Thursday, May 2, 2024

Spain's Camino Primitivo, Part 1: Picking the Proper Camino

From March 20 to April 4 of this year, I hiked one of the Caminos in Spain to a grand cathedral in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostella.  Hiking the Camino has become increasingly popular world-wide over the last few years.  This posting talks a little about the Camino, its history, and how I chose the route that I took to reach Santiago - the 3rd biggest pilgramage destination in the Christian world, behind only Rome and Jerusalem.  It is the first of many Camino postings, all uploaded simultaneously, with photos and explanations from my trip.  It is probably too much for most everyone, but it serves as my documentation for myself of my journey, written before I forget the details.

I first became aware of the Camino back in 2010 when I took my family to Staunton - about 30 miles from our Charlottesville home - to see a "hiking movie" at the fabulous (and now closed) Dixie Theater called "The Way," staring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez.  That was the closest the movie came to being shown in Charlottesville.  There were relatively few people in the theater, and my understanding is that the movie was not particularly successful at the time.  But it developed a kind of cult status among hikers over the years, and when it was shown again at a Regal theater in Charlottesville for a single night a couple of years ago, there was a good crowd of outdoorsey types in attendence.  (A type that seems to be enormously more popular since the movie first came out.)

Watching The Way actually turned me off to the idea of walking the Camino - the hostels looked big and crowded (smelly!  noisy!), and the trek looked generally flat after the first day.  But about three years ago I read a book about someone's experience on the same journey, and I started to warm up to the idea.  I've since been to local presentations by Camino veterans, talked with others who had done the Camino, and watched lots of videos on YouTube.

What I learned is that there actually is not a single Camino but many of them.  They start in multiple towns throughout Spain, and it is possible to walk from remote destinations like Paris or Warsaw or Geneva, all the way to the city of Santiago de Compostela.  What most people think of as "The Camino" is the one filmed in the movie - the Camino Frances, which starts near the France/Spain border and travels all the way across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella, located north of Portugal.  Below is a map showing the major Caminos in Spain, converging on Santiago de Compostella in the northeastern part of the country.  The Camino Frances is the line in a deep blue color.  ("Santiago de Compostella" literally means "Saint James in a field of stars" and is a destination because its cathedral is legendarily believed to house the remains of one of Jesus's apostles.)

Everyone who walks over 100 kilometers to Santiago, and who collects stamps along the way proving their journey, can show their passport with stamps to the church in Santiago to receive a certificate memorializing their trip.  That is about 64 miles.  When they receive the certificate, these pilgrims (or "peregrinos," as they are called in the native language) must fill out some demographic information.  As a result, there is extensive information about everyone who obtained a certificate going back about 20 years.  This data is available online.

What I learned from looking at this data helped me immensely in deciding which Camino I wanted to travel.  For example, over the last two years there were slightly more women than men that obtained the certificate.  (Not surprising in my experience, as when I lead a group hike, I never have more men than women sign up to attend.  I don't think that is because of my personal charm!)  

The church also keeps records of how pilgrims traveled.  On foot is the choice of the overwhelming majority of peregrinos, but others have arrived by bike (you need to travel 200 Km to gain a certificate), on horse, even via wheelchair.

A breakdown by age is also available.  Shown below.

I found country of origin very interesting as well.  Not surprisingly, a large percentage of peregrinos are from Spain.  Apparently many Spaniards hit the Camino during holidays - and in my experience on the Camino this was true.  I've only included the top countries here, but if you want to determine how many pilgrims hailed from Burkina Faso in 2023, the data is there.  Note that the U.S. "Estados Unidos" is 2nd among the world's countries, but a very distant second behind Spain.

The number of peregrinos completing their journeys by month was very instructive - I could get a better sense of when the Camino would be crowded.  Here, you can see that the warmer months are much more popular, but there were increases over the first 5 months of the year, compared with 2022.

And finally, of interest was data about which Camino a pilgrim chose for their journey.  This was most helpful to me!  (There is also data about cities where pilgrims started their journeys, with a vast majority staring in one of the cities around 100 kilometers from Santiago de Compostella.  This interested me less, because I hoped to do an entire camino.)

Note above that over 81% of all people completing a Camino in 2023 arrived either via the Camino Frances or via one of the two Caminos originating in Portugal.  I immediately rejected those three routes for my Camino.  I did not want an experience like the one shown in the photo below!

But you don't want to go too remote for a first Camino, either!  Despite two years of self-taught Spanish (on top of three years of high school attempted learning), I knew I wasn't close to being conversant in the language.  This isn't too much of a problem if I take the major Caminos, as people are used to a wide range of pilgrims.  In some of the more rural and less traveled areas, however, it could be a big issue, especially if there were not other pilgrims - preferably bi-lingual ones - journeying at the same time I would be going.

And then there is infrastructure. Caminos which see fewer travelers naturally have fewer hostels, restaurants, and signage showing the route.  (Camping is generally discouraged.  This isn't the Appalachian Trail.)  It might even be difficult to find open businesses that could provide the required stamps for the pilgrim's passport.  This issue is more pronounced early and late in the year.

I eventually settled on the Camino Primitivo.  When I say "eventually," I mean less than a week before I flew to Spain!  I had chosen a late March - early April timeframe.  This meant that it could still be cold and some hostels would not be open - many do not open until April, and after Easter.  An even more remote Camino I had seriously considered got ultimately rejected because several hostels would not be open in my timeframe and the distances between reasonably priced accommodations became too great.  But I like hiking in Virginia in early Spring, and I'd rather hike when it is cold than when it is hot.  So late March/early April seemed like a good choice.

The Camino Primitivo is presented in the next posting. Link.

Or, you can skip past Leon and Oviedo to the first day on my walk: Link.

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