Thinking of walking solo on the Caminho de Santiago? It’s a fun and challenging walk whether in a group or as a solo traveller. Having done it with a partner and by myself, I can say I enjoyed both, but would probably lean towards going solo next time.
Wait a minute, you say, …what’s this about “next time”?
Once you have done the Caminho, it can become a regular thing, or even an obsession. It is hard to put into words but there is a strange and quiet freedom that arises from having nothing else to do but walk.
Portuguese people tend to walk, bike or ride on horseback (rare, but it happens) along the Caminho in stages, alone or with friends over years or even over a lifetime. After talking with friends and acquaintances about this pattern, what emerged was a totally different mindset and walking pattern than we “estrangeiros” are accustomed to. “Nátivos” may plan to walk a few stages, starting or ending at a pre-arranged point which may have great significance, such as the shrine of Fátima. The excursion could happen over a weekend, or during a week or two of holidays. Often, the walkers pick up the following year from where they left off, completing the Caminho all the way to Santiago de Compostela in record-slow time.
But this isn’t what matters. What is important, it seems, is walking, usually with friends, because, if you are Portuguese, who does anything alone?
But solo walking has its benefits. My first “Caminho” was completed —280 kms in about 10 days — with a dear childhood friend I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. We got along like a house on fire, laughed together deep into the night, and generally had a good time along the coastal route from Porto to Santiago.
However, she had not trained for the walk and soon developed sore feet and blisters that required an hour of bandaging before we set out. She limped on like a trouper, never complaining, but progress was slow. That, combined with her phobia of crossing bridges large and small, became problematic. However, I was forever grateful to her when I developed severe food poisoning or possibly an allergic reaction to lupini beans served as a tapas snack at a small bar in Galícia.
I stumbled along for the next few days, able only to look a few feet ahead as her bright green backpack guided me along the trail. We earned our “credencial”, (by walking at least 100 kms; arriving by bike or horse requires a 200-km trip) pulling in time for the Pilgrim Mass on Day 10.
My next foray was a solo trip, along the central route from Porto to Valença, confronting the challenge (an understatement) of the approximately 20-km rise to the Alto da Portela Grande de Labruja. This exhausting climb should not be underrated, but the immense satisfaction of reaching the top is worth the effort.
There are several options, depending on what you prefer. Most people start their walk from Porto, the 233-km distance more than adequate to conform to the required 100 kilometres to obtain the certificate of completion upon arrival in Santiago. The double-fort town of Valença, on the Portuguese-Spanish border, affords a comfortable 105-km walk, across a pretty bridge over the Rio Minho into Tui, Spain. Less popular, but still do-able, is the Lisbon route, leaving from the beautiful Parque de Nações or “Expo” at the statue of Caterina de Bragança beside the Tejo and continuing through Vila Franca de Xira, Santarém, Tomar and eventually linking with Porto. Myriad routes from other points are also available, but less well-marked and serviced. It is, of course, possible to start
anywhere you like.
Check below for some other ideas.
One of the golden rules for walking the Caminho, especially solo, is just to trust. You can only walk as fast as your feet with take you, and for this reason, arranging accommodation in advance is considered, in some fundamental and unspoken way, not quite the right thing to do.
Staying in pilgrim hostels is a great experience. They are cheap, warm and accommodating, provide kitchen facilities, and most important of all, everyone has the same goal: getting up early the next morning and getting on the road.
Private rooms are sometimes available within but dormitories tend to be relatively quiet and the inhabitants respectful. A Caminho Passport is necessary to stay; be sure to have it stamped before you set out, and twice a day along the way, ideally showing your departure and arrival points. Passports can be ordered in advance or obtained at your albergue, various churches, tourist offices or via the
Friends of the Camino de Santiago Association. During a conversation with a wise French hiker at the legendary Casa da Fernanda before surmounting the dreaded Labruja, I learned that you can always
find accommodation at the last minute in any town. His strategy, if all the albergues were full, was to start knocking on doors, targeting the women of the village, who could not, in good conscience, leave any one to sleep on the street. This, he noted, was especially true of female solo travellers. You have to trust, he emphasized. And trust is what the caminho is truly all about. It is not about fancy hotels or
support vehicles or three-course lunches with wine.
Slow down, trust yourself, receive the wisdom that will come to you —whatever your spiritual sensibility.
Trusting in the universe makes arrival at the Catedral Basilica de Santiago de Compostela all the more sweet, with lessons learned about patience, self-reliance and being in nature. Never once did I feel unsafe, worried or scared, whether I was alone in the forest or sleeping in a dorm with others. Even walking solo, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself.
Everyone walks his own caminho, said the wise Frenchman. É verdade!
Huge thanks to the wonderful Leslie Smith for this fabulous article and insight!
All photos Leslie Smith