Archive for August, 2017

The Camino is a totally individual experience whatever your purpose might be (sport, religious, spiritual, cultural, culinary, etc. or any combination of those), but it is also a shared experience. More importantly, the Camino is a physical space and a shared physical space. This means that it helps if certain social considerations are kept. Here are some of my observations and recommendations:

Dos

Be polite to all pilgrims and acknowledge them with a “Buen camino”. If they are sitting by the Camino, you might want to ask if they are ok or if they need a snack or some water.

Even on the “Donativo” albergues, please be generous with your donation, ie: never leave less than €5.

If you use the albergue’s kitchen, please leave it as you found it, or cleaner.

Banana peels and apple cores are totally biodegradable, so they are ok in nature, just not in the most visible part of nature. Put them out of sight.

Be polite about asking for a credencial stamp. It is quite rude to ask for a stamp at a bar / coffee shop if you do not purchase anything, regardless of how cool the place is, so go ahead, get a café con leche, or a bottle of water – you are going to need it! And don’t be pushy, the business gets nothing from stamping your credencial, so be patient.

Tipping in Spain. Hospitality workers in Spain have, by law, full contracts, which means (unlike in the US) that they make a full salary, they do not live from tips. Having said that, it is customary and always nice to leave some change on the table/counter. Those coins are weighing you down on the Camino anyway!

Hospitaliarios – the people who run the albergues are volunteers (except at the private ones, which are normally family run). So treat them nicely, they are there for you, not for a paycheck.

Pay attention to your shoes when you walk into the albergue. You might have to leave them outside – never wear them into the dorm area.

 

Don’ts

Do not ask pilgrims why they are doing the Camino. It sounds like a good ice-breaker, but while we all have our reasons, some might be more personal than others, and you really might not want to know. It is one thing for American college kids that are “finding themselves”, but not everybody is necessarily so open. If they want to, they will tell you.

Do not walk around the albergue in your underwear. No matter how sexy you or your underwear might be, nor how hippie the albergue is. Think about it, it is a downhill experience if we all went that way. (If in doubt read Immanuel Kant’s Universal Law).

Beds at the albergue are for people not backpacks. Your sweaty, dusty, muddy, wet, backpack belongs on the floor, a chair at best, but never on the bed.

If you cannot wait for the next village or the next bar to go to the bathroom, please find the most secluded spot and try to be as discreet as possible with your poop and the paper you use. A bush next to the Camino is not a good idea. And the paper flying around isn’t either. Don’t contribute to the eyesore.

Try not to make noise if you are going to bed later than most people or getting up before most people. Try to have whatever you need handy so you can access it quietly. I was deeply embarrassed one night when I had to rummage in my backpack for my earplugs.

Feel free to add or comment below!

  1. Rolf, an inquisitive young Swiss carpenter.
  2. Katrina, a German girl who booked it past Roncesvalles on her first day!
  3. Two Spanish retirees. One climbing the Pyrenees, one that led us into Burgos.
  4. James, a lovely, funny, tall young Englishman with whom I chatted about beech forests and Hemingway.
  5. Diego, a young restless Italian architect with a huge heart.
  6. Alain, an eloquent French meteorologist turned priest.
  7. Manolo, a physical therapist from Zaragoza. I met him on the descent to Roncesvalles. A veteran pilgrim who became my teacher of the Camino.
  8. Frank, a retired Warner Bros music executive from New Mexico.
  9. Tillman, a young nurse from Hamburg who broke his ankle on the first day of the Coastal Route and switched to the French Route. He was very generous with his advice on my tendonitis.
  10. Jessi, an Australian lawyer walking out of a street and into my needy arms in Villatuerta. She gave me vital girl advice and treated me (probably unknowingly) to breakfast in Estella.
  11. Lindsey, a gutsy Yale grad whose graduation present to herself was walking the Camino.
  12. Emily, a University of Virginia MBA student.
  13. A University of North Carolina Urban Planning MA student with her boyfriend. Go Heels!!
  14. Bo, a young Korean accountant with whom I co-founded the Camino Chapter of the Eddy Kim Fan Club.
  15. Bo, a Korean girl who celebrated her 22 birthday in Carrión de los Condes, I was invited to the festivities in the albergue kitchen! Follow her on Instagram at bom.in_703
  16. Two Mexican girls. I lent my soap to one of them and she forgot it on the laundry sink… good thing I saw it when I was returning from dinner.
  17. Two Mexican boys, one of whom played club tennis at University of Virginia.
  18. Marie Helene, a feisty French lady who started her Camino in the Alsace-Lorraine (where the quiche comes from). I met her my first night at St. Jean de Pied-de-Port and bumped into her my whole Camino, she became a nice friend.
  19. José Antonio, a funny lad from Gran Canaria
  20. Amy and Jess, two young teachers from Austin Texas.
  21. A stylish pilgrim from St. Louis Missouri. She wore her scarf and sun hat like a Hollywood star adding much-needed glamour to the Camino.
  22. A happy Irish boy with two friends: an Australian and a Brazilian, we had fun on the bumper cars in Nájera.
  23. A French and an Australian girl, I had dinner with them in Roncesvalles and bumped into them the first few days of the Camino.
  24. Bart from Barcelona, who was either racing down the Camino, drinking beer, or sleeping, (or getting a ride in a car from a friend to a remote village in Burgos).
  25. Christof from Berlin, some sort of wunderkind with a tech startup and feet destroyed by blisters.
  26. Katia from the Czech Republic who walked around the albergue in her leopard print knickers.
  27. Bob a hilarious Cuban-Venezuelan-German fellow.
  28. Delia from Salvador de Bahia, a bigger heart would be difficult to find.
  29. A big hunk American fellow who hiked at night and looked like Hulk Hogan.
  30. Adolfo, a retired 63-year-old bank employee from Zaragoza who ran marathons.
  31. Kika, an Italian living in Germany who falls off beds, this is a problem when you have the top bunk in the albergue
  32. Iñigo, a nice Basque environmental science teacher.
  33. Gert, a pilgrim from Hannover who only speaks German (very brief conversation).
  34. Claire, a lovely English girl with Birkenstocks, and her boyfriend.
  35. Stephanie, a super tall Dutch girl who got tendonitis just like me.
  36. Ramona, a lovely Bavarian girl with all sorts of tattoos and sexy scars.
  37. Jessica, a lady from LA on her first trip abroad. Talk about culture shock.
  38. A girl from Valencia walking with her English boyfriend? Husband? At any rate, a bit pushy.
  39. A friendly American cyclist from California living in France.
  40. Raúl, a snoring cyclist from Teruel. He did the Camino walking once, but now his holiday time does not allow him to walk.
  41. Krisztina, a generous, beautiful old soul from Budapest.
  42. Two librarians from Pamplona, one of whom used to work with my friend Maria Alecha from the University of Navarra.
  43. An American girl in Boadilla del Camino who pointed out to me that my moisturizer was in fact shaving cream.
  44. A skinny Belgian fellow that slept like a champ.
  45. An Austrian guy from Vienna who got bed bugs.
  46. Two American women, one of whom had a daughter at the Columbine shooting and now has a foundation. The other one is a Lower School Principal in Minnesota.
  47. Paul, a Brit living in San Francisco. My guess is that he is some sort of Silicon Valley tech guru.
  48. Two Polish girls camping the Camino!
  49. Tino, a retired industrial engineer who booked 40 km a day.
  50. Kevin, the Flying Dutchman. A crazy, funny fellow.

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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).