Fabrizio (the Veteran) likened the Camino de Santiago in peak season to La Ramblas, that crazy street in Barcelona that never sleeps.
Our scenic, and quite relaxing walk along the Camino Primitivo, ended when the route joined the Camino Frances at Melide, less than 100km from Santiago de Compostela. The end of the Frances route is where two of the other Ways converge, the Primitivo, and the Northern Route, and right at the end, the English and the Portuguese.
The problem with the Camino, is that you only have to complete 100km of any route to obtain your Compostela, and therefore, many a pilgrim begin precisely at the 100km marker. Many of these hoards of people are the dreaded ‘mini-mochilla’ tour groups, hundreds of walkers wearing small backpacks, who stay in hotels, have their luggage couriered to their next stop and walk in large noisy packs. I don’t consider them true pilgrims, and so I don’t appreciate them negating the peace from my Camino that I have been walking for 800km already, quite happily.
At Melide, we checked into our pilgrim hostel which was capable of holding 130 people. There were pilgrims everywhere. As their friends entered the hostel, they cheered and screamed, hugged and kissed. We saw one couple we knew from the Primitivo.
The last 100km of the Camino, along the Frances, was a noisy blur of people, noise, and vandalized way markers and signs. Whilst the track is very beautiful, rarely near the main road, and through beautiful Eucalypt forests, there are bins every 200m, and each and every sign, milestone, bin, and sometimes the odd tree and rock have been written all over with in-jokes of groups, messages of love, friendship, and sometimes complete utter nonsense for posterity or particular pilgrims who would later pass.
(Some of these messages are really quite lovely, but when they appear on the wall of a townhouse belonging to a Spanish local, I cannot condone or appreciate them.)
I walk along, angrily, ruing the explosion in popularity in this amazing pilgrimage. When I completed the Frances in 2007, there was no graffiti, no bins every few steps, and not as many ‘tourists’ rather than pilgrims. The route still seemed respected and loved. Even those who were not walking for any religious reason, still respected the sacredness of the Camino, which has been walked for 1000 years.
So, we walk the last 100kms behind groups of ‘mini-mochilla’ carriers, missing the peace and tranquility of the Northern and Primitivo route, where we knew everyone walking, and every sign or way marker was intact, untouched, and as it should be.
I thoroughly encourage future pilgrims to consider the Northern or alternative routes for their first Camino, but pray that any rise in popularity on these will not lead them to go the way of the Frances.