Good Times in Grañón

** Updated this post a little **

IMG_0895

Grañón, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

So, it’s more than 2,000 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0898

Inside my hostel…

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

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

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

He made that happen.

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

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

grease,

baby sick,

or both.

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

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

Otherwise, I’d have to go topless.

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

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

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

He said to me:

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

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

Fred’s friend beside him cheekily offered:

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

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

The People you Meet on Camino

Everyone who walked the Camino de Santiago before told me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to her made me choke up a little.

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

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

I want to walk that.

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

The Camino could wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty special, eh?

 

 

Camino Continues: Navarette to Azofra

Distance walked: 23.2km

In Navarette, I woke at 5:30am, to a room filled with noisy alarm clocks, mobile phones, and rustling sleeping bags. The small space was filled with bright LED torches bobbing left and right, as people packed up their gear. I lay in the warm comfort of my bed but eventually realised there was simply no getting back to sleep.

I’m not a morning person, and I didn’t really support the ethos of rushing out the door before dawn, but here I was:

Awake and with a day of walking ahead of me. I decided to get up and go. I decided to start walking as soon as the front doors opened at 6am.

Downstairs, I put on my walking shoes, grabbed my walking poles out of the basket, and secured the backpack across my shoulders. Outside the door, the others walked off quickly into the early morning, and I slowly walked along behind them. Before long, they’d rounded a corner and were out of sight.

I tried to leave Navarette – really, I did.

But the morning was dark and I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows against the dark footpath.

I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows on the side of buildings, either.

The town was small, so the Camino signs were handmade and irregular. There were no formal signposts, or symbols embedded into the footpath. There was no one on the streets either, and that concerned me more.

I knew that dozens of pilgrims had poured onto the streets only minutes beforehand, but I couldn’t see any of them. There are always pilgrims around somewhere, so I doubted my sense of direction. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.

I doubled back, and started again but still, there was no-one around, and I was sure I had missed a turn somewhere.

I walked to the edge of the small to town – to the point where the street lamps ran out, with only dark countryside ahead.

As a woman walking alone, I took stock. I didn’t feel I was in any danger – my gut instinct indicated that it was safe to proceed. But my mental training kicked in: Don’t risk it. It’s not a good idea to walk off into the unknown darkness alone. So I turned around, and went back towards my hostel.

I spent nearly an hour doubling back on myself. I walked the stretch of road several times – back and forth – trying to find arrows or yellow paint anywhere along the way. I could see nothing.

From an upstairs apartment window, a local shouted out to me in Spanish and confirmed which way to go.

Another local looked like he was just returning home (from working a night shift job? from a night of heavy partying?) and confirmed which way to go.

Eventually, I heard the tap, tap, tap, of walking poles behind me. I couldn’t see anyone in the darkness but I could hear the sound of footsteps and could see the bobbing of a head torch. The Korean pilgrims confirmed which way to go.

After three confirmations I felt more confident of my direction, and was glad of their warm assistance.

And wouldn’t you know it: I had been going the right direction all along 🙂

IMG_0874

In Ventosa, I stopped for morning coffee, breakfast, and free wi-fi.

In Nájera, I stopped in a small corner shop to buy postcards and stamps, and found a sunny bench on the side of the street. There, I took off my socks and shoes, and felt entirely comfortable in my bare feet – even though busy traffic and pedestrians bustled all around me.

The Camino passes through so many towns, villages, and cities along the way, and there is a steady stream of pilgrims en route. Pilgrims need to tend to their feet – so this means taking off socks and shoes, bursting blisters, applying ointment and bandages – all in plain view. It becomes normal to see people on the side of the trail, tending to their feet. I don’t know what the locals think of all this but I imagine it’s become a normal sight for them, too.

I sat on the bench and took a few minutes to apply sunscreen, drink water, and let my feet cool down. I wrote a postcard, and listened to the sounds of children shrieking and laughing in the nearby schoolyard. I also observed the only Chinese restaurant I saw on my whole Camino, and it made me realise that I hadn’t seen very much non-Spanish food on the journey to date. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that and hadn’t missed it, either.

IMG_0876

Crossing the river in lovely Nájera

I arrived in Azofra at 1pm, and hoped I was early enough to secure a bed in the hostel with 60 beds.

Thankfully, I was.

To boot, I would share my room with only one other person! After so many noisy, busy dorms, the prospect of such (relative) privacy was intoxicating, and I delighted at the prospect of getting some decent sleep.

Outside, pilgrims sat in the afternoon sunshine, bathing their feet in the cold, outdoor fountain. What luxury! I happily bumped into Barb and Dave, whom I hadn’t seen in days, and it was a joy to see their friendly faces. Dave even helped me find an empty sunny patch on the clothes line, for my newly-washed clothes 🙂

It might sound ridiculous now but with dozens of others competing for the same patch of sunshine, in the same courtyard, and at the same time, free space on a clothesline was precious. Inherently, I would have tried to find a free spot without moving anyone else’s belongings. It’s polite and respectful, sure, but I would have sooner denied my own need for dry clothing than presume it was okay to move someone else’s stuff.

(Maybe I needed assertiveness training?)

My reserve would have been a problem because at the same moment I was needing a sunny space, three other pilgrims emerged beside me with armfuls of dripping, wet clothes. They too were looking for a spot and there was no way the four of us could squeeze our gear onto the existing line space. This might have turned into a “survival of the fittest” moment except that Dave magically and effortlessly found space for all of us! He took care of me first and pointed out a free patch. The three women beside me started to get a bit edgy in seeing that I would need every bit of that space. No fear, Dave jumped in with news of another free spot, and he led them down to the far end of the courtyard.

Without being any way pushy or domineering, he found prime sunny space for all of us. He made it look easy and effortless. To him, it probably was. He took care of each of us in the most natural and gentle way, and we all got what we needed. I’m pretty sure he won’t even remember this incident but without realising it, he got me out of a tight spot that afternoon. You see, I’d decided to wash almost all of my clothing that day, including my sweatshirt that I hardly wore but which had become really grimey nonetheless. I needed a lot of sunshine and heat to make sure everything was dry before evening. I wouldn’t have pushed my way onto the clothesline by myself, and Dave’s generous intervention meant that I found a way – and got what what I needed.

I’m pretty sure you don’t remember any of this but Dave, Thank You!

For the second day in a row, I had covered a considerable distance (Brierley would approve!) and had arrived into town early enough to secure a bed. I’d even arrived early enough to wash everything and ensure it was dry before nightfall – no more grimey sweatshirt!

Those new shoes truly changed my Camino.

Navarette

IMG_0872

16th Century Church of the Assumption (heavily covered in gold on the inside)

I was delighted to secure a bed in the main hostel in Navarette. Brierley’s guide-book tells me that it sleeps 40 people, and I was assigned a bed in the attic. I carried my dusty, sweaty self up the steep stairs, with details of my bed number in my hand. The dorm was a mixture of single beds, bunk beds, and mats on the floor. I didn’t know what had been assigned to me but I made my way around the room, scanning the numbers on the bedposts as I went.

I found my bed tucked against the back wall of the room and thankfully, it was a bottom bunk.

Hurrah!

Bottom bunks are a blessing for sore feet.

The only snag was this: Someone had already taken my bed and laid their things all over it.

Not this again!

After my experience of pinching beds in Puente la Reina, I had mellowed a bit. Back then, someone had stolen my bed and tried to play innocent. I sent him packing, without feeling even the smallest bit of apology. He’d found a bed somewhere else in the hostel and I reclaimed that which was “mine”. Admittedly, it was awkward to bump into him around the albergue that evening, the next morning, and on the trail the next day. I bumped into him several times over the following 1-2 days. Though we were surrounded by countless new faces, he and I had a history and there was no easy escape from it. We were definitely not friends.

In the intervening days, I’d had a chance to reflect on my behaviour and I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have kicked him out so quickly. Maybe I should have shown some patience and care to this elderly man – this was the Camino, after all. Maybe I could have expressed more tolerance? And anyway, it’s not like I really owned the bed back in the hostel – I was lucky to have loan of it for the night. Maybe I should have been the one to go looking for another place to sleep?

I bumbled along the trail every day, and I reflected on such things.

By the time I arrived in Navarette and discovered someone had taken my bed, I felt more Zen.

I thought: No worries, I’ll just pick some other bed!

Before I had time to turn around, the woman from reception was right beside me. She’d come to see how many free beds were left in the room and took stock of everyone in it. In an instant, she realised my predicament:

I still wore my backpack but there were belongings all over “my bed”.

Clearly, someone had taken my spot.

She seemed to be more upset by the mix-up than I was, and instantly wanted to know what was going on.

Of a sudden, 4 women jumped up from a bed in the corner and started speaking loudly and quickly. They wore lots of Lycra and discussed distances covered. They’d been looking at photos on an iPad and uploading them to Facebook…

Ah, you again.

She had arrived with her 3 friends and laid claim to the best beds in the room. They had all chosen lower bunks against the wall, and had marked their territory clearly. My appearance seemed to complicate things, especially because the staff seemed to be on “my side” and demanded to know why someone was on my bed.

If ever there was a moment on Camino when I could say “All hell broke loose” – this was it!

The women argued loudly that they had arrived first and were entitled to choose whatever beds they liked. Our hospitaleria (volunteering staff member) argued that everyone had been assigned a certain bed number, and that no one got to choose their bed. She demanded that they move their belongings and take the beds they’d been assigned. The women shouted at the injustice of the situation; the hospitalerio shouted back.

I stood in the middle of all the shouting, feeling amused and self-conscious.  Personally, I didn’t actually care what bed I slept in. Sure, a bottom bunk beside the wall was a dream situation, but I’d have happily taken whatever was going. After all, the place slept only 40 people and I was one of them – I was lucky to be there at all.

Everyone else in the room looked on at the argument in silence. Whether they’d been sleeping or unpacking their gear, everyone stopped to watch the spectacle. We witnessed a clash between (what I call) “Old Camino” and “New Camino”.

“Old Camino” consists of those who understand that a bed is not a guaranteed thing, so they accept whatever kindness is offered – gladly and humbly. They walk for the journey, and don’t count miles or kilometres as badges of honour. They allow the unexpected to unfold.

“New Camino” consists of hikers, backpackers, and  holiday-makers, who walk for the physical challenge or adventure. They might even walk it because they want to “Do the Camino” and cross it off the Bucket List. They expect Camino to be like every other holiday – one where reservations are made and kept – otherwise someone is compensated.

These are not official names and I agree, they are unforgiving generalisations.

But you get the idea: the Camino has become fashionable and very popular in recent years. It attracts a new crowd and not all of them treat it with the same expectation or attitude. Rightly or wrongly, people have different agendas.

That evening in Navarette, we witnessed the uncomfortable clash of such differences.

In the end, the hospitaleria “won” and I got my bed back.

Gracias!

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at the 4 women in an effort to say: I have nothing against you, this is just how things have turned out.

Only one of them smiled back. The others scowled and broke eye contact, and returned to their Facebook page.

Ouch.

Later that day, I happily bumped into Kevin and Liz again and feasted on some of the most delicious tapas of my whole Camino. They’d discovered the best eatery in town (this was to become a pattern) and I found them tucked inside, making friends with the whole place and drinking generous glasses of vino tinto.

I lit candles in the church, chatted with (some of) my roommates, and fell into a deep and grateful sleep. My new shoes had carried me many miles, I’d secured a good bed, and had a belly full of great food.

What more could you ask for?

 

St. Brigid in the Rioja Region

At different points in walking the Camino, I passed chicken wire fencing along the side of the trail.

Usually, the fencing was festooned with ribbons, photographs, and miscellaneous keepsakes – pieces of clothing or prayers written on paper. People also wove lose grasses or twigs through the fencing to make crucifixes. Depending on the length of the fence, there could be dozens or even hundreds of crucifixes lining the trail – big and small, some neatly constructed, some roughly assembled.

People wanted to leave a marker, whatever their reason.

Walking from Viana to Navarette, I passed through miles of vineyards. The Rioja region is famous for its red wine and the chicken wire fence separated me from the vines, at least some of the time. In the photo below,  you’ll see brown twigs woven into the wire, to make the shape of a cross. Some of them are more crude than others. And above them all, there’s something uniquely Irish – St. Brigid’s Cross, woven in straw – evidence that another Irish person had walked the Camino before me!

IMG_0871

St. Brigid’s Cross

 

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!

 IMG_0867

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!

IMG_0869

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!

IMG_0870

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.

 

Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago

In Viana, I bumped into Kevin and Liz outside the cathedral. The warm evening sunlight turned the building a golden brown, and we delighted in seeing each other again. As ever, they enquired about my feet and how I was getting on with the sandals. I confirmed that I’d just bought new hiking shoes that very day, and the sandals were getting the heave-ho and would be sent home in the mail.  They looked relieved and glad that I’d finally come to my senses in deciding to walk in shoes!

Though we’d chosen to stay in different hostels, we attended 8pm mass that evening and availed of the special blessing for pilgrims afterwards. By then, I felt enormously grateful to have survived those early days of the Camino – the Pyrenees, the issues with beds, and the distance I had already walked. I’d resigned from my job to walk the Camino and I really wanted to walk the 800km to Santiago.

Ego didn’t want for me to get so injured that we’d have to go home early, and face an audience who might judge me, and call me foolish and reckless.

Left a permanent job to walk the Camino, only to come home after just a week?

Fail!

In  reaching Viana intact, and in sourcing a new pair of walking shoes, I felt I was really making progress. I felt renewed.

The very least I could do was attend mass, give thanks, and avail of the pilgrim blessing. I’ve been reared a Catholic but by my own admission, I’m not a poster child for organised faith of any kind. Still, I’ve been reared to say “Thank You” and I felt strongly about doing that – even if the world disagrees about who, or what, to thank. I was delighted to have made it that far but there was still over 600km to go and I would need all the help I could get. I didn’t expect to do it all on my own.

Back in St. Jean Pied de Port, I attended a mass and gladly received the pilgrim blessing before I ever started walking. There, it was spoken in French, and I managed to understand only bits of it. Crossing over the Pyrenees meant we had all arrived into Spain, so the blessings from there on were spoken in Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what was being said, and some online research reveals that there several versions of the blessing. There may not be one exact prayer that’s said in all instances but this is one below is at least one version, and I’m presuming the sentiment is the same across all versions – even if the translation varies a bit:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in
his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us,
your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched
with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us.

I popped in and out of churches a lot in my time walking the Camino. I do this in “real-life” too, and leave a trail of burning candles in my wake. On Camino, I liked the cool shade of the churches and they were a welcome reprieve from the heat. Conversely (given the Camino’s Christian tradition), the churches were often the quietest places to sit and take stock. I found the albergues loud and busy, and the café bars were equally packed. Thankfully, the churches offered some breathing space and an opportunity for quiet reflection, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.

I attended mass in a sporadic fashion, and availed of pilgrim blessings whenever they were offered. Some priests rattled through the blessing with perfunctory speed and little heart. I had no problem with that – sometimes priests are men who need to get home and eat some dinner, like the rest of us. I don’t expect them to infuse every day with divine significance! Still, I was glad to receive whatever blessings they offered – regardless of their delivery.

Of all the pilgrim blessings I received along the way, this one in Viana was truly tear-jerking and I came away from it feeling choked up. Whoever he was, the priest that evening brought a tender humanity to the proceedings, and caught a few of us off guard with his warm humour. At the end of the mass, he gathered all the pilgrims together to the front of the church. We stood in a semi-circle in front of the alter, in our dusty shoes and hi-tech clothing. We were a mixture of young and old; women and men; Catholic and not, but we stood there united in our pilgrim status.

We all hoped to walk to Santiago.

We all intended to give it our best shot.

We all hoped to make it safe and sound.

Usually, we were blessed in a group and as a group.

This particular evening, the priest took the time to bless each of us individually. He asked each of us where we were from, and found something small and encouraging to say to each of us – whether it was about the football teams, the weather, or the music from our home countries. That small gesture was profoundly powerful. Of a sudden, we weren’t just a random scattering of alien pilgrims. Instead, we were people with homes, lives, and loves – all acknowledged by a simple question and warm comment.

Magic!

With each of us, he gently placed his hands on our shoulders and, looking straight into our eyes, said a blessing. He spoke softly. The whole thing was over in seconds. I want to say that he made the sign of the cross on my forehead but I don’t know if this is a real memory or an imagined one. Either way, the ceremony of blessing us was deeply moving. It took only a few minutes to make it personal, and I came away with tears in my eyes.

Total wuss!

I’m not sure what exactly brought me close to tears:

Was it because he spoke to each of us individually?

Or that he placed his hands on my shoulders?

Was it because he joked about football and made each of us smile?

I have no idea.

All I know was the pilgrim blessing gave me a few moments of gentle, mindful, connection. In that exchange I felt welcomed and acknowledged. Here I was, entirely human:

Sore

Floundering

Emotional

Stubborn

Grateful

Proud

Pilgrim

I was doing my best, but I was less and less sure what my “best” actually was, or what that even meant.

Without any flash dramatics, this priest had gently gathered us all together and shown us a few moments of gentle compassion and humour. With that, he infused our hearts with a little bit of hope for the days ahead, so even if our feet failed us, we felt blessed. That counted for something. I came away from the church feeling that my Camino was bigger than me, and stronger than my sore feet. Some deeper part of myself had just been fortified.

The woman who’d walked with me over the previous 2 days was not Catholic but admitted that something special had just happened. Even she felt the sincerity of the blessing and took it to heart, with renewed hope.

Pilgrim blessings – I’m a fan 🙂