It’s kind of difficult to put my reflections into words when answering the question about my thoughts of having completed the camino. Everyone’s reasons are different and although for me it was to accomplish something great, when you’re walking so very long (780km) through various obstacles your thoughts on the situation itself tend to change again and again.
There is the obvious sense of achievement which happened from the very beginning while walking over the Pyrenees from Saint Jean Pied de Port, standing on top of Col Lopoeder 4,688 metres high (or about 16,000 feet – and I am not fit to say the least), the agonising pain of constant blisters, the weight of my backpack (which 3 times I emptied and sent items away – why did I bring my flask?), the pleasure of meeting such wonderful people (those travelling with you and the locals in the towns in passing). It’s hard to put into words.
On day 1 going up the Pyreenes to Roncesvalles, I was lucky to be walking with Amit from Israel and Ai’hwa from Taiwan. Ai’hwa had been living across Europe for several years and Amit often volunteered and walked with groups of blind people. At one point I recall having to sit down in agony (feet), saying to continue on without me but they wanted to wait saying “pilgrams of the camino are there for eachother”. It doesn’t sound like much but strangers that naturally are there for you is an odd concept to me living in this cynical and mostly materialist world.
Ai’hwa ended up even getting married to a man she walked the camino with, they’re now living in America. It must be something special right?
I recall my friend, Jane from NZ telling me not to worry about having to put up with rude or selfish people as it was easy to either stay somewhere else or move on without them. Thankfully, the situation of the camino really does allow you to make your own choices and this was the case while spending about a week with a group of Italians (I am part Italian by the way). At first, it was great, we would always find a refuge that had a kitchen, with a few euros we’d cook together and share with others staying there. It was a great way to bond, meet new people and share our love of food. But, eventually insults and judgments about them knowing better – as they were all from the North and my fathers family and I from the South started to become crass jokes. I am in no way a racist or a bigot in any means but I didn’t enjoy the negativity, so without causing a fuss, I stopped in a town and let them go ahead. I get it, it’s not all about the people but besides the fresh air, beautiful landscapes, the goal in mind, great food and physical issues – People are what made it for me, and I’m talking about types of people I would never meet altogether elsewhere.
When I arrived in Burgos (17-5-16) I felt terrible, the bronchitis and fever were making it hard to sleep at night and breath normally during the days. I remember the long queue to get to the front desk at the municipal (and usually you can only stay 1 night in the refuges’), but one hospitaleros came straight up to me saying he could tell I wasn’t well, that although I’d gotten in late and would be staying on the floor, most packed, that if I wanted, I could stay another night and him and his colleague would take care of me and offer me dinner that night. I remember trying to sleep that night with a big Swedish man in my bottom bunk snoring loudly all night keeping everyone awake, but I also recall the hospitaleros inviting me to dinner and explaining his life and reasons he wanted to give back to the camino. I was even lucky enough the next night to bump into friends I had previously met which was also surprising.
Then, there’s the obvious, cleaners have to do their job in the mornings, meaning the building shouldn’t be occupied, but that wasn’t a problem for me, as these two hospitaleros took me through the city to the University coffee shop for breakfast the next morning. I basically got a free tour of Burgos. Funny though, 1 hospitalero and I ordered coffee and toast and the other ordered a glass of wine – apparently this is usual in Spain, he said – here, you drink when you feel like it. It was a bit of a shock to the system but fair enough right? Back to the story, they were so kind, they made me lunch in their apartment and said there was a spare bed there if I wanted to rest up another night. I didn’t stay, but as I was still unwell a German girl who was also sick and I stayed in a hostel the following night.
Nonetheless, think about this… the German girl I was with, she had had a bad knee, found it hard to walk but was told at the municipal she’d need to show a medical certificate whereas, I never asked for anything, but was shown true hospitality. I can honestly say, the camino gives. I can’t explain why it constantly happened to me but I am, truly thankful. One day in Burgos (and I think I stayed 4 days in total in the end) I had ended up going to the hospital and found out I had a bad case of bronchitis. True, you can get medical insurance, but if it costs 50 euros or so for a doctor, then there’s no real point to use it you know.
Vera from Milan, Italy was another wonderful person I got to meet and although I’d met her previously in Puente La Reina, we walked from Mansilla de Las Mulas through León (where we decided to treat ourselves and get a haircut) to La Virgin del Camino (27-5-16). I just cherished how you’d get to see people you’d met before. Oh, and the works of Gaudí … I love them! Then, in la Virgin del Camino we came across another piligrino, Angel a Spaniard so we went for a drink altogether at a bar, chatted alot, went to see the Basílica and there Angel stepped out of the small boutique, where he’d bought a pendant for his daughter aswell as one for both Vera and I. It was really touching. I do still have it.
Angel was the one to remind Vera and I about the Way of Saint James and the very first pilgrims who walked it bare foot or with far thinner shoes then we have today, without rug-sacks or hiking boots or medicine or thermals, with far fewer options. Hence, our pain is only a bare minimal of what these men set out to do back then and the whole point, which I agree with, is to realise we don’t require all the “stuff” we value important these days, the camino is about life. You need somewhere to sleep (and good on those with their tents – far more rugged but peaceful), you wake up, you put on your shoes, you look after your feet, you set out, you don’t know what’s around the corner, you need fuel, you meet and help others but you find it’s wonderful all the same..with only the simple things.
I was especially lucky to come across this Italian Roman, Antonio on the last 100 or so kms to Santiago de Compostela. We had deep and interesting conversations as he was an engineer, enjoyed the philosophical debate and was very down to earth too. He missed his wife, loved the adventure and had to walk slow, which was fine by me especially as in this way you got to take in your surroundings at ease and with care. We also stayed the night together twice and in a very lush albergue the last night where I cooked some pasta, which he’d been craving. All I can say is I was very fortunate to meet this person. I ended up moving back to Italy last year, and in Rome he picked me up from the airport and I spent the day with him, his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The camino in this sense is similar to a lucky charm (and believe me, I am usually skeptical of most).
In Pamplona (6-5-16) I didn’t realise it was a Saturday the 2nd day I was there and that the city was bustling with people everywhere. I decided to venture out (to find the post office and lighten my load) but also to discover and try “pinchos”. The town was crazy busy, I was overwhelmed as to which bar to go to and because there were no seats anywhere this group of gentlemen at Bar Guria offered room at their table, gave suggestions as to which pinchos to try (all delicious although my favourite is the one with marinated capsicum, chili and anchovies), and told me about the town and their thoughts about the pilgrimage. As they had to leave before I did, I recall heading to the counter finding out they’d paid for me. Crazy!
So I’d saved on my budget for the day having been offered from these locals. I decided to look around town – star attraction to see the the bullfighting ring Plaza de Toros (I’m glad there were no bulls fighting when I was there by the way). Funny enough I got there on the day of the Gran festa del marisco – a seafood festival (my luck) and not only got to enter the ring to check it out but tried the famous Spanish grilled octopus dish with paprika. I attempted to ask for some lemon, but they thought I was nuts!
The food in Spain is quite good and very reasonable priced. I was on a budget, but I’d usually get breakfast, consisting of toasted bread with some marmalade’s, a coffee (for sure) and a freshly squeezed orange juice. Sometimes the refuge you stay in will have it included in the dorm price (like the dinners in monasteries etc). For lunch, I would buy a baguette (which I could use for 2 lunches), some cheese, tomatoes and maybe some jamón – ham, having my trusty “openel” (which I bought in Paris) came in handy (and not just for cutting food). For dinner I’d usually treat myself to the “pilgrim’s menu” consisting of 3 courses including desert, water and sometimes wine (costing on average €10), this was unless there was a kitchen where I stayed and organised to eat and cook together with others.
I really did miss my pasta being Italian and all (so it was good being able to cook for myself at times) and I’ll never forget Antonio, the Roman man I met and walked with during the last parts of the camino as he said he was in heaven once I did cook a simple pasta dish one night. He said how much he’d felt back at home and kept going in for seconds – which obviously made me smile.
Continuation on food..but also, please think before you travel!
Please, I can’t accept the comments I’ve read about Spain making pasta and pizza well because I can assure you they do not! That’s alright though, I mean why would you go to Spain expecting to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast or Italian food?? You’re in Spain, and it’s the one thing I constantly heard from the locals speaking negatively about certain pilgrims. They told me, some had all these expectations and weren’t happy since Spain wouldn’t meet there needs. Certain pilgrims didn’t even try to adjust to the Spanish ways, always smirking and making funny faces at the locals (some wouldn’t even try to speak Spanish) – I used to hear some English speaking pilgrims unhappy with service because the Spanish didn’t speak English – come on! Seems abit unjust and definitely closed minded to travel to another country and not try or want to blend in, learn the different customs and ways of life. This, to me, is a big negative, senseless comments about the camino… and after all the criticisms, I swear, I hardly ever met an unwelcoming or rude Spanish person during this journey so shame on you. All you need to do is smile, and people tend to welcome you.
Anyhow, back to food. Yummy soups, mixed salads, grilled fish, meat, paellas, pinchos (or tapas), flans and deserts, fresh breads, great cheeses, wine, chupito de hierbas (a minty digestive liquor)..mmm (even though the coffee in my opinion was not that great, it was still better than Paris) everything else, tick, tick, tick.
It’s also hard to recall the great places to dine, one in particular in Pamplona for lunch I’d recommend is called Catachu, but if you do stay at Xarma, the host will give you more great options.
Spring is also the time of cherries, walking to Cacabelos (2-6-16) that day I really did decide to go at my own pace, I wasn’t watching for the camino signs (which aren’t hard to see), but instead, there I was walking and picking cherries from branches and they were truly delicious. I actually got lost that day (which is fine), I asked a lady about getting back to the path for the camino and she gave me directions – I went off the map that day. I happened to stop in a bar, decided to continue with my “lazy” day, and got a beer. Now, how can anyone complain? A pint of heineken with free yummy meatballs and some bread (it’s normal to get pinchos for free) for only €1? Crazy good, so I got another round. This is the life huh?
I loved the town of Foncebadón (1-6-16), it is up on a high hilltop (1,430 m), cattle scattered and German looking houses surround. In the coffee shops/bars I would always ask where things were made first – you want local produce right? – and I remember asking the owner if the small patisseries were local and he said no, but suggested his fresh homemade bread and cheese with sprouts sprinkled on top. Much more satisfying. When I was leaving, I saw the cherries, and asked how much they were, but he told me to open my hands, then poured more than I could carry. Such a lovely guy. He even offered me a job and the other pilgrims thought I worked there. Funny. I would love to go back there.
There’s really no explanation necessary, you just need to go and explore the South of France and the Basque country of Spain…walking. It is beautiful, with lush and rugged landscapes, where the guiri slang in Galicia sounds much rather like Napoletan dialect, where you will find great generosity and be amazed by the history, art and colourful landscapes and arrays of poppies blossoming in spring time.
It’s mind boggling to think that today on the 5th of June, exactly 2 years ago was the very day I crossed over the border from La Faba (915m) to Galicia and stopped in Fonfría, Zamora (812m). I remember the walk to la Faba the day before, it was a killer with the sun blazing down on you making it much more difficult to climb those hills. But the walk up to O Cebreiro is also another difficult task, I stopped in Albergue La Escuela. Laguna De Castilla for a coffee, where I saw on the menu, this delicious creamy cheese on bread with honey (I’d recommend it) before arriving in O Cebreiro, 1,300 metres in altitude. The village is home to traditional mountain dwellings of pre-Roman origin, called ‘pallozas’. For more information click here.
Injury and Pain
I could write a whole book on how to prevent the pain you will feel, and it is troubling there wasn’t enough information provided when I researched what to expect on the Camino.
When I arrived in Pamplona (6-5-16) I stopped for 2 nights in a refuge called Xarma (I’d recommend it, the host is helpful, friendly and kind) since my feet were in a terrific state, blisters in the palms of my feet, also where I’d suffered from a bunion was a blister too..ouch! An Irish ex-militant also walking the camino suggested using menstrual pads in the sole of your shoe. This was a bizarre concept to me but he said they used them in the army, as they absorb the sweat and stop the rubbing of the foot. I dear say, but it works. I told the host of the hostel that night about this little trick and besides lots of giggling, he told me that he never understood why when clearing out men’s dorms he’d find menstrual pads in the bin. The discovery all made sense to him now. Not only that but the host also gave me a trekking pole, I hadn’t thought it was a necessity but I was wrong, when hiking down steep hills or the same up, trekking poles help you keep your equilibrium and keep your body aligned straight (meaning your backpack is not weighing you down).
Already in Roncesvalles (4-5-16) I saw a few people lying in their bunk beds with the feet raised upwards. I didn’t copy them at that point but realised during the camino, that 10mins this way does help circulate the blood and after walking so many kilometers in a day, you’re bound to get swelling.
If you’re like me, and you start to get shin splints or swollen ankles, the pharmacist is your friend. In particular a Spanish man, Angel I met in Virgen del Camino (27-5-16) suggested I use “Radio Salil” an anti-inflammatory cream with a eucalyptus smell – very potent, very good. Have a shower, and massage it in.
With blisters, no matter how grose this seems, you need a disinfected needle (use a lighter), disinfectant and cotton to pierce the skin from one side of the blister to the other, you leave the cotton in so that the blister won’t close up or get infected. A couple layers of gauze is best and tape to cover and seal so that the blister can breath – change each night/morning. Best to also soak your feet first in sea salt and warm water for a bit. DO NOT buy those first aid bandages from chemists, they do not help whatsoever, no matter what google tells you, because instead, they cause more damage as the blister is sealed in, while you walk, the water in the blister will expand and you’ll find it very difficult to get the bandage off.
It was recommended, and next time I venture out on a long exhibition I will take this into account. You should wear 2 (thin) socks so that the friction is between the sock and shoe. Also, I’ve been reading about people talking about their feet overheating, this is bound to happen from walking for long periods of time. It was suggested and I wish I’d known sooner, that as soon as your feet do overheat, it is best to stop (there are many bars to have a quick drink) take shoes and socks off to dry out and allow your feet to relax – if you can, use a chair to put the feet upwards. You may think it’ll be harder to get stuck back into walking again, but this also stops the overheating and swelling of the feet.
What should you bring with you
- Boots – I did get hiking boots but recall our host in Saint Jean stating even mid boots or good comfortable running shoes would be perfect
- You should also bring sandals – there’ll be times your feet swell and even though it’s not fashionable some thermal socks with sandals do the trick
- Pants and shorts, I say go for those quick drying, light pants that zip off (I brought one pair plus some shorts, but I wish I had just two of those)
- Sleeping bag – I got an EXTRATHERM one, it only weighs 1kg, is water-resistant and very warm, a pillow case (sleep on the pillow provided but with the pillow case – I heard people getting bed bites but I never had the issue at all).
- Backpack – I got a 50 Litre one with it’s own rain cover – necessary (important is that the contents doesn’t weigh more than 10% of your body weight).
- Thermals (as soon as the weather started getting warmer, I sent mine (together with some other things which were weighing me down) to Santiago, big mistake – it gets cold up in the mountains), thermal socks (I brought two pairs but was given advice to wear 2 thin socks at a time to not avoid friction and getting blisters – I’d recommend this), and a hat for when it’s chilly.
- I recommend, a needle, cotton threads, some band aids, a lighter, cotton pads, tape, scissors, a good knife (as I’d gone to Paris I bought an opinel from Decathalon – definitely useful), sanitizer, disenfectant (which you can buy there), arnica ointment or something similar for swelling and pain which you will feel, basically an anti-inflammatory cream.
- I didn’t bring it but I’d recommend some vicks ointment (someone gave me some) in case you get a bit crook, but then again you can always buy it there.
- Water bottle (just one) you have to go light, water fountains are all along the way.
- Unless you’re planning to do a tiny amount of washing using a washing machine, most places have taps and running water to clean your clothes (which usually you do atleast every second day), obviously you need some soap (and of course the toiletries: toothbrush, hairbrush, shampoo – but carry it all small)
- Hiking poles – very useful – I didn’t bring them but was given one from a hostel owner (optional)
- Money bag (I kept mine either on me, or under my pillow at night) I would suggest bringing it to the showers to. I never had anything stolen but, it happens.
How to get there:
I was coming from the other side of the world, but decided after my stay in Paris to then get the train to St Jean Pied de Port, it usually has a stop in Bayonne where you change trains and in total takes about 5-6 hours. I recommend booking on www.raileurope.co.nz and you can pick the ticket up on the day (or before) from the station at the automatic train tellers and you won’t be charged any extra. Lovely ride to San Jean.
Where to stay and where not to
For starters if you’re expecting an easy and straightforward beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port, think again. You will need to queue to get your credencial or pilgrims passport from the main information centre which is only a few euros (so no need to order it online – also most albergues will be able to sell you one if you start at a different section). They can book you into accommodation there and will give you a list of stops with various albergues along the way. I loved this town and as I’d had a rather big trip in Paris the week before (which is another story), I decided to stay an extra night. I stayed at Ultreia, the host is a gag and it was great fun eating together and getting some hints.
If you want to stay in Orisson, almost 1/2 way up the Pyrenees you will need to book ahead. I heard they were booked out from a month or so beforehand.
There’s the main convent in Roncesvalles and that’s where everyone stays (I’d say), the front desk won’t tell you but if you want to eat dinner, book it in otherwise you won’t have many options.
Zubri was a disappointment. The town lacks accommodation and unless you want to sleep on the floor in the Albergue Municipal and arrive before 1pm, you will have a hard time finding somewhere in Zubri or the small towns before or after it. They should arrange more sleeping options! Me and Amit got a ride to another town on the lake close to France once again. It was a nice place but.. I arrived in Zubri on the 6th May, the start of Spring thinking by what I had read on websites before organising this trip, that it was suggested to be the least populated time to go… however, this is far from the truth. I’m afraid to put out, that thousands of people arrive each, locals in Zubri told us, then again, I wouldn’t recommend walking in the middle of winter which is dangerous or the middle of summer as it’s just too hot. Maybe, the camino has become soo famous, you are just going to have to deal with this fact.
On the 20th May, I arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada only then realising I was there for the big parade ‘Santo Domingo‘ which is on from the 20th – 22nd May each year. There, I met a couple of guys I’d come across previously, one from Ireland, another from Australia so we went to dinner together and we drank a bit too much. It didn’t help I stayed in a terrible albergue Abadia Cistercience Albergue de Peregrinos – it was the coldest, dampest, dirtiest I had experienced. I woke with fever and later in Burgos had bronchitis too. I would not recommend this to anyone.
Update! A friend from the camino just told me about a really nice place he stayed at in Santo Domingo, Santa Domingo de la Calzada Albergue del Santo it looks beautiful, if only I’d known before.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada is also where you’ll find the chickens of Saint Domingo, this is an old tale please click here to read about the fable but to be honest by witnessing first hand chickens high up behind bars, I can’t say I was very impressed (even though each month the chickens are swapped – apparently).
It’s nothing terrible but if you do stop in La Virgen del Camino after León (27-5-16), the Albergue D’Antonio y Doña Cinia to give a little insight, was once a mental asylum, a friend and I are quiet sure and you’ll see the new one next door (if you check your surroundings). Fine place to stay nonetheless. This reminds me of how the morning after staying here, I heard my name being called by 2 Italians who’d brought there mocha, telling me the coffee was ready..mmm to wake up to the smell of espresso (then again, that’s just me). What gentleman and a lovely way to start the day.
In the Albergue en el Camino, in Boadilla del Camino, they don’t allow you to bring your boots inside, so there’s a rack set up outside – apparently someones were stolen from a guy. Not a very great way to go, terrible that you have to worry about stealing (but keep your eyes open).
La casa de los Dioses located between Santibanez of Valdeiglesias and San Justo de la Vega isn’t a place to stay but a wonderful place to stop at during your daily walk. The owners live quite a hippy life here, they offer the largest range of food and drinks and a place to rest and all you need to do in return is leave a donation. Cute cat here too.
I stayed an extra day in Rabanal del Camino (30-5-16) at Albergue La Senda as a doctor visited another guest and mentioned I should take it easy (bronchitis), but I’ll never forget bumping into this young Spanish lad for the second time who was staying in one of the campsites there. The boy was from Madrid, he hadn’t completed the final exam of high school so instead of having to hear his fathers criticisms, he decided to do the camino. Anyway, long story short he was too cute and everyone felt sorry for him but he saved money for gambling and asked for change from others. Having some dinner with him and sitting in the campsite with these older fellows was a bit like a revelation, as we got into deep conversations about “how the camino once was”, “how not to behave”, “what a pilgrim truly is” etc. They stated (and this happens), it’s not about waking at 4am in the morning with a torch on your head leaving in the dark to rush to the next place like it’s a race. One, should be taking in their surroundings and allowing things to ‘just’ happen. To be honest, I never did wake at 4am, but there was that anxiety led by others where you slept, alarms blazing, hurrying, the impatience, not stopping to talk to locals, having their flight booked ahead of time from Santiago de Compostella, racing to the finish line. I had really taken in what these guys had told me. Strangely enough, I recall them telling me they felt I had the right spirit and they believed I had the right mind frame. I don’t know if that is true, but one can only try, and it’s true, on the camino unlike real life, when something bad happened, more great and unexpected things would occur following it.
I’m going to name a few (not in any specific order), which I really enjoyed but all in all, if you have the chance to stay in the monasteries, they are the best. There are fewer people so you get to know everyone and usually a communal dinner :
- Albergue Municipal in Mansilla de las Mulas – friendly family run refuge, owner is a doctor and can assist you, grandmother is soo funny
- Albergue Camino del Perdon in Uterga – This is a lovely place after Alto del Perdon. The lovely lady below also helped me when she saw I couldn’t walk very well. Very kind and hospitable place.
- Albergue Liberanos Domine in Rabe de las Calzadas
- Hostel Xarma in Pamplona – fewer people to a room, mens, womens or mixed dorms with kitchen and lounge, helpful and friendly host, 5 mins walk to city centre.
- Albergue A Reboleira in Fonfría a quaint town on the hilltop, a wonderful little discovery, private rooms are an option.
- Casa Banderas in Vilacha