Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Reasons for Walking the Camino

Each time we trek out the door onto another pathway or decide to undertake a Camino the same questions arise.  Why?  Why hike the Camino?  Why hike another Camino? 

So here is my best shot at an answer.  

In 2016, for our first Camino – the Camino Frances – we undertook the pilgrimage for a number of reasons.  We both needed a change from the routine of our lives, whether from having spent too much time at our desks, or having submitted too many school reports, or because things just didn’t seem to be going as planned.   Call it a midlife crisis (though I’m not sure it was that extreme), but we both – for different reasons – where at a point in our lives where we felt that things were not what we had hoped, that life was rushing past faster and faster, that we were still young enough to enjoy the world and see new cultures and experience new things, and that there was no time like the present to change the direction of our lives.  So, having discovered the Camino Frances, we saved up, we researched, we booked our tickets and we went on the adventure of a life time.  

Six months later, in early 2017, having loved our first experience on the Camino we were pulled back (there is no other way to explain it).  We missed the essence and social atmosphere of the trail, we missed the simplicity of the daily routine, and we missed being out in nature.  Add to this the possibility of seeing the French countryside in the spring – with its flowers in full bloom, the celebrations underway in Aubrac, and the possibility of enjoying French food and we were sold.  By May 2017, we cashed out what was left of our savings and retirement funds and we went back to Europe.  This time trekking from Le Puy in France along the GR65 / Via Podiensis to our starting point in 2016, St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

In 2018, we had hoped to return to Europe and perhaps undertake the Camino Norte across Northern Spain, but work obligations and a new hike plan for 2019-2022 sent us on a long distance trek across Newfoundland’s beautiful East Coast Trail instead.  As such, by early 2019, having worked 20+ hours a day for almost 12 months, and with the help of family, we realized that before the next phase of our life was underway we needed a break and recapture that spirit for life that our time on the Camino Frances instilled in us.  The only option in our minds then was the Camino, the only question being which route to take?  Given that our window for revisiting Europe was the spring, the weather on the Camino Norte and across many of the French routes seemed unwelcoming for two out of shape desk jockeys.  As such, the Camino Portuguese increasingly seemed to be the evident choice.

I suppose the reason we both wanted to return to the Camino was the growing sense of discontent we felt about things in the world. 

We each now seem to be living dual lives – not in the way you would assume. We are pushed to work more, but then are critiqued for not spending time with our families. We are pushed to buy more, but then are critiqued for not saving enough money for retirement.  We are told to do more quicker, but then are critiqued for not taking the time to enjoy the moment, or explore the world.  We are told to produce more, but then told that it is unhealthy to spend so much time at a desk.  Most of us spend so much of our time online – whether with email, facebook, twitter, watching TV shows and movies, or playing video games – and then seemingly have so little time for anything or anyone else. Online and in life, so many of us feel as though everything is critical, judgmental, and forced, but then never have the time – or make the time – to see the world for what it is.  Instead we are content – even when we are not – to believe what we are told.  An odd choice given that many of us increasingly spend our lives online, and then are surprised when we have troubles in telling the difference between what is false and what is real.  

I recently read a wonderful book, “Walking to the End of the World: A Thousand Miles on the Camino De Santiago” by Beth Jusino.  I originally picked this text up as it was about both the GR65/Via Podiensis through France and the Camino Frances across Spain – both routes we have travelled.  However, what I loved most about her opening chapters was the admission by the author, that there was really no life changing event, no affair, no mental break down, no driving force that propelled her onto the Camino.  She loved her family, loved her job, and loved her life.  Instead, in a world of online connections, contradictions and uncertainty she simply wanted to experience something Real.   This resonated deeply with me and I suspect it does – whether we know it or not – with so many other people in this day and age. Even to this day, I find myself in book stores or trolling looking up books on the Camino and ordering far too many guide books for future hikes (Norte, Arles, Via Francenginia, Canterbury to Rome, are just a few that constantly catch my attention).

When I first mention long distance hiking, or going on Caminos many people I know initially the common responses: “I could never do that”, “no one can walk that far”, “I don’t have the time for that sort of thing”, “I actually have real things I have to do”, “I am too important to disconnect for so long”.  Interestingly however, within a few weeks many of these same people begin to reminisce on summer vacations from long ago, or time off with family, camping trips with family, or their post college years backpacking across America or Europe. They think back to times when they feel they were completely happy - when they had the chance to talk to family and friends, when the call of the online world did not exist, and when they spent more time outside. 

So what is it about our world now?  What is it about getting caught up in the system and racing through life – all undertaken to make us all happier – that in fact makes us less and less happy, yet more and more willing to defend our choices and lifestyles? I have so much, I am so privileged – yet  I am not unhappy – there is a sense that something is missing despite all of my blessings.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have the answers to any of these issues or questions, except to say that after a few days on the Camino in 2016 and 2017 and on the trail the world no longer felt so judgmental, so critical, or so complex.  On the Camino things seem clearer, life regains its simplicity and perspective, and I feel better all around.   The physical demands drain away the ephemeral in my life.  I see clearer when I hike.  I have greater faith in who I am and what I can do on in nature. Hopefully I am also a better person during and afterwards as well.  I want to be awake to the world again; I want to be mindful of life and the world around me again.  I want to live in the moment and not worry about whether I have enough life insurance or be ready for retirement in 30 or 40 years.  

So this time around on the Camino, while there has been no recent life changing event, no affair, no mental break down, no driving force that propelled us back onto the Way, even though I love my family, I love my life, and I love my job I nonetheless just want to lighten the load, and get back out there to have the world reaffirmed for me.  I want to find and again experience something that is real.

....that and the Camino calls....there is no reason, no justification, merely that since my final day in Santiago in 2016, it has called me back...and so I go....

Buen Camino  / Bon  Chemin / Bom Caminho / Good Way / Ultreia

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sleeping, Eating, and Waymarking along The Way of St. James

Aside from knowing what the Camino is, what its history is, what St. James is all about, and the importance of Credentials, Compostela, and shells there are a few other essentials that most people ask about prior to trekking out onto their first Camino.  Common concerns naturally include: Where do I sleep?  Where do I eat?  How easy or hard is it to find my way along any of the Routes?

Each of these are great questions and one which we all ask.  They also reflect the natural concerns about trekking on the Camino given that it is neither your typical holiday nor a traditional thru-hike experience. 


Throughout France, Spain and Portugual (as well as the other nations along The Way), there are a variety of pilgrim accommodations which can be engaged.  In Spain along the Camino Frances, pilgrims can stay in Albergues, in France you can stay in Gites, and in Portugal hikers can rest in Abrigaos.  Each are essentially the same – a place to sleep, and stay for the evening with fellow travellers on the Camino.  However, while many pilgrims strive to stay in pilgrim accommodations, they are by no means limited to these establishments.  Pilgrims can stay in churches, cathedrals, fire halls, monasteries, cloisters, hostels, Pensions, and hotels.  Each type of establishment has its own range of amenities, offers different options with regards to beds and rooms (ranging from dormitories which have dozens of people to a private room), offers varying options for dinners and breakfasts in the morning and costs a different amount (donative vs basic accommodations vs luxury privacy).  Most offer showers, many offer sinks and lines to clean your laundry, some offer kitchens and a few I have seen even have a masseuse.  In most cases it depends on your budget and wants.  For us trekking on the Camino Frances in 2016 we stayed in a number of donative albergues which tend to be clean, have many amenities  but are more basic.  In contrast we have also stayed in several hostels which had private rooms, outdoor pools, and electronic laundry facilities.  Accommodations – especially along the Camino Frances – are generally frequent though during the busy seasons, it can be harder to find a bunk or room, leaving you in the famed ‘race for the bed’ each day. 

Remember regardless of whether you camp, stay in a church, rest in an albergue, or visit a hotel you are required to get your Credential stamped daily to receive your Compostella in Santiago.


The next concern for every pilgrim – and every person – is eating.  Simply put, in terms of eating, Europe is the place to be!  In France the wine, cheese, vegetables, Aligot, Aubrac sausages and chocolate are beyond description!  While in Spain the wine, Cafe con Leche, Bocadillo con Queso, Churros, Paella, Churros, seafood were all amazing!  In short there is an amazing array of food types, food options, and new things to try on your trek.  However like sleeping and accommodations, the range of options changes with your budget.  For many pilgrims the Pilgrim Menu or Menu of the Day offered at the Albergue is the most affordable and easiest to go with.  For others, willing to explore the beautiful public squares and bars the range of options increases along with the cost. 


For us, in Spain our day began by heading out early and finding an open bar to get a warm Cafe con Leche and Croissant.  In France, we similarly began our mornings with our Cafe Americano and Chocolate Croissant (no judging until you sleep beside a French Bakery all night).  On both treks, we also traditionally concluded each day’s trek with a cold pint of beer which we enjoyed while writing our journals.  Yet in all of these cases, the coffee, croissants, afternoon pastries, and evening pints where luxuries which added to the costs. Regardless, throughout France, Spain, and Portugal there are an available range of options to eat aside from at your nightly accommodations.   

Staying at the albergue or gite in the evening to eat – rather than trekking through town - offers you the companionship of the other pilgrims.  By contrast, those willing to strike out onto the streets, grants a glimpse into the culture and society of the communities you trek through.  Both options have their advantages and offer different experiences. 

I should also note that even though one of us is vegetarian there were few difficulties in Spain or France in locating meals.  Typically hosts provide such a large round of options you merely need to pass by the main serving and have more salad or side dishes.  Admittedly many hosts – if they know in advance, will strive to provide hikers with a vegetarian option.  As such being a vegetarian did not hamper me being able to get out, locate a range of food options and enjoy the culinary aspects of our Caminos.

Beyond all of this, in the mornings make sure you have filled your water bottle or bottles, ensure that you refill them en route – usually from the public fountains after making sure the water is safe to drink (potable).

Waymarking and Trail Makers along The Way

The final concern most people planning to undertake a Camino ask is about the waymarking. How will I know which way to go?  Is it hard to know the direction I am supposed to follow?

From our experiences on the Camino Frances, I can whole heartedly assure you that locating and following The Way is not difficult.  From St. Jean-Pied-de-Port across Spain the route is continually marked by blue and yellow shells as well as yellow arrows.  In fact, but of the route can easily be considered to be over marked to the point where one feels that they are following a constant yellow line across Spain. 

In France, while part of the Camino is marked with the traditional yellow arrows and shells, the vast majority of it requires an understanding of the GR system of trail marking.   While this system is slightly different than many North American hikers or Camino Frances pilgrims may be used to, it is nonetheless very easy to learn and follow.

In addition to the generally clear and abundant trail markers along The Way, there are a number of invaluable guide books for each Camino route and typically individuals in any community on the pathway is kind enough to help you along.  From our experiences, the people in both Spain and France were always incredibly hospitable and kind. 

It is our understanding,  from what we have read and heard of the Camino Portuguese, that the route is also generally well marked throughout the country – though perhaps not as excessively as the Camino Frances in Spain.

We have been told that from Lisbon to Santarem, the route is marked with the traditional yellow arrows of the Camino Frances as well as the blue arrows of the Camino Fatima. There are purportedly less markers and arrows than in Spain, but not so few that locating and following them is difficult.   According to online resources and the John Brierley guide, this section has fewer pilgrims en route to Santiago but more pilgrims heading towards Fatima.  Regardless, the Portuguese people are reputed to be friendly, talkative and willing to help pilgrims and this portion is not considered overly difficult.  After Porto and on through to Santiago, the route is noted as being well marked with the traditional yellow arrows, shells, and trail markers with more frequency and increasing amounts of infrastructure to aid pilgrims.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Camino Portuguese

The Camino Portuguese, or Caminho Portuguese or Portuguese Way is the general name given to the numerous routes and variations for the trek from Lisbon to Porto and later Valencia in Portugual through to Santiago de Compostela Spain.  As with Camino associated with St. James, the pilgrimage concludes at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where tradition maintains that he is buried.

The Portuguese Way follows the North-South route – generally proceeding along the Roman Via Lusitanta established in the 12th century - along the length of Portugual into Galacia Spain.  It begins in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, though many pilgrims start in the northern town of Porto instead owing to the industrial nature of the region around Lisbon and the smaller number of pilgrim facilities available between Lisbon and Porto.  In Portugal the Camino is not primarily a single pathway but instead includes a number of distinct route variations and alternatives including – the Coastal Route, Camino Fatima, Central Route, the Variante Espiritual, and the Senda Litoral.

The Caminho Portuguese is noted to be the second most traveled route – after the increasingly popular Camino Frances.  As such it is considered to be a quieter hike.  As of 2018, according to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago the Camino Portuguese has just more than 20% of the pilgrims on it – compared to the Camino Frances which has over 55% of the hikers on it.  Given this, the Portuguese Way is not as developed, as its Spanish counterparts, and unlike the Camino Frances the route of the Portuguese Way is primarily on pavement and cobblestones rather than wilderness trails.  Indeed, this lack of pilgrim services is most evidenced in the sparse number of pilgrim directed accommodations between Lisbon and Porto, the result of which has been that more pilgrims en route to Santiago in fact begin in Porto or Tui.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

What is a Camino?

For those new to the idea, or for those simply curious a Camino is – in its most basic form – simply “to walk” or to hike along the path or “the way”.   However, in a historical, spiritual, and cultural sense, a Camino is a pilgrimage from one’s home to a destination of special significance. These days the most prevalent notion of “the Camino” refers to one of the many pathways which take hikers and pilgrims throughout Europe to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  Pathways on the road to Santiago can be found in Nordic Europe, Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Italy, England, Portugal and of course Spain.  Though the most popular and well known of these pathways is called the Camino Frances and traverses from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France across Spain to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  

While this network of varying routes has historically existed since the 12th century, it has recently begun to grow and transform once again amid renewed popularity and tourism. The differences in this network of routes are best defined by their differing distances, geographies, landscapes, challenges, and in terms of the infrastructure directly established for the benefits of pilgrims as well as the frequency of trail markings.

It should also be noted that while the pilgrimage to Santiago Spain has traditionally been one undertaken for spiritual and religious purposes, it is a trail for anyone, of any nationality, faith, belief, orientation, age, or skill level.  In the modern context, the majority of persons claim to hike for cultural rather than religious reasons.  Similarly, the average age of pilgrims is over 35 years with an increasingly large portion of hose being over 50.  In addition, people with nationalities from all over the world trek the Camino annually with the list of countries represented constantly growing.

And so in the modern context, increasingly even for the non-religious, the momentum of walking, the time in the fresh air amid a beautiful country, the variety of individuals you meet, and the experiences one has on the route make the Camino a personally life changing undertaking....

Camino History

The Camino Frances, or the French Way, otherwise typically referred to as the Camino de Santiago and viewed as the traditionally route of pilgrimage – was established in the 12th century and famously first referred to in the Codex Calixtinus a period text. Historically, Camino routes throughout Europe followed along old Roman and Medieval Roads which were usually established for trade over the centuries.

Regardless of their original purpose, the pathways were soon utilized by religious pilgrims to sites of particular importance such as the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain, the Vatican in Rome, and in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Cathedral in Spain is the final resting place for the remains of St. James, and disciple of Jesus.  The tale of St. James – as a one of Jesus’ first disciples, who was later rebuked for Jesus by striving to advance himself, and was considered hot tempered – is complex.  Regardless, it is known that he was sent to preach in Iberia, where he attracted only a few followers and where he would later become the region’s patron saint.   Ultimately James would be the first apostle martyred in Jerusalem by Herod, after which, according to legend his body was transported unaided on a stone boat to the coast of Spain where disciples gathered his remains and buried them.   As a result, St. James would remain largely forgotten until 813, when his remains were located by a hermit who claimed that he was lead to the grave site by a divine light.  The discovered body was later confirmed by church officials to be those of St. James and soon afterwards the construction of the Cathedral was undertaken.  Around this period, James’ legacy is made more complex by reports that his likeness appeared during a battle between Christian forces and a Muslim army.   Though the tradition of Santiago Matamoros, is now considered to have been created by local officials and the church to infer God’s advocacy for and the continued financial support of the Crusades and Re-conquest of the region throughout the period.  Regardless, from this period onward the image of Santiago would take on several representations ranging from the penitent and humble pilgrim with a cloak and staff, to the raging ‘Moor killer’ with sword in hand on a white horse.

Despite such complexities in the Biblical , cultural and historical accounts of St. James and in the presentation of him as a defender of the faith and Spain on a white horse, the popularity of both him and pilgrimage to Santiago grew throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. As a result, throughout this period churches, monasteries, and locals began the tradition of hosting, protecting and aiding pilgrims.  In turn Santiago de Compostela was considered one of the major sites of pilgrimage throughout the Christian world.

For centuries, Individuals from around Europe undertook pilgrimage for a number of reasons: to seek forgiveness, as an active of penitence, to receive a blessing, to pray for healing or aid, or their own personal purposes.  Pilgrimages were undertaken at the behest of a priest or bishop, where legal sentences for criminals, or where undertaken by the affluent to demonstrate their piety.  Regardless, with increasing numbers of people trekking to Santiago so too soon arose the traditional symbols of the pilgrimage including the walking staff, water gourd, the wide brimmed hat, the shell, and the backpack.

Though its precise meaning is uncertain, one symbol in particular, namely the scallop shell has become the primary image associated with the Camino. Even today the debate is ongoing, whether the shell reflects St. James’ time as a fisherman, whether it symbolizes the many routes to Santiago, whether it reflects the notion that while we each take a different path, ultimately we all reach the same destination, or whether it serves as the original arrow marker directing pilgrims to the shores of Spain.  Each theory has its advocates and defenders.

Each route is distinguished by particular religious relics, holy sites, churches of importance and varying cultures.  Throughout the centuries since the founding of the Cathedral of Santiago, the Camino has risen and fallen in importance and popularity.  It has been travelled by devoted pilgrims, penitent criminals, merchants, cultural tourists, and adventure seekers.  Most recently throughout the 20th century the Camino has again risen in notoriety– since the 1950s and increasingly since the late 1990s.  At the same time, increasing development by the European Union along several of the Camino routes, and recognition of the Camino by UNESCO has in turn also severed to increase The Way’s accessibility and popularity.  In addition the recent publication of a series of popular books and pilgrim accounts such as Paulo Coelho’s “The Pilgrimage”, Jack Hitt’s “Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain”, Hape Kerkeling’s “I’m off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago”, and Jane Christmas’s ‘What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim”  as well as movies such as Martin’s Sheen’s iconic “The Way” and the recent documentary “I’ll Push You” by Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck have only strengthened the notoriety of these paths.

As a result of such increasing world wide popularity, a common debate in communities and albergues along the route is whether many are pilgrims or tourists.  Regardless, of an individual’s intentions upon undertaking the Camino however, it is in the journey and not the destination that The Way holds its appeal amid these modern times.  

The Credential
The Credential, or pilgrim passport, is a small booklet carried by pilgrims on any Camino route, that identifies them as pilgrims on the Way of St. James, gives them access to alburges  and which is later inspected to ascertain the distance they have traveled.  

As such, it identifies the bearer as a pilgrim and provides proof that you have traversed day by day along a particular route.  Having a pilgrim passport, allows you to sleep in albergues, and may in some locations grant you special rates.   Travelers are required to get at least 1 stamp, or sellos, or carimbos per day prior to the final 100 km where you are required to get at least 2 per day – available in albergues, hostels, hotels, post offices, train stations, municipal offices, churches, and cathedrals.

In St. Jean-Pied-de-Port the Credential is picked up at the pilgrim office, however on other routes such as the GR65 you can purchase on in the Cathedral in Le Puy, or in Lisbon you can get your passport at the Se Cathedral.

If you traverse all the way to Santiago, it s likely that your final stamp will be from the Cathedral or the nearby Pilgrim Office.  After which you are able to confirm that you have trekked at least 100 km to Santiago and receive your Compostella. 

The Composetella

The Compostella, is a document issued at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago, and is granted to pilgrims after arriving in Santiago and asserts that they have trekked at least 100 km on foot to the Cathedral.  Note however that in recent years this distance has come under reconsideration and is likely to soon be increased and the required distances vary according to one’s mode of arrival (ex- bike, horse).  To receive your Compostela, pilgrims must present their personalized Credential with at least 2 stamps per day for the last 100 km hiked, and at least 1 stamp per day for all kilometers trekked before that.  The Compostella received will note how far each pilgrim traveled and along which route they arrived. 

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