Out of the Ruts!
21 January, 2017: I am in a rut – same tracks every day, same bumps, same pot holes. Rattle, rattle, rattle down the ruts. I need to break out and get on some fresh ground. Tomorrow, I break out.
Today, I am preparing my backpack for a 14 day tramp from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela. I am going to walk part of the French route of the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, is the name given to many routes from various parts of Europe to the shrine of apostle St. James, where his bones are said to be buried. Over the centuries, pilgrims have made their way to the shrine to ask special favors of God. More recently, the path has been traveled for fun by many outdoor, biking and horseback enthusiasts.
So,…I guess I will be a pilgrim for the next two weeks. That’s hard for me to say. Where I grew up, getting called a “pilgrim” was fighting words. I think that goes back to John Wayne calling all the greenhorns “pilgrims” in his movies. Getting called a “pilgrim” or a “Drug Store Cowboy” were some of the lowest insults you could receive when I was young.
It is the dead of winter here in Spain, and it will be cold. I just checked and it looks like lows will be right around 0 Celsius. Not cold by Montana standards but still cold. The distance is approximately 500 km or 310 miles.I haven’t made any plans or appointments. I don’t know how this trip will go. I am going to fly by the seat of my pants. I have downloaded pdfs to my Ipad of each section of the trail between the two points. The pdfs provide distances as well as tips about where there are hostals and albergues (bunkhouses). I am a little worried about how warm some of the bunkhouses will be, but I really believe I will be able to adjust and roll with the flow. I look forward to walking as far as I can each day and going to sleep tired.
I do know quite a bit about the trail. In the summer of 2012, Pia (my wife), along with my daughter (Matilde) and my son (Vincent) and I traveled the “north route” of the trail from Irun to Santiago by bicycle over 17 days. We had a wonderful time with many adventures. I probably will relate a few of those adventures in future posts.
The walk can be quite crowded during the nicer months and it can be hard to find lodging at times. The hostals and bunkhouses offer special rates for pilgrims, and some only ask for a donation. I called a place that has approximately 150 beds in Burgos, and they said there is lots of space and the cost is 3 euros. With the weather, I don’t think I will have to worry about finding places to put my sleeping bag.
My primary objectives for the walk are:
- I want to get tired. I want to physically exert myself for an extended period of time. My mind needs it, my body needs it and I am going to do it.
- I want to give thanks. I have been blessed. I want time to think about my wife, my two children, and family and friends and I want to give thanks for my blessings with an effort.
I am lucky in the sense that I can organize this time away from my job. I have an online store, I sell on amazon and I work at exporting from Spain for clients. For the past month, I have been working to get orders into factories, labels available, packaging organized, etc so that I can get this time and hopefully nobody will know I am gone on a walk-about. My lovely wife Pia is taking over the day to day management of online sales after a brief training period and so, with a few days of postponement, I am finally ready to take to the trail.
I have several business objectives for this trip also.
- I want to improve my use of my smartphone and IPad. I rely on a computer too much. I want to explore more efficient ways of doing some of my chores.
- I want to improve my posting ability on my business social media sites. I want to learn how to post better content more efficiently.
- I want to explore the back-roads of Spain and share some of the findings with customers of Cactus Canyon Ceramics and GringoCool.
My wife Pia is a trooper for allowing me to disappear for a couple of the coldest weeks of the year. Two of my primary household responsibilities are to prepare meals and keep the wood stove going full blast. I hope I do not return to find my poor wife emaciated and frozen on the couch. But, I know I won’t. She has already scheduled all sorts of fun outings during my absence, starting with today where she is down at Granada for the Women’s March. Only the dogs and cats will miss me I am sure. Thanks Pia!
I plan to post regularly on this blog during the trip. And I plan to use Instagram to share photos. If you want to follow me on instagram, my handle is: cactuscanyonceramics
The blog posts will also be available http://www.facebook.com/CactusCanyonCeramicsLLC as well as google+ and linkedin.com
Well, I am finishing this first post. I have to wash clothes, raid closets and prepare my backpack. Tomorrow, I am on my way! Cheerio – Steve
Day 2 on El Camino de Santiago
24 January 2017: Day 1 was mostly pain. I left my Burgos Albergue (bunkhouse) at 7 am on Monday morning. By 11 am, my legs, lower back and shoulders were in constant pain or discomfort. I walked until 4 pm and arrived to Hontanas, somewhere around 27 km from Burgos. Pain and exhaustion. I know in two or three days the pain will disappear mostly and instead there will be exhaustion.
I didn’t know whether to expect cramping after the first days walk. I am not in very good shape but no cramps and only one small blister so far. I went to sleep at 8 pm last night and woke up five time during the night. I think my waking was related to the level of charge on my batteries. I woke at 11:30 pm when my battery charge passed the critical stage, then again at 2, 4 and 7 am when my batteries finally reached full charge. I woke up feeling great.
2nd day is finishing at another walk of approximately 27km. The last 5km was a killer.
I am learning some things on this walk.
1. It is always really interesting to meet other pilgrims. The first night in Burgos I went out to eat and drink with an Irishman that hugged me as soon as I walked in the door of the albergue, which threw me off a bit. After a couple of beers, the Irishman told me I was a beautiful person when I was 20 yrs old, but now that I am managing an online store I am part of the problem not the solution. …???… After learning this interesting tidbit I basically ditched the dude. Irish or not you have to talk sense.
I met Federico from Chile and also Joe from Argentina/Italy/Spain. Low key guys easy going and fast walkers.
2. What is going on? Of the 3 bar restaurants in Castilla y Leon I have eaten at so far,..none have served extra virgin olive oil. They serve cut rate poor quality olive oil. Crazy. In Andalusia, a restaurant’s character is revealed by the quality of olive oil. What is going on here? I will find out and report back.
Well, day two is in the books and I am looking forward to sawing logs and seeing some country tomorrow. Thanks for reading and comments are always welcome. Steve
Day 3 Camino de Santiago
25 January 2017: I walked a lot through agricultural country today. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up in Montana. There are similarities. I don’t see any small producers though? It looks like most all the production is done by large corporations?
The towns I pass through are right on the “Camino de Santiago” and it is clear that pilgrims are good for business. Right now though 80% of things are closed I would say. In each of the pueblos there will be one municipal or Catholic bunkhouse open and maybe 1 or 2 private lodging places and that’s it. But looking around you can tell this camino must rock during the spring summer and fall months.
Today I saw some north American Indian teepees (Great Plains Indians). I thought,…”hey this is way cool. I will stop and see who set up the teepees and what they are about.”
But instead, I ended up peaking into a closed “albergue”. I saw two donkeys and two geese in the lawn area. The paintings of the walls, murals and public areas were definitely hippie paintings,… lots of colors, stars, moons, happy children etc. The donkeys came over and started nibbling on my hands. They are ready for the crowds to come back. I imagine it may even cost more to stay in the two teepees? I’m betting this would be a crazy summer stop?
Well, tomorrow I might see some of my first rain on the trail. I have hiked approximately 87km in three days. I will need to keep this pace or a little better to reach Santiago in two weeks. We will see how it goes. Thanks for reading. Steve
Pilgrims at Carrión de los Condes
27 January 2017: Man,… These Spanish names for the pueblos are just killing me -they go in one ear and out the other. But mi amor (Pia) is keeping track via a google map for me. She is a sweetheart. I just try to keep track of where I am going each day.
One of the important things about the Camino de Santiago is the people you meet. There are many reasons to do the walk but in most cases you find people that like to talk about their lives and also learn about yours. If you like to share your life, the Camino is a good experience.
Two nights ago I checked into the Albergue Espiritu Santo in Carrion de los Condes. Modesta, a very simpatica and able, fundraising Nun, checked me in. I found myself in a bunk room with nine other travelers. I will give a very brief description of each just to give you an idea.
#1 A quiet French guy, about 5’10”, 160 lbs in his 50s. Did not have a back pack or sleeping bag. Modesta, the nun, was very worried about getting a bed with sheets made up for him. Shortly after his arrival he spent an hour on his bed meditating. And then he walked around with a ghost like smile on his face.
#2 A 50 ish German lady. 5’8″ 140 lbs. Dutch haircut. Walking the trail backwards to Germany. It sounds like she has been in Spain for several years and is going back to Germany now, walking like she arrived.
#3 My friend Federico from Chile (29 yrs). He had just finished up a telephone job interview and was not real optimistic about the job in Chile. He said he needs to get a job. He works on the financial ends of energy projects usually. He is an engineer.
#4 Another Chilean who speaks English with almost an African accent. 6’2″ 185 lbs- very out going and happy (@35 yrs). About 2 months ago he biked the trail and now he is walking it. A little over a year ago he and his wife divorced. He quit his job teaching English, I guess. Has lived in the States, Canada and England. Nice guy interested in alternative teaching methods.
#5 An Irishman (late arrival) 5’10”, 200 lbs 43 yrs. The same guy I tried to ditch in Burgos. This guy has done the trail or sections of the trail so many times he can´t keep track. He walked a long day he said to escape the Italians and Argentinians he was with, because all they wanted to do is drink beer. I bet the Irishman took a taxi to catch up with us.
#6 &7 Two Spanish brothers from Barcelona 60-70 yrs. Very funny together. They find good places to eat and drink in each pueblo and they walk about 20 km per day. Looks like they are enjoying the experience together.
#8 My friend Joe the Argentinian who works in the Balnearios Islands during the summer and lives in Italy during the winters. Almost 50, long blond hair, 5’9″ 150 lbs. Loves the Camino. Has the the movie Way of Saint James and has watched it many times. He can point out where scenes were shot. Joe is only on the trail between Burgos and Leon, then back to Italy. A quiet, nice guy.
#9 A “European” 30 ish 5’10” 175 lbs, bald with an almost perfectly round head. Didn’t get a chance to visit with the guy. Seems nice but maybe a little high maintenance?
So that is a quick overview. I expect I will meet many people in the next days. I am walking at about the same pace as Federico and Joe. This past night I slept in the Municipal Albergue at Sahagun. I arrived in the rain and will leave this morning with rain and snow showers. Federico lodged here along with a French lady that will take the train today to Leon.
I am headed to Mansilla de las Mulas today (hopefully). It is cold this morning. Thanks for reading. Comments or questions are always welcome :-) Steve
Days 4 and 5 – Camino de Santiago
30 January 2017: Day 4’s walk started in the dark at 6am, and ended in the dark with rain at 6pm. Lots of walking -37km worth from Carrión de los Condes to Sahagún.
Day 5’s walk started in the dark at 7am and after 39km, I reached Mansilla de las Mulas at approximately 5pm.
The spaces I walked across were large. In many cases, I would look from horizon to horizon and all you can see is fields and the straight road. This may not seem strange but for Spain and the Camino de Santiago, the past two days of waking crossed some of the most disheartening and intimidating stretches of the Way.
I have since found out that many Pilgrims skip the stretch between Burgos and Leon, because it is long and monotonous. Instead of walking it they take a bus or a train to Leon and continue the walk there. This happens even more during the summer months when it is hot.
Also, I heard that for one particularly barren stretch of 18km (11.2 mile) directly out of Carrion de las Condes, they have an ambulance buzzing back and forth picking up distressed Pilgrims during the hottest days. Pretty crazy.
During the 1960 and 70s, a Spanish priest named Elias Valina Sampedro spent a lot of time researching and mapping the historic routes. From what I understand, in the 1980s he petitioned the government to help him with materials to mark the caminos so Pilgrims could follow the routes and not get lost. The highway department supplied him with left over buckets of yellow paint with which he set about marking the paths and creating what we now know as the modern Camino de Santiago.
VOLUME OF PILGRIMS
I am walking the St James Way (French Route) in the dead of winter. There are very few Pilgrims on the trail right now. For instances, each of the municipal albergues (bunkhouses) that I have stayed in has had only 1 section of the albergue open. The most people I have seen in any of the albergues is nine people. And because of this, I have been able to use the washer dryer when I want, use the kitchen stove or microwave, or take a shower at my convenience. I have talked to several of the inn keepers about the flow of Pilgrims. As I understand the number of Pilgrims starts to increase at the end of February, grows through March and April to the highest levels in May (which is mayhem), the numbers drop through June, July and August, but then increase substantially in September, October and November. December is a low month but Pilgrims lodge every day, including Christmas and New Years.
When the albergues are full, there is a line of people waiting to use the stove, a line into each shower stall, and a line waiting for the washer and dryer. Sometimes it is a race for the Pilgrims to get from one Albergue to another. This encourages some Pilgrims to getup early and start hiking by 5am so they can be among the first to arrive at the final destination and get a bed in the albergue.
The photo above shows how the new bunkhouses are proportioned. Each sleeping spot has a mattress and pillow. This albergue in Sahagun could hold approximately 118 Pilgrims. All Pilgrims share access to approximately 6 showers, 4 toilets, 1 washer and dryer set, 1 microwave and about 2 meters of kitchen space (with a refrigerator) and two large tables to sit at.
I stayed at this albergue with a Chileno (Federico) and a French lady named Cati, who was going to catch a train the following day. Below is a photo of an “old school” albergue (Espiritu Santo Alberge in Carrion de los Condes.
I will explain more in the next post. Thanks for reading. Steve
Day 6 -Plans Change!
31 January 2017: One of the primary objectives of my Camino de Santiago trip was to walk as far as I could each day and go to bed tired. I accomplished this extremely well, so well in fact that when I woke on the the 6th day (Saturday morning) for the 18 km walk into Leon, I knew I was developing case of tendinitis on my kneecaps. Tendinitis is one of the few things that can shut me down.
For the last couple of days, I had pushed the daily walking distance to near 40 km, which I recognize as my limit right now. With knees that hurt and distances and days that don’t add up, I made a change of plans. On Saturday when I arrived to Leon from Mansilla de las Mulas, I jumped a train for the city of Ponferrada – eliminating approximately 110 kms from my trip.
This meant leaving a friend I had made on the Way (Federico Caballero -Freddy) in Leon, which was a real bummer. I was growing accustomed to finding Federico at the end of a day and enjoying his optimism, jokes and good vibes. And he also picked a spare guitar one night at an albergue and played some songs, which was way cool. He was fun to be around and a good trail compadre.
So, Saturday evening I found myself in Ponferrada at the Albergue San Nicholas de Flue meeting new people and studying new distances and terrain. And another thing I did is empty my back pack of all but essentials, lowering the weight on my back by a further 3 kgs. This is the second time I have reduced the stuff in my backpack. I way over-packed. I think this with the fact that I am about 10 kgs overweight myself, contributed to the knee pain and early tendinitis.
Several Pilgrims noticed my backpack at Burgos, where I started. They both suggested that a walkers backpack should not be more than 10% of your body weight. This, I have learned, is such an important aspect of walking the Way that I will write a post on it with lessons I learned, after I am off the trail.
Thanks for reading. The next stretch is from Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo – through wine country.
ps: I am continuing to check each bar/restaurant’s quality of olive oil. So far it is about 50-50, in terms of offering a quality extra virgin olive oil. One thing is clear though, if you go to a supermarket here in the north, you can immediately see which of the olive oils are the real deal because of the coagulation (see photo below). The supermarkets are not well heated. :-) Steve
1 February 2017: I walked from Ponferrada to Villafranca de Bierzo on Sunday – approximately 23 km. I have had really sore knees, and was wondering how the walk would go, but it went great. I think my knees are healing. The rest of my legs feel great.
I walked through a ton of vineyards, ……back and forth, up and down ridges. Very beautiful but, I don't think the 16th Century Pilgrims walked the same route I did. :-) The Camino is very much a business for many.
This section of the Way has to be a spectacularly beautiful during the growing season. And it is clear this region caters to the Pilgrims by offering wine tastings and plenty of bars to dink local wines. Passing through some of the pueblos, I saw some restaurants that I have to believe offer a top quality dining experience. I am sure the food would be wonderful, and the prices reflect that. This place must be nuts in May and June.
There looks to be all levels of service and price levels for the passing Pilgrims. I walked past one “establishment” that looks so scary that the only explanation is that Baby Bacchus himself was serving drinks there.
The money from Pilgrims is very important to the pueblos, and you can see the competition at times not only among the albergues, restaurants, hotels, hostals and bars but also among areas vying for recognition as part of the Camino. One example is the stretch from Carrion de los Condes to Sahagun. About 8km from Los Condes the route separates into two paths. One path goes through two villages and the other parallel route goes through 3 villages. The “reason” for the two paths is two different claims. The is northern route actually uses an old Roman road which the southern route innkeepers don’t consider to be “Spanish”. I don’t think middle century Pilgrims worried to much about who built the roads. I doubt they would hump it through the Spanish countryside on cow trails if there were a straight dry road to walk,… but there are now two claims to the route, with albergues, bars, hostals, etc.
When I left Carrion de los Condes, I knew there would be some “trickery” involved in the path. I wanted to walk the northern route (Roman road) because I thought it was 4km shorter. Guess what,… I got tricked and I walked the southern path. Crazy. From my rudimentary maps, it looked like the trail split after getting to Calzada de los Molinos, but it was actually before the pueblo, which I didn’t see on the other side of a highway over pass. There were yellow arrows going every which direction at that point so I knew something was up and took my time being careful. I still ended up on the south route (mostly because I am an idiot), but there was trickery.
But honestly, there is a sign language jargon that you have to learn. For example, when I go to Madrid, every freeway I am on leads to the airport, if you belive the signs. It doesn’t matter if you are going north, south, east or west, you are on the route to the airport. Spanairds seem alright with this but it confuses me. I remember that when I was in Chile, I learned to accept that many times there is no advance notice of turns. You saw the sign for your turn as you went whizzing by. Each country has there own sign language. I am still learning Spain’s.
I have to say that from the humble beginnings of Father Elias Valina Sampedro running around in his car painting yellow arrows every which way in the 1980s, the Way of Saint James has turned into an incredible business in a relatively short time. From what looks like new investment in albergues, restaurants, etc, it looks like people think the number of Pilgrims will increase more and more. Time will tell.
Thanks for reading. Steve
Another photo of a Bierzo vineyard waiting for spring and the hordes of Pilgrims.
Days 7 and 8 – Into Galicia (on the Way of St. James)
5 February 2017: I have met many characters on my two week walk on the Way of St. james. One guy that will stick in my mind I ran into just as I was summitting the last ridge before the albergue at O Cebreiro. I had hiked around 30km from Villafranca de Bierzo and the last 8 km was beautiful but grueling with 4 false summits that were rather discouraging. Anyway, back to the guy. I was walking along, looking at several large chunks of snow and wondering when the last snow storm was, and I see this guy walking towards me. He is tall, at least 6’3″ and athletic but borderline skinny. He has some funky hiking tousers on that reach right below his knees, with strings hanging down. His backpack is huge, and reaches a least a foot above his head. His hat, for whatever reason, reminds me of the traditional stocking hats worn iduring the French Revolution.
We stop to talk. He is German and he is walking the trail reverse, and then will contonue to walk until he gets home to Germany. I notice as we are visiting that he is missing probably 6 of his front teeth and he bounces his eyebrows for effect. He is just the aboslute friendliest guy. With his eyebrows bouncing for effect, he tells me I should carry a walking stick in Galicia. He tells me stories about having to beat off two dogs and knock another down with a stone. He didn’t know if that dog survived or not. As I was talking with him, I was cold from the wind and the temperature. It was close to 5pm, when the sun starts going down, and he told me he was hiking down the ridge and to a pueblo approximately 20km away. Better him than me, I was thinking.
He impressed me. I bought a walking staff at the next store I could and honestly, it has come in very handy during three occassions with dogs so far. I only have had to swing it menacingly to make them back off. The dogs along the Camino know what sticks and rocks are, that is for sure. Most of the dogs I have seen in Galicia have been large Mastiff, Shepard and Saint Bernard varieties. I have only seen two Border Collie type dogs, and no Austrailian Heelers or Shepard dogs. They are all big watch dogs and they watch over the stock not just the house.
Another character I will remember is an old lady that flagged me down. Leaving O Cebreiro the next day, I Summitted the Alto of St Rock (San Roque) at 900+ meters and then mostly walked down hill for the rest of the day to Triacastela. On this downhill tramp, I passed through what I would term “settlements”. They were not villages, but instead clusters of buildings which in many cases included a dairy, milking shed and a closed albergue. As I was leaving one settlement, I heard a sort of screech behind me. I stop to see an old lady standing in the middle of street behind me about 75 meters. She was beckoning to me. I wave her off and point that I will keep walking. She ademantly shakes her head beckons me and then turns around and heads back to her house entry way. I see no other alternative so I decide to humor the old lady and I walk back to her entry way.
She is short, maybe 4’11” dressed in what I can only describe as simple, home spun wool clothes with years of wood smoke in them. She has a dress, and also a heavy shawl of some sort. She doesn’t have army boots on, but something very similar. Her head is covered with a bonnet, and she has an incredibly big smile of beautiful teeth. She is lively, friendly and spry. I guess her age to be between 65 and 85. It is hard to tell, but she is clearly very healthy.
She whips out a plate and says she has a present for me. Then she raises the cloth and I see crepes. She has a plate of crepes! She gives me one as we are talking, and then she runs back into her house to get a sugar shaker. I end up eating two and they are delicious! She quizzes me as to how many Pilgrims were staying in the O Cebrerio albergue last night. I say there were six of us, and she shakes her head with frustration. She said she missed the first three that went through, but would keep her eyes open for the two behind me. I realize at that point, that this is her winter business. She is as poor as a church mouse. I take all my change (about five euros) and it give it to her. She turns her head sideways with a huge smile and says “thank you” in English – almost with a wink. She was fun.
Between O Cebreiro and Triacastela (a rock quarry)
The edge of Galicia is very rural and remote. The roads are small, and farms dot the rolling landscape. The stone houses look like they have been there for hundreds of years. Many of the homes have a winter gardens. The pace of life is definitely a little slower in back country Galicia.
Alto de San Roque
Thanks for reading. The next blog post will close out the walk to Santiago. Many of the final days of the walk were rain soaked. Cherrio Steve
Days 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 – Arrival to Santiago de Compostela
6 February 2017: The last five days have been full of walking, rain and power outages. The last place in the world you want to stay in when there is no electrical power is a municipal albergue in Galicia. Without electricity, there is no water, no heat, no wifi:-) no capacity to cook and it is dark. Basically, a big cold building with a room full of bunkbeds.
A very large winter storm went through Galicia during my final days of walking. The nightly wind storms knocked many trees down and during the days it dumped a bunch of much needed rain. It was miserable walking though, at times. I concentrated on keeping food in my stomach, staying hidrated and keeping the core temperture steady.
Day 10: I walked from Barbadelo to Gonzar.
Day 11: I walked from Gonzar to Melide.
Day 12: I walked from Melide to Pedrozo (La Arca)
Day 13: I walked the final 18 kms from Pedrozo to Santiago de Compostela.
After starting in Burgos, walking to Leon, and skipping ahead to Ponferrada, in total my Camino de Santiago covered approximately 400km (250 miles). I averaged about 19 miles per day. I thought I would be able to do more than that. But, honestly I feel really good about my Camino. I walked until I was tired, and then some each day. I loved it! I love this kind of walking. I really have to do more of it.
I met a bunch of interesting and wonderful people. I saw many beatiful sights. I tested myself, and I found a lot of quiet time to reflect and thank God for my many blessings. It was a wonderful Camino.
Arrival to Santiago of the Little Red Hunchback from Valencina.
The Cathedral at Santiago is getting a face lift.
Thanks for reading. I want to do three more posts about the Camino. “Small Prayers in the Camino”, “Making friends on the Way of St James”,’and “Lessons Learned”. Buen Camino! Steve
Making Friends on the Way of Saint James
6 February 2017: The Way of Saint James is an intense experience. It usually involves new experiences, exhaustion and levels of discomfort and this has a way of bringing people together. The people on the Way are usually very nice people and with the shared intensity of the daily grind, people become friendly and friendships are made.
When I set out two weeks ago to walk from Burgos to Santiago my priority was to walk. I was not out to make friends, and eat and drink well. I wanted to walk and let everything else take care of itself.
There are many smart phone apps now that can give you distances, lodging info, weather, …you name it and the information is there with a smart phone. But, from the first I decided I was going “old school”. I would not make detail plans, I would not download apps, and I would not worry what tomorrow brings. I decided I would plan day to day by talking with other Pilgrims, innkeepers and locals and I would go about as far as I could each day to the next open municipal albergue (bunkhouse). I would roll with the flow and not worry.
I think my approach was in part inspired by a couple of friends (Karen and Rich McCann – no relations) and their travel experiences. Karen writes a travel blog (www.enjoylivingabroad.com) where she offers many tips and stories about enjoying your travels. One of my favorite themes of hers is keeping it simple and keeping it real. Karen and Rich have a way of finding enjoyment in the smallest things, and not getting overwhelmed on any trip.
Back to making friends on the Way. It happens naturally. The way it worked for me was I started at an albergue, and from there I walked as far as I could. That night I met the other Pilgrims there and talked. The next day I again walked as far as I could. Several of the Pilgrims I saw the previous two nights were again in my albergue. We go out to supper, or share food, and talk about the trail, politics or whatever. After three or four days of walking and lodging together, you coordinate and look after each other. You become friends. For me, it is a two or three day process and my group of friends come from the Pilgrims walking at the same daily pace as I am.
It may be a little like summer camp but for adults. But instead of craft workshops, it is instead walking all day.
Camino Comprades in Leon
I met Federico in Burgos, and after two nights we were sharing the trials and tribulations of the camino each evening. From Burgos to Leon, we walked across some of the most desolate spaces of the Way – very long days. I was just starting my walk and the first four days were the most painful for me and Ferderico was there to cheer me on. He was always in a good mood. We parted ways in Leon because with my limited calendar, I needed to jump ahead approximately 100 km so that I could finish in Santiago after two weeks.
I met Peter the first night after jumping ahead to Ponferrada from Leon. He made an impression on me because as I was checking in, he was in a spirited discussion and he tipped over his chair as he rose from the table and roared away. Of course he picked up his chair and was a gentleman, but still very explosive.
Peter has a huge chip on his shoulder. He is mad at the whole world for some reason. But behind all his huffing and puffing, and pessimism, he is a very nice guy and quite fun to talk to. He has been on the road for four years. He lives on about $25 per day. When he runs out of money he works a bit at whatever sort of odd job he can find and then he is back on the road, walking again. He is especially fond of walking in Scotland where you can camp anywhere by law. He considers “The Guardian” newspaper to be a “radical liberal left wing rag” and he has little patience for bleeding heart liberals. He is skeptical about climate change, but recognizes that 98% of the scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate, so there may be something there. But still, he is not ready to accept it. Honestly, when I think of Peter, I am reminded of the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie and I don’t know why.
Last 5 km into Santiago. No rain so all good!
Even and I walked into Santiago together. Even is from Beijing, China. He came to walk the Camino for two weeks, during the Chinese New Year break. He walked from Leon to Santiago. He is 26 years old and a software engineer. Even understands English well, but speaks it with difficulty. He knows no Spanish.
Even was really quite brave to travel alone to a country where he had limited ability to understand and communicate. Peter, Even and I walked pretty much the same distances each day, so we stayed in the same albergues and shared many meals and conversations. You could tell Even enjoyed listening to conversations, and that he would love to partake but found it difficult. From the beginning, Peter was looking out for Even.
What cemented our friendship was a couple of nights of windstorms. Even and I were the only two in the albergue at Gonzar when the first big wind storm hit. Gonzar is settlement more than a village. There was no place to buy food or get a meal when we arrived. Even had two oranges, two bananas, and some chocolate. I traded him a tin of tuna fish for an orange and gave him some teabags and sugar. We had enough stuff to have a basic meal for the evening. During the night, tremendous windstorms knocked the power out and so we left the albergue walking the next morning without food, and little chance of finding any. Everything was closed. Finally we found a bar/cafe open at about 11:30a and we entered. The bar keep said he was sorry but no coffee or food was available. At that moment, however the electricity was restored and I talked the guy into cutting up some chorizo (Spanish sausage) and ham he had, and serving it with sliced bread and coffee. I realized later on a couple of occasions that this had made quite an impact on Even. Later the same day he bought me supper because I had been able to find our breakfast. He insisted. And later that same evening, I saw him making a whole loaf of sliced bread into chorizo sandwiches. I realized that he had not tried chorizo before. Coming from China he was scared of the Spanish food and pretty much asked for beefsteak and french fries for each meal. He tasted chorizo and was an instant fan.
We also went to a Pulperia for octopus, which he loved and I wrote out several of his favorite foods in English so he could find the recipes when he got back to China.
Food makes the world go around.
Thanks for reading. Steve
Small Prayers Found on the Camino de Santiago
6 February 2017: When you arrive to Santiago after walking, biking or horse backing riding the Way, you have to fill out a short questionnaire to receive your Compostela (certificate). You have to check a box. The questionnaire asks you to check whether the reason for your walk was religious, spiritual, or for sport.
I think for most, the Camino is a little of each of these. I found that one of the most enjoyable details of walking the Way of Saint James was encountering small prayers along the way. At some moments, spaces or areas felt like hallowed ground,… a little like passing through a Native American burial ground or walking across a battle field or passing in front of a war memorial. Maybe there are many spirits still walking the Camino.
One thing is clear on the Way, Pilgrims have a thing about packing rocks. You pass mile markers (ie kilometer markers) with stones on top. You pass piles of rocks and patterns made of rocks. Pilgrims pack rocks around.
Rock arrow pointing towards Sahagun
I think that it may be a method for starting and finishing a prayer. You pick up a rock, and the when you are done with your prayer, you set the rock down in some notable spot. Rock piles grow, mile markers accumulate rocks and periodically you find stray rocks with messages on them.
I found this small prayer half way up a difficult climb to O Cebreiro
There are many small memorials along the trail where people died on the Camino. I counted eight small memorials, two of which were for clergymen.
The Camino offers anyone the chance to walk. There is no prerequisites or preparations required. You don’t have to sign a form declaring your physical shape. All you have to do to start on the trail is check into an alberguee, pay approximately 12 euros for a “credential” where stamps of the albergues and holy places you visit are registered. This credential is presented as evidence that in fact you have walked, biked or horseback ridden the Way of Saint James once you get to Santiago. In short, anyone can walk the Camino and some don’t make it to the end.
This caught my attention because the flowers were fresh. The message says, “Thanks, Mommy for guiding us on our Way (camino)”
Another method Pilgrims register small prayers is with graffiti. Some are sort of witty, and some are just happy, celebratory scribbles. There seems to an inordinate number of happy people on the Camino with permanent markers
There are only two mistakes you can make on the road to truth,…not going all the Way, …and not starting.
“Make Love Not Wall” … I found this in the road on a rainy day, next to the largest rose “bushes” I have ever seen. Incredible.
Along the Way, you find a lot of small prayer memorials. These usually have mementos tied to them or piled around the bottom. Many times you see photos of people that might be the reason a Pilgrim is walking the Camino.
This was in Galicia
This was at the top of a steep ridge, a days walk from Burgos.
The small prayers you find along the really make the Camino de Santiago a special walk.
And I love to imagine the middle century pilgrims staggering along the paths, hoping to find a miracle at the end.
Thanks for reading – Steve
Lessons learned on the Camino de Santiago
12 February 2017: After finishing my walk along the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to share some of lessons I learned, which I hope may be helpful for people planning on walking the Way.
What’s in your backpack?
During the first day, two pilgrims commented on the size of my backpack as we walked from Burgos to Hontana, both saying that ideally a backpack should not be more than 10% of your body weight. I did not know the weight of my backpack, but leaving my house near Sevilla, I had packed:
1 Sleeping bag (for below freezing temperatures), 2 extra jerseys (polartec), an extra pair of pants, 3 underwear, 4 socks, 1 sweatpants, 4 long-sleeve underarmour, 1 rain poncho, 2 quick dry towels, a bathroom kit, a medicine kit, a “super battery” for recharging my phone and Ipad, 1 liter water bottle, and my smartphone and Ipad with chargers.
At the end of the first day of walking, I left one of the jerseys, some of my shower kit, and one of the towels in the albergue at Hontana. Four days later (with my knees hurting like crazy), I further emptied my back pack, sending a box of my stuff to Sevilla from Ponferrada. When I left Ponferrada, my backpack included:
1 Sleeping bag, 3 underwear, 3 socks, 1 sweatpant, 3 long-sleeve underarmour, 1 rain poncho, 1 quick dry towel, a reduced bathroom/medicine kit, 1/2 liter water bottle, and my smartphone and Ipad with chargers.
This is what I sent home from Ponferrada
From Ponferrada to Santiago, I walked comfortably, and my knees did not bother me. Since I had only the pants I was wearing for the second week, I ended up washing and drying my stuff most evenings at the albergues. This was nice because many of the days I was walking in rain, so completely drying everything was a good preparation for the next day.
My backpack contents at the end of the walk
This was probably the most important lesson I learned on the walk. You need to reduce the weight you carry to as little as possible. Walking distances day after day is very different than walking up a valley to a lake and camping, then walking back out after a couple of days. The day after day walking will put stress on joints, muscles, tendons, etc. and you want to have as little extra weight as possible.
If I were to walk the Camino during the summer, I would probably go with the clothes on my back, a sleeping bag, and a reduced bathroom/medicine kit, and little else. You always need a little room for food and I would plan on carrying two liters of water during some stretches during very hot days.
Layers of Clothing
I walked comfortably each day. The conditions were diverse. Several days when I started walking it was close to freezing and some of the afternoon temperatures may have approached 70° F (20° C). During several days I walked extensively in cold rain. But, I had the right layers of clothing. I walked in a long sleeve underarmour, a polartec jersey and a heavy North Face wind breaker. I could shed layers or add them, depending upon the conditions. Also, depending upon the temperature, I had a stocking hat or a baseball cap that I wore on my head. I managed to keep my core temperature very steady from morning to night. I walked very comfortably, whether it was a climb, or whether it was raining steadily. Having the right layers, I think is hugely important to the enjoyment of walking.
I took special care in the selection of the boots for the trip. I tried on at least 4 different pairs of boots, and finally I selected the boots that were the second most expensive at Decathalon (where,…. pssst… everything is made in China,… I think). I was glad I had water proof boots on several occasions. The boots had the right fit and I only had one small blister on a little toe, which I attribute more to very bulky wool socks that my Mom gave me, rather than the boots. I quit wearing the wool socks, and instead walked in athletic, cotton socks.
Boots from Decathalon (approximately $100 new)
If I were to make the trip during the summer or dry months, I would walk in a good set of running shoes probably. I don’t think there is any reason to using hiking boots during the months of nice weather. Foot comfort is elementary.
Bathroom & Medicine Kit for the Camino
I left with my normal bathroom kit, which included several 6 oz bottles of shower gel, conditioner and body lotion. After the first week, I stripped my bathroom and medicine kit down to almost nothing. I had a tooth brush, toothpaste, floss, 2 oz shower gel, antiperspirant, and cologne. Everything was small because I could always buy new supplies as I needed them.
As far as medical supplies, I recommend iodine with a small syringe. I was told the best way to care for blisters is inject a small amount of iodine into the blister. I never had big blisters, so I never tried it. I was a little nervous about packing around the syringe for fear of being labeled a dope addict, but nobody noticed. I do understand that syringes have other uses other than to shoot up dope.
Also, I learned to take Ibuprofen (600mg) when I went to bed at night. This helped me sleep better, without the twisting, turning and the jumping associated with tired legs. On the nights I did not take Ibuprofen, I would wake up about every two hours through the night. The aches in my legs would wake me.
My medicine kit
When my knees began to bother me, a pharmacist gave me a cream to apply on the painful area. The cream was an anti-inflammatory treatment. I really don’t know how well it worked because I lowered substantially, the amount of weight in my backpack at the same time I started using the cream. But in the end, my knees stopped bothering me so no argument here. A camino friend (Even from China) had middle foot pain for several days and he also applied the same cream at another pharmacist’s suggestion. And after several days, his foot no longer bothered him significantly. So two thumbs up on the creme.
Bedbugs and ???
Several of the albergues I stayed in had bedbugs. My Polish friend (the Black Knight), showed me where he had crushed bedbugs full of his blood. He was an expert!! And very full of information about how to combat the little creatures.
I heard on several occasions that bedbugs, athlete foot, and other communicable skin conditions, can get pretty bad on the camino especially during the summer months. If I were going to walk the Way during the warmer months, I would definitely do some reading and researching on how best to avoid these types of problems. It may involve using some foot powder, carry flip flops, and I believe there are certain sorts of sleeping bag inserts that deter bedbugs. In any case, somebody planning for the Camino should understand that these elements may be part of the landscape.
Timing and Camino Routes
There are five main routes that pass through Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The North route, French route, English route, Portuguese route, and the Southern route (Camino de la Plata). The English and Portuguese routes are relatively short. The French route has the most developed infrastructure in terms of places to stay, places to eat, etc. The North route is the most physically demanding because of all the hills.
I decided to walk the French route because I knew that in January/February, it would be the best bet for finding open alberques in each village. The other routes are less traveled, and there may be stretches where no albergues are open during these months, and you would instead have to stay at hotels.
There is a flow to the number of pilgrims on the routes. From December to the end of February, there are few pilgrims on the Way. The number starts picking up in March, and by mid-April most albergues, hostals, rural houses, restaurants etc are open on all the routes. May is the month where the most travelers are usually recorded. It could be mayhem at some moments, I can imagine. June is a heavy month, July and August drop significantly because of the heat, and then the number of pilgrims again rise during September, October and November.
I heard that this past November there was a record number of pilgrms walking, for that month. Also, I heard that at one point last year, there were more pilgrims walking the northern route, than there were places to stay. So I imagine, some pilgrims had to sleep outside someplace and probably had limited access to showers, toilets, etc.
Long story short, anyone planning on walking the Camino de Santiago should take into consideration the volume of pilgrims that will be sharing the experience.
Well, these are some of the lessons I learned on my walk. Thanks for reading. Steve
Missing the Open Road
February 2018: A year ago, I was walking the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago). I loved the feeling of waking up each day not knowing exactly what was in store.
I think I share a joy of hiking and walking with many people. Endorphins are probably a major culprit of the enjoyment, that and a sense of accomplishment. But there are things that special about the routes of St. James.
My favorite photo from my 2017 Camino de Santiago trek
Breakfast is never an issue when you are walking a Way of St. James. Whether you are on the road north from Sevilla, walking north through Portugal or walking west from France you know you will find a bar/cafe to enjoy breakfast. When I woke in an albergue (bunkhouse), one of my first thoughts was “I can’t wait until breakfast!”. I would usually start the day eating an apple or banana, and then take off walking – knowing that within two hours I would be seated at a table ordering breakfast and drinking at least one cafe con leche. That is a delicious feeling not worrying about breakfast. Just walking, looking, listening, smelling and more walking.
Once you are finished with breakfast, then you can start thinking about supper. Heeheehee, I am mostly joking. But again, one of the nice things about walking the Camino de Santiago is that you don’t have to worry about supper, unless you want to. You can be assured of finding a nice bar/cafe at your destination (usually) and count on a warm, delicious meal with a glass of beer or wine and also usually in the company of friends.
During my two week walk, lunch was very important on several occasions. One lunch stands out especially for me. I was somewhere in Galicia and had been walking all morning in the rain. My hands were very cold. I arrived at a major town and sought out a hardware/clothing store to buy gloves, but they didn’t have any my size. I have rather wide hands and a large head. I don’t fit the clothing profile of Spaniards. So, unsuccessful in my search for dry, warm gloves, I decided to eat a big lunch. I asked around and ended up at a very nice sit-down “menu del dia”, where all the local businessmen ate. Upon entering, I had to stand in a corner to shed my rain poncho, backpack gloves and polartec while all the business people watched me. But I got a table and ordered the daily menu with a soup/bread, main plate and a dessert which probably cost around 10 euros (12$). I remember the soup and bread though. The soup was a Navy bean soup with garbanzos, chunks of chorizo and onion. Just what the doctor ordered.
I usually ate a sandwich on the trail for lunch just because I hated the feeling of being full and walking. But on some of the especially rainy, cold days, I took time for lunch and it set me up for another four hours of walking.
A Bed at Night
One of the unique features about walking the Way of St. James is that you can usually count on finding a bed at the end of the day with a hot shower. Since the Camino de Santiago passes through so many villages, you can plan a route that starts and ends at specific village/town destinations. At each lodging you can find information about the next stop down the trail and there are usually several options. I walked the trail of St. James during January and February when the number of people on the trail is the lowest, so the choices were fewer. But still, I knew where I was going each morning and I knew that I would have a bed to throw my sleeping bag on. And that is wonderful.
A Comfortable Framework
A comfortable framework, that is what the Way of St. James offers hikers. I love hiking up mountains and backpacking into campsites. I don’t get enough of it. But something special about walking the Camino de Santiago is that you know you will find a nice breakfast and supper, and you know you will be sleeping in a bed or cot. There is much to be said about this. It provides a framework that addresses the necessities. You don’t have to worry. All you have to do is walk. You can make friends along the way. You can get off the beaten track. You can stop off at churches, museums or what have you. You can take time out to chill,… you just don’t have to worry. All you have to do is walk.
I love to walk. But it can be a real pain in the “arse” because there is no shortcut. I am reminded of my daughter who is an outdoor leader of activities at a Virginia university. On one particular hike which was a three day trip, one of the participants had a melt down. From what I understand, the young lady got almost two days into the hike and decided that she didn’t like it and threw a tantrum. She said she was not moving from that space and that she was unhappy (even angry :-). My daughter had a hard time convincing the young lady that the only way out was walking. There was no simple solution such as a helicopter arriving to take her to a five star hotel. It was not happening. She had to get on her feet and walk. She had to get herself out. I love that.
And that is true about the Way of St. James. You have to walk. Each day is filled with walking. Walk, walk, walk. No excuses. But you do have breakfast, supper and a bed to look forward to. Hahaha.
I missed this season. I got too busy with GringoCool – shipping garden pots, and preparing orders of boxes, hand painted pottery and extra virgin olive oil. I had hoped to walk part of the Portugal route this winter but that will have to wait until next season (hopefully).
For those readers that want to learn more and read about other “pilgrims” experiences a google search will reveal a ton of information and apps. However, I can recommend a blog (The Camino Provides). You have to check out a map listed of more than 50 routes through Spain and Portugal to Santiago de Compostela.
Thanks so much for reading. I welcome comments or questions. Steve