Umberto Di Venosa is the co-founder and CEO of Follow the Camino and has walked plenty of the routes himself. We asked him about his experiences walking the Camino de Santiago and how the experience has changed since his first pilgrimage walk.
When did you first walk the Camino, Umberto?
I walked the Camino for the first time in 2007 in December. I did part of the Portugues Way first (from Tui to Santiago), then I walked the English Way (the Camino Ingles) from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela.
Why did you decide to walk the Camino?
I decided to explore the various Camino routes in the hope that we could bring more choice and possibilities to people. I wanted to research it as a product. It was not for religious reasons, or spirituality or anything like that. I walked the Camino de Santiago to learn about it.
It appealed to me right away as I had a great experience and realised that we could bring this to more people around the world.
What was the Camino like when you first walked it?
I walked it in December, which is always a quiet time on the Camino. I met zero pilgrims on my first Camino.
I recognised the amazing potential and appeal that the Camino had, we decided that we wanted to become the world-leading operator offering guided and self-guided Camino tours.
The number of walkers and pilgrims on the Camino started growing dramatically, which is why we created the second brand – Follow the Camino. We created a specific website for the Camino, which has all the information about the Camino de Santiago and the different routes and stages that you can choose from.
Follow the Camino were the first company to offer the different routes of the Camino as a collection of stages or sections.
We broke down the different routes (the Camino Portuguese, the Nothern Way, the Camino Frances, and all the others ) into more manageable pieces between larger towns. The idea was really to make it easy and achievable for everyone.
That created the basis for people to easily chose different trips that suited them, and then we could customise those for people who wanted to walk for longer, or wanted shorter days and so on.
What was your first impression of the Camino?
It was brilliant, even though I made all of the “newby” mistakes.
I was not much of a walker back then and my shoes were big heavy mountaineering shoes I had used in the Alps. I learned so much on that trip about the “spirit of the Camino” which is something that is hard to describe but it is one of the things that makes the Camino so fantastic to be part of.
In spite of a few little hiccups – I have such fond memories of my walk and I couldn’t wait to do another Camino!
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Has the Camino changed in the last few years?
Yes. The Camino was in its infancy back then. We had to look hard to find various drivers to transfer luggage between accommodation, and there was not nearly as much accommodation available as there is now.
There are way more services and different options for types of accommodation available now, especially on the French Way.
The people have changed as well.
These days, there is a growing cohort of people who are avid repeat Camino walkers. Many of them have done several sections of a number of routes and some have done multiple pilgrimages on full routes.
The number of different nationalities who visit the Camino is also amazing. Now you can see people from South America, South Korea, Australia, the USA, all across Europe and so on, on every route. It is no longer just for the Spaniards and the French!
That is good fun as well, because you get to meet so many interesting people. I think it has become much more well known across the world.
It can still cater to even more people coming to walk the Camino, especially on the shoulder seasons. I think even more people will continue to walk the Camino every year.
May and September are usually considered the best months to walk the Camino because of the weather, so we see bookings coming in quite early for them now and the trails are full of life!
Tell us an interesting story from your many trips on the Camino, Umberto?
One of my favourite memories is from my first trip. I was new to hiking, I had not done enough training, and I was in the wrong shoes and had a few problems. In my second week, I had tendon pains and I had to book a physiotherapy appointment.
I went into the tourist office and the lady there was so nice. She booked me an appointment and told me to visit the animal market while I was waiting.
I ended up on a farm with big long benches and long tables with loads of food. It was with the community, there was no fuss or fancy stuff. Just good wine and food.
It was a great memory.
What challenges have you found on the Camino?
I was leading a group for a great charity called the RISE Foundation and the weather was really horrible. It was lashing rain and it was really not nice. The group kept their spirits up, which was good.
At one stage one of our group members was really struggling. She saw a hill in the distance and she said: “are we going up that mountain?”. That pilgrim took her time, little by little and made it like the rest of us.
She made it through, she took it slowly and just kept going. It gave her so much satisfaction.
Most of the time the challenge is in people’s minds. If you get cranky then those are the more challenging days – but anyone can get through it!
Which Camino route is your favourite one?
I love the Portuguese Camino Coastal Route. I have walked it quite a few times. It is my favourite part of the Camino.
It is out on the coast, with beautiful landscapes and wonderful views. It’s quite quiet too.
After the coastal section, you merge with the normal Portuguese Route. You’ll start to see more people and there are great spots to stop for a drink or ice cream.
I know all my favourite places to stop and wait for clients to cheer them on, and for excellent food too.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago in the future?
Sign up and do it. The Camino is many people’s first big step into the outdoors. The walk may be the first time they have really started doing this kind of walking holiday and physical exercise.
It is 100% worth it. The Camino is so rewarding and freeing.
I advise you to go with an open heart and you will enjoy it. Whether it is the landscapes or the food or the people, there is so much to see when you are there.
I don’t know anyone who regrets doing the Camino. Not a single person.
Sign up to the Camino and use this as your motivation to go out walking and get outside. You will be very glad you did!
Do you have any questions about the Camino de Santiago? Contact us! We would love to help you to take the first step on your Camino journey.
Thank you Umberto for sharing your Camino stories with us!
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Originally published on 27th March 2021