El Camino de Santiago

The start of the break had been a test of fate, funnily enough. Our flight leaves at 19:10. I was ahead at the airport to check in our luggage as Al had an afternoon appointment. Al had suffered a series of delays and we were running to the gates. Fog in the morning at Gatwick delayed some flights, and fortunately our flight was delayed by 20 mins, exactly the amount of time we needed to make it.

There are varying reasons why people would choose to walk/hike some 20-30km a day for weeks and I can’t pretend to know all those reasons. But a lot of people have found some answers to their life’s questions on the camino. And for me, walking part of the way was a chance to see what they’ve seen, and feel what they’ve felt. I was seeking a lot of things – answers, direction, ideas, new perspectives – but i know that is too much to ask from a 2-week journey. So I came with no expectation than to be able to bask in what’s left of those who’ve trodden the same path.

Equipment: sturdy backpacks that should weigh no more than 10-15% of your body weight. 1 extra set of clothing – made of technical cloth that dries easily. 2 pairs of good socks. hiking boots. walking poles. knee and ankle support. emergency medicines. band aid and compeed for blisters. head lamp. water bottle. toiletries (shampoo bar from Lush doubles as body soap). small bar of soap for laundering. easy-dry towel. sleeping bag. bedbug-proof sheets. alarm clock. earplugs. waterproofs. a few bars of chocolates or biscuits. if you’re from somewhere exotic, like us from the philippines, bring some small tokens from your country, even small currency. Albergues like to display these tokens.

What to expect: it’s not all walking, there are lots of hilly places that would test your knees and ankles. but the climbs aren’t as relentless as i’ve seen in Peru. but it’s the hours of walking day after day that gets to you. We are usually out the door at 7am when it is still very dark at this time of the year. Breakfast of toast and coffee at the hotel/inn/albergue if available, otherwise it’s water and chocolate bars until we get to the next town 5-7km away. Somedays, you’ll pass through villages every 5km. Other days, you’ll get a 10km stretch with no facilities. You’ll come into a village expecting a cafe only to find it closed. I think majority of the villages we’ve passed don’t have a cafe/restaurant. Very few people speak english, so basic spanish is a must. This time of the year, we’ve seen 1 very sunny day – where you should be done walking at 3pm. We’ve been through rain and strong winds that lasted all day that soaked our goretex jackets. Most days was cloudy with a smattering of rain and that was ideal for walking. Every time you stop at a cafe, loosen your shoes and let your socks dry a bit, it will save you from blisters. Refugio or albergues are dormitories costs between Euro5-10/night. Bunk beds, expect bedbugs. But the places we’ve been to are quite clean and I’ve not seen a nasty toilet throughout. Showers, toilets, some with bars and serves food. Most are run by volunteers. There might be days when you’ll need to get a taxi/bus to get to your final destination if you can’t go on, days like these, we chose not to stay in albergues. Actually, we chose not to stay in albergues for most days because of the need to sleep as well as possible. A bed in an albergue cannot be booked in advance, though some private rooms can sometimes be booked (Euro30+) by ringing them (I haven’t found any online booking). The reason a lot of people start the day early is to make sure they are in the albergue by around 2pm. Depending on the season, if you arrive later, there is a chance you’ll have no bed. I overheard that even this time of the year, there were lots of people who slept in the streets of Burgos because there’s no more place to stay. That is also why there are people who book their hotels in advance to make sure they will not worry about where to sleep. Other people also choose to not end their day according to the Brierley book (it seems everybody follows this book) as the albergues in other towns are not as busy.

References:
Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino De Santiago by John Brierley. We carried this with us.
www.spanishsteps.eu/camino-frances
www.csj.org.uk we got our passport from the Confraternity of St James in London. Get your membership and passport 2 months ahead.
for bus schedules and routes www.empresafreire.comwww.alsa.es/en/

24 Sep. Arrived in Madrid. Missed the last bus to the city. Taxi. Checked in at Eurostars Madrid Tower in Madrid’s financial district and walking distance from Chamartin train station. Great-looking hotel. But even at midnight, I was conscious because we’re garbed in hiking clothes amidst people in suits. Staff never gave me the impression they mind. Dinner was great tasting iberico meat and cold red wine at the bar. Reminder to self – better pack 1 pair of nice clothes if suitcase allows.

Madrid

25 Sep. Checked out and walked some 30 mins to catch the 10:40 train to Leon at Madrid Chamartin (2hours 42min). Train tickets are checked before you board the train. Train tickets from raileurope.co.uk, buy a week before departure as paper tickets are posted. Slept a bit more on the train. Almost dragged Al out of the train 1 station too early.

Checked in at Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro. Beautiful place. Felt like I was staying in a museum – it’s set within an 11th century old complex. Lots of space in the room to sort out our stuff and prepare for the walk.

wpid-20130925_145934.jpg

Sain Isidoro, Léon

Went to the oficina de correos (Paseo San Francisco corner Avenida de la Independencia and open til 9pm on weekdays, closed Sundays). Luggages can be posted ‘Poste restante’ to Santiago where they will store your luggage for you for 30 (or 60?) days. Costs us E9.87 to post an empty wheeled luggage. You can post to any village and you pick up from the Correos office. Mochila services are also available (not at the post office) where they take your luggages from town to town or albergue to albergue – but we oftentimes decide on the day what town we’ll spend the night in, so this feels a bit inflexible for us.

Bought chocolate bars and water, and first time to see ‘Filipinos’ chocolate. Dinner and off to bed.

26 Sep. 0830 start after getting breakfast at the hotel. Walked 22km from Leon to Villar de Mazarife arriving at 2pm. Stayed at albergue Casa de Jesus at Calle Corujo. We were given a room with a double bed – no locks on doors, and shared showers and toilets are just across. People write all over the walls and it was quite entertaining, apparently our room was someone’s ‘love suite’. Problem with this room is the hallway outside is where people like to get together and talk throughout the night. This albergue has a bar and restaurant which is convenient, though that also means it can get noisy when you’re trying to sleep at 9pm.

Villar de Mazarife is such a sleepy town that I wonder if the locals welcome the daily invasion of pilgrims (the pilgrims seem to be the only people out in the streets). The church towers have these huge nests at the top that I wondered if they were eagle’s nests (they were stork nests).

Villar Mazarife

Villar Mazarife

27 Sep. From the albergue in Mazarife to the Astorga town centre we have walked over 40km today (Brierley book says 31.2km). We waited for the albergue bar to open for coffee and toast at 7am and left soon after. I was ready to crawl when we reached Astorga at 5pm and the very steep climb into town did not help. Astorga looked like a fortress, and very pretty.

It had been a rainy day today. And even with goretex jackets, we were soaked and so achy. Checked in at  Hotel via de la Plata Spa because I need a place with a bathtub to soak.

All along the way, this kept running in my mind ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains…of the camino to Astorga’

We stopped at San Justo dela Vega, the town just before Astorga, thinking we were already in Astorga.  So when you think you’re there, you’re not. We stopped dripping all over the hostel bar floors for espresso shots and a quick rest after realising we’re still some 5km away.

This is the point where I wonder how people doing the camino are able to think when all the pain and cold has driven all my thoughts away.

A few more estate agent worries from home because I checked emails had me thinking about the wrong things. No more checking emails from now on until we get back.

28 Sep. I was able to get up, and seemed like a little miracle to me. We walked some 27-28km having left Astorga at 7:30am. We finished at Foncebadon and stayed in albergue Monte Irago. Seemed like everybody decided to go past Rabanal (the end point in Brierley’s book) and stay here as the first albergue was full. This was the next albergue and we only have mattresses on the floor in the annex as the main house is full. But we are next to the fire stove and it is toasty. We are sharing the huge room with a bunch of teens, one as young as 15, and another girl who looked like she was writing about everyone. I wonder why they’re here.

Walk was harder, more hilly not to mention we were still achy. But there are lots of great views up to Foncebadon. It rained in the morning and in the afternoon, but had time to dry in between. Passed by El Ganso, a crumbling village who found a new lease of life because of the popularity of the camino.

Spoke to someone who have found his answers on the camino years ago and is walking again to refocus. He asked why we’re here. Gave ma a new perspective. I learned to dismiss my bias on the Brierley book and will read again. Talked about dreams. I am here to find the dreams that I thought I had lost, what he said made me realise that maybe I should not waste time on what I’ve lost but that I should dream anew. If that is all I came away from the camino with, it is more than I had hoped.

I was impressed with the way the hospitaleros run this albergue. The annex was powered by solar and a wood fire burner. House was mostly wood. They have goats and chickens. Close to a self sustaining life. Communal dinner was a great tasting chicken and seafood paella. We were one of the last people to sit down and I shared a table with french people and kept getting lost between conversations. The lone English man translates some. I asked how they manage to think when walking these lengths is so tiring – seems like after 4 days, your body adjusts, and walking becomes automatic that they would rarely stop, because if they stop, pain will set it again. I realised later on that it is that monotony of walking and the constant dull pain that almost brings you to some sort of a meditative state. Al sat with a mixed table of Polish and French. He learned that people walk the extra 100km from Santiago to Finisterre because the early pilgrims believed it was the end of the world. There they take off all their clothes and burn them so they can start a new life when they walk back.

29 Sep. I was hope the young people we’re sharing the room with would be out by now as they had talked of leaving at 530. 6:30am and I was the only one stirring. So had to fix ourselves and our bags in the dark. The walk from the annex to the main building is tricky – grounds uneven and littered with goat dung.

Quick breakfast and we’re off at 0730 still in the dark and uphill to Cruz de Ferro where people deposit the stones they carried from home.

I rarely take pictures here. I was thinking about taking a photo of the cross. But I realised this place contained people’s secrets, their wishes, hopes and dreams. And if I take a photo, I felt I am going to trivialise everyone’s journey. The camino had given much to a lot of people. It had given people direction, allowed them to start afresh or at least refreshed their weary souls. It had taken lives and a lot of suffering, but I felt I have no right to take anything here, even photos.

Today I reflected a bit more on my new perspective and try to gauge how it can work for me. Every one follows their own camino. There are idealists and dreamers and romantics. There are the realists who only wish to find focus or test their body’s limits revelling in their achievements. Some who I wrongly assumed were only here for the touristy bits, shared so much that my faith in humanity were somehow restored and taught me again to let go of my biases.

4th day and I was numb in the morning. But towards the end my toe was excruciatingly painful. Al’s knees fared worse.

No rain in the climb up to Cruz de ferro. But fog sets in on the way down. The view from here is quite haunting. The mist still covers the mountain tops and you see only silhouettes of other peregrinos on the roads.

Riego de Ambros is a pretty little town but the way down is over rock faces that are quite treacherous even when it isn’t raining. Spent a lot of time going so slow whilst we watch the pensioners race past us.

Lunch was in the medieval town of Molinaseca where I was hoping to spend the night as my toe can’t go further. It is such a beautiful village with chocolate box-worthy bridges and stone houses. We decided to take taxi to the next town Ponferrada. Booked Hotel Los Templarios (within the historical centre) online over lunch.

30 Sep. We’re staying but in Ponferrada for another day to recover.

Ponferrada

It was a day of reflections:

A few minutes of someone’s time could have a lifetime of impact on another. I have no idea if the Swedish guy we’ve met had any idea how his words have made a difference to my perspective. Or how the Canadian couple’s prayers for Al have changed my cynicism in spite of my biases against religion. They will never know, and I will never know too how my own actions have made a difference to other people.

I am a cynic, I don’t want to be rid of my cynicism as I learn more if I question everything. I realised my cynicism stopped me from being open to new perspectives. Keep questioning, keep doubting, question even the agenda behind your questionings.

What you considered a help can be a burden. We were given free ponchos at a time when we were trying to remove every ounce we can from our packs.

What you considered a burden can be a blessing. That same poncho came in really handy because as we finished dinner, heavy rain fell and we have no waterproofs as we are still making our way back to the hotel. The ponchos were meant to be used 1 time and we can be rid of it now. I hoped this would make sense in the future as it does now – what I think is good can be bad and what is bad can be good.

I have an urgency to simplify my life, I hoped I can forget my pride so I can be on my way.
Simplifying my life meant relying less on other people. Maybe my definition of a simple life is just different.

Seemed like the old pilgrims we’re emulating had no concerns of being smelly or having a change of clothes. And they travelled much lighter because of that.

1 Oct. Still not recovered but we realised we had to keep moving. We took the 0930 bus from Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo. And staying at Hostal Restaurante Mendez, Villafranca del Bierzo. You check in to this hotel via a small hallway that is also a coffee bar and the entrance to the restaurant. You’ll be handed the keys and make your way out to the side street with a separate entrance to the rooms. And when it’s raining, you’ll be quite reluctant to go out again.

This place looks more like Italy and is a wine producing region. Crumbling buildings, narrow stone streets, views of the river. I think we’ll enjoy our short stay here. Took a little walk down by the river and to the Plaza Mayor where there is a produce market. Didn’t realise the Correos in this town is open only til 1430 and missed it by a few minutes. We were hoping to take more stuff off our backpacks.

Villafranca del Bierzo

2 Oct. Left Villafranca on the 0530 bus to Lugo and the 0830 bus from Lugo to Sarria. Tickets to Lugo are bought in advance from tobacco shop. Villafranca del Bierzo bus station is by La Charola restaurant on N-VI, there is some chairs and shade and a vending machine offered by the La Charola hotel in case it’s raining, but no bus shelter. Lugo bus station is in Praza da Constitución. Information staff there is a bit unhelpful.

Sarria is a popular starting point for pilgrims wishing to get a compostela (certificate) as you’re required to walk 100km to Santiago. It’s a big place, but not a lot of places to go here other than on the steep streets of Plaza Maior containing all the better looking albergues and restaurants. But the unmaintained gardens, and some of the smells here remind us of the Philippines.

We’ve stayed at Casa Matias, rua Calvo Sotelo, Sarria. Tried to check in before 12 or at least leave our luggage, we were doing sign language with the lady there just so she’ll let us leave our luggage.  We had a big room, and our backpacks were moved into it when we arrived at 12.  ‘Reception’ is at the Foto Dino shop downstairs.

3 Oct. Left Casa Matias at 0630. Breakfast on the way and was walking out of Sarria at 0700. The walk today was beautiful. Views over the valleys, between pines, into sleepy villages. Lots of locals putting out coffee and fruits and shelter and you pay as you like (or not). Did not see the expected thunderstorms in the morning but a few showers and lots of wind. Saw another rainbow and an ostrich.

There was a deaf/mute girl with a flipboard asking for donations along the way in the forests. Donations listed there were like E30 to E40. We’ve donated money and left some of our details. There was another girl the next day, whom we ignored. Later found out that this is a scam – gypsies preying on those on pilgrimage who seemed more susceptible to helping and giving charity.

I was expecting loads of people. There were more, but not the rush hour people were talking about.

We’ve walked some 25km and stayed at Pension Arenas in the centre of PortomarinNot sure if I can ever go back to albergues as I think I caught a stomach bug and would need to get more rest. A little too much imodium pastilles and I was literally seeing stars along the way.

The way into Portomarin is through a long bridge with great views into the valleys. And a set of steep stairs that would have been pretty to look at if we only didn’t have to climb it.

4 Oct. Today it’s up the mountains and down again to Palas de Rei. Misty morning start at 0730 through the forest. Wished it were a quiet morning walk but there was a mini exodus of people from Portomarin who have left at roughly the same time. People talk loudly and were in quite high spirits, but not great if you’re after solitude and wanted to think. Many people who pass us by hardly gave us the chance to say ‘hola’ or ‘buen camino’. I wonder if it gets too tiring after passing too many people.

Got caught in the heavy downpour as we entered Palas de Rei where we stopped in the edge of town. But it had been dry the rest of the day.

Stayed the night at Hotel Xaneiro in Melide.

5 Oct. We walked from Melide to Arzua. Quite a lot of young people on this stretch. I wonder if they’re searching too. Route was quieter. It’s still hilly, into forests and crossing rivers. Views of Ribadiso as you leave town is very lush. Physically, I’m still far from adjusting.

Stayed at Ruta Jacobea in Lavacolla. Musty smelling. Linens feels damp, I think because ventilation is bad in this room. Fixed it by opening the window for a bit. This is near the airport, so not as great a value for a hotel. But food and wine at the restaurant is really good.

Reflections for the day:
Life, happiness, balance. Balance is still subjective. Some people need more of one thing, some need less.
Why do I still care too much of what others think?
I still long for the quietness of the countryside. Though I am still sure I can’t live there for long.

6 Oct. Free breakfast by accident at the hotel all because the person at checkout couldn’t be bothered to charge us so we were waived through. Walked the mainly asphalt road from Lavacolla to the historical centre of Santiago. Santiago is a big city. And the centre of it all, the cathedral – Santiago de Compostela, is breathtaking with its tall spires and beautiful and old facade. I had expected to walk into the Cathedral via the main doors for the pilgrim mass, but they were closed. Not a lot of people for the Sunday mass.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

We’ve stayed at Pension Montes overlooking Plaza de Fonseca. Pretty boutique hotel and very near to the Cathedral.

Plaza de Fonseca, Santiago

We’ve poked around in the museum beside the cathedral and within. A shame that the Portico de la Gloria is not what welcomes you to the cathedral. And it’s not free to see the front of the Portico either – tickets can be bought from the crypt inside the iron gates, and you can’t touch it like pilgrims of old used to. Most likely they’re preserving it for future generations. Or that pilgrimage and commerce goes hand in hand.

7 Oct. Tourist office is along Rua do Vilar at the back of the hotel. Pilgrims office, if you’re getting a compostela, is also on this street.  Correos is on Rua do Franco. Supermercado at Praza do Toural.

After breakfast, we’ve gone to the tourist office to ask about buses to the airport and to get a city map. Then off again to the Cathedral to fall in line at the crypt. You can hug St James from the back and see the elaborate coffin where his supposed remains lie. This is free. Then we’ve picked up our luggage from the Correos office.

Looking for lobster for lunch (Galicia is known for their seafood after all), but the price tag of E100/kg scared us off. So we settled for an arroz con bogavante (lobster paella if you like). Delicious, but quite a lot of serving. Siesta is in order and I was asleep til 5.

Looking out from our terrace into Plaza de Fonseca, I am amazed at the acoustics in this area. A gypsy plays his accordion on the street across and it sounds like I was listening to an orchestra.

8 Oct. Time to go home. Empresa freire bus stop to airport stops every half hour at Praza de Galicia.

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