Becoming a pilgrim : walking the way of Saint James de Compostela

Tried & Tested

For years I have been craving for an opportunity to go on a week-long hiking trip but the timing was never perfect. Being a student or having just started a new job in a new city I was not able to get a holiday while my friends or family would be trekking the mountains. Hiking on my own never crossed my mind... That is until I had an occasion of becoming a "pilgrim". Walking the Way of Saint James fulfilled my desire for the adventure. 

Nowadays around 200,000 people follow the ways of St. James every year. Some share the journey with their family or friends but many will walk The Way alone. Some people do it out of religious or spiritual conviction, others are in it for the challenge and the taste of adventure. What ever your interests are, my advice - just try it! You are guaranteed to get submerged in the local culture, witness spectacular landscapes and be charmed by towns and villages along the way.

Even though I know now, I could have easily wandered along these paths alone, I was happy to join my friend Luca on this journey. Luca is a seasoned pilgrim both personally and professionally. He has dedicated the past decade of his career to the European Cultural Routes and currently works for the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns and the Via Francigena pilgrimage route. He basically is a pilgrim who walks because he loves it and is paid for it. What a Dream job!

The Ways of St. James are stretched along Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Italy and beyond but they all lead to Santiago de Compostela, a little city in Spanish Galicia. In France the Le Puy Way is one of the most popular routes. Rumors have it, there are up-to 400 people beginning their Camino from Puy-en-Velay daily during the pilgrimage high-season and thus, we decided to take the path less traveled along the Via Tolosana (GR 653), taking it’s beginning in Arles and heading to Toulouse. It is safe to say it is a more quiet route as the first three days we have not crossed paths with a single other pilgrim. By day 6 however, we became a group of five at times walking all together, other times spreading out at different paces to enjoy the peaceful alone time among the gorgeous landscapes.

So why would one decide to start walking?

Truth is, everyone would have their own reasons: religion, a personal challenge, craving of adventure, search for a meaning or inspiration, peace, freedom, inner self, losing weight, finding answers or all of the above. One is for sure - life is so much less complex along the Camino, you are guaranteed to disconnect from the city hustle and clear your mind.

I was not able to take two months off work to go all the way to Santiago but the 8 days I spent walking made all the difference I was looking for. This journey for me was never about the religion, however, besides being a fantastic adventure it was a truly spiritual experience. I found peace, freedom and some answers. 


5 Things

I learned about walking the Way of St James


 

walking-the-way-of-st-james

1. The first three days are the hardest

 

It is kind of a universal truth of hiking: days one, two and three are full of suffering. The bag is too heavy for your back, the straps are rough on the shoulders, the blisters are killing the feet but do not hate it just yet! As soon as the fourth day comes, the same backpack feels a few kilos lighter, the body adjusts and now you can fully embrace the adventure with a smile on!

2. Being a pilgrim is not that cheap

Pilgrims should be poor - that is how it used to be in the old days. They would set off on a long journey with little or no possessions beyond what they had on their back and a walking stick. Today, however, the paths along the St. James Ways are bringing a sturdy flow of cash to the tourism industry. In general, the Spanish routes are believed to be cheaper than the French ones. You might expect to pay between 10 and 20 euros per night at a pilgrims hostel on the French side. However, provided you have a pilgrim passport (credential), the price may go down up to 5 euros per night in a camping, if you carry your own tent with you, or church albergues, where you may donate what you want. 

France is not the cheapest country when it comes to food either. The French take pride in their cuisine so eating along the way can be as cheap or as expensive as you wish. We mainly cooked our meals at the hostels buying the products as we went. Having said that, in most villages along the path you would find restaurants offering a “pilgrims menu” - a three-course meal for around 10 or 13 euros. For those who wish to spoil themselves, there are always gourmet options for their dinner too. If you plan to stop for a coffee and a croissant in the mornings, count to spend some 3 euros at a local boulangerie
Good news - the transport is free! Your legs are taking you the distance. All in all I would estimate the budget at around 30 euros a day including an occasional beer or ice-cream to treat yourself. 

3. July in Southern France is a bit too hot for the pilgrims

N.B. Pack a hat! On average, temperature stayed at around 37 degrees Celsius. On some stretches of the path there was hardly any wind or shadow and a very scarce water supply. Despite the instinct of wearing as little as possible, it is a much better idea to hide your legs and shoulders from the burning sun with pants and long sleeves. 

back-pack-st-james

4. Your backpack should not be more than 8kg

Mine was almost twice that weight and half of the things I packed stayed at the bottom of my bag. 
Fun story : The morning of my return to the real life, there was a knock on the hostel door and a young lad stood at the porch.
“Would you happen to have a hairdryer I could use to dry my socks after the rain”
he said. I was more than happy to share with Hugo a pair of my new magenta sports socks, which were still stashed at the bottom of my backpack. 
saint-james-way-sunrise-walk

5. It is a great idea to have an early start of the day

On the third day, after meeting Laura in Montpelier, a German violin musician living and working in Austria, we decided to join her for the early morning routine. I have to say, waking up at 4:30 in the morning was not easy but it was totally worth it! We stepped on the Camino full of energy and enthusiasm, and were greeted by the first rays of sun, fresh wind and beautiful landscapes.

By 9:30 we enjoyed our second breakfast and had finished the 30 km hike by the early afternoon. There was enough time for a swim in a paradise lake, a nap in a hammock and a yoga session before the usual evening routine of finding a hostel, showering, doing the laundry, healing the blisters and scratches, wandering around the village and cooking the dinner.

In 8 days I have walked from Arles to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare - just under 200 km and only the responsibility of going back to work had stopped me from continuing this wonderful adventure. It was heartbreaking to stand on the porch of the hostel that morning I had to wave good-bye to the 4 of my fellow pilgrims who continued their way towards Castres. This was a path full of challenges including the burning heat of the summer, the climbing of the steep hills, the physical weariness but it is believed that one needs to suffer along the Way of St James for one’s sins. Some people even choose to walk the Way barefoot to deepen the hardship, personally, I hope all my sins were pardoned. I had wounded my knees after slipping on a rocky descent, abraded my shoulders and hips by the straps of the backpack, counted some 15 blisters on my feet, and had a bad allergy but rest assured, it was totally worth it all! The Way set me free again and I found peace along it.

Thank you so much for reading this!
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