Good Times in Grañón

** Updated this post a little **

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Grañón, Spain

I was delighted to stay a night in the donation-based hostel in Granon. At very least it meant my day’s walking was done after 22.4km. On a deeper level, it meant I was in a good place for the evening – both literally and figuratively.

The donation-based hostels tend to attract a certain crowd – either the pilgrims who are holding very tight to their purse strings, or the pilgrims who want to connect in some deeper way. It’s easy to get caught up into the frenzy of clocking distances and times on Camino. God knows, there are enough people treating it like a race. Staying in donation-based and church-based hostels is a nice way to side-step that madness, and spend time with like-minded people.

We ate dinner together as a group that evening in the hostel. The intimate setting created an opportunity to make new friends and spend time with familiar ones. It also encouraged/allowed pilgrims to be of service and help out with the logistics of preparing and serving a meal to 40+ people.

When you eat in privately owned restaurants you don’t have to, or get to, assist in the logistics. Instead, you simply arrive in the door, have your meal served to you, and pay when you’re finished. You get to walk away without thinking about the washing-up!

I’m not alone in saying the Camino has become more popular in recent years. I was, and am, part of that popularity by virtue of the fact that I was there in 2013. That’s not a million years ago, so I am sensitive about commenting on the politics. But, it’s attracting some people who treat it as a cheap walking holiday instead of a revered pilgrimage route. I’m not even referring to the Catholic pilgrimage specifically because the route pre-dates Christian tradition.

So, it’s more than 2,000 years old.

I think that deserves a bit of credit and a bit of respect.

And I think the volunteers and staff deserve credit and respect, too. They peel all those potatoes, they chop all those onions. They clean beds and bathrooms after us. They sweep floors and converse with us in half a dozen languages because many of us (myself included) don’t have enough Spanish. They do everything to make the process easier and kinder.

When you’re consumed by blisters and sore feet, it’s far too easy to overlook the people who keep the show on the road. We shouldn’t be so consumed by our own drama that we overlook the people around us. We shouldn’t be so fixated on what we can get out of a situation that we forget to ask what we can contribute to a situation, too.

Rightly or wrongly, an increasing number of people treat Camino as a cheap walking holiday and sometimes assume an air of entitlement as a result. I saw it in Navarette when four women argued over the assignment of beds. Their attitude was more prevalent than I ever expected.

Of course, not all the people walking Camino are on pilgrimage – religious or otherwise.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cheap walking holiday, and even the people who avail of its low-cost location can be decent and generous.

I’m not trying to imply that unless you walk 800km or more (in your bare feet and wearing a thorny, woollen vest on your back!) that you’re an egotistical brat.

It wouldn’t be fair or right for me to say that.

But Camino isn’t like a cheap package holiday or regular walking holiday. The influx of people expecting (and demanding) particular treatment can be difficult to manage.

I can’t blame the pilgrims (or holiday-goers) entirely for this break-down in attitude because more and more, Camino is marketed as a cheap walking holiday. I’ve seen it in my own national press recently – a series of articles and videos giving people advice.

Need a New Year’s resolution? Maybe walk the Camino in Spain. Buy tomorrow’s edition for all the tips and tricks!

I get it: Camino is big business and everyone wants a bit of the action. It’s become a profitable topic, something to be consumed, and a bandwagon to jump on. And that, in turn, changes the energy dynamic on the ground.

The reason I’m harping on about all of this here is because in Grañón, we were expected to help out with serving dinner. We rearranged tables so they all joined together. We laid out the plates and cutlery, and served each other food. We were active participants instead of passive consumers.

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Inside my hostel…

That evening, I met a French man who walked Camino for the 10th year (and I think it was his 10th time), and his entire attitude was one of service and support. He did more work in the preparation than most of us, combined. On top of that, he was a sort of emotional temperature check for the whole building. I observed him in action and he was the kind of guy who sensed when someone was about to cry, laugh, or collapse from pain. Even in the middle of carrying pots of food and finding extra chairs, he was giving hugs of consolation and congratulations to those on the edge. He observed everyone, and gently rearranged the mood in a subtle and beautiful way.

He was our “Maître d” that evening, though most didn’t quite realise that.

The same man also organised a surprise treat for a Danish woman, who celebrated her birthday that very day. He happened to hear about it only minutes beforehand but by the time she sat down beside me for dinner, he had it all organised. When our meal was finished, he gently signalled for someone to turn down the lights, and a volunteer brought out a small baked pastry with a candle on top. The woman had just turned 19 and we sang Happy Birthday to her in a chorus of languages and laughter, while she made a wish and blew out the candle.  She even got two servings of rice pudding desert for the day that was in it. 🙂

He made that happen.

Later, I happily solved a sartorial dilemma. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but let me explain:

Days earlier in Villatuerta, I accidentally destroyed one of my 3 t-shirts. It’s a long story but the end result was that my once white, quick-drying, wick-away garment looked like it was covered in

grease,

baby sick,

or both.

The stains wouldn’t come out and I was too embarrassed to wear the shirt afterwards. I was down to using 1 t-shirt by day as I walked, and a 2nd t-shirt by night while I slept. The 2nd one needed to be washed but the 1st one was always either dirty from wear, or drying on a clothes line somewhere. My options were limited:

I needed a 3rd t-shirt, at least temporarily, while I laundered the 2nd shirt.

Otherwise, I’d have to go topless.

And whatever I may say about the changing attitudes on Camino, it’s (thankfully) not a place for topless pilgrims!

The hostel had a chest full of donated clothes, all left behind by other pilgrims. I rooted around in the wooden trunk till I found a t-shirt that fit me – a baby pink, Tommy Hilfiger tshirt with sequens along the front! It was the most unlikely garment anyone would wear on Camino but I was delighted to have it. Finally, I could wash my clothes in peace, without having to hide behind a bush while waiting for them to dry!

Hours later, my American friend, Fred, approached me with something in his hands. He had listened to my tale about accidentally destroying one of my precious t-shirts and wanted to offer me one of his. (Between you and me, I might have hammed up my tale a bit for entertainment, implying that the loss was far more serious than it really was. So, I felt bad for unintentionally provoking his offer.)

He said to me:

I’ve got 3 of them but I wear only one: would you like to take this spare one?

I was delighted with his offer as I knew it would get me out of my predicament. On top of that, the t-shirt was a wick-away one, which would be perfect for walking long days in the 30-something degree heat, where I worked up *quite* the daily sweat. I was happy to accept it either way, but its wick-away qualities were an extra bonus. And this t-shirt had no sparkling sequens on it, either!

Fred’s friend beside him cheekily offered:

I don’t suppose you want any socks, do ya? I brought 6 pairs with me but I don’t wear half of them. I want to get rid of them and lighten my pack: wanna take some?

I gently declined on the socks but gladly accepted the t-shirt, and hugged them both for their generosity. I had walked for days needing a new t-shirt and in Grañón, I received two! 🙂

Good Night Grañón

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

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Crossing the main road to follow the trail to Santiago

I left Santo Domingo after finishing my cheesy, bread-y lunch, and walked on 6.2km to the small village of Grañón. You can see by the photos below that the day was another stellar, sunny, scorching hot day – I miss those!

I hoped to secure a place in the parish hostel adjoining the Church of St. John the Baptist, where they had room for 40 pilgrims between 2 rooms. I wanted to stay there because the hostel ran on donations (“donativo”). I learned, from staying with the nuns at Zabaldika, that the hostels financed by donations tend to have a different atmosphere and ethos to other types of accommodation on Camino. Thanks to the nuns, I’d enjoyed a communal meal with my fellow pilgrims and made new friends. I even enjoyed the hymn singing (although I cried my eyes out all the way through!). I appreciated their kindness and support, and their donation-based hostel gave me some much-needed tender care. Experience had taught me that donation-based hostels felt nurturing and kind. I wanted to stay in as many as I could, so I prayed for a space in Grañón.

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Only 560km to go!

When I arrived, I was thrilled to learn that there was free space for me!

And I was even more thrilled to bump into American Fred and his friends, sitting out on the grassy lawn out front. We first met in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. He stood out because of his John Deere hat, but they were each smiling, friendly, mischievious men. I enjoyed getting to know them. We’d lost track of each other in the intervening days, but bumped into each other the previous evening in Azofra. I happily joined them for dinner and drinks there, but once we left the hostel the next morning I never knew if, or when, I would see them again. Life on Camino is like that.

So it was a real delight to find them again in Granon, and to have some time to sit in the sun, chatting, laughing, and to catch up on our walking. A few days on Camino can feel like a few months or even years in “real life”, and there is always so much to catch up on.

I was thrilled to see them, and thrilled to have a free space in the hostel.

There was only one small snag with the hostel. I knew it in advance but the thing was:

They didn’t provide beds.

They didn’t have beds of any sort.

Instead, they offered mats on the floor, with woollen blankets and cushions too. The blankets and cushions weren’t exactly clean but I took them anyway to provide a little extra padding beneath me.

What’s it like to sleep on a mat on the floor? Something like this:

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You’ll see that the mats are tightly packed in there, with only 2-3 inches between them. Sometimes, there’s no space between them at all, so you can find yourself sleeping very close to someone you’ve never met before! As a woman travelling alone, this could have been weird in a thousand and one ways. Honestly, it wasn’t weird at all. I’d never met the guy sleeping right beside me but we exchanged hellos and then politely avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening. When you sleep that close to a stranger, you need to create boundaries any way you can, and that’s what we did to create ours.

But that afternoon, I sat out on the grassy front lawn with Fred and friends, chatting, giggling, and enjoying their company. That evening, I went to mass in the church next door. In keeping with a long-held family tradition, I was very, very late. To my credit, I was on a call to Handsome Husband so I figured I had the very best of reasons for being late, right?

But I was so late that I arrived in towards the end of the mass, during Holy Communion, and just about in time to receive a pilgrim blessing at the very end. In the photo below you’ll see that the priest gathered all the pilgrims together in front of the alter, before saying the blessing in Spanish. I wrote a little bit about the blessings in an earlier post, which you can read here: Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago.

You’ll also notice from the angle with which the picture was taken, that I was outside the group. I had arrived in so late that I didn’t want to stomp my way up to the front *just for the blessing* – that would have made me quite the “à la carte Catholic”! Instead, I snapped this brief photo from behind, said “Amen” when necessary, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. It might have worked except for the fact that when mass ended, some older Spanish women stopped to chat with me at the front door of the church. They looked like women who attended mass every day, at least once a day, and maybe twice on a Sunday. I very obviously stood out as a pilgrim in my quick-drying outdoor gear, but one of them tried to engage me in conversation nonetheless.

I hadn’t a clue what she said to me, but I tried to explain that I was very sorry but I didn’t speak Spanish.

She kind of laughed, as if to say:

Ah of course you speak Spanish! Don’t be pulling my leg!

I insisted:

No, really I don’t speak Spanish. I am very sorry. But I hope you have a lovely evening.

Again she looked at me with merriment in her sparkling eyes, as though I were playing the world’s biggest practical joke – and she were in on it! And again, I insisted that even though I spoke just enough Spanish to explain that I didn’t, in fact, speak any Spanish…I knew how to say very little else!

She didn’t believe a word.

We went back and forth like this for about 5 minutes. By that time, her friends had joined her and they all circled around me at the doors of the church. I had no idea why they’d earmarked me, when there were dozens of other pilgrims walking right past them. I wanted to get back to the hostel to avail of the communal meal there, but I didn’t want to be rude and break away from the ladies either. And anyway, they seemed so sweet and warm – they reminded me of all the nice grandmothers I’d ever known! With their long, knitted cardigans, their mid-length polyester blend skirts, and their sturdy shoes, they reminded me of women I knew in my childhood and I felt a natural affinity with them. I felt they might even have sweets in their pockets, or have a stash of knitting wool hidden somewhere behind a statue!

She looked at me with a warm gaze and quickly spoke to her 5-6 friends standing beside her. I, of course, have no idea what she really said, but her tone and clucking noises made me feel she was saying something like this:

Doesn’t she look just like Manuel’s daughter, Isabella? Look at that hair, and she has the very same eyes! I’d swear it was her!

With all her friends saying:

Ooooh yes, you’re right! She looks just like her. And you know who else she looks like?

Who?

Carlos’s neice….the one that moved to Madrid….what’s her name again?

Maria.

Yes! Maria. She looks like her too. But they’re related anyhow, so that would make sense. Their mothers are second cousins.

Ah yes, I’d forgotten that. And their related to José in the shop, too. You’d swear she was one of them.

Pity she doesn’t speak any Spanish though.

And she’s a bit pale…

Poor thing has no sense of fashion…

But she looks just like that side of the family!

I stood on, like a village idiot, smiling without understanding what they really said. But they were endlessly kind and welcoming to me, and I glowed with the warmth of it all.

If I had any grasp of the language I would have stayed to chat because she was a warm, mischievous gem of a woman. I know she and I would have laughed together. Instead, I gave her my arm as I escorted her down the steps of the church, to the safety of the level footpath below. I had an albergue to return to, and a dinner to eat. And hopefully she had a family and feast of her own to return to too, that evening.

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Look at all that gold! With Dave and Barb in the blue and pink, to the left.

Seasonal Snoring

I watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles lately, in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas holidays. I’ve seen the movie before, of course, but John Candy and Steve Martin still make me laugh and cringe in equal measure.

This one scene in particular reminded me of all the hostels I stayed in while I walked camino. The bit around 2:10, in particular, reminds of the night I spent in Azofra, where I shared my room with just one other person….

So sit back and enjoy…and turn up the volume….this one goes out to the other pilgrims who shared small, noisy spaces, just like I did!

 

Adiós Azofra (and on towards Grañón)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

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Walking from the golf club house in Cirueña towards the small village of Grañón, I passed through golden corn fields in the early morning sunshine – gorgeous! I also passed through Santo Domingo de Calzada. The town gets its name from Saint Dominic of the Road, so-called because he dedicated his life to improving the physical route for pilgrims by building bridges and roads. The town is now famous for its church and more specifically, because the church houses two live fowl – a cock and a hen.

Hmmmm….what?

Yep, you read that right. There are chickens living in the church. You couldn’t make it up!

I’m pulling this next bit from Brierley’s guidebook so you have a correct version of the story. It goes like this….

“Legend has it that a pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn here on their way to Santiago. The pretty innkeeper’s daughter had her eye on the handsome lad, but the devout young fellow thwarted her advances. Incensed by his refusal she hid a silver goblet in his backpack and reported him for stealing it. The innocent lad was caught and condemned to hang. Some accounts suggest the parents continued on their way, oblivious to the fate of their son and on their return from Santiago they found him still hanging on the gallows but miraculously still alive thanks to the intervention of Santo Domingo.

They rushed to the sheriff’s house and found him just about to tuck into dinner. Upon hearing the news, he retorted that their son was no more alive than the cock he was about to eat, whereupon the fowl stood up on the dish and crowed loudly. The miracle was not lost on the sheriff who rushed back to the gallows and cut down the poor lad, who was given a full pardon…..”

So, a live cock and hen are kept in the church to this day and it seems live there, permanently.

Over the previous days, the trail hummed with pilgrims talking about the cock and the hen. People asked me if I wanted to go see them, planned to go see them, would go see them. Those are three separate questions but either way my answer was roughly the same…

Hmmmm….I don’t think so.

My new shoes were working out pretty well and I expected to walk on further that day. If I were staying in the town overnight and needed something touristy to do, I might have considered a sightseeing trip to the church. But I would only pass through the town on my way west and I wasn’t that interested – however famous the cock and hen may be.

I’d heard mixed reports, too. Some people said we had to pay a fee to see the fowl, while others said that the place smelled really bad because of the poop. Others again said that there’s no guarantee of actually seeing or hearing the cock crow. They thought there wasn’t much point in making a trip of it if the creatures weren’t performing their showcase number.

I have no idea if any of these things are true.

All the chatter was entertaining but I had only one plan:

I’ll see when I get there.

By the time I arrived, I didn’t have any genuine interest in seeing the church or the famous cock and hen. The day was sunny and hot (a lovely daily occurrence) and I was more interested in finding a shady spot in which to eat my lunch. But first, I wanted to find a post office.

Ever since I purchased my new shoes in Viana, I carried my hiking sandals in my backpack. I was on my third day of carrying them and they were too heavy to keep. I decided to mail them home.

I also wanted to send some sweet treats to Handsome Husband, who was holding the fort in my absence. We spoke over the phone earlier that morning while I stopped for coffee in Cirueña, and he was on my mind. I missed him and wanted to send a small care package to let him know I was thinking of him. Oh yeah, and send some used hiking sandals too – what a lucky guy! 😉

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The Chicken-Friendly Church (and look at how blue that sky is!)

I walked the winding streets of the town, trying to find chocolate for H.H. I passed dozens of restaurants, café bars, and gift shops, all aimed at Camino tourists like myself, but I struggled to find any chocolate. I found dozens of bakeries, pastry shops (the Spaniards loved their baked goods), and ice-cream shops, but no chocolate.

I delighted at finding a supermarket but the smallest bars of chocolate they sold were in slabs of 1kg – rather heavy for mailing home, and really bad for Handsome Husband’s teeth. But that was all they had. Otherwise, I’d have to send him baked pastries and they wouldn’t survive the trip. Eventually, I found a chocolate delicatessen and in my rudimentary Spanish, ordered a few small treats for Husband. There wasn’t much but it was the best I could do.

Back at the post office, I waited in line to buy a cardboard box for the sandals and the goodies. The sandals weighed a hefty 1kg and it cost about €25 to mail them. Many people would have thought that an outrageous price for postage, and would rather leave the shoes in a hostel for someone else to use. You would be surprised at just how many people change their footwear while walking camino, and leave the old pair behind in a hostel or even on the side of the trail. It’s a practical and symbolic gesture:

Letting go that which you no longer need

Letting go of material possessions

Letting go of the weighty baggage

Giving to someone else

Sharing your resources with the people around you, or the people who will come along after you

So, I could have left my sandals somewhere instead of carrying the unnecessary 1kg in my pack for 3 days. Lord knows, my shoulders would have been in better shape if I had a lighter pack!

I considered it, but I loved those Chaco sandals and still had a few years left in them. For me, it was cheaper to pay the €25 postage than to buy a new pair later in life, so I paid the money and watched them take the box from my hands.

The woman behind the counter had difficulty understanding my intended destination for the package. I guess she was used to seeing pilgrims come in and post their unwanted belongings on to Santiago, rather than sending them home. I’d heard this was possible – that if, for example, you had too much clothing in your pack, you could mail it to the main post office in Santiago for a nominal fee, and then collect it when you arrive in the city weeks later. It’s a smart idea – it allows pilgrims to lighten the load in their backpacks without having to throw away belongings that they wanted to keep.

I’d heard of the service but didn’t know how it worked or how much it cost. I also didn’t have enough Spanish to really find out. And either way, I knew I was done with the sandals and wanted to send them home. I wouldn’t need them in Santiago so I put Husband’s address on the front. The woman behind the counter challenged me on this and wanted to clarify why I wasn’t sending things to Santiago.

She spoke to me in Spanish and I understood maybe 10% of the words, but 100% of her gesturing.

You’re sending this to Santiago?

No, thank you.

You’re sure?

Yes, I’m sure thanks.

But where are you sending it then? What is this address? You know this isn’t a Santiago address, right?

Yes, I know, that address is my home.

Your home?

Yes, my home. My casa, sí.

Your casa?

Yes, my casa.

This is where you live?

Yes, thank you.

So you’re sending this to your home and not to Santiago?

Yes, exactly!

Oh…but that’s going to cost a lot of money!

Ah…that’s okay thank you.

It would be much cheaper to send it to Santiago, you know.

Ah thank you, but no.

You’re a pilgrim, right?

Yes, I am.

Are you sure you want to mail this package?

Yes please.

Okay, so you’re sending this package and it’s quite heavy and expensive. Are you sure you don’t want to send it to Santiago?

🙂

We went round in circles like this for 5-10 minutes and in the end, she accepted my decision. She shook her head at the madness but followed my request to send the box home, and filled out the forms and paperwork.

I didn’t have any return address to put on it, of course. I was a transient pilgrim and didn’t know where I’d sleep from one day to the next. I certainly wasn’t going back to any of the hostels I’d already stayed in. So I didn’t have a return address to give her.

She wrote the word “Peregrina” (pilgrim) all over the box. In other words:

If this package cannot be delivered, return it to this specific post office because the woman mailing it is effectively homeless right now. And if  you have to return it, we might track her down even though she’ll probably be finished walking by then and be on a plane home. The pilgrim is crazy anyway because she’s sending this box home instead of sending it to Santiago (even though I tried telling her but she wouldn’t listen!). So if she’s crazy enough to spend €25 on postage and the package comes back to us, she might be crazy enough to forget all about it. Let’s hope this casa address is real and that you don’t have to return this box. But if you do have to return it, return it to here.

I walked out of the post office feeling lighter in my backpack and hopeful that the box would arrive at its destination. I gave the chicken-friendly church a miss, and sat in the shade eating my lunch of baguette and cheese. Only another 6.2km to the hostel in Grañón, and hopefully a free space in which to sleep.

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Camino Challenge: What if there are no beds?

A friend recently asked me:

What do you do if you arrive somewhere and there are no beds?

We were talking about my time walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, last year. In following my blog, they’d been surprised to read about the race for beds and the sense of competition I’d experienced in the early days. I was surprised by it too, and found it very upsetting. I’m no Holy Joe but I never expected to find power struggles and gloating on a pilgrimage route. I never expected to see people literally running past other pilgrims to get to the hostel before them. That was both sobering and sad.

I knew that there was pressure on the limited beds along the Camino. I also knew that there was a possibility I would get stuck for a bed somewhere in my 500 miles of walking. Apparently, some 200,000 people walked the French Way in 2013. With numbers like that, the chances are pretty high that many people get stuck for a bed. But I didn’t want to walk Camino in a state of fear about where to sleep at night. I made a decision about how I’d handle the situation if it ever arose. You can read about it here.

I did arrive in towns and villages to learn that there were no beds left and it was rather heartbreaking. Sometimes, I walked for 8-9 hours in over 30 degree heat, and desperately wanted to find a place to sleep for the night. Being told there were no beds left was gutting.

What did I do? Well, in case you missed it, I wrote about my experiences in these posts:

I felt the race for beds most acutely in the first week. After that, things quietened down a bit, for various reasons. Of course, there was still a pressure on the limited number of beds available: it just affected me differently.

So to answer my friend’s question, here’s what you can do if (like me) you don’t reserve your accomodation in advance but arrive somewhere to find there are no beds:

1. Politely ask the locals for help.

Chances are, they’ve seen other pilgrims get stuck before so they might know what options are available locally. Sometimes, that means sleeping on the floor of the local community centre. Sometimes it means sleeping on an armchair in someone’s living room. You might not get a bed but you just might get somewhere to sleep. Understand that there’s a distinction between these two things. Be grateful for whatever is offered.

Three women arrived in Zubiri the same day I did (and like me) learned that there were no beds left. They discussed their plight over a beer in the local café bar, and shared their story with the waiter. He felt so badly for them that he offered to host all three of them in his home. To some of us, that might sound inappropriate. In reality, he was being hospitable and sincere, and the three women were delighted to take him up on his kind offer. When he finished work, he gave them full use of his living room (complete with armchairs and a couch) and even cooked dinner for them as a way of apologising for the over-crowding in the town that night. Isn’t that sweet?

Not every local will want to be this helpful and they’re not obligated to host pilgrims in their own homes. But generally speaking, they do want to help. If you’re nice to them, they might help you figure out somewhere to stay, without having to resort to these next options….

2. Walk on to the next town or village.

I had to do this more than once, as did many others. Surprisingly, when you plan to walk 500 miles, some primal part of your brain kicks in and

walking = survival

So, walking a few more miles to the next town can be surprisingly okay!

It’s not easy when the weather is exceptionally hot, cold, windy, or wet. It’s also not easy when you’re injured, sick, exhausted, or depressed. You never know when you might have to give an extra push, so keep some energy in reserve. Feel like walking 25km? Well, you might need to walk 29km to secure a bed, so factor that in to your planning and your coffee breaks each day. Then, if you do have to walk on a bit further, you’ve got the energy to do it.

3. Take a taxi to the next town or village.

If you can’t walk on to the next town or village for whatever reason, you might find a taxi to bring you there. The first time I availed of a taxi, it was organised by a hostel owner in Zubiri because the town was full. She kindly organised taxis and accommodation for 20 of us that evening.

The second time I had to use a taxi was when I arrived into Los Arcos at 5pm, with three other women. Again, the whole town was full. One of my co-walkers requested a taxi to the next village and we were thrilled.

In both cases, the taxis got us safely and quickly to our new beds. But the next morning, we had to decide whether to go back and pick up where we left off. You’ll have to face the same decision, so be prepared!

4. Take a bus to the next town or village.

This follows the same sentiment as my previous point but this only works if you’re in a town or village that’s big enough to have a bus service. Oh, and if you arrive at such a time in the day whereby the bus hasn’t yet departed. I didn’t take the bus at all and never even looked at a bus schedule, so I don’t know how well this one works. If any of you reading feel like adding your two cents here, please do!

5. Sleep outdoors.

I met a guy who crossed the Pyrenees on his first day of walking, and arrived into the town of Roncesvalles at 7 in the evening. The hostel and private rooms were all taken hours earlier, so there were no beds anywhere. He’d already walked 27km that day, including the climb up, over, and down the mountains. There was no way he could walk any further so he slept on an outdoor bench that night. He admitted it was cold and uncomfortable but he said it was fine, really.

I think he might have been Rambo in disguise!

Weeks later, I walked alone and learned that two of the villages I passed through were full. Helpful pilgrims shouted to me in the street and confirmed that there were no beds left, and that I would have to walk on further. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t even have to stop or take off my backpack to find out the information – they literally yelled to me from across the street!

I hoped the third one would have a free bed. I had enough energy to make it to the third village but I really, really didn’t have it in me to walk any further than that. So, I decided this:

If there are no free beds in the next village, I’m going to sleep outdoors.

I’m not beyond it!

I eyed the wheat fields and their bales of straw with a sort of exhausted lust. The straw looked soft and I figured it would provide extra warmth. I didn’t expect it to be terribly comfortable, but the ground was dry I was open to sleeping out, if necessary.

I know that some would never, ever consider sleeping outdoors, especially without a tent, a ground mat, and regular camping supplies. But people do it. It’s not that weird, really.

6. Sleep somewhere else.

I met a woman who arrived into the village of Villamayor de Monjardín to find there were no beds available. She didn’t have the energy to walk the 10k to the next town, so she asked the locals for help.

One said: I have a spare garage. You can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d already secured beds said: We have camping mats we don’t need tonight – you’re welcome to use them.

So, she joined 14 other pilgrims and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She wasn’t on a bed, a sofa, or a gymnasium floor, but she wasn’t outdoors either. She was safe and dry, and survived the night just fine.

Are there other options available? I can’t think of any right now. Maybe those of you who’ve already walked (some or all of) Camino can comment and remind me if I’ve missed something. Please do!

For those of you yet to walk, let me know if you have questions 🙂

Adiós Azofra (and a Coffee in Cirueña)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

Just now, I looked at Brierley’s map for this day’s walking and was appalled to realise that I couldn’t remember anything about the first 9km of it.

I mean, not a single thing.

That really bothered me.

I know it’s going to happen for parts of my 800km journey but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.

Sure, I was tired when I left my hostel in Azofra. My roomie’s snoring from the previous night meant I had less sleep than normal. But still, I was disappointed that I couldn’t remember anything other than chatting to my new Korean friend, who was ill and had decided to stay in the hostel another day. I hugged her goodbye and walked off into the countryside…apparently.

I looked at the map and thought to myself:

I probably stopped in Cirueña for a coffee and breakfast…

But I couldn’t remember any of it.

That is, until I Googled the name of the village and found these images, and then it all came flooding back.

Aaaahhhh yes….I remember this place!

For those who haven’t walked Camino yet, I know that all of these place names and references to coffee seem a bit arbitrary. They may even strike you as meaningless and you might find your eyes skimming over some of my words.

I was the same when I read other peoples’ accounts of Camino. All the place names sort of blurred together and I didn’t really understand why so many people thought coffee stops were so noteworthy.

I thought: Yeah whatever, hurry up and tell me more about the walking instead of ranting about café con leche!

So, I get it.

But when I walked Camino, my perspective changed.

The thing is, all these towns, villages, and side-of-the-road vans selling coffee can break up a day. Starting out from a hostel every morning, the prospect of walking however many kilometres can be a bit of a mental and physical drag. You need to know that you can take a break somewhere when you get tired, thirsty, or need to pee. You need to know that you can hit the “Pause” button for a short while and air out your sweaty feet.

On a practical level, small café bars offer breakfast when most of the hostels do not. So, stopping off is part of the morning routine.

They offer a chance to sit and take a break from the physical exertion of walking for hours every day. They give pilgrims a chance to step in out of the weather – whatever it may be. Cafés and bars provide food, drink, and bathroom services – all of which are in heavy demand. And of course, the cafés offer a chance to be social. I enjoyed surprise reunions and bumped into friends I thought I’d never see again, like the time I was reunited with the “Champagne Camino” women in a café in Lorca. That was fun.

So you get the idea – coffee stops are really relevant. They can make a day.

Forgetting 9km of trail after Azofra was disheartening until I remembered that this was the morning I passed through the ghost estate of Cirueña, where every house was newly constructed and almost all of them had a “For Sale” sign out the front. This was like no other town or village I’d passed through. It felt contrived and soulless, and was clearly a financial failure. I walked past dozens of houses, all silent, with pristine gardens and chicken wire fences. There were no signs of life and the place felt plain odd.

But by then, I’d happily bumped into Barb and Dave, and we rounded a corner to see a golf course club house – complete with plastic tables and chairs out front.

Hurrah…a chance for coffee…and breakfast!

They kindly treated me to my coffee and pastry and the three of us sat out front, enjoying the sunny morning. I used the free wi-fi to make a call to Handsome Husband, who was having a hard time at work that morning. This is the man who generously supported me when I resigned from my job, and wholeheartedly encouraged me to go walk Camino. This is the man who offered unconditional support, and was home alone while I spent my days rambling across Spain. I wanted to reach out and help him feel supported, too.

But I came away from the call feeling conflicted.

I wanted to stay on the call with him and give him more time, but I couldn’t spend all day at the club house. I had to keep walking but to do so meant losing the wi-fi and my chance to call him. It would be hours before I’d have a chance to call him again. It could even be days, if there was no wi-fi at my next stop. I felt guilty about being so far away from him when I wanted to help. I wanted to be a “Good Wifey” but was limited by geography.

I shared my conflict with Barb and Dave, who replied:

“We have a list of people we pray for while we’re walking. We pray for someone different every day but today, we don’t have anyone to pray for. We’ll pray for Handsome Husband, if you like.”

😀

I heard that prayers said on Camino are more potent. If this is true, then a whole day full of prayer would surely help Husband’s tricky work situation. And how nice for him to know that two people he’d never even met were rooting for him, thinking of him, and supporting him from afar.

I shared the news with him before we departed the club house. The next town was only 5.9km away and it looked like a fairly big one: I hoped to find wi-fi there and call him again. In the meantime, two generous Canadians were keeping him in their thoughts – as was I – as we strapped on our backpacks and headed west.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The People you Meet on Camino

Everyone who walked the Camino de Santiago before told me:

“You’ll meet so many great people along the way!”

Even if they hadn’t walked it themselves, invariably they knew someone who had (a friend, a cousin, a neighbour, or a friend’s cousin’s neighbour….!) who said the same thing.

I did meet many great people on my Camino journey. Quite literally, I met some of the most generous, interesting, and inspiring people along the way – the kind of people I just wouldn’t have met if I’d stayed at my desk job and been sensible 🙂

Thinking back to the night I spent in the small village of Azofra, I’m reminded of one particular lady…

She and I met on the road out of Navarette days earlier (remember, when I couldn’t find the yellow arrows and I backtracked several times before a group of Koreans kindly pointed me in the right direction?)

Back then, this lady and I walked beside each other in the early morning darkness, with the tap-tap-tap of our walking poles on the gravel trail. She spoke softly and apologised for her poor English every few minutes, but the woman was the very epitome of goodness and grace on that cold morning.

Through her, I learned that some 20% of the population in South Korea are Catholic. I was equally surprised to find her spoken English was so good that we had plenty of things to chat (and giggle) about. Jokes are a real test of fluency in any language and she was delightful company.

She recognised very little of the food presented to her each day, given that Camino cuisine is rather Spanish-centric. She wasn’t used to eating so much baguette, and had never encountered chorizo and Iberian ham before, but surprised me by saying she enjoyed the food along the way. Rice cakes could be found in occasional supermarkets and eggs, it seems, are the same everywhere 🙂

She was in her mid-40s and worked as a housekeeper. Her husband was a small-scale farmer who grew rice and vegetables, and also worked for an NGO organisation to ensure fair conditions for other farmers. She explained they had a very modest income and together, they had two sons who were in high school. No doubt, but those two boys were their pride and joy. Quite simply, she beamed when she spoke about them. In the early morning light, surrounded by farmland and trees, she oozed softness and love when she spoke about her sons. She hoped they’d have great lives of opportunity and prosperity. She hoped they’d never have to struggle in the way she and her husband had.

Listening to her made me choke up a little.

And then she told me about how she came to be standing there that morning…

Some years earlier, she saw a TV programme about the Camino (apparently there was a very famous one that most South Koreans quote as their inspiration for walking). She hadn’t heard of this old pilgrimage route before but after watching the TV show she just knew:

I want to walk that.

But, she and her husband had a modest income and two sons to raise – they didn’t have the money for such an extravagant trip. Travelling from South Korea to Europe is expensive and that was only the start of the bill: there were weeks’ worth of living expenses to finance, too. Her family could see that the Camino tugged at her heart-strings but the sons were still in school. It would be several more years, if ever, before she and her husband would have spare cash for such a journey.

The Camino could wait.

But just as she wished a life of goodness for her sons, they wished that her life, too, would be filled with dreams-come-true.

The two young men took up part-time jobs and without her ever knowing it, joined her husband in secretly saving for her trip.

Quietly, steadily, they saved the money to give this woman a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

They surprised her and in the loveliest way possible, they sent her packing!

They wanted her to know that although they were thousands of miles away, they loved her with all their hearts. They prioritised her dream, knowing that she never would. They wanted for her dream to come true.

She had travelled alone to Spain without knowing a word of Spanish, and had since met other Korean pilgrims with whom she walked. The morning she and I met, we kept pace with each other and swapped stories about our lives, our generous husbands, and what we hoped to get out of our time walking the Camino. We both choked up when she spoke about her gratitude to her family. It was hard not to.

She married a good man and was raising two more. Together, they had seen to it that this good woman had a chance to make her dream come true.

Their generosity and selflessness buoyed her all the way to Spain, and every day she walked Camino. For her, it didn’t matter how sore she got, how tired she got, how little of the food or language she understood – she felt blessed to be there at all. Everything was a bonus. She soaked up every micro second for the gift that it was.

Pretty special, eh?

 

 

Three Cheers for Everyone Walking the Camino de Santiago!

Only 589.2km left before I reach Santiago!

Sometimes, even now, I look at those numbers and I’m quietly stunned.

How on earth did I walk 800km across France and Spain?

How does anyone walk such distances, especially in just a few weeks?

I think the human body is an impressive piece of work. We’re built to move and even in this age of high-speed travel, we’re capable of walking hundreds of miles. We’re quite a bit removed from our caveman ancestors but I’m glad we haven’t lost our capacity to walk long distances and go see what’s out there.

Despite all the modern conveniences, we’re still able to go back to basics. I love it.

And to all the pilgrims, past, present, and future – I salute you!

I salute your willingness to embark on the Camino journey. I don’t care how many miles you walked or how many blisters you endured. I don’t care whether you went home after a day, “finished it”, or have walked it a dozen times. I’m hoping it was a positive experience but even if it wasn’t, I salute your willingness to get up from your couch, move away from your desk, and go take your body for a long walk. I applaud your sense of spirit and adventure, and your courage to go do something different.

It would have been easier and quicker to take the train, right? And I’m sure it would have been more convenient to book a beach holiday instead of sweating your way across the Iberian peninsula!

Beach holidays have their place but they’re no Camino. Sometimes the world tells us that the beach holiday is normal and that to walk 800km across Spain is not. Whatever your reason for choosing Camino – whether you wanted a pilgrimage or a cheap walking holiday –  I’m sure there were some people who couldn’t relate to your choice.

Maybe they thought it all sounded a bit dull. They might have thought it was very odd. They might have thought you were having some sort of mid-life crisis.

I’m sure you knew people, just like I did, who thought you were mad to propose walking across Spain, especially if they’d never heard of Camino before. Some of my nearest and dearest hadn’t heard of Camino and thought I was heading off into the wilderness alone, to navigate and trek my way across rural Spain, for however long it took. “Mad” doesn’t even begin to describe what they thought of me! I will always remember their worried looks, trying to decide whether to be more concerned about my mental health or my chances of getting killed in rough scrubland.

It took a long time to convince them that I wasn’t unwell and I would be okay. Spain is quite a civilised country, really!

But I understand their concern and their desire to talk me out of my hair-brained idea.

Maybe some of the people in your life responded in a similar way? I’m sure it made your decision-making just a bit more complex. It’s one thing to head off on Camino when the whole world is applauding your choice. It’s a bit more tricky when the people around you are scared or resistant.

And yet, you did it anyhow. That took courage and faith. And I’m hoping you got to feel what I felt, at least once somewhere along the way:

That walking Camino was one of the most sane things I ever did!

I came home proud of, and awed by, the power of my human body. I came home feeling proud of everyone I met along the way, and of their enormous achievement to have walked the path, too.

I started out with the best intentions in the world but with no idea of whether I would be able to fulfill them.

800km (500 miles) sounded like an awful lot.

Make no mistake about it – 500 miles is a long way to walk.

But like many great things in life, it’s not something to be done all in one go. It takes steady perseverance, one step after the other, one day at a time.

Before you know it, you’ve covered more than 200km.

Before you know it, you arrive in a small village called Azofra and find that you’ve only 589.2km to go.

Magic!

Azofra: A Lesson in Camino Etiquette

Azofra: “A tranquil village with a population of barely 500 that owes its continuing existence to the camino.”

Azofra Centro: “Purpose built hostel…cubicles with just 2 beds.”

(Quotes from Brierley’s guide-book)

The purpose-built hostel was modern, spacious, and wonderfully clean. It seemed to be constructed of recycled and prefabricated wood.

The hippy in me was thrilled.

As I said, I delighted at the prospect of sharing a room with just one other person. There were no bunk beds either, which was a welcome bonus.

I unpacked my bag and felt ridiculously excited about having a shelf of my own, onto which I could place my belongings. I also had a sort of mini-wardrobe, which included clothes hangers! Having a shelf and wardrobe felt insanely civilised and reminded me of homely comforts. I didn’t have very many things to put on such a shelf – I didn’t carry any reading material or ornamental china, for instance – but I delighted in laying out my toiletries and spare socks on it, nonetheless.

A shelf felt like a piece of the normal, real world, where people aren’t so transient that they sleep in a different bed every night.

A shelf represented stability and roots.

A shelf represented home, and I must have told a dozen people about how great the shelf was. They seemed amused by my excitement, as we sat in the sunshine eating potato chips and drinking beer.

What can I say? I was easily pleased.

My new roommate was an elderly lady, soft-spoken, and cultured. I’d seen her in Orisson on my first day of walking, though we’d never spoken before. She was walking the Camino for the second time and confirmed that the rush for beds was very real. I’d felt it since Day 1, but wondered if I had imagined it or had been too sensitive.

She passed through the region only 5 years before and confirmed that back then:

  • There was no race for beds
  • People didn’t compete over speed or distance
  • People didn’t reserve private accommodation in advance
  • People didn’t have mobile phones with them
  • No one was ever without a bed
  • There was less pressure on all the associated services (cafés, bars, water supply, waste disposal, etc.)

I trusted her opinion. It would seem I hadn’t imagined the racing and competition, and felt relieved to hear her confirm my experience. At the same time, my heart sank a little. If the Camino continued to go in this direction, what would it be like 5 years hence? What was it turning into?

I would spend weeks and months reflecting on this very thing.

That evening though, I enjoyed chatting to my new “roomie” and liked her a lot. I happily anticipated a quiet night ahead.

How wrong I was!

Why?

Quite frankly: She was a snorer.

I know, lots of people snore.

After sharing so many dorms with so many strangers, I had already become desensitised to the noise at night. I was usually so tired that I could sleep through a chorus of people snoring around me. I might share a dorm with 20 people and find that at least half of them were snorers – and all of them snoring together made for quite a noisy night. They didn’t snore in harmony 🙂

Most nights, I fell asleep to the sounds of:

Coughing

Whistling

Wheezing

And other delightful bodily sounds.

I got used to it.

So, she wasn’t the first snorer I had encountered.

But I mean, she was a really, really loud snorer. And it wasn’t just about the volume – there was content and texture to her snoring, too.

Her snore made it sound like she had a chest infection and a walrus stuck up her nostrils, and that she was trying to dislodge them with every breath. Every in-breath was a meaty, phlegmy gulp, and I thought she was seconds away from choking. Every out-breath was a wheezy whistle.

In and out; in and out; in and out.

She kept breathing. She kept snoring. I thought she was going to die in her sleep.

Delightful….erm, not.

I shoved my earplugs deeper into my ears and tried to think sleepy thoughts, but it made no difference.

I thought it was great to share my cubicle with just one other person instead of sharing an open dorm. Initially, I relished having some physical separation from the other 58 people in the hostel. Until that night, I never realised that the small cubicle would magnify the sound of her snoring – so much so that I felt that the snoring was in my head. I felt I was the one going to die – from inhaling my own phlegm.

* Sorry if this is a bit too graphic, but I want to be really clear: This woman was soft-spoken by day but was thunder-loud by night.

From my bed, I glanced across to check if she was definitely sleeping.

Yep – she definitely was.

Damn.

I lay there for 20 minutes, wondering what to do.

I thought: If I go over there and somehow roll her onto her side, she’ll probably stop snoring. That would work.

But I’ve only met her for the first time, earlier today. What’s the etiquette here?

Is it okay to go over there, invade her personal space, put my hands on her shoulders, and roll her on her side?

I lay there for another 30 minutes, wondering.

I thought: The sound-proofing between the cubicles is not great – surely she’s keeping half the building awake. And I’m sure she would want someone to stop her from making so much noise – right?

I lay there for another few minutes, wondering.

I left the room, walked to the bathroom, and tested out how far the noise travelled. I could hear her down the hallway. But no-one else seemed to be awake or bothered by the din, so it seemed to be a problem for only me.

I sat on an indoor bench and thought about sleeping there for the night. The wood was hard and uncomfortable but at least I had some space from the noise, and thought I had a better chance of sleeping there. After 20 minutes, I went back to bed, tossed, turned, and debated the etiquette even more.

Frustrated, exhausted, and increasingly agitated, I eventually decided this:

Do not go over there to roll her on her side.

Do not invade her personal space.

Do not touch her in any way.

The more you focus on it, the more upset you become. So find a way to distract yourself and your focus. Keep your earplugs in place and count sheep, say prayers, or meditate, but do something to distract yourself from the noise.

But whatever you do, stay in your own bed.

 

The next morning, she awoke early, energetically, and rearing to go.

I woke groggily, slowly, and feeling as though my eyes had sunk deep into my head. I never told her just how much noise she made. There was no point – what could she do about it anyway?

Instead, I packed up my belongings and made my way into the golden morning light.

Weeks later, I heard a story that someone else told – of a pilgrim who did intervene and turn a snorer onto their side in the middle of the night. It didn’t go so well, and everyone agreed that getting involved was a big “No-No”.

I think I may have dodged a bullet with that one!