An alternative Camino that you’ll love even more
Be forewarned, this thing they call the Camino is no walk in the park. A walk, yes, but a very long one if you choose to follow the traditional route. To some it’s simply The Way, but more formally it’s the Camino de Santiago. For the hardy — maybe the foolhardy? — it stretches some 800 kilometres, all the way from tiny St. Jean at the base of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain’s far northwest. The remains of St. James are said to be entombed in Santiago’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral, a World Heritage Site no less.
To put it into perspective, hoofing it from St. Jean to Santiago is like trekking from Toronto to Quebec City, with a couple of nasty climbs and descents thrown in for good measure. Not that you’d ever consider that.
It’s called the French Camino, though you say adieu to France in a matter of hours. It’s all Spain thereafter. This was the route taken by Martin Sheen (whose father hailed from Galicia, by the way) in the film The Way, which has inspired countless pilgrims to follow in his footsteps. The film offered a somewhat misleading take on the journey, though, showing Sheen and company barely breaking a sweat while merrily twirling their staffs and petting kitty cats.
Instead, it can be quite daunting. Many never make it to Santiago, as walking 25 to 30 kilometres every day for several weeks can really take its toll, especially when you are lugging a backpack that can weigh as much as 15 kilograms (more on that later).
But there are other alternatives — some much shorter — and, lo and behold, when you are done you get the same recognition as those who stumble along for weeks from St. Jean. So, maybe leave the lengthy foray to the kids and pursue one of the more reasonable routes. Or join the kids closer to Santiago. Many do just that, making Sarria their starting point. It’s barely 100 kilometres from there to the cathedral city, all the ground you need to cover to earn your diploma, or “Compostela.”
But there’s a better choice, for a variety of reasons: it’s prettier, doable in a week or maybe two if you stretch it and not nearly as crowded as the route that Sheen and his many followers have chosen. It’s called the Portuguese Camino, but again that’s somewhat misleading, as you can avoid Portugal altogether and still log the required 100 kilometres to Santiago. Instead, you kick off in Tui, just across the river from Valenca, Portugal. There’s even a bus to take you there if you choose to fly into Porto, which is by far your best option.
On top of that, Porto is a gem that’s not to be missed, famed for its port wine cellars and Harry Potter bookshop (author J.K. Rowling once taught English in Porto), though my advice is to save it for later. Give yourself a couple of days to explore it when you return from Santiago after conquering the Camino.
Once you’ve tackled the Camino Portuguese, you may want to consider the longer ramble across northern Spain. If so, I suggest you make Pamplona your start point, a magical city made famous by Hemingway, of course. That way, your first few days will be much more pleasant than if you were to start in St. Jean. Beginning your trek by having to scale the Pyrenees is nothing short of insane, what Jane Christmas called in her often hilarious account of her Camino (What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim), “Hell under sunny skies.” Yet, according to another author, Gerald Kelly, something like seven times as many pilgrims start in St. Jean as in Pamplona.
Perhaps the biggest gaffe that novice trekkers make is filling their bags to overflowing. Be brutally honest when packing — many things you might deem to be essential won’t be missed at all. You’ll actually be glad you left them at home, especially when you compare your relatively modest load to those of other walkers, some of whom seem to have included the proverbial kitchen sink in their gear. Aim to carry roughly 10 per cent of your body weight, which isn’t much at all if you tip the scales at, say, 60 kilos (125 pounds).
Another tip is to avoid the summer months, as half of Europe seems to be headed to Santiago in July and August. Instead, try May to June or September. Summers can be scorchers in Spain, too, another reason to opt for those other times. Accommodation is less of a worry off-season as well.
Speaking of which, there are refuges set aside for pilgrims, called albergues, and they can save you a pretty penny, many asking as little as $10 Cdn per night. The drawback is that you’ll be sharing a space with 100 or more others, so the showers are apt to be cold when you finally get your turn and the snoring can drive you around the bend. Christmas spoke of wanting to whack one snorer, but held off, afraid she might not be able to stop her assault once she got going. But not to worry, because there are usually a couple of hotels to choose from even in the smaller towns you’ll pass through. Some like to book ahead, but I just wing it, being sure to get an early start.
You needn’t encumber yourself with guidebooks, either, as it’s very hard to get lost. There are pilgrims aplenty, especially on the French route, and yellow arrows and markers to steer you through the tricky bits. They pop up very few minutes just to reassure you that you are headed in the right direction. In fact, one of the few times I went astray was when I had my head buried in my book.
The various John Brierley guides are a comfort to many walkers, though I have heard his French guide disdainfully referred to as “The book of lies.” They are definitely worth having when you reach a town of any size, as that’s where the arrows tend to disappear, leaving you to figure out which way to go. Brierley’s maps can be a lifesaver then.
If you are giving some thought to tackling any of the Caminos (there are at least a dozen others I haven’t touched upon) and are looking for further inspiration, consider my friend Olive, who’s a spry 78 years old. After completing the Portuguese Camino, she and her walking partner, Bob, both from Red Deer, bused it to Sarria in order to take in the final 100 kilometres of the French, picking up two diplomas in the process. Her fondest memory of her twin Caminos? “The serene walks on the beautiful country paths,” she said. “I can still hear the rhythm of my hiking poles in the dirt — thump, thump, thump, thump. Also, the cherished friendships that were made along The Way.”
Freelance writer Larry Humber has had articles published in The Globe and Mail, Elle Magazine, Tribute, The Artist’s Magazine and more. In addition, he creates crosswords and word games. firstname.lastname@example.org