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Having just finished the Camino de Santiago in June, I thought it would be useful to put down some general pointers for anyone who’s interested in walking this ancient pilgrims’ route themselves.

Our Compostellas. Written in Latin and where possible, carrying a latinized version of your name.

As a quick introduction, I walked the Camino in two parts. The first half, from Pamplona to Leon in 2004, and the second half a month ago from Leon to Santiago. In those eight years the interest in the Camino has increased enormously, with many websites, guidebooks and even a Hollywood movie (The Way), jumping on the bandwagon. As a sign of how mainstream it has become: My local outdoor store in Dublin had a special section of their floor devoted exclusively to the Camino.

As is to be expected, the number of people walking the route has increased dramatically as well, more than doubling over the last decade. This has caused especially the Camino Frances to become more crowded, but on the upside has also led to a wider variety of accommodation and other pilgrim facilities to be built.

So if you’re planning to go as well, here are some things to consider before setting out.

1. Which Route

Even though everyone speaks of the Camino as if it were one fixed route with a specific beginning and series of waypoints, there are in fact many ways to get to Santiago. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages would start on their doorsteps and walk towards Spain, meeting up with other pilgrims in the cities and towns of medieval Europe, such as Paris or Le Puy-en-Velay. Several routes became more or less standardized along the way.

A map showing the different routes through Spain and Portugal. You can of course start even earlier. Routes through France are quite popular.

The most common one that takes you through Spain today is the Camino Frances which usually begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, and passes through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. Another route hugs the Atlantic coast and is known as the Camino del Norte. Additionally there are routes coming from Madrid, Portugal and even a short one from the coast where travellers from Ireland and England would have landed.

So which one should you take? The Camino Frances is the most popular. It passes through many medieval towns and villages and the uptick in pilgrims on this route means there is often a choice of albergues (hostel-like accommodation for pilgrims). They are rarely more than 10 kilometres apart. The downside is the other side of the popularity coin. You will not often walk out of sight of other pilgrims. In our nineteen days on the Camino this year, we had exactly one morning in which we did not pass or were passed by other pilgrims.

If you prefer the quiet, the Camino del Norte may be the way to go. The downside here is that there is less accommodation and the distances between albergues can be larger at times. Also, you won’t get to watch The Way and recognize all the spots that Martin Sheen is passing by.

One last pointer, whichever route you take, have a think on whether you want to start on the French or Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Each year a substantial amount of people wear themselves out on that first tough march across the mountains. It’s not compulsory. In fact, you only have to walk a hundred kilometres to get the coveted Compostella, so there.

2. When to go

Northern Spain is colder than you might think. I discovered this back in May 2004, when it started to snow a little after Burgos. Having packed one sweater and only a rain cape as outer wear, it was decidedly frosty. The lack of hot showers at the time didn’t help either, but that has mostly been remedied these days.

Rain clouds on the Alto de San Roque. The last peak (1,270m) before heading into the final stretch of the Camino in Galicia.

You can actually walk the Camino at any time of the year. Broadly speaking the seasons go like this:

Winter, from November to March. Can get very cold. Expect to have the Camino almost entirely to yourself. Expect to have to hunt around for keys to albergues as many of them will be closed.

Spring, from April to June. Generally mild conditions but always be prepared for extremes. It can snow in May, but temperatures can also rise to the high thirties centigrade. It gets busier on the route as the weeks pass in May and June.

Summer, July and August. Some like it hot. As most Spanish walk the Camino at this time, the route is at its busiest. Temperatures can touch the forties which leads to much night-time walking to avoid the summer heat.

Autumn, September and October. Very similar to spring conditions. Crowds are less than in the summer, but still busy enough and cold spells become more common as winter approaches.

Some general points:

You’ll always need a good windbreaker as weather can change quickly for the worse in the mountains.

The Meseta, the high plains between Burgos and Leon offer very little shade and can be difficult to cross in hot or stormy weather.

Galicia, the final province the Camino passes through is very green.  That’s because it rains there. A lot.

3. Fully equipped, no bags or bus tour

Traditionally, a pilgrim would put his belongings in a backpack, carrying a few sets of clothes, a sleeping bag and some toiletries and start walking. It gives a sense of freedom, being able to go as far as you like at any given day, and stopping where you will (accommodation permitting). Of course, it also means carrying a load on your back, though with modern light-weight materials that doesn’t need to add up to more than 10kgs.

The Camino gets busy with all sorts of walkers in the last 100 kilometers before Santiago.

These days, there are several other options.

The first is walking the full length of the Camino, but having your bags transported for you. You’ll only need to carry a day pack with water and some other necessities. The cost can be as little as €5 per day and pick-ups and drop-offs can be arranged with a quick phone call.

One thing to bear in mind is that some of the albergues do not allow ‘assisted’ pilgrims, so you may be more limited in your accommodation when you use a service like this. You can ensure a spot for the night by booking with an operator that offers full packages including hotel bookings, so you’re not dependent on the albergue network. Be aware, though, that if you book with one of these you are essentially committing to walking specific distances each day, and it’s hard to know how your body will hold up in advance.

The second option, for the less active among us, is the bus tour. It’s essentially a week-long, or ten-days, or whichever time period suits, journey in a bus that includes a bit of hiking each day. You stay in hotels, get to visit some other nearby sights and will be dropped on the Camino for a five to ten kilometre stretch of walking each day.  At that time you will be all fresh and happy as you traipse by the unfortunate pilgrims who’ve just lugged a heavy backpack up a mountain for the past three hours… through the rain… in the mud…  No, no, I’m not begrudging you your comfort. Not at all.

Two more quick tips

Shoes

And don’t take them off while drinking a coffee…

If there’s one thing that will determine your enjoyment of the Camino, it’s how well your shoes fit. Make sure that you have plenty of time to break them in. If you can, go to an established outdoor store, try on a couple of different pairs,  and don’t be afraid to go back if they’re causing you trouble. They don’t have to be expensive. Since the Camino is on relatively easy-going surface for the most part, you won’t need that high-end Mount Everest type of shoe. Personally, because of a weak ankle I prefer a boot, but plenty of people use walking shoes as well. Consider in-lay soles to cushion the impact on your knees and shins, as substantial parts of the Camino follow paved roads.

Poles/Sticks

People walk the Camino with no stick, one stick or a set of two hiking poles, and generally feel very strongly about their personal preference. The basic advantage is that using them takes weight off your legs; it can aid balance, and it prevents your hands from swelling as you keep them up by holding the stick. The disadvantage is that you always have a pair of sticks in your hands.  To me there are no real rules about this one, but you’ll probably have a preference for one or the other, so give them a go before setting out.

Enjoy the walk.

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The Caribbean stretches out like a necklace from the coast of Venezuela in the South-East to the island of Cuba in the North-West. Almost all the islands are within sight of each other, which makes it easy to travel by boat, you would think, but unfortunately inter-island ferry connections are few and far between.

Martinique to St Lucia is one of the exceptions, though, and we made our way down to the docks to catch the fast ferry late in the afternoon. Fast ferries are the shipping equivalent of airplane travel. You have to arrive an hour or so early, get your baggage checked, and often you’ll have assigned seats and no way to even stand outside to enjoy the sea wind and splash of the waves. This one had a small deck at the back and after watching Fort-de-France disappear in the distance we went inside where ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ was playing on a TV. (It’s my favorite Matrix-movie, which probably requires another post to explain.)

Leaving Fort-de-France on the fast ferry.

We arrived in Castries, St Lucia, around 5.30 pm and were put in a long line to get through immigration. Travelling with an Indian passport always is adventurous in these kind of situations and this time was no different. Even though we had gone to the St Lucian consulate in Martinique and were told that Sujatha could get a visa on arrival, they had forgotten to mention one small detail. The ferry terminal doesn’t issue visas on arrival, period.

Apparently, only the airport immigration staff was in possesion of the required stamp, so the solution was for a driver to come pick us up at the ferry, drive us over to the airport, where we could get the thing done. After some lenghty discussions between immigration staff, we were told to have a seat by which time the entire ferry terminal was empty and all the security guys were just waiting for us to be picked up. They were pretty relaxed about it though. After another fifteen minutes, the driver still didn’t show, and they came up with a different solution. They would hold on to the passport and send it to the airport the next morning, where we could pick it up when leaving the island. As it was getting quite late by now, it had been an hour and a half since we arrived, we agreed, hoping that they couldn’t lose a passport in a country of only two hundred thousand people. Less people, less bureaucracy.

One of the security guys was friendly enough to hold back a taxi for us, and off we went into the St Lucian night. The thing to know about St Lucia is that it’s basically the top of a mountain range peaking out above the water. That means that the roads shoot up and down, curving through tropical forest and past chasms (which we couldn’t see in the dark), pretty much non-stop. A 26-mile ride takes about an hour. We made it to the Hummingbird Resort in Soufriere just in time to catch dinner service, and went to bed soon after.

View of that most perfectly triangular mountain. Petit Piton.

The next morning we woke up to a stunning sight. The resort, a collection of a dozen small bungalows and rooms, sat right on a sandy bay, and behind it rose the most perfect mountain you could imagine. Petit Piton. When you’re a child this is how you draw a mountain, a steep triangle rising sheer from the blue waters.

We ended up spending four days there. The resort was quiet and comfortable, it being the off-season, and the village had a few small restaurants and a great little coffee-shop overlooking the church square. Contrary to the Hummingbird, which sits at the edge of the village, most of the large resorts are hidden away on the beaches, valleys and hilltops of the surrounding area. The bulk of tourists that come here, only venture outside on organised tours, and it leaves the villages feeling a little dead. There’s pockets of wealth on the island, but it isn’t spread very well and local shops and restaurants don’t really benefit.

View from the pool at Hummingbird Resort, Soufriere.

The weather report in the Caribbean at this time of year always includes an update on any storms building over the Atlantic and on our second to last night in Soufriere a Tropical Storm watch was initiated. Ernesto, the first named storm of the season, was located some 900 kilometers to the south-east of St Lucia and moving towards the island at a rate of thirty kilometers an hour.

The next day fishermen started to secure their boats, but apart from that preparation was minimal, as the storm wasn’t seen to be strengthening significantly. Ernesto hit around six the next morning. We woke up to strong gusts of wind and sheet rain falling all around for the next hour or so. After that  the weather abated a little, but heavy showers fell every thirty minutes or so.

Ernesto rains down on the harbor in Castries, St Lucia.

We took a taxi back to the capital late in the morning. The roads were covered with fallen branches and we could see the occassional upturned tree on the hillsides. It took us about an hour again to get back to Castries, this time in full view of the chasms. The prime minister had shut down the country for the morning, which meant that all shops, the docks and airport were closed, and the empty streets had an eerie feeling.

At noon the all clear signal was given on TV, and we made our way to the airport to pick up Sujatha’s passport, which was lying already stamped at the immigration desk. The next morning, in between lashing rain, we went back to take a plane to St Vincent, as there is no ferry connection. Flight time, a massive eighteen minutes.

The Prime Minister and the Director of the Metereological Institute give the all clear.

I knew ahead of arriving that Martinique, a 128-square-kilometer island in the Lesser Antilles, would be quite French. It’s an official overseas department, it uses the Euro and its favorite sport is not cricket. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to see how French the island actually is.

The actual fort that Fort-de-France is named after. It’s still used by the French navy as a base today.

We arrived in Fort-de-France, the capital, named after the seventeenth-century fort that dominates the port and is still being used by the French navy, after a nine-hour flight from Paris. Driving downtown from the airport we passed a Carrefour, an Intersport, a Franprix and all the other retailers from the mainland. Not all that is French is popular, though. Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, who was born on the island is widely blamed for prolonging slavery as a ways to keep the family plantation going. They beheaded her after the fact.

Beheaded statue of Josephine in the city’s main park.

The city itself has a nice little center of small shops, bars and restaurants along the waterfront, where the island ferries pick up and drop off passengers. There is a beautiful library, shipped over in pieces from the Paris Exhibition, and a impressive cathedral in the centre. We had breakfast in a small cafe where they served coffee and stale croissants. Most of the locals seemed to be eating large baguettes with ham, cheese, chicken and other fillings, leaving the pastries to wilt in the display.

Schoelcher Library. Taken apart and sent by ship from Paris to Martinique.

We spent a day in Fort-de-France, and then rented a car to see the rest of the island. The roads are very well maintained and in no time we reached the former capital of St Pierre, which was burried by the eruption of a nearby volcano in 1902. Ironically, the only person to survive it was a slave who had been put in solitary confinement in a very sturdy prison cell. He went on to tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Ruins of the 700-seat theatre destroyed by the Mount Pelee eruption in 1902.

We then crossed the island, passing through rain forests to reach the Atlantic coast. Over the next few days we mostly relaxed, listening to the crash of the sea from the balcony of the small studio we rented, and visiting an old rum distillery and nearby plantation ruins. At night, the heat would dissipate a little, and a deafening chorus of chicadas, frogs and other insects would rise.

View on the Atlantic from our hotel on the Caravelle Peninsula.

As we drove back to the capital to catch our ferry to St Lucia, we passed a couple of old men standing by the beach in shorts, colorful shirts and flip-flops, playing a game of petanque. One of them had a fresh baguette under his arm as he looked on from beneath a palm tree.

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