Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Physical Pilgrim


[Pilgrims walking toward Villafranca del Bierzo]

Pilgrims walking toward Villafranca del Bierzo.

I recently spoke with a woman who’s writing a thesis on pilgrim experiences on and after the Camino de Santiago. She said many describe the pilgrimage as more spiritual than physical.

I told her that wasn’t my experience.

When I think back on my time on the Camino, I’m not always sure how to separate the spiritual—whatever that really means—from the physical or even the social aspects of my pilgrimage. They’re all bound up together into one beautiful, messy story.

At home, I spend too much time sitting in front of a computer. I spend too much time in my head. Walking the Camino brought me more in touch with my physical body—in part through pain and my body’s limitations.

And partly by helping me overcome those limitations. I’ve always done a fair bit of walking, especially during the large chunks of my life when I haven’t owned a car, but I’ve never been athletic. I’ve never expected my body to be capable of great physical feats, but I discovered while walking that it can do more than I imagined. I’m not sure “spiritual” is the right word to describe those experiences, but they are some of my most vivid Camino memories.

There was the time, about two weeks into my trip, when I had my first blisters and was walking farther than usual and was completely certain I couldn’t walk another step. But I did. I walked one step, and another, and another, for several more kilometres.

There was the day, after five weeks of walking, when instead of plodding laboriously up hills, I practically flew over them.

And then, weeks later, a friend and I walked about 37 kilometres over a mountain. Two months before, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to even consider such a feat. But that day, I just felt giddy and a good sort of tired as I walked into Molinaseca, and rather proud when the hospitalero looked at our credenciales, stared at the two of us, shook his head, and muttered something about locas. Crazy women. Maybe we were.

These leaping-over-mountain moments weren’t spiritual experiences in the usual sense of the word. Spirituality is often defined in opposition to the physical or material world. But maybe that’s based on a false premise; maybe our bodies and our spirits aren’t completely separate.

There was something profound in feeling that instead of my mind dragging my body along, the two were really working together for the first time I could remember.

Maybe there’s a spirituality that comes from inhabiting our bodies more fully.

This reminds me of something Robert Ward said in his wonderful book All the Good Pilgrims. He was talking to some Canadians who were making a documentary on the Camino, when, in his words:

… the interviewer leaned towards me, lowered her voice so the viewer would know that this was a moment and said:

“This must be a very spiritual experience for you.”

My response came so fast, it surprised even me. “No,” I said, “it’s a very physical experience.”

She looked disappointed, but what could I say? It wasn’t my spirit that was doing the walking, it was my feet. And my feet hurt. Not to say that the Camino was all pain, but it was all, or mostly, sensation. Heat, weariness, pain, thirst—not to extremes, but well beyond what my body was used to. And then relief. The rest in the shade, the cold drink, the breeze that sprang up from nowhere, the sting in the mouth of sheep cheese, the gasp as I plunged my face into a cold fountain.

If there had been anything spiritual about my Camino to that point, it had come through the senses: the cessation of discomfort, and with it the unfocused reflex of gratefulness, that impulse to give thanks even when it was not clear to whom. Maybe that’s where spirituality begins.

* * *

I find when I try to chop my Camino experiences into pieces—physical, social, spiritual, cultural—I start second-guessing myself. Maybe I didn’t take as much advantage of the spiritual opportunities as I should have. Maybe I spent too much time socializing. Maybe too often I let the pain in my feet interfere with getting out and seeing a town.

But that kind of thinking isn’t helpful. My Camino was what it was, and it was wonderful.

Pilgrims have journeyed to Santiago de Compostela for many years for a wide variety of reasons: religious, spiritual and secular. We’ve travelled in different ways, but many of us have walked.

And the common denominator between all of us walking pilgrims over the centuries has simply been this: putting one foot in front of the other.

* * *

Many thanks to Robert Ward for permission to use the excerpt from his book. All the Good Pilgrims: Tales of the Camino de Santiago is a wonderful Camino memoir that I’ve read several times and highly recommend. You can learn more about Robert Ward’s books and pilgrim journeys at www.RobertWard.ca.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:21 am
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Starting the Camino Francés a Few Days Before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port


[Three days before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the Chemin du Puy]

Three days before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the Chemin du Puy.

I like to encourage everyone who’s planning to start walking in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to think about starting a few days earlier. In fact, I may occasionally be a little obsessive on this point.

I admit to being somewhat biased. I walked to Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay, and for various reasons, walking through Basque country in the the Pyrenees foothills was one of my favourite parts of the journey.

But there are good reasons beyond my own wonderful experiences—if you can afford the time and money—to walk in France for a few days before you arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

 

  1. Practice: You can get used to days full of walking in the foothills before you cross the Pyrenees—and can take it in relatively small stages, if you like.
  2. France: You can experience a wonderful part of France—and French food—before getting to Spain. (See my comparison of walking in the two countries.)
  3. A relatively luxurious start: You can start your walking in a bit more luxury than you tend to find in Spain, since the budget food and accommodation in France is generally more luxurious (although, admittedly, more expensive).
  4. Walking through the foothills: Walking up to the Pyrenees, knowing you’re going to walk over them, is a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget a little old Basque woman pointing out Honto to me the day before I got to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and telling me I’d walk through there the following day.
[Near Ostabat]

A cross near Ostabat. See my Leaping Over Small Hills post for more photos from that day.

The Potential Downside

If you’re seriously limited by time or money, this option isn’t for you. It obviously adds a few days to your trip, and eating and sleeping in France is more expensive than in Spain.

Where to Start

Three of the four main routes of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques come together in Ostabat, a day’s walk before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so you could start on any of these: the route from Paris/Tours, the Voie de Vézelay, or the Chemin du Puy.

I can only speak for the Chemin du Puy, where there are no major towns within several days’ walk of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so getting to where you want to start using public transportation could be a little tricky. However, check out this thread on the Camino de Santiago Forum for a suggestion by bjorgts on where to start if you want to walk four days on the Chemin du Puy before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

If anyone else has any experiences or suggestions, please share them in the comments.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:17 pm
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Why Walk the Camino de Santiago


[Pilgrims]

Because of the Santiagos: the saint and the city.

Because of the rhythm of walking.

Because of the laughter … and the tears.

For the adventure of it.

For the joy.

To find yourself.

To lose yourself.

To go looking for God, whatever God might be.

Or not, if that’s not your journey.

Because whatever you believe or don’t believe, it’s nice to have clear guidance: just follow the yellow arrows and you’ll be all right.

Or use a map and leave the arrows. Any road to Santiago de Compostela is a Camino de Santiago.

To immerse yourself in history and culture.

To meet other pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds and nationalities.

To experience the kindness of strangers, and get a chance to lend a helping hand.

To start a day not knowing where it will end, and then another. And another.

Because old architecture.

Because cafe con leche.

Because fresh grapes and fresh figs and fresh blackberries.

Just because.

To have your sins forgiven.

To hug the apostle.

To learn another language.

To walk over mountains.

To meditate or pray.

Because cheap wine.

Because you see a place differently when you walk to it and through it.

Because, even if you’re too hot, or too cold, or your feet hurt, or your back hurts, you feel alive.

Because it’s nice to be in shape … eventually. The day you feel like you can fly is worth every moment of slogging up hills.

And let’s be honest: because you can eat as much chocolate as you like and still lose weight.

To live another life, just for a while.

To appreciate the little things of “normal” life, like feet that don’t hurt and non-dorm rooms and washing machines.

To be part of something that’s huge in time and space.

To say thank you.

For the journey.

For the stories.

For candles and stained glass and statues.

For the arrival in Santiago or Finisterre.

Because friendship.

Because movement.

Because pilgrims.

Because it’s there.

* * *

Edit: To print this in a pretty PDF format, visit my Christmas post.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:38 am
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