Camino Francés: Onwards to Astorga

Distance walked: 15.8km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 264.1km


Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Between the towns of Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga, the camino path divides in two. One path follows the N-120 national highway for 10km or so: the other meanders through countryside and small villages. The highway route is shorter but less scenic. The countryside route is longer but has cafés and hostels along the way.

Which path would *you* choose?

Just like my approach to Burgos, I accidentally took the less-scenic path. To be honest, I wasn’t even fully aware of a “non-scenic” version because I left my guide book in my backpack and just followed the signs I saw along the way.  It was only when I was somewhere on that very long and very loud stretch of highway did I wonder:

Where *is* everyone?

I could see the outline of only 3-4 pilgrims in the far distance ahead of me and behind me. Usually, I’d see dozens of people but that morning there was almost no one around. Very strange.

It was only later in the morning when I stopped for coffee and happily bumped into Kevin and Liz that I realized what had happened. We caught up on everything that had happened since our chance encounter in León, days earlier. They excitedly asked:

Did you stop at Dave’s place?


You know, Dave’s hut with all the fruit and juices and organic food? Their smiles were broad and inviting. They were eager to compare notes and swooning for this mystery man, Dave.

Hmmmmmm….huh? I asked again, feeling utterly lost.

Only then did we realize that I had taken the highway route while everyone else took the countryside route.

Ahhhhhh….so that’s where everyone was!

Turns out, I missed out on famous Dave’s Casa de los Dioses, just outside San Justo de la Vegawhich was a refuge for countless pilgrims on the move. The story goes that Dave walked the camino years earlier and was so transformed by the experience that he decided to set up a quirky café, in service to other pilgrims. With hundreds of other coffee stops along the 800km route, you might be inclined to think his motives were purely financial. Apparently not. I’m told he was full of smiles, warm hugs, and spirited conversation. His hut provided an abundance of fresh fruit and juices, made with laughter and love. His pit stop wasn’t just for the weary body: it was a tonic for the weary soul, too. Everyone that stopped there not only loved the place but they loved Dave himself, too. So, when Kevin and Liz realized that I had missed out on this colorful experience, their faces dropped in disappointment.

Oh, you would have *loved* it! they gushed.

I was so enchanted by their enthusiasm that I very nearly thought about turning back to go find him. I didn’t do it though. Instead, I walked on to Astorga, passing a busker on the descent into the town and delighted in the surprise of live music. The musician played in time to my pace and then jauntily danced alongside me for a moment, like a medieval minstrel!

In Astorga, the rain clouds gathered and I spent much of the afternoon with Kevin and Liz, drinking hot chocolate, viewing Gaudi’s palace, and later that evening, feasting on delicious pizza in a traditional Italian restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I say the evening was a tonic for my soul. Even though I loved walking by myself each day, I loved sharing good company in the evenings. Walking solo meant that I didn’t always have someone to eat my evening meal with and while I was often okay with that, I sometimes felt an emptiness. The previous evenings in Hospital de Órbigo I had dined alone (if you could even call it that!), and I hadn’t enjoyed it. Here in Astorga, I felt buoyed by the great company and the sense of community that had begun in Orisson when I first met the couple. Sharing dinner with them felt like catching up with old friends – a surprise sensation when I knew them only a month or so. For all my introversion and desire to walk alone, I couldn’t deny that sharing the journey with good people made everything sweeter.

Just as it is in camino, so it is in life, too. 😀

Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn’t have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead – and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it’s considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren’t suitable for walking long distances?

Then I’ll figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I’m not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.


In my “real life”, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

I’ve also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day – often without realising it – and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?


Why did I Walk? (Part 2: A Divine Decision)


Walking 500 miles of Camino transformed me – and that transformation started before I ever stepped onto the trail in the south of France.

Deciding to walk camino was only partially *my* decision. There were other factors and forces at work.

Part 1 of the decision was the back story. It was all the ways I was generally unhappy with my life direction but without any real plan for how to change things.

Part 2 was more sudden, more profound, and dare I say it – divine. I don’t necessarily mean that in any religious sense but I do mean that it had everything to do with spirit, and that some sort of behind-the-scenes magic that took over.

Without that divine decision, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going on those days when I was sore and exhausted.

Without it, I probably wouldn’t have walked at all.

Let me explain…

At different points in my life, I’ve had experiences that very clearly led me towards or away from certain things. I don’t know what language to use here because the word choice might make some of us twitchy, but I’m talking about a fundamental, core-level, knowing that said:

Ger, we’re done here. It’s time to go.

Was it a booming voice from above? Sometimes, it felt like it.

Was it a quiet, inner understanding? Sometimes it felt like that, too.

Whether we call this God or The Universe or whatever, I don’t really mind. I’m just going to call it “knowing” or “gut instinct” in the name of being all-inclusive.

This knowing has prompted me to resign from jobs, leave relationships, and de-tangle my heart from defunct friendships. It’s helped me distinguish, very clearly, when it was the right time for me to change direction. In these situations, it was not my mind making the decisions – it was some other force at work.

In the years leading up to camino, I had a dozen reasons to leave my job and a dozen more to stay. The lists cancelled each other out so *my* plan was to make the best of my situation until the economy turned  around and I found a better fitting role. It was the most sensible and responsible plan that my mind could come up with. I didn’t know when I would leave my job or what I would do instead but I had faith that      whatever knowing spoke to me in the past would speak to me again:

I will get the nudge – that deep knowing from within or that booming voice from above – when the time is right to change direction. Until then, I won’t make any sudden moves.

Did I believe in fate? Maybe.

Was it a prayer of some sort? Yes, it actually was.

And in the meantime, I just got on with my daily life. I didn’t consciously know that I would walk the Camino in 2013 but there were breadcrumbs that led me in that direction all the same. I didn’t see them at the time but I could see them clearly afterwards.

Like what?

Part A.

In October 2012 my friend told me she planned to walk the French Way the following spring – in 2013. She and I very rarely get to hang out so I offered to join her for a week or two. I thought it might be a nice way to spend some time together and tend to a “Bucket List” dream that we both held. My mind thought it a great idea but as I spoke my words of offering, this one word came up as a thought and a feeling at the same time:


That was all.

I didn’t know what it meant – after all, that was a whole 11 months away and I didn’t plan that far ahead. But still, the word surfaced from within me and left that lingering message:


That was the beginning of the magic though I didn’t know it.

Part B.

In the summer of 2013, my friend returned from her camino experience – warmly radiant. After dinner one evening she presented me with a scallop shell – I believe, the same one that she had strapped onto her own backpack as a pilgrim. I knew the shell was symbolic but in all honesty, it didn’t have any special resonance for me (yet).

She offered her shell to me and said,

I know you’ll walk the camino some day, Ger.

I was touched and accepted her lovely gesture. I agreed with her – I too knew that I would walk it some day. And yet, it was summertime and I was distracted by sunny weather. Accepting the shell was like buying an evening gown for a black tie event but years in advance. It felt premature and it felt somewhat irrelevant. And even though I hung the shell on a prominent wall in my home, I didn’t give it another thought.

Until this happened:

Part C.

A month later, a particular conversation highlighted clearly, and unequivocally, that I had outgrown my job. Not only that, but it was *definitely* not going anywhere and it was *definitely* stopping me from progressing – personally as well as professionally.

I’d felt all this for years but didn’t have the factual confirmation to back it up. The first 5 minutes of this hour-long conversation revealed the facts and my heart sank. Those were the moments where I actually lost heart in my work and all that it entailed. After years of frustration, tears, and trying to make it work, that deep knowing had blossomed from within and I just knew I was done.

I had received the nudge – no doubt about it.

That evening I said to Handsome Husband: I think I’m done with my job.

We were married only a few short months and I felt a massive conflict between taking care of my own needs and our needs as a couple. If I left my job, how would we pay the rent? Was I terribly selfish? And what about our future plans?

My happiness or misery affected us both. There was more to this decision than finances and grown-up plans.

But I knew I was truly, finally, and completely done with that job. I just didn’t know what to do next.

So, I threw it upwards as a prayer and put someone/something else on the job of figuring that out. As a child, I learned the concept of Guardian Angels and I liked the notion that I had a personal bodyguard in life. I even imagined I had a few of them. I imagined them as a gang, bored, and sitting around playing card games to pass the time. I wasn’t giving them enough to do and they were growing idle in the meantime.

So I threw it upwards with the thought:

Ok you guys, I know I’m done with the job. I get it. What I don’t know is what happens next so I need your help with that. Reveal the path to me. Tell me what I’m supposed to do here. I can’t see the big picture and I need a bit of help figuring this out.

The answer I got was simple (but not easy):

Go walk the camino.


Go walk the camino.

For the next 3 weeks of July, I wrestled with this reply over and over. It woke me in the middle of the night. It sat on my shoulder at work. It prompted a dozen conversations with Husband.

I hadn’t planned to walk. I wasn’t prepared – in any way. I wasn’t ready.

I said:

That’s a great idea and I see how it would work, but I’m too scared.

And every day the response was the same:

I know you’re scared – but go walk.

In fact, there were very clear instructions to go with the response, specifically:

  • Go in early September – on the 1st if you can get a flight (a nice tie-in to my moment with the September prompt months earlier, don’t you think?)
  • Go for 6 weeks – no more, no less. Go from early September to mid-October only. No earlier, no later.
  • Don’t wait.

These specifics were *so* absolute that they led me to say I was called to walk the camino.

I really was – and not just sometime or any old time – but at a very specific time, for a very specific length of time. My *mind* didn’t decide those dates at all – it really was some other force that took over.

Every day, my fear ran riot and I’d ask:

What if I wait until the following spring? The weather will be good then too.

The response was always the same: DON’T wait.

I said: What if I go for 2-3 weeks only instead of the full thing? (and keep my job in the meantime?)

The response was always the same: Go for 6 weeks between early September and mid-October. No earlier and no later. Only this time. No other time.

I said: But I haven’t planned for any of this financially!

The response was always the same: The money will be fine.

Now, I don’t really know the bible stories or mythological traditions from around the world but I will say this much:

Something big had taken over. It felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-rearranges-my-life” kind of moment. Religious references aside, something huge was at work.

Whatever the language, I *had* asked for guidance and I definitely received it loud and clear. I couldn’t ignore it. But I struggled to follow it. I was paralysed with fear and my mind was a flurry of ideas and counter-proposals. One weekend, I lay on the floor with sheets of flipchart paper and I drew out a mind map.

On one side I wrote the word:


On the other side I wrote the word:


And I spent the next few hours scribbling out every thought, feeling, and counter-plan I could think of to figure out whether I would resign from my job and go walking in Spain. I needed to see everything laid out on paper in one place, in the hope it would help me some sort of perspective.

For hours, I poured out every anxiety, every consideration, every reason why I should follow the nudge – and not.

At one point, I asked: If I leave my (permanent) job and go walking, what happens when I return? What about all these grown-up plans – how will I finance any of them?

The reply was always the same: Ger, if you trust me on this and go with it, everything will be taken care of.

It gave me goosebumps.

I went back and forth, wrestling my head and my heart. In the end, it all boiled down to this:

Did I trust the voice I’d heard? Did I trust that knowing?

Did I trust that it was the right time for me to walk camino, even though I felt unprepared in every possible way?

Was I willing to trust that my future work, finances, and grown-up plans would, indeed, be taken care of – even though my *mind* had no idea how to make them happen?

*I* didn’t decide to walk Camino. Something else made that decision for me but I *did* decide to follow the calling. My challenge was to trust – everything.

Have you experienced anything like this? I’d love to hear!

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 🙂