Camino Playlist: The Marching Song

Okay, don’t blame me for this new addition to the Camino Playlist.  This one was all Eric’s fault. And once it starts, it will get stuck in your head for HOURS.

However, when I was slogging through the French mud, in the middle of a downpour that wouldn’t end, I learned that making up our own dirtier lyrics to The Ants Go Marching was a good way to distract ourselves and kill some hours.

…And they all go marching down, to the ground, to get out of the rain.

For those of you more historically inclined, you may want to take a slightly different approach to the same tune. As I walked past monument after monument to the fallen soldiers of the Great War, my mind cycled through these lyrics often, as well:

Remember, you can stream the whole Camino Playlist on YouTube here, and read the back stories for each song by clicking the Camino Playlist category on the right.

And make your own song selections for walking, ore tell us what songs got stuck in your head, in the Comments below.

The Mountaintop

Our second day of walking:

We were only a few kilometers from where we started, but I could already see a difference in the land around us. The farm dirt was no longer black with volcanic rock, but had softened to a deep brown. The trees were thicker. But the one thing that did not change, it seemed, were the hills.

Was there no level ground in Auvergne?

GR65 took pilgrims west, toward the sunset and the the remains of St Jacques. The rivers in France, or at least in this area, run toward the south, toward the Mediterranean. The result is that the Chemin de Saint Jacques encounters a constant series of steep, rocky climbs and then possibly steeper, rockier descents. The path out of St Privat was a steady ascent. I was stripping off my wool layers after half an hour, despite the chill in the air, sweating and swearing at the extra effort.

But there was so much to see, and I was feeling so good, that I almost didn’t mind.


We—well, I—struggled past farm buildings of crumbling rock, guarded by a legion of French chats who looked well fed and competent. We occasionally ran into other pilgrims on the trail; we would pass them or they would pass us with a polite Bonjour or Bon chemin (”Good way”).

Just past a cluster of houses too small to be a town, we finally came to the top of the hill…and stepped into a fairy tale. The trees cleared away, leaving only bright green, early spring scrub grass to cover the rocky outcropping. And there, sitting by the side of the road, guarding the valley, was a castle. Or at least, the ruins of a castle, which seemed even more appropriate. A crumbling, round keep balanced on the rocky crest, keeping watch over a sweeping river valley below. Just below the tower stood an intact chapel, built of rough stone that seemed to extend straight from the hillside, crowned with a haphazard tile roof and a belfry with real bells.

The Chapel and Castle of Rochgude on the Chemin de Saint Jacques
The Chapel and Castle of Rochgude on the Chemin de Saint Jacques

The date on the lintel of the chapel read 1328.

1328. The date was so old that I couldn’t put it into a context. I couldn’t imagine the world of 1328.

And yet there was nothing to keep us from scrambling up to explore. No gates or locked doors or “No trespassing” signs. There was no one else around. We shed our packs. While Eric climbed to the keep, I ducked under the low door to go into the chapel. A rough stone floor, with the rocks of the ground below breaking through in places, a few wooden benches, and—incongruously—what looked like a microphone stand.

The children’s song from my childhood started to play in my head on repeat: “The wise man build his house upon the rock…”


Outside, I climbed onto the edges of boulders and looked out over the valley below. I could see a train winding along a river, and in the distance the town of Monistrol d’Allier, our halfway point for the day. It seemed impossibly far away, but at least it was downhill. I tried not to look at the rows of mountains behind it. We would cross all of those.

But that was later. This was now.

In the opening paragraphs of her travel memoir Tracks, Robyn Davidson says, “There are some moments in life that are pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track….[This] was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”

That was me.

I was on top of a mountain, next to a castle, on a spring morning. I was past my lists, my maps, my plans. There was nothing beeping at me, rushing me, demanding me.

I was entirely present.

It was a mountaintop experience in more ways than one.

A mountaintop experience in Rochgude
A mountaintop experience in Rochgude

The Camino Paths (A Photo Tour)

People have been curious about the trails of the Camino. Were we walking on paved roads? Narrow dirt paths? Lots of rock, or fairly smooth?

The answer is really “all of the above.”

If you didn’t like the trail, all you had to do was keep walking for a couple of hours, and chances are it would be different.

The Camino winds across a lot of different kinds of country. If I were to guess, I’d say that MOST of it was fairly wide, unpaved-but-smooth paths or paved-but-untrafficked farm roads. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t also walk alongside major highways (in France, often on the shoulder of the road; in Spain, where they have to accommodate a multitude more pilgrims,  there was almost always a separate, unpaved path alongside the road). And through ankle-deep mud. And on normal sidewalks through ugly industrial suburbs and busy cities. And up and down steep hills of loose rock. And then repeat.

Here are just a few samples of the terrain. (Click the photo to see the slide show with captions.)

In the face of tragedy

Last night, as I sat waiting for news, for updates, for people to hit that “I’m safe” button on Facebook, I posted this to a Facebook group of Via Podiensis (Le Puy to St. Jean) pilgrims:

Seven months ago, I did not personally know anyone who lived in Paris. I had never even been to France.

Last night, when I heard about the tragedy unfolding half a world away from where I sat, safe in Seattle, my mind flooded with specific names and faces, true friends I made as I walked the Way and who were now far too close to danger. People who realistically could be at a concert or a soccer match or a restaurant on a normal Friday night in November.

This is a gift that the Via Podiensis, the Way of Saint Jacques, gave me: to feel the world much closer, and much more personally. To know a place not just as a name on a map, but as someone’s home.

My heart is in France today, and my prayers are with all of you who are physically there.

Photo by fdecomite

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”

(Frederick Buechner)

Camino Playlist: My Theme Song

So last week I introduced you to the Camino’s official anthem.

Today I want to add my own personal anthem to the playlist.

Because if you’re going to walk 1600 kilometers with your husband (who is also your best friend and generally favorite person, even on the bad days), there’s no way that this doesn’t run through your head a few thousand times.

Not everyone walks with their partner, of course. In fact, we met a lot of people who were surprised that we were walking together. We heard “And you still like each other?” more often than I would expect. And there were plenty of pilgrims who walked alone, leaving a spouse or partner at home. But for us, I don’t think we could have done it any other way. Because

If I haver

Well you know I’m going to be

I’m going to be the one who’s havering with you

(Whatever havering means)


By the way, I’ve decided to make this “playlist” idea official, and have created a YouTube page for it here. (There’s also a permanent link on the sidebar.) It’s music to get you in the mood for a Camino pilgrimage, or to help you keep moving when you’re on the trail.)

I’ll keep adding songs that were part of our walk, or that in hindsight SHOULD have been part of our walk. If you have suggestions for the list, share them in the Comments below. And if you want to see the stories behind each song as they link in, click the Playlist category.

Books to Guide Your Camino

Want to know more about the nuts-and-bolts of the Camino, or are you packing for your own pilgrimage? Here are the practical guides that got us there and back again. (I’ll tackle the never-ending stack of pilgrim memoirs in a later post.)

Before You Go:

Camino de Santiago: Practical Preparation and Background
Don’t let the low price of this self-published guide deter you; Gerald Kelly’s no-frills book was the perfect starter guide to help me, as an absolute novice, understand what I was getting into.

Trail Guides:
51pARdxGheL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_The Way of St. James (Vol 1): Le Puy to the Pyrenees
This is pretty much the only English-language guide available so far for the Via Podiensis. What it does, it does well: it’s a step-by-step guide to the GR65. It will tell you where to walk and when to turn, and it explained a lot (but not too much) of the historical and cultural details we passed along the way. I appreciate that the Cicerone Guides don’t break the trip up into recommended “stages,” but allow readers to set their own paces.

What Cicerone is missing, though, are maps and practical information about where to stay along the way. We ended up carrying this book for the trail guide, along with Miam Miam Dodo AND the gite list from the Via Podiensis Facebook Group) to help us find beds each night. There’s a hole in the market I wish someone would fill.

51wXKxG-lWL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Miam Miam Dodo GR 65/ Saint Jacues de Compostela
Don’t let the silly name—or the fact that this book is only available in French—deter you. The Miam Miam Dodo books are a whole series of guides for France’s long-distance walking trails, with up-to-date, practical information about where to eat and sleep (the funny name is essentially French baby talk for “yum yum night-night”). Using easy-to-read symbols and a set outline, they cover what you need to know: what accomodatons are in a town (from pilgrim gites to fancy hotels), how much they cost, how many beds they have, whether they offer dinner and breakfast, whether they have laundry facilities, whether they speak English (or other languages), and contact information. It may take a little time to sort out that “14 places en dortoir, nuit 10 euro sans draps (couvertures fournies), pdj 4 euro, poss cuisiner ou table d’hotes, ferme de Novembre a Paques” means “14 beds in a dormitory, 10 euro per night, does not include linens (blankets provided), breakfast 4 euros, possible to eat your own food in the breakfast area, closed November through Easter.” But once you do, you’ll forget you’re reading another language. And the maps are incredibly helpful.  (Note: French guides work best in France. We bought a Miam Miam Dod for the Spanish portion of the Camino, and found it wasn’t nearly as thorough or helpful.)

51ze-+5eWZL._SX301_BO1,204,203,200_A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean Roncevalles Santiago
Ah, Brierly. He’s written the most popular and widely-used Camino guides for English-speaking pilgrims, but you’ll hear him cursed all across Spain. Pilgrims love to hate his long-winded stories and spiritual asides, and his strong opinions about the “souless sendas” have sent many a pilgrim down unnecessary detours of unsheltered, unsupported back country trails. On the other hand, the maps in these books are awesome, and the annual updates do an adequate job of staying on top of the explosion of albergues, bars, and services available to pilgrims along the crowded Camino Frances. And I’ll always be grateful to him for recommending, in the middle of the crowded last week to Santiago, that we stop in the tiny village of Ribadiso when most of the hordes of walkers went on to the bigger city of Arzua a few kilometers farther along.

518X2CRQuUL._SX272_BO1,204,203,200_A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Finesterre

Because of course you need an entirely separate book for the last 3-4 days of the Camino. Shame on Brierly and the Camino Guides publisher for what seems like a blatant money grab. To make this little booklet  stretch to 96 pages, they’ve tried to sell it as a “bilingual” edition, meaning that there’s really only about 40 pages of information for you to read twice, once in English and once in Spanish.  However, I’m glad we had it along for that final stretch. I’ve heard that only about 10% of all pilgrims who arrive in Santiago go on to Finesterre, and most of them take the bus, so services out here are more spread out, and it would be easier to get lost.

Disclaimer: The above links all go to, partly because some of these books aren’t widely available in bookstores, and partly because I have an associate account there. If you click the link and buy one of these resources, I will receive a few fractions of a cent. It’s a small way to pay the domain and hosting fees, and help make Camino Times Two self-sustaining. However, I’m not going to recommend a book I did not think was valuable (and I’ve read a lot of those, too), and if you have a preferred local bookseller who can order these titles for you, you should absolutely do that. 

The Train to Le Puy

I climbed to the upper level of the local train from Lyon to Le Puy, my backpack strapped securely over my shoulders, a bag of sandwiches clutched in my hand, and Eric just a few steps behind me. The car was almost deserted as I settled into a forward-facing seat, feeling rather proud of myself. So far, everything was going exactly as planned.

We had flown from Seattle to Paris the day before, breezing through customs during a layover in Iceland, and had easily found the high-speed train that would speed our jet-lagged bodies to Lyon. We’d navigated the streets of the new city to find our AirBnB room in a private apartment, had chatted with our (English-speaking, thank God) host, and had figured out both dinner (pizza, but it was a Monday night and a holiday, so everything else was closed) and breakfast the next morning. We’d wandered the streets and markets of the classic French city, shivering in the April cold, and I was starting to get the feel for this new culture, as long as no one tried to talk to me. We’d found the train station, and the right platform, and I’d even had time to stand in line and acquired a brie and lettuce sandwich for the road.

The hard part of travel was behind us.

Worries Guaranteed! (seen on our first French train)
Worries Guaranteed! (seen on our first French train)

There was one other man in our section of the car, a tall, almost gaunt Frenchman, all angles and what Eric would later describe as a classic French nose. He, too, was carrying a backpack.

Our first fellow pilgrim.

He must have been thinking the same thing, because he eyed our packs and rattled off a string of syllables that sounded like a question.

Which gave me the chance to respond with the one thing I’d been practicing all day.

Je ne parlais pas frances.

I don’t speak French.

Which is an understatement. After three months of sporadic Duolingo lessons, the only French I was really confident with was “The apple is red.” (Le pomme est rouge.) And if I thought carefully about the way to add direct object, I could say, “The cat eats the apple,” an observation that is both unlikely and unhelpful in most French conversations. Not once in thirty-five days did anyone ask me about apples.

Eric, my better half in all social situations, is also better at language. But his French was limited to what he’d picked up by watching a few French movies with English subtitles.

The French man nodded and pointed to our bags.

“Chemin de San Jacques?”

Oui! We are here, on this train, to walk the Way of St. James.

He points to himself. “Jean Claude.”

Well, of course he was. How very French.

Jean Claude, it turned out, knew a little bit of Spanish, which Eric was more comfortable with, and a few words of English. They pieced together that he was traveling from Strasbourg, in northern France, to walk the Way.

We told him we were from Seattle, that we arrived just yesterday.

That pretty much exhausted our vocabularies.

We smiled mutely at one another, fellow pilgrims, until a woman with a cigarette clattered up the metal stairs to our car and said something terribly fast and very loud. She looked concerned, or maybe angry, but I was too distracted by the still-burning cigarette to let the words do anything more than flow over me. That’s something you don’t see in the States.
Jean Claude, however, was suddenly all attention. He asked her something. She answered, gesturing broadly out the window.

He leapt to his feet.

“Not train! Wrong train!”

We all scrambled to collect backpacks, jackets, and the precious bag of sandwiches. There wasn’t time to ask questions, even if I’d known how.

The train to Le Puy would leave at 11:10. It was 11:05.

Jean Claude was our new best friend and our savior. We would have a lot of these over the next eighty days.

We tumbled out the doors and onto the track, sprinting for the stairs. The monitors outside had sent us to Track 9. We’d boarded as soon as the doors opened. They must have changed their minds as soon as we were out of sight.

We dodged French families, workers, and whoever else was standing around a train station in the middle of a Tuesday. I found a screen. The Le Puy train now said Track 3.

It was 11:07.

I had to waste previous seconds counting in my head before I could say it out loud.


We ran across the station, up a different set of stairs, onto another platform. We dove into the first available car, this one crowded. It was only a single story, not as posh as the car we were in. All of the forward-facing seats were occupied. I saw a number of backpacks, walking sticks, solemn-faced people. It was silent. But this car was pointing in the right direction.

We’ll find out later that the first train was going north and east to Grenoble, where almost twelve weeks later, as we were resting in Finnesterre, a man would throw explosive gas canisters at an industrial factory, behead his former manager, and raise an Islamic flag. The country, already on edge after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, would raise the terror threat level to high. But that day in April, we were going backward in time, toward a medieval pilgrimage, not forward.

Those fifteen minutes, I learned, would pretty much sum up my next three months of my life. Four years of reading books, of researching every item in our packs, of soaking up stories and data about the culture and climate and pilgrim attitudes of the Camino, would make me feel prepared. And in most cases, we were prepared.

But the Camino wasn’t about being prepared. It was about being open.

There’s a common idea among pilgrims that each person experiences the Camino in three stages. Regardless of how long they walk, the first third will be a test of the body, the second a test of the mind, and the third a gift to the soul.

Eighty days of walking left a lot of time for tests.

As the train pulled away from the station, Eric and I collapsed into the seat that was available. I get sick on moving vehicles, especially if I’m facing backwards.

But at least we were going the right direction now.

And after this, I thought, we’d be on foot.

What could go wrong?

The Camino Theme Song

Did you know that the Camino de Santiago has a theme song?

We were ten days into our trip, staying in a former monastery in Conques and sharing dinner with about fifty pilgrims from all over the world (the most we ever saw together in France) when the gite volunteers pulled out an easel, a flip chart, and a guitar, and told us all to sing. It was a bit surreal, especially in French.

But the song, a mix of old French and Latin, with verses in modern French, will stick in your head and push you forward, kilometer after kilometer.

So here, for your enjoyment and inspiration, is Ultreia, along with some lovely images of some random guy’s pilgrimage in 2001.

The lyrics, roughly translated, are:

Every morning we take the path, Every morning we go further.

Day after day, the road calls us

It is the voice of Compostela.

Go further! Go further!

And go higher! God assist us!

Dirt road and Faith

Millennium way of Europe,

The Milky Way of Charlemagne

This is the way all my pilgrims.

Go further! Go further!

And go higher! God assist us!

And while there at the end of the continent,

Messire Jacques waits ahead,

Always his fixed smile

The sun dies in Finistère.

Go further! Go further!

And go higher! God assist us!

Ode to a Travel Pillow

If you spend any time at all in the pilgrim discussion boards and Facebook groups, you’ll discover that many of those who have walked the Camino have very strong feelings about how much everyone else’s backpack weighs.

My pack was 6.4 pounds WITH WATER.

Yeah? Well, I shaved off the handle of my toothbrush, wore only one pair of underwear for 35 days, and I carried everything in a fanny pack.

Oh no! I just weighed my pack, and it’s 12% of my total body weight! Everyone says it should be 10! Should I cancel my trip?

(My advice to that last question, of course, was to eat more and get that body weight up.)

Well-intentioned people ask for recommendations about what book to read during their walk, and get long lectures about “useless weight.”

Then, once you’re on the trail, pilgrims clearly size up one another’s packs the way that teenage boys in the locker room size up… well, never mind. We may try not to judge, but it’s hard not to think Well, of course she’s having knee problems. She’s carrying a full makeup kit! Or Are those JEANS he’s wearing? Do you know what those must WEIGH?

To counter all of that comparison and dogma is the whispered thought: Walk your own Camino. Carry what YOU need, not what someone else says you SHOULD have.

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce you to my biggest, heaviest (more than half a pound!), most treasured Camino indulgence: a pillow of my very own.

Me and my trusty pillow
Me and my trusty pillow

I’m a side-sleeper with very strong feelings about pillows. Thin, flat, hard pillows are worse than useless. Feather pillows usually become thin, flat, hard pillows over the course of a night. Before we left, I knew I was okay with the idea of sleeping on cots and lumpy mattresses and squeaky bunk beds. But I could not handle. the idea of living for three months with a kink in my neck.

If I was going to walk, day after day and week after week, I NEEDED a pillow. Nine ounces was worth my rest.

My Therm-A-Rest compressible pillow had actually been traveling with me for a year before we set out on the Camino. It got me through long flights (remember when airlines actually provided pillows?) and many questionably-clean guest rooms. And so I rolled it up and stuck it in the top pocket of my backpack, right next to the always-handy ibuprofen bottle and the almost-never-needed headlamp.

And in hindsight, I’m so glad I had it. While most gites and albergues do provide pillows, they seem to be of varying qualities and cleanliness. I never had to worry about where I would lay my head at night.

Most pilgrims have some kind of “luxury” item that they carrying along, whether it’s an iPod or a fancy scarf or, in the case of one pilgrim we met, a bottle of nail polish to paint her toenails every week. At the same time, most albergues in Spain had some kind of table or box of donations left by previous pilgrims who didn’t want to carry something anymore. That three-ring binder of guided journaling or that extra cable-knit sweater doesn’t seem so important after 1300 straight meters of ascent.

One person’s need is another person’s frivolity. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s important enough for you to willingly lug it over a mountain range or two, than it’s important enough for no one to judge.

PS. I didn’t actually weigh my pack before we left, but according to a scale of questionable accuracy in Aubrac, it was about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds, with water (and maybe some snack food). Yes, that’s more than ten percent of my weight, and no, I’m not going to tell you by how much. But considering I carried it for for three months, and it got me through both snow and summer heat, I’m fine with it.

The Origins of the Camino

The altar of St James, wearing pilgrim gear in Le Puy
The altar of St James, wearing pilgrim gear in Le Puy

To understand the modern experience of what we now call the Camino de Santiago, it helps to start at the beginning and see where it came from and why it matters. After all, this was never meant to be a recreational hiking trail.

I’m not much of an ancient historian, but here’s my understanding of how the story goes.

Throughout the first millennium, as the Roman Empire spread, Christianity spread with it. The Romans brought trade, and the Church unified disparate peoples and gave them a common purpose. It inspired them, and it gave them something to focus their attention on other than killing each other.

Building a religion among an illiterate, diverse population took some doing, though. Faith needed to be more than a story in a book; it needed to be experienced through the senses: what could be seen, and touched, and tasted, and heard. Every gaudy statue and painting in a Medieval cathedral isn’t just there to show off wealth; for better or for worse, those images taught the moral lessons and legends of the time.

One of the core practices of first century Christianity, and of most early religions, was pilgrimage. Traveling to one of the holy sites was an act of penance, of devotion, and of adventure. In a world where few people ever left the village where they were born, a pilgrimage marked a person’s identity and piety.

There were many local and regional pilgrimage destinations, each one claiming the blessing of some superstitious relic. But there were two Big Trips, each one a key site of the larger Christian story: to Jerusalem, where Christ was killed, and to Rome, the site of many of the early apostles’ martyrdom (at the hands, of course, of the same Roman empire that now partnered with the Church to aid both of their expansionist goals, but let’s not get into the details).

As the years passed, and Christianity spread north of the Alps, those journeys became more difficult. With the added dangers of the first Crusades, the Church had a real problem unifying its expanded congregation.

Conveniently, at about this same time, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo had a series of strange visions in a field in northern Spain. He followed a mysterious star and discovered, in an unmarked field, the body of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus’ original apostles.

How a Jewish guy from Galilee happened to wind up buried in one of the farthest corners of the known world is a legend worthy of the first-century storytellers. It seems that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his apostles scattered over the known world to share the story and convert others. James traveled to what is now Spain, but had little success with the Celtic people there. He returned to Jerusalem, where he was arrested, beheaded by Herod Agrippa, and thrown over the city walls for the dogs to eat.

The Christians snuck out under the cover of night and retrieved the body (and, presumably, the head), and put it on a rudderless, unmanned stone boat. The boat miraculously traveled back to Spain, where the handful of James’ disciples found it and retrieved the saint’s remains. In some versions of the story, the boat sank just offshore and the body washed onto the beach, covered in scallop shells.

The disciples secretly buried James in an unmarked grave in a Roman cemetery, which was later abandoned and forgotten until Pelayo rediscovered it under the star (hence, Compostela: the Field of the Star).

Say what you will about the Christian Church in the first century, but they were very good at recognizing opportunity. First the Spanish bishop, and then the leaders in Rome, saw the potential. Santiago was sufficiently far away from the northern Christian population to offer an arduous, sacrificial trip. Pilgrims would have to cross the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountains—but there was an existing Roman trade road to follow. And as an added benefit, the additional attention could help the struggling Spanish Christians in their ongoing fight against Moorish invaders in the south.

The Church built a cathedral worthy of the relic it protected, and a city grew around it. Just like that, Santiago de Compostela became the third holy site of Christianity.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, as the first wave of Santiago pilgrims peaked, there were as many as a million people streaming across Europe to Santiago. The pilgrims sought miracles, forgiveness, favor, and probably a story to tell at their local watering holes for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of thousands died along the way from disease, exposure, and violent crime. Towns sprouted up all along the way to support them, and in exchange were blessed with a steady stream of commerce.

The popularity of the pilgrimage dwindled in subsequent centuries, with the additional risks of the Black Death and then, later, the Protestant Reformation. By the 20th century it was all but forgotten. But a series of events in the 1970s and ‘80s brought it back into public attention, culminating in 1987, when Paulo Coehlo’s influential book The Pilgrimage first released, and the route was named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The number of pilgrims exploded; in 1987, only 690 people received a Compostela in Santiago. In 2014, the number was 237,886—and 2015 looks like it will be even higher.

There is no official starting point for a pilgrimage, of course. The journey for each person begins when they walk out their front door. However, early pilgrims tended to funnel together, both for safety and for the practical purpose of using existing trade roads. And to get to Spain from pretty much anywhere in Europe, you had to cross what is now France. (The exception being the British, who get to travel mostly by boat.) The twelfth century manuscript Codex Calixtinus, probably arranged by the scholar Aymeric Picaud, identifies four primary routes to Santiago that all originate in France, yet accommodate pilgrims streaming in from every direction. (Links will take you to longer descriptions of each route, provided by the American Pilgrims of the Camino)

(I just ordered an English translation of Picaud’s Traveler’s Guide, Book 5 of the Codex. Sometime down the road I’ll bring you a future review of the western world’s very first travel guide.)

The routes to Santiago
The historic routes to Santiago

Each path begins in and winds through other “holy” cities that were popular pilgrimage sites on their own. Le Puy, for instance, had been drawing French pilgrims for years. Charlemagne himself came twice, in 772 and 800, years before the remains of St. James were eve discovered in the field of the star. Even at the height of the Santiago pilgrimage, it seems that more French went to Le Puy than to the Holy City (proving that the French tendency to stay within their own borders has a long and distinguished history).

Today, both France and Spain make maintaining and supporting the Camino routes a national priority. All four historic French routes are part of the much larger Grande Randonnée network, and Spain invest heavily in the seven trails that fan out from Santiago in all directions–much like that emblematic scallop shell.

The French town of St. Jean Pied de Port also has historical significance; three of the French paths cross the Pyrenees over the route that Napoleon first made famous, and Picaud references the village by name as the last town to get supplies and rest before the crossing. However, the Basque border town wasn’t traditionally the “starting point” that it is for international pilgrims today. (Then again, early pilgrims didn’t have the option of flying into Biarritz and taking a cab.)

The day we left Le Puy, there were perhaps 25 pilgrims at the cathedral blessing, and probably only a few more who set out without going to the church. People came and went, but that number stayed more or less consistent for our trip across France; at any given time there seemed to be a few dozen other walkers in our vicinity.

Then we got to St. Jean. The day we left, in mid-May, I heard that the pilgrim’s office issued more than 400 credentials for new pilgrims.

But the story of St. Jean is for another day.