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 Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: Nearing the End

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I would never have guessed this was in Spain!

Distance walked: 25.6km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 129.8km

Descent: Approx. 600m

After more than a month of walking, this stretch of trail was particularly bittersweet for me. On one hand, I was tired, sore, and was starting to feel the autumn chill in the air: I was ready to go home. On the other hand, I had spent every day walking west towards Santiago but curiously, wasn’t ready to get there yet. I wasn’t ready for the journey to be over but every step brought me closer to “the end”.

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These last 130km of the camino trail were different to everything that came before. Some of that is because of the geography – the vegetation is different, the smells are different, the colors are different. Galicia, as a region, is more like parts of the U.K. and Ireland than it is like the other parts of Spain, and this became hugely apparent in the last days of walking. Separately, the facilities are different because the last 115km from Sarria to Santiago are the busiest kilometers of all. This means there are more places to stop for a coffee or food, and far more people on the move, so signs like these suddenly appeared:

The highlight of the walk that day was to meet two German men walking together. Marco, like me, had just finished a job and had some time off to do something different. His Dad, Ricard, had just retired from a lifetime of work and wanted to mark the transition with something meaningful. Together, this father-and-son duo walked the camino for three weeks.

It’s such a simple concept but I get choked-up thinking about it even now. How fabulous to spend that time together! How fabulous that they were both healthy and well enough to commit to the daily walking. And how fabulous that they did this at a time when they were both in transition and available. I love, love, love that Marco and Ricard made the time for something (and someone) that really mattered, and made this memorable trip happen.

Fab!

Also fab: learning the phrase for “cheesecake”, which Marco taught me on one of our coffee stops. These two men feasted on baked cheese cake every day with their coffee. I didn’t know that such a thing even existed because it often wasn’t listed on the menu but that morning, I enjoyed a large coffee and an even larger helping of dense, sweet cheesecake: sublime! 🙂

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Marco and I stepped through the miles chatting about work and life and motorbiking around Europe and like everyone else, he wanted to know why I walked. What had prompted me to walk 500 miles across Spain, why there, why now?

When I started out, everyone knew that I had booked a one-way ticket to St. Jean Pied de Port. I didn’t know how long it would take me to walk to Santiago but the rough idea was that Handsome Husband and I would meet there for our wedding anniversary. Everyone loved the romance of the story. They thought it a beautiful way to end the journey. Every time we’d cross paths in a coffee shop or a hostel, fellow pilgrims would ask about “the plan” and as time went on, I grew more and more uncomfortable with it.

Don’t get me wrong, reuniting with Handsome Husband sounded very romantic! He had been hugely supportive of my need to walk and reuniting in Santiago sounded a lot nicer than at an airport at home. The problem was, I hadn’t been able to walk as quickly as I had hoped, so I couldn’t make it to Santiago on time. Husband and I had chatted about this weeks earlier and had decided to scrap “the plan”. However much we loved the idea of meeting in Santiago, I couldn’t walk those remaining km quickly enough. We decided to celebrate our anniversary when the walking was done and I’d return home. “The new plan” was settled.

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Outside of Triacastela, the trail split in two. In one direction, the path followed the river Oribio and passed by the doors of the Benedictine monastery in Samos. In the other direction, the path had more woodland and was shorter by 6.4km. I felt like seeing the monastery in Samos so I pitched my hopes on that and put one foot in front of the other.

By the time I arrived in Samos that evening, I was spent. The path into the monastery town was steeper and rockier than I expected, so my poor feet ached from the stones. I booked a bed in the 70-bed hostel (where I could almost “see” the smell of sweaty feet and unwashed hair – ugh) and waited my turn for a shower. After quickly washing my clothes in the sink, I went outside to hang them up only to discover that there was no clothes line in sight. Instead, everyone had draped their wet clothes on bushes across the road and they lay there, on the grass and in trees, drying in the evening sun. I did the same because there didn’t seem to be much alternative, but it was definitely odd to see the locals walking past these bushes filled with wet underwear on their way to evening mass in the monastery!

In the café, I picked up enough wi-fi to send some messages to Handsome Husband, including a photo of my evening meal.

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Where are you? he asked casually.

Oh, I’m in this little town called Samos and it has a huge monastery, I texted back.

By then, I was tucking into my carbs-with-more-carbs dinner, and not really paying attention to his questions. He seemed very interested in my day’s walking and my plans for the evening, but I thought he was just being nice.

Later, as I finished my meal, my phone rang. It was Handsome Husband calling.

Hello? I answered.

Hey, he replied, I’m outside.

Huh? I asked, confused.

You’re in Samos, right?

Yeah…

Well, surprise! I’m here!

And so he was! Handsome Husband had scrapped “the new plan” earlier that day and drove to the airport, took a flight to Spain, and then spent the afternoon taking trains and buses to the small town of Samos.

Romantic? Yes!

Surprised? YES!

That evening, it just so happened that there was a wedding at the monastery church. A year earlier, Handsome Husband and I had put on our finery and surrounded ourselves with loved ones who toasted our decision to marry. There, on the steps of this enormous monastery, another beautifully-clad couple were doing the same. Their photographer asked them to pose in certain ways, the ground was covered in confetti and flower petals, and their guests gazed on with broad smiles and glittering clothes. As a sight, it was totally different to everything else I had seen on camino but what a fitting reminder for Handsome Husband and I.

We had each come so far – him by car, plane, train, and bus, and me on the strength of my two legs. There we were, surrounded by rose petals and finery, and a crowd of loved ones that may as well have been ours.

Sweet. 

 

 

 

 

Losing Weight on Camino

As recently as yesterday, someone asked me:

Did you lose weight on the camino?

(As if my reason for walking 500 miles in the sweltering sun was to get in shape for the Christmas party season!) I know it’s a logical question to ask – after all, you do a lot of exercise and you lose a lot of weight – that’s how it works, right?

I’ve been asked this question almost as much as “How long did it take you?” and the two questions often go together. I don’t mean to sound like a snob but my camino experience was *so* much more than a fitness program.

You want to know how much weight I lost?

You’re kind of missing the point.

And yet, I understand that most people don’t want to get into a deep conversation about something that is kind of abstract.

I get it.

In the years before my camino, I remember meeting people who’d already walked. I often asked them:

How was it?

And they often replied with something along the lines of:

Amazing! But tough!…But amazing!…And tough…

And then they’d kind of trail off and I’d stand beside them feeling confused.

Their response told me nothing and I didn’t really know where to go from there. No doubt, I asked about the cheap wine and the weather, and eventually changed the conversation to something more tangible. It was easier than trying to understand the hazy lightness in their eyes, or trying to figure out what exactly was so amazing and what exactly was so tough. I didn’t understand that contradiction and I didn’t know how to ask for more specifics.

After *I* came home, I experienced that conversation from the other side as everyone asked me:

How was it?

And you know what? I found myself saying:

Amazing! But tough! …But amazing!…But tough!…and then I’d kind of trail off in a nondescript way.

And I watched *their* eyes glaze over, just like mine had done years before! 😀

I can only assume that they struggled to find a way in to my vague reply and didn’t know how to direct the conversation. Invariably, they picked out the things they felt most comfortable chatting about: the weather, their surprise at how I walked it alone, and the names of people they’d known to walk some/all of it before – people I’d never met but with whom I had something in common. I sometimes feel that people ask about my camino experience as a way of cataloguing me rather than trying to understand me.

A lot of the time, people have a vague and passing interest in this camino thing and it’s just a piece of news that gets passed around without a lot of substance. The questions are brief and light. There’s very little probing. We talk around the subject but often don’t get into the meaty parts of my experience.

This happens on camino as well as off camino:

When I was on my last week of walking between Sarria and Santiago, I met a couple who walked roughly the same pace as me. We crossed paths several times over the course of a few days so we had lots of opportunity for small talk and chatter. Walking camino was their first-ever holiday alone as a couple. They’d left their 3 teenage children at home and spent 10 days walking together, relishing the freedom and the friendly community around them. By then, I’d been walking for 4-5 weeks and I was a transformed person. Those weeks and miles had changed me on a fundamental level, even though I was only beginning to articulate those changes. I assumed everyone around me had also been transformed on a fundamental level. I assumed this couple had experienced some sort of revelation about themselves or their life – after all, it was their first holiday alone and they’d chosen to walk instead of sit on a beach – that’s got to have an impact, right?

Over lunch I asked them: So how has the camino changed you?

They looked at me with panic in their eyes. They glanced sideways at each other and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They wanted to talk about cheap wine and the friendly pilgrims but I’d upset that easygoing balance by asking such a loaded question.

They looked *so* uncomfortable, I may as well have asked them their favourite sexual position!

They stumbled, they stuttered, and eventually came back with a well-worn platitude as a response. They didn’t really have a transformative experience and looked truly distressed by my question.

I came to realize that most people don’t really want to talk about the nature of spiritual wellbeing after walking 500 miles. Largely, they want anecdotes and details they can relay to someone else. They don’t really care whether I feel more comfortable in my own skin and am more content in myself as a result of camino. They also don’t care that I gently, unexpectedly, stopped stressing and fretting over things that had dogged me for most of my life.

So, they ask me about my weight loss program instead.

The funny thing about being asked this question is that most of the time, people have a sort of breathless anticipation as they wait for my reply. There’s a lightness to their expectation. Their heads lift a little higher as they wait for my response. They really want to know if I lost some extraordinary amount of weight while also having fun and being on vacation.

That’s the dream scenario, right?!

And I wonder, if I told them that I did lose some extraordinary amount of weight in such a short amount of time, would they consider walking camino for themselves? Would the great tales of weight loss seduce them into doing something they’d never otherwise pursue?

I’m amused by the question for all sorts of reasons and I always answer it the same way:

I weighed exactly the same after camino as I did before camino.

I stood on the bathroom scales out of curiosity and was genuinely surprised I weighed exactly the same – pound for pound.

So, I can’t claim to have experienced a Camino Slim-Fast Plan!

But I did notice that my body shape changed a lot. My clothes fit me differently and sat differently on my frame. My body toned up. I guess I probably did lose weight but gained muscle mass. And one day, very close to the end, I recall looking down at my legs and actually failing to recognize them. After nearly 6 weeks of walking, they looked like they came from someone else’s body instead of my own. That was the strangest moment of all – literally not recognizing myself.

I came home feeling more fit and toned than I’d ever felt in my adult life. I’m not a runner but I felt like I could take up sprinting, I was that fit. I didn’t run, though, and within a few weeks my body shape returned to its former self. I missed that wirey strength and energy in my body but at the same time, my feet were too sore for walking such long distances every day. And anyway, it was autumn by then and I wanted to curl up beside a warm fire and hibernate.

But next time, I’m totally going to lose an extraordinary amount of weight and get a Slimmer of the Year award! 😀

Did you lose weight on camino or get asked the same questions I did? Are your loved ones as fascinated with weight loss or is it just me?!

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?

 

“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?