extraordinary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
Camino de Santiago

Extraordinary Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago

For centuries pilgrims have been making their way to Santiago de Compostela from all over Europe in various ways; on foot, horse or bicycle. ‘Walk your own Camino’ is a popular saying on the Camino – I was extremely fortunate to talk to these unique pilgrims that did exactly that; Stu walking 11 different Camino routes, Christian walking barefoot for more than 3 months, Jason running more than a marathon a day on St James Way during his 24 000 km run around the world, Oskar walking 5000 km over 8 countries from his house in Poland, Paul crossing the Pyrenees and completing the French Camino in a wheelchair and Pienkes and his wife Lizzie showing age is just a state of mind when this 80-year young couple completes their Camino.

Read six phenomenal stories about the Triumph of the Human Spirit on the Camino.

Stuart Perks – The Complete Pilgrim

Stu has a problem, he is addicted to the Camino! After walking his first Camino in 2005 he has completed all 7 well-known Camino Routes and 4 unfrequented paths. At 48 he is not done with the Way of Saint James. This inspiring Brit is currently recovering from major surgery following a tough battle with cancer, he is testing his strength by walking several shorter routes in the coming months preparing for a long Camino walking from the UK to Santiago collecting funds for the battle against cancer in 2020.

Stu on his way to Leon during his first Camino.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

Global travelling / contract teaching / volunteer work (including hospitalero in Camino albergues)

Can you tell us a little about your Caminos, which routes you walked and when you walked them.

  • Camino Frances 2005
  • Camino Portuguese 2006
  • Via de la Plata 2007
  • Primitivo 2008
  • Del Norte 2009
  • Ingles 2010
  • Finisterre/Muxia 2010
  • Madrid 2011
  • San Salvador 2012
  • Catalan (de Montserrat) 2013 & 2014
  • Catalan (Ruta del Ebro) 2016 & 2017

What was your reason for doing the Camino, the first one and there after?

Personal challenge and something different. I wanted a ‘holiday’ that was more active. I had never been to Spain either so there was a cultural beckoning. It felt achievable if a little daunting. I became addicted and found out about the other routes. Then set myself the challenge of completing the 6 principal routes to Santiago, one a year which I achieved in 2010. Now I walk subsidiary routes as I don’t like to repeat a route.

Why have you walked so many Camino routes?

Addiction, love of Spain and the enrichment I get physically and mentally from them.

Do you have a favourite Camino route?

Not really. They have all been special and unique in their own ways.

Which Camino route was the toughest, the most challenging for you?

Probably the Via de la Plata. I started in Seville in mid-September. it was still 40C a day and the initial stages are very solitary and long with few pilgrims and facilities. I was starting as early as 5.30 am some mornings to avoid the heat as much as possible. It required a lot of self-discipline. I ran out of water every day the first few days and that was scary. I was carrying as much as I could – at least 3-4 liters and couldn’t carry anymore. It improved as I progressed. I got a foot injury too which slowed me down for a few days. I advise people not to start this route before the end of September at the earliest now.

Have you done any other long distance hikes besides the Camino de Santiago?

Only the Rheebok trail in the Free State in South Africa – a 2 day hike.

What was your biggest challenge walking the Camino?

Staying sufficiently hydrated.

What was your favourite part of this journey?

Some of the people I met (others were one of the worst parts!) and seeing a destination on the horizon after a hard and long day, arriving and getting settled for the night, the general beauty of Spain and the ‘golden moments’ – special things that happen at the right time, unexpected yet are perfectly synchronized and the lessons learned.

Your best memory of the Camino?

Some of the funny moments with some of the people, especially on the Frances when everything was still a novelty. and again, certain encounters with certain individuals met on the camino.

Any future plans for doing another Camino?

Absolutely! Hope to do my final Catalan route this spring.

How has the Camino helped you in your battle against cancer?

Hmm, that’s a big one about cancer and difficult to be succinct. The Camino pushed me so hard physically and mentally at times, even dangerously beyond my limits that it opened a new dimension in my mind kind of where survival is concerned. I had some scary moments on the Via de la Plata, running out of water regularly in 40°C heat, but I had many golden moments in the midst of that, some of them very human ones.

Our video about walking the tough and beautiful Via de la Plata

When cancer came and the fight began, I recognized a similar pattern in a different kind of struggle and it too was also dispersed with golden moments also very human ones, global ones. People I knew visited me from as far away as Japan to see how I was doing, I recognized my mind being in a similar place as it often was on Camino and I felt comfortable there because it was a familiar place. I found strength I didn’t know I had just like on the Camino and I had darker moments too of not knowing enough or having the answers I wanted, just like on the Camino. I had already likened the Camino as a journey through life itself – some days uphill, others down, others flat, each filled with different moments, so the cancer struggle was a bit like a Camino too.

Christian Pinon – the Barefoot Pilgrim

Walking the Northern Way of St.James in 2018 we heard a lot about Christian, the barefoot pilgrim. He walked 2500km in 97 days barefoot! 53 Year old Christian walked out of his house in Belgium barefoot arriving at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela more than 3 months later, still without shoes. Crossing the Pyrenees barefoot he collected funds to support the charity Handicap International.

Christiaan going barefoot over the Pyrenees.
Christian going barefoot over the Pyrenees.

Why do you walk barefoot?

For four years I have been running barefoot, including two marathons. So my feet were prepared for this challenge. At first, running barefoot helped me to solve a knee problem that I had on long distances. Then I enjoyed the contact with the ground.

How long and far did you walk?

I walked for 97 days. The total distance makes 2500 km.

Did you walk the whole way barefoot in all weather and on all surfaces?

For the worst cases, I had some sandals with me. I used the for 3% (70 km) of the total distance, mainly on big gravels and some very bad asphalts. With long dry distances on asphalt, I sometimes protected some part of my feet with plaster. This small protection was only possible with the dry ground (no rain, no dew). The weather was not a problem. Temperatures where between 3°C and 35°C. To my surprise, rain and wet soil, which I had for two weeks in the end, was quite convenient for the feet.

Christian, can you tell us about your Camino, what Caminos and route did you follow?

I started from my home in Court-St-Etienne, Belgium. From there I reached the North of France. In France, I passed through Reims (cathedral where French kings were crowned), Epernay (capital of champagne), Troye, Vezelay (start of the Vezelay route), Bourges, Limoges, Périgueux, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. From that last place, I walk along the Pyrenees mountains to join the Camino del Norte in Irun (Spanish border). The Camino Norte goes along the Atlantic Spanish coast. Thanks to the oceanic climate I got only very little of the snow which fell in good quantity on the Camino Primitivo and the Camino Frances. After reaching Santiago I continued to the Cape Fisterra.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

I’m bioengeneer. I left my job and intend to start my own business.

Did you have a reason for walking?

The Camino was a way to make a transition between my job as an employee and starting my new business. I also wanted to make the experience of the Camino in its cultural religious and spiritual dimension. I wanted to show that barefoot is possible and prospect myself the limits.

Being barefoot I wanted to use this particularity to support Handicap International in fund collection.

I also wanted to show to my four children that such decisions and challenges are always possible and are mainly a matter of willingness.

What was the most difficult thing during your Camino?

Due to the long distance, your mind passes through different moods. Some days, when you have to get again and again prepared for a long walking day, you just have not to think about and say to yourself “take your backpack and go!”. With the barefoot, I had no real injuries, but the Camino was not very comfortable. Surfaces that I’m used to when I run could be more painful due to the long distances and consequently the weakness of the tissues which didn’t get the time to recover.

What was your favourite part of this journey?

The walk in the Pyrenees mountains. Grass and big stones for my feet, nice sightseeings for my eyes. Physical challenge.

Your best memory of the Camino?

The first day was fantastic. I got up very early and had a swim in my pond. After that I had the TV journalists coming for an interview. Then there was the mass and pilgrim benediction. After the mass, I invited the family and friends for lunch. After lunch, everyone was invited to walk the first 10 km altogether. We were about 30 for that first part, going through the forest to an old Cistercian abbey.

The worst day in terms of ground and weather also leaves me a nice memory. That day I had a lot of gravel, it was raining the whole day and wind was blowing up to more than 80 km/h. When arriving in the albergue barefoot and completely wet the old lady looked to me very strangely and afterward I could enjoy a hot evening close to the fire.

The arrival in front of the Cathedral in Santiago was quite emotional.

Other good memories are the alternate of solitude and contacts with other pilgrims.

Any future plans for walking more?

Not at present. Now I have to focus on building my business since I’m starting from scratch. One day I’d like to make again a trekking in Nepal or some similar place. As a last point I want to thank my wife for supporting me in this adventure.

Jason Lester – the Fast Pilgrim

The Camino is not a race, but this network of routes is a dream for an elite long distance athlete with it’s excellent infra structure and loads of company on the way. Jason is not your average long distance runner having already traversed the US, China, Australia and Spain in his 27 400km (17 000mile) run around the world. The Camino is the perfect route to run across Spain and he is doing it like an old school pilgrim, self supported, no backup team, carrying his own luggage!

Jason Lester running around the world.
Jason Lester running around the world.

You ran some Camino de Santiago routes, what route did you run and how long did it take you to complete this?

I am still busy running! It took me 28 days to complete the Camino Santiago part of my run from Finisterre on the Santiago to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I ran the Camino Frances and Finisterre in reverse plus a bit extra. From Saint-Jean, I ran on and off the Arles Camino GR653 or Chemin d’Arles. I took a winter break in Arles, France where I’ll be heading back next month and continue along the coast to and through Italy. I’m currently running 17,000 miles across the world. I’ve crossed the United States, China, Australia, Spain.

What is you’re your average day length and longest day, how long did this day take you?

I averaged roughly 45km a day. My max day was 65km and it took me 8hrs. My goal each day was to run no more than 7hrs, food and proper rest were crucial.

Did you run most of the way or do a lot of walking?

I ran 85% of the time. Obviously the hills you hike, but I always tell myself if you walk more then 100 yards, you are not a runner 🙂

Did you have a support team? Solo.

Self-supported carrying just a small pack.

Do you know how much your pack weighed?

12-15lbs (5 – 7kg) depending on liquids.

Did you stay in Albergues?

I stayed anywhere that had a private bed. Albergues, hotels, hostels, houses, apartments, private homes. I spent 2-3hrs a day looking for a good bed. A) For proper rest B) To stay healthy. I average 9-10hrs sleep a night.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

My goal was to talk and hang out with as many people as possible. Learn the local culture and history of each village. There were days I stayed extra days to absorb history.

How do you prepare for the Camino?

I’m on mile roughly 12,000 miles running across the world the last 5yrs.

Do you make friends along the way that can keep up and complete a whole day with you?

I ran the route in reverse. No signs, and sadly enough, people were going in the opposite way. But, I made it my goal to stop and talk to as many people that were willing. People were in awe that I was running it “backward” as they would say. I would respond “I’m here to inspire you to keep up the great work you WILL make it to Santiago.”

Did you have a reason for doing the Camino?

I wanted to run across Spain solo. The Camino fit the perfect route.

What was the most difficult thing during your Camino?

Food and water. I need 10,000 calories a day and up to 2 liters. Besides that, the Camino is a VIP set up compared to the Arles Way where I only saw 2 people within 1000k, stores, and accommodations only every 50km.

What was your favourite part of this journey?

Hearing the amazing stories of some of the most amazing souls on Earth. Newlyweds, births of a child, the father that lost his son, the daughter who lost her Mother unexpectedly, cancer survivors, those with a disease.

Your best memory of the Camino?

So many. I’ll some it up with one word. Love.

Any future running plans?

Italy heading east towards China where my world run will finish.

You can follow and support my journey @ www.TransWorldRun.com

Oskar Ciejka – the Wayfaring Pilgrim

Walking is what you do on the Camino, to stand out as peripatetic (someone who walks a lot) is hard on the Camino, Oskar is Peripatetic. The Camino de Santiago is not a single route, but a network of routes that start in different places across Europe, you can actually start walking to Santiago from anywhere in Europe there will just be less infrastructure for pilgrims. The 30-year-old Oskar’s Camino was more than 6 months long starting at his home in Poland and walking 5000km in 8 countries!

Camino Pilgrims Stingy Nomads
Oscar on a snowy day on the Camino.

How long and far did you walk?

I left home on the 20th of June and finished on 24th of December, so I walked  6 months. My route crossed Poland Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain and Portugal. As a curiosity I will add that I slept one night in Germany and spent 2 hours in Lichtenstein.

Can you tell us a little bit about your Camino, what route did you follow?

My Camino was totally spontaneous. The first time that I thought about the Camino from Poland the idea sounded a bit crazy. If you look at a map and check where  Poland is and where Spain is you think: No way! But the Camino just has something you will never forget.

At the beginning of the year it happened – it was like a spark. I decided really quickly. For me, this walk was my biggest dream.

Before I started I knew only two things; I was going to do the longest mountain trail in Poland, Główny Szlak Beskidzki, a 500km trail going through every mountain range in Poland. And that I was going to do the Camino del Norte, a relatively quiet route and it appealed to me that you walk next to the ocean a big portion of this trail.

I could go via Germany or Switzerland and Austria. I’ve never been to Switzerland and Austria so the decision was really easy. I would make a lot of these decisions on the way.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

After graduating from university in Cracow I worked in London for 2 years doing a variety of labor jobs such as working as a builder and a gardener to save some money. I’m now back in Poland to help my family.

Did you have a reason for walking?

Everyone has a reason why they walk. My main reason was that walking the Camino has been a big dream for a long time. I had many smaller reasons and these were all important to me. I am 30 years old and I am still looking for my place in the world, the Camino is a good way if you have many questions and you are searching for answers.

What was the most difficult thing during your Camino?

The loneliness was hard sometimes I know only two languages: Polish and English. Not many people speak Polish, I don’t know why 🙂 So for six months I spoke mostly English. I spent a lot of time around Switzerland, Austria, and France. Since many people in these countries do not speak any English I had many days during which the only things that I said all day were; thank you, good morning, and please since this was basically my whole vocabulary in German and French.

I felt bad since there were many people that wanted to talk to me, the language gap was just too big. I have to say whenever I needed help, there was always somebody willing to help me, the language barrier did not matter.

What was your favorite part of this journey?

I really liked Switzerland and Portugal. Switzerland is one of the most expensive places in Europe so if we are talking about money Switzerland was hard, but I felt really good there and enjoyed it. The people here always tried to help me. The country is very beautiful with many lakes, mountains and forests. I would like to go back there. I enjoyed Portugal, sometimes it is difficult to say exactly why you liked a place, for me this was the case with Portugal. Go to Portugal if you like sweets, the sweets from the Portuguese bakeries are excellent.

Your best memory of the Camino?

I focused on people and my best memories are about the people that I met on the Camino. I remember how many people helped me. Amazing conversations I had with people I met on the way until 3 o’clock in the morning. People I stayed with at strange places. People I played cards with all day because you do not want to walk more 🙂 One of the best memories is from Finisterra; I walked to Faro with people that I met on the way. We just sat, drunk wine, and watched an amazing sunset. Nothing special, but for me, this was a magical time. People that I wanted to take home with me. Some of the best memories, You never know what is going to happen on the way…

Any future plans for walking more?

Of course. One option is to go to Italy, Corsica, Sardinia and Malta. Another option is to walk from Poland to Greece. I don’t like talking about plans, the Camino taught me that it does not make sense to plan, sorry 🙂

Paul Smart – the Quadroplegic Pilgrim

The phenomenal  Paul at 61 became the first British man to complete all 780km (500 miles) of the Camino de Santiago in a wheelchair, it took Paul and his team about 6 weeks to walk from St Jean-Pied-Du-Port in France over the Pyrenees to Santiago. He completed the Camino with the help of a small team of family and friends. We were fortunate to cross paths with Paul when we finished the Camino Primitivo.

In September 2000  he suffered devastating injuries after a fall which left him paralyzed from the neck down. His life changed from being a fit independent man to being confined to a wheelchair with no use of his arms or legs and relying on others 24 hours a day for assistance.

For Paul it was an incredible challenge traveling a great distance over some extremely difficult terrain, dealing with the physical hardship, the complexity of his day to daycare, and any medical issues.  He completed the Camino showing there is life beyond a wheelchair and raising considerable funds for the Southern Spinal Injury Trust in doing so.

Paul Smart and Team
Paul Smart and his Team on the way to Santiago.

Can you tell us a little about your Camino, your team and why you decided to undertake this challenge.

I have always been a very adventurous person and I did not want my disability to get in the way of me completing this amazing journey. I’m not saying you can go out there and do anything all I know is with a lot of planning and being realistic there is a lot out there for all disabilities.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

I volunteer for a spinal charity and also visit people at the spinal unit with similar disabilities.

How long and far was your Camino?

500 miles taking about 6 weeks to walk.

What was your reason for doing the Camino?

For me and also to inspire other people from all disabilities to have a go.

What was the biggest challenge during your Camino?

The day-to-day travelling over some of the most challenging paths and also looking after my medical needs so I could complete the walk.

What was your favourite part of this journey?

There were so many favourite parts, for instance the amazing people I met along the walk with all different reasons for being there and some of the most beautiful scenery.

Your best memory of the Camino?

The camaraderie we had going on with the group and all the amazing friends and family that gave up their time to come and help me complete this challenging journey.

Any future plans for doing another Camino?

Yes I am always planning and thinking of things I can do next.

“Even if your body doesn’t work, the heart and spirit are not diminished.”

Pienkes Du Plessis – The Senior Pilgrim

Something we love about the Camino is that it is a pilgrimage for everybody. Age is a state of mind and many agree mental strength is a vital component needed to complete a Camino. Just shy of 80 years of age Pienkes and Lizzie Du Plessis completed the Camino Francés from Léon to Santiago carrying their backpacks all the way! Pienkes published a very well-received book about his journey to Santiago in his mother tongue Afrikaans.

Pienkes and Lizzie on the Camino
Pienkes and Lizzie on the Camino

Can you tell us about your Camino, what Caminos did you walk and when did you walk them?

My wife Lizzie and I did 330 km of the Francés from Léon to Santiago in April 2015.

What do you do when not walking the Camino?

I am a retired businessman attending board meetings of Duvesco (Pty) Ltd, a family business of which I am the non-executive chairman. I read a lot – politics, thrillers, politics and atheism – and do some writing, mostly stories about hunters and my experience as a hunter and game farmer. We go to the gym about 3 times weekly and do light aerobic exercises. We love walking, particularly up the Helderberg Nature Reserve at Somerset West. We also love eating out, mostly at wine farms or otherwise entertain friends on braais. Lizzie, an ex-school teacher, loves to paint.

Did you have a reason for walking?

We just love the outdoors and have done many of the best-known trails in RSA, including the Fish River. A back injury kept me from marathoning as in my youth but walking largely made up for the loss.

What was your biggest challenge on the Camino?

I had injured a muscle in my one foot on the first day and it developed into a lousy battle the rest of the way. It was just a few short months of my 80th, and my wife’s 79th, but as we were reasonably fit, we managed to keep up, doing about 15 – 25 km a day, carrying about 10 kgs each.

Have you done any long-distance walks besides the Camino?

As mentioned, yes, The Fish River, The Fanie Botha, the Blyderiver in the North, and some others.

What was your favourite part of this journey?

Every day on the Camino was an adventure, never to be forgotten, but perhaps the day between Ponferrada and Villafranca contained that extra magic.

Your best memory of the Camino?

The night at Casanova was rather special – but for no reason whatever. I cannot explain.

You recently published a book related to the Camino, can you tell us a bit about your book.

At first it was a book of photographs just to enjoy with the family. Then I started explaining and elaborating and soon it developed into a 41 000 word diary containing some 80 photographs. The deal offered by the publishers was not attractive enough and I, therefore, published it myself and sold the book over the internet. The costs were very high but I was fortunate in selling sufficient copies to easily cover the expenses.

Any future plans for walking another Camino?

Unfortunately not.  At the end of 2017, I had an unfortunate fall and fractured a number of vertebrae. I ended up in the hospital a number of times and am only now recovering slowly. My wife also had to undergo a serious neck operation, which fortunately went very well, but right now we are certainly not in a position to tackle adventures like the Camino or the Fish River or some such as outings.

Do you have any advice for older Pilgrims considering doing the Camino for the first time?

Be fit, carry little weight, don’t rush your day’s walk – the Camino isn’t running away, enjoy it, don’t run it! – plan carefully by using trusted guides like John Brierly’s – an above all enjoy your thoughts!

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