I should probably take some time to explain the Camino in more detail. Let’s start with a map…
Wait, no. Wrong map. Hold on…
There we go. The Camino de Santiago is a network of routes through Europe. The map above covers a lot of ground, but the routes continue out even farther to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and beyond. They wind along and join and eventually converge on Santiago de Compostela, where it’s said the remains of Saint James are buried. Saint James is the patron saint of Spain, known by many as San Tiago (a name ultimately derived from the Hebrew name Ya’akov/Jacob).
As far back as the 11th century, Christians from across Europe made pilgrimages along these routes. By the 12th century, the pilgrimage was well organized with lodging and protection to support peregrinos on their way. As you can imagine, I’m pretty relieved that I’m doing this post-12th-century.
Here’s a closer look at the route I’ll travel, the Camino Francés.
The path follows an ancient Roman trade route to what they believed was the westernmost point in Europe, known now as Cape Finisterre (finis terra, land’s end). The actual westernmost point of Europe is in Portugal; the Romans should have checked their smartphones.
Looking at this map that stretches 500 miles, you might be wondering a thing or two, or twenty. I’ve been asked a lot of questions by friends about what this will involve.
How long will it take you to finish?
Somewhere between 30 and 40 days to get from St. Jean all the way to Finisterre. Estimates are that the trip averages between 20 and 30 kilometers per day (12 – 19 miles) depending upon your comfortable pace.
How will you avoid getting lost?
There are markers in the form of yellow arrows and scallop shells throughout the trail to keep pilgrims going in the right direction. You’ll probably get bored of seeing them soon enough once I start uploading photos.
Where will you stay? Are you camping?
The Camino Francés is very well-supported by a system of hostels, called refugios or albergues, that are only open to pilgrims. When I get to St. Jean Pied de Port I’ll pick up a credencial, a pilgrim’s passport, that will allow me to stay at these inexpensive locations. Some are run by the villages and cities along the way, others are privately owned, and others are run by churches, monasteries, and convents. There’s no need to make reservations at albergues and refugios, though in the busiest times and especially in holy years there could be overflow into other buildings like schools. Pilgrims can choose to camp outside if they prefer, but it’s not necessary.
What do you need to bring?
I’ll go into more detail on this in a later post. My pack is a 40 liter internal frame pack, and I’ll be carrying clothing, hiking boots, first aid and medicine, rain gear, water, sandals for after the day’s walk is done, toiletries, a sleeping bag and undersheet (treated with insect repellant to deter bed bugs), a flashlight, my camera gear, a tablet, and a guidebook. And a towel. Always bring your towel.
You’re going alone? Is it safe?
Anything can happen to anyone anywhere, but generally speaking, yes it is safe. I’ll probably be safer along the Camino than I am walking down the streets here in Hollywood. So although I’m going alone, I’m not worried and you shouldn’t be either. And I’m certain to meet people along the way who I’ll join up with for at least some portions of the walk. I’m counting on it — otherwise I won’t be able to bring you anyone’s stories!
You said this is a Christian pilgrimage route. You’re Jewish. Why are you going?
It seems like one question, but I think it’s really two. “Why are you going?” and “Why would a Jew be going?”
So let’s start with the first one.
I think a lot of pilgrims probably get stuck on the question of “Why?” I don’t know exactly how to explain my need to do this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it as that question is so often asked. Hopefully I’ll be able to enunciate it better during or after the experience. But right now I only know that it’s something I want to do and must do.
Next, why would a Jew be going?
The route is historically undertaken for religious reasons, and I look forward to meeting a lot of devoted Christians along the road. The route is also popular among people of other faiths and agnostics/atheists, for a variety of reasons both spiritual and concrete, and I’m eager to meet them too.
When I was a boy preparing to become a Bar Mitzvah, I spent some time with fellow students discussing our Torah and Haftarah portions with the Rabbi in his study. Bookshelves spanned the walls and were filled with old leather-bound books, paperbacks, musty hardcovers. Hebrew letters and English transliterations ran up their spines. Once, when I should’ve been paying attention to what the Rabbi was saying, I was actually busy staring at the books. I was surprised to see both the New Testament and the Koran.
My face must have shown it, because he paused to ask me what I’d seen. Remarkably he didn’t seem at all annoyed that I’d clearly not been paying attention. I told him I was surprised to see those books there. He smiled and said that although he was Jewish and a Rabbi and studied the Tanakh, he also felt it was very important that he learn the tenants of other faiths and appreciate their perspectives. Plus it’s great for trivia night. (He didn’t say that part.)
Maybe I took that to heart or maybe it’s because I’m history/humanities buff, but understanding other religions is and has been important to me. Traditions and rituals don’t have to be mine to be beautiful, meaningful, divinely human, and worthy of respect. So yes, I’ll gladly be a Jewish pilgrim on a Christian road.
Do you have questions I didn’t mention here? Comment below and I’ll answer in a future post.