Monday, May 4, 2009

The Camino: An Overview

I addressed some of the practical aspects of the camino in the last post, but I'll go into them a little deeper here...

The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) became a pilgrimage in medieval Europe after St. James' remains were discovered in Santiago, Spain. To visit the saint's tomb, people would start walking from their doorstep all the way to Santiago (northwest Spain, only about 50 miles from the coast). For Catholics, the three most biggest pilgrimages were (and still are?) to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago. Over time, specific paths developed, some starting all the way from Italy and Switzerland, with the most popular being the Camino Frances, which starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, a small town in the Pyrenees, just 10 or 15 km from the Spanish border. It's 774 km from SJPdP to Santiago, and it takes most people 4-6 weeks to complete, depending on their speed, their health, the weather, etc. I walked from SJPdP to Astorga for a total of 510 km (about 300 miles) in 3 weeks. When I come back one day to finish the pilgrimage, I'll have 263 km (~150 miles) left to walk to Santiago.

Most people do the camino during the summer when it's warm (aka boiling hot). I'm glad I chose to do it in the spring because the camino and albergues weren't too crowded and were never full, which is a problem in the summer. But at the same time, there were still a lot of people on the camino. It was never too hot, which was nice. (Some like it hot...but I like it comfortably warm.) However, it was usually cold in the morning and evening, and the weather was a bit unpredicatable (rain and hail!).

The camino is made up of dirt paths, paved paths, and rocky paths. it's marked with many, many yellow arrows and lots of markers with the image of the scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. (Supposedly, St. James' body was shipped to the Iberian Peninsula, and when it arrived it was covered in scallop shells. The shell is also an apt illustration of the many paths leading to Santiago, like the shell's ridges meeting at the tip.) Eventually, you become an expert a fnding the markers. Sometimes, it's a tile on a building or a shell on the sidewalk, but most of the time it's a yellow arrow painted on the sidewalk, a wall, or the back of a streetsign.

As I said before, you usually walk 20-30 km a day (12-18 mi) on the camino, but that depends on the weather, the terrain, and how you're feeling. One of the difficult things about walking those distances is that you carry everything witih you: clothes, toiletries, food, water, sleeping bag, everything. Generally, you have a set of clothes to wear on the camino and set to wear in the evenings at the albergue and bars/restaurants. (It's a bit of an adjustment at first, but you quickly get used to seeing yourself and everyone else in the same clothes everyday.) So most people are carrying 20-25 lb. on their backs all day. I think mine was about 24 lb... You really have to be vigilant about only carrying the essentials. Little things add up.

Along the camino, you basically walk from one village/town/city to the next, which can be anywhere from 1 to 20 km apart. Almost all the villages have at least a bar to get a drink and a sandwich, and about 2/3 of the villages (and all the bigger towns and cities) have at least one pilgrim's hostel (albergue). The albergues cost between 3 and 9 euros (what?!) and consist of rooms with 2-100 sets of bunk beds, some toilets, some showers, a sink or two to wash clothes, maybe a kichen, maybe a computer with internet, maybe a phone, and maybe laundry machines. When you arrive at the albergue, you get a stampy in your credencial (pilgrim's passport), you pay, you shower, you wash your walking clothes, and you just rest and hang out. For dinner, you can cook or you can go to a bar/restaurant for the pilgrim's menu, a 7-12 euro 3-course dinner with wine and bread. The albergues aren't the greatest, but they're super heap, and you get used to the snoring over time. (Thank God for earplugs.) And you're so tired by the end of the day that you're content to have a bed and a hot (or not) shower...

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