There’s so much controversy over what are the attributes and qualities of a true pilgrim. Do true pilgrims only sleep outdoors, under a starry sky? Do they beg for food and water from local farmers? Do they approach the Cathedral with reverence on their knees? Do they walk in complete solitude, not to disturb their prayers? And do they abandon all creature comforts of maps, guidebooks, nice restaurants, or hotels?
Please take it from me: I have been walking sections of the Caminos regularly since 2009 and I’ve known about the Way since the 1970s and I have not once ever met anyone who met those strict standards. Like most things we adults do, there is the opportunity to craft one’s walk after one’s needs and I am about to do just that. I’ve booked a tour.
Let me say a few things at the outset. Over my walks – five times walking sections of the Camino Frances, one time Primitivo, and one time Ingles – I have stayed in my fair share of municipal and private albergues. I’ve been bed bug bit, I’ve had more than one hospitalero quiz me about how little I eat, I’ve had one of the most painful unsolicited neck massages of my life. I have slept next to snoring that would stop your heart, and once I slept in a four-bed room with a man I was sure would die any minute. I spent the better part of the night — freezing, by the way, after having been promised heat – wondering what my friend and I would do with his corpse in the morning. I have met lovely pilgrims and spent hours with them, but I have also been the only one not invited to shop, cook, and dine with everyone else staying at the albergue. I have enough stories for a full season on HBO. More, since I can guarantee it would be picked up for subsequent seasons.
But through all of this life-affirming and life-enriching, I have been seduced by bliss of the walking. It’s really all about the walking. Some days, I like to chat with my fellow pilgrims, most days I do not. Some days, I like to walk alongside you, most days, I lag behind. But in every day, there is the walking and that’s what I have come to realize is the very thing that keeps bringing me back, time and again.
Three years ago, I walked from Burgos to León. On more than a handful of days in mid-May, arriving just at 1:30 p.m., I got the last available bed. Not a serious deal breaker certainly, because there were alternatives to the municipal albergue, like a hotel or a taxi ride backwards or forwards to find another solution. But it would have meant not staying with the people I had come to enjoy. And I found myself hustling along to try not to miss getting a bed. There was one moment where I realized I was actually sizing up the people walking behind me. If they passed me, would they get the last bed? I had just exchanged one rat race, here in New York, for another one in Spain.
Last April was very different. I walked the much less popular Camino Ingles with two friends. Because the route was not crowded and the accommodations more than sufficient for the few of us walking, I actually stopped thinking about getting a bed. My friends would walk ahead of me and I’d catch up to them, lying in the grass, enjoying the sky, talking about the day. And the three of us would lie in the grass. We had a rest, we had a snack or some water, we figured out how much farther we were going before finding a place for the night, and we appreciated everything in that moment. We went on to stay in albergues and met up with other pilgrims from Portugal and Italy and Spain, but it was the pace that I loved, and the real enjoyment of the day and the walking.
So I asked my family if anyone would come along with me if I booked a tour. I wanted to try the Portuguese route along the coast. We’d have someone pick us up at the airport, take us to a nice hotel, have a lovely dinner, get a full night’s sleep and wake to a full breakfast before starting out. In each case, I would have a phone number of someone to call in any event. Oh, and our bags would be shuttled forward so all we had to worry about was carrying some snacks and some water. Walk 6-8 hours each day, and have a room reserved for the evening.
It’s definitely a function of my experience walking over the past ten years that has led me to want to do this. And more than likely, that’s combined with my age. Perhaps it’s even something to do with wanting to automate everything so we can stop worrying and just enjoy each day’s walk. But we are adding vineyard trips and wine tasting and manor house garden visits and a catamaran tour – none of which would have surfaced on any of my previous walks. The most errant thing I ever did was to take a taxi out to Vilar de Donas and back or, more recently, a taxi out and back to San Miguel in Pontedeume. While both were valuable experiences, typically, it’s not something I do.
But, I do not look back. This walk, coming up in April, is something I have secretly wanted to do for about five years now. I am giving over to a tour all the minutiae of our walk so that all we have to do, other than sample Albariño and not be late for our boat trip, is walk. It’s entirely within the parameters I set long ago – try everything. Stay in albergues, stay in family-run pensions with the abuela cooking dinner, stay in a parador and sleep in a soft bed, and try everything. Try percebes and caldo Gallego, and learn about bagpipes and castanets made from two sea shells and why they go so well together. Try Asturias lamb and the coffee at the Casino. Don’t miss anything because the Camino ends way too soon – every single time.
I stopped comparing myself to medieval pilgrims long ago when I realized I wouldn’t walk out the door without my Wise Pilgrim apps and the Confraternity of Saint James guides. My predecessors? These medieval guys? Their motivation wasn’t all that dissimilar to mine, even though their resources were much fewer. They were on their way to see the Saint. I bet they tried everything, too. And I bet they knew that the walk was all about the walk – and to make sure their butts were cleaned up at Lavacolla, of course, before they came into town to enter the Cathedral.
Next trip, I will more than likely go back to staying in albergues, but this time, nope. I am on my way to see the Saint and I’m taking a tour to get there.
If you’d like to read more of my stories, please consider reading my book “Buen Camino!” It’s on Amazon and Kindle. And look for me on Instagram as @nilesite, and for my updates here in April. #littleoldladywalking – Ultreya!