Some walking trails jump out at me and demand that I walk them. (I’m thinking of you Kungsleden!). Others, not so much.
The Camino de Santiago is one of those not so much ones.
The scenery looks stunning (I’ve driven over the Pyrenees and would love to see them more slowly) and the tales of camaraderie sound like something not to be missed.
So why has it never really appealed?
I suppose it’s always seemed too easy (which makes it harder – I’ll explain how later) and too popular. I’m not against doing something just because it’s popular and I do my fair share of ‘touristy’ stuff on my travels, but when I’m out walking, particularly when I’m doing an epic walk, part of that epicness comes from being alone with unpeopled vistas spreading as far as the eye can see.
My image of the Camino is that it’ll be only slightly less crowded than Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.
Another thing I like about epic walks is being able to get miles away from civilisation. To be able to walk all day (and ideally for days at a time) without seeing a road or any shops.
The Camino seems to be an awful lot of road leading from village to village and even a few big towns. Not much in the way of true wilderness then.
And it all seems so easy. And that’s another problem. Not because I’m a glutton for hard-core hacking my way through jungle whilst in a state of semi-starvation walking, but because when something is easy it actually becomes harder in a lot of ways.
My summers spent walking the Kungsleden, for example, might have seemed difficult on the surface (having to carry EVERYTHING on my back to last several weeks at a time), but in its own way it’s really easy. Here’s why:
- I have everything I need with me at all times. If it starts to rain I can throw my tent up in minutes. If I fancy a coffee I sit on a convenient rock and make one. If I see a nice bit of river and the sun’s shining I can have a bath.
- I can sleep wherever I want whenever I want. I find a nice place, I throw my tent up.
- It’s really cheap. If I need to buy extra food at the few and far between huts it’s really expensive. But I can’t buy much because I have to be able to carry it and I don’t need to buy much because I have a backpack full of dried food with me. So overall, it’s very, very cheap.
- It’s really easy to get water. There are rivers and streams everywhere and the water is completely pure and drinkable. It’s free and I don’t have to carry much at any one time.
- I meet enough people to not be lonely and to know if anything bad happens (such as an accident) it won’t be too long before someone comes along, but it’s also so empty I can sit for ages staring over the mountains and valleys and not see a soul.
- It’s safe. Seriously. I can leave my gear lying around and know it’s completely safe. No-one would dream of stealing anything. Not just because everyone is nice, but also because there aren’t that many people anyway and no-one wants to carry anything extra. So as much as they may covet your expensive camera if they stole it they’d have to carry it. Not going to happen.
Because the Camino isn’t in the wilderness it’s going to be harder to wild camp. Most people don’t carry camping gear at all and instead stay in the hostels along the way. This would make walking a lot quicker (I was sooo slow on the Kungsleden with my massive backpack), but having to stay in hostels seems quite horrible. I’ve stayed in plenty of hostels in the past and no doubt will in the future, but the Camino hostels seem to be really basic with about a zillion beds in one room. Would I actually get any sleep at all staying in a room like this? Will I snore and have all the other walkers hate me for keeping them awake? Will my stuff be safe?
I’m sure there will be some lovely evenings to be had at these hostels and yes, the camaraderie must be great, but it couldn’t be more different to the wilderness camps I love so much.
Staying in hostels and buying food along the way, which seems like the sensible way to walk the Camino, would of course really up the cost and a summer in the Pyrenees will end up costing way more than my summers in Sweden have done.
So, all in all, walking the Camino has never appealed.
But then, a few months ago, I started to think about it. And as usually happens in life, once I begin to think about something it starts to jump out at me all over the place. After seeing so many references to the Camino in a short space of time I decided to Google it and see if after all it might be a walk for me.
One of the first things I found on my search was a Practical Pilgrim workshop that just happened to be running down the road from me in Manchester city centre.
It was on a Saturday that I had free (so many of my weekends get booked up way in advance) and it only cost £5.
I had no excuses. If this wasn’t a sign I don’t know what would be. I booked on the course and a few weeks later turned up to attend the workshop.
The day consisted of five sessions. The first was a talk by a lady who walked it last year. She explained lots and showed plenty of pictures and took questions at the end. It was easy to tell from the way she spoke that she’d really enjoyed it and that as a Christian the walk had held a deep spiritual meaning for her.
It sounded great, but gave me another reason to wonder if it was really for me. I know the walk is meant to be a pilgrimage – the name translates as the Way of St James and the various starting points all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain, beneath which the remains of the saint are purported to be buried – but I’d not considered how many religious people might walk the Camino for real and proper pilgrimage reasons. I’m very interested in religion (I even have a degree in the subject), but I’m not in the slightest bit religious and don’t like it when people try to force it on me.
So now, I was imagining a walk on the Camino where not only was I constantly surrounded by people, but by evangelists on a mission to convert me and I would be a completely captive audience.
The walk did sound quite nice though.
Next was a talk by a couple of people who’d walked it recently (and separately) and they showed us what was in their backpacks and how they kept the weight down. The speakers were male and female and so we got to see packing from both perspectives. I couldn’t believe the woman had only carried 7kg – about a third of what I carried on the Kungleden. I could zoom along with that amount.
But then, is zooming what I’d really want to do? One of the positives to having a really heavy pack was that I was forced to go slowly and stop a lot. So I had to spend a lot of time sitting on rocks and staring at the amazing scenery and taking it all in and watching reindeer.
A third talk almost had me in tears. A young guy called Daniel had decided last year to walk the Camino. He’d started with a friend, but after about the first week continued on his own and completed the walk 82 days later.
Why so long? And why so moving? Because Daniel has a disability and had walked the entire route on crutches. Some days he’d only managed a couple of kilometres and other days when he was walking with groups of people who spurred him on he managed 14km.
Daniel is Christian and had walked the route as a pilgrim, not just as a nice hike. From the way he spoke, and at times seemed almost overcome with emotion, it was so clear how much the walk had meant to him.
Okay, so another Christian, but neither he nor the previous lady actually seemed like the proselytising types, so maybe I could walk this trek that seemed to have such a profound effect on people without having to fend off constant attempts to convert me.
Over lunch and during the coffee breaks I chatted to people, many who had already walked the Camino and some who, like me, were considering it. I didn’t speak to one person who had disliked it or regretted it. But then I suppose those people would hardly be at an event aimed at encouraging people to walk the route for themselves. Some of them were religious and others not. It didn’t seem to make a difference to their passion for the Camino and the feelings they emanated of it really being a special place.
After lunch, four stations were set up and we could split into groups with the opportunity to spend time at two of the stations. Three of the stations focused on the different routes, each with a speaker who had recently walked that particular route. The fourth station offered the chance to look at a selection of guidebooks and maps and talk to people who had used them.
I chose the session on the Camino Francés route which seems to be the most popular and a good first time route. The route begins just on the French side of the border at St Jean Pied de Port and is 790km long.
For my second afternoon session I went to the table with all the books and maps. Books and maps, I’m never going to be able to resist those. I chatted with the 7kg backpack lady about some of the books and had a good look at all of them.
As the workshop drew to a close I’d managed to convince myself that walking the Camino would be a great idea (and not just because it gave me an excuse to buy a guidebook and some new maps). A group of the organisers and some of the participants were heading to a Spanish bar for Spanish wine, beer and food. Just in case I needed more convincing I decided to join them.
As everyone was packing up the 7kg backpack lady sought me out. She’d been given a new guidebook by the author who she’d happened to meet recently, with the idea of passing it on to someone thinking of walking the Camino for the first time.
She’d decided I would be the perfect recipient.
It’s one of the wonders of the universe that we sometimes meet the people we’re supposed to meet. (And no, I’m not going to get all spiritual on you here – I might have been converted during the workshop, but only in my choice of summer walking destination).
I chatted to Linda over beer and tapas in the bar and she turned out to be from Norway. There really aren’t that many Norwegians to be found in Manchester (actually there aren’t that many Norwegians to be found in Norway), and okay, Norway’s not Sweden, but it’s close enough and fits in with my obsession with all things Nordic. And being Norwegian, she’d actually heard of the Kungsleden. I didn’t have to explain it to her. She got what I meant when I wondered about how different the Camino would be to my usual choice of walking style.
She’s a similar age to me and walks solo. Most importantly, she’s not religious and so hadn’t walked it as a pilgrimage but as a great walk. And she’d done it more than once. And loved it. And spoke passionately about it. And didn’t mention people trying to convert her at all.
Any wavering vanished. I was sure. I’m going to spend this summer walking the Camino.
Have you ever walked the Camino? Have you got any tips for me? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.