Reimagining the Camino de Santiago guidebook

Sandy Brown (Rev)
By Sandy Brown (Rev)
6 minute read

When Cicerone approached Seattle-based Sandy Brown with a bold vision for the next Camino de Santiago guidebook, he was immediately won over. It would set a new, unparalleled standard for one of the most travelled pilgrimage routes in the world.

When my first guidebook to the Camino de Santiago arrived in the mail in 2008, I was beside myself with delight. I read it, studied it and practically slept with it under my pillow until I was finally able to toss it into my pack and head out onto the Camino Francés that May. As I walked step-by-step with it in hand, I found myself loving it, hating it, ignoring it, puzzling over it, cursing it, scribbling in it, treasuring it. When it was all done and I’d finally arrived back home, I lovingly put it on my bookshelf knowing that like my walking stick or my credential, it had become one of my dear companions, a character who had played an important role in my month-long walk to the tomb of St James on the Camino de Santiago.

Fast-forward 10 years later to my dining room in Seattle. Sipping tea across the table from me were Jonathan and Joe Williams of Cicerone Press, asking me to write a new Cicerone guidebook for the Camino. My first Camino had simply whetted my appetite for long-distance pilgrimage trekking. In the intervening 10 years I’d walked 10 other pilgrim routes, completed a guidebook on the Way of St Francis, started my own travel company, and led groups of pilgrims to discover the joys of stepping away from their lives for a couple of weeks and discovering the world of European pilgrimage.

Sandy
The author (in blue) with wife Theresa and new friends begin their 2018 Camino at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France

International standard

As Jonathan and Joe sat at my dining table, they cast a bold vision. The new guide should set an international standard for pilgrim guidebooks, with an unparalleled set of advantages for readers, including:

  • A separate map booklet that could easily be tucked into a pants pocket so a walker would have a clear, visual guide to every step along the way
  • Options to Finisterre and Muxia, providing readers with information about how to walk beyond Santiago to the popular towns along the Atlantic coast
  • Details on all low-cost lodgings, including the over 500 albergues on the route
  • An accompanying smartphone app with GPS guidance to bring the guidebook into the online age
Sansol
A band of pilgrims walk five abreast before Sansol, Spain

With over 400 trekking, biking and mountaineering guidebooks in print, Cicerone’s talented crew of editors and designers would ensure it was a high-quality product. Cicerone had already produced one of the first guidebooks on the Camino, with Alison Raju as author, based on her 1990 walk. To help even further, Cicerone underwrote an excellent crew of contributors for the photography (Rod Hoekstra), accommodation database (Rocky Brown Nieblas) and trail variants (Mike Wells). What was left for me was to turn the walk into words, so the readers could turn the words into the walk.

In late spring 2018 my wife, Theresa, and I hit the trail. And what a trail. There really is nothing like the Camino Francés. I know that people worry about how busy it can be, but the history, scenery, culture, infrastructure and the spirit of it make it unique. I love the green walk down the Pyrenees into Pamplona. I adore the vineyards of Western Navarre and La Rioja as they flatten out into the plains around Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The heart of the walk for me is the miles of beautiful desolation in the Meseta, where humble towns hide artistic treasures. Paradise for me is a corner room at my favorite hotel in León, the sun streaming in the windows and sounds of soccer fans at the bar in the plaza below.

That long, green walk up to Cruce de Ferro is dear to me and that mound of stones at the foot of the simple, iron cross always makes me stop to ponder and remember. I’m always looking for Spanish lavender along the trail on the way down from the cross, even as I’m scheming about the Bierzo wine labels I will explore at Cacabelos and Villafranca del Bierzo. And on and on until Santiago and the swinging botafumeiro and then a few more emerald days until the ocean where the sun finally tucks itself behind the horizon at Cape Finisterre.

Each day I set out having confirmed my typical pilgrim checklist – food, water, backpack, wallet, phone; and my author checklist – GPS, smartphone dictation app, camera, laptop. Each day I would walk, dictate directions into my phone and snap photos of places and people. Each evening when other pilgrims were enjoying their spritz at the neighborhood bar, I’d sit on my bed and gather my notes into what would become the book’s walking descriptions, carefully giving just the right level of detail.

After one last sunset over Cape Finisterre and one last glass of wine with Theresa, we said goodbye to Spain and went home where I would write. Then one sunny day months later, after hundreds of hours of work by many team members, a small, brown package arrived in the mail. I opened it at the dining room table where Jonathan, Joe and I had sat and dreamed and planned together.

It seemed to me at that moment that a good guidebook has equal parts love and wisdom. The wisdom is about giving the right directions and sharing the most important information, about making accurate maps and pointing out the worthiest options. The love is where the author is invisible and the joy and spirit of the walk itself are free to speak.

As a good guidebook is walked, the marvels unfold. The maps move from paper to footstep. The photos are supplanted by experiences. The words become sights and sounds and smells. When a Camino Francés pilgrim is finally home, when her walk is over and her compostela is framed on her wall and her once-sleek-now-ragged copy of this guidebook has found its honored place back on her bookshelf, if she loved her walk, if she found joy and wonder and adventure on this amazing pilgrim trail, we will have done our work.

Cicerone’s new Camino de Santiago: Camino Francés book by the numbers

1 accompanying smartphone app

2 volumes (map book and guidebook)

3 versions available (print, Kindle and e-Book)

8 times the team members have traveled the route

16 points of information about each lodging

36 sample daily stages

38 elevation profiles

100% of maps printed to scale, in high detail, with easy to read 'north up' format

120 village, town and city maps

298 + 143 number of pages in the guidebook and map book, respectively

560 hostels, hotels and campgrounds listed in the book

873km covered (plus variants and options)

1163 accommodations listed in the smartphone app

1477 restaurants, cafés, bars, grocery stores listed in the smartphone app

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