Camino Talks with John Brierley – Nature on modern days pilgrimages

Written by Wanda

Author John Brierley talks to us about the relationship of nature on modern-day pilgrimages.

The Camino de Santiago passes through a number of unspoiled natural landscapes. Every path connects to small villages or bigger towns and cities, but what is more impressive about it is the immense variety of countryside that you can find on the Camino. The mountainous regions, open fields, open Meseta, vineyards, the Rias, rivers…There’s a wonderful variety of natural landscapes perfect to find your inner peace and reconnect with nature.

In this interview, John Brierley responds to the following questions:

  • 00:24 – It is summer, the flowers are blooming this makes us think about nature and the Camino de Santiago. What the theme of nature and pilgrimages brings to you?
  • 04:21 – What do you think would be the proportion of unspoken nature compared to more farmland Which I think it’s maybe a bit more of a majority.
  • 07:02 – How would you weigh the natural value of the various routes of the Camino with national parks, that people may have discovered at the weekends and so on?
  • 11:34 – What would be a great memory you had with fauna or flora on the Camino? Is there an image or picture, a moment that you can share with us?

Q&A section:

  • 13:47 Considering your experience in the Camino, What do you think makes the Camino different from other trip or vacation?
  • 15:39 Is the Camino safe to go now due to the COVID-19?
  • 17:13 What’s the best location from which you recommend I should start the Camino?

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John Brierley (00:00):

Such a variety of countryside. I mean, we have everything there.

Umberto di Venosa (00:08):

Hi and welcome to Camino Talks. This week, we are joined by John Brierley, again. The writer of the famous Camino guides, a series of guidebooks. Hello, John.

John Brierley (00:24):


Umberto di Venosa (00:24):

John. So this week we are talking about nature, we are thinking that because it is summer, flowers are blooming, and so on, the relationship between nature and a pilgrimage. So we just wanted to ask you what that brings to you, what that says to you, the theme about nature and pilgrimages?

John Brierley (00:54):

Well, I think that you know, with regard to the actual Camino routes themselves I, in the books I, right from the very beginning 20 years ago, I marked the percentage of the route that is a natural pathway. And essentially that is sort of alongside the main road or quiet countryside roads and secondary roads. And it’s interesting over the years, how they have changed somewhat, partly because health and safety more of the lovely earth tracks are being paved over which is why I always offer. And every, the older guidebooks, alternative routes, most of my time is spent researching out how to keep people, how to minimise asphalt and how to keep people in the natural pathway because it’s so much more relaxing for the body to walk on a soft path rather than the hard surface.

John Brierley (01:51):

So in any, in every stage where particularly where there’s more asphalt been put down or more paving slabs paving slabs are certainly very hard to walk on, especially the ones that they have there in Spain, they love working with the granite blocks and so on, and they’re very unforgiving on the body. Whereas when we walk on the natural terra firma, there’s a sort of when your foot hits the ground, it slides slightly. So it’s much, much softer with much less impact. So in any of those places where the natural pathways have been eroded or paved over I’ve always been able to find and research out more natural pathways by going the alternative routes. Most of those alternative routes and particularly ones I’ve researched out are alongside rivers, nearly every river has a riverside walk. And the advantage of taking a riverside walk, especially into cities and nearly all cities are built to have a river running through them is that you don’t need official way marks you follow the river.

John Brierley (03:05):

And it’s very easy to say, you go to the river, you cross it and you keep the river on your right or the river on your left, whichever way it is. So I’ve always been able to find alternative paths that are very easy to describe where people won’t get lost because of course, we all get used to the yellow arrow. We want the yellow arrow. And so I think that it’s I think in general, I would say that there is, has been a marginal decrease in the natural environment landscape that we walked through with building was roads and so on. It is relatively marginal. And as I say, there are the alternative routes, but where we can dramatically increase the amount of time that we spend in nature and on natural pathways.

Umberto di Venosa (03:50):

Yeah. I think it’s important for people to understand that the Camino is to go as quickly as possible to Santiago and therefore over time, roads have been built next to trails or viceversa and obviously on the Camino we are passing by smaller towns and bigger towns, so that natural, natural connections, road connections between these.

Umberto di Venosa (04:21):

How, the, natural encounter on the Camino…

What do you think would be the proportion of unspoiled nature compared to more farmland?

which I think is maybe a bit more of a majority.

John Brierley (04:39):

Well, I would say that roughly it’s probably a 60, 40% split between an actual earth path and a roadway when it comes to nature the natural landscape because most of the roads that we walk through are very much secondary roads. We see very little traffic on them and there’s usually trees and very much a sort of country influence. So I would say the vast bulk and at least 90% of the Camino whichever ones they are, most of your clients would imagine we’re talking about the Camino Frances, but the vast bulk of that is through what we would call natural landscape. You know, you’re seeing it, you’re looking out of the countryside fields, cows, horses, sheep and then agricultural land, of course, as we know on a meseta that’s supposed to be poor grasses or sort of poor grains available livestock because it’s the grass up there.

John Brierley (05:35):

So I mean, one of the great advantages of the Camino is it travels through, goes through such a variety of countryside. I mean, we have everything there. We have mountainous regions, we have small little village, mountain villages. We have open field, open meseta, we’ve got the grape harvest and the vineyards, we’ve got this wonderful variety. You know, I’ve never been able to understand anybody who said they ever got bored on the Camino, any of the Caminos, because now you don’t have the Camino Frances. You don’t get the coast, which you do of course, with the Portuguese and so on. You get to, you know, the Rias and the Camino Inglés and so on. But there’s always this tremendous variety. And I would say the overwhelming amount of experience that people have in walking any of the Caminos is that you’re essentially walking through nature and you’re walking through countryside. That’s, I think that’s, you know, every few stages you’d come across a large town or a city but you are in those for a very short space of time. And even when we’re travelling through a city, we’re usually through a city, if we’re not staying there, in a couple of hours. Will bring you from the, you know, one suburb on the entrance to the suburbs on the outside. So the overwhelming amount of the experience is nature and natural landscape.

Umberto di Venosa (07:02):

How would you weigh the natural value of the various routes of the Camino with let’s say national parks, that people may have discovered at the weekend and so on?

John Brierley (07:16):

Well, it’s an interesting one because my sense is that what is extraordinary about the Caminos, all the Caminos, is that 99% of all the walking traffic is in one direction. And because of that, it’s amazing. Even when we know that there are tens of thousands of pilgrims on the route throughout the year, we’re really not seeing them because we’re all walking in a sequence together. So you know, in a park, national park, you get people going in both directions. So you, you’re always, in my experience, we’re always more aware of people and other and other routes because people are going in both directions. One of the unique things about the Caminos, it’s a one directional route. And because of that, we’re really not seeing as many people because we don’t pass them they’re ahead of us or behind us. So there’s always a sense of much more, much less people than you would experience. Technically there’s not as in terms of volume that the same amount, but we’re not seeing them.

Umberto di Venosa (08:29):

Everybody stays on their own train wagon, I suppose.

John Brierley (08:33):


Umberto di Venosa (08:39):

To a point. That’s great. So maybe one thing, would you say that the fact that it is next to a road, secondary roads and so on also part of the success of the Camino in the sense that it allows people who are less adventurous to follow these natural paths, never too far from a route or a town or a village, as opposed to when you are in a national park or in the more mountainous area where obviously you’re getting away from civilisation.

John Brierley (09:16):

Well, I think that most, I think that there’s hardly any stage that we walk along any of the Caminos where we’re not actually completely out of traffic, ear shot and away from roads. So we do get you know, while we’re alongside roads or some cases on small secondary roads for a fair amount of the time, I think the, again, the experiences that we’re, we’re away from all roads, quite a lot of the time, but because, especially of the Camino Frances, there’s so many people walking it, having just said that, you know, we’re walking the same direction. So we’re not seeing everybody we’re conscious of there’s people behind us and there’s people in front of us. So I don’t, I’ve never really experienced anybody who had a sense of you know, nervousness. I mean, of course, it happens, but it’s very seldom that people really feel nervous on the Camino. Again, the difference between the Camino and an ordinary hiking trail, is that because of it, if you like, it’s overtly spiritual nature, people are looking out for each other and if we don’t know them, everybody’s got a sense of, Oh gosh, did you see, you know, Mary back there?

John Brierley (10:20):

Do you think when she was always at the girl end up in the blue, yes, Oh, no, she was fine. She, she, I spoke to her, she said she just wanted to cry. So everybody’s sort of very quietly not oppressively, but very quietly looking out for each other. And I think that gives people a lot of confidence when they’re walking through, a lot of women, in particular, write to me about walking some of the more remote routes and how safe it is. And so on. My usual response is that you know, the Caminos are probably one of the safest walking routes. You’re probably safer walking the Camino, than you are walking the roads around your own house at home, wherever that might be. But having said that, I always say that if you are, if you are walking on your own and you’re uncomfortable, man, or woman, whoever you are, you feel uncomfortable, stop and wait for somebody to catch up with you and say, look, you mind if I walk with you, I’ve never heard of anybody who said no, of course, they’ll say, well, I’d be delighted to walk with you through this next stage or whatever.

John Brierley (11:21):

So we’re always able to find in those cases where we might, for whatever reason, have a sense of nervousness find somebody to accompany us as part of our pilgrimages is about it, let’s face it.

Umberto di Venosa (11:34):

Yeah. Very good. Last question on nature. Before we move on to a couple of people’s questions from Facebook.

What would be a great memory you had with fauna or flora on the Camino? Is there an image or picture, a moment that you can share with us?

John Brierley (11:55):

What? In nature?

Umberto di Venosa (11:56):

Yes. On the Camino, something that…

John Brierley (11:56):

I remember once going up into the meseta, I’ve always loved the meseta, and remember many years ago, it must be quarter of a century ago now, one of my early Caminos. And it was a beautiful moonlit, full moon and I decided to walk on through the night because I could see through the meseta because it’s got that lovely sort of soft white sand surface in the moonlight at nighttime is, can be very obvious, very easy to see your way through the fields. And I remember deciding to walk through the night which was absolutely wonderful. And shortly after I went up to the meseta, I suddenly came across a herd of deer. It was the most beautiful experience because, especially walking at night, not many people do, you very seldom meet anybody else out, but on a moonlit night like that, everything is very still, there’s no noise.

John Brierley (13:02):

Everything’s very quiet. And of course the lovely thing about walking through nature, whether it’s at nighttime or, which would be very unusual, or during the daytime. Walking is a relatively quiet activity if we’re not talking. And it’s very easy to come across come upon wildlife in that way because they are not expecting to find anybody out there. And it was just a wonderful experience, the moonlight, the path, the meseta, and suddenly these you know, 10 heads popping up from the grazing and looking at me, I was very close to them. And that was a very memorable moment. A very beautiful moment.

Umberto di Venosa (13:44):

Very exclusive moment. That’s great.

John Brierley (13:46):

Yes, indeed.

Umberto di Venosa (13:47):

That’s great. Thanks, John for that. I have three questions for you. We have Maria Elena Rodríguez asking, “Hello, considering your experience on the Camino, what do you think makes the Camino different from other trips or vacations?”

John Brierley (14:12):

Oh, you mean, how does it is different from other hiking trail or something, hiking holidays.

Umberto di Venosa (14:15):


John Brierley (14:15):

Holiday. Oh, well, I mean, I think that, you know, we’ve already covered some of it just now in this discussion. You know, because the Camino is an overtly pilgrimage route, it’s overtly a spiritual travelling route. So people going on it are often walking with if you like a high intentionality, a purpose of, you know, they’re looking for, for something. And everybody has that sense of if you like to call it a sacred or something more of a special life-enhancing search people and that commonality, and then comes in and you get this incredible sense that nearly everybody talks about it.

John Brierley (15:04):

Um even the, you know, the greatest sceptic who sets out on trips nearly always says, one of the unique experiences was this sense of commonality, brotherhood, sisterhood, the sense of the Camino family. And that is unique. I think, to the Camino. You wouldn’t, you wouldn’t take a hiking trip with anywhere else where you would immediately find that sense of commonality that you do with the Camino. I think that’s probably one of the really big differences between the Camino and any other, either walking holiday or activity holiday or indeed any other holiday.

Umberto di Venosa (15:39):

Yes. Very good. We have another question from Arcelia Morgado, “Hi, I love the Camino and want to organise it myself to walk it shortly, I want to know what’s the best location from which you recommend I should start the Camino?”

John Brierley (15:56):

Well, you know, you can’t answer that question without a little bit further more information. How long do you have to travel? How long do you have to take for the journey? Are you looking for something as a quiet reflective time, or you’re looking for more of a, sort of a sense of community and busyness which, you know, so which Camino do you do, whether it’s one of the quieter Caminos, Camino de Invierno had 72 people starting from Mont Forte last year, last year, whereas 82,000 started from Sarria. So I think you .. One would need to know a little bit more information about what her intentions were for the trip before, one could really make any sensible sort of a suggestion as to where she should start. I think you need to find out, ask herself what sort of experience is she trying to create for herself. And then it would be easier to answer the question.

Umberto di Venosa (16:50):

Yeah, I think Arcelia, to add to what John was saying is maybe the Camino is a journey there, but it starts here. So ask yourself these questions, how long, what am I looking for? And then there will be a route or another that would be more specific to that, so that Camino starts now. And you have to ask your own question.

Umberto di Venosa (17:13):

And the last question related to COVID-19 is the Camino, from Flor Ruiz, “Is the Camino safe to go to now due to the COVID-19?”

John Brierley (17:23):

Well, now, if I could answer that question, I tell you I would become a celebrity overnight and everybody in the world would want to be knowing it. I mean, it’s a very much, it’s a changing situation. My advice to everybody, I’m sure it’s the advice that you give to your clientele is, you know, keep a track constantly on the web, on the news. It’s changing day by day at the moment.

John Brierley (17:49):

As of today, my understanding is that the whole Camino is officially open. Anybody can go to Spain, they can go through Spain to Portugal. So there are no restrictions on travelling into and start in the country. There’s travel, there are restrictions while you’re there or requirements. For instance, if you’re on public transport you have to wear a mask, you have to observe the two-metre ruling. So there are, there are regulations, but right now my understanding is that anybody apart from the US, I think US visitors are…… There still is a restriction on people coming from America and some certain countries, but certainly, within Europe and the including the UK, there might be some, you need to check before you’re going.

John Brierley (18:33):

Depending on where you’re coming from, there are still, my understanding is that, but I can’t imagine it’ll last for very much longer than if you travelled to Portugal, you might have to self isolate when you come back from Portugal to the UK. If you come into the UK. So you need to sort of search out from your country of where you’re coming from. What are the requirements not only of going out of the country but coming back in, so just do the proper search. And you know, if you’re going through a company like yours Umberto and you ask the staff there, what, you know, what are the requirements? They will have some up-to-date information too, but the information is changing very fast, constantly. So you’ve just got to do your, keep on top of it and do your research.

Umberto di Venosa (19:18):

Indeed, it’s officially open, but things are changing and so on. So information is really important, that’s great, that’s all we have for today. So, thank you very much, John, for your time and your wealth of knowledge and experience. I hope that all of our viewers like the video, you can put a thumb up or subscribe if you want to know more and until the next time. Thank you very much, John.

John Brierley (19:50):

My pleasure.

About Camino Talks
Camino Talks is a collection of interviews about the famous Camino de Santiago. We talk to the people that make it so special and share their stories with you. By Follow the Camino
21st July 2020

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