The Camino de Santiago in winter is wonderfully empty. Then the pilgrim is as authentic as he is rare.

For six hours the storm has been lashing rain and hailstones in my face. «There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.» Nonsense! Yes, there is bad weather. And no, even my brand new rain jacket doesn’t make it any better. And yet I don’t want to be anywhere other than right here on the Camino de Santiago in the mountains between the towns of Rabanal del Camino and Foncebadón. In this shit weather. In the cold in the middle of December.

Camino De Santiago in Winter Pilgrim

I’ve been here many times – but not in the last ten years. Now I’ve freed up some time, from work, from my family, and I’m walking the last 260 kilometers from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela.

It feels good to be back. Why? Because the centuries-old Way of St. James is a place of power for me. It exudes a special magic, especially in winter when only a handful of pilgrims are out. Then you can hike alone through the countryside, enjoy the peace and quiet and recharge your batteries.

The Camino de Santiago in Winter is wonderfully empty

In the summer months, the Way of St. James has degenerated into a mass lifestyle event. In peak years, 200,000 people make the pilgrimage on the classic route, the Camino Frances. These include backpackers looking for cheap holidays, those seeking meaning, the clichéd «self-finders» and hardcore Catholic pilgrims who carry head-high crosses to the tomb of St. James.

According to Catholic belief, James the Elder, one of Jesus› 12 disciples, was buried in Santiago de Compostela (see also box below). They say those who walk at least the last 100 kilometers to the grave will be freed from all sins. Not a bad deal for sore muscles and a few blisters.

Peregrino para siempre – Once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim.

But I came in Winter because I can really switch off here. Carrying just a backpack, I walk, walk, walk, eat, sleep, and walk some more. That is freedom to me. And sometimes torture. If you have to get into your wet clothes in the morning, if the soles of your feet burn with every step you take, or if you are standing in front of a closed hostel after 30 kilometers (and the next place to sleep is another hour away), then you have to dig deep to find motivation to continue. 

But everything has its purpose (and yes, on the Way of St. James everyone becomes a hobby philosopher, that’s inevitable). In just that hostel that I had to walk an extra hour for, I meet a fun group, with whom I become friends with over the next few days.

There’s Federico, the well-trained Italian, who walks so fast that I always arrive at the same stage finish two hours later. And Dani, the Spanish motorbike racer, who hikes the Camino de Santiago in jeans, where others wrap themselves in high-tech clothing. And Francesco, the engineer, who hobbles along the track with an onion-sized swelling on his foot.

In the morning we usually start walking together, but soon everyone falls into their own pace and their own thoughts. In the evening we meet again in a hostel and then go for tapas and drink red wine. “¡Más vino!” They say. More wine! You have to numb the pain somehow.

In 9 days from Astorga to Santiago

I’m on the road from Astorga to Santiago for nine days. Nine days through a landscape that reminds me of the Swiss Jura: gentle hills, pastures, dark forests and small villages. It’s wonderfully calm and decelerating.

Of course, it also gets emotional from time to time. Christmas Eve is such a day. I walk the extra kilometers to a hamlet where only a few pilgrims stay. Although there are only about 15 pilgrims with me, I want maximum peace and quiet on Christmas Eve.  Francesco and I walk to the next village. There, we have a whole hostel to ourselves. What a Christmas luxury! The bad thing is that the only bar in the village is closed. So we share our few belongings: salami and bread from Francesco, a can of sardines and mini gingerbread from me. It’s an intense evening. It is the simplicity that enchants.

In Santiago, however, we let our modesty go and get plastered. It’s New Year’s Eve and every pilgrim who somehow makes it is in town today: Federico, Dani, Francesco, Moshi from Japan, John the Korean who has to do military service at home in four days and Julia from Canada who looks like Greta Thunberg with her pigtails. And because people in Spain know how to enjoy themselves, we indulge in gluttony – one of the seven deadly sins. That means: My slate wasn’t cleaned in the last 48 hours. So I have to make my way to Saint James again, very likely on an other Camino de Santiago in winter. Peregrino para siempre – Once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim.

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