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.

A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

I left Viana and its resident population of 3,500 in the early hours the next morning.

After a short walk the previous day and an afternoon of rest, I felt physically stronger. My new shoes allowed my feet to feel wonderfully cushioned, and my clothes were newly washed and dried. I felt good to go!

My fellow pilgrim and I walked in the early morning light, with the sound of the gravel trail crunching beneath our feet. There wasn’t much to say in the early hours and neither of us had eaten yet, so we enjoyed the quiet. I kept pace with her for most of the 10km to Logroño and there, we stopped in a café bar for breakfast, while the cathedral bells beside us rang out for early morning mass.

Beautiful!

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We feasted on several rounds of coffee and tea, and gorged ourselves on sticky pastries and savoury tapas, draped in roasted, sweet peppers. Wonderfully, the guy behind the bar offered us glasses of wine at the early hour of 11am. The two of us were in a giddy mood and would have loved the chance to sit drinking vino, while people bustled their way to work. We were tempted, but we playfully declined.

Walking the Camino sort of normalises early-morning drinking. Back in the “real world” you’d look like an alcoholic to open a bottle of wine at 10am but on Camino, the attitude is different. When you’re up at 6am and have walked a few hours already, a beer or wine at 10-11am seems entirely reasonable!

Personally, I liked to wait until 12 or 1pm to have my wine. It was probably a psychological ploy to convince myself that drinking in the afternoon was less shocking than drinking in the morning – but you know, the results would probably have been the same either way!

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Embedded into the pavement, yellow arrows point the way to Santiago. Each region uses a different style of sign.

On the far side of town, we bumped into 2 Canadian ladies we hadn’t seen since Zabaldika. One of them had just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and like me, was breaking them in while she walked.

She’d travelled to Spain with a pair of sturdy hiking boots – a pair she’d owned for less than a year and had already broken in. The boots had been the correct size to begin with, but her feet had swollen in the heat and with the exertion of daily walking.

This is normal for Camino.

The steep descent of the Pyrenees had caused her toes to press against the front of her boots for hours on end. This had led to bruising and blisters so by the time she reached Logroño, her toe nails were starting to fall off.

Ouch!

She’d just purchased a pair of lightweight walking shoes and had abandoned her boots back in the city.

“My husband will kill me!” she said, knowing the €200 boots would never be seen again.

She didn’t care at all – those boots were killing her toenails and they were too heavy to mail home: let some other pilgrim make use of them.

And she practically skipped her way out of the city, along the tree-lined pavements, and out into the open countryside!

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

I gently separated myself from the group to walk on ahead, alone, for a few hours. That afternoon, I passed through miles of vineyards where the soil was truly reddish-brown, and gave its name to the regional wine: Rioja. Funny how I’ve drunk it for years without ever really considering its origins. Only then, walking through the region and watching the red soil cover my fresh new shoes and socks, I realised that all of these things I consume each day, have an origin.

I know this, of course. I buy organic vegetables in farmer’s markets and I read the labels on things. I know where my food comes from.

But I don’t really consider what that place looks like or smells like.

I don’t really consider just how far my food travels before it appears on my supermarket shelf, and just how exotic it is to have global food available at arm’s reach.

When I bought Rioja wine at home, I never imagined that I would one day walk through that very region – maybe even the very vineyards that produced the bottled goodness.

And yet, there I was – happily plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in the smell of earth, vines, and live, growing grapes. How utterly exotic and yet, from a Spanish perspective, how utterly normal.

Truly, a gift experience.

When I arrived in Navarette later that day, I was thrilled to get a bed in the main albergue. It holds only 40 pilgrims and was the only albergue in town to run on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the others were privately owned and were probably already booked up.

Getting a bed in the main albergue, early in the day, felt like a new pattern for me.

Unlike previous days, I’d covered quite a bit of distance without feeling defeated by the effort. The new shoes had transformed my walking experience and I was in an unusual position:

I’d just walked nearly 23km but felt like I could go on further.

Hurrah!

I booked myself into the hostel and asked the staff if they could reserve a bed for my fellow pilgrim, who was somewhere behind me on the trail. They spoke no English and I had only a spattering of Spanish but we managed to come to some agreement:

They would keep a bed for her, but only for another 2 hours. If she didn’t arrive by then, they’d have to give the bed to someone else.

Fair enough, I thought, that sounds like a reasonable deal.

I paid my fee, they stamped my pilgrim passport, and I made my way upstairs to find a bed.

 

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

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The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

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The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.