peter.andren (snabel-a) gmail.com
A few times during my walk I was asked when I first heard about The Way of Saint James and when I decided to walk it. One thing I remember with certainty is that I thought about walking it in 2010, but decided not to as it was a Holy Year (when the day of St. James, the July 25, falls on a Sunday), which apparently would double the number of pilgrims. And I really wanted to avoid that. But I don't remember when I first heard about the camino. Quite likely, it was with the Swedish author Agneta Sjödin's book "A Woman's Journey" in 2007. When I walked Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (in Swedish) in 2008 I definitely had heard about it, but probably found it "too civilized" to take seriously. What really scared me was the stories about a thousand pilgrims per day leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and the rush to hostels to get somewhere to sleep. But then I understood that the autumn, when I wanted to walk, was also the low-season — that settled it.
I use the name "The Way of Saint James" for the walking path that begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ends in Santiago de Compostela. For short I use "the camino". This should be straight-forward. (This whole paragraph is here as the naming is less straight-forward in Swedish.)
The image below shows my pilgrim's passport ("credencial" in Spanish). This can be bought for a few euros at the start of the walk, and can differ slightly in appearances depending on the issuing organization. At each hostel the credencial is stamped and dated. I choose to have my credencial stamped at the hostels where I slept only, and at the cathedral in Santiago and the lighthouse in Finisterre. This is, by far, the most treasured souvenir from the walk.
When you reach Santiago you can get a Compostela, proving that you have completed your pilgrimage. In the pilgrim's office you will be asked why you have walked, with the choices "religious", "spiritual" and "other". When you pick "religious" or "spiritual" you will get a Compostela in Latin, but for me it was just a long walk and got a Compostela in plain Spanish (the left image). In the official hostel in Finisterre you can get a corresponding document to prove you made it there — albeit the same document for all (the right image).
As a preparation to the walk I made a simple map in Google Earth with all The Way of Saint James and the part out to Finisterre. The point with doing this is that I convert the Google Earth kml-file to a Garmin map. In this fashion I don't have to buy MapSource maps and I can add exactly the information I want — the walking path and some places (towns, hamlets, villages and the hostels will suffice).
On the first day you will pass a large stone which tells you that the distance to Santiago is 765 km, which seems to be very accurate. My GPS logged 805 km and I really tried to have it on only when I walked the camino. An exact distance is more or less impossible to present. One "problem" is that the distance will grow the more accurately you measure. The distance I trust the most is the one I have calculated from the Google Earth paths (more about this later . . .)
On The Way of Saint James you can walk with a very light backpack. Ten kilos should be enough. I never weight my pack but I estimate it was about ten kilos, depending on how much food and water I carried. A new set of clothes, sleeping bag, camera, soap and towel, notebook, and some other small things are all you need. The things you have forgotten or not thought about you can buy along the route. It couldn't be easier.
There are well over one-hundred hostels along The Way of Saint James. Many of them are only open in the summer (from May to October). The class varies a lot from one hostel to the next. The hostel in Roncesvalles is borderline luxurious, but most are quite simple. There's usually a kitchen and a washing-machine, but it's nothing you can take for granted. In November, when I walked, the big question was if there was heating or not — without heating is wasn't necessarily cold but humid and raw.
The opening hours also differ. Normally, you get up before seven and you have to leave before eight. In the evening, most hostels close at ten, but some close at nine and some never close at all. The cost for one bed ranges from 5€ to 9€ in the hostels run by the municipality or church. The private ones were usually 10€ or more.
There is no clearcut way to divide The Way of Saint James into sections. I think you should see all the possible stops as a flow, and plan your own route from that. It's usually not more than 6–7 km to the next hostel — often less and sometimes more.
Many pilgrims on The Way of Saint James look for answers to big questions about life and search for companionship with other pilgrims. I have no statistics to confirm this, but it seems pretty common that couples meet and stay together on the camino. Personally, I felt emotionally pretty stable and harmonic before the walk and my main reasons for walking was to get a break from work and the hum-drum everyday. I spent very little time and energy for ordinary tourism. I wanted to see and walk the camino — and nothing else.
There are many ways to walk to Santiago de Compostela, with The Way of Saint James as the most popular by far. A few other are:
The whole path is very well-marked. In general, you follow yellow arrows in all possible shapes and designs, but there are markings of every possible type. Metal plates with the scallop symbol embedded in the street paving are often used through the bigger cities. I walk the wrong way only a couple of times, and only because I was thinking on other things and missed obvious signs. At the end of the camino there are stones with the distance to Santiago de Compostela every 500 meters. The one with the 100 km sign is appreciated by most pilgrims . . .
My stops on the camino were: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Estella, Logroño, Nájera, Tosantos, Agés, Burgos, Hontanas, Frómista, Calzadilla de la Cueza, Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, León, Astorga, Molinaseca, Trabadelo, Triacastela, Portomarín, Ribadiso, Santiago de Compostela, Negreira, Olveiroa and Finisterre. Twenty days from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela is less time than most people use, but it suited me fine. I wanted to walk "as far as I can" every day, but without turning the whole walk into an endurance test. With good walking conditions my favorite distance is about 40 km per day. What surprised me was that I never really wanted to take a day off — I always felt fresh and recovered enough in the mornings.
The first thing I realizes in the hostel in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the feeling of being home — now that I've gone away for a small adventure again. The conversations with the other pilgrims feel familiar and the whole atmosphere is relaxing. Everything went smoothly at the pilgrim's office and I got my credencial and some basic information about the route. A few pilgrims at the hostel are a bit worried about what lies ahead. A man from the US takes short walks on the cobbled street in front of the hostel in order to test different combinations of his equipment. The pilgrims who started in Le Puy gives some good advice to the beginners.
The autumn has started even in the south of France, but at least isn't much warmer than the raw and bitter Sweden I left. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a charming and typical French village. However, I have no intentions to look at the sights, and spend my time to buy some food for the next day.
The first day had a light drizzle throughout. I had strong flashbacks from my walk on the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (in Swedish) in 2008. The environment is, of course, the same as after about a week on the HRP, but many other things make me remember: "barre céréales", baguettes with cheese and cured ham, the other walkers, etc. The first day is usually considered to be the hardest on all The Way of Saint James as you have to cross the Pyrenees. Compared to a walk in the Swedish fjelds it is relatively easy and I keep a decent tempo and arrive in Roncesvalles at about half past one in the afternoon.
The hostel in Roncesvalles has been recently renovated with a style that made me think of interior design magazines. I liked it and wanted to stay for a week, but the hostels rules state that you are only allowed to stay for one night. If you want to take a day off you have to, either, charm the hospitalero, go somewhere else, check in to a hotel, or walk to the next hostel a few kilometer away.
I choose to walk straight to Pamplona from Roncesvalles. Large parts of the route to Zubiri use very nice small roads, but apart from that the nature is pretty uniform. I wrote "the days already look the same, and keeping the diary seem meaningless" in my diary after arriving in Pamplona. The good thing with the simple and easy walk is that you can think about things without fear for falling over or getting lost. Not that I thought of anything great — but you can.
One thing that changed my note keeping in my diary and probably even this travelogue was the accessibility to Internet which gave me the possibility to send emails and update my Facebook page once in a while. To write the same things in the diary seemed redundant.
On my way to Logroño I met the Norwegian Øyvind who walked the camino for the fourth time. He was the first of a few pilgrims I met who found peace doing the pilgrimage. Some walk different routes while other are content to walk the same thing every year. I can only assume that you discover new things every time, and, more importantly, you meet new people.
The countryside along more or less all the camino is noticeably poor. Houses for sale are abundant, industries are dismantled, construction projects are not finished, and so on and so forth. The city centers all seem to proper, but much of the non-urban society need an injection of something, like young people and money.
In Grañon I met the Estonian pilgrim Maarika, whom I walked with for about a week. Usually, I found it hard to walk with others due to my long legs and high speed, but with Maarika I only needed to walk a little slower — which is actually the best tempo possible. Because of a couple of closed hostels in Belorado (where I had planned to sleep) I continued with Maarika to the small village of Tosantos. In the evening the hospitalero held a small service, but I needed to rinse my clothes and gave priority to that.
The day to Agés was wet due to a hard rain. By a happy coincidence the hostel had a boiler room where the kind hospitalero hanged all our wet clothes. In the morning, everything was nice and crisp again.
We choose an alternative route to Burgos in order to avoid walking several kilometers through an industrial area, or, even worse, talking the bus as some pilgrims do. Our choice, which took us along a small river, was a good one. Burgos was a nice town with an impressive cathedral. In the evening we had dinner with a few other pilgrims in the old town.
After Burgos came the almost infinite "meseta" with a wash-out and desolate farming landscape. But I liked it, and found no difficulties to motivate myself to walk on. The panoramas below are meant to show the "flatness" of the land. Hontanas was the first little village which was, literary, placed in a hole in the ground. It was next to impossible to see it until you stood on the brink of the whole. I guess it's a way to avoid the cold winds.
Frómista was a nice place with a decent hostel. The weather was wonderful all day and we walked in a group of four or five persons. We talked about why we walk and what equipment we like. The most interesting was to listen to the four-time camino walker Ulli from Germany.
The meseta continued and we arrived in the small forgotten village of Calzadilla de la Cueza. A volunteer hospitalero from Germany had a bad day and treated us with more irritation than we deserved. When she looked in Maarika's credencial she said "Estonia, in which country is that?" which didn't make us feel more welcome. But the other pilgrims were friendly, and we had a nice evening in the only restaurant and bar in town.
Our walk to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was very pleasant. We passed the "official" halfway-point in Sahagun (with the sign in the photo to the right) — a result that did not agree completely with my GPS. But it was a good feeling nonetheless. The, by far, main attraction in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos is the small grocery shop. Time seems to be locked in the nineteen fifties, and it's almost like stepping right into a movie to walk in there. The two small gentlemen running the store looked at me with big eyes when I bumped my head in the roof-beams — I must seem like a giant with my two meters in height.
A light rain and a thick fog followed us all day to León. This was the last day with the meseta, and the change was welcome.
From León I walked on my own again, and felt like walking "hard". I started with a slightly higher tempo than normal and kept the same tempo all day. The GPS said 55.4 km and a mean speed of 6.5 km/h when I arrived in Astorga. The hospitalero thought it was madness to walk that far, but I think I could reassure her that I was physically (and mentally) fine.
Even more interested was the hospitalero in Molinaseca when he saw how few stamps I had in my credencial. He almost urged me to walk the remaining 212 km in only four days. Well, five is more likely, I thought, but he insisted. Four days would have worked, but I choose to walk the alternative route from Villafrance del Bierzo to Trabadelo, which turned out to be quite hard. At the beginning of the alternative there's a sign warning pilgrims (see photo to the right).
But it was worth it! For the first time I felt I had "contact" with the nature — the same feeling I get after about ten minutes in the Swedish fjelds. The view of the patchwork of vineyards in autumn colors was fantastic. After the steep ascent the path continued flat along a mountain side for a few kilometers and I started to long for "the real" mountains in the Pyrenees. The walk up was okay, but walking down was hard. It was steep, but more importantly it was a chestnut forest with lots of chestnuts hidden under the damp leaves — not unlike a ball bearing. I managed not to fall, but it was a close call a few times.
After Trabadelo I really started to long for Santiago. The walk from Trabadelo to Triacastela was the kind that "goes up the mountain and down the mountain". As always, it was harder going down and I was a bit worn when I got there. With some luck I got my own room in the hostel — a rare treat.
In a very cozy restaurant in the small village of Ferreiros I met the Hungarian Fanni, and walked with her to Portomarín. We shared many opinions about life and talked about everything and nothing all the way to the hostel. The church in Portomarín was the man-made thing I saw that impressed me the most. It was closed during my stay there, but I guess it looks the best from the outside anyway.
The last part to Santiago de Compostela was just something that had to be done. I remember the fine hostel in Ribadiso and the good meal I had in the small local restaurant. But my focus was set on Santiago now.
The last day of walking was about 42 km and I crossed my fingers so that the light rain I had in the morning would cease or at least stay light. With a heavy rain I would probably had to stay another night somewhere and I wanted to avoid that. But I was lucky and the rain stayed away. I walked kilometer after kilometer, and as there are stones every 500 m telling the distance to Santiago I felt very motivated to keep walking. The stones in the photos below are from further back, but they all look the same.
And then I walked the streets of Santiago de Compostela. My Swedish "fjeld-friend" Sara and her friend Lina met me when I had a few hundred meters to walk. They guided me to the big square in front of the cathedral where I could turn my GPS off at 805 km. Sara and Lina had started a week before me, and helped me with information on where to stay and where to eat. Much appreciated!
On my day off I attended the pilgrim's mass in the cathedral. With a dozen catholic priests forgiving you for your sins even I felt "pure". But I might have misunderstood what they did and what they said.
Despite the face that I continued walking I feel that Santiago was the final stop. I had some small issues with motivation to start walking again, but they disappeared quickly. Only a few hundred meters from Santiago I walk on a small path in a dense forest. It was at once obvious that this path has much fewer walkers. In Negreira I stayed in the private hostel Lua in the center. The lack of heating made everything damp and raw in the sleeping room — maybe the only good thing with walking in the summer.
On my walk to Olveiroa I felt I had "contact" with the nature for the second time. A thick fog was eaten away by the sun in a very green eucalyptus forest of tropical dimensions. I took my backpack off and just sat on a stone, ate my cockies, and enjoyed being there.
Usually I find the last day of any trek to be boring and hard, but I felt nothing like that this time. On the contrary, I felt better and better the closer to Finisterre I got. The easy walking and the Atlantic Ocean are likely explanations. In Finisterre I checked in to a private hostel, emptied my backpack and continued to the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula. And there I got the last stamp and the walk was definitely over. 899 km all-in-all.
I made it back to Finisterre just in time to take a walk to the beach on the western side of the peninsula and saw the sun set in the Atlantic. A calm and worthy way to finish the whole project.
The photos below represent my attempts to capture the landscape with only sky and ground — two fields. Please click on the upped right photo and then click the coordinates to get an overview of the landscape. A remarkable sight!
As I didn't want to go straight home I went to Barcelona, where I could stay with my friend Rodri (known to my readers from my walk on the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (in Swedish)). The late breakfast I had on November 23:rd will be a good memory on cold Swedish winter days.
What I lacked was information you could trust. Is the hostel open or not? That was the major question when I walked in November. It should be in everyone's interest to keep this kind of information centralized and up to date. But maybe this is a "Swedish" way of thinking?
And maps telling the tired pilgrims where you can find hostels and food would be great. The best sign I saw was (peculiarly?) in Negreira and not on the real Way of Saint James.
I'm very pleased with my walk on The Way of Saint James. I found the walking rewarding despite the fact that almost all of it is in civilization. It was less walking on roads with traffic than I had feared. But it's not something you do for the nature. This, however, is compensated by all the interesting and fascinating people you meet. I usually say that the biggest reward for walking in mountains is the people you meet — this is even more true on the camino.
October and/or November is a great time for walking. I had one day with hard rain in 24 days, which is good. More importantly you don't need to stress and hurry to the next hostel to make sure you get a bed. But it's far from empty — I thought it was just the right amount of people.
The photos below are a more or less chronological display of The Way of Saint James. As you can see there are very little paths, but also not that many roads. Early on when I walked it occured to me that the path is best suited for running — but I quenched that feeling and kept walking . . .
Copyright © 2011–2013 Peter Andrén