Sunday, November 23, 2014

Camino de Santiago 101

If you've been following the blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain this Sept/Oct. (That's what the sneak peak of photos back in October were from).

I know that most aren't familiar with this pilgrimage, so my first post of several about that month will try to cover the basics. If you have any lingering questions by the end, please ask!

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago (English: St. James's Way) is a pilgrimage of dozens of routes across western Europe that all end in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Image Source

The earliest recorded pilgrimages along this route date back to the 9th century, and during the Middle Ages the Camino was an important Christian pilgrimage.

I walked the Camino Francés (The French Way), which is the most traveled route. It begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and runs across Spain from east to west, crossing through some bigger cities like Pamplona, Burgos and León on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

Today pilgrims can complete the route on foot, which is the majority, on bike, or by horse/donkey.

You can start wherever you want; some people don't have the time to do an entire route, so they may start in Burgos, for example, and walk to the end. I met a group of four Spanish ladies who have been coming to walk the Camino together for a week in the summer, for the past three years. So they're completing it in chunks, which is what their schedule allows for.

Luckily I made time for the entire Camino Francés, which covers 780 kilometers (that's about 485 miles).

Here's where that would get you if you left from Madison, WI on foot:

I have to say, it looks more impressive walking across an entire country in Spain, versus across two measly states in the huge USA.

The walk took me 27 days, though my guide book was written to get you there in 31.

Where did you sleep on the Camino?

Well, I was not lugging a tent with me (just my regular college JanSport backpack with a compact sleeping bag inside), as the Camino Francés isn't a rough hike - like walking the Pacific Crest Trail, for example. Every day you walk through multiple towns, some small and some large, so you're really not roughing it.

I slept in a bed every night, almost always on the top bunk in an albergue (al-BARE-gay) for pilgrims: a hostel. 

There are all types of albergues along the camino: private, municipal, ones with awesome showers, ones with less awesome showers, donativo (pay what you can/want to), 2 to a room, 50 to a room, full kitchen, no kitchen, etc.

Most of the municipal albergues were 5 euros, and 8-10 euros per night is usually what you'd see at a private dorm. (So yes, you're paying your way for everything if you choose to walk the Camino).

None of the albergue beds have sheets, though a few had these thin disposable sheets to throw on. So you spread out your sleeping bag on top and sleep inside, hoping there are no bed bugs in your bunk.

To stay in the albergues on the Camino, you needed to present your Camino passport (la credencial del peregrino) in order to stay there. That's to prevent non-pilgrims from staying in such places.

Each place would stamp it with their own unique stamp, which was always fun to see, and then they'd write the date in pen.

If your budget allowed it, and if you wanted to, you could certainly stay in nicer private hostels or even in hotels while walking the camino. I obviously didn't have the budget, but also thought that would have very much taken away from the "true" Camino experience. You could also surely camp if you wanted to. I did meet one couple at an albergue who were sleeping in a tent in the backyard. 

Did you go alone?

Yes, I did the trip alone, but I wasn't often really alone - and never lonely, that's for sure. I'd imagine most people would do the Camino by themselves, for a few reasons. 

First, if you go with a friend, you're with them 100% of the time. You're waking up with them, walking with them for 7 or 8 hours, having all your meals with them, and then sleeping in the same place together again. This could last for a month or more, day after day, depending on the length of your Camino. Pretty sure I can only spend that much time with myself, which is what I did. 

Nope, there wasn't even another person there taking this photo - I'm resourceful!

I met an older lady one night from the UK, and she was telling me about her experiences walking with someone. She started the Camino with an acquaintance who had heard about her trip back at home during the planning stages and wanted to come along. So she said okay (and later regretted it, of course). They didn't even last one day together. This lady was so annoyed with the friend that she told her off that first afternoon, said she'd continue the trip alone, and hadn't spoken with (nor seen) the friend since (we were near the end of the Camino when I met this lady).

And of course it's easier to meet people when you are alone. Groups will hang out together and take more of an effort to join, but if you're alone, it's much easier to start talking with any of the others who are also alone, which are most. We're all in the same boat, and the pilgrim community is a welcoming one.

Also, keep in mind that I had two years of living in Spain on my belt when I took off for the Camino, so I knew what I was doing and could easily get around. A walk in the park compared to Korea.

The other biggie is that walking for 7-8 hours straight by yourself is certainly meditative. Imagine that tomorrow, instead of going to work, you just walk. And walk and walk. And keep walking until the time you'd finish work (You can stop and eat lunch, it's okay). 

Might seem like a long time, but it was crazy how quickly hours could pass some days - you just get in this trance. Before you know it - boom, there go five kilometers, and boom, you've walked another five. Your thoughts have time and space to swirl around. It was really interesting what sorts of things kept on surfacing, and I certainly paid attention.

Can this happen when you're walking with a friend who keeps chit chatting about whatever constantly? What new things do you really have to talk about when you've been together for the past x number of days? Can you really get the most out of the pilgrimage if you're not alone?

Another woman I met along the way, a friend now, is married with two young adult boys - and she walked the Camino alone. This was the first time she had been apart from her husband in a loooong time, and I could only imagine how strange and difficult it must have felt for her. I really admire her for challenging herself in this way. Can you imagine how strong and proud she must have felt at the end? Wow.

Why Did You Want to Walk the Camino?

This was a question that I got asked often by other pilgrims, but the first couple of times I was unprepared to answer smoothly.

What caught me off guard at the start was that I couldn't pin point when I'd decided this was something I wanted to do. Yes, it was on my "life list," but when did it get added there?

I couldn't even remember how I first learned of the pilgrimage. I deduced that it must have been during my study abroad year, 2009-10, because I remember two fellow study abroad members walking part of the Camino together during one of our breaks. Their story stuck with me because there had been two towns with the same name that weren't anywhere near each other or something. The two girls had bought bus tickets back to Madrid leaving from the other city of the same name, not the city they were in, and ended up hitchhiking to get back for class! See why the story stayed with me?

So I learned about it then, but don't remember wanting to walk it. When I lived in Madrid again from 2011-12, I don't have any memories of thinking about the Camino, but I suppose you never know.

What I could remember was last December, reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, and getting inspired to do some sort of lengthy walk. I wrote about Wild here on this blog in my 2013 year of books: "If I do walk the Camino de Santiago fall of 2014, we can all thank this book for strengthening my desire."

Aha - so I'd already had a desire at that point! (See why blogging is great? Helps you piece together the past). Imagine my surprise when I received an email on October 12 of this year from my past self (written on October 12, 2013), and it mentioned the Camino! (Yes, once a year I write an email to my future self. You can too! It's such a delight when it unexpectedly pops into your inbox a year later.)

Here's what I'd written in that part:
I don't know what I'll do after South Korea. If you decided to stay another year, holy shit stuff must have changed. I think I could be happy here if I learned the language and had more friends. But I want to see more of the world. I want to go back to Spain and visit my friends and have tapas and do the Camino de Santiago. I want to visit Hannah and Herm in London, and see where Max is living. I want to HelpX in France and around Europe. And then travel the USA. !!! I want to make money virtually, so that I'm location independent.
Woah, jackpot! I'm so happy I DID so many of these things I wanted to do a year ago. Went back to Spain, ate tapas, walked the Camino, visited Hannah and Herm, made money virtually... and am working on the rest! And I had no idea that I'd wanted to walk the Camino at this time last fall. I'd only been in Korea a month, and that was already on my mind?

Regardless, I didn't receive this email from my past self until after I'd finished walking the Camino, so I told most people that the book Wild sparked the interest.

Woah, hold on a minute - this just in: I quick checked my Goodreads to see what I'd been reading at the time of my past email (October 2013). Check it out, I read Paulo Coelho's The Pilgrimage (takes place on the Camino) from September 28 - October 7, 2013. Triple BINGO!

Phew, all right, glad I've finally solved that mystery. Thanks FutureMe and Goodreads for providing the clues!

Back to the question at hand.

I thought it was rather obvious why I'd wanted to walk the Camino - wouldn't anyone want to do this if they had the chance? A month of simple living, only carrying the minimum in a backpack. No stress, and your daily to-do list looks like this:

1. Wake up
2. Walk
3. Eat lunch
4. Walk
5. Wash clothes in sink
6. Hang clothes to dry
7. Eat and talk with others and read and journal
8. Sleep

I wanted to disconnect. No laptop, no browsing the net. I did bring my Korean iPhone along, which I'd use now and then when there was wifi to access email and tell my parents that I was alive and well.

You're also spending every day outside in nature, that was key. I learned in Korea that I always felt better after being outside or somewhere green, though still didn't do it enough. On the Camino you're outside every day. You walk through a variety of landscapes through the course of the journey, and can appreciate the detail because you're going slow enough since you're on foot. You reconnect with the natural world, which is so important.

I love walking, too, that's also part of the allure for me. Plus it's in Spain! A country I love and have fond memories of. Why wouldn't I want to spend a month walking through Spain?

And then there's the people. If I want to walk the Camino, imagine the types of people who also were attracted to the pilgrimage, so much so that they organized it and made it happen. I knew I would meet many memorable folk on this walk. And I did.

So when other pilgrims asked me why I was doing the walk, I knew that we probably shared many of the same reasons - because we were both there.

It wasn't uncommon for others to specifically ask if you were doing this for religious reasons or not, so I came to usually specify at the start that no, this was not a religious journey for me.

Sometimes I'd also include that I didn't expect some great change, a transformative spiritual awakening that's probably romanticized in books and movies. I wasn't searching for any answers or looking for clarity, as some were. 

I just wanted to walk in nature in Spain and clear my mind. Disconnect and recharge. Simple as that.

And that's exactly what I did.

Photo Source: David, a fellow pilgrim and friend

I was going to write about an average day on the Camino, but this has gotten longer than I'd planned for, so I'll save it for the next post. (Update: You can read about an average day for me on the Camino here.)

Have more questions about the Camino that weren't answered yet? Leave a comment and I'll be sure to address it in the next post.

Update 4/23/15:

Here's my most recent post about the Camino, published on Medium (click the image below to read the article).

If you like the article, consider recommending it or sharing it with someone who might also enjoy. Thanks!
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  1. I had no idea that it extended through France (and other parts of Europe)! Those passport stamps are beautiful. Is all the "traffic" headed towards Santiago de Compostela or do folks walk back as well? I look forward to reading about trail life -some friends of mine just finished the Appalachian Trail, so this will be a great continuation of excursion blog reading!

    1. Mostly all of the traffic is towards Santiago de Compostela, but talking with some bartenders that work in tiny towns along the way, they said that some people get so obsessed with the Camino that they'll walk it there and back!

      I only ever crossed a handful of people walking the opposite way, but I didn't question their reasons. (I once left my camera at a stopping point and had to turn back and walk the opposite way a few minutes to get it). Thanks for reading!

  2. I am also really excited about the Camino passport! I had no idea, and I'm really lusting after those stamps.

    1. Yeah, the passport and stamps were like an added bonus to the Camino!

  3. This was a great read, sorry I'm late to the party!
    Doing the French part would be awesome. Or an excuse to learn more Spanish and do all of it. That's really awesome Rebecca. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Bola! Hah, read whenever you like -- no one is ever late! : )

      Tons of people walking it didn't know any Spanish, so you'd be totally fine walking the whole thing, especially knowing French!

  4. Hi Rebecca! Found your blogs after Twitter recommended you to me. I'm also an ex-expat of Asia (Japan!) and I currently live in Madrid. Just spent the better part of the last hour reading everything you've written about your experience on the Camino. I'm planning to do it this summer, so that was really great! Just one (weird) question though, how prevalent would you say the bed bugs are? Have to admit that is probably my biggest "fear" right now.

    1. Hey Jaime! Awesome, glad you found the blog! I just left Madrid yesterday, after a quick three days there to get over jet lag... I'll be back in July because that was definitely not enough time in my second home.

      I'm excited you're doing the Camino! Bed bugs were a fear of mine too... just in the back of my mind. During my month, I saw two people having their backpacks sprayed because of bed bugs. From talking with various hostel owners, they said the bedbugs come from municipal albergues, which they're pissed about because then it spreads to the person's next hostel - which could be a private hostel/albergue that follows all of the health regulations and spends a good chunk of money to keep their place bed bug free, etc. I stayed in lots of municipal albergues along my walk because of the price/availability... I guess it's a matter of chance (and who knows if what they said is true, or just how it's perceived). If you're super worried about it, you could stick to private albergues -- though there's always a tiny chance that someone brings them in from elsewhere. Hostel owners are super knowledgeable though, and all have spray and big trash bags on hand to take care of anything immediately should someone discover them -- because they don't want them in their hostel anymore than pilgrims want them. Hope that helps! Feel free to email if you have any more questions!