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Pilgrimage walks vacations guide
For many enthusiastic hikers, the ultimate ambition is to take on the challenge of a lengthy pilgrimage walk, either in stages over a series of vacations or, for the truly determined, all in one go. Iconic routes such as the Camino de Santiago and Japan’s Nakasendo Trail are spoken of with reverence by those that have managed to complete them or dream of one day doing so.
Pilgrimage walks often have religious, cultural or social significance. Some even say they can have a transformational effect.
The rigours of a pilgrimage walk however, whatever your motivation for undertaking them, are not to be underestimated. Even if the route itself is well trodden, careful preparation is essential for an activity that can be both physically and mentally demanding. But a pilgrimage walk should not be seen simply as an endurance test; rather it’s an opportunity to think about not just where and when we walk, but why. Find out more in our Pilgrimage walks travel guide.
Our Pilgrimage walking Vacations
History of pilgrimage walks
Most major religions talk about the concept of making pilgrimage, and some routes have existed for centuries. Christianity of course has the Way of Saint James – the Camino de Santiago route to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried. In Islam there is the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca that almost all adult Muslims are obliged to complete once in their lifetime.
Pilgrimages aren’t always religious of course. They might serve a social purpose: think of the march from Selma to Montgomery by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in pursuit of black voting rights. Or they may have a cultural aspect: what self respecting Beatles fan has never contemplated making a pilgrimage to Abbey Road and recreating that iconic album cover, or laying a flower at Strawberry Fields in Central Park?
Generations ago, the pilgrimage might well have been the only time in their lives that some people left their village. It’s an ancient tradition, but one that definitely still has a place in the modern world.
Why take a pilgrimage walk vacation?
A pilgrimage might tie in with your religious beliefs. You might be drawn by the historic or cultural significance of the places you’ll visit along the route, which is certainly a factor on the Camino de Santiago and in Japan. The physical challenge and the landscapes may also be factors. Some people simply want to escape their daily, busy lifestyles for a while; a pilgrimage is a chance to reconnect with nature and find the time and space to think. It may be a combination of these reasons, or something else entirely. For many pilgrims, the journey itself is of more importance than the final destination.
It’s a little overcooked to say that a walk has the potential to change your life, but lots of people that have undertaken and completed a pilgrimage would readily admit the experience has made them see life a bit differently. You might set out on what you think is just going to be a nice little adventure or a chance to make new friends on the trail, only to find it becomes a process of meditative self discovery, maaan.
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What does a pilgrimage walking vacation entail?
You’re going to need to be fit. A long distance pilgrimage is taxing both physically and mentally. Some walks can take several weeks and longer, often necessitating breaking them up into shorter vacations if you hope to complete them. You will be exposed to the elements for long periods of time, sun, wind and rain so adequate training beforehand is essential, as is appropriate footwear and trail clothing. Many walkers choose to bring along a set of poles, and have their luggage transferred between accommodations.
While you can do this kind of trip independently, organised tours offer convenience and the peace of mind that comes with 24/7 support. You might opt for walking ‘nomadically’ on a tailor made self guided vacation, where you can skip certain sections and choose your own route, accommodation and dates, or join a small group tour which is a great idea for solo walkers looking for a social element.
Daily distances might be anywhere between 15km and 30km, leaving you time to appreciate the scenery, history and culture of the places you’re walking through. This isn’t a feat of endurance, remember.
By nature, pilgrimages tend to be very well established in terms of infrastructure, such as way markers and accommodation. Accommodation along the routes is plentiful: in Japan you’ll stay in traditional ryokan inns, in Spain you’ll have a selection of refuges or hotels available to you, and if you’re on the Pilgrims’ Way in England, there is a wide mix of YHAs, hotels, B&Bs, and private homes. Booking early is highly advisable in peak walking season.
More about Pilgrimage walking
Not all that wander are lost, but certainly all those that read our list of the top pilgrimage walks around the world will feel inspired.
This was 500km of feudal forays through mountains and valley, along ridges and through ancient forests - read more about ways in which you can include it in your walking vacation plans.
Over 250km of hiking from shrine to shrine, temple to temple, the Kumano Kodo walking trail is like a journey through Japan’s spiritual history.
Read more below about the Pilgrims’ Way, a centuries-old, long distance walking route between the cathedral cities of Winchester and Canterbury.
One of the oldest and most famous pilgrimages in the world, the Camino de Santiago is less a route than a network of trails from various points in Europe to Santiago de Compostela.
The epic Shikoku Pilgrimage trail loops around the smallest of Japan’s major islands, taking in dozens of temples and offering the faithful a path to enlightenment.
The Portugal Way is a popular route on the iconic Camino de Santiago, with the option to walk either inland or along the wild and beautiful Atlantic coast.
Pilgrimage walks aren’t meant to be easy, and neither are they to be embarked on lightly, especially if you intend to reach your destination on time and in good condition!
Responsible travel on pilgrimage walks means paying attention to social etiquette, but also trying to avoid negative impacts on an area’s cultural and environmental heritage.