Paris and Madrid have traditionally been the place that Camino de Santiago pilgrims fly to. I recently checked flights from the United States to both places. Normally the flights are priced at approximately the same fare. But this time there was a sharp difference. And this is no coincidence.
Because of the economic crisis, round-trip tickets to Madrid were running about $850, whereas tickets to Paris were $1,450. Yes, France has economic problems. But there is not the crisis atmosphere that exists in Spain, where the unemployment rate is 25% and the majority of the nation’s financial institutions are in need of bailout. There is even talk of Spain having to drop out of the Euro. This has served to scare some pilgrims away from, not just flying to Spain, but actually walking there. Instead, many have chosen this year to do the French route, beginning in Le Puy. Yes, this has always been a popular alternative to the Camino Frances. It is well-maintained and full of pilgrims from not just France, but Canada, Germany, and increasingly other countries. It runs through Conques, Cahors, and the renowned wine-growing regions in the south of France. In medieval times, pilgrims from northern Europe poured through Le Puy on the way to Santiago de Compostela. So it is obviously a viable alternative.
However, it seems to me like pilgrims have not fully analyzed there options. The Le Puy route is much more expensive than the regular Camino Frances which is almost entirely in Spain. Pilgrims in France stay in gites d ‘etaps, which are lodges that cost about 35 Euros per night, including two meals. A few cheaper municipal albergues are springing up on this increasingly popular route. Nonetheless, it is different from Spain where pilgrims habitually stay in municipal albergues at a price of 5-7 Euros per night.
There is a further consideration. Street violence. “Do you think it is safe to travel around Spain?” potential pilgrims keep asking. From what I’ve seen the Spanish people can be described with two adjectives–civilized and, most of all, stoic. They are determined to put on a good show for foreigners, and for a thousand centuries passing pilgrims have received warm welcomes here on the Iberian peninsula. They have always appreciated the role of pilgrims in Spanish society. Better yet, they will surely appreciate us more than ever, as we bring valuable spending money into their ravaged economy.
To know the Spanish people is to like them. And my bet is that the economic crisis will not make the Camino de Santiago more dangerous, but rather bring about even more of the famous Spanish hospitality. Heck, one might even find some pretty good bargains at a time like this. So hoist the backpacks, tie up the laces, and buen camino.
Bill Walker is the author of The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a book on the subject of height.