Camino Primitivo Albergue Review

Recommended stages on the Primitivo

One of the key skills one must have in life is to master the art of cut and paste. This year I decided to share my opinion of the albergues I stayed at, so before putting them up on Google or whatever, here they are. I like to stay in public albergues whenever possible, but sometimes my daily stage did not finish at a village with a public albergue, so I stayed private. I only saw one parochial / church albergue housed in the monastery at Cornellana, but my daily stage did not stop there.

Oviedo

This albergue which is run by the Asociación de amigos del Camino Astur-Leonesa is housed in the old seminary. So basically, it is a plug and play albergue, the infrastructure is all there, all that is missing is the future priests cramming for their Theology exams! The rooms house 2 bunk beds and are equipped with lockers and a handy sink in which to brush your teeth! Oh, and it is right downtown, so you are literally steps away from the Cathedral and the old part of town, right where the Camino starts. I shared a room with Vicente from Valencia whom I would continue bumping into throughout my Camino.

The old seminary is now an albergue in Oviedo

Grado

The public albergue is run by volunteers of the International Fraternity of the Camino de Santiago and it is housed in the old horse auction building – which explains all the iron rings attached to the wall next to the building. But do not fret, it was remodeled in 2016. It was a great little albergue, and the volunteer hospitalario Guy was great!

La Espina – El cruce (Private)

This is as basic and as homey as it gets. It is run by Carmen who had a space above her tiny supermarket and opened an albergue! It has one room with 10 beds which I shared with three American teachers. The village is pretty basic, so it comes in handy that there is a supermarket below the albergue where you can buy groceries and make your own dinner! Apparently, this is a good place to stop if you are planning to take the “Hospitales” variant (which coincidentally I did).

Campiello – Casa Ricardo (Private)

This has to be one of the top albergues I have ever stayed in! it is a restored farmhouse with great facilities: kitchen, bathrooms, patio and a great restaurant/bar and supermarket on the other side of the road. The sleeping room is relatively big but with brand new bunks and exposed stone walls it offered a great night’s sleep.

Berducedo – Camino Primitivo (Private)

After the exhausting (but highly recommended Hospitales variant) I unfortunately skipped the municipal albergue (there had been rumors on the Camino that there was a lack of beds in Berducedo) to go to the private Camino Primitivo . Camino Primitivo was a horrible experience despite good facilities, a despicable albergue only focused on squeezing every last euro from the pilgrim. You cannot order a la carte for lunch, you have to order the full 20 Euro menu (which was good, but way more than what I wanted), when I had an issue with other pilgrims over the washer/drier they did nothing to help our situation and worst of all: they had just done a fly treatment and the whole albergue was full of dead flies -and they did nothing to clean them up. The owner was simply rude, so I refused to stay there for dinner and went to the lovely Araceli instead where I chatted with a bicycle pilgrim (if such a thing still exists) and had a great meal.

What good laundry facilities look like

Castro – Albergue Juvenil de Castro

This restored schoolhouse run by a lesbian collective was a great acquittal of the Berducedo fiasco. These women were generous, funny, hospitable, and when I told them a sad story (they asked for it), affectionate. I loved it. They also had a simple but delicious “meal plan”: they had a refrigerated showcase full of prepared foods; if you order a small plate you can choose two foods and it costs 3 Euro, the big plate with up to three combinations, 5 Euro. It was freezing that evening, so I had a big plate of spaghetti Bolognese. I loved my stay there.

Vilardongo – O Piñeiral (Private)

Another private choice, but what a place! This is a luxury albergue with amazing facilities (at regular albergue cost) each bunk bed has a little curtain to separate it, and since the place did not fill up and nobody came above me, I had a bit of a private “suite” for the night –nice!! The food was excellent, and they even had a little room with a yoga mat, where I was able to do some much needed yoga.

Castroverde

This is a Xunta de Galicia (i.e., public) albergue and it was impressive! Modern installations in a minimalist setting. It even has a stream running through the back yard where I was able to dip my legs to rid them of 8 hours of hiking worth of inflammation! Public albergues lack kitchen equipment to encourage you to eat in the village which I did for lunch, but a classic tuna empanada (pie) was the perfect dinner, and it needed no cooking!

Guntín

This might be the smallest albergue in the Xunta’s portfolio, only 12 beds! It is so small; the bathroom and showers are in a modern annexed outhouse! This albergue is literally in the middle of a forest but fortunately there is a great private albergue, O Candido across the trail. The exposed wooden beams in the ceiling really made this a rustic experience!

Boente – Albergue Boente (Private)

Once you merge into the last 100 km of the French Way, there are plenty of albergues. Pro tip: if you are a seasoned pilgrim doing more than the last 100km, try to stagger your stages so you only walk with the turistas for a few hours in the morning. What I mean by stagger is that you do not sleep in the main recommended end-of-stage towns. By doing this, you get a few quiet hours in the morning (the day trippers don’t get up early) and quiet afternoon. Boente is 6 km away from Melide, and it is far away enough that I had the albergue all to myself!! It also had a tiny, freezing pool where I had a quick dip to remove inflammation.

Monte do Gozo

This is the largest albergue in the Xunta’s portfolio, only 5 km to Santiago. It has 400 beds in a number of pavilions that are opened as needed. They only had one opened when I arrived, exhausted from a 42 km day. It is a Xunta albergue, so it is fairly standard and basic. Since the Monte do Gozo is a massive complex with an open-air auditorium, a private hostel concession, etc., there is a big industrial brewery where I had a great meal -and a beer! Before hitting Santiago the next morning!

A mystical experience on the Camino

The only good thing about the A Pociña de Muñíz albergue when I stopped for breakfast was that while they ripped me off with a 2 Euro filtered coffee when their real coffee machine sat idle right there, was that they recommended that I take the Soutomeride variant that goes through an ancient forest and by an equally ancient church instead of by the “main” Camino.

So there I was, still fairly early in the morning, walking and meditating as I entered this age-old forest with 350-year-old chestnuts, among long ago ruined buildings covered with every plant imaginable that I arrived at the back of the aforementioned church of San Salvador de Soutomerille. I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of four pre-Romanesque horseshoe windows. Never had I seen such beautiful, old windows on a building, in what appeared a semi abandoned church in the middle of an enchanted forest.

But wait. At that moment as I approached the church taking a picture of the window, I heard an angelical voice coming from inside.

What is going on? How can this old church that probably does not even have electricity, in the middle of a forest have music? Do they have some sort of record player? Spotify? And the voice, it is angelical, and the music, sounds like Hildegard von Bingen. I am mystified, baffled, confused, and ecstatic all at the same time. The singing stops and I slowly walk around the tiny church. There, by the door is Ingrid, a German pilgrim and amateur singer who was singing through a broken panel on the door to check out the acoustics. A very human and perfectly reasonable occurrence, but for me it was a mystical experience.

You do not believe my story? Turn up the volume and watch the video below…

BTW if Ingrid or anybody that knows German pilgrim, amateur singer Ingrid reads this please leave a comment below!

Camino de Santiago #3, the Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo is not only the original Camino, but also the most intense. Yes, it is half the distance of the other “main” Caminos, The Francés and the Norte, but what it lacks in length, it makes up plenty in beauty, ruggedness, physicality, and authenticity.

As you know I had been planning this Camino since I finished the North route last year. It did not disappoint. Here is the story:

Around the year 800, a hermit in Galicia called Paio (or Pelagius) was guided by lights and angels to St. James’ tomb. After telling his local bishop, king Alfonso II “El casto” went to check out what the fuss was about, thereby creating the first pilgrimage. As the Reconquista developed, new routes were established leading to the North and eventually the Francés route, which is today the most popular.

So, I took a train to Oviedo, the ancient capital of Spain during the Moorish occupation. It is a high-speed train only halfway, as the mountains that separate the plateau from the shore has not been breached by the high-speed line yet, making it is a five-hour journey. I arrived in Oviedo just in time to run to the albergue -an old seminary- before it closed!

I shared room with Vicente, a retiree from Valencia whom I would continue to bump into well into the Camino.

Downtown Oviedo is lovely, clean, and full of sculptures! It is so cool! The walk out of town was pleasant enough, and soon you are in the middle of the countryside in total pilgrim mode. The first day is an easy 24Km to Grado, where I had been years ago with my Land Rover. A dip in the frigid river quickly got rid of the day’s hiking inflammation. The albergue is an old horse brokerage house, and there is a cute town square with restaurants and a working church where the priest is happy to give me a pilgrim’s blessing.

The second day brings the first important climbs of the pilgrimage. With hot temperatures and sun, the last climb took a toll, but fortunately I would not have to tackle it first thing next morning.

The next five days are a thing of beauty. I chose the Hospitales variant which takes you up over the tree line for a day of ridging 1000 mts over sea level. Amazing, you do not even miss the cafés! The following three or four days are just as impressive: natural, rugged, and fairly uncivilized. although without the altitude,

About halfway through you cross the grassy paths of Asturias to the dense forests of Galicia. After the city of Lugo with its amazing Roman walls, you have a day of a lot of asphalt, although the views are lovely, your feet pay the price. Then you have a final day of hillside living, before merging into the popular Camino Francés with all the “tourists” doing just the last 100 km (62 miles) to say they have done the Camino. So, the last three days are crowded and rainy on top of that.

But nothing compares to arriving at the plaza del Obradoiro and standing in front of the Cathedral. For me it was 310 km (200 miles) in 11 days.

The Cathedral has been totally renovated and I could finally go down to the crypt to see the tomb of St. James third time is the charm –it had been closed for restoration all my previous times. Lunch was at the amazing Santiago market, where I had the best hake I have ever tasted. With no train spots available that day, a flight to Madrid that afternoon ended my adventure.

How does it compare to the other Caminos? Well, the obvious facts are that while shorter, it is indeed more intense, beautiful, natural, and rugged. I loved every step of it, even the hard climbs and descents.

Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.

The Camino Part II

Since I ended my Camino last year I was itching to get back to my pilgrimage. It did not disappoint. Exactly a year to the day, I boarded a bus to Astorga, the city where I finished last year. Four hours later, I arrived. I did not want to spend the night in a place that only had sad memories and heartbreak for me. So I walked to Murias, the first village out. It was a gorgeous evening walk on one of the longest days of the year. I passed by the obligatory tiny chapel and yellow arrows. The small Albergue was a repurposed, old, one classroom schoolhouse. Just about everyone inside was already dozing. But I walked to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner with a glass of wine. Then crawled into bed after a quick shower.

My Camino proper started, like last year, on my Dad’s birthday. It is a tiny, silly way for me to honor him and to celebrate with him, walking with his old walking stick. Right out of Murias there is a small detour to one of the prettiest villages in Spain: Castrillo de los Polvazares. An ancient, untouched stone village. Stone homes, stone streets, stone church, stone everything. I made the detour because I remember driving there with my father in his massive Mercedes and being so awestruck by the beauty of the village. My morning walk is always my favorite. The dew on my legs, the silence, loneliness, the cool.

The path was a slow but steady climb to the second highest peak of the route, past Rabanal del Camino, where I stopped to chat with a Benedictine Monk in his monastery, and Foncebadon, to Cruz de Fierro, the site of an ancient Roman temple. It is a tiny iron cross on a massive wooden post. Pilgrims are supposed to drop off a stone picked up at the base, but with the accumulation of stones, they are now suggesting leaving flowers. I had a pebble I had been carrying since Navarra.

After cresting for five odd km. the descent is very technical, putting a lot of pressure on feet, shins, and knees. I was out of the Maragateria area and into El Bierzo, a previously forgotten region of Spain that is now on the map since their wines became noticed some years ago. I eventually stopped at Acebo a lovely village of stone homes with slate roofs.

There are three basic types of albergues a pilgrim can stay in. The municipal or public ones, the parochial or church affiliated ones and private ones. I normally chose my albergues in this order. In Acebo the options were parochial or private, I stayed at the parochial, run by a wonderful American couple that had left the US because of President Trump (they can hardly be blamed).

My walk the next morning led me by a wonderful 18th C. altar in one of the tiny chapels along the way. I always stop and chat with the attendant, while I get my official stamp to prove my visit, which I will need in Santiago. Breakfast was at the gorgeous village of Molinaseca. And the walk continues past fields and vineyards to Cacabelos. The Albergue at Cacabelos is paradise for me. It is set up along the inside wall of an 18th C. neoclassical church, right up my alley! The next day I end up at Herrerias, the base of the third highest climb of the route. There is only a couple of private albergues and the one I choose is super cute. The bedroom only has 8 beds so it is very quiet. There is a neo-Hippy project next door called Project Brigid where they do music workshops, and they lend you their kitchen. I signed up for their yoga class in a small clearing, surrounded by high trees, next to a lovely stream. It was by far the best yoga session of my life.

The climb to Cebreiro is the third highest in the Camino, but in the early morning, it is a breeze. A stop at the great bar El Arbol in La Faba provides great fuel to keep climbing. The view of the hills of Galicia from the top is awesome and the town of Cebreiro is really cute, with a fantastic, intimate church where I spend some time. I keep walking downhill to Triacastelas. The albergue is in rooms of four. I room with a Mexican girl, a South African fellow and Go from Japan, who will become my new friend.

I walk to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos in one gorgeous chestnut tree forest crisscrossing  gurgling streams. At Sarria I enjoy a wonderful empanada, the local pie, stuffed with tuna. The Camino now is a bit more crowded with busses full of “pilgrims” who only walk the last 100 km. in order to earn the coveted Compostela, the traditional forgiveness of sins for doing the Camino. These mostly Spanish folks can afford to do the walk with only a day pack – or just some water – as their bus will carry their kit from village to village. I must confess it does distract from the purity of the Camino, but they must be equally accepted as they are also pilgrims, even if all they are wearing is a bikini and a water bottle, as I saw one girl doing.

Galicia is a magical region of Spain, it’s ancient hills covered with chestnut and eucalyptus forests, streams and tiny agricultural plots. The food is delicious and the people are wonderful. My last two days’ walk is in the company of awesome Aussie Bec and our Japanese friend Go. After a good night’s sleep at a gorgeous little hotel, the walk into Santiago is an easy 9 km, just in time for the Pilgrim’s mass with the fabled Botafumeiro incense burner that somehow uncorks all my emotions as it swings across the naves of the cathedral. I only have time to get my Compostela before jumping on a train home, I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

Gear for El Camino. What should I pack?

Many of my fans preparing for the Camino have asked me about my gear (ok, maybe just a couple of people). There are many Internet spots that explain what and how to pack, but here are my two cents, as Americans would say:

Walking 500 miles (give or take) in a month (give or take) carrying your backpack is an exercise in minimalism, physically, mentally and spiritually reducing clutter. By reducing stuff in your backpack, you also reduce it in your mental/spiritual backpack. I hope to soon be able to write about the emotional and mental process of the Camino. For now I will leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, and write about the material gear that goes in your backpack.

The German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260—c. 1328) preached, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] But in the capitalistic West, we think very differently. We all keep trying to climb higher up the ladder of success in any form. We’ve turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction. All we can really do is get out-of-the-way. The spiritual life is often more about unlearning than learning, letting go of illusions more than studying the Bible or the catechism.

There are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Camino: a. you are never more than a few hours away from civilization, with supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and anything else you might need. b. there are laundry facilities at all albergues, so you do not need to pack many clothes, and c. basically all you do on the Camino is walk, eat and sleep. Having said all that, this was my packing list:

Shoes are probably the first thing to think of. If you are walking in the summer you do not need hiking boots. I saw plenty of people struggling with heavy hiking boots in the hot 30+ C° weather, plenty of abandoned boots, and plenty of feet like steak tartare. Good, broken in hiking shoes are perfect. Some people wear running sneakers, they are probably fine, although maybe a bit too lightweight for you and your pack, in my opinion. I packed a pair of cheap Flip-Flops for showering and a pair of water sandals for the apres-walking evenings.

You basically only need the clothes you are wearing and the ones that are washing/drying. Of course this depends on the season, but in the summer that means T-shirt, underwear, shorts and socks. As I mentioned before, as I am a snob, I carried three changes.

Since your feet are doing basically all the work on the Camino, and account for 25% of the bones in your body, you really should pamper them with the best socks you can get. Ideally hiking specific socks in a wool blend without seams. The higher up the leg they are, the less dust and grit is going to get into your feet.

Although everybody recommends hi-tech, moisture wicking, breathing fibers, for your T-shirts, I chose old school 100% cotton long sleeve shirts. The cotton because I am a snob and don’t like the feel of synthetic fibers, and the long sleeves because I also hate sunscreen and long sleeves meant I could avoid creams (and packing them).

For a second I considered athletic underwear, but ended up going with my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. Some things just like hanging the way they always do!

I carried two cargo shorts. The side pocket was extremely handy for my guidebook/map as I used it constantly.

It was never too cold for me until the approach to Burgos. That day I wore two long sleeve shirts all day long. That evening I surrendered to the cold and bought a hooded sweatshirt at the souvenir shop, the only shop open in Burgos that day, as they were celebrating their festivities!

For my bald head I alternated bandanas (which I would tie around my neck in the morning) in different configurations depending on the sun: a la Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, or a la Tupac Shakur, and a  “crunchy” boonie, or giggle hat that I could soak at fountains to keep me cool.

Unless you are going to camp or bivouac (which I saw plenty by the side of the Camino) you are going to sleep indoors, so a summer weight sleeping bag is fine. I chose to have one of my favorite cotton sheets folded in half (lengthwise, duh) and sown to create a sleeping bag. It might have been a bit heavier than the synthetic bags, but it was oh so comfy. Most albergues have blankets, so on cool nights I pulled a blanket over my sheet/bag. I did carry a pillowcase since the albergues all have pillows, in retrospect I could have used one of my three T-shirts.

Your minimal dopp kit with your bathroom supplies. I used Marseille soap – Jabón Lagarto – in Spain as I could use it for my laundry and my body, and my bald head, hahaha!

A lot of thought was given to what to read on the Camino, something meaningful but light. The library at the albergue in Roncesvalles, the first stop, is full of donated/abandoned Bibles… I ended up choosing The Book of Job and I do not regret it. I did finish it early and donated it to the Convent of Saint Claire where I was staying at Carrión de los Condes. I also packed a notebook and writing material to keep a diary and a daily Scripture reading for inspiration.  I carried two guidebooks: The Michelin Guide for quick reference on the go, and the Anaya “El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila” for more detailed reference.

Small flashlight – critical for reading and moving around the albergue after lights out. Mine has a wrist band which means I could hang it from the boards of the bunk above me, great for reading.

For towel I used a lightweight microfiber from Decathlon, it is not the most luxurious item, but it works. I must confess I was very jealous when James pulled out this exotic, gorgeous, printed Indian sheet. It is very refreshing to see flashes of glamour on the drab, technical, weight obsessed Camino equipment.

Water bottle, and make sure you have a comfortable, handy spot to carry it, I struggled carrying mine around in different locations until I settled on a hip strap. Although you are never too far from a fountain, there are a few long (over 10 km.) stretches without water. Also, you should always be drinking anyway, so even if you do not fill it up, always carry water. It is also handy to wash fruit, hands, etc. Some people carry water “bladders” but these seem tricky to fill up mid hike and are apparently expensive.

Basic first aid kit with whatever you think you might need – hopefully you will not use anything.

Bathing suit!

Trail mix, it is nice to have s snack without having to wait for the next bar.

Phone and charger.

Bug spray – I did not use it.

Sharpie, critical for marking stuff and writing on stones at mileposts.

Safety pins in case your clothes have not dried overnight and you need to “hang” them outside your pack.

Poncho that covers your backpack. Keep it handy in case of sudden storms.

Most albergues have laundry facilities for manual laundry. The bigger ones have washer/driers. Some of them will even treat you to detergent, so I packed a few of the liquid plastic pods in a zip-lock bag.

Pilgrims swear by the hiking sticks (that look like ski poles), I carried one of my dad’s old walking sticks that an old friend had given him. It was useful on technical climbs and descents and to poke at things.

Last, but not least a pocket knife is critical. You might only use it to make bocadillos, but it is always handy to have. I found an old Swiss Army knife that I had given my little sister years ago and that for some reason was in my dad’s desk drawer.

Buen Camino!

El Camino de Santiago

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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).