Camino de Santiago, my Journey
It’s still dark, 7-30 in the morning, I stop and turn around to look at the now distant lights of the small Spanish village whose cold empty streets I left behind me almost an hour ago. It’s now the very end of September and the night frosts of Northern Spain lie clearly in the fields and hedge bottoms. My fingers are cold; my feet still a little stiff, and my mind not yet fully functioning on the day ahead of me. Its beginning to get light and I can now just make out the outline of the church and by its side the pilgrims hostel where I spent the previous night.
Soon it will be sunrise, a glowing ball of fire rising out of the valley, over the wheat fields of the Meseta, the rolling vineyards of Rioja or the majestic peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains. By 10-30 the sun will be high enough for me to feel the warmth upon my back, time to take off the first layer, my walking jacket, fleece and socks [now used as makeshift gloves] are tucked into my rucksack.
A new energy envelopes me as last night’s plans of today’s journey are brought to the forefront, another quick look at the guidebook to make sure of somewhere to stop and eat mid-morning, the location of wayside drinking fountains (a chance to rehydrate, and refill water bottles) perhaps a bar for a well earned afternoon beer, and ultimately, at today’s destination I will need somewhere to eat and a hostel to sleep the night.
Yes all is looking good but the plan could change and there is a need to be flexible.
Yes all is looking good but the plan could change and there is a need to be flexible. This, another typical day on The Camino de Santiago,The way of St James, a medieval pilgrims route to the resting place of the bones of this Saint at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, and for me a walk of over a thousand kilometres from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Finisterre on the most Westerly tip of Spain.
My journey has however no religious agenda, I am walking the path because it is there, though as a family friend I have decided to take Caroline with me in my thoughts so there is, within, a sense of spirituality.My first day took me from France, over the Pyrenees into Spain a 5 hour uphill slog to my pilgrim’s hostel (albergue) which slept 120 people and didn’t have nearly enough showers or toilets for all. There was clothing to wash and dry, an evening meal to find, then it’s into my sleeping bag and bunk for a welcome night’s sleep.
Day six brought me to Pamplona and after spending the last few days walking through small villages and towns, this was my first big city of note, and it was party time. The Spaniards love to celebrate their local Saints (San Fermin in this case) and I knew this one would go on all night, and the next and probably the one after. So, tourist time first, see the sights, visit the cathedral then, sometime early afternoon the band struck up and the fiesta began.
I watched the dancing and song from an adjacent bar, best tapas, washed down with a few Riojas whilst the town went crazy. Next day, walking through city centre to continue my journey, people were wending their way home or looking for the odd bar that was still open at 6.30 in the morning. Plastic glasses and bottles were piled high and my boots were sticking to the pavements, but the clean up operation was well underway, ready to start all over again later on today.
I have so far met many nationalities on the camino, Japanese, Russian, S.Korean, Rumanian, Italian etc… and all speak English, badly! I now speak pigeon English, even to the Brits. I took a detour to visit the church Eunate, linked to the Knights Templar and high on my list of places to see. I lit a candle for Caroline, there was to be a mass that evening so I left a note asking for a prayer for her.
I stayed in a great hostel in Torres del Rio, three good showers, two toilets and only another 29 people to share with! How the pilgrims spirit soars at the sight of multiple clothes lines, and, wow, pegs. This was run by a Spanish Nora Batty, permanent pinny, and permanent fag. She noticed my dab hand with the mop and bucket around the showers, pointed up the stairs and the words “mi apartamento” were spoken. The thoughts of copies quantities of vino, a warm bed and a “full English” crossed my mind but I handed back the mop and bucket and the devil passed over me !! Great tip from Kiwi fellow walker, aching feet, sanitary pads wrapped around the inner soles of your boots, sticky bits holding underneath great flying without wings.
I have walked through the gentle, rolling farmland of Navarra and the vineyards of Rioja, then on to the vast region of Castilla where I will pass through three of its nine provinces. Here I stayed in a rather special place, the albergue at Granon, a parish hostel located in the upper floors of the annex to the adjoining church of St John the
Baptist, it slept about twenty people with mattresses on the floor.
Payment was whatever you thought it should be, and a shared meal was provided with everyone helping with laying the tables, serving the food, wine and water, washing up etc, all overseen by volunteers. During the evening we attended a choral recital in the church next door, the singing was remarkable and in between the songs the story of the camino was told, a very unusual atmosphere in a very unusual hostel.
My next big city was Burgos, an architectural jewel not least for its wonderful Cathedral. My journey here took me along winding paths through Holm oak woods to the crest of a windy hill where a stark cross remembered the dead on both sides of Franco’s civil war. Sunrise came, another beautiful day and my thoughts are of Caroline.
I have walked 350 kms now and everything is holding up if you don’t count 2 toenails turning black, blister on right heel, sores on both big toes, left knee bit of pain, right knee lot of pain and the skin behind my knee has gone due to my shorts chafing. The good news is, they usually hurt individually and rarely together.
Leaving Burgos I now come into the relative wilderness of the Meseta, Over half this stage is by way of earth track across the peace and quiet of endless crop fields ; wheat on the better ground and barley and oats on the higher and poorer soil. We might come across a shepherd and his flock or the occasional fox, otherwise you just have the birds to keep you company, and there is little or no shade from the sun.
It was on this part of the journey that I came upon a small snake beside the path. Curiosity took me closer to this little fellow, and although no more than a foot in length, as I came nearer he reared up with aggression at me. I was later informed that if bitten by this particular species, and no treatment was found within a time scale of two hours then death was a good possibility.
By now I was on my 15th day and approaching the small town of Castrojeriz, north of Madrid, garlic growing country, population 1000, who seemed permanently preoccupied with siesta!! For my part, I am keeping local bar owners happy partaking in calamares and beer, I‘m happy. There is much of interest along the way and walking, washing clothes, showering, mending wounds and eating takes up most of my time.
Coming up to the third province, Castilla-y-Leon,and now half way there. Onward through Terradillos de Los Templarios, the hostel here follows the traditions of the ancient Knights Templar, offering comfortable accommodation, food and wine for donativo, (whatever you wish to pay). The last stop before Leon, Mansilla de las Mulas. The name is derived from mano en silla (hand on the saddle), with the addition of de las mulas (of the mules). An interesting old town with remains of medieval wall and towers still surrounding it. This is deepest Spain, farming community, old bars and tapas given with each drink.
Leon—an amazing city of great architecture and culture, its many bars and restaurants spilling out onto old narrow streets and plazas. A one time military garrison and base of the 7th Legion, hence the name Leon derived from Legion, the old and new of a hectic modern city flow seamlessly together. The Basilica of St Isadora, Gaudi’s austere, gothic Casa de Botines, San Marcos Parador and the magnificent Cathedral, where I lit a candle for Caroline, were among its many treasures.
Leaving Leon, a long walk through its suburbs then finally an isolated track through open country, scrubland with Holm oaks. The sky is blue and the sun is high in the sky the Cantabrian Mountains stand majestically behind taking up the whole of the horizon.
I think it’s time you knew about a day in the life of a Pilgrim
Wake about 5am, snooze for 15 minutes whilst listening to dawn chorus not birds people snoring! Rise at 5.30am, and with 3 showers 2 hand basins and 3 toilets to share between perhaps 40 people it’s good to be ahead of the queue. Ablutions over and it’s a quick count of last nights bed bug bites, then the daily ritual of packing rucksack, not easy in the dark and too much rustling can make you unpopular with late sleepers. Time for breakfast, usually cup of tea and anything in food bag that is less than 4 days old for me, normally stale bread and sardines, canned of course. On the road for 6.30am, still dark, head torch on, follow the yellow arrows out of town. Two hours quick pace then morning break, for me a little bar. Café Americano and bocadillo jamon, same stale bread, though coffee is usually good. Upwards and onwards towards today’s destination. Short break at lunchtime – meet up with fellow walkers, share out takes place of ointments, plasters, directions, foodstuffs and the odd alcoholic drink hooray! Off again, destination reached, pay your 8 Euros, grab best bunk possible, near window, not near snorer. Take off plasters, look at blisters, wish you hadn’t. Change into anything that looks clean, wash rest in cold water in a scrubbing board type sink that makes granny’s wash day 50 years ago look like Electrolux heaven, hang out to dry looks like rain, sort out boots ready for tomorrow. The rest of the day is now yours, siesta? talk to fellow walkers? buy food for tomorrow? trip to farmacia? Again or find a bar? Evening meal, Pilgrims menu 3 course, usually pretty good, about 8 Euros including wine. Back to alberque, lights out 10pm and then it starts all over again the next day. Ah the life of a sinner.
Two days out of Astorga, another city seeped in history with wonderful architecture. A very tender knee stops me from sight-seeing though I cannot resist a look at Gaudi’s Palacio Episcopal and the majestic Cathedral St Maria. Walking along the Sender – the Roman route from Rome, through Astorga and beyond, bracken and scrub on one side and rolling hills and wooded valleys on the other, the smell of wild fennel is wonderful. This is the first stage of the mountains and as I set out this morning from the small village of Santa Catalina it was very cold and the fields were covered in frost. Yesterday I sat outside having a beer in the sun, today I have been told
to expect snow in three days SNOOOWW, this is Spain !!!.
Day 27, at Vega de Valcarce, set in a wooded valley within the mountains and now warm after a cold morning start walking up and up through mile after mile of vineyards and forests of chestnuts [edible]. This is very old Spain, peasant folk living in old wooden framed houses, overhanging wooden balconies with animal quarters underneath. The last of the big cities, (Ponferrada, pop 62,000) before Santiago has been left behind and a 1330 metres ascent will take me over O-Cebreiro, then a very steep descent into the region of Galicia .
The accent of O-Cebreiro was breathtaking literally, a very long slog of a climb through wonderful scenery. My walking now takes me on small tracks, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, cattle and a few sheep though no crops . The dwellings are falling to pieces, and there is an absence of young people and their children, as the area is too poor to provide much employment for them, they have gone to work and live in the bigger towns and cities. Here the women folk drive the tractors or herd the cattle and somehow still find time to do the cooking and tend the bars. Thick, hot soups, rich vegetable and meat stews, steamed octopus dusted with paprika, all accompanied by local red wines and followed by the famous almond tart, tarta de Santiago all help to keep the cold out.
A short detour took me to Samos, there to visit the Benedictine monastery set in this tiny village in a peaceful river valley. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the whole of the western world, with one of the largest ground plans and cloisters in Spain. It provides pilgrim accommodation, having 90 beds in one stark dormitory, basic facilities only with no kitchen or lounge area.
On now through Sarria, once a major medieval centre for pilgrims. Portomarin to Palas de Rei and then a great stopover at Melide. A prosperous administrative town Melide is best known for its speciality restaurants, pulperias, serving the regional dish of octopus, pulpo galega, very good!
Day 32, and a pleasant walk, 33 kilometres up and up through woodland to spend the night in the municipal alberque at Arca do Pino. I am now one day away from Santiago de Compostela, the end of my journey, except I have decided to carry on to Finisterre!!
Finis Terra, the end of the earth, another 85 km, three days walking, on the road less travelled, and by only a few of the pilgrims arriving at Santiago. My final destination being the lighthouse at Cabo Finisterre where below and out towards the sea are several pilgrims monuments, including the poignant brass boot rooted in the top of the rock and surrounded by the Atlantic swell, or the fire pit, blackened by the burnt offerings of worn out shoes and clothing, a now common “end of the Camino“ pilgrims ritual.
Day 34, I am one day out of Santiago and on my way to Finisterre, two more days of walking then back to Santiago, say goodbye to my fellow pilgrims and hello to my lovely wife Lesley, who is meeting me there.
Santiago is a vibrant university city with its bustle of tourists, pilgrims and locals. It comes alive at night with its many varied shops and restaurants serving wonderful seafood. I arrived at the Great Cathedral in time for mid-day mass, packed out with a thousand people, a sight not to be missed. It is a very emotional time for most people no matter what their faith, or indeed lack of, having reached their destination and having walked many miles, not always in the most comfortable of circumstances.
I light a candle for Caroline and join some of the people I have lived with for the past five weeks, for a beer and a chat covering our combined experiences. Looking back to when I started walking in France, over a thousand kms away, I have had blisters, lost toe nails and skin, ached in most muscles in my body, been fed upon by bed bugs, endured cold showers at the end of a long day, slept above, below or at the side of epic snorers, lost so much weight I even had to take my wristwatch in a couple of notches. I have longed for one of Lesley’s roast dinners, to have seen her, my kids, grandkids, the dogs, been able to complain about how crap Coronation Street is getting, the state of the country etc…
And yet, there was not one second of the last five weeks that I would want to have missed. I have met and walked with some amazing people, I have admired their strengths and tolerated some of their madness. Walking for so long and mostly by yourself opens up the mind and allows a look within yourself. Having to live and get along with people of different countries, customs and ideals, and with not always a common language teaches, if nothing else, a greater tolerance and acceptance of your fellow man. I hope, what I have learnt from the path will have made me a better person.
Thanks to all my readers from hopefully a little more holier.
Written by Pilgrim Fletch
P.S. Been to Finisterre and back, my journey is now complete. I leave you with this thought; Yesterday is history. Tomorrow a mystery and today is a gift. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it, for boldness has great power.
Enjoy your travels and stay safe.