Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Slow Camino: Interview with Robert Townshend

[Stone wall]

The Causses in spring: a great place for a slow walk.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

I recently came across Robert Townshend’s SlowCamino blog, which he describes as “an account of one pilgrim’s sluggish progress toward Compostela.”

Rob, an Australian, walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Pamplona in April and May 2009, and his blog documents the journey in retrospect.

Rob describes himself as “a dawdler, a daydreamer, a mucker-about. An impurist.” His blog is a mix of travelogue, practical advice, history, and observations on slow Camino travel—which, in his case, involved walking the Chemin du Puy in about sixty days without, he claims, losing any weight.

As I started reading SlowCamino, I thought I might like to interview Rob. When I read the following, I was sure of it.

I distinguished myself in the company by having travelled half the distance of the other pilgrims at our large table. They must have been impressed, since they all wore surprised expressions when told I’d come only from Estaing. I was then treated with a kind of embarrassed benevolence, especially when I declared my intention of stopping at Senergues the next day, only twelve kilometres distant.

I must admit to a tinge of competitiveness the next morning. A young lady was dawdling in the foyer, in an obvious attempt to be the last to leave.

That’s my gig, honeybunch!

When I e-mailed Rob, I discovered he’s about to embark on the next leg of his slow journey: Pamplona to Santiago on the Camino Francés, and Santiago to Tui on the Camino Portugués.

But he answered my questions quite speedily.

[Bread and cheese]

Rob writes: 'My lunch! One of the great edible joys of southern France is brebis, sheep's milk cheese. I love it in all its forms, Roquefort, Basque, Corsican or other—unpasteurised for preference.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Anna-Marie: What made you decide to do a very slow Camino? What are the advantages of travelling so slowly?

Rob: I didn’t decide to do a slow Camino. I’m constitutionally slow, and merely build upon this god-given quality by heavy eating, aimless chatter, drinking lakes of tea, watching Fox etc. The advantage of travelling slowly is that you meet more people, and none of them feel badly about a person who is so easily overtaken. In particular, English males are delighted to get the best of an Australian in a physical pursuit—it happens so rarely!

You said on the forum: “Please be advised that serious dawdling requires a massive lack of focus and determination.” How did you maintain that lack of focus and determination?

Well, Anna-Marie, tonight’s preparation for the Frances and Portugues consisted of eating beef casserole, sunk into a lounge while watching the original 1974 Death Wish on an enormous TV screen. The combination of stewed steak and Charles Bronson has made me little more than an amoeba with hair.

This is ideal mental preparation for dawdling.

How many rest days did you take? What were your criteria for a good rest day location?

I’m guessing I took five or six rest days, usually in towns with a good food supply. In nice rural gîtes, like Montredon and that of our friends at Gîte Dubarry, one can be underfoot on a rest day. In towns, one can be out of people’s way.

[Snow on the Camino]

Even slow pilgrims have to trudge through snow. Writing about Aumont-Aubrac, Rob says: 'Wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice, mud... Did I leave anything out? Here’s the view from our last shared accommodation.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Do you think a slow Camino is particularly difficult for men? What advice would you give men who wanted to cultivate, as you say, an Omega male attitude?

I find pilgrims of both sexes to be sprinters, men for obvious male reasons, women because they’re all a bit hyperactive. (Did I just break a Canadian law?)

Men who wish to cultivate an Omega male attitude should watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies … but model themselves on the Peter Lorre characters, not the Bogies. Just lying around watching old movies is pretty Omega.

As much as you can call any day on the Camino “typical,” how would you describe a typical slow Camino day?

You meet heaps of people. Really.

You write in your blog about walking twenty-seven kilometres in one day to keep up with friends, but many of the people you met ended up ahead of you. Were you ever tempted to permanently abandon your slow philosophy to keep up?


Rob says: 'Here we are before the descent to Cajarc. The lady on the left was born in Clochemerle, which I had always believed to be a fictional town, subject of Gabriel Chevalier’s wonderful novel of small town politics centred on the erection of a public urinal. It seems that Clochemerle is real ... and the urinal is still there! More lessons of the Camino.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

It happened that my three friends that day were all doctors and had achieved much in their lives. I find achievement very fatiguing.

Maybe one’s Camino reflects one’s career and outlook, regardless of usual disclaimers about leaving accustomed life and attitudes behind. I was so lucky to link up with those three special people … but, no, I wasn’t tempted to abandon my dawdling. It’s what I do.

The big problem with dawdling is not losing friends, but having to make new friends daily. My chemin from Le Puy was a bloody conveyor-belt of acquaintances. Those who go slow will know.

What do you mean when you describe yourself as an impurist?

I’m a very conservative type in most things, so I believe in codes. I just don’t believe in manufacturing codes to make life more bothersome than it need be. The Camino should be fun, unless someone is paying you to do it in a certain way or to take on certain responsibilities.

At times I felt that there was some kind of Camino Calvinism in operation, directed at people who were taking it easy, using luggage services, taking easy routes. Also, though many of these purists are charming people, in conversation they can be a touch single-minded. They need to lay off, lighten up.


Pamplona, where Rob ended his last Camino ... and will begin his next Camino later this week. Stay tuned for his next blog installment.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

You’re heading back to Pamplona to continue your trip to Santiago at the end of this month. Are you going to continue your blog?

I blog when I get back home. Nothing must interfere with the dawdling when it is being dawdled.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Do you have any other advice for aspiring slow pilgrims?

The great golfer Ben Hogan refused to help younger players because he felt he was self-made and shouldn’t have to create competition for himself. I feel the same way. It will be a bitter day for me when someone completes the Chemin du Puy in over sixty days.

I know it will happen eventually, but why should I help someone steal my crown?

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:41 am
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This Week in Pilgrimage: A New Italian Route?

[Cross at Carrión de los Condes]

Photo of the Week
I took this photo in Carrión de los Condes. As a photographer, I'd love to say I planned this, but I have to admit the symmetry of the birds is a total fluke.
See your photo here! Learn more at the bottom of this post.

And today …

… the second instalment of my weekly pilgrimage summary. If I’ve missed anything of vital (or not so vital) importance, please don’t hesitate to comment.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish is, alas, far from perfect.

A Potential New Italian Pilgrimage Route: The Way of Saint Paul

A Way of Saint Paul, or Cammino di San Paolo, is almost under development in Syracuse, Italy. It will visit places the saint is said to have stopped, and finishes in Rome. The plan was apparently inspired by the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena, and aims for similar greatness.

I don’t know any Italian, and Google Translate is a bit unclear here, but important people have just signed a memorandum of agreement saying they’re really going to do this.

If you’re interested in Saint Paul, there’s also a Saint Paul Trail in Turkey.

Update: According to renegadepilgrim on the Camino forum, a number of walking pilgrimage routes have been and are being developed in Italy. I guess I’ll have to add a wander around Italy to my list of pilgrim goals.

The Camino del Norte Aims for World Heritage Status

Friends of the Camino associations in Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia are working together to get the Camino del Norte named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To this end, they are apparently improving the physical path and the way marking, and above all, adding albergues. They have already taken the first steps by submitting a formal proposal to UNESCO, and hope to receive World Heritage status in 2012.

A year ago, there was some controversy about the idea of the Camino del Norte as a World Heritage Site.

The publication Cien razones para detenerse (One Hundred Reasons to Stop By) details some of the highlights of the route. It’s available as a PDF file (all Spanish), with some gorgeous photos that almost tempt me to abandon the Vía de la Plata and head for the Norte.

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • On Monday, the ETA (the organization that caused 800 deaths as it fought for an independent Basque homeland) announced a cease-fire. For more details, read the Time magazine story.
  • Valdeviejas, a hamlet on the Camino just outside Astorga, will bring its new Virgin Peregrina (Pilgrim Virgin) on her first procession when the Bishop of Astorga visits the town this Sunday. The statue (I think) will stay in the ermita del Ecce Homo, a common stop for pilgrims to Santiago. If you’re interested in the idea of la Peregrina, Robert Ward talks about it a bit in his book Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage, which includes a Camino journey.
  • Within less than a month, pilgrims on the Camino Aragonés passing through Huesca should be able to stay in its new Hospital de Peregrinos. The Asociación de Amigos del Camino de Santiago has recorded more than 5,000 pilgrims passing through the city in the past three years.
  • Santiago de Compostela will have international flights again soon, as the difficulties with RyanAir seem to be sorted out. (Via Sil.)
  • The Xunta de Galicia is going to invest €153,000 in San Paio—a cluster of houses grouped around a church a bit before Lavacolla on the Camino Francés. One focus will be on eliminating negative “visual impacts” in the area of the church. The funding will also go toward cleaning up vegetation, installing a new awning (or possibly roof), building a new sidewalk, and installing benches and street lights. The aim is to make it nicer for pilgrims and the general public.
  • The first two buildings of the Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia (City of Galician Culture) were recently inaugurated in Santiago de Compostela. An ABC article compares it to the Santiago Cathedral a lot: “If the Cathedral of Santiago is a centre of spiritual pilgrimage, the Ciudad de la Cultura … aspires to turn itself into a beacon of cultural pilgrimage” (my translation). Eventually, the Ciudad de la Cultura will be made up of six buildings.
  • A Spanish cooking site has published a history of food on the Camino. It’s quite interesting, and sort of readable with Google Translate. The conclusion? “The pilgrimage was never at odds with good food” (or possibly, “fine dining”).
  • The latest issue of Arqueología Navarra revealed new archaeological findings about pilgrim deaths on the Camino de Santiago in an article by Mercedes Unzu, Carmen Jusué and María García-Barberena. The authors seem to have been interested in the pilgrims that died (in my translation of their words), “without glory, without epitaphs, and without stories to immortalize them.” They found what appear to be pilgrim skeletons in churches and pilgrim cemeteries on the Camino Francés, some with whole or crumbled scallop shells, some with old silver English coins. One cemetery contained pottery sherds decorated with shells.
  • On January 28, Ángel Luis Barreda, ex-president of the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago (Spanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago) and current director of the Centro de Estudios y Documentación del Camino de Santiago (Centre for Studies and Documentation of the Camino de Santiago), is going to give a talk in Jaén. The title is El Camino de Santiago: Ayer y Hoy (The Camino de Santiago: Yesterday and Today). (Via The Camino Documentary.)
  • If you happen to be in Golden, Colorado on the evening of January 22, you should consider stopping by a pilgrim gathering. The event will include a screening of The Camino Documentary‘s 23-minute fundraising trailer, a Q&A with director Lydia Smith, and much more. It’s free and open to everyone. Learn more on the Facebook event page.
  • The Solitary Walker just completed a thoughtful ten-post series (heres the introduction) on the philosophy of walking.
  • If you feel the need to escape the medieval ambiance of downtown Santiago on May 7, L’Extraordinaire Uchronie 2011, a steampunk event, may be for you. According to the Wikipedia, “steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that … involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain….” From what I understand, people at the event will be expected to make their own outfits that look like they come from a steampunk universe. It would definitely make a change from the Camino.
  • The Federación Española de Associationes de Amigos del Camino de Santiago has a beautiful map showing all the Camino routes in Spain. You can buy it, or just click on the smaller picture to see the details, and look at it, and dream….

Pilgrim Roads Photo of the Week

Since I like photos and I don’t seem to have anything appropriate for Friday’s roundup post, I’ve decided to post a random pilgrimage photo every Friday.

If you have a photo you’d like to see here, please get in touch. I’ll give you full credit, of course, and include a link to your website/blog if you have one.

I’ll soon set up a form so you can send an attachment. It’s not that I don’t trust you, gentle readers—I just don’t want to give out my e-mail address here because of past experiences with horrendous amounts of spam from e-mail harvesting bots.

What’s Coming Up on Pilgrim Roads

I just had a great conversation with James March, a teacher at Springfield High School in Oregon, USA, and Sabrina Ehler, one of his students, about their upcoming Camino journey. I’ll be writing about that for the week of January 24th.

This coming Monday, I’ll be posting an interview with SlowCamino blogger Robert Townshend, who figures he’s set a slow record by walking the Chemin du Puy in about 60 days—and not losing any weight in the process.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from his blog:

At a large table of French and Swiss pilgrims, I distinguished myself by my short étapes and slow walking—naturellement—but also by pouring crème anglaise on my salad, in the belief that it was a substantial vinaigrette or sloppy mayonnaise. I was quick to cover my tracks by explaining it was an old Aussie way of eating salad.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:42 pm
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Camino Documentary Needs Pilgrims’ Help

[Interviewing pilgrims for The Camino Documentary]

A Camino Documentary crew interviews Hanns, Paul and Uschi in the Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela.
Photo courtesy Future Educational Films, Inc.

You could say The Camino Documentary was born in May 2008 in León.

Lydia Smith, tired from a day’s walking on the Camino Francés, was having a massage and telling the masseur about her life in the film industry.

He said, why not make a documentary about the Camino?

“And I [said], oh no, I can’t do that,” Lydia tells me over the phone, more than two years into the making of the documentary. “I didn’t really think … I could capture it. It was so sacred and beautiful. It felt like too big of a deal.”

It didn’t make sense for her to do it since it would be too hard to raise the money, she decided. She had, after all, only produced one film independently and had sworn never to do it again. Her other films had been contracted by companies that already had funding in place.

But back home in Portland, Oregon, Lydia found she couldn’t get the idea of a Camino documentary out of her mind. And the more she thought about it, she says, the more she realized this was what she was supposed to be doing.

I do value [the Camino] as so sacred, and respect it. I’m bilingual—I lived in Spain for six years—so that gave me a huge plus, being able to interview all the hospitaleros and the experts on the Camino. So I decided to do it after I got home.

She chose to trust that the Camino and its pilgrims would help her find funding, and set to work.

And a year after the conversation that started it all, she interviewed David Casado Medina, the masseur who suggested the documentary, about physical side of walking.

Returning to the Camino

Filming morning fog in the Pyrenees.
Photo courtesy Future Educational Films, Inc.

Lydia went back to the Camino in spring 2009, this time as director of a documentary with a multi-national film crew in tow.

There were two main crews of four or more people that each kept track of about six pilgrims, and one cameraman who worked on his own. The pilgrims were given cell phones, but sometimes they weren’t sure which town they were in, so meeting up could be tricky.

Organizing and keeping track of everyone and everything was much more difficult than just walking the Camino, Lydia says.

[I had] the challenges of co-ordinating and being in charge of twelve people and trying to get free food and lodging, and not having very much money. It was really hard, and it made me really ache to be on the Camino myself.

She did get to walk part of the time, though. Her crew would usually find one of the pilgrims they were documenting in the morning, and walk with and interview the pilgrim. Then they would do the same thing with another pilgrim in the afternoon.

There were other ways that making the documentary reminded Lydia of walking the Camino herself.

I felt like everything was intensified on the Camino. When I was happy, I was super happy. When I was sad, I was super sad. And doing this film is like that.

And for Lydia, making the documentary, like walking the Camino, is all about the people she met along the way.

Filming Pilgrims

[Camino Documentary still]

A still from The Camino Documentary's trailer.
Photo courtesy Future Educational Films, Inc.

So how did pilgrims react to the documentary crew?

“Most people were really into it,” Lydia says. Twelve pilgrims agreed to be part of the documentary, and only one person she asked said no.

Having been a pilgrim herself, Lydia was careful to let the pilgrims have unfilmed experiences. The crews didn’t follow every pilgrim every day.

And, Lydia says, being followed by the documentary crews enhanced some of the pilgrims’ Camino experience.

The two older guys, Jack and Wayne, they talked a lot about how much they appreciated [being filmed], because every couple of days we’d check in with them, and say, ‘What are you doing? How are you doing?’ It made it much more of a reflective experience. They were really thinking, ‘Okay, how is this really affecting me? What is happening?’

And the rest of the pilgrims who participated?

“I think all of them really liked being part of it for sure,” Lydia says. “That part I felt really good about.”

Hospitaleros and More

One advantage to filming, as opposed to walking, the Camino is that it gave Lydia an opportunity to have good conversations with a lot of the people who really make the Camino work.

She spoke with the hospitaleros and other Camino experts, who make up what she calls the film’s “chorus.” In the finished film, they will provide information that comments on and helps to explain the experiences of the (likely six) featured pilgrims.

Hospitaleros don’t always have time to chat with every pilgrim who passes through, but many of them spoke on film with Lydia. A lot of them, she said, have given up their lives in other parts of Spain to devote their lives to the Camino.

There’s the famous people on the Camino, Tomás from Manjarin and Jato [from Villafranca del Bierzo]. But the thing is there’s so many more people that really have the soul of the Camino in their heart, and nobody really knows that much about them.

The Film Crew on the Camino

[The Camino Documentary crew]

The Camino Documentary crew in front of the Santiago Cathedral.
Photo courtesy Future Educational Films, Inc.

Lydia didn’t just interview people directly connected with the Camino. She also regularly interviewed her crew, and hopes to be able to produce a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes glimpse of what filming the Camino was like for them.

The crew, Lydia says, was made up of “really high-level professional people in the film industry” who agreed to a rate of just US $100 per day. Apart from Lydia, only one other crew member had walked the Camino, but the others either wanted to walk it, or just felt that the experience of being there would make up for the low wages.

Lydia says that walking the Camino and making a film about it are two entirely different experiences.

But [filming] it still touched people. You still get to touch some of what the Camino has to offer, [just] not in the same way.

Pedro Valenzuela, the director of photography, raved about the Camino after returning home to Chile. After hearing him talk about it and seeing the 23-minute version of the film, his wife left him with the kids and set off to Spain for her own two-week pilgrimage.

And as for the rest of the crew, Lydia says they got a lot out of it, too.

Most of them, they’ve said to me it was such a wonderful, amazing experience. And it was really important to me to try and create that for them.

[Camino Documentary director Lydia Smith and Cyrian]

Camino Documentary director Lydia Smith shows Cyrian, the youngest pilgrim the documentary makers followed, how the camera works.
Photo courtesy Future Educational Films, Inc.

Documentary Vision

When Lydia got home from her Camino, she had the same problem as many of us the rest of us: there’s no way to really explain the experience to friends and family. They just don’t get it.

But Lydia says The Camino Documentary has already helped pilgrims in that respect.

What people have told me is now with the [documentary] trailer, it’s something people can show, and say, ‘This is kind of what it’s like.’ You know that whole thing of people being so much kinder and generous with each other. It’s so hard to describe. But my intention is to be able to have a film that pilgrims can say to their family, ‘Look at this. This is what I experienced.’

Even more important for Lydia is what she hopes the documentary, which shows people of a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs, says about living a life.

We each have to follow our own way, and have the courage to do that. Because it’s not always the easiest road. … And so my intention is really to create a film that inspires people to follow their hearts, and to really do what they feel their life’s purpose is.

And also my intention with this film is to really show that we each can do things in our own way. And just because you have a different way of doing something doesn’t make your way right or my way wrong or vice versa. [We need to] really learn to respect each other’s way of doing things, and not have to insist that we all do things the same way.

The Struggle for Funding

There are currently two versions of the film: the six-minute trailer you can see on the website, and a 23-minute version. But Lydia is struggling to raise enough money to produce a complete one-hour documentary.

The day I talk with her, she’s feeling discouraged. She’s just found out that the large grant she was really hoping for hasn’t come through.

Grant-wise, she explains, the project is in a funding hole. Foundations generally want to support documentaries on social issues, while corporations don’t want to be involved in anything that has spiritual elements.

And so Lydia sold her house back at the beginning of the project and has been working without pay for over two years. What funding there’s been has come from what she and her business partner have contributed, a few small grants, fundraising events, and many individual contributions.

About a dozen people are working for free, and just two people get paid—at a minimal $10 per hour.

There’s great footage, Lydia says, and a lot of people are really enthusiastic about the project. It’s the financial side that’s been causing the problems.

I do feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s really awakened in me my purpose. I guess I just never dreamed it was going to be this hard.

The struggle reminds her of Annie, one of the pilgrims she followed on the Camino.

She had all these fears of what was going to be hard for her. And what [she thought would be] hard turned out to be easy, and what she thought was going to be easy was hard.

Lydia herself didn’t have too many physical difficulties, but suffered at night, listening to the snoring in dorm rooms.

“So I think we all have different challenges,” she says.

For me, making the film itself has not been [the challenge]—I have great material. It’s just getting the money so I can pay people to help me put it together [that] has been the challenge.

Looking to Pilgrims for Help

[The Camino Documentary Cover]

The cover of The Camino Documentary's 23-minute fundraising trailer DVD.
Designed by Deb Jones of Garris Jones Design.

The documentary has gone as far as it has, Lydia says, in large part because of pilgrims’ contributions.

There’s the German pilgrim who decided the six-minute trailer needed German subtitles, and volunteered to do the translation himself.

There’s the Mexican woman living in Spain who is determined to help raise funds.

And there are many more pilgrims who have volunteered their time to transcribe and translate footage.

“It’s people and fellow pilgrims that really give me the inspiration to go on,” Lydia says.

Because there’s times when I feel like I just can’t keep doing this. But it’s other people, it’s the pilgrims that give me the encouragement to keep moving forward.

Now, Lydia is asking for help in a more structured way. Yesterday, she and her team launched the Power of One campaign to ask for donations.

Anyone can donate any amount, and different levels of donation will have different benefits. (Check out The Camino Documentary‘s website for complete information.)

For example, for a US $25 donation, donors will get instant access to the 23-minute film, which introduces the pilgrims’ stories, and has some gorgeous Camino footage. $50 or more will let donors see the completed film upon its release.

Five percent of the money raised will be “given back” to the Camino, half of that to an albergue or other Camino non-profit, and half, through a video contest, to a pilgrim who wouldn’t otherwise be able to walk the Camino.

“If I can get 10,000 people to donate,” Lydia says, “then I’ll be able to make a film.”

Money Matters

Lydia figures she needs US $50,000 to $75,000 to get to a rough cut of a 60-minute documentary—and that’s with her continuing to work for free.

At the rough cut point, it will be basically a watchable film, but will still need work, like colour correction and proper sound. But with a nearly completed film, it should be easier to find a distributor who will pay for the film to be finished.

Then, Lydia hopes, the film will be available on DVD, and shown on various TV stations around the world.

Any money the film makes after its release will go toward paying the people who have been working for free, and then paying the film crew “a living wage, which [the amount they were paid] wasn’t.”

Learn More or Donate

Visit The Camino Documentary‘s website to learn more, watch the six-minute trailer, and/or donate to the project.

You can also check out the Facebook page. Its many comments from pilgrims attest to the immense support the documentary has already received. And by “liking” the page, you can help Lydia show potential backers that lots of people (myself definitely included) are eager to see the finished film.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:45 pm
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Uphill All the Way

[The Alto del Perdón]

Climbing the Alto del Perdón, soon after Pamplona, Spain.

A week or two out of Le Puy, a Swiss pilgrim named Sascha told me he preferred walking uphill to down.

At the time, I thought he was crazy.

I wasn’t in particularly good shape when I set out, and the Le Puy route starts out with the cruelest terrain of the journey to Santiago: a few weeks full of steep ascents and descents.

Going down wasn’t a lot of fun, particularly on rock-strewn paths where the wrong step could send you slip-sliding away, and quite possibly end in a twisted ankle. But with a good walking stick for support, the descents were manageable.

The ascents—particularly the steep ones out of places like Monistrol d’Allier, Conques, and even Cahors—were the worst.

If you’re twenty-eight years old (as I was then), it’s seriously embarrassing to have hordes of French retirees pass you with ease, leaving behind only the echo of the click-click-click of their trekking poles.

You tell yourself it’s because the bulk of their luggage is in a van on its way to the next gîte d’étape while yours is all on your back, and besides, those trekking poles seem to give ordinary people super-human endurance.

But you don’t really believe it, so you push on and on, even though every cell in your lungs is screaming for air.

And then, of course, you end up looking like a fool anyway, when you finally have to stop and your breath comes in shuddering gasps.

If you’re alone on the trail, you take it a little easier: two or three steps, stop, gulp some oxygen, repeat. All the way to the top.

[The descent into Monistrol D'Allier]

The descent into Monistrol D'Allier, near the beginning of the Le Puy route.

But the nice thing about walking for hours each day is that you do eventually get into shape.

I began to understand what Sascha meant around week five. Going up hills was still physically tough, but I could actually breathe rhythmically as I did it. Ascents became a bit of a challenge—sometimes even fun—instead of nearly insurmountable obstacles that might kill me.

After you’ve spent six weeks walking up to them, even climbing the Pyrenees isn’t so bad.

And Sascha was right—the knee-jarringly steep descents really are a lot worse.

Now, I wish I could tell new pilgrims that that’s just how the Camino is: it starts off physically difficult, but it’s all downhill (or uphill, as the case may be) from there.

Alas, it’s not that simple.

It did work like that, for me at least, in terms of being able to walk over hills and mountains. But there are other factors.

[Between Manjarín and El Acebo]

Between Manjarín and El Acebo, in November.

I thought if you got blisters on a hiking trip, they were supposed to come at the beginning, and then fade away as your foot hardens.

It didn’t work like that for me. My blisters (an matched pair on each heel) arrived on the way out of Cahors, a few weeks into my walk.

And then there’s this lassitude that in my experience—and from what I witnessed in others—descends on many pilgrims, often after weeks of walking. It can last for periods of anywhere from a day to around a week.

I figure it’s at least as much mental as it is physical. Even though your body is perfectly willing to sprint up mountains, every action somehow feels like twice as much work.

It may only hit you once, or maybe a couple of times for relatively brief periods. Everyone is different. I also suspect it’s more common among people who are doing longer walks than the Camino Francés.

Of course, the converse of those periods are the times when everything comes together, and each action seems twice as easy and filled with joy besides.

There are a lot of ups and downs—in more ways than one—when you set out to walk the Camino.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:01 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: The End of a Holy Year

I’ve started a new blog schedule this week.

(Of course, you probably weren’t aware there was an old one, but it did exist—in my head.)

On Mondays and Wednesdays (Pacific time—it may often end up being Tuesdays and Thursdays in more distant parts of the world), I’ll continue to publish interviews, thoughts and stories on walking pilgrimage routes, with probably a little more historical content.

On Fridays, I’ll have a roundup of all the walking pilgrimage-related news I’ve come across over the past week, and other miscellaneous things that don’t quite fit into other posts. If you know of anything you think belongs here, please tell me. I definitely can’t keep track of everything.

Please note that a number of my sources are Spanish. My Spanish translation skills aren’t wonderful, and neither are Google Translator’s, but between us we muddle through. The information should be accurate, but I can’t one hundred percent guarantee it.

So without further ado….

The End of the Holy Year

The Puerta Santa has closed, and another Jacobean Holy Year has come to an end. The next isn’t for another ten years, in 2021.

In 2010, according to Pilgrim’s Office statistics, 272,340 pilgrims received the Compostela, up from 145,878 in 2009 and 179,944 in 2004, the previous Holy Year.

You can see a lot of other statistics, including gender, mode of transportation, age, motivation, nationality, profession, starting points, and routes, on the Pilgrim’s Office website. Do keep in mind that these statistics reflect only the pilgrims who received Compostelas—the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago estimates there were 300,000 pilgrims in all.

But despite these statistics, the regions of Navarra, Aragón, La Rioja and Castilla y León actually saw a three to six percent drop in the number of pilgrims that passed through in 2010 compared with 2009. It’s the astronomical number of pilgrims who started in Galicia who account for the large rise in Compostelas.

The director of the Centro de Estudios y Documentación del Camino de Santiago has explained this by saying (as far as I understand) that the majority of pilgrims who go for longer pilgrimages prefer the “soft symphony” of non-Holy Years on the Camino to the “big Jacobean hubbub” of the Holy Year.

Temporary Pilgrim Centre on Saint Olav’s Way

From what I can understand by using an online translator, a temporary pilgrim centre has been set up in Trondheim to help manage, develop and promote Saint Olav’s Way.

This is good news, because it means that the work of the Pilgrimsleden pilot project, which ended in 2010, will continue.

The Camino/Harry Potter Link

Writer and journalist Félix Pacho has just published a series of essays about the history of the Camino de Santiago. One of the stories he tells is of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, familiar to some of us through the first Harry Potter book, who walked the Camino as far as León in search of someone who could translate an old book.

His Camino ended in León because he found the translator he was looking for: a Jewish doctor. The book turned out to be about both turning ordinary metals into gold and the secret of eternal youth. But the doctor died on the way back to Paris with Flamel, leaving the book only partly translated.

So Flamel didn’t get the secret of eternal youth … that time.

According to J. K. Rowling, he did find it eventually in the philosopher’s stone (sorcerer’s stone to Americans), which let him live another few centuries to become a friend of Dumbledore’s.

So … three degrees of separation between Harry Potter and the Camino. Who’d ever have guessed?

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • Spain’s new anti-smoking laws theoretically mean no more smoky bars, but Johnnie Walker reports that people are still smoking in the outdoor sections of bars and restaurants.
  • On December 27, the Spanish soccer team dedicated its 2010 World Cup win to the apostle Saint James.
  • In April of this year, the Santiago Cathedral will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its consecration. There are going to be two big exhibitions: one that tells the story of the cathedral complex, and another that tells the history of “Compostela,” which I believe means the city. There will also be musical concerts as part of the celebration. The cathedral itself will continue to undergo restorations throughout the year, and should be in “full splendor” for the next Holy Year in 2021.
  • As of yesterday, there were two new buses connecting Santiago de Compostela with its airport. From what I can gather, they’re wheelchair accessible, and depart every half hour. The first leaves Santiago at 6 a.m., and the airport at 6:45 a.m. The last leaves Santiago at 12 midnight, and the airport at 12:45 a.m.
  • In further airport news, according to Camino a Santiago on Twitter (yes, I’ve joined Twitter, which is actually a great place to keep up with Camino updates in Spanish), Santiago’s airport won’t have any international flights until spring—bad news, as they say, for foreign pilgrims returning home.
  • According to the mayor of Santiago de Compostela, the city’s historic centre may well be almost completely restored within the next five to seven years. Apparently, the number of the ancient buildings in poor shape decreased from 49.17 percent in 1989 to 16.65 percent in 2008.
  • Five Spanish communities: Euskadi, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and La Rioja, are trying to lure pilgrims north of the Camino Francés. They’ve banded together to produce two pamphlets, together called “Los Caminos del Norte a Santiago.” The pamphlets promote the Camino del Norte, the Camino Primitivo, and the Camino del Interior. The first has information on the route and attractions along the way—it sounds like an overview to attract pilgrims. The second is a practical guide in Spanish, English, French, German and Italian with information about accommodation, shops and hospitals and more. The article doesn’t say where you can get this pamphlet, but I’d assume it’s available at tourist information offices.
  • The lucky people of Dublin will soon have a chance to see The Way, the Emilio Estevez movie about the Camino. The movie will be part of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
  • Raquel Martín, president of the association Amigos del Camino de Santiago en Ávila, reports a substantial increase in pilgrims on the Camino de Levante in 2010 compared to previous years, judging by the number that have stayed in the association’s albergue: 350. He hopes to soon see an albergue in every town in Ávila where pilgrims might stop for the night.
  • Emilene, who is already gearing up for her Camino in 2012, wrote this week about what she suspects are going to be her two biggest Camino challenges: getting lost, and not speaking Spanish. She has an interesting quotation from Tony Kevin, and another (you can decide for yourself if it’s interesting or not) from this blog.
  • Sil, who kindly gave me the words of the Dum Paterfamilas (the original Ultreïa song) the other week, wrote today about why non-religious people have spiritual experiences on the Camino, and speculates that it has to do with connecting with the right (intuitive) side of the brain.
  • Johnnie Walker, who has walked many routes to Santiago and produced guidebooks on some of them, recently published all his on-line videos in a single post. They cover everything from a variety of Camino routes to the Botafumeiro in Santiago Cathedral.
  • Neville Tencer and Julie Burke, whom I interviewed last month about their pilgrimage to Rome, wrote this week about linking the Camino de Santiago with the Via Francigena to Rome.

And that’s it … for this week.

If you have any additions or suggestions, or just want to chat, please do comment or write. Have a great weekend!

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:50 pm
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Becoming a Pilgrim Again


Backpacks outside a store in Carrión de los Condes.

It’s funny what a difference twenty or so pounds can make when you’re walking.

I’ve been walking with my backpack for a week now—the same one-hour circuit I’ve often done unencumbered.

Here’s how it’s gone so far.

Thursday: I loaded the pack up with a stack of books, and a small blanket to fill in the places where light objects are supposed to go. I hardly felt the weight as I walked the route, which involves a few hills but nothing terribly strenuous.

Friday: I added a large trade paperback book. The only difference that day between walking with a backpack and my usual unencumbered stroll, was that the pack kept my back cozy in the sub-zero weather.

Saturday: I added an even larger trade paperback. I’m not sure if it was because of the added weight or because I’d been doing this for three days now, but I noticed the weight as I trudged uphill, and my hips were a little sore by the time I got home.

Sunday: I didn’t add a book, and my shoulders hurt a little.

Monday: I wimped out again and didn’t add any weight again. This time, my shoulders were still stiff and I developed a slight pain in my left heel that disappeared the moment I took my boots off.

Tuesday: I added another book. My shoulders were still a little stiff, but other than that I felt great.

Wednesday (today): My hamstrings were stiff until I stretched them out. Apart from that, I had no problems. I’m obviously going to have to increase my distance and/or add more weight, because my body is getting used to this.

And I have to admit, I rather like having a few aches and pains.

Don’t worry: I’m no masochist. It’s just that the small discomforts make me feel like I’m starting—barely—to get back in shape.

And they remind me, physically, of being a pilgrim.

My body remembers what the walking was like, so the ache in my shoulders, like the mere act of strapping on my backpack, brings a cascade of memories. And then, of course, here I am cataloguing my precise aches and pains, as I’ve done at no other time in my life except while on pilgrimage.

So why am I doing this?

Well, I get more exercise from walking with a pack. And, as I mentioned already, it keeps my back warm.

And then (insert drum roll here) … I’m going to walk the Vía de la Plata/Camino Mozárabe this spring.

I’d been thinking about other routes—particularly Saint Olav’s Way—for my next pilgrimage. But then I realized that right now I just want to walk and walk and walk for as long as possible, so I need a long, relatively inexpensive route. The Vía de la Plata seemed a good choice in that regard.

So I started reading up on the history of medieval Spain/al-Andalus (as the part under Muslim rule was called) since the Vía de la Plata passes through cities and towns that are part of that story.

And, history geek that I am, I’m now totally, absolutely, completely, head-over-heels besotted with this fascinating period. (I’m sure I’ll be inflicting sharing more with you on that in the near future.)

So now I’m reading as much history as I can manage, and counting down the days to my next journey—only slightly hindered by the fact that I don’t yet know exactly which day I’m leaving.

And I’m preparing my body for walking, one step at a time.

* * *

The timing of this post is pure coincidence, but it worked out rather nicely for the first week in the new year. Have you made any exciting resolutions/plans/decisions for 2011?

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:18 pm
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