it had affected the lives of those who had walked and how we might become attuned to its spiritual lessons. In a closing circle ceremony, we each read aloud the wish we had randomly chosen from those we had all written anonymously. Janet and I still have the ones we drew: Hers reads:

    My prayer for you is finding joy and comfort in whatever the present presents to you.

I liked that wisdom and wordplay and added a bit to it: Whatever presents the present presents. The gifts may not be obvious, they may not be wrapped with sparkly paper and tied up with bows, but they can be treasures.

One of those in our discussion group was David Ryan, an avid walker, and veteran of both the Camino and the Appalachian Trail. David’s books praise mindful walking as a pastime. In “The Gentle Art of Wandering,“ a book and a website, David encourages would-be explorers to “wander anywhere! When you allow yourself to see what is already here, you can have an amazing adventure no matter where you are!” I was to think of his words often on the Camino.

We made a point to attend David’s personable and informative Camino presentation last March. He has consistently been very kind and generous with his knowledge and experience, always there with an answer or guidance.

By early spring of this year, we were committed.

The Camino

We would leave May 1st. Now we were deep into practicalities and preparations. We bought stuff, thought better of that stuff, returned it, exchanged it for other stuff. We trained. While no strangers to hiking and walking, we trekked with our loaded backpacks at the nearby UNM North Golf Course, where we became odd, familiar fixtures racking up the miles as we trudged around and around the jogging path.

Fortunately, there was a final gentle reminder that the Camino can be much more than “adventure travel light” and why we were doing it. The Albuquerque pilgrims held their Spring potluck just two weeks before our departure. The symbolic scallop shells we would be carrying with us we brought to be blessed. We were given a prayer for pilgrims, received blessings and the first of countless wishes we would receive for a Buen Camino.

The first of our fellow pilgrims to wish us a Buen Camino was one we met even before we actually started, in the Biarritz air terminal while waiting for a shuttle to St. Jean Pied de Port. We never did get his name, but I recall he was from Gilbert, Arizona, so I’ll call him Gil. He was about our age, tall and a bit weathered. His desert hiking buddy had made all the arrangements for a Camino together. Then suddenly his friend became seriously ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and was unable to go. So here was Gil, setting off alone. He appeared to be well-equipped but didn’t seem to really know much about what he was getting into. Our shuttle hadn’t arrived before he said good-bye and Buen Camino, grabbing a bus to St. Jean. We thought we’d see him again somewhere ahead but didn’t. We hoped his Camino would go well, but at that point, before our departure, we had not yet begun to understand the journey’s lessons. Later we would learn that the Camino is often said to be like life: ultimately, you don’t really choose one, you live one.

I thought about Gil and how “stuff happens” when, about a week into the Camino we met Daniel, an earnest young German. Daniel told us he was walking to foster a sense of personal spontaneity. A woman he loved had chided him for denying himself life’s potential for richness by obsessively controlling the random and accidental. His description of the meticulousness with which he planned his Camino for nearly two years bore witness to that.  Less than a week into his pilgrimage, he had yet to make much progress in his program for self-improvement, he admitted. We suggested that he use the structure of the Camino to free himself from the structure of his life.

We were beginning to discover how the Camino makes things simple. You get up, you walk, you stop for the night, wash yourself and your clothes, eat, sleep and do it again. David Ryan says it becomes your job.

Aside from the physical deprivations and demands, (and we discovered they can be considerable), you’re free to witness the world’s beauty and wonder, its squalor and monotony and the frailties and strengths of yourself and those of the people just like you who are doing the same things.

Angelica was someone we met on our first day out. She was a waiflike and willowy young woman traveling alone from Milan. Although very personable, she politely deflected all our inquiries about who she was and her life back home, explaining that her Camino was a new beginning and wanted to shed any thoughts about her past. She did reveal that her decision to walk the Camino was a hasty one made only two weeks before. Was she fleeing a ruined relationship? A family rift? (we’d had hints of generational discord) A career crisis? We walked with her much of our second morning, although we were slow and eventually she went on ahead. We caught up with her at the summit of a long, exhaustingly arduous climb and thought after a rest we’d all continue on together. But she had other plans.

“I forgot my stick back down at the bottom of the trail. It is just a branch I found, but it is the perfect stick. I must turn around and get it.”

That puzzled me and seemed so absurd. What made that stick so perfect that she would make all that effort to get it back? Wouldn’t another perfect stick be not far ahead? As we continued walking, my poetry mind tried to devise a suitable metaphor for that. What were her expectations? Did she feel that on the Camino she could control her destiny? What was this perfection she so highly valued? I began to ponder how much anyone could control anything.

Janet finally offered an explanation. “Maybe she needed an excuse for some time alone, away from us. Why don’t you just look at the flowers?”

I haven’t said much about what our personal reasons were for this undertaking. Janet had recently lost both her parents, (her mother unexpectedly), in a short period of time. She hoped to reconcile that loss and to consider how to proceed with the next phase of her life.

For my part, I looked forward to doing the Camino with her. We both wanted to renew and strengthen our relationship. Now that we had recently re-retired from the latest in our series of post-professional-career jobs, we were going to be footloose to a greater degree than we had been previously. It seemed like the right time to do this. Together.

Some recommend a solitary excursion, and for some, that may be a preferable course. Bill, a Coloradoan we met, said going with your spouse was a sure-fire ticket to divorce court. We met a number of people going solo without spouses for a variety of reasons. But we met just as many who were going together.

We did pretty well taking care of each other. We’re different in sometimes challenging ways, but as we sometimes like to say “weirdly enough, it works.”

We’ve always loved to hike together. Janet is petite and much shorter than me; my stride is almost twice as long as hers, so not long after we’ve stepped off together, I’m out in front. On the meditation-inducing Camino, amid all its new and beautiful surroundings, I’d easily get lost in myself. After awhile, I’d stop, look back and wait for her.

One day an Australian guy who had passed us a few times said “I think I’ll call you ’The Caterpillar Couple.’ You know how with a caterpillar the front moves forward and the back catches up…”
I so fondly remember those times when I just paused to look back at Janet following closely behind, and, on those especially challenging stretches of the trail, she would look up from where she had to often step so carefully, meet my eyes and smile with confidence and a slight measure of determination and I was just so happy to be with her. When asked to describe what it was like to walk the Camino, we simply tell people that we were happiest when we were walking.

There were some unhappy times, to be sure. Parts of the trail were grueling, we were sometimes hot and very tired, or soaked and wind-battered. We missed our kids back home. In the middle of an especially bad day, however, we got an email from our son, Max:

Hi Dad and Mom,

I hope you two are enjoying your journey. While I have a few minutes, I’ll write to tell you that I’m happy for you. I’m happy that you are healthy and still crave adventure. Your willingness and courage to take a pilgrimage inspires me to not give up on my dreams. I know I complain a lot and my fears hold me back at times, but I hope I can have your strength and optimism when I am your age.

Sending love, Max.

Another pilgrim we remember is Olga, a sweet grandmother with eyes that twinkled from within deep creases in her tanned and weathered face. She radiated such a calm demeanor. Janet confided in her that of all the people she’d met on the Camino, the Germans were her favorites.

“Every one of them I’ve met has been so kind and considerate, so warm and very fun loving.”

Helga laughed gently. ”Thank you. Yes, I suppose we do like to have a good time.” As far as being so kind, she said she couldn’t say why. “Maybe it’s because some of us feel we have a lot to make up for.”

Some of the albergues serve communal dinners and a few conduct pilgrim religious services. One memorable one did both.

It was a neighborhood parish in Logrono operating a by-donation albergue staffed with volunteers. It’s a particularly clean, well-run place accommodating about fifty pilgrims in one large room full of the ubiquitous Camino bunk beds. The night we were there, the place was occupied almost entirely with exuberant young people in their twenties. An Italian culinary school student and his new German friend offered to cook dinner for forty – a typical filling pilgrim meal served at one immense table. Introductions all around, prayers and songs afterward. I’m still moved when I recall how that room glowed with love and warmth and energy that lingered through a multilingual service afterward in the adjacent darkened church.

At La Faba, an albergue high in the Leon hills on the ascent to O Cebriero, an elderly German man hosts evening vespers in a venerable church on the property. A priest from a nearby village leads participants in prayers in several languages. I volunteer for what I thought was a reading in English but what turns out to be a ritual foot-washing. It is definitely a ritual wash, since I’m certain that all those in attendance have taken advantage of the excellent shower facilities at the end of their day’s walk. As it turns out, I’m a washee, not a washer. No matter.  To end the service, we sing, somewhat surprisingly to me, in English, “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone seems to know the words.

La Faba

As we are filing out, a German woman rises to sing. It is a poignant Schubert piece from his Wintereisse, a collection of songs portraying the allegorical journey of a lonely heart. I speak to her outside the church afterward, tell her as best I can how beautiful it was. She tells me it was a favorite song of her father’s.

Occasions such as these, when pilgrims come together, seem to amplify the Camino’s greatest lesson, the lesson of love. I recall a quotation Janet showed me from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and theologian. Merton said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone. We find it with another.”

What I have given you here is by no means a chronological account of our journey, but it seems appropriate to  conclude this with a fragment of the destination, not the end of our Camino, but the closing of a chapter:

We had tried so hard to eliminate anything nonessential from our heavy backpacks, but I did bring a small brass bell, intending to hang it to ring as I walked. Its sound was pleasing to me, but after we started, I decided it would be just noise, too intrusive to others and distracting to myself when the quiet of the countryside and the soft conversation of fellow pilgrims was much more appropriate, so it stayed at the bottom of my pack.

But when we arrived at the outskirts of Santiago early in the morning of that final day,  I took it out, hung it from my pack and let it ring to celebrate our accomplishment as the streets converging toward the Cathedral grew crowded with festive pilgrims.

We asked someone to snap our picture in front of the Cathedral, then rested a bit, observing the lively scene for awhile before we went to find the Pilgrim Office. After we stood in line there to get our certificates, our Camino diplomas, we sat outside the entrance, greeting other new arrivals. There were high fives and waves, smiles and some tears, from both them and from us.

It was another of those many moments when I remembered a favorite poem by the Japanese poet, Ariwara No Narihira, who wrote it in the middle of the ninth century, probably as pilgrims half a world away began to walk to Santiago.

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Robert Woltman is a retired museum exhibition curator/designer. He is also a baker, poet and writer and visual artist. He lives with his wife, Janet, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Leslie Anna 13km from Santiago

How Walking the Camino de Santiago changed my Life

I first walked the Camino de Santiago in 2004 on the Camino Frances route.  I found it quite difficult back then to find information before I went so I had little idea what lay ahead.  In hindsight that was maybe good for me, if I had seen some of the images of where people sleep at night and the stories about sharing I would likely have chosen something else that summer.

Some Background

For most of my life I had worked in jobs that I didn’t like much.  So in 2002 I called halt and quit my job with the intention of going to college or university the year after.  I didn’t know what I was going to study; however I had a fallback choice of finance an area where I had mostly worked.  That choice was made on the basis if I was going to continue to work in an area I didn’t like then I better make sure I was better paid.

Leslie Anna 13km from SantiagoI looked at a few colleges and two universities.  I had a great conversation with a woman in NUIM, a student intake counsellor for mature students.  One simple question she asked changed my thinking:

If you could study anything you wanted, what would it be?

English Literature – I knew the answer immediately – but I didn’t think it was a sensible choice.  Sensible would have been something that trained me.

The next day I applied for entrance and a week later I was accepted.  Then I was really terrified, why was someone who could not spell going to write so much?  Anyway I ignored the fear and enrolled.

The First Time I Heard of the Camino

I moved from Dublin to Maynooth into a shared apartment with other old students like myself.  It was great and I loved reading and study.

Maynooth University

Another student, Dara, talked about this long distance walk he had completed.  Now he was mad – he had walked from Holland to Santiago de Compostela.  He went on and on, the people he met, the freedom, the peacefulness, and it was a cheap way to spend the summer.  The cheap part started my interest.  I was poor and had my first student summer ahead.  I didn’t want to work and this sounded interesting.  However I wasn’t sure if I would hate it or just see it as a challenge and therefore find it bearable.

Dara helped get me kitted out.  I borrowed his rucksack, bought a sleeping bag and made do with everything else.  I booked a flight to Paris and the overnight train to Bayonne.  I wasn’t committed to walking the whole way.  I wasn’t committed at all – my main thought was “if I hate it, I’ll go somewhere else in Spain for the rest of the summer”.   I had an arrangement to meet Dara in September on the Camino Aragones at Jaca and walk with him for a week.

Arriving in St Jean Pied de Port

St.-Jean-PP-02-train-station-houseI travelled on the local train from Bayonne to St Jean.  There were a few other pilgrims on the train; well I thought they were, as they had backpacks and those strange shells hanging from them.

When I had checked in at the airport my rucksack weight 15kg.  I had it in my head that I would be spending a lot of time on my own – maybe in the wilderness – I laugh at myself now.  Being who I am I had brought along a few books: War and Peace, and a couple of others by Dostoevsky – happy reading?  Tolstoy was left in Pamplona, I am surprised I carried it that far.

Joining Groups

In the pilgrim’s office in St Jean I was given a Pilgrims Passport and a list of albergues for the whole route, hostels to you and me.  There was a group from Italy travelling together who were booking rooms for the first night at Orrision, (one of the very few places where you have to book ahead), they asked me if I wanted a bed booked.  I did and I set out walking with them.

Between St Jean and Pamplona I mixed back and forward with the Italian group and an Irish group who lived in Germany, son, father, and grandfather.  I took a few days to settle, being part of any group has never been my natural inclination.

Commitment Grew the More I walked

My image of walking in the wilderness was completely wrong.  There were people around most of the time.  I would sometimes walk on my own and sometime with others.

My desire to finish grew the more I walked.  I walked about 25 to 30km per day carrying my too heavy rucksack.   I learned to leave unneeded items behind in hostels.

My feet became very sore and I dumped my cheap boots and invested in good walking shoes in Pamplona.  But the damage had been done to my heals – eventually the hard skin on my heels had to be removed with scissors and taped up every morning.  They were only sore for the first five minutes each time I started walking – and this was a summer holiday?

I Caught the Camino Bug

Because I had skipped a couple of sections I went back again the next year with the aim of walking the whole route. I did – even after I had been taken to hospital in an ambulance I got a taxi back to where it had picked me up.  They discovered I had two hernias, the doctor gave me decent painkillers and advised I take it easy and see my doctor when I got home. (As a side note I was in Vienna the next year for Uni there – if you get sick and need a hospital that is place to be treated, bloody great.)

I met Anna.

I have to tell a story and hope she doesn’t mind.  We sat opposite each other one evening at dinner.  We were staying the night in Hospital de San Nicolas an Italian run hostel just before Itero del Castillo where they have a communal evening meal.   I was asking people around the table what they did and what they wanted to do.  I kept her to last; I didn’t want to seem too eager to get to know her…  Anyway when she answered the question I said “so what is wrong with you then?”   That could be one of the worst chat up lines in history.   She also told me later I was likely the grumpiest Pilgrim that she met – touché.  Ten years later we are still together.

Hospital de San Nicolas

Hospital de San Nicolas

The Changes I Attribute to the Camino

I was always a scribbler.  Half written books.  Unfinished great novels.  The last half finished book went into the bin in Jan 2006.  The next morning I woke and decided I should know how to build a website.  Being a student gives one lots of free time.

So of course the topic for my great new project was going to be the Camino de Santiago.  The first iteration was horrible; my graphics skills are non-existent.  This is the website that I built – a few iterations later.  I also run a Camino forum and feel like I have daily interactions with the Camino.

I discovered very quickly that having a website doesn’t mean someone will visit it, maybe your parents or granny.  My competitive edge came out a little and I learned web marketing – my new career, and I now run a small company in this area.  Just as well, I don’t really have the gene for being a teacher and what else would I do after university?

I sit here in Prague, where I now live, writing this – down to meeting Anna on the Camino.

Lessons Learned on the Camino

This could be a good post for next week; anyway these are just some thoughts:

  • Pain reminds me I am alive
  • I can do more than I believe
  • I like people – surprise
  • I like being part of some groups
  • Types of people annoy me – no matter what language they speak
  • I can learn those types and change myself
  • People care – I saw a huge amount of this
  • Crying is okay
  • Sharing is good
  • I need less than I think

What about you?  Do you have any lesson from the Camino to share?  Did the Camino change your life in anyway?

A Pilgrims View of Santiago de Compostela

It was where I was heading, as was everyone else on this pilgrimage across northern Spain. Each city was different, Leon is a pleasure, Burgos has a dreadful 9km walk through the industrial part of the city. Pamplona was too early to take much notice of, I was only walking a few days and my legs were sore, my feet had blisters, and my rucksack was far too heavy. Before leaving Pamplona I made sure my backpack was lighter.

Looking Towards Santiago

santiago-de-compostela-cathedralI had no great expectation of Santiago de Compostela. I had become used to thinking less about the future, walking does that to the mind and soul. I came upon Santiago during the early afternoon, a simple sign at a bridge over a river saying only Santiago. Nothing else, no welcome to Santiago pilgrims, no brass band, no bells – what had I really expected?

I dumped my rucksack in an Albergue, I was staying here a few days and did not have enough money for a hotel; anyway I had been walking for over four weeks and had become quite used to them.

Then down into the city I walked the cobbled winding streets of the old town. A feeling of elation touched me for a while that day. I met other pilgrims and we ate together and talked about what was next. We met up that night and had some drinks with other pilgrims, then went home to bed, falling fast asleep very quickly as I had not been out so late for the last four weeks.

Good Food

TortillaI don’t eat fast food often.  But, during the last few days before Santiago de Compostela my mouth had been watering at the thought of a Burger King…  Yes, that is my poison.  I noticed a Tourist Office and they pointed in the direction of Burger King.

The food in Santiago can range, like most tourist cities, from  the bland to the great.  However, if like me you love seafood then you will be spoilt for choice.  From little cafes that provide freshly cooked calamari, to restaurants with excellent lobster.  It is an easy place to start putting on the weight you lost while walking the Camino.

Too Busy

You would hardly believe that I have lived in cities most of my life.  After one day in any city doing the tourist thing, I am ready to leave.  Also, I had just spent four weeks walking in the countryside of Northern Spain and I wasn’t ready for full re-entry and staying longer.  So off to Finisterre we went.

Happiness and Sadness, Saying Goodbye

Bercianos---Mansillas-18-sunflowers

I had met a lot of people during my four weeks on the Camino Frances.  We ate together the first night in the city and had breakfast as a group the next morning.  And now it was time to say goodbye.

Over a relatively short period of time I felt I knew these people better than I had any right to after only 4 weeks.  We had talked a lot, helped each other, slept in the same rooms together and eaten at the same table.  The Camino through us together.  Now there was some sadness leaving and moving on.

What Now?

However the next morning was when the “what now?” set in. Yes, what do I do now? I did not get up at six and have my coffee, staying out of the way while other people were getting ready to leave and walk, as I like my quiet time in the morning. I was not going to walk anywhere. I felt a bit lost.

I had to face the fact, that day, that I was finished. I had finished my pilgrimage in Spain, and now I had to take it all home with me: in my mind, in my body, and take it all back to my “normal” life.

After that slight feeling of depression and then the acceptance of what was, I brightened again.

I found out though that my normal life had changed, only a little. I have become quite used to walking and I now take pleasure in walking seeing nature anew, in a way that I had not noticed before, just a little bit more detail to the things that don’t move. I had a tiny bit more confidence in myself and my abilities; I had just walked 780km, not too bad.

Thomas James

Finding Love on the Camino de Santiago

Love was the last thing I expected to find on the Camino de Santiago. But I did and ten years later our son is one year old. Therefore I thought this would be a good time for this post.

Thomas James

I set out expecting a journey with few people, and I expected those few to be a bit odd, or older religious types – well it was a pilgrimage not your usual holiday. Expectations are interesting phenomena, I don’t know about you, but my expectations of future events are usually completely wrong.

I have been thinking of writing this post for sometime, however I wanted to wait until I had entered the next chapter. While thinking, I was composing in my head; the title would be more descriptive if it was “Finding Love, Pain, Change, Tolerance, Patience, Flexibility, and Frustration on the Camino de Santiago” – not quite as catchy; however these are the changes required by me in all good relationships.

The Freedom of Walking Alone

Walking the Camino on my own is where it began, I didn’t expect to meet people and walk with them. However one of the wonderful things about walking on my own was caring less what others thought of me – at home I would not leave the house in the morning without showering, on the Camino I showered the evening before, so most of the time I was smelly from walking all day.

I would walk with someone or a few people and then move on or they did. I like people, the most fun and enjoyment in life comes in the company of others, however I am not great at spending a full day with one person. The Camino gave me the opportunity to meet lots of people, walk with them, or meet in the evening to eat together.

Losing Freedom and Gaining Friendship

Leslie Anna 13km from SantiagoThen I met Anna. We had passed a hello and Buen Camino before we started chatting. Then one night in an albergue we were sat opposite each other at a communal meal and got talking. I found her hugely attractive and as usual that made conversation more difficult for me.

During the next few days we met more often and talk more. From Ponferrada we walked together all day chatting. One of the first things I noticed was becoming conscious of my appearance. The second was arranging and discussing where we would stop each night. We had quickly become inseparable, sometimes much to the disgust of Nora, Anna’s friend.

Then one night we kissed. That was it; we walked the last ten days or so to Santiago hand in hand. It was all very easy, as it is at the start of any romantic relationships.

I had driven to the Camino and left my car in Roncesvalles, so four of us hired a car and drove there, one left at that point for a flight and we three drove to Prague.

Different Cultures and Language

At that time I was living in Vienna and Anna in Prague. So it was fairly easy to commute at the weekends. However I had to go back to Dublin the following May. Around February, six months after meeting, I proposed and asked if she would come to Dublin with me. I think it was in that order, and that month – interesting how I remember the date we met on the Camino and not the date I proposed… Nine years later we are still engaged, at some point we will get around to the formalities.

After the Camino is when the pain, tolerance, flexibility, and the need to change started. Relationships need work, different first languages, cultures, and expectations appear to need a bit more work. Just a couple of examples: Czechs take their shoes off when entering their own house or even when visiting others; this took a bit of getting used to. But now when back in Scotland or Ireland and people walk around the house in outdoor shoes I find it uncomfortable – interesting how I changed with this one. I am Scottish, from Glasgow, and we are fairly direct in speech. This can take a lot of getting used to in any relationship; over the years I have learned some moderation in my directness, which has made life in general easier.

If you meet someone on the Camino it is unlikely that they will live just down the street or even in the same city or country, therefore these end up being long distance relationship with all that entails. Holidays are often used visiting family in either country.

Ten Years Later

After nearly eight years together, seven living in Dublin, we moved back to Prague. The way of life in the Czech Republic can be a bit more relaxed, and with the intention of having a child we wanted to live in a place where both parents didn’t have to work full time to just pay the bills. (and Anna’s family and friends are here)

Just over a year ago Thomas James was born, (Dec 1st). Thomas because it’s a name we like, and James because we met on the Camino; and the Camino has remained a big part of out life.

Its not the end, thought I do like happy endings. Its just another chapter: just like meeting, getting engaged, living in Ireland, moving to Prague.

That day slogging up the hill from St Jean I was wondering what I had let myself in for – I really had no idea.

Pyrenees-23-road-in-mountains

Camino de Santiago Frances Overview

IMG_20150804_160526On July 8th of this year, I set out from St Jean Pied du Port to walk the infamous Camino Frances. I had a return ticket booked for five weeks later and I dreamed of finishing my walk at the Atlantic Ocean in Finisterre. As I packed my bag before my departure I was excited for the unknown. I was excited for the physical and mental challenges that lay ahead of me.

To be honest, I really did not know what to expect. Friends, colleagues and different internet blogs gave me an insight into what they experienced but for me I set off on a very wet and cloudy day across the Pyrenees not knowing what The Way would bring.

It turned out to be the most epic trip I have ever done. I am home now as long as I was gone away and I am finding life familiar but different. It is hard to pin point why exactly. As I walked my Camino I encountered life in its most primal way. Food, security and shelter, the three basic needs for humankind to build their lives from were the first things I had to organise everyday. Once we have these needs accounted for we feel safe.

IMG_20150807_104545After a few days, I learnt not to stress about these, everything always fell into place. That first week I was beyond tired, my body was aching in ways I had never encountered. I went from being in a great mood to being in a quiet mood where I wanted solitary time. I got tendonitis early on and I found myself annoyed with myself for tying my boots too tight.

As the days rolled on and the monotony of my daily routine became second nature I found my mind becoming very strong. I became more in touch with emotions of myself and others and creativity in my thinking began to reignite. I overcame injuries and tiredness and I gave myself over to an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Some days my pace quickened, other days it slowed down. I headed off most mornings in darkness as I began to love walking with the Milky Way guiding me. The stars that hung so close above my head were so clear that I often stopped just to stare up in awe. I loved the feeling of dew on my skin and the stillness of the darkness. Within an hour, daylight began to break through the stars and I was there as the day time world took over. I saw fields and fields of sunflowers, lined up like soldiers, awakening and smiling brightly towards the sun that rose behind me every day as I continued heading west.
The ever changing scenery, the smells, the wine I drank with new friends, the sound of us marching to the beat of our own drum brought me to a sense of sheer happiness. Walking every day both alone and with new friends from such diverse backgrounds to myself taught me a lot about myself. Now that I am home and I am looking back on my Camino I appreciate that it was not only a journey across Northern Spain, but a deep introspective journey into who I am.

Past life events came back to me and things that bothered me but were put into a compartment deep away also popped up. I looked at these and sometimes I’d randomly strike up conversations with someone beside me about it. I have learnt that when a thought comes up, I acknowledge it for what it is, just a thought, and I then just leave it there and move on in the present and not letting the past project into my future.

I began to make notes of thoughts that came to me. Since I came home, I am now spending my evenings and spare time reading and researching interests. In a life dominated by social media and external factors bombarding our senses I have become an observer and not as much a participator in trivial, energy sapping experiences. I am very happy with where I am in my life at the moment and I am putting energy into quality relationships and life experiences more than before.

IMG_20150810_095136

When I arrived in Finisterre on August 10th I sat on a rock at the lighthouse and sat in silence while the crowds around me giddily took photos and chatted. After a month of walking with the sun rising behind me I was watching the sun set before me and I realised that while my walking was over and the adrenaline was beginning to wear off, my way was just beginning and it is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Sunset Muxia

Catherine O’Brien, October 2015, www.carryoncamino.com

 

Memories of the Camino de Santiago

churchIf I could for a moment, bring you on a journey to Santa Catalina de Samoza. It is on the French Way of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to the body of St. James. It is Monday June 16th 2014. It is hot; while I walk carefully along the dusty trail with tensor bands on my knees and walking sticks in my hands I spy with my little eye a church steeple.

This is fantastic because I had strained my knee and each step was hard. To ease the walk I had sent on my backpack on with a delivery service for the first time. Highly recommended if you are injured.

My destination for the day was right ahead of me on the dusty one lane road. I weighed the strain of walking with the joy of reuniting with friends I met. The strain faded when I saw the word BAR on the building behind the church and I sighed in relief when I saw the word ALBERGUE underneath. I had set out that morning from Hospital de Orbigo, a beautiful town with a long bridge and a historical jousting arena. I had been with a group of pilgrims having a great time on our way to Villafranca del Bierzo to arrive by my friend’s birthday. Birthdays on the Camino are special because pilgrims are so friendly and sharing.

So when I hurt my knee in Hospital de Orbigo I thought, oh no! I had strained my knee before in the first days in the Pyrenees and I had to totally re-plan my pilgrimage. I looked forward to rejoining the group. One was an Irishman who was writing for “The Irish Catholic”, one was from Holland who had battled cancer, two from New Zealand setting a new path from a previous one in nursing, and the other going to Chile to become a teacher, another from Spain who lived in Ireland, two Americans, a med student and the other was raising money for a ex-slave children in Ghana.

As I walked into the small town, it turned out the church was closed, the bar was no longer serving and there was no room at the inn. My backpack was there, and with new found resolved I hit the road. The closed church reminded me of the 800th anniversary of St. Francis doing the Camino and Pope Francis’ choice of him for a name.

The sun shone in the sky and I felt like a cowboy with my wide brimmed hat. Setting out past the stonewalls of the countryside, I thought if my backpack is too heavy for my knee, I could sleep along the fence line, but it gets down to 6’C at that time of year and a bunk bed was what I was looking for. I continued on the distance of 4.5k to El Ganso, it tested my will. Signs along the path read “Cowboy Meson”. Which mean Cowboy Bar. It looked like it would be a perfect fit; it turns out the bar was more of someone’s converted garage. In cowboy fashion I dis-mounted from my “horse” I set my walking sticks by the entrance of the bar and ordered a beer with a classic Bocodilla Tortilla, which is a long sandwich with potato omelet filling. It was priceless. I enjoyed the rest feeling the relief to let things go.

cowboyI returned to the Cowboy Bar for breakfast and returned to the trail. My knee encouraged me to take things slowly and reflect awhile.

There were many on the trail as we approached Cruz de Ferro. It is custom to put a rock from home at the base of the cross. It stands at the highest place in the French Camino. I picked up a stone from 50 feet back, and placed down on the top of the pile under the cross. It represented my intention to be open to the infinite. Coming down from the base with me was a man wearing a t-shirt with FAKE on it. I said to him, “Wow, a fake t-shirt!” We became Camino buddies and travelled together, down the rocky slopes of El Acebo and

molinasecaRiego de Ambros, to the gorgeous town of Molinaseca, and on to the Templar town of Ponferrada. The stretch onwards past Camponaraya was long and dusty. He was a nightclub manager and had done the Camino before and wanted to help others. We stopped in a museum of religious statues and my memory was triggered.

The Gin Blossom song, “I will follow you down, but not that far” was shortened to just, “I will follow you down.” The moment arrived when we entered the town of Villafranca del Bierzo. We found a place to stay the night, and I to find my “long lost” friends and the Birthday celebration. There was a steep decent into town square from the Albergue, I had to be extra careful with my knee. It was fantastic to see them again and the birthday boy Chris, who bought me a beer!

The group had made up two songs and sang them at supper. The supper was outdoors in a cozy back alley with one long table for everyone. Chris had said what he had appreciated about his friends, his Camino family. This time of the Camino I really appreciated time alone and time together with friend made along the way. The journey in the days to come had involved the friends I had met and the friends who had left the Camino who were still in my thoughts and prayers two from England and two from New Zealand. We are all part of the human family it is great to be reminded of it once and a while!

God bless y’all, Steve Eckert.

Le Puy Camino

Women Walking Alone on the Camino de Santiago

I have written before about walking the Camino de Santiago alone, but I didn’t specifically address the topic of being a woman and walking alone.  This topic has become news after an American woman, Denise Thiem, went missing in April of 2015.  She apparently left Astorga and was never seen again.  There are no actual sightings of her having left Astorga, and I truly hope that she turns up alive and well at some point.

Le Puy Camino

Since then it has been advised that women do not walk alone on the 24 km section from Astorga.  This area, however, is now being patrolled by Spanish mounted police to ensure the safety of pilgrims’.

I have always had a lot of questions about the safety of a woman walking and walking alone on any of the Camino de Santiago routes. I am not female and therefore I asked Sue who has her own site to write something for me about walking the Camino de Santiago for women.

Women Walking Alone by Sue Kenny

“I have walked sections of the Camino alone on three different occasions. The first time was in November/December 2001 when I walked the Camino Frances. Then in 2004 I walked part of the Portuguese Route and in 2005 I walked the English Way.

As a woman walking alone, I always felt relatively safe on the path, but I took precautions just in case. I carried a walking stick and I made sure that my money belt was always tucked under the waistband of my pants. I never talked about how much money I had to anyone. One thing that gave me a sense of comfort was that I always let people know that I was walking alone. That way they would know to keep an eye out for me.

At night I always travelled with another person if I could. I talked to the people in the villages; in the churches; at the bars and in the albergues. I found that word travels fast on the Camino and the villagers for the most part, are very concerned about the welfare of pilgrims. Once they knew that I was alone, they made other’s aware of my status and before I knew it I had people offering to feed me and care for me without any prompting.

One time I was in a small village and I was the only pilgrim in the Refugio. The hospitelera told me to be sure to lock the door at night, and she left me with the key. After I unpacked and had a shower, I went to the village bar to have something to eat. It was cold at the Refugio, so I stayed and wrote in my diary. She came in later on and told me that a strange man, who said he was a pilgrim, had arrived in the village looking for a place to sleep. She put him in the village church to avoid having him sleep in the Refugio with me, alone. I was very grateful to that woman. They say, you are never alone on the Camino.”

Sue Kenny is an international author, speaker, and inspirational leader, for more information visit Sue’s site at http://www.suekenney.ca/

——————————————

Both times I walked the Camino I started on my own and finished with others. Walking the Camino de Santiago I believe is a very safe place to be. There are from time to time some reports of incidents, but it does appear to be very few. Considering there are more than two hundred thousand people walking the Camino each year some incidents are likely to happen.

I was one of the unfortunate ones, I had a wallet stolen from the Albergue in Pamplona, to some degree my own fault. I was naive and left my wallet in my rucksack, I did not at any time consider that on the Camino something would be stolen.

Compared to pilgrims of the past we have almost nothing to worry about. It would have been quite normal for pilgrims to have been robbed and beaten; it was definitely a more arduous journey than now. Consider, if the way does not go into a small village that is only a few kilometres off the Camino, why? Probably not too safe in times gone by.

However please remember that walking on the Camino de Santiago is safer than visiting any city in the World.

 

17 Best Camino de Santiago Blogs

I have been writing about the Camino on my blog since 2006, the site grew very large, then I consolidated many posts as there was not enough detail in the huge number that had been written. And that is what helps a blog make it on to my list of the best Camino de Santiago blogs – detail.

Cizur Minor - Cirauqui 20 Uterga 05

There are many hundreds of Camino blogs started every year as pilgrims keep a diary of their planning, travel, and journey. Most of these are entertaining; they are written for friends and family to read. These are not on the list below. How much did things cost, what was the best way to get somewhere, links to travel planning websites, what was open, what was changed compared to the guidebook – detail helps others that are going to walk the route.

I thought before I started out creating this list that I would be overwhelmed with choice, (I asked for request in the newsletter, and two Facebook pages that have 30,000 followers).

I have ended up having a fairly short list, I read many blogs, did many searches on Google and my list looks a little barren. So, if you have a suggestion please add it in the comments below. There were other blogs that I found that are quite old, some of these did not make the list due to the lack of love – the photos are gone and links are broken.

The list is in no particular order:

Trepidatious Traveller written by Mags has sections on the Camino Frances, Camino Portugues, and the Camino Mozarabe. There are lots of photos and maps with distances and elevations.

Caminoist written by Sandy, detail should be Sandy’s middle name, for example he wrote this post on the forum helping pilgrims plan on travelling from north America to Europe, it is great. He has walked and written about the Camino Frances, Via de la Plata, and the Camino Norte. He has also mapped and will be publishing a guidebook on the pilgrim route Via di San Francisco in Italy from Florence to Rome in Sep 2015.

Girls on the Way makes the list for two reasons, it is a great resource for anyone intending to walk with young children, and the blog is really detailed, down to how much they paid for albergues.

Randall’s blog Camino My Way has an excellent day by day guide and photos for the Camino Frances. He is also the author of Camino de Santiago in 20 Days.

The Raft of Corks covers the Camino del Norte, Via da la Plata, and the Camino Portuguese amongst others. John can be funny, serious and insightful, a good read.

The Camino Documentary blog is written by a few pilgrims so it is great for getting more than one point of view on the same website. Also the documentary Six Ways to Santiago has been getting great reviews, you can buy and or download from this page.

Rob, one of our forum members, has walked too many Camino routes to list here. His blog has details on 14 different walks.

Following the Arrows by Kat has day by day descriptions for four Camino routes and loads of great photos.

My Senior Camino is a great read especially if you think you are too old to walk the Camino, have a look.

Elissa write on her blog at Sometimes She Travels. There are two good sections on the Northern Route and the French Way, along with other personal and insightful posts.

Roam Far and Wide 47 posts that cover the Camino Frances in good detail with a huge amount of photos.

Our Camino again another on the Camino Frances, with day by day route descriptions and excellent photos.

One Footstep at a Time, again on the Camino Frances and in-depth long daily posts.

Bike the Camino Santiago is for all us cyclists. I will be keep this one close at hand, since the birth of my youngest I don’t see me getting away for more the 2 weeks at a time for the next number of years – not that I would want to.

Trail to Peak is a website that cover a few different long distance walks. There is a good section here on the French Route and the walk to Finisterre.

PSG The Way – I have written about Bill before after reviewing his book about the Camino, which I enjoyed. To get the best from this blog select the months at the side and go right back to the start.

This blog is very funny and worth a read simply for Rachel’s take on the Camino, if you are easily offended and object to swearing don’t visit.

So that is my best 17 Camino de Santiago blogs for this year.

Let me know what great blogs I have missed by adding them in the comments below. Thanks.

Inspiration to Walk the Camino de Santiago

camino-routeThe forum was an amazing resource for me when researching the Camino de Santiago. I did the full Camino de Santiago Frances as well as the Del Norte in 2013 with my guitar. In May of 2014 I did 4 days of the Camino de Madrid to Segovia and I’ll be doing the Primitivo route this July.

People’s Inspiration and Reasons for doing the Camino

This is an interesting conversation topic; both the reasons for and maybe the reasons why not to ask someone so quickly on the Camino. Perhaps just me, but it felt very personal to be asked this question by a stranger less than 5 min after meeting. Quite often it would be the first question people would ask each other, oblivious to the often times personal journey a person may have come along. As ironically, often on the Camino, this story comes out naturally whilst conversing with a stranger/ fellow pilgrim when walking together over a couple of days. The forum may be the ideal place for people to share these stories in their own time and to encourage patience amongst the ‘newbies’ in advance of their first experience. It’s not always about the destination as opposed to the journey; the people, places and experiences of that time and exact day you are living/ walking.

My journey followed an incredibly negative and unprofessional work environment in England coupled with a desire for travelling. Reading the Zahir by Paulo Coelho, seeing the film The Way, having a conversation with a friend that featured the Camino de Santiago and receiving a letter from another friend who referenced walking it 30 years before, all happened in the space of 4 months around this time of high stress. I took it as the ultimate sign to go. Or you can call it gut instinct. Either way, I try to practice following signs and gut instinct more since walking the Camino. People continually tell me that I am brave for making the decisions that I have over the last year. Doing the Camino alone (which is impossible; you’re never alone on the Camino), moving to another country when I don’t have all the language etc. Perhaps I am brave, but I feel everyone is capable of the same and more if they choose to. There’s always a choice. Perhaps the consequences are not always great; but there’s always a choice.

Friendships and Relationships

I’m lucky to have made amazing and meaningful friendships on both Caminos. I walked with a Brazilian guy living in Australia and a German girl, who both fell in love with each other and are going to get married. I stayed in an Albergue after Burgos where the French woman and Spanish guy met 26 years ago because of the Camino and now dedicate a big portion of their lives to it. The people we meet on the Camino present an amazing opportunity in our lives. I was sad to leave so many friends and my life behind in England. But I often said to everyone in England, that I felt strongly that I hadn’t met all the people I am supposed to meet in my life yet. And I hadn’t. I still haven’t. I’m grateful for meeting yet more amazing people who will be forever a part of my life.

For me a concise list of Albergues and hostels along the routes is most important on a practical level, alongside the distances between each. Whilst the elevations can be interesting now and again, they don’t matter to me. Often the elevation maps in the books and on PDFs created by others are inaccurate (or perhaps exaggerated averages, which are misleading and depressing if you get excited about going downhill only to discover you are currently walking 200m uphill!). A lot of people like to know what the day ahead holds, but I like a bit of mystery, and I see no need in knowing in advance if I have to walk uphill all of the next day. Time enough discovering when I start walking it. I have to walk it either way so why waste time worrying and dreading a hill/ mountain. (Without giving names, one particular country is very efficient with the details in their books. So efficient, I feel there is no mystery or surprise left. I got lost in a forest one day on purpose for 2 hours to claim back some mystery and sense of discovery having inadvertently benefited too much from these overly informative guide books!)

I appreciate hearing about the really magical Albergues, like in Guermes with Padre Ernesto. These moments and shared experiences make the Camino a richer walk. Also, it is good to highlight Albergues worth avoiding such as the main one in Santander, which is unclean, crammed and arguably unsafe. They obviously make a tidy profit in this particular Albergue, and it is highly questionable how much of that profit is dedicated towards basic upkeep/hygiene of the space.

Bed bugs are also a very real issue (I caught them twice on del Norte). Not pleasant and expensive to deal with! I met couples camping every night as a result. Camping is not an option for me as I like to travel solo and I would feel a bit vulnerable as a solo female camper. I met a solo female camper but she had a dog that had a pretty scary bark! Besides, I prefer to choose my guitar as my extra weight. Not to mention, that evening times are great for shared meals and socialising in the Albergue common area with fellow pilgrims.

If you’re a musician, bring your instrument! The extra weight and discomfort is more than worth it for the experiences. It is the easiest way to start a conversation even if you do not share the same language.  Also great if you like to have random musical jams with an international group of people over coffee at your first break at 9am in the morning (see video below). I brought my guitar as much for others to use as for me. And as I suspected there’s a lot of musical talent on the Camino. I even bumped into the same French guy on my other Camino who was cycling with his ukulele. What are the odds?! As the Spanish say, ‘el mundo es un pañuelo’ (the world is very small)

Generosity and the Universe Providing what you Need

I experienced an overwhelming amount of generosity that I hope to pay forward in the future. There is too much to mention in detail here. This needs to be acknowledged. I found it profound and life changing. And notably very timely, often when I really needed things, not a case of wanted. This has continued to happen to me after the Camino. Or perhaps I now notice and appreciate it more as a consequence. I still suffer ridiculous bouts of insecurities about all sorts of things, (like most people), including my music in strong contrast to my pro-active outlook on life. I was fortunate to be the receiver of many kind words and meaningful compliments from people along my journey. These words often help and reassure me now during times of insecurity.

An eBook sounds great! I had a PDF for the del Norte, which was great, as I could easily access it from my itouch at all, times. Needless to say this saves a lot of weight in the backpack without the need to carry an actual book.

I plan on writing up my Camino experiences in a blog this summer and will send you the link when I do. I’m guilty of living life too much whilst travelling the last year and have not sat down long enough to edit thoughts, stories and photos for the blog in question. Hopefully blog posts a year after the fact will not offend people!

I apologise for the long email. This was initially an email a few sentences long, but I’ve got carried away! The Camino has been a big part of my life for the last year and half. And I think it will continue to be. I’m guilty of being a little addicted now and passionate about it.   The Camino provides an enormous amount of time for reflection on life and the important things, in the company of like-minded people. I will admit that there have been a few ‘non-Camino’ experiences along the way and ‘non-Camino’ like people, but I choose not to dwell on these or acknowledge them further by discussing details. Let the good outweigh the negative, and cause no distraction.

All the best,

Claire

Irish Singer-Songwriter, Textile Artist, Traveller, Networker based in Madrid (and English teacher now too…Following 11 years living in England I now live in Madrid as a consequence of my Camino experiences last year.)

https://twitter.com/Claire_Diamond

https://www.facebook.com/claire.diamond.singer

www.youtube.com/clairediamondmusic

The above is an email I received from Clare after sending out one of the Camino newsletters a couple of weeks back.  After I read it I thought it would make a great article for the site and so asked Clare if I could publish it as is.  Thank you Clare.

Finisterre, the end.

Lessons Learned on the Camino de Santiago

Toward the end of my post a couple of weeks back on how the Camino changed my life, I got thinking about lessons I learned while walking the Camino Frances.  The following are some thoughts on lessons I think I started to learn there.

Finisterre, the end.

I Can Do More Than I Think or Believe

This was a great lesson to learn, one that I share with many others who walk so far, carrying their own belonging, washing their own clothes each day, sharing so much with people that I have never met before.

It is a while since I have been young, since I climbed up rocks for fun, camped, or even shared space with strangers in a hostel. Pushing myself physically has amounted to training for a half marathon – so easy in comparison.

Walking for a month along the Camino is not easy.  Your back, shoulders, knees, hips, legs, and feet get sore at various times.  There are days where you can see a town in the distance and it seems like the town has little Spanish legs and keeps walking away from you.  At that point I didn’t give in to tiredness or frustration and hail a taxi – I just kept on walking.

I don’t think anyone would ever forget walking the Camino.  There are so many like me on the Camino, we are not couch potatoes – just weekend walkers who enjoy getting out – and we have went out and completed something truly tremendous and yet something that so many complete each day.

Tell someone that you took a precious month off work and spent it with a backpack walking 800km across Spain – just watch their face.

Pain Reminds Me I am Alive

At a couple of points along the way I suffered from quite a lot of pain.  I discovered I had two hernias and once the skin on my heels had to be cut off; during the day I taped my heels up.  The problem with my heels happened because I started walking with very hard skin on around my heels and blisters formed under them.  The whole thing was down to using boots that were not suitable – quite a lesson.

While trying to deal with this I stumbled on the idea of pain reminds me that I am alive – trying to see it in a non debilitating way.  This worked for me.

I Like People

It really is too easy to become the grumpy old, (or middle aged), man long before its due – if it is ever due.

In daily life people are often the source of my problems – not me of course, but them.  They are in my way on the underground, their cars are going to fast or slow. They get in my way at the checkout or take too long at the ATM.  Please people get a life and get out of my way…

Having my ego reduced by walking just like everyone else was and is good for me.  After a few days my head slowed to the same pace as my walking.  I listened and talked with many others, guardedly at first.  Then I just started to open up and I enjoyed talking with people and took the time in conversations to listen to the whole story, instead of demanding only the relevant highlights or the take-aways – or waiting till they finished not really listening so I could tell my story…

I Like Being Part of Some Groups

I have never really liked being part of a group and being subject to group decisions would drive me to distraction.  (Democracy I suppose)  However I found myself as the part of a couple of groups along the way without bother – it just crept up on me.

Group decisions just happened.  Where are you stopping tomorrow?  Do you want to join us for diner this evening, or join us in making diner?

Maybe this next one belongs above as being part of a group only came after realizing people were likeable.

Type of People Annoy Me – Language Aside

Sometimes I am not very bright; my thought process does not challenge my brain at times.

For all my stated dislike of people above I thought all pilgrims on the Camino would be nice, likeable, kind – just something completely unrealistic.

It was the first time in my life where it was so clear that there are types of people that have the ability to drive me crazy – a tone of voice, a certain type of look, an off hand attitude – I am sure you know what I mean.  Once the words were taken away the rest fell into place.

My lesson was I had to change.  Would be nice if they changed to accommodate me, but I am the one with the problem.

People Care

Giving on the Camino FrancesPeople care a great deal.  Leaving a city a local stopped me as I was walking the wrong way.  I got lost one day, on the Camino Aragones, and we walked into this tiny hamlet on the top of hill.  One of the residents gave us ripe tomatoes right off the vine – I have never had a better tomato since.

I saw food and sweets left at doors and on windowsills with notices telling pilgrims to help themselves.  Volunteers ran many of the albergues, and many of them are donation only. I saw so many instances of caring that I don’t notice in my normal environment.  I cared more as the result of this, I think.

Crying is Okay

I would rather think that I am not a typical man – however I am.  I don’t cry, and certainly not in public.  However something happened along the way that moved me to tears.  I walked most of that day crying.  Then when I got to Santiago I cried again.  In fact in my eyes it was worse than just crying – I cried while Anna held me.

Now twice in a month and you would think I had enough crying.  However there was more to come.  I had left my car in Roncesvalles.  So we picked it up and started driving home.  I thought I would be the nice atheist and take Anna, the Catholic, to Lourdes on our way home.

In Lourdes I was no longer a pilgrims and had put my worldly cynical hat back on.  Since I am here, I thought I might as well have the full experience.  I decided to get in the queue and enter one of the baths.  I did. I sat on a chair after being submerged in the water. Then I tried to stand and nearly fell.  One of the old guys steadied me and helped me sit again.  At that point I burst out crying.  Some man my heads says…  I have no idea what happened there – but it appears like I did get the full experience.

It has become easier over the years, though I am still not completely comfortable with crying.

Sharing is Good

My things are mine.  That’s what it feels like in everyday life – ever vigilant to “things” being taken away.

On the Camino I shared what I had, plasters, disinfectant, threads, even money.  The need to grasp eased.

I Need Less Than I Think

I sit here in my home office with many electronic toys around me; some of them cost quite a bit and have been hardly used.  At the time it appeared important to buy them.  I have learned that as soon as I buy one of these toys there is another lined up right behind it for me to buy and there is never an end to this cycle.

I walked with two pairs of socks and underwear, two T-shits, two pairs of shorts and my sleeping bag – I had little more than this.  I went a full month without having to buy things to add to my ever-growing collection of junk.

This is a philosophy Anna and I have tried, with varying success, to take into our relationship – how much do we really need?  And if I have something that I don’t need can I find a useful home for it.

What about you?  Did you learn anything about yourself or the world while on the Camino?