In April this year, I was packing to walk the Camino Francés, a journey that I had been planning for several years. A few months before the journey, I asked my 12 year old son, Leo to join me, and in doing so changed what was to be a personal undertaking, into a special shared experience between father and son that will be treasured by both of us for the rest of our lives.
The Camino seemed an ideal setting to spend some quality time with Leo, by virtue of its duration and nature, particularly as many of my most rewarding moments with my children have occurred whilst taking a walk. I wanted to show him that the world can be a wonderful and safe place. It was also a chance to show him that sometimes things can be hard and challenging, even for his Dad, but that ultimately such things can be overcome and amazing things can be achieved. Like walking 800km!
In preparing for the Camino, we focussed a lot on what gear to take, a reasonable amount on fitness, and very little on pre-planning. We set ourselves the task of packing as light as possible and in the end our combined pack weight was around 12.5 kgs, with Leo carrying 4kg and me carrying the balance. Fitness was a bit of a hit and miss affair. I am a cyclist and supplemented my base fitness with some targeted weight loss and regular hikes with a heavy pack. Leo did a few hikes to break his boots in, but was not so easily motivated to train beforehand, and in the end, as he plays a bit of sport, and is young, I figured he would walk himself into fitness without too much drama, which is what happened. Other preparations were minimal beyond an arrival date, a departure date and the Brierley guidebook. It was our plan to ensure we could experience each day and place according to how we were feeling, which worked very well for us.
Day 2: Pyrenees (100kph winds)
For context, here is the Reader’s Digest summary of our journey essentials. We began in St Jean Pied de Port on a cold and cloudy day in mid-April and walked into Santiago on a beautiful late-Spring day 36 days later. We walked most days, taking just two rest days in Burgos and Leon, but supplemented these with some short distance days. We travelled through a range of weather conditions, from near freezing temperatures and 100kmh winds in the Pyrenees, to warm days in the mid to high 30’s on the Meseta. However, in the main we were blessed with fine sunny conditions and donned our wet weather gear only a handful of times. During our journey there occurred two lengthy public holidays during which Spaniards flocked to the outdoors. This resulted in a scarcity of accommodation, and a few moments of anxiety on my part, but we managed. Physically we did not suffer any ailments that significantly impeded our progress beyond the usual blisters, soreness and a bit of sunburn. In short, things went as smoothly as I perceive they can on The Camino.
Managing the Physical Challenge
One happy pilgrim
To make the physical challenge manageable for a child we had several strategies. In addition to minimising the physical load we also started with shorter days and gradually built up distance as we strengthened. Our first night was spent at Orisson, a mere 8km up the road, but it made the next leg into Roncesvalles more manageable. Or journey loosely followed the Brierley guide, although we allocated a travel time of 40 days to give some latitude and rest days. We found 23km or so to be a sustainable daily distance, although when beds were scarce, we occasionally walked 30kms or more.
Whilst I am a bit of a purist, we agreed to not die in a ditch if we needed to take a bus to make the trip manageable and enjoyable. We followed the advice of previous travellers and bussed the final kilometres into both Burgos and Leon to avoid he suburbs and lengthen our planned rest periods in those cities. Similarly, on a number of occasions when faced with a long day’s walking, we forwarded Leo’s main pack to our destination town. Overall it became our intention to move at the same pace as our Camino Family, so that we could stay in contact. A bus leg was always followed by a rest day to keep us in sync. Ultimately Leo managed the physical challenge very well, having only a single day of blisters and the usual minor aches and pains. In the end we completed the journey in 37 days.
Walking with Leo
I suspect that for most readers, the thought of walking day after day through a foreign country with little more than your thoughts to contend with, is a vision of Utopia. This was not the case for my young son, who has a love of sleeping in, and of things that will activate and captivate his mind. While I wanted to wind down on The Way, Leo seemed to do the opposite. Getting up and moving each morning was a challenge that involved various combinations of bribery, enticements and threats, and it was normal for us to be the last to leave our albergue. This morning ritual did not go unnoticed and a fellow pilgrim eventually spoke to comfort me. “You have such a good relationship with your son, you always speak calmly and never raise your voice.” She went on to explain that there was another Antipodean family travelling a few days ahead of us that used volume and colourful language to get their children moving. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one facing this challenge. The motivation and attention span of my Little Pilgrim were very important aspects of shaping our journey. Whilst adults are content to set a day-long objective of walking towards a distant destination, it became important for us to find bursts of motivation and interest throughout the day. This included investing time to make special memories of places like the wine fountain at Irache, Cruz de Ferro, Tomas’ Albergue and the Templar castle at Ponferrada. Café stops, offering the opportunity to practice our Spanish with friendly locals whilst indulging in our favourite local treats became frequent occurrences. As such, we became accustomed to spreading our breakfast and lunch over multiple stops throughout the day.
The opportunity to interact with the local wildlife, dogs, cats and horses were embraced by my animal-loving son, as was adding to pilgrim path-side stone sculptures and fence stick tapestries. Similarly, many opportunities to create a special experience presented themselves. Midway through the Meseta, I discovered that I had walked through my trusty boots. After buying replacements, we carried the old ones to the highest point of The Camino and on a spot with a commanding view of the mountains, we took the time to create a stone pyre and placed my old boots decorated with flowers on top. These opportunities were supplemented by some special pre-planned experiences. Leo’s first-ever coffee was reserved for a cold, challenging day on the Meseta. Similarly, it had been agreed at outset that we would both get matching scallop shell tattoos on our ankles if we completed the journey to Santiago. Alas Spanish law frustrated this last ambition, although a kind Tattooist drew a temporary shell on Leo’s ankle which he proudly displayed for several days. Each afternoon, we arrived at the day’s destination, usually several hours after our fellow pilgrims. At the time, I was concerned that arriving late meant we had little time at day’s end to do more than find a place to stay, wash and eat before hitting the sack. On reflection, it strikes me that travelling with a young pilgrim ensured that we really did ‘stop and smell the roses’ and absorb Camino experiences that I would probably have simply passed by, had I been on my own.
It’s all about the People
Leo with German pilgrim Raphaela
It was clearly apparent that whilst Leo will remember experiencing the sights, sounds, and culture of a country very different to our own, it was clearly the people we met that made it a truly special experience for him. It quickly became apparent that Leo was genuinely interested and very capable of interacting with locals and fellow pilgrims of all backgrounds and ages. With a handful of notable exceptions, he insisted we stay in dormitory albergue accommodation each night and whilst I unpacked our kit, he would go around the room and talk with all the pilgrims , enquiring “where do you come from?”, followed up with “if it is not too personal, why are you doing The Camino?” I never saw a pilgrim not stop what they were doing to engage with him in an animated, jovial and lengthy conversation. He was also happy to share his story of why he was doing the Camino – and I think it was his open and honest manner that endeared him to so many people. We encountered very few young pilgrims on our journey. With a handful of exceptions, the youngest group would have been in their mid-20’s and the average age would have easily been mid-40’s. On account of his young age and outgoing personality, Leo was fairly unique and became the centre of interest wherever we travelled. It was always interesting to watch fellow pilgrims look at him and try and reconcile his small stature and youth with his travel weary gear and his extensive collection of Camino travel pins and bracelets. In most cases, they would walk over and introduce themselves and ask him about his journey. By the time we arrived in Leon, complete strangers were coming over and asking if he was Leo from Australia. As we travelled, I watched Leo’s confidence growing, and by journey’s end, it seemed he knew most people on The Camino. I too found myself being approached by pilgrims, with several openly crying with emotion, telling me what a wonderful thing it was that we were doing and how they wished they had done something similar with their parents or children.
James & Leo in Galicia
I felt incredibly rewarded to be able to be doing something that was continually being blessed and supported by our fellow travellers. The most special Camino relationship for Leo was reserved for Raphaela, a young German pilgrim of similar age to Leo, who was travelling a portion of The Camino with her parents. Meeting on the third day of your journey, the two quickly overcame shyness and language barriers to become inseparable travelling companions. Both accomplished singers, they quickly became known on The Camino for the laughter and songs they brought with them. The joy Leo and Raphaela shared, the friendships made, the laughter and the struggles made my first Camino experience truly special – but undoubtedly it was made even more so, with my son at my side. At time of writing, planning is afoot for Leo to undertake a school language exchange to Germany in 2 years to visit Raphaela. They also want to reconvene in Logrono, after finishing high school, and complete their shared section of The Camino together.
Some final words
From our shared experience I heartily recommend travelling the CF with a young son or daughter. Whilst there are specific considerations that go with this (eg additional travel time, flexibility etc) the rewards and memories are truly unique, and very different to those experienced by walking the Camino alone or with an adult. Our journey confirmed my thoughts that The Camino is a positive place to spend some quality parent-child time, and we are making plans for a return journey with my 15 year old daughter in 2020.
For those who are interested, I wrote a daily blog during Leo’s Camino, including a detailed list of our gear and the places we stayed. This can be found at: leocamino.home.blog/author/leocamino