It’s interesting how we humans tend to have expectations about things we know nothing about or have misconceptions about things never experienced. I’m no exception. Neither is the Camino Frances. On top of that, people even like to compare the Camino Frances to totally irrelevant things which certainly doesn’t help first-timers properly prepare for their journey. So I thought I would give my perspective on four popular misconceptions now that I have one Camino experience under my belt.
NOT on Planet English but IS a chance to practice a foreign language
It has always amazed me how some people travel to a foreign country and expect locals to speak English. They believe that just because something attracts an international crowd, the service must be in the “international language”. On the Camino Frances, you will find that many pilgrims do speak English (French and German were the other two languages that I heard most often). As for the Spaniards, some do speak English but the majority don’t – either because they couldn’t or chose not to. Either way, it’s their prerogative to speak their language in their country. As guests, the onus is on us to make an effort to learn Spanish. My Spanish sucks but I tried using it often for myself or to translate for others. Once I was even called upon to be translator for a very sick girl, the owner of a casa rural, and a doctor. The girl spoke French so she and I conversed which allowed me to convey (ish) her problem to the doctor in Spanish who then told me she needed to go to the hospital NOW via ambulance so I translated that into French. Oh, and that’s another reason to learn a bit of Spanish – you’ll need it if you end up in hospital (which isn’t as unlikely as you’d think).
NOT a solitary experience but IS a social one
The Camino Frances is very social. And the more popular it gets, the less likely one will find the solitude once prevalent along the trail. The upside is that there is always someone interesting with whom you could chat from all sorts of places in the world. I met people from all over, Brazil to the Canary Islands to Malaysia. The severity of the downside, the lack of solitude, depends on where you fit on the extrovert-introvert line. I am very much an introvert so I had to come up with solutions to manage the social Camino Frances. My solutions ranged from spending a night in a hotel rather than an albergue, picking the little private albergue over the large public one, practically running past large groups, having lunch/dinner at odd times if at restaurants, and sleeping in to avoid chatty people. In the end, though, I did value very much the people with whom I spoke and the friends that I made. But the moments when I suddenly looked around at the surrounding quiet countryside and realized I was by myself in the middle of nowhere Spain and no one on this Earth knew where I was – absolutely priceless and infinitely precious.
NOT climbing Mt. Everest but IS still a challenge
Okay, so as much as the Pyrenees almost killed me and subsequent hills plotted to drive me away from my few remaining brain cells, the Camino Frances is not quite like climbing the giant mountains of the world without supplementary oxygen tanks. But that doesn’t mean the Camino Frances isn’t a challenge in its own right. The challenges of the Camino Frances are primarily the road walking and the exposure to the elements. More often than not, unfortunately, you walk on some sort of hard surface (roads, sidewalks, the senda, etc) or a rocky surface such as the Roman road. Dirt or grass walking is relatively rare. This is very hard on the body, especially feet and back, if you don’t take proper precautions – good footwear, bag weight, rest times, daily distance, etc. The other challenge is exposure to the elements – you’re always exposed when not at your nightly lodgings or at a bar/restaurant. Rarely is there a tree under which you can escape the sun or rain – but if you do find a tree, remember to check for ants before sitting! And that’s the other thing – pay attention! I saw two people’s Camino end because they fell and broke something. I also heard of someone dying just before I started my Camino and during my Camino. And if you forget to pay attention to your health and surroundings, the not uncommon Pilgrim Memorial (marking places where pilgrims died) will remind you.
NOT a nature hike but IS an urban exploration
For some reason, there are people who are insisting on calling the Camino Frances a hike. It’s not. Yes, the official definition of a hike is “a long walk or walking tour” but this is where nuances in language come in. You say hike, and pretty much everyone pictures dirt trails, trees, and mosquitoes. Definitely not the Camino Frances – there are times when you run across highways, for crying out loud. There are also some who like to compare the Camino to trails such as the Triple Crown. You can’t. Two totally different ball games. Triple Crown trails are as natural as they come: thru-hiking, carrying everything you need for days on end, maps and compasses, bear spray, and perhaps even something for bushwhacking. The Camino Frances, on the other hand, you walk through countryside and cross hills/mountains, and may even need to splash through a puddle or two – but you do it all in an urban-influenced context. You will hear human life more than you’ll hear the sounds of silence. But the flip side to this is that you won’t need to worry about mosquitoes and bushwhacking and giant heavy backpacks. You don’t even need a compass or a map. And best of all? No need to pee with one eye peeled for a hungry bear. And you can shower every day! So basically, if you are looking for a hike in virginal nature, the Camino Frances should not be your first choice. But if you’re interested in seeing how the human world and the natural world intersect, this definitely is your walk.