Our expedition followed the Catalan Way, linking with the Aragonés Way, and finally the French Way. We are travelling during the European Spring of 2014, and are still on The Way as we write this account!
We started at Montserrat, near Barcelona, travelling there by train. Montserrat is famous for its natural environment consisting of blunt, needle-shaped columns of rock forming a substantial mountain range, and for the monastery perched high above the valley.
Our route was from Montserrat to San Juan de la Pena (on the Aragonés Way), and thence to Puenta la Reina on the French Way (Camino Francés). This route should not be confused with another one commonly also described as the Catalan Way. That route passes through Lleida and Zaragoza, omitting the Aragonese route, and meets the French Way at Logrono. We shared that route for the first three days ex-Montserrat, but it diverges at Tarrega. Our route is described comprehensively, and confusingly, in Catalan (!) on the website http://caminodesantiago.consumer.es . That site has good maps, but its Google translation is almost as baffling as Catalan.
We trekked for 15 days to arrive at a major city called Huesca. Because of the rugged and remote nature of the next 4 days which would have required carrying several days’ food with us, we took a train the last 70 km to Jaca, and joined the Aragonés Way. From Jaca it is another six days walk to Puenta la Reina where we joined the French Way.
Following are some impressions of our Camino Catalan de San Jaume.
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The Spanish (Catalan) people
Without exception, and to our profound gratitude, we encountered locals who did things like offer directions, walk with us to our designated albergue when its address was obscure, assist with phone calls, and generally made us feel welcome. These expressions of warmth were invaluable. Very few people spoke English and some knowledge of Spanish is needed, even if limited.
Our route took us through 240km of farming land to Huesca. The main horticultural crops are almonds, apples, pears, and vines. These were in blossom and budding, heralding the end of winter. Cereal crops are also common. As a footnote to the level of pleasure the pilgrim experiences in this section, the cereal crops are predominantly used to feed Cataluna’s eight million pigs, and through much of this section of the Camino, the odour from the piggeries assaults the nostrils. The landscape from Huesca to Puenta la Reina becomes more mountain ous frequently offering commanding views of expansive valleys, and was our most enjoyable section.
The whole of our first three weeks on these two routes needs to be well considered by potential pilgrims in the context of being a road less travelled (we met only one other pilgrim on the Catalan route and 6 others near the end of the Aragonés Way).
The website listed shows where albergues are situated and it is necessary to walk that distance each day (averaging perhaps 20 kilometres apart) as there are no in-between places to stay. Many of the villages are very small, some do not have bars or shops or they may be closed when you get there – hence we found it necessary to carry lunch and water with us each day, and to also purchase something for breakfast the night before.
Signage is very good throughout and we were very confident following the yellow arrows. One should be certain that your gear is in good condition as there are no large towns for many kilometres and a worn-out boot will not be easily replaced or rain protection purchased. The infrastructure that exists on the French Way, such as support for sending bags ahead, does not exist, so be prepared to carry everything.
Some of the albergues are very basic (ie a shed—see photo), one no longer existed and very few had kitchens and washing machines. As so few pilgrims
pass this way we found that phoning ahead gave someone some expectation of two peregrinos from Australia. Upon reaching a town, it also takes additional time to find the albergue as its location is not signed with arrows.
If travelling alone, be certain you can enjoy your own company, as the reduced numbers of pilgrims means that you will not have others you can chat with (we don’t know how this situation changes in the summer months). Several village/ monastic names are very similar to each other, opening the possibility of significant confusion. For example, there is a place called Puenta la Reina de Jaca along the Aragonés Way. This town is several days short of the well-known Puenta la Reina, Gares, the point at which the Aragonés Way meets the French Way…
Joining the French Way (Camino Francés)
When joining the French Way at Puenta la Reina, we at first felt over-run by hordes of pilgrims, adventurers, accommodation options and tourist and food shops touting for business. The French Way lives up to the reputation forged by the countless books and by ‘The Way’ movie. Its source of enjoyment and inspiration are however different from the Catalan Way.
At the time of writing we are at Leon. We are delighted that we chose the Cata lan Way (Montserrat to Jaca) as our introduction to eight weeks of adventure and an 1100 kilometre pilgrimage.