Monthly Archives: November 2010

Interview with a Pilgrim on Saint Olav’s Way: Mark Nienstaedt

[On the Olavsleden]

Along the Olavsleden
Photo courtesy Mark Nienstaedt

The Olavsleden, or Saint Olav’s Way, like the Camino de Santiago, is a blanket term for a number of routes that lead to a single destination.

In the case of the Olavsleden, that destination is Saint Olav’s shrine at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.

This year, two of the Olavsleden routes have been officially certified by the European Institute of Cultural Routes. Mark Nienstaedt, an American skier, hiker and cyclist, walked one them last July, an approximately 640-kilometre (398-mile) route from Oslo to Trondheim. Mark added a small section of another route for a total of 669 kilometres (416 miles).

You have two options for continuing with my interview with Mark about his journey on the Olavsleden. You can listen to the slightly edited version in my first Pilgrim Roads podcast (an MP3 file that runs 46:16), or read my briefer article based on the interview below.

The article has substantial quotes from Mark, but doesn’t cover as much ground as the audio version does.

* * *

When Mark Nienstaedt set out on the Olavsleden, he already had an impressive hiking résumé, which included the Camino Francés and Via de la Plata routes of the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, and other wilderness thru-hikes. He has also cycled about 130,000 kilometres (80,000 miles) in different parts of the world.

A More Isolated Route Than the Camino Francés

While the Olavsleden isn’t exactly a wilderness trail, it’s more of a wilderness route than is the Camino Francés. But Mark said anyone who has walked the Camino Francés should be able to handle the Olavsleden:

Anybody that’s walked the Camino Francés from start to finish is certainly equipped to do it. Which is not to say that they aren’t going to have to learn a few more things and adjust to life on the Olavsleden….

If you set out to walk 800 kilometres like you do on the Camino Francés, or 650 kilometres across Norway, and you’re going to stick it out, you’re a plenty hardy person by definition and you’ve probably got the resources it takes to do that kind of job. But I would say that the Olavsleden at times is significantly more of a mountaineering exercise—and I’m not talking technical mountaineering, but it’s more of a mountaineering type exercise than the Camino Francés is.

You do not—and this part I would be emphatic about—you do not walk through towns every day. And in fact while you walk in sight of towns most days, that’s the operative phrase: “in sight of.” If you really want to go to them, you have to walk off to them, and they may be a detour of two to three kilometres, usually down slope from you. And if you go into town, well, you’ve got to climb back up to get to where you had started.

But it’s a different experience [from the Camino Francés], and it’s better to say that it’s different than to say that it’s harder.

Physically Strenuous, But Usually Not in Long Stretches

Physically, Mark said, the Olavsleden can be more strenuous than the Camino Francés.

I am going to say that it can be quite physically strenuous. Usually not for long stretches. I’m not going to tell you that there were whole days, or days on end where I was exhausted or anything like that. I am in good physical condition. I’m 56 years old, don’t forget….

But what I’m going to say is that you’re in mountain country, and some of the times that means that you’re walking very steep slopes. I’m not talking treacherous like I’m going to fall and crash and break my skull slopes. But I’m talking effort. And you’re going to need to deal with that. …

There are ways around all that stuff. All you got to do to avoid some of that is to drop down in the lower valley where the main road thoroughfares and places are. And you can give yourself an easier spell along some alternative route, and then you can go back to a place that is more your style.

The Weather

When Mark started out at the beginning of July 2009, the Oslo area was going through an unprecedented heat wave. Later, on the Dovrefjell, which is above the tree line, he worried about hypothermia.

It rained 24 out of the 28 days he walked, but, he said, the rain wasn’t usually much of a problem.

It’s probably also true to note that only two of those days were heavy rain days. And the rest of the time it was kind of like, maybe I could call it Irish rain. The little kind of shower that is borderline between misty and sprinkling.

A lot of the time I wasn’t even putting on rain gear. I was probably using a rain cover on my pack all the time, but I was staying plenty warm enough just by keeping moving, and I was enduring some kind of half-hour shower or something. It just was a question of getting used to the idea that it was going to happen every day.

And once it became baseline normal, you realized that, hey, forget about it. Just start enjoying the place. It’s beautiful. And indeed it is.

After learning about ultralite gearing on the Appalachian Trail, Mark didn’t even carry heavy rain gear.

I had a little tiny raincoat with me in Norway, but it was hardly a shell, and it weighed an order of maybe 1.5 ounces I think, or two ounces…. If it was going to rain heavily I was going to get wet. On the other hand, during this misty kind of sprinkle rain I was dealing with a good part of the time, it was more than adequate.

Often Alone But Not Lonely

[Mark Nienstaedt]

Mark Nienstaedt.
Photo courtesy Mark Nienstaedt.

Mark didn’t meet a lot of other walkers who were walking the entire trail, but out of the several people he knew from guestbook entries were ahead of him, two were Camino de Santiago veterans.

“Which is to tell you,” he said, “that if you’ve done the Camino and you’re interested in this pilgrim way, you should definitely think about doing this one too.”

One of the Camino pilgrims was a man Mark had walked with on the Camino. Unfortunately, the other pilgrim was a week ahead, and Mark never caught up with him.

But despite the low numbers of other pilgrims, Mark didn’t find the trip lonely.

Yes, during any given day you’re going to spend a lot of time on your own, but by the end of your day, on a typical day, you’re going to set yourself up somewhere … and stay in civilization for the evening. And suddenly you’re going to be in the company of people who are very welcoming, they’re very interested in your experience, they’re very interested in helping you, and they do help you. To me, that means I’m not lonely.

Mark doesn’t speak Norwegian, but he found a lot of Norwegians—particularly the younger ones, spoke English. This was especially true of people involved in services pilgrims might need.

When it comes to places where you need to transact business that’s going to be important to you—you need to buy your groceries, you need to arrange some lodging for the night, you’re worried about a transportation problem. When it comes to people that work in those areas, you can almost take it for granted that they’re going to be able to speak English to you.

Way Marking

The Olavsleden is also not as thoroughly way marked as the Camino Francés. For Mark, this meant that he usually lost the way marks for a while every day. But he found it easy to stay oriented, and came to enjoy the challenge of finding his way again.

[The Olavsleden] is really, actually—I want to emphasize—very well marked. It’s just not as continuously and frequently way marked as the Camino Francés, for example, is.

When I said I was getting lost, I’m saying I lost my way marks. And that, of course, always resulted in a certain indecision, in terms of, okay, what do I do next? But … you were never lost in terms of where to go, because it would be a question of interpreting the landscape.

Typically you’re walking up a valley, for example, and if you lose your way marks, you still know how to follow the contour lines of the valley. You know where you’re going to go. You certainly can equip yourself with decent maps. You can look at a map, and you can decide where the cross-roads in your line of walk are going to be, and you can walk until you cut one of them.

And then it’s a question of discovering where you are on the road, and whether you have to turn left or turn right to reach a road crossing that’s going to have a marking, and on you go.

And, notwithstanding that I was lost, I never really lost that much time finding myself…. I typically always just persisted moving ahead. I knew which way to go; I could be confident which way to go. And it just meant that I was going to spend a lot more time, or be a lot more alert, for recovering way marking. And it always worked.

And honestly I’m going to say that once I got used to the fact that this was going to be more routine, I began to regard it as a lot of fun. … It was like, “Oh my God, I’m lost again. I wonder where I’m going to have to go to figure it out this time.” …

I was never worried about finding my way.

It would be different for someone without his wilderness experience, Mark said, but not impossible. He once heard from a man who didn’t have his extensive wilderness experience, and ended up writing a book about walking the Olavsleden:

It’s very, very clear that he really enjoyed his experience, and the challenges it posed for him. The overcoming of those challenges was clearly very satisfying for him.

And I think that kind of experience is out there for anybody. If you think you’re up to this, and you’re willing to put some effort into it, and stick to it and be determined and have a little courage and faith in yourself, you’re going to do just fine.

The Dovrefjell: Walking Above the Treeline

[On the Dovrefjell]

On the Dovrefjell.
Photo courtesy Mark Nienstaedt

For much of the route, pilgrims walk within sight of roads and towns, but the route also passes through the Dovrefjell, a national park, for several days. The Dovrefjell is above the treeline. Walking in July, Mark passed snow banks and mountain lakes with ice floating in them. There were also no real roads.

“[The Dovrefjell is] every bit as wild and park-like as some of your beautiful parks there in Canada, and some of ours here in the United States,” Mark said. “You can get to civilization, but the country that you’re passing through as you go between civilized points is not civilized.”


Accommodation along the Olavsleden ranges from campsites to hotels. Norway’s right of access laws also specify that you can camp anywhere in the countryside or wilderness that isn’t cultivated, as long as it’s also at least 150 metres from the nearest house or cabin.

Mark started out with a lightweight tent and a plan to use it often. He used it three out of his first five nights.

That probably was the period of my walk that I regarded and experienced as being most lonely. Because then I was spending a lot of the time during the day by myself, and where was I at the end of the day? I was in the woods and I was still all by myself.

The unusual heat wave that gripped the country while Mark was walking, and the occasional rain also made camping a less attractive option.

“To be a pilgrim, you really have to be capable of adjusting,” Mark said. After five or six days, he decided to sleep indoors for the rest of the trip.

He stayed in youth hostels in cities, and in some special pilgrim refuges, but he stayed in what he described as “rustic” farm accommodation.

Typically … on a farm, [the farmer says], “We have one of our old historical buildings here next to our principal residence, and maybe 50 yards from the barn. It’s a nice old house, and we’ve fixed it up a bit. There’s some nice bedrooms in it. There’s a rudimentary old kitchen that we haven’t used for a while in it. It’s still got its plumbing functional.”

And you’d get to stay there. And the farm wife would bring you out your dinner, and you, and possibly you could get breakfast the next morning.

Breakfast was usually a smorgasbord with breads, toast, hard-boiled eggs, fresh veggies, meat and herring. Mark found if he got breakfast, he could usually ask for niste. That meant for an extra US$2 or $3 he got a paper bag he could fill with food from the smorgasbord, and save it for lunch.

Accommodation costs weren’t as cheap as in Spain, but Mark found he could usually choose from a range of options. He usually ended up paying about 100 to 400 kroner, or approximately US$15 to $50. Often, for US$40 or $50 he got accommodation and enough food to last him for 24 hours.

But staying on farms wasn’t just about finding affordable accommodation, Mark said:

The other thing you’re getting when you’re staying in these places, you’re getting immediate contact with local people. And they are wonderful. And there wasn’t a dollar that I spent on the Olavsleden that I didn’t consider very well spent.

Once night Mark chose to spend about 800 kroner to stay at Sygard’s Grytting, the only pilgrim’s farmstead refuge still in existence that used to house medieval pilgrims.

I loved every minute of my time there. And the great news was, the very next night a guy offered me a place to stay for the night for free. So it kind of evened out after it was all over.

But Sygard’s Grytting is a place you have to go to, and if you don’t spend the money you’re being foolish. Penny wise, pound foolish. And the reason is that, hey, this was the oldest period-authentic pilgrim hostel on the entire Olavsleden. You could sleep in it, and they’d done the carbon dating work, and it was a bona fide, recognized national historic landmark.

It was dated to the 1360s, and places don’t get any older than that in the countryside of Norway. And I was sleeping there right in the bed that had been around for—what does that make it?—700 years.

And the people were wonderful. The dinner that I had that night with eight Norwegian big house guests, with wine and courses and conversation, the pan-fried fresh trout we had the next morning for breakfast, it was just awesome.

And overall, it being pilgrim travelling and simple walking, I didn’t spend that much money in Norway. If you go to Norway and you’re driving around in your car, it’s going to be a lot more expensive than walking.

The Saint Olav Festival


Photo courtesy Mark Nienstaedt

Mark walked into Trondheim on July 28, the day before Saint Olav’s Day.

“That is the way you need to do this,” he said. “You need to time your arrival in Trondheim to be there on … the eve of St. Olav’s feast day.”

He arrived around four o’clock and went to the cathedral. Immediately upon arriving at the pilgrim’s hostel next to the cathedral, he was told to shower and get on a bus to take him out to the edge of town by eight o’clock:

And I’m going, “Okay, what for?” And they say, “Well, the custom on the eve of St. Olav’s here in Trondheim is that people gather at all the churches on the periphery of the city, and then they walk [the five kilometres or so] in groups into the cathedral. …

But the way they organize these little evening of the feast day walks, is that you stop at two or three churches on your way in to the cathedral, and by about ten p.m. a stream of people , local people, pilgrims arriving, anybody that’s interested. …

A number of streams … converge on the cathedral, and by midnight you’re all sitting inside the cathedral, and it’s several thousands of people. And they have a midnight Mass for you. And then they have a vigil scheduled all night long. Every hour on the hour there’s a little mini conference involving singing, dancing, prayer reading—you name it, but continually until dawn. And dawn is the beginning of six or seven days of festival.

Mark compared the festival to the Spanish festivals he encountered along the Camino. There are concerts, lectures, craft demonstrations, outdoor bazaars, and events in churches through the day. Pilgrims can stay cheaply in the pilgrim hostel for the entire week, and it’s well worth doing that, Mark said.

“Trondheim for the week of the Olav’s Days is marvelous.”

Spirituality and Walking With a Group

[A church along the way]

A church along the way.
Photo courtesy Mark Nienstaedt

I asked Mark what it was like walking as a pilgrim in Norway, which is a relatively secular country, compared with Catholic Spain. He warned me his answer wouldn’t be what I expected, and it wasn’t.

“There was a really unique and wonderful way in which pilgrimage on the Olavsleden is far more spiritual than it was in Spain,” he said.

He experienced this side of the Olavsleden this year, when he returned to Norway to spend ten days walking 175 kilometres of another Way of Saint Olav route, the Nordleden, as part of an organized group. Walking this way is a little more expensive than going alone, “but completely worth your money,” Mark said.

Some groups have a pilgrim priest (male or female), and all have a minister who walks the entire distance with the group. Additionally, in a tradition dating back to medieval times, each day the group gets a different kjentmann (pronounced shent-man), a local person with a lot of local knowledge who escorts the group for that day.

The kjentmann, on every occasion, is a local person who loves the outdoors and knows the country that you have to pass through on that given day, and who’s going to guide you the whole way. And if you walk in one of these groups, you’ll never get lost.

If you go with one of these groups, what they’ll do for you is they’ll create for you this uniquely pilgrim experience, which is going to include, for example, prayer, morning, noon and night, sort of like praying hours, as was done in medieval times. You’re going to be received—they use this terminology—you’re going to be received at every single church along the way.

Being received at the church is going to involve the minister coming in to open the church up for you. But far more than that, it’s going to involve something like a dozen or 15 people gathering at the church with hot coffee and little cakes and some fresh fruit. And they’re all going to just sit around and pass the time of day with you, and chat with you. The priest is probably going to have a bit of a blessing or a sermon for you.

And when you leave that place, some of the local people are going to spend the next first few kilometres after it walking with you until they have to turn around and go back to their cars.

And you’re constantly, if you’re in one of these groups … you’re in the flow of the local people coming out to the pilgrim way, and sharing your experience, and enriching your experience with you. And all I’m going to tell you is, it’s religious, it’s spiritual, and it’s absolutely marvellous. There’s nothing like it along the Camino or the Via de la Plata in Spain.

Other Roads to Trondheim

Mark doesn’t plan to go back and re-walk the Olavsleden from Oslo.

I’m not the kind of person that goes back and re-walks routes that I’ve already walked. I won’t do that, I’ve never done it yet. I believe life should always be new and fresh and interesting, and so I’ll do something different.

But he does plan to return to Norway for some pilgrim walking. Next on his list is the Romboleden—the second of the Saint Olav’s routes that were recognized by the European Institute for Cultural Routes earlier this year.

The Romboleden runs from the German/Denmark border, through Denmark and Sweden to Norway. There’s no guidebook in English yet, but Mark figures it’s about 1500 kilometres (932 miles), give or take a few hundred kilometres.

“It’s on my—what is that famous movie called?—it’s on my bucket list.”

A Great Challenge

In the end, Mark highly recommends the Olavsleden to anyone who’s walked the Camino Francés and is interested in going on pilgrimage in Norway.

It is a physical challenge, and at the same time that I’m going to say that it is by no means an insurmountable challenge. It’s the kind of challenge that once you master it, you feel really good about the fact that you took it on and you conquered it, and I would encourage people to give it a shot.

* * *

You can read more about Mark’s journey and see more of his beautiful photos on his Olavsleden blog, which he created after his journey from letters and postcards he sent home as he walked. Mark also has a brand new blog on the Via de la Plata.

For further information on the Olavsleden, visit the English part of the website.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:08 pm
, ,
Comments Off on Interview with a Pilgrim on Saint Olav’s Way: Mark Nienstaedt

So Many Roads …

[Pilgrim Sign]

Caution, Pilgrims!

For most of the time I was walking the Camino de Santiago, I thought it was a one-off journey. I loved it, but I didn’t think I’d ever actually do it again. That’s part of the reason I walked all the way from Le Puy to Santiago: I didn’t want my once-in-a-lifetime trip to end too soon.

But as soon as I walked into Santiago, I wanted to do it again—maybe on a different route this time. I’ve been researching various Camino routes intermittently since I got back to Canada two years ago. The Arles route and the one from Vezelay in France. The Camino del Norte (including some of its branch routes), the Via de la Plata, the Camino Mozárabe, the Camino Portugués, the Camino de Levante, and even more in Spain.

And then recently I’ve been talking with people who have walked other pilgrimage routes: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer, who walked the Via Francigena to Rome, and Mark Nienstaedt, who walked the Olavsleden (Saint Olav’s Way) from Oslo to Trondheim in Norway. Those two routes sounded so amazing that I had to add them to my list, too.

There’s also the 88 Temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan, which I first heard of on the Camino, and a longer Route to Trondheim from the German border that Mark told me about. And as I keep going with this blog, I’m sure to learn of more places to walk.

It’s exciting to have such a long list, but it really makes me want to get going. And I need to save up some money first.

I guess patience is the lesson I’ll have to focus on while I’m stuck at home.

What about you? What route(s) do you want to walk next? Share your answers in the comments.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:57 am
, , ,

Interview with Pilgrims to Rome: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

[Noceto, Italy]

Noceto, Italy, from the Via Francigena
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

In 2008, Canadian couple Julie Burk and Neville Tencer walked 1,000 kilometres of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route that took them through Switzerland and Italy to Rome.

They recently published An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage about their adventure. (You can follow the links at the bottom to learn more about the book and its authors.) I’m looking forward to reading the copy I’ve ordered—judging from the reviews, it does an excellent job of showing both the highs and lows of travelling a route that’s much less developed than the main routes of the Camino de Santiago.

Neville and Julie recently took some time out of planning two upcoming presentations about their journey (in Victoria, BC, Canada) to tell me a bit about the Via Francigena, how it compares to the Camino Francés, and their experiences on it.

[The Route Napoleon]

The Route Napoleon
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

Anna-Marie: Where in Switzerland did you begin your walk to Rome?

Julie and Neville: We started in Martigny, about a 3-day walk straight up to Gran San Bernardo [Great Saint Bernard Pass]. You can easily start in a number of places, including Lausanne where the Via Francigena and Camino de Santiago intersect. Or in Aosta, Italy if you rather not climb over the Alps.

You learned about the Via Francigena while you were walking the Camino Francés route of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Were you at all worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena is compared to many Camino de Santiago routes?

We were in Spain when we first learned about the Via Francigena but at the time, we really did not know much about the Via Francigena or even how to pronounce it correctly. Once back home in Canada, we discovered there was very little English documentation on the route, but we were able to locate a number of Italian websites, including one site that provided a daily stage plan of the route. Further research suggested that there were plenty of opinions about the actual route and even questions about the quality of signage and availability of accommodations. Nevertheless, we never seriously worried about how undeveloped the Via Francigena but we did try to plan around it, wherever possible, given what we knew. We decided to give it try and we would figure things out along the way.

Anna-Marie’s Note: There is now a set of three Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome available in English.

[Neville Tencer and Julie Burk]

Neville Tencer and Julie Burk, authors of An Italian Odyssey
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

On the Camino Francés, a big part of the experience tends to be spending time with other pilgrims. Was it lonely on the Via Francigena in comparison, or were you able to meet a lot of locals?

It was never lonely. In fact, most days we went out of our way to meet and talk to locals. It was our plan to make this walk through Italy a culinary and cultural walk, thus talking and meeting locals was part of that plan. Some days we needed to talk to locals just to get directions.

Nevertheless, you are correct, there are very few pilgrims hiking the Via Francigena. However, when we did meet one or two other pilgrims, those moments were extremely special.

Are you fluent in Italian?

Julie did learn some basic Italian just as she [learned Spanish] for the Camino in Spain. Actually given that most Canadians know some French, learning Spanish and then Italian is easy for most people. However, not for me (Neville), since I was born in Australia and missed out learning French in grade school and hence my foreign language skills are basic, but I try.

Regardless where we travel, we always try to learn some basic words and phrases (myself included), so we can enrich our experiences. So we not afraid to say hello to people along the way—you will be surprised the things you discover from doing this.

How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés?

The landscape is varied and different that the Camino Francés. For one, we started in Switzerland and we needed to climb over the Swiss/Italian Alps to a height of approx. 2600 metres and then later climb over another smaller range of mountains at approx 1000 metres in order to enter Tuscany; between were the flat plains of the Po River Valley. Further south were the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Thus the terrain might be described as more challenging, but not impossible to walk. In six hours of walking, you may not get as far as you would walking the Camino in Spain. It generally took longer to get somewhere each day.

[Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo]

Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

I’ve read that the waymarking can be difficult to follow on parts of the Via Francigena route. What was your experience with that?

Signage varies from excellent, to good, to poor, to non-existent. And that can happen in all of one day. Some sections like the Valle d’Aosta generally have good signs, since other local hiking associations use this section of the route. The same applies for most of southern Tuscany. The Po River Valley was probably the most challenging for signage.

What kind of accommodations did you find along the Via Francigena? Did you usually have to book ahead?

At the time we walked the Via Francigena, we had to make our accommodation guide. We originally planned to stay in B&B, small pensions and hotels, etc. However, we also had a list of convents, hostels and monasteries and surprisingly decided to stay in these more often, since they offered affordable and very good accommodation.

Most days we just called ahead the day before and we strongly recommend doing this.

[Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy]

Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

You stopped in some historic towns and cities along the way. Which was your favourite?

As you walk the Via Francigena, you pass through some great historical cities and many smaller towns and villages, many that originate from days of the Romans. This was the other big reason for doing the walk. Our favorites include Aosta, Vercelli, Pavia, Orio Litta, Sarzana, Lucca, Siena, and Proceno, but all are special.

Food was an important part of your pilgrimage. What was your favourite culinary experience?

All that great Italian food (and wine) was the other big reason for doing this walk. The Via Francigena passes through six special and unique regions of food before reaching Rome, which itself has some special food only found there. The most special food regions include the Valle d’Aosta, the area around Vercelli known as the Vercellese and Lunigiana, which is in the most northern part of Tuscany.

What was your best experience on the journey?

Meeting Maria, but people we need to read our book to understand why.

And your worst experience?

We wanted to take an alternate route to avoid a busy section near Marina di Massa, but instead we got lost and ended walking through a busy industrial section of the city in a pouring raining during evening rush hour.

[An Italian Odyssey]

Julie Burk and Neville Tencer's book about walking the Via Francigena.
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

Is there anything else potential pilgrims to Rome should know about the Via Francigena? Would you recommend the journey?

I recommend that potential pilgrims join the Yahoo Group for the Via Francigena. There they can ask experienced Via Francigena pilgrims about their personal experiences and get the most updated information about the route.

I recommend they also check out our website, Verdera Media, for more information about the route. The site includes the most relevant links to other associations and sites including the Yahoo Group, plus photos from our walk

Finally, I recommend that they purchase our book, An Italian Odyssey; One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. Along with describing the special and unique historical, culinary and cultural attributes of the Via Francigena, our book gives an honest account of one couple’s walk along the Via Francigena, where we share both our tough times and special and magical moments.

You can read an excerpt from An Italian Odyssey on the Go Nomad site, and read some reviews on the Verdera Media site.

Julie and Neville have some wonderful photos they took along the Via Francigena on the An Italian Odyssey Facebook page.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:28 am
, , , , ,
1 Comment

Chemin to Camino Culture Shock

[Saint-Jean Sign]

A sign that told me I was a few hours from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

I went out for a walk today and just wanted to keep walking. I suppose I could have done it, too, but eventually I would have had to turn around. Walking around home is fine—I try to do it every day—but it’s not exactly the same as being on the Camino.

So I was feeling a little melancholy as I headed home, and I guess that’s why I started thinking about the transition between walking the Chemin du Puy in France and the Camino Francés in Spain. Mentally, it ended up being one of the most difficult parts of my journey.

Before I started walking, I basically saw the Chemin du Puy as an extension of the Camino Francés, which I’d read so much about I thought of as the real Camino. I walked from Le Puy because the 780 or so kilometres from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port didn’t seem like far enough.

Of course, all that had changed by the time I actually reached Spain. After almost six weeks in France, I appreciated the Chemin in its own right.

My last few days in France were particularly wonderful. I met some great people, and began, more or less, to leap small hills in a single bound. But I was still excited to reach Saint-Jean. I didn’t see it as the real start of my Camino any more, but I knew it would mark the beginning of something new.

What I’d forgotten was how difficult transitions can be. On the Chemin du Puy by the end of September, the fairly large number of walkers had slowed to a trickle. But crossing the Pyrenees, I was suddenly surrounded by pilgrim hordes, so many that it was hard to talk to any one person.

And there were so many other contrasts between the Chemin in France and the Camino in Spain. In retrospect, I can’t say I preferred one of the other, but rather enjoyed them both—sometimes in different ways. But for a few days after starting the Camino Francés, I really missed France.

I missed the cleanliness and the beautiful gîtes d’étapes that didn’t make me sleep right next to strangers. I missed the open churches where I used to stop and think. I missed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65 and rather resented the yellow arrows that had replaced them.

And it seemed like I had just grown used to speaking French when I had to make the transition to Spanish. My second night in Spain, I wrote:

My speaking is a mess. I try to speak Spanish, I know I know the words, but French comes out. I hadn’t realized how … not fluent, but at least how used to French I’d become…. I speak in this weird mélange that more or less works for now, but I have to train myself to automatically say “gracias” and “si” instead of “merci” and “oui.”

At the time, I’d also lost track of all my Chemin friends (I did catch up to some of them just after Pamplona), and I missed them. On most of the Chemin du Puy, I’d shared a common background with the other walkers, even if we’d never met. Now, I had no one to talk to about past experiences. I couldn’t say, “The Pyrenees weren’t as bad as the road out of Conques,” to the new pilgrims without sounding arrogant and irritating.

It was also strange to be at a different stage of my Camino than most of the people around me. I was at the halfway point, and beginning to really think about the experience and what it had meant so far. Everyone else was just starting out. It was such a relief to have someone to talk to about all this when a Frenchwoman I’d met once on Chemin du Puy walked into the refuge at Zubiri.

Of course, I soon got used to the Camino in Spain, and learned to love it—and its yellow arrows—too. I made more friends, most of whom had started in Saint-Jean, and we soon had a Camino history in common, too.

The biggest culture shock of all came when the Camino ended. The transition from France to Spain was from one part of the Camino to another, but going home meant returning to another world.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:51 pm
, , , , ,

I Walked into Santiago Two Years Ago Today

[Anna-Marie and Sonya entering Santiago]

Me and Sonya, a Canadian pilgrim I walked with for a few weeks, entering Santiago.

I’d thought it might feel like any other Camino day, but it didn’t.

For the first time in all my weeks on the Camino, I woke up on my own before my alarm beeped. Usually, I went through the hour of each day in a fog. This day I was wide awake and ready to leap from my bunk bed the moment I woke up.

On the Chemin du Puy in France, I’d walked alone a lot, and passed some of the time memorizing bits of poetry and quotations that moved me. Now a line from C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka” described how I felt perfectly: “a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.”

It was the way I used to feel as a little girl on Christmas morning—and not because of the presents, or at least not entirely. The tingling excitement came from knowing this was a special day, removed from ordinary time.

It was something I hadn’t felt in years before that day, two years ago, when I walked into Santiago.

Chemin du Puy sign

One of the intermittent and sometimes contradictory signs along the Chemin du Puy, giving the distance to Santiago.

I’ve read that for a walking pilgrim, the pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination. It’s true, too. But at for me, anyway, that doesn’t mean the destination wasn’t important.

I had been walking toward Santiago for more than 11 weeks. From my first day of walking, I’d been passing signs giving the distance to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and then Santiago de Compostela. On the Chemin du Puy, where so many people were walking for two-week stints, we constantly asked each other how far we were walking. “Je vais jus’que Saint-Jacques”—I’m going to Santiago—became one of my most fluent sentences in French.

Like the French walkers, in France I started referring to the Chemin de Saint-Jacques as the GR or the GR-65, one of the Chemins de Grandes Randonées (long-distance paths) across France. And then one day, as I approached the Pyrenees, I stopped to talk to a young farmer.

I hadn’t seen a waymark in a while and was starting to get a little worried. “C’est la GR?” I asked the farmer, indicating the road I was on. Is this the GR?

“C’est le Chemin de Compostelle,” he said with a smile. It’s the Camino to [Santiago de] Compostela.

[Pilgrim Feet in the Praza do Obradoiro]

Pilgrim Feet in the Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

A rare excitement stirred me at his words. I was really a pilgrim. I was truly following in the footsteps of so many pilgrims before me to Santiago.

I guess that’s why I have this crazy desire to walk every pilgrimage route I’ve heard of, but not to walk other, non-pilgrim trails. I want a journey—preferably a long one—but I like having a goal, a destination that so many people before me have struggled to reach. A city that has been important for centuries, and not only because it happens to be the end of a trail.

As I was walking, I tried not to expect too much of Santiago. Like Ithaka in the poem, it’s the excuse for the journey:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

From my reading I had a picture in my mind of Santiago as not a particularly nice city, and as I walked into it with friends, passing the plain “Santiago” sign on an overpass with cars speeding by, I thought this impression was justified.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the bones of Saint James are supposed to lie.

Then we walked into the pretty medieval centre, and the cars and the speed of the modern city melted away. We passed through an archway where a bagpiper was playing, walked out into the Praza do Obradoiro, and collapsed in front of the cathedral.

I’d seen pictures of the Cathedral de Santiago before and thought it rather gaudy. But in that moment, in the city I had walked so far to reach, it was perfect.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:31 pm
, , ,
Comments Off on I Walked into Santiago Two Years Ago Today

Interview With a Winter Pilgrim: Johanna Qualmann

[Johanna Qualmann on the Camino]

Johanna Qualmann on the Camino.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Johanna Qualmann was seventeen and just out of high school when she and Ariel, one of her best friends, flew out of a summery New South Wales, Australia for a winter walk across Spain. The two walked out of Roncesvalles on November 27, 2009, and reached Santiago just before New Year’s.

Although they skipped two segments (one because of a blizzard), they walked almost every step of the approximately 760-kilometre route, at times through serious snow. Johanna documented her wintry walk on her blog, which gives an idea of what the Camino is like in winter, and also shows Johanna’s internal journey.

She started her walk lonely and in pain, with aching feet and blisters. On her seventh day, after detailing her injuries, she wrote, “It’s been a week now and nothing is getting easier, just harder every day.”

But the journey did get easier. By the next day, writing from Santo Domingo, she opened her blog post with: “I am in such I good mood I should be ashamed of myself.”

I recently interviewed Johanna, who is back home in Australia after her extended stay in Europe, through e-mail. She told me about her experience, and gave some advice for winter pilgrims and young people who are interested in doing the trail. I hope you enjoy reading about her experiences as much as I have.

Anna-Marie Krahn: You say on your blog you thought the writers you learned about the Camino from were crazy, but three months later you were hooked on the idea of going. What made you change your mind?

Johanna Qualmann: I still don’t know. For some reason the topic was so fascinating (and crazy) that I started researching, and the more I read, the more I wanted to go myself. It was one of those things that just felt right once I found out about it.

In your first few blog entries, you talk about being lonely, but it sounds like eventually you enjoyed the relatively small number of pilgrims on the route in winter. What was it like having so few others to share the experience with? Do you think it would have been different (worse) if you’d hadn’t had at least one constant companion?

At the beginning, everything was still really new, painful, and exhausting. The first two days I didn’t socialise much because I just didn’t have the energy or the language to. We only met a few other pilgrims, and all of them were grown men. For someone who never even had male friends at school, it was a bit daunting. (Funnily enough though, I never felt unsafe.)

It took a while for me to figure out how to talk to people in a social way in that situation, but after the first week we made some really close friends, like a big family of uncles almost!

Ariel and I met another girl from Australia, Rachel, who was our age, and we walked together for the first two weeks. She had to leave in León. After that we walked with an Australian man, Charlie, and his German friend Thomas, until Santiago. I really enjoyed walking together, and separately, talking while walking. The few people we met were enough for me.

I’d imagine in the winter you talked with locals more, since there were so few pilgrims. What was that like, considering you spoke very little Spanish?

We didn’t really talk to locals at all, seeing as our Spanish was non-existent. Sometimes we would be stopped by little old Spanish men who would talk to us really quickly and confusingly and somehow not seem to grasp that we didn’t speak the language. We managed a couple of words here and there, though. Mainly we stuck to ourselves and our little groups.


The mountain route between Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was your best experience on the Camino?

Probably my best experience was walking the hard route over the mountains from Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce. The temperatures were below zero, the mountains were covered in snow, the sun was shining like mad. It was the most beautiful day on the whole walk. After that, I’d have to say the first day, when everything was beautiful and foresty and new and exciting. (Actually, every day was like that!)

Your worst experience?

My worst experience physically was the seventh day of walking, which was simply the culmination of every ache and pain I had. You can read about it in my blog—I was just dying. However, the people around me were all really lovely and the hospitalero took amazing care of my feet after exclaiming in horror!

Emotionally, my worst moment was when we decided to skip a section between Astorga and Ponferrada because of heavy snow. Ariel was really sick that day, and when we found the albergue in Ponferrada it was only 11 a.m. or so. We went up to some person and I tried
to explain that Ariel needed a bed to sleep in now because she was really sick, and he just shooed us away. I think we just sat down outside the door and cried. But then the volunteer hospitalero came out (and spoke English, thank heavens!) and let us inside and everything. He was our camino angel that day. Funnily enough, Angel was his actual name as well. And he spoke nine languages because he was a professor of linguistics in Granada.

What was the best thing about walking in winter? The worst?

The winter walking overall was amazing. Some of the landscapes were pretty bleak, but some were spectacular, especially when it started to snow. The best part was the small number of pilgrims, no rush to get beds at all. The worst would have been that I did walk through some very deep snow all day, and it did get very cold and wet after a few hours!

[After Vega de Valcarce]

After Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was it like walking in the cold and snow?

While I was walking, I rarely got cold. For the first half of the camino the temperatures were in the plus range, probably with a maximum of 6 degrees [Celsius] or so. Often I’d start with my beanie, gloves and fleece buff on, and then take them off after an hour or so. My hands got very warm while walking, strangely. The rest of me only ever got hot when walking uphill, so it was very comfortable going! In León it started to get very cold, down to zero and below that. That was when it got cold when we stopped for food breaks, we had to keep moving.

When it started to snow I put my second fleece jumper on under my jacket. My jacket was quite waterproof to start with, but with a lot of snow it got soaked too, so I took to plastic ponchos and rain jackets over the top. As the snow got deeper it was quite hard going, slippery at times due to slush on roads and ice. My hardest walk was up to O’Cebreiro, where I trudged the 8km uphill from Vega in 30cm snow and a blizzard. I walked in Thomas and Charlie’s footsteps, step by step. Those 8km took us all 4 and a half hours!

Did you ever have trouble finding accommodations in the winter, or figuring out what was open? When I was walking in November, none of the information on open or closed refugios seemed to be totally accurate.

This is the only issue with walking in the winter season. A lot of albergues were closed, and we were forced to keep walking to the next one, like my first day when I wanted to stay in Zubiri but had to keep going to Larrasoana. Some albergues also had the issue that they were very cold, especially the dorms. One example would be the albergue Ave
Fenix in Villafranca—while it was very hippy-like and friendly, it was cold! The dorm didn’t have heating, and the showers, while gloriously hot, were basically open air. Which is an experience when it’s -5 degrees [Celsius] out…. The pilgrim forum helped a lot with open albergues though, a group of people walking before us had made a list of everything open and shut!

Would you recommend walking in the winter to others?

Definitely. It’s an amazing experience.

How much clothing did you bring, and was it enough to keep you warm?

OK, so here’s what I wore most of the time, varying a little due to actual temperatures:

  • Top: Long sleeved thermal shirt, long-sleeved wicking poly or wool/poly blend shirt, quite thick fleece jacket, rain/wind jacket.
  • Bottom: Thermal pants/long johns, hiking pants, liner socks, wool socks, boots, waterproof pants if necessary.
  • When it snowed, I sometimes also wore my second (large!) fleece jumper over my fleece jacket. I was toasty warm.

Is there any extra gear winter pilgrims should bring? Is there anything they might think necessary that they should really leave behind?

I would definitely recommend getting good gaiters for snow, which I didn’t have, and an ALTUS poncho, which Ariel bought in Leon for herself. It was amazing, kept all the rain off and the snow as well, though we did have to brush snow off it every now and then! I had two pairs of all my clothes items, and it was good to have the second jumper for the evenings, to change into. I would also really love to bring a little spiral immersion heater for tea and soup. Charlie had a little gas stove with him—while I wouldn’t take one myself, those hot cups of tea in the snow were amazing.

[Gaudi's palace]

Gaudi's palace in Astorga.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Is there any other advice you’d give winter pilgrims?

Don’t be scared to bring a little extra clothing, even if it seems excessive, snow makes things wet and dry things are wonderful at the end of a long day. A warm sleeping bag is a must, regardless of the weight!!!

As a 17-year-old woman, did you ever feel unsafe?

Never. I felt completely safe, all the time. It was just the energy around the camino, the pilgrim vibe. I knew nothing could happen to me. And it didn’t.

Was the Camino a good thing to do as part of a post-high school “gap year?” Would you recommend it to other young people?

I definitely would. It’s not easy, you do need guts to do it, but it’s a thousand times more rewarding than going to the coast and getting drunk for a week. Which is what most people from my area do!

Were your parents worried about you doing the Camino? What would you say to families who are worried about their children walking the Camino soon after high school?

I think my parents were worried, but they also knew that I was tough and sensible and that I would be fine. I think it must be hard for parents, but walking the camino is far more safe than any other travel or outing. Everyone watches out for you, and you’re never really alone.

Communication is pretty easy too, telephoning and emailing and blogging.

After you had to turn back to Astorga because of the snow, and take the bus to Ponferrada, you wrote that it was: “A test of the Camino and I had failed to overcome the obstacle for the first time,” and that you felt “like a cheat, a non-pilgrim.” But after that, you seemed to change your mind: “The snow is not a test of whether or not I can brave the cold and wet and slogging, but whether I can make the decision not to and still be a pilgrim. After all, this is my camino, and every decision I make will be the right one to make.” How do you feel about that experience now?

It was a tough day and decision to make. In the end, we chose to skip the mountains and the heavy snow there because a) Ariel was sick and b) we had no experience with snow and mountains. At the time, it did feel like failing, but after a while I realised that I had made the right decision, and that it didn’t make me any less of a pilgrim for bussing one section. After all, I think I definitely made up for it with some of the sections I did walk!

It all just came down to me—this was my journey and whatever way I decide to do it will be right. It was quite a cathartic moment while walking.

At the end of one of your posts (after the poem that’s written on that wall along the Camino), you say, “You know how people always say that it’s the intention that counts? It’s not. It’s just doing it.” What exactly did you mean by that?

What I realised at that point was that I was actually in Spain, I had walked over 600km, and I was walking the camino. And the feeling I got from doing that was comparable to nothing else. I thought of all the people out there who put things off, who think about issues but don’t act, who want to walk but don’t, who want to change, but never do.

That’s where that thought came from. I was doing it, not wanting to, not meaning to, not planning to and putting it off. I was just doing it. And that was the most important thing about the experience.

[Pilgrim statue]

Pilgrim statue at O'Cebreiro.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

You said in your blog, after finishing your Camino: “I can’t say I’ve gone through a massive, dramatic catharsis either. But yes, something has changed, and it’s getting more apparent the further I am away from my Camino. There is something. It’s not big, and it’s not dramatic, and I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is. But the experience itself was great enough to leave something a little bit different. Just a little bit.”

It’s interesting—that’s exactly how I felt, and still feel, about my own trip. Do you still feel the same way now, almost a year after you walked out of Roncesvalles?

For a while, immediately after the camino, I was both happy to be finished, and longing to keep walking. (My mind did the longing, my feet did the refusing!) While I was travelling after that, though, I distanced myself from the camino again, I stopped blogging, visiting the forum, reading other people’s experiences.

It’s only recently, since being home again, that I am starting to immerse myself in the post-camino experience again. And now I’m longing again, wishing that I was walking again, craving the mindset and the landscapes and the routine. The camino is so secure and routine. You wake up, walk, eat, walk, eat, talk, explore, nurse feet, sleep. It’s beautiful and simple. There’s a purpose and a meaning. You know that at the end of the day there will be a bed waiting for you and pilgrim friends to cook with and talk to. I miss that. A lot. I think I always will.

But of course, I’m planning my next walk already—Le Puy to Finisterre, after I finish my Bachelor of Arts at university! It’s only three years….

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:40 pm
, , , , ,