If you’re up for a ramble, you could probably do worse than what is commonly referred to as The Santiago Way; or more succinctly still, The Way, also the title of the film that turned out rather better for Martin Sheen than Apocalypse Now did. To give it it’s proper title, The Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James in English) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. Got that? Good. Because the question of which direction to go in is one that is likely to feature quite heavily in this blog.
Geography has never been one of my strong suits. Give me a map and I can absolutely guarantee that I will decide on a route that is in precisely the opposite direction to the actual destination I’m looking for. Even after 20 years of having lived in London, the A-Z might as well have been the I Ching. In Chinese. If tourists ask me for directions in Brighton, I pretend not to live here. If directional dyslexia hasn’t been identified as a cognitive disorder yet, it should be named after me. You get the picture.
So it probably wasn’t entirely fortuitous that the ‘map’ above was one of the first images that Google came up when I first started researching this journey, as I started to romanticise leisurely coastal strolls punctuated by peaceful sojourns in idyllic medieval Spanish hamlets.
Clearly anyone with the most tenuous grasp of topography could have told me that a route parallel to the coast would inevitably involve multiple river crossings and the attendant continuous ascents and descents across the landscape that this implies. And even those with the most fleeting experience of north-west Spain could have pointed out that the Spanish coastline had undergone some mild urban development since the days of Don Quixote.
It should therefore come as no surprise to discover the route I was contemplating, The Camino del Norte, The Northern Way, is in fact commonly regarded as the most physically challenging of all the potential routes I could have chosen, as well as the least well sign-posted. Mmmm.
For anyone interested in finding out more about the different routes, here are some of the better sites I’ve come across: Mundicamino, Camino de Santiago The Way, The Cofraternity of St. James, Camino de Santiago in Pictures.
The best known and most well-trodden route – also the one featured in The Way – is El Camino Frances, The French Way. The upsides, scenically, of this option are pretty compelling: initially taking you through the high, verdant mountain ranges of the Pyrenees, the route continues through the Navara & Rioja regions, scattered with picturesque hillside vineyards. Much of The Way seemed to be shot in the subsequent Castilla region, where the landscape is much flatter, allowing a gloriously unobstructed view of the route ahead, stretching out through endless fields of sunflowers and swaying corn. After moving on through yet more vineyards in Leon, and the forests of Galicia before finally arriving at Santiago de Compostela, one might well have been inspired to go home and start a creative writing course in order to avoid prosaically bludgeoning the scenery along the way to death, as I just seem to have done.
But for me, the sheer popularity of the route was also its downside. In the summer months, when I plan to travel, you can expect at least a couple of hundred potential walking companions to be starting some part of the route at the beginning of each day, and to be competing with them for bed space at the various Albergues (hostels) along the way at the end of a long day’s trek. And whilst Martin Sheen managed to find an endearingly quirky mix of personalities in his little band of fellow travellers, the risk of being latched on to by some sociopath with verbal diarrhea on a Mission from God (it is a pilgrimage, after all), felt a little too high. Sod safety in numbers; a bit of solitude would suit me just fine.
And that’s why I ultimately decided to stick with Plan A. Although The Northern Way is gradually growing in popularity as an alternative to The French Way, it’s still fairly unlikely that many more than 20 or 30 walkers will be in your vicinity on any given day, and the more mountainous terrain holds greater potential to give any unwanted company the slip, anyway.
There are actually a huge number of additional attractions of my chosen path, but I’ll leave those for another time. Quite apart from anything else, it’s high time that I overcame my phobia of differentiating between right and left; I’m lucky enough to work from home and have a beautiful space from which to do so, but my daily commute is hardly challenging and does not really lend itself to a sense of high adventure. Nevertheless, I don’t want to push my luck too far, so I’ve created an idiot-proof map, cobbled together from Google searches that proved rather more fruitful than the one that started me off, on which I’ve logged virtually every step of the way. Whether or not it succeeds in preventing this particular idiot from getting hopelessly and utterly lost remains to be seen.
Filed under: Camino Countdown