On Sundays, when I was growing up, we ate dessert with either cream or custard served out of a jug bearing the legend No road is long with good company. I used to wonder what that phrase meant, not appreciating the truth of these words until I was well into adulthood and, even then, often preferring to take the shortest route possible – preferably alone – rather than the longer path.
I came to deeply know the value of a good walk, with good company, when I started going on long distance hikes with my friend, Catriona (aka T). We found a natural ease in each other’s presence and an ability to either talk for hours or enjoy comfortable silences.
Six years ago, whilst we were walking the Wayfarers long distance path through the Beech Hangars of Hampshire, T said that she had a lifelong ambition to walk the Camino Frances, from Saint John Pied de Port in France, across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela – all 800kms of it. She asked me if I fancied going and I thought – yeah, why not?
A year later in 2018 – having ploughed through several books about The Camino, watched the movie The Way about 20 times, bought myself a super lightweight rucksack from the Bergan store in Oslo and whittled my kit down to what I considered to be the bare minimum, I found myself booking tickets on train line to take us to Paris and then on to Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) – we were now fully committed to going on our adventure. What unfolded over the next five weeks was one of the greatest journeys through friendship that I have ever experienced. I recorded my impressions and feelings in a series of face book posts that I called ‘Camino Notes’ which themselves evolved and grew even as we did. I’ve reproduced these posts here, along with my subsequent reflections on them.
Paris- April 24
Walking with fully loaded rucksack for 18km.
Rose at the cafe Montparnasse
Dinner at petit sommelier
Starting the daily laundry ritual
People sleeping rough
Excitement of getting TGV tickets for Bayonne
April 25 – Bayonne – SJPP
TGV through the flat lands
Radio 4 on Internet
Road signs in Basque leaving Bayonne
Chinese pilgrims with selfie sticks
April 26th – pre-dawn owl hooting, leaving SJPP and heading up the Route Napoleon over the Pyrenees, coffee, bananas and Bob Marley at the albergue Orrisson, fog, unending uphill, fog, horses wearing cowbells, following signposts, looking out for late season snowdrifts, fog, super steep descent through woods of beech and bluebells, elation at completing 18 miles over the Pyrenees in 7.5 hours, getting a bed for the night at the monastery Refugio in Roncesvalles, supper consisting of 3 types of carbohydrate – and wine, in bed at 8.30pm – contemplating sleep.
April 27 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri – early morning bundle to get up and out on the road, the promise of sunshine, being buzzed by the bicyclegrinos, relishing a short walk of 15 miles with gentle undulations, bagging a bunk at the Refugio by 2.30pm, washing on the line, horses and foals in the field, verdant Navarra, sharing cheese sandwiches, apples, nuts and beer, making a dinner date for 6.30pm, contemplating sleep yet again!
April 28 – tears before dawn as my vasculitic joints complain and dear T gives me a shoulder to cry on, joy as breakfast coffee, croissant and meds kick in, riverside paths with spring flowers and early honeysuckle, fabulous local man selling wayside snacks to raise money for refugees, tin man, elevenses with new Camino chums, medieval bridges, crisp sarnies for lunch, picking up our step as we progress through the suburbs of Pamplona, special treat night – booked into a lovely hotel with an amazing view and our own bathroom, long hot shower, first sightseeing to the cathedral and the launderette, ridiculous self inflicted pain with a massage ball, so looking forward to supper and some wine, listening to a peacock whilst we watch our laundry dry on the hotel window shutters. Contemplating sleep.
April 29 – Pamplona-Puenta de la Reina: a fantastic breakfast after a very welcome mini lie in (up at 6.15), escape from the city and back into the hills, ancient vines, the first olive groves, wild thyme and the small, leathery leaved plants of the maquis hint at the heat to come in the weeks ahead, pellegrinos in a steady stream climbing the path to the hilltop, wind turbines humming and bronze figures on the ridge, spotting the bell tower of the church at PDLR, wondering how the last 5km can possibly take so long, resignation at another uphill to get to the hostel, elation at missing the huge thunder storm that broke out just after we arrived, the deliciousness of being tucked up in my sleeping bag while the storm plays outside the window, anticipating supper, enjoying communicating in a mixture of English, Spanish, French and Italian, marvelling at the sheer determination of humans and, as ever, contemplating sleep.
April 30 – PDLR-Estella: a day of green lushness, an abundance of wayside flowers, the kindness of strangers, team work, good decision making and epic views. T is braver than brave with blistered feet and although we can’t make them better we can do everything possible to not make them worse – so an alteration to our planned stops sees us going for walking every day but with less mileage each day and more time with boots off and feet up! We’re still on track for Santiago ❤️
My Notes in 2023
The flurry and excitement of actually getting to France, walking across Paris and finally arriving at SJPP saw us buzzing with energy and ready to take on the Pyrenees. At this stage we had simply planned to turn up at a refugio (pilgrim hostel) each day and secure a bed for the night. We visited the Confraternity of St James in SJPP to get our first stamp in our pilgrims credential (a passport that you get stamped each day and finally present at the office in Santiago de Compostela to receive your certificate of completion). We tackled crossing the Pyrenees with a spring in our step and, although the refugio at Roncesvalles was jam-packed we did get a bed, a cold shower and a meal! However, we hadn’t anticipated the daily bundle to get a refugio bed when the number of pilgrims exceeded the bed availability. Having to get up before dawn, scrabble around in the dark to pack rucksacks (I managed to lose a bra at this point) and hit the road hours before breakfast wasn’t how I’d envisaged this road trip. It was an early test of our friendship as I found myself not wanting to just plough on in this vein and T was getting very stressed about securing a bed each night. Things were getting a bit tense. We sat in a café and examined our schedule over a pint of café con leche. We had planned to include days off over the course of the five weeks it would take us to complete the walk but we realised that if we walked every day, covering shorter distances each day, then we’d have boots off (and flip flops on) by mid afternoon. This combined with a lengthy session on booking.com to sort out our accommodation for the coming fortnight left us feeling a whole lot better. We both realised that if this walk was to be a success, we needed to be honest and upfront about things we found hard or didn’t want to do (a big relief to two people who both hate being the first to bail out of anything).
May 1st – Estella-Los Arcos: yessssss!!! Another muesli and fruit breakfast, blue skies and Simpson’s clouds, mini Rift Valley, WINE FOUNTAIN!, talking about positive thinking, positive living and jettisoning stuff you don’t need, protein power lunch of hard boiled eggs, nuts and orange juice, best boho hostel so far, watching two Danes use an ancient mangle to help dry their jeans, accepting the kind offer of a pair of sunglasses to use only to discover they had prescription lenses and then, being polite and English, spending almost an hour making conversation whilst feeling quite queasy trying to look through them, peas for supper, trying bacalao and regretting it immediately, more peas for supper, being in bed before 9pm, very happy that T’s blisters are beginning to heal, so grateful for being able to experience this journey, missing Mark and Ruby ❤️
May 2nd – Estella-Viana: turning the corner of week one, a sense of rhythm setting in, big and beautiful skies, big and beautiful mountains, big and beautiful hearts, connecting with the past, touching ancient stone, imagining the brave, the atrocious, having a Monty python moment at the church of the knights Templar, humbled by an outdoor chapel of cairns, loving bananas, up and down the ravine know locally as the ‘mule killer’! (matamurras), pure heaven under crisp, white, freshly laundered bed linen after a soak in a bubble bath.
May 3rd – Viana-Logroño: hahahahaha, only 10k! hahahahaha Rioja country! hahahahaha already have our boots off by 1230! hahahahaha deliriously happy! Bring me my bucket of wine please!
May 4th – Logroño-Ventosa: following an afternoon and evening of very welcome food and wine (not-with-standing the plate of tripe that we mistook for potatoes in tomato sauce-yeeeeeeuuuuucccchhhh, bleeeuuurrrghhh, almost barfed 🤮), it’s off on another 20 klicker, so much wildlife so close to the city, storks on their chimney top nests, swans and herons on the lake and red squirrels in the park (I had a genuine Tufty Club flash back here that left me smiling), being almost kidnapped by an elderly lady who insisted on escorting us out of the city limits, waterproofs on as rain threatened, waterproofs off as rain failed to materialise, my first bocadillo with a much welcomed tomato filling, picking up our pace after numerous boot lace adjustments and then the removal of the single blade of grass inside my boot that was causing discomfort, so many vineyards, the omnipresence of El Torro and Santiago, another elderly lady who comes out of her house at the sound of approaching pellegrinos and greets us in high speed Spanish, smiling through her faded lipstick as I catch a few words friends, wine, my mother’s house, company and I realise that loneliness in old age doesn’t respect international boundaries and this thought makes me sad for a while as we thank her and walk onwards, spirits lifting as we joke buchos bochos galli (you can’t unsee the fast show ‘canal 9’ sketch once you’ve watched it on You tube), howling with laughter as we try to get T to pronounce ‘therbetha’ (cerveza-beer-very important word), late lunch/early supper of pizza and salad, new roommates – two Japanese and one Swiss, nearly losing my cool as the coffee vending machine ate my change and didn’t deliver coffee, actually enjoying the miles, realising I may regret saying that, feeling very blessed in so many ways ❤️
May 5th-Ventosa – Ciruena: sunrise breakfast, early morning light, acres and acres of vineyards, sandstone, birds and butterflies, singing songs about roads, tasting wild rocket, fantasising about tomato salad for lunch, factor 50 and sunglasses, loosening off my bootlaces when we take a break, miles of irrigation channels, walking in silence for a few miles before comparing notes on what we were singing in our heads, completely taken aback by the modern – very ugly- housing and golf course development on the outskirts of Ciruena, glad to find our albergue on the other side of a farmyard – complete with noisy rooster, chuckling at the lack of a plug in the bath and then putting on our smug pants because T has bought a bath plug with her, more laundry, writing an email to a dear friend, anticipating a ‘vegetarian ‘ supper (hmmm – we’ll see!) and just about to go in search of a glass of wine.
We ploughed through our first week of walking. I can honestly say that I’ve never laughed so much on a daily basis. We found that we loved to see the playful side of just about everything. If being a pilgrim means to trace or wander then we were definitely doing it with a lightness of spirit, buoyed along by the presence of so many other people from so many different countries. We delighted in each other’s company as well as making instant friends – a bit like speed dating!
May 6th – Ciruena-Viloria de Rioja:
Stories of the past and the tale of the shag and a shingshong (as opposed to a shmoke and a pancake!), trying to understand the wheeliegrinos, praising cheese and tomato bocadillos, walking in the warmth of the sun, tiny villages, crossing into Castilla, unzipping the legs off my walking trousers to reveal milky white legs, watching my forearms going brown, dusty boots, drinking so much water, freshly squeezed orange juice, snow-clad mountain tops in the distance, stumbling upon a magical Refugio, tears of happiness, new friends, suppertime talk of ley lines and ancient pagan paths, getting cosy beside the stove, peaceful sleep, mystical dreams.
May 7th – Viloria de Rioja – vilafranca de orca: we’re really getting a sense of being in our stride now, T’s blisters have almost healed and although my joints hate the mornings, once I’m up and moving they settle down and as we watch the rolling landscape changing from vineyards to wheat fields hours pass without any pain at all – although the last 5k of any day does seem like a mission. Increasingly warm sun is like a balm, blue skies are filling my eyes with light and colour – I’m loving these days.
Watching at least 14 vultures circling high above a valley to our right makes us wonder what carrion is lying down there, commenting on the paucity of traffic flying along the straight new motorway that our path is parallel to for most of the day, enjoying our tandem pace – evenly matched on the flat, T ahead on the uphill while I trot in front on the downhill, arriving early at vilafranca, walking through a lorry park and firing up google maps in the shade cast by a huge articulated Iveco, looking at the air reservoirs to see if they have a wabco label, getting comfy in our room before hitting up the mini market for supplies, making our lunch – tomato and onion salad, crusty bread, cheese, olives, banana, waving to our new friends from the laundry-drying balcony as we become increasingly aware of the heavy goods traffic passing through this small town, exploring the local – very damp and cold – church, eyeing up the children’s swings having rediscovered this childhood pleasure yesterday, watching the local old boys playing cards in the bar, more hysterics as T orders a vino rosado and we get two cortado coffees instead, reminiscing about scuba diving over supper, deep joy as we decide to ditch our sleeping bags and cut our respective loads by 700g, putting out the lights and lying listening to the juggernauts thundering by our window and grateful to be tired enough to fall asleep in spite of the noise.
May 8th – Villa Franca-Atapuerca: early doors to make breakfast and bocadillos for a mid morning snack followed by a sunrise climb up through a wooded path, quickly gaining a couple of hundred metres before falling into our stride for the day, enjoying the gentle warmth of the sun on my head, starting to feel stronger each day, thinking a lot about how we connect with each other as we go about our daily lives, listening to young fellow peregrinos talking about what they are learning each day – the Camino really does have some lessons for everyone who walks it, an amazing surprise at Atapeurca where the oldest (in Europe) human remains were found (780,000 years old), a very modest visitor centre (for a UNESCO listed site) and a local exhibition about the iron mines that previously provided an income for the area, finding our charming Casa rurale for overnight lodgings, making friends with three lovely Aussies, home cooked supper in the local bar, deep sleep with the breeze from the window cooling our room.
May 9th – Atapuerca-Burgos: Another early morning climb up a steep track left us breathless – not from the exertion but from the delight at the sight of three deer, silhouetted against the misty morning sky as they ran along the ridge heading to the forest below. Total beauty. We walked a way in happy silence; this was broken by the strident voice of a rather shouty woman who was explaining to anyone who’d listen (and I suspect some who’d prefer not to) how to get to the next village. With the spell of nature now broken, we fell into step with our fellow peregrinos, but I go back to the image of those deer all day. Our walk felt almost leisurely today, convivial coffee and chat with our Aussie chums, waves and hugs from friends we’d not seen for a day or so and enjoying the international flavour of our happy brigade, T successfully channelled her inner Mona Lisa and remained calm and enigmatic when we next passed shouty woman – this time giving what turned out to be the wrong directions! We had ignored her exhortations so we happily donned our smug pants for the last few miles through parkland that led into Burgos. Passing by a farmacia and indulging in some luxurious shampoo and conditioner for use tonight, being given free samples of hydrating facial masks by the lovely farmacia assistant – with assurances of our total rejuvenation overnight, more laundry, the worst ever tapas, the best ever lemon beer, thoughts turning towards the meseta – one day ahead.
A friendship deepens as you walk further, sharing stories and histories, examining likes and dislikes and sharing some truly magic moments that leave you speechless and that, even now, when you return to the memory, move you to tears.
May 10th – Burgos-Rabe de las calzanas: A lie in until 7am and a leisurely breakfast followed by an hour looking around Burgos cathedral saw us behaving more like tourists than peregrinos – which felt quite weird. We both commented on how strange it was to be walking around without a rucksack and, truth be known, I think we were both happy to get boots on and rucksacked up and head out of the city.
A dreary few miles followed, our spirits occasionally lifted by the sight of a bird or the sound of our cuckoo (who has followed us from St. Jean PDP). I added to the drudgery when I opted to take us into VillaBilla to find a loo and a coffee – neither materialised and we’d wandered a mile off the Camino path for nothing, I managed to add insult to injury by taking us back to the Camino via a motorway hard shoulder walk. T is very patient – luckily for me.
Things started to look up again when we stopped for coffee a few klicks further on and both stretched and rested our various aching and painful bits – the power of a ten-minute rest is not to be underestimated!
Finally we were back on a country path, heading towards the Meseta, with storks feeding in the fields, flowers at the roadside and a charming village at the end of our relatively short (19km) day. We were welcomed at our lodgings by such a kind and helpful young man and given a tiny Madonna to guide us on our way.
May 11th – 12th, Rabe-Castrojeriz-Boadilla: Let me tell you about the Meseta in springtime – it’s about the light, sometimes barely there, shrouded in morning mists of lilac and grey, then a golden glow of a sunrise or a fleeting glimpse of silver through the clouds, then it’s dazzling sunshine bathing everything and filling my eyes and my head. It’s about the sky, an infinite firmament that arcs above, endless space, more air than I could ever breathe, blue, pink, molten gold, cool grey, dark steel, clouds as fine and wispy as a silken skein or huge and tumbling or dark and heavy with rain.
It’s about sound, the wind – sometimes a light whisper, sometimes a buffety bluster, sometimes a giant roar in my ears that seems to blow right through me, it’s birdsong – so sweet, so loud, so purposeful, it’s grass stirring as the wind plays across and through it. It’s about the landscape, from sharp eroded sandstone escarpments to weathered limestone outcrops and chalky, flint strewn paths, from endless prairies of tender young wheat to rocky slopes and occasional avenues of trees affording a small moment of shade. It’s about colour, jewel like vermillion tiny poppies and eye poppingly blue cornflowers, fat green lizards, ebony beetles and yellow butterflies. It’s about a horizon that expands as your heart expands with it. In fact, it’s pretty special
May 13th – Boadilla- Villalcazar: Easy walking today (well, it is Sunday!), flat as a pancake, green and lush canal tow path, huge three tiered canal lock, raised irrigation channels and sprinklers everywhere indicate the ongoing battle with the arid summer conditions here, bright sunshine severely tempered by a cold wind hurtling across us from the SW, surprised to learn that we’re at 790m above sea level as it doesn’t feel as though we’re that high – it feels as though we’re on a flat valley floor, continuing our admiration for the way the trees that line village streets and surround village squares are pollarded and grafted together to provide one continuous line or circle of branches, watching out for storks on rooftop nests, coming to expect to hear our cuckoo, talking about schooldays and childhood TV favourites, feeling thankful to be able to stay connected with family and friends everywhere, anticipating reaching the halfway mark (in distance) very soon and feeling just a little bit homesick ❤️.
May 14th – Villalcazar- Calzadilla de la Cuesa: A grey, drizzly start to the day and a 6km walk before breakfast saw us both working hard at cheering each other up – we rewarded ourselves with a big out loud cheer when Carillon hove into sight and we knew that breakfast was soon going to be devoured!
After stowing our take away bocadillos (yes – more cheese and tomato) we began the 16km plod towards tonight’s resting place. Oh! Flat as a flat thing doesn’t begin to describe the long straight path today (hmmmm – what have the Romans ever done for us?….!) and I genuinely thought that T was going to faint with excitement when the distant clouds lifted to reveal snow capped mountains off to our north – the Cordillera Cantabria range providing some very welcome elevation and perspective to at least one of our horizons. We ate soggy bocadillos, stowed soggy waterproof jackets and massaged soggy achey feet at the picnic-table- lunch-stop before plodding on. When Calzadilla finally emerged on the path we managed to put a spring in our weary steps as we headed for a room, a bed, a beer and- most importantly – boots off for the day! Yaaaaay!!!!
Maybe its because T and I are both nurses and we have seen some serious suffering over the course of our careers that neither of us stays down for too long. One of us always manages to cheer the other one up – not in a forced bonhomie way but in a supportive way that allows each other to simply be. I was proud of our capacity to be patient with each other and at how we both managed to get over ourselves on more than one occasion. Sharing each and every day for 24 hours a day is no mean feat and there is no doubt that being in some of the most beautiful natural surroundings helped to bring a degree of perspective.
May 15th – Calzadilla de Cueza-Sahagun:
Just a perfect day! I don’t know why but the combination of the cool morning gradually warming into a sunny day, lots of little coffee or foot rubbing stops, the best most fruit and veg laden lunch ever, the easy conversation with old friends and new ones and breaking through the half way mark of this amazing walking experience just left us smiling. And smiling. And smiling.
May 16th – Sahagun-Burgo del Ranero: A long lie in ( to 7 30 – what a treat!) followed by a visit to the post office to mail our halfway there certificates home (no way would they survive the next stage in our rucksacks!) and we’re off again following the Camino on a long ( l-o-n-g) tree lined path that winds its way next to the main road (the N120) without too much that is new to distract us. My mind is on León and what lies ahead after that, when T gets me to stop and listen: and there they are loads of frogs! Croaking and ribbeting their way through the heat of the day. Suddenly I’m back in the moment and chatting about the newly laid irrigation pipes, the birds and suggesting that T might want to refrain from poking around in the grass to see if the noise she can hear is a snake! (yes – I’m such a wuss!)
Our lodgings for tonight are in an anonymous truck stop motel. It feels just right – in transit-neither here nor there. And we can see the mountains from the window. And watch Father Brown dubbed into Spanish on TV before wandering down to the cafeteria to see if any other peregrinos are here too.
May 17th – El Burgo Ranero-Mansilla de Mulas: Sunrise, fruit, yoghurt and espresso ( boom!), cool air, quiet, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, warm air, peaceful, flat, flat, FLAT, flatflatflatflatflat, flaaaaaaaaaat, hot, flat, flattyflatflat, flat, Hallelujah!!! A BRIDGE!!! Up and down, very happy, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, buildings, agricultural equipment, boots and socks off, beer, cool grass underfoot extinguishing my feetonfire.
May 18th – Mansilla de Mulas – León: T makes the best fruit salad breakfast in the world – there’s not much I like about getting up early but she’s found a sure-fire lure today – it was strawberries, nectarine and bananas topped with yogurt – that put a spring in my step as we set out on the road to León. The other thing that helps me to get out of bed is the early morning light – it’s just so ethereal seeing the sun low in the sky breaking through the mist and casting a pale golden hue.
I’m enthralled with how the light changes as the day progresses. Even on a day like today where the Camino trudges through miles of urban sprawl the sunlight catches the odd thing to please the eye – a plant, some stones, a statue or a painted sign – and it lifts the day out of the humdrum and into something memorable.
We had completed a climb up a hill and through a bleak, abandoned housing development, dominated by two huge radio satellite masts and then directed into some scrubland that then tumbled down an uneven stony path when we turned a corner and there – in the near distance – shone León cathedral. What a sight! We could almost reach out and touch its spires. A beacon guiding us into the city and to our bed for the night.
May 19th – 21st- León-Villadango del Paramo- Astorga- Rabanal El Camino:
Days of sweat, snot and tears – the kindness of strangers and the warmth of good friends. It’s been hot. Head heating, back sweating, nose running and brow glistening hot. Now is the time for you to buy shares in ambre solaire factor 50 dear friends! We are using gallons of the stuff.
We have sunshine on our backs as we walk out of León – once again through urbanisation, gradually diminishing but not entirely disappearing as we spent the day hugging the N120 (yes- that old friend!) – more agricultural land, more irrigation channels, more frogs (we love frogs!) until we arrive at the unremarkable collection of roadside buildings that make up Villadangos (or villafandango as we rechristened it – hilarious at the time!).
Tonight’s gastronomic adventure mainly centred around the glow-in-the-dark digestif that we were presented with after supper. My immediate thought was ‘nuclear waste’ and so, good chum that I am, I encouraged T to drink up! Great results ensued – it turns out that T is an epic photographer of sunsets when under the influence – who knew?!
Amazingly hangover free – we spend the next sunny morning getting away from the N120 onto farm tracks and entertaining ourselves by designing our imaginary Camino Garden for RHS Chelsea. Themed along the lines of the wild flora of the Camino, punctuated with man made artefacts that are features of The Way and enhanced with an immersive auditory experience of the sounds of the forest, plateau and mountains. I photograph a botanical smorgasbord while T thinks about compiling the soundscape. The miles pass swiftly and we’re ploughing through one of our very long days.
A beautiful gesture of human kindness is provided by a man who had set up a roadside Camino refuge, providing food and shelter free of charge and bestowing warmth and grace on all who pass through. We’re flagging as we get to the outskirts of Astorga and rest in the shade of a railway footbridge with only the local stray cats for company. Astorga is in sight but it’s up a brutal hill – I could cry. However, we’re gaining strength each day and a short rest combined with a drink of water, albeit warm water, we head up that hill, into Astorga, into our room for the night and then – post shower- out in search of the biggest pizza known to man. Supper is spent with our new, old Camino friends and is a very convivial affair. Sleep comes easily.
Another morning, more sunshine and very pleasant walking through hills (oh! How we love hills) with mountains ever near and getting closer all the time. Enjoying the unevenness of stony paths after the smell and feel of hot tarmac, revelling in the feeling of strength in our legs ( long may it last!) and soaking in the sense of increasing altitude as we head up into Rabanal El Camino. Tonight we will go into the village church to hear vespers – sung in Gregorian chant. Just now I’m lying with my feet up listening to a bee buzzing in the flowers outside our room.
It is often the small things that can make or break an experience – the details – and so it is with a friendship. T and I are both observers, but very often of different things, which turned out to be complementary and built our friendship further. I notice the natural world around me – plants, geography, geology and T notices – people and places (and is so much better at remembering names than I am). Although we can both talk for Britain, when we are in company I find that I’m the quiet one while T entertains and delights others with her anecdotes. She always has the time and energy to talk with people – something I marvel at.
May 21st – 24th: Rabanal-Molinaseca-Cacabelos-Vega de Valcarce: We’re now well into the part of the Camino that can be categorised as one of two things – either going up something or coming down something. The road out of Rabanal goes up. To the Cruz de ferrio – a simple iron cross atop a 5m high wooden pole, itself sited on a huge cairn of stones, pebbles, messages of faith and hope and other small tokens left in memory of a loved one or to mark the shedding of a burden. I found it an intensely personal and moving experience to see all of these reminders of pilgrims who have passed this way, as well as adding my own small stone to the mound. Walking in contemplative silence was the only thing to do for quite a while afterwards.
The meditative mood was broken first by arriving at the colourful, slightly bonkers dwelling of Thomas, a bonafide member of the Knights Templars and then by the start of our descent for the day. Down, down and down over uneven rocks, stones and ankle-busting ruts in the ground. Punishing doesn’t begin to describe it. I found myself working hard to recapture the serenity of the morning and eventually surrendering to the pain in my bones in an effort to get into some kind of harmony with the path underfoot. Molinaseca couldn’t arrive fast enough and, once we’d crossed the cobbled (ouch!) bridge to get into its tiny old and rundown streets I found myself thinking only of showering, eating and sleeping. T somehow managed to be perky enough to spy out a restaurant that served a splendid pilgrim supper (home made chestnut cream dessert – divine!) after which an early bedtime was very welcome.
Not all the ups and downs are severe (though there are some tough ones ahead) – walking through gently undulating terrain, breathing in the warm heady scent of wild honeysuckle and rambling roses whilst marvelling at the lush green of wooded hills and fast growing vineyards is a real pleasure.
Kind gestures from local people bring wide smiles – a little bit of sweet ‘Spanish’ French toast to go with a coffee, a nod and a heartfelt Buen Camino, ordering your end of the day beer at the bar to find that a local man has paid for it for you. There are many big-hearted people living along the Camino as well as walking it.
No matter how hard a day’s walking may be – the sunrise the next day always brings a sense of joy and deep gratitude just to be here.
May 24th – 25th – Vega de Valcarce-Fonfria: Today we crossed into Galicia – the province of Santiago. We climbed steadily and steeply up to O Cebreiro ( I think the O is for O look! We’re here!) – a really enjoyable climb, watching the weather roll in a we gained altitude. Of course, Galicia being the part of Spain with the highest rainfall, we were greeted by a downpour that saw us donning that quintessential of all items of pilgrim clothing: The Waterproof Poncho. I promise that I will hand myself into the fashion police on our return to Blighty!
May 26th – Fonfria-Sarria: we got lucky today, we outwalked the rain! From our early, misty start, through clouds and bosky hollows lined with damp moss and ferns we emerged into Triacastela and an ever improving sky. There are now so many villages and hamlets to pass through so many places to stop for coffee or water or bacon and cheese bocadillos (a winner!) or an almond magnum (totally allowed when you’re walking 20 miles!) Our band of international friends increases daily, many of whom we only have nicknames for: Cheroot man, Florida girls, Elvis, The Italian Dudes and Tiger bloke – as well as shouty Swiss lady and the Taiwanese twins. We also have made friends with Mary and Bernie ( Ireland) and April ( Ohio). I can only imagine the nicknames people may have for us!
There’s an increasing sense of excitement as we get into Sarria and the 100km countdown begins. There’s also some big footie match taking place and fireworks being set off already while horns blare. Thoughts of a good nights sleep may be a bit optimistic. Best get some supper first.
May 27th – Sarria- Portomarin:Today was a shock to the system – Sarria is where the crowds arrive, it’s where many people, for many reasons, start the Camino ( as you can walk the final 100k and still get your compostela in Santiago). It is, as we found out, where you say goodbye to one Camino – the Camino of silent daybreak starts, wordless sunrises and endless space punctuated with faces that you have come to know – and you say hello to another Camino – the Camino that will test you in applying everything you’ve learned thus far on this amazing journey. We cried a lot this morning, letting go is painful. It’s six days to go until Santiago and the world is now getting busier and calling us back. We find ourselves scanning the stream of faces belonging to new ( and clean and shiny) pilgrims – looking for the more tired and dusty smiles of those who’ve covered miles with us. There is space for everyone on the Camino – I just need a moment to adjust. ❤️
We arrived in Portomarin – which is accessed via a very steep staircase into the old town, having crossed the bridge over the reservoir that was created when the nearby dam was built, flooding the valley. There is a flotilla of dinghies on the water below us and it’s a cheery sight.
We find our room for the night and hastily retreat under the bedclothes for an afternoon of sleep. Suppertime sees us a bit perkier as we go out for a wander and bump into April – supper is light-hearted. The cicadas outside our room play out the day.
May 28th – Portomarin – Palas del Rei: There is a saying- what you think is what you get so, with that in mind, we’ve thought our way back into a Camino of the heart .We started by creating our favourite beginning to the day – only a lot earlier! We left Portomarin in the dark and, by the light of T’s head torch, we headed out and up into the woods to watch the night disappear and the sky lighten and the daybreak. Our companions were songbirds, an owl and a bat! And one or two other peregrinos who also felt the need to get ahead of the crowds. As the day fully arrived we fairly tripped our way along the 17 miles of Camino path, sharing smiles, buen Caminos and enjoying the rolling green fields and woodlands of Galicia. Santiago gets nearer every day.
By the time we were looking at our final week or so it was as if we inhabited a different world, one that was full of contentment in its simplicity: get up each day, walk, eat, sleep – rinse and repeat. We didn’t want it to stop. We had been able to get off the world for a month and the thought of going back caused us both some distress and we had to work hard to adjust our mindset. I found it really hard to post anything substantive during our final days walking – I think because the walk had come back to earth, it felt more and more like other walks we had done and yet we were both excited to be reaching our destination.
We sat in a local bar just 5km outside of Santiago de Compostela – we had planned to get up early the following morning to arrive at the cathedral square at sunrise – and ate piles of chips while we relived our best moments of this epic walk. I had been wearing a stretchy neckerchief with a map of Spain and the Camino Frances route marked on it – we laid it out on the table not quite believing that we’d actually walked all that way. It was hard to sleep that night and we were up and off before daybreak to greet the sun on the Cathedral steps.
Camino notes: over and out.
We’ve spent the past three days moving through attending to our final pilgrim activities (getting our compostelas, going to pilgrim mass and seeing the Botafumeiro being swung, giving the gigantic blinged up statue of Santiago a pat on the back and saying farewell to our fellow pilgrims) to a gradual transition to mere tourists (five star hotel ‘luxury’- swimming pool, spa, massage, immense breakfast buffet, amazingly well appointed bathroom with toiletries and a touristy visit to the cathedral followed by shopping in the old cobbled lanes and coffee- not chocolate and churros!).
It’s surreal, a dream – did we really just walk across Spain? Did we enjoy the dawn over the Meseta? Did we glow in the warmth of the spring sun on the back of our heads?
It’s been raining heavily for the past 48 hours and, as a result, we cancelled our planned trip to Finistère – maybe we’ll come back for that another time – who knows?
Now thoughts turn to home and family and friends.
What a journey. And it’s not over. It never will be.