In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
You may know this, and you may not, but we were running behind (much like me with these blog posts, lol). The fact that it took us nine days to get to Los Arcos means that, by Camino standards, we were walking a little slow. In the Brierley handbook that many Western pilgrims treat as gospel, you’re supposed to get to Los Arcos on Day 6. However, now that I’ve been there, done that, I can honestly say that unless you’re on a strict timeline, there’s really no need to push yourself that much.
I can’t imagine having walked any faster than I did, for many reasons. First off, I was in so much pain, even though I was pretty fit when I started. I never got a blister, but my muscles felt mangled by the end of each day, and my feet never really got used to all that walking. Secondly, there’s so much to see, and why not take the time to see it all? Granted, our pace was still too fast to get to see everything, but at least we had the time to visit the sites that caught our fancy along the way. For instance, this morning we happened upon a sweet little chapel about five minutes’ walk off of the Camino, and we gave ourselves time to take a little detour:
Last, and most important to me, a huge highlight of my walk was giving myself the luxury of sitting to have coffee and eat a snack whenever and wherever I pleased, and most days I stopped to eat three or four times during the course of the day’s walk, not counting breakfast and dinner. (No regrets – still lost 20 lbs and got to try every delicious morsel that struck my fancy.) Day 9 stands out to me for this, in fact, as it’s the day when I tried my first (and definitely not my last) real Spanish hot chocolate, during a long morning break in Estella.
Of all the towns that I walked through along the Camino Frances, Estella is the only one in which I truly regretted not getting to spend more time. Next time, I think I’ll plan to stay an extra day to check out the town’s architecture, museums, and shopping more thoroughly. We left Villatuerta just before dawn, with our new friend in tow. I feel awful, but I can’t remember her name at all, but I feel like it was Emily or Erica, something starting with an “E.” (Mind you, I’m probably completely off-base, but hey, I’m trying!) It turned out that the pilgrim she had been walking with the night before had been a little too cosy and assumed too much of their friendship, and she’d wanted to put some space between them, while walking with other women. We all walked together through the morning, chatting and laughing, and even though it was less than 5k to Estella, it seemed like we were all rather tired already by the time we arrived.
We spent awhile walking around; a couple of us were looking for an ATM, and I was desperate to find somewhere selling hats, gloves, and scarves, none of which I’d brought. Luckily, a few days earlier, Natalie had gifted me her extra scarf, which I still have hanging in my closet – a beautiful reminder of a beautiful friend. It was warm enough, but I’d started getting seriously chilly in the mornings, and couldn’t imagine many more days without a proper hat and gloves, and maybe even a thicker neck covering to keep me toasty. A lady in the tourist office told us that it was market day, and there would be lots of artists and farmers setting up stalls soon. I was interested in waiting around to see about finding the items, but also not that dedicated to the idea of wasting more time.
What I *was* happy to waste more time on, however, was grabbing some coffee and something delicious for breakfast. Luckily, all of the ladies agreed, and we ducked into a lovely little cafe, not realizing that we had stumbled upon a proper little patisserie, complete with blue-haired matrons dressed to the nines, staring down their noses upon this rag-tag group of pilgrims! It was adorable in the shop, and the bakery case looked so inviting, so we did our best not to annoy the locals too much. I ordered a hot chocolate, thinking that it was going to be another one of those times where they give you steamed milk and a packet of hot cocoa mix, but to my surprise, I received the most beautiful cup of thick, traditional hot chocolate. It was a magical, life-changing moment for me. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m definitely not. Look at this thing of beauty:
After dallying probably a little too long in Estella, we walked on towards Irache, home of the famous Bodegas Irache vineyards, and the even more famous (with pilgrims, anyway) wine fountain. That’s right – free wine! It took awhile to get there, and there was a bit of confusion just before we saw the fountain, and we somehow lost Claire. At the time, it sounded like she thought the winery was in a different direction, or perhaps we’d already passed it, so she went to check up on her hunch. I never did ask her what she found, but the fountain was up the road a little more, and eventually the rest of our group got there. (Claire did, too, just not with us. It’s so neat now, going back and thinking about how we could all be walking together, but experiencing such completely different adventures. It makes you think more about how much you think you know of your friends’ lives.)
The new girl and I both had to use the bathroom, so we walked past the fountain and up the road a bit to the wine museum, where the shopkeeper was just closing up, but kindly let us in to use the bathroom. We bought little commemorative wine shot glasses while we were there, one for each woman, then went back to find Natalie by the fountain, where we each had a few shots of the very fresh (mouth-puckering, even) wine and took the requisite photographs. Nat filled up a little bottle with the wine, too. We had a little more from her bottle later, though I was pretty sure that wine was the reason for my intestinal unease over the next day or two. Claire still hadn’t shown up, though soon enough, the same busload of elderly tourists that we’d been dodging all morning along our walk appeared and descended upon the wine fountain. We decided to walk on, since we’d agreed in Estella on where we were bedding down for the night, and we were pretty sure she’d find us. As Natalie and I walked along the Camino a bit farther, we realized that not only had we lost Claire, we’d also lost the new girl. Knowing she’d catch up if she wanted, we walked on.
I remember three big things from that afternoon’s walk. First, I remember walking with Natalie, and coming upon this interesting structure that housed an old freshwater spring. I was intrigued by its location (seemingly the middle of nowhere) and the way the building was set up. I wondered briefly what it might look like inside the building during the summer, since it seemed like it would be easy for more adventurous peregrinos to climb down inside and enjoy the cool water.
The second thing that I remember is being behind Natalie and Claire a little later in the day, and hearing a sound coming from the ditch that ran alongside the road. There were farm fields on either side of the path we were walking, and they looked to have been recently harvested. The remaining vegetation lay flat around the sides of the field, and covered the ditch, so that you could tell there was a depression, but couldn’t tell what might be in it. From this cover of vegetation, I heard the most delicious crunching noises. The entire scene brought me back to my childhood. I grew up on a dirt road, and we had a large property, a few wild acres of forest, perfect for a little girl to explore on long summer days. It formed my appreciation for outdoors, and the wild things that inhabit it. I love animals, big and small, and as a child I spent many hours just studying how the wild things lived. That afternoon on the Camino, I took the time to be a little kid again, and stopped to sit and listen at the ditch bank for longer than most adults would deem prudent. Whatever the creature was (I didn’t brush up on Spanish wildlife, but I was guessing some sort of amphibious mammal), it was enjoying a leisurely lunch there under the ditch bank canopy, and I watched as one long piece of freshly mown vegetation after another was slowly drawn into the animal’s hiding spot. Eventually I gave up on seeing who was under there, and continued my peregrination.
The third, and final thing, that I remember from my afternoon was the distinct suspicion (as insane as it sounded) that Los Arcos was moving farther away from me as I walked. At one point in the late afternoon, I could see the town. But the next time I saw it, it seemed farther away. The next, it was even farther. The girls were way ahead of me, and there was no one to whom to voice my growing concern, but a day or two later, I was telling another pilgrim about how weird it had seemed that it felt like Los Arcos kept moving, and they said they had felt the same way! It was hot and sunny out that day, so who knows, maybe I was experiencing the onset of heat stroke. Either way, it was really strange.
I wasn’t as far behind Natalie and Claire as I’d thought, and they had just signed in at the albergue (Casa de la Abuela) when I arrived. We checked in, washed some laundry, took our showers, then went to see the Church of Santa Maria. English Mark and his walking buddy Tom (we’d all met on the way to Roncesvalles, and I talk more about Mark here) were in our room that night. It was the first time I remember Mark really complaining about his poor, battered feet. He was asking for advice on what to do about his blisters, which were to get worse over the next few days.
One thing that I particularly liked about La Casa de la Abuela was breakfast in the morning. Many albergues will feed you a simple breakfast for an extra couple of euros, and though we didn’t always sign up, for some reason it seemed like a good idea in Los Arcos. In the morning, one of the offerings was fresh baked bread and Nutella. The concept of Nutella as a breakfast food was mind-blowingly awesome for me, since at home, Nutella is firmly in the “junk food” list. They might as well have given me a bag of potato chips for breakfast. Note that I did not turn down that glorious chocolate hazelnut spread of the gods. A peregrina’s got to eat, right?