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Published: February 12th 2010
What a holiday does for your weary body and tired mind, a pilgrimage does for your soul and your spirit (S Kumar)
It's been a while since we've been blogging but we thought we'd post an update of one of our latest adventures back in November when we returned to Europe. We've found other people's blogs so useful when we are planning our travels and from the emails we've had it looks like other people can find our experiences useful too.
We decided that instead of writing a day by day account of our month walking in Spain we would use some headings to make it a bit easier to read. We hope that together with the pictures it still tells a story. We also hope that should anyone be doing research on the Camino our comments are helpful. At times this was one of the most frustrating, painful, difficult of times, but it was so full of reward and experience. We mean we actually made it past the wine fountain...hear that? We can't really list everything that happened to us - being invited into tiny local houses by some ancient and given wine and empenada, wading through rivers
because you were so soaked it didn't matter and you still had another 20km to walk, the friendly inn keeper who gave 6 of us soaked, freezing pilgrims a free night above his pub and the best slap up meal ever, meeting an Abraham Lincholn lookalike who showed us our hostel, the Korean man who was convinced the Roma woman we walked with was a witch (seriously!), dealing with bed bugs, the joy of a warm hostel to yourself , the pleasure of running into friends you left at breakfast 2 weeks previously and never expected to see again, great nights with too much red wine, setting off early Sunday mornings and being joined by groups of pissed Spaniards on their way home who just want to wish you Siempre Arriba! or the group of walkers who tried to dry their shoes on the open fire and overnight set fire to their boots and walking clothes, nearly burning down the hostel...... so many strange happenings and great memories
It was in Australia, that Zoe read about the Camino de Santiago, one of the three main Christian pilgrimages. As we were back in Europe for a while and
some projects we wanted to work for were not up and running around this time of year we decided to give it a go. It is quite a challenge especially since we only had consecutive 30 days. Looking at the possible routes, distances and stages we decided to start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and follow the Camino Frances all the way (800 km) to Santiago. This would mean an average of 30 km per day and not many, if any, rest days. We'd definitely recommend taking more days - to recover from blisters or injury or just to enjoy some of the amazing cities along the way. We'd also say there are also massive pros and cons to walking in November - we'd never want to walk in the summer when the Camino is absolutely rammed with people and the incredibly hot sun is a problem but we perhaps would have aimed for September or October. We just got through some of the high mountain passes as heavy snow was falling - some of our fellow pilgrims got trapped and snowbound behind us.
Why we, and others walk the Camino
We ain't even
remotely religious but this was never a concern when we decided to do a this pilgrimage, The majority of pilgrims are walking for personal and spiritual reasons, rather than those associated with organised religion. Among the reasons for us were: really firstly - it's one of the cheapest adventures in Europe, secondly it's a chance to join body and mind, to carry everything we need for a month in a light (7-9kg) backpack, to get away from consumerism for a while (not many shops on the camino!) It’s also a good opportunity to walk mindfully as the only thing you have to do is walk and use the opportunity to think. Oh and we also wanted to improve our Spanish - something we had plenty of chance to do as in November the majority of walkers are from Spain, unlike the crammed summer months when there are thousands of pilgrims from around the world (a pro and con).
Others we met were there to do something positive whilst unemployed, others were going through a period of bereavement, some trying to make a major life decision and needing time out, some for a cultural tour while still others aimed simply
to finish the biggest walk in their life. Very few people were there because of religious reasons but pretty much everyone had some spiritual element to their walk - each very personal. That said we did have and hear of some animated conversations - most notably the one between the Hari Krishna and the Catholic (sounds like a bad joke)....
Everything becomes amplified on the Camino, small physical or spiritual aches can become massive when you are walking, walking each day. You get so much time to think, which is just as much of a challenge as the physical aspect of walking and dealing with very smelly, sometimes very cold or crowded hostels every evening. Your fellow walkers alternately delight and drive you to insanity. And you have to just keep remembering it's up to you how you respond to things.......
Practicalities, walk and routemarkers
Right from the start of the Camino it became clear that some nights would be more peaceful then others. Our first experience of the typical hostel set-up (bunk beds in one big room) was in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. The first and not the last time that we noticed
that people snore… a lot… especially 40 of them! This group effort in snoring builds up to a crescendo and then after a deafening noise it’s quiet again for all of 30 seconds. Earplugs are very popular with pilgrims. One of the girls we walked with would try to stay awake until everyone else was asleep because she tended to shout- loudly- in her sleep.
The Camino itself is very easy to follow. The wonderful yellow scallop shell signs or yellow flechas (arrows) are numerous and easy to spot. You become quite good at spotting the scallop shells all be they high on a wall, the pavement or on a little marking pole. There some entrepreneurial souls who divert you passed their pub or restaurant but it never seemed to be too much of a detour.
One more thing, after getting really soaked and very cold we were thrilled to pick up a small kettle in Pamplona (how English…cuppa tea anyone?). It allowed us to make hot water bottles and drinks after cold days, brilliant. Especially when you arrive at a hostel which has no facilities (quite common as many are shut in November and many that are open are
just municipal facilities like sports or town halls - ever slept in a mirrored aerobics studio? It's quite a freaky experience - very high school horror).
The weather when we were there (November) is a big gamble and it had a big impact on our walk right from the start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The afternoon before our start day we were strongly advised not to walk the Way of Napoleon, which takes you right over some high peaks, due to snow and changing weather. We had to take the alternative route to Roncesvalles. To deal with this set back and ensure an optimum preparation we decided to go for a great faux fillet and a beautiful Rioja (Baron de Ley knows a thing or two about wine!).
The next day we officially became pilgrims for a month, walking out of St-J-P-d-P was a great moment you cross over the bridge and walk towards the beautiful Pyrenees. The day started off with great weather, this changed quickly and before we knew it we had said goodbye to the sun and it was time to get the all weather kit out…The foul weather never stopped and as we gained altitude
we faced hail and snow. This was a tough start to what we knew would be a challenge anyway! Despite the difficult weather we made a real effort to still enjoy this lovely part of the world. The rain didn’t stop until the day we walked into Pamplona and so we had walked through a constant downpour for almost three days solid. The rest of the Camino was more varied in terms of weather with some brilliant sunshine, and very dark days as well. The weather didn’t change any more once we crossed into Galicia for the last section to Santiago. The Galicians have about 20 different words for rain in different grades and this is basically because it always rains there…
We hadn't really planned enough and soon realised that our backpacks weren't waterproof, our boots were pretty much out of 'walk' and we really needed some quick dry clothes. We were in hoodies and beat up travelling boots and most other people were in pretty technical gear. We found that chafing and trying to get clothes dry were a real problem. We walked absolutely soaked for about 3 days at the start and that was pretty hard. At
the big Decathlon in Burgos we picked up some slightly better gear and some waterproof stuff sacks - nice and cheap too.
Hostels and food
The hostels on the Camino range hugely in terms of comfort quality and price. Some places have invested in brilliant community owned hostels like Burgos, Ponferrada and just before Palas de Rei. You get a comfy bed for 3-5 euros and these are warm and clean although perhaps they don’t have as much character.
Some are privately owned like the fantastic Tio Pepe in Villar de Mazarife and Pequeno Potala in Ruitelan. The first has such a friendly owner she really took a lot of pride in her place. She also wouldn’t let us leave until she had a picture of us in her bar (not too hard to arrange ha ha ha). The Ruitelan one had comfy rooms, great food by Carlos and they wake you up with some very loud classic music- we had Ave Maria at 7 am! Bar Rosa across the road is great to down a few as well. For great views the clear winner is the privately owned O Mirador in Portomarin. It’s set overlooking the river and
is also a small brewery! We got to enjoy a packed house as Barca played Real Madrid, good atmosphere as young and old are bonkers about footie. The hostel in Foncebaddon (just before Montes de Leon) is good fun. A previously abandoned hamlet, renowned for its wild dogs (think Shirley Mclaine channelling big red love hearts in an effort not to get attacked) the hamlet now has a couple of hostels and an interesting vibe. Particularly as it was enveloped in thick mist when we were there and the main inhabitants were about a million cats. Zoe was given some reiki treatment by the hostalero who also happened to be channelling William Wallace as well D’Artagnan, an unlikely combination and a bizarre conversation…
Some hostels are more bizarre such as Hostal Felix in Villafance de Bierzo; the place is run by Jesus who is as mad as a coot and was helped out by a German as well as an American who had an uncanny resemblance to Bill Bailey. In this hostal you stay in a cold attic and when we were there the water wasn’t running, the place also had a few bedbugs…nice. One pintsized cyclist was given
a “Green Dragon” by Bill, a weird drink made with alcohol and dope which didn't help with his bike riding then next day - we saw a few near misses as we walked along behind him (yes he wasn't going so fast).
By far the worst hostel was in Larrasoana. This one was run by a woman with hair on her teeth, she really seemed to hate pilgrims staying in “her” pilgrim hostel and making a mess. The place was stone cold and had crappy beds. The first thing she did when she arrived was check to see if no one was breaking any of her rules, not a warm welcome. That evening however we were lucky enough to find a shop ran by an Italian Argentinian lady who was happy to cook for us in her small shop. She found the time to cook 3 courses for the lot of us even though her cat was giving birth upstairs! She also did a mean Orujo (liquor made from the solid part of a wine grape after pressing) Hurah!
Highlights, tapas and walking companions
The day through the Montes de Leon was definitely one of the nicest. We left
Foncebaddon in thick fog and climbed out of it on the way to the Cruz de Ferro. The idea of this cross is that you lay a burden down, the burden is symbolised by the stone and then left behind. Leaving the stones we carried from the UK on the pile of stones was an amazing experience… You leave the place a lighter person!
The nature is stunning. We were luck enough to see plenty does, deer and even an owl gliding over us in the early morning- magical!
The camino is partly so affordable because of cheap pilgrim’s menus. These typically cost not more than 10 euro and you get three courses and wine included. They all include chips so after a while you look around for something else. For us tapas in Leon was great, you just walk around the town, pop into a bar for a glass of wine and get a free tapas with it. These are different in all bars and we found that if you do a little pub crawl you don’t need to eat after all the tapas. Even more affordable was the free pie and wine in the Hospital de
San Lazaro, a beautifully restored old pilgrim’s hospital with a lovely shop and fantastic bar and restaurant. They have some lovely rooms but slightly out of our budget range...
It is pretty easy to make some new friends to share some meals with as you can easily end up with the same group in the next hostel. We met some great folks and we had some fun days and evenings before losing track of one another, often to meet up a week or so later. There were also some interesting people who walked a lot further than we did. One girl walked from Italy (Assisi) others from France (Le Puy-en Velay or Arles) and we even spotted one chap who walked from Germany (Cologne)! We also crossed paths with some students cycling from Bristol to Marrakesh. Most people are walking alone - it's deemed very safe for women to walk by themselves. We loved walking together - but it is a different experience from motivating yourself alone - a personal choice, of course.
By far the biggest challenge of the Camino for us was, unsurprisingly, blisters. Especially when you first get soaked and then slowly dry you
are almost certain to get some big blisters. The locals expect no different and every place seems to have a few pharmacies fully stocked with blister plasters- we spent a small fortune! There were however a few mornings when Eric got nauseous just trying to force his blistered swollen feet in his shoes. Besides the blisters Zoe suffered from a very painful toe and Eric’s shin became unbearable in Arzua. Despite faithfully taking magnesium everyday (good for your muscles and prevents cramp as well!) he had developed a shin splint. At the end of the last 4 days he felt like walking on a broken leg- intense pain! It also meant that we couldn’t walk onto Finisterre which we’ll have to do some other time.
On a different scale we caused ourselves a bit of a headache getting locked out of the hostel in Burgos. Note: it closes at 10 pm and not 10.30! it was worth it because we had had a great evening out (apparently getting locked out of pilgrim hostels isn't an uncommon experience!) But we had to try to check into a hotel without bags, passports, credit cards or money. Much to our surprise the guy
in the hotel had no issue trusting these two strangers with bad Spanish and gave us a nice room. Lovely to be helped out and to just be trusted to come back to pay (which we did…)!
And then, finally, you arrive in Santiago. In typical Galician weather we descended the Monte de Gozo to tackle the last 5 km to the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. After spending so much time on the Camino this really is quite a special and sad moment. There is not really one moment when you think that this is the finish which shows of course that the journey indeed is more important than the destination. We we’re cold wet and hungry but also pretty happy and proud to pick up our Compostela (certificate of pilgrimage) in the pilgrim’s office. After a bite to eat we went to our hotel where, after a month, we let it sink in that we were no longer pilgrims but definitely will be again!
What we took away from it
The Camino is an amazing experience: you see some amazing things, meet some great people and are sometimes humbled by people’s friendliness and helpfulness. It’s
also a serious test in terms of physical but also mental strength. To remain positive, keep going when in pain, and focus on the beauty around you is sometimes difficult but perhaps the key to finishing the Camino. We found out about so many other Caminos - the great Santiago ones like Portugale - from Lisbon to Santiago, Via della Plata - from Seville to Santiago, Del Cid - from Alicante and many many others like one on our plans for 2010 - Mount Kailash pilgrimage in Tibet sacred to Buddhists and Hindus.
We’ll be back to do it all over again! If you want to read up the pilgrim classics were Paulo Cohelo and shirley mclaine (neither of which we had read before we went) and we came across and coverted the Camino Guide (http://www.caminoguides.com/) while on the pilgrimage. Our walking guide was the functional Rother Walking Guide - good but not as fun as the Camino Guides. Our other reading companions were Pema Chodron (http://www.pemachodronfoundation.org/pema-chdrn/) and a local pilgrim (local to our home area Devon, UK) and former Jain monk Satish Kumar (http://www.resurgence.org/satish-kumar/). Oh and we didn't listen to any music or audio books as we walked
but we had downloaded Lord of the Rings read by Tolkien himself, in case we ever had need. As it was the sounds of the country, our companions or sometimes the busy highway we had to walk were enough. Buen Camino! if you choose to walk!
Tot: 2.596s; Tpl: 0.065s; cc: 16; qc: 72; dbt: 0.0529s; 2; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.6mb