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We are all real pilgrims


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Whether you choose to walk 2 000kms of a pilgrim path or only 5km – you are a real pilgrim. Whether you choose to walk, ride, go with a guide, stay in refuges or hotels, you are a real pilgrim.
People sometimes ask, “Did you do the whole camino?”
There is no ‘whole camino’.
There is just the camino.
Most people in Spain don’t have to travel over the border to France or Portugal to walk to the tomb of their Patron Saint. Even if they only live 5kms away, they have walked the camino if they walk to Santiago.
(Over 12 million ‘pilgrims’ visited Santiago in 2004 – the Holy Year.
650 000 made use of the refuges. 179 500 got the Compostela).
In her book “Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages” (based on her thesis for her doctorate) Debra Birch says:
“The traditional image of the pilgrim tends to be that of a lone individual travelling on foot bearing little more than a scrip and staff. The reality, however, long before the 12th Century, was rather different. Surviving evidence shows that it was not considered unusual for those who could afford it to take a horse or mule on such a journey either to carry the baggage or to ride upon.”
She goes on to describe groups of pilgrims travelling together (mainly for safety sake) often with the guide of an experienced pilgrim.
Aimery Picaud, thought to be the author of the 12th Century Pilgrim Guide to Compostela, certainly expected pilgrims to have a horse and money, exhorting them not to allow the horse to drink from the River Salatus, giving advice on how to get the horse aboard the small water ferry at St Jan-de-Sorde and how much to pay toll keepers. He also describes the various goods one could buy along the way and more so in Santiago – souvenirs, medicines, leather shoes etc.
So, even in the hey-days of pilgrimage – 11th to 12th Centuries – there would have been many different classes of pilgrims from the walking peasant, to the mule riding middleclass, the horse riding gentry with their servants, Knights with their ladies and support staff and the odd King or Queen reclining in a sedan box with their retinue in tow. Some would have stayed in the pilgrim hospices, other might have been a guest in the monasteries whilst many stayed at Inns (watching out for murderous inn-keepers!) and guesthouses. They were all pilgrims and in the Pilgrim Guide it is said that ‘rich or poor .... they must be received with charity and compassion.”
I do not think that 21st Century pilgrims have to walk the ‘whole’ way to be ‘real’ pilgrims. They don’t have to stay in refuges. They don’t have to carry their own baggage. They will still earn the Compostela if they walk the last 100 km and stay in Paradors!
We are all real pilgrims.


Peter Robins

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sillydoll said:
650 000 made use of the refuges
I agree with most of what you wrote, but, please, this is a phony statistic. 650,000 was the number of nights spent in Galician albergues, not the number of people; if you spend 4 days en route, that is 3 or 4 overnights, but only 1 person.


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Great post Sil! .... I think it is an important message for everyone that are so worried about "How to do the pilgrimage right". Many worry about not starting at the "correct" starting point, and many worry about not being a "true pilgrim" if they don't walk from France and do their 30 days of walking.

The pilgrimage is a personal thing, each one do it their way.

Greetings from rainy Santiago,


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You might be right Peter.
The figure of 650 000 pilgrims was from a website report (which you obviously also read?)
The point was - all X-number of pilgrims who spent 650 000 nights on the camino were all 'real' pilgrims. It doesn't matter where they started, how far they walked, how fast or how slowly, whether they took a bus, a taxi, a donkey, a camel or a train.
Not everyone has the time, the money, the courage, the stamina or the physical ability to walk 800kms or 500kms or 300kms and their camino is no less authentic, spiritual or amazing than any other pilgrims journey.
We are all real pilgrims.



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Sil - let me express a note of dissent

The following definition is from Wikipedia

A pilgrimage is a term primarily used in religion and spirituality of a long journey or search of great moral significance. Sometimes, it is a journey to a sacred place or shrine of importance to a person's beliefs and faith. Members of every religion participate in pilgrimages. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim.

I think that length of journey does matter (and that the 100km minimum is much too low) and I'd also suggest that the pilgrimage should be hard work and involve such things as suffering, pain or deprivation from our normal comforts in daily life. For instance, I find walking easy and so for me the most uncomfortable part of the pilgrimage was accepting whatever happened along the way (such as bad weather or noisy refuges).

And I appreciate that others endured far more than me such as those that choose to walk (unlike me) in the Winter snow. I think particularly of the couple of men, shackled together, the blind one being led by his friend that I saw as we left Triacastela - and my joy and admiration as I saw them again in Santiago and discovered that they'd walked all the way from Arles!


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Yes - the human spirit is an amazing thing. I met a pilgrim in a wheelchair in Sarria who had come all the way from Pamplona. (I have a son in a wheelchair so I had the greatest admiration for him).
I also admired my walking buddy who did the 2002 camino with me from Roncesvalles as she was 74 years old at the time (almost 20 years older than me) and we walked every inch of the way.

I think that the type of pilgrimage you described though is the medieval ‘penitential pilgrimage’ where suffering, depridation – sometimes even carrying a heavy burden or flagellation – was the order of the day in the hopes of earning bigger indulgences for the remission of sins and time spent in purgatory. You will find, if you ask most priests today, that the church not only frowns upon, but indeed outright condemns, self inflicted pain and suffering for expected expiation of sins, or other such purposes.

Most pilgrimages today - Christian or otherwise - are joyous occasions and have nothing to do with suffering or hardship. Many do not involve any walking at all. Millions of pilgrims visit the Marian shrines (Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe etc) without having to walk there. The number of pilgrims each year to visit the Basilica of Guadalupe is thought to exceed 10 million, making it the most visited Catholic site in the world, second only to the Vatican itself. I would not be brave enough to tell these people that they are not real pilgrims because they haven't undertaken a long, difficult journey to get there!

We are all entitled to our opinions and interpretations. I just feel saddened when others minmise or denigrate another person's efforts at making a journey that is important to them because it does not live up to their ideal of what is authentic and of value.

You do not have to walk in the snow to earn your right as a pilgrim - you have earned it already.


Peter Robins

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Re 650,000, see viewtopic.php?t=13

I think part of the problem for non-Spaniards is that they misunderstand what 'Camino de Santiago' means. They confuse it with modern walking/hiking routes like the Appalachian Trail or the Pennine Way, which do have specific start/end points - instead of simply being the Spanish for 'Road to Santiago'. Where does the road to Santiago start? Where does the road to London, or New York, or Timbuctoo, start? A meaningless question. I remember an American asking me once the best way to get to the 'trailhead'. I told him he was the trailhead - 'your pilgrimage starts wherever you are.'

Ultimately, all journeys start and finish at your front door. 'Pilgrimage' implies some sort of spiritual journey - something on a different plane from more mundane journeys, like going to the shops. Some may find walking condusive to that, but others may prefer staying at home and meditating, or going to a service in a local church, or sitting in a wood somewhere. I don't see that any one of these is more 'spiritual' than any other, or why being spiritual is somehow linked to distance - the further you go, the more spiritual you are. This would mean that those who come to Santiago from far away are somehow 'better' than those who live nearby.

And those who claim that 'real pilgrims' to Santiago are only those who walk long distances are curiously inconsistent about their claim. They drone on about how you have to walk to be a real pilgrim; then they get to Santiago and what do they do? They jump on a plane or train to go home! So the real 'real pilgrims' are those who walk back home again as well. :)


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Peter - I think I'm in love with you!
You are so grounded and so sensible.


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Camino(s) past & future
Caminos in Spain, France, Portugal, Germany since 2003. 2017:Two Mozarabe. 2018: Finish Levante.
Life and Camino

We call the Camino a picture of life, and also in our lives we try to tell one another what REAL life is. And of course we cant, neither in life nor on the Camino. Thank you for wise words.


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Just to add to the discussion. I came across this quote from the mid 16th century by William Thorpe which sounds very modern: he is commenting on why many undertook pilgrimages " more for the health of their bodies than of their souls...more to have worldly and fleshy friendship, than for the friendship of God".
I have commented before that I liked the va de la plata because it is less crowded. Somebody replied that meeting people was either the highlight or the principal purpose (I can't find the original post so don't quote me!). Whereas I found the long periods of isolation and contemplation profound .And not having someone to talk to for the majority of the time beneficial-it gave me time to think at length-something my everday life is not conducive to.
Others may wish to lose weight (the Jenny Craig Camino?) or meet lots of people, which is fine but is that a pilgrimage?


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The wonderful thing about opinions is that they are all correct! It all depends on where you are coming from.

Here is a useful analogy of different opinions:

1) A man is hiking in the Alps. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. He becomes separated from his hiking party. The mist is starting to come down and he can’t find the path. The rocky slopes are wet with melting snow. He starts to panic – the mountains are a scary, dangerous place to be.

2) A man is on the mid-day flight from Zurich to Frankfurt. They are flying over the Alps. It is picture perfect with the sun shining on the slopes, puffy clouds here and there and the odd glisten of waterfalls. What a wonderful place to be. He wishes he were there instead of on his way to a boring meeting.

Both opinions of the mountains are correct – it just depends on your circumstances on how you formulate your opinion. The knack is to appreciate everyone’s opinion and accept it from whence it comes.

Big pilgrim hugs,

William Marques

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My take on this topic is.

The route you take and the way you do it make you no better or worse than any other pilgrim. There is a tendency for some of those who have walked, travelled further, carried a heavier pack, trekked in the most difficult weather or spent the least amount of money to think they are the truest pilgrims. This type of pride is out of place on the camino. We are all pilgrims.

All the routes as described in guides now are recent inventions, at the peak of the pilgrimage’s popularity in the middle ages the walkers would have followed the road as foot traffic was most of the traffic. Over the years many of those roads have become places you would not want to walk any more so quieter paths have been provided for pilgrims. What I am trying to say here is don’t be too tied to the yellow arrows if you feel like taking your own route do so.

I know Peter has slight reservations about the second paragraph but not I hope the idea behind it.
we are all pilgrims

One morning in September I walked from Lorca to Los Arcos on a pretty dull and dreary day. I had starrted walking at about 7:am and the sun came up about 7:30.

Whilst I was walking in the dark I was aware that there were other people in front of me and I could hear talking every now and then. It was not until daybreak however , while I was decending a hill side that I realised that there were bout 12 to 15 pilgrims on the Camino within eyesight , some ahead of me and some behind. A long line of Pilgrims descing a hillside each alone in his\her own solitude.

This set me thinking about the bigger picture and I realised that every day for many many years there has been a long line of Pilgrims descending that hillside. In a way the line is eternal, it's just different pilgrims each day. A never ending Pilgrimage in fact.

I hope this makes sense.

Peter Robins

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yes, I've heard a lot of people comment on the sense of history, of continuity, in following the footsteps of pilgrims over the centuries. In some sections, where the path is much as it was centuries ago, this is literal, but in others, as William says, the path is a modern one, so any continuity is metaphorical.

As for the pain and suffering, this is something I can't relate to. Walking is simple and fun, my activity of choice: the best way to see the country and meet the locals. Where does pain and suffering come into it? It's not difficult to think up ways of going to Santiago that would involve suffering on my part: crammed into a small car, perhaps, with little legroom, in the company of chain-smokers with a taste in country & western. Grim! But pilgrimage? Surely not.

It's true that the cathedral introduced the 100km to encourage people to expend some effort getting to Santiago. They'll give you a piece of paper in Latin, but it doesn't really mean anything; they can't tell whether you took a bus part of the way or not. And they're not going to bar access to the shrine to anyone who hasn't done the required km. The goal is there, the routes are there, the facilities are there; but it's up to you how/whether you use them and what you make of them.


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We are all pilgrims

The constant 'alternate world' of the camino is a huge comfort. You know that every day there are pilgrims walking the route and that you can join in again any time you want to. Great, isn't it!
Just a few words on distances.
In 2002 by the time we reached Roncesvalles we had travelled ± 6 000 km by plane (we flew Olympic Airlines, Durban – Johannesburg – Athens – Madrid); then a 4 hour trip on a bus to Pamplona, then another ± 1 hour journey on another bus to Roncesvalles. We then walked ± 750kms to Santiago. On the way home we travelled on the overnight train (9 hours) to Madrid and flew via Athens to Johannesburg and Durban.
If distance was a criterion for a ‘real’ pilgrim, I think we more than qualified!
Distance in the Middle Ages meant the same thing – distance journeyed and distance walked or ridden. History shows that the great majority (not all) of Jacobean English pilgrims journeyed to Spain by sea rather than endure a long overland walk. Some sailed to Bayonne from Southampton (or some other West Country port). They then joined a road that ran in a south westerly direction through Irun to Burgos and then to Santiago. Some sailed to Bordeaux.
Others sailed to Corunna (the most favoured port in the later Middle Ages but also the longest crossing) and walked from there. Portugal was also a favourite destination. The pilgrim’s choice was often determined by politics.
The English way starts at Ferrol and is about 110kms to Santiago. The route from Fistera Muxia is about 120 kms. I’m sure they felt that they had earned their souvenir/compostela/indulgence etc. and didn’t walk any further than they absolutely had to.
Pilgrim hugs,

Peter Robins

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on the subject of means of transport, something made the old song pop into my head:

You'll never get to heaven in an old Ford car
'Cos an old Ford car won't get that far
You'll never get to heaven in a limousine
'Cos the Lord ain't got no gasoline
You'll never get to heaven in a jumbo Jet
'Cos the Lord ain't got no runways yet
You'll never get to heaven on roller skates
You'd slip right by them Pearly Gates
You'll never get to heaven on a Honda bike
'Cos you'll get halfway, then you'll have to hike
You'll never get to heaven in a Ford Coupe
Cause the angels all drive Chevrolet
You'll never get to heaven in Mike's old car
'Cos Mike's car stops at every bar

You'll only get to heaven if you walk all the way
And get a compostela at the shrine of St Jay . . . mes.

And that's the end, St. Peter said
As he closed the gates, And went to bed.
For many of us, the days of walking down the well-worn paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela (I deeply appreciate the image of "perpetual pilgrimage" mentioned above) is just part of the journey. We begin much further back, in the comfort (or otherwise) of our own homes, planning and preparing. We take it with us as we leave the city and return to other things, reflecting on our experiences and sharing them with others.

100km is just a distance; a pilgrimage traces a route that transcends the physical trail and takes us through metaphysical realms of appreciating self, others and, perhaps, God.


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