On September 29, 2014 Gail and I were leaving Mistlebach in Austria on the second last day of our 600 kilometre walk along the Prague-Vienna Greenway. Two years earlier on that same September 29 date, we were departing St. Jean Pied de Port in France on the first day of our walk along the Camino Francés, the main and most popular route of the Camino de Santiago. Crossing all of Spain from east to west, the pilgrimage officially terminates in Santiago de Compostela. Walking several days more, as we did, takes you further east to Finisterre and Muxia on Spain’s west coast.
Walking the Camino was our first long distance walk. We are both longtime avid pedestrians, whether it is walking our dog around our neighbourhood or day long urban walks across our city or others. But connecting those longer walks one after the other, day after day with no break was a new experience. And we loved it.
I talk more about our Camino experiences in a series of blog posts but, having just completed our second long walk, I feel the need to consider how the two compare. The Camino, of course, is the harder hike from a measurable standpoint. At 927 kilometres walked over 38 days (including the extension to Muxia), it is more rigorous than the 600 kilometres of our Greenway trip, spread over just 21 days. That said, there were some very long days on the Greenway. On average, we walked 29 kilometres per day on the Greenway as opposed to 25 kilometres per day on the Camino.
The biggest difference between the two trails is a matter of their histories. The Camino has existed since the middle ages and, even though it may have fallen into long periods of disuse, the basic infrastructure – towns, churches, convents, monasteries – did not disappear, waiting for its ultimate revival as the Camino regained popularity in the 1990’s and onward. In 1985, 690 pilgrims followed the route but by 2010 the number rose to an all-time high of 272,703 pilgrims. Historically, this infrastructure was spread along the length of the Camino, providing pilgrims with convenient places to eat and rest no matter how long or short the day’s walk might be. Today’s English-speaking pilgrim need no more advance planning than to fine-tune their backpack contents and buy the latest of edition of John Brierley’s guide to the Camino, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago”. You will see this guide in pockets and on dinner tables all along the Camino. And it is very good, dividing the trip into 33 stages and loaded with information about every restaurant, every place to sleep, every sight along the way. Signage along the Camino is excellent, with iconic Camino scallop shells and bright yellow arrows appearing even where you don’t need them, negating the need for any serious maps (Brierley has unscaled map-like graphics that are good enough).
The Prague-Vienna Greenway has none of that route history. It is an idea born after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, making use of existing roads and trails, connecting communities that exist for reasons other than serving walkers or cyclists or pilgrims. There is no network of hotels and restaurants directly linked to the Greenway. Many of the communities passed through are very small, too small to have hotels or pensions and too small to have restaurants or cafés. Others may only have one hotel or pension, making arrival without a reservation a risky undertaking for a tired walker unwilling to walk tens of kilometres to the next town. And there is no guidebook to rely on although the Friends of the Czech Greenway has a fair amount of general information on their website, http://www.pragueviennagreenways.org, including four detailed cycling booklets and interactive maps that are quite helpful. But that is all.
The best guide is the one you prepare yourself using a complete set of ShoCart “Touristika Mapa” 1:50,000 or 1:40,000 scale maps. These show the Greenway as well as other cycle trails and the extensive network of hiking trails criss-crossing all of the Czech Republic. Before leaving home, I had purchased as many of the needed maps as I could from North American sources (primarily Omni Map), divided the Greenway into reasonable daily stages, each ending at a place with available accommodations, reserved all hotels, pensions and apartments through booking.com or direct email and prepared a very detailed itinerary. A lot of work but, having completed the journey, I would still consider it an essential pre-trip step.
I don’t want to leave the impression that walking the Greenway is not worth the effort. The trail offers spectacular scenery and a continuous stream of historic towns and cities, all the equal of anything to be seen along the Camino. Nor will you be walking alongside hoards of other walkers. We walked the Camino in October and it was still a crowded path. On the Greenway, we had the trails largely to ourselves, meeting the occasional local hiker but never another sole purposely walking the entire trail. The Greenway is the better choice if you are seeking a more adventurous, more solitary journey.
From the start, the Camino was intended to be a religious pilgrimage. Today, pilgrims ply the Camino for that reason but also for more broadly spiritual intentions or purely for the walk. Though the Greenway is marketed for its recreational appeal, the route coincidentally has many of the same religious artifacts that define the Camino: churches are the focal points of even the smallest village passed through and shrines, crosses and pillars appear at regular intervals all along the Greenway. And I would argue that the act of long distance walking, whether it is the Camino or the Greenway or any other trail, is a meditative, reflective experience driven by a repetitive chant-like motion through a slowly changing landscape. An experience where walking, spirituality and religion are one in the same.
Below is a gallery of images from our 2012 walk on the Camino Francés. To view the complete set of blog posts, click here.
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