Thursday, 17 September 2009

It doesn't matter...

I've just spent two days in conference at Warren House (here). I'd never heard of it before but it turned out to be an outstanding experience. The venue is wonderful and our group was even more impressed by the standard of service and the excellent quality of the food.

Why am I telling you this?

Well everything on this blog is Camino related.

Shortly after arriving I got into conversation with the lady in charge who was showing me to my room. She asked if I'd been on holiday and I said I'd been walking in Spain. She, and her husband who is the chef producing the amazing food, are also ardent walkers. "Find out more about the Camino routes in Spain, they are truly wonderful " I advised.
It is true: the paths are well marked with yellow arrows all the way. You can either stay in the almost free dormintory accommodation provided at regular intervals on the routes or in hotels or hostals. You walk through some of the most stunning scenery and picturesque paths like the canal stretch I walked on the route from Madrid a few weeks ago. The weather is almost guaranteed to be good if you choose when you go. The people are friendly and it is great fun.
I then began to wonder what may happen to someone researching these old pilgrim routes for this first time. It is perfectly possible that as well as being attracted by the scenery and the lifestyle of walking pilgrims they could be put off by what some people think is the "right" way to go about it.

This reminded me of a lunch I had in Santiago with a student at Cambridge who is studying social anthropology. He is focussing his thesis on the Pilgrimage to Santiago. He proposes to investigate “if there is a correct way to do the Camino”.

Take any group of pilgrims and this will be a hot topic. We pilgrims are a very opinionated lot. Haven’t you noticed? I think it comes from the sense of achievement pilgrims get when they complete their journey. Also that very human characteristic that each of is the best pilgrim compared to the others.

“What makes a journey into a pilgrimage?” “What makes you a pilgrim and not simply a traveller?” Are only two of the many questions which have been debated for centuries. So too are the prescriptions for how people ought to behave:

“A pilgrimage is only a pilgrimage because of prayer. If you don’t pray it is simply a journey” writes one commentator.

“You aren’t a real pilgrim if you don’t sleep in albergues and share everything with the 30 other strangers also sleeping there” writes another.

“No pain, no gain” is a particularly grim slogan regarding blisters and sore muscles.

And so it goes on.

My own view is a simple one. Take time out to make the pilgrimage by walking a Camino route to Santiago and let the journey do the rest.

Here is my contribution to the debate:

It doesn’t matter if you…

Walk on a route where you won’t meet anyone else
Walk on the Camino Frances and meet everyone else

Sleep in hotels and hostals during your journey
Share accommodation with other pilgrims in albergues

Take every detour to the holy places traditionally visited by the medieval pilgrims
Walk straight to Santiago in the shortest time possible

Carry every item of kit on your back each day
Arrange to have your luggage carried forward to your next destination

Eat from the a la carte menu in restaurants and enjoy good wine
Eat the Menu del Dia with three courses, bread and a bottle of luminescent red wine for 8 Euros

Get one or two sellos per day
Spend your time collecting many sellos as a memento of your journey

Give according to your means in albergues and churches
Give a minimum donativo

Journey in reflective silence eschewing modern technology
Take your IPod, IPhone, Netbook and other gadgets

Follow the yellow arrows
Use a GPS positioning device

Simply follow the path marked by others
Use a guidebook with maps, directions and local history

Buy designer walking clothes and top of the range kit
Spend the minimum equipping yourself

Train for months walking every day with a full rucksack
Pack your rucksack and go

Get blisters, tendonitis and muscle strain
Enjoy a pain free pilgrimage

Pray every day, visit every church you can find opened and go to Mass every evening
You don’t believe in God and wouldn’t be found dead in church

The only thing that matters is…

You walk all of the pilgrim way to Santiago.

As we are all different, so too are our Caminos. But there is power in walking these old paths. The effect is individual. For some deeply religious. Others are amazed to think about spiritual things for the first time. Some pilgrims enjoy encounters with others. Some don’t. But the cumulative effect of making step after step for many kilometres through a strange country is very real. And it happens to everyone in their own way.


  1. Yes, well said! Though I still think the slow, simple, dormitory-style, minimum-kit, minimum-fuss, prayer-ful pilgrimage is the most rewarding (as opposed to the hotel-based, restaurant-centred one; or the quick march from Sarria...) But then, I would say that, wouldn't I? Opinionated pilgrim that I am! I enjoyed reading about your journey. Peace and love to you and all your readers.

  2. I walked quite often, from Cahors to Santiago, with a woman from Quebec who had a serious knee problem. Occasionally she needed to take some form of transport while her husband walked, as the pain in her knee was just too great. Especially once we had passed Cacabelos, it was clear she was going to have to take it easy some days, to rest up a little in preparation for the last 100km she would have to walk to get her Compostela.
    The day after Cacabelos, she walked 10km and then found the pain too great to continue. She caught a taxi on to Vega de Valcarce, while her husband walked on to meet up with her there. Unfortunately she was attacked verbally at the albergue in VdeV by another pilgrim who had seen her getting out of the taxi. I was rope-able when I heard this. This pilgrim had no idea what pain my friend was enduring. Many nights she writhed in agony in bed with the pain in her knee. I know I am not free from making judgements either, but it's a shame when we leave compassion behind on our kitchen bench.

  3. right on johnnie walker!

    (walk and let walk ... live and let live)

    it is a most beautiful way.

  4. First let me say that I have very much enjoyed reading your posts JW, thank you for sharing your stories and insights. Well, I thought I might say a few words now and don't mind me because I don't know a whole lot about a whole lot - but I have walked the Camino a time or two and I have seen it all, hikers, rollers, busers, hoofers and hobblers - and for sure each one had their own story and their own reasons for making their 'Way.' Who is to say that "the only thing that matters" is walking? One never knows what kind of courage it took for someone to make it to that road. Lets mind our own Road and show some reverence for all of those around us, whatever their mode of transport or flavor of spirit. I don't know a whole lot about a whole lot, but it seems like to me that "what matters" is this mystery that we are all here trying hard to work out for ourselves.

  5. Gosh - thanks for all of these comments. It isn't something that usually happens! I very much agree with all you say. Being non judgemental is the objective. I wrote this post out of a rising concern about the impression people new to the Camino might get about the number of "rules".

    I have a great deal of sympathy with the last comment but I think there has to be at least a little definition of the characteristics of something - like a pilgrimage or Camino. Or everything would mean everything. Maybe that would be no bad thing either!

  6. One of the big learnings on the camino was pilgrim humility... both extended towards others and towards myself. When I was nearly shut down from tendonitis in my knee, caused by compensation walking oddly because a week before I left for the camino I had broken my foot but walked anyway, I learned humility and what it means to live with pain. And when I saw the tour bus people struggling to get up the steps at the cathedral in Santiago, I also had to be humble.