By Katharine B. Soper
Tradition has it that pilgrims leave behind the comforts and security of their everyday lives to embark on a journey of the spirit. When I first walked the Camino francés in 2002, accommodations were basic, communications limited, and pilgrims who couldn’t strip down to the bare essentials had no choice but to labor under a heavy pack — or quit. This past summer, I discovered that things are changing fast, and these changes make it possible to enjoy the creature comforts of a fine vacation while on the pilgrimage trail.
In 2002, pilgrim shelters called refugios offered a cheap bunk bed in a dorm—no linens, no privacy, and limited bathing and toilet facilities. Hot water was in short supply and snorers abounded. A good night’s sleep was far from guaranteed, though these shelters offered camaraderie and protection from the elements. Also most refugios in Spain did not accept reservations. This led to ridiculously early pre-dawn departures for those who wanted to be sure of getting a bed at their next stop and anxiety filled days for others who left at daylight but had to live with not knowing whether they’d have a place to sleep that night.
By 2015, these inconveniences had been alleviated. New pilgrim accommodations that are luxurious beyond belief have sprung up all along the Camino francés. Both the old and new accommodations are now called albergues. Both have dorm rooms. But the new albergues also offer private rooms, some even with private baths. Often they feature swimming pools, lush gardens with hammocks, a bar, and a restaurant that serves delicious three-course dinners. The water is reliably hot. And you can call ahead to reserve, so no need to worry about finding a place to sleep. In fact, you can book your entire trip online before you leave home. Or you can use one of the agencies that will make all the arrangements for you and even provide a sag wagon for days when you might prefer not to walk (too hot? too rainy? too tired?).
Another development solves the problem of pain and suffering caused by an overloaded pack. (I am convinced that heavy packs fell more pilgrims than any other single cause.) A basic principle of pilgrimage is to take only the essentials in order to be free of the tyranny of things. The rule of thumb is that a pilgrim’s pack should weigh the lesser of 10 percent of your body weight or 8 kilos (17.5 pounds). For me, that’s 12.8 pounds—a change of clothes, rain gear, a sleeping bag, and a toothbrush. But most people have a more expansive view of what’s essential, requiring a considerably heavier pack. Baggage transport companies let you have it both ways. They are reliable, cheap, and it’s easy to use their services. In the morning, you simply fill out the requested information on an envelope provided by the albergue or hotel, insert the required cash (between 5 and 8 euros), and attach the envelope to your pack. You deposit your pack at the front door and off you go with nothing but a small daypack containing water, rain gear, and a snack.
Communications are much better, too. In 2002, cell phones were the exception on the Camino, and smart phones were not yet widely available. Very few refugios had wi-fi or computers for public use. Now, smart phones have become so common that on my last trip I met an American (of course) who was doing a study of the most popular apps used on the Camino. And it’s the rare albergue that doesn’t have free wi-fi, making it easy to stay connected with your real life (and responsibilities and concerns) while on the trail.
Is all this convenience a good thing? Do these changes diminish the pilgrimage experience by turning the Camino into just another fun-filled vacation? We’re human, after all, and what’s wrong with a little creature comfort? But can you achieve the inner goal of pilgrimage—whether personal, spiritual, or religious—if you don’t reach out beyond your comfort zone and prepare to live with the consequences?
I was feeling an intense need to somehow bring my daily life more in line with my priorities when I began my first journey to Santiago in 2002. To accomplish this, I had to free up the space—mental and physical—to refocus. That meant leaving behind many things I believed essential and making do for forty days with only the contents of a small day pack. I walked without reservations and without a phone. Freed from the tyranny of a schedule and the constant reminder of my usual responsibilities, I was able to slow down and appreciate the joy of simply being. The understandings I gained during this journey continue to affect my life in ways that leave me astonished and grateful.
When I returned from that first Camino journey, I believed my approach was the only way to be a “real” pilgrim. In the intervening years, after more journeys on many other pilgrim trails, volunteer work at pilgrim centers in France, and countless conversations, I have come to a more nuanced view of pilgrimage. We each set off on the pilgrim trail for our own reasons, even though we may not know what those reasons are before we leave home. We may also not appreciate that pilgrimage is first and foremost a journey of the spirit and state of mind a defining factor. The key to a successful pilgrimage lies not in the physicality of the experience but rather in your willingness and ability to remain open and listen to what the Camino has to offer. You must have the courage to leave room for the unknown and the unexpected—they will happen and you will learn from them. But it may not be necessary to suffer cold showers and labor under a heavy pack.
I remember an American pilgrim I met a couple of years ago. She had hired an outfitter to book hotel rooms and arrange baggage transport for her entire trip. Carrying only a small pack, each day she walked with a little memento of a person who had been important in her life (a button from her deceased grandmother, a paperclip from an ill colleague), and she dedicated the day to reflecting about that friend or family member. Who am I to say that her journey was not a pilgrimage?
And what about those who see the Camino as a great vacation or just another item on their bucket list? The Camino is a public treasure. People may choose to visit it as a tourist, scholar, botanist, or adventurer. Yes, commercialization and new forms of communication have made it possible to have a much easier and more comfortable journey than in days gone by. But I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t matter. Those who come in the spirit of pilgrimage will continue to find what they seek.
I have confidence in the Camino.
(Kate Soper was featured in Issue 61 (September through December 2015 issue) as a linguist, feminist, adventure traveler, lawyer, and activist. Her book on walking the Camino in northern Spain was recently published.)
Katharine B. Soper is a retired French professor, lawyer, and University of Michigan administrator. She continues to learn about the pilgrimage to Santiago by volunteering at pilgrim welcome centers in France and by talking with prospective pilgrims and interested armchair travelers at book clubs and book talks. She and her husband live in Ann Arbor, Michigan; they have a son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter who live in Minneapolis and a daughter who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. You can contact Kate at email@example.com.