Preparing for the Camino de Santiago

Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this--finely crushed gravel that's pleasant to walk on.
Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this–finely crushed gravel that’s pleasant to walk on. Notice the pack covers.  With all the rain, mine was on almost every day. Pack covers help keep the pack dry, but they aren’t 100%. Use a pack liner and waterproof stuff sacks as well.

Most would consider me an experienced long distance hiker. I’ve completed 1,405 miles on the Appalachian Trail (summer 2014) and I just finished The Camino in Spain. Each trail is different. I found there were things that were unique to the Camino de Santiago. While there are many paths to Santiago, I took the most popular, The Camino Frances or The French Way. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago. I skipped the first 30km to avoid hiking the mountains during the first week of April. (It turned out to be a good choice. There was heavy snowfall and part of the trail was closed that week). I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2016. It took me 37 days to walk the roughly 450 miles (750km, approximately), which included a day off in both Leon and Burgos.

The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.
The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.

It turned out to be a cold spring, with substantial flooding. If you are lucky and have great weather, you probably need to carry even less than what I did.

WHAT NOT TO BRING

First let’s start with what you DON’T need.

  • Tent–It’s mostly private land, so there is almost nowhere to legally set up a tent. You can set up at some hostels, but you don’t save much money this way.
  • Cooking equipment–There are bars, cafes, grocery stores and restaurants in every little town where you can eat or buy prepared food. If you want to cook, stay in a hostel with a kitchen.
  • Water purification–Every town has a fountain and the water is probably better than what comes out of the tap in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, (although, that’s not saying much).
  • Laundry soap–You can hand wash items with the same soap you use for your body. Mostly hostels will supply soap for automatic washers (lavadoras). Some will also have dryers (secadoras).
  • Pillow–Every hostel I stayed in had a pillow.
  • Blow up mattress—Every hostel I stayed in had real mattresses. I did see at least two churches where pilgrims could stay for free, but they slept directly on the stone floor. If you are really on a budget or going during July/August (the height of the season when places run out of beds), you might bring one of these along.
  • Food—I carried only a few snacks most days—nuts, cheese or fruit. Towns are 2-6km apart and you can almost always find a place to eat. If you are not sure about supplies ahead, get a sandwich (bocadillo).
There's dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church that's probably older than the USA. Don't rush through. Go inside all of them that you can.
There’s dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church (or three) that’s probably older than the government of the USA. Don’t rush through. Go inside all of them that you can. There’s a story and history in each.

WEIGHT

Carry less and you will enjoy it more. Most guidebooks will say that you should keep your pack under 20 pounds. I carried less than that on the Appalachian Trail! I didn’t weight my Camino pack, but I’d guess it was 10-12 pounds.

WHAT TO BRING

  • Sleeping bag/sleep sheet—I hiked in April/May 2016. It happened to be one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We had several unseasonably cold nights. Some dropped to freezing. I was grateful I’d brought a summer weight, down sleeping bag and added a blanket in a few hostels. If you hike when it’s warmer, you can probably just do with a sleep sheet or bag liner. Most hostels had blankets, but not all. Some don’t even have sheets, so bring something.
  • Camp towel—You need a towel that dries easily, so no cotton. Mine was fairly small, but others had towels large enough to wrap their bodies in. Get something you can attached to the outside of your pack on sunny days so it can dry while you hike.
  • Clothes—By far, the most important item is good walking shoes. I like Merrill trail runners with thick soles and I add an additional insole for arch support and cushion. The next most important item is socks. I use silk sock liners and Darn Tough hiking socks. I had three sets of each. For the rest of the clothing, make sure everything is rugged and quick dry. No Cotton or blue jeans. These are the clothes I brought, which includes what I wore each day. This is about one set more than you have to have, so it’s possible to carry even less: Three sets each of underwear (sport bras and quick dry panties), shirts (two long sleeve wool, one short sleeve poly). Two pair of hiking pants. One button down camp shirt that could layer over my other shirts for warmth (optional). One pair hiking shorts (I only hiked in them twice. It was cold most days.). A travel vest with lots of pockets. BTW, I hate the pants with the zip off legs. They sound like a great idea, but the zippers seldom hold up and they always seem to hit the place were my thighs rub together when I walk. Can you say blisters? The quality of men’s pants seem to be better made than women’s. My hiking companion found pants that resisted stains and light rain. They were superior to mine. Whatever you buy, make sure they have pockets.
  • Spare camp shoes—I have an off brand that looks like a pair of Crocs, but a bit lighter in weight. I wore these around town and they doubled as shower shoes. Many people use flip flops. The advantage of Crocs is that they can also be used for hiking short distances if you have bad blisters, very swollen feet a toe injury or your regular hiking shoes completely fail.

    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day to enjoy the trip, you are going to miss all the art, like this!
    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day, you won’t enjoy the trip. And you are going to miss all the art, like this!
  • Water bottle—I just re-use a soda or juice bottle. Nothing is lighter in weight or less expensive. When the bottle gets banged up, I buy a new drink. You don’t have to carry a lot of water at any given time since almost every town has a fountain where you can fill up. Lots of people use those large bladders that fit inside a backpack, but I don’t like them. They leak, are tough to clean and way too easy to overfill. Water is heavy and since there is plenty of clean water readily available, it’s unnecessary to carry much. While I usually had two 1-liter bottles, I often just drank a lot of water at each fountain, then carried half a bottle.
  • Credit card/bank card/cash—Make sure to let your banks know you are traveling. Find an ATM card and a credit card that will work in Europe and won’t charge you an arm and a leg in fees. You will mostly need cash. Small hostels and cafes won’t accept credit cards.
  • Passport—You will have to produce this for every hostel.
  • Pilgrims Credential—This is your Pilgrim’s Passport which you will have stamped every day at hostels and cafes along the way. This is to prove where you walked and will serve as a nice souvenir later. You can get this along the way or order it ahead of time.
  • Plastic zip-lock bag for your Passport/CCs/Credential/Cash/etc.—A simple plastic bag will store everything, keep stuff dry and will be easy to carry. This is essentially a waterproof wallet. I took mine with me everywhere–even the shower. I slept with it under my pillow. This is the one thing you cannot afford to lose.
  • Coat/Fleece—I wore my down jacket often during this cold spring. It packed up very small, but still kept me warm. I even slept in it several times. I like fleece for the warmth and light weight, but it doesn’t pack up as small as I’d like. This can double as a pillow if the one at the hostel isn’t comfy.
  • Hat—for sun and rain
  • Sunglasses
  • Buff—Doubled as a sleep mask, ear muffs or headband. Don’t know what a buff is?

    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for second breakfast or just a pint.
    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for a second breakfast or just a pint.
  • Rain gear—Jacket/rain pants/poncho/pack cover/pack liner/umbrella or whatever combination works for you. This spring in Northern Spain was unseasonably wet and cold. We saw rain 32 out of the 37 hiking days. We got hail twice and saw lightening every evening for most of a week. I had a rain jacket and added an umbrella, which worked especially well in town. Near the end of the hike, the temperatures were just warm enough that I over-heated in a full coverage rain jacket. I’d wear the jacket, unzipped, and use the umbrella to keep out most of the rain. If it were very cold and windy, I’d put the umbrella away and add rain pants. If we’d had sunshine, the umbrella would have doubled as a parasol since there’s little tree coverage on this trail. I made sure the rain jacket was large enough to go over my down jacket in case it got really cold. Sometimes I wore the rain jacket just to deal with the wind. I’ve had poor luck with ponchos—somehow I can’t seem to stay dry in them. BTW, check to make sure your rain jacket is still keeping out the rain. I brought the same one I’d used on the Appalachian Trail two years before, but it had lost its waterproof properties. I had to replace it. I also recommend a pack cover, a pack liner (I use trash compacter bags, but any trash can liner will do), and I have each of my sets of gear in multi-colored, water-proof stuff sacks. DON’T GET ALL YOUR STUFF SACKS THE SAME COLOR. Color coding makes it easy to know your clothes bag from your sleeping bag at a glance.
  • Backpack—The less you carry, the fewer features you need in a backpack. I originally thought I’d take a smaller, summer backpack that I used on the Appalachian Trail. However, with so much less gear, I didn’t need anything large or substantial. I found a durable day pack and wore a travel vest (a vest with lots of pockets) to carry small items.
  • First aid kit—Don’t over-do it here. I’m talking about band-aids (plasters in Europe) and the anti-inflammatory of your choice. I also used a simple knee brace. Remember you will be able to buy what you need along the way. I highly recommend buying Compeed Brand for covering your blisters. Nothing sticks as well. They are easy to find in Spain.
  • Personal items—toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, comb, small bar of soap, small container of shampoo. You can easily replace this stuff as you run out, so use a small size/travel size of each.
  • Guidebook—I used the most popular English guide by John Brierley. The maps weren’t always accurate, but over-all it gave me the info I needed. He spends WAY too much time talking about things that are off trail for me. After I’ve done 20km, I’m not about to add an additional 5km just to see another church). He’s also clearly tuned into a spiritual side that I can’t relate to. I saw a Michelin Guide that was smaller and about as good, though many hostels weren’t mentioned in it. As I used pages, I tore them out and threw them away to lighten my load. Yes, the ounces add up.
  • Hiking poles (Optional)—I use them when going up or down hill and I think they save my knees. These can be difficult to travel with on a plane, however. If you don’t have checked luggage to put them in (and make sure they fit in your luggage), consider buying a cheaper pair after you get to Spain. Or do without.
  • Phone/iPad/Camera/Journal (Optional)—Most hostels and restaurants have free wifi, so you can check in with the folks back home by email. I have an unlocked smart phone and put a Spanish SIM card in it. For 40 Euros, I got the SIM card, a new phone number and enough data for 3 months in Spain, since I use it frugally. Using Apps like FaceBook Messenger or WhatsApp, you can even make international phone calls for free when you have wifi. If you carry any of these items, make sure you have chargers for them, waterproof bags to keep them dry and a plug converter for Europe.

    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.
    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

Most guidebooks will lay out a 30-33 day trek starting from SJPP to Santiago, roughly 500 miles. Take longer so you can enjoy it more. Remember, you can start anywhere or you can walk other routes. If the Compostela (the document they give you at the end to verify you did the walk) is important to you, you only have to walk the last 100k (or bike 200k). And you can do this at your speed. Why push yourself with 30k day when 10-15-20 is so much more enjoyable? Personally, I say take all the time you can. Stay an extra day in Burgos and Leon and really enjoy those lovely cathedrals and art museums while resting your feet. It’s the journey, not the destination! Can you take 40 days? If not, then just choose a shorter route. Or decide to do the walk in sections.

Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It's amazing. Leon also has a castle.
Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It’s amazing. Leon also has a castle.

WHEN TO WALK

If I had it to do again, I’d go in the fall. Spring will always be wettest, though this particular year had record flooding. July/August is the high season and the hottest time of year. It can be difficult to find a free bed in the hostels and heavy sweating is not my thing. Winter is too cold for me and some hostels and cafes won’t be open. I’d go September and October, starting about a week after Labor Day. By mid-November, it’s getting pretty cold and dark, plus hostels and cafes in small towns will start to close.

Even if you aren't Catholic, go to a pilgrims mass occasionally. Most every town has one every evening.
Even if you aren’t Catholic, go to a pilgrim’s mass occasionally. Most towns have one every evening.

COSTS

  • I budgeted 35 Euros a day and came in a bit under budget. You can do it for less by eating from grocery stores and staying in the lowest priced hostels. You can easily spend more by staying in hotels or pensions and having a service carry your backpack (mochila) for you each day (5-6 Euros a day).
  • Hostels are 5-12€. The closer you get to Santiago, the more expensive. Once you get within 100Km of Santiago, the prices are 10-15 Euros. There are more people, too, and more of a party atmosphere.
  • Food: breakfast of 2 eggs, toast and cafe con leche is 5-6€. A more common Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee for 3-4€. BTW, you’ll have to ask for butter and jam. Toast usually means dry toast.
  • Pilgrims meals are 9-12€. It’s a big meal, including a first and second course, dessert and wine or water. There is usually a vegetarian option, but it might be little more than pasta with a few veggies.
  • Coffee or a caña (short, draft beer) is usually 1.5 Euros.
  • Laundry—usually 3 Euros to wash and 3 Euros to dry. Typically, the hostel wants to do the wash, so double check your belongings as soon as you get them back. You aren’t carrying much and you can’t afford to lose socks or underwear.

I hope this information can help you have a successful hike!

My Compostela--which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders I. Front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
My Compostela–which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders in front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.

What to expect when hiking the Camino in Spain

 

This is what large sections of the French Way looks like. You walk through small towns, 2-4 a day. Most will have a cafe or bar, a hostel or two and not much else. The Camino is clearly keeping these communities alive, though barely.
This is what large sections of the French Way look like. You walk through small towns, 2-4 a day. Most will have a bar, a corner grocery store, a hostel or two and not much else. The Camino is clearly keeping these communities alive, though barely.

While I like to think of myself as an experienced long distance hiker, I found there were things that were unique to Spain and the Camino de Santiago. There are many paths to Santiago de Compostela. My comments apply to The French Way, but you may also find they are true for other paths. I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago in the spring of 2016, roughly 750km.

When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get used to looking for the while blazes on trees, usually located just above eye level. No so on The French Way. There are lots of scallops shells, but they can be anywhere--city walls, in the sidewalk, spray painted on roads, or sign posts. Most of the time, you look for yellow arrows (Flecha amarillo).
When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get used to looking for the while blazes on trees, usually located just above eye level. No so on The French Way. There are lots of scallops shells, but they can be anywhere–city walls, in the sidewalk, sign posts, or spray painted on roads. Most of the time, you look for yellow arrows (flecha amarillo).

Cold water only in bathroom sinks–This is a first world country, so you can expect working toilets. But don’t expect the bathroom sinks to have hot water, at least not in restaurants or hostels. Most taps are auto shut off, too. Almost every town you walk through will have a pilgrims fountain for water, also auto shut off. I find that this feature simply does not save any water since they go on for a full minute. BTW, while the toilets were always in working order, I hit three in a row with no seat! And it’s easy for public toilets to run out of toilet paper. Bring some tissues with you. I needed them about once a week. Do your best to use actual rest rooms, rather than go behind buildings or clumps of trees. This path goes through private property.

This is a typical hiker hostel, called Albergues along The Way. Some towns will have several and they come in different classes like municipal, private and donativo. I found them cleaner than I'd expected (though I have very low standards in this area) but often just huge open rooms with bunk beds.
This is a typical hiker hostel, called albergues, along The Way. Some towns will have several and they come in different classes like municipal, private and donativo. I found them cleaner than I’d expected (though I have very low standards in this area) but often just huge open rooms with bunk beds. BTW, “Perigrinos” means pilgrim. If you are hiking the Camino, you are considered a pilgrim. The cost was anywhere from a donation to 15 Euros. Early on the walk, they were mostly 5, but got more expensive the closer to Santiago.

Showers are also auto shut off—Compared to the hostels I’ve stayed in along the Appalachian Trail, I found the Spanish hostels to be very clean. But the water was almost always auto shut off in sinks and showers. Again, this “water saving feature” often wasted water. I’d have used less without the device. Of course, you only need one idiot to leave the water running for this to be a good idea. Incidentally, the showers were nice and warm, even if you couldn’t adjust the temperature.

Most of the time you are walking between small towns. When I say small, I mean less than 50 people. There are lots of buildings for sale. Some homes are only inhabited during the summer. Over and over, we heard that the winter population might be less than 15 people. But the towns are spaced well--usually 2-4km apart, so if you don't find something in one, there's another soon. Still, not all would have a pharmacy. Only large cities had any gear for sale.
Most of the time you are walking between small towns. When I say small, I mean less than 50 people with buildings older than the USA. There are lots of buildings for sale. Some homes are only inhabited during the summer. Over and over, we heard that the winter population of these communities might be less than 15 people. But the towns are spaced well–usually 2-4km apart, so if you don’t find something in one, there’s another soon. Still, not all would have a pharmacy. Only large cities had any gear for sale.

Lights are auto shut off—it wasn’t 100% of the time, but usually hall and bathroom lights are motion sensitive in hostels and many cafes. In practice you spend a lot of time in the dark in a strange bathroom, flailing your arms around, trying to get the light to turn back on. Or trying to remember where the switch was now that you can’t see. If you get up in the middle of the night in a crowded hostel to use the facilities, you are likely to flood the room with light when you step into the hall. Most of the lights I saw were LED, and I don’t think I saw a single incandescent bulb. Did I mention that you need ear plugs and a sleep mask? I used my buff to cover my eyes, but a bandana works too.

signOn Sundays, everything closed—It’s like living in the US in the 1950’s. And not just the postal service, government buildings and offices. I also mean the grocery store, pharmacy and almost all retail. While cafes may be open, they will likely have a reduced menu.

Dinner is served after 8p—Lots of restaurants don’t even open until 8pm. Bars that are open will often serve no food, not even appetizers, between 4:30 and 8pm. It’s not unusual for the Spanish to sit down to eat at 10pm and stay until midnight. Oddly, the small towns  were most likely to make adjustments for pilgrims who want to eat early and go to sleep early. The larger the city, the harder it was to find food at, say, 6pm. In Santiago de Compostela, we found exactly 1 place that would serve food before 8pm.

Pilgrims meals were definitely a highlight. They were usually 10 Euros in price and included a first and second course, dessert and wine. I think it would be very difficult to be a vegetarian and hike this trail and nearly impossible to be vegan.
Pilgrims meals were definitely a highlight. They were usually 10 Euros in price and included a first and second course, dessert and wine. I think it would be very difficult to be a vegetarian and hike this trail and nearly impossible to be vegan.

Nothing opens before 10a—The Spanish are not morning people. Since they eat late, they also start things late. Breakfast is often a café con leche and bread or croissant.  A second breakfast may come about 10:30 or 11a.  For hikers, it means you may or may not get coffee before you leave the hostel. If caffeine is important to you, I recommend putting tea bags in your water the night before. Generally, by 8am you can find somewhere that will serve coffee. This was fine for me since I hiked in the spring when the path wasn’t as busy, but in the summer it’s a race to get to the next hostel and secure a bed. People get up ridiculously early to beat the heat and other hikers.

Most hikers only do the last 100 km–I was shocked to get near the end of the trail and find myself suddenly among huge groups of hikes, fighting for bed space. Many were high school and college aged walkers on a mobile party. I love quiet walks on dirt paths, but some days were non-stop music and talking. You only have to do the last 100km to get a Compostela and that’s all these groups were after. I hated most of my last week walking, but was too invested to quit.

This was a common "second breakfast" for me--Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) and a tortilla. In the middle is deep fried bacon, which I had to try. Because it's bacon. And it's deep fried. And it's bacon.
This was a common “second breakfast” for me–Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) and a tortilla. In the middle is deep fried bacon, which I had to try. Because it’s bacon. And it’s deep fried. And it’s bacon!

Siesta 2-4:30p—Cafes serve breakfast until noon and lunch is delayed until mid-afternoon, followed by a nap. Grocery store, offices and all retail will close during this time. A bar or café may or may not be open. (Even foreign embassies are closed during these hours.) Since this is often the time when you arrive in the town you are going to spend the night in, it’s pretty inconvenient if you need something from the pharmacy.

The closer you get to the sea, the more likely to see pulpo (octopus) on the menu. This is a common tapas item and I really liked it.
The closer you get to the sea, the more likely to see pulpo (octopus) on the menu. This is a common tapas item and I really liked it.

Bars serve food—Most bars have a kitchen, though their hours may vary greatly. Some will serve full meals including breakfast. Most will at least have appetizers, which you can easily make into a meal. In Spain, they are called pinchos, pinxos or tapas and you’ll find them in cases on the bar. You can usually just point at what you want. Common offerings are tortilla (A cake made of egg and potatoes, popular for second breakfast), deep-fried croquets (which can be cheese, meat, vegetables or just about anything), a skewer of olives and pickled vegetables, cheeses or a slice of French bread topped with anything—shrimp, cheese, ham, octopus…whatever they have handy. These are usually 1-5 Euros depending on size and variety.

Almost every bar served Estralla beer (Star beer, a local brew). A short, draft beer is a caña (usually 1.5 Euros). A cerveza is a large beer. I often ordered a cerveza con limón (beer with lemon), often called a shandy. I found it refreshing.
Almost every bar served Estralla beer (Star beer, a local brew). A short, draft beer is a caña (usually about 1.5 Euros). I often ordered a cerveza con limón (beer with lemon), also called a shandy. I found it refreshing.

Pillow and pillow case—Every hostel I stayed in had pillows. Most had at least a bottom sheet. Some also had blankets. A few provided (or sold) a single use, non-woven cover to put over the pillow and mattress. The pillows were not like we’d have in The States, however. They are longer—the width of a single bed—but narrow. And the pillow case is open on both ends.

The hostels have bunks beds most of the time. A very few also have a storage drawer like this one and a separate plug in and light for each bed. Most of the time, you just put stuff under the bed and do your best to find a plug to charge your phone/camera.
The hostels have bunks beds most of the time. A very few also have a storage drawer like this one and a separate plug in and light for each bed. Most of the time, you just put stuff under the bed and do your best to find a plug to charge your phone/camera.

I made it!

I made it!
I made it! This is the Cathedral in Santiago (with constant renovations, of course) where the bones of the Apostile Saint James (Sant Iago) is reported to be buried.

Yesterday, Tim and I walked into Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We walked from Pamplona, roughly 450 miles (750k). To be fair, Tim walked every step of the way. I had a couple taxi rides and took one bus. So, I probably walked 400 miles. It took 37 days, which included 2 full days off for each of us. There was lots of rain, wind and cold–much more than I’d expected. It was the coldest, wettest spring for decades. Can I pick ’em, or what?

My Compostela--which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders I. Front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
My Compostela–which we waited 2 hours in line for. This document is the proof that I walked “The Way of Saint James” and took the most popular path, the French Way. Since the bicycle riders in front of us in line had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
Pilgrims mass
Pilgrims mass at noon every day is crowded. We arrived on a Saturday, but Friday’s are the biggest days since the bonfumaria (oversized incense burner) is used.
Close up of the altar.
Close up of the altar.
Entering the church
Entering the church

image

A short beer before mass
A short beer before mass
Entering the city.
Entering the city.
Just outside the city
Just outside the city

Tomorrow: Santiago

Seems like this was just yesterday when we dropped below the 100k. Tonight we are less than 10k to Santiago.
Seems like this was just yesterday when we dropped below the 100 kilometer mark. Tonight we are less than 10k to Santiago. We will be there before noon tomorrow. 

May 6, 2016
Tomorrow morning, Tim and I will arrive in Santiago de Compostela. It’s been 37 days of walking, hostels (albergues), backpacks and rain. Waaaay too much rain. I’m tired and have occasionally taken a bus or taxi ride in our 450+ mile trek, but only 2 full days off.
This hasn’t been what I expected. I tried not to have expectations for the trip, but, being a flawed human being, I find that I did.

So many towns.....
So many towns…..

I wasn’t expecting a huge spiritual experience. I’m simply not a religious person, though I do have a spiritual side. But, I guess I expected a sense of accomplishment, of completion. So far, I don’t have any of that. Of course, I’m still a handful of kilometers away. I still have my Compostela to get and I can still walk through the church door and have all my sins forgiven (plenary indulgence, AS IF!). It’s just that I don’t think any of those things will make any difference.

We see about 5 churches a day, most with very fancy church yards like this.
We see about 5 churches a day, most with church yards like tthis.

I’ve loved so many moments: Tim is an incredibly positive person and I’m humbled he’s agreed to hike with me, since I know he could out walk me any day of the week–as I was reminded of this week when he did 25k while suffering from a virus. We’ve had some great discussions, laughed and quizzed each other on Spanish vocabulary. We’ve also seen amazing views. I love the exceptionally clean farms and watching farm wives work in compost and plant new spring gardens. The constant rain has meant rich, green pastures with woodland blossoms. I’ve watched Spring come to rural Spain from eye level. So many flowers, green leaves, fast moving rivers. I’ve photographed the snow covered mountains (that we thankfully didn’t have to cross) and the long views from the top of hills. These are the most beautiful, fat chickens I’ve ever seen. I’ve met folks from all over the world and laughed with them, occasionally at them. I’ve seen rocks that reminded me of Pennsylvania and clay mud that looked like my childhood farm in spring. I’ve watched shepards and dogs herding sheep, and cows walking through town on their way to milking or new pastures. There was rain and hail, wind and the coldest, wettest spring in the memory of every farmer we talked to. There was also glorious sun that I never saw enough to take for granted. I’ve walked between eucalyptus forests, sat under 500 year old chestnut trees and hiked beside ancient stone walls with no mortar holding the rocks together. I drank from countless fuentes (fountains), some put there for medieval pilgrims who were guarded by the Knights Templar. I’ve crossed rivers on stone bridges built by Romans and sat in churches built in the 10th century. I’ve been blessed by a priest and hosted by a nun, both of whom wished me a “buen Camino.” I’ve eaten fresh seafood, amazing acorn and chestnut fed pork and drank a river of vino tinto and cafe con leche. My Spanish has improved–I can order a simple meal without resorting to English. If the albergue owner doesn’t speak my language, I can ask about accommodations, laundry and meals. I’m not quite functional, but so much better than a month ago. It’s been rich, joyous, amazing, surprising, exhausting, painful and humbling. It’s also been a reminder that no one walks their path alone, whether on The Way of Saint James or everyday life.

So many tributes along the trail. Most are just small rock piles or laminated photos like this.
So many tributes along the trail. Most are just small rock piles or laminated photos like this.

But there is also the loss of a friendship. Travel is stressful; backpacking is doubly so–stressing even the experienced hiker. It’s not for everyone. Sometimes you try things with the very best of intentions and things simply don’t work out. I don’t care what your guidebook says, this is not a walk in the park. I’ve learned before that, in general, traveling alone is easiest. Unfortunately, I’ve learned it again on this trip. The hard way. My feeling of loss can’t really be shared.

I’m not sorry I came, but it hasn’t all been positive. With every adventure is also pain

But maybe that is how life always is?

This was a digital sign we saw today, posting the number of beds at a hostel in Santiago, +20k away.
This was a digital sign we saw today, posting the number of beds at a hostel in Santiago, +20k away.
Indiana? Here? In Spain?
Indiana? Here? In Spain?

Camino–needing a break for the final push

El Beso Albergue
El Beso Albergue

Day 29, Hospital to A Balsa, 17k
April 29, 2016
It was a good albergue last night and I slept well, but somehow just couldn’t get organized. A difficult morning. Everyone had to wait for me when I went back for a pair of sunglasses I left by my bed. And I clearly left my Leatherman tool as well. It’s a small, multipurpose tool I’ve carried for years and I have found it indispensable. I hope I can find another. The good news is that the break riding a horse yesterday through the most difficult section seems to have revived me. My stomach was good this morning and no diarrhea. Anne was feeling strong too. We had agreed that we’d get a taxi if we didn’t feel well.
The walk was mostly downhill today. Occasionally steep, the path was often gravel or dirt. The views were fantastic. Frequently we walked a hillside or ridge line and could see farms stretching for miles. We walked through a small community every 3k or so and could stop for coffee or a beer. The farmers were spreading manure on their gardens, so it was often smelly.

Laundry, Spanish style.
Laundry, Spanish style.

Flowers are in bloom here as you’d expect in early spring–daffodils (especially tiny ones), tulips, primrose, garden phlox and iris. It is cooler here in Galicia. According to my guide, “The mountains of Galicia are the first object in 5,000km that the westerly winds coming across the Atlantic hit, so you can expect an immediate change in weather…and thick mountain fog all feeding a maze of mountain streams and deep river valleys. The countryside is reminiscent of other Celtic lands with its small, intimate fields and lush pastures grazed by cattle…..Thick hot soups, caldo gallego, …provide inner warmth from the damp.” We’ve already tried some local fresh cheeses, like thick cream cheese, served with quince paste (membrillo). Another popular dessert is the tarta de Santiago, an almond cake. Soon we will be near the sea and I can’t wait to try octopus (pulpo) and the white wine, Albariño, served icy cold.
The landscape and particularly the villages seem like the set of a fairytale. So many of the buildings in the small towns we’ve past are old stone, but here they seem even older. Many buildings and all the stone walls are mortar-less with moss and sedums growing from between the rocks. Homes are often two story with a barn at ground level and living quarters above. The roofs are slate, laid like a black, patchwork quilt. The oldest are covered in vegetation. Fat, colorful chickens strut through the narrow streets, some leading newly hatched chicks. Brown, horned cows are led through the streets for milking or new pastures. A brook often meanders through town. Some of the bridges are built on foundations laid by Roman builders. It all feels very old.

Anne and Michelle.
Anne and Michelle.

Anne found a friend she met at the beginning of the hike, Michelle, from Australia and Brazil. She joined us in Filloval. We stopped for a beer in Triacastela and got reservations in a vegetarian albergue 2k down the road in a tiny town, barely on the map. Anne and Michelle were in the rear and missed the sign for El Beso (the kiss). They walked all the way to San Xil (pronounced San Jeel) and had to come back! It probably added 5-6k to their day. Anne’s feet have really bothered her, so she didn’t need the additional mileage. Her cough is worse as well. We are all worried about her.

The vegetarian dinner was wonderful tonight. It started with nettle soup! Then steamed vegetables, cheese, hummus and the only brown rice I’ve seen in Spain. It finished with a very moist apple cake. Yum! Just wish there had been more of it  with little to no fat, it won’t stay with me long

Random thoughts:
Backpacking is all about managing expectations. You learn where your limits are, too. You really find what you’re made of at the end of the day when you think you see your final destination at the bottom of a gentle hill, just to have the path abruptly turn and take you up another hill. Or when the guidebooks profile map says it’s a gentle downhill today and you keep climbing. While I greatly disagree with the preparation recommendations in my guidebook, I’ve appreciated the maps. Or I did, until the last two stages when my map was 10k different from the one Tim had. I don’t think either was correct. Also, my guidebooks says I still have +150k to walk to Santiago. The signs (which are new and very well marked in Galicia), indicate about 130k. I’m a “more information” person, not a “oh, let’s just see what happens” type. Mixed messages, badly rendered topo maps and unexpected changes are very uncomfortable. While on the outside I may look calm, on the inside I’m throwing a tantrum to make a 2 year old proud. I don’t like everything I’ve learned about myself.

Germans are amazing hikers. As Bob Peoples says, if there were a hiking trail to Hell, the Germans could walk it. And back. But staying in hostels with them is ….an experience. Let’s just say that they don’t seem to have body issues. Or modesty. It is not at all unusual for a German, man or woman, to change clothes–ALL their clothes–in a crowded bunk room. Almost all strip to their underwear to sleep and nudity is not uncommon. Plus, the underwear is tiny. Most men wear small panties that remind me of speedos. I spend a lot of time averting my eyes.

A note from my dear friend Julia: “This whole Camino walk sounds incredibly painful. Martin Sheen’s character (in the film The Way) walked like a madman and NO ONE had feet issues. It was very misleading.” Truth.imageimage

Day 30, A Balsa to Vilei/Barbadelo, 29k (2k backtrack, 25k taxi, 4k hike)
April 30, 2016
The albergue, El Beso, really seemed nice. The food was good. It was clean and not over crowded. The people who ran the place were very nice. But before dinner we told them we were cold and needed heat in the damp basement room. The temperature was falling quickly and we knew it was forecast to be just above freezing overnight. They brought a heater down, but only allowed it to be on for a couple hours. I woke at midnight shivering. I have a down sleeping bag and had covered it with a wool blanket. I was fully clothed, including two shirts and socks. I pulled my down jacket on plus my buff over my head, but I just couldn’t get warm. It was damp enough that shirts that had not quite dried in the sun after hand washing, got wetter after they were brought in overnight. I might have dealt with this better, except for a case of mild diarrhea (a common symptom I get under stress or over exertion). I had to get up twice and had a hard time getting warm enough to fall back asleep. It was not my best night ever.
In the morning, it was clear that I was not the only one who’d had a bad night. All the women and most of the men were short on sleep. Anne’s cough was scary bad. When we told the caretakers at breakfast about the cold, they didn’t really believe us. Breakfast was also disappointing. A tiny bowl of dry oatmeal on top of half a cup of yogurt and a cup of instant coffee with no refill. Not worth the 3€ we’d paid. There was lots of grumbling as we’d walked a couple kilometers extra to get to the albergue and would have to backtrack the same distance in the morning.
I tried to push off the bad night. I was doing a fair job when suddenly I vomited up breakfast in a half dozen, violent stomach lurches that blinded my eyes with tears and made me buckle at the knees. This was just not going to be my day. My body had spoken and it had said, “STOP!”image
The problem with being sick or injured when hiking is that typically you still have to walk yourself out of your location. Anne and I quickly agreed to take a taxi (25€) forward to Sarria, a large city where she could get some medications she needed to treat her cough. Linken and Tim would hike on to Samos, then catch up to us the next day. But Anne and I still had to backtrack 2k to the previous town just to get to where a taxi could pick us up. Sarria is also (roughly) the 100k mark–the minimum distance you must walk to get a Compostela in Santiago. Lots of people begin their hike here. It’s a busy city where the hiking pilgrim population suddenly triples or even quadruples, along with an increase in prices. The price of an albergue might jump from 5 to 10€, not a huge difference for me. But Anne felt with her cough and desperate need for uninterrupted sleep in a warm room, she needed a private room. Those cost much more in Sarria. We agreed to walk another 4k to the next town where prices for a small private room were 29€. So even on a day when we weren’t really hiking, we had to walk 6k (about 4miles) with backpacks.
But there was one miracle overnight–my Leatherman tool materialized this morning. It was sitting on the toe of my hiking shoes. How does that happen? However it occurred, I’m grateful to still have it.
Anne checked into a small pension, but I stayed in Casa Barbadelo Albergue (9€). The rooms have 8 beds (4 bunks) with two showers and one toilet. There are 6 of us so far, me and 5 mature men. NONE of the men seem to be able to close doors. The door to the room keeps swigging open and letting in the cold air. Twice I had to get up and close the door the shower room so I didn’t have to watch someone soaping up their “altogether.” Once I closed the door to the toilet as a man sat performing his bodily functions. After, I had to go into the toilet, FLUSH and turn the light off for the man. He didn’t seem to even notice me. How DO some people function in this world?
But, hey, at least it’s warm and dry.image

Camino Week 5
Day 31, Vilei/Barbadelo
, 0k
May 1, 2016
It was not a good night. My room contained 4 world record holders in snoring. This included the king of the sport, Mr. “I can’t shut the door while I’m on the toilet” guy. At 2am with walls reverberating, snoring seems a justified Olympic sport. Also a justified defense for homicide. All 8 beds were full, so the morning was chaos. Everyone was vying for the one toilet and enough floor space to dress, pack and organize. I tried to just lie in bed and let the others leave, but at one point a German couple were crawling around on the floor, under my bed, moving my possessions, wearing headlamps. They had lost something. After I was blinded by the headlamp, I got up and started packing, just so they could better search for their lost item.
I met Anne for breakfast and she hiked on. It’s Sunday and she can make Santiago by Friday’s special pilgrims service.
The hostel will let me stay another night without checking out, so I plan to shower (I was too tired yesterday) and sleep. Tim will stay in Sarria tonight and meet me for a second breakfast in the morning.image