Spain Camino

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Shadows, Shells, and Spain


My new book, Shadows, Shells, and Spain, follows Jamie Draper as he marches along the ancient and noble Camino de Santiago from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela—in search of his missing wife. So if you’re planning on walking the Camino, this page is for you! And know that whatever challenge you are currently facing in your life, this modern-day pilgrimage will feed your mind and soul while testing the limits of your body… and your comfort zone!

Camino de Santiago


“…Whatever the personal problem or issue, the long walk gave a modern-day pilgrim time to think and re-examine his or her priorities…  No two pilgrims were alike, so no two Camino experiences were alike. The only real and tangible concept that was universal among pilgrims now was this: as long as you opened your eyes to the power of what the Camino could do for your life, you’d return home a changed and better person…”
(page 43)

So who’s walking the Camino?

For many of today’s pilgrims, the trek along the Camino is less of a spiritual quest and more about the refreshing experience of a challenging vacation. I met dozens of pilgrims who were experiencing some sort of personal crossroads in their lives. I met people newly retired from their jobs, or fed up with their current jobs and needing a big break, or unsure of what to do with their careers and hoping the march of time would sort things out. I met people who just left their husbands and wives. I met people who had recently lost a loved one. I met people who had recently recovered from a serious disease. I met all kinds of people, from all over the world, and all of them just wanted to walk off their sizable stress alongside a supportive community far away from the distractions of home.

When to go:

The Camino de Santiago is open 365 years a day with a majority of the pilgrims walking during the summer months. Obviously, the biggest concerns are weather and available accommodation. So my recommendation is to walk in June or September. Spring is nice during the planting season but rain will be a concern (and the ground will be brown and barren). Fall is pleasant enough during the harvesting season, but again, rain will be a concern. Jamie and I found out that June was perfect. We were lucky and only received two short rain showers during the entire month! And everything was lush and green! At 6:30 am, the temperature was ideal. At 9 am, it was warm enough to put on your hat to shield you from the sun. At 11 am, you stopped to apply your sunscreen. And between 12 and 2 pm, you arrived at your destination several hours before the heat of the day.
Jamie and I also walked during the start of the FIFA World Cup football (soccer) tournament in 2014. That meant that every night in every town along the Camino, the TV screens in the pubs were tuned to the tournament. It’s an awful lot of fun to watch football with the Italians or the French or the English cheering on their national team in a small town in Spain. The next tournament is in 2018 so book your trip now! (Or wait for the equally exciting UEFA Euro Championship in 2020.)


What to bring:
Plenty of websites and guidebooks have already listed all the recommended items that you’ll need for your Camino. But remember that for maximum comfort, you should only carry 10% of your body weight. So think frugally. And yes, spend the extra money on those polyester T-shirts with the wicking material—and those walking shoes (which should be half a size too large for your feet to leave room for swelling)!

The top 4 things you need that the other websites don’t stress enough:
1. Anti-chafing stick for your feet. The blister scare is real and could ruin your trip. Don’t ignore them. Too many pilgrims were painfully limping around because they didn’t take proper care of their feet. Coat them every morning with that anti-chafing stick and wear those wool socks with the wicking material layer. My brand was called Chafe Zone and I swear by it!
2. Nylon pants with zippers around your legs so you can convert them to shorts at night. I don’t recommend walking in shorts despite the desire of a tan. It will only make your sunscreen breaks last that much longer. Your legs require too much surface area to cover. Better to only worry about your face, neck, and arms for your sunburns. Keep your legs out of the equation.
3. Another book about the Camino beyond your guidebook. The guidebook is essential for giving you basic directions, mapping out your distances, and listing all the albergue accommodations. But I haven’t found one yet that really breaks down the true experience of walking the Camino. Too many of these guidebooks are written by religious scholars who frown upon the temptations of the city. But, let’s be honest, the Camino is less of a pious march across Spain… and more of a party. So bring along another Camino book to bide your time in between the tapas and the wine! (Obviously, I recommend that you bring along mine…)
4. An old-school journal. You will meet so many fellow travelers and experience so many lovely towns and cities, it will soon be too difficult to remember any of the details unless you write them down (especially when you look at your photos a few weeks later). And, remember, you’re never really alone on the Camino when you have your own journal. And now you have something else to occupy your time in between the tapas and the wine!

And the top 2 things you think you need but you probably really don’t:
1. Trekking poles. This is just my opinion. On the contrary, many pilgrims will swear by them and say that they help ease the strain on their knees and hips. I can’t argue with that. My point is that I preferred to walk without those poles constantly attached to my hands. No trekking poles meant I could walk freely while sipping from my water bottle, or eating a sandwich, or taking a photo, or shooting a video. The pilgrims with trekking poles always had to throw their poles aside and come to a halt in order to do… just about anything. So think about it. And maybe carry less weight so you won’t create that extra strain on your joints…
2. A mobile phone. I know, I know, this sounds like absolute heresy! This is also just my opinion. And I didn’t have kids or sick family members that needed my attention. But, man, it was awesome to let go of the domestic madness back home and really embrace the true intention of the Camino i.e. to use this ample time to focus on my personal priorities and meet fellow pilgrims, whether I was on the trail or sitting in the town square—and not be distracted by the noise of the internet. I could find out how my baseball team was doing when I returned. I could catch up on those emails later. Again… think about it. Or, at least, only use your phone for emergencies…


Before you go:
Practice, practice, practice. Dress up in your Camino clothes and walk with your filled-up backpack around town up to three months before you leave. Five kilometers at first. Then ten. Up hills, down hills. Protect your feet. Get comfortable. I lost five pounds before I even started the Camino and then another ten on the trail.
Some websites will recommend that you order your credencial  (your pilgrim passport) before you leave, but I wouldn’t. This is an adventure. Wherever you start on your Camino, make that your first priority: go to the recommended pilgrim stop and ask for your credencial. Have a Camino official fill it out for you. When he or she is done, they will wish you a “Buen Camino” and mean it. And you’re on your way!

A warning about the sleeping arrangements:
The guidebooks will recommend the albergues (the cheap dormitories built for pilgrims) and give you ample information on where to find them. Give them a shot. Embrace them if you must (especially if you’re on a tight budget). You will meet people there (but you will meet a lot more on the trail and in the town squares). But know this: you will also meet the snorers. And you only need one snorer to ruin your whole night’s sleep. Trust me! Out of the twenty/thirty/forty beds placed in that room, there will be one or two snorers every night. And they will wake you up. And they just might make you angry. I started out sleeping in albergues… but I eventually switched to budget hotels to ease my mind. Yes, I paid more but, boy, did I sleep! “But, John, I’ll just bring my earplugs.” Good luck with that. I wore earplugs every night in those albergues… and it wasn’t enough. Trust me, you’re going to hear some world champion snorers, my friend…


How long should you go? (i.e. not everybody can afford to take 30 days off in a row…)
Of course, this depends on what route you take. But I’ll stick with the most popular route, the Camino de Frances which begins near the border between Spain and France and is comprised of 33 recommended stages. If you have 35 days to spare, by all means, walk the entire route! But I didn’t. My work commitments forced me to make some compromises and walk the route in 22 days. I will list my itinerary below, but here are some things to consider if you can’t complete the entire course.
1. There is no need to start in the recommended French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Yes, it’s a beautiful location but it doesn’t reflect the rest of the Camino trail. Without any real meaningful training, it forces you to walk up and down mountains in the Pyrenees! Many pilgrims will injure themselves on their first day. Twisted ankles, sore knees, etc. For the other 32 days you will be walking over rolling hills and marching through vineyards and fields. Mountains are not part of the Camino (except on the very first day). You know who doesn’t start their journey in France? The Spanish. They all begin at the stage 2 stop, Roncesvalles. “This is a Spanish Camino in my country. Why should I cross the border first?” Agreed. Resist the temptation; start somewhere else.
2. The guidebooks will encourage you to enjoy the beauty of the Meseta, the 240 kilometer stretch of trail through a barren plain that is flat, hot, with no shade, and no points of interest of any kind. It is dreadful. Most of the towns are dreadful. The flies are relentless. I talked to many pilgrims about their Meseta experience and I would estimate that only 10 percent of them found it rewarding. Everyone else was relieved to be rid of it and embraced the greenery that greeted them on the other side. March through the Meseta, if you must, but you have been warned.
3. Also remember that in order to receive your compostela (your certificate of proof that you walked the Camino), you are only required to walk 100 kilometers of the trail. That’s it! According to the Camino officials in Santiage de Compostela, you are a worthy enough pilgrim at that distance. So don’t listen to the pilgrim purists who insist that you need to walk every step from the French border to the Santiago Cathedral in order to fulfill your commitments to the Camino. The official Pilgrim’s Office doesn’t.
4. Also, don’t listen to the Spanish in terms of your Camino commitment. They live there. So many of them don’t walk the entire route all at the same time either. Some walk 100 kilometers one year and then return the following year to walk some more. They might spread out their journey over 2, 3, 4, 5 or more years. And they will likely tell you to do the same. I argued, “I can’t do this every year. It gets expensive in flights. It gets tedious in terms of training. It’s all too much. No, listen, this is my one trip to complete the Camino, so I will make some compromises.” The Spanish pilgrim would then shrug. “Come back next year, it’s not a big deal…”

Okay, so I got this limited amount of days, where should I walk?
One week: Sarria to Santiago de Compostela (that’s 100 kilometers in 5 stages)
Two weeks: Pamplona to Burgos, bus to Sarria, Sarria to Santiago (these are, arguably, the nicest sections of the trail)
Three weeks: Pamplona to Burgos, bus to Leon, Leon to Santiago (avoiding most of the Meseta)
Four weeks: Pamplona to Santiago (and maybe skipping some of the Meseta on a bus)
33 days or more:  Walk the whole damn thing!


My Trip (June 2014):

Puente la Reina

Puente la Reina

1st – Pamplona to Puente la Reina (training helped, feel great)
2nd – to Estella (pretty town which is misleading because many are not)
3rd – to Los Arcos (by now I have an established pilgrim crew!)
4th – to Logroño (my first hotel)
5th – to Nájera (my favorite town)
6th – to Santo Domingo de la Caizado (big letdown after Nájera)
7th – to Belorado (great dinner party in the square)
8th – to Agés (injured while entering this depressing village)
9th – to Burgos (limped into town, hotel, last meal with my first pilgrim crew)
10th – to León (by bus through Meseta, injured, hotel)
11th – León rest day on doctor’s orders
12th – to Astorga (by bus, end of Meseta, hotel, World Cup starts)
13th – to Ponferrada (by bus, hotel, almost healed)



14th – to Villafranca del Bierzo (walking again, hotel)
15th – to O Cebreiro (best Camino food, new pilgrim crew established)
16th – to Triacastela (my worst town)
17th – to Sarria (hotel, Camino got busier, allergies kick in)
18th – to Portomarin (hotel, hottest day)
19th – to Palas de Rei (hotel, finally purchase allergy medicine)
20th – to Arzúa (hotel, last big town before finish line)
(Tip: Because you want to arrive in Santiago in the late morning (before the noon Pilgrim Mass), it’s important to end your walk the next day in a place that’s not too far from your final destination.)
21st – to Lavacolla, now 10.4 km from Santiago (hotel, my only afternoon of rain, but only 90 minutes)
(Tip: This is the only time I booked a hotel in advance. You want a hotel near the Santiago Cathedral to drop off your backpack when you arrive so you can enjoy the city without it.)
22nd – to Santiago de Compostela (hotel, final drinks with my second pilgrim crew, absolute peace and joy!)

You can now see the whole Camino journey in less than 5 minutes!

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela


“…Now the city was an architectural masterpiece where art, history, and religion coincided to provide a feast for the eyes and sustenance for the soul. All the buildings and squares were hewn from the same granite stones, which gave the space a comforting uniformity. And with the banishment of cars inside the medieval quarter, a blissful blanket of peace was suspended over each and every street…”
(page 308)


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Shadows, Shells, and Spain

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