Walking The Camino De Santiago -> What Was It Really Like?
As those of you who follow the blog know, back in April/May of this year Paul and his dad went on an EPIC pilgrimage.
It was a huge adventure, almost a year and a half in the planning that started with a breath of an idea that we had sitting around a campfire in Maine in the summer of 2017. Lots of random stuff had to come together to make it happen (Paul’s dad had to go through a knee replacement and rehab, they both had to train individually in different countries, tickets had to be booked, stars had to align etc.), but in the end the crazy idea that the boys dreamed up in the northeast of the USA came to be.
So what was it like? Did they enjoy it? Or did they hate it? Would they ever do it again?
It Was A Spiritual Journey Of Sorts
For Paul the Camino was a kind of spiritual journey so he actually chose not to document anything along the way, except in pictures to close family members. That was the way he wanted it, and it made the journey very special for him. We honestly never thought we’d write anything about it.
However ever since I mentioned his trip on the blog we’ve had a ton of requests from readers for more info. I guess the Camino really struck a cord! So we decided we’d do something simple. We won’t document a day-by-day or do a detailed write-up (plenty of those on the webisphere if you’re interested), but we’ll do a little mini 2-part thing.
First I’ll cover some general info about what it was like for Paul and his dad (including an informal Q&A), then I’ll write-up Paul’s top 10 tips (things he learned). It won’t be all-encompassing, but hopefully it will give those of you who are interested a feel for what the hike was like, and perhaps even a smidgen of inspiration to complete it one day yourselves.
So get yourself a beverage, settle in and enjoy!
Paul And His Dad Walked The “French Way”
For those of you not familiar with the Camino De Santiago, it’s a religious pilgrimage that dates back to the 9th century.
The end-point is always Santiago De Compostela in northwestern Spain (where the sacred remains of St. James, first of Jesus’ Apostles to be martyred are said to be buried), but the beginning can actually be anywhere you like.
Centuries ago pilgrims would walk directly from their homes from as far away as Ireland and Poland, but these days most folks start their walk in either Spain, France or Portugal and follow well-trodden trails with specific names (Camino Del Norte, Camino Francés, Camino Portugés etc.). The most popular of these is the ~800 km “French Way” that starts in St Jean-Pied-De-Port, France and crosses over the Pyrenees into Spain. That’s the trail Paul and his dad took.
It Took Them 5 1/2 Weeks
The boys first stepped foot on the Camino De Santiago on April 14th, 2019 at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, and finished their journey on May 21st, 2019 in Santiago De Compostela Spain around 5 1/2 weeks later. That’s a little slower than most (around 4 weeks is average), but gave them some extra, much needed rest days along the way.
It was a hard trek, much harder than both of them had ever imagined, and they encountered unexpected setbacks (both injury and illness), several of which we honestly thought would end their trip altogether, but in the end they persevered and managed to complete a truly amazing adventure.
And of course as all Camino pilgrims do, they carried a “passport” which they got at their start-point in St-Jean-Pied-De-Port and which was stamped at every stop and submitted in Santiago for their completion certificate (their “Compostela“) after the trip was done. A nice little memorial from their journey.
They Had Lots Of Company
The Camino is a popular thing to do these days, perhaps even more so since Hollywood films like “The Way” came out.
Hundreds of thousands complete the pilgrimage every year (327,378 in 2018 to be exact, according to the Pilgrims Office in Santiago) and they come from all over the world and do it by all different means (foot, bike, horseback, wheelchair and even by sea). And although some folks still walk it for religious reasons, many just come for the personal journey or the adventure. There’s no “one way” and no “right way” to do the Camino.
When Paul and his dad walked the trail they met a ton of folks from older people to young kids, solo hikers to organized groups. Some were especially memorable, like the 80-year old lady who was walking the Camino for the 5th time, or the Asian girl who’d walked it 5 years ago and loved it so much she’d quit her job to become a full-time Camino tour guide, or the blind gal who was doing it with her guide. The Camino had called to each one of them and they all had their own story to tell.
Paul and his dad actually ended up walking most of the way with a lovely lady who’d come over on her own (hi, Magaret!) and who they connected with in a special way. That’s just how it goes on the Camino.
So What Was It Really Like???
“The Camino provides” is a common saying that you’ll hear on the trail.
The idea is that the Camino will help you on your pilgrimage whether your needs be physical (things you need along the way) or spiritual (answers that you seek). But it also means that you might end up on a completely different journey than you originally imagined. The Camino provides not what you think you want, but what you really need, and therein lies its magic.
For Paul, he originally thought the Camino would be more of a zen-like, meditative thing. He certainly encountered moments of that, but it ended up being a very different experience all-in-all. A good one, but just not exactly what he had in mind before he started.
However this was his journey (and not mine), so in order to get it right I sat down with Paul for a quick Q&A so he could answer in his own words. This is what he said….
Tell Me About Your Experience…
It was a really good experience all in all. It was way more challenging than I originally thought, just in terms of the the day-to-day universe of “being there”. Everyday you walk, you eat, you sleep, you walk, you eat, you sleep so it’s quite monotonous, especially over such a long period of time. It was also way more social than I thought it would be. This is not a solitary hike like the type you’d take over a remote Himalayan mountain or something like that. This is a well-known trail with folks that come from all over to walk it. So you meet people and walk with people every single day.
Was It Harder Than You Expected?
Yes it was harder than I expected just in terms of getting used to walking and actually being on your feet for so many hours per day. It’s not just the distance you have to walk (the number of miles) that’s challenging, but rather it’s number of hours on your feet that is hard to train for. We were walking quite slow so most of the time we were up and on our feet from early in the morning to the afternoon. That can be really trying on the body.
Were Parts Of It Easier Than Expected?
Yeah, there are definitely parts that were easier than expected, particularly the logistics of walking, finding the trail, planning, eating, booking rooms, and dealing with your backpack and luggage. The Camino is a very well-know trail and in many ways a very “easy” one in terms of the fact that you don’t have to carry food or sleeping tents. Plus there are SO many services along the way from restaurants & places to stay to doctors/pharmacies and even backpack transportation services (that pick-up and drop your bags at your next stop for a small fee). From the logistics point of view it’s really a very easy trail.
What Was Your Typical Day Like?
We’d usually be up at 6 AM and walking by 7-7:30AM (albergues usually require you to be out by 8 AM). Sometimes we’d have breakfast at the albergue, but in general that wasn’t worth the price (typically just bread and coffee there), so we’d just wait and find somewhere after walking for a few hours to sit down and eat (usually a coffee and yummy tortilla).
After the mid-morning break we’d walk another couple of hours to lunch, then another break followed by a final couple hours walking to our destination for the day. We’d usually arrive between 1-3PM, depending on how far we were walking that day (Check-ins at albuergues are usually only after 1PM. Hostels & hotels have even later check-ins after 3PM). So a total of around 6-7 hours walking per day.
Most evenings we stayed at albergues, but some days we’d rest or stay at hostels or hotels.
What Are Your Best Memories Of The Camino?
The scenery, especially the first third of the trail from St-Jean-Pied-De-Port to Burgos. Simply amazing! Plus the section through the Navarra region in Spain. Some of the vistas are just spectacular. Also being with my dad, and specific moments like having a cold beer at the end of the day on the trail with him. Those memories are priceless. Lastly the mornings. Walking in the early morning with the sunrise when it’s quiet and cool. Those are very special moments that I’ll never forget.
What Was Your Least Favorite Part Of The Camino?
Hmm, that’s a hard one. I guess just walking much slower than I would walk on my own (dad and I walked very slowly) and adjusting to that pace for so many weeks. Also getting sick with the Camino Flu (that we caught twice) and getting injured (dad got a really bad blister, and fell at one point). Not fun at all. Lastly having to plan everything ahead of time. Every night I would have to assess how we were doing and then plan the next day including how far we would walk, whether we needed to book a baggage-carrying service and where would stay (the trail was really busy, so we had to book ahead to make sure there was space for us to stay where we wanted). That part of it was tiring.
What Did You Encounter That You Didn’t Expect?
Number one, from the people perspective I encountered way more people that I connected with it than I originally thought I would. Everyone on the Camino is there for a reason and everyone is open to sharing that, so you’re constantly meeting people and finding things you have in common. The Camino connects people in so many ways.
Number two I would say I discovered the beauty of rural Spain. On the Camino there is a town is every 5 to 15 km and they all have a church, a bar, a cafe. They’re just so charming. I totally fell in love with small town Spain on this trip.
Let’s Talk Costs. How Much Money Did You Spend Each Day?
OK, so approximate costs. I’ll start with lodging. Most of the time we stayed at albergues in dormitory style settings (bunk-bed type sleeping arrangement) and these run anywhere from €8-€15 euros per night on average. For food, we’d spend €10-€12 for a pilgrims dinner (main course plus desert) plus another €4-€5 for breakfast and lunch, so let’s say €20-€25 euros for meals per day. If we were ferrying backpacks ahead (with a transportation service) that would run an extra €3-5 per pack per day. So all-in-all anywhere from €30-45 per day.
What Was The Weather Like?
We started the Camino in mid-April and finished at the end of May, so we had Spring weather which is generally pretty good but can also be a bit mixed. We had two mornings which started off below freezing (early on in the hike), and a few days that were hot (over 30°C towards the middle of the day), plus we encountered a little bit of rain, but overall the weather was excellent with mostly sunny days and very reasonable temps.
How Did You Stay Connected?
I didn’t really plan to stay connected on my walk, but it turns out the Camino has excellent cell service. There are very few spots without coverage, even in the mountains! My French cellphone plan covered me in Spain, but I could have easily bought a local SIM card if that wasn’t the case. Also there was WiFi everywhere. Every albergue, every café, every restaurant, almost every bar we went to had WiFi and although it wasn’t fast, it was usable. For communication with home and family I used WhatsApp which is free, automatically encrypts messages and is pretty much the standard for everyone who walks the Camino.
Would You Do It Again?
YES, absolutely! When I initially completed the walk my first thought was “I’m done, I’ll never do that again”. I’d been away from home for almost 6 weeks which is a long time, and it had been a hard walk in many ways. But now that I’ve had some time (and forgotten some of the physical pain), I’m actually really keen to go back. It was such a great experience and there are so many aspects of it that I missed (alternative trails, places I didn’t have time to see) that I would want to do. We didn’t have time to walk to Finisterre, for example and I’d love to do that. So yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Maybe next year….hmmmmm……
Coming Up Next -> Paul’s Top 10 Tips For Walking The Camino (everything he learnt in 5 1/2 weeks…)