Many of the people I have met since I did my first Camino in 2017 tell me how much they want to do it. Most folks will never get around to walking it. Well, I am here to guide you.
What is your motivation to walk the Camino? In my case, I had dreamt about it for years, but it took my father’s passing for me to finally commit. Maybe you have heard from a few pilgrims that it was a cool experience? Or maybe you have a higher motivation. Although it is bad Camino etiquette to ask pilgrims why they are walking (it is none of your business, you can read more pointers here), most folks do it in between jobs, after college, to “find themselves.”
You 100% should walk the Camino. For clarity, for healing, for your mental, spiritual, and physical health, to get to know the country in a way not even Spaniards know, for culture: history, architecture, art, food, etc., to disconnect from civilization (you are not walking the Appalachian trail), but just walking for hours on end each day means that you are not looking at a screen for those hours, and yes, for fun.
Your first task is committing, maybe therein lies the issue.
Your next step is to figure out how much time you have. For the full enchilada, you are going to need thirty something days. Or you can do a shorter Camino like the Primitivo which will take you around 12 days. Any less and you are really cheating yourself out of the transformative experience that is the Camino. Sure, you only need to walk 100 km (62 miles) -less than a week- to get your Camino certificate, your Compostela, but if you are walking the Camino to hang a certificate on your wall, you might as well just go to Disney World.
Once you know how much time you have, take a look at all the different Caminos, you can start in Paris, Geneva, Madrid, Lisbon, Bordeaux, you name it. The Camino starts at your doorstep.
Money. The Camino in Spain is relatively inexpensive. You can get away at 30 Euros a day. You will need more if you want to stay in hotels instead of Albergues, and much more if you are going to walk in France or anywhere else in Europe. On the other hand you will need much less if you camp and/or if you make all your own meals.
Then you make your travel plans: planes, trains, buses, whatever.
And your equipment, there are a million YouTube videos on this, even I have written about it here.
This is a follow up on my surprisingly popular What shoes to wear on the Camino post (which you can read here).
This Summer I walked my third full Camino, the Primitivo (you can read about that here) and it was awesome! It is a relatively short Camino of 320 km (200 mi.) which I managed in 11 days. Part of what made it great was my shoes…
This year I switched from Salomon to the Nike Pegasus Trail 3, and they were fantastic: great support, cushioning, grip, comfort, weight (or lack thereof). Overall a 10. I did get one blister, but it was not the shoe’s fault, it was the wearer’s fault for doubling up a stage and walking 40 plus km (25 miles) with the last 20 km (12 mi) on tarmac on a warm day; I deserved it.
Let me reiterate that if you are walking the Camino in the Summer, you normally do not need boots, unless they are really lightweight, and you need the ankle support. Trail running or hiking shoes are the best option, much lighter, more breathable, etc.
Of course, every foot is different, but I wholeheartedly recommend this shoe!
Have you done the Camino with Nike Pegasus Trail 3? What was your experience like? If not, what shoes do you recommend? Let us know in the comments!
The only good thing about the A Pociña de Muñíz albergue when I stopped for breakfast was that while they ripped me off with a 2 Euro filtered coffee when their real coffee machine sat idle right there, was that they recommended that I take the Soutomeride variant that goes through an ancient forest and by an equally ancient church instead of by the “main” Camino.
So there I was, still fairly early in the morning, walking and meditating as I entered this age-old forest with 350-year-old chestnuts, among long ago ruined buildings covered with every plant imaginable that I arrived at the back of the aforementioned church of San Salvador de Soutomerille. I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of four pre-Romanesque horseshoe windows. Never had I seen such beautiful, old windows on a building, in what appeared a semi abandoned church in the middle of an enchanted forest.
But wait. At that moment as I approached the church taking a picture of the window, I heard an angelical voice coming from inside.
What is going on? How can this old church that probably does not even have electricity, in the middle of a forest have music? Do they have some sort of record player? Spotify? And the voice, it is angelical, and the music, sounds like Hildegard von Bingen. I am mystified, baffled, confused, and ecstatic all at the same time. The singing stops and I slowly walk around the tiny church. There, by the door is Ingrid, a German pilgrim and amateur singer who was singing through a broken panel on the door to check out the acoustics. A very human and perfectly reasonable occurrence, but for me it was a mystical experience.
You do not believe my story? Turn up the volume and watch the video below…
BTW if Ingrid or anybody that knows German pilgrim, amateur singer Ingrid reads this please leave a comment below!
The Camino Primitivo is not only the original Camino, but also the most intense. Yes, it is half the distance of the other “main” Caminos, The Francés and the Norte, but what it lacks in length, it makes up plenty in beauty, ruggedness, physicality, and authenticity.
As you know I had been planning this Camino since I finished the North route last year. It did not disappoint. Here is the story:
Around the year 800, a hermit in Galicia called Paio (or Pelagius) was guided by lights and angels to St. James’ tomb. After telling his local bishop, king Alfonso II “El casto” went to check out what the fuss was about, thereby creating the first pilgrimage. As the Reconquista developed, new routes were established leading to the North and eventually the Francés route, which is today the most popular.
So, I took a train to Oviedo, the ancient capital of Spain during the Moorish occupation. It is a high-speed train only halfway, as the mountains that separate the plateau from the shore has not been breached by the high-speed line yet, making it is a five-hour journey. I arrived in Oviedo just in time to run to the albergue -an old seminary- before it closed!
I shared room with Vicente, a retiree from Valencia whom I would continue to bump into well into the Camino.
Downtown Oviedo is lovely, clean, and full of sculptures! It is so cool! The walk out of town was pleasant enough, and soon you are in the middle of the countryside in total pilgrim mode. The first day is an easy 24Km to Grado, where I had been years ago with my Land Rover. A dip in the frigid river quickly got rid of the day’s hiking inflammation. The albergue is an old horse brokerage house, and there is a cute town square with restaurants and a working church where the priest is happy to give me a pilgrim’s blessing.
The second day brings the first important climbs of the pilgrimage. With hot temperatures and sun, the last climb took a toll, but fortunately I would not have to tackle it first thing next morning.
The next five days are a thing of beauty. I chose the Hospitales variant which takes you up over the tree line for a day of ridging 1000 mts over sea level. Amazing, you do not even miss the cafés! The following three or four days are just as impressive: natural, rugged, and fairly uncivilized. although without the altitude,
About halfway through you cross the grassy paths of Asturias to the dense forests of Galicia. After the city of Lugo with its amazing Roman walls, you have a day of a lot of asphalt, although the views are lovely, your feet pay the price. Then you have a final day of hillside living, before merging into the popular Camino Francés with all the “tourists” doing just the last 100 km (62 miles) to say they have done the Camino. So, the last three days are crowded and rainy on top of that.
But nothing compares to arriving at the plaza del Obradoiro and standing in front of the Cathedral. For me it was 310 km (200 miles) in 11 days.
The Cathedral has been totally renovated and I could finally go down to the crypt to see the tomb of St. James third time is the charm –it had been closed for restoration all my previous times. Lunch was at the amazing Santiago market, where I had the best hake I have ever tasted. With no train spots available that day, a flight to Madrid that afternoon ended my adventure.
How does it compare to the other Caminos? Well, the obvious facts are that while shorter, it is indeed more intense, beautiful, natural, and rugged. I loved every step of it, even the hard climbs and descents.
Shoes are arguably the most crucial element in your Camino kit. You are going to walk many hours a day for many days. The number one issue with pilgrims is blisters. You have been warned.
I am really excited to walk my third Camino this Summer, and I needed new shoes. For my first Camino I used Salomon XA Pros, and they were formidable I did the whole Camino with nary a blister (I might have gotten a couple of “hot spots” -pre-blisters- but never developed full blisters).
For my second Camino I chose the same shoe, only newer model in bright blue. Unfortunately, these did not perform as well as the first pair, and I ended up losing both my big toenails, twice (yes my toenails were cut very short, but wet feet in a steep downhill are going to slide). If you have never lost your toenails, it is not painful, but it is a bit of a nuisance, and they take almost a full year to grow back out.
This year I did my homework. I did a comparative spreadsheet checking out a few internet websites. (attached) –it is in no way comprehensive, or professional– it is just a few references from a few random running shoe websites. Once I had my ranking, the move was to find the best price, that is where the Palm Beach Outlets come into the picture. New Balance, Nike, and Asics all have shops there, and the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 came in as the best ranked at the best price. I “broke in” the Nikes during Easter break and loved them! I will give you a full report after my Camino…
Here are a few pointers on Camino shoe buying:
Unless you are doing the Camino in the Winter, you do NOT need boots. Most pilgrims walk in the warmer months, and you do not want your feet baking inside of boots.
I once met a very bright German pilgrim; PhD in math, an internet startup in Berlin in their fourth round of capitalization… but his feet looked like steak tartare from wearing Alpine hiking boots!!
On the other hand, you do not want to wear sneakers/running shoes/tennis. They are not designed to pound the ground for miles with a backpack on, and you will also soon develop blisters.
The ideal shoes are trail running/hiking shoes. They are designed for this kind of thing.
When you are at the shop, with the laces undone, inch your foot all the way forward, you should be able to put a finger between your heel and the shoe. This means that your shoe should be half a size to a full size bigger than your “normal” shoes. Your feet will expand when walking for hours every day.
Gore-Tex or no Gore-Tex? When it rains, your feet will eventually get wet, Gore-Tex or not. So, I opt for NO Gore-Tex, this way when it is not raining my feet will breathe, and when it rains, they will get wet either way. Remember if you are in the Gore-Tex club you are going to have to stop and take your shoes and socks off every so often to let them breathe a bit. A rhythm busting nuisance when you are walking.
Soles: the terrain you are going to walk on is going to differ vastly from long stretches on tarmac (yuck) to grassy fields, but most of your walking is on dirt tracks, so you do not need a super aggressive pattern (unless again, you are going to walk in the mud of winter)
Once you have your shoes, make sure you break them in. Try to walk at least a few miles with your new shoes in order to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
Your feet do most of the work on the Camino so make sure you take care of them! Remember to have your toenails cut very short.
A whole blog post could (and might) go into socks. For the time being remember wool and no stitching…
As the Summer approaches and I get closer to walking the Camino again, my excitement increases with every passing day. So what was my surprise during my Christmas break that the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid had an exhibit about the Camino!
I went with my old student Hikaru from Japan. The exhibit was very extensive with lots of photos, artifacts from musical instruments to books, including the first ever travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus!
One of my many surprises came when I saw a book about the Camino from my father’s teacher Walter Starkie. My dad had always spoken about Starkie’s scholarship with the Roma folks in Spain, but he never mentioned his passion for the Camino.
All in all it was a beautiful exhibit and now I am even more fired up for my pilgrimage this Summer, as I attempt the Camino Primitivo, the first pilgrimage done by King Alfonso II from Oviedo to Santiago…
Every day that passes I am closer to getting back on the Camino. This Summer I hope to walk the Primitivo, from Oviedo to Santiago, the same one that king Alfonso II -the first pilgrim- did sometime around 840 to check out St. James’ tomb. It is apparently the most rugged and thus the most beautiful although it is only 14 stages at 314 km (about 195 miles).
The other day I saw this beautiful video/love letter from Condé Nast Traveler, which while not 100% authentic, it does capture the spirit of the Camino, so I am sharing it with you in this tender time that is Christmas.
As soon as people find out I have done the full Camino Francés AND the Camino del Norte they always ask the obvious question: which is better? Well, here are my thoughts.
Like everything else in life, it is all about your personal tastes, the purpose of your Camino, etc.
The French way has more varied terrain, switching every few days. You get the Pyrenees on day one, then the rolling hills of Navarra, blending into the vineyards of La Rioja, eventually you get to the agricultural hills of Burgos, before hitting the plains of the plateau of Palencia and Leon before arriving at the hills of El Bierzo and the ancient Celtic hills of Galicia. The North or Coastal route on the other hand is amazing beach after amazing beach, and amazing forest after amazing forest, oh, and the only flat bits are the beaches, the rest of the time you are going up or down, which makes this route much tougher physically, but extremely rewarding as you are never more than a day or two away from the sea.
Also since this was the predominant trail in the late Middle Ages, the French way has a lot of history and a powerful spiritual charge, every chapel, every church, and cathedral just has this literally awesome, moving presence. By contrast, the Northern trail was abandoned in favor of the Francés as the Moors were driven out of the peninsula so, in fact, you are walking a much newer trail without so much of the spiritual aspect.
Food is probably better on the North route, as you partake from the bounty of the lush, green countryside and the ocean. This does not mean that the French way is bad, it just does not pass-through San Sebastian, arguably the best food per square foot in the world!!
North Coast of Spain is very green. Why? Because it rains a lot! So, if you commit to the North way, make sure you are prepared mentally and physically to deal with rain, sometimes for days… The French way on the other hand tends to be much drier.
Finally, depending on when you are doing it, the French way can become a bit crowded, while the North route has consistently less traffic.
If you are more into exploring cities and towns, both ways offer great stops, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander on the North, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos or León on the French way.
So, in the end it boils down to what you want from your Camino. If you are looking for tradition and spirituality, go with the French way, if you prefer breathtaking views and more of a physical challenge, go North.
Have you done both Caminos? Leave your thoughts in the comments!!
Confession time: I have a problem that started around high school, I cannot stop reading. I read anywhere, anytime. I have books and magazines strategically placed around the house: the dining room table, the bathroom, bedside table, etc.
My summer reading was -as usual- an eclectic mix of books, here are some reviews:
Ramón del Valle Inclán Luces de Bohemia. I am a bit ashamed to disclose that I have a PhD in Spanish Literature and I had never read this (to my defense, my specialty was 18th C. literature, and my sub-specialties were Colonial Satire and Medieval Spanish Satire). I was surprised how fresh this book felt. Although it was written in the 1920s it might just as well have been written today. It is a satirical but profound glimpse of Spain at that time. It also introduces the concept of “esperpento” which offers a distorted and grotesque view of the world which paradoxically acts as a corrective lens to better appreciate the situation.
A critical factor of the Camino de Santiago is weight. The library of the albergue in Roncesvalles (the first stop of the Camino Francés) is full of Bibles that pilgrims with the intention of reading have “donated” because of its excessive weight and bulk. This year I carried Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows which is a beautiful study of Japanese aesthetics and culture, a gorgeous essay on the philosophy of traditional Japanese interior design.
Back in Madrid I read Henri Brunel’s The Most Beautiful Zen Stories – The original is in French, and I do not think there is an English translation. The book, as the title explains has short and sweet stories, but always with a bit of a sting – a question, maybe, unanswerable, at the end.
My beach reading was a gift from my dear friend Paco Navarro: Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (Alles umsonst in the original German). A story about a family during the last days of WWII in Germany. A great read about family dynamics, history, the human condition, and war.
Back in my mom’s country house I dug into another war, this time the Spanish Civil War, from the hand of dear friend Monica Moreno, who writes about love and family during that fratricidal war in Otoño y nueces. Her first adult novel after a handful of YA books, is well documented and intimate. Get it on Amazon here!
Back in Florida I explored Velazquez’s masterpiece painting Las Meninas through Néstor Luján’s Los espejos paralelos, which brings the painting to life through each of the characters, including the dog! Luján takes us to the dark hallways of Madrid’s old Alcazar palace, life in the court of Philip IV, and Madrid. A delightful read –specially if you are a fan of Velazquez and Las Meninas!
My last book before Fall was Richard Rohr’s The Divine dance which reflects on the deep spirituality of the Trinity and how love flows through the universe and us!
So there are a few reading recommendations in case you needed any, you are welcome.
My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.
I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.
The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.
Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)
One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.
Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.
Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.
One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!
Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.
Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.
My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.
Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.
In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.