Whoa — The Camino del Norte is Sounding Hard

Una's boots on the Camino del Norte

I knew the Camino del Norte would be difficult, but in her blog my Internet Forum friend, Una, describes shares a cautionary tale that gives me pause.

I wonder who thinks that a pilgrimage walk is a great way to get away from home and enjoy a few weeks walking in Spain. Well, I don´t blame you. But the only words I can think of to call this post and message is Muddy. Forest mud, river mud, sandy mud, wet mud, red mud, yellow mud, mud that sucks the very soul from your body and makes you wonder why you thought a Camino in April in Northern Spain is a good idea.

So it has been raining. We walked to San Sebastian and stayed in a Youth Hostel there. We took a high track through a muddy forest into Orio. The path was quite beautiful and the views over the sea were amazing. I thought I might get a swim but the waves on this coast are for surfers. In Deba we stayed in a little room beside the beach, the facilities were very basic, and the Walrus, the Carpenter and the little puppy were sleeping there too, all men who snored! I will have nick names for most of the peregrinos by the time I finish in Santiago. I walk with an Irish woman, a Spanish woman from Valencia and a young Portugese fireman who is deeply religous. We four are now in Gernika in a room with a French couple in a very dear youth hostel.

Today the guide book said take the road if possible as there might be mud but the yellow arrows kept leading us into the river, mud, forest and we couldn´t seem to stay on the road. It was very scenic and it was not raining this morning, but is now.

Last night we slept in Ziorta Monastery, what a treat, a Japanese man was the only other person there, we were given a good supper of soup and bread, attended Vespers and got our first pilgrims blessing. We did get Mass in Deba on Saturday night. Mass in the Basque language is hard for the Spanish to understand, let alone the Portugese or Irish but we enjoyed the Misa as it was our first. Unlike the Camino Frances there is not the same opportunity to attend local mass at night as the alberques are on the outskirts of towns.

Just four weeks and three days away from my own Camino del Norte. I’ll certainly be watching Una’s blog to see how the trail goes. Meantime, today’s weather report in Bilbao, where I’ll be starting, shows almost exactly the same temps and conditions as Seattle: 60 degrees and cloudy/rainy.

Camino Pilgrims Come from Many Nations

Fig. 1 - All nationalities who received compostelas -- the Spaniards are by far the greatest numbers.

Here’s the last of my installments on the Cathedral of Santiago’s pilgrim statistics. As you will recall, the Cathedral publishes online stats about pilgrims who’ve received their compostelas during the prior month. The statistics includes some revealing details. The chart in Fig. 1 shows the percentage of Spanish pilgrims each year since 2005. In most years Spaniards comprise more than 45% of all pilgrims. In the Holy Year of 2010 this number increased to over 60%, while pushing down the percentage of non-Spaniards who walked that year. The next highest group is “Other” (not listed on the legend) which comprises a variety of the less-than 10 ten nationalities. The largest single nationality below that is Germans.

Fig. 2 - Non-Spanish nationalities. "Other" is the largest percentage, with Germans the largest single non-Spanish nationality.

Fig. 2 spells out the non-Spanish numbers a little better. “Other” is still the largest group, meaning these nationalities include too many individual countries to make the top groupings, but countries when combined equal a large percentage. The largest groupings of these nationalities are from Japan, Korea, Australia, Mexico, Poland, and Belgium.

The largest single non-Spanish nationality represented on the camino is German. In fact, the top four non-Spanish nationalities are pretty clear in the stats — Germany, Italy, France and Portugal, in that order. Well below these nationalities are a third tier: USA, UK, Canada, Brazil, Ireland, and Holland. So the profile of the “average” pilgrim is pretty much a Western European, with folk from other continents a much smaller percentage of the total.

Not shown is another interesting stat: Spanish pilgrims flood the camino in July and August, when they comprise roughly 2/3 of all pilgrims. The percentages of non-Spanish pilgrims, particularly German, nearly double in the shoulder months of May/June and September/October.

Pilgrim Starting Point Stats

I’ve had a great time poring through the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s statistical pages and have come up with some interesting lessons. Fig. 1 shows the large percentages of pilgrims who start at Sarria, the minimum (100 km) distance required to earn a compostela in Santiago.

Fig. 1 - Many starting points for the Camino, but biggest by far is Sarria.

The fact that fully 37% of pilgrims begin in the last 100 km confirms that the Camino Frances gets more crowded the closer a pilgrim gets to Santiago.  It’s also surprising how spread out the starting places are, and how many people begin in places like Leon, Ponferrada and O Cebreiro.

Interestingly, Sarria is the most frequent starting point by far for pilgrims who finish in all but four months — May, June, October and November. This suggests that local, short-walk pilgrims flood the Camino Frances during the high summer months, while long-walk pilgrims make up larger numbers in the shoulder months of spring and autumn.

Fig. 2 - Sarria is by far the largest starting point for pilgrims in all but four months.

A caution with these stats from the Cathedral at Santiago — they reveal only the eight largest starting points each month. The result is that some important starting points like Astorga, for instance, sometimes show significant numbers but sometimes aren’t recorded at all since they don’t make the top eight consistently. Astorga and other, smaller starting points are included in “other” in each chart.

I’ll look in future postings for country of origin among pilgrims to see how or if that has changed over the years.

Learning from the Cathedral of Santiago’s Statistical Pages

Fig. 1 -- Numbers of pilgrims by route on the Camino de Santiago

Over the last couple of days — partly out of a desire to rest some from a busy Easter season — I’ve been poring over statistics offered by the Cathedral of Santiago about numbers of pilgrims. It’s a fascinating bunch of raw data and I’ve learned a lot about when people go and which routes have grown most.

As you can see in Fig. 1 pilgrimages on the camino have steadily increased during this time, with a big bulge coming in the 2010 Holy Year. There’s no reason not to think that this steady increase will continue for the foreseeable future until the next Holy Year, during 2021, sets another new record.

It’s interesting, too, to see which pilgrim routes are growing the most. As you can see, the second most-popular route is the Camino Portugues, followed by the Camino del Norte, which was about half as popular as the Camino Portugues in 2011.

Fig. 2 - March totals 2005-2012

From November through May the Via de la Plata has more pilgrims than the Camino del Norte, but in June through October the Camino del Norte doubles the Silver Way in pilgrimages. This makes sense since the southern route is much hotter in the summer, while the northern route is too cool for comfort in the winter and spring. It’s interesting, too to see the effect of Easter. In the years 2005 and 2008 Easter was in March, hence the large increase of pilgrims in March of those two years in Fig. 2. Otherwise March shows the same steady increase as other months have since 2005. Note, too, how the Via de la Plata is much more popular than the Camino del Norte during this springtime month.

Fig. 3 - Month of August 2005-2012

Another interesting chart is for the month of August. Note in Fig. 3 how the Camino del Norte exceeds the Via de la Plata in size, nearly doubling it during this summer month.

Fig. 4 spells this out in some detail. Over 60% of traffic on the Camino del Norte happens in July, August and September. See too how the Via de la Plata is quieter in the high summer months.

Each of the charts shows that the Camino Frances is by far the largest, but that its growing popularity is matched proportionally by the other camino routes. An encouraging sign is that the capacity developed for the 2010 Holy Year presumably can accommodate a continued influx of pilgrims until the point at which normal growth reaches the 2010 level.

Fig. 4 also shows that it might be best to enjoy the Camino del Norte in a month other than August, that all routes are very quiet in the winter, and that if the heat of summer abates by that time, September and October might be good months on the Via de la Plata.

Fig. 4 - Percentage by month of the top four routes.

A big thanks to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for its great statistical info. It was fun to sort through the raw data and see what it says about the best months to take the various routes and also to see the enormous expansion of the Camino de Santiago over these last years.

2012 Brings Increase in Pilgrims to Santiago

In response to a question on the Camino Forum I help moderate I dug into statistics at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s website to see if the Spanish economic crisis is affecting the quantity of pilgrims heading to Santiago. Surprise! The numbers are actually up — and pretty dramatically.

Pilgrim boots at the albergue in Najera

So far this year 5,441 pilgrims have received their compostelas in Santiago, compared to 4,493 in the same months in 2011. This follows the general increase of the last decades in which interest in the Camino de Santiago has grown each year. A 20% increase is a pretty big number.

Still, the numbers are smaller than in the first three months of the Holy Year of 2010, in which 8,691 pilgrims received their compostelas. However, at a 20% annual increase that number will soon be matched. Clearly the Camino de Santiago is on a big upswing as more and more pilgrims find something special in their journeys to the bones of Santiago.