In­sight into El Camino

10 ques­tions an­swered about walk­ing the pil­grim’s path,

Ottawa Citizen - - TRAVEL - LAURA ROBIN

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 clas­si­calpur­­ing-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.

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