Fog City Boy on the Camino Francés
San Francisco, California – June 26, 2015
I returned to San Francisco four weeks ago, and, after plowing through nearly two months of accumulated snailmail, junk mail, and magazines I never read, had an opportunity to reflect on the Camino and my peregrinación. Here are some thoughts.
Comparing the Camino Portugués (2014) and the Camino Francés (2015).
Both Caminos are worthy and I can easily recommend them if you are looking for a good long – or not so long – walk. Upon reflection, I would recommend that a first time peregrino walk the Camino Francés. That is the best developed and most frequently walked of the several Ways. In effect, it defines the Camino experience.
Here are some statistics (source – my analysis of data in John Brierley’s guidebooks):
· Camino Francés: Distance from St. Jean to Santiago = 776.2 kilometers (482.3 miles) with aggregate elevation en route of 12,080 meters.
· Camino Portugués: Distance from Lisbon to Santiago = 615.6 kilometers (382.5 miles) with aggregate elevation en route of 6,665 meters.
Neither the lineal distances nor the elevations should be a deterrent. Some of the climbs are steep, but there aren’t very many of them. Pace yourself and you will do fine!
You don’t have to start in St. Jean or in Lisbon. Most peregrinos start closer to Santiago, although I met one peregrina who had started in Paris. And last year, I heard about a young peregrino who had started in Moscow! And, if you want, you can ride a bike! (Though you will need to cover 200 kilometers to qualify for a compostela.)
On the Camino Francés, frequent starting points are Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and Sarria. (Sarria is 115 km from Santiago, and completing the Camino on foot from that point will qualify the peregrino to receive a compostela upon arrival in Santiago.)
On the Camino Portugués, frequent starting points are Porto and Tui. (Tui is 115 km from Santiago, and completing the Camino from that point, like Sarria, will qualify the peregrino to receive a compostela.)
That said, my recommendation for the Camino Portugués – if you don’t have time or interest in walking all the way from Lisbon – is to make your way to Lisbon, spend several days there exploring and enjoying the city, and then take a regional train to Tomar. There is a relatively new alberque there that is reputed to be quite commodious, and the Knights Templar castle is well preserved and seeing it is a must. Begin your peregrinación from Tomar.
And, under no circumstances fail to walk the alternative Way out of Porto, wherever you start on the Portuguese Way! It departs there from the standard waymarked route, proceeds to Matosenhos, and from there proceeds up the coast with beautiful marine views and good footing with a destination for the day of Vila do Conde. Check out FCB #8. From Vila do Conde a waymarked route returns you to the main route from Porto to Santiago.
The principal differences between these two most popular Camino routes are the following:
. The Francés has vastly more pilgrims from day one. I encounterd over twice as many pilgrims at the railroad station in Bayonne headed to St. Jean than I had met in the first 20 days in Portugal. And the number on the Way increases noticeably at each of the starting points mentioned above. The same thing happens on the Portugués, but the overall number of pilgrims is much lower
. The infrastructure to support pilgrims is much more highly developed on the Francés in comparison with that on the Portugués. That means that the peregrino need not worry that lodging doesn’t exist when it is time to stop for the night – although there are occasions when every bed in town has been spoken for. Making reservations ahead is a good idea on either route. On the Portugués I often had to truncate my daily distances in order to ensure that I had a bed for the night. I expect that the infrastructure in Portugal will be built out swiftly so this concern may no longer be relevant. The camaraderie of the Camino is more evident on the Francés for the simple reason that there are so many more pilgrims on The Way.
. The food is better on the Francés than on the Portugués, though I still completed the Camino suffering from vegetable deficit and I didn’t find an open Chinese restaurant until I got to Paris! Also, the ubiquitous “pilgrim menu” – an inexpensive three-course meal that includes bread and wine or water (usually at a cost of 10 euros more or less) was uncommon on the Portugués. This may change as the infrastructure is developed and the many businesses that do now or will cater to peregrinos learn from their Iberian cousins to the north. The lack of a pilgrim menu may not be all bad. I got awfully tired of it and eventually asked for the regular menu which certainly was more costly, but not as repetitious and limited.
. Approximately 2/3 of the Camino Francés is on path or rural track with the remaining 1/3 on asphalt roads – secondary or primary – or on sidewalks through cities.
. The reverse is the case on the Camino Portugués. Though the scenery on paths and tracks generally is better than that along paved roads, I found the pavement easier on my feet than most paths and tracks. In addition, the waymarks on the Francés are obvious and well maintained. That is not always the case on the Portugués, though as with other attributes, I expect this to change as the infrastructure is improved.
Flora and Fauna
The countryside in Spain is beautiful. Walking the Camino in April and May, my Camino was largely in the early spring. There were many wildflowers to enjoy, especially at the higher elevations.
Heather was a frequent companion, but often it was interspersed with yellow, white, and blue flowers as well. I wish I knew the names of the others.
The gentle reader may recall that nearly every dog in Portugal barked at me last year. That was not the case on the Francés this year. Relatively few dogs felt obliged to lunge at peregrinos. Also, interestingly, northern Spain seems to have a strong preference for German shepherds versus other breeds. I saw very few Siamese cats.
In addition to the heard but not seen cuckoo who accompanied me, English sparrows were ubiquitous on the Way.
Several times, I came upon pine processionary caterpillars (procesionaria del pino). These little creatures formed chains of a dozen or more – all except the lead caterpillar burying its head in the posterior of the next in line. The chain would travel as a group – perhaps as a defensive mechanism. Chains can be as long as 300 caterpillars. The hairs on their bodies produce serious allergic reactions – sometimes fatal – in humans and other mammals. They are extremely destructive of pine forests. Fascinating.
And from time to time I saw “herds” of black slugs all of which were progressing across the Way all in a common direction. I wonder what motivated the mass migration.
The Church in Spain
I have heard it said that there is no more Roman Catholic a country than Spain. And this may well be true.
Nearly every small town hosts a parish church, some rather grand considering the present and likely historical population. Certainly the cathedral in Burgos (hardly a small town) has stood the test of time.
However, it is also widely reported that the people in Spain are becoming less actively religious with the passage of time, as generally is the case throughout the developed world. There is a shortage of priests. And funds to maintain existing Church properties are less plentiful than once they were. Some churches are simply closed. Others have fallen into disrepair and appear to be abandoned.
Graffiti is ubiquitous along The Way. Some of it has political content. Here are a few examples:
Fracking No? The Camino is a long way from any drilling rig I know of. I actually saw this exhortation more than once along The Way!
Flags Along the Way
Though I am not a student of the history of Spain and France, I became intrigued by such history as I was able to learn as I walked The Way. I am interested that so many regions and provinces in Spain, and indeed throughout Europe, were their own small kingdoms at one time or another. Their flags and coats of arms endure on public buildings and elsewhere. Here are some of the flags I encountered:
Castilla y Leon
And the Basque flag
The Basques are a people with a proud heritage who find themselves split between the southwest region of France and the northwest region of Spain. I encountered many locals along The Way who pointedly announced that they were Basque – not Spaniards. The Basque language (there are several dialects and the language is unique – not a Romance language at all) is widely, though not universally, spoken in the seven Basque provinces. There are recurring calls by Basques for independence from Spain, and no doubt from France as well. Neither country is likely to grant that independence, though accommodations to regionalism are frequent in Spain.
I was interested that the ATMs in the provinces through which I walked generally provided eight language options at the beginning of each transaction:
The Camino as Big Business
The economy of Spain, as that of Portugal which I observed last year, has suffered. Unemployment is at 25 percent. Many capital projects have been suspended or abandoned.
In 1984 only 423 peregrinos completed their pilgrimages and were granted a compostela. There are estimates that in 2014 fully 240,000 peregrinos will have completed pilgrimages. The enormous popularity of the Camino has been a major underpinning to the Spanish tourism industry which accounts for over 11 percent of the Spanish GDP. It is the only component of the economy that has not suffered during the recent economic downturn. As such, the Camino is a big business.
A big business with thousands of small players.
Hundreds of baristas at the many cafes along The Way. Cooks, waiters and waitresses, too. Bakers who bake the bread and those who cure jambon for the seemingly omnipresent bocadillos every peregrino will consume almost daily.
And the many personnel at the alberques, pensions, casas rurales, and hotels along The Way. And many, many cab drivers who will gallantly transport the frightened peregrino up and over what looks to him like a mountain to rival Mt. Everest – or transport the exhausted peregrino that last few kilometers to his destination for the day.
And the drivers, dispatchers, and coordinators who, for a nominal fee, will transport peregrino backpacks or other luggage from one alberque or hotel to another, provided it is along The Way.
Jacotrans is preeminent among them. I carried my mochila the whole way this time, but next time . . . .
And then there are the many shopkeepers who will outfit a peregrino as he or she sets out on the journey, or who sell scallop shells to tie to your backpack, walking staffs so you can emulate St. James, and t-shirts once you reach Santiago.
All in all, the Camino provides employment for a sizable number of folks in northern Spain and along the recognized alternative routes. Certainly thousands.
Voices are heard advocating the establishment of additional “official” Camino routes in order that the wealth be shared with communities not presently benefitting from the Camino traffic.
There’s money to be made and it has brought forth substantial private investment in the construction of built-for-the-purpose alberques, or the reconfiguration of existing pensions and other buildings. However, the popularity of travel destinations is known to ebb and flow. What will happen to the investments of these entrepreneurs if traffic on the Caminos falls off in future years?
Advertising is rampant along The Way. This one advertises an alberque a few kilometers ahead, but one kilometer off the waymarked route. Which inspires the peregrino? The cross among stones placed by passing peregrinos? Or the strategically placed ad for Alberque San Bol?
I was approached by operators of private alberques on many afternoons an hour or more before I reached their hostels. Sometimes they were on foot, sometimes in automobiles, and once on a motorcycle traveling on The Way itself. Business cards and flyers are left at shrines visited by peregrino.
Occasionally, placards placed by one business are vandalized by competitors. “Don’t go here” written in English. An English-speaking peregrino would have to have been awfully irritated to trudge back up a steep hill and come equipped with paint and a brush to make that statement. I think it was done by the competitor whose adjacent placard was not defaced!
When approaching the village of Villalval, The Way splits to provide an alternate route. The signage was defaced, likely by the owner of a bar who wanted to direct peregrinos to his establishment at the end of the alternate route, rather than see them follow the main route and stop at a competing establishment on the near side of town.
A waymark pointing to the left is painted over and a yellow arrow pointing to the right is substituted.
A waymark showing the principal route is defaced. “Don’t go!” – Why not?
In fact, I followed the route to the left, through town, and ultimately found myself at the bar at the end of the alternate route. I felt a certain angst, but didn’t turn back. The café con leche was one euro forty. The going rate.
The commercialization of the Camino is discouraging. But should not dissuade a future peregrino from embracing the experience. One must simply look beyond the commercialization and walk on.
Walk on, peregrino. Walk on. And remain focused on why you undertook this peregrinacion.
Things to take with you or buy “over there” before you set out.
Should you decide to walk the Camino, or a similar trek, get a good guidebook and pay attention to the suggestions there. And be sure your guidebook is the most recent edition. Here are a few suggestions that may or may not be included in your guidebook.
· Take a sink stopper that will accommodate different size drains. You likely will be doing laundry (as did I) in hotel bathrooms or at alberques with primitive clothes washing facilities. And they don’t all have stoppers! I used shampoo as my laundry soap.
· Take two – not one – two hiking poles. One for each hand. It is a rule: If you lose your balance and start to fall to your right, the single pole will be in your left hand. If you start to fall to your left . . . . You get the idea. My poles saved me from falling numerous times. The Camino is often merely a gravel road and sometimes steep. And sometimes the Camino is slushy to a fare-thee-well. Poles are a must.
· If you walk the Camino in the spring or the fall, take a pair of mittens. It can be quite chilly in the mornings and your hands will get cold.
· Wear real shoes – hiking boots that provide ankle support are even better. Sandals or cross-trainers won’t keep you safe and likely will engender blisters. Be sure the shoes fit properly and are snug to your feet but not “tight.” Remember – your shoes, socks, and feet all have to work together as a system. Mine did. I had no problems with blisters.
· Take a feather-weight pair of town shoes for after the day’s walk. That allows your hiking boots to dry out while you are out and about!
· Take more than one water bottle. It is critical that you stay hydrated. I kept a small (33 cl.) bottle of water inside my pack as a standby in case of hydration emergencies. I used it twice.
· A small pillow (inflatable or compressible) was a great boon to my slumber. Many “pillows” in Spain compare favorably with sacks of cement.
· Always have a small roll of toilet paper with you. You may need it on the trail, but also you may need it in an alberque or pension where supplies sometimes run low.
· And stuff from your medicine cabinet: Anti-chafing balm, your NSAID of choice, vitamins (especially to manage electrolytes), sunblock, medicated wipes. Unusual first aid or health needs can always be met at any of the hundreds of farmacias you will encounter on the Way. Just look for the garish blinking neon green cross.
· Buy a couple of tins of sardines or other canned food to nourish you if you have to start out in the morning after a very inadequate “European breakfast” – toast, butter, jelly, and one cup of coffee. I wonder how any European power ever won a military victory if that’s all they ever fed their soldiers in the morning. Keep the standby food in a handy location in your pack.
· Take a very small notebook (mine was 3”x4”) and a pen, and keep it handy to capture names and addresses and other miscellaneous information you won’t want to forget.
Kindnesses and Camaraderie
Peregrinos have at their disposal a tremendous resource: Each other! The fact of being on the Camino walking with or in tandem with other similarly committed pilgrims produces both and instant bond and a sense of trust that would not normally characterize everyday life. A commonness of purpose and a commonness of experience.
Peregrinos help each other and willingly share their experiences, food, water, ankle braces (I gave one to a peregrina who was having trouble with leg pain) and money, if needed.
And supporters of the Camino have established opportunities for the weary traveler to sit, rest, and refresh. A nominal donation is requested, but not required.
Whether overnighting in the alberques or in pensions or hotels, peregrinos typically share dinner together and enjoy each others’ company.
One of the best experiences on The Way is being reunited with peregrinos one has not seen for several days, or longer. This happened for me several times, but especially so in Santiago. The last night’s dinner – before several of us said a somber good by to the Camino and returned to our homes, was a joyous occasion.
The Way Forward
In FCB #18, I speculated about what the next walk might be. And I still haven’t decided – after all, next year is a year away! I won’t have a two-month window that would accommodate another six or seven week hike. But the Camino Primitivo, which originates in Ovieto, can be walked in about three weeks. If I do another Camino next year, I think that will be the one.
Stay tuned! And again, thank you for following these chronicles.