Category Archives: Camino Francés

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.

[Mountains]

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
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Where To Start Walking on the Camino Francés


[Sheep in the Mist]

If you start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you tackle the Pyrenees on your first day of walking.

This seems to be a common question among people who are planning to walk the Camino: I have X amount of time. Where should I start?

Obviously there’s no one definitive answer, since it depends on more than just the amount of time you have. But I’ll list some questions you can ask yourself to come up with an informed decision.

Although I’m talking specifically about the Camino Francés here, a lot of this could apply to any walking trip.

How much time do you have?

Your main limiting factor is likely to be time and/or money. How much time can you take out of the rest of your life to walk the Camino? If you want to do the full route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles, you’ll probably need four to five weeks.

Another factor that can limit your time is if you have to meet someone at a certain place on a certain day. For example, maybe your mother wants to walk with you for the last week, and doesn’t have time to wait around for you to arrive.

How far are you able to/do you want to walk in a day?

This is tricky if you haven’t done any serious walking. When I started my Camino, I had no idea how far I could walk in a day. I started out averaging about 15 kilometres a day on the Chemin du Puy, but a lot of people seem to walk over 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) every day from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Of course, the best way to figure this out would be to spend a few full days walking at home—preferably on varied terrain. You can’t really tell from the first day alone, since it’s all about the pace you can sustain, but even one day would give you some idea of what you can comfortably manage.

You’ll probably want to consider the terrain when you’re deciding how far you can walk. Other factors include the likely weather (if it’s bad, walking is harder), how fast you can walk, and any injuries you have that might slow you down (an old knee injury, for example).

Do you want to walk over a mountain on your first day?

The first day out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port usually involves a 27-kilometre hike over the Pyrenees. If you don’t want to do that, you should probably start in Roncesvalles or later.

However, you can break up that first day by staying in the gîte d’étape at Orisson, about 10 kilometres out of Saint-Jean. I’ve heard it’s very nice, but like most other other places in France it’s more expensive than Spain.

How much money can you spend?

How much have you budged for the trip? Once you take out one-time expenses like airfare and travel insurance, how much will you have left for day-to-day expenses?

How much do you plan to spend per day?

Consult your guidebook for the latest prices on pilgrim refuges, or hotel rooms, if that’s where you’re planning to stay. Estimate how much you’re likely to spend per day on food and drink. You can save by cooking for yourself and picnicking, or you can eat out a lot. If you want to be on the safe side, you can add a few euros to the amount you think you’ll spend, so you have some money for emergencies … or extra chocolate.

Then, divide the lump sum you have for day-to-day expenses by the amount you plan on spending per day. How many days does that give you? If it’s over 28 to 35 (depending on how far you can go in a day), you should be fine starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, money-wise. Otherwise, you might want to consider starting closer to Santiago.

Is there a part of the route that you most want to see?

Is there a part of the route, or a city, that you just have to see? If so, and you have less than four to five weeks, you might have to consider the next question.

Are you willing to skip parts?

Some pilgrims skip parts of the route by taking the bus or the train, either because of time constraints, to catch up with friends, or to skip a part they don’t think they’ll enjoy. As far as I know, the Meseta is the part of the route that is most commonly skipped. I’ve also heard of people skipping the (very industrial) approaches into Burgos and Léon. You might also have to skip part of the route if you have to meet someone in a particular place at a certain time, and didn’t walk as far as you thought you would.

A disadvantage to skipping is that you often lose the friends you’ve already met on the Camino. And personally, once I’ve started walking, I don’t like to take any other kind of transportation, since it jolts me out of my slow walking-world. But that might just be me.

Do you want to take any rest days?

Sometimes it’s nice to give your feet a bit of a break and turn tourist for a day. Big cities seem to be the most popular places to take a rest day, but there are a lot of nice small towns along the route as well.

You’re only generally allowed to spend one night in each pilgrim refuge, but refuges in all the big cities seem to make exceptions, and allow pilgrims to stay two nights. At least, they did when I was there in October/November. You could also treat yourself, money permitting, and splurge on slightly more up-scale accommodation.

Do you want a Compostela?

To get a Compostela certificate for completing the pilgrimage, you must walk the last 100 kilometres (or cycle or ride a horse the last 200 kilometres), starting around Sarria. People have been known to walk those 100 kilometres in three days, but I’d imagine that’s a pretty intense three days unless you’re in great walking shape to begin with.

How long do you want to spend in Santiago?

After you’ve walked all that way, it’s worth spending a few days enjoying your destination. Santiago is a wonderful city.

So after all that, where should you start?

I hope these questions will give you a bit of an idea. Take the number of days you can walk, subtract rest days and Santiago days and—if you like—a “just in case” day or two. Then multiply the number of days you have left by the number of kilometres you think you can average in a day. The number you have left is the number of total kilometres you should be able to walk. Then you can take your guidebook and find city or large town about that distance away, and check bus/train connections. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, León and Sarria are all common starting places.

Here’s an example: imagine I had thirty days in total, wanted two rest days and two days in Santiago, and figured I could average 25 kilometres per day. I would start with 30, and subtract the four non-walking days to get 26. Then I’d multiply the 26 days by the 25 kilometres I planned to walk each day, giving me 650 kilometres.

Looking at my guidebook, I notice that Estella is 661 kilometres from Santiago. I figure I can handle 11 extra kilometres—especially since that’ll allow me to visit the Fuente del Vino (wine fountain) at the Monasterio de Irache, which is fun. Google tells me there are four buses a day between Pamplona and Estella, so I figure I can get there relatively easily—although not as easily as I’d be able to get to the big cities. But on my hypothetical trip, Estella seems like a good place to start.

P.S.

If you have an extra bit of time, it’s well worth it to start a few days before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, along the Chemin du Puy or one of the other French routes (the three routes you could take all meet up in Ostabat, about a day’s walk before Saint-Jean). That way you get to experience a bit of France, and get used to walking before you have to walk over a mountain.

But be warned: France is more expensive than Spain.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:06 pm
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Speaking Spanish—Or Not—on the Camino Francés


[Fishing Sign]

My friend and I were really curious about this sign that we found along the river after Villafranca del Bierzo. All I could make out was something about freedom without death. I asked a Spanish friend about it later. It turned out to be about releasing fish after catching them.

It’s much easier to survive on the Camino Francés (the main Camino de Santiago route across Spain) if you don’t speak Spanish than it is to walk the Chemin du Puy without speaking French. However, as when travelling in any country, speaking the local language enriches the experience, and makes the trip easier.

If nothing else, it’s worth memorizing “hola” (hi—pronounced oh-la) and “buen camino” (good road—pronounced bwen camino, a common pilgrim greeting) for basic Camino manners.

Talking to Locals

Local people, including shopkeepers and bar owners (bars in Spain are basically a cross between a café and a pub) don’t usually speak English.

In some stores, the shopkeepers serve you. If you don’t know the word for what you want, you should be able to point. In bars and restaurants, it would help if you had someone to translate, since the pilgrims’ menus are only sometimes translated into English and other common Camino languages.

If you get lost, the more you can understand Spanish the easier it is to get back on track. “Pardón, ¿dondé está el camino?” is another helpful phrase. Excuse me. Where is the Camino? If you can’t remember that, I would imagine saying “Camino?” and looking confused (while, of course, looking very pilgrimly with your travel clothes and backpack) will convince people to point you in the right direction.

But while it’s perfectly possible to survive without Spanish, I had a few great discussions with locals I met on the road, sometimes while asking for directions, that I’d never have been able to have without speaking some Spanish.

At Pilgrim Refuges

Some of the hospitaleros and hospitaleras are local Spaniards, but even if they don’t speak English, they’re used to dealing with people who can’t speak Spanish.

In my experience, a lot of the volunteer hospitaleros and hospitaleras spoke at least some English.

Talking to Pilgrims

English is often the common language between pilgrims from different countries on the Camino. I met two Belgians—one from the Flemish part, and one from the French part—who had to communicate in English. And even if someone doesn’t speak English, they can often find someone else to translate.

So if you’re an English-speaker, you might not be able to talk to everyone, but it’s relatively easy to find someone who can talk to you.

Of course, the Camino Francés is very international, so the more languages you speak, the better. I once had a conversation in (fairly bad) Spanish with an Italian woman, because while neither of us was fluent, it was the only language we had in common.

Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish

I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, and my university Spanish professor was from Colombia. I found it harder to understand Spanish in Spain, with its lispy s’s, but after a while I got more or less used to it.

Grammar and vocabulary also differ a bit from one Spanish-speaking country to another. (Learn more here.)

Other Languages Spoken Along the Camino

Spanish-speakers often refer to the language we call Spanish as castellano, or Castilian. That’s because it’s not the only language spoken in Spain.

The first few days of the Camino out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are in Basque country, where the Basque language is spoken. Santiago is in the region of Galicia, where the inhabitants speak Galician, or Galego, which is related to Portuguese. That’s why in both these regions you’ll often see two different names for the same place: one is in Castilian Spanish, and the other is in the local language.

People in these regions also speak Castilian Spanish, so if you do speak Spanish, it’s still easy to communicate.

Learning Spanish

There are a lot of ways to learn some basic Spanish before your trip. Check your local community college listings for classes, or your library or the Internet for courses.

I really like the Pimsleur program for second-language learning. I’ve found it really engrains basic conversational grammar in my head. It has thirty-minute programs that I used to listen to every night while doing dishes, back when I was learning German. Usually I listened to each lesson twice, or sometimes even three times, before moving onto the next. The down side is it’s quite expensive (unless you luck out on eBay), but packages with the first eight lessons are often available at public libraries.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:25 am
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The Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés: Similarities and Differences


Along the Chemin du Puy

The Chemin du Puy, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, is the most popular of the Camino de Santiago routes across France. It joins up with the Camino Francés, the most popular route in Spain, at Saint-Jean-Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

I walked the whole route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in 2008. I really enjoyed both routes, though in some ways they were quite different.

This isn’t intended as a judgment of either route. It’s just meant to give you an idea of the differences between the two so you can decide which to take, or, if you’ve already walked one, you can decide if the other is something you might like to do.

It’s all based on my experiences, and of course yours might be quite different.

The Cost

France was definitely more expensive than Spain. In France (remember this was in 2008), dorm accommodation (in gîtes d’étape) generally cost between 7 and 15 Euros. In Spain, the refugios were usually 3 to 7 Euros.

Dorm Accommodation

The gîtes in France might have been more expensive, but they were also generally nicer than the refugios in Spain. Dorm rooms were usually smaller in the gîtes, there were sometimes single beds instead of bunk beds, and the bunk beds were never shoved together so people had to sleep right next to strangers, as in some cases in Spain.

Also, the gîtes rarely had a time when walkers had to leave (and it was around 10:30 a.m. in the one I can think of that did), while many refugios expected pilgrims to be out by 8 a.m.

Eating and Supplies

[Santiago Cake]

A Delicious Galician Treat: Santiago Cake

In both places, many shops closed for siestas or long lunches. I am convinced there is no single time in Spain when every single shop is open, but I actually found France more difficult in terms of getting supplies. Some shops and bakeries were closed on Sundays, and others on Mondays, or even Thursdays. On the days they were open, they might open for a few hours in the morning, and then close until 5 in the evening. Sometimes they were open Sunday mornings, but closed in the afternoons.

I didn’t actually eat out in France, but I did sometimes get demi-pension at private gîtes, which included a bed in the dorm room, a four-course dinner and a breakfast (usually bread, butter and an assortment of jams and hot drinks). This usually cost 25 to 30 Euros and was always excellent.

In Spain, I sometimes had dinner at a bar (which is like a combination café/pub). The menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) also usually included four courses, but the food wasn’t usually as good as that in France.

In both places, many of the gîtes/refugios had kitchens where walkers could prepare their own meals. In Galicia, however—though this might have changed—many of them didn’t have pots and pans.

Other Walkers/Pilgrims

On the Chemin du Puy, when I was there in September, the vast majority of the walkers were French retirees who were walking for about two weeks (many planned to do the entire route over the course of three years). Many of them saw themselves more as walkers than pilgrims, and only a small number planned eventually to walk to Santiago.

There were also a number of Canadians of all ages from Quebec, and the occasional German, Swiss, Belgian or Dutch walker, many of whom had walked from their own countries.

On the Camino Francés, more people saw themselves as pilgrims, and many were walking the entire route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. The route was much more international, with pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, and North America, and a few from other parts of the world.

Local Welcome

In general, I found locals quite friendly on both routes. They were always helpful when I had to ask for directions in my mangled French or Spanish, or bought supplies.

Along the Chemin du Puy, there were a number of yards with signs where people left out drinks—and in one case tomatoes—available to pilgrims by donation. Especially closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there were also a lot of pilgrim decorations in private yards to encourage us on.

My only bad experiences on the Camino Francés were in Castilla y León. Three times—once alone, and twice when I was walking with a female friend—I had men expose themselves to me. I never felt like I was in any danger, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. My friend and I also had a guy call us bad names as we waited to cross the highway into León.

Language

On both routes, it was helpful to know some of the local language, since many of the locals don’t speak English.

On the Chemin du Puy, I found French was also necessary for talking with the majority of the other pilgrims. On the Camino Francés, on the other hand, a lot of the pilgrims spoke reasonable English or were travelling with someone who could translate.

The Routes

[The Camino in October]

Along the Camino Francés

Both routes were a mix of big cities and villages; hiking paths, country roads, and highways; forests, farms and urban centres.

The Le Puy route was a tougher walk. The first two-thirds or so had a lot of steep ascents and descents, since most of the route was high up, but the towns were generally in valleys. The views were spectacular. Around Moissac it got quite flat, but the views weren’t as incredible. At the right time of year, the vast fields of sunflowers would be pretty amazing, though. Closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrenees foothills, the terrain got more difficult (though not nearly as hard as closer to Le Puy) and the views quite wonderful.

I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the Chemin du Puy had more parts where I had to walk right on a highway. I think the Camino Francés involved more highway walking overall, though—it’s just that much of it was on a special senda del peregrino, which was basically a paved sidewalk next to the highway.

The Camino Francés had some difficult ascents and descents that were worthy of the Chemin du Puy, but not nearly as many. There were a number of absolutely beautiful parts, particularly at the beginning and end of the route. The big cities were generally larger and more industrial than the big cities on the Chemin du Puy.

To compare the elevation profiles of the routes (which give you an overview of the ascents and descents), visit the Camino Planner.

Garbage and Graffiti

There was almost no garbage or graffiti along the Chemin du Puy, apart from the occasional toilet paper patch.

Garbage was—and I suspect still is—a real problem on the Camino Francés route. It also seemed that every region I walked through wanted to separate from Spain, and the vast amounts of graffiti on parts of the route reflected that.

Waymarking

[Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés]

Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés

The Chemin du Puy is waymarked as any other GR (long-distance route in France) with red and white marks on trees, fences, signs, and just about anywhere else. In some regions, there are signs giving the distance to nearby towns, or to Santiago. It’s marked so you can walk it in both directions. (Embarrassingly, this was actually a problem for me one day when I somehow got turned around and walked a few kilometres in the wrong direction.)

The Camino Francés is waymarked in one direction with yellow arrows, scallop shells, and other pilgrim signs.

On both routes, I found the waymarking quite good, though on each there were a few spots where it was relatively easy to get lost.

Churches and Cathedrals

Many of the churches along the Chemin du Puy were open for pilgrims to pray, escape from rain and heat, light a candle, and/or pray. There was never an entrance fee to the cathedrals.

On the Camino Francés, churches were often locked, and there was usually an entrance fee to see parts, or even all, of cathedrals. Instead of real candles and a donation box (as in France), there was usually a machine where, if you put a coin in a slot, a bulb lit up on a candle.

The Routes’ Ends

There’s something incredible about arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a pilgrimage destination for so many centuries. For me, anyway, arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending a journey there couldn’t match entering the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:52 am
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