Robert Ward

1. What is the Camino de Santiago?
Camino is Spanish for road, and the Camino de Santiago is Europe's greatest living pilgrimage road, a path beaten across Spain to the shrine of Saint James by a thousand years of footsteps. In reality, there are many caminos to Santiago; the one I followed, the one most pilgrims follow, is also known as the Camino Francés, the "French" Camino, since it originates outside of Spain.

2. Where does the Camino begin?

The Camino begins where you begin it. But the greater number of pilgrims start near the French border or from one of the historic cities along the way – Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Sarria.

3. Where does it end?
Eight hundred kilometres later, at the shrine of Saint James in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the northwestern, Atlantic province of Spain – though many pilgrims continue another hundred kilometres to Finisterre, on the Atlantic coast.

4. Traditionally, why did pilgrims walk the Camino?
Because it was believed that the body of Saint James was buried in Santiago. Christians were taught that he had the power to forgive their sins and answer their prayers. They also came to offer thanks or simply to deepen their faith.

5. How did Saint James’s body get to Spain?
It’s a miracle. Don’t ask.

6. Why do people walk the Camino today?
To know what it means to walk such a great distance. To be part of an ancient tradition. To escape the stress of modern life and slow down time. To rediscover their physical beings. To connect with other people. To feel close to nature. To search for meaning, authenticity, a rekindled sense of wonder. To renew faith, or to find it. To celebrate or mourn a passage in their lives (retirement, graduation, starting a job, leaving a job, marriage, divorce, the death of a loved one). For the exercise. For the challenge. For the culture. For a cheap holiday. For something to do.

7. So you don’t have to be religious to do the Camino?
Not at all. I’m not religious and I’ve never felt unwelcome. Of course many pilgrims are religious, but even believing pilgrims are most often on the Camino for reasons that you might call more spiritual than religious. That is to say, they’re looking for answers, rather than assuming they know what the answers are. So where the Camino used to be a path of faith, it’s now a path of discovery, open to everyone.

8. What first brought you to the Camino?
I always wanted to make a long journey on foot. I love walking and I thought I would meet interesting people and have adventures along the way. I was right.

9. How many times have you done it now?
Three times from the Pyrenees to Santiago: in 1999, 2000 and 2004. That last time, I walked the extra distance to the Atlantic instead of taking the bus as I had before. I also went walking in 2000 and 2003 for about two weeks each time.

10. What brought you back?
I came back to see things I’d missed the other times, to relive particular moments, places, flavours: to make discoveries, learn new lessons, relearn old ones.

11. Have you always gone alone?
Yes, every time except the last time when I walked with my wife for one week. She wanted to see what it was all about. But it’s always easy to find people to walk with. Often I’ll walk with someone for a few hours.

12. If you’re not religious, can you still call yourself a pilgrim?
To a certain way of thinking, life is a pilgrimage, a journey from birth to death and perhaps beyond to an afterlife. So it’s not so much a question of calling yourself a pilgrim as understanding yourself as one. The Camino is a part of life’s pilgrimage where that understanding is formalized and made conscious for a few weeks.

13. Describe the Camino.
The Camino is a constantly changing and evolving landscape. You begin in the mountains, come down through the hilly wine country, then you’re crossing the meseta, which is a kind of wide, dry prairie. There are two more low mountain ranges, and finally you’re in Galicia, which is rainy, green, fertile… A real Atlantic climate, not at all what you expect of Spain. In terms of human places, there are only a half-dozen real cities along the Camino, and they’re not so big, in the range of one to two hundred thousand people. The rest is gem-like villages and towns, full of architecture that dates back to the eleventh century.

14. How physically demanding is the Camino?
Not as demanding as you might expect. There isn’t a lot of rough terrain or steep climbs. It’s just a matter of walking every day with a pack on your back, sometimes in extreme heat or rain. Some people are better built for that sort of thing than others, though often that has nothing to do with muscular strength or age. About 18,500 of the pilgrims who arrived in Santiago in 2009 were over sixty.

15. How many people walk the Camino today?
In 2009, over 120,000 pilgrims arrived in Santiago on foot, having walked at least one hundred kilometres. About 25,000 more came by horse or bicycle, and 39 by wheelchair. July and August are the peak months and worth avoiding, if possible, as the competition for beds can be intense.

16. How long does it take to walk?
Most people can comfortably walk twenty- to twenty-five kilometre a day. At that pace it takes a few more than thirty days.

17. Where do you sleep?
There are inexpensive (less than ten dollars a night; sometimes free or by donation) pilgrim refuges at regular intervals along the way. They are usually clean, comfortable and co-ed, sometimes have cooking and laundry facilities and even Internet, and are always great places to meet other pilgrims and find out if they snore.

18. Is walking safe?
It used to be awfully dangerous, back in the good old days of wolves, bandits, floods and plagues. Now it’s probably as safe as staying at home, though it’s still not a good idea to cross the Pyrenees in winter. If you’re a woman, you’ll be reassured to know that so are over forty per cent of pilgrims today.