Tag Archives: Pilgrimage Authors

This Week in Pilgrimage: The Final (For Now) Edition

[Eau potable on the Chemin du Puy]

Photo of the Week
This looks rather spring-y, but I actually took it in late summer, in Rochegude on the Chemin du Puy.

-it’s april(yes,april;my darling)it’s spring!
—e. e. cummings

Okay, so it’s not April. And it’s not actually spring here, either. The only leaves on the trees are dead ones from last year and there’s no sign of the season’s other harbingers: road construction crews and robins.

But it’s coming. It felt positively warm on Wednesday, without even a hint of winter chill.

Apparently if I hit just the right pace, I can keep up with spring all the way from Sevilla to Santiago. Though since I have no intention of walking thirty kilometres per day (just over twenty is more my style), summer is likely to just barely beat me to Galicia.

As of next week I’m going to be scaling down to two posts per week, with no weekly summary. I just don’t have time: I have approximately one million (give or take a few hundred thousand) things to do before I leave in less than a month (!).

But I will still post interesting links to the Pilgrim Roads Facebook page and will try to do more on Twitter, so please do join me there.

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 a long way from perfect.

  • The Roman Vía de la Plata is going to be unburied and restored where it passes through Aldeanueva del Camino in the province of Cáceres. Once the project begins, it’ll take about fourteen months to finish.
  • The first guidebook to the Camino de Inviero was recently published. Apparently there’s a serious lack of signage and albergues on the route. .
  • Representatives of seven municipalities in the province of Málaga recently visited Galicia. They hope to import some of the Camino Francés infrastructure to their branch of the Camino Mozárabe.
  • An old pilgrim hospital (lodging house) in Undués de Lerda on the Camino Aragonés is going to be restored and converted into an albergue and museum.
  • The board of directors of Abraham’s Path/Masar Ibrahim al Khalil is currently walking the entire Palestinian section of the route. You can follow along (they have tons of wonderful photos) on their blog and/or Facebook.
  • The Camino Documentary is holding a benefit in San Francisco on March 14, and is looking for pilgrims in that area to help out.
  • Robert Ward (author of All the Good Pilgrims) has started blogging about his reconnaissance trip along the Via Francigena. He wasn’t actually walking—he hopes to do that later this year—but he has some great stories. You can also keep track of what he’s up to on his brand new Facebook page.
  • The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Jerusalem, which meets on Facebook, has been busy lately. If you’re thinking about a walking trip to Jerusalem, it’s a great place to learn more about the trip.
  • Five municipalities in Castilla y León are asking for a million euros to improve the Camino in their area in a number of ways in order to attract more tourists. .
  • Two Spanish journalists recently walked the Camino Francés with a donkey. The story is in Spanish, but you can get the gist of it through an on-line translator. There’s even a blog, written from the donkey’s perspective.

Ultreïa, everyone, and I hope you all have wonderful weekends!

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:37 pm
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The Templar Trail to Jerusalem: An Interview with Brandon Wilson

[Along the Templar Trail]Brandon Wilson is a author, photographer, travel expert and adventurer. He has walked to the four most important medieval pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela (via both the Camino Francés and the Vía de la Plata) and Trondheim (Nidaros).

I spoke with Brandon last week. He was in the Italian Alps, where he and his wife finished their most recent adventure: a hike along the Via Alpina, which you can read about in Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.

That wasn’t the walk we talked about, though. Rather, we discussed Brandon’s Lowell Thomas Award-winning book Along the Templar Trail, and the route he walked from France to Jerusalem—much of it with a Frenchman he calls Émile in the book.

The route runs 4,223 kilometers (2620 miles) through eleven countries: France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus and Israel.

We talked about the practicalities of the trip, Brandon’s experiences, and his mission to talk to people about peace along the way.

You can download the full interview (length: 36:48) on the very intermittent Pilgrim Roads podcast (to which you can now subscribe in iTunes), listen to it on your computer using the player below, and/or read highlights from the conversation below.

* * *

[Templar Trail map]

A map of the Templar Trail. Visit the Pilgrim's Tales website for more detailed maps.
Graphic courtesy Brandon Wilson.

When Brandon Wilson set off to walk to Jerusalem, one of his two main aims was to blaze a trail others could follow.

Lots of people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Brandon tells me, and increasing numbers of pilgrims take the Via Francigena to Rome.

And after walking those routes—two of the three most important in medieval times— “A lot of the pilgrims I’ve talked to, say, okay, now what?” Brandon says.

I guess the ultimate in the Triple Crown is to walk to Jerusalem. A few people have walked it over the years, but I wanted to try to establish something that people could follow as a path.

He wanted to give pilgrims a rough itinerary, with stages and accommodation along a single route from Europe to Jerusalem.

The route Brandon and his friend Émile followed passed through the cities that Godfrey de Bouillon travelled through with 40,000 men during the First Crusade.

And this brings us to the second purpose of Brandon’s trek. He followed a route that had been used to wage war, while blazing a trail to spread a message of peace.

“It was a purposeful irony,” he tells me.

I did this not only as a walk to establish a trail, but as a personal peace journey and peace trek to talk to people along the way about the necessity to consciously make the personal effort to choose peace over war. This area in particular has been plagued for centuries, and has been a battleground for many different powers pulling on either end.

And I was met with an incredible response along the way, as I talked to people, ordinary people, working-class people who had seen the effects of war. And the effects had not only been losing family members as recently as during the war in Kosovo, to people who have had their cultures and their societies so disrupted, and have suffered through such a cycle of poverty because war not only drains human lives, but it drains resources from countries.

And did his journey—his talking about peace with so many people—make a difference?

[Brandon Wilson]

Brandon Wilson.
Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

“I like to think so,” Brandon says.

Émile walked with a large medieval pilgrim’s staff, which he decorated with the flags of the countries they passed through. And so, the two of them, as Brandon described it, created “a little bit of a spectacle, and something different. Something you wouldn’t normally see walking down beside the side of a road, these two fellows with backpacks, looking like garden gnomes otherwise.”

Their appearance created opportunities to meet and talk with people, Brandon said.

We had a lot of people coming up to us, and stopping us, and saying, “What are you doing?” And that would give us a chance to tell our story.

And we found the story of our passing preceded us down the road. We would have people driving past and waving to us, or even to the point of pulling off the side of the road and giving us food.

They ended up talking about peace on TV in Bulgaria and Turkey, where their interviews ran for ten or fifteen minutes and reached millions of people.

It’s hard to say how much of an effect the two peace pilgrims had, Brandon says. But their actions could spread.

Every action that we make in life, no matter how small, sometimes affects other people in other instances. It creates something. It’s like a snowball effect or it’s like a droplet in the water. It’s only a tiny droplet, one tiny action, but then that action causes a ripple that spreads and spreads and spreads.

And a lot of times that was a metaphor I saw with what we were hoping to accomplish here. That we were simply two pilgrims out walking and talking to people, but I was hoping that this message, and this establishment of the route would grow to more.

A Vision of the Templar Trail


Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

Brandon has heard from a few people he and Émile stayed with along the way. They read Along the Templar Trail and were amazed, Brandon says, because “it ties them all together into this fellowship.”

Many along the route knew it was a path taken by the Crusades. In places like Bulgaria and Serbia, the people are very close to their past, which they remember partly through medieval re-enactments.

In the tradition, of course, it was a path of war. But Brandon wants to change all that.

“Why can’t it be a path of peace? Why can’t it be something that everyday ordinary people from countries all through that area get together and walk side by side like they do on the Camino?” he says.

Can you imagine the power of having a hundred thousand people walking a path, sitting down and sharing meals and stories together, learning that our similarities are greater than our differences, and breaking down those cultural barriers, those religious barriers that politicians and rulers have always set up to set us apart from each other?

There’s a huge potential for human power and the power of the consciousness to change that area. And by simply visualizing peace and working together on that common goal. Of putting one foot in front of another, and stepping and sharing the same trials and tribulations every day. What an incredible difference I think it can make in the long term.

It’s a beautiful dream, but is it likely to happen?

“I think it has everything going for it,” Brandon said.

I think that now more than ever before, we see the necessity for peace and co-operation. And not only avoiding wars, but co-operating on ecological issues, co-operating on issues of human rights and dignity and fair wages and things like that….

In different parts of the world—for example, the European Union—peoples who have been fighting each other are now realizing that times have changed, and it’s now time to join together, Brandon says.

So yes, I think [a peace path to Jerusalem] is possible. It’s going to take a lot of work—and probably more structural work than has been put into it so far, but this is a beginning; this is a genesis; this is a seed. If anything, in my own life, it would be great to be able to look back 30 or 40 years from now and say, yeah, this was something that started when two men with backpacks started out from France.

Brandon would like to do more to develop the route, and would welcome anyone else who would like to join him.

The Kindness of Strangers

[French Canals]

Walking along a canal in France.
Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

As they walked, Brandon and Émile met a number of people Brandon refers to as “angels”—people who went out of their way to help the two pilgrims.

One of their first angel experiences came when they were walking along a canal in France in the pouring rain. They were hungry, thirsty and cold, but there were no restaurants where they could stop.

Brandon saw some tables set out in a yard and joked that they should ask if they could buy a cup of coffee.

And [Émile] looked at me like I was a little crazy, and he said, “Okay, sure, all right.” And we walked over, and just as we approached the door, a man stuck his head out.

The two pilgrims asked about coffee, and the man said they were at his house, not a restaurant. But he invited them inside to his cozy kitchen, where his children—home from school for lunch—sat around the table. The man offered them wine, and then homemade lentil soup.

As we sat there, we were amazed by his generosity, that he brought his kids out and they entertained us, as little kids will do. And then his wife came in, and we talked for a while. And then we found that an hour had passed—and we’d had such a delightful time with these people, these total strangers—and we found we had to excuse ourselves.

I remember distinctly them standing at the door, outside in the rain, waving to us as we set off down the road again. And it was such a touching moment.

I had to say to Emile, “Is this typical in France?” Because I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening in America.

And he said, “Oh yes, you’ll find people are like this in the countryside.”

And that was the beginning of it.

Brandon walked for about four and a half months, and met an “angel” nearly every day.

It became almost as if we no sooner imagined it, we no sooner said, boy, I wonder where we’re going to stay tonight, than someone came forward offering us a place to stay. There was this connection, this eerie connection. …

I was amazed time and time again about the bounty of the world, and how we’re so caught up with feeling emptiness in some ways when there is such bounty, and people willing to share it. And it transcended countries, and it transcended religion.

One day Brandon was walking alone in Turkey. He was in the desert, and out of water. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to the next town.

Then he saw a watering trough for cattle near the road, and went down to it.

“I was pretty desperate at that point,” he says, looking back on that day. But the water was green.

Just then I looked up, and there were two men standing there. And I said, “Can you drink this water?”

And they said, “Why, are you thirsty?”

I said yes.

And they said, “Are you hungry?”

I said, “Well, always. I’m a pilgrim. I’m always hungry.”

And they said, “Well, come with us.”

Brandon followed the men, total strangers, to the other side of an olive grove. Their families had set out a picnic there.

And there was more food there than I had seen in months. There was watermelon and bread and things to drink and all types of food. And they motioned to me to sit down and started passing all the food my way.

And we talked for a while, and they said, “What are you doing out here?”

I said, “I’m walking on a peace path to Jerusalem.”

And they said, “Well, what is peace?” Because they didn’t speak very much English—this is all semi-miming.

I said, “No war, no guns.”

And they said, “Bravo, bravo. We believe in peace, too.”

We talked for a while, and there was so much joy and such happiness in sharing this with them. And finally they started packing everything up, back in the van. They said they were going to the beach, which they would reach in another couple of hours. It would take me five or six days.

They left all the food in front of me.

And I said, “What about this?”

And they said, “This is for you. This is our gift for you.”

I was so touched by that. I was like the family dog left alone at the family table. I didn’t know where to begin, and I hated to waste anything.

But there were those sorts of incidences all the time. And it reassured me about the goodness of human nature.

I ask Brandon if we Westerners have lost the ability to accept kindness like that with grace.

“I think we have,” he says.

I think somewhere along the line, not only showing kindness to strangers but accepting kindness have been somewhat foreign to us. We’ve become so closed in, and so guarded and protective of what we have, and we forget the blessedness of giving, which is a basic tenet of all religions and faiths. The kindness of strangers and to share. And, like you said, the ability to accept it graciously, and to pass it forward.

As a pilgrim, Brandon says, you have to look at what’s really necessary.

It’s letting go of preconceptions, it’s putting yourself—throwing yourself, literally—out there in the universe.

I walk without a cell phone. I don’t have a big dog or pepper spray. I don’t carry a gun, and sometimes I have a stick, but that’s for hiking purposes.

But [pilgrimage is] placing your trust in your faith that you’ll be taken care of. And that you’re doing what you should be doing at that particular point. And that letting go, that’s a huge obstacle for people. It’s again something that’s outside of generally our comfort range these days.

So many people went out of their way to help, or encourage, the pilgrims—in part, Brandon suspects, because they wanted to be part of such an epic walk.

I sensed that a lot of people wanted to participate. They wanted to help us and feel a part of this journey. And [they did] so, by giving us food or giving us a place to stay, or just encouragement—we’d have people on the road who would drive by and beep their horns at us. And as long as they weren’t shaking their fist, I took that as a good sign.

Dangers of the Journey

There wasn’t only peace and kindness on Brandon and Émile’s journey. Sitting in a café in Belgrade one day, they found that fighting had broken out between Lebanon and Israel. The two countries were bombing each other.

“This is the last thing we wanted to hear at that point, because on a trip like this, even though you do have a certain amount of faith, you don’t want to do something stupid,” Brandon says.

You have faith, but you don’t want to step in front of a bus. And this was a potential bus. …

The media was seriously talking about this being the beginning of a World War III. There were some serious rumblings. And in talking to people back in the States—my wife in particular—she said, “Maybe you should think about coming back.”

And for me it took a lot of deep soul-searching about what I should do. I couldn’t speak for Émile because it’s a very personal trip and we each have to make our own decisions on something like this. But I thought, let’s give it some time. Let’s give it a couple of weeks or several weeks, and by the time we get to Istanbul, then we can decide what we’re going to do.

By the time they reached Istanbul, the Israel/Lebanon conflict wasn’t as bad, but there were other warning signs: an attempted attack on the American embassy in Damascus, tourists shot in Jordan, and an Ebola-like virus in eastern Turkey.

Émile, who was quite ill by that time, decided to go home. Brandon continued on, but he decided to take a safer route—and another Templar trail—through Turkey and across Cyprus.

The Walking


Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

Brandon and Émile followed canals in France, and then took the Donauradweg bicycle route from Bavaria, across Germany and Austria and into Slovakia. From Budapest, they were able to follow bike routes through most of Hungary.

In Serbia, the walking changed. The two pilgrims took country roads when they could, passing through fields and woods when they could find a pathway. But sometimes they had to walk along the highway.

“The first part of Turkey was fine, but coming into Istanbul, the city stretches probably two days’ walking in each direction,” Brandon says.

So a lot of times we found ourselves out there competing with a lot of traffic, and a lot of buses, and a lot of heavy trucks. This became dangerous, and we’d always have to be on our toes.

It wasn’t a path in that sense like the Camino de Santiago, where everything’s nicely marked, and you’re away from the traffic, and there’s nice little arrows every fifty yards. We were out there blazing trails, and unfortunately in some instances these days, those trails are pretty busy.

There are other route options, but the two couldn’t meet up with the GR trails (European long-distance walking pathways) where they existed, because the GR routes passed through mountains, and Émile’s health was bad.

One of the pair’s problems was that Émile had been responsible for bringing maps, and these ended up being road maps without detailed walking information, so the pilgrims had to pick up information as they went along. In the future, Brandon hopes pilgrims will be able to connect with GR paths, or at least get onto safer country roads more often.

Most days, Brandon and Émile walked 30 or 35 kilometres, but some days were longer.

“I remember one day in particular, there was a 50k day, which was really really difficult,” Brandon says.

“Especially since it was through Turkey, and again I was in arid conditions walking by myself out in the middle of nowhere with very little food or water. It was near ten o’clock at night by the time I finally arrived, so it was in excess of a twelve-hour hiking day.


Brandon says he averaged US $31 per day on the route.

In France, he and Émile stayed with Émile’s friends. In Germany and Austria, they often stayed in pensions, zimmer freis and bed and breakfasts. From there on, they stayed in hotels, or whatever other accommodations they could find.

But even Germany and Austria weren’t hugely expensive, Brandon says. The pensions had enormous breakfasts, “which would take you take you at least until lunch if not beyond. We’d have meat and cheese and bread and pastries and coffee and juice and milk and muesli. There were virtual feasts every morning, so we would load up on those. It’s still very affordable.”

In Germany and Austria, they also stayed in monasteries and convents whenever they could. Brandon carried a letter from a monsignor at the Vatican and another from a Catholic university, both introducing him and Émile as pilgrims. With the letters in hand, they would ask for refuge from monks and nuns.

Even at pensions and bed and breakfasts, the two sometimes got a pilgrim discount after they explained what they were doing.

Women on the Trail

I ask Brandon if, as far as the route is safe at all, he thinks it would be safe for a woman or women to walk on their own.

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” he says.

Of course, women walk on their own on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but on a route like this, Brandon says, people aren’t aware yet that “you’re not just some Westerner out there walking. So I would exercise a lot of caution for single women that would be attempting this now. And also in a practical sense, I think it’s a lot more fun to walk it with someone else.”

Ultimately, he adds, “You just have to use your own good judgment.”

And Back to Peace


Photo courtesy Brandon Wilson.

I ask Brandon if he has anything he’d like to say before we wrap up. He pauses for a moment before replying.

“I think what it comes down to is a lot of times making a personal choice about the type of world we want to live in,” he says.

Someone once asked Mother Theresa, if there was an anti-war rally, would she attend? And she said, “No. Because I’m not anti-anything, I’m pro. I’m pro-peace.” She said, “If you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be the first person in line.”

I think that’s a bit of wisdom, and I think what we need to do is change our way of thinking and make sure it’s always pro. It’s pro-peace, pro-action, pro-relief of many of the ills that affect us today. Because the human mind has an amazing strength. And the strength of putting this many billions of lives and wills together, it’s impossible almost to imagine what’s accomplishable.

And the funny thing is, in a lot of ways … a lot of the lessons learned on the trail are metaphors for a larger lesson in life, and a larger challenge in life. But the beginning of solving any problem is that first step. And just as simple pilgrims start with a first step, we start with a first step in our own lives.

A passage from the end of Brandon’s book, Along the Templar Trail, sums up his conclusions.

We’re all pilgrims, each on their own path, each with their own story to tell. Walking is only a first step, but one we can each take to discover the peace within. And that way eventually war would become unconscionable, darkness will be dispelled with light, one person, one step at a time.

Walking, helps us reconnect with nature and “meditate in our own way, through that discovering a peace within that we can then carry back to our families, to our work, to our communities,” Brandon says.

So again, it’s the droplet in the pond that’s spreading.

* * *

To learn more about Brandon Wilson, his adventures and his books, visit the Pilgrim’s Tales website. You can find Along the Templar Trail on Amazon.com. Also, check out Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.

The Pilgrim’s Tales website also has information for aspiring pilgrims to Jerusalem, including a rough map and description, and a list of stages and their lengths.

The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Jerusalem Facebook page is also a great place to learn more about the pilgrimage.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 6:17 pm
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This Week in Pilgrimage: A New Bridge on the Finisterre-Muxía Route


Photo of the Week
I passed innumerable fields of sunflowers on the Chemin du Puy around Moissac. Unfortunately, I was a little too late in the season, and most fields had either dying sunflowers, headless sunflowers, or the dead remains of sunflowers. So it was very exciting to come across this field of blooming sunflowers.
If you have a photo you'd like to see here, please get in touch.

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.

So here’s what I’ve found this week. As always, please write if I’ve missed something.

  • A new bridge on the route between Finisterre and Muxía has made walk safer. Previously, the dangerous river crossing on sometimes-submerged stepping stones discouraged some pilgrims from walking the route.
  • The Archdiocese of Santiago recently held a mass in honour of the pilgrims who died on the Camino in 2010. You can visit this link for more information on the pilgrims and their deaths.
  • I just learned about the Caminho da Fé, a pilgrimage route in Brazil that was inspired by the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims follow yellow arrows along the approximately 400-kilometre route, which has a variety of starting points, and ends in Apareceda. The Apareceda basilica houses Our Lady of Aparecida (Nossa Senhora Aparecida), Brazil’s patron saint.
  • As of tomorrow (January 22), there will be a donativo refuge in Alcalá de Guadaíra, on the Cádiz extension to the Vía de la Plata. It’s 1.5 kilometres off the highway. This is apparently the first refuge to open on the route from Cádiz to Seville. For some reason this news really makes me want to start the Vía de la Plata in Cádiz, but I suspect that’s impractical.
  • The Camino de Levante seems to have been more popular than ever in the last year. The number of pilgrims who stayed in the Ávila refuge increased by 60 percent from 2009 to 2010. Almost 85 percent were men, and the majority were Spanish, followed by French pilgrims, Germans and Italians. Nearly 54 percent arrived on foot, and close to 45 percent were cyclists. I wonder if the huge increase is related to the Holy Year, or if it’s at least partially a sign that the route is becoming more popular.
  • Samos Abbey, which is on a variant of the Camino Francés, is going to house an ethnographic museum about food along the Camino. (You have to scroll down to find the story—the site doesn’t allow links to specific pages.) The museum will have photos, recipes, products for purchase, and more.
  • Apparently there’s controversy around Santiago’s new City of Culture, which I mentioned last week. To learn more, visit the link, which is to an article in English. (Via Falcon269.) If you’re interested, you can a virtual glimpse of the City of culture through this video.
  • Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are going to write a joint memoir called Along the Way, which is scheduled for publication in June 2012. It sounds like their time on the Camino Francés while filming The Way will be a central part of the book.
  • For the ninth year running, crowds gathered in the ruins of the Hospital de Peregrinos de San Antón to celebrate the festival of Saint Anthony. (The Camino Francés passes through the ruins just before Castrojeriz.) A priest celebrated mass, and after the Eucharist he—as part of an old tradition—blessed the animals in attendance, which included rabbits, dogs and goats. The modern ritual is based on a 1745 text that outlines the blessing ceremony as practiced by Antonian monks for centuries.
  • Those of you who understand French (it’s too fast for me) might be interested in this YouTube video about a group of people who are helping a paralyzed man get to Santiago. He’s on what looks like a stretcher mounted on a single bicycle wheel.

Coming Up on Pilgrim Roads

Next week, I’ll post the story on the Springfield High School students who are planning a walk along the Camino Francés this summer.

I’ll also be talking with Brandon Wilson about his book Along the Templar Trail and the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem that he hopes others will travel. I should be able to post the interview relatively soon.

And Andy from Pilgrimpace’s Blog has kindly agreed to an e-mail interview on walking the Camino de Levante and his experience of how “the walking becomes the praying.” We should have that ready for you within the next few weeks.

¡Buen Camino a todos!

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:10 pm
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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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Interview with Pilgrims to Rome: Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

[Noceto, Italy]

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

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

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

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

[The Route Napoleon]

The Route Napoleon
Photo courtesy Julie Burk and Neville Tencer

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

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

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

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

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

[Neville Tencer and Julie Burk]

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

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

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

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

Are you fluent in Italian?

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

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

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

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

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

[Sign on the Colle del Gran San Bernardo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy]

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

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

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

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

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

What was your best experience on the journey?

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

And your worst experience?

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

[An Italian Odyssey]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:28 am
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