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.
I’m pretty certain that Day 12 ranks as my shortest day on the Camino, right after the walk up to Orisson on Day 2 (since I’ve been counting my arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port as my Day 1). From Navarrete to Nájera is only around 7 or 8 miles, so it’s not exactly a trek. But I started to feel pretty sick this day, and the short walk still took a lot out of me.
It was misting out when we woke up in Navarrete. Nothing major, just enough to make many of that morning’s crop of pilgrims take a little longer to get out of town. It was still dark out when Natalie and I left the albergue, and the town was still locked up tight. Why go out on a morning like this if you didn’t have to? We made a beeline to the first light we saw spilling from an open doorway near the cathedral square, and lucked into a cute little café, where we had orange juice, cafés con leche, and a chocolate bar for me. The place was tiny, just two counter-height tables, a couple of standing displays of snack foods, and enough standing room for a few people to line up to order at the little window near the front of the shop. We were among the first in the shop, and we squeezed in at one of the tables to have our light breakfast and look over the map for the day’s walk.
Word spread that it was supposed to rain today, and those who weren’t already wearing rain jackets or ponchos started pulling their bags open to grab what they needed. Pack covers went on, as well as rain pants, and gaiters. There was an air of expectation and resolution, no complaints, just giving in and going with what nature had handed us for the day. It’s all you can do.
As it turned out, the mist remained a constant through much of the morning’s walk, obscuring what were supposed to be beautiful views. However, it never did turn to a full downpour, which was great for me, since my health gradually declined through the morning. I’d brought two packs of tissues with me from the U.S. in case I needed to “use the facilities” when there were none to be found, and had to resort to popping a squat on the side of the road. I only needed those tissues in that capacity three times over the entire Camino, but I was very glad of them on this day, when I needed to stop and blow my nose every few minutes, it felt like.
Side note on tissues – first off, don’t assume you can just put them in the top of your pack and stop to take them out when you need them. If your nose is running like crazy, just put them in your pocket or if you have a waist pack, that’ll do, too. It will really slow you down to have to unstrap your pack and take it off every time you start getting particularly snotty. Secondly, don’t go hog wild and use a new tissue for every nose blow. I know it’s gross to think about, but when you’re on the Camino, you’ll start to understand how wasteful that is, and how little anyone cares that you’re reusing your tissue a few times. Just make sure to wash your hands once you get to the next cafe, and don’t touch people or things too much without de-germing as much as you can. No one needs your cold, but to be honest, everyone understands that when you’re sleeping in close quarters and wearing yourself out on a daily basis, your health is bound to take a hit, and we’ll all share each other’s germs at least once. Sucks, but them’s the breaks. Lastly, do your part to keep the Camino clean for all who come after you. Never, ever leave your trash behind you. If you use a tissue, pack it away in a plastic baggie, a pocket, wherever – just take it with you and dispose of it properly the next time you encounter a trash receptacle. You’ll be surprised and dismayed to see how disgusting parts of the trail can get, where people just leave their gross trash behind on the road. It’s quite sad, and we all need to do our part to lessen the impact. If you want to be an even better human being than I am, you could forego disposable tissues and just bring a handkerchief or two. They’re useful for more than nose blowing, and can be washed and reused for years to come.
That morning was absolutely gorgeous, and ranked as one of my favorite portions of the Camino. I loved the silence in the mist. One of the strange and interesting parts of the day is that we passed through a section of the Camino that was designated as an art exhibit. From what we could understand, there were supposed to be installations all down the trail, but in reality, the only thing we saw that could be art was a weird, solitary painting that looked almost as if it had been discarded there on the side of the road.
At one point in the morning, we walked out of the mist into a tiny town that was really just a roadside cafe. It had the feel of a truck stop, just no trucks. We popped in to grab breakfast, and I ended up having two breakfasts – a Kas naranja and a chocolate bar, plus a slice of tortilla and cafe con leche.
That day, Natalie and I stayed pretty much within eyesight of each other, and played a game of hopscotch with English Mark. He and Tom weren’t walking together anymore; Mark’s feet were really taking a toll on his ability to keep up with the athletic Tom, so they talked it over and Tom walked on. It’s something that has to happen, and something that I’d prepared myself for years before getting to Spain (benefit of reading too many Camino journals), but it’s still a really tough moment for every pilgrim to have to make that kind of call.
Mark seemed sad to not be walking with his buddy, but also had a carefree air, like a weight had been taken off. He had finally found HIS Camino, and he was enjoying it despite the pain. As he walked, he listened to the Rolling Stones and various podcasts. Later that morning, during another coffee break (Is anybody doing the math on how much coffee I consumed on the Camino?), we sat at a cafe bar together and shared podcast names. I recommended a ghost story podcast that I enjoyed back in the states; I wish I could remember what he recommended I listen to. I’d love to give it a listen now.
The day remained overcast and gloomy – my favorite type of weather. We made it into Nájera in the early afternoon, and headed for Albergue Puerta de Nájera, which Natalie knew of from her last Camino a couple of years before. It was a solid choice, an adorable place with some private rooms and some dorm-style rooms with 6 to 8 beds each. The bathrooms weren’t unisex, which was a lovely bonus, but the bathrooms did share a wall. As I was taking my shower that afternoon, the weirdest thing happened. Along the walk, I had two major “earworms” occur. One of them was shared with Natalie – we both got into the habit of humming “La Vie en Rose” as we walked, keeping time with our walking poles. I have no clue why she was singing it, or if I got it from her, but later in the Camino I realized that it was also used on a popular shampoo commercial that played on TV every now and then at various cafes, so one or both of us might have gotten it from TV or from the other, who knows. The other song that happened ALL THE TIME for me was The A-Team soundtrack, from that popular 80’s TV show. I hummed it to myself daily, sometimes in hour-long loops, as I walked. I whistled it. I embellished it and turned it into a jazz tune. It drove me mad, but I couldn’t get rid of it. That day, as I showered, on the other side of the shared bathroom wall, I could hear a Portuguese peregrino singing a song – the theme to The A-Team. I almost died laughing, then spent probably a little too much time wondering if all of we pilgrims had tapped into a collective consciousness while walking. Can’t remember the theme? You’re welcome:
Along the Camino, you’ll find that some albergues like to have men and women in separate dorms and bathrooms, and others just mix it up. This one had same sex bathrooms and mixed dorm rooms. By the time we got to Nájera, I don’t think anyone really cared one way or the other about either thing. Everyone was courteous, there was no creepiness to having to share spaces – we were all sharing a goal, and though I’ve read some stories about incidents here and there, nothing untoward happened in any place I stayed. One of the couples in our room were a married American couple in their early 60s, who had been walking the Camino backwards, and were headed back to St. Jean Pied de Port. I don’t remember many details about them, but they were a pleasant pair, and they were into food and wine. There was a small communal dining area and kitchen downstairs in the albergue, and I remember him proudly unpacking a bag of supplies to make them both sandwiches. He did it with such attention to detail and obvious joy that the end result struck me as a gourmet masterpiece, despite the fact they were just regular old sandwiches. She poured wine and commented on his sandwich-making skills from time to time. They were so clearly relishing every second together, and this beautiful meal was just one more layer of the loveliness of their adventure. I didn’t exactly envy them, but in them, I saw what I’m looking for in life – a partner to share my adventures, and then make them sweeter just by being himself and laughing along the way.
On groceries – As far as groceries went on the Camino, Natalie taught me pretty early on to grab supplies at night for the next morning. I tended to buy a baguette, goat cheese or soft sheep’s cheese, thinly sliced ham, chorizo, eggs, yogurt, Knorr soup packets (an obsession of mine, since they’re not readily available in the U.S.) – I preferred chicken noodle and cream of asparagus or cream of mushroom – and chocolate. I didn’t buy everything all at the same time, of course, but some days I’d decide on walking with sandwich materials, and every morning I really wanted to have boiled eggs and yogurt to start out the day. Breakfast along the Camino is pretty depressing if you’re used to something hearty – they stick with coffee of some sort, fresh juice, and thick slabs of toasted bread, so if you’re used to starting the day with a nice helping of protein, you’re going to need to prepare yourself the night before. If you’re walking with other people, it can be beneficial for your wallet and your pack weight to go grocery shopping together, and everyone buy a piece of the puzzle. This means everyone can share resources at breakfast and snack time, but no one has to carry too much extra weight.
Another thing I learned on the Camino is that Americans are pretty uptight about food spoiling. You don’t have to refrigerate yogurt in cool weather – yogurt keeps for a couple of days, boiled eggs keep for a day or two, and sausage and cheese keep for a few days, as well. There’s a reason you think of people in the “olden days” eating bread and cheese, and hunks of cured meat. We’ve gone overboard in our dependence on refrigeration. Use common sense, but also don’t freak out about having food in your pack for a day or two. If you’re really afraid that the thing you’ve bought is going to spoil, share your resources with your friends, or talk to the hospitalero and leave the food behind for other pilgrims in your albergue’s refrigerator.
After we’d gotten our things settled in, Natalie and I decided to tour the town. We walked by this shop that looked absolutely dreamy, full of beautiful painted pottery, but when we tried to walk in, the shop owner told us that they were closed for siesta. So we made a note to come back by, then walked to Santa María la Real de Nájera, a famous monastery where many early royals are buried, to take a tour. After the monastery, we tried to visit the pottery shop, which now had a few customers, but the shop owner yelled at us and told us he was still closed, so we gave up on that plan and walked some of the back streets that used to be the Jewish part of town in medieval times. I was surprised to note that the area seemed a little sketchier than anything we’d experienced before, and was glad to have company. It was one of the few occasions that I was uneasy on the Camino. We passed a group of men sitting around, drinking beers and talking, and they seemed different. They stared at us with open unfriendliness, more of a “what the hell are you doing here?” vibe than an open threat, but we got the hint and walked back towards the center of town.
I couldn’t really pinpoint why they didn’t strike me as belonging (something about manner of dress and the way they were hanging out), since I’m no expert in Spanish culture, but we were obviously encroaching, and afterwards it occurred to me that they might have been Travelers. I can’t be sure of that – maybe it was just the bad part of town, or maybe we got the wrong idea, who knows? It’s a shame, though, because we were trying to get a better view of the cliffs behind town where there were little caves carved out that used to be religious dwellings.
Back at town center, we started looking around for a place to grab dinner, and ran into Mark, posted up at a cheesy-looking sports bar, drinking his trademark huge beer. We were all happy to see each other, so Natalie and I ran in to have a drink, grab some tapas, and see if he wanted to meet up for dinner. Though I’ve recounted some things about Mark before now, I think it’s important to say that this was really the first night that I felt I was starting to understand him. He told us that it would be his birthday in a few days, and also told us more about his job, and gave us some clues about his Camino. He had been a bus driver/tour guide with a popular tour company, and had traveled quite a bit. His manner was loveably gruff, rough around the edges, that bittersweet mix of joy and sorrow that I honed in on immediately. We had some things in common, and that night over drinks he let us in on some of the things that made him a special human being. I’m so happy to have had those moments to get to know him, now that he’s gone. One of the things that he said that made both Natalie and me laugh was something to the effect of, “Everyone wants to know your life story, why you’re here on the Camino and how your suffering lead you here, blah, blah, blah. What if you just want to take a long walk?” Very gruff, very “I don’t have feelings, stop assuming things.” Then, in almost the very next breath, he went on to start thinking out loud about why he was on the Camino, sharing those feelings that he’d just insisted weren’t a thing, lol. He was a funny, sweet guy. I hope he got what he needed.
Later that night, I was brought to tears over dinner, specifically over a dish called Patatas Riojanas (Riojan style potatoes), a dish of potatoes stewed with chorizo. It’s strange, since my home area of Eastern North Carolina doesn’t have any strong ties to Spanish culture, but one of my favorite simple NC dishes is stewed potatoes, often served as a side dish to Eastern NC BBQ. Patatas Riojanas tastes like an improved version of the stewed potatoes I grew up eating, and that night, maybe particularly because I was sick and worn out and feeling a little more sentimental than usual, I started crying with joy at the dinner table as I ate my Riojan stewed taters. Here’s a simple recipe for Patatas Riojanas if you’d like to try to recreate this magic for yourself! Note that Spanish chorizo is a hard, smoked sausage, very different from the fresh, raw Mexican chorizo that we typically see in the states. You’ll have to do a little research on where to find Spanish chorizo in your area, but it’s available online if resources are scarce in your neck of the woods.
The other big memory I have from that night is back at the albergue, right before lights out, as Natalie and I unrolled our sleeping bags and got ready for bed. We were sharing a bunk bed (I got the bottom bunk – woot!), and she and I were sitting back to back, rifling through packs. It struck me that we probably wouldn’t be walking together much longer, and I got a little teary, so I told her how lucky I felt to have gotten to meet her. Like it wasn’t just by chance. It was a lovely moment of friendship, and I still feel like if there’s such a thing as Divine Providence, it led me to run into Natalie that first day on the bus into St. Jean, then again at Orisson. I’m also glad I had such happy things happen that day in Nájera, since the next day’s walk was going to be…well, I’ll tell you about that next time.