Reviewing Jean-Christophe Rufin’s French text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi (2013)

Jean-Christophe Rufin is well known and appreciated in France, Africa and Brasil but unknown in the English speaking world.  It is a pity.

Camino Downunder is reviewing and critiquing his latest published text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi – “Immortal trek – Compostela despite me  (Always challenging to appropriately translate the title – too much creativity in the translation and it can mislead, whilst staying too close to the original text and that too, distorts the real meaning).

For English speakers it is important to understand that in French le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle means el Camino de Santiago in Spanish (St James Way).  And the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain is called Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French.

Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi was published by a small French publishing house Éditions Guérins, located at Chamonix in the Alpes in France this year in March and when our French friend’s son of the reviewer arrived in Sydney in April (2013), he was given this new publication, hot off the presses.


So, who is Jean-Christophe Rufin?

Born in the French town of Bourges (geographically in the middle of France) in June, 1952 and soon after birth, his maternal grandparents care for him until he was later reunited at the age of 10 with his mother, in Paris.  At 15, in 1967 he decides to study medicine because he is inspired by the South African transplant doctor Christian Barnard and the world’s first heart transplant.  He becomes a specialist neurologist and psychiatrist  but before undertaking medical specialisation, he chooses to go to Tunisia (his first contact with Africa) and instead of doing his compulsory French National military service in France, he goes to Tunisia in a non-military capacity as an aid worker in a third world (developing) country.

Alongside the internationally well-known Bernard Kouchner,  Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the early doctor pioneers for Médecins sans frontières (MSF) (Doctors without borders) and has traveled many times to East Africa and Latin America on humanitarian and covert missions.  He has also worked for the French Government in various capacities in France and overseas; such as France’s cultural attaché to Brazil (1989-1990) and knows the Portuguese language very well; French Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia (2007 – 2010) and many other executive management positions in French government administration.

He has been a teacher and lecturer at some of France’s most prestigious and élite tertiary institutions and since the middle of the 1980s he has been a prodigious writer in all genres from novels, historical novels, essays both fiction and non-fiction.  Such is his reputation as a brilliant writer, that Rufin in 2008 was elevated to being one of “Forty Immortals/les Quarante or Les Immortels” (until death) – due to his successful nomination and election to France’s most prestigious cultural/ language institution the Académie française – the final guardian and promoter of the French language, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII.


Jean-Christophe Rufin: dressed in the green costume “l’habit vert” – the regalia worn by the 40 members of the Académie française

Immortelle randonnée (Immortal trek) recounts Rufin’s story about his connection to the Spanish pilgrimage tracks (he undertook the Northern route), commencing in France in May, 2011 from Hendaye (see map below) near the Spanish/French border, then walking through San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón, Oviedo, Lugo and on to Santiago de Compostela and his subsequent conversion into it becoming an obsession. And finally some 23 months later his book Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is published.

In the first half of 2013 Immortelle randonnée sold over 118,000 copies (source: Edistat) and it was from April, 2013 only when it had arrived in the book stores and sold on-line.  In the first semester of 2013, this non-fiction text about a French person’s discovery and initiation of the ‘Compostelean’ attractions achieved the number 14 best seller list of all books foreign and French, fiction and non-fiction sold in France (source: Edistat).

In July this year, the writer presented a paper (The Pedagogy of the Pilgrimage Routes in France and Spain at a language conference hosted by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association (AFMLTA) in Canberra and whilst researching and preparing for his presentation was struck by the 10 stage schematic model for engagement (see below) with a pilgrimage track (before, during and after) whilst reading in tandem Jean-Christophe Rufin’s text.

In Grossman’s  paper, the pilgrim undergoes the following 10 steps of engagement and development.  Broadly speaking this is how Rufin’s text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is set out; but with variations to account for creative writing, freedom of choice for the subject/person, with analytical and philosophical reflections peppered throughout the book.



PREPARATION: Chapter 1 is «L’organisation» and we are informed he knows very little about the Camino de Santiago, apart from his image of it as being an ancient track with pilgrims walking solo.

He discusses in some detail his nascent knowledge about the Camino de Santiago.  As he starts his «PREPARATION» he begins to understand what the purpose and nature of the credential (the prilgrim’s pass or “credencial” in Spanish) is whilst being a pilgrim.  And most importantly:

«On découvre alors que le Chemin est l’objet sinon d’un culte, du moins d’une passion, que partagent nombre de ceux qui l’ont parcouru  (One discovers that the Camino, if it isn’t a form of cult workship then it is at least a passion which is shared by those who have walked it).  During his preparation period the French writer discovers “Toute une organisation”   (A whole organisation…) «Le chemin est un réseau, une confrérie, une internationale.»  (The Camino is a network, a veritable confraternity of humanity.)

However, throughout this first chapter and as well as in every other of the 32 chapters there is analysis, synthesis, philosophical meditations, linking the present to the past with his every step along the Northern Camino route.  His writing style profoundly engages the reader whether he/she may have undertaken the Camino de Santiago or not.  He does not hide his foibles (e.g. his insomnia) nor is he falsely modest about his qualities and abilities to successfully walk the distance and do it with some panache.  Along the Camino track he is (and this is not surprising because it is a common characteristic among independent, modern foot pilgrims) one day misanthropic and the next day philanthropic – wanting to be or not wanting to be with people.

DEPARTURE: Chapter 2 is «Le point de départ»

For Rufin, as it is for every single pilgrim-walker: deciding where to begin – where to put the first step.  For the independent pilgrim, time allowed or permitted will invariably dictate where they will begin.  The writer puts it succinctly: «C’est la raison pour laquelle, vers Compostelle, l’essentiel n’est pas le point d’arrivée, commun à tous, mais le point de départ. (…) La question qu’ils se posent est “D’où es-tu parti?” Et la réponse permet immédiatement de savoir à qui l’ont à affaire.» (It’s for that reason that the aim of getting to Compostela, is not the arriving which is everyone’s aim, but where they leave (…) The question people ask is “Where did you start?”  And the response then immediately informs the questioner who he is dealing with.)

Rufin truly and deeply understands that the greatest, most profound and long-lasting effects of pilgrimage in our age depends on doing very long and over many weeks challenging pilgrimages.  Nearly ten years earlier the American Conrad Rudolph (professor of medieval art and chair of art history at University of California) said exactly the same thing in his text Pilgrimage to the End of the World – published in 2004 by The University of Chicago Press:This is why pilgrimage must be done on foot, never on bicycle; why you must stay in refugios, not in hotels; and why the journey should be long and hard.

Il faut en effet reconnaître que le temps joue un rôle essentiel dans le façonnage du «vrai» marcheur. p. 15 One has to recognize the essential role which time plays in shaping an authentic walker.

Le Chemin est une alchimie du temps sur l’âme. p. 15 The Camino track is an alchemy of time poured over the human soul.

Il perçoit une vérité plus humble et plus profonde : une courte marche ne suffit pas pour venir à bout des habitudes.  Elle ne tranforme pas radicalement la personne. p. 16 He (the pilgrim) perceives a more basic and profound truth : a short walk is not enough to really affect his habits and dispositions.  It does not fundamentally change the person.

DECISION-MAKING/MOTIVATION (revisited): Chapter 3 «Pourquoi ?» (Why?)

In Immortelle randonnée, Rufin cleverly reverses the chronological steps by explaining his reasons for undertaking the Compostela pilgrimage.  Essentially, he explains his original motivations by simply wanting to do a very long solo walk.  His decision in doing “Compostelle malgré moi” (Compostela despite me) is due to the «St Jamesian virus» which has deeply infected him.

“J’ignore par qui ou par quoi s’est opérée la contagion.  Mais, après une phase d’incubation silencieuse, la maladie avait éclaté et j’en avais tous les symptômes”.  Not knowing by what means or by whom had infected me.  However, after a silent incubation period, this sickness exploded and I was presenting with all the symptoms.

Camino Downunder in Australia and New Zealand has always had in its classes, participants demonstrating those very same characteristics: the seemingly benign Camino seed somehow got implanted in the person’s being, laying dormant, sometimes for many years; and suddenly it explodes internally to then dominate behaviour by turning it into a commitment – the first act (DECISION-MAKING/MOTIVATION) in this ten stage process.

TRANSITION: Chapter 5 «Mise en route» (Starting up)

Having made the decision to do le Chemin du Nord – el Camino del Norte,  thanks in large part to the volunteer person manning the front desk in a Paris located Friends of the Camino office.  In May, 2011 Rufin leaves Paris by TGV and gets to Hendaye on the south-west Atlantic coast.  Like most pilgrims, arriving at the head of the walking track at Hendaye (the closest French border town to crossing over into Spain at Irún), Rufin splurges modestly on a one star H (French symbol) hotel and in his own self-deprecating words: «restons modeste, tout de même».

In Grossman’s language conference paper he notes that in TRANSITION the pilgrim-walker leaves his familiar environment when he places his first foot on the designated pilgrimage track and the subject/person is now feeling a sustained range of emotions and feelings; from the positive to the negative…”An explosion of sensorial stimuli...”

Jean-Christophe Rufin writes:

Mes émois de pèlerin novice étaient puissants.  J’avais envie de chanter. Il me semblait que, d’ici peu, j’allais traverser la forêt de Brocéliande, croiser des chevaliers, des monastères en pierre.  Inutile de préciser que je m’exalte vite.  P. 37 My excitement as a novice pilgrim was powerful.  I wanted to sing.  It seemed to me that, without much effort I was going to walk into Brocéliande forest (NB the legendary Breton forest where Merlin the Wizard and Viviane the fairy lived, according to the stories of the Round Table)  and to pass by knights and stone monasteries.  Not necessary to labour the obvious: I become excited quickly.

JOURNEY: Chapters 6 to 31 of Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi are 200 pages of vivid descriptions of the Camino del Norte up to Oviedo (the good, the bad, the ugly and the exquisite) and which then turns into the Camino Primitivo from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela via Lugo.

The insightful comments about the locals and the many pilgrim hostel wardens; observations of his many fellow pilgrims (such as, the female Australians walking in a group with their Austrian female counterparts); Rufin’s own emotions and feelings, his philosophical analyses, plus his self-deprecating comments producing a true masterpiece of writing; guaranteeing to engage 100 percent of the time any reader of the French language (classic or modern) and whether they are interested in the Camino de Santiago or not.  The reviewer was awed by Rufin’s text from start to finish because he is simply a brilliant writer of the French language.  To others who do not have a passion for the French language but are passionate about the Spanish pilgrimage routes, this text would still take pride of place in their treasured pilgrimage library.  One can only hope, sooner than later, that an excellent translation into English will happen for an English audience in the English-speaking world.

This is the map in Immortelle randonnée: showing the Camino del Norte + Camino Primitivo + Camino Francés (pp. 260-261)


During the JOURNEY, Rufin writes movingly about an alternative/variant track high up in the Asturian mountains, recommended to him by a female grocery/hostel manager in order to walk a summit pass before getting to Salime.  Rufin looses himself in the moment and he is between heaven and earth.  Nature’s physical beauty here is so intense and so overpowering:

dans cet espace ouvert, saturé de beautés, à la fois interminable et fini, le pèlerin est prêt à voir surgir quelque chose de plus grand que lui, de plus grand que tout, en vérité.  Cette longue étape d’altitude fut, en tout cas pour moi, le moment, sinon d’apercervoir Dieu du moins de sentir son souffle. P. 192 …in this open space, saturated with beauty, at the same time being both finite and infinite, the pilgrim is ready to accept the truth of a presence which is bigger than him and bigger than anything existing.  This long walking section high up in the mountain was for me the moment, if not then of glimpsing God’s presence, then at least feeling his breath on me.

Jamais le monde ne m’avait paru aussi beau.  P. 194  Never the world had appeared to me as being so beautiful as it was now.

ARRIVAL:  In Chapter 32 (the last chapter) appropriately called L’arrivée in French, Rufin writes about himself, but could very easily be writing for all authentic, long distance and independent pilgrims.

Yes definitely it’s good arriving, but the let down soon sets in and then begins the challenge of “RE-INTEGRATION“.  After much reflection, the reviewer states that arriving in Santiago de Compostela is metaphorically death and failure.  If “arriving” means you can no longer go further: that can then be construed as an allegorical ‘death and failure’.  The pilgrimage journey is finished, extinguished or destroyed by the pilgrim’s very success in arriving.  That is the paradox of pilgrimage and arriving – pilgrimage must, by definition finish one day.  And that is precisely why the authorities (secular and religious) in Santiago deeply understand this pilgrimage paradox: arriving is the death and failure of each person’s pilgrimage.  And that explains why the ex-pilgrim is offered a number of inducements to stay as long as possible in this magical city.  However, staying more than three days in Santiago as an ex-pilgrim becomes boring and meaningless.

The writer of Immortelle randonnée briefly discusses how arriving in Santiago affects him:

Car tout concourt à le rompre, dès lors qu’on est «arrivé».  Les charmes et les beautés de Compostelle ensevelissent les souvenirs du Chemin. Le corps reprend sa nonchalance urbaine : on traîne dans les ruelles et, bientôt, on se surprend même à acheter des souvenirs…p. 256  Because all competitions break the ribbon on arriving at the end.  The charms and attractions of Santiago bury the memories acquired along the pilgrimage track.  The pilgrim’s body returns to its city-like listlessness : one wanders around aimlessly in the old city and you surprise yourself by buying some souvenirs…

In Rufin’s last chapter comprising 10 pages the writer in few words coherently and accurately describes the last 5 post schematic model stages after the JOURNEY and ARRIVAL have been achieved: RETURN; RE-INTEGRATION; WORKING UP THE EXPERIENCES and LASTING EFFECTS.

In a few profound words, Jean-Christophe Rufin deeply reflects on his pilgrimage experiences and their lasting effects.  On returning home he now applies his new practical and philosophical principle which he calls “la philosophie de la mochila” + “la mochila de mon existence”   “Mochila” is the Spanish word for the backpack one carries as a pilgrim-walker.  In other words, “LESS IS MORE”.  He returns to his home in the French Alps and for the very first time in his life, he is brave enough to finally get rid of accumulated stuff (things, projects going nowhere etc.).  He also addresses his fears which have accompanied him for a lifetime.

What is extraordinary with Rufin’s text is the fact that whilst walking over 800 kilometres from Hendaye to Santiago de Compostela he had NOT once ever wrote down any of his observations, feelings and analysis.  He tells us this emphatically and explicitly and is in fact quite disparaging of his fellow pilgrims who write each day after their many hours of walking.  He had not wanted at any stage to produce a book about his pilgrimage until returning home and with the snow all around him and being snow bound in conversation with two people who happen to be connected to Éditions Guérin at Chamonix in the French Alpes; that he is persuaded to put pen to paper and he tells us he remembers everything that he had experienced:

Dans la prison de la mémoire, le Chemin s’éveillait, cognait aux murs , m’appelait.  Je commençai à y penser, à écrire et, en tirant le fil, tout est venu. p.258  In the prison of my memory, the Camino was revealing itself, it was bashing down the walls to get out, it was calling out to me.  I started to think about it, to write, and in pulling on the linking thread, it all came back to me.

In his penultimate sentence, Rufin informs the reader he will be doing another Camino track soon.

The reviewer does not know if there will ever be a translation into English of this text.  However, if you do not know French and you have been looking for a compelling reason to undertake serious French language studies, then look no further: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is a modern masterpiece.


Note: All translations into English from the French in this post is by the reviewer Marc Grossman


The Unlikely Pilgrims : Australian film documentary psychodrama – reviewed by Camino Downunder

In Sydney on a Monday night, this June (2013), The Unlikely Pilgrims had its world premiere.  The queue started early and it was obvious there were high expectations and excitement.

Who went to this first time viewing?   Mostly locals living in Sydney.

At this Sydney Film Festival premiere, three different audiences were discernible:

The first group were returned pilgrims – wanting to see and experience how an Australian film crew and four Australians in front of the camera performed on their beloved and cherished pilgrimage route.  These people are the same ones who want to identify (and to some extent relive those locations), which they themselves had experienced during their own time on the track and who would have indubitably gone to see the Emilio Estevez film «The Way», starring his father Martin Sheen when it was released in Australia and New Zealand in April, 2013.  This group was numerically big.

The second group was made up of future pilgrims and those about to fly out and commence their own pilgrimage sometime soon on the Camino de Santiago.  They were all ears and eyes: wanting to absorb as much as they could from this documentary.

The third group were film industry people, Sydney Film Festival people and the drug and alcohol rehabilitation people.

The title of this unique Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS refers to three recovering drug addicts called Amy, Chris and Dave (all from Sydney) who in 2004 were filmed by a small Australian film crew, flying out of Sydney Airport.  It would have been the first time from Australia that three people with such challenges had done the Camino de Santiago.  In the 21st century, the Camino de Santiago attracts the whole range of humanity from Spain and Western Europe, and that is precisely why physically and intellectually disabled pilgrims are seen along this track in adapted wheel chairs and special mobile devices with their carers and support staff.  The writer briefly discussed this inclusiveness in a previous blog.

From Madrid, the three unlikely pilgrims plus their guide Ronan get to the head of the Camino Francés track at Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Nowadays, more Australians and New Zealanders begin in France on the other side of the Pyrenees at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port 27km further north in France.  Spending their first night (June, 2004) in the now defunct Albergue Juvenil (Youth Hostel), which was replaced in 2011 by the refurbished and modernised new pilgrim hostel: Albergue de peregrinos de Roncesvalles.

Immediately there are issues and challenges for these three unlikely pilgrims on the Spanish pilgrimage track called the Camino Francés.  The first and fundamental issue concerning them are that they are quite clueless about many things related to walking the Camino de Santiago as 21st century modern pilgrims and the documentary film brings this issue to the surface many times.  The documentary may have been better titled: The Three Clueless Pilgrims from Australia.

Amy, at the beginning of the film documentary, aptly summarises her mental state and extreme anxiety when she says “I feel unstable … I feel sick.”  Our hapless three (Amy, Chris and Dave) who are at the start quite naïve about what it really takes to have a successful outcome.  However, what inevitably happens as a process on this pilgrimage trail is well documented cinematographically.

By having, experiencing and overcoming their multitudinous hardships they in fact lose their gullibility along The Way and replace it with insights about themselves and a better understanding of what they were doing and the geographical, cultural and historical context.  Ronan was right when he said that the Camino for him started after he returned to Australia: reflection and transformation.

Amy: the only female in the group

Amy: the only female in the group

Contrast these unlikely pilgrims’ cluelessness in the first half with the writer’s long experience of would-be and future pilgrims attending a Camino Downunder class/workshop: without exception class participants have already done huge amounts of reading and research: and some of them over many years.

It is intellectual hubris for anyone to say they know everything about the pilgrimage routes in Spain and do not need to learn anything more – and certainly in the Australian and New Zealand context this means language and culture.  It is the writer’s proposition that you can never know too much or everything about this very deeply layered and varied aspects which constitute the Caminos de Santiago.  So when you’re watching this film, you realise that our real-life three pilgrims at the start, know next to nothing: one begins to dread their fate and destiny along the Camino path due to their very fragile emotional and mental health.  However, that doesn’t mean they do not change and learn commensurate with the kilometres walked.  And that is precisely why this documentary film is authentic and worthwhile.  This documentary psychodrama then wins its spurs – it successfully does portray deeply flawed humans beings being transformed by their indomitable spirit as a result of undertaking this pilgrimage.  With insight Chris says:

The Camino seems to be a crash course in life actually (hands being banged at the same time Chris is making a boom sound) there you go – learn or don’t learn!

For us who have already undertaken this seemingly endless walk from the Pyrenees do appreciate seeing the iconic and exotic geographical place names: RoncesvallesZubiriTrinidad de Arre (Albergue de la Trinidad de Arre, just before Pamplona city)…Puente la ReinaCirauquiEstellaGrañon (the low-key and unusual pilgrim hostel in the church’s attic according to Chris)…Nájera (unfortunately where Amy is traumatised by having her money stolen)…Burgos (major city and entry to the Meseta – the elevated wheat-growing tablelands)…Hontanas (the iconic small village of 80 inhabitants on the Meseta)…León (meeting up with the lost members)…Astorga (the physical and metaphorical fork in the road for Dave and the Albergue de Peregrinos San Javier)…Ponferrada (the dominating 12th Century Templar Castle on the hill)…Villafranca del Bierzo before arriving into Galicia (autonomous community/region) and seeing the remaining two, Amy and Chris get to Samos before getting into Santiago de Compostela some four days later.

It is truly life affirming to see Amy’s face so effusive when she walks into Santiago de Compostela when comparing that same face at the beginning in the Pyrenees, writ large with fear and anxiety.

Notwithstanding their naïvety and clueless state, the writer during the film started to developed a deep respect for all three monolingual native English-speaking Australians in spite of their pre-existing challenges.  All having very problematic, unhappy childhoods and in one case being sexually abused.  Two of them having different forms of mental illness with extreme anxiety thrown into the mix and all three having abused a variety of drugs (legal and otherwise) in their youth and as young adults.

It is actually a remarkable feat of human endurance and more importantly, human resilience that these three hapless Australians as portrayed in the documentary were able to rise to the occasion more often than not.  The evidence is clear that walking this remarkable, if not magical track – the Camino de Santiago started to rebuild their characters (nearly destroyed by years of abuse, neglect and drug taking) during their time on the track and after having left it.  When all three came up to the stage after the Premiere and answered questions from the audience, there was a realisation that nine years later, after their original Camino, have been a period of growth and development for all of them.

Chris: the only one at his own pace, on his ownChris: (photo to the left) – the only one to walk at his own pace and on his own, for much of the time


Ronan’s obvious failure is to thoroughly prepare his charges before leaving their comfort zone (Sydney).  During the documentary and towards the end, there is a very significant conversation between Chris and Ronan.  Chris says to Ronan he suffered and cried on the Camino on his own, without Ronan knowing anything about it or he (Chris) asking Ronan for assistance.  He accuses Ronan to his face of being irresponsible and not supporting or assisting him and the others sufficiently.  Ronan, on the other hand defends himself by saying that they should have taken more responsibility and his role was not there to be their counsellor.  He was simply there to guide and accompany them. Evidence: Ronan walks with a waking pole: the three walk unassisted.  The exception being Chris in the first stage walks with a crudely cut tree branch;  but later he walks with a traditional wooden walking staff (available for purchase all the way along the Camino path).  The others don’t seem to know you should walk with hi-tech walking poles in order to avoid accumulated physical injuries and have a faster recovery period in the afternoon when the day’s walking has stopped. (See a previous Camino Downunder blog on walking poles

On stage after the Premiere, Ronan continues to justify his position: he says there is a fine line between rescuing and standing on your own two feet.  He is absolutely right.  However, this reviewer comes to this issue from a different point of view.  He is an educator: he believes passionately that quality education will and always does make a difference.  The cliché is true: knowledge is power – it always empowers the individual in all circumstances by giving them choices.  This is what we call in the 21st century: human capital.  Training was also required to be up skilled.  Having good hi-tech walking gear and accessories do result in a better walking outcome – evidence based.  Ronan’s failure was the failure not to teach or train well enough his charges so as to neutralise on the track their disproportionate toxic feelings and emotions to certain triggers.  But in Ronan’s defence: he is not a teacher nor an educator.

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Doing the Camino de Santiago is not a walk in the park; however you don’t need to be an elite athlete either to complete it successfully; but you do need to be resilient and have mental stamina.  You do need to trouble shoot on a daily basis, you do need to understand the geography and the local cultures and this heterogeneity.  You certainly need to have some knowledge of the language.  Indeed, for every challenge or read the word “challenge” as a “problem”; there is always, always an adequate solution.  And it is precisely the mental stamina and resilience (or some will say their religious faith) which counts more on balance.  Therefore, if one is suffering one or two emotional issues and/or mental illness it becomes more challenging than it needs to be in order to successfully complete such a walk without timely and sustained support.

Ronan’s imposed 30 days walking from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela is good for him: but it is bad for the others.  And it is for this reason early on, Chris decides to walk on his own, most of the time and most importantly, to walk at his own pace.  It is the reviewer’s considered opinion that the aggregated injuries along the Camino arise when the pilgrim walks to someone else’s rhythm or pace.

In the film, Dave has a conversation with Ronan at Astorga: they are both sitting on an outdoor seat, the backdrop being the Bishop’s Palace.  See photo below of The Bishop’s Palace – Gaudí’s masterpiece (1887-93) and it is here that we learn Dave will no longer continue his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 250 km away.  We learn later that Dave returns to Astorga, 6 years later to finish what he had left undone.  Astorga in many ways is a metaphor for arriving on to the Camino track at a critical juncture and also departing from it too.  The southern pilgrimage track called the Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) from Seville or Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route) intersects with the ancient Roman road (east/west direction) and called the Via Traiana – for Dave it becomes his classic fork in the road decision.

Astorga: Gaudí's masterpiece The Bishop's Palace

Dave and Ronan on a good day

Dave and Ronan on a good day

There must have been shock and horror to returning pilgrim audience members on that Monday night to actually conclude that apart from Ronan, the three recovering drug addicts had done very, very little preparation and that their knowledge of Spain, of its history in general and of the pilgrimage history and culture in particular, showed up their ignorance.


At the start, our clueless (unlikely) pilgrims did not have one word of Spanish up their sleeve – towards the end, the film audience heard the odd “Buen Camino“.  Why would they?  Why did they leave Australia without any language training or cultural insights?  The answer screams out from the film: no one had any Spanish language skills.  Even Ronan who has been on the Camino 5 times (we are informed) has a poor working knowledge of Spanish.  The film crew, when filming themselves in their support car in León and looking for their subject(s), can only communicate in English to Spanish people who live on the Camino track.  This is an appalling situation.  It appears that some Australians assume the whole world speaks English, because English in the 21st century has now become the lingua franca of the world – it is how a Mongolian will communicate to a Moroccan – by using English as the common language whose native languages are different.  This situation, therefore makes for errors of judgements when native English-speaking visitors go to a non-English speaking country like Spain and can’t communicate in places where there is so little English.  ****On that Monday night, Chris responds to the question with: “Learn a little bit of Spanish ¿Dónde está el baño?”- he gets a laugh from the audience.

Throughout Spain and certainly along the full length of the Camino Francés, language politics and traditions for the following languages Castilian/Castellano [Spanish], Euskera [Basque] and Galician/Galego/Gallego impact on everyone, everyday.

Here is an Australian film crew, filming in Spain and it is obvious from the film, that this film crew’s problems in León could have been solved very quickly had they hired or contracted a multilingual interpreter/translator.  Reading the film credits, there is no reference made whatsoever to this film crew having used any Spanish translation or interpretation services.  Just imagine a Spanish film crew and cast coming to Australia and expecting everyone they encounter during their filming to speak in their language.

To understand this documentary and its revealed relationship dynamics is to understand each of the four protagonists: three recovering drug addicts and their Camino guide Ronan, who so happens to have been their drug counsellor in Sydney and at the beginning he actually says in the film: “I’m not there to counsel you…” – but the irony is that Ronan constantly does counsel and advise; but it is always too little and too late.  It is like closing the gate after the horse has already bolted.

The Three along the track to Santiago

The Three along the track to Santiago

Technically, the cinematography at times seemed grainy and the clarity of the moving pictures leave a lot to be desired.  However, on the positive side, it was an inspired choice to have subtitles in English when significant conversations were taking place between and amongst themselves.  The map graphics in the film indicating the geographical location of the Camino de Santiago, including some mountain passes as symbols ^^^^  are never named.

Yes, you may well say that it is too easy for Camino Downunder to criticise this graphic map.  But a good, quality map can communicate better and tell a better story than not having a good map.  One cannot exaggerate the importance that geography and topography have impacted on Spain, since the beginning of documented human habitation on the Iberian peninsula more than three thousand years ago.

If you compare the dramatic and dynamic map graphics, shown in the fictional film The Way, these seemingly minor, cost cutting areas in the  final production stage of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS, would appear in hindsight to be a false economy.  After all, northern Spain’s geographical context is incredibly important in understanding the history and culture of this pilgrimage.  Spain’s geographical context has determined everything over the last three thousand years from the Celts to the Romans to the Visigoths, the subsequent Muslim invasion in 711 and the Reconquest taking more than 700 years to accomplish and then only in 1492.  Geography explains Spain’s different regions, now called Autonomous Communities: different languages, different histories, different traditions and customs and naturally being reflected in its different foods and gastronomy.

Q & A session after the film  For about 12 minutes, questions were taken from the audience and directed to either the two film directors John Cherry and Kirsten Mallyon or to the four protagonists: Amy, Chris, Dave and Ronan.  Body language was telling: Ronan the guide and former drug and alcohol counsellor for the three was on stage, physically quite separated from the directors and his former three charges.  During this Q & A session, Chris responds to a question from the floor by revealing that he and Amy wish to walk the Camino de Santiago again in 2014 – 10 years after they had first step foot on the Camino track.  He jokingly asks the audience if anyone out there is interested in filming them?

What was the best part of the Camino?*

What was the best pilgrim hostel along the track?**

Will a DVD be produced?***

Can you give any advice?****

CONCLUSION: The reviewer highly recommends this original Australian documentary psychodrama THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS.

Acknowledgments: The 5 photos above from the Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS was gratefully supplied by Rebecca Hyde from Miranda Brown Publicity (Publicist for this documentary film).  The photo of Antonio Gaudí’s Bishop’s Palace at Astorga was supplied by Y.A.E.G.

Documentary Film Credits: Directed by Kirsten Mallyon and John Cherry.  Producer: John Cherry.  Length: 90 minutes.

Reviewer: Marc Grossman from


* Chris said walking on his own.

** The albergue at Grañon: Hospital de Peregrinos San Juan Bautista

*** Yes.

**** See Chris’s response in LANGUAGE ISSUES

Camino Downunder is attending the world premiere documentary psychodrama “The Unlikely Pilgrims” at the Sydney Film Festival

On Monday, June 10 as part of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival will be premiered Australia’s first ever full length film as a documentary genre about the Camino de Santiago – specifically, the Camino Francés track commencing in the Pyrenees.

Although, the dramatic background is the Camino de Santiago from Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s far northwest; the narrative concerns three recovering drug addicts (two men and one female).  All three from Sydney are very fragile emotionally, psychologically and physically.  They are guided and advised by their drug and alcohol counsellor who is of Irish descent having previously walked the Camino Francés a number of times.  These three deeply flawed human beings are nonetheless transformed by their Camino experiences; but their extreme reactions on the Camino Francés have their genesis in their previous lives before getting onto this pilgrimage track.  However, their time on the Camino is existential.

Unlike the fictional American film The Way (previously reviewed by Camino Downunder in 2012), this is a unique film genre and it took 9 years from concept and filming in 2004 to its first public viewing this month in June, 2013. 

Information received is that this World Premiere on Monday night has already sold-out.

Camino Downunder will be reviewing this 90 minute film and will post the film review and critique in the Camino Downunder Blog.

To see the film trailer from the Sydney Film Festival site, click on the link below

Ordering and consuming coffee whilst doing the Camino de Santiago – how different?


Ordering and consuming coffee whilst you’re doing the Camino de Santiago is the same no matter where you are in the world?

Whether you’re in Brisbane’s CBD, in a Christchurch suburb in New Zealand’s South Island or anywhere else in the English-speaking world – it’s the same when getting your coffee hit all the way along the pilgrimage route?

Answer : yes and no.  Look at the photo at the top – the café-bar at Valcarlos on the Camino Francés with two cafés solo, presented impeccably to two pilgrims and think of your take away coffee in your area, in a paper cup.

Coffee is coffee world-wide – yes;  but in Spain it’s called “café” – same as in France and Portugal, but in the Spanish and French Basque lands it is “kafea” or “akeuta“, Catalonia “cafe”  and Galicia the same as in Spanish “café“.  In Italy it is “caffè

Apart from the obvious linguistic differences; there is a big cultural difference in the way people in the English-speaking world drink their coffees.

It is called:

  “take away, throw away

The ubiquitous takeaway coffee, invariably bought in the morning on the way to work and consumed whilst waiting, walking or in transit.  Most times, the used coffee cup is responsibly disposed of in a rubbish bin or what the Americans call a trash can.  Forensically observing these consumers in the morning: their faces reveal deep primeval carnal pleasures whilst swallowing this hot liquid.  These coffee consumers connect to their mornings, to their environments and with their fellow commuters: indicating a successful and satisfying coupling has taken place – the mouth readily accepting this brown or black hot to warm liquid; with or without milk; with or without sugar.  It is both ceremonial and ritualistic and practised at least once a day.

How do you consume coffee on the Camino de Santiago?  First of all: you never have takeaway coffee in a throw away cup.   You must make the conscience decision of physically going into a café-bar or cafetería, requiring you to go up to the counter and order in Spanish – using either good or poor Spanish.  Entering a cafe-bar for a coffee is a very easy and simple choice – it is called need and desire inseparably linked.  It represents a walking break, a toilet break, it gives relief to your back if you’re carrying a weighty backpack, it’s a meeting place and in tempestuous weather; it gives temporary shelter.  And of course, you can order some food to accompany your coffee choice.

Public toilets along the Camino de Santiago do not exist, unless you’re in a major city.  You go to a café-bar instead or you go off-track, so calls of nature can be satisfactorily answered in private.

Here are some photos of places along the Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés) where you go to consume coffee and food.  IMG_0967

Puente la Reina - in Calle Mayor - right on the Camino trackWhat are your coffee choices as a pilgrim-walker? One thing for sure: you do not have the seemingly endless choice which you now have in large urban and city centres.  For example, in one of the main streets at Bondi Beach, Sydney (Australia) this is the choice you have:

Espresso; Double Espresso; Macchiato; Piccolo; Ristretto; Cafe Latte; Cappuccino; Flat White; Long Black; Mocha; Chai Latte.  And each coffee varies depending on size (Regular or Large) and whether it is Decaf, soy milk or if there is an extra ‘shot’ of coffee… (the coffee names indicate the obvious Italian influence throughout the English-speaking world).

Whereas in Spain and certainly on the Camino track your choice comes down to three or four …  CAFÉ SOLO (small black coffee, nothing else); CAFÉ CORTADO (small coffee with a bit of milk – not as strong as a café solo); CAFÉ CON LECHE (the equivalent of white coffee – more milk than coffee) and sometimes CAFÉ AMERICANO (long black coffee with a lot of hot water).

IMG_0968Café-bars along the Camino de Santiago are part of the built infrastructure to sustain and support pilgrims and at the same time they constitute a vital cultural aspect of the pilgrimage community in Spain.  It would be inconceivable not to have them around, open and servicing the pilgrims on a daily basis and often they open soon after 6.00 am – to support this human traffic.   They do an admirable job.  No multiday long walking route in the world comes within cooee (Australian expression meaning ‘very near to‘) of this unique institution called café-bars.

Good coffee for about 2 Euros per cup of coffee isn’t a bad price along the pilgrimage paths.

Paris and the Camino de Santiago (le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle)

For most Antipodeans (Australians and New Zealanders); Asians and non-Europeans undertaking the Camino de Santiago, their preferred arrival and entry point into Europe is Paris.

Most pilgrims and walkers fly into Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport, located to the northeast of Paris; making their way into the French capital for a day or two and then catching an early morning TGV train at Montparnasse railway station (the 14th arrondissement in Paris and on the Left Bank) and arriving 5, 6 or 7 hours later (depending on how many stops and detours between Paris and Bayonne (near Biarritz on the southwest Atlantic coast near Spain).

There at Bayonne, from SNCF – TGV they change to the local TER (Train Express Régional) going to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, commencing the next day, their Camino de Santiago journey up and down the Pyrenees, into Spain and all the way west to Santiago de Compostela.

Almost without exception, all these first-timers on the pilgrimage track (Camino Francés) are feeling  acutely their stress, showing great anxiety and mixed with overflowing excitement.  The first few hours walking from SJPdP dissipates their stress and anxieties because of the incredibly steep walk just outside the town, along the GR65.

The real, hard but exciting physical and mental work now begins in earnest.  However, let’s geographically rewind and take a closer look at Paris and its connections past and present for Western European pilgrimage.

Looking down rue de Sévigné and Compostelle 2000

Looking down rue de Sévigné and Compostelle 2000

If you are staying in Paris for a day or two and you’re not too far from the Marais district, Camino Downunder recommends you pay a visit to the headquarters of the local Friends of the Camino organisation for Paris and its region (Ile de France).

The local friends are called: «COMPOSTELLE 2000» and their shop, offices and meeting rooms (headquarters) are on the ground floor and in the terribly fashionable and elegant rue de Sévigné at number 26, postcode 75004 in the very heart of Paris and in its medieval centre, very close to Place des Vosges.  This district in the 4th arrondissement, was badly run down some four to three decades ago, but now: chic, urbane, vibrant and very Parisian.

The shopfront sign for 26 rue de Sévigné

The shopfront sign for 26 rue de Sévigné 

On their homepage they state the following:

 Depuis 1998, Compostelle 2000 apporte une aide personnalisée aux pèlerins et aux randonneurs partant pour Saint Jacques de Compostelle.
Compostelle 2000 organise de nombreuses activités qui vous permettront de vous préparer physiquement, matériellement et mentalement au chemin de Compostelle. 
N’hésitez pas à venir nous rendre visite au siège de l’Association…
It states that this organisation has been in existence since 1998; helping the independent pilgrim and walker, walking to Santiago de Compostela.  Furthermore, Compostelle 2000 organises activities which aim to help and prepare physically, materially (gear) and mentally all those undertaking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  It explicitly invites all to visit them at 26 rue de Sévigné in Paris.
The author has always been very warmly received by the volunteers in this Paris office.  The Friends of the Camino Office have an excellent collection of both coffee table pilgrimage books, invariably from French publishers (some very beautiful) to French language guidebooks and maps for both France and Spain.  He does know how well the various volunteers speak English, but he can vouch for the fact that they all speak excellent and correct French – as you would expect from native speakers!  On his last visit at Compostelle 2000 he was given their large, round material badge and he, in turn, gave Compostelle 2000 the Camino Downunder material badge.
Material badges from Compostelle 2000 and Camino Downunder

Material badges from Compostelle 2000 and Camino Downunder

At Compostelle 2000 it is usual practice to obtain a «credencial» pass only to its bona fide and financial members.  However, the writer has been informed that Australians and New Zealanders arriving at their office would be able to get a credential pass without them being required to be paid up, financial members of COMPOSTELLE 2000 but in exchange for a donation.

Office hours are Monday to Friday, from 10.00 am until 12.00 pm and from 2.00 pm until 6.00 pm.  The two-hour lunch break from midday is very French, mostly observed outside the main cities.  However, because this Association is entirely manned by volunteers – they are entitled to a traditional two hour lunch break.  However, in Spain and certainly on the Camino tracks once 1.00 pm arrives, all shops (big and small) including food stores (but not café-bars serving the pilgrimage traffice) close until at least 5.00pm – this continues the great Spanish siesta tradition.

Compostelle 2000 stands out as a volunteer organisation because of the extraordinary and ground breaking work it does in supporting and assisting some very physically and intellectually disabled people to “walk” the French and Spanish pilgrimage tracks.  Each year, physically and intellectually disabled people from France are now included on the pilgrimage tracks: they are no longer excluded.  A modern and equitable society is ultimately judged by how inclusive it is to its disabled citizens.

Spanish society is also inclusive: some Spanish pilgrim hostels have special and dedicated rooms for their disabled citizens.  An interesting story: the writer and his wife in 2007 observed and at times walked several days with a group of 7 blind Spanish pilgrims and their 3 seeing eye  dogs walking the last 100 kilometres from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela:  only one in the group had very limited vision  and they were not accompanied by any seeing person.  One of the bind males in the group of both genders, wore a T-shirt and written in large letters were the following Spanish text: DEMASIADO SEXO, NUBLA LA VISTA (in English: Too much sex, blurs your vision)IMG_1281See photo below, on the right.

In France, we are talking about paraplegics and quadriplegics who are placed in a special seat which has just one wheel underneath and two extended front handle bars and an extended rear handle bar requiring two able-bodied persons to keep it upright and moving – one in the front and one in the back.  More volunteers are needed for supply, support and cooking.  And there are relay teams who then take over, after a number of days.  This contraption is a French invention, called la Joëlette – named after its inventor: a mountaineer and guide called Joël Claudel for his disabled nephew.  See photo of a Joëlette in operation.

Also in Paris, on the Right Bank and next to the Seine river is La Tour Saint-Jacques (Saint-Jacques Tower), not very far from the Marais and Compostelle 2000 – La Tour is also in the 4th arrondissement.  The Tower and church were built between 1509 to 1523 during the reign of François I.  Today, only the Tower remains and this landmark is in honour of St James; which subsequently has become the starting point for walking pilgrims from Paris to Santiago de Compostela via Tours on the Chemin de Tours or the Via Turonensis (la voie de Tours) and eventually getting to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port; more than 800 km away in the southwest.  In July, 2011, the Tour Saint-Jacques hosted a photographic exhibition featuring moving photographic works by Gabriel Díaz of the pilgrimage routes in Europe and all ending in Galicia, Spain.

Where should you begin the Camino de Santiago: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) or Roncesvalles (Spain)?

To cross the Pyrenees on your first and/or second day on the Camino Francés (Camino de Santiago) is certainly not a stroll in the park – it is in fact very challenging.

If you are starting off like the majority of pilgrims who arrive at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the head of the Camino Francés track, then walk up and down 27km in one day: you are potentially giving yourself aggregated (accumulated) injuries for the rest of the time you are on the Camino path.

The writer has observed that happening many times – the irony is that the main victims are in their 20s and 30s – the young and the restless.  They forget the golden rule: start low, go slow and monitor the show.

So why do it, if it can potentially hurt you?  Answer: for many good reasons such as…

  • overcoming adversity and building character at any age;
  • proving to yourself (most importantly) and secondly to family and friends that you can successfully engage with the world outside your comfort zone;
  • challenge & excitement (familiar surroundings dull your senses of wonderment and awe);
  • sometimes walking through snow storms or very deep snow in extreme weather, needing to be rescued by the Bomberos (the Fireman/rescue services dressed in red from Burguete village, which is 3 km from Roncesvalles and on the Camino Francés (e.g. May 2010 and January 2013 – see the video above) and surviving (but NOT recommended for everyone and when you’ve been rescued; the usual debate then arises about using valuable public resources and whether public authorities should carry the rescue costs);
  • trekking through mountain passes and historical trails – doing a mini high mountain New Zealand or Tibet trek;
  • spectacular scenery at any time of the year (winter, summer, spring or autumn) – mainly on the GR65;
  • observing and hearing the seasonal movements of birds of prey – the raptors of the Pyrenees;
  • literally in one to two days moving between two very different cultures (French and Spanish) and two similar cultures (French and Spanish Basque) and their respective languages and
  • the adrenalin rush of arriving triumphant and safe in Roncesvalles – the psychological flight and fight syndrome.

Sure, it would be infinitely easier if you started in Spain at Roncesvalles like the majority of Spaniards – but you would lack an adventurous and memorable start.  However, the writer of this blog will always encourage people who have arrived from around the world to start on the northern side of the Pyrenees – the French side to then go south to Roncesvalles, then turning due west “all the way” (pun intended) to Santiago de Compostela and beyond to the Atlantic.  After all, why not emulate this medieval tradition dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries?

For more than a thousand years, pilgrims from central, southern, northern and eastern Europe have had to cross the Pyrenees at either Somport or SJPdP from France to get into Spain.

For the last twenty-five years there has been global interest in the French and Spanish pilgrimage routes and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP) has evolved to be the natural «head of the track» for the Camino Francés although strictly speaking the Camino Francés ONLY begins at the border between France and Spain – in France it is universally called Le GR 65 and Le Chemin de Saint- Jacques-de-Compostelle.

The friend’s office at no. 39 rue de la Citadelle supporting pilgrimage at SJPdP is opened 7 days a week, 365 days a year since 2009: theoretically it never closes except at night (10.00 pm until 7.00 am) and at lunchtime (from midday until 2.00 pm – due to French cultural and gastronomic traditions).  This French voluntary organisation is called Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques Pyrénées- Atlantiques.  It is here where you can get your French credencial pilgrim pass for 2 Euros, but before doing so, the office volunteer will request that you fill in an anonymous survey for statistical purposes.  However, it costs 1.5 Euros for a credencial pilgrim pass at Roncesvalles.

The existing, modern infrastructure in getting to SJPdP as the head of the track for the Camino Francés is truly impressive.  Railway access to this dynamic little town of about 1,500 inhabitants is modern, frequent and very reliable, but not very fast through the mountains – it stops many times at small railway stations along the way with their two names in Basque and French.  A few years ago, SNCF and TER upgraded the railway tracks and tunnels through the Pyrenees  between Bayonne and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the train itself too – it’s a comfortable, one very long carriage train with a toilet and bicycle racks for cyclists in the middle.

The train journey between Bayonne and SJPdP varies between 1 hour and 15 minutes up to 1 hour and 45 minutes.  When trains do not run because of track work and upgrades and certain festival days, you will be directed to a vehicular coach service.  Be care about travelling during peak weekend periods, including public festival holiday times.

Bayonne itself is a significant town near Biarritz (major airport and on the Atlantic Coast).  Bayonne is part of the superb French railway system between Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and the South West of France and their very fast train service – Le TGV – Train à Grande Vitesse.

The railway line between Bayonne and SJPdP is a single track and when the train arrives at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port it can go no further: it is in fact and literally the end of the line and the train simple returns to Bayonne – the train driver walks to the other end of the train to then commence the journey back to Bayonne.

The train stations between

Bayonne  to  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port – NB some trains stop at every station mentioned below and at other times there is an express service, stopping at only 4 stations

Villafranque / Milafranga (Basque language) 12 min (between Bayonne and Villafranque)

Ustaritz / Uztari 4 minutes

Jatxou / Jatsu 3 minutes

Halsou-Larressore / Halstu-Larresoro 4 minutes

Cambo-les-Bains / Kanbo 5 minutes

Itxassou / Itsasu 12 minutes

Louhossoa / Luhuso 9 minutes

Pont Noblia-Bidarray / Noblia zubia-Bidarrai 9 minutes

Osses St Martin d’Arrossa / Ortzaize-Arrosa 10 minutes

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port / Donibane Garazi

Roncesvalles on the Spanish side does not have a railway station servicing it: the closest railway station is at Pamplona, some 42 km away.  Pamplona as the capital of Navarra (the autonomous region) is well served by trains from Barcelona, Madrid and with a major coach network).  You access Roncesvalles from Pamplona by car, taxi or the regular bus/coach service and naturally you could even walk – in the opposite direction to the majority!

Walking gear for the Camino de Santiago – what is better: wool or man-made fibres?

Helly Hansen

Helly Hansen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2011, the writer discussed in three separate blogs walking gear and called them:

Good walking gear gives you a better walking outcome

Camino Downunder has not as yet discussed or given an opinion about the great on-going gear debate between  natural fibres i.e. wool and man-made woven yarns such as polypropylene,  polartec and technopile®. The writer appreciates all-woolen products, but will not hesitate, like David Ellis of Earth Sea and Sky, New Zealand to recommend the new man-made fibres such as, second generation polyesters.  David, with great lucidity and coherence clearly summarizes what the main issue is all about.  Earth Sea Sky‘s mission is high quality performance outdoor clothing.

Using superfine merino wool products when not undertaking heavy-duty physical activities is not a problem at all.  In the last ten years these products from such companies as Icebreaker have become very stylish and are practical and useful to wear all year round.  The writer is of the view that having tested at length in field tests “performance” of natural fibres (wool) and man-made yarns (polartec and similar), is of the opinion that the latter are superior when undertaking long and sustained physical exertion.  This is not to say that man-made fibres are superior in all areas.  It is simply to say that on balance and prioritising core functionality (wearing man-made fibres when doing very strenuous physical activities), the argument favours the non-natural fibres for “breathability” (wicking out perspiration), comfort next to the skin, ability to thoroughly clean and quickly dry when constantly on the move.

David Ellis established the performance outdoor clothing company Earth Sea Sky (ESS) in 1990. Prior to this he worked in the then family business Arthur Ellis & Co Ltd for 10 years where he was responsible for expanding the company’s range of Fairydown sleeping bags to include packs, tents and outdoor clothing.  ESS manufacture all their clothing in New Zealand and offer a full range of performance synthetic and natural superfine merino next-to-skin thermals.

In 2008, in his capacity as Managing Director of his company (Earth Sea Sky) David Ellis wrote a thoughtful, fair and well-balanced article about the evolving and high-performance outdoor fabrics and materials for people undertaking sustained and strenuous physical activities in the ‘great outdoors‘ (a Kiwi expression) and sometimes under extreme conditions.  His article appears below, unedited and unabridged and it sheds light and understanding about the differences and qualities between wool and man-made fibres.


Get Real – the true story of performance next-to-skin fabrics

In the mid 1970’s a quiet revolution occurred in the climbing community wardrobes throughout New Zealand. For those who can remember it was as though a weight had been removed, we traded our pink and cream Mosgiel woollens for the new brightly coloured, and often striped, revolutionary fibre called polypropylene. Mountaineers returning to New Zealand crammed their bags full of it, while those of us at home collected rationed postal notes to purchase it via international mail order. The conversion was fast and most of us had a couple of sets long before the local manufacturers started offering it. Such was the success of the switch the term “Polypro” became the generic slang for all thermals.

Polypropylene had been around for many years but it wasn’t until Italian researchers discovered how to spin it into yarn that it became relevant for clothing. Originally used as a liner in disposable nappies, it took the very clever visionary Helly Hansen in Norway to recognise the fibre had great potential for thermal underwear. The fabric kept the skin dry and warm by pushing the moisture away. It was ideal for Helly Hansen’s original market renowned for providing functional work wear for North Sea fishermen and ocean oil riggers. Unlike natural fibres, polypropylene kept the skin dry. Continually damp natural fibre, wool and cotton, waterlogged the skin. In sub-zero temperatures waterlogged skin became susceptible to frost bite. Polypropylene was so effective the incidence of frost bite on the North Sea became negligible overnight.

Since this time there has been a further advance in fabric technology. Polypropylene hailed from Europe but in the USA most textile manufacturers preferred using polyester yarn. Polypropylene is an incredibly strong yarn but it has a very coarse surface which is easily contaminated. This contamination does not wash free and after a period of time a permanent incrustation of body oils and odours around each fibre builds up, a bit like plaque on teeth. There are many old wives’ tales about how you should successfully clean your “Polypros” but unfortunately none of them work as the contamination is permanent. Badly contaminated polypropylene feels oily and in this state the very reason for wearing the fabric, to wick moisture off the skin, no longer works.

Polyester in comparison is a softer, smoother yarn. The smooth surface ensures anything that comes into contact with it during use will wash clean. By engineering the fabric yarns, 2nd generation polyesters from 1985 not only emulated but surpassed polypropylene’s functional properties. In a nutshell, superior performance without the odour build up.

Second generation polyesters use a permanent chemical treatment to maximise their moisture transferring and odour free properties. They can also use a mixture of yarn types or a mixture of yarn sizes to alter the surface to assist in this process. The treatment essentially changes the surface of the polyester from hydrophobic, water hating, to hydrophilic, water-loving. This changes the surface tension so water and perspiration is transferred outwardly and dries quickly. The same chemical treatment polishes the surface making it even more stain and odour free.

By using a mixture of yarns in the fabric construction (bi-component) the process of wicking, moisture spreading and drying can be further enhanced. These fabrics normally use a faster wicking filament yarn next to the skin and then a softer spun yarn on the outside which first stores then disperses (spreads) the moisture. Spreading is an important drying factor as a droplet of water falling against a t-shirt can dry three times faster if the fabric spreads the water over three times the original surface area.

By wicking the moisture through to the outer spun yarn, the filament yarn in contact with the skin dries very quickly. Although the outer surface will feel quite damp and will remain so until the heat from the body eventually dries it off, the inside surface is dry. Dry fibres insulate better than damp ones as moisture raids heat through conduction. It takes very little moisture content to significantly decrease the heat value of an insulation material. A 10% moisture content can halve the insulation ability of a fabric or filling. Warming up moisture in wet insulation takes a lot of body heat – the wet down sleeping bag effect. Effectively you have to warm up the moisture before the insulation material can bounce heat back to you. In most situations wet insulation is a net raider of body heat not a net provider. Ironically, when you are in a hypothermic situation your body metabolism starts slowing so your ability to warm up wet insulation is also vastly reduced. This can lead to disastrous results very quickly.

Synthetic fibres will only absorb between 1 – 3% of their weight in moisture. If a wet synthetic garment is hung up the water will “drop out” of the fabric very quickly. In the outdoors the final pooling area for dampness is easily removed by flicking dry this area.  This is quite different to the natural fibres where moisture absorption rates are well above 15%. Greater absorption leads to longer drying times with very little water “drop out” when the wet garment is hung up to dry.

It is near impossible to construct a laboratory test to simulate all of the variables that one experiences while wearing thermals in the natural environment.  For this reason laboratory data is very dangerous as numbers can easily be transformed to tell a myriad of different stories. Be very wary of comparable graphs and marketing claims. In the end it is wearer comfort in the field that is the most important consideration. I was recently asked by a very large marketer of fabric when discussing the performance of moisture management in treated polyester, “Did I have any scientific proof of what I was saying” By asking the question the marketer showed they had very little understanding of thermal insulation in the outdoors. Common sense needs to prevail and I would suggest all outdoor enthusiasts should experiment for themselves with what best suits their requirements for the activities and level of exercise they pursue.

In terms of odour all synthetic fabrics will smell, essentially they will smell as much as their wearer. They are all solid fibres and as such can only store body odour particles on their outside surface. The main difference between polypropylene and treated polyester is  polyester washes clean after each wear, polypropylene doesn’t. When you wear polypropylene you immediately get a combined body odour of all the previous wears.

© David Ellis  September 2008

Polypropylene still has its place in the outdoors. As an entry-level thermal it is still the best value insulation you can obtain. Treated polyesters are more expensive but in terms of value for money they will not only out-perform but they will also out-wear their well known rivals.

Natural fibres do not have wicking, moisture transferring or fast drying properties. Despite all the marketing descriptions these terms firmly belong to the synthetic fabrics.

So we now go back to where we started over 30 years ago. Was the passion and zeal to replace our woollen underwear incorrect or unfounded? I would suggest not as the very reasons why we did it then are equally relevant today.

David Ellis

Managing Director

Earth Sea Sky

©March 2008


An example of a man-made fibre from

  • soft next to the skin
  • insulation value
  • abrasion resistance
  • piling resistance
  • warm & light
  • easy care
  • breathable – moisture transferring
  • stretch
  • fast drying


What time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

The writer would like a dollar each time he is asked this question or variations of the following:

What is the best time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

This question is invariably and consistently asked in Camino Downunder classes and workshops in Australia and New Zealand.  Ironically, when the question is posed, the participant has often made up his or her mind and wants validation that they have made the right choice.  The writer would prefer that all future pilgrims keep an open mind, precisely because of the premise that you should make an informed choice; it’s a personal decision-making process; and most importantly you have to decide what are your priorities and not try to have everything, see everything and do everything whilst you’re undertaking the Camino de Santiago.

Nonetheless, all the options need to be put on the table – freedom of choice.  Outlining to future pilgrims all the options is a de rigueur process in the classes.  This process is much appreciated, whilst the participant weighs up the pros and cons.


Late October, 2009 walking through the deciduous beech forest in the Pyrenees and just inside Spain

  • SUMMER (verano) – June 21 to early September
  • AUTUMN (otoño) – September 21 to early December
  • WINTER (invierno) – December 21 to early March
  • SPRING (primavera) – March 21 to early June


There is now a quasi formal pilgrimage “walking season”.  Most pilgrim hostel accommodation usually closes for the winter months; all open their doors once Easter has finished (March or April) and these seasonal «albergues/refugios» (in Spanish) close their doors, sometime in November, and which varies from pilgrim hostel to pilgrim hostel.  However, there are albergues and refugios which are open all year round for the very small winter pilgrimage foot traffic.  More about the winter pilgrimage traffic later.

The majority of Australians and New Zealanders prefer to undertake their pilgrimage during Spring or Autumn, as do most non-European pilgrims.



  • Summer crops along the Meseta are maturing to full growth as are the vegetable gardens (huertas) in the first two regions (Navarra and La Rioja).
  • In early September (late summer) wheat harvesting commences on the Meseta.  Grape harvesting (mostly manual labour) is taking place in all the wine regions along the Camino Francés (Navarra, La Rioja and the Bierzo region of León province).
  • Most, if not all the snow found on the GR65 (la Route Napoléon) between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Col de Lepoeder (just inside Spain) has disappeared and the track is now quite dry (unless it has been rain affected).  There still may be seen some snow on the peaks of the Cantabrian Mountain ranges which are always on the right hand side (north) as the pilgrim travels west.
  • Summer heat is at its strongest – certainly in the afternoon and should be avoided when it is most intense during the mid-afternoon (around 3.00 pm).
  • If you are a morning person and you don’t mind getting up well before sunrise, you should begin walking during the cool of the morning (around 5.00 am), with its endearing qualities and finish soon after midday, to avoid the damaging afternoon sun on the Meseta between Burgos and Astorga – just over 200 hundred kilometres long.
  • The challenge for the non-Spanish pilgrim is to adhere to the tried and tested Spanish siesta traditions (moving successfully between cultures): making sure you finish your walking before 1.00 pm and hopefully get to your designated albergue, going inside and staying there until around 5.00 pm when the central town squares (Las Plazas) burst into life with the locals doing their customary “paseo” – social stroll, to be seen and to meet; coinciding with commercial establishments and shops opening from the late afternoon to until 8.00 pm or later.  What do you do for lunch?  Hopefully, you would have obtained your provisions before 1.00 pm or eaten in a café bar located right on the Camino track which sometimes stays open during the daily siesta period and during the walking season.
  • July and August are the peak times for the locals (Spaniards) who get on the track (mostly in Galicia to do a minimum 100 km of walking) during the peak summer holiday period.
  • Some overcrowding may be experienced in the last region (Galicia).
  • The foreign pilgrim experiences Spain up close and personal because life can now be better enjoyed outdoors from late afternoon, even in Northern Spain; the walking pilgrim is challenged each day to start very, very early.
  • For ornithologists and bird lovers entering Spain and less than 2 kilometres from Roncesvalles, the Centro de Migración de Aves – Roncesvalles/Orreaga opens its doors on the Camino track from July 1 until end of November. Its purpose is to study and observe the 22 birds of prey and the 22 other migratory birds crossing overhead.

    The bird watching centre on the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees and just before getting to Roncesvalles


End of October, 2009 in Spain in the Pyrenees between Roncesvalles and Zubiri

  • The exquisite beauty of crossing the Pyrenees from France into Navarra Spain and walking through a variety of beech, oak, fir and wild pine deciduous forests especially in late October cannot be overestimated as well as the varied colours of the leaves which are either still clinging precariously on the trees or fallen to the ground.
  • In the Pyrenees, the peak season (late September and October) for migratory birds and the huge size ‘scary and noisy’ birds of prey are all observed flying above the Camino de Santiago route and just a few kilometres before getting to Roncesvalles is the impressive bird interpretation and exhibition centre in three languages called: Centro de Migración de Aves.
  • An “Indian Summer” is often experienced in late autumn – an extension of summer, characterised by sustained dry, warm weather.
  • The pilgrim walking into Puente la Reina from Pamplona in late October early November will see on the Camino route the famous Spanish red peppers (pimientos de piquillo) being magically transformed by outdoor ovens: the outer skins are charred and blistered by the intense heat in order to release the exquisite sweet flavours inside the flesh.  Many residential buildings along the Camino de Santiago in Navarra and La Rioja have pimientos de piquillo hanging around their balconies to dry.
  • At the beginning of autumn in Logroño (capital of La Rioja): September 20 to September 26 are the Fiestas de la Vendimia Riojana – wine harvesting festivities lasting one full week and with the city figuratively exploding with people, processions, outdoor activities (viticulture) and with more gastronomy than usual.
  • The Meseta is no longer green or yellow with grains and crops – the harvest is now complete: the soil is a dark brown colour; it lies fallow and unsown.
  • The hunting season begins in both France and Spain – “la caza mayor (game hunting) and “la caza menor (shooting game birds only).
  • Throughout Spain, but especially along the Camino Francés the culturally and gastronomically significant “Matanza del cerdo” (slaughter of the pig) takes place (mainly on 11 November – San Martín) and early December.


  • Its grand appeal and attraction in two words : character building.
  • Between Christmas and end of January: the number of pilgrims on the track go down to single digit numbers per week (certainly in the Pyrenees and in Navarra)
  • You must only do the Camino Francés in winter after you’ve done it a number of other times in other seasons: you should by then be reasonably familiar with terrain and topography.
  • You must have reasonably good language skills in Spanish and French.
  • The lambing seasons falls in winter and the early part of the year in Navarra – Pyrenees, La Rioja and Castilla y León.
  • You must enjoy being on your own for most of the day and on most days and not be constrained with a rigid walking timetable.  Time flexibility is important.
  • You must “enjoy” walking through snow and ice; the physical challenges of being exposed to some extreme cold days and to sleeping in some non-centrally heated rooms.
  • You must have either a duck or goose down jacket to wear for immediate and sufficient warmth once you stop walking.  Remember that down jackets can never be used when you are walking: they do not wick out the huge amounts of moisture produced by the body when undertaking heavy-duty walking even if the ambient temperatures are minus zero.
  • Your pilgrimage will be memorable and uplifting due to the many and varied encounters you will have with the locals, especially if you are on the Camino track during Christmas and the New Year period


On the Meseta in early May, 2007

  • European Summer Time (Spain and France have the same time because they are in Central Europe Time zone) begins in Spring: the last Sunday in March until the last Sunday in October –  waking up in the dark, but being able to walk in daylight well past 9.00 pm.
  • A veritable explosion of new growth and fauna are sprouting and birdsong is ever-present  – flowers abound along the whole of the Camino.
  • Weather volatility is at its extreme (April and May): such as in the Pyrenees on the Spanish side all-weather records were broken in the first two weeks of May, 2010 – the coldest recorded temperatures since records began in the middle of the 19th  century.  In the middle of May, 2010 it snowed in Burgos (800 metres above sea-level) which is on the Meseta.  There is still significant snow on the Camino track above the treeline between France and Spain in the Pyrenees.
  • In Navarra and La Rioja and on the Meseta: there can be continuous days of rain: even if rain ceases for many days, the pilgrim continues to negotiate walking in mud.  It is the writer’s strong recommendation that walking with hi-tech gortex gaiters allows for a much better daily walking outcome.  The unwritten and genuine joys of walking straight through mud holes without deviating when walking in gaiters is something to experience!  See the earlier CaminoDownunder blog dated August 28, 2011: Good walking gear gives you a better walking outcome – PART ONE.
  • The colour of the Meseta is green and vibrant with the growing wheat fields and dominating the landscape as far as the eye can see, accompanied by constant birdsong all around and every day.

Mid April, 2007 snow in the Pyrenees – just inside of Spain on the Camino


When to walk the Camino de Santiago should be based on being well-informed, whilst understanding that each season’s attractions (colours, textures, appearances) is precisely determined by the yearly seasonal cycles which are unique for that season.  Can one still listen to and enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos separately (la primavera; l’estate; l’autunno; l’inverno – in Italian)?  Yes.  However, to eventually listen to all the four concertos is to appreciate the differences and complexities of each.  You can say one is your favourite or preferred; but you can’t say one is better or worse if you haven’t experienced it.

The choice made is on the understanding that you cannot experience all and have all the best in just one season – that’s being unrealistic.  In other words, walking along the Camino de Santiago at any time of the year will offer you the very best, but only for that season along with its challenges.

Maybe, starting to walk in one season and finishing up in other season allows the future pilgrim the opportunity to experience two seasons for the price of one pilgrimage in one walking season only.  Think about that as being a viable alternative.

Navarra: on the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina: early November when the newly harvested peppers (Pimientos del Piquillo) have just had their outer skins roasted.

The Camino de Santiago in Europe’s far West and the Kumano Kodo in the Far East

Map of Kumano Kodo

English: Kumano-Hayatama-shrine in Shingu, Wak...
English: Kumano-Hayatama-shrine in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. 日本語: 熊野速玉大社, 和歌山県新宮市 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the rising sun in the East (The Kumano Kodo) to the setting sun in the West (The Camino de Santiago) these two pilgrimages are linked because they are the only two pilgrimage routes registered on the current UNESCO World Heritage list.

In 2008 Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau and Turismo de Santiago de Compostela signed a Protocol of Intention for Joint Promotion…and marking the 10th anniversary of official relations between Wakayama Prefecture (Japan) and Galicia (Spain) for the purpose of promoting and preserving the unique spiritual cultures of Asia’s far east with Europe’s far west – the pilgrimages of the rising and setting sun:  The photos on this internet site of the Kumano Kodo are exquisite and enticing!

The Protocol of Intention stated:

Both networks of routes originated in the 10th centuries and have been walked by millions of pilgrims over the centuries.  Although Kumano is located in the far east of Asia and Santiago is situated in the far west of Europe, both of our ancient roads share a common history of faith.  They have developed simultaneously as pilgrimage routes and have become beloved by our citizens as important parts of our historical, cultural and spiritual heritage.

What is pilgrimage? In the writer’s text The guide for the SPANISH CAMINO – Walking the Camino Francés as a 21st century pilgrim (ISBN 978-0646-51466-) the classic definition has three parts:

  1. A journey to a place
  2. The journey, the destination and the arriving are equally important
  3. A spiritual/religious significance for the traveler.

Pilgrimage is universal and practised by the majority of human beings.  There is NO religion on earth which does not practice pilgrimage.

Authors and Hispanic scholars and pilgrimage academics David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson wrote the following:

Anthropologists have defined Homo sapiens variously as the animal who laughs, or who makes tools or who is capable of self-definition.  Humans might also be characterized as the animal who goes on pilgrimage, for travel to holy places is a near universal phenomenon among our species.

The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1993 and nine years later in 2004 the Kumano Kodo in Japan.

What is Kumano?
It is an isolated and sacred site of healing and redemption.  It embodies the very spiritual origins of Japan and has been a pilgrimage destination for many centuries.  Kumano, just like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, is endowed with a rich cultural and natural heritage, and exactly like their Spanish counterparts, locals who live along the pilgrimage routes, assist and support the authentic pilgrim. Both the locals and the pilgrims passing through have a mutual respect and the latter are always warmly welcomed.

The geography of the Kumano Kodo

The Kumano Kodo is located on Honshu, the main island of Japan and is in Wakayama Prefecture.  The nearest main city is Osaka to the north, but it is the small city of Tanabe, which is the closest agglomeration to the head of the track, just like Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees for getting onto the Camino de Santiago.  The pilgrimage area is on the East coast and for over 1000 years (the Camino de Santiago is a little older – early 9th Century) people from all levels of society, including former and retired emperors and members of the ruling elite, have undertaken this pilgrimage to Kumano.  Japanese pilgrims past used a network of different routes called the Kumano Kodo (just like in Spain and France there are different routes to get to the endpoint in north-west Spain: Santiago de Compostela) stretching across the incredibly rugged and beautiful mountainous Kii Peninsula.

Kumano Kodo’s genesis

Set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan – linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, show the fusion of Shinto, rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism, which was introduced from China and the Korean Peninsula. The sites (495.3 ha) and their surrounding forest landscape reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains over 1,200 years. The area, with its abundance of streams, rivers and waterfalls, is still part of the living culture of Japan and is much visited for ritual purposes and walking, with up to 15 million visitors annually. Each of the three sites has shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century and incredibly similar time frame when the purported relics of St James were rediscovered after being lost for over 700 years.
Just like walking along the Camino de Santiago routes, there was and there continues to be an infrastructure supporting pilgrims and walkers to do it independently.

Accommodation: traditional, low-key and low impact on the natural environment: but quite different from pilgrim hostels (albergues and refugios) in Spain and the gîtes d’étapes in France.   Along the various routes in the Kumano Kodo, accommodation is dominated by Japanese Ryokan (traditional inns) and family run guesthouses.

Pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo can invariably look forward at the end of a day’s walking to the fabulously enticing onsen – hot springs, which are scattered throughout the mountainous areas and along the pilgrimage routes.

How long are the walking pilgrimage trails in the Kumano Kodo?  There are three main walking trails and routes:

1 Takijiri-oji to Chikatsuyu-oji        “Takijiri-oji marks the spiritual entrance into the sacred mountain.  From this shrine the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route climbs steeply to the community of Kakahara, which offers panoramic views.  From Takahara, the trail runs through the mountains before descending into the village of Chikatsuyu, a quiet and relaxing place to stay overnight.”

  • walking distance: 13 km
  • Walking time: approximately 4 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 6 hours

2 Chikatsuyu-oji to Hosshinmon-oji   “From Chikatsuyu-oji the pilgrimage route follows the old highway past Tsugizakura-oji with its impressive 800 year  old giant trees called Nanaka-n0-Ipposugi.  Accommodation is available in the nearby village of Hongu and at surrounding hot springs, so pilgrims and walkers can then continue onto the Kumano Hongu Taisha the next day.”

  • Walking distance: 18 km
  • Walking time: approximately 5 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 7 hours

3 Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha “The Kumano Kodo route from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha is lined with history and culture.  This section follows a number of mountain trails and roads through isolated ridge-top communities before descending to the Grand Shrine.”

  • Walking distance: 7 km
  • Walking time: approximately 2 hours
  • Walking time with breaks: 3 hours

The Camino de Santiago (the Camino Francés) is a multi-day pilgrimage lasting at least 30 to 35 days, if commenced on the French side of the Pyrenees and is 800 km long if you continue to Land’s End (Finisterre) after reaching Santiago de Compostela.  The Kumano Kodo is much shorter and does not involve very long daily walking distances.  On the Camino de Santiago it is not unusual to hit more than 30 to 35 km per day, once you reach track fitness after 10 days of walking.

Cuisine – the Kumano Kudo is blessed with an abundance of nature.  Fresh ingredients from the ocean, mountains and rivers are used, with traditional Japanese refined skills to create mouthwatering, authentic cuisine of the region.  For example: Umeboshi – pickled ume, an apricot-like fruit and a local specialty; Meharizushi – rice wrapped in pickled takana mustard leaves, which is great for lunch in the mountains; Shirasu (whitebait), a local delicacy, sometimes caught off Tanabe’s coastline; Oranges – Tanabe is an orange lover’s paradise.  70 varieties of oranges are produced all year round.  And in the great Japanese lunch tradition: walkers can buy along the trail, homemade Kodo bento lunch boxes which invariably feature foods which are locally harvested or caught.

Maybe, in the near future, Australian and New Zealand pilgrims traveling to Western Europe for their grand pilgrimages in France and Spain, will seriously consider a brief one week stop over in the Far East in order to undertake the short, but no less exciting and captivating Kumano Kodo.On the Camino de Santiago in April, 2007. Photo: Y. A. E. Grossman

Satellite view of Japan with the Kii Peninsula...

Satellite view of Japan with the Kii Peninsula marked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nájera on the Camino de Santiago: a hidden jewel in La Rioja

Nájera in the 21st century.

Santia María la Real

On the Camino Francés between Logroño and Santo Domingo de la Calzada is a medium size town of about 8,500 inhabitants called Nájera.  The town is nearly 500 metres above sea-level and 26 km from Logroño and 21 km to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

The name NAJÉRA has its etymology from an Arabic word «between cliffs».

There are a number of albergues (pilgrim hostels), but one is recommended (the Municipal one) in the 30 all-weather walking maps (ISBN: 978-0-646-52975-2) at the end of the town, across the river Najerilla, in front of the appropriately named square: Plaza de Santiago (St James’ Square) and just around the corner from the Monastery, and just before climbing steeply up past the red cliffs which are dotted with caves.

Cave complex: impressive complex of caves are located on the cliffs of the mountains above Nájera.  These caves were actually man-made even before the Roman colonial period, over three thousand years ago when Celtic invasions created much instability and insecurity.

When the writer first arrived in Nájera some years ago with his wife as pilgrims and despite much research, the next day, unknowingly walked past the Monasterio de Santa María la Real (see photo) without giving it a second thought, because the next day’s focus was walking to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

The Albergue de Peregrinos de Nájera is just a few minutes away on foot to Santa María la Real and in any case, you pass by this monastery in the morning on leaving the pilgrim hostel to start climbing up the steep red sand stone cliffs and out of the town in a continuous westerly direction.

Once on top, you walk through kilometre after kilometre of vineyards.

You cannot understand Najéra’s geopolitical historical situation without first understanding why in the middle of the 11th century the Monasterio de Santa María came into existence during the reign of King García III (1035-54) of Nájera of a Northern Christian Kingdom and when battling the southern Islamic push into the northern Christian territories.
This is the story which triggered the building works.  In 1044 García III (the Navarran king of this region) was hunting an area close to the Río Najerilla (the western end of today’s town) and his falcon pursued a white dove into one of the caves.  The King went in pursuit of his falcon and into the deepest recesses of these red sandstone caves saw a light.  He went to this source of light and saw an old wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary and at its based were fresh white lilies in a vase.  For this King who was involved in this ongoing, monumental and historical struggle against the march of Islam took it to be a powerful sign and message from his Christian God.  As a result,  García ordered a chapel to be built, and later a church and a monastery which was consecrated in 1052.  Today, how much of the original building of one thousand years ago still exist?  Not much.  It was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Can a pilgrim visit the Monasterio de Santa María la Real when walking out the next day?  Theoretically yes; but in practical terms no, because the earliest opening time is 10.00 am.  It would be better to see the Monastery in the afternoon, soon after you’ve arrived and taken up residence in the Municipal albergue or elsewhere.  You do have a wonderful window of opportunity, because the closing time in winter is 5.30 pm and 7.00 pm in summer.

In the medieval period (late Middle Ages) and when pilgrimage exploded in popularity throughout all of Western and Central Europe, Nájera was a very important historical, political and geographical centre for pilgrimage and for the Northern Christian Kingdoms doing constant battle among themselves or holding the forever changing borderlands between the Muslim south and the Christian north.  By the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Nájera lost its strategic-geographical importance, but it has continued to this day to serve pilgrims.  And there is much to see and appreciate during your short 15-18 hours stay as a pilgrim.

What was Nájera like for a foreign pilgrim in the 17th century?  As a primary source we are indebted to the Italian traveler and multiple pilgrim: Domenico Laffi.  Today, we have his written testimony and in his text: A Journey to the West subtitled today: The Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Pilgrim from Bologna to Santiago de Compostela.

Here we stopped in its (olive grove) shade and then carried on towards Nájera, three leagues away.

This is one of the finest towns to be seen in this region.  It lies in a plain and has a broad river flowing through it.  It is spanned by a fine bridge connecting two parts of the town on the west side.  There is a very steep hill, all of bare rock, which overshadows the town in such a way that half of it is sheltered from rain and sun except until about mid-day.  It is really a beautiful place and well supplied with everything.  They are busy all day constructing many buildings, together with churches.  There are three squares, one on the near side of the bridge, the others across the bridge to the west.  When we rose in the morning we bought bread and wine because, particularly in Spain, you should never leave a town without them.  From here we began our journey to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, climbing the great hill which overlooks Nájera.

As a 21st century pilgrim, you arrive into Nájera from the east, needing to cross the busy and dangerous Carretera N-120, into the newer areas of the town and near to its furniture making industrial area,  you walk down first into the aptly named  Avenida de Logroño and then into the long Calle San Fernando until you get to the bridge Puente San Juan de Ortega, crossing the Río Najerilla to get to Najéra’s old quarter: charming, very Spanish with narrow streets and when turning every corner, being at once stimulated and surprised by the ever-present sights and sounds emanating from this old quarter.

One of the great delights of arriving into Nájera in the second half of July is their justly famous LUZ Y SONIDO (their sound and light show + pageantry and open air theater) adjoining the Monastery.  This spectacle is called Reino de Nájera (The Kingdom of Nájera): 200 locals dress up in 400 different period costumes to represent what Nájera was like during its heyday as the seat of power for the northern Christian Kingdoms in the Middle Ages whilst doing battle with their ideological foes and opponents of the time.  Pilgrimage during that period is also represented.  You do not need Spanish to enjoy and appreciate such a show.

Despite Nájera’s past and its proud on-going associations and traditions with pilgrims and pilgrimage, this small town nonetheless reflects modern Spain.  In the old quarter, the writer photographed a

patisserie’s display of cake figurines for celebrating a wedding: two people of the same gender: it says it all.