Insight into El Camino
10 questions answered about walking the pilgrim’s path,
There are probably as many reasons to walk the Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain as there are people doing it. And those numbers are growing remarkably: in 1985, 690 pilgrims arrived at the end-point cathedral in Santiago; by 2010 the number had grown to more than 270,000.
With a new movie, The Way ( currently showing at the Bytowne) focusing on the famous walk, interest is sure to spike again. For some insights into walking the walk, we caught up with Ann Kirkland, the Toronto owner of the learning vacations company Classical Pursuits.
For more, you can read her blog posts at classicalpursuits.com/blog/2011/01/11/taking-my-soul-for-a-strollmy-camino-chronicle.
I understand you walked the Camino de Santiago recently. When did you do it and why?
I went in the fall of 2010 as a 65th birthday present to myself. I had first learned about the Camino in 2007 when I took a Classical Pursuits group to Galicia, the part of Spain where the Camino concludes. One of the books we read was
Off the Road by Jack Hitt. It was an irreverent account of the Camino by a cynical journalist who was paid by Harpers to walk and write about his experience. The book certainly did not inspire me to try it myself, but seeing the many pilgrims arrive on foot in Santiago de Compostela, dirty, tanned and glowing, did. What route did you follow and how long did it take?
I walked the most common route, the Camino Francés, starting in Saint-jean-pieddu-port in the Basque part of southwest France. I was gone a total of six weeks and walked for five, taking two pre-planned rest days along the way.
What surprised you?
What surprised me was how easy it was. I was anxious that I would find it too arduous, that I would get injured, that the gain would be in the pain. In fact, compared with my life at home, walking the Camino was about the most mentally relaxed time I can remember since childhood. I had no idea how much energy I expend trying to juggle the many strands of daily life, the endless big and little decisions, to-do lists, lurching from one task to another, and how liberating it was to be freed from all that. Compared with what I left behind, the physical demands of the Camino were not hard.
What was the hardest part?
The hardest part in the beginning was gaining confidence. The day before I started walking, I looked up at the Pyrenees, doubting my ability to get up and over them on my own steam. After I did that, I thought of something the next day that appeared to be an even bigger challenge. It took me a little time to gain confidence that I would be fine and just relax and enjoy the variety each day brought.
Where did you sleep?
Unlike most who walk the Camino, I chose to stay in pri- vate rooms with my own bath. There is a plentiful supply of dirt-cheap albergues (hostels) that offer basic shared accommodation and, often, communal meals and great conviviality. Why didn’t you stay at these hostels?
Alas, I am a better walker than I am a sleeper. If earplugs were sufficient to allow me to sleep among snorers, I would have made that choice. I was easily able, through an outfitter in Glasgow, to book private rooms in advance. Lots of others did the same thing. I think the best option, if money and sleeping were not determinative, would be to generally use albergues and opt for a hotel or private room whenever one felt so inclined. Would you recommend the journey?
For many, yes. The Camino is apt to be most rewarding to those who do like to walk, are reasonably fit, enjoy the countryside and are pretty non-judgmental. The more open you are to the different people and ideas you encounter, especially yourself, the richer the experience. While being a conventional Catholic is by no means a prerequisite, an openness to a non-material dimension of life is a definite bonus. Your company is offering a guided trip on El Camino next fall, but I hear it’s already sold out. Did this trip sell out faster than most?
Yes, Taking Your Soul for a Stroll, in the fall of 2012, has sold out faster than other Classical Pursuits trips. I think the Camino is different from other trips. People do not hem and haw. They kind of know whether they really yearn to do it — or they are not at all interested. They are less likely to weigh alternatives. Some may consider whether to go to Venice or to Vietnam. This group is not likely to deliber- ate between the coast of Cornwall or the Camino. I have no fixed plans beyond 2012, but I know I would love to do it again, perhaps on one of the other Camino routes. Have you seen The Way? What did you think of it?
I have seen The Way and confess to being disappointed. I was very much looking forward to the film, but found it sentimentalized and the characters two-dimensional stereotypes. Still, it is worth seeing, both for those who have walked and those who are considering it. The film gives a great sense of the geography and a bit about the daily rhythms of life along the Camino. Three top tips or recommendations for people considering doing the Camino on their own? ❚ Read a few recommended accounts of those who have walked the Camino, but only a few. Way too many pilgrims have written not very good books. And your experience will be different from all of them. ❚ Do train and pack light. There is tons of information on the Internet and online discussion groups. It is also very helpful to gather up all your questions and pose them to several people who have walked. There will be mixed and sometimes conflicting advice (water bottle versus camelback or various tips about foot care). Take in a reasonable amount of information, then decide for yourself. Good gear matters. ❚ Don’t worry. Go with an open mind and an open heart.
The hardest part of the walk, says Kirkland, was gaining the confidence that she could do it. Here, she contemplates the Pyrenees ahead on her first day.
The Way, starring Martin Sheen, is currently on at the Bytowne Cinema.
Ann Kirkland walked El Camino last year as a 65th birthday present to herself.