El Camino de Santiago: Days 27 – 29

Part five of my Camino blog covers the journey from Santiago to Finisterre and then onto Muxía walking 115km over 3 days. It’s a time for reflection and quiet contemplation after the hectic, commercial, crowded walk into Santiago and is only undertaken by a small percentage of pilgrims. As such – there’s not much adventure and excitement, but I’ve included it as it completes the story of my Camino.

Day 27: Santiago to Olveiroa (55km)

“”I told Koos it was going to rain!” (Journal Entry)

Breakfast isn’t until 08:30 in the hostal so there isn’t much point in starting any earlier from Santiago, the weather forecast is predicting rain for today and the clouds seemed to agree when I leave my Santiago hostal at around 09:00.

Santiago is quiet as I retrace my steps along the Camino Francés, past the Cathedral and out of the city. I’m a bit anxious about how well the way to Finisterre and Muxía will be marked, the markings on the Camino Francés have been amazing, yellow arrows, stone obelisks, scallop shells and other markers have been ever-present on the 800km or-so from St Jean, it’s been ‘almost’ impossible to get lost. However the path to Finisterre and Muxía is a walk undertaken by a small percentage of pilgrims – most finish at Santiago. It’s also not officially a pilgrimage, at least not in this direction as I’m not walking TO Santiago but away from it. Finisterre, (or Fisterra in Galician) literally means “end of the earth” deriving from the Latin finis terrae. There are plenty of pagan rituals associated with this place which make strange bedfellows with Catholicism and Christianity.

Here we go!

But I needn’t worry as there’s a familiar Galician obelisk just outside the city limits with km markers to Finisterre and Muxía which is a relief. There’s various route options, some people just go to Finisterre, some just go to Muxía and some do both finishing in either location. There’s no right or wrong way. I’m planning on finishing in Muxía after visiting Finisterre – just because my guide book recommends doing it that way and it’s been right about most things over the past few weeks so I’ve got no reason to doubt it now.

It’s nice to be back on the Camino and as I leave Santiago behind me and head back into rural Galicia I know I’ve made the right decision, Koos was right – I’d have regretted it if I’d jumped on a plane and rushed back to the UK. I need these few days to collect myself and reflect on my journey.

Shortly after leaving Santiago I realise I didn’t go to the pilgrim mass, embrace the statue of St. James in the Cathedral or see the botafumerio, the giant incense burner which is swung precariously during mass in the Cathedral. And after a bit of contemplation, I realise I don’t mind… My Camino was never about Santiago.

A few kms from Santiago I start running into pilgrims heading West and pass a good 20-30 people heading out of the city, this is a bit worrying. There’s not many albergues and hostals on the Camino to Finisterre, my guide book suggests there’s around 20 beds at my planned stop in Moroñas – and I seem to have passed enough people to fill-up the bunk beds. It’s too late now though, I’m on my way so this stuff will just have to work itself out.

It’s a pretty uneventful day and the scenery isn’t exactly spectacular, there’s a lot of road walking and then it starts raining in the afternoon. To be fair, this is the first rain I’ve seen since Day 4 way back in the Pyrenees on the other side of this country – about 500 miles away. I pick up food from a supermarket in Negreira and have lunch in a church graveyard just outside the town and stop for a beer in a little bar a bit later, same-old, same-old…

Somehow I manage to walk past the albergues in Maroñas which were my planned stop for the day after around 40km. It’s still fairly early though so I keep walking, there’s several options ahead, although I’m now getting very tired and fed-up of walking again. As I walk past a farm a little dog runs up to me and starts jumping at me, I try to wave it away and then it starts nipping and biting. I’m sure it’s only playing but it’s becoming increasingly aggressive and I’m thinking I might need to retaliate with a stick or a kick just as it backs off, wagging its tail as I walk up the road. Phew… I’ve come across many dogs on the Camino and they’ve all been OK so far, though reports abound of wild dogs attacking pilgrims on the Camino.

By the time I get to Olveiroa I’ve walked around 55km and it’s getting late, I find a room at the first hostal I see and eat in the restaurant on my own. It’s a very different feel from the Camino Francés and although there’s quite a few pilgrims in the bar and restaurant, no-one seems to be eager to socialise and, to be fair – I’m the same. After a decent meal I’m back in my room and it’s a fairly early night.

Day 28: Olveiroa to Finisterre (31km)

“”From here I can see the curvature of the earth, the horizon is not flat. It makes me feel small and humble” (Journal Entry)

I don’t sleep well after the long day of walking and start the day tired and sore but it’s a relatively short walk to Finisterre. The rain has cleared, there’s blue skies ahead and today I’m going to see the ocean for the first time in 4 weeks. Living in Cardiff, I probably walk/run/drive along the coast several times a week and don’t really appreciate it, but now – I’m really looking forward to the sea!

Decisions, decisions

After breakfast I’m back on the Camino and after the disappointing road walk yesterday the Camino immediately redeems itself, taking me up through some stunning scenery on forestry trails to the point where the Camino splits and you have the option of going to Finisterre or Muxía.

From here you can go inland to Muxía or take the coast to Finisterre. My guide book recommends going to Finisterre first, then taking the coastal route up to Muxía. It seems that most people are doing it the other way around, going to Muxía first, and then finishing in Finisterre, but – as usual, I’m not following the masses and going to do things my own way.

Shortly after turning off towards Finisterre, the horizon drops away and the Atlantic stretches out endlessly, I drop down into the town of Cee and amuse myself for a while saying “Sí, Sea, Cee”, all three words are pronounced the same, mean different things but are linked in this place. I stop for a coffee and then pass through the town as it’s not far now to Finisterre,

It’s about 14:00 when I get into Finisterre and I head straight to the municipal albergue to get my Fisterra, a certificate awarded to those who walk from Santiago to Finisterre. The girl at the desk queries my sellos and asks if I walked from Santiago to Olveiroa in one day, I respond “Sí, es lejos – 55km”, “yes, it’s far – 55km!”. She seems to believe me and doesn’t have any problem issuing me with the certificate.

The famous lighthouse at “the end of the world” is a few km out of the town centre so I pop into a nearby supermarket, buy a 4-pack of San Miguel and head off. I figure that I’ve carried my backpack all the way across Spain so might as well carry it to this special place.

The end of the world?

I walk past the final 0.0km marker obelisk near the lighthouse, then drop down to the rocks below and the end of the world. It’s a really powerful place, the Atlantic ocean stretches out endlessly in front – you can actually make out the curvature of the earth from here. At sunset the ocean seems to swallow the sun, it must have been terrifying back in the olden days, i.e. before people had Google! I decide not to burn all my clothes as I think there’s still a bit of wear left in them, it’s a bit chilly and also there’s a big (mis-spelt) sign saying “It’s not allow to burn anothing” (sic) – honestly, you’d think that someone would have checked the spelling before commissioning the sign, maybe the sign pre-dates Google Translate. I think about starting a petition to get a new, correctly spelt sign here?

Pre-google translate obviously!

So I sit around for a couple of hours, mesmerised by the ocean and get chatting to a couple from North Wales who are fascinated by the Camino and can’t believe that I’ve walked all the way from France to get to this place. They’ve driven from Bilbao and said that they thought that was a long way! I finish my beers then head back to Finisterre to find my hostal and check-in. Later in the evening I get a message from Koos saying he saw me walking through Cee earlier today – he was on the bus back to Santiago having got to Finisterre yesterday. I wondered if I would see him here in Finisterre, but obviously not.

It’s been a great day, but I’m tired and so I get an early night ready for the final leg of my Camino tomorrow.

Day 29: Finisterre to Muxía (29km)

“”This is not the end, it is a new beginning” (Journal Entry)

I’m very, very tired today – my mind and body obviously know that this is the final day! It’s a relatively short 29km walk North to Muxía along the Camino which follows the coast, albeit a few hundred yards inland. It offers glimpses of the Atlantic now-and-again, dropping down to the ocean at around halfway for a couple of km along the beach.

It looks like I’m the only person walking North to Muxía, after the coffee stop at halfway I start meeting people coming the other way, i.e. from Muxía en-route to Finisterre. At one point I’d considered walking back to Santander along the Camino Norte, however now I know that would be a bad idea. If constantly overtaking people was annoying, it’s nothing compared to walking against the flow, it’s very hard to be alone with your thoughts when people are coming towards you all the time, and you know you have to acknowledge them.

That’s all folks!

There’s nothing special about the walk today, I’m glad to get to Muxía. It’s a quiet, peaceful place and I’m happy I’m finishing here instead of Santiago, or even Finisterre. I spend the afternoon wandering round and get my Muxíanna – another certificate!

And with that, it’s the end of my Camino. I’ve spent 29 days walking and covered around 1000km. Tomorrow I’m heading back to Santiago on the bus, then it’s a 4-day journey back to Cardiff by train and ferry and a muted, quiet end to a long trip. It’ll take a while for the magnitude of what I’ve done over the last month to sink in, but for now – I’m just glad it’s over and I don’t have to walk any more!

“Buen Camino”

Fin

Camino Map

 

Posted in Camino de Santiago, Fastpack, Multi-Day | 1 Comment

El Camino de Santiago: Days 20 – 26

Part four of my Camino blog covers the last 250km section of the Camino Francés into Santiago. I head back into the mountains, over the highest points on the Camino then into Galicia for the final 100 miles. The scenery changes dramatically and there are some unexpected surprises along The Way!

Day 20: Santa Catalina to Ponferrada (40km)

“”Sometimes the boring, mundane is needed. How different is walking the Camino to doing a job? Every day we get up and do the same thing. Some days are good, some bad. We meet people we like, and people we dislike but we have to learn to live together and tolerate our different views and reasons for being here” (Journal Entry)

Finally, the boring Meseta is behind me and today I’m heading back into the mountains and over the highest point on the Camino Francés. I’m in high spirits leaving the albergue and walk without seeing another person while the sun rises to Rabanal where the climb starts. With every step West the scenery and climate changes, clouds form over the snow-capped mountains and the temperature drops as the Camino slowly gains altitude.

Rabanal looks like a fantastic little village and I stop at the shop for breakfast and to pick up some supplies for the day. Opposite the cafe there’s a little hippy garden with hammocks, tents and various chairs setup where I sit to eat breakfast. There’s loads of empty wine bottles and beer cans in the rubbish bin – I bet it’s a great place to hang out in the evenings. Unfortunately for me, it’s 09:00 and I have many more miles to cover today.

Cruz de Ferro

As I leave Rabanal, I reach into a little pocket in my backpack and pull out a small stone and am suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion, it’s very unexpected and I’ve never felt anything like it before! I picked up this stone from The Gower in Wales a few weeks ago on a run and have carried it with me since leaving Cardiff 3 weeks ago. At the top of this climb is a place called Cruz de Ferro, (Cross of Iron) the highest point on the Camino Francés. At the base of the cross is a pile of stones… Pilgrims traditionally carry a stone from the start of their Camino to this point and leave their stone at the base of Cruz de Ferro. It’s symbolic and means different things to different people, I like the idea that the stone symbolises something you want to “leave behind” at Cruz de Ferro. It’s a weight you’ve carried with you all this way, and you “let it go” here.

So, I hold my stone and make my way up the steady climb towards the Iron Cross quietly thinking about all the stuff I’ve seen and done, it’s a very, very powerful concept and I really didn’t think it would affect me like it does. A couple of km before the summit there’s another little Pilgrim village and suddenly I’m swamped by Americans making the trip up to Cruz de Ferro which completely breaks the spell, but it was there, it happened and I still remember the feeling and what it meant to me.

Coming out of the village I notice a nice pair of Black Diamond walking poles by the side of the trail. I wonder if I should pick them up as someone must have forgotten about them and no doubt they’ll be in front, but decide against it. About 2 minutes later I see an American ahead, (distinctive Osprey backpack) stop, throw her hands in the air, turn around and start running towards me. I shout “POLES?” at her – yes, it’s obvious the poles are hers. I jog back to the poles, pick them up and take them to her. I’m right – she’s American and very grateful, calling me her “Camino angel” – so that’s my good deed for the day done.

My stone at Cruz de Ferro

It’s now a short climb up to Cruz de Ferro and when it finally pops into view it’s swamped by pilgrims, cyclists and tourists who’ve taken a bus up here. It might have been nice to be on my own, but that’s unlikely to happen on one of the most famous places on the Camino Francés. I quietly walk up to the cross, drop my stone and quietly walk away, back down the other side of the mountain. After all the frivolity of the past 3 weeks, this is what the Camino is really about and leaving Cruz de Ferro, I really feel that I’m moving into the third and final act of my Camino.

It’s time for another coffee after all that, but first there’s a few more hilly lumps to get through. I pass through Manjarin – home to Tomas, the last of the Knights Templar. His albergue is apparently pretty wacky but there seems to be nobody around when I get there so I press on to the next town of Acebo a few km down the mountain to the first coffee shop I see. After getting a coffee I sit outside and am quickly joined by a large group of noisy American pilgrims, after being in the quiet mountains all day it’s an assault on the senses and I need to move on quickly. I also realise that this is exactly how our group behaved back in the first week on the Camino Francés, loud and with little consideration for others around us, interesting.

Next stop is Ponferrada – another big city on the Camino and I’ve started booking hostal rooms in advance, I’ve decided my dormitory bunk bed days are over. I’ll do it if I have to – but if I can find a cheap room, then that’s the way forward. No more rustling, snoring, farting or 05:00 Korean alarm calls thank you very much.

The hostal is in an urban part of Ponferrada, a couple of km outside the centre on the other side of town. There’s not much around aside from a supermarket so, after sitting outside for a while I buy some food and retreat to my room and listen to music for the rest of the evening.

Day 21: Ponferrada to Las Herrerias (48km)

“This morning I think about all the things I could be doing rather than walking across Spain – drawing, working, decorating – anything is better than this monotony” (Journal Entry)

It’s a long, noisy road walk to get out of Ponferrada in the morning and I’m increasingly irritated and annoyed by the road and traffic. However, after a few kms the Camino moves away from the road and back into the countryside and my mood lifts. The first town is Villafranca which is a really nice, scenic place. I don’t really fancy a coffee so find a supermarket and buy some picnic food before moving through the town to a point where I have a route choice to make.

Hard, but worth it

There’s 3 possible routes out of Villafranca with difficulties varying from easy, (flat and boring) to hard, (mountainous and badly marked). My guide book recommends the middle option which it says is scenic and very beautiful. Just outside Villafranca I find the right turn for this option and decide to go for it. Ten minutes later, with sweat dripping off me I think that maybe I should have gone for the easy option – and I’m regretting buying all the picnic food that I’m carrying in a plastic bag up this monster hill! It’s a flipping steep climb for the first couple of km, but eventually the climb gets a bit shallower and I can catch my breath and look behind me. Yep – it’s pretty nice… Way down below I can see the “easy option” snaking beside the road with tiny ants that must be pilgrims walking. I only see one other pilgrim on this section – a German, (deuter backpack) who I meet just as we crest over the summit. I stop for a while and have my picnic – it’s times like these that make all the monotony worth it.

After 8km-or-so the alternative route rejoins the boring option that follows the road and I decide to treat myself to a glass of wine at the next bar. The next 10km is along the road which is sometimes like walking down the hard shoulder of a motorway with big trucks hurtling past at high speed, it’s pretty scary at times and I wonder why there isn’t a safer option, especially considering the volume of pilgrims. People get killed on this section by the traffic all the time and I’m not surprised.

Las Herrerías

My hostal is really nice, with a balcony overlooking the lovely little village of Las Herrerias. I head down to the bar after showering and my Vibram Fivefingers once again provide the conversation starter with an couple of elderly women from California. One of the women is an avid hiker and knows all about the Arizona Trail, she’s really interested to know about my experiences on the AZT so we chat a while and share a bottle of wine and some patatas bravas, (spicy potatoes). Her companion can’t seem to understand me and is obviously a bit deaf. She keeps turning and screeching at her friend “WHAAAAAT – III CAAAAN’T UNDERSTAAAND HIIIM”, if she had an ear trumpet the scene would be perfect. They’ve also decided to stop slumming-it in the dormitories, and taking the room option from here, there’s a lot of it going around it seems!

After a while I retreat to my balcony to ponder the next day, there’s a big climb up to O’Cebreiro which many people fear, about 600m over 7-8km which – even by fell running standards is a pretty decent effort. I overhear a Swede, German and Dutch pilgrim talking below my balcony later in the evening, the Dutch man is heading to La Faba tonight to get a head start on the climb before tomorrow. I decide to get an early night and leave before dawn so I can see the sunrise in the mountains.

Day 22: Las Herrias to Sarria (46km)

“Santiago weighs heavy on my mind as I enter Galicia, km markers rapidly start counting down the distance.” (Journal Entry)

Sunrise in the mountains

As planned, I’m up and away well before dawn – the American women from last night are also on their way as I leave the hostal by torchlight. There’s a couple of villages on the climb, with about 200m of ascent between each one. It’s a pretty steady gradient though and passes fairly quickly – I’m treated to an awesome sunrise over the mountains, the sky is all sorts of different colours just before the sun appears – it was worth the early start to see. I’ve loved the sunrises on the Camino – probably my favourite part of the day.

Just before I get to the top and O’Cebribo I enter Galicia – the final province in Spain that I’ll pass through. Galicia is an autonomous community with Celtic origins, it’s very different from the rest of Spain and has it’s own language and culture. It’s a fantastic place and a real treat after hundreds of miles of traditional Spanish villages and terrain. From here there are stone obelisk marker posts marking the Camino every few hundred metres with the distance to Santiago marked in km, the first one I see says 160km – that’s almost exactly 100 miles, I later think that this final 100 miles would make an absolutely amazing race! Maybe one day I will return to run it in a single go?

O’Cebribo is cold and very windy and I haven’t had breakfast yet so I find a cafe and sort myself out with coffee, orange juice and a pain-au-chocolat which hits the spot. It’s then a decent 20km walk to Tricastela with amazing scenery across the mountains. By the time I get to Tricastela I’m pretty hungry so find a supermarket, buy picnic food and find a nice spot to eat it with a beer and then leave town where there’s another route choice.

The scenic route

I go for the scenic San Xil route instead of the Samos option after tossing a coin as I really have no preference, Samos has a monastery but San Xil is more scenic… I’ve seen monasteries, and I’ve also “done” scenic! It’s a nice enough walk and I stop at a cafe later in the afternoon for a glass of wine. I’m liking this new routine, beer for lunch and wine in the afternoon – it’s working for me!

Sarria is another big city and the place where a lot of pilgrims start in order to receive their Compostela for walking at least 100km to Santiago. My hostal is right on the Camino and I meet a French man in the bar who I’ve met before – way back on the trail. He’s very surprised to see me as he’s been doing big 40km days and, like me hasn’t been passed by anyone else on the Camino so far. We chat for a bit, then a drunk local starts making a scene in the bar so we head off to our rooms. It’s getting quite late by the time I’ve sorted everything out so after grabbing a quick bit of food I’m in bed quite early.

Day 23: Sarria to Palas de Rei (47km)

“Finisterre has been on my mind all morning – should I go?” (Journal Entry)

I’m very tired this morning, which isn’t surprising really – having walked over 800km and putting in marathon+ efforts on a daily basis through the mountains! But it’s just over 100km to Santiago now and I have my sights firmly set on being there in 2 days which will be a Sunday – I think, to be honest, I don’t really have a clue what day or date it is. My watch is still at the bottom of my pack and I only really know the time by the position of the sun and the occasional clocktower or church bell!

Sarria sunrise

Another amazing sunrise just outside Sarria lifts my spirits until, just outside the city I get my first real taste of the commercial side of the Camino in Barbadelo. I guess this is the first stop for people starting the Camino from Sarria and it’s full of shops selling Camino souvenirs and other tat. In order to gain a Compostela you need to have at least 2 sellos, (stamps) a day from Sarria and I’ve been collecting several each day recently – mainly to try and fill up the 56 spaces in my credencial by the time I’m finished, my aim is for the last stamp to be the one from Muxía – if I decide to go there after Santiago. I’m still undecided  if I’ll continue after Santiago – at the moment, to be honest – I just want to stop walking and go home!

Anyway – in Barbadelo a shop keeper spots me and shouts “Sello” at me, I decide to humour him and go and get a stamp, obviously this is a ploy to get me into his shop. Once he’s stamped my credencial he goes on to try and sell me everything from Camino playing cards, to a scallop shell, t-shirt, mug, key ring, fridge magnet… Eventually I just say “No Necessito Nada” and walk away. If this is how the next 100km is going to be then my patience is really going to be tested! I may end this Camino in a worse state than when I began – oh dear…

It’s a decent walk to Portomarin where I buy picnic food and a couple of beers before heading out of town, I’ve spied a spot that looks good for lunch on the map so head off there, sit down, crack open a beer and have lunch. A few minutes later a girl comes along and says hello, she’s (I forget her name) a musician from Brighton who started in Sarria a couple of days ago and is heading to Santiago. She joins me for lunch and is eager to know about my adventures so far – being very impressed that I’ve walked 800km, and equally impressed that I’ve already walked from Sarria today! She also can’t believe how small my backpack is, and that I’ve survived for 3 weeks with so little – her backpack is huge! It’s a nice break from the monotony, and I’ve been on my own for a while so good to have some company. However, her pace is far too slow for me so we part company after lunch and I continue alone again.

100km Marker

My afternoon wine stop is welcome and I meet a girl from Leicester shortly afterwards who I notice picking up litter and putting it into a Tesco bag, (she MUST be British!). As I pass I say “Great work” with reference to the litter. I’ve been trying to pick up a few bits every day – leaving the Camino in a better state than I found it, a bit of Camino Karma can’t hurt can it? The only thing I won’t touch is tissue paper which is all over the place – it’s really irritating, why do people do it? She’s quite a character, plastered white in suntan lotion but fun to talk to so I slow my pace down a bit to chat. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but she’s stopping at an albergue that we pass so I say goodbye to her there. The albergue hospitalerio tries to tempt me to stay but I have a reservation at a hostal a few km further ahead and it’s getting late.

It is late when I find my hostal and it’s been a long day, I think I’m the only person in the hostal and certainly the only person in the restaurant at dinner. My Spanish is definitely improving as I conduct the whole evening in Spanish – from checking-in to ordering drinks and my meal and seem to be understood. As there’s nobody around to chat to after dinner I return to my room and listen to music until it’s time for lights-out.

Day 24: Palas de Rei to Arzúa (29km)

“I don’t want to walk any more” (Journal Entry)

Galicia Hórreo

Again I wake up tired and sore, it’s a short day at only 29km to Arzúa so I’m not in any hurry to leave the hostal. However, once on the Camino and after a breakfast stop everything works itself out again. I’m becoming more-and-more in love with Galicia, it’s crumbling little medieval villages and the ever-present hórreos – grain stores built in wood and stone on pillars to keep rodents away, it’s weird that they’re just here in Galicia – I wonder why other provinces haven’t adopted the practice? Surely if it’s a good idea here, it’s a good idea anywhere.

I’m sitting having coffee when I hear a flute/recorder which appears to be attempting to play “Mama Mia” by ABBA getting louder, it’s accompanied by what sounds like a drum track provided by the tapping of walking poles. It’s quite a racket… Soon enough a young-ish man and woman appear – he’s playing the flute and she’s accompanying him on poles! I’m not sure, but I’d say they are American and – judging by their attire would say they are eternal pilgrims, living on the Camino, (and there are a few of them – just drifting endlessly through Spain) I’m just about to finish my coffee and head off, but really don’t want to get caught up with this pied-piper so order a beer and some tapas to give them a head start! I’m sure they think they’re entertaining all the pilgrims on the Camino but, judging by the reactions I see from others I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t appreciate it.

Arzúa is yet another decent-sized town, I find a room in a decent hostal and head to the supermarket over the road where I’m filling my basket when all of a sudden the lights go off and the music stops! Ah – it must be 14:30, siesta time… Everything shuts down from 14:30 – 17:00 in Spain. Fortunately I don’t get locked-in and manage to pay for my stuff and escape before the staff lock-up and head to the local bar. I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town on a bit of a bar crawl but don’t find anyone to talk to, there don’t seem to be many pilgrims around which is a bit strange. It’s been a bit of a disappointing, boring day to be honest and I’m glad when it’s over, I’m heading to Santiago tomorrow and the end of the Camino Francés.

Day 25: Arzúa to Santiago (40km)

“Will this be my last day on the Camino?” (Journal Entry)

The good news is that it’s the final day on the Camino Francés with only 40km to go, the bad news is it’s a Sunday and I’m on the most popular, crowded section of the Camino. But hey, maybe it won’t be too bad? The last few days have actually been pretty quiet, maybe everyone got the Camino out of their system over Easter last weekend?

After breakfast I leave the hostal and walk straight into a group of about 50 Spanish teenagers heading down the Camino – D’Oh! They’re noisily clanking wooden poles, playing music from their phones and generally doing all the stuff that teenagers do! However – the Camino has taught me tolerance, I must remember that and besides, how many teenagers in the UK would spend all day walking 40km on a Sunday for “fun”? I pass through them quite quickly though and the endless stream of pilgrims thins out a bit… There’s loads of mountain bikers on the Camino, unsurprising really as the terrain is ideal for mountain bikes, it’s Sunday and I guess it’s a nice day out riding into Santiago along the Camino – only spoilt by all the bloody pilgrims clogging up the trail!

Today is all about Santiago, it’s a decent hike to get there at almost 40km, I’m expecting the final 20km to get really busy and am trying to mentally prepare for the madness of Santiago when I pass a pilgrim who looks familiar… It’s only KOOS, the Dutch man who I met way back in St Jean and walked with for a couple of days! I can’t believe it, he’s equally happy to see me and so we team-up for the final walk into Santiago.

As we walk we tell stories of our journey since parting company, it turns out Koos walked with my American friends Molly and Kendra for a few days and is still in contact with them, I’m sure Kendra said “she’d heard of me” when we met – now it makes sense! It also turns out that Koos was the Dutch man I overheard from my balcony in Las Herrerias who was heading off to La Raba to get a headstart on the long climb the following day. We’d been missing each other by minutes each day for weeks, staying in slightly different places but now, 20km from Santiago we’re back together, how cool is that? We started the Camino Francés together, and we’ll finish together.

Camino Francés – done!

The afternoon passes quickly as we walk into Santiago and the km markers rapidly countdown the remaining distance, the final couple of km feel really weird – it’s like a calm suddenly descends over me. Actually arriving in the golden square in front of the Cathedral is a bit of an anti-climax for me. The Cathedral is cloaked in scaffolding and blue mesh netting, and is apparently going to be that way for the foreseeable future. Koos and I  obviously do the photos in front of the Cathedral and then head round the corner for a couple of overpriced celebratory beers.

I have a hostal booked nearby and Koos decided he is going to treat himself to a room there as well. I’m booked in for 2 nights as am planning to have a rest day before deciding what to do next. We sort everything out then head back into Santiago for drinks and dinner.

Over dinner I tell Koos how I just don’t know what I’m going to do next, I don’t know if I am going to carry on, or stop here and go home. I’ve had enough of walking, the Camino has worked it’s magic on me and I’m not sure if I need any more. Koos knows exactly what he is going to do, he’s going to Finisterre tomorrow, he tells me that if I don’t go I’ll regret it and I know he is right. But I still don’t know so say I’ll sleep on it and decide tomorrow. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the morning and then go and get our Compostela certificates from the Pilgrims Office.

Day 26: Santiago (Rest Day)

“I wake up calm and peaceful, thinking that it would be easy for this to be over today” (Journal Entry)

Koos and I have breakfast then head to the Pilgrims Office to get our Compostela. It’s all very efficient and I’m done in minutes, Koos is nervous because he hasn’t been collecting 2 sellos a day for the last 100km from Sarria, I tell him he’ll have to go back and do it again, the Pilgrim Police won’t give him a certificate! But it’s all OK and he gets his Compostela without issue.

Compostela

The Pilgrims Office has a little room upstairs that volunteers from different nationalities take turns staffing, it’s there so people from that nationality can go and chat to people from their own country about their experience on the Camino. As it happens, today the Dutch volunteers have taken over, so Koos and I head up for a chat with the Dutch volunteers. They’re very gracious, speaking English for my benefit and make us tea and coffee, Koos wants to know about Finisterre so they show us some guides and tell us we can get maps and a special Credencial at the tourist information office.

On the way to the tourist information office I pass a bookshop, I’ve now made a deal with myself that if I can find the Brieley guide to Finisterre then I will go. I pop in and ask the assistant if they have it, they do… Without thinking, I pick it up, pay for it and that’s that – my Camino isn’t over yet. There’s another 115km to walk to Finisterre and then onto Muxía.

Koos isn’t hanging around – he’s off today and, if I hadn’t already booked tonight in the hostal I’d be very tempted to join him. But actually, I think I need a day off to rest, recover and sort some future plans out. It’s been a long, long journey so far and I need a break. We say our goodbyes back at the hostal and I get onto the internet and work out a timetable for the next week. I book a ferry back from Santander to Portsmouth for a week from today. That gives me plenty of time to get to Muxía and then back to Santander.

After sorting out travel plans, I find a launderette and wash everything while chatting to a couple from New Zealand and a chap from the USA who have just finished the Camino Portugese and Ingles respectively. Then I wander around Santiago for a while, it’s a pretty impressive city. The buildings and monuments are awe-inspiring, but there’s also a lot of commercialism aimed at tourists and pilgrims which sours it all a bit. It’s very busy and noisy so I’m looking forward to getting back out onto the Camino tomorrow. People say that the pilgrimage to Finisterre and Muxía is an “antidote” to the noise and commercialisation of Santiago – and I think I need that right now.

It’s not over yet

In the evening I get chatting to the owner of the hostal for a while, she’s Spanish but has lived in Hemel Hempstead for a few years. Eventually I head back to my room and repack my rucksack – my Camino adventure isn’t over yet – tomorrow I’m heading towards the end of the world at Finisterre and then onto Muxía, ULTREYA!

El Camino de Santiago: Days 27 – 29

Camino Blog Legs

Posted in Camino de Santiago, Fastpack, Multi-Day | 1 Comment

El Camino de Santiago: Days 10 – 19

Part three of my Camino blog covers around 370km from Logroño to Santa Catalina over 10 days during the Holy Week/Easter period. I leave my Camino family and head off on my own, increasing my daily mileages. I head through the  Meseta, the high, flat plateau of central Spain which tests my commitment. Most days are spent walking alone, but I still manage to have a few adventures along The Way.

Day 10: Logroño to Azofra (35km)

“Mixed emotions, loss and the possibilities of new people and new adventures” (Journal Entry)

I pack quickly in the morning and am ready by 07:15, a good 30 minutes before the rest of my group will be ready. Putting my backpack on, I gently touch Robert on the shoulder and simply say, “I’m hitting the road, see you on the Camino“. He just nods and I head out of the albergue back onto the Camino. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand my intentions to leave the group and it could be seen as a bit cold, just walking away – but I’ve never been one for big goodbyes.

As I walk out of Logroño I’m hit by a very strange mix of emotions, it’s a sense of huge sadness and loss along with the same excitement and anticipation that I felt at the start of this adventure. Even though I’ve only been with the people I’ve just left for a few days the bonds we’ve made, and things we’ve talked about are stronger and more intense than most of my friends. I know that I will probably never see most, if-not-all of them again, it’s almost like a bereavement. They have disappeared out of my world, never to be seen again, (though I know I could re-join them, if I wanted to). They are now Legends of the Camino, and my stories of them will be passed up-and-down the Camino, likewise – I hope they tell stories of me to be passed up-and-down the Camino.

On my own again – the human sundial

After a couple of hours as the sun comes up, I pull myself together and decide that this is a new start for me. This is Act 2 of my Camino experience and I want things to become less structured and a bit more random. I take off my watch and put it into the bottom of my backpack, I can judge the time by my shadow – I am a human sundial!  I’ll come back to the sun and my shadow later.

The weather is glorious and there’s nothing but clear, blue skies with predicted temperatures of 25-30C for as far as I can see on the weather forecast.

There’s not as many pilgrims on the trail today and it’s pretty quiet, I stop just after noon at a supermarket in the fantastically scenic town of Nájera for supplies then head to a bar by the river for a beer. Whilst there I get chatting to a group of women from the UK at a nearby table, the Camino is like that – you just start talking to random people! They comment that I can’t possibly be carrying all my gear in my little backpack, but I assure them I am and empty the contents out explaining what each bit is and why I need it, (I actually don’t “need” a lot of the stuff). Their packs are 2-3x heavier/larger than mine, and we laugh when they tell me some of the stuff they’ve packed – one woman has a hair dryer!

Only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

My recently deceased Camino family from Logroño are planning to stop in Nájera tonight, but I’m moving-on as I’ve heard there’s an albergue in Azofra which has 2-bedroom dorms for 10€ a bed, this means I can have a room to myself for 20€. It’s a 90-minute walk and blisteringly hot. I pass a pretty Brazilian girl about halfway there sitting by the side of the trail, she says to me “I thought I was the only one crazy enough to be out here in the heat”, I tell her that I’m English and the old saying about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun”!

The Azofra albergue is nice and I get my room for 20€; after sorting everything out I head outside to the pool, (luxury) with a couple of beers. At reception I meet Huw who was in the albergue in St Jean, 9 days ago and say hello. “You must be going My Way” he says… Huw has done the Camino many times before, he’s 70 and originally from Vietnam but now lives in California.

Outside by the pool, the young Brazilian girl arrives and sits nearby. I’m wearing my Vibram Fivefingers which are my camp/evening shoes – they’re comfortable, lightweight and make a brilliant conversation starter. I ‘ve lost count of how many people I’ve met in the evening intrigued by my funny “toe shoes. Anyway – she notices my shoes and asks about them, I pick up my beer and journal and move to her table.

Ingrid is from Brazil and we’ve crossed paths before, I’ve seen her on the trail and in the albergues. She’s also a runner, and interested in ultramarathons so we chat about that for a while and I tell her about 100-mile events I’ve done around the world. There’s a lot of Brazilians out on the Camino and I ask her why that is? She tells me about the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho  and his book “The Pilgrimage” which is an inspiration to many Brazilians to do the Camino.

After heading back to my room I get onto Google, (everywhere has WiFi in Spain) and check out Ingrid’s story – it seems to hold up, but I also come across stories of Brazilian mothers sending their daughters off to the Camino to find a husband. In fact, there are many stories of women doing the Camino hoping to snare a husband. Thinking back through my time so far on the Camino – it occurs to me that most of the people I’ve met and talked to have been women. Monique aside, who was blatantly after a man – I wonder how many of them have been sizing me-up as potential marriage material?

Day 11: Azofra to Belorado (38km)

“Some serious questions about why I am doing this” (Journal Entry)

Nothing really exciting happened during the walk into Belorado, however it was the second long, hot day of walking on my own. I remember looking at the map, and my progress across Spain and thinking “Why am I doing this?“, the end was still a long way off – at this rate I was looking at another 3 weeks of walking… I’d faced my demons about communal living and meeting new, random people – that was easy. But I couldn’t break down the rest of the trip into manageable chunks.

It’s exactly the same in running, eventually you have to forget about the end goal and focus on smaller goals, you have to be more in “the present” and not worry about the future. I’ve been in this place plenty of times, and I’ve quit plenty of times when I’ve had enough… But I was determined to see this through. There’s plenty of lines in my journal where I’ve simply written “One day at a time!” Sometimes even that’s too far, and so it becomes “One step at a time!

Somewhere in Spain?

Besides which, for now – I was in the middle of nowhere in Spain, and Burgos was my nearest escape point so I had to get there, and that was at least 2 days away so I plodded-on to the parochial albergue in Belorado. Checking-in took forever as a doddery German gentleman took forever to find everything needed by the Swiss hospitalario who kept apologising to me for the delay. Eventually the Swiss volunteer showed me to a bunk bed in a dormitory full of South Koreans, oh great – so it’s going to be an early start tomorrow is it?

Now seems like a good enough time to talk about the South Koreans, there are hundreds of them on the Camino Francés! They seem to travel in groups, all dress the same – covered head-to-toe in several layers even in the blazing sun. Wide-brimmed hats with leggings worn under their shorts and a small, seemingly inefficient stride that almost looks like marching – you can spot them a mile off! But – what really sets them apart is the time they seem to set off in the mornings, in every albergue I’ve been in they’re up at 05:00 and out by 06:00. It’s impossible to leave a dorm quietly so they wake everyone up, rustling sleeping bags, head torches, squeaking bunk beds etc. Bless them, they try to be quiet. Fortunately, my earplugs and eyemask sort most of this out.

Having said all that, they’re friendly enough – always a cheery ¡Hola, Buen Camino! and a wave, they enjoy a drink or two and cook-up a mean evening meal.

Beer in Belorado

After finishing my admin I headed into Belorado to find some food, ate in a local restaurant and then headed to a bar for a couple of beers, I said hello to Ingrid as she wandered into town later that afternoon, complementing her on a long day of walking. I think she’d decided I wasn’t husband material and seemed to have latched onto another Brazilian chap. I grabbed a bottle of wine from the bar to take out and headed back to the albergue.

The evening was spent drinking wine with the Swiss hospitalarios at the albergue talking about the Camino, ourselves and the people we’ve met. The Koreans came back around 21:00 with Kho who I’d met before, we’d all had a few drinks and Kho recognised me shouting “GEE!“, I responded “KHO” but must have pronounced it wrong as he tried to correct me saying “NO, K-H-O“… I tried several times to get it right but it obviously wasn’t working. The Swiss hospitalarios and myself spent about an hour drinking and talking with the Koreans, I’m not sure how much anyone understood of the conversation but it was fun.

Day 12: Belorado to Burgos (51km+)

“Don’t do a massive long day like that again! Silly…” (Journal Entry)

The Koreans don’t disappoint and at 05:00 they’re on the move. I decide that resistance is pointless as my upper bunk sways as the little Korean girl on the lower bunk must be jumping around on it, (she’s not). Anyway – I get up and am quickly away at around 06:00. It’s still dark, I haven’t had breakfast and don’t have any food packed for the day but that stuff just works itself out on the Camino. Just in case, I grab a couple of packets of nasty onion-ring crisps from a vending machine in Belorado.

Ooops!

Just outside Belorado I decide that moonlight isn’t going to be enough to get me through until sunrise so grab my torch, and start following the river. After 15-20 minutes I haven’t seen a sign or yellow arrow and it doesn’t feel right. I check my map and yes, I’m sure it’s wrong so turn around and start working my way back. After a few minutes I meet one of the Korean girls from the albergue who recognises me, I tell her I think we’ve gone the wrong way but she’s got the GPS on her phone and is confident we’re going the right way. I give her the benefit of the doubt and we walk on… After another 10-15 minutes the sun is coming up and I take another look at the map, I’m SURE we’re going the wrong way now. Usually there’s signs every few yards and I haven’t seen one since leaving Belorado. We look at the GPS and map again, yes – we’re off course… After leaving Belorado we should have turned right up the road, instead we followed the river. This poor girl has followed my torch and gone about 2 miles off course. I’m a little annoyed, but what can you do, so turn around and head back to the road where the arrows are obvious, it’s now light and the exodus from Belorado is in full swing.

Even the signs mock me

It was already going to be a long day, circa 51km to Burgos – and now I’ve added another 8-9km onto that. And it was a long day. The Camino climbs up and over a mountain plateau through pine forests which are dotted with sculptures, rest areas and the occasional Camino oasis. I’d had enough by 14:00 but had booked a hostel in Burgos for the night so I was determined to get there.

The final 10km into Burgos were terrible, my left achilles suddenly flared-up  reducing me to a painful hobble. This happened on the Arizona Trail after a week-or-so, but a bit of ibuprofen sorted it out and it never troubled me again after. It was brutally hot and the walk into Burgos was urban and noisy, even though I took the scenic Rio,(River) route into the city centre all I wanted to do was find my hostel and collapse. It took ages to find my hostel but eventually I located it at around 17:30, dropped off my pack, headed straight back out to grab food and drink from the local supermarket, went back to the hostel devoured and drank everything I bought and passed out!

Day 13: Burgos Rest Day

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” (Journal Entry)

I hadn’t planned to stay in Burgos today, or take a rest day but woke up feeling like I’d been in a car crash, exhausted and completely battered… I went down to the hostel reception and asked if I could stay another night. It was no problem, (23€) so I paid and

I heard it through the grapevine

headed back to my room. But of course, I couldn’t sleep so packed-up all my dirty clothes and headed out to a launderette near the supermarket. In a scene nothing like the Levi’s 501 advert from the 80’s I stripped down to my boxer shorts and waterproof jacket and washed all my clothes while eating strawberries and drinking milk from the supermarket. The Spanish launderettes are awesome, clean, quick and cheap – there’s no need for detergent as the machines automatically dispense it. Fortunately no-one came in while I was doing my best Nick Kamen impression – apologies to anyone born after 1980 who just won’t get the reference! Here’s the video

After I’d washed my pants, (and was suitably dressed again) I walked down the river to a Lidl to try and find a USB charger as the one I’d bought seemed to have stopped working. Lidl didn’t have any but I bought a load of fresh food and went back down to the river for a picnic. Heading back I walked past a “Bazaar” which is the Spanish version of a PoundLand style shop, normally run by the Chinese. It’s one of those shops that sells EVERYTHING and I found a charger for 2€ plus a new rollerball pen as I’d used a pen up already writing my journal entries and sketching.

Burgos Cathedral

Burgos is a nice city and the Cathedral very impressive so I spent a few hours wandering around, watching the pilgrims arrive. Without my backpack I could blend in as a tourist and not have to greet everyone with a “Buen Camino” – something which was becoming a little wearing by now. I spent an hour-or-so sketching then retired to a cafe for a couple of beers and some food before heading back to the supermarket to buy snacks for the next day of walking.

My journal notes point out that the Spanish locals all seem fit, slim and healthy. It’s the pilgrims who look unhealthy, and it’s true. Walk around any Spanish city and (in general) the locals look fit – compared to walking around Cardiff, London or any other UK city where a large proportion of people look overweight and unfit. I found it quite interesting…

Day 14: Burgos to Hontanas (31.5km)

“Here in Hontanas I watch the tracks of planes cross the sky. It hits me that it’s 2 weeks since I was on one of those planes” (Journal Entry)

After a day off I feel much better and more positive about the rest of this journey so head out of town early, just before dawn. If I leave it too long I might talk myself into escaping on the train/bus to the airport as there’s still a long way to go.

A new pattern to my days is starting to emerge, at the start of the day there’s a steady stream of pilgrims leaving the albergues from 06:00-08:00. I spend the first few hours passing people, then seem to lose everyone after a couple of hours until, towards the end of the walking day when I  start picking up groups again. It’s Day 14 and no-one has passed me on the trail yet. I pass everyone, hundreds of pilgrims every day – and each one I acknowledge depending on how I feel and how sociable they appear. It might me the standard “Buen Camino“, “Hola“, “Buenas Dias/Tardes” or simply a wave – but I try to acknowledge everyone. It’s tiring though when you want to be alone with your thoughts, but that’s the Camino Francés for you.

Ironically, in the mornings I want to be alone with my thoughts and that’s when the Camino is the busiest. I perk-up a bit later, when the sun has warmed-me-up, I’ve had my coffee and the magic of the Camino has dragged my mood upwards but, by then there’s normally no-one around. You can always find someone to talk to though, especially in the evenings – and even more-so as an eligible bachelor without a ring on his finger.

Today I stop for coffee and am writing in my journal when an Irish/Spanish couple come into the cafe and ask if I’m keeping a journal of my Camino. I say – yes, otherwise I’d forget all this stuff, (and that’s incredibly true – all of these blog memories are triggered from notes made, I’d have forgotten most of it otherwise!) They are hospitalarios in the local albergue and I spend a good 30 minutes chatting to them about the Camino before heading back out onto the trail.

Hontanas albergue

My destination today is Hontanas and I get there early at around 13:00 without much to do for the rest of the day. It’s a sleepy little town and takes about 10 minutes to walk around so I do my best to kill some time but eventually give-in to the lure of the bar and spend most of the rest of the day sitting around drinking and eating. Later-on Andres from Germany arrives and joins me for a few drinks and Ingrid also arrives with a young group so there’s quite a party in the little courtyard. I don’t remember much about the evening so it must have been fun….?

Day 15: Hontanas to Poblacíon (38km)

“Have started to think about Santiago, will I continue or stop there?” (Journal Entry)

Hontanas is a popular stop so there’s lots of people heading West before dawn and I slowly have to pass them for the first couple of hours. I pass Ingrid shortly after leaving town with a wave and overhear her start telling her young friends “He runs 100 miles….” before she’s out of earshot. I wonder what my Legend will become? Will people whisper about this “Guy” who’s running the whole Camino in 5 days? It’s almost worth going back to the start to find out!

Just before sunrise I pass the grumpy Italians from the night in Roncesvalles nearly 2 weeks ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. I bid them a “Buen Camino” and get a grunted response. No change there then, never mind – I won’t see them again so they join everyone else in my Camino graveyard for the deceased I’ll never see or hear from again.

Alien shadow at sunrise

There’s not many notes from the walk today, and no photos so it’s time to talk about the sun and my shadow! The Camino Francés is almost always heading due West, this means the sun rises behind you and chases you all day before setting in front. You can judge the time by your shadow, it starts long and alien at sunrise and then gets shorter and shorter as the day wears on before finally ending up behind you. You really get to know “your shadow” after days, and days on the Camino. I’m sure there’s lots of metaphors about “chasing your shadow”, and “it being your only friend”. I spent hours, and hours just walking and looking at my shadow on this trip.

The other effect of walking West every day is you cultivate a tan on any exposed skin on your back and left side, this results in the “Camino Tan”. Bright red calves, left arms and backs of necks are commonplace – especially now as the weather is getting hotter and hotter and we hit the Meseta, the high plateau in Spain.

This is me – apparently?

My destination today is a little albergue just outside the main town of Frómista in a place called Poblacíon, my theory being that by staying outside the main choke points it’ll be quieter and less crowded in the morning. It’s a pretty basic albergue, but for 5€ you can’t complain – despite there being no hot water. After paying at the local hotel I head back to the albergue to be greeted by a group of South Koreans, (not the same ones as in Belorado). They seem happy to see me and one of the Korean girls offers me the bunk underneath her. There are other free bunks but the place is semi-occupied so I decide “better the devil you know” and accept, afterwards I see a sign saying “PLEASE LEAVE THE LOW BEDS TO THE ELDER PEOPLE” and wonder if this is the reason for the offer?

The Korean girl tells me her name is John(?) and she’s from South Korea, (I’d never have guessed!) and we go and sit outside and share a couple of beers. I ask why the Camino is so popular in South Korea and she tells me that pilgrimage is popular in South Korea, and the Camino was made famous by a Paulo Coelho book called “The Pilgrimage” which was translated into Korean. Aha – that’s the second time I’ve heard Paulo Coelho mentioned. I ask her, (half-joking) if she’s out here looking for a husband – but John is here with her husband so I figure I’m pretty safe.

A bit later two American girls arrive and I point them in the direction of the hotel where you have to pay for the albergue. After they’ve paid, showered and sorted everything out they join me outside and I suggest we head down to the hotel bar for a drink and they seem to be up for that. Molly and Kendra are cousins from Boston and we have a decent chat over a couple of beers about hiking in the USA and the Camino. I tell them about the Koreans, (who they call “Team Korea”) and their early morning starts, they haven’t experienced the 05:00 Korean alarm yet – but I assure them that they won’t need to worry about oversleeping tomorrow.

There’s a little bar/shop in town that doesn’t open until 18:00, Molly and Kendra head there shortly after it opens then back to the hotel for dinner. I decide to let them have dinner by themselves and head to the shop/bar a bit later for dinner on my own, conducting an entire conversation in Spanish with the owner. He tells me tomorrow is Good Friday and a “Feast Day” which means most places will be closed. When I get back to the albergue the Koreans have cooked-up a massive meal, I have no idea where they got all the ingredients from as the shop only seemed to sell beer, wine and crisps! It looked and smelt amazing.

I go back to the hotel bar and have a couple of beers before heading back to the albergue for an early night, after all Team Korea are early risers!

Day 16: Poblacíon to Saint Nicolas (49km)

“Things are slowly starting to make sense” (Journal Entry)

Team Korea let me down and don’t start getting up until a very reasonable 06:30 by which time I’m ready to get up anyway. I slip away quietly just before 07:00 and hit the Camino.

Today is Good Friday, and I’m a bit apprehensive about what will be open on the Camino over the Easter period. It’s a deeply religious area and there’s very little open on Sundays – so have no idea what will be open on these big feast days, (as they call them). I am now deep into the Meseta which is a flat, boring, hot section of the Camino – it’s over 200km long and a lot of people skip it, taking a bus or train through it. I also have to contend with a notorious 17km section where there is no water, shops, towns and very little shade. In ultrarunning standards that’s nothing and a 2-3 hour walk but a lot of people seemed scared and intimidated by it.

deuter – definitely a German

I’ve been playing a game with myself called “guess the nationality” as I passing people, (no-one had overtaken me yet). After 2 weeks you could generally tell the nationality of people by their clothes, gait and most importantly – backpack! The Germans, (and there were A LOT of them) mainly had deuter packs, the Spaniards were Quechua, (Decathlon), Yanks – Osprey etc… Hey, it kept me amused! As I passed someone, if they seemed sociable, (and I was feeling sociable) I’d ask if I could guess their nationality!

So, just before this 17km section I passed a man and woman. He had a “Gregory” pack on and she had a “Lowe Alpine” pack. After my customary “Buen Camino” I asked the lady if I could guess her nationality, Lowe Alpine was generally an American pack so I went with that. Her partner virtually exploded at me barking “SHE’S FRENCH! AND WHAT NATIONALITY AM I?” A bit taken aback by this outburst I responded – “Well, you’re obviously English” as his accent had given it away. Clearly not happy I was overtaking him he then said “How far are you walking each day?” proudly adding, “we’re doing 35-40km each day” as if I couldn’t possibly top that. I replied, “I don’t know 30-50km I suppose, today will be 50km”. Well – that shut him up and I moved quickly onwards and they soon faded into the distance behind me!

A couple of km into the “no water” section I then overtook another couple – this time a woman from London and a German, (deuter backpack) who I got chatting to, I think she said “Hi, we were just talking about death” as I passed! Shortly after we met the German excused himself and dropped away. The woman however seemed eager to chat and despite my pace obviously being too fast for her kept up. We spent an increasingly bizarre couple of hours walking through this exposed, flat section… She told me she had been in a bookshop wondering what to do with her life when a Camino guidebook fell off a shelf before her feet, it was a sign! She’d become convinced the Spanish authorities had placed speakers along the Camino playing birdsong because “Where were all the birds?“. She was also convinced there were people hiding in the bushes along the Camino spying on us. I began to understand why the German bloke had legged it now! Eventually my pace was too much for her and she said she needed to stop for a while, I told her I had a long way to go and needed to keep moving and swiftly legged it, burying her in my Camino graveyard deep underground!

A pilgrim statue

Well, after all that excitement the rest of the day was quite uneventful until near the end of the day when I got to my planned destination. All the albergues were full – it was Good Friday and this is, apparently, peak time for the Camino. Continuing-on I passed two girls, Molly and Kendra! They’d taken the bus through the 17km section so had leapfrogged-me. Apparently there was space at an albergue a couple of km up the road so we all checked-in there grabbing the last free beds. Shortly afterwards a group of 4 lads from the UK arrived also seeking beds but were told that there was “no room at the inn”. Fortunately for them the town of Shagún was 8km away and there was plenty of accommodation there. The lads looked like they’d had a long day, having walked half the distance I had – but they stopped for a beer before heading off to find a bed in Shagún.

It was a really nice, private albergue, hot showers and washing machines and I had dinner with Molly, Kendra and a chap from Brazil called Antonio who Molly and Kendra had met before, I told him about Ingrid and he seemed genuinely sad not to have met her. I told him she couldn’t be far behind if he slowed down a bit.

Day 17: Saint Nicolas to Manzilla (45km)

“Tough day mentally – boring trail and not much to focus on” (Journal Entry)

Another day on the Meseta and one that I found really challenging. 7-8 hours of walking through the dull, flat, open plains of Spain. I left the albergue just before dawn again saying goodbye to Molly and Kendra who assured me that I wouldn’t see them again at my pace, (RIP).

The Camino had now taken-on a new challenge for me, to finish it… All too often I start something and quit when I’ve had enough, or when whatever I’m doing has satisfied the itch that needs scratching. Well, by now the Camino had answered some questions in my head and I could have left it there, returned home and got on with my life quite happily. And I thought about it, a lot… It would have been really easy. But I was sure the Camino had more to offer me so I set myself the new challenge which was to complete the walk to Santiago and then, possibly on to Muxía. As the pilgrim cry goes “Ultreya!”, meaning “Beyond!”.

I don’t have any photos and only limited notes from the day, so I guess I didn’t meet any more crazy/grumpy/angry/horny people during the day of walking. I do however remember being given a whole bottle of wine with my meal at the local cafe, and chatting to people in the albergue in the evening though don’t think there was really anything special about the conversations.

Day 18: Manzilla to Mazarife (40km)

“A good day today – is this the turning point in my Camino?” (Journal Entry)

It’s Easter Sunday, and I have to walk through León today… It’s one of the biggest cities in Spain and the Camino takes me right past the Cathedral where I suspect there might be a little bit of activity. It takes a couple of hours to walk into León and I stop for a coffee and tortilla at around 10:00. After finishing-up I head back onto the Camino, following the ever-present yellow arrows and scallop shell markings through the city and start getting nearer to the Cathedral, until it’s just around the corner and I walk straight into a massive procession and thousands of people crowded into the square in front of the Cathedral.

Easter Madness in León

You can’t move, the crowds are 10-deep so actually seeing anything is almost impossible. It appears that there’s hundreds of people dressed in multi-coloured pointy-hoods carrying crosses, floats and other religious paraphernalia.  The hooded masses are pretty sinister, it looks like a Ku-Klux-Klan convention where they’ve had a bad wash-day that’s turned their robes different colours. After looking it up online, it appears that this procession in León is huge and I was very lucky to see it. After doing some research it appears that the hood, or Capirote is a mark of a person serving punishment and goes back to the inquisition. The colour of the hood determines the nature of the punishment, red hoods indicate execution – not sure I saw many of them! These days it’s the symbol of the Catholic penant… So there you go – history lesson over!

León is nice enough, but I’m not stopping here so move fairly quickly through the city taking a detour to avoid the procession and pop out of the other side of the city where I have a couple of route options. A long, boring road walk or a slightly longer countryside walk to a little village called Mazarife. Obviously I decide to go for the scenic route as I’ve had enough of the traffic and noise of the city in León.

It’s a good 3 hour walk to Mazarife and I head straight for the albergue Tio Pepe which my guide book recommends and sort out a bed. I get an upper bunk in a 4-bed dormitory and while sorting stuff out meet Bernard who’s also in the room. Bernard is from my home town of Walsall and used to teach at a school near to the one I went to throughout my “O” and “A” level years in the 1980’s Small world…

Dinner isn’t until 19:00 so I wander around the town, (it doesn’t take long) and find a shop to buy a couple of beers from. I ask the shopkeeper what time he opens tomorrow and he tells me that he’s going drinking tonight so will be closed tomorrow morning… Well – actually, he makes the universal sign of drinking, wobbles around a bit then makes the universal sign of sleeping while making a snoring sound. I understand though and we laugh.

Dinner is with Bernard in the albergue, one of the problems of constantly meeting new people is that you have the same conversation over and over again! What do you do? Why are you walking the Camino? etc, etc, etc… I start to think that it might be fun to market myself with a bit of “fake news”, tell people I’m a gay hairdresser from Brighton, or maybe a lapsed monk looking regain his faith but – after consideration think this might backfire on me, so I decide to stick with the truth!

Day 19: Mazarife to Santa Catalina (38km)

“I’m talking to myself a lot today, am I finally going mad?” (Journal Entry)

I’m not sure who is sleeping in the bunk below me, but he’s moving around which is shaking my upper bunk, it’s like being on a boat. And then – at about 05:00 he starts farting… God knows what he’s been eating but it’s horrible – being on the upper bunk you first hear it, then a few seconds later the smell hits you as it wafts upwards. At around 06:30 he gets up – it’s an elderly French man that I hadn’t met the day before. Bernard tells me to put the light on as we’re all awake now so I do, pack quickly and get back onto the Camino. I’m not in a good mood after a bad nights sleep – in fact the disturbed sleep of the last 2 weeks is slowly grinding me down, I promise myself a nice, single room tonight if I can find one.

None shall pass!

The walk takes me through the very pretty town of Hospital De Órbigo with a bridge that, (legend has it) was guarded by a knight who challenged people who wanted to pass to a duel. It reminds me of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail sketch with the Black Knight and amuses me for a good hour-or-so as I replay the scene in my head.

After Hospital there’s another route choice and of course I take the scenic, hillier route. Halfway up the hill I pass a girl walking slowly and offer my standard “Buen Camino”, before realising it’s Rosita from Brazil who I met back at the start of the Camino Francés! She’s taken the bus across the Meseta, (clever girl) and picked-up the Camino again in Hospital. Rosita has done the Camino several times so she’s not bothered about missing the Meseta, shes’s going to walk to Muxía after Santiago to compensate. We chat for a little while and I move ahead again as normal, she’s staying in Astorga tonight and I’ll be well beyond that.

Astorga isn’t actually that far away and I’m nearly there by midday, however – just outside the city limits there’s what looks like a theme park ride, as I get closer it appears to be a railway bridge, but the weirdest bridge I’ve ever seen. The ramps are very long and shallow leading up to the crossing over the railway, as I get closer I can’t believe I have to go over it – there must be a quicker and easier way to cross the railway? But no… There isn’t… This bridge is insane, it takes ages to zig-zag up to the crossing and then back down. On the way down I notice some graffiti that says, (something like)

Peace and love to everyone on the Camino and in the world – except for the designer of this ******* bridge who deserves to burn in hell

Crazy Astorga bridge

It makes me laugh out loud, and just as I get to the end some American girls who I passed a while back arrive at the ramp on the other side, all I hear are incredulous cries of “WHAT?“and “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!

Later I found out that this bridge was commissioned especially for bicycle users of the Camino so they could get over the railway, however a few hundred yards after this there’s a massive steep climb into Astorga that you’d be pushing your bike up anyway.

Astorga is another large city and it’s lunchtime when I get there so I find a supermarket and buy some food then head to outside the Cathedral and people-watch while eating my picnic. It’s about 10km to my planned stop so I pack-up and ship out afterwards and get into Santa Catalina at around 14:00

Straight away I find an albergue and the owner says “¿Albergue?” to me, I respond with “¿Tienes un habitacion individual por favor?” – do you have a room please? He does – 25€ which sounds like a bargain to me so I snap it up. I’ve been in albergues for nearly 3 weeks, and am well under-budget and ahead of schedule. I think this might be the way forward from now.

It’s lovely and peaceful in Santa Catalina and later on I get talking to a group from Latvia, Switzerland and the USA in the bar and end up having dinner with them. I don’t think any of them want to marry me which is nice, though the conversation turns dangerously towards politics for a while, Trump, Brexit etc… But I think we manage to get away without any arguements, phew… Religion and Politics are dangerous topics – especially with new friends after a few glasses of wine.

It’s been a long stretch through the Meseta but I can now see mountains again in the distance and will soon reach the highest point on the Camino Francés. Then it’s into Galicia and onto Santiago which is 5-6 days away.

Continued in Part 4: Days 20-26

NOTE: As I read, and re-read these blogs I notice I regularly switch between the present and past tense! My blogs are generally written in the present tense, and that’s because I write as if if I’m re-living the experience as an active participant instead of a passive observer, something Gonzo journalism taught me a long time ago. Occasionally though, I slip into past tense – it’s not deliberate but I write almost automatically – this stuff just flows out of me and it seems fake to stifle and correct. So I let it go… If you don’t like it, go and find some cats on YouTube – I don’t care 🙂

Finally, some progress!

 

Posted in Camino de Santiago, Fastpack, Multi-Day | 1 Comment

El Camino de Santiago: Days 3 – 9

The second part of my Camino blog takes me from the start of the Camino Francés in St Jean to Logroño over a 7-day period. I spent most of this section walking with new friends and spending all day, (and night) with them walking, eating, drinking and sleeping together so my notes are pretty sparse. However there were lots and lots of photos and close bonds made to help refresh my memories of the first week on the Camino Francés.

Day 3: St Jean Pied de Porte to Roncesvalles (25km)

“Everything is wet” (Journal Entry)

Somewhere around 06:00 I’m awoken by rustling and movement as people start to get up, washed and packed for the day. It’ll soon become a familiar alarm call and actually a late start by Camino standards, but I don’t know this yet. I have a decent eyemask and earplugs having heard all about the rustlers, snorers and squeaky bunk beds so keep them in place until 07:00. It’s dark until 07:30 so there’s not much point starting out until then, especially as it’s a relatively short stage at 25km. I’ve got my morning routine sorted now so it takes me 45 minutes from removing my earplugs to finishing breakfast, saying my goodbyes and quietly leaving the albergue on my own at 07:45.

The Altus Poncho

I walk out, and then straight back in… It’s raining and cold, so I switch out my puffer jacket for the waterproof and put my arm warmers on. I’m still in my shorts though, it takes a lot for me to put my long trousers on! Most people have ponchos, notably one made by a company called Altus  which is distinctive as it’s very long and also has a special “hump” on the back designed to expand and cover a backpack. There’s a little shop in St Jean a few yards from the start of the Camino which is doing a roaring trade in them at around 35€ each. I don’t need one – I’ve survived for years in the mountains with my trusty Montane Atomic jacket and a decent layering system. Everything in my backpack is sealed in drybags so after the quick change I put the hood up and head out again onto the start of the Camino Francés towards the Pyrenees and Spain.

The first stage of the Camino Francés is notorious as being the toughest stage of the entire route, it’s a baptism of fire for a lot of pilgrims starting in St Jean. Many arrive unfit, with little walking experience and very heavy packs and opt for the Napoleon route which is a 25km hike with 1,390m of ascent. Even the “easier” Valcarlos option is has 990m of ascent before you get to the sanctuary of Roncesvalles. People regularly die on this section, in the film “The Way”, Martin Sheen’s son dies on the Napoleon route which prompts Mr Sheen to walk the Camino. I was told that a South Korean died recently on the Napoleon prompting the South Korean authorities to issue a warning about the route. We’ll come back to the South Koreans later as there’s plenty to say about them.

Just outside St Jean you have to make the decision – go left for the high Napoleon route, or right for the lower Valcarlos option. Having been warned that the Napoleon is closed due to snow it’s an easy decision for me – I’m not prepared for a day in the cold, snowy mountains, I don’t have poles or warm gloves and I’m wearing trail running shoes without enough grip for snow and ice. If conditions are bad then I know I could be in trouble very quickly, plus by the looks of the low cloud – there won’t be much to see up there anyway, so I turn right and head along the road on the lower, Valcarlos option. A lot of people obviously didn’t understand, hear or care about the warnings though and turn left to do the Napoleon route. Many look very unfit and unprepared, huffing-and puffing already after walking a few hundred yards up a gentle slope out of St Jean!

The first hour-or-two is pretty depressing – walking along lots of road in bad weather, we’re still in France and the markings are sparse and sometimes confusing. There’s not as many people on the trail as I thought but I’m steadily passing people. On the Camino when you meet/pass another pilgrim it’s normal to say “Buen Camino” – literally “Good Path”, to which the reply is normally the same. After a couple of hours I pass a chap and issue the greeting to which the reply is “shorts weather is it?” in a distinctively English accent.

I’m feeling a little more sociable so reduce my pace and reply “Always!” after which we fall into step and strike-up a conversation, my first walking companion of this adventure. Robert is a retired lawyer from Manchester, a few years older than me in his 50’s but we have quite a lot in common so I’m happy to chat. I hadn’t planned on walking with anyone but it’s nice to have some company especially as it’s easy to get lost on this section. Soon after we inauspiciously cross the border into Spain we arrive at the little village of Valcarlos in pouring rain and decide to have a coffee, the last chance for a rest before tackling the 800m climb to the next shelter in Roncesvalles.

It’s a steady climb to Roncesvalles and we pass lots of people visibly struggling especially in the mud. I succumb to the conditions and put on my long trousers and an extra layer before it gets too cold. At one point, close to the top there’s a big fallen tree and I have to help an English lady negotiate it by pushing her up and over the branches! Everyone seems to remember that tree… Robert and I take a breather at the top, a few hundred yards before the albergue stopping for 10 minutes which is a mistake as we both get very cold, very quickly and by the time we get to the albergue in Roncesvalles I can’t feel my hands or toes.

Wet Shoes in Roncesvalles

It’s around 13:30 when we get to the albergue, it doesn’t open until 14:00 and there’s already 20-30 soggy, shivering, cold pilgrims queuing with more arriving every minute.  Some seem to be in a worse state than others, I see a couple of people collapse and the medics rush over to them with blankets! The albergue sells ponchos and is doing a roaring trade to people who didn’t buy them in St Jean, (not me). As instructed, we take off our wet shoes and put them in the shoe room – I’m glad I’m wearing my Altra Olympus, they’re pretty unique. I’m not sure how people identify their shoes amongst the hundreds of generic walking boots!

At 14:00 the albergue opens and the Dutch hospitalarios, (volunteers) let us in and up to our beds. It’s a very, very nice albergue… With 183 beds contained in blocks of 4 bunk beds across several levels it’s modern, spotlessly clean with a hint of Scandinavian IKEA-style minimalism and simplicity. We’ve all been assigned bunk beds so after finding my bed it’s straight into the shower and out of the wet clothes before the mad rush. Our floor soon fills-up with pilgrims stripping out of their wet clothes and the once tidy appearance degenerates into what looks like a crazy jumble sale as people empty out their backpacks and hang their wet clothes up in any available space. The background chatter with all the different nationalities makes the scene even more surreal, it’s a mix of Korean, English, German, Spanish and other languages. I begin to notice a large number of South Korean pilgrims which seems odd, not a nationality I’d have associated with the Camino.

Robert and I have all our admin done so head off to the local bar for a caña, the Spanish term for “a beer”. There seems to be no standard measurement for a caña, sometimes it’s about 250ml, sometimes 500ml – it just depends on the bar! We have a couple and head back to the albergue. Robert goes off to mass at 18:00 but I’m not ready to embrace religion yet so hang around the albergue until it’s time for dinner at 19:00 in the local restaurant.

It’s a communal dinner, and I head down on my own as Robert is still at mass. As I enter I see Anna Maria, Janine, Koos and several others from St Jean but am ushered to a spare place on a table at the far end of the room by a stern waitress. There doesn’t seem much point in arguing so I go with the flow. On this table there’s five South Koreans, a couple of Italians a Swede and myself. The Koreans are all talking to each other in Korean and everyone else is sitting silently, I’m stuck between a Korean and an Italian so turn and try to spark a conversation with the Italian by introducing myself. It’s pretty unsuccessful, the Italians look really grumpy and the Koreans are their own little unit. The Swedish chap seems equally uncomfortable but he’s on the other side of the table so I sit quietly taking in the scene!

As the meal wears-on, an elderly Korean gentleman who’s with a young boy, (we’ll meet him again later) offers to fill my wine glass and empties what’s left in the bottle into my glass. He then disappears off somewhere. One of the Italians, (who has been refusing wine all night) angrily exclaims something in Italian and then, when it’s obvious no-one understands him says “it’s for all of us“! The Korean gentleman returns seconds later with another 2 bottles of red wine and offers the rest of the table more vino tinto, that shuts the Italian up but it’s really uncomfortable and I’m glad when the meal is over and escape as soon as possible.

After the meal I return to the albergue and retire to my bunk, Robert returns soon after along with Koos. The weather looks bad again tomorrow so we make plans to have breakfast and walk together again, soon enough it’s 22:00 and lights-out in Roncesvalles.

Day 4: Roncesvalles to Zubiri (23km)

“We have a little group coming together” (Journal Entry)

At 05:00 the rustling and movement begins in Roncesvalles as people start to pack-up and ship-out of the albergue. It’s not light for another 2 hours, what are these people doing? I re-squish my earplugs deeper and put the eyemask back on until the lights go on at 07:00, breakfast isn’t until 07:30 so there’s no point in thinking about getting up yet. By the time Robert, Koos and I leave for breakfast at 07:30 the albergue is virtually empty.

It’s a long way, to Santiago

Breakfast is disappointing, orange juice, a piece of toast and coffee. Not even a slice of cheese or some ham… We’ll come to learn that this is pretty standard in Spain, they seem to live on coffee and a slice of bread around here until midday, you have to go a long way to find bacon and eggs, (though we’ll eventually find some much further along the Camino). It’s raining as we head back out onto the Camino and the famous “790” sign reminds us that we’ve only just started our journey.

Koos has bought a nice, blue poncho from the Roncesvalles albergue and is determined to get his money’s worth out of it so is determined to wear it. Once again everyone seems to have a poncho apart from me, I have put my long trousers on today though – as a minor concession to the weather.

At some point we bump into Anna Maria and Janine and stop for coffee at a place called Café Juan in Viskarret. It’s full of damp pilgrims and a group of locals who seem to be getting loaded on wine and brandy at 10:00 on a Sunday morning, I must say – I can’t fault them. We’ve given a warm welcome though, they must be used to seeing a daily, steady stream of foreigners dressed in ponchos and hiking gear come into their local!

Robert reveals that he has a plan for each day of his Camino, he’s been through the Brierly guide and worked out end-of-day and coffee stops for each day. That’s a little too structured for me, but for now – I’m happy to go along with it. We’re heading for Zubiri which is only 23km away so, even with a coffee stop it’s 12:30 when we get there so we stop for food and a caña before finding an albergue around the corner. It’s a nice, private albergue so after a shower, quick change and hanging out the wet clothes head back to the cafe for a coffee.

Zubiri albergue lounge beers

Anna Maria and Janine arrive at the cafe and we tell them about the albergue but they’re pushing on for another 5km to the next town as it’s still early. We head back to the albergue and I head down to very nice lounge for a beer from the vending machine. After a while, Robert and Koos come down and we’re joined by a young chap called Jack. It turns out Jack is the president of Oxford University Students Union and on a sabbatical year, he’s been in Pamplona talking to the University there and decided to do the 3-day section from St Jean to Pamplona while he was here. He walked the Napoleon route on the first day and showed us photos of the conditions, I’m glad I didn’t go up there – he tells stories of people up on the high route who were struggling and had to turn back, I’m glad I took the low route, my shoes wouldn’t have coped with the conditions I saw on his photos.

Jack joins us for dinner at a truck stop down the road along with Rachel who he’s been walking with. Jack is doing the “Prime Minister Degree”, aka PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics so Robert and I joke that he’ll be Prime Minister one day. When the bill comes we somehow overpay and allow Jack the benefit of the overpayment, threatening that when he become Prime Minister we’ll sell the story about how he took advantage of old, retired pilgrims in Spain. It’s a fun evening with good company, even though we’ve all only known each other for a matter of hours it feels much, much longer – conversation is open, free and easy so we make plans to walk together into Pamplona tomorrow.

Day 5: Zubrini to Pamplona (21km)

“Becoming more comfortable with the whole experience and communal living” (Journal Entry)

The weather is better as we head out of Zubiri so I’m happy to be back in my shorts again, it attracts a couple of comments from other pilgrims as we pass them as I’m still the only person I’ve seen in shorts. As the sun burns off the mist we’re treated to amazing views back over the mountains. The trails are quite narrow so we alternatively walk and talk with each other and I spend a bit of time chatting with each of my companions.

Rachel introduces us to her concept of “Legends of the Camino“, this being that you meet interesting and unusual people on the Camino. You then tell other people about these people, (normally at night over a few drinks) and they become a Legend, with their story being passed up and down the trail. When you factor in the Chinese Whisper effect, these Legends become exaggerated over time. She tells us the “Legend of Roman” which goes something like this.

Jack and I met a young German lad called Roman who told us in a typically dry, factual German manner that he had given up alcohol, cigarettes, sugar and women for Lent. Jack asked him which was the hardest to give up, he replied “Coffee” – which was not even on the original list!

Later on, we’ll bump into the Legend of Roman again and see how he’s getting on! I like the idea though, I’m undoubtedly a recognisable character on the Camino. I’ve got the smallest pack I’ve seen, am the only one wearing (bright blue) shorts and have distinctive and increasingly bushy sideburns. I’m also moving faster than everyone else and even in our little group – don’t think that anyone has walked past me yet.

Pamplona lunch with added horse

Robert’s planned coffee stop is closed, much to his annoyance so we head straight into Pamplona to the big albergue, getting there for 12:00. After a quick change it’s back out to catch the start of a big bike race starting in Pamplona today. We just about catch Alberto Contador being introduced to crowd and watch the chaotic start of the race in the Plaza Major. It’s a huge event and the Plaza is packed with people, bikes, support cars and TV cameras – all a bit overwhelming after several days wandering through the countryside and mountains. After everything dies down Jack, Rachel, Robert and I find a bar for a caña and something to eat. Looking through the menu I spot a “Horse Burger”, I can’t resist so order one and Jack joins me. It’s nothing special to be honest, but very welcome in the sunshine.

After lunch we head off in separate directions for a bit of alone time, I need to find some shower gel and sun cream after leaving mine in Roncesvalles. I’ve already caught the sun from an hour-or-two over lunch in Pamplona, I can only find Factor 50 but it’ll have to do for now. Pamplona is famous for being a favourite haunt of Hemingway and also the Running of the Bulls where they let 6 angry bulls rampage through the streets while brave/stupid/drunk people try to outrun them and avoid being gored and/or trampled. But that’s not on today so I just wander around and sit by the Cathedral sketching for a while before heading back to the hostel.

Anna Maria and Janine have arrived at the hostel so they join us for dinner in Pamplona along with the rest of our group. Jack is heading back to the UK so bids us farewell after dinner and a few of us head off to Café Iruña for a nightcap which was apparently favoured by Hemingway. Then it’s back to the albergue before curfew at 22:00

Day 6: Pamplona to Puenta de la Reina (24km)

“May have to think about some longer days soon?” (Journal Entry)

Robert, Koos and I leave the Pamplona albergue early in order to get out of the city before the traffic gets too busy. It’s a big city and it takes us a good hour to get out to the suburbs, past the University and to our first coffee stop before the big climb of the day. The Camino markings are a little sketchy at times but every time we stand around looking lost a car slows down, a local leans out of the window and points us in the right direction. Spain really embraces this whole pilgrimage lark – something that becomes more-and-more apparent as this journey continues.

Alto de Perdon

The coffee stop is welcome and we meet Justine from Australia in the cafe who we’ve met before back in Roncesvalles. Shortly after that, Rachel arrives as well – having stayed in a different albergue last night. After a welcome coffee it’s time for the climb up to Alto de Perdon, (“Mount of Forgiveness”) where there’s a metal sculpture of pilgrims heading West and fantastic views back over Pamplona.

I have an interesting chat to Justine for a while, she’s a teacher and a devout Catholic and talks about how she’s trying to introduce Jesus and God into all areas of the curriculum. I’m intrigued  about how she’s planning to mesh theology with trigonometry but decide it’s probably best not to push the issue too much. After my experiences in the USA, I’m wary about revealing too much about my non-religious beliefs especially as this is a pilgrimage but so far, to be fair it hasn’t really come up.

About 30 minutes from our planned stop at Puenta de la Reina there’s an optional 5km detour to a Templar church called “Eunate”. It’s still early so Robert and I decide to go for it but Koos and Justine want to press-on so we say our goodbyes. The Camino is like that, people come-and-go in an instant. Someone you’ve made a really close bond with can disappear in seconds and you may never see them again. Koos and I have exchanged numbers though so I believe that I may see that crazy Dutchman again!

Eunate is a fascinating little church linked with the Knights Templar who used to protect and defend the pilgrims on the Camino. Further on down the trail towards Santiago there’s much more Templar history, but it’s something I didn’t know. As we get there a coachload of Spanish schoolchildren arrive but the caretaker who is originally from the USA lets us look around and gives a brief history of the place. As we leave the school leader points us out as “peregrinos” and the kids take pictures with their phones of these two strange foreigners, walking across their country with their backpacks and scallop shells hanging off them.

The bridge in Puenta de la Renia

Puenta de la Reina is a nice little town, the albergue is a bit shabby and the dormitories split into separate male/female rooms which means our room has around 24 men crammed into bunk beds. It’s going to smell ripe later tonight. Robert and I head off for a caña and then we go our own ways to explore a bit. Rachel texts me to say she’s in an albergue “over the bridge” so I head over to say hello and we all plan to meet up for dinner later.

Dinner is OK, Robert Rachel and I head back to Rachel’s albergue for a nightcap and then head back to our albergue before curfew. It’s party-time in our albergue though and we find ourselves sat in a weird group with a people from all over the world – all of whom seem to be speaking different languages but understand each other. Also in this group is the elderly South Korean gent from Roncesvalles who poured me some wine that annoyed the Italians so much. It turns out Kho is 70, from Seoul in South Korea and has walked the Camino a few times before. He is taking Juan, his English grandson who’s 12 on an adventure for a couple of weeks after which Juan will return to the UK and he’ll continue. He’s proud of his Korean ancestry, speaks very little English and the rest of the group seem to be making fun of him when he can’t explain himself. There’s plenty of wine flowing and although he seems happy enough it feels a bit mean as the rest of the group openly laugh at him, (not with him). I’m not comfortable with the situation and clearly Robert isn’t either so we leave them to it and head off to the dormitory to call it a night

Day 7: Puenta de la Reina to Estella (22km)

“I have earned the nickname Road Runner” (Journal Entry)

As expected the dormitory smelt like there had been 24 men sleeping in it this morning. Robert and I packed-up and shipped out fairly quickly and had a excellent breakfast in a local cafe before hitting the Camino again. Early-on we passed Kho and Juan, waved and shouted the customary “Buen Camino” at each other.

Moody Shadows on the Camino

At some point we picked-up Rachel, Anna Maria and Janine and walked all day into Estella. I don’t have many notes or memories from today, there’s some moody photos of dark clouds and shadows but aside from that I can’t recall much from the actual walking part of the day. We walk, we talk and occasionally stop for a coffee!

My notes tell of seeing The Legend of Roman, (remember him?) at our coffee stop – he came in as we were in there and Rachel pointed him out to us. Amusingly he was with 2-or-3 attractive young girls that he hadn’t been with before. We wondered if we would see him again, on Easter Sunday lying drunk by the side of the Camino – drinking coffee, eating ice cream, smoking a huge spliff engaged in an orgy with these young ladies!

Tonight we decided to try a less popular parochial, donativo albergue… Basically this was a free hostel which only asked for a donation. Rachel had slept at a slightly more obscure albergue last night, as had Janine and Anna Maria and both said it was nice and quiet. After the chaos of our albergue the previous night, Robert and I were up for a change. We got to Estella just as the albergue was opening and were greeted warmly by a couple of ladies from Ireland/New Zealand. They were new hospitalarios and had only been there for a day-or-two, the heating and hot water had been on the blink and they didn’t seem to know how anything worked in the albergue. It was “homely” and they were glad to see us!

Robert somehow managed to use the last of the hot water so I endured a cold shower as the plumber fixed the problem, managing to return the hot water just as I finished drying myself. We threw a load of clothes into the washing machine and headed out for the compulsory caña in the Plaza Major. Robert managed to accidentally spill a full beer all over my nice, clean trousers over lunch much to everyone’s amusement so they had to go back in the washing machine.

Dinner in Estella was nothing special, the hospitalarios told us about a mass in the local convent the next morning at 08:00, apparently it had singing nuns which were “divine” and not to be missed. I might not have been ready for religion a few days ago in Roncesvalles but divine singing nuns sounded like something I couldn’t miss.

Day 8: Estella to Los Arcos (22km)

Nungate!” (Journal Entry)

Robert went and found breakfast for everyone and we were treated to warm croissants and pain-au-chocolates before heading up the short walk to the convent for mass at 08:00 and the singing nuns. After taking a wrong turn-or-two we managed to get into the tiny chapel just after the start of mass. Inside there were 9 nuns arranged in banks of 3, the mother superior, the priest and one other member of the congregation. The mother superior quickly gave us all books with the service details in as we sorted ourselves out as quietly as possible.

Each of the nuns took turns singing and well, I’m not sure I’d call it “divine” but is was a different, serene start to the day instead of the usual chaos of exodus from the albergue. The best bit though was when, during one of the solo sections an elderly nun sitting directly in our line of sight seemed to nod-off and fall asleep. The nun next to her gave her a quick prod and the nun woke-up with a start and let out an equally startled “OOOP”. You couldn’t have scripted a better scene in any comedy. Needless to say, we all saw this and Rachel and I started descending into giggles, visibly shaking trying to stop from laughing. At one point I thought I was going to have to walk out of the mass, it was like being back at school. I could see Rachel shaking out of the corner of my eye and it set me off again. It was one of the highlights of the trip! Additionally, from my viewpoint it looked like the priest was bent forward reverently most of the time but – according to Robert he was actually playing games on his iPhone!

Just outside Estella there’s a legendary wine fountain which offers free wine to pilgrims and something we’d all been looking forward to. Somehow we missed it, although – to be fair it was only around 10:00 so doubtful that we’d be taking full advantage of the free vino. Somehow I got blamed for missing the free booze, I’ve no idea how or why but there you go. Throughout the rest of the journey, whenever I told people we missed it they couldn’t believe it – apparently it was like Las Vegas, neon signs and arrows with a shop selling souvenirs and everything? But – by all accounts the wine was rubbish anyway, so I’m not heartbroken about it.

En-route to Los Arcos

The rest of the day was spent tramping across the countryside to Los Arcos, endless vineyards and rolling hills. We found a decent, private albergue in Los Arcos and headed into the Plaza Major for afternoon drinks and snacks as usual.

In the square we met up with loads of people we’d met since St Jean, as we’d not been moving very far each day and generally going by the stages recommended in the Brierly guide book there were certain “choke points” and Los Arcos seemed to be one of them. Kho and Juan were there, along with Rosita, Roger and many others so we all arranged to have dinner together at the local restaurant.

I don’t recall much of interest happening at dinner or afterwards, my journal has a final entry saying simply “No time to blog – remember tomorrow

 Day 9: Los Arcos to Logroño (28km)

“NO BLOG” (Journal Entry)

I have nothing written in my journal from today, but several pictures from the day refresh my memories of events of the journey into Logroño and the evening that followed.

We went for breakfast at a local cafe, and were treated pretty badly by the owner who didn’t seem to care for the pilgrims. We waited a long time to be served, and despite ordering in Spanish were treated with contempt. It was very frustrating and after watching my companions being treated this way decided to walk away and do without breakfast. Anna Maria generously gave me the ham from her tostada as she didn’t want it, hopefully it would be enough to keep me going until Robert’s planned coffee stop a few hours down the road.

En-route to the coffee stop we pass the South African couple I’d met on the bus journey into Bayonne 10 days earlier. They recognise me, and remember my name – calling me “Gee” as my name is pronounced in France/Spain so I slowed down for a while to chat to them. I think they’re finding it tough, but at least they got through the Pyrenees in decent weather having started from St Jean a couple of days before me. After bidding them “Buen Camino” I walked past a girl who comments that I’m (still) the only person she’s seen in shorts and we strike up a conversation. Monique is a pretty 20-something GP from Amsterdam and keen to tell me her story. I can’t resist so The Legend of Monique is born!

Cafe au Monique

Monique came out here last year and fell in love on the first section of the Camino, she had to return home after 2 weeks but returned to finish the Camino with her new love. She’s keen to tell me all the stories of people who fall in love on the Camino and how all the double rooms are booked towards the end of the trail. Without missing a beat she then tells me she’s no longer with her Camino love and if I’m single! So, I tell her yes – I am single, and she then asks what I do and how old I am… This is getting weird! So I tell her I’m 46 and not working at the moment,  I have a feeling she thinks I’m younger than that but asks if I’m rich as I can afford not to work…

Before things can become more like a speed-dating session we arrive at the coffee stop for the day and I introduce Monique to the gang who are already there. I think that cools her off a bit as I’m in a group with several women and I head inside to get a coffee, when I return she’s got chatting to a much younger looking American lad that we’ve met before on the trail – good luck my friend and I’m sorry Monique, it just wasn’t to be!

After coffee we continue towards Logroño stopping in Viana for another coffee before tackling the final 10km into the big city. Over the last few days I’ve noticed that Rachel becomes very grumpy at the end of the day so I volunteer to try some different tactics to help. I tell her stories, feed her chocolate donuts but eventually conversation turns to hats and I dig out my peaked cap from my backpack and give it to her.

I don’t wear a hat because it obscures a lot of your field of vision when walking in nice, scenic places. But a peaked cap can focus your attention when racing, so we dub it “the cap of concentration” and it works! Rachel makes it to Logroño reasonably happy – result.

We’ve had an albergue recommendation in Logroño so check in and are assigned a 6-bed dormitory, just about big enough for our little posse. Dinner tonight seems to have been arranged after last night in Los Arcos with an increasingly large group of people in a restaurant.

Dinner in Logroño

For tonight I go along with all this, but I feel that I need to move-on from this group. We’re becoming too much of a clique, and I hate cliques. I want to walk longer, at my own pace, on my own terms. I want to be alone with my thoughts to work out stuff that needs to be worked out. When you’re in a group you either need to compromise to fit in with the group or cause friction and conflict within the group. I quietly make plans with myself to head out on my own tomorrow morning and start a new chapter in this adventure.

Continued in Part 3: Days 10 – 19

Progress – to Logroño

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El Camino de Santiago: Days 0 – 2

Image result for el camino de santiagoThe Camino de Santiago is the name given to any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. There are many paths to Santiago, the most (in)famous being the Camino Francés, (French Way) which starts on the French side of the Pyrenees and continues West for around 780km to Santiago de Compostela.

Prologue

I’m not sure when I first heard of the Camino de Santiago, I can recall people talking about walking 500 miles across Spain and I’m sure my former boss told me about it after one of my epic running adventures. It re-entered my consciousness last year after returning from the USA and hiking on the Arizona Trail. Whilst I absolutely loved the experience and still think every day of the people I met and places I saw, the amount of kit I had to carry just to stay alive in the desert made it extremely difficult. I wanted to try something of a similar distance, but where I could travel very light, carrying minimal kit but still be challenged – albeit in a different way.

So, as 2016 wore-on my mind wandered back to the Camino and I started finding myself looking at websites, maps, trip reports and YouTube videos. I watched, (and re-watched) “The Way” – a film starring Martin Sheen and a documentary called “Six Ways To Santiago“. Both of which are about people walking the Camino Francés. I’d also started learning Spanish and so everything seemed to point to this being an ideal adventure for 2017, there was water, food and accommodation every 10km so I could travel light, using hostels along the way. However – I’d also be in a foreign country where English was not the first language and while the terrain didn’t look too challenging, 780km is still a long way to walk. Plus, the idea of communal living in hostels doesn’t fill me with joy – give me a tent and a secluded bit of land with a campfire instead of a room filled with strangers in bunkbeds any day!

Guide and Credencial

So, I bought the excellent John Brierly guide book to the Camino Francés, booked a one-way flight to Biarritz and ordered the all-important Credencial del Peregrino, (Pilgrim Passport) from the Confraternity of St. James in London which allows the holder to stay in the pilgrim hostels, (albergues) along the Camino. It also serves as a record of the pilgrimage by allowing the holder to collect stamps, (sellos) from albergues, churches, bars etc. along the route. On arrival at Santiago, if the pilgrim can provide a credencial showing that they have walked at least the last 100km evidenced by at least 2 stamps a day then they they can receive a Compostela certificate written in Latin. Regardless of your motivation for doing the Camino, it’s a nice memento – and the different designs and colours of the sellos are a good reminder of the journey.

As this was going to be such a long journey I kept a daily journal as I knew that I’d forget about things along the way. Something that seemed to work well on the Arizona Trail, the journal entries combined with photos taken refresh the memories of the people I met, things I saw, places I went and emotions I felt. I’m going to break down the adventure into a series of blog posts as it felt like there were several very distinct “stages” to the journey. I intend to write a short section for each day, including any interesting photos, journal notes and the sellos collected for that day. There may be some ramblings about more general topics along the way if I think they’re relevant or interesting!

The first stage is all about getting to the start of the Camino Francés from Cardiff.

Day 0: Cardiff to Bayonne (Flight / Bus)

“Still not in the right mindset for this Camino but am slowly getting there. First contact with fellow pilgrims has re-enforced the the idea that meeting good people along this adventure will be very exciting” (Journal Entry)

The National Express to Stanstead airport leaves Cardiff at 05:00 so I’m up at 03:30 in order to make sure everything in my house is shut-down, switched-off and put into hibernation mode for the foreseeable future. I’m not exactly sure how long I’m going to be away, a month? Maybe more? Everything perishable is thrown out, the heating put into holiday mode, WiFi turned-off and a single light put onto timer mode to provide an illusion of occupancy at my house. At around 04:30 I lock the door, put the key into the bottom of my rucksack and head out in the dark to start a new adventure.

The National Express to London is fine, but the journey to Stanstead takes hours through the centre of London. I become increasingly frustrated by the traffic, which does nothing to calm my nerves and I become increasingly anxious and nervous about this trip. Again-and-again I think it would be very easy to get to Stanstead and just turn around and go home. I keep asking myself “why am I doing this?”, and “what is the point?” and I can’t come up with a decent answer. But somehow I keep moving forwards and get through security at Stanstead Airport. I decide to treat myself to a pint or-two in the airport Wetherspoons which calms my nerves down and before I know it I’m on the Ryanair flight to Biarritz. We’re past the point of no return now, it’s a one-way ticket….

Arriving at Biarritz it’s a short bus journey to Bayonne and whilst waiting outside for the bus a group of 5-or-6 people with backpacks form, it’s pretty obvious we’re all off to walk the Camino so a conversation strikes-up fairly quickly. I get chatting to an elderly couple from South Africa who are walking the Francés, they have twice walked the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon and are back for more. We chat about lots of things on the bus journey to Bayonne and I feel an immediate connection to these people – familiar from ultrarunning and my time in Arizona, a strange bond.

I have a hotel booked in Bayonne and after checking-in, walk into the city to find the start of the trail tomorrow. Most people get the train to St. Jean Pied de Port, (St Jean) from here, but I’m planning on walking the 80km to the start of the Camino Francés over the next couple of days. Why? well – let me try to explain.

The Camino Francés including connectors to Bayonne and Muxía, (approx 1000km/610 miles)

The Camino Francés, along with the other routes is increasing in popularity every year. 2016 statistics say 277,915 people received a compostela in 2016 with 63.37% having walked the Francés – albeit not all do the full 780km, many people do it in sections – walking 1-2 weeks at a time. Others just do the final 100km from Sarria in order to obtain the compostela certificate. Reports of overcrowding, full albergues, commercialisation and litter increase every year. I really struggled with my decision of which Camino route to do, the Portuguese and Norte routes are similar in distance, arguably more scenic and tougher with fewer facilities and hillier terrain – so probably better suited to my experience. However – I felt that instead of running away from the problems of the Francés, I should confront them head-on and deal with them. I hate crowded trails and love being out in the wilderness on my own, but sometimes you can’t have everything – I knew that choosing the Francés was going to put me out of my comfort zone, I would have to deal with the crowds and hey, if it got too bad, I could always divert up to the Norte route, so I had an escape plan!

I also didn’t want it to feel like St Jean was the “start point” of my Camino, that made it feel too much like a race with a start/finish point. I wasn’t planning on finishing in Santiago either, but instead heading on to Muxía, (another 120km) So I decided to spend 2 days walking to St Jean in the hope that by the time I arrived there I’d be mellow and ready to embrace the Camino as a pilgrimage, well – that was the plan!

Day 1: Bayonne to Hélette (42km)

“I keep forgetting where I am, it could be anywhere…” (Journal Entry)

The Start in Bayonne

As with the start of any big adventure, a mixture of nerves, excitement, adrenaline and anxiety got me up and out of the hotel pretty quickly and I was on the road by 07:30 after a quick breakfast. There is an official route to St Jean from Bayonne which initially follows the river Nive. It’s not brilliantly marked, so I had maps and instructions translated from French with me.

The first 22km was pretty uninspiring and flat along the Nive and I really wasn’t feeling the love for walking for the next month. But I was now on my way, deep in French Basque country and past the point of easy escape back home.

The second half of the day was better, the weather was nice, sunny and warm and the scenery picked-up a little. The Pyrenees occasionally appeared in the background, snow-capped mountain peaks and the walking got a bit more challenging, I was mainly walking through rolling countryside on roads or little paths and to be honest, it could have been anywhere in the UK. Endless green fields, farmyards, cows and woodland. It was only when the occasional sign or village appeared with signs in French that reminded me I was a long way from home!

Gite d’Etape

I’d booked a Gite d’Etape in the little town of Hélette – basically a youth hostel and got there at around 15:00 heading to the town hall to collect the keys. My French is pretty rusty, and having been learning Spanish for 6 months got very confused between the two languages but eventually managed to get the keys and found the hostel which I had to myself for the night. This was my first experience of hostels on the journey and a bit of an eye-opener. While the hostel was clean enough it was full of dead flies stuck on flypaper, peeling wallpaper and a smoky-black fireplace. I would have loved to see the reviews on Trip Advisor! But – it had a bed, cooker and fridge. All I needed really.

The one-and-only little supermarket opened at 16:00 so I headed over, picked up some food, beer and snacks for the next day and sat outside watching the sun go down until it was time to go to bed. There was no WiFi, internet, TV or radio to entertain me. I hadn’t bought any books or reading material… It was just me and my thoughts in a little village in France.

An alarm went off at 22:00 in the Gite, obviously signalling it was “lights out” and so, with nothing else to do I went to bed.

Day 2: Hélette to St Jean Pied de Porte (27km)

Sellos (Day 2)

“People from all over the world here, nobody seems to know why they are here or why they are walking the Camino?” (Journal Entry)

At 07:00 the alarm went off again in the Gite and the lights came on! It was only 27km to St Jean today so there was no rush to get out but I was back on the trail by 08:00. I don’t remember much about the walk into St Jean apart from getting lost at one point and ending up in a farmyard, a bemused farmer tried to point me in the right direction and we both ended up laughing as we couldn’t understand each other. Anyway – somehow I manged to find the trail and got into St Jean at around 13:00, far too early to check-into my albergue. There was a line of pilgrims outside the pilgrims office waiting to register at the official start point of the Camino Francés, so I wandered around St. Jean for a while noticing that there were a lot of people who looked suspiciously like pilgrims in the bars and cafes.

The sunny weather disappeared and it started raining with thunder and lighting strikes. Fortunately there was a Carrefour supermarket nearby so I dove into that and picked-up some supplies for the next day along with a few emergency beers. Then I headed off to one of the cafes for a quick drink before heading to the pilgrim office to officially register at the start of the Camino Francés.

The Napoleon Route is the “high” route out of St Jean over The Pyrenees and doesn’t open officially until April 1st – which was tomorrow, the day I was planning to start my Camino. I didn’t know this, but it seemed that this fact, along with it being a Saturday meant that lots of people were starting on the same day as me. Typical… I’m starting on one of the busiest days on the Camino Francés. However, the French lady at the pilgrims office told me several times in no uncertain terms that the Napoleon was ferme, (closed) and neige (snow) and danger, (no translation required). People die on this route, it’s high and exposed – and with it being the first day people are unprepared and unfit. Later on my adventure I heard many different stories about this route, if it was actually closed and what conditions were like up there. But for now, let’s just say I nodded wisely and told her there was no way I was planning to go up on the Napoleon route. I’m not sure how much she believed me – but she stamped my credencial and wished me a “Buen Camino”.

Dormitory purgatory

My albergue, (hostel) was across the road and it was now time to check-in and face one of my personal challenges for this trip. Hostels, bunk beds, dormitories and that whole communal living experience fills me with dread. I like my own space so this was going to be a huge challenge. Beilari, (Basque for “pilgrim”) offered me a bunk bed and communal meal for 33€, (I later found this to be expensive by Camino standards). I checked-in with a group of 3  – Huw, (California), Janine (New-Zealand) and Anna-Maria(Peru) and was shown to my bunk in an 8-bed dorm. A few more people arrived, Rosita (Brazil) and Koos (Netherlands) and at around 17:00 Janine and Anna-Maria popped their head around the door and invited me down to the pub for a few drinks with people from an internet forum, all of whom were starting tomorrow, April 1st. There followed a couple of hours of nervous, excited chatter – mainly about how heavy your pack was. I seemed to have the smallest lightest pack by a long way, and even though I tried to make light of my running background – people seemed to be under the impression I was going to be in Santiago in a week.

We headed back to the albergue for a communal dinner, it started with a quite uncomfortable group bonding session, we had to play games of passing an imaginary ball to people, and then talking about why we were walking the Camino. It was almost like a corporate away day exercise and I really wasn’t comfortable with it. I recall that most of the people there either didn’t know why they were walking the Camino, or weren’t willing to reveal it to complete strangers at this point. When it came to my turn to say why I was walking the Camino I said (something like)

“To find out something about myself that I don’t yet know, I’m not doing the Camino Francés, or on Pilgrimage… This is just a long walk and may end at any moment! “

I’ve thought about that statement many times since and in general I stand by it. Over the next few weeks the Camino revealed many things to me, it provided answers to many questions and also posed many more questions that are all still unanswered. But that’s all still to come!

The dinner finished around 22:00 and everyone headed off to the dormitories to get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow we were all off into the Pyrenees and the weather forecast was not good.

Continued in Part 2: Days 3-10

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Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail

A few weeks ago WordPress kindly notified me that “Your stats are booming!”, so I headed over to my blog to check out the international interest and acclaim, only to be met with some figures that implied a couple of people from Sweden may have accidentally ended up here while searching for something more interesting. Anyway, as I was here  I paused a while to re-read the most recent entries, the ones detailing my adventures in the USA on the Arizona Trail, Monument Valley and the Skydive 100.

It struck me that I almost didn’t recognise the person in those articles, I wanted to be “that Guy” again and return to the exciting, adventure-filled life that dominated the first part of 2016. Things haven’t been the same since returning from the USA, and without the structure and distractions of a normal job, life has taken some getting used to and I’ve needed to adapt and diversify by taking up different hobbies and activities. My dreams of spending all my time hiking, running and exploring seem to conflict with the fact I’m rapidly heading out of my 40’s and things take longer to recover from. But that’s all another story and not part of the adventure I’m telling here.

Hadrian’s Wall Path has long been on my to-do list, it’s a National Trail and a historic UK landmark along with the likes of Stonehenge. It bisects the UK across its width and there’s something appealing about crossing the country by foot. I knew very little about The Wall or the National Trail before starting, anything learnt in my school days was long since forgotten. I prefer not to do too much research on stuff like this before starting, other people’s experiences can influence and colour my judgement. So, the plan was to cover the 84 miles over 3 days, West to East… I booked a couple of B&B’s at what looked like reasonable overnight stops and a hotel in Newcastle at the end and headed up to Carlisle.

Day 0: Carlisle

It’s a 300-mile drive to Carlisle on the UK motorway network which, on a cold, wet and windy day is a pretty grim experience. I was looking forward to seeing the Lake District appear once past Lancaster but everything was blanketed in a misty, wet, grey cloud so there was little to see. Arriving at my hotel for the night I checked-in and walked into Carlisle to find the bus stop where I planned to catch the first bus to Bowness-on-Solway the following morning at 06:35.

The weather was grim, the bus stop was a 20-minute walk from the hotel and by the time I’d found it and got back I was soaked to the bone and freezing cold. The weather forecast for the next 3 days wasn’t much better, I seriously thought about writing the expedition off, going to the pub and drinking the night away. Really, what was the point of putting myself through 3 days of hell?

But I didn’t, I was sensible and got an early night – resolving that tomorrow is another day and just to take things one moment at a time, so I went to bed sober and listening to the wind and rain lash down on the window of my hotel room.

Day 1 Bowness to Gilsland (33-ish Miles)

The alarm went off at 05:00 and I looked out of the hotel window, well at least it wasn’t raining or blowing a hoolie, (as they say). But it still looked wet and pretty grim – though it was dark and the hotel wasn’t particularly in a nice, scenic location so I guess it would have looked unappealing in any scenario. I’d arranged to leave my car at the hotel for a few days, so packed-up, checked out and walked to the bus stop as it started to get light.

Just as I got to the bus stop the rain started again, lashing down very heavily. There was only one other person waiting – a young lad who, correctly assumed I was going hiking and commented that I must be “off me head”. I agreed, but as the bus had now arrived, and I’d made all this effort I might as well go and take a look at this wall. Still unconvinced, I knew I’d be back in Carlisle by lunchtime and if things got really nasty could bail out easily. However, on the hour-or-so journey to the start at Bowness-on-Solway, something magical happened, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the wind dropped. By the time I got off the bus it was a nice, crisp spring morning in Bowness-on-Solway.

The start at Bowness-on-Solway

Finding the start of Hadrian’s Wall Path isn’t quite as easy as you might think and it took me a few minutes to find it, there’s a little sign pointing down between some houses which takes you to the official start – a shelter with a few noticeboards from National Trails and a couple of plaques proclaiming the start/end of the trail depending on your direction of travel. Obviously for me, it was the start so I had to take an obligatory selfie to prove I’d actually been there.

The first 13-14 miles into Carlisle is flat as a pancake and involves a fair amount of road, I knew this and wanted to get the boring stuff over as quickly as possible. My pack was pretty light, and coupled with the OMM front map pouch was nice and stable, and I was pleased to find I could comfortably jog with it. It wasn’t my intention to run any of the trail, but sometimes it’s nice to break into a jog, and the boring bits go by a lot faster when you’re running. As I got nearer to Carlisle it was obvious that The Wall wasn’t going to make an appearance any time soon, in fact I also began to question the word “Path” in “Hadrian’s Wall Path” – the official name of this trail. Where it wasn’t road, the route took me through muddy tracks and farmyards and over waterlogged fields and pasture – something which was to become a feature of the whole trail later.

There were also several diversions due to flooding, erosion and landslips. These were a little annoying but very well signposted and fairly easy to follow – as they increased I began to rename the trail “Hadrian’s Diversion” due to the lack of wall or path in what Í was experiencing. A long diversion through Carlisle allowed me to pause at a large Sainsbury’s to pick up some food for the second half of this day which I hoped was going to be a little more interesting.

Finally, some Wall!

Once through Carlisle and after a couple more long road diversions at around 26 miles from the start things started to get a bit more interesting. Finally, a bit of The Wall appeared from nowhere, a few yards of it – all alone in a field surrounded by a fence, it seemed a bit sad sitting there on its own but hey, it was a bit of The Wall. Carrying on, with a few miles to go and after a bit of a welcome elevation gain I arrived at a place called “Banks” and suddenly there it was, loads of Wall! Not only was there some Wall, but there were remains of forts, turrets and other Roman buildings. Yes, this was more like it, I had everything to myself and plenty of time to wander around and read all the noticeboards before moving-on. I also passed what looked like a visitors centre, but it was all locked-up and closed.

Where the trail wasn’t on road it was still waterlogged and very muddy underfoot and I was pretty caked in mud to knee-height, so just before my B&B for the night I washed off in the river and headed up into Gilsland to find The Samson Inn where I was staying for the night.

Gilsland was an ideal overnight stop and The Samson Inn was great with friendly locals and staff, I was the only person staying there, they fed and watered me more than adequately and I retired to bed at around 9pm.

Day 2 Gilsand to Chollerford (20-ish Miles)

Day 2 – start in Gilsland

The Samson Inn supplied a decent full breakfast, I made-up some Nutella / peanut butter sandwiches from the buffet and took some fruit as wasn’t sure where I would be able to get food today. Just as well, as I wasn’t going to see anywhere to get food until the end of the day in around 8 hours time.

It was a fabulous morning, bright and crisp as I set off – the next 12-13 miles were epic, this was what I’d imagined Hadrian’s Wall to be. Rolling hills, forts, milecastles, turrets and settlements. There were quarries where stone was mined for The Wall, the iconic “Sycamore Gap” which apparently featured in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves and was also voted “Tree of the Year” in 2016.

Sycamore Gap

It’s a tough-old section though, similar to coastal path terrain, constantly undulating and fairly difficult underfoot – especially in shoes with little-to-no grip which I’d foolishly opted for. The ground was pretty waterlogged again and generally grassy making everything very slippy and I ended up on my back several times. On one of these occasions my phone must have dropped out of my pack which I discovered to my horror while looking for it to take a photo, backtracking a mile-or-so I found it lying on the grass… phew

Incredibly, over the 3 days I saw only a handful of people on the entire trail – it wasn’t until this section that I saw anyone obviously out walking the trail or here to see Hadrian’s Wall. I know it’s off-season and not half-term but I’d have expected to see a few more tourists – I wasn’t complaining though, I had The Wall all to myself, which suited me just fine.

Lots of lovely Wall

After 13-14 miles and once past Housteads the interesting stuff was done and the trail dropped to follow the Military Road for 7-or-8 miles to Chollerford, my end point for Day 2. By now I’d run out of food and it was a 2-3 hour slog through very waterlogged and muddy fields which was really hard work. I contemplated walking along the road instead of the constant mudbath but decided that if I was going to walk Hadrian’s Wall Path, I might as well do it properly – mud, or no mud. I was starting to get very “hangry” with the state of the route though and so it was with some relief that I staggered into Chollerford at 4pm and went straight to the garage to buy lots of chocolate, then to the pub to wait for a bus to my B&B in Wark 6 miles away, it was a 90-minute wait – but the pub was warm and served beer, so everything was fine again pretty shortly.

Battlesteads B&B in Wark was my destination for Day 2, a fantastic country pub and very posh – too posh maybe for a smelly, mud-soaked hiker and I somehow managed to get it for £40. By the time I’d sorted everything out and scoffed the complimentary fruit basket there was time for a quick pint and then off to bed again.

Day 3 Chollerford to Wallsend (31-ish Miles)

The bus back to Chollerford left at 07:40 so unfortunately I didn’t have time for breakfast today, though I wasn’t really bothered as I don’t like hiking, (or running) on a full stomach and I knew there was going to be food options now as I headed into Newcastle. My feet were quite sore and swollen after 2 days of waterlogged and muddy trails but soon settled down after a few minutes and couple of ibuprofen.

The Vallum – it’s a ditch

The bus was full of school kids heading to Hehxam, but I got off back at Chollerford at the same stop I’d used the previous day. I’d miscalculated the distance today, originally thinking it was going to be around 25 miles, but it looked more like 32-33 now and the fingerpost after a mile-or-two suggested Heddon-on-the-Wall was 15 miles away which I thought was about the halfway point, and my first opportunity to refuel and buy supplies.

Fortunately, it was cold and had been freezing overnight so the ground underfoot was fairly firm and not as waterlogged as the previous 2 days. I stuck an audiobook on my iPod and started walking, once again the trail was following the road and, although there was a few gentle undulations it wasn’t very exciting. I’d long since lost all sign of The Wall and was now following the Vallum which is basically a big ditch that follows Hadrian’s Wall and predates it. But – a ditch is a ditch, historic or not and not very interesting after a few hours!

I met a couple of walkers coming the other way early on, both having started the previous day from Wallsend, I stopped for a quick chat with them, still amazed that these were the only other hikers I had encountered. Around mid-morning I came across some National Trail workers who’d seen me the previous day and were very impressed that I’d nearly completed the trail in 2.5 days, one even took a photo and put it up on the National Trails Twitter feed, nice one fellas!

By lunchtime I was getting hungry again and got to the halfway point at Heddon-on-the-Wall, finding a nice big, yellow Shell petrol station. There was around 15-16 miles to do so I grabbed enough calories to get me to the end and set-off on the final section – aiming to get to the end for around 17:00.

Howay man! We gannin’ doon tae Newcastle like.

The final few hours were pretty dull to be honest, it was tarmac/footpath all the way to Wallsend. Going through Newcastle along the Tyne was interesting with some of the iconic landmarks, but I knew I’d be back later that day and have time to enjoy them more then. Once through Newcastle the final 5 or 6 miles took me along the Tyne, through industrial estates until finally finishing bang-on 17:00 at the Segedunum museum in Wallsend, only to find it all closed and locked-up… I couldn’t even get in for a photo – what an anti-climax!

The Metro station at Wallsend was close though, so I wandered over to it and caught the train into Newcastle and found my hotel for the night, but not before stopping at McDonalds for a huge Big Mac meal which was about all I wanted to eat by then.

The following day I caught the train back to Carlisle from Newcastle to pick up my car. It’s a nice journey and quite interesting as it goes past a lot of the stuff I’d walked though over the previous 3 days. It was a long journey home, taking a full day of trains and driving – probably not the best way to recover from 3 days of hiking.

Thoughts on Hadrian’s Wall Path

I have to admit I was disappointed by the Hadrian’s Wall Path experience – in the sense of the National Trail aspect of it. Maybe some of that is my own fault for not researching the route or history beforehand, I’d expected a lot more “Wall” and a lot more “Path” – well, you would wouldn’t you, given the name “Hadrian’s Wall Path“? Having said that, and done some reading – I understand that this is by design, and the National Trails have deliberately left the route grassy to avoid the damage required to cut a path into the landscape. They also advise against walking the route between October – April due to it being waterlogged and the effects of erosion from hikers. Ooops! It is excellently marked though, one of the best marked routes I’ve ever done and almost impossible to get lost on – even the diversions were superbly and regularly marked with signs and the National Trail acorn stickers.

Where Hadrian’s Wall Path is good, it’s amazing… The 20-ish mile section from Banks to Housteads is superb and has everything in it. Unfortunately, the other 64 miles I found a bit dull, and 64 miles is a long way to be bored and uninspired. Add-in a very generous helping of mud and it becomes a bit of a slog.

But – I’m glad I did it… It served a purpose and got me back out into the world for a little adventure and enabled me to write this blog. It allowed me to work on refining my kit and make sure I’m happy with my pack and gear, it’s also given me that final kick needed to push me over the edge and finalise plans to head out to Spain to do the Camino de Santiago. Hopefully there’ll be plenty more to come soon!

Hasta la próxima amigos

 

Posted in Fastpack, National Trails | Leave a comment

The Arizona Trail: Epilogue

AZNST_logo

“Little did I know what tomorrow would bring” was the cliffhanger left at the end of the previous post! Apologies for the delay in writing the final episode, it’s been a busy 3 weeks.

We pick up the story after Day 16 where I was turned away from the motel in the little town of Superior, hiked back to the AZT and camped back on the trail.

Day 17 – after a brilliant night under the stars I woke up early, disturbed by the highway noise and something that had been getting worse for a few days. My toes, especially on the left foot were dead – it wasn’t a painful condition, but very uncomfortable, a bit like if you’ve ever spent too long out in the cold and lose the feelings in your hands. I was sure it was circulatory problem and, having had similar issues with my hands after Fellsman in 2012 was concerned about lasting issues. The nerve damage I suffered on that event took around 6 months to heal and I still have issues today with the cold in my fingers.

It was 160+ miles of rough desert before I got to anything remotely near humanity from here – best case, that would be 8-9 days of hiking. Even so, that stop was remote and it was another few days to Flagstaff. I took a long, hard look at myself and decided that I just wasn’t happy continuing at risk and packed-up and went back to the highway, it was around 50 miles to Phoenix on HWY60, I didn’t want to hitch but I could walk to somewhere safe in a couple of days, the alternative was to carry-on and hope things would be OK. I’m normally pretty relaxed and reckless about this sort of stuff but I’d learnt that Arizona takes no prisoners – if I became incapacitated I’d last 24-36 hours out in the desert before it was Game Over, I suspected the people behind me were further away than that. This wasn’t a game show, Bear Grylls wasn’t going to jump out of a helicopter with a film crew and and if I shouted “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” only the rattlesnakes would hear me. I’d left my SPOT GPS tracker at home, my cell phone didn’t work even when there was a signal, the final straw was that I’d smashed my tablet that I was using to store the GPS tracks to download to my Garmin watch, no maps, no GPS tracks – all my lifelines had been used.

So I started walking West on HWY60 and after a few minutes looking at the endless highway decided to stick out my left thumb. After about an hour a black mustang convertible beeped behind me and a local from Superior, (I forget his name) picked me up. Getting into the passenger seat, a MASSIVE black dog jumped on me, licking me all over – I’d been out in the desert for 4 days and was caked with sweat so this dog was loving it.

“Ziggy! Get off” my driver shouted his dog, grabbing a squirty bottle of water and pointing it at his dog.

It didn’t seem to help though, my driver was cool – a young chap who was, in his words just crusin’, he’d been in-and-out of jail and was proud to show me his .45 and talk guns, Trump and God! All I wanted was to get to a car hire place and so, once we got into the Phoenix suburbs he looked-up a Hertz agency and dropped me off at the nearest depot.

“Hi, how ‘ya doing, how can I help” the pretty, young girl asked as I fell into the Hertz lounge in East Mesa AZ smelling and looking like you’d imagine after 4 days hiking in the desert, even after Ziggy’s attempt to lick me clean. I wasn’t sure how long I’d need a car for, or where I was going to return it to. Basic, survival instinct kicked-in and I just asked for a car for a week, to be returned in Las Vegas. This was expensive, but no problem for Hertz and this bemused local. We chatted for a while about my adventure – her eyes widening as I told stories of rattlesnakes, hitch-hiking and miles of wilderness and desert.

Now I had a car and drove back to the highway towards Phoenix, priority #1 was to get my feet looked at. I saw a sign saying “Hospital” on the HWY60 and took the exit not knowing what to expect on arrival – there’s no NHS out in the USA, but I had excellent medical insurance. On arrival at the US equivalent of A&E I explained my condition to the staff and showed my insurance details – apparently this wasn’t a problem and I was quickly ushered to see a doctor.

The unlucky physician peeled off my socks, (I was still unwashed after 4 days in the desert) and diagnosed that my Injinji “Toe Socks” had been reducing the circulation to my feet, After 16 days, and the additional stress caused by a 40-50 pound pack I’d suffered nerve damage which would take a while to heal.

“A while?” I asked hopefully – “How long will that be – when can I get back onto the trail?”

The doctor just laughed at me… He said I could return sometime in the next 3 months, but that I could probably say goodbye to my toes shortly after.

The decision had been made for me – that was the end of the AZT. I bought a cheap USA mobile phone and checked into a hotel in Phoenix for a couple of days while I worked out what I was going to do next. The person I saw in the mirror shocked me, sunburnt, haggard and gaunt – I’d lost a lot of weight over the last couple of weeks, across the road was a Carl’s Jr Drive-Thru, before I even jumped in the shower I went there, ordered two 1/2lb combo meals and a quart of ice cream.

After recovering a little, and as I now had a US mobile phone number I sent messages to all my friends asking if I could help out. All of them got back in touch and I now had a new mission as a Trail Angel for my fellow hikers.

Wildflower and Yogabird had met Sean and were due to arrive at my fateful Pizza stop at noon the next day. I offered to drive there and give them a ride into town and back. Even though I’d only crossed paths briefly with these people the reunion was a little emotional and we had a few hours chatting and comparing notes in the little town of Kearney. Sean stayed in-town overnight and I dropped the girls back where I picked them up. Last heard, the girls were still on the AZT and doing well

Larry, Marcella and Max plus his mate were staying at the Copper Canyon Inn where I was booked into for the evening. We went to dinner together and had a lot of fun chatting. Larry and Marcella had decided to end their hike at Superior and were trying to get back to Phoenix without luck, as I had a car I offered to give them a ride the next day for which they were incredibly grateful!

And what of me, well – after dropping Larry and Marcella off at their hire car agency in Pheonix I headed North through Arizona, I stopped at the little town of Pine which would have been my next resupply stop after 160 miles for a burger and beer at my planned hostel. The weather turned really nasty and there were thunderstorms, snow, hail and

Vegas Baby!

Vegas Baby!

rain! I was pretty glad I wasn’t out in this weather to be honest. After that I made my way to Las Vegas via the wild west town of Holbrook – dubbed, “The town too tough for women and children” and Flagstaff which seemed to be full of drifters and kids in hoodies on skateboards.

I stayed in downtown Vegas and dropped off the hire car but didn’t really enjoy my couple of days there, I have lots of history with Sin City over the last 15 years but think we’re done now. After a couple of days I was glad to escape and flew to San Francisco to tick-off another item on my USA Bucket List.

The California Zephyr is a train route run by Amtrak which runs non-stop from San Francisco to Chicago across the USA. It travels 2438 miles in around 52 hours and goes through the high country of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Taho, The Rockies, Denver before dropping to the plains of the Idaho and Ohio. It’s widely recognised as being one of the best, most scenic train journeys in the world and was always on my list for this trip.

The train left San Francisco right-on schedule at 09:10 on Friday morning, I was really impressed – my cabin was big and comfortable with a full, pull-down bed. There were showers, complimentary coffee, water and juice – our car had it’s own conductor who made sure we were all looked after. I then found out that my $580 fare was 1st class and also included all meals in the dining car! Bargain.

Snow in the Rockies

Snow in the Rockies

The dining cars on Amtrak aren’t like the ones on British Rail, it’s a sit-down, full service of proper food, (steak / pasta / burgers etc…) no microwaved rubbish here, oh no! They also have a communal seating policy, this means that – if you’re in a party of 3 or less you’ll be sat with strangers. As I was on my own, I was always I dined with new people which provided new and different conversation.

The journey really was everything I’d hoped it would be, the Sierras and Rockies were very, very cool – there was a snowstorm in the Rockies but the California Zephyr ploughed through massive drifts and blizzards, (take note British Rail) I met lots of new and interesting people on the train and saw bits of the USA that I’d not have seen otherwise. It was brilliant value at $580 for 2 days/nights with all food and the sleeper cabin. I’d recommend it as an experience.

Finally I got to Chicago and spent 4 days there before I was due to fly to New York for my journey back to the UK. I don’t like big cities and found it noisy, busy and full of scammers, grifters and hustlers, I did however get out for a couple of runs and used the time to explore some of the classic landmarks in the city but – I was glad to escape and head to New York to start the long journey home.

Eventually, after 5 weeks and 3 days of travelling I arrived home in Cardiff, exhausted and with a nasty chest infection that appeared as I arrived at Gatwick. Now, 5 days later the jetlag has gone and I’m left with a tickly, annoying cough.

I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last 3 weeks about my experience on the AZT and having to come off the trail after 300 miles. I really, really enjoyed my time on the AZT, yes, it was hard – but there were times each and every day where I can remember being totally happy and content. Wild camping under the stars, watching the sunrise and sunset, the deserts and wildlife and the total isolation are things that stick with me. I’ll miss the people I met on the trail too, everyone I met was helpful, friendly and selfless which is infectious. I’ve mused that I was simultaneously at my most isolated and most social, even though I could not see another person for 2-3 days at a time, when I finally met someone there was an immediate bond.

But, and here’s the kicker – I like moving fast and light… My pack, with water and food was probably upwards of 25kg/55lb. And I’m a runner, not a hiker! Most people seemed to be doing 12-15 miles/day whereas I was doing almost double that, my mentality is that if it’s light I might as well be moving forward towards. On a trail like the AZT, with so few water and supply points I wanted to minimize the amount of food and water I had to carry so tried to move fast between these points. After 16 days, (including 2 rest days), averaging 20-25 miles/day over rough, mountainous terrain this broke me. The toes on my left foot are better but still a little numb, I’m pretty sure that I made the correct decision and stopped before I did any real damage to the nerves.

I’ve said before, “Never Say Never” – I’d like to do some more multi-day hiking, there’s A LOT of stuff I’d change next time which I’d like to try. In the UK and Europe we have many, shorter trails that are possibilities and can be completed in 10-14 days and I may turn my eyes towards them during the summer. But, for now – it’s time to get back to some running.

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