--- Anne Born has walked The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Northwest Spain nine times. Ancient pilgrim routes stretch across Europe, coming together at the tomb of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. She shares info about history, varied routes, best lodgings, local foods, and symbols -- on this bucket-list adventure.
-- The Way of St. James was one of the most important pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. The most popular walk, an ancient Roman trade route starting in France, is now a UNESCO Heritage Site.
-- Many routes, including one from Lisbon or Porto Portugal, converge to the Cathedral. And some travelers walk beyond, to the most western point in Spain, Cape Finisterre, on the Atlantic Coast in Galicia. Land’s End in Latin.
-- Anne takes us through a typical day on the Camino. Some pilgrims walk for fun, some for spiritual reasons or to bond with others. She shares fascinating tidbits about the best ways to meet people, the meaning of the scallop shell, where to stay -- and innkeepers' hospitality. She fondly remembers the best local foods, different ways to go -- including biking; and the spirituality that pilgrims find under the Big Sky of Northern Spain.
--- We also chat about major cities on the Camino, like Burgos, and of the magnificent cathedral there and in Santiago. And we end with her favorite travel memory of the Camino.
Author/poet/photographer Anne Born is an award-winning New York-based writer who blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim. Her popular book is "Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim." Her new guidebook is written about the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for English-speaking pilgrims: “If You Stand Here.” TheBackpackPress.com
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written many travel books, including Places I Remember, and has contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and blogs about travel at forbes.com Contact her at placesirememberlealane.com
Please subscribe to Places I Remember with Lea Lane, and leave a review on Apple! New travel episodes every Tuesday, wherever you listen to podcasts.
*Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 00:04
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. On this segment, we explore travel memories about the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James, the famed pilgrimage routes to the Cathedral of Compostella. In Galicia in northern Spain, it's increasingly appearing on many travelers bucket lists. Our guest and born has walked the Camino nine times and is an award winning author. Her latest of six books is brand Camino Tips from an American pilgrim. She's writing a new guide book to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. For English speaking pilgrims, called if you stand here, it will tell the story of the person in history who stood where you are standing. Welcome, man. Hi, how are you? I'm fine. And I'm ready to learn about the Camino because I certainly want to walk it I have never done it. It's a memory I would like to have. But I'm going to learn from you today. The best way to do it. Let's start off with the history. What is the Camino de Santiago?
Anne Born 01:19
Well, the Camino de Santiago in English is the Way of St. James. The pilgrims to travel to northwestern Spain believe that the remains of the apostle St. James are housed in the crypt of a magnificent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The remains were identified in the year 813. And the first cathedral went up in 813. And it immediately attracted pilgrims, the word got out very quickly. And by 899, they needed to build a bigger building. So the they have a brand new bigger building and 899 by 1075. It's way too small because 1000s of pilgrims will walk right out their front door trek across Spain and pay their respects to the crypt, to the cathedral and ultimately to the apostle St. James. And the thing that that I love about it is how this thing just exploded. That how you manage to get word out in absence of social media, I guess is is kind of extraordinary. And as the recall Keystone starts in 1075 and the North African forces are pushed farther south into under Lucia and ultimately out of Spain. Routes open up all over Spain. So while the most popular now is the Camino Francaise the French Way, meaning leading from the French Pyrenees across directly across northern Spain to northwestern Spain. There are many other caminos is the Via de la Plata that comes up from Seville is the camino de Madrid that comes from Madrid is a Camino Primitivo that comes down from the north and a Portuguese route that goes up from the south. In other words, pilgrims have devised any way they can to get out and start walking.
Lea Lane 03:12
So do modern day pilgrims kind of choose the one they want depending on their fitness and depending on their their reason for doing it. I've heard many people go just for, you know, fitness reasons they go for spiritual reasons or community reasons. And so there's different lengths and sometimes people go just a little bit just to get the scallop shell and to say they've done it. Do you find that's happening more and more as it gets more popular?
Anne Born 03:36
Well, actually the most popular part of all of this is that last 100 kilometers from Saria. The town a town called Saria in in Volusia where you just walk for five or six days. It's not it's not arduous. It's not terrible. In fact, I did it just this past January by myself, which was fabulous. So it's amazing. But yes, people people have devised their their own roads. The trick is if you want to get the official award or reward, I guess you could say for walking the Camino. Now, you are obligated to walk at least the last 100 kilometers. So you can't start in France and walk 100 kilometers and get the compostela which is the name of the certificate, you have to walk the last 100. So all the different little routes that walk the last 100 are becoming very popular.
Lea Lane 04:27
So I can imagine it's very crowded in the last 100 and maybe not so crowded way, maybe 500 kilometers away. Yes, that's true. I read that about 300,000 people a year are now doing it. But originally, it was very popular. And then for many years with the black plague and all of this sort of situation going on with the Middle Ages. It's sort of after that it stopped being popular until it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 80s. And now it seems as I said in the beginning to be something that Have you do you know like going up in a balloon or, or you know, one of those things you sort of put on your on your bucket list to do in life? And it sounds like a wonderful, a wonderful experience all together. Would you say? Like, if you gave me one typical day, how would the day go and the night go on the route?
Anne Born 05:18
Well, this is the one thing that guidebooks don't tell you, they don't tell you what it's like to walk 12 to 15 miles a day, every day for a week or a month, or many months, you know, a number of pilgrims will walk from Rome, they'll walk from Jerusalem, they'll walk from Paris. So there I met a man when I asked him, I said, Where did you start, he said Jerusalem. And then he holds up his fingers, he holds up six fingers. And I said what I said, That's how long it took me I walked for six months. And people actually do that. But effectively, what you do is you put you know, the few little belongings that you need into a backpack, you get your sturdy boots and your walking stick. And you just look like the pictures you see in the guidebooks suddenly, and you know, you just sort of take it on yourself to become this character. Um, you check in in the evening at a hostel there, they're called alburgues in Spain, and the person who runs the hostel will greet you and welcome you and look after you. And look after your boots and make sure you don't forget your poles and that your phone is charged and that you have sheets. And you'll stay in a bunk bed in a big dormitory with sometimes, I don't know 3040 other pilgrims depending on the season, and depending on how popular that particular stop is. And then when you get up in the morning, you can't just brush your teeth, grab your backpack, hope you don't leave your phone in the alburgue and take off, you will walk for probably four hours, stop to get something to eat maybe another cup of coffee. And then you walk again until you reach what they call the next stage. And typically the stage it's similar to the way it was in colonial times where you would travel as far as a horse could go without water. Well, this is as far as a pilgrim can go without falling apart.
Lea Lane 07:24
So I would assume you need good friends that you bond with on this on this journey that you are friends with afterwards.
Anne Born 07:31
Yes, absolutely. I'm still friends with people that I met five and six years ago. We check in with each other we remember little details. Like if, if a friend of mine goes I have a friend in the UK who I met about five or six years ago. And when he goes golfing, he loves to show these big sky pictures. But he's the one that I got that idea from when we walked them Isetta and they said it's between border ghosts and Leon and it is completely completely flat like a table topics where he gets the word miss it though. And he just kept remarking about this is the big sky. We're in the Big Sky. So every time I see pictures of him on the golf golf course, I say, Oh man, look at you, you're still in the big sky.
Lea Lane 08:14
I remember I was in Burgos. I did not go on the Camino. But I did see all over the place scallops shells on the walls. And I wondered what that was. And I found out it was the peregrinos for the peregrinos sort of a way to show the, the direction to go. And what does the scallop shell mean?
Anne Born 08:34
Well, there are lots of different legends about where it comes from. The one that I love is that pilgrims walking to Santiago and then continuing on to the coast. It's another four or five days walk past the cathedral to the coast, the Atlantic coast, they had to show to their friends back home, that they did it. And the way they did it was to collect shells. There are legends about a man in a wedding party who come who falls into the sea and comes up covered with shells. And somehow some way over time, this has become the symbol of the pilgrim. And people carry shells with them on their backpacks or around their necks to show that they are a pilgrim. The shells you'll find. Sometimes they're bronze shells embedded in the streets that will give you direction. The fun part, of course, is that when you walk through the region, Spain has many autonomous communities or regions or states. And when you walk through our studios, the shelves go one way and then when you cross into Galicia as you get closer and closer to the cathedral, they go the other way. So you can get really messed up in a hurry. If you don't watch the arrows. Pilgrims follow little yellow arrows that are everywhere. You'll find them on street posts. You'll find them in the ground, you'll find them on the side of houses, and that's how you follow the route. I mean, I'm a guidebook guy but I You do you can actually do this with no guidebook and just following the yellow arrows.
Lea Lane 10:05
Wow. I think of the scallop shells sort of as refrigerator magnets of the past.
Anne Born 10:12
Almost definitely. Most definitely. And every souvenir shop in Santiago has them. In fact, if you go back in time in the in the 12th century, there was there was a big uproar because the archbishop owned most of the souvenir shops, and the local merchants thought that that was egregious behavior. So there have been souvenir shops around the cathedral since the very beginning. And they do sell shell scallop shells. Yeah.
Lea Lane 10:37
Now you mentioned you stay in hostels. If a person wanted to stay in a hotel, how does that work? Are there hotels along the way, or even five star hotels that if some people want to do it that way?
Anne Born 10:49
Oh, and I have.
Lea Lane 10:52
And how was that?
Anne Born 10:53
I I have run the gamut from being scrappy pilgrim to I don't think that we need to take your shower. Do we? Do we have to take a shower today? No, we don't really have to take your shower. I've gone from that to just staying in five star resorts and spas and vineyards. It's all legitimate. I mean, I don't want to delegitimize if you stay in a hotel, I've stayed in brilliant hotels. In fact, the real wonderful thing you can do is one step up from the hostel, our Pincio bonus, and the Pennsy bonus, our small family run hotels, typically that have been in the family and they've been serving pilgrims for generations. There's a beautiful one in the tiny town of grado, which is just outside, it's 25 kilometers past Oviedo in the Camino Primitivo, which is originally the original premise, the original Camino that comes south west from Oviedo in the north of Spain. And the place was run by a man and his wife and his daughter and the man died. So the the wife took it over completely redecorated, put up pictures of flowers and painted the walls pink, so it's a very girly kind of decor. And she does the front desk. Her mother, the abuela is in the kitchen cooking, and her daughter cleans the rooms and waits tables. It is the tiniest place that I don't I can't remember how many rooms they have, but I'm guessing probably no more than six or eight. And you can stay in these, the Americans will cost you maybe 10 or 12 euros. The penzion us will probably only run us 30 or 35. So you could you could do the entire Camino staying only in these sweet little pensee onus being looked after by people. Like I said that I've done this for generations and still not break the bank.
Lea Lane 12:37
So I would use a guidebook to find
Anne Born 12:41
Yes, yes. And booking.com is wonderful any of the hotel sites will have most of these punchiness or you walk in and you go into the first bar and you ask the barkeep, where do I stay? You can do that as well. But there are also the five star power doors, which are magnificent.
Lea Lane 12:59
I haven't stayed in a five star Parador that I don't know maybe one along the routes, but they're fabulous.
Anne Born 13:05
Oh, it's wonderful. It was an initiative by by General Franco in the 1950s to take abandoned or falling apart monasteries and convents and turn them into luxury hotels as a way to bring revenue hospitality revenue to Spain after World War Two. So there are there's a you can run the gamut. You can stay opposite the you know, you can stay in Grenada, which is one of the ones that I've stayed at where you see the alarm bruh across the valley at night all lit up. It's spectacular. You can say in the one in Laon that was a convent that has its own private chapel. You can stay in the one in Santiago right across the street from from the from the right across the plaza from the cathedral. It was built by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1499. And they actually ousted the locals to put it up it was kind of an early sort of eminent domain situation that's kind of fun to read about.
Lea Lane 14:01
It sounds like it's hard to get into them you probably have to book way ahead to get into one of these beautiful paradores.
Anne Born 14:07
Well, you know I have found that that is actually not the case. The one that Santiago will fill up over holidays when when a lot of people come into Santiago de Compostela for that like the feast of St. James in July, or for New Year's New Year's in Santiago de Compostella is wonderful too. But I have found they have great deals you become an amigo of the corridors if you go to the park or website and become an amigo. You get all of these great coupons and I checked into one in federal which is in in really the most northern part of Galicia. And the first thing that the guy did when I checked in I you know I showed him my passport and I showed him my amigo card. He says oh no, I just need the AMIGO card. At which point he gave me he gave me a ticket for a free glass of wine. Excellent. I don't even know Rome upgraded to
Lea Lane 15:00
The paradores opened in the 1970s. And I didn't know about them and I was in Spain with my family, young boys at the time. And we would stay at all of them. They were just empty. And my young son said to me when we were going, I didn't want to stay at another castle. It was complaining bitterly. Oh, what are the classes were rallies I've heard of them are those the albergues we're talking about has no customer dolly.
Anne Born 15:26
The Americans tend to be in town. And in fact, in, in my saying, and dozens, dozens of all barricades, I've only seen one that was not in town. Because typically when pilgrims come to the end of a day, they're going to need a pharmacy. Sometimes, they're going to definitely need food opportunities. And they're going to need probably a church and all of those things are not going to be found out in the countryside, they're going to be found typically in a town. Sometimes the towns are very, very tiny. But a tussle rally is Oh, no, that's that's a real special experience. That's when someone has taken a sometimes it's a manor house, or sometimes it's just a small antique house, sometimes from the Renaissance. And they've transformed it into a luxury property. I stayed in one where there were when I checked in, they just asked me what would you like for lunch? We'll make you whatever you want, said, Well, I'd like to salad. So they brought me a salad? And then when would you like dinner? We only serve? You know our guests one at a time.
Lea Lane 16:34
Speaking of food, what is the level of food at a basic burger or basic hostel versus on the road? How would you how would you eat when you're on the road? What is the best way to find the local food and check it out?
Anne Born 16:51
Well, typically, I trust the bar man. I will go to a bar and ask questions. I will say, you know, sometimes I've even said, Where would you tell your mother to go eat? Because, exactly.
Lea Lane 17:04
I say that to the doctor too. If I were your mother.
Anne Born 17:08
Exactly. Yeah, what would what would you tell your mother and you can't go wrong, because they know and they're connected. These towns are all they're all familial Lee run. And you know, it's his aunt who has the albergue and it's his mother who does this. But typically when an albergue, you're going to be served by a volunteer. When you get to the end stages, they are staffed by people who are professionals, then they are paid for their work. But typically, it's a volunteer. So a volunteer will make a big soup. Or they'll make a big stew, or sometimes just pasta, and if you're lucky, maybe a little bit of fruit. It's meager. It's it's rare that you stay in an albergue that has a menu. It's going to be just whatever they have, and you'll eat whatever they have your by the time you get there, you're so exhausted, you don't really care, you eat
Lea Lane 17:57
Anything, I would think in the big cities, you're going to have the most typical, I remember in Burgos, they served a lamb stew that was famous, typical answer, and they had blood sausage in typical of the region. So each region depending on which way you walk is going to have the food and I would expect that to be part of the experience to try to eat locally. Although when you're walking all the time, you have to be careful, I would think a little bit more than just a tourist would be. You're on the road. And are there many pitstops for example, that's a question people ask, you know what happens there?
Anne Born 18:31
Well, you know, a lot of people want to know, well, what if I have to go to the bathroom? Or what if I do bla bla bla, you know, what if I sprained my ankle? Um, the fun thing is that there, you know, the people who do run these bars are tremendously resourceful. And they will, it's not like, I mean, like when I go into a bar here in Michigan, where I live, I would kind of expect that if I had a heart attack, the barkeep would know what to do. But in these places, these people will help you dress blisters, they will call ahead for if you need help, they will get you a taxi. So there's it's a much bigger experience. And this is why I rely on them. You know, always. But as far as as food goes, Oh my goodness. northwestern Spain has, I swear has the best food in Spain.
Lea Lane 19:20
Well, the post has the pink stones. Is that how you pronounce it? Those little toppest? The page shows? Yeah, yes. Oh, my goodness. Yeah. And, oh, they're fantastic. But that's up in the very north part in the Basque area. If you're coming from Porto on the Portuguese way, you'd have different kinds of food, I would guess. It depends on the way you're going. But I know up there. It's all good. It's fresh.
Anne Born 19:44
It's amazing. Yeah. And you'll acquire a taste for octopus you never thought you would ever. I mean, you come home and you say you know I had octopus every day and people go oh my god, what the hell. But you know, they, they that's the thing. It's painful. And there's one particular town and Delizia melody that is famous for Kobo and you go to the cafe Ezekiel, and the cafe is Akeel has polpo to die for, it's fresh and they turn it all day every day. And it's a wonderful thing to have with a glass of wine. Maybe, you know, a side dish of, you know, a handful of roasted salted almonds, you know, it's growing goodness, don't get me started on
Lea Lane 20:26
getting it foodies going to for the food. Oh, what about I've heard that you can bike it or take a donkey or you don't have to necessarily walk? How many people do it in another way, horseback or whatever way?
Anne Born 20:40
Well, in fact, when Edith Wharton did it in 1925, she did it by car. So, it today that would not qualify you to get that famous certificate, the compostela. But the majority of people walk, you have to walk. Like I said, at least the last 100 kilometers bikers have to do the last 200 kilometers. Um, you know, people say, Oh, well, you know, bike that must be easy. Well, no, you have to carry the bike, you know, here and there. And you have to skirt this and that. And the other thing that you can sort of, you know, work out on your own if you're walking. You can do it by donkey. I actually read just yesterday that there's a man who's walking from via francha with his donkey and cart. Um, when I walked in 2014 in December with my two daughters, we followed a horse up a mountainside, which was not a good place to be.
Anne Born 21:40
Well, you know, you want to be ahead of the horse. Yes, well, we were careful.
Lea Lane 21:48
Which reminds me, you were with your children. What about a family? Is that a good family family trip? Do you think or how young? How young is too young?
Anne Born 21:57
Well, you know, I just saw a photograph two days ago of two women with their three month old in their front carry packs with backpacks. I can't recommend that. I think that takes a fortitude that I cannot summon. It's a skill I never had when my children were small. I started with my son was 18 when when he and I walked the first time, a short stint together. I can recommend this with high school kids, but they have to be amenable. And you have to sort of set the ground what rule that there will be no whining, you will, you are not. This is just not something you can whine about, you're going to have to take the day as it comes to you. You're going to have to keep your eyes open and your heart open. You're going to have to try Spanish every chance you get and it will be glorious.
Lea Lane 22:52
Good to know, I just found a very interesting guy. But you were mentioning how it was a medieval root for many years. It was written by Pope Callixtus the second and I was told it's like the first guide book that was ever written in a way. I can just quote a little bit. He says the pilgrim route is a very good thing. But it is narrow for the road which leads us to life is narrow. On the other hand, the road which leads to death is broad and spacious. He says it takes us away from luscious foods. It makes gluttonous fatness vanish, the first fitness group I guess. And then he says it hates the reproach of those fueled by greed it loves on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor rewards those who live simply and do good works. And on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin. That's a an interesting guide book. I think they're written a little bit differently. But do you feel spiritually you you gained from it each time? Or does it depend on the time and the route and so forth?
Anne Born 23:52
Well, the thing that I have found, and I don't consider myself a religious person, I do consider myself to be in tune with more spiritual things. The thing that I have found is that the daily life that we have got for ourselves is soul draining. And there are times when you need to do something to replenish your soul. And this will do that. You will get up you will walk out the door. You will not know what the day will present to you. Unlike when I worked in an office I knew everything that was going to happen. I knew at nine o'clock so and so was going to call me I knew by 12 o'clock I was going to be on seamless ordering lunch. I knew everything. This is a this is an instance where you know nothing. You just keep walking and you when you get tired, you may not have a place to sit down and you may just find yourself lying in the grass, breathing in and out slowly. But then all of a sudden you look at the sky. I remember one time when my daughter stopped she was walking ahead of me and she was all bent down on it. She goes, Mom looked at this bog. And I bet you don't do that in New York. You don't ever do that. You look at cows and horses and flowers and grapes and the sky in a way you just don't when you're when you're doing this by yourself or even in a group of people for 12 miles to 15 miles a day.
Lea Lane 25:21
Yes, I read something. I'm probably gonna pronounce it but I read that the end. Some people go beyond Santiago de Finisterra. Is that how you pronounce it? Yeah, I read that. In Spanish. Finisterra means Milky Way. The Milky Way?
Anne Born 25:36
Oh, no. It means that means the end of the earth and the end of the earth.
Lea Lane 25:42
Yeah, and they call it the Milky Way because of yes, what you're talking about, the awareness of beauty and the awareness of the sky.
Anne Born 25:51
It's even more specific. The actual real life Milky Way Up in the sky, the stars actually follows the Camino Francaise. And I had friends years ago who got up to start walking at 2am because it was going to be hot that day. And what they didn't anticipate was that they were going to be following the Milky Way. They they were out in the middle of the meseta. It is miles and miles of what my mother would say nothing but miles and miles. And they had this broad, incredible Vista, they said the only thing they saw were the windmills in the air, the wind turbines in the distance. And they saw the blinking and they thought it might be lightning. That was all they could see was stars. And it was spectacular.
Lea Lane 26:38
It sounds absolutely wonderful. I can see why word of mouth has become you know, it's just it's just the thing you hear you hear about the Northern Lights, going to see the northern lights, you hear about going on the Camino. These are the things people now want to do. We've done the other things, you know, many people have been, you know, to many places, but they want to do something meaningful and beautiful and natural and healthy and all of that kind of thing. This is going to be the last question. So we're called places I remember. So what do you do having been there nine times remember most What brings you back year after year?
Anne Born 27:13
Well, that's simple. And I think most pilgrims will say the same thing. And it's the people. You will I did a thing once where I decided Alright, I've got my phone, I'm going to just do a little recording to send to you know, to Facebook and say and so I started out high. I'm walking the Camino and I started this morning in Okay, where was I? Oh, I'm okay. Next. Hi. I'm walking the Camino. And I started this morning in foregoes. And I'm on my way to oh, shoot what was the next town and I was a complete blank. But I can tell you about the waiter in Burgos, who when I ordered Tewodros control a lot that he said no send your eye key took a lot different shorter us, you know, little little little things like that. I remember the the biker who I kept passing and he kept passing me when I was walking in 2010 Who stopped along the side of the road to wait for me to catch up to him. So he knew I was okay. And then he asked if he could put my backpack on the back of his bike. I remember the the walking by myself out in the middle really of the middle of nowhere and being passed by a car that went probably 100 yards ahead of me and stopped because I had taken off my backpack to get something out of my backpack. And they wanted to make sure that I had put my backpack back on and was walking again. Before they left. They wanted to know I was okay. Or the man just outside Vigo when I was walking with my youngest daughter, who when I said I was standing there looking at the phone and she's looking at the book and he says you go this way. And I said well Oh, are you sure? He says yes, I'll take you. He walked us 20 minutes along the beach, to a bar where he bought us both drinks and then walked us up to the highway pointing out where the arrows started again and told me he'd never walked the Camino that he was waiting for a woman to walk with Him and pay his way. I told him I said I'm sorry, sir. That's not me today.
Lea Lane 29:23
That's wonderful. I definitely want to walk the Camino. Thank you so much for sharing and your book, Buen Camino: Tips from an American Pilgrim. I am definitely reading it.
Lea Lane 29:44
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.