BOOTS, CHECK: FINDING THE RIGHT FOOTWEAR FOR YOUR CAMINO

Considering I was going to hike 2500 kilometres, I was well aware that I would probably need some specific gear. Though not entirely sure what “specific” would imply I figured that, as a pretty experienced camper, it couldn’t be that difficult to sort out what I would eventually take with me or not. Three nights and two mornings of online activity later, I discovered that the resources providing information regarding “hiking gear” in the broadest meaning of the word, seemed to just never end. Ranging from lightweight self-inflatable mats to sporks, 3-season tent reviews, the benefits of merino wool, non-gtx advocates, intriguing layering systems and walking pole discussions… I had about 55 tabs open and thought I was going mad. It was just too much information and I did not know where to start.

So I asked myself: After your first hike, what was the thing you wished for most? Besides more food, which does not really qualify as gear, the first thing that came to my mind where shoes. I required a good pair of shoes. Bingo. I asked Google:

“hiking shoes”

“hiking boots or shoes”

“hiking boots shoes or trail runners?”

“hiking two seasons boots”

“gore-tex wiki”

“hiking long distance gore-tex or not???”

My online search for shoes continued for about a week. I read up on what shoes would be most appropriate for my journey, I read about ankle support (“Is it necessary?”), the discussion around gore-tex (“Your feet will get wet anyway!”) and discovered all hiking shoes and boots were not going to make me look any better, so I decided not to worry about aesthetics. Reading the diverse and, often, contradicting opinions and arguments on a wide array of forums, I concluded that there was only one way to find the right footwear: to fit some.

That said. I headed to an outdoor shop here in Amsterdam, walked in and told my story to one of the employees. I explained her about my doubts concerning shoes with ankle support, my preference for shoes without gore-tex and also provided her with the information that I was going to walk 2500 kilometres and would be carrying about 10 kilograms on my back.

I was in there for two hours (!) before I made a decision.

During these two hours, I fitted a f*** ton of hiking shoes, boots and trail runners and this is what I figured out whilst actually wearing the footwear:

The (low) hiking shoes and trail runners did not do it for me. I do admit their weight is ideal, however, the absence of ankle support whilst standing and walking didn’t feel right. The slightly heavier boots with the ankle support on the other hand, immediately influenced my posture and made me feel more grounded, which I consider being a plus when carrying weight on your back.

I personally prefer leather shoes over waterproof shoes. Why? To be honest, I cannot really put my finger on it generally eating a plant-based diet. Anyways, the two main reasons are the durability of leather boots and their ability to naturally repel water.

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Every shoe or boot has a different fit and every foot is different. The front part of my feet are wide whereas my ankles are relatively small (yeah, picture that, how odd), This meant that I did not fit the boots of certain brands, some of which were highly promoted amongst hikers on the Internet. What I am trying to say is that, even though there is lots of useful advice online, try to find the right shoe for you.

Eventually, I went home with the Tatra Lady (leather) from the German brand Hanwag. The boots fitted my feet perfectly, they provided excellent support and I will be able to use them after walking the camino. To make sure that these were the right ones, I have tried them on at home a couple of times and I can tell you, these are absolutely it!

Love,

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WHICH WAY ARE YOU GOING?: ROUTES TO SANTIAGO

In order to walk somewhere you need a route or at least some directions. When trying to figure out how I was going to reach Spain, I initially got a little lost in the vast network of European pilgrim routes – there are just so many of them! In addition, most Dutch pilgrims depart in France, so the majority of the information online only provided half of the route to Santiago. Then, I discovered a website that made me do a little dance. Santiago Routes made planning your camino route into something super exciting! Using this website I have been able to (partially) plan my way to Santiago, let’s have a look shall we?

from Amsterdam via ‘s Hertogenbosch to Visé/Wezet

Since I live in Amsterdam, I will start my journey from there. As far as I could find, you can take five different routes when kicking off your pilgrimage in the Netherlands. In order to arrive in Belgium, I will commence my journey on the pilgrim path (Pelgrimspad). Why? Firstly, because it starts in Amsterdam. Second, it is an established long distance walking route marked with blazes, thus, easy to follow. This last point is very vital as, in the early stages of my walk, I do not want to get too lost ; )

from Belgium to France

My choice to walk to Visé limits my route options when proceeding to France. When walking to Visé you have already found your way to the Via Limburgia; a pilgrim route that will take you through Belgium to Rocroi in France. Just so we are clear, at this stage the total amount of kilometres will be about 616. When walking on 20 km on average, I will probably arrive in France after roughly a month of walking.

from France to Spain

France has so many walking options, you might experience some stress when picking. My decision was motivated by me really wanting to say hi to Jeanne d’Arc in Reims (her statue that is), one of the most inspiring historical figures. Likewise, I did not want to walk through Paris. You go on romantic weekend trips to Paris, walking through it sounds horrid. Consequently, I have decided to travel from Rocroi to Vėzelay – a commune where lots of pilgrims begin their camino. There are several options after Vėzelay: You can either walk to St. Jean- Pied-de-Port via Périgueux or Rocamadour, the latter of which appears to be slightly more physically demanding. As I am not sure in what kind of mindset I will be at that stage, I will decide when I get there.

routes in Spain

About 1705 kilometres later you have arrived in Spain. In Spain there are eight main routes, however, coming from St. Jean- Pied-de-Port you can either choose to walk the Camino Frances, the Camino del Norte or El Camino Primitivo. The Camino Frances is the most popular route to Santiago and tends to get pretty busy during the summer months. The Camino del Norte is dubbed the coastal route and seems to be quieter and more difficult. To spice things up a bit you can always divert from the previous two routes to the El Camino Primitivo. This route is the first of the routes to Santiago and is known to be rather challenging. Although many advice the Camino Frances as the preferred route for first timers, this choice too, will largely depend on what way I feel like going at that stage of my journey and, not unimportant, how my bank account is feeling about that particular way ; )

Due to the uncertainty of the weather in March, as well as in preparation of the imagined challenge that this first month will bring, I will predetermine my route from Amsterdam to France. When arriving there and – hopefully – having acquired a daily walking routine, I would like to let the Way unfold more naturally. As you have seen here, there are many roads that lead to Santiago; the route I am describing here is just one option. Choose the route that you would like to walk, it’s your journey after all!

Love,

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image credit: wikipedia.org

ENDLESS APPETITE: THE SECOND HIKE

Distance: 22.2 km
Moving time: 4:21:58
Pace: 11:48/km

Day two (here you can read about day one). This second day I took a bus to Park De Hoge Veluwe, a national park in the East of the Netherlands with an extensive network of walking and cycling routes that take you through some amazing Dutch nature. At first, this second day of my hiking venture seemed to go into a similar direction as the day one. The weather was crap, I started hiking in the wrong direction and there were moments I really doubted my ability to walk another kilometre let alone two. Lacking the pack made things a little lighter, however, I was so keen to finish twenty kilometres and experience how my body felt afterwards that it turned out to be pretty hard albeit the absence of the pack.

The night before I roamed the Internet for blister solutions, yet the supermarket did not sell the blister equipment that I wanted so I bought the extremely expensive blister bandages and pre-bandage my feet. In the first five kilometres, new hot spots appeared and I was forced to take my shoes off and put some extra bandages on. It did not matter, I was too late and I have felt them, every step of the way.

The shitty part was not the pain; it was walking in the sand. After being on the track for a while, the forest led to a path heading into a dune-like landscape with sand. Heaps of sand. Surrounded by mist, I did not solely feel how I alone I was at that particular moment, I also came to understand that I hate walking in loose sand. Every step you take, you seem to go backwards instead of forward! My mind was immediately flirting with the idea to change the route I had initially chosen. Boiling with frustration, since I was trying to walk as fast as possible but did not reach the speed I wanted to, I looked back and saw how far I had come. I took a deep breath and continued walking – hell no I was going to walk all the way back through that loose sand!

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Apart from my aversion to sand, another remarkable thing occurred this day that had not come to my attention during yesterday’s ten-kilometre walk: an endless appetite. Not only did I eat a fair amount of food for breakfast and during the walk, when I came home I devoured anything edible that I could find and even after a massive dinner, I still felt like I had not eating enough.

Soon I comprehended that my body was asking for food, because I had burned abnormal amounts of calories during this four-hour walk. This realisation instantly prompted so many questions: How much food would I have to bring? Would I be this hungry every day? How was I able to bring enough food to still this endless appetite but not carry endless amounts of weight?”

A little while later, after finishing an entire bag of slightly salty and sweet popcorn, I concluded I was too tired to think of this issue and that this was yet another thing I would add on my what-to-figure-out-before-I-go-list.

Love,

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LOVE YOUR BLISTERS, DATE YOUR BACKPACK: THE FIRST HIKING ATTEMPT

Distance: 10.0 km
Moving time: 1:57:07
Pace: 11:42/km

Since I promised to keep you updated on my training progress, I thought today would be a good day to tell you about my first hiking attempt. In case you are wondering, I followed the advice given in the previous post and took a backpack with me. Although I am not sure how heavy it was exactly, it contained enough shit for me to think it was at least 7 or 8 kilograms. Five minutes after I left, I already figured out how heavy that actually was when you have to carry it on your back.

I embarked on a little trip to the Veluwe, an area in the Netherlands known for its beautiful forest and diverse landscapes. The windows of the train allowed me to witness the city buildings and suburbs being replaced by the meadows and, after a while, the forest. I took a bus to the centre of Hoenderloo (from which I would walk to Beekbergen) got out and stood at the side of the road for a few seconds soaking up the quiet so characteristic for villages, before I took off. The hike I set out to do was one I had found on the Internet, yet I decided to walk it in the opposite direction. Thinking I was perfectly prepared by saving the website on my phone, I quickly discovered that it was near to impossible to navigate on the map provided due to the fact that the website did not resize on my phone screen.

The first hundred meters I walked were into the wrong direction. Then, when I had finally found my way, it started raining…

I made it though: ten whole kilometres with a backpack (*cheering*). A couple of happenings and reflections resonated with me after I arrived at my destination, a little hotel where I booked the tiniest room. Here are some of my observations after my first practice hike:

there will not only be sunshine and you will have bad days too

On sunny days you might think: “This is a great day to go for a hike!” However, when it is raining like there is no tomorrow, you probably feel a little less enthusiastic about getting out there. Now here is the thing, when you are hiking a long distance and you have limited time, you don’t really have a choice, you just have to accept the weather conditions. Whilst contemplating on the weather I realised that not only the weather has bad days, I have them too. So when I am in a shitty mood and the weather is shit, it will be a tough day.

pee when you can and take an FUD

I had the feeling I had to pee… the entire walk! From the moment I got out of the bus and tightened the hip strap of my backpack, I had to go to the toilet. So advice to myself for the next time: pee when you can and take an FUD. (An FUD is short for Female Urinating Device. They sell them in all sorts, materials and sizes. We’ll talk more about this topic in another blog post.)

you might want to consider trekking poles

One part of my hike I was taken into a very dense part of the forest. The path was swirling and the vegetation prevented me from seeing what was coming up. It was quiet and, I have to admit, it was a little scary. First thing that popped into my mind was, “Why don’t you grab a stick? With a stick you would be able to defend yourself!” Sounds silly right? Subsequently, I thought of the usage of trekking poles when hiking (a topic intensively discussed on an array of hiking forums), as well as there possible other usages. Found this, made my day.

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I will have to think about what I am wearing

I do not mean this in an aesthetic way, but in a practical manner. Any pro would have been able to tell me this, but experiencing it yourself is always a good thing. Your body temperature changes all the time and you will have to be prepared for that. I clearly wasn’t and it got me all hot-flushed and angry at stages. Better read up on that and inform you guys in an upcoming post.

you can fall

I will now tell you about the moment I fell. The autumn leaves were covering the tree roots; I tripped and fell on the ground. Hands first, knees in the mud. Whilst in this slightly strange position my brain made the situation all the more awkward by allowing the expectation that someone was going to pick me up, resulting in me feeling even weirder. So I got up, looked around (reflex) and continued like a boss. This – let’s be honest – minor event did make me realise that I have to be a little more careful and that, perhaps, some basic first-aid knowledge might come in handy.

love you blisters

That basic first-aid knowledge I was talking about also applies here. What do you do when you feel a blister coming up? How do you take care of it? The skin on my foot is gone, what now? Figuring this out will be pretty essential, as treating blisters will most likely become a daily duty on your hike.

you will doubt yourself

During this first attempt my minds was chattering away: Perhaps this is just a silly idea? Do you think you will be physically ready in four months? Are you sure you want to do this? I think those thoughts will not go away. Doubt will always linger in the corner of your brain ready to bother you at the wrong moment. Just accept it is there, have a conversation with it or grab one of those trekking poles to fight it when it starts nagging you.

date your backpack

I usually do not befriend inanimate objects but I feel it will be wise to become more acquainted with my backpack. It was like we were two people on a serious date who in the past had shared a drunken moment together on a party; the start was somewhat stiff, but we got to know each other pretty well and it was actually fun. Note to self: Date your backpack more often.

I am nackered. Tomorrow I will head out again without backpack (sorry man) since the sole purpose of tomorrow is experiencing what it is like to walk 20 km in one go. Hopefully, I will be able to maintain my sanity, love the shit out of my blisters and remain standing at all times.

Love,

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THE WAY OF ST. JAMES

Now we have gotten over the initial shock of the endeavour, let’s dive into a little history of the Camino de Santiago and Saint James in particular. Although most people have heard of the pilgrimage to Santiago, not everyone is aware of where all these roads are actually leading to and why people have travelled them since the Middle Ages.

The myriad of routes that compromise the Camino de Santiago all lead to one particular place: the shrine of Saint James the Great. Although not much is known about James as a historical figure, the Bible describes that he died in Jerusalem as a martyr in 44CE. From the fifth century onwards, tales were published adding to James’ character, depicting him as the first missionary in Spain. Other stories narrate how his body made its way back there, how it was buried and forgotten.

The miraculous rediscovery of his tomb in 813 and the chapel that was build to mark it reignites the interest in and support of this cult site. The construction of a larger church at the end of the ninth century, ordered by Alfons III, furthers the growth of the city of Santiago and incites pilgrims to visit James’ shrine. From the eleventh century onward, pilgrims from all over Europe, travel to Santiago de Compostela to venerate St. James.

Although pilgrims walked the Camino the Santiago for religious reasons, these pilgrim routes were also places where people came together, interacted and exchanged things, whether that means goods, culture, art, ideas or knowledge. In the Middle Ages, the Way of James’ thus allowed for cultural and intellectual dialogue between Europe and Iberia, being one of the reasons why UNESCO declared the Spanish routes of the camino as world heritage in 1987.

In the past years the Camino de Santiago has become ever more popular and those who perform it are not only motivated by religious reasons. Some like the physical challenge, others admire the artistic expressions one can find along the routes and some simply do it because they have always wanted to. I would love to hear about all of these reasons, because I find it fascinating that even though the reasons to conquer the camino are as manifold as the routes themselves, people still partake in a Christian pilgrimage. I wonder, what is it about the camino?

Naturally, this quick introduction to the story behind the camino does not even come close to the rich history of this pilgrimage, as well as the academic research that has been performed on it. Future posts might shine some more light on these topics, for now though, we will continue with some other camino matters.

Love,

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To write this blog post, I have used the following sources:

  • Lokin, Daniëlle, en Kees van Schooten (ed). (2011). Pelgrims; onderweg naar Santiago.
  • Murray, Michael. (2015). “The Cultural Heritage of Pilgrim Itineraries: the Camino de Santiago.”