Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Pilgrimage experience: Hiking the Spanish Caminos

When I had planned my route through Western Europe I had chosen the Caminos very reluctantly. I knew that it would not be stellar hiking, but I had never been on a pilgrimage trail in all my hiking career and thought it was about time now. So what do I think of the Caminos - now that I have hiked on three of them for over a month? As you might have guessed: I did not really like them.

A63 on the Camino Primitivo
To understand the crux of the Caminos you have to go back to the Middle Ages, the time when they developed. Back then pilgrims wanted to get from their home town to Santiago as quickly and as safely as possible. Beautiful or spectacular landscape did not interest them - they just wanted to get from point A to point B. They chose the easiest routes in the easiest terrain and went from one big city to the next one. And this is exactly were nowadays motorways, highways and railways are built! So naturally hiking the Caminos nowadays means hiking on or near busy roads. Even when much effort is taken to route the Caminos off pavement you will almost always be within sight or earshot of motor traffic. You won't see much spectacular scenery either. So if you want to hike in nature or are looking for great landscapes you are wrong on the Caminos. But what are the pilgrims looking for then? What is the pilgrimage experience?

Hostel in Santiago
Most pilgrims like the sense of community, the sharing with other pilgrims. People, who would normally enjoy their holidays in hotels and apartments are now sleeping in dormitories with up to 50 other pilgrims. There is no privacy, sometimes bed bugs and always people snoring. But pilgrims find that so attractive that they get up at 5 am and start hiking before sunrise to secure a bed in these hostels before the others arrive! These pilgrims' hostels are very cheap, but the majority of pilgrims is not on such a low budget that they could not afford better accommodation. Hardly anyone is cooking, but the cafes and bars along the Camino are full with pilgrims for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The advantage of this run to the hostels is that you have the Camino all to yourself after 5 pm....

Cast off sticks
The pilgrim community feeling reminded me very much of the trail communities on the AT. But because the AT is longer and harder the friendships forged there tend to more intense. Compared with the camaraderie on the American trails the pilgrim community seemed just like a poor copy to me and with more and more people on the Caminos the morale seems to get worse and worse.With everyone and their mother now hiking the Caminos you see a lot of inexperienced hikers out there. I have never seen that many huge and ill-fitting backpacks before. Everyone  has a shell attached to the backpack. Instead of using modern lightweight trekking poles most pilgrims carry wooden sticks. I have even seen people dressed up in medieaval clothes to be more authentic pilgrims. And at the end of the trail these wooden sticks are left behind everywhere. My hostel and the pilgrims' office in Santiago were full of cast off sticks and at Santiago airport they even had a special trash can for them because some pilgrims try to take them on the plane which of course is not allowed.

Another locked church
I had first thought that people hike the Caminos out of religious reasons but this is mostly not the case. Although most pilgrims are on some sort of spiritual quest, very few do it with a Christian motivation. And the official church is definitely not helping them: Almost every church along the Caminos is locked. There are no masses, prayer services or any other spiritual guidance offered to pilgrims from the official Spanish Catholic church. There are only very few exceptions like the hostel of Padre Ernesto in Guemes or the German pilgrims' meeting in Santiago. The Catholic church is continuously losing members in the Western world and here is a chance to win some back. Thousands of hikers flock to Caminos looking for spiritual enlightenment and the Catholic church does not seize this opportunity and basically just ignores them. (If you are looking for a more spiritual experience try the lesser known pilgrimage trails in other countries. I myself have hiked the German pilgrimage trail "Elisabethpfad" on this trip and found it a lot better than the Spanish Caminos. Almost every church was open, the one and only cheap guidebook was a mixture of prayers, historical anecdotes and trail descriptions and of course there were also pilgrims' hostels.)

Coffee stall on the Camino Frances
To me in the end the "pilgrimage experience" seemed just to be a cheap hiking holiday with the Camino offering the comfortable logistics of cheap accommodation, luggage transport and menus del peregrino (pilgrims' menus in restaurants). I guess that you can still get a lot of the Caminos if you don't know any better hiking. And I have tremendous respect for all those overweight and/or out of shape pilgrims who struggle but make it to the end. They will find a sense of achievement, some enlightenment and trail friends. And if the Camino sparks their interest in hiking - more power to them. But you will find all these things in a much purer and intense form on other long-distance trails.

Bottom line: If you are a new to hiking the Caminos might be a good and easy way for you to get started. But if you have already hiked other more nature oriented long distance trails you will most probably be very much disappointed with the Caminos.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, witty, and useful; you did a great job! Thanks!

Pig Monkey said...

I had a similar experience when I went on the Camino a few years ago. Signs pointing the way every few miles just became too much! There's no chance to get lost. I did enjoy the Pyrenees, though.

Heather Knight said...

Found your blog because I was searching for info on the Camino Norte. As with most thru-hikers, you have the same attitude they do. Have you ever heard of Francis Tapon? You two would get along great. He wrote a whole diatribe on why the Camino sucks. The Camino is not a thru-hike. It requires no real skill or knowledge, which is why it appeals to so many. Anyone can do it. I think it's important to HYOH or in the case of the Camino, WYOW. Knowing your background in hiking, backpacking, paddling, and biking, I can see why the Camino was a huge disappointment for you. For me, the Camino was a gateway to doing more outdoor stuff. I am an avid backpacker and hiker now and I have the Camino to thank for that. So, I think the Camino is different for everyone. I don't think you should discount it completely because for some people, it is an amazing experience.

German Tourist said...

Heather, funny enough I know Francis Tapon even personally. I met him when I thruhiked the CDT. I definitely see your point but keep in mind that most of my readers are long distance hikers and not prospective pilgrims. Everyone is so full of praise for the Caminos that I want to add another (thruhiker) perspective even if mine is not that positive.