Everything you have ever heard about the Camino is true: it is a spiritual journey, it is a life changing experience, you make deep bonds with people you meet, the hiking and the views are gorgeous, and so on. Yes, all that is true, but it is so much more, so much more.
My trip started with a quick bus ride to the Atocha station in Madrid, a train ride to Pamplona where I met up for lunch with an old colleague from UNC, and from there, a breathtaking bus ride up and down the Pyrenees to St. Jean de Pied-de-Port in France. As part of my experience I did not make any sleeping arrangements, so I really did not know what to expect. Getting out of the bus, I walked around exploring the cute little village. I wandered into the Pilgrim’s mass, which ended with a very warm Pilgrim’s blessing, then stumbled into the Pilgrim’s Office where I got my all-important “Credencial”, the passport that you get stamped along the way as proof of your pilgrimage. Then it was time to figure out where I would sleep. I asked at a couple of albergues (hostels), which were full. Third time lucky as Eric at the Chemin Vers L’Etoile generously welcomed me. We had a wonderful group dinner of couscous and sautéed pork at a long table where I met all sorts of pilgrims: a young woman who started walking from her front door in Belgium, Marie Helene who had been walking from Alsace-Lorraine – and who I would bump into for the rest of my Camino -, a young man from Taiwan, etc. The first humanizing experience of the Camino are the sleeping quarters in the albergues: a room full of bunk beds. I had not slept in a room with total strangers in 30 years, (since the summer of ’87 when I had to sleep in a youth hostel in Geneva as my apartment in a university dorm was still occupied). I say humanizing because on the Camino we are all equals, it does not matter how much money you have, what kind of car you drive, how big your house is. You have committed to walk to Santiago and that is really the only thing that matters. I was a bit surprised that everybody headed to bed after dinner. I needed a bit of a walk to settle dinner, so I explored the cute village and by the time I got to bed I was the last one in.
Not wanting to make any noise getting into bed, I did not rummage through my backpack to look for my earplugs, big mistake. In the hot summer night I could hear all the heavy breathing and snoring. Around five I heard rumblings, and when I opened my eyes everybody was getting ready to go! At ten past six, after a quick breakfast of toast and bad coffee I was walking out of the village, in time to see the sunrise over the Pyrenees. The first two hours are brutally steep. Eventually you reach a nice auberge at Orisson, it is a perfect place for a nice rest and charge up. They have fantastic orange juice, tortilla, coffee, and they will make you a sandwich to go. The climb continues at a gentler grade for hours, with brief stops at an image of the virgin (Vierge de Biakorri), a cross (La Croix Thibaut), a trailer selling snacks, and eventually a fountain, the Fountain of Roland, which marks the border of France and Spain. After some time cresting with largest remaining beech forest in Europe on either side, you start the descent into Roncesvalles. There are two options: a dangerously rocky steep path, and a bit longer but easier winding mountain path. Having heard horror stories about the first, I took the second option.
The connection to nature is one of the first things that hit any hiker, on the Camino it is a never-ending wonder. Crossing the Pyrenees you encounter basque ponies and woolly basque sheep, brown vultures, and cows, of which you will see every breed of on the Camino. You will stare in awe at the flight of the falcon and wonder if it knows how cool it is soaring the sky. In the cool mornings you must be careful not to step on the hundreds of snails. In a field in Burgos we were surrounded by butterflies, hundreds, thousands of different butterflies playing with us. I saw two deer jumping through fields of gold (as Sting would say), storks, deafening cicadas, and every type of farm animal, including geese. Special mention to the cat at a crossroads outside of Los Arcos who just sat there waiting for pilgrims to pet it, it was a smart Siamese mix, and it was nice to hang out with it for a moment.
Roncesvalles is not really a village, it is a medieval colegiata, a notch down from a monastery, which hosts the albergue and a posh hotel, a church with a nice cloister, crypt, and a chapter hall where Sancho el Fuerte, an old king of Navarre is buried. There are also a couple of inns.
After the day’s walk, one must shower away the dust incrusted dry sweat, give the old feet a loving massage, and do the day’s laundry, after which there is time off to have a siesta, roam around, eat or explore the village. Roncesvalles had a lush lawn, so I enjoyed a few minutes of yoga with young Englishman James, with whom I would make a brief bond, talking about Hemingway’s time in Pamplona. I bought some cherries from a travelling fruit seller’s van and walked around. Dinner was with James, after which we rushed to the Pilgrim’s mass and blessing. Father Vicentin offered to give us a tour of the church if someone translated, at which point somebody that had heard about my job, literally pushed me forward. So I enjoyed translating to English and French all the explanations of the church, crypt, cloister, chapter hall, and Sancho el Fuerte who was over six feet tall.
This time I took my time with my bedtime preparations, including trying out the wax ears-plugs, they are awesome, I heard nothing!
The morning ritual includes slathering your feet in Vaseline, putting on socks and shoes, and a quick breakfast before hitting the road. The Camino through Navarra is beautiful, with ever-changing views, each one more breathtaking than the previous one. I enjoyed an enlightening conversation with Manolo from Zaragoza, the fellow I had descended the Pyrenees with the day before, after a snack stop I surged forward through forests and fields, up and down hills. From the top of a hill I saw a village below – with a gorgeous and inviting public pool calling out for me. I went straight to the pool for a refreshing swim and lunch. The last couple of hours hiking in the heat to my end of stage were tough, but the swim was worth it.
Larrasoaña, is a small village, it has a nice municipal albergue and a small convenience store run by crazy Angel who plays vinyl records and treats you to a glass of local wine. The next morning after breakfast with Angel’s victuals, I enjoyed the walk into Pamplona. I shared it with a young and restless Italian architect called Diego. Stops were few, but a remarkable one was at the small church of San Esteban where they have an incredible bell that rings beautifully, for over a minute. If you are willing to climb up the bell tower they let you ring it, once. It did have a nice ring. I did not stay in Pamplona, after visiting the Cathedral I continued across town to the first village out, Cizur Menor, where I stayed at an albergue run by the medieval order of the Knights of Malta. In fact, the beautiful fortified Romanesque church still stands on the compound. As I dropped off my backpack by my bed, the woman trying to sleep a siesta on the next bed, said “Hi” to me with the sweetest, warmest, smiling eyes.
One soon develops a rhythm to the Camino, the morning ritual, the stops at villages for constant snacks of pinchos de tortilla, bocadillos, empanada, whatever you can get your hands on. Stops at interesting chapels, churches, and cathedrals or other interesting sites, like the free wine fountain at Bodegas Irache. All along you can get your Credencial stamped, I found it a bit of a game to collect all the stamps wherever I stopped, as much for fun as for a memory aid of every stop. Technically you only need one per day until Sarria, and then 2 per day until Santiago. Still, one hears stories of people hitchhiking to the next town, taking taxis, whatever, it is your Camino.
Although there are recommended daily stages, every village on the Camino has albergues so you can set your own pace. The beauty of this is that sometimes you stop at tiny – one bar – charming villages where you might be the only pilgrim for the evening. I had a couple of such experiences where you can chat with the locals, etc.
The day after Pamplona you are faced with the Monte del Perdón. The climb has a nice manageable rhythm to it, and at the top between the massive electric windmills there is a small prayer pillar, a modern sculpture dedicated to the pilgrims and a Land Rover Defender 110 with a trailer selling all sorts of snacks! The descent is much tougher than the climb, with a few fairly technical bits. Remember to buy shoes a size larger than usual so your toes do not crumple with your shoe on these descents. Of course at the village at the end of the hour-long descent there is a nice place to grab a well-deserved second breakfast.
One of the many magical things about the Camino are the chapels and tiny churches, most of them dating back to medieval times, peppered along the way. In the angle formed by the merger of the Camino Aragonés coming from the Eastern Pyrenees with the Francés (which I was on), is the unique chapel of Santa María de Eunate. The placement of these chapels might appear fairly random, but one cannot help but notice a formidable energy, a presence, an intangible metaphysicallity, a sacredness in these places. Most of these thousand year old churches are in simple, elegant, minimalist Romanesque, and even Pre-Romanesque style. The wonderful hospitalaria (albergue keeper) at Cizur Menor had explained to me that Eunate was built over two underground streams that met right under the church. Never mind how old this church is, never mind the unequal (yes, unequal) eight sided construction, the feeling inside cannot be described in a blog, in words. This experience would be repeated with different intensity at San Miguel before Estella, at Nuestra señora del Monasterio in Rabé, where both Krisztina and I cried unconsolably for minutes, at San Nicolás on the Pisuerga river right before entering into Palencia, and at the chapels I have already mentioned.
Puente la Reina is aptly named for the awesome five arched medieval bridge that crosses the local river. Although that is a recommended daily end of stage, I pressed on with Rolf, the young Swiss carpenter I had met a few days earlier. Mañeru is one of those lovely villages with only one bar. The albergue run by Mayte has massive stone walls that act as natural air conditioning and it was nice and cool inside. Ditto for the patio, where I did my laundry and read and wrote for the evening.
A curious phenom of the Camino is the ebb and flow of pilgrims. People you thought long overtaken appear at villages well ahead of where you left them and vice-versa, you catch up to people who overtook you hours or days earlier. This was the case with the young woman I had met at the albergue outside of Pamplona. I had overtaken her early in the day’s walk and yet she was well ahead of me the next time I saw her the next day. I finished that day at Los Arcos, at an albergue run by Austrian volunteers who happened to be German.
Logroño is the second big city you reach on the Camino. To enter the city proper you have to cross the Ebro river, the biggest river in Spain, that alone is an experience. The albergue is an old palazzo restored to accommodate the dusty and sweaty pilgrims. You are now in the heart of wine country and all you see for days are vineyards.
Another thing I found happened to me on the Camino is that my senses awakened. I thought my sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, and hearing worked fine, until I was a few days into the Camino and realized my senses had automatically fine-tuned. Walking in the Rioja region I could not resist every once in a while just holding bunches of green grapes in my hand, their weight, their sensual skin, was just a very rich, rewarding feeling. Same goes of hearing birds chirping, or total silence, or for the views, or for smelling every sort of plant and tree you walk by – my favorite where the fig trees – although the fruit was still far from ripe, grrr.
It was freezing in Burgos, and they were celebrating their local patron saint festivities, so everybody was out partying. The walk into the city is tedious and boring, bordering industrial estates and the airport before hitting a massive park that takes you into the city. The albergue is a really cool restored palazzo right behind and across the street from the awesome gothic cathedral where they had a pilgrim’s mass in one of the side chapels. That night Manolo was ending his Camino for the year, so he invited a group of us to a nice dinner. Leaving Burgos is much nicer than entering, as you leave by the university campus. It was drizzling that morning, but it soon stopped.
And so the kilometers and the days pass, village after village, occasionally a town, and eventually a city will meet you. The only thing you have to do every day is get up, put on your shoes and walk, and walk, and walk. This is really quite liberating, the only non-walking action that happens is in your mind, so in the pre-dawn walking I could meditate in the cool darkness, later I thought about anything and everything, or not. Sometimes in the total solitude of the Camino I sang at the top of my lungs, certain that there really was nobody for miles around. I sang mostly old Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, even The Police.
Between Burgos and Leon lies Palencia (yes, with a P, not Valencia), a flat, arid land where the walking is tedious, but not any less rewarding. The earth is very clayey so it holds on to moisture well which is perfect for the acre upon acre of cereal grown there. At Carrion de los Condes we stayed at an albergue in the Convent of Saint Claire. Evening vespers with the nuns was one of the more moving experiences I have had in memory. The walk from Carrion to the next village is 17km., one of the longest, over three hours, without any stops or fountains.
The lack of technology is one of the most freeing feelings on the Camino. Other than taking photos, you really do not need any technology. In the evening, if the albergue has WiFi you can catch up a bit on the old social networks, email, etc. Personally I did not miss the technology a single bit, although I did post a highly curated daily Instagram pic for my fans. (Follow me at tonxob)
Living out of a backpack means you have two sets of clothes, the one you are wearing and the one you washed the night before – I am a snob, so I had three t-shirts, boxer shorts and socks. This might be boring, but it is also terribly liberating, you do not have to worry about what to wear, how to match. You also do not have to worry about your things, because you have very few things on the Camino: your dopp kit, your clothes, sleeping bag, some reading and writing material, a guide, phone with charger, a pocket knife, and little else.
León follows Burgos on the big city stops, and what a place it is. It has a beautiful pedestrian downtown, an amazing cathedral, and massive free tapas with every drink you order. There is no municipal albergue in León, so we stayed in a university dorm that doubles as an albergue in the summer, when there are no students. It also had double rooms with bathrooms, which was a nice break from the albergue life for a night. In Leon I caught up with Ana, an old colleague from Milton High School in Boston, we had a great evening with her sister and Krisztina.
When was the last time you played with your own shadow? When was the last time you even noticed your own shadow? On the Camino which is a fairly straight East to West walk, you see your own shadow forming every morning when the sun comes up! It is little things like these that make the Camino a journey of self re-discovery, of renewal, it gives you time to forgive, to let go, to forget.
At Astorga, a great little town with an awesome cathedral and the Bishop’s house built by Antoni Gaudí (of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona fame) I had to finish my Camino in order to go get the country house ready for mom, sisters, brothers in law, and nieces and nephew who were on their yearly holiday in Mallorca. It was heartbreaking to say my goodbyes and wait for hours for the long and boring train ride to Madrid.
Needless to say I cannot wait to finish the last third of my Camino next summer. Stay tuned.
Notes: I walked over 520 km (325 miles) in 19 days (with one rest day for a pesky shin tendonitis).