Planning a Pilgrimage

With thousands of kilometers of Santiago pilgrim paths to choose from in Spain and France and beyond, where does the would-be pilgrim start?  “Follow your heart and don’t over-complicate your planning!” advises Dee Nolan

How do you start planning a pilgrimage?

There are as many different experiences of the Santiago pilgrimage as there are pilgrims. But the one piece of advice I think is most important to offer those setting out for the first time is that it must be your pilgrimage.  Just because someone you know walked for five weeks doesn’t mean that’s right for you. If you love art, why not plan an itinerary that allows you to visit the best galleries and museums along the way? If, like me, you are interested in food cultures, then give yourself the chance to enjoy that interest.  After all, the best window into a foreign culture is through a shared interest.

In other words, trust your heart and head and choose to do it in a manner that matters most to you, and suits how you like to travel.  Some veterans insist you should go alone so you are free for new experiences.  Others, like me, find that sharing the experiences enriches it even more.  But that’s because within our little gang, no-one minds if someone wants to spend time alone or go off on their own pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.

Some sensible preparation undoubtedly enhances a pilgrimage, but over-preparation can stifle it.  One of the joys of going on a pilgrimage is that of discovery, both self-discovery  – leaving yourself open to enjoy the new and unfamiliar  – as well as soaking up the rich history, culture and landscapes you are experiencing firsthand.  An overly rigid itinerary can feel too much like our daily strait jacket back home, leaving no freedom for last minute changes or an unscheduled day off.

Do you have to walk?

Much is written about walking the pilgrim paths and certainly, if it’s possible, I would urge everyone to find time for a little walking.  It’s a wonderful way to savour the landscape and give your mind a little holiday.  But equally, the pilgrimage can be enjoyed on a bike, in a car or on local transport.  Or a mixture  – perhaps join a specialist tour, as I have done, walking on some of the more beautiful sections and travelling by bus for the remainder.  When I did that, I travelled on the Camino Francés with a woman called Nancy Frey, a scholar of the pilgrimage, and her knowledge enhanced my experience a thousand fold.

What’s the most common mistake?

For walkers, there’s no doubt that the greatest problems arise because boots haven’t been worn in, backpacks are too heavy and pilgrims are either not physically fit enough before they start or they push themselves too hard, especially at the beginning.  “We take our tired bodies and neglected souls and dump them at the start of the camino and trust that all will be well,” writes John Brierley in his excellent guide to the Camino Francés, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino to Santiago.

Practical advice

  • Listen to the How to Buy Boots podcast
  • My books each have extensive chapters on Planning a Pilgrimage
  • Recommended Websites and Reading lists reliable websites and books on the pilgrimage with information about the different routes, when to travel, what gear you will need if walking or cycling, different types of accommodation etc.