I photographed a donkey in Santiago’s pilgrim office when I was there at the end of May. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Sarah De Martín (thanks, Sarah!), I discovered that the donkey was named Praline. She walked some 1,900 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago—from her home in France to Finisterre—with Roland Garin.
Roland was kind enough to answer my questions about walking with Praline. Thanks also to Aude Verbeke, a friend from my first Camino, for editing my translation from the French. (Ici est la version française.)
Anna-Marie: Was this your first time walking the Camino?
Roland: I walked previously on the Camino de Santiago from Lyon to Le Puy to train myself. The first time was with two donkeys. Praline was accompanied by her friend Amandin. The second time with Praline alone, and then we did the GR-70. It’s also called “The Stevenson” in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer, the author of the adventure novel Treasure Island.
Where did you begin your walk?
We left from Saint-Pierre-la-Palud, a village of 2,500. It’s 25 kilometres from Lyon, in a region that we call here “les monts du Lyonnais.” We took the following route: Saint Pierre to Le Puy to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela to Muxia to Fisterra. It was around 1,900 kilometres in 77 days of walking.
Why did you decide to walk with Praline?
Why with Praline? That’s a good question! Some people go alone, with a friend, with their wife…. Me, I like donkeys. (There are four at my house.) Praline is my walking partner and since we’ve been walking together we’ve made a good couple. Between us there is a complicity and an affection that only donkey owners can understand.
What was the best part of walking with a donkey?
As I told you already, when there’s complicity between the man and the animal, it’s a true pleasure. Praline regulates the walk: it’s not the man who guides the donkey! The man walks in the footsteps of the donkey. I must confess that I’m lucky to have an exceptional animal. I talk to her all day and even if some people are skeptical about this, I know she listens and understands every word … to the right … to the left … straight ahead. Sometimes she follows the marks on the way before I have the time to tell her! I am very lucky.
The worst part?
There’s no worst part with a donkey! It’s a question of education … the donkey is a very intelligent animal. Some say that it’s one of the most intelligent species of animal in the world. Unlike a horse, you don’t train a donkey: you educate him.
All is complicity, sweetness and patience … you don’t impose your will on a donkey! Some say that the donkey is stubborn. That’s not true; he thinks … he analyzes the road, the danger, the sounds. When a donkey doesn’t want to advance, it’s up to the man to understand why. And when the man becomes as intelligent as the donkey, all goes well!
Where did Praline sleep?
At night I slept in a tent and Praline slept beside it. Donkeys sleep very little and they use the night to eat. Praline felt secure to know that I was next to her. Sometimes I slept in gîtes d’étapes … she was very unhappy and that caused problems because she didn’t stop braying all night. The other pilgrims didn’t always appreciate that!
Did she need special food while walking?
Above all, don’t supplement a donkey’s diet. The donkey is a rustic animal; he is happy with grass and hay. And fresh water … and, as a reward for working all day, a fruit or a crust of stale bread. If you really want to make him happy, a handful of crushed barley…. But he himself needs to carry it … so….
Did you have any difficulties walking through cities?
Walking in a city isn’t always easy. The man with a steering wheel in his hands thinks he’s master of the world, so he often becomes the worst of the boors and cretins. I’ve never had a problem going through big cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago). Praline is used to cars and they don’t bother her.
I was especially afraid of being stopped by the Guardia Civil, because some guides specified that donkeys and horses were forbidden to pass through cities. But I never had any problems. On the contrary, representatives of the police force made me feel very welcome. I even took some photos with them. The biggest difficulty was crossing certain metal bridges. Praline didn’t want to! So we had to avoid them … and all went well.
The most dangerous thing wasn’t the cities, it was when we had to walk along national roads with heavy traffic. The trucks were fast and made a lot of noise, so any animal could have been scared…. I had to stay close to Praline to give her confidence. The worst is when people honk their horns … but I can’t blame them: it comes from a good sentiment. They want to say hello to us.
How far did you walk each day?
That depended on the road, on the place: we walked better in the forests than in the cities. It also depended on the altitude of the stage. As I told you already, it’s not the master who commands; it’s the donkey who controls the speed on the path. It depends on whether the road is rugged or easy. We did some 20-kilometre stages, but also some stages of almost 40 kilometres. But our average walking was 25 kilometres per day.
Do you have a favourite story about Praline on the Camino?
There are hundreds of stories about Praline. In fact, she’s started to write her memoirs…. The book should be 600 pages! We work every day to write this work. Praline dictates her impressions to me and I transcribe them on the keyboard. It’s not fast, because she is very, very demanding and often the work from Monday goes in the garbage on Tuesday. But we have done the Camino together … so we also write together.
The most fantastic story is that not a single day went by in Spain without someone wanting to buy Praline from me. Someone even tried to steal her! Each time someone asked me “Se vende? se vende?” I answered no, obviously. But the people insisted, so I said: “Okay, 30,000 euros … 50,000 euros with the equipment.” The exorbitant price discouraged the buyers. But I confess I would have been very annoyed if someone had accepted, because I wouldn’t be separated from my Praline for all the gold in the world.
Where is Praline now? Does she live with you?
Praline is in her meadow, next to the house in the village of Saint-Pierre-la-Palud. She is with Cadine, Florentine and Kakao. She rests, waiting to go out on another journey … maybe at the end of the month of September we’ll go on a fifteen-day hike in the centre of France. Sometimes on Sundays, we go on walks through villages, and meet people who are interested in the Camino de Santiago. We speak of the association “Le Chemin Pour Tous” (The Camino for All) which takes some people with disabilities to Santiago every year.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Other things that I want to talk about…. I’m going to write about them mainly so that others may benefit from my experience on the Camino. I want to tell them about the beauty, the hazards, the fantastic events but also, because nothing should be concealed, about the hardships of the road.
It’s the road of stars … but you know, both roses and brambles have thorns.