Guest Post by Jane V. Blanchard who is author of Women of the Way Embracing the Camino. You can purchase the book on Amazon or the e-book . To view the book trailer or purchase an autographed copy, visit Woman of the Way 2011
I am a 62-year-old modern-day pilgrim. In 2011, I and approximately 300,000 people trekked a network of ancient pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. In 1987, the Council of Europe proclaimed these Ways or Caminos to be the first European Cultural Itinerary.
I hiked 500+ miles across northern Spain on the most popular route, the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). Many pilgrims start in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small French town on the border with Spain, summit the majestic Pyrenees, traverse the high central plateau known as the Meseta, and then proceed westward to the cathedral in Santiago.
Since about forty-four percent of the pilgrims that year were female, I spoke with many women from around the world. Some were Christians on pilgrimage to pay homage to the apostle St. James; others were hiking or biking The Way for sport and adventure, for health reasons, or to get in shape. Many were hiking alone or with other women. All seemed to be enjoying themselves. When I asked them what they liked most about the Camino, the majority replied the camaraderie among pilgrims, especially the close friendships they developed with other female hikers.
Based on my observations, women on the Camino, regardless of age or nationality, take care of each other. They share food and drink, advice on caring for blisters, and even hugs to ward off loneliness. It is never difficult to strike up conversations; women are eager to tell their stories, talk about the differences in cultures, the difficulties of the journey, their family, and how the Camino experience affects them.
In sisterhood, I saw women gather around a fellow wayfarer to offer support and comfort when she received news that her father died, arranging for a special Mass in his honor, and delaying their journey several days while the mourner made plans to return home. From my experience, the developing of this kindred spirit towards fellow pilgrims is typical of how quickly relationships form on the Camino.
I went on the Camino without expectations. I found an indescribable beauty, developed lasting friendships, learned to live without all the noise of modern life, and was changed. For many including myself, the Camino is a demarcation: there is the pre-Camino person and then there is the pilgrim.
It took me 43 days to complete my Camino, but some women complete it in 30 days. Take as much time as you can; I wish I had had more. Beware! The Camino is addictive; you may be drawn back to it.
Is It Safe?
Women need not fear harm from strangers; for the most part, the Camino is safe, perhaps safer than walking in a large city. Of more concern is danger from the elements. I believe that if you P.A.C.E. yourself on the Camino, you can prevent injury and keep out of harm’s way.
- Patience. Learn to be patient with yourself and try not to exceed your limitations. Starting off too fast can cause foot, shin, or knee problems. Start off slowly, then increase the speed and distance as your body adjusts to the pounding.
- Awareness. Listen to your body. Drink plenty of water, take breaks, and protect yourself against the sun. Modify your gait according the environment. If the path is rocky, slow down. Protect your knees—when going downhill, use hiking poles or zigzag across the slope. If the route is too strenuous, chose an alternate that is suited to your abilities.
Always be vigilant. Use the same precautions you would use at home; if your senses tell you to be careful, listen to them.
- Community. Even if you are walking by yourself, you are never really alone on the Camino. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask a fellow traveler. Likewise, don’t be afraid to offer assistance.
In spite of the camaraderie among pilgrims, don’t leave valuables alone. If you are going to shower, either take your valuables with you or ask a trusted friend to watch them. While I was walking, there were two thefts, one of money and the other of a cell phone left on a charger near the entrance to the hostel. In both instances, the suspect was a local, but it could just as easily have been another pilgrim.
- Expectations. Don’t come to the Camino with too many expectations, especially if you are new to hiking. Placing too many demands on yourself could lead to harm. A common desire is to walk the entire Camino, which may not be realistic. There are two sayings on the Way that can help you accept changing your goal. The first is “Walk your own Camino.” If you are time-limited, consider using a train or bus to meet your schedule rather than pushing too hard. The second expression is “The Camino provides.” One of the provisions that many women use is the backpack shuttle services that take a bag from one hostel to the next. If you are in a hurry, carrying a light pack can help you increase your daily mileage without harming your body.
Female pilgrims wear hiking clothes, skirts, saris, or whatever they are comfortable in. Pick light weight and quick-drying materials that are seasonally appropriate.
All along the Camino are low-cost pilgrim hostels (albergues). Some women prefer to stay in guest houses (pensiones), inns, or hotels.
If you stay in the albergues and eat the daily specials, plan on spending 20 to 30 euros/day; less, if you are frugal.