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.

Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

Camino Packing List

This post is long overdue but here we go!

Planning to walk Camino is an exercise in lightweight packing and de-cluttering. I wanted to walk 800km over a 6 week period and I would need to carry all my clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies on my back during that time. Packing a light pack makes the long walking a lot easier.

I was advised to carry no more than 10% of my body weight in my backpack. I was advised to carry no more than 10kg but to really aim for 6-7kg. I was advised to weigh out every item of gear before I packed it, and to omit anything that didn’t have at least a dual role. After years of hiking and camping, I thought I had a pretty good handle on packing a backpack. Turns out, I didn’t have *that* good a handle on it because I am used to packing for wind, rain, and cold conditions – and Spain was hot and dry. I found it difficult to resist packing backup clothing and rain gear.

I packed my backpack the evening before I flew out to France.

Last minute packing at its best!

I didn’t test out my gear before I packed it. I didn’t do practice walks with my backpack for weeks in advance. I didn’t know what it all weighed when it was packed away and sitting on my shoulders. I didn’t have time to organise all of this before I left.

The night before I flew to France, I sat on the floor of my spare room with gear all around me – deciding what to bring and pulling labels off my new purchases. I’m sure this last minute frenzy is sweat-inducing for many people but my philosophy was this:

I am going to get this gear list wrong in some way – just because I’ve never done this before and the future weather conditions are unknown. So, I will pack as sensibly as I can but I will allow myself to replace or remove gear along the way if I need to. And I allow myself to figure it out as I go along.

If I do say so myself, that flexibility around my gear gave me great freedom and it allowed me to relax. I didn’t have to get it all perfectly right. I didn’t have to have all the answers in advance. I could make it up as I went along.

So what *did* I pack?

My Camino Packing List – What I Brought to France/Spain:

The Backpack:

  • 45L North Face backpack
  • 1 pair Leki hiking poles
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles when I checked my bag in at the airport
  • Scallop shell hanging on outside of pack, gifted to me (Thanks Jen!)
  • Nite ize buglit flashlight attached to shoulder strap of backpack (Thanks Katie & Jon!)

Raingear:

  • 1 lightweight Columbia rain jacket
  • 1 pair lightweight North Face rain pants

Footwear:

  • Chaco hiking sandals for 10 days then swapped to Salomon hiking shoes. (I didn’t buy the Gore Tex variety because they felt too heavy & the weather/ ground were dry)
  • 3 pairs medium weight hiking socks (2 pairs of 1000 Mile Socks & 1 pair Bridgedale wool)
  • 1 pair of Crocs (with holes!) to wear in the evenings & in the shower. Unlike flip flops, I could wear socks with them (how sexy!)
  • Custom fitted arch supports

Clothing:

  • 1 pair of Columbia hiking shorts for day use
  • 1 pair of North Face long pants for evenings (not the zip-away ones)
  • 2 wick-away t-shirts (synthetic, quick-drying)
  • 1 cotton t-shirt for evenings and bed
  • 1 Lowe Alpine fleece sweater (a really ugly one too that I’ve had for 10+ years & I didn’t mind it getting more scruffy. The fashionista in me sometimes regretted that it was *so* ugly and I felt self-conscious about looking so rough – but it was warm, dried quickly, and worked as expected so I can’t really fault it)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 REI sun hat (thanks Jen!)
  • 1 quick-dry sports bra
  • 4 pairs underwear
  • 1 cotton pashmina
  • 1 pair of sunglasses, which I broke along the way so I bought more
  • 1 extra-large travel towel (the size of a regular bath towel)
  • Bandana (it hid all my bad hair days!)

Tech:                                                                                         

  • 1 wristwatch with leather strap
  • iPhone
  • iPhone charger
  • Earphones
  • Travel adaptor

Sleeping gear: (thanks Jen!)

  •  Sea2Summit pyrethrin-treated sleeping bag liner
  • Homemade blanket of silk fabric and Primaloft

Paperwork:

  •  Printed email confirmation for outbound flight to France
  • 1 money belt to go around my waist
  • Passport
  • Pilgrim Passport (compostella)
  • John Brierley’s guide book from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
  • John Brierley’s guide book from Santiago to Finisterre
  • Cash
  • Debit card & credit cards
  • Hardback A5 journal & 2 pens
  • Lightweight fabric crossover bag (Thanks Jen!)
  • Lightweight money purse big enough for credit cards & cash
  • Medical information printed in different languages & laminated

Food & Drink:

  • Plastic spoon/fork thing with a serrated edge (it was meant to act as a knife but it couldn’t cut butter!)
  • 1 lightweight 1L plastic sports bottle
  • 1 collapsible Platypus hydration system (Thanks Megan & John!)

Toiletries:

  • 1 large double zip lock bag to hold everything (durable, see-through, lots of space)
  • Synthetic face cloth for my face (advertised as useful for cleaning my kitchen or car!)
  • Sunscreen (I used SPF 50 & SPF 30 in generous doses
  • Travel size shower gel (filled up as I went along)
  • Travel size foot cream (Thanks Edel!)
  • Travel size face wash (Thanks Edel!)
  • Shower gloves
  • 2 disposable razors
  • Female sanitary supplies (& bought more along the way)
  • Small tin of vaseline for my feet
  • Normal size toothbrush
  • Half tube of normal size toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Roll-on deodorant
  • Plastic hairbrush
  • Hair ties (I never counted how many)
  • 10 packs of foam earplugs
  • 10 clothes pegs
  • Lip balm

(I saw safety pins listed on other peoples’ packing lists but I couldn’t figure out why, so I didn’t bring any. Turns out, if you need to dry your laundry on your backpack while you walk, then safety pins are more secure than clothes pegs).

First Aid:

  • Band Aids (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Sterile wipes (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Dr. Scholl blister plasters (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Nail scissors
  • Mefix blister wrap (a gift (thanks Jen!) but I never figured out how to use it)
  • Compeed plasters – various shapes and sizes
  • Antiseptic cream (small)
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Antihistamines (never used)
  • Paracetamol (useful when I got a cold)
  • Antacid tablets (never used)
  • Immodium (never used)

Miscellaneous:

  • Several small Ziploc bags
  • 2 large double lock Ziploc bags (for toiletries and keeping my paperwork dry – amazing!)
  • Several plastic bags to wrap my clothes in
  • Keychain REI temperature gauge with mini compass (lost along the way, sorry Jen!)
  • 1 small glass rock to leave at Cruz de Ferro

Things I acquired along the way:

  • 1 travel adapter plug for my phone
  • 1 rain cover for my backpack
  • 1 pair of Salomon hiking shoes
  • 1 bright orange Altus poncho
  • 1 lightweight fleece jacket
  • 1 pair of fleece-lined leopard print leggings (saucy!) (in anticipation of cold mountains but I never wore them)
  • 1 wick-away t-shirt to replace the one I accidently destroyed (Thanks Fred!)
  • 1 cotton Tommy Hilfiger sequin t-shirt
  • New sunglasses
  • Sink plug (thanks Don!)
  • Strong plastic shower gel bottle (thanks Don!)
  • Anti-inflammatory gel
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets
  • 1 new A5 journal
  • 1 pocket book called “Daily Strength”, handed out for free when I arrived in Roncesvalles
  • 1 pair of earrings

Things I sent home (and why):

  • Rain pants – My first 3 days of walking were exceptionally hot & I figured I wouldn’t need them for the rest of the trip. It was a risky decision but it worked out.
  • Long sleeve thermal top – too hot to wear (again, a risk that worked out)
  • Fabric money belt – awkward to wear under my shorts *and* the waist strap of the backpack. It got sweaty and grimy and was very uncomfortable.
  • My hiking sandals – only after I finished with them and had transferred to the hiking shoes. They weighed 1kg and were too heavy to carry just for the fun of it.
  • Old phone charger. I thought it *would* work in Spain but it didn’t, so I sent it home to use again on some other future vacation
  • Used pages from my guidebook. I read (in the guidebook, incidentally) that I could lighten my pack by tearing out the pages for towns I’d already passed through. I did this for a while & sent the pages home so I could read them again in the future. (and we all know this didn’t happen!)

Things I should have sent home, binned, or given away (and why):

  • Mefix blister wrap. I never figured out how to use this (even after repeated Googling) and I carried the weight of it all 800km. Silly, silly, stupid.
  • My rain coat. I carried a raincoat *and* a poncho and didn’t really need both. The poncho was good in mild but wet weather. The rain coat was good in cold/windy, wet weather. I had very little of either and could have omitted some weight by choosing only one of these items.
  • The rain cover for my backpack. My poncho had a special flap to cover the backpack so I didn’t need an extra cover as well. I guess I was paranoid about getting wet (cold, sick, and covered in blisters) but I could have taken this out.
  • My first journal. I filled the pages with writing but continued to carry it in my backpack – afraid of losing it if I posted it home in the mail. It was a heavy luxury to carry.
  • Custom made orthotic insoles – I couldn’t find a pair of hiking shoes that these fit into so I couldn’t use them. Really, if I wasn’t wearing them on my feet there was no point in having them.
  • Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt – I hardly wore it & it only added to the weight
  • Travel size foot cream – I hardly ever used it & Vaseline would have done the same job
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles. Really, it was ridiculous that I even carried this!

What I loved (and why):

  • Nite ize buglit flashlight – powerful light, very portable, very light
  • Columbia hiking shorts – lightweight, quick-drying, very comfortable
  • Altus poncho –even though I hardly used this, it covered everything (including my pack) but allowed lots of air to circulate in around my legs & torso – very important in mild weather.
  • Wick-away t-shirts. I know some people think all this high-tech gear is a load of overpriced marketing nonsense but I felt quite comfortable in 35 degree heat because of these t-shirts. Star buy.
  • Salomon shoes – cushioned, light, and tremendously durable
  • 1000 Mile Socks – They have a blister-free guarantee or your money back. Highly recommended.
  • My €2 shower gloves – magically scrubbed away the day’s sweat, grime, and sunscreen – in seconds!
  • Sleeping bag liner – much lighter than a sleeping bag, comfortable, quiet, and not a bed bug in sight! Highly recommended.
  • My cotton pashmina. This was a last-minute grab as I left to catch my plane for France. The morning was dark, cold, and raining, and I wanted some emotional comfort for my trip (so the scarf was a “blankie” of sorts). I used this every day as:
    • A pillow case
    • An eye mask to block out the light caused by roommates
    • A wrap around my shoulders to keep me warm
    • A wrap around my waist when dashing to the bathroom in the middle of the night & needed some modesty!
  • My Platypus hydration system. People either love or hate these things but I’m definitely in the former camp. I loved being able to drink water while I walked, without having to take off my backpack or stretch around for a water bottle. Genius.
  • Compeed plasters – I used these whenever I got a “hot spot” on my feet and remained blister-free for most of the trip. The reason they are so great is because they are more cushioned than other varieties and the glue on them stays stuck to the skin so they don’t dislodge with long distance walking. Worth the money.
  • My €2 plastic nailbrush – I used this to clean my Chaco sandals, my Crocs, and my clothes. Just like the shower gloves, this removed grime and sweat quickly – loved it.

What I would change next time round:

  • Backpack – The size was good but the item itself weighed 1.5kg when empty. Frankly, that’s too heavy.
  • Hiking poles – They’re 10+ years old and a bit heavier than the new varieties. I’d try to get lighter ones.
  • Arch support for my shoes. I use arch support in my daily life but didn’t use any on camino (because I bought my shoes along the way and my custom-made insoles didn’t fit). Painful decision.
  • Pack 2 sports bras
  • If I were walking Camino Francés (in particular), I’d bring Brierley’s maps but not the full guide book. Everything was so well sign posted & I didn’t read all his extra material, so the maps alone would have been sufficient.
  • I’d carry less water each day. Someone convinced me to carry 4 litres while crossing the Meseta – that’s 4kg of weight – madness!

What do you think?

Religion on Camino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I devoted Catholic?

I don’t really think so.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0846

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

IMG_0931

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

IMG_0893

IMG_0794

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

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

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

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

IMG_1064

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

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

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

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

I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0736

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

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

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

IMG_1075

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

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

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

“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you answer such questions?

Breaking the Blogging Rules

I’m sure someone, somewhere has put together the Top 10 Tips for Blogging and one of those tips is “Get up at 4am to make sure you blog every day!” (or some other Type-A, Tiger-Mom equivalent that says “No excuses, you lazy bum!”)

You know the types: Get your message out there, build your network, command that spotlight, etc.

I get it.

Social media can be pretty fickle and it takes effort to stand out in the online world. Millions of people are competing for attention this very minute and sometimes you have to shout loudly, and often, to get heard at all. When it comes to blogging, you have to have something to say. You have to say it often. You have to say it loudly. You have to say it across different platforms. Otherwise, no one will read, no one will follow, and no one will care.

I get it.

And I admit, I have failed miserably to do any/all of these things the past few months. I’ve broken the blogging rules. I’ve neglected to write in all areas of my life – be that emails, text messages, and this lovely blog. There have been a collection of factors: illness, bereavement, and some major changes in my daily workspace. Even when I’d navigated my way through *those* distractions, I was faced with a broken laptop, a water-damaged smart phone, and had no broadband for a while. Quite literally, I lost use of the very tools I need for communicating online.

My list of hurdles became comical in that “The dog ate my homework” kind-of-way. I’m sure they read like an elaborate list of excuses.

And as the weeks rolled on, I wrestled with frustration, exasperation, and guilt about this non-writing life I seem to be living lately. Sure, my life has become busy in unexpected ways and my days have been full to the brim…but still, I expected that I should somehow make the time, conjure the wi-fi I needed, and find a way to keep writing – regularly and diligently.

This blog is my candle in the wind. If I don’t keep it lit, then who will?

If I don’t keep it lit, won’t it just fade away?

I went round and round in my head with all the reasons why I want to blog and all the reasons I found it hard to sit down and write.

I admit, sometimes I just didn’t feel like it.

There, I’ve said it.

And if I’m being really honest, I sometimes liked the feeling that came with being offline and somewhat inaccessible for a while. It reminded me of my days walking in Spain and the freedom of being “off the map” for a few weeks. In Spain, the leave of absence allowed me to ignore all the white noise of modern living and just “be”.

But this recent period of silence didn’t sit so easily with me.

I wondered: Have I beached up already?

I’ve written only a portion of my camino journey – the section from St. Jean Pied de Port to Burgos. There is still *so* much I want to say – about the walking, the terrain, and the things I learned along the way. But have I already grown bored and lost my self-discipline to see this thing through?

I wondered all of this until quite recently, someone pointed out to me that writing a blog about the camino is a bit like walking the camino.

There are days full of bright-eyed, bunny-eared enthusiasm and things go easily. There are days of exhausted reluctance, when the biggest challenge is to physically show up and look interested. Camino presents a litany of challenges – weather conditions, illness, sore feet, loud snorers, lack of vegetables – the list goes on. And yet, thousands of people every year, find a way to sidestep all the reasons why they should not walk camino. Every year, thousands of people find a way to keep going, despite the odds.

I was one of those thousands of people.

I found a way to keep going despite the challenges. I hope to do it again, now, with blogging.

Bear with me. I know the journey can feel like a long one but I still think it’s worth it.

Do you?

Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.

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 🙂

 

 

The Road to Roncesvalles

 

John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:

Distance: 15km

Elevation Gain: 750m

Descent: 500m

When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.

I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.

I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.

In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.

Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.

My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.

All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.

Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.

On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.

At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.

I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.

Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.

The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.

The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.

IMG_0773

I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.

In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?

It’s hard to tell.

I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.

I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.

I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.

My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!

My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.

He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.

Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!

I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.

They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.

They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.

From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.

I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.

Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!

Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.

Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.

I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?

IMG_0769

Banana Man in a Van (but I’m sure he has a real name)

IMG_0774

Is that the border up ahead?

I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).

IMG_0772

Shady Woodlands

In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.

I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.

For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop,  or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.

Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.

IMG_0788

These boots were made for walkin’…

A year ago today…

A year ago today, I set out walking from St. Jean Pied de Port for my grand adventure on Camino Francés. I remember the morning sunshine and the sounds of walking poles tapping on cobblestones. After all the packing and re-packing of backpacks, with bellies full of coffee and bread, we were on our way.

Happy anniversary, fellow pilgrims from September 2013!

Unlike many people on Camino, I left my hostel at the late hour of 8-8:30am, more nervous than excited, and not really sure how far I would have to walk that day. I thought I’d made a reservation at the albergue in Orisson, but my school-level French was so bad that I couldn’t be sure of a bed. I’d heard “You can’t book the hostels in advance” but two days before I started, I learned that Orisson was an exception because it was in France, not Spain, and because it was a privately-run hostel (as opposed to a state-run or church-run one). So I could and indeed, should reserve a bed unless I was definitely going the full distance to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees. I was doubtful of making the trip on my first day and prayed that the lovely people at Orisson had understood my request.

Unlike many pilgrims, I’d planned my trip in only a month and hadn’t had time to physically train my body for what was to come. The previous evening, I told a group of people over dinner that I was relying on “muscle memory” to get me through the physical challenge. I said it with a smile but I wasn’t joking – I’d come from a desk job and I wasn’t that fit; I hadn’t done any training; I had no idea if I could walk the 800km to Santiago. The German man sitting across the table from me shook his head and looked utterly unimpressed.

Without ever asking him, I had a good idea what he thought of me and my plan. I couldn’t disagree with him if he thought me a fool.

But, I also felt that if I could pace myself and let go of trying to plan for every eventuality, I would be fine. My Camino was a daily exercise in letting go. I wanted to “Lean In” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) and trust that somehow, I would figure it out as I went along. I purposefully and consciously decided to “do the Camino” without planning and pre-booking. I wanted to see how it would unfold and how I would manage. In a world full of sat-nav, social media, and endless wi-fi, I wanted to wander without a schedule. I wanted to test myself.

So, on the morning of September 3rd, 2013, I followed dozens of other pilgrims down the hill, over the bridge, and out into the countryside beyond St. Jean.

cropped-img_0748.jpg

No excuse for getting lost

I’d put on too much clothing, my bag was too heavy, and my hamstrings were shocked at the effort of walking steeply uphill to Orisson. I heard afterwards that it was about 34 degrees Celsius that day, and I was a sweaty mass while others skipped past me in effortless style.

In St. Jean, I’d been so nervous about my reservation that I asked a Dutch man, who spoke great French, to phone the hostel at Orisson and confirm my details. He kindly agreed to make the call but wasn’t leaving St. Jean for hours – how would he relay the message to me? By happy coincidence, we met on the side of the road hours later and he told me I had a sort of tentative reservation – if I got there by 1pm they would give me a bed but if I arrived later, they might be full up and I would have to walk on to Roncesvalles. What relief! And what gratitude to him for his kind help. Oh, to live in central Europe and to be fluent in many tongues!

Late morning, I arrived at the famous hostel and gladly stopped for a coke and my first of many, many ham sandwiches. In poorly-accented French I asked the lady behind the bar about a bed. “I have a reservation”, I explained, or at least, I hope I do. While she fumbled in a ledger for my details, I stood nervously, hoping that it would all work out. She looked at me, looked back at the book, looked up at me again and said something that I took to mean: “A guy phoned earlier this morning about this reservation and I told him the details but you’re not him – so who are you?” I explained as best I could and we managed a giggle, before she confirmed my reservation that was not-so-tentative-after-all . Maybe my school-level French wasn’t so appalling after all. She handed me the gold metal token I’d need to use the shower, and told me which dorm I would sleep in.

Hurrah! I had a bed and a dinner for the night, and I didn’t have to walk to Roncesvalles in the heat. It was a good beginning. A year ago today, I walked my first 8-10km, up the steep hillsides, following the friendly yellow arrows as the track passed through lush green fields in the golden morning light. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m not in the office now!” and being delighted.

My leap of faith had begun in earnest.

IMG_0753

Early morning on the way to Orisson