The following article first appeared in our Bulletin no. 58 in December 1996, and is included here by permission of the author and the editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.
Traditionally, the long-haul pilgrims of the past set off from their homes about Easter time in order to reach Santiago for St James’s Day and return home again for Christmas. And many people still do arrive for 25th July and will naturally continue to do so. Otherwise, however, and despite the fact that it has become somewhat de moda to walk or cycle to Santiago in the last two or three years, there isn’t yet a ‘season’ for ‘doing the Camino‘ in the way that there is for grouse-shooting or football, and pilgrims can make their journeys either when they prefer or when practical considerations dictate.
However, I was surprised when I walked from Paris to Santiago via the Arles route between the end of September 1995 and the beginning of January 1996 by the number of people I met along the way who made the same two observations: ‘You’ll earn a lot of merit by doing the Camino in winter’ and ‘you ought to do it in summer, it’s better’. Ensuing conversation revealed that ‘merit’ resulted from increasing the hardship of what was seen to be an already very arduous undertaking by doing it in cold and possibly inclement weather. ‘Better’, on the other hand, was usually equated with ‘warmer’, though it could also mean that there would be more pilgrims on the Camino, not infrequently ‘para hablar‘. (The idea that I might in fact enjoy the silence all around me was apparently difficult to imagine.) There seemed to be, then, in some people’s minds at least, if not actually a ‘right’ then certainly a preferable time to walk to Santiago, though – interestingly – nobody I met mentioned arriving for St James’s Day as a reason for making a pilgrimage in summer. Suitably clad and equipped, however, and taking certain sensible precautions, the only major drawback to a winter journey is that the days are far too short.
Dangers and Pleasures
Walking to Santiago in December, January or February is inevitably a very different experience from one at other times of the year and some of the problems are obvious. It could well snow and cover up crucial waymarks, for example; and if, travelling alone, you fell and broke a leg or even twisted an ankle badly there would be no fellow pilgrim half an hour behind you to help out. You could, however, and as I did, have superb weather all the time, cold but bright and clear, day after day, until I reached Galicia. Brilliant sunshine with which to see the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the vivid colours of the Spanish earth in winter, an ever-changing medley of red, brown, ochre, grey, white, black, yellow… I was constantly conscious of walking through a never-ending picture gallery, even if some of its ‘paintings’ were ugly and industrial (entering Burgos, for instance) and of a particular quality of light that you encounter in Spain but rarely on the French sections of the route. As to the question of ‘merit’, there was, in fact, one occasion on which – irreverently – I could see the speaker’s point, in the case the parish priest in Monreal. For any saving in the time I would otherwise spend in the ‘waiting-room’ between heaven and hell was all too graphically illustrated by the enormous, 1,200-metre mountain towering ominously over not just his village but all its lesser neighbours as well. And aptly named: el Monte Purgatorio …
On a practical note, nearly all the refugios on the Camino are open in winter (or will be opened for you) although as most of them are like refrigerators even if they do have some form of heating (many don’t), some precautions are essential. A very good sleeping-bag, for example, as some refuges are as cold, or colder, inside than out, especially in Castille, though a surprising number had hot water. Other ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ are very basic and the kind of advice a veteran tramp might well dispense to a novice since in these circumstances you are virtually living out of doors all the time. Wear a lot of clothes, for instance, both day and night, so that you never get chilled, as you may not be able to get warm again either easily or very quickly. Ditto with getting wet. The cold weather and all the fresh air will probably kill off most ‘bugs’ you might encounter, but if you do have the misfortune to catch a cold it will be a bad one and difficult to shake off. Make sure you have something very hot to eat before you climb into your Arctic-style sleeping bag at night and something equally hot to drink as soon as you get out of it in the morning; a camping-gaz stove or similar comes in hand. Finally, if you intend to stay in refuges regularly, don’t arrive too early; you may be warm enough when you arrive and while you’re asleep but in winter there’s a long and probably very chilly gap when it gets dark and a not unreasonable time to go to bed.
A Time of Silence
I didn’t meet very many other pilgrims, but talking to wardens, priests and other people with sellos and looking through the refuge registers there seemed to be at least one pilgrim on the Camino every two or three days in December. As a result you don’t have the same chance, at present, at least, to make the contacts and friendships – often with people who become amigos para toda la vida (lifelong friends) – as you may in spring, summer or autumn. On the other hand, if peace, quiet and silence are what you want, if time to observe, reflect and think about things or just to look, listen and walk along by yourself is what you need or prefer, then winter, suitably prepared for, could be a very good time to make your pilgrimage. Most monuments are open, usually with shorter visiting hours, though with a drastically reduced amount of daylight you will need to be considerably more organised than you might perhaps be in summer, not merely with respect to places of interest, but also so as not to be caught in the dark with nowhere to sleep.
The summer pilgrim usually sets out early to avoid the midday and afternoon heat, but in winter walking is very much a ‘nine-to-five’ affair. It gets light late too, not till about 8.30 a.m. (and later still on dull days) in north-west Spain, and if it’s very cold you won’t be able to stop long for a rest unless it’s in a bar. Conversely, though, since you may have to keep moving all the time just to keep warm you may find yourself walking very fast and covering surprisingly long distances very quickly. For this reason and quite without expecting to, I walked the nearly 40km from Burgos up and over the meseta to Castrojeríz, for example, between ten and six o’clock, since the temperature that day was five degrees below zero.
And in the gallery of sights, sounds, people and impressions that any pilgrim encounters on a journey, are there any that stand out in particular because they occurred in winter? Many, inevitably, have to do with keeping warm. The welcome pile of wood by the fireplace in the Puente la Reina refugio; the evening by a blazing kitchen fire in Los Arcos with a lady (toasting her toes under a brasero(1) full of smouldering ash) who takes in pilgrims. Being lent the keys to the (heated) peregrino magazine office in Santo Domingo de la Calzada for the evening by a kind José Ignacio because the refuge was like a morgue. The wood-burning stove now installed in the municipal refuge in Rabanal, the heat and steaming coffee offered to me as soon as I set foot in the shelter in Manjarín and the many people who went out of their way to keep me warm in other places too. The choir practice in the ‘German’ refuge in Azofra where the village schoolteacher rehearsed some thirty of us – with guitars – in preparation for Christmas. The snow in the Pyrenees, on the Montes de Oca and the light dusting of ‘icing-sugar’ on a very bleak meseta, quite different from, but no less hallucinating than, in summer. The ever-hospitable priest in San Juan de Ortega who made a whole panful of boiling sopa de ajo (garlic soup) just for me. The young Frenchman walking the Camino for the second time; run over by a car shortly before he set off on his first pilgrimage he had made that journey, carrying rucksack, all the way from Paris to Sahagún on crutches. The many contrasts between a route I had previously walked in blazing sunshine and the one I was seeing now. Helping to set up the Belén (nativity scene) in the chapel of San José in Rabanal (the parish church of Santa María had the whole of its floor up, being treated for extensive dry-rot). The Galician ‘monsoons’ which started in Villafranca and only stopped – briefly – for the first time four days later. A warm and sunny final day’s walk into Santiago where the Mass in the Cathedral was said, in effect, specially for me, as I was the first pilgrim to arrive in the New Year of 1996.
Many people ask where I spent the Noche Buena: in Villafranca del Bierzo with the Jato family, Jesús, Maricarmen and four of their six daughters. It seems that at least one pilgrim arrives to spend Christmas with them every year and this time it was my turn. In 1994 there were three or four, in the 1993 Holy Year ten. I think they always set an extra place at table, in anticipation of the ‘uninvited guest’.
Whenever a particular person decides to step aside from, and run parallel, to his or her ordinary life while they make their pilgrimage, is, as already indicated, a question of both choice and circumstances. Some people like neither the heat nor the crowds, for example, whilst others seek them out. Statistics show that pilgrims are leaving earlier and earlier each year and that more and more people are ‘doing the Camino‘ in the autumn too. The biggest single advantage of walking it in winter is its silence and having it all to yourself, though when you ultimately decide to do it is a very personal affair. Let there be a choice though, so that those who want or need to can make it, and let’s steer well away from the idea that there might be a ‘proper’ or ‘right’ time, or even a ‘season’ at all during which to walk, cycle or ride the pilgrim road to Santiago.
Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 58 pp. 29-33.