“Best Laid Plans” : 44 Days to Departure.

They say ignorance is bliss, and frankly I tend to live my life that way, more of a big picture person, not getting too mired in the details. Whenever I head out into this big world of ours, I tend to rely on my traveling companions to figure out the minutia.

But that’s one of the reasons why I’ve decided to do this El Camino trip solo. Even starting this blog has caused me to dig way deeper into the details of the trip than I normally would have and just in time too, as I might not have been prepared for the “rolling” rail-worker’s strike that has swept France, affecting public transportation that may leave me stranded in Paris an extra night (woe is me).

But one thing I’ve learned so far is that just deciding to do the Camino trip leads you to all the people and advice you might need to make your “plan” a reality, as long as you are willing to listen. So, thanks to one friend, I had already planned a couple of nights of leeway before the start of the walk. And, thanks to another friend, I was able to find out that my day of train travel out of Paris may very well be affected by the train strike and so I’ve gone ahead and made arrangements for an exchangeable, refundable ticket for the following day in case the strike isn’t resolved by my date of departure.

I’ve also learned through my research that there are options when choosing a Camino route, including one that leaves from Paris and so, if all else fails, I can just start walking. So I guess what I’m learning is to stay flexible, keep your ears open and be prepared with backup plans.

And even though I was immediately griping at the potential expense of adjusting my itinerary, the world doesn’t revolve around my schedule and the biggest lesson life can ever teach you is how to adjust and overcome. Having said that, today’s entry is an attempt to get back to some of the facts of trip itself and what you can expect if you ever decide to make your own plans for El Camino.

As seen above, a pilgrim wanting to take on the Camino has a variety of routes to choose from regardless of motivation. These routes range from 100 kilometers (62 miles), the minimum length to qualify for a compostela (certificate of completion) to 1000 kilometers (621 miles) and can be completed in one to six weeks depending on how hard and fast a pilgrim is determined to travel.

All routes aim for the town of Santiago de Compostela where it is believed the remains of Jesus’ disciple, St. James the Elder, are entombed in the town’s historic cathedral. Some pilgrims will venture even further, over another 87km (54mi) to the coastal town of Finisterre where it is believed St. James’ remains were delivered by two of his followers to the shores of what we now know as northwestern Spain before being taken on to his final resting place in the town that would eventually adopt his name, Santiago (Saint James).

I will be following A Pilgrim’s Guide to Camino de Santiago: St.Jean – Roncesvalles – Santiago by John Brierley who has also published eleven other guidebooks covering a majority of the trails seen above. My path, the most popular, known as the Camino Frances, begins in the French town of St. Jean de Pied which can be (God-willing) reached by train from Paris which is generally the most affordable flight option from the States.

St. Jean rests around 500ft above sea level and the route immediately sets forth on an ascent, known as route de Napoleon, over the Pyrenees, peaking at col de Lepoeder around 4750ft. Mr. Brierley has broken up the trek into 33 stages, ranging from 11.5 miles on the shortest stage from Mansilla to Leon to just over 19 miles on the longest stage from Mazarife to Astorga. At the end of each stage, Mr. Brierley provides a detailed list of all the available lodging a long your way as well as pricing and available amenities.

According to Mr. Brierley, the average time of completion of the Camino Frances is around four weeks which means completing 28km (17.4mi) a day on average. However, I have given myself a ton of wiggle room and so my current itinerary has me leaving St. Jean de Pied, walking four to five hours a day, averaging 9 to 17 miles and reaching Santiago in about six and half weeks.

Mr. Brierley’s 1st stage ends in a “steep descent” into the town of Roncevalles for a total of 25.1km (15.5 miles) but it has been strongly suggested to me to split this stage in two. So I’ll be stopping short of the French and Spanish border with pre-booked accommodations at the picturesque Refuge de Orisson http://www.refuge-orisson.com/en/. While this albergue is located only five miles from the starting point in St. Jean, it is at the end of a 1700ft ascent added on to what I have heard described as an already emotionally tough first day.

Apparently, it is all too common for pilgrims like me, who begin this journey without a ton of hiking miles under their belt, to suffer all types of injuries ranging from blisters to shin-splints to sprains and broken ankles from pushing themselves too hard right out of the gate. The risk inherent in the 1st stage, one of the toughest, is heightened by the fact that accommodations are scarce before reaching Roncevalles and it’s not too uncommon for there to be more pilgrims than beds for this leg of the trip.

I should note that I was warned that getting reservations at Refuge de Orisson is essential before departure. I sent three emails, one in French, one in Spanish, but it wasn’t until I sent the third in English (go figure) with my credit card info attached that I finally received a response and secured my reservation via PayPal.

Many pilgrims without reservations are known to backtrack to St. Jean rather than continue on to Roncevalles if they don’t happen upon a bed for the night in one of the few hostels located around Orisson. But don’t let me stop you from wanting to power on to Roncevalles if you find yourself planning your own trip, as pilgrims come to El Camino for all sorts of reasons and testing physical limits is one of the biggest.

I recently read an article in College Avenue, a Colorado State University/Rocky Mountain Collegian Publication (Vol 13/Issue 3), entitled Buen Camino: El Camino de Santiago, written by Jenna Fisher. The article details the author’s recent trek on the Camino as well as discussing how CSU students can receive college credit for all or part of the journey. Talk about a cool study abroad program!

Jessica completed her variation of Camino Frances as well as the additional trek to Finisterre, totaling 566 miles, in just four weeks, averaging 15-18 miles a day with her longest day peaking around 25 miles. So, way to go Jessica! And if you are a college student, I would definitely encourage you to find her article and/or see if such a study abroad program exists at your school and if not, check out CSU here in Fort Collins which also happens to be my alma mater.

But if you are still not impressed with Jessica’s story, Mr. Brierley mentions an encounter he had with another “manic pilgrim” in Finisterre who had just completed the entirety of one of the longest routes, Via de la Plata. Beginning in the historic town of Seville in the south of Spain, this route caps out around 1000km (621mi). Apparently this gentleman had completed the entire trip in 19 days, averaging over 50km (31mi) a day with his “credencial” or compostela to prove it (9th ed, p 13)!

This credencial, compostela or pilgrim’s passport is acquired at the onset of your journey. It is advised to take an extra day at your chosen starting point to locate the pilgrim office (and fit in unplanned worker strikes) to secure your “passport” where officials will ask if you are walking, biking, or riding horseback and whether or not you are doing it for physical or spiritual reasons.

Assuming you have 30 days before your planned departure, you can even obtain your credential online. After learning about the rail-worker strike, I went ahead and ordered mine just yesterday via American Pilgrims on the Camino http://www.americanpilgrims.org/ in case I can’t make it to St. Jean in time to go by the “passport” office where queues can be quite long.

This document, though not essential to making the journey, is used to track your progress throughout the walk, and is stamped at various locales including cathedrals, churches, town halls, hostels, and even bars. The credential also grants you affordable stay at “pilgrim hostels” for as little as $8-9 dollars/night. The stamps are proof of mileage and are turned in at the end of your journey in order to receive a final certificate of completion in Santiago.

While mostly planning to stay in “pilgrim hostels,” I have made my own alterations to Mr. Brierley’s guidance, having loosely booked a few hostels, or albergues, through Booking.com https://www.booking.com/ in places where I hope to spend a couple nights of rest and recuperation every three to five days, taking time to see some of the bigger towns and cities I’ll be passing through, such as Pamplona and Leon.

Booking.com allows you to cancel or make adjustments to your itinerary with relatively short notice depending on where you book. Although, I was warned that you may be at the mercy of the hostel owner regarding whether or not you’ll actually be refunded your money if you pay ahead. So buyer beware and read all the fine print.

The entirety of my “planned” walk covers a total of 789 kilometers, roughly 490 miles getting me to Santiago around mid July where I hope to spend some time to fully absorb the journey before heading south to Portugal for the remainder of my post-camino adventure.

I currently do not have plans to continue on to Finisterre by foot although I have definitely left enough time in my itinerary to add on the additional mileage if the calling arises. And of course, I write all this knowing that the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”.

So, I guess I can only say that these have been a few of my intentions for the trip thus far but what actually happens when and if I get there, remains “a mystery to be lived”. And though I have every intention of sharing the actual journey with you, utilizing my “planned” leisure time to write and reflect upon my journey, I have to remind myself it is all hearsay at this point, having yet to step foot on the physical Camino itself.

However, I will do my best to keep the momentum going and forge ahead, allowing the writing process to direct me as it sees fit, knowing full well there is plenty more to cover. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned travel budget or what to pack! So, stay tuned and thanks for reading :-).

77 Days to El Camino: Time for a History Lesson

So I thought I should share a little more info on El Camino, it’s history, why it attracts over 100,000 “pilgrims” each year to trod it’s beaten path. I should first clarify that there are multiple paths of the El Camino and that I am embarking on the ‘Real Camino Frances,’ starting in St. Jean de Pied, France, crossing south-west over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona, Spain before heading due west at the city of Logrono to its final stopping point in Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern coast of Spain.

How I chose this particular route is, well…. a blog for another day.

Before I get into some of the background of this historic pilgrimage, I have to give credit to John Bierley, who has dedicated a better portion to his life documenting and updating current information on the Camino through his various travel guides which he refers to as “practical and mystical’ manuals for the “modern day pilgrim.” John has walked El Camino countless times, taking various if not all routes to the city of Santiago de Compostela where all Camino pilgrimages end regardless of their starting points. I’ll be referring to John’s guidebook here and there and if it so happens you are considering making the trek yourself, more likely than not, you will encounter one of his books. I’ll be following the 9th edition of Mr. Bierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, St. Jean – Roncevalles – Santiago.

So now for some history, and since this is meant to be a ‘mystical journey,‘ let’s get to the ‘legend has it’ part of story. I’ll keep it brief, but if you find yourself needing more detail, please check out The American Pilgrim’s page http://www.americanpilgrims.org/history from which I’ll be gratefully referencing now.

As legend has it, St. James the elder, apostle to Jesus, was sent as a missionary to the Iberian region we now recognize as northwestern Spain. James would spend a few years in the region before returning to Jerusalem where he would be put to death by Herod Agrippa I. Now that part does have historical documentation to back it up. The ‘mystical’ part claims that followers of St. James the elder:

“carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Saint James was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century.”

 

Centuries after St. James the elder’s beheading in Jerusalem, a hermit by the name of Pelagius”

 

“had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He immediately reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of Santiago (St. James) and two of his followers and who in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain. That would come later. A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. (Or possibly the Roman word for cemetery, “componere”: to bury, is the source.) In any event, news of the discovery spread like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles.”

 

Skeptics might claim that the whole story was just a publicity stunt to promote a sort of religious tourism to the area and the fact remains that towns and cities on the way benefited from faithful followers making their way to pay their respects. The interesting thing that the American Pilgrims website references briefly, is that, as impressive as it is that people have been making this pilgrimage for over a thousand years, there is even evidence of a pre-Christian route as well (a subject worthy of its own blog, I’m sure).

I should mention that I am not a Christian, although, just like the song goes, “Jesus is alright with me.” And yes, while even today, the majority of “pilgrims” are primarily Catholic, the route has caught on with non-believers who, much like those that set out to walk the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail here in the States, have an overwhelming desire to escape from their day-to-day lives to take a deep look within. I hear a nice long walk is good for that but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

I think that does it for tonight but please if you have and questions or ideas for further blog posts on Camino de Santiago and or my upcoming trip, don’t hesitate to leave your comments and I’ll do my best to come up with something worthwhile.