El Camino Frances: an Introduction

A year ago, I embarked on the most exciting yet challenging adventures to date: El Camino Frances. An 800-ish kilometres walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela, through northern Spain. It was something that I had been itching to do for some time and do not regret in the slightest. Over the next few months, I will attempt to describe and recount my journey, in as many details as is pertinent.  As they say, every Camino is unique, so what worked for me may not for all, but it may still be worth sharing!

As the title suggests, I will begin with an overview, hopefully covering all the preliminary inquiries, questions, and concerns one may have before setting out, as well as share some resources I found instrumental. In the upcoming posts, I’ll cover my packing list, useful tips, and talk about the Camino itself, region by region.

Journey to the beginning (reasons and expectations)

As most making the journey from North America, the 2010 drama The Way starring Martin Sheen was my introduction to the Camino. From there, the idea hibernated in my mind a while, until I moved to Montréal for university. It was during these four years that the prospect of setting out on foot alone became increasingly alluring and plausible. It was at this time I found the calming effect walking had on me. Not only did it allow me to notice the wonderful details of my surroundings but it also served as my thinking space. A therapeutic moment after which my mind would be clear of any apprehensions and harsh emotions. With this in mind, I expected the Camino to be the ultimate walk towards peace of mind and understanding. Basically I would become Siddhartha.

When I finally did decide to leave, it happened pretty quickly. I had been working full-time in a job that I really enjoyed, reconnecting with old friends and spending quality time with my family. At the time, I was putting most of my earnings away in order to set off once my contract ran out in February. The work environment being what it was however, I couldn’t see myself staying on another five months. I was in such a bad place because of it. I hung on to the belief that the Camino would somehow comb through the knotted mess in my head, leaving me with a clear mind. That is when I broke the news that I was off a little earlier than anticipated.

This part was far from easy I must admit, especially when these undermining responses would surface “Really? Who are you going with? Alone!? Didn’t you hear about those women getting attacked? It isn’t safe for someone like you, you know.” I get it. I was 22 years old, 5 ft nothing and leaving on my first ever solo trip. I understood the concern and had them myself, believe me! Leaving was by far the most difficult part of the journey, far more challenging that I could have expected.

Preparation

If you do your research into physical preparation, you will most likely come across the same advice: Go on practice walks. It will allow you to:

  1. Beak in your shoes (especially if they’re new) and a backup pair
  2. Get a sense of the weight of your backpack
  3. Build up your endurance

By no means do I claim to have prepared perfectly, but to give you an idea, here is what I did. During the week I would walk part of the way home from work (5 to 6 km) to get my body accustomed to the motion. On weekends, I would walk from home to downtown and back (around 20km) in normal shoes as well as the second pair I intended to bring with me. Nearing my departure date, I went on walked in the nearby city “forest” to test out my boots and bag, albeit not nearly enough. I didn’t end up break in my boots sufficiently and man did I regret it.

There isn’t really a set schedule to follow. It all depends on your own fitness level, body requirements, available time, and terrain. As a rule of thumb, give yourself enough time (however long that may be) to ease into it. Gradually build up the distance so as to allow your body to adjust and recuperate. Presuming you aren’t able to recreate the foreseeable conditions and terrain of the Camino, nothing can truly prepare you for the actual thing. So expect the first few days to be quite challenging (the adjustment period if you will).

Now, while there’s no denying the Camino is physically challenging, I found it is surprisingly merciful and adaptable as well. For instance, you can send your bag ahead a day or send excess weight to Santiago, take a bus or a taxi if you need a rest or stay an extra night if you prefer. I met a woman in Pamplona for instance who’s knee problems were so severe she needed crutches to get around. She explained that she would walk what she could manage each day and take a taxi for the remaining distance. Of course, some may say it’s not the proper way of doing it (as you will no doubt come across in forums etc.) but at the end of the day, this path is deeply personal and however a person is able to complete it, is up to them.

I will elaborate further in an upcoming post on the different ways and means available to pilgrims.

 Planning

In terms of planning, it’s once again dependant on your circumstances. Most people have a predetermined number of days in which to complete the journey. In this case, it may be useful to roughly decide if and when to take rest days, as well as how many kilometers you may want to do each day. Since you cannot predict how you will feel, the weather conditions, etc., I wouldn’t be too strict (if possible), as it will most likely lead to frustration, disappointment, and possibly even injury.

In my case, I tried to plan the least amount possible, as I was lucky enough not to have time constraints and didn’t know how I would actually handle the journey physically. I gave myself around 40 days seeing as most sources suggested 35 days. I though it may be nice to take rest days in bigger cities to let my body rest and explore a little. In the end however, I arrived in Santiago after 33 days and didn’t once feel the need to stay an extra night.

As for the daily distances, I found that determining them the night before was best. You are aware of your physical condition, and therefore grasp what you can handle. The distances between villages is never the same and the terrain may make things more challenging (walking 2 hours uphill for instance as opposed to on a flat surface). I know it’s tempting to map everything out before starting the Camino or following your guide book to a T, but you’ve really got to listen to your body. Personally, the most challenging day for me wasn’t the 30km walk in the mountains, but rather the 18km stretch along the straight, flat, sweltering Meseta.

Another consideration is your budget. Overall, it is far from the most expensive trip you can take. Thanks to your Pilgrim passport, you will have access to three types of albergues: donativo/church hostel, municipal, and private. They vary in price ever so slightly from one town to the next, but in general remain between 5 and 15 Euros a night. As for the food, I would say it’s around the same. It can be delightfully inexpensive if you prepare meals with fellow pilgrims rather than going out to eat. Unfortunately, this pleasantry becomes nearly impossible once in Galicia as the majority of hostels are either unequipped with kitchen or have empty ones (they say most hostel owners also own restaurants in town…). Overall I would plan between 30 and 40 Euros a day to be on the safe side, and a little extra if ever you’re in need of a massage, new gear, an extra night somewhere etc.

Resources

There is no shortage when it comes to information regarding the Camino, especially The Camino Frances. This being said, here are some of my favs:

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago – This documentary, which follows the journey of six different pilgrims, is by far the most realistic I have come across. It gives a true sense of the joys and difficulties one comes encounters when walking.

Camino Adventures – This website is very comprehensive. It contains tones of useful information without being too overwhelming. I’m a little wary of some other online sources as they can be quite commercialized, offering group tours and the works.

YouTube and Facebook – A couple great platforms to connect share tips, questions, and stories with other pilgrims.

Outdoor: The way is the Goal – There are many, many guide books on the Camino but this one is the best. Every pilgrim and their mother carry around this modest little yellow book by Raimund Joos. The man walks the Camino every year, visits every hostel in every town, takes note of road conditions, the must sees and eats, and so on! He doesn’t waste space on pondering the magnificence and grandeur of blah blah blah. That’s yours to discover. The book contains nothing but the crucial, pragmatic information you need: map of the upcoming terrain and altitude, names of the towns, distances, and hostels. He sites for each of these the number of rooms and beds, the amenities available, the cleanliness, if the hostel keeper is friendly, the contact information, and any other specificities imaginable. In short, I cannot recommend it enough.

That just about covers it I think! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

Buen Camino!

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