Monthly Archives: December 2010


[Ultreïa! on an albergue window]

These days, buen camino is the most frequent pilgrim greeting along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I always thought ultreïa was more traditional.

Medieval pilgrim #1: Ultreïa!

Medieval pilgrim #2: Et suseïa!

The usual English translation of ultreïa is onward, but that doesn’t seem to get at the heart of it. Keep going and walk further aren’t as elegant, but they show the encouragement that’s an integral part of the word.

Suseia means upward, more or less. So the medieval pilgrims would be telling each other onward and upward!

I heard the song Ultreïa played and sung fairly often on my pilgrimage, mainly along on the Chemin du Puy in France.

The first time, it was only the melody, as an organ and a violinist played a duet in the Conques cathedral. Since then, I heard the song—and sang it—often enough that I memorized the first verse through simple osmosis.

At the time, I didn’t know about its medieval origins. As I just discovered through the miracle of internet research, the words of the song Ultreïa come from the twelfth-century Codex Calixtenus manuscript, a collection of documents about the Santiago pilgrimage and Saint James himself.

At least, the words of the chorus do (more or less, anyway). I suspect the verses are more recent. They certainly wouldn’t have been written in French in the Codex Calixtenus.

The word ultreïa doesn’t look French, either, though it’s found in a French song.

Curious, I spent some time digging around on the internet, where ultreïa‘s origins are alternately given as Latin, Spanish or Galician. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that it’s based on Latin, but not pure Classical Latin, but rather a “degraded” Latin on its way to becoming one of our modern Romance languages.

The most helpful information I found on ultreïa‘s history was from Miguel Perles Alabau, an art historian (though I think he was a student when he wrote this), who asked around at his university for information on the term.

As far as I can understand (and that might not be very far, since my Spanish is a long way from perfect), a Franciscan professor who specializes in medieval history told him the word ultreïa has been mythologized. The part about the chorus in the Codex Calixtenus is true: that song really was sung in the Santiago Cathedral. But the story of ultreïa (together with its counterpart, suseïa) being a common medieval pilgrim greeting is apparently a myth.

And then according to a Latin professor, ultreïa basically meant hallelujah, and was a word pilgrims used when they reached Santiago de Compostela.

When I was walking the Camino, a Swiss pilgrim told me he’d heard that in the mystical Camino tradition, ultreïa represents the journey to Santiago, and suseïa is the trip home.

I’ve come across the same idea a few other places as well. I wonder if it’s an old idea, or if it’s another modern romanticization.

Of course, all this is fascinating, but at least to me, it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t make the word any less special to think that it probably wasn’t used as a medieval pilgrim greeting. It’s obviously been associated with the Camino de Santiago for many centuries, and historically speaking, words change their meanings all the time.

And the song is beautiful. Here it is, for your enjoyment, first in French and then in my not-exactly-poetic English translation. And be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom and watch the video: it’s my favourite of all the Ultreïa versions I found on YouTube.

Wishing you all a wonderful New Year filled with long walks (along pilgrim pathways when possible, of course). Ultreïa!

* * *

Ultreïa (French)

Tous les matins nous prenons le Chemin,
tous les matins nous allons plus loin,
jour après jour la route nous appelle,
c’est la voix de Compostelle!

Ultreïa! Ultreïa! Et sus eia!
Deus adjuva nos!

Chemin de terre et Chemin de foi,
voie millénaire de l’Europe,
la voie lactée de Charlemagne,
c’est le Chemin de tous les jacquets!

Et tout là-bas au bout du continent,
Messire Jacques nous attend,
Depuis toujours son sourire fixe
Le soleil qui meurt au Finisterre.

Ultreïa (English)

(I can’t guarantee the complete accuracy of this translation, but it’s more or less correct, if very unpoetic.)

Every morning we take the Camino,
Every morning we go farther,
Day after day the route calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela!

Onward! Onward! And upward!
God assist us!

Way of earth and way of faith,
Ancient road of Europe,
The Milky Way of Charlemagne,
It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims!

And over there at the end of the continent,
Santiago waits for us,
His smile always fixed
On the sun that dies at Finisterre.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:19 pm
, , ,

The Chemin du Puy with No French: Agnes Chun


Agnes Chun, relaxing in a gîte d'étape after a long day's walk.

A lot of pilgrims on the Camino Francés speak very little Spanish, but it’s harder to get by on the Chemin du Puy with only a few words of French. It’s even more difficult when your first language isn’t English.

But my Korean pilgrim friend Hyun-Jung (Agnes) Chun managed it, when she walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in autumn 2008.

Earlier this month, Agnes kindly agreed to answer my questions about her journey on the Chemin du Puy.

Anna-Marie: Was it very difficult walking in France without speaking French?

Agnes: As you know, I only know few French words. I can’t even make any French sentences. However it worked to survive there.

We can live there carrying just a 10kg rucksack, and language is exactly like belongings. The key is in our sincere heart to communicate. Of course if I could speak French, I’d have had richer experiences definitely. But the conclusion is never changed. It’s difficult but it’s not difficult to walk in France.

How did you communicate with hospitalier(e)s, shopkeepers, and other people you really needed to communicate with?

I listed just a few words to say what I needed. Sometimes I drew a picture or used my body when I had no idea of the French words. But I was not nervous about communicating with them because I met people who could translate for me whenever I need them.

How did you ask for directions?

In France, the way marking is very clear. Just followed red and white lines. But I lost the direction just one time in Pomps. I could not find any way marks or pilgrims. I was almost in a panic. It was an even worse situation when there was no one who could speak English. I met several old men who worked in the wheat field but they barely understood me.

Finally I showed them the shell on my backpack and shouted “Compostelle! Compostelle!” And then they pointed their fingers in the right direction.

Did you reserve your bed in gîtes d’etapes in advance? How?

Mostly I reserved beds in advance. I took my cell phone for reserving accommodation. Speaking on the phone was more difficult than “face to face,” but they could understand. For example, I just said like this: “Une pèlerine, demain, réservation!” It’s really ridiculous, but I didn’t have any other choices.

Sometimes I asked other pilgrims who could speak French to help, but otherwise I always said the above. But one of my friends told me the tourist office could make a reservation for pilgrims.

Did you meet many people you could speak English or Korean with?

Well… I’ve never met a Korean speaker in France. Koreans usually walk only the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. (But I met only five Koreans even in Spain!) It’s not difficult to find English speakers in France. Most pilgrims could speak English, especially the Germans, the Belgians and the Dutch. But I was sorry that I could not chat with locals.

Was it lonely often being surrounded by French speakers?

After dinner the “French Talking” started in the gîtes every night. For the first few days I tried to stay at the “French Talking table” but it was very stressful. For me, “English talking” is also very difficult… (English is a foreign language to me.) Oh God, French talking? Haha. Loneliness was the second matter.

A funny situation occurred in Spain. I had very close German friends in Spain. One night, there were eight Germans and the only Korean: me. We started to talk in English at first, but the main language changed to German. After an hour, I was a stranger again.

Would you recommend the Le Puy route to others who can’t speak French?

Sure. You should not miss a big and powerful present due to a very small obstacle. Don’t be a fool.

What was the most difficult thing about walking the Le Puy route?

It was a physical matter. Before walking the Camino, I’d walked less than five minutes a day during last seven years. I exercised for one month before leaving Korea, but it’s not enough to walk around 20 km per day.

I felt it would be impossible to finish this walking during the first few days. Stomachache, heartache, blisters, ankle pain and back pains… But I realized that it wasn’t only my own problem but it was the same for all others. I asked my friend who started from his door in Munich, Germany where the most difficult part of the whole way to walk was. His answer was “from Le Puy to Conques.” But don’t panic, it gets easier to walk. I am not sure if it’s for geographical reasons or because my body adapted.

[Cows in the Aubrac]

Cows in the Aubrac, along the Chemin du Puy.

What was the best part?

I think every moment, every single place and even my tears on the road were magnificent presents for my life. However, if I had just a couple of days to walk on the Le Puy route, I’d like to choose the Aubrac region. As I mentioned above, it’s a really hard course but it deserves to be walked again.

But I don’t want to meet the giant cows. I’m scared of them.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I met a French guy in Nogaro. He could not speak English but he was try to tell me something. In my understanding, he criticized my poor French. He said I would never understand their lives, their history or themselves because I could not speak French. He spoke in a very bad manner so my friends yelled at him in French, but I couldn’t help agreeing with him partly. If I spoke French better, I could communicate with French speakers, especially locals, and then get a broad and wide knowledge and experience. It’s irrefutable truth.

However, language is just a means and the open heart can get over all the language issues. My experience prove this….

* * *

You can read more about Agnes’s experiences in her blog. She hasn’t gotten around to translating it in to English yet, so you’ll need to either be able to read Korean or use an internet translator.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:11 pm
, ,
Comments Off on The Chemin du Puy with No French: Agnes Chun

Merry Christmas!

[Why Walk the Camino de Santiago]

Download this in PDF format below. Merry Christmas!

Wow. Almost three months into the life of this website, I’ve met so many wonderful people (and will be interviewing more of them in coming months—stay tuned), reconnected with others, and had a great time writing about my Camino thoughts and experiences.

I started Pilgrim Roads without completely knowing why—I just needed an incentive to write, and the Camino was what I wanted to write about.

Right now I’m working on clarifying my goals for this blog and my pilgrimages (I think I’ll be able to go walking in 2011!). I’m going to be asking for help on the blog part of that in the new year, and would love to hear from all of you about what you’d like to see on this site.

In the meantime, I have a Christmas present for you.

I had such a good response to my Why Walk the Camino de Santiago post, that I made it into a pretty printable PDF file. You can download it in North American letter size or the A4 version. Please feel free to share it.

(I don’t know if this is an issue for anyone else, but when I look at the A4 version online, it looks awful, but if I download it, it looks fine. So as far as I can tell, it should print nicely if you download it. Please tell me if it doesn’t.)

And so, as the Irish blessing says, may the road rise up to meet you all.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and I hope you have the merriest of Christmases.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:18 am
, ,

Peace on Earth and Pilgrimage

[Pilgrims on the meseta]

Camino pilgrims walking together on the meseta.

Stories are important.

I’ve always thought so. And I was delighted to hear William Ury say the same thing, in a talk about Abraham’s Path.

Abraham’s Path (the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic) is a walking route in the Middle East that, when the first stage is complete, will run some 1,200 kilometres through many places traditionally associated with Abraham (Ibrahim) and his children. At the moment, people can—and have—walked sections in Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Israel.

It’s not an ancient pilgrimage route, but it is based on 4,000-year-old stories. And these tales of Abraham are part of the shared heritage of more than 3 billion Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.

There are a number of stories about Abraham, some more ambiguous than others. But most importantly for the Abraham Path Initiative, Abraham, who walked across part of the Middle East with his family, was hospitable to strangers who showed up at his home.

According to William Ury, who came up with the idea for Abraham’s Path and has walked parts of the route, many villages along the route that offer incredible hospitality—and they associate it with Abraham’s tradition.

Stories are important.

The story of Abraham, Ury says, can help create a shared identity among the peoples of different faiths and nationalities along the Abraham’s Path. And the path is starting to bring tourism, which has already created jobs and will lead to a shared economy.

As Ury says, it not a solution to conflict in the Middle East, but it is—literally—a first step.

* * *

Of course, stories aren’t inherently positive.

The same story that brings one group together can cause dissension or violence between groups. In Medieval Europe, the story of Saint James (Santiago) inspired Christian countries to war.

This was the era of Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-Slayer, who helped unite the Christian armies and symbolically led the reconquista—the Christian “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs who had lived there for several centuries. He is commonly pictured on a horse, holding a sword and trampling the dark-skinned “infidels” underfoot.

It’s not a pretty picture.

But there was an ideal of peace associated with earlier medieval pilgrimage.

A poem recorded in the La Pretiosa manuscript says about the Roncesvalles abbey, where monks tended to pilgrims for many centuries:

Its doors are open to the sick and well,
Not only to Catholics, but to pagans also.
To Jews, heretics, beggars and the indigent,
In brief, to both the good and the profane.

The Camino today is far closer to that ideal than to the other. At its best, maybe, it doesn’t even draw firm boundaries between the good and the profane, and really does “embrace all as brothers [and sisters],” as an apparent mistranslation of the hymn reads.*


A French version of Santiago Peregrino.

In any case, modern pilgrims seem to have chosen Santiago Peregrino, the pilgrim who’s always ready to lend a helping hand, to represent us, and largely banished Santiago Matamoros to the past.

Which is not to say that we pilgrims are perfect.

Far from it. We’re human, after all. We can be grumpy and petty, irritable and competitive. Some of us loathe each other.

Then again, some of us get over it, at least some of the time. I have fond memories of sitting in a meseta bar with a German pilgrim for hours—me drinking wine and him drinking beer. We admitted we’d disliked each other since we met a few days before. By the end of that afternoon, we were friends.

On balance, when I was on the Camino I saw far more of the goodness of people than I do in everyday life.

This is partly, I suspect, because I—and a lot of other pilgrims—needed help then far more than we do in our everyday lives. That gave people a chance to be kind.

* * *

William Ury says terrorism involves treating a stranger as an enemy, while Abraham’s legacy is the opposite: treating a stranger as a friend.

And the walking is part of that. As Ury points out, it’s harder to fight when you’re travelling in the same direction, side by side.

That’s an oversimplification, but there’s still a lot of truth to it. Maybe another part of the reason for the camaraderie between pilgrims on the Camino is because, even though our motives and experiences might be totally different, we’re all moving together toward a common destination.

I’ve been talking with a lot of pilgrims lately, over the phone or by e-mail. I haven’t met most of them in person, but I feel an immediate connection with them.

Walking the Camino was one of the most important experiences I’ve had, and they know what that’s like.

We share a story.

* * *

When I was walking the Camino, I met a white-haired Italian named Angelo in the kitchen of a Pamplona refuge.

None of the rest of us at the table spoke Italian, and he didn’t speak English or French or Danish, but a French Canadian woman talked with him—and translated for him—using a few Italian words mixed with Spanish and French.

Angelo, through his Canadian translator, waxed enthusiastic about the pilgrimage. All the world’s leaders, he said, should have to walk the Camino. He was sure it would lead to peace.

I have to admit I was rather dubious about sleeping in a bunk next to, say, a snoring George Bush (this was a few months before the last election) or Canada’s own Stephen Harper. But maybe Angelo had a point.

Maybe he was saying the same thing William Ury says in his talk about Abraham’s Path.

After you’ve walked beside someone—once you’ve shared a story—it’s harder to see her as the enemy, and easier to see him as a friend.

* * *

For more about Abraham’s Path, visit the Abraham Path Initiative website. I also really recommend watching the speech by William Ury that I’ve been writing about.

* Regarding the translation of the hymn from La Pretiosa, I found the Latin version: “Porta patet omnibus, infirmis et sanis, non solum catholicis verum et paganis, judeis, hereticis, ociosis, vanis, et, ut dicam breviter, bonis et profanis.” My own knowledge of a few Romance languages and a tiny bit of Latin, together with help from on-line dictionaries, unfortunately suggests the translation I use is more accurate than the “embraces all as brothers” line.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:16 pm
, , ,

Gîtes d’étapes: Budget Accommodation on the Chemin du Puy

[A gîte d'étape]

A bed in a gîte communal in a historic building in Saint Côme d'Olt . (There were other beds in the room.)

Gîtes d’étapes in France are hostels for hikers or walkers. I’m writing about the ones along the Chemin du Puy (GR-65) because those are the ones I’m familiar with. I’d imagine the gîtes on other routes are relatively similar.

If you’re used to Camino albergues in Spain, you’ll find gîtes downright luxurious. If you’re used to five-star hotels … gîtes are a few steps down from that. They always have dorm rooms, and some have private rooms at a higher cost.

Gîtes vary quite widely. Some have bunk beds for dozens of people in a single dorm (although in my experience this was the exception rather than the rule), while others have four—or occasionally even two!—single beds. Most have kitchens you can use, and some provide meals. When I was there in 2008, they generally cost 7 to 15 € per person per night.

They all (in my experience) provide blankets, but they don’t have top sheets, so if you don’t have a sleeping bag, you’ll at least need a sleeping bag liner. Also, if you’re travelling in colder weather, you’ll probably want a sleeping bag because there might not be enough blankets to keep you warm.

There are gîtes at regular intervals along the Chemin du Puy. The only problem with the spacing is that sometimes you have to choose between walking around 15 kilometres and walking 25 or more kilometres. And if you’re not in great shape to start out with, 25 kilometres feels like a seriously long way when you have to traverse steep slopes.

Unlike most albergues in Spain, you don’t have to leave French gîtes by 8 a.m. or so. If there is a check-out deadline, it’s around 10 a.m. or later. Most people seemed to leave around 8 a.m. anyway, though, at least in fall when I was walking.

When I walked the Chemin du Puy two years ago, few gîtes had Internet access. In cities, you can always find Internet cafés, although they may not be close by. In Conques, the tourist information office has a few Internet stations. In smaller places, you’re probably out of luck if you want to get on-line.

There are two main types of gîtes: municipal (gîtes communaux—singular: communal) and private (gîtes privés).

[Laundry outside a gîte d'étape]

My laundry hanging outside the same gîte pictured above, in Saint Côme d'Olt.

Municipal Gîtes

Municipal gîtes are generally cheaper than their private counterparts. They tend to be—but aren’t necessarily—more bare-bones than the private gîtes. Some are in gorgeous historic buildings, while others are more basic.

Often you can let yourself in, and a local person stops by to collect your money, although occasionally you have to find someone to let you in.

Municipal gîtes don’t usually offer food, although some in villages without grocery stores have a small selection of food you can purchase.

Private Gîtes

These are usually more expensive, and tend to feel a little more luxurious. All the ones I stayed in were in nice buildings.

[A private gîte]

A dorm room in a private gîte, the Gîte Dubarry, on a farm between Nogaro and Aire-sur-L'Adour. The building wasn't much to look at from the outside, but the owners were restoring it beautifully inside, with carvings and stained glass. I fell completely in love with it.

Usually the hospitalier(e) (I don’t think there’s an exact English equivalent for this—it literally seems to mean the person who offers you hospitality, like hospitalero/a in Spanish) lives in the building. They almost always offer food: breakfast and a multi-course dinner. Demi-pension, or half-board, includes both meals and a bed. When I was on the Chemin two years ago, this cost around 30 €.

In my experience, breakfast was pretty bare-bones, with coffee and tea, white bread, butter, a variety of jams, and sometimes yogurt. Sometimes the hospitalier(e) left it out, so you could serve yourself when you woke up. I thought dinner was always wonderful—though some (non-French) walkers complained about it being too rich.

I stayed at a few places where the hospitalier(e)s were really devoted to the Chemin/Camino, with Camino books and pictures or statues of Saint James. In two cases, they even had a little pilgrim talk/service, which I couldn’t really understand because my French isn’t that good.

Gîtes are great places to meet other walkers, and in some cases, local people.

The best source of up-to-date information about gîtes and other accommodation on the Chemin du Puy and some other routes are the Miam Miam Dodo guidebooks. The books on the routes from Le Puy and Arles are available from the Confraternity of Saint James bookshop, under “Books from Other Publishers.”

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:55 am
, ,
Comments Off on Gîtes d’étapes: Budget Accommodation on the Chemin du Puy

A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide to the Camino for an Appalachian Trail Hiker (by Gerald Kelly)

And now for something completely different. I came across a post on a Camino forum the other day and couldn’t stop laughing. I contacted the author, Gerald Kelly, and he kindly gave me permission to post it here, in slightly edited form.

[Gerald Kelly]

Gerald Kelly, the author of this piece, at Finisterre (kilometre zero).
Photo courtesy Gerald Kelly.

I haven’t walked the Appalachian Trail but I have read that book by Bill Bryson, so I feel qualified to comment on the differences between the Camino de Santiago and the Appalachian Trail.

The Camino is very different from the Appalachian Trail, and a lot easier. However, I wouldn’t like you to be lulled into a false sense of security, so I’ve put together this short list of “Camino Dangers” which I hope you and all new pilgrims will study with care.


There are no bears on the Camino however you have to be constantly on the watch out for impromptu bear hugs! (Especially from Lederhosen-clad Bavarians.)


You don’t need to carry much food on the Camino. In fact you can spend your whole time stuffing your face with delicious pinchos/tapas and all the other regional delicacies you find along the way, to such an extent that putting on weight is a real danger. Think of the embarrassment if you went home with the dreaded “Camino paunch.” (Quite apart from the fact that your family, friends, workmates will find it hard to believe that you walked 700 kilometres and put on 10 kilograms!)

Liquid Refreshment

[Beer sign]

A beer advertisement with the distance to Santiago.

You don’t need to carry much water since “liquid refreshment” is readily available in every Camino village. In fact dying of thirst is not something you need to worry about at all.

Dying of alcohol poisoning is another kettle of fish. If you’re not careful and don’t set reasonable limits (for reference mine are: no beer before 10 a.m. and no more than one bottle of wine with dinner) you could end up with your Camino turning into a drunken fiasco with village blurring into village and one sacred relic indistinguishable from another.

I’ve seen these sorry creatures with my own eyes staggering into Santiago disorientated and bedraggled, parched lips mouthing the words “¿A que hora abren los bares?” Or sneaking out of Mass half way through because the smell of the alter wine is driving them demented.


Finally. If you are a single gentleman (and I’m assuming here that you are indeed a gentleman) you may skip this section. Otherwise it’s best that you be warned: the Camino Francés (especially in summer) is crawling with beautiful women.

Literally crawling with them. At every turn of the road, behind every bush, in every confessional. There will be times when your head will be spinning and all thoughts of the sacred will be far away.

And as if that wasn’t enough, let me conclude by saying that the scorching heat of the Spanish plains isn’t a climate conducive to “modest attire.” You must resist with all your forbearing because, as my maths teacher from school used to say as he flicked his leather strap above our cowering heads, “the flesh is weak, the flesh is weak!”

So, you have been warned!

The Camino may not have grizzlies or vipers or hornets nests but its dangers are many and varied, and many’s the pilgrim has fallen foul to them down the centuries.

* * *

Gerald Kelly is the author of the Camino Guide, a free on-line guide to several Camino de Santiago routes: the Camino Francés, the Via de la Plata, and the Camino Aragonés. Visit the Camino Guide website at

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:30 pm
Comments Off on A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide to the Camino for an Appalachian Trail Hiker (by Gerald Kelly)