Camino de Santiago: Only 22.8km to go!

Distance walked: 24.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 22.8km

I hadn’t intended to walk as far as Santa Irene but the hostel I’d planned to stay in earlier on the trail had already closed up for the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was one thing to deal with hostels that were full but it was something quite different to come across hostels that had already been boarded up for the winter. Even when a hostel was full, there was human contact and the possibility of asking someone for advice. A hostel that’s been closed up offers none of that comfort or connection. With each passing day, I felt (acutely) that it was time to go home. My body was tired. My mind was full of reflections I didn’t have time to process. My heart was full of immense appreciation. The landscape around me was preparing for the colder weather and it felt like the right time to leave. I was glad to have a plane ticket and a home to go to.

It was almost mid October, and the trail between Boente and Santa Irene was busy and bustling with pilgrims walking the final 100km. There in Galicia, I could smell the damp, the moss, the clay beneath my feet. I could smell the dairy cows that grazed in the small, bumpy fields around me. I could smell the oncoming winter and the occasional waft of smoke from a wood fire, somewhere. The cafés sold hearty stews full of chorizo and kale, and the food became more like north European food – perfect for warming up in the autumn chill.

The hostel in Santa Irene was clean and comfortable, and I got a top bunk in a shared dorm. Most of the pilgrims around me were fresh-faced and excitable – clearly, they were walking for just a few days at the end! In the next bunk, an older man (in his 70s) sat on the top bed, alongside mine. Is it relevant that he was dressed like a medieval pilgrim with a brown cloak and a wooden staff? Is it relevant that he was openly hostile to his walking companions but his head literally swiveled to give me 1000% attention? I was not the youngest or prettiest female in that room but he zoned in on me for some uncomfortable reason.

He wanted to chat. More specifically, he asked prying questions and when I answered vaguely and tiredly, he peered into my face as though I’d given him a fake name and was only telling lies. Maybe I would have been better off… as he then started undressing, flexing his abs, and snapping his underwear a bit too enthusiastically, looking for my reaction. He revealed a bit too much and seemed to want my approval or shocked response. He did this in full view, in a crowded dorm with all the lights on, but while everyone around us absentmindedly tended to their sore feet and dirty laundry. No one noticed a thing. He seemed rather pleased with himself.

I think he was a bit of an exhibitionist. I also think he was on some sort of weird power trip, trying to rattle me in plain view but while no one was paying attention. It was one of the most surreal moments in sharing a space with random strangers, and it was *quite* uncomfortable. If there had been another hostel or room to go to, I would have gone. I’m not sure exactly what class of “crazy perv” he belonged to but I promptly got out of there, took the evening by myself, and returned only when the lights were already off and everyone was asleep for the night. Did I feel at risk? No, not with so many people around. But I wouldn’t have liked to meet him on my own, or somewhere quieter. He was a creep – thankfully, the only creep I’d met on all camino – and I wanted to get far away from him. I ignored him the next morning and walked out of there promptly and without looking back.

With so few kilometers ahead, my thoughts drifted to Santiago itself and when I would arrive. I could walk the remaining 22.8km in one day but with my feet feeling so sore, it would be a slow walk into the city. And what then…? Unlike (what seemed like) every pilgrim around me, I hadn’t booked private accommodation in advance. I’d spend the day walking but on arrival in the city I’d have to do what I’d done every day previously – I’d have to find accommodation, have a shower, wash my clothes, go get something to eat, and only around 8-9pm would I get to relax. It would turn a very special day into a kind of routine run-of-the-mill day. After so many weeks trying so hard to get to Santiago, I was tempted to make the final push in one day and just get there.

And yet, some other part of me wanted to arrive in a different way.

Every day for six weeks, I’d lived a nomadic sort of experience and felt that everything was sort of cobbled together. I didn’t book accommodation in advance at any stage of the journey – not even in St. Jean Pied de Port, at the very beginning. For six weeks I’d walked as best I could, and trusted that I would get food and bedding when I needed it. I’d arrived at many hostels feeling beaten and sore. Pushing myself to the limit had exposed a raw vulnerability and gratitude. I’d certainly been humbled. But Santiago was my last stop. I wasn’t going to walk on to the coast so it felt important to really “arrive” in to the city in the right kind of head space. I didn’t want to arrive feeling sweaty and spent: I wanted to arrive with a certain presence. I wanted to arrive and really feel the finality and achievement of walking those 800km. I wanted to arrive well.

This was the day to finally decide: would I walk to Santiago in one final push and find my friends? Would I split the remaining distance over two days instead?

I made no plan, no presumptions, no promises. I laced up my shoes, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders, and walked out into the cool morning air. The day would reveal all.

 

Walking through Galicia: From Os Chacotes to Boente

Distance walked: 21.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 47.5km

It’s fun to stay at the Y…M….C…A…!

The hostel owner in Vilchá, just two nights earlier, announced that he would close up for the winter the following week. In my walk between Vilchá and Os Chacotes, just a day earlier, I saw two hostels already closed up for the winter. It was early October but everything was winding down and I was glad I was close to Santiago and “the end”. I was also glad that I wouldn’t walk the additional 100km to Finisterre. I had always imagined I would walk to the coast but I’d conceded that it wasn’t likely on that particular journey. Every time a hostel closed its doors for the winter, pilgrims had to walk further distances between one bed and the next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but after walking 750km I was done with the uncertainty about accommodation. It was one thing to deal with hostels that were full or uncomfortably crowded, but it was another thing to deal with the end-of-season closures. I was tired of the nomadic lifestyle and endless strategizing: I wanted to go home.

Getting ready for winter

55km to go….

52.5km to go…

51km to go…

Compared to other parts of the camino, I thought the signage and distance markers in Galicia were plentiful and clear. This is the busiest section of the Camino Francés and most people who “do the camino” walk only those last 115.2km. So, the cafés, hostels,  and general services were plentiful. And yet, I met with an Australian this day who got really upset when she couldn’t see any yellow arrows. She had become so used to the plentiful directions that she panicked when they disappeared, even briefly.  She doubled-back on the trail, she contradicted me, and she even contradicted a local who gave her directions. She couldn’t trust what others told her and she couldn’t trust the markers that were available.

More tellingly, she couldn’t trust that even if she took a wrong turn, that she would cope with the outcome and figure it out.

Expecting such perfection brings a lot of pressure.

I had seen pilgrims wrongly rely on electronic devices instead of heeding the locals who gave directions. I understand the pilgrims who, like me, may not have had confidence in their language skills and may have felt more autonomous using the tech.  I get it.

But, what a missed opportunity.

Asking for directions is an opportunity to connect with another human instead of a screen – what a concept! All the talk about meeting great people on the camino is limited if all we do is meet other pilgrims. What about connecting with the café owners,  the farmers in the fields, the people standing behind shop counters? To understand a country and its people, we have to talk to the people who actually live there, work there, build their lives there. Walking the camino without engaging with the locals, especially when they have up-to-date information and correct directions, is a massive loss. We become consumers rather than pilgrims. We lose our humility.

Asking for directions allows locals to connect with us, too. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pass through their villages and towns, crossing their land and changing the face of their communities. We don’t ask them how they feel about this: we just “do the camino” and give no thought to the consequences. It’s not right that we ignore them and prioritize our screens. Asking for directions allows them to meet us and learn a little about us, too. I think they deserve that opportunity given they open their towns and villages to the endless crowds, always on the move. It is a small way of acknowledging the disruption we cause and the change that we bring. It’s a small way of expressing our humanity instead of self-absorbed consumerism.

The days walking in Galicia were quite a contrast to the previous 700km across France and Spain. There were  more people, sure, but there was also a lot more entitlement and competition, too. I was disappointed by the amount of people wearing headphones, disconnected from even the other pilgrims around them. I was appalled by the amount of people who skipped queues in the café bars, who shouted their orders at the staff, and who barked for wi-fi codes without ever saying “Hello” or “Please”. There was a large cohort of people who behaved as though their individual experience was the only one that mattered. I don’t know which is worse: shouting orders at waiting staff or elbowing other pilgrims out of the way. I didn’t like either and I’m sorry to say I saw way too much of both behaviors on that final 100km stretch to Santiago.

And yet, seeing all of this helped highlight the goodness in my journey. My journal is full of reflections including this:

“I’m thankful to ever be here and to have been given the resources (physical, financial, mental, spiritual, emotional) and support to come this far. Over and over, I’ve put my sore and swollen feet into my shoes, and walked. It is a privilege to be given this time, these smiles and conversations, this sunshine, this reflection. Yes, it’s been tough but the strain is already wearing away as I come close to the end and as I realize what a blessing it is.”

Did I enjoy the day of elbowing, contradicting, and ignorant behavior? No. But getting a bed in Boente’s hostel was a relief, and re-connecting with people I hadn’t seen since Orisson was a lovely surprise. There was goodness to be found everywhere, I just had to pay attention to it.

Walking through Galicia: From Vilchá to Os Chacotes

Distance walked: 26.1km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 69.2km

The walk out of my hostel in Vilchá was the most uneventful departure of all my camino hostels. Given that there was no village cluster or even a café, I just walked out the door of the hostel, turned the corner, and lo, I was back on the trail and in a field again. The morning was foggy and later, as I crossed the high bridge at Portomarín, it was difficult to make out any real view. I knew that a town of 2,000 people would have facilities and services but in that damp chill, I didn’t feel like stopping just for the sake of it. I marched on.

I thought a lot about dinner the previous evening and the host’s expectation that I would sing for everyone. I felt edgy and agitated by his assumptions and I was miles along the trail before I realized this:

It was in the past.

Quite literally, the hostel, the event, and the man himself were all in the past. I had zero intention of going back so there was no reason to keep thinking about it all and tormenting myself with my lack of showbiz skills.

Let it go.

And I did.

I look back on my journal for this section of the journey and notice that I’d already started to account for what I had learned along the way. I suppose it was inevitable given that I was so close to “the end”. After five weeks on the move, some things had begun to crystallize for me.

Like what?

Well, the simple fact that I could walk away from people.

Before camino I would have thought it exceptionally rude to do such a thing but while I walked, I found myself hanging out with some people who were hard work to be around.

I mentioned Lucy* (not her real name) in one of my earlier posts and strangely bumped into her almost every day for a week in one section of the trail. It was suffocating. I also kept bumping into two other characters who were unknown to each other, had traveled from different parts of the world, started walking at different times, and had totally different plans…but had met and become walking buddies. They were each toxic, self-pitying, and utterly exhausting to be around. For instance, one of them talked about her tendonitis as a “disability” and I had to stop myself from slapping some sense into her!

I met each of them at completely different stages but when I saw them walk into a hostel one evening together with Lucy, well, I knew the rains really had descended. These three individuals had found each other and become a pack. The next night, they were in the very same dorm as me – there was literally no escape! Until, I realized, that there was – and I walked on alone.

The lesson isn’t new to most of you but it was particularly relevant on the last section of the trail – those remaining 115.2km between Sarria and Santiago. Some of the “new kids” were full of bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm. At random coffee stops they’d hit me with a dozen questions, eager to connect and make friends. They were at the beginning of their journey and I was coming to the end of mine. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t looking for new friendships by then: I was trying to get my head in gear for arriving in Santiago. I preferred to walk alone than to strike up new conversations.

Weeks earlier, other long-distance pilgrims and I discussed what day of the week we expected to arrive in the famous city. Rumour had it that there was a pilgrim mass every day but that on occasional Sundays, the enormous botafumeiro (thurible for burning insense) would swing. Apparently it was quite a spectacle and everyone wanted to be there when the event took place – but no-one seemed to know when it would happen. On top of that, most of my connections were further along the trail than I was. We may have started out in St. Jean Pied de Port around the same time but five weeks later, injury, illness, and tiredness had altered everyone’s progress. My stop-off in Sarria meant I would arrive into Santiago even later than I first imagined. Would I see any of these people again? After all the connection, the chats, and the coffee, would we even get to say goodbye to each other?

The hostel at Os Chacotes was clean, sparse, and extremely tight on space. I don’t just mean that it was busy – although it was – it was also densely packed.

Rumour had it that these state-built hostels were soulless and built purely for profit. Others told me that the hostels purposefully didn’t stock utensils in their new, modern kitchens because they wanted to discourage pilgrims from preparing their own food. Instead, they wanted to force pilgrims into buying meals from the local restaurants. I don’t know whether this is official policy on behalf of Galician local authority but this particular hostel succeeded in squeezing people where they shouldn’t have been!

All 112 beds in the hostel were taken and I shared a dorm with almost 40 people. I was glad to get a lower bunk, but the left side of my mattress physically touched the mattress of the bed next to me. There wasn’t even an inch of space between us. Overhead, a heavy-set Spaniard slept noisily. At my head and feet, the neighbouring beds touched mine. I was surrounded to my left, at my head, feet, and overhead. There was less than a metre of space between my bed and the next bed on my right. I felt a bit squeezed into place and wouldn’t want to do it ever again. Others around me tried to create a modicum of privacy by draping bath towels around their beds or by putting headphones in their ears. I was positioned in the middle of a school group that took up half the dorm so the group were *loud* and animated.

I was glad to be near the end. Before, I wasn’t sure about finishing up but a hostel like that made me keen to go home! 🙂

Camino de Santiago: From Sarria to Vilchá

Only 100km left to Santiago

Distance walked: 19.9km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 95.3km

Handsome Husband’s trip to Sarria was at an end, as was mine, so we found an early morning café and had our breakfast of juice and croissants. The morning was dark and foggy – very foggy – and while we ate, I wondered how I’d manage to navigate the trail. Getting around town was one thing but it would be tricky in the open countryside. Suddenly, it was time to say goodbye – he had to catch a bus to the airport and I had to follow the yellow arrows back to the gravel path. Samos and Sarria had been good to us and we had a lovely first wedding anniversary, despite (or maybe because of?) the rustic facilities. I’d be home in a week and we would catch up again then but for now, it was time to go. Buen Camino to us both.

The trail was busy and noisy with new pilgrims starting out. For many, walking the camino means walking the last 115.2km from Sarria to Santiago, and their energy and enthusiasm are obvious to all. I found it a bit challenging to find my place among them. In retrospect, I’m glad I had the break with Husband in Sarria: it gave me a chance to rest and to prepare my head for what lay ahead. The trail was going to be busier and noisier than ever, but I was on the last leg of a very long journey. After all that walking towards Santiago was I really ready to arrive there?

I wasn’t sure. It was a strange sensation: after all the effort, the pain, and tears, I still wasn’t fully ready for it to be over. There’s that saying that the destination is not what matters but rather, the journey you have along the way. Suddenly, that saying made a lot of sense to me. All those weeks, I’d been walking every day towards Santiago but now that I was nearly there, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to arrive. Good thing I still had a few days to get my head around the idea.

So, I took it really slowly that morning. The darkness and fog slowly lifted, and I found myself in undulating countryside with grey stone walls and a chill in the air. The chill never really lifted in the week ahead: some of that was because I was in Galicia and some of it was because it was early October. The summer was over and the long, light days of the Meseta were all behind me.

Free fruit along the way 🙂

My walking that day was tinged with a sort of sadness. I missed Handsome Husband and hoped his journey home was going well. Strangely, about half an hour after saying goodbye to him in Sarria, I lost network coverage on my phone. I didn’t have any 3G coverage or even regular phone coverage. This meant no texts, no phone calls, no impromptu messages to let him know I was still alive. It was a strange state, and one that persisted for my week of walking through Galicia. It struck me as really odd: here was the busiest stretch of the camino trail and I had no phone network: what was that about? I couldn’t tell whether there was a limited infrastructure because it’s a poor part of Spain, or whether this imposed silence was somehow part of *my* last days on the trail. Either way, the lack of phone network made things a lot quieter for me and that was surprisingly welcome.

Hearty meaty and veggie soup: amazing!

My days walking in Galicia were strange and emotional for a number of reasons. I noticed changes in the café menus: the mixed salads had been replaced by hearty broths, and the dishes were meatier and more stew-like. It made sense to me: the climate here was different to every other region I had walked through and that damn damp was chilly. I craved the soups, stews, and large cups of tea for comfort.

The trail was loud and busy, and there was nearly always someone within sight either ahead of me or behind me. I’m an introvert and that particular day I was feeling even more insular than usual: I didn’t feel like conversing with the scores of pilgrims who’d only just started and were all chatter. Many of them were on “vacation mode” but I was in a very different head space. On top of that, I noticed quite a few women in full make-up as I stopped for coffee along the way. When I say “full”, I mean the works – the foundation, the eye shadow, the mascara and eyeliner, the lip liners and lipsticks, and even blusher – at 9am in the middle of a dirty, dusty gravel trail, looking like they were on their way to an evening gala. And with the smell of damp moss and cow manure all around us. Very odd. I’m sure they looked amazing in the photos they posted on Facebook but their appearance was so, so out of context that I recoiled even more. Make-up and social media updates held no appeal for me: I had a job to do and I wanted to keep walking.

Help-yourself coffee stop along the way with an honesty box to pay for anything taken

I stopped for the night in a tiny village called Vilchá, with a population of just 30 people and no cafés or shops. I was just 2.5km from Portomarín but I wanted to avoid the throngs of people heading for the big town. I thought I had a better chance of getting a bed in a small village like this, and it turned out to be true. Surprisingly, I bumped into some German and South African women I had’t seen since St. Jean Pied de Port, and we were all thrilled to see that we were each still alive, still walking, and in good health.

Our private hostel was a restored farm house, with solid furnishings and exposed wooden beams. There were only eight of us staying there that night – all women, too – so it was a quiet evening while people wrote in their journals and napped before dinner. Our South African host cooked a fine three-course meal for us (you can’t go wrong with Spag. Bol.!) and afterwards gave us liqueurs that smelled like rocket fuel! We talked politics, farming, and music, and I got the sense that our host would have loved a party late into the night. I was the youngest one there so he was adamant that I should sing for them or do some sort of a party piece. I squirmed at the attention and repeatedly declined his uninviting suggestion. If we had all sang together it would be one thing but singling me out like that didn’t feel right. I politely told him no, and he looked disappointed and bored with me for the remainder of the evening. I got the impression that I’d somehow defied his expectation of how camino “should” be, as though I had snubbed his hospitality and warmth, somehow. A strange way to end the day but I was glad of the warm and solid bed, and grateful for the chance to rest before going further.

Camino de Santiago and The Highest Point

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Distance walked: 17.1km

Ascent: Approx. 700m to O’Cebreiro (1330m above sea level)

My walk from Vega de Valcarce took me from the region of Castilla Y León into Galicia: I was (finally!) officially on the home stretch into the rainy, coastal home of Santiago. The day’s walking also took me on an ascent some 700m upwards to O’Cebreiro (which is itself 1330m high). Others assured me this was even higher than our ascent in the Pyrenees only a few weeks before. Knowing all of this, I set out early in the morning with a healthy dose of humility and my new ibuprofen pills. I had been walking for more than a month already but I still felt that nothing was guaranteed. I’d do my best but like every other day before, the plan was loose and wishful.

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Gorgeous to look at, pain-in-the-feet to walk on!

There were lots of great things about this day: One, I kept dry, which was a welcome bonus at that altitude. Two, I met sunny Margaret from Australia who somehow wrangled out of me one of the deeper truths about why I was walking the camino. She also filled the walk with a rolling, hearty chuckle that comes from a woman who’s lived a big and fearless life. Honestly, I don’t know where else I would have met an Indonesian language teacher who’d worked for the Olympics in between running a dairy farm in Australia. I certainly wouldn’t have met her in my every day life. Lots of people talk about the “great people” walking the camino and they are right: there is huge kindness and compassion and heart. There are also a lot of really interesting people who just so happen to live really interesting lives, and being immersed in that wave of movement for six weeks was such a refreshment. I would never have met someone like Margaret while sitting at my work desk at home and she was a real tonic. And somehow, I got the sense that here was a woman just “doing her thing” and making no apology, no excuse, and no story about it. Really, I don’t know that many (other) motorbiking, 70-something-year-old Grandmas but boy, Margaret tops the list!

Crocus flowers (I think) but with no stem

The climb to O’Cebreiro was lush and steep, but what a lovely delight to get to the top. And what a huge surprise to see that the pubs (because by now, we had moved away from tiled café bars to rustic pubs) specialized in serving octopus. I’m not sure how this came about given that the place is more than 100km from the coast, but there you have it – another surprise for me because I still wasn’t reading the guidebook!

Like so many days before, I quickly popped into the church to light some candles and take a moment. I’m not sure I even had an active, articulate cluster of words here that might have constituted a prayer. Like so many other times, I had just the swelling contentment and gratitude for having made it that far. I say that as though that’s a simple, everyday thing but really, I often forget these very sentiments in my every day life. I walk around with all my limbs intact and totally take for granted that they are there and are performing so well. On camino, I had an acute awareness of my body’s greatness every day, and the huge privilege it was to be there.  Every day that I am above ground I have choices and possibilities. I forget this all the time but on camino, the reality of this was made clear to me countless times a day. Often, when I sat in the quiet churches, it was to just let that knowing settle for a minute. Just to acknowledge that I was healthy enough to be there, I had money enough to be there, I had a passport and an airplane that carried me some of the way, and, and, and….the list of things to be grateful for was actually endless.

And still is.

So, the church in O’Cebreiro gave me a moment to be still and silent, and let the gratitude settle into my bones a little.

And then, I strapped on my backpack and kept on walking.

A lot of pilgrims chose to end their day’s walking at this (literal and figurative) high point and I was kind of sorry I wasn’t joining them. I hadn’t booked into the hostels and I felt I was missing out on some sort of party atmosphere by continuing west. Still, I was glad to have the energy to keep moving so that’s what I did, and spent the night in a 20-bed hostel in Hospital de la Condesa.

Most of the distance was behind me and the highest point was also in the past: Santiago was closer than ever.

 

Religion on Camino

When I came home from walking 500 miles across Spain, I was surprised by how many people asked me about religion on the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to ask for all sorts of reasons:

Some wanted to test whether I’d gone walking because of religion…

Others wanted to know if I’d come home “born again”…

And there were others who knew the camino had a religious history and wanted to know whether this influenced my daily walking in any way.

Sometimes, I felt the questions were inquisitive and open-ended. Other times, I felt there was a snide judgment ready and waiting. I tried to be open-minded about everything on camino, so I wasn’t happy with being labelled one thing or the other. Separately, I felt protective towards the various friends I’d met along the way and I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to pass fun at their beliefs. Whatever we might think about matters of faith, I’m not okay with sneering at someone else’s belief system.

Me? I happened to be reared a Catholic but I use the term with a certain affection and humour. I grew up attending weekly mass but was always at least 10 minutes late and never had a seat to sit on. In truth, going to Sunday mass was a good opportunity to stock up on the Sunday newspapers and chocolate. And attending mass was also a good way to see people (or be seen by them) and keep in touch with the local community. Altogether, none of these things are signs of devotion, are they?!

And yet, I learned some (perhaps simplistic) version of Catholicism – the bit that assured me I don’t need to be in a church to say prayers, and the bit that says what’s happening in my heart is more important than whether I arrive to mass on time.

Do I know when to sit, stand, kneel, and shake hands? Sure. Do I know all the prayers, Bible stories, and feast days? Not a chance.

Am I devoted Catholic?

I don’t really think so.

As an adult, I’m a bit uneasy with the “G” word and there’s a lot of the official doctrine I don’t agree with. I also know that a lot of indefensible things have been done in the name of religions, so I can’t defend (any) organized faith. At best, I’m an À-la-carte Catholic. I have a system that works quite well for me and I find the divine in all sorts of places – both church-y and not. All things considered, I don’t think I count myself as “devoted”.

But am I going to scoff at someone who *is*?

No.

I tried to keep an open mind with all things religious while I walked camino.

I didn’t choose to walk because of religious devotion. True, I had some rather divinely inspired reasons for walking, but were they exclusively Catholic or even Christian? I don’t think so.

I walked because some deep-rooted part of my heart/spirit called me to action. And truth told, I felt more akin to the (pagan) pilgrims who walked this ancient route long before the Catholic church took it over. I don’t know enough about *their* story but I’m intrigued by the force that propelled them to walk from all over Europe and travel to the end of the world, as they knew it.

That strikes me as a rather primal compulsion and I resonate with it more strongly than anything church-y.

But I knew that the camino had, and has, a lot of Catholic significance and that thousands of people treat it as a religious pilgrimage – just like they would treat a trip to Lourdes or Rome. I didn’t feel I was exactly one of them but I didn’t think it fair to want to avoid them either. Anyway, there are good people and bad people in life – irrespective of religion. When it came to camino, I decided I’d hang out with the people I liked and avoid the ones I didn’t – regardless of faith.

I made no plans to attend mass or avoid mass – I figured I would decide as I went along. I also felt amenable to having conversations about faith, spirituality, and religion if they came up. I reasoned that the odds were pretty high but I was neither seeking nor avoiding the topic. Plus, the camino route goes past dozens, if not hundreds of churches, all across northern Spain. It purposefully snakes through small towns and villages to make sure it goes by the door of the church – presumably so pilgrims can avail of /will avail of its services. Separate to religion, many of the churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, so they’re elaborate and ornate buildings – solid, stoic, and architecturally impressive.

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Some of them were as small as my living room, with wild flowers humbly gracing the altar. Some of them were spectacular cathedrals with lines of tourists waiting for a look at their famous stained glass.

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And some of them, when you least expect it, looked non-descript on the outside but reveal something like this inside:

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So, whatever your feelings on Catholicism (in particular) there is no getting away from the church on camino.

Over the course of my 6 weeks, I met people who quoted scripture in my presence (and they knew it off by heart). In honesty, it felt a bit intense to me at the time because that’s not how I roll. But to be fair, they weren’t trying to ram it down my neck. They were saying grace at a dinner table in the way that felt most fitting for them. I’d be an ass to take offense to it.

And yet, I met people who did take offense when I told them about the quoting of scripture. For them, that was a leap waaaay too far and even though they hadn’t witnessed it in person, they were irate and argumentative about anyone having the gall to openly quote scripture. Clearly, it was a touchy subject.

I’m not sure it’s practical to get offended about religion on Camino because then you’re likely to get offended by accommodation like this:

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This was my hostel room in the town of Hospital de Órbigo and incidentally, I didn’t stay in a monastery but there’s no getting away from the big crucifix on the wall. I was so thrilled to have a quiet room and a non bunk-bed that I barely even noticed the crucifix!

I met people who planned their walking schedule and accommodation so they could avail of pilgrim masses in as many towns and villages as possible.

I met people who openly wore crucifixes on their person – and some of those crosses were the size of a coffee cup so there was no missing them!

I met people who had left churches, joined other churches, and knew about theology. I don’t know many people like that in my life and the bookish nerd in me was delighted to learn new information.

I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.

Conversely, I met people who weren’t Catholic at all but attended mass and received Holy Communion in their hands all the same.

I met two vicars, neither of whom wore collars, but both of whom shared very human experiences of their daily work at home.

I met people who’d done missionary work in developing countries and others who had an ongoing despair about their dwindling faith.

I met people who didn’t mention religion or faith from one end of the day to the other – and we talked about a million other things instead.

Religion didn’t dominate my camino but it played a big part nonetheless.

I attended some of the pilgrim masses along the way and in general, I managed to be late almost every time 🙂 I liked the sentiment of the pilgrim blessings and I came away from every one of them feeling fortified in my hopes to carry on.

There was one day, I happened to arrive into a tiny country village just as the bells were ringing out for Sunday morning mass. To the surprise of the locals (who expected me to go straight to the café bar) I went to the church, me covered in dust and sweat, and sat in the quiet darkness. I lit candles for loved ones at home. I said a few prayers of thanks. And even though I was the only pilgrim in the village that day, I didn’t stay for Mass and the pilgrim blessing I surely would have received. Somehow, the vibe wasn’t quite right for me that day and I felt like hitting the trail instead and finding my version of mass out there – so that’s what I did. As I descended the church steps, I met the locals on their way in, dressed in their Sunday best (literally) and ready for action. My departure might have been offensive to them at the time but I don’t believe in attending church just because of what the neighbours think! I felt no guilt or hesitation in my decision, and celebrated a great day of walking instead.

Surprisingly, by the end of my camino I was wearing a scauplar around my neck, neatly tucked in behind my sporty t-shirt. It came as a gift from Liz in a moment of spontaneity and I accepted it with gladness. I had an important decision to make and she felt an impulse to give it to me. She took it from around her own neck and she placed it gently around mine. I hadn’t even seen such a thing since I was a child and barely knew what it was called, but it felt right to accept the gift in that moment. I wore it as a sort of talisman for the remainder of my trip and I happily have it to this day.

Like I say, I tried to be open-minded about all things religious on camino.

My speciality was to wander in and out of churches as, and when, the mood struck me. I started it on my first evening in St. Jean Pied de Port, in France. It was bright out and the town was full of window boxes in full bloom, reds and yellows in the evening sunlight. I took a stroll around before dinner and came upon a church, and decided to pop in for a look. As it happened, there was a mass on (and wouldn’t you know it, I had arrived 10 minutes late!) so I sat down the back and admired the raw stonework and foot-long candles burning in front of the alter. And I couldn’t follow most of it because it was held in French and my high school French is long forgotten!

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That evening, a couple were blessed in honour of their 50th wedding anniversary and later on the church steps, they invited everyone to join them for champagne and pizza. They even invited us pilgrims – knowing well we’d be gone the next day and they’d never see us again but our faces would appear in their photographs. I was too shy to join them but watched their delight as they splashed champagne into plastic cups and handed out slices of hot, cheesy pizza in the evening sun.

I loved their warm welcome and their playful abandon. I loved the sincerity of their kindness. I loved that the church space allowed them to be casual and convivial, instead of formal and stuffy. The tone was good.

All along the way, I was a bit of a pyromaniac and I lit candles as often as I could. I lit them for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of people. Living such a transient life on the trail, there was very little I could do for anyone in the world but somehow, lighting a candle felt like something I *could* do – so that’s what I did.

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I enjoyed the churches because they were cool and shady, and I relished the break from the sweltering sun.

I also enjoyed the churches because they were often the quietest places where I could take some time out. Sure, it may be a religious pilgrimage but the churches are quieter than the hostels, the café bars, and the restaurants. Think about that for a minute – it says a lot.

Towards the end of my journey, I walked for 2-3 days with a woman I’d just met. In the green countryside of Galicia, I gestured that I wanted to stop off in a small country church and light some candles.

“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.

I sensed that she was uncomfortable with the church thing and that she mistakenly took me for being somehow devout. It didn’t matter what she thought but I made a point of explaining my reasons for visiting the churches. I liked the shade. I liked the quiet time. I liked lighting candles. I even liked looking at how they were decorated and arranged.

She nodded in understanding but stayed outside the front door, patiently waiting for me to arrive out so we could resume our conversation about something entirely different.

We lost track of each other for a couple of days and when we reunited again on the trail she surprised me by saying:

“I’ve taken a leaf out of your book and I’ve started going into the churches!”

For years, I ran hard and fast away from all things church-y. The irony that I had influenced anyone to step foot in a church was….well…hilarious to me!

When people asked me about religion on Camino, it was hard to know what to say. Yes, if you want to have a formal religious experience, the framework is there and ready to go. There are monasteries, convents, priests, and nuns. There are blessings and masses, confessions, communions, and hymn-singing gatherings. There’s a rich history and it’s all there for the taking.

Equally, if you want to have an informal religious experience, as I suppose I did, it’s all there for the taking or ignoring. I dipped in and out of services, conversations, and religious accommodations. I accepted some of it, rejected some of it, and followed my own hearty impulses as best I could. Rightly or wrongly, that was my exploration of faith on camino.

And equally, I think it’s quite possible to walk camino and avoid the religion thing almost entirely. I met plenty of atheists who enjoyed the history, the cuisine, the countryside, and companionship, and bypassed the religious elements quite comfortably. They didn’t have anyone force religious agendas down their neck.

I tried to answer the “religion on camino” questions with delicacy and tact but really, the topic was multi-faceted and huge.

How would you answer such questions?

Food and Drink on the Camino de Santiago

Paella....yuuummm

When I wrote about the things I missed while walking the camino, I mentioned missing vegetables and a kitchen. I wasn’t alone in this – you’d be surprised how many people talk about missing vegetables when they’re out there walking the trail for weeks on end. Fruit is pretty easy to find but somehow the veg was a bit trickier to locate – I guess it takes a bit more effort to provide plates of roasted squash or broccoli.

Oh man, I don’t think I even saw broccoli on my camino journey, never mind ate it!

Green vegetables were sorely lacking.

People talk about the food being basic and repetitive on camino. Breakfast was much the same every day, like a coffee with some toasted baguette or a croissant (tough life, I know!):

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Spanish omelette in the background, chocolate croissant in the foreground!

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A big breakfast: baguette with ham, chocolate croissant, and coffee

Even if I wanted a bowl of oatmeal or muesli, they were nowhere to be found. Suddenly, my not-so-fancy choices in “real life” seemed stupidly, ridiculously indulgent in rural Spain.

Still, this is a first-world problem and you’ll notice, I didn’t die of starvation at any point! 🙂

With more than 150,000 people on the route in 2013, feeding people was surely an exercise in efficiency – time efficiency as well as economic efficiency. Carbohydrates are cheap and easy to prepare. Protein is guaranteed to sell – after all, people are walking many miles and need high-energy foods to sustain them, so sandwiches usually consisted of dry baguette with either Spanish ham, chorizo, or Spanish tortilla. No additional lettuce or tomato or whatever other sandwich-like fillings you usually have – it was bread and meat – no more, no less. I learned afterwards that you can ask for sachets of mayonnaise separately so I’ll pass on that nugget of wisdom to those of you who’ll walk the way soon! I ate chorizo, ham, or some other pork product every day – and often 2-3 times a day.

By the end, I thought I’d had my fill of chorizo and would never touch the stuff again.

But surprisingly, a month or so after I returned home, I took an unexpected craving for the stuff and I threw it into every dish for about a week, delighting on the spicy, oily, meatiness. Lovely Husband was entertained by my change of heart, and watched with quiet bemusement.

Spanish tortillas (omelettes made with potato and onion) are available everywhere. With the exception of “Banana Man in a Van” in the middle of the Pyrenees, I don’t know that I saw eggs prepared any way other than in the tortilla/omelette. Boiled, scrambled, poached, with bacon and hash browns? Forget it all – it was omelette or nothing!

Lunch and dinner menus were interchangeable. Availing of the “pilgrim menu” was a cheap way to eat, as it meant getting a 3-course meal, served with baguette and wine, for just 10 Euro. I told friends about this when I came home and they swooned at the sound of it.

A 3-course meal – with wine and bread – for only TEN EURO, they cried!

Sign us up!

When I talk about bread, I mean a basket of freshly cut baguette.

When I say wine, I mean a whole bottle of wine – per person!

A bargain, for sure.

And with the exception of one glass (incidentally, pictured below), the wine was always delicious!

A glass of house wine “vino tinto” usually set me back something in the region of €1-1.50. I bought whole bottles with the price tag of just €5 but yet, I met pilgrims who bought locally-produced wine for as little as €2 per bottle. So when you crunch the numbers on that you realize that €1 per glass is a nice profit for the bar owner. Still, I was more than happy to get such a bargain, and happily handed over my Euro to drink smooth red wines from the Rioja region all the way across northern Spain.

There was no chance I’d get wine so cheaply at home so between you and me, I should have drank more of it – waaay more!

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But back to the 3-course meal…

In case you’re imagining fine dining with candlelight and fancy creamy sauces – forget it. Quite a lot, I ate chicken fillets that were quickly fried in a hot pan and dripping with hot oil. Nothing wrong with them, but there wasn’t always a lot of love in the cooking. Like I say, it was largely about efficiency.

Get ’em in, get ’em fed, get ’em out again!

And in case you’re imagining decadent deserts – maybe homebaked pies or creamy Black Forest Gateau – forget it. Often, dessert was a pot of yogurt (without the fruity compote at the top/bottom) so it wasn’t luxurious. I was glad of the extra sugar though, and have no complaints. And really, a 3-course meal with bread and wine for €10 – I’m surprised they offered a dessert at all!

The pilgrim menu didn’t vary much across the 800km. Over and over, I was handed a piece of paper like this one, with details of the menu printed in four languages. The first course offered more variety than the second course, and I learned that the mixed salad was a great way to get fresh vegetables into my system.

Menu

(Photo credit)

When I ordered the salad pictured below, the woman behind the bar took my order and wrote the details down in a notepad.

She then came out from behind the bar, walked away from me out the front door, and crossed the quiet country road.

Confused, I watched as she gently hopped over a low wall, and proceeded to cut two heads of lettuce – fresh from the garden!

When the leaves landed up on my plate minutes later, I thought it the most magical salad I had ever seen – and it gave me a new appreciation into just how much work goes into feeding thousands of hungry pilgrims!

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Egg, Tomato, Tuna, Onion, Olive, and White Asparagus

The quality of, and variety of, main courses varied from place to place. I didn’t see paella listed on the pilgrim menu that often – unfortunately. I’d have happily eaten it far more often than just 4-5 times. Some of the restaurants also had a “Menu del dia”, which listed their daily specials. If you wanted a break from the repetitive pilgrim menu, and were happy to pay a bit more, you’d get a better meal – generally.

One of the best meals I had was in a place called Mansilla de las Mulas, where my fish was battered in golden crumb and fried to perfection – it was a joy to my palate! I took a doggy bag away with me and ate it the next day for lunch, under a shady tree. The chef was delighted. He told me that too often, they have to throw food in the bin and no-one thinks to take leftovers on to the trail the next day. I was thrilled to have good food two days in a row!

One of my worst meals was in the town called Hospital de Órbigo, where I ate alone one evening. I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat at 7pm. This was way too early, as most Spaniards themselves don’t eat until well after 9pm, and many pilgrim meals don’t start until 8. I ordered a “fresh homemade” Hawaiian pizza but 20 minutes later, was presented with a rather bad frozen pizza-like-thing. The base was hard and dry, like cardboard. The sauce tasted like cheap ketchup with too much vinegar. I ate about 1/4 but eventually left it on my plate in search of something else.

First world problems, right? (eye roll at myself!)

Anyway, back to the 3 course meal…

You’ll see in the menu that they list “chicken”, “pork”, and “fish”. One day, I asked “What kind of fish?”. I’m not sure what I expected them to say, exactly, but when they rolled their eyes in return I realized I might have been asking a bit too much! I told myself to just eat it, be grateful, and shut up!

That said, the Spanish love their fish. Walking through some of the larger towns and cities, I passed supermarkets dedicated entirely to freezers full of fish – of all kinds! They sold nothing else but frozen fish – imagine!

In regular supermarkets, I passed entire aisles full of tinned fish, like the one below. I checked the labels here – there were no tins of beans, hotdogs, or sweetcorn – this was all fish!

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Some days, dinner was heavy on the carb and light on nutrition!

If you’ve a sensitivity or allergy to gluten or to wheat, I think it’s tough going on camino. Baguette was served with every meal. Quite often, it was the main component of the meal – especially for breakfast. I met only one coeliac on my travels and she bought rice cakes in the bigger towns and cities, and carried them with her. At least they were light but she had to plan ahead in a way that most people don’t. She learned enough Spanish to be able to explain her condition to bar owners and restaurant staff, and while the rest of us munched on pastries and sandwiches, she asked for a plate of cheese or ham which she then spread on her rice cakes. She probably couldn’t eat the ubiquitous chorizo either, now that I think about it, but she seemed to find a way of managing her needs quite well.

The trick to walking the camino with special dietary needs? Learn lots of Spanish. Really.

I think vegetarians might get away okay but anything more unusual than that will require language skills. Staff are accommodating and often do everything they can to help, but they don’t always have the English (or German, Korean, etc.) to understand those needs. If you’ve got special requests, you’re better to have the language skills to articulate them.

As I progressed westwards into the province of Galicia, the food changed quite a bit. I started noticing stews and broths a lot more – and I found myself wanting them too. The northwest of Spain is said to be like the west of Ireland with stone walls, small green fields, and a chilly dampness to the air. Of course, it was early October by then so the autumn weather had an impact on things too.

I found myself desperately craving cups of hot tea, bowls of hot broth, and hearty, meaty dishes. This was such a contrast from the previous weeks, where the sun had been beating down on us every day and heavy, hearty meals were sometimes too much for my system.

Not so in Galicia though – I gorged on meat and soups as often as I could.

By the end of camino I was eating 5-6 meals a day and was still *always* ravenous – I guess walking all those miles had burned off a few calories after all!

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Also in Galicia, I noticed more and more donation stations along the route. The last 100km or so are the busiest along Camino Francés. Thousands of pilgrims start their camino at Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago. This is the minimum distance you’d have to walk if you want to be issued with a certificate (compostela) for completing Camino.

Thankfully, the coffee shops are plentiful along this stretch. In between, some of the locals leave out flasks of tea and coffee, with snacks and treats of all sorts, on the side of the trail. The idea is that you take refreshment if you need it – and you pay a donation into the box provided.

Some of the donation tables were a bit “rustic” and held more wild flowers and coloured pebbles than they did *actual food*. Ordinarily, I love my wild flowers and coloured pebbles but I couldn’t eat them, so I’d sometimes take the coffee and quickly move on. The flowers were lovely but they didn’t satisfy my empty belly!

This table was very impressive to me, though. It screamed of cleanliness and organization. I liked that the mugs were turned downwards, and not filled with dust or insects. I also loved that they’d thought to offer paper towel – what a novelty! I loved finding these little tables along the way and I spent the last 100km of Camino sampling my way through all of the hot coffee and home-baked pastries I could find! 🙂

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At different points along the way, I ate wild food and free food, too. Sometimes the local farmers generously hand out fruit from the side of their orchards and vines – so I saw pilgrims coming away beaming with glee at the handfuls of fresh tomatoes and grapes they’d been given. Very cute! Other times, I passed trees and bushes that were heavy with fruit – like the fig tree that this beauty came from:

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Imagine the decadence! I don’t think I’d ever had sun-ripened fresh figs before and I swear, they were a highlight in what-was-otherwise a very tough day! I can still taste the juicy sweetness – wow!

There’s one particular town in Galicia that’s famous for its “pulpo” or octopus. I heard it was delicious but I didn’t dare try it – I’ve got too vivid an imagination and I’ve watched too many low quality science fiction movies in my youth – the image of those creatures lurking in the deep has me ruined. Interestingly though, the town itself is not beside the sea. It’s not even close to the sea – so I would love to know how on earth it became famous for its octopus when the nearest coastline is more than 100km away!

By the time I arrived in Galicia it was early October and the autumn fruits were heaving from the trees. I took a shortcut from my hostel one evening in Vega de Valcarce and came upon this bounty of windfall apples – of course, I stopped to eat a few – deliciously sweet!

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Eventually, I came home with a renewed awe for my body. Not only was it strong enough to cross Spain the old-fashioned way (on foot!) but it did so on a very limited diet. All the knowledge and training I’ve had on nutrition went out the window in Spain. The food was basic and it was generally good, but there wasn’t a whole lot of variety.

I was amazed that my body rose to the greatest physical challenge I had ever presented it with – and on such a basic diet.

Every day, I eat food that is of better quality and higher nutritional value than I did on Camino – only to sit in an office and work on a computer!

On Camino, I carried my body and all my belongings across a country!

I climbed mountains.

I walked in the rain, the cold, the sweltering sun.

I walked for hours at a time, day after day after day.

I burned calories by the bucket load and my body needed rapid repair to cope with the physical exertion.

That’s when I needed the high-grade nutrition but I survived on copious amounts of baguette, coffee, and chorizo – AMAZING!

I came home thrilled and buoyant, and surprised that I didn’t have a cold, a flu, or some sort of low-grade malnutrition. I thought my body was truly outstanding for working so hard with such little nutritional support. It made me realize just how little I need to survive – not just in terms of physical possessions but in terms of food intake, too. Our bodies are designed to glean nutrition from the most humble food, and somehow mine had walked an outstanding 500 miles and thrived.

Love it!

I came home to kitchen cupboards full of food – so much variety! I gasped at the sight of breakfast cereals and muesli, casually sitting on the counter top, waiting to be eaten. I marvelled at the generosity of a fresh pineapple – so much sweetness and I didn’t have to worry about the weight of carrying it! I came home and gazed at the contents of my fridge in baffled wonder – so much food – what would I do with it all?

Why, eat it, of course! 🙂

What were your food & drink experiences on your travels, whether camino or otherwise?

What did you love to eat?

What did you groan at the sight of?

And if you had any special dietary needs, how did you manage them?