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“What nationalities will you see the most of on the Camino de Santiago?” I am often asked. It is a very good and interesting question. For starters, you will see absolutely every nation BUT ONE well represented on the Camino. That nation is Great Britain. This, of course, created plenty of commentary about our Anglican cousins. Why are the British so conspiciously absent from the Camino.
Many speculated that it had to do with a latent loyalty to none other than Henry VIII. Indeed, the Camino has Catholic roots, while the estimable former King of England was one of the two greatest enemies of all time of the Church of Rome (Martin Luther being the other). The formerly Catholic country of England now seems very wary of anything pointing towards Rome, instead of Canterbury.
But with that question out of the way, the larger issue of Camino demographics is a happy one. Because, in short, every country on the European Continent has a major presence on the Camino de Santiago. Unsurprisingly, you can add a large Irish contingent in as well. There was much debate as to whether the most highly represented nationality was the Germans or the French. Indeed, it’s a close call. I would nuance the discussion by saying that in the early stages (while closest to France) there are more French than anybody. But both years that I did the Camino, the Germans were most represented by the time we entered the ethereal confines of the Galician forest. A famous German comedian, Hape Kerkeling, walked the Camino and wrote a book, ‘I’m Off Now’, that sold over 3,000,000 copies in Germany alone. That had the effect of ratcheting up the number of Germans on the Camino, similar to the way Bill Bryson’s humorous narrative of the Appalachian Trail sharply increased the number of hikers on America’s most popular footpath.
But please don’t forget the Italians and the Spanish. They are the next two most well-represented nations on the Camino. Statistics indicate 18% of pilgrims do the Camino by bicycle. Based on my naked observation, it seemed like half of that 18% were Italians–those ancient Mediterranean people of great style and flair. Unsurprisingly, Spaniards are ubiquitous on the Camino, and all the better for it. Personally, they are my favorite European nationality (Many would agree). Often Spaniards do the Camino in sections (“trozos”), whereas people are unlikely to come far distances from places like Ireland or the United States to do just a section.
But these four major European nations are only part of the story on El Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims rally to the Camino from all corners of the European continent, whether it be the rugged Scandinavians or the newly liberated Eastern Europeans. Yes, I walked with pilgrims that could tell me all about eating reindeer above the Arctic Circle; others gave vivid descriptions of life in places like Latvia or Moldova about life under the Soviet Iron Curtain. The European Union has promoted the Camino as part of their mission to unify the Continent. Daily life on the Camino indicates just why they do this.
Americans. Dare I say that loaded word, when discussing a European delight. Yes, Americans have finally discovered the Camino de Santiago. In fact, the number of American pilgrims is increasing at almost 50% per year. And Emilio Estevez’s new movie, ‘The Way‘, starring Martin Sheen has only increased the interest. Just like if you want to visit Cuba in its pristine state, you should go now before the embargo is lifted, an American who wants to do the Camino while it is an ovewhelmingly European experience shouldn’t wait long. Because every American who does the Camino has such a great time that they return home only to convince a half-dozen compatriots to cross the Big Pond and try it. The good news is that most Americans seem to be on their best behavior on the Camino; the atrocities that made us infamous in ‘The Ugly American Abroad’ are not on display. Further, the toxic anti-Americanism witnessed in so many parts of Europe in the last decade seem to be in remission, especially on the Camino.
In summary, the Camino de Santiago really is the best way to see the Old Continent of Europe for the simple reason that it takes dead aim at the major shortcoming of most foreign trips–the problem in deeply immersing oneself in real situations. You can’t help,while walking, eating, and sleeping day after day with people, to meet them in authentic, non-touristy ways. And that’s what makes a trip. Buen camino.
Bill Walker is the author of the recently released, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago. Paperback $12.95, Kindle $4.95. He also is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), and Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010).