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In Search of Solitude

29th January, 2018

There is a best list for nearly everything: the best places to go in 2018, the best countries to live in and even the best pizza in Italy. It’s therefore only fitting to create a best list for pilgrimage that move you spiritually and physically.

Here’s why

Aren’t pilgrimages a thing of the past?  It seems not. From the high peaks of South Korea to an Irish landscape of heather and bogs, travellers from around the world are following paths trod by Christian, Buddhist and Celtic pagans. Not just people of faith, but anyone seeking peace, history or just a fleeting connection with the mysticism of another time. Sacred travel is growing every year as more and more people look to recalibrate their understanding of the way the world works, work out what really matters and rediscovering the joy of giving.

Are YOU up to that challenge? Then here are five of the most rewarding pilgrimages to take.

#1.Kumano Kodo, Japan

WHAT YOU’LL DO: Away from the hustle and bustle of neon-lit cities, nestled into the peaks of the holy Kii Mountain south of Osaka lies a trio of shrines. These are joined by a network of trails making up the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. For over a thousand years these paths have been walked by monks and emperors, and more recently by travellers looking for total immersion in traditional Japanese life. Some are rugged and dangerous, but the Nakahechi route or central trail is suitable for anyone with hiking boots to dust off.

Now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the grand shrines of Kumano blend Buddhism with Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion and the trail is lined with small Oji shrines that house local deities and offer respite for walking pilgrims. Near every cluster of homes is a stand where locals leave fruit, tea and snacks for the price of a coin dropped in an honesty box.

Stay overnight in simple ryokans (guesthouses) along the way the trail. They may not be sophisticated but chances are the food served will be fit for the gods. Most onsens (a series of hot and cold baths) will be fed by springs, along with being the perfect antidote for aching feet.

BEST BIT: There are no hard and fast rules for how long the pilgrimage should take. You can stop and give a little mantra or prayer at each shrine, watch drummers beat deep taiko drums, drop a few coins to the deity or simply breeze past. The gradual peacefulness that descends from active immersion in the natural world is captivating.

HOW TO DO IT: There are custom hikes, small group tours and self-guided walks. Accommodations are limited so it’s vital to book in advance. Best time is March to November for temperate weather.

# 2. El Camino de Santiago, Spain

WHAT YOU’LL DO: The grandaddy of all pilgrim walks and easily the best known, the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St James) refers to a series of pilgrimage routes that end at the shrine of James the Aposlte at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims have walked this route for at least 11 centuries. Those that have completed the last 100 kms on foot or horseback, or the final 200kms by bicycle can request a certificate upon arrival.

Traditionally pilgrims stay in albergues (hostels) in monasteries and converted churches. But if bunk beds, snoring and shared bathrooms are not for you then consider staying in the Paradores hotels along the way. They are often just as much part of the history of the Camino, most were built as pilgrim hospitals.

BEST BIT The comradery amongst fellow walkers and the unique opportunity to slow down from hectic modern life and find a reflective rhythm. Not to mention the ever-changing panorama of cosy villages, medieval towns and quiet fields – even when combined with a dusty plateau or two and the odd sprawling city of two.

HOW TO DO IT: From start to finish this is a long pilgrimage that could take months depending on your pace. Maybe chose a section of the Camino to try out first and see how you enjoy long distance hiking. Best time is April, May, June and September are best times to walk for less crowds and milder weather.

# 3. Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka

WHAT YOU’LL DO: Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s holiest mountain and every year thousands of pilgrims flock to climb its 5200 steps. It’s said to be the place where Buddha left his footprint when he reached Nirvana. Competing claims are made by other faiths: Muslims say the impression is the first footstep of Adam, Hindu’s believe it was made by Shiva.

Whoever it belongs to, this stunning summit in central Sri Lanka brings people of different faiths together for a festive and spiritual journey, and this in our time of xenophobia is undoubtably a wondrous thing.

This pilgrimage only takes a few hours, but to be honest the steep steps make it a challenging climb. Most people walk it at night (starting around 2am). The cool air helps, though a lack of sleep adds considerably to the challenge. The trick is to stop off at some of the many teashops and stalls along the way. Be aware of your surrounding – if you listen carefully, you could hear the trickle of waterfalls.

BEST BIT: Time your climb to watch the stunning sun rise over Sri Lanka before checking out the mystery footprint. Look out for the shadow of the peak cast by the rising sun – a perfect triangle across the landscape, one of the strangest sights you’ll ever see particularly if there is mist rolling across the hills. Be quick it only lasts around 15 – 20 minutes.

HOW TO DO IT: Whether you go in a group or by yourselves there are some basic tips to remember. The top can be very cold and windy, especially before dawn so bring extra layers. Don’t forget the sunscreen either. It heats up quickly once the sun has risen. Best climbed between January – May to avoid the monsoon.

# 4. Croagh Patrick, Ireland

WHAT YOU’LL DO: Once sacred to the pagan Celtic god Lugh, this mountain in western Ireland has been an important site of pilgrimage for over 5,000 years, when people gathered to celebrate the beginning of the harvest. It became a Christian holy site thanks to St Patrick who is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights on the summit.

Today the climb up the rocky slopes continues to be a popular pilgrimage. Over 20,000 do the climb to the summit at the peak time, many of them barefoot. Along the way stone cairns form a ‘station’ where prayers can be said by pilgrims.

There are stunning views of Clew Bay and its 300 odd green islands if you make the steep ascent up this 765-metre high mountain. And for the faithful it is also possible to attend mass in a modern chapel at the summit before making your way back down for a pint of Guinness in a local pub.

BEST BIT: Yes the panoramic views are fantastic, but actually its the social connection and chats with fellow walkers that makes the experience truly magical and worthwhile.

HOW TO DO IT: There are a number of routes but by far the most popular is the traditional pilgrim route which starts at the car park. Signs point you to the start of the huge path, chiselled out by feet of generations who have climbed Croagh Patrick’s slopes. Traditionally the pilgrimage days are the last Friday and Sunday of July and August 15, through the weak can be taken between April to September.

#5. Villa Francingena, Italy

WHAT YOU’LL DO: One of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages, records show that the Via Francingena dates back to at least the 7th century C.E. While it is certainly not the most popular of the ancient pilgrimage routes nowadays, the trail still gets upwards of 1,000 visitors per year. The Italian route has been recently revamped and already visitor numbers are increasing.

The trail journeys through England, France, Switzerland and Italy, finally ending in the Eternal City of Rome – a massive 1300 kms from go to woe.The landscape is varied and there are some exceptional cathedrals and towns along the way (Arras, Reims, Lausanne, Lucca, Sienna, San Gimignano to name).

BEST BIT: Walkers can enjoy Europe’s more secular charms along the way, especially when the trail winds its way through the wine region of Champagne and Tuscany’s Vale d’Orcia.

HOW TO DO IT: Allow 3 months to do the journey from start to finish without stops. Most people only chose to walk a section, the most popular being the last section from Tuscany through to Rome. There are self guided options along with small group tours. Accomodation options include B&Bs, hostels and simple accomodations in church halls. Best time is from May to November.

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