Day 14: Anna’s Camino – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado

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.

img_6847

If you’ve been reading along, you might remember that I had my first “Camino moment” in Zabaldika, after reading some beautiful thoughts from the nuns there. My second Camino moment happened on Day 14, in Grañón, Spain. It’s not a pretty thing, but it was a raw, emotional occurrence that changed me in some mysterious way, so I’ll tell you.

I don’t remember much about leaving Santo Domingo de la Calzada, except that we met at the same little restaurant where we’d had dinner, and had one last coffee with Australian Mark, who would be staying behind for one more day on doctor’s orders, until they could make sure that he didn’t have any lasting damage from that blow to the head. English Mark met us there, as well, and that’s the last time Natalie remembers seeing him, though I ran into him once more later in the day. We had our coffees and juice, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. Natalie was walking faster than I was that morning, and I trailed behind her, sometimes catching a glimpse on the road ahead, other times chatting with new pilgrims as we passed on the road.

img_6845

Along the way, we walked through a little hamlet and met up again for a mid-morning snack at a lovely little albergue. We met Ruth, a bubbly Anglican minister on holiday, and chatted briefly with her as she decided whether or not to call it a day and stay here in this town instead of moving on. The hospitalero was a woodcrafter, and had some beautiful simple jewelry on display. Before leaving, I bought what are still my favorite pair of earrings, little teal circles with tiny, yellow, applied wooden arrows, a reminder of the yellow arrows that mark the Camino. After a quick bathroom break, we walked on, and Natalie quickly pulled ahead again, heading towards Grañón.

I’d read about Grañón before, and had heard that it’s a magical place that pilgrims tend to love. I didn’t have the same experience, and for a long time, I thought that maybe people were wrong. Now that I know a little more about magic, especially in relation to totem animals, I’m inclined to believe with the original assessment. Just because something’s magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that it’s got to be all sunshine and lollipops while it’s happening. Anyway, as I walked into town, I encountered a small, starving dog on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as heart-breaking as that might be. Animals aren’t put on a pedestal there like they are in the U.S., and I’m not in a place to pass judgment, but I did feel heartbroken quite often over it then. This dog came up to me, and I petted her and scratched her belly for a little while, until a dour-looking old man clomped down the street, waved his cane at me, and shouted at the dog. She cowered, then scampered away, he scowled at me, and I moved on, shocked.

img_6842

A few blocks farther down the street, I spotted a bunch of pilgrim packs outside the door to a cafe, and saw that Natalie’s bag was there, as well. I stopped, heaved off my bag, and started to walk into the cafe. At the threshold, I noticed two grown cats and two sets of kittens, all sick, eyes swollen shut and noses dripping. I wondered how many of the kittens would live through this. My brain stopped, and something else happened. It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching everything unfold. I watched myself grab a kitten, clutch it to my chest, then collapse on a nearby bench, sobbing uncontrollably.

It’s hard to explain what was going on, because I didn’t exactly know, myself. I was causing a scene, crying quite loudly. The kitten squirmed, trying to get away from the crazy lady holding it in her iron embrace. Pilgrims rushed out of the cafe, and suddenly I was surrounded by kindhearted souls who thought I must be seriously injured. People were asking me “what’s wrong? what’s wrong???” and all I could manage through the sobs was, “The kittens, LOOK!” After a minute or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t hurt, and was just having a little mental breakdown, and people left me to cry. The kitten wriggled out of my arms and ran back to its brothers and sisters. A couple of fellow cat ladies patted my hand and told me that they understood, but I could see that they were as mystified as I over this ridiculous outburst. I apologized, pulled myself together, picked up my bag, and decided to move on, with or without Natalie. To me at that moment, it seemed that the town was obviously full of negative energy, and I needed to get out.

img_6857

I had walked almost to the town border when I caught a glimpse of an adorable little terrier sitting on the bench at the bus stop. This little guy was exactly everything that I’d ever want if I were to adopt a dog – he was small, sandy-colored, shaggy, smiling, and his little body just quivered with excitement as I got closer. He looked so joyful compared to everything I’d just experienced, and I was drawn to him. I dropped my bag on the bench, took a seat, and spent the next 15 minutes getting a huge dose of much-needed love from the little mystery dude. I tried to take a photo of the two of us, but every time I’d push the button, he’d give me another kiss. It was incredibly restorative, especially since he was wearing a collar and was well-fed. It renewed my faith in humanity, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I’d been sitting long enough that Natalie happened along, and the little dog was very happy to offer her some love, as well. After a few minutes, we reluctantly said goodbye to the pup and walked on. Here’s a little slideshow of our meeting…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The rest of the day is a blur. I remember walking through Redecillo del Camino, a town famous for its elaborate baptismal font. We stopped and took a look, and had a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. At some point in the day, I also ran into English Mark for the last time, also at a cafe. Maybe this was the same one? I can’t remember, and Natalie doesn’t remember seeing him again after breakfast, but when I saw him for the last time, he called me over to the bar, almost giddy in his eagerness to tell me a story he’d just heard about a road marker we’d passed earlier in the day, called the Cross of the Brave:

In medieval times, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón were locked in a dispute about the land the lay between the two towns, particularly who had rights to the lumber there. The towns were constantly fighting, and finally someone thought it would be smarter to just pick a champion for each town, and have them fight it out. The winner would determine which town had land rights. On the day of the big fight, the champion from Santo Domingo arrived, covered in oil. The only way the champion from Grañón could best the oily bastard was to grab him by the only part that wasn’t greased up – his anus. The fighter from Santo Domingo was thus thrown out of the ring (some say off a cliff), and Grañón won rights to the land, though the winning fighter died only days after the battle. Soon after, the Cross of the Brave was erected in memory of the fight. Mark finished telling me this story with, “But which one was truly the ‘brave’ one?” followed by a deep belly laugh. I’m glad that’s my last memory of him.

img_6851

The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

Natalie and I covered another 15km, but I don’t have many photos. That night we ended up at an albergue called the Cuatro Cantones, and it turned out to be a lovely spot, run by a very nice family. Our friend Terry from Seattle was in Belorado that day, so once we got settled into our room, she came over and we all went out for a late lunch at a nearby bar. I can’t remember if I took a nap or not, but for the first time, I did no sightseeing (despite the fact that the town looked really interesting, and I sincerely regretted not being able to see more). That night, Natalie and I had dinner at the albergue restaurant, and invited the other peregrina from our small room (only three of us there – yay!) to join us. She was not a native English speaker, but between the three of us, we got along famously and had a great dinner together. After dinner, I snuck away to an empty bedroom to call my parents, then it was lights out.

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 13 – Santo Domingo de la Calzada

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.

Two things happened that morning in Nájera. First, I woke up feeling like death warmed over. Second, after packing up, getting feet ready for walking, teeth brushed, etc., I walked downstairs to meet up with Natalie, looked outside, and realized that it was not only still dark out, it was cold, windy, and rainy, as well. Pilgrims left in ones or twos ahead of us, reluctantly, with a defeated air. Several caught cabs from the front door to their next destination, opting to avoid walking in these conditions, altogether. We stood for awhile just outside the door of the albergue, staring off into the dark, willing the rain to stop before we moved on. It didn’t help.

While I was planning for the Camino, I read over a lot of different information and opinion pieces on what the best equipment would be to have with me for days like this. Many people say that waterproof pants are a necessity. Gaiters are handy for wearing over your boots to keep out water (and on dry days, dirt and rocks). There are some heated opinions on whether it’s better to wear a rain jacket or a poncho, and most people have opinions on how to best waterproof your backpack and belongings. People also wear rain hats, and a lot prefer waterproof shoes or boots, as well. In the end, I chose to avoid most of these products, after reading up on what equipment most ultralight hikers deem necessary for this kind of walk, and realizing I didn’t feel like dealing with the weight of extra items that I could honestly live without, if I was willing to undergo slight discomfort from time to time. As far as rain was concerned, I had:

  • A pack cover
  • A gallon Ziploc bag for electronics and travel documents.
  • A large Ziploc travel bag for my clothes.
  • A rain jacket (which I later left behind, along with my fleece, in favor of buying a combined warm/water resistant jacket in Leon).
  • Eventually, I also bought a cheap poncho on a tempestuous day, but it only lasted a few days before I got tired of it.

My shoes were not waterproof – they dried out just fine. I made the decision to not get waterproof shoes after reading that they have a tendency to make your feet sweat, promoting blisters. I’m prone to overheating and being really cranky when my feet get too warm, so this was a very important decision for me. I also wore running leggings (which I wear most of the time at home), which stay close to your skin when they get wet, so they stay warm and don’t chafe or start to feel uncomfortable. Next time, the only change I’d make to this program is to buy a lightweight, warm, and completely waterproof jacket before leaving the U.S. That combo is worth its weight in gold.

I left Nájera wearing the rain jacket I’d purchased in St. Jean Pied de Port, which I already hated with a passion. I’ve always hated raincoats. I don’t own one. It’s the sound, mostly, that crinkle that moves with you. Ick. I took it off from time to time that morning, but every time I thought the weather was clearing, it would stop raining for a minute or two, then return a little harder. My feet got gradually more damp, and I had also started to run a fever and had to blow my nose seemingly continually, so between that, the warmth from the jacket, the cold wind and rain in my face, and my squelchy shoes, I was miserable.

At some point, I started getting pretty dizzy and spaced out. The only clear thing I remember from that morning was that I was walking at a pace that was, as my dad would say, “slower than snail shit.” Other pilgrims seemed to be sailing by, left and right. So when I saw a big, beautiful snail crossing the Camino, I stopped to watch its progress and took a photo to show my spirit animal to the folks back home.

img_6784

The rain started coming down pretty hard right before I got to the first town of the day, Azofra. I trudged into town, spotted the nearest cafe (always easily picked out by a few things: backpacks, stacks of hiking poles, hanging signs for various drink brands, and the quintessential red plastic tables and chairs for outdoor seating), and fought my way in through the crowd of pilgrims who were already there, attempting to dry off while staring glumly at maps and cell phones. It was a sad, sodden little crowd, but also weirdly cheery. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain kind of good-naturedness to being a pilgrim. Those that can’t suck it up and go with the flow can have a much more difficult time on the Camino, as the hard parts start to stack up and seem insurmountable. If you can master the art of just forging ahead, even when things seem impossible, you’ll save yourself all of the added stress. One way or the other, you are going to get to your destination. How you get there, and in what mood, is up to you.

With that in mind, I should tell you right now that I stopped walking in Azofra, and took a cab to that night’s destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The decision to take a cab certainly didn’t come lightly. I sat in that cafe for an hour and a half, looking at the map, enjoying a slice of tortilla and a café con leche, blowing my nose repeatedly, and generally feeling like a complete loser for wanting to give up on the day. Natalie was there when I arrived, so I talked it over with her first. While we were sitting there, English Mark came along and had a seat with us, so I talked it over a bit with him, too. Eventually Natalie got back on the road, and Mark started packing up to leave, and I still hadn’t made up my mind.

In my pre-Camino research, I’d joined a Facebook group for pilgrims old and new, and had read many somewhat negative comments and conversations. One of the prevailing opinions I kept running into was people who thought it was cheating to use any transportation other than horse, bike, or foot, since it wasn’t “authentic.” I didn’t disagree with this, exactly, but I was (and am) of the opinion that medieval pilgrims took whatever mode of transportation they could to get to where they were going. Yes, they still walked and took horses, but they weren’t above catching a ride on a cart if someone offered. And if the point of this pilgrimage was to teach myself the lessons I was having trouble learning in my daily life, I needed to use this as a time to stop letting my pride and overwhelming need to always follow the rules push me into stupid decisions. I was clearly ill, it was terrible weather for walking with a fever, and at this rate, there was no way I’d catch up with Natalie tonight if something didn’t change. So I asked the bartender to call me a cab. It cost me around 20 euros, but I got there in less than 20 minutes. It was the first and only day that I made it into town before noon.

img_6792

View from the doorway of my dorm room in the municipal albergue.

The municipal albergue was open when I arrived, and I was the very first one in for the day (no surprise). The hospitalero took one look at me and made a low whistle of appraisal. Evidently, I looked as crappy as I felt. He ushered me in, took my payment, then showed me up to my dorm. I’m not sure if this albergue was actually larger than that at Roncevalles, but it felt massive. There were three stories, with multiple dorm rooms, a large common room with couches and long tables for dining, and a big kitchen. The shower rooms were pretty massive, too, making a nice departure from the last few days of bathrooms (especially the tiny ones with limited hot water at our albergue in Viana). I found my bunk (I still got stuck with the top bunk, even though I was the very first person at the albergue. What a crock!) took a nice hot shower and changed into my last set of clean clothes, then gathered up all the dirty clothes and headed to the tiny laundromat across the street. I’m calling it a laundromat, but it was actually just three pay washers and dryers in a little glass storefront, no attendant or much of anything else.

img_6789

Sign in the albergue kitchen that tickled my fancy.

While my clothes were washing, I looked around for a pharmacy. I’d bought cold medicine on our way out of Pamplona, but it wasn’t cutting it. I needed something way more powerful. A few blocks away, I found a little pharmacy and went in, then got in line behind a couple of Canadians. I struck up a conversation with them for a second once I heard them speaking English, and it turned out they weren’t pilgrims, they just happened to be there on vacation. Maybe it was the cold talking, but I didn’t like them much after hearing that. Well, that’s not all. I also didn’t like them much after hearing them argue with the pharmacist in a rather petty manner.

It turned out that the Canadian guy was also looking for medicine, and he actually wanted the exact thing that I did – a cold and sinus medicine that also contained Ibuprofen. He told the pharmacist, who spoke perfect English, what he’d like. She listened carefully, looked up a few things in her computer, and told him that she didn’t have anything like that. Then he started to talk down to her, insisting that the pharmacist was wrong, saying, “In MY country, where I’M from, this exists.” It was really crappy behavior, the kind I’d expect from an American abroad, to be honest. I started wondering how close he lived to the US border. In the end, the pharmacist found a sinus product with Ibuprofen in it, and the couple went away happy. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, really, but sometimes you don’t have to try to achieve. On the bright side, they’d found me what I wanted, so on my turn at the counter, I asked the pharmacist for the product by name, and was rewarded with a sweet smile and a box of some kick-ass meds, yay!

Medicine in hand, I walked back to check on my laundry, and heard what every cat lover hates – a nearby feline’s cries of distress. It was coming from over my head, maybe a block or two away, so I followed the noise, looking up at the facades of the closely-set buildings that lined the cobbled street. About four houses down from the laundromat I spotted her – a Siamese cat stuck outside on a ledge, wailing. I talked to her from street level, and she stopped crying to look down. I saw that she couldn’t get back inside the window she’d come out of without physically backing up, and feared that if she fell off the ledge, she’d now be stuck out in small town Spain, where street cats aren’t that lucky. On the other hand, if she fell off of the ledge, she wouldn’t be stuck there for the rest of the day until her owner came home. I knocked on the large, wooden front door, which turned out to be a general door to the apartment building, and the woman who answered didn’t speak English and didn’t know whose cat that was. After standing in the street for a few more minutes, feeling helpless, a college-age, dreadlocked hippie dude strolled down the street, arms full of grocery bags. The cat yelled down off of the ledge, and he looked up and sighed. It was obviously his cat. He spoke soothingly to her, then noticed me and my look of concern, and grinned, shaking his head, a clear gesture that kitty was prone to getting stuck on the ledge. We shared a tiny moment, no language, just the universal love of animals. A minute or two after he’d walked in, the next window down opened up and the cat was able to run back inside without backing down the ledge again.

As soon as my laundry was done, I downed some medicine, then took a nice, long nap, well into the afternoon. When I woke up, the beds that had been empty all around me all had sleeping bags on them. The guy who had set up shop on the bed beneath mine looked like one of my friends from home, and he was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yay! As I got out of bed, I said hi to him, but he scowled at me and didn’t reply.  I could hear people bustling around out in the hallways, so I brushed off that short encounter and took a walk around to see if I could find anyone I knew. A man (I honestly can’t remember who it was anymore, but it was a pilgrim I knew) saw me coming out of my room and told me that he’d seen Natalie in another of the dorms, upstairs. So I walked up to find her, and ended up running into Mark in the stairwell, grinning from ear to ear, excited to be going out to find a pint.

Mark was in a great mood that day, which is so weirdly like him to be all excited about terrible things. He’d gone to the pharmacist and showed his feet, which had slowly been getting worse ever since Roncesvalles, in part because he didn’t want to adjust the routine that had gotten him to this point, and partly because once he discovered Compeed, he’d put it all over his existing blisters, and they’d gotten infected. To hear him tell it, there had been some horror on the pharmacists’ part as they gazed upon his mangled toes, but they’d hooked him up with some great medicine, and he was enthusiastic about making a full recovery. He had to lance his blisters and inject them with an antibiotic, then do some fancy bandaging. There was a girl with him in the stairwell, but I can’t remember who she was, either, though once again, it was a pilgrim I knew. She, being a truly lovely human being, was going to help him lance the blisters and get fixed up. I loved Mark’s boundless enthusiasm, tempered with a deliciously twisted sense of humor. He wasn’t a fan of churches, so I don’t think he visited the cathedral that day, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the gruesome reliquaries in the cathedral art gallery…

Natalie had already visited the town’s cathedral, but offered to go a second time with me. I was feeling good enough that I didn’t want to miss this important landmark, especially since it’s central to a particularly amusing story of a miracle that once occurred in the town. During the middle ages, the legend goes, a pilgrim family walked through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The family’s teenage son was handsome, and an innkeeper’s daughter tried to seduce him. He resisted her advances, and she, feeling insulted, hid a silver cup in his bags. When he and his family tried to leave town the next day, she reported him as a thief, and he was tried and executed at the gallows. His body was left to hang as a sign to would-be thieves, and his poor parents continued on their pilgrimage. Much later, after reaching Santiago de Compostela, receiving their blessings, and turning around to come home, they passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada again, and passed by their son’s body. Miraculously, he wasn’t dead after all, but had been hanging there, alive and unharmed, the entire time. He yelled down to his parents that he’s still alive, thanks to Santo Domingo, and they, realizing the miracle, ran to beg the mayor for clemency in light of this obvious sign of their son’s innocence. The mayor was just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken when the parents came calling, and he laughed outright at their ridiculous story, saying “Your son is as alive as these chickens I’m about to eat for dinner!” At that moment, the two chickens hopped up from their roasting pans, grew feathers and beaks, and started to dance around the table, squawking. The miracle was recognized, the boy was cut down and returned, whole, to his family, and from that point forward, the town has kept two descendants of those original chickens in a special pen in the town’s cathedral.

img_6824

The chicken coop is very bright inside, but there are two chickens in there, I promise!

The chicken coop and art museum in the cathedral are pretty cool, but weirdly, I think I got more out of the ticket office than anything else I saw that evening. You have to buy tickets to the cathedral across the street in this rather banal looking storefront. Inside, it’s very brightly lit, and set up like a regular old tourist gift shop. They’ve got all of the normal touristy things that you can buy – postcards, t-shirts, small toys, that kind of thing, but there were also all sorts of weird, cheaply-made items that were more typical of the popular dollar store-style Asian markets that you’ll find in many larger Spanish towns along the Camino. The incongruity was very pleasing, for whatever reason.

After walking through the cathedral, Natalie bustled off to meet a new friend of hers, another Mark, this one from Australia. She’d run into him earlier, and made plans to grab dinner that evening. I was invited to tag along, but first I wanted to visit the town’s bell tower, which featured a variety of bells that rang at specific intervals. I was hoping to get to catch the bells in action, and was happy that it worked out as planned (though they were very loud). Unfortunately, if I had a video of the bells chiming, I must have erased it on accident, but I did manage to get a couple of photos.

img_6830

Steps leading up to the bells.

img_6834

When I got to the restaurant, Australian Mark and Natalie were having a cocktail in the front of the cafe, waiting for dinner service to start in the dining room. They invited me to pull up a chair, and I gladly joined them. I didn’t remember this Mark, but we’d actually met days before, back at Zabaldika. He and Natalie had been sitting across from each other that night at dinner, and had gotten to know each other then and during the meditation circle that I’d skipped in favor of going to sleep early. Mark had been walking more quickly than we, but had had a brush with death the night before. He’d tripped and fallen in the shower, and busted his head open. He was bleeding and in shock, but luckily, another peregrino came to his rescue and called the hospitalero. The hospitalero happened to be a Reiki healer. He called the paramedics, but in the mean time sat with Mark and helped draw away the pain and fright using Reiki techniques.

As Mark recounted the story of the injury and his thankfulness for those who had come to his aid, I was quite taken with the sincerity and emotion of the moment. As he continued talking through dinner, it was clear that he was suffering emotionally from other issues in his life, and really needed to get some things off his chest. So I ended up crying at dinner for the second night in a row, but this time over something a little more important than a beautiful meal. Every now and then through dinner, I recall looking over at Natalie and getting the feeling that there was something more here than she’d expressed to me yet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it that night, but it would soon be pretty obvious that I was witnessing the sweet opening notes of a Camino romance.

img_6840

Delicious paella.

At dinner that night, I realized yet again that I was familiar with Rioja-style food, when I ordered paella for what I thought was the first time. The dish that was delivered to me was savory, flavorful, a little greasy and soft, and kept reminding me of something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually it hit me – my great-grandmother on my father’s side made a dish she called Spanish Rice, made of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce, with a few spices thrown in. Nothing to write home about, but one of my dad’s favorite meals, and something I grew up eating very often as a kid. I ended up hating it – had to melt slices of cheese over it to be able to force myself to eat it. Probably the only ingredient that Spanish Rice and paella had in common was rice, but somehow the paella here at this restaurant tasted like the Spanish Rice I’d grown up eating as a kid, except that now, the nostalgia (and better ingredients, most likely) made me love the dish. It was a very weird thing to realize, since now I’m wondering where in hell my great-grandmother, who grew up on the coast of NC in a very insular area, got a recipe for bastardized paella?

Back in the albergue that night, things were a little wild. The common area for pilgrims to hang out was very large, and a few groups of pilgrims had gotten together to cook big communal dinners. After the plates were cleared away, they got to singing and making music, and it got rowdy in the way that only happy pilgrims can make happen – around 30 or 40 people were playing spoons, banging pots, and singing at the top of their lungs in various languages. All amazing, but not if you’re tired and want to sleep. At 10pm on the nose, that same Reiki-healing hospitalero rolled through wearing a red clown nose and striking a miniature gong, making it clear in a kind way that everyone needed to go to bed immediately.

There were around 20 beds in my dorm room, maybe more. That night, my unfriendly bunkmate kept most of those 20 people awake with ungodly snores that physically shook our rickety bunkbed all night. I was a little better-rested than the others, since I’d had a chance to sleep most of the day AND I had some great ear plugs that blocked a portion of the noise (not all, by any means), but when the lights came on in the morning and everyone started packing up, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how many people were shooting dirty looks at the only guy in the room who’d gotten a good night’s sleep. At breakfast, I saw him meet up with his friends at one of the communal tables, and get more angry stares from other peregrinos. I wondered if his friends had discovered his snoring problem and decided to stay in another room to get more rest. I had been in that same position before the Camino with a family member with whom I’d (in retrospect, unwisely, since I knew her propensity for snoring) shared a hotel room, and how much I hated her chipper little “Good Morning!” after keeping me awake all night with her foghorn snores. I will never, ever share a room with her again, and I don’t care how much I have to pay. Sometimes, when you love someone, you need to take measures to protect your own sanity in order to save the relationship. I never ran into the unfriendly, snoring peregrino again, but often wondered what became of him.

Click here to read about Day 14.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

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.

img_6736

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.

img_6738

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.

img_6739

Walking into Nájera

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.

img_6777

Sometimes you go shopping for staples, and end up getting entranced by the candy section…

img_6778

Other times you find things to laugh about (this is a mayonnaise-based “salad” mixture made of CARP, not crap)

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.

img_6782

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.

Click here to read about Day 13.

Anna’s Camino: Day 11 – Reshuffling, World Class Tapas, and Navarrete

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.

img_6685

Logroño had some amazing street art.

It’s weird going back through this Camino by way of photographs. I remember the walk to Navarrete pretty well, but if I skip forward and look at where I was walking the next day, I remember things ahead of time, giving me a weird sense of foresight, even though it’s actually in hindsight. For instance, I know that I was feeling sick for a while (mildly, anyway) since a day or two after leaving Pamplona. And I remember walking to Navarrete, and feeling OK. Not great, but not terrible. However, by Day 12, I know that I was in really bad shape; I ended up taking a taxi after the first hour of walking, because I just didn’t think I could make it to Santo Domingo de la Calzada in one piece.

So how was I feeling great on Day 11, and near death on Day 12? Maybe I was feeling terrible for a while, but was able to keep powering through it for a while before my body got through to my brain that now was a good time to take a break. I’m really not sure. I do know, from reading others accounts in blogs, books, and even in FB posts, that every now and then you’ll just get to a breaking point, but a good day’s rest will cure most of what ails you. That’s a very important lesson to keep in mind whether or not you plan on walking the Camino – when you feel like you can’t possibly go on, don’t lose hope – just take a break and reassess the situation before you start making drastic decisions. It really does help, I promise.

img_6686

Other graffiti on the way into Logroño.

I can’t remember if Natalie and I left Viana before or after Claire, but I do have a memory of watching Claire walk away from the front door of the albergue, off to hunt for the bus that she would take to get a few days ahead of us. It’s strange to think of distance and time in this manner. We were still all in Spain, but a short bus ride would literally fast-forward Claire to an entirely new group of pilgrims, a new stage of the road, new adventures. Meanwhile, though we were left behind, we would be on the road for longer. Did this mean that we had more opportunities, or just different ones? Did Claire miss out from busing ahead, or did we miss out more for not having her with us? I think that the answer, in not being that clearcut, is very obvious.

I’ve spent enough time on various pilgrim message boards and advice sites to realize that some of the old school peregrinos stick to this silly rule that taking any form of transportation other than your own two feet (and possibly a bicycle, or a horse) is somehow “cheating.” But who’s to say that? What if the lesson you need to learn on the Camino is to not be so rigid in your concept of right and wrong? Who’s to say that the one person you really needed to meet on your pilgrimage wasn’t the bus driver, a pilgrim who’s currently up ahead, or even just a local who’s riding the train? The lesson here is that you can be sad that your friend left you behind, or you can be disappointed in your own lack of fitness, or even annoyed that your job didn’t give you enough vacation days to walk the entire thing, but you should never, EVER judge anyone (including yourself) for the way the road is to be traveled. We all need different things, we all have different weaknesses (and strengths), and we all get something different out of our life’s caminos. Celebrate the variety, and celebrate that your friend makes it onto the right bus. Then keep walking your walk.

One of the weirder things that happened on this day was passing a literal “Game of Goose” game board, laid out in marble alongside the Camino in Logroño. For most of the Camino, I kept hearing references to this mysterious game, said to have Templar ties. It was mentioned a few times in my guidebook, and now and then I’d see a version for sale in shop windows. Every time I mentioned it to other pilgrims, though, they’d either heard of it once or twice in passing, or had never heard of it and kind of laughed it off that I was so keen on finding out more. About two weeks from this day, I met another Anna who explained the game a bit more to me, but I’ll leave that memory for later. The bottom line for Logroño is that the artwork was lovely, and I was still no closer to finding out what it was all about, other than that it had a weird name and seemed to feature all of the landmarks of the Camino.

Logroño is a big, busy town. It’s the capital city of the autonomous region of La Rioja, and as such, is just as much of a bustling metropolis as you’d expect. Both Natalie and I were a little put off by it, me probably more, since she’d already walked through the city on her last pilgrimage. It’s not that I didn’t like the place, or want to explore further, it’s just that we hadn’t been somewhere with tall buildings and that many traffic lights and people since Pamplona, and I’d gotten used to things being a little quieter. It didn’t help that, as we were walking through one of the many small town squares (more like a neighborhood green), we walked right through a loud public dispute. This enraged, seemingly inebriated guy was screaming at the top of his lungs outside of an apartment building. We lost sight of him for a minute, then the next thing we knew, he was racing after a car, banging on the side of it, then throwing things at it as it got away, yelling the entire time. We looked at each other and picked up the pace a little, as there weren’t many people about, and it didn’t seem like a good time to get noticed by this dude, no matter what he was angry about. Nothing happened, and we both brushed it off as we made our way to a nearby café to grab coffees and something to snack on before walking out of town.

The café we picked had a different feel than most of the ones I encountered along the Camino Frances. It was close to city center, and had the feel of a chain restaurant – not as corporate as Starbucks, but definitely not a mom and pop place. We grabbed a tortilla to share, and some cafés con leche, and I seem to remember a chocolate croissant, as well. She read over her guidebook and checked out the map, and I did some people watching. One of the things I noticed was that I spotted a gay couple enjoying breakfast together; I remember this specifically because it warmed my heart, and also helped me realize that I was finally getting a read on Spanish body language a little better. Outside, I watched a father walk by, wheeling his toddler daughter (decked out in a pink, impossibly sparkly and ruffled outfit) in a stroller. An elderly lady, hunch backed, in compression hose and head scarf, hobbled by, leading a little terrier on a leash. Several teenage boys in grass-stained football uniforms walked by, clearly exhausted. It was a busy morning.

img_6687

A pond we passed on the way out of town. I stood here to watch the swans, and to watch a little girl and her mother throw little veggie scraps (not bread – yay!) to the birds.

The walk out of Logroño seemed to take FOREVER. It was another one of those days where you have a map that shows you where you’re going, you know the mileage, you think you have all of the information you need to get to your destination, yet for some reason no matter how long or how far you walk, you’re still no closer to the stopping point. It’s a very particular feeling for those who are walking long distances, and maybe it’s a very particular feeling for those who are coming down with a cold, I’m not sure. Either way, it felt like Logroño would never end. Even once we got to the beautiful Grajera Reservoir, with its surrounding park land, and knew that we were only a little over 5k away from our destination, it still felt like forever and a day to Navarrete.

The greenway that leads from Logroño to the park surrounding the Grajera Reservoir is very popular with locals, and we passed several kids’ birthday parties on our way through. We also got to walk over some nature trails that had wooden bridges. One bridge made me stop and stare for a while – there were HUGE carp in the water, at least as big as some of the ducks that swam above them. I tried to get some photos, but nothing great turned out.

img_6706

One of the less traveled paths in the park (this is from after the reservoir, on the way out).

At times it was a little scary to be a pilgrim on this park trail shared with enthusiastic weekend bikers. Wherever possible, we got off of the paved trail and walked on the natural ones, but there were bikes everywhere, and from time to time I was unnerved to hear them approaching from around the bend at breakneck speeds. We managed not to get run over or cause any accidents, and once we got to the reservoir, we decided to have a short lunch and take a rest. While we sat there, several people went by on horseback, and I was a little wistful, both because it would have been heavenly to get off my feet, and because I genuinely love horses, and because I was thinking I’d love to have the option to go horseback riding on the weekends in my normal life back in the states. Lunch was bread, cheese, sausages, and little tomatoes. While we ate, I wondered where Claire had eaten her lunch today.

img_6708

A sign on the way to Navarrete: “Without pain there is no satisfaction.”

Leaving the park, we passed through a section of the park that reminded me of some state parks back home, complete with little cabins for campers less inclined to tent living. It reminded me strongly of my days as a girl scout, and I spent most of the rest of the afternoon in some kind of nostalgic reverie, paying close attention to all of the birds and plants that we passed. Sometimes it felt like I needed to take in every detail, like I’d be getting quizzed on it after my trip. I’m glad that’s not the case, because I have no memories of walking into Navarrete, until we were firmly in the little town, walking around in search of the albergue.

It was afternoon, around 3pm, by the time we reached Navarrete, and I was beat. My feet were throbbing, and I was in desperate need of water. We walked into town by a high street; I think we were in search of a particular address, but I can’t remember, exactly. What I do remember is feeling lost and exhausted, and that the entire town seemed to be taking siesta. It was SO quiet, and there was an air of abandonment. I was running out of hope and energy, and just plodding along after Natalie, feeling incapable of independent thought. She saw a little public fountain under a couple of trees, with a bench nearby, and we headed that way. Just as I’d taken a seat and resolved to sleep there for the rest of my life, a lady leaned out of a nearby second story window to flap out a dusty throw rug, and spotted us by the fountain. She smiled, leaned over the window ledge, and yelled down directions to the municipal albergue, which was only a block or two away. Saved again by the kindness of strangers. This was to become a trend of my Camino.

The municipal albergue was being staffed by a very nice elderly gentleman who showed us where to put our boots and walking sticks, and led us to our bunks. We showered, washed our clothes, and hung everything out to dry on the little rotating circular metal clothes lines that were anchored outside of our bedroom window. I really wish I had one of those for my apartment; it’s an excellent idea – except for when you forget to put clothespins on your clothes, and they fall into the street, as my towel did that evening. Luckily, another pilgrim saw my towel and brought it inside to the hospitalero, so I got it back with little trouble.

img_6710

Pacharán

Just next door to the albergue, we’d spotted a little bar, so we headed over there to catch some wi-fi and grab a drink. It was there that I experienced my first glass of pacharán, a lovely Spanish liquor that I’ve really been missing since coming back to the states. It was Natalie’s drink of choice, and though I didn’t drink it always, a sip was always welcome. My drink of choice in Spain, when not sipping red wine, was Ballantine’s Finest, a sweet and inviting Scotch whiskey. I went looking for a glass of Jameson’s, my go-to, when I got to Roncesvalles on Day 2, but the closest they had to Irish whiskey was Scotch, and I stuck with it for the rest of my trip, when I wasn’t drinking red wine, pacharán, or on one occasion, hierbas. The other major beverage of my time in Spain was a major favorite of the peregrino crowd: Aquarius, which is a (non-alcoholic) canned sports drink that’s a little like Gatorade, except it actually tastes good.

Anyway, we sat down to have a drink, and that turned into an afternoon at the café, just hanging out and recovering from the day’s walk. It turned out that I was starving, so I ordered both a tortilla and a bocadillo (sandwich, in this case ham and cheese), plus I had a pacharán and a couple of glasses of scotch over the course of the afternoon. Soon after we sat down, Tom poked his head in the bar. He’d just arrived in town, and stopped to say hi before dropping his things off at the albergue. Eventually he wandered back in and ordered a glass of wine. We talked for a while, and he said that he’d left Mark behind much earlier in the day, and we probably wouldn’t be seeing him in Navarrete tonight, at the pace he was currently walking (his feet were really banged up). Maybe 45 minutes to an hour later, we were all surprised (and overjoyed, as we were all a couple of drinks in by this point) to see Mark poke his head in the bar, too! The gang was all here! He went to get cleaned up, then came back and ordered his trademark “large” beer, cheerfully demanding the biggest mug in the house.

We all sat around for another hour or so, until it started to get close to time for dinner. The guys went back to the albergue, and Natalie and I decided to start checking out our dining options for the evening. When I asked the bartender for my check to settle up, I was blown away by the fact that I only owed 12 euros for everything – three or four drinks, a slice of tortilla, and a sandwich. When I reacted with shock, the bartender thought I was freaking out because it was too expensive, and Natalie had to translate that it was just the opposite. I asked the bartender to check again, because I really didn’t want them to lose out on me if she’d forgotten to include anything, but she double checked, and it was correct.

img_6714

Just me and a couple of my new pilgrim friends!

We did a turn about town, walking down a couple of streets, checking out the church, looking at menus on every restaurant we spotted, but one restaurant really caught our attention. Bar Deportivo (also known as Casa de Comidas de Begoña y Antonio) is tiny, and doesn’t look like much from the outside. Inside is simply decorated, while managing to still feel warm and inviting. The family that run the place are warm and attentive, and though they speak limited English (not their fault – mine for not knowing the language), they did their best to make us feel like we were at home. The little restaurant has full seating in the back, but we were peckish, so instead of ordering off-menu, we chose to grab a seat at the bar and eat a selection of tapas. Mark came to join us a little later, and he was pleased with the size of the beers, lol.

img_6711

Bar Deportivo has ruined me in regards to tapas. Here in the states, I’ve yet to come across any places that do tapas like Spain, where they’re available to see at the bar, and in great quantities. Here, you normally order your tapas like you would any appetizer, sight unseen, off the menu, one at a time. It’s not done in the same sense of community, and really takes away from the intended experience, in my opinion. There, all through Spain, you see all sorts of options right there at the bar when you get your drink, and you can just point out a selection of the tastes you’d like, and the barkeep will put them on a plate and hand them to you then and there. In many places, you get a free tapa when you order your drink. It might be the bar’s choice, but it’s still free food, and typically delicious. Anyway, this place had some of the most beautiful little tapas I saw over the course of my entire Camino. They were delicious, too. Add to that the wife/owner, Begoña, took a shine to Natalie, and gave us free food just because, and we were in heaven. I’m sad that I only got to experience one meal there, actually. If I lived in the area, it would be my favorite spot.

img_6723

The owner, Begoña, gave us this amazing goat cheese stuffed pepper in a squid ink sauce.

After dinner, it was time to hit the hay. We got back to the albergue well before the doors were locked for the night, and I was asleep by the time my head hit the pillow. We woke before dawn the next morning, and it was still dark out when we left the albergue. It was misting heavily enough that I needed my pack cover and raincoat, and though we’d intended to wait until the next town to grab breakfast, we stopped just after the church to grab a coffee at a tiny hole-in-the-wall café. I remember this place because it was either the first or second time that I ordered a freshly squeezed orange juice (zumo de naranja), and I felt guilty when I saw that she was doing it all by hand with the tiniest of juicers. I also got a delicious chocolate bar there, and never saw that exact brand again. Ah, mornings on the Camino, when you can eat a chocolate bar without shame. I distinctly remember that my face felt clogged up and on fire, and even the chocolate bar didn’t really cheer me up. I got a second café con leche before we left, but it didn’t do much to improve my mood. It was going to be a long morning.

Click here to read about Day 12.

Anna’s Camino: Day 8 – Villatuerta

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.

IMG_6556

You’re not gonna like this, but I don’t have many memories of the walk from Puente la Reina to Villatuerta. Part of the reason for that is most likely because I’m writing this so long after the walk (I can’t believe it’s been nine months now, though symbolically, I guess I can, since it’s taken me this long to “birth” these journal entries). However, I also think that part of the reason I’m coming up short with strong memories for the walking portion of the day is that by the time I’d been walking a week, I started to Zen out a little while I was on my feet.

Weird thing is, though, I didn’t recognize it when it was happening. Me, with years of running and Bikram yoga under my belt, and no realization that my mind was heading off somewhere else as soon as I’d tied my laces and fastened my pack. Recently, I found myself reading through Belden C. Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints, and having an “aha!” moment when I read a section on how the body has its own part in important spiritual work (he calls it “soul craft”). He says:

“One might best think of the soul, then, as the place where the body and the rest of the vibrant world converge. The German Romantic poet Novalis argued that the human soul isn’t inside the body, hidden and encased, like a ‘seed.’ Rather, he said, ‘The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet.’ Soulfulness is our ability to discover a vital connection with the ordinary details of everyday experience – what we share along our outermost edges with others…Whenever I plunge into wilderness, my body and the environment move in and out of each other in an intimate pattern of exchange…Where I ‘end’ and everything else ‘begins’ isn’t always clear…My ‘personal identity’ is stretched to include the aching beauty of an alpine meadow or the raucous cry of loons on the other end of the lake.”

As you can see, I cut the quote down considerably to get to my point, but if you haven’t read this book yet, I urge you to pick it up and enjoy. It’s a somewhat dense read, but an entertaining and rewarding one.

IMG_6554

So yeah, I think that by the eighth day of my Camino, I was falling into the soul work I’d sought, but didn’t realize it. I know for a fact that my depression and anxiety had already begun to lift considerably. I was genuinely enjoying walking with my Camino sisters Natalie and Claire, and though it always takes me a while to remember names, I was starting to see more familiar faces each day throughout the day, on rest breaks and at cafes. Most memorable to me that day are two feelings – the physical pain in my legs, and a short dose of panic and emotional anguish when I briefly lost both of my friends near the end of the day, and thought for sure that I wouldn’t find them again.

A short look back through my photos reminds me of a few more little details from the day, though. I remember leaving Puente la Reina in the morning, and sharing in (and being slightly amused by) Claire’s irritation with the group of elderly Israeli orchestra members that had stayed in our room the night before. Besides their funny penchant for bursting into song together, they were a slightly pushy group of guys, something that seemed more a cultural difference than an intended slight, but was still annoying. They’d hogged the bathroom day and night, hung out in their skivvies, and one of the guys snored robustly. Then, as we were walking out of town in the morning, one of them stopped Claire to have her take their photo, but instead of asking her, he’d held the camera out and basically said, “Hey you, stop and take our photo.” In general, not the nicest way to ask a stranger for help. We were all a little put off by the less than great behavior, but I figured, what do we know about how old Israeli guys talk to each other and their loved ones? Maybe something that comes off as curt to us was actually a friendly familiarity to them, who knows.

IMG_6557

If you look closely, you’ll see that some enterprising farmer planted a world map on the hillside!

I remember walking up to a town that I’d read had a thriving arts scene, and not feeling like I had time to stop. I felt rushed, and really out of breath on account of the very steep hill up to and through the main street of the town. I’m not sure if that rushing was coming from an external source or what, but I’d love to go back at some point to see if there are any potters selling unique Camino wares. Later that morning, we walked over a nice portion of Roman roads, including a bridge. I marveled at the cart tracks, and how sturdy the construction still was, and made a note to tell my father every detail on our next phone call.

 

On this day, we were all at different speeds. Generally, all three of us walked at a pretty similar pace, overall, but played leapfrog throughout the day. Natalie was still recovering from a pre-Camino knee injury, and every now and then that would slow her down, but usually she was the most efficient of us. Claire walked at a very tidy pace, sometimes using her umbrella as a hiking pole, often keeping a keen eye out for impressive old churches with unlocked doors (even better if they had a credencial stamp handy). My pace, like my thoughts, varied wildly. Hills were really difficult, and often resulted in lots of little sitting/water breaks. My calves and shins hurt, and my achilles tendon had been acting up for a year before the walk, so that wasn’t doing me any favors. At times, I’d get really into the rhythm of my hiking poles, and just motor down the trail, almost hypnotized by the repetitive sound. Other times, I’d get caught up in conversation with one of the girls, or meet a new pilgrim and talk for miles. But other times, I’d stop to look at a tree, or a rock, or a pile of rocks, or some graffiti, then another tree, rock, a bird, the sky, etc. Then I’d just get caught up in thinking about that one small thing, and shuffle along the path, knowing that there was somewhere I was supposed to be going, but otherwise not too concerned with all of the “little stuff” (you know, anything off of the physical Camino).

IMG_6569

I got a huge kick out of this albergue sign. Who doesn’t love a flamenco kitty?

This day, Natalie and I were together a bit more often. We left Claire behind at some point, but then when we stopped for a beer and some paella for lunch, she caught up and we sat with each other for a little while. Eventually, Natalie and I were ready to go, but Claire hadn’t finished just yet, so we walked on. But later in the day, we stopped for another coffee when she didn’t, so it turned out that while we were drinking coffees, she passed us on the road, and eventually we got to a town where Claire was already waiting for us at a fountain. Isn’t it great how the Camino allows everyone to pace themselves but still end up with their loved ones?

 

By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted. The last towns we passed through were shaped somewhat like American suburban areas, with newer houses on a grid system, and less of the romantic older structures I’d grown to love. It was somewhere in here that I got separated from the girls and started to despair of finding the place we were supposed to bunk for the night. Earlier in the day, we’d made the decision to stop at a place called Casa Magica, mostly because it had great reviews for food, and the guide book said it also offered massage, which we all agreed would be an excellent option. I’m not sure why or how I got so turned around, but for about 15 minutes, I wandered around on the verge of tears, no clue if I was still on the Camino or where to even try to go to get back to the yellow arrows. Luckily, I eventually found a public square near a school, and ran into some German pilgrims who pointed the way for me. A few minutes later, I found Natalie, and Claire arrived a short while later.

The albergue La Casa Magica was everything I’d imagined and more. The place was empty when we first got there, so Natalie and I sat around, waiting for the owner to come back. His entrance was preceded by that of a friendly, humongous black dog named Thor. I was a bit sad to not have more time to hang out with him after we’d checked in, and I recently saw on the albergue’s Facebook page that beautiful Thor crossed the Rainbow Bridge this summer. Rest in peace, big fella.

la-casa-magica-foyer

The foyer of La Casa Magica. Photo via their website.

As for the house, it was amazing. Nag Champa incense burned constantly in the cool, welcoming public foyer, next to a couple of lovely Art Deco chairs. A nearby lounge included a nice little beer and liquor selection, plus cosy seating, a book exchange, and the omnipresent coffee and snack vending machine. The outdoor patio was also extremely impressive, with room to sit at tables in the sun, or to relax in one of the gaily-colored hammocks strung up under the porch roof. There was also a washing machine – score!

Best of all, for a pretty large house, we seemed to have it mostly to ourselves. There were only about five other pilgrims staying that night, so we three girls got our own room. It was tough climbing up the vintage-tiled stairs to the room, but we were rewarded with what would be one of the nicest sleeping arrangements of my entire trip – a large bedroom with multiple beds, adjoined by two smaller rooms with a single bed, each. I thought of these smaller rooms as “sleeping cubbies.” Natalie took one of the beds in the large bedroom, while Claire and I both took one of the sleeping cubbies. There were thick, warm blankets available, making me feel comforted in exactly the way I needed that afternoon.

When we checked in, there was a pilgrim couple sunning in the back yard, but I don’t recall getting to know them. I took a shower in one of the best bathrooms of any albergue (Rain shower heads and plenty of hot water with great water pressure! Heaven!), then spent the afternoon drinking ales in the lounge, writing in my journal, waiting for the massage therapist to show up. Sadly, though I did get a massage, it was rather underwhelming. I needed some deep tissue action, and he was very light-handed. I was also feeling very chilly that day, a combination of the actual weather, the chill of an old house, and, I realized a few days later, the initial onset of the head cold that was gifted to me by the phlegmy bunkmate in Pamplona.

IMG_6571

Beautiful little crocuses were everywhere along the early days of the Camino.

Dinner that night was nothing short of amazing. It was so beautiful and fancy that I forgot to even get a photo of the meal. The owner of the albergue is a great chef, and after all of the pilgrims had taken their places around the communal dinner table, he fed us a multiple-course vegetarian meal that would have been at home in a fine dining establishment. We had soup, an appetizer of cheese-stuffed peppers, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous vegetarian paella that had dates (I was really impressed by those dates) in it. I wish I could remember every single detail of the meal, but all I get are flashes of how lovingly the plates were decorated, and the huge paella pan from which he served us. Also, I remember that the desert was my first time trying natillas de leche, and it was crazy delicious.

I wasn’t really up for extended dinner conversation, but we all introduced ourselves around the table, and one couple stands out to me. At the end of the table were a man around my age and woman in her late 20’s who had been walking together for the last few days. They seemed cosy, maybe a little romantic, but there was something in his manner that was off-putting. He talked a little too loud, maybe made a little too much of himself. I made a mental note to avoid him if we passed him again on the trail, and I guess his companion came to the same conclusion. At breakfast the next morning, she asked if she could walk with us for the day. So much for Camino romance!

Click here to read about Day 9.

Anna’s Camino: Day 7 – Puente la Reina

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.

The walk from Pamplona to Puente la Reina was one of the most exhausting I’d yet to experience, but the road offered its own rewards that day. I’ve already mentioned my brightest memories from leaving Pamplona in my last Camino blog entry, but there’s one more I’d like to recount, just to keep it fresh. The night before we left, the three of us girls went upstairs to the albergue’s communal kitchen and pooled our resources to have wine and snacks. While we ate and chatted, I filled out 30 postcards to mail back home, and since Claire also had some things to mail, we decided to try to find the post office on the way out of town in the morning. In the morning, we wandered around a little bit as we tried to find the post office, and one of our wrong turns led us to a little square with a statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. I took it as a sign, and as it turned out, it was to be the first of many that day.

IMG_6482

After visiting the post office successfully, we followed the yellow arrows back to the Camino. On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at the Church of San Cernin (click to learn more), a lovely 13th-century church possibly built over an old Roman temple. I was particularly taken with the church’s wooden floors, but still haven’t done the research to find out the reasoning behind the numbers. At the time, I assumed that the numbers coincided with tombs, but perhaps an expert can enlighten me in the comments!

As I recounted in the last entry, we stopped for coffee and a quick trip to the farmicia, then finally headed out of town a little later than planned. From Pamplona, the Camino takes pilgrims through a number of small towns, including Cizur Menur, where Natalie had memories from her earlier Camino of a wonderful hospitalera who was a foot expert. We had tentative plans to try to find the lady, just to say hi, but it didn’t work out. Instead, we kept walking, following the road uphill to the famous Alto de Perdon, “The Mount of Forgiveness.”

As we neared Alto de Perdon, even though we were walking up into the hills again, the landscape sort of stretched out all around us. The city had fallen away, and again it was easy to get lost in the greens and grays of the surrounding landscape. There were windmills everywhere! There had been a little rain to begin with in the morning, but as we climbed uphill, the wind began to whip, and the day started to get a little more gray than before.

IMG_6503

Gorgeous flowers – including my favorites, poppies.

I pulled the hood of my rain jacket tighter around my ears, and kept a close eye on my footing as we climbed up toward the famous metal statue that crowned the highest elevation of the day’s walk. Natalie walked ahead, and Claire was quite some way behind, and for some reason, I decided to just stop and look around. Ever since seeing Francis that morning, I’d had this feeling that I was missing something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I saw something I’d been looking for for days – my first poppies of the Camino. Ever since starting out, I’d kept an eye out for my favorite flowers, hoping to catch at least a couple of them in bloom, even though it was late in the season. Up until this point, I’d seen tons of crocuses, but not a single gorgeous red bloom. They’ve been important to me ever since visiting Assisi, Francis’ birthplace, and seeing them here, on this day, seemed particularly important.

Ever since seeing Alto de Perdon in the movie The Way, I’d expected it to be a very special and inspiring place, but in reality, the popular site wasn’t everything that I’d expected. Even at the time, it took a distant backseat to the poppies I’d seen just a few minutes earlier, and the rest of my walk that day was so beautiful and weird that afterwards, the hilltop sculpture was just a blip on my mental screen.

Walking downhill was a huge challenge for me that day. The ground was a little slick, but even worse, this portion of the Camino was just loose rocks. My knees were protesting the downhill climb, and I slipped often enough to start to be very nervous about the rocks. Natalie was much faster at this than I, so there ended up being at least a half-mile between us, maybe more. Claire and I passed each other throughout the afternoon, but for a good portion of the rest of the walk, I felt pretty isolated by the landscape. There were other pilgrims, but I don’t remember them. Mostly, I remember relishing the freedom, and singing at the top of my lungs for much of the afternoon.

IMG_6514

I particularly loved this welcoming roadside Madonna.

In Uterga, I caught up with Natalie at a great little albergue called the Albergue Camino del Perdon, where we had a seat, took off our shoes, and shared some food. We had a beautiful bowl of soup, and I ate one of my favorite slices of tortilla along the entire Camino. A sweet, well-loved neighbor dog came over to see if we needed any help clearing our plates.

Eventually, Claire ambled up, and we enjoyed sitting a little while longer. It was getting late, though, and we still had a ways to walk to get to Puente la Reina. The rest of the afternoon passed in a bit of a blur; my legs and feet were really starting to feel the strain of the day, and I got slower and slower as we walked through Muruzabal, then Obanos. At one point, I was right behind the girls, walking a suburban neighborhood. As we walked by house after house, they chatted ahead of me, and I just walked with my thoughts about 10 feet behind.

Suddenly, I heard an insistent whinny come from over a fence, and a beautiful white horse stuck her head out in my path. My companions kept walking on, immersed in their conversation. This gorgeous horse and I spent a good ten minutes communing over the fence, putting our foreheads together, me giving her ear scratches, her giving me little snuffles along my forehead. It was a beautiful little stretch of time, and if I could have visited for longer, I surely would have. But I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet up with the girls, so it was important to hurry on after awhile. It felt like a magical moment, though, and just another sign that Francis was walking beside me that day. Later, I asked the girls why they hadn’t stopped to say hi to the horse. “What horse?” they asked. Weird.

IMG_6531 (1)

My sweet horse companion.

IMG_6527

Sidewalk Camino marker. In cities and heavily-populated towns, there would normally be something a little more permanent than a spray-painted yellow arrow, though the arrows were often there, too.

IMG_6525

Political graffiti, though sometimes crass, can play an important role for getting newbies up-to-speed.

By the time we made it to Puente la Reina, it was already late afternoon. Luckily, we were just ahead of the last wave of pilgrims for the day, so there were still some open beds at the municipal albergue. I was so worn out! I barely had the energy to shuffle in the front door, then let Natalie and Claire talk with the hospitalero to see if there was any more room. I didn’t want to sit, in case I couldn’t manage to stand back up again, so I leaned against my pack, against the wall, and half-heartedly struggled to untie my shoes until it was my turn to show my ID and pay the guy. I believe it was five euros for a bed.

The albergue was pretty bare bones, with the same crappy metal bunk beds that they’d had at Zubiri, except that this time, it seemed like the bunk beds had been made for little kids, since there was barely enough room to sit up when you were on the bottom bunk. I didn’t really care, though. I was excited to have a bottom bunk, and once the late pilgrims came in, I was even more excited to just have gotten a bed. A few people were given sleeping mats to crash on the floor. One of the funny things that I remember from that particular albergue is that there was a group of pilgrims from Israel, all old men who played in an orchestra together, and spent the night bantering and telling jokes. They ended up irritating Claire the next day with their insistence that she stop walking and take their picture, but for the time being, they were an entertaining bunch.

After we’d showered, washed clothes, and had everything hanging out to dry (with not much hope in that department, since it had been a humid day, and promised to drizzle overnight), we decided to explore the town a little, and find something to eat. I don’t remember if we found a decent pilgrim meal or not, but I do remember how family-oriented the town was. It was the first of many towns that would impress me with how beloved, well-dressed, and well-behaved the children were, and how the family units all came out to eat and socialize together, mother, father and kids, or grandparents and kids. I didn’t take any pictures of the little ones, since that would be creepy, but I did take a couple of shots of the girls and myself on our way into town.

IMG_6541

Natalie and Claire (of the gorgeous hair), walking through Puente la Reina.

IMG_6544

Sunset in Puente la Reina. This picture marks the day that I first realized that my depression and anxiety were beginning to wane.

Click here to read about Day 8.

Anna’s Camino: Day 6 – Pamplona

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.

IMG_6467

The scallop shell appeared everywhere on the Camino. After growing up on the Atlantic coast, I’ve never been much of a fan of nautical references, but this particular symbol really grew on me. This is the sign for the Albergue de Jesus y Maria, in Pamplona.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Pamplona. Before going on the Camino, I’d never aspired to visit the city before, and my experience there wasn’t exactly negative, but it wasn’t stellar, either. I wasn’t sad to leave, let’s put it that way. That being said, it was still an experience, and it deserves a mention. I did have some interesting interactions there, and met one of my Camino friends there in a very funny incident.

Not long after reluctantly leaving Zabaldika, we walked past a beautiful little farmyard, complete with turkeys, chickens, geese, and a cute little goat! I really wanted to pet the goat, but one of the geese flew to the top of the fence and made menacing noises at us after we’d stopped to admire the yard. Claire shooed the goose away with her umbrella, but the moment was over, and we moved on.

Once you get to Trinidad de Arre, from there to Pamplona grows to be more and more urban. It’s not exactly like walking through the suburbs the entire way, as you’re on a beautiful trail with nature all around, more like walking through a great park. We were all interested in checking out the mill museum in Trinidad de Arre, but it wasn’t open when we walked through. Instead, we visited first church when you walk over the bridge, then stopped to read a little bit about the mill processes on a sign down by the river. We hurried through, mostly because by that point, everyone had to pee, and there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. No one wanted to walk further into town if we we’d have to backtrack to get back on the Camino, so we just kept trucking along.

IMG_6431

The mill town of Trinidad de Arre. At the top are various shots of the Templo Santisma Trinidad, and below is the bridge leading into (and in our case, out of) town. At the back right of the bottom image, you can see a large sign and a small person. That’s the Camino – from there we headed to the right.

Luckily, at some point the park-like trail actually leads straight into a legitimate park, and Natalie spotted a public recreation center with an open sign. Bless her, she was brave enough to ask the lady at the front desk if we three could come in long enough to use the bathrooms, and we were allowed to pass through the little revolving gates that would typically take a token to enter. After that, the walk into Pamplona was pretty smooth sailing.

IMG_6434

This was the first time that I noticed that the word for “bathrooms” that I was seeing most often was “aseos,” (which translates to “restrooms”) not “banos” as typically taught in the U.S. Another common sight was “servicios.” It made me realize how confusing it must be for ESL students to have to distinguish between “bathroom,” “powder room,” “washroom,” “restroom,” etc. The word “komunak” is Basque, and means “common.” Just guessing, but since this was a unisex bathroom, I believe the English translation in this case would be something like “communal.”

One thing I noted was that a lot of people were out in the park with their dogs. At the beginning of the Camino, near Orisson and Roncesvalles, all of the dogs I saw were working dogs – border collies, mostly. Here in the city, I saw mostly border collies, schnauzers, King Charles spaniels, and a particular sort of dog I’d never seen before that looked kind of like a cross between a border collie and a Bermasco sheep dog. I later found out that this was the Spanish water dog. I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s what a Spanish water dog looks like:

spanishwaterdog

Via Photography on the Net‘s thread for Spanish Dog Lovers, as posted by briarlow in 2006. You should click through to see the puppies!

IMG_6443

Seeing the Pamplona city walls was almost surreal after having had our fill of nature for days. They were imposing, to say the least, and it was easy to see how walls like that could make enemies turn tail and run in less technologically advanced times. When we got to the walls, I was too tired to keep walking, so I just sprawled out in the grass and looked up at the way the sky met the structure for a while. A big dog came over to sniff me, and the girls started laughing as I narrowly avoided getting piddled on!

IMG_6453

At The Abbey, Neil had advised that we walk this particular route to get into the city so that we could enter through the French Gate (Portal de Francia), and though I hadn’t been around to hear this conversation, Claire was excited to get a photo there. We all took turns having the others take a photo, while we were at it, which took a little longer than expected since there was a fair amount of foot traffic entering the city that way. We hadn’t planned it, but we’d entered Pamplona on a local holiday. The streets were flooded with people, and there were lots of protestors, too. I was already tired, but the crowds overwhelmed me, wearing me out even more.

It took awhile to find our albergue, even though in hindsight it’s right in the middle of things. The Refugio Jesus y Maria was an abbey at one time, and now houses around 100 pilgrims in two large, multistory bays. We were some of the first to check in, and got bunks close to the front of the building, WAY on the other side of things from where the bathroom was located. I really wanted to wash clothes, though Natalie and Claire had sightseeing plans in mind. Since clean underwear were a priority, I gathered everyone’s things and offered to sit in the laundry room and wait for a washing machine to open up. While I was sitting in the laundry room, reading and waiting for a machine to open up, an Aussie pilgrim and his older friend (Ron?) came along and struck up a conversation. The Australian man taught me a couple of new leg stretches, since my calves were still seizing up daily after I’d stopped walking. I taught him a hip opening stretch that had helped me a lot. Then the friend (let’s call him Ron, shall we?) asked if I’d be kind enough to throw his socks in the wash with our clothes if he paid for the washer. I enthusiastically agreed, and the men went off to dinner, while I waited for my chance to do some washing.

Little did I know that what should have taken an hour or two was to become an all day affair. Long story short, since it turns out that writing this has made me angry, all over again – the washers at Jesus y Maria are awful, and laundry etiquette is not the same the world over. Since the washer instructions were rather strange, and the timers didn’t seem to work that well, I set my phone alarm for every ten minutes, and spent the afternoon walking back and forth to check out my washer. During that time, my laundry was removed from a washing machine that was still running not once, but twice. Both times, I found sopping wet laundry pulled out of the washing machine, with new laundry in the washer, using up my final minutes. Language barriers being what they were, and realizing after I complained that the people responsible thought I was being silly, I decided to just give up and do it the old fashioned way. I rinsed and wrung everything out in the sink, commandeered a drying rack, and hung it all up to dry.

I seem to remember there being a dryer, and that Claire very nobly took over looking after the clothes and making sure to snag the clothes dryer later that evening, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I seem to remember looking down from my bunk at a triumphant Claire holding a bag full of dry clothing, and breathing an inner sigh of relief. If it’s a fake memory to make me feel good, so be it. I’ll take it. I was most concerned about Ron’s socks, and in the end, he wasn’t unhappy, so a few hours’ stress turned out to be pointless.

At some point, the three of us went to grab food, and wandered into – of all things – an American-style burger joint. I was tucking away a burger and cheese fries when Natalie suddenly exclaimed “I think I’ve been here!” It turned out that of all the random places we could have chosen, we’d happened to walk into a place where she’d eaten a meal a couple of years before, on her last Camino.

IMG_6477

Cool event poster.

Afterwards, the three of us did a bit of sightseeing. On our way back to the albergue, I suddenly got an uncharacteristic craving for a sugary soft drink. I didn’t care, I just needed sugar. It was weird, but I figured it had been a long week, and a treat was fine. We stopped into a little corner store and grabbed drinks, then meandered back towards the albergue. Just as we were getting to the front door, we saw a small crowd gathering, and walked up to see what was happening. A teenage pilgrim that we’d seen from time to time over the last day or so had fainted on the street, and her friends were trying to revive her. I’d only taken a sip of the soda, so I quickly handed it to her friend, to give her a little boost in case her blood sugar was low. A man caught my hand and said, “God bless you.” It was a strange moment. On one hand, I missed my soda. On the other, I wondered if it was supposed to be her soda, all along.

Even though everything on my body hurt, I still hadn’t found the right opportunity to visit the farmicia and stock up on pain meds. I had a few Tylenol PMs left that I was using for pain and sleep, but I was about to run out. Since we were now in the big city, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to find a pharmacy, but it was not to be. It was a holiday, so everything was closed. In my very limited Spanish, I asked the hospitalera at the front desk if there were any pharmacies that would be open. She asked what I was looking for, so I said the only thing that came to mind, “pain pills,” meaning Ibuprofen or something similar. Out of nowhere, this guy pops up beside me. “Pain pills?” I realized I’d seen him a little earlier in the day. He reminded me one of my best friends, down to the black eye, which looked like he’d been hit. My first thought, as uncharitable as it was, was that whatever happened, he probably deserved it (mostly because the friend that he reminded me of has got a mouth and a way of letting it get him into trouble). In short, I liked Nestor at first sight.

That first conversation was short, but funny. I clarified that I was just looking for some Ibuprofen, and he looked disappointed. Turned out that he had been searching for an open pharmacy, too, though I’m not sure what for, exactly, because as we parted to our opposite bays, he yelled to come by his bunk if I wanted anything stronger than Ibuprofen. I laughed and said he should come by mine if he wanted a Tylenol PM. There were about a hundred people in the albergue, and we didn’t meet again in Pamplona, though the girls and I saw him looking for a pharmacy the next morning and speculated on what had caused his facial injury. (I wouldn’t see him again for another week or so, at which point he told me that he’d been mugged in Barcelona before starting the Camino. I felt awful for my prior thought process, but took it as a reminder of my dad’s favorite saying: “To assume makes an ass out of [yo]u and me.”)

For the most part, I slept in a new town, in a different albergue, every night of my Camino. That’s 30 places, give or take. I can say without pause that Jesus y Maria was my least favorite. There are several small reasons – laundry, the guy in the bunk next to me having a terrible head cold which I then caught, the distance to the bathroom – but there’s one MASSIVE reason: it echoes. The building was once a church, and though walls have been built in new places to give it a shape suitable to be an albergue, it still has the marvelous acoustics that you’d expect a church to have. With two two-story, loft-style bays, each with over 50 pilgrims, the sounds can be maddening to a light-ish sleeper. As I’d mentioned before, I was doing pretty well at putting my ear plugs in, my sleep mask on, and calling it a night. But between the guy next to me gargling his own phlegm all night, the people on the floor above me having sex (or at least a round of noisy heavy petting), the hundred squeaky bunk beds, and at least three thunderous snorers on my bay, I slept poorly, and was glad to get on the road the next morning.

IMG_6476

One of the coolest things I saw in Pamplona was an advertisement.

We stopped at a couple of churches as we walked out of town, which put us off-kilter in a way that can only happen when you all have unspoken mental schedules and they don’t coincide. There was never an unfriendly moment between Natalie, Claire, and I, but as we left Pamplona, I felt a little more tension in the air than had been present in the days past. If I had to guess, I’d say that no one slept well, and since Pamplona had been something of a promised oasis earlier in the trip, it felt like a bit of a bust. Or maybe that’s just me. Who knows?

The one bright spot as we were leaving town was needing to pee (me – always) and seeing a beautiful little cafe right next to an open farmicia! Cafe con leches and gorgeous baked goods made everyone’s spirits rise, and afterwards, I hopped over to the pharmacy to ask about getting some pain killers and something to help me sleep, since I was about to be out of Tylenol. The pharmacist spoke English, listened to my requests, and brought a few things to the desk. I was soon the proud owner of a box of 600 milligram Ibuprofen, a tube of Voltaren cream, and a box of the best non-habit forming sleeping pills a girl could ask for (and forget the name of later). From that point on, I took my melatonin & tryptophan supplement every night, and slept the sleep of the people who walk way too far in one day.

That night we’d reach Puente la Reina, where the dwindling sunlight looked like burnished copper, and the church ladies pray to a Jesus with a heart of full of rainbows. For now, all we had to do was keep walking.

Click here to read about Day 7.

Anna’s Camino: Day 3 – Orisson to Roncesvalles

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.

IMG_6316

For much of the morning’s walk, all I could hear was the wind and the chiming of the tiny bells the sheep wore.

The trek from Orisson to Roncesvalles was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotionally-jarring leg of my Camino. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some stunning vistas to come, but this little slice of the world is shockingly beautiful on a good day, and it was the perfect day to cross the Pyrenees on foot.

I walked away from Orisson alone, and was on my own for about an hour before I heard a pair of pilgrims walking up behind me. I’d met the two the night before at Orisson, and remembered that they were from Chicago. Andy was in his mid-20s, and had just finished up a teaching gig in Asia. He wanted to walk the Camino before moving back to the States, and his dad, Peter, had decided to join him for a portion of the walk. The three of us chatted a bit as our paces allowed, and walked together for small times throughout the day.

IMG_6322

The first of many beautiful horses I was to see along the Camino.

I got the feeling that Peter thought I was unprepared (which was fair – I was). The father-son duo were very outdoorsy, and, along with Andy’s brother, had traveled quite a bit when the boys were younger. Learning from my experiences the day before, I decided that since the day was gorgeous and I didn’t have any set time to be in Roncesvalles, I’d take my time to sit and take my shoes off whenever I felt like it. There were sheep EVERYWHERE, and the trail was often littered with sheep and horse dung, but every now and then you’d find a rock that was just perfect for sitting on to take a break.

It was also perfectly quiet out. The wind was blowing, but you could hear the bells the sheep wore tinkling from a mile away across the mountains. That first day, my ears were actually ringing from the silence! But as I sat there on this particular rock, admiring the landscape, letting my feet breathe, I heard Peter mention me. He and Andy were far down the mountain. He couldn’t have known I’d be able to hear him, and I know he wouldn’t have wished to hurt my feelings. He was criticizing my shoes (New Balance trail runners – perfect choice for the Camino if you have hot feet and you’re prone to ankle blisters from high ankle choices like hiking boots). I heard Andy shushing him in what I was to learn was his characteristically kind and easy-going manner. A minute or two later, I saw them approaching from around the bend and down the mountain. As the song says, voices carry.

Everyday Anna would have been deeply hurt at the thought of being criticized. Camino Anna took into account the cold, damp feel of the stone beneath her tech-fiber covered butt, the amazing breeze wafting across her sweaty toes, the rich smell of grass, mingled with sheep dung, the sound of those bells tinkling across the mountainside, and the sincere tone in Andy’s voice as he had asked his father to stop being so critical of a stranger…and I let it go. Of course, not enough that I’d forget it, but that moment seems set apart from many others, in that it was one of the first major learning moments of my Camino. It was a time when I had a choice – confront someone for being (unintentionally) jerky, or refuse to escalate a stupid conversation and go back to enjoying the hell out of this little slice of heaven. I made the right choice. I hope that I can continue to reflect on that for the rest of my life, and let it guide me into continuing to reject unnecessary drama.

IMG_6323

A hint at the mud that was to come later that afternoon!

Two or three hours into the day’s walk, there was a special treat waiting for us on the mountain – a little food truck with the last credential stamp in France! There was also hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, juice, boiled eggs (to become a favorite on the Camino), fruit, and this amazing local sheeps’ cheese that was made by the farmer/food truck owner. I ended up sharing some cheese with Andy and Peter, then buying my own wedge for later.

As we happily drank coffee and ate our revitalizing snacks, Natalie and Claire walked up. We chatted briefly, then I walked on.

IMG_6318

The Virgin of Orisson (Verge d’Orisson)

Most of the rest of the day was walked alone and with various people. Andy and Peter and I crossed paths a few more times, and I walked a while with Natalie and Claire, but once we got into Spain, the path got muddier and more difficult, and I found myself growing weary and retreating into myself a bit more. I took frequent breaks to nibble on the sandwich that I’d brought with me from Orisson and catch my breath.

IMG_6334

Taking a break. I could hear the waterfall, just couldn’t see it!

At one point in the day, I was sitting close to a waterfall that I could hear but not see, letting my feet dangle over an embankment, eating the end of my sandwich. The trail in that area is a popular walking trail for nature enthusiasts, so every now and then a biker or walker would pass me going the opposite way. To amuse myself, I’d say “Hey, you’re heading the wrong way! Santiago’s that way!” Most of the time, the hikers would laugh, but one time, a couple of middle-aged Brits laughed, then stopped and asked me what everyone was doing. They’d seen all the pilgrims, but didn’t know anything about the Camino. They asked me how much farther I had to go, and when I told them, “Oh, about 30 more days or so,” the man shook my hand and wished me luck, lol!

IMG_6330

Only 765 more kilometers to go – piece of cake!

 

Heading down toward Roncesvalles, you walk through a dimly lit forest that seems almost magical if you’ve been living in the city too long. Along with all the trees, there was also ankle-deep mud that threatened to suck off your shoes, and a thick covering of slick leaves, just to add a little extra excitement. I saw a few people slip and fall, and if not for my trusty walking sticks, would have surely met the same fate. One thing I found out about mud of this type is that my innate reaction to squelching through mud is to get the uncontrollable giggles. A fair number of pilgrims must have thought I was absolutely insane as they passed me on the trail, because I laughed uncontrollably for at least an hour of muddy trail, squelching all the way!

Claire and I caught up just before Roncesvalles, and I asked where Natalie was. It turned out that she’d hurt her knee before starting the Camino, and was nursing the injury still. The pain had come back in the afternoon, so she was taking it slow on the descent into Roncesvalles. There was a waymarker noting directions to the albergues and town center when you first leave the trail and enter Roncesvalles, so I offered to stay there with our packs and wait for Natalie while Claire walked to find the main albergue. A few minutes after Claire walked off, Natalie appeared at the woods’ edge. She was pleasantly surprised to see me, and I felt proud to have made a helpful decision. It seemed like Natalie, Claire and I were becoming an item, which was both a surprise and a relief. Even though it had been really easy to meet new people thus far, much easier than I’d anticipated, I couldn’t believe I’d had the good luck to meet these two kind strangers at the very outset of my journey. Without even meaning to, I’d found my first Camino family.

IMG_6340

Thank goodness for Scotch (and the kindness of bartenders).

Claire was eager to get a bunk and get her affairs in order, but Natalie and I were both much more eager to find a drink and let a day on the Camino roll off our backs. We walked together down to the nearest pub, where Natalie got the closest thing they had to a brandy, a Spanish liqueur called Pacharan, and the bartender gave me a double Ballentines on the rocks with an espresso chaser. We sat in the sun, sipping our drinks and getting to know each other a little more, stopping to say hi to various pilgrims we knew from Orisson and the day’s walk. Andy came along and pulled up a chair. Terry and Phyllis soon straggled over. Claire found her way to us, along with a couple of women she’d met earlier. It was a gorgeous afternoon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and we were all quite content with the task that life had offered us – enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims.

The main albergue at Roncesvalles is quite impressive. It’s a huge old monastery that’s been repurposed to give pilgrims a place to bed down for the night. I loved the sturdy, well-made bunks, each with its own private locker, and thought it was particularly nice that each set of four bunks makes its own semi-private pod. In many of the other albergues I was to experience on the Camino, you can see most of the room from your bunk. Here, each set of four beds had a modicum of privacy, which is nice when you’re getting eased into the idea of sharing a room with a hundred other people. Natalie, Claire and I were sharing one pod, with the fourth bed belonging to an Irish cyclist who was traveling the Camino with his brother.

IMG_6338

Statue of the dying Roland, as Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) is where Charlemagne’s nephew, hero of “La Chanson de Roland” took his last stand against the Basques.

After we moved into our bunks and got things settled, I took our laundry down to get washed and dried by the nuns in real washers and dryers, since hand washing the night before hadn’t gone splendidly for any of us, and we were all feeling in need of sparkling new duds. Claire decided to go on a tour, while Natalie and I went to dinner (my first pilgrim meal – spaghetti, fried fish and french fries, rice pudding, and lots of wine). Midway through the meal, the table launched into a half-English, half-Spanish conversation about current Spanish politics, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What really got me was that of three Spanish pilgrims at the table, each had a strikingly different opinion on the current political climate, but they all got along quite well (they were best friends taking just a few days to walk on the Camino) and managed to keep their political ideals separate from their personal interactions. In other words, they were much more civilized than Americans fighting over politics.

Dinner over, we went to the pilgrim mass at the local church, where the priest blessed all of the pilgrims and wished us a good journey. After such a long, tiring day, I was touched by the ceremony, but also just exhausted and ready to hit the hay. I went to sleep feeling very thankful for everything that had befallen me thus far, though a little scared of bed bugs, as Natalie had told me earlier that they typically live in the wooden bunks. Still, I was asleep within minutes and slept soundly until the lights went on the next morning.

IMG_6341

The moon from the albergue window when we woke up the next morning and prepared to leave for Zubiri.

Click here to read about Day 4.

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 1 – St. Jean Pied de Port

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’ve struggled with posting photos of my Camino for a few reasons, foremost being that I miss it so much, and was afraid that going back through the photos would be too emotionally difficult. But the time has come to rehash my journey in more than just memory, and I guess I’ll start the process by sharing some photographs with you.

IMG_6277

The line to get into Notre Dame de Paris, where I got my pilgrim credential stamped for the first time. When I visited in 2005, I found the cathedral to be a spiritually uplifting place, but this time it felt too cramped and taken over by tourists. Then again, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the day before, so I might just have been in a crappy mood.

My journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was pretty arduous. I flew from New Orleans to Paris, spent a day in Paris doing a bit of sightseeing and getting my pilgrim’s credential stamped at Notre Dame de Paris, then took a night bus to Bayonne, from where I was to catch the first train out in the morning to St. Jean Pied de Port. This entire journey was more than 24 hours in the making, and since I don’t sleep well on planes or in automobiles, by the time I got to Bayonne at 4am, I was exhausted.

I was the first to arrive at the train station, and it wasn’t open yet. A couple of South Korean pilgrims, WooYung and Lee, arrived right after I did, and we spent an hour making the most of our limited shared vocabulary. The first train was supposed to leave for St. Jean Pied de Port around 8am, and we planned to grab the train, get to St. Jean, spend the day sightseeing, then start our respective Caminos the next morning. Unfortunately, none of us were particularly stellar with the French train ticketing system, and due to a series of miscommunications, we missed our train by about five minutes. The next wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so while we waited, we picked up a fourth pilgrim, a German teenager named Dennis. The Koreans suggested that we might as well get a beer in the train station bar, so we filed in to order breakfast and beers. I shocked the guys by ordering a shot of whiskey to go with my espresso, sealing my Camino cred from that point forward. The Koreans were amazed to see a lady drinking whiskey, and for the first time in the journey, I felt a little more relaxed.

IMG_6279

Poster of the Pope in Notre Dame de Paris, saying “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.” It felt like a message from the Universe.

Eventually, we caught our train, but while we waited in the station, many more pilgrims started to file in, finding friends or making them, hanging around and looking awkward with their boots, packs, and walking sticks. Once we finally made it onto the train, I noticed that pretty much everyone heading to St. Jean was a pilgrim. One woman in a pretty knitted cap caught my eye (and my ear) as she quickly made friends with every stranger sitting near her. I didn’t talk to her, but noted she was friendly and a little louder than I tend to be, and made a mental note to catch up with her once I’d had some sleep and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed.

The train tracks were being repaired further down the line, so at some point the train stopped and we were transferred to a bus. I marveled at the winding roads and the local flora. Several topiaries caught my eye, including one large bush that was cut to look like a basket. I made note to tell my mother. I also admired the local architecture, and found myself a bit peeved to not have a little more time to explore St. Jean before heading out in the morning.

The bus let us out at the train station, and our merry gaggle of pilgrims disembarked with no clue of where to go. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many days where most of us would just stop worrying and start following the guy ahead of us. Luckily, someone up there had a clue of where they were going, and we all made it to the Pilgrim Office, where we stood in the road and waited for someone to let us in. It started misting just a bit, and I got my first taste of “just dealing” – no umbrella, just my pack cover and a sense of humor.

We gave our names and countries of origin, listened to a spiel about how to leave town in the morning (which, it turns out, I really should have paid attention to), and got a very handy guide to distances between towns, available albergues, and elevation between St. Jean and the next town, Roncesvalles.

IMG_6293

The view from my hotel room in St. Jean Pied de Port.

After all of the pilgrim preparation had been taken care of, I said goodbye to my Koreans (Dennis had already found new friends) and headed off to find my hotel. Unlike most of the pilgrims I met, who opted to stay in albergues right off the bat, I’d rented a private room for the night. It was a great decision. I ended up with a beautiful, private room where I was able to hand wash my clothes, do a little journaling, and catch up on most of the sleep I’d lost on my way from New Orleans to St. Jean. I was nervous about the next morning, but excited. I was finally on the Camino Frances!

Click here to read about Day 2.

Anna’s Camino Q&A’s

The more I talk to people about going on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the more interesting questions I’m getting. Talking to people about walking the Camino is a little like test prep. I’m realizing that many of the questions I asked myself when first starting to think about becoming a pilgrim are things that I almost never think about anymore. It’s been good to get reacquainted with the basics, since they’re going to be of utmost importance when it’s just me and a very long stretch of road. Below are a few of my favorite questions and answers thus far. I’ll be writing down more questions as they’re thrown my way, and answering them on here, so stay tuned!

In the mean time, if you haven’t seen my GoFundMe page yet, please check it out. I really appreciate your help, and you can get a free book out of the deal.

1) How long is the Camino?

There are many routes a pilgrim can take to reach Santiago de Compostela. Arguably, any route a pilgrim takes is his or her “Camino”. It’s also common spiritual practice to consider the pilgrimage to have started the moment the pilgrim steps out of their home. In fact, some particularly devout people walk all the way from their front door to Santiago de Compostela, which can take many months. The Camino Frances is the most popular route today, and many pilgrims consider the route to start at St. Jean Pied de Port in France. The distance from SJPP to Santiago de Compostela is around 790km (reports vary), or 490 miles.

The various routes you can take to get to Santiago de Compostela. If you’re interested in finding out more about the individual routes, visit Camino Ways.

2) Man, that’s a really long way! Do you get some kind of prize at the end?

Spiritually speaking, the journey is the “prize”. However, for those who need a physical gold star to feel like the trip has been worthwhile, there’s also the Compostela, a certificate that says the pilgrim has walked, biked, or rode a horse for at least the last 100km of the Camino.

The Compostela. Click through to read pilgrim blogger Erin’s Camino packing list at La Tortuga Viajera.

3) How do they know you’re telling the truth about walking the last 100km?

One of the most important things a pilgrim carries with them on the Camino is a pilgrim’s credencial. It’s a little booklet that works basically like a passport. Pilgrims get one from their local pilgrim organization (mine came from American Pilgrims on the Camino), but you can get one in SJPP or at various official spots along the route. It’s very important to keep the credencial safe and sound, because the stamps prove the distance you’ve traveled. You get the credencial stamped at least once a day before you hit the last 100km of the Camino, and twice a day thereafter until you hit Santiago de Compostela. You can have it stamped at your alburgue when you stop for the night, and various cathedrals, cafes, and popular pilgrim tourism spots also have stamps. I’ve even read that some people end up getting two credencials so they can get stamps at more than one place a day for the entire trip.

A pilgrim’s credencial (credential) filled with sellos (stamps). For more on this document, click through to visit Camino Buddies.

4) Will you be camping out? Where will you sleep?

It turns out that a lot of people equate any long hiking trip with being completely removed from modern life. This is not the case, and I won’t be camping at all on this trip. Over the years since the Camino grew to popularity in the Middle Ages, then again in modern times, towns and villages have sprung up all along the path. There are plenty of modern conveniences available for pilgrims, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, guest houses, and alburgues, which are a lot like hostels.

Each place I’ll stop for the night will have at least one, but probably a few, alburgues. Some of these are run by municipalities, some by pilgrim organizations, and some by private owners. The prices vary, but are generally quite affordable. Paying for a bed for the night will typically get me space on a bunk bed in a room of 6 to 8 people (sometimes in a dorm-style room with many people). We’ll have access to modern bathrooms with showers, as well as a shared kitchen. I’m also hoping to get a private room at a hotel at least once or twice during the trip, to have one good night in a comfy bed and some quiet time to recharge.

Alburgue in Roncesvalles, from The Yellow Arrow, a really great blog about one woman’s journey along the Camino.

5) What will you eat?

Spanish food. Lots and lots of Spanish food (here’s a great breakdown of some of the regional cuisines I’ll get to try). During the day I plan to try to keep to simple, healthy meals on a tight budget. I’ll carry boiled eggs, cured meats, and fruits and veggies. For dinner, I’ll either cook with other pilgrims or buy something. Some alburgues offer dinner in the price of getting a bed for the night, and lots of restaurants and cafes offer a specially priced pilgrim’s meal. From all accounts, this includes multiple courses and wine, often at around 10 euros. I love trying out the cuisine when I’m in other parts of the world, so while I intend to stay pretty healthy, I’ll definitely be trying as many new flavors as possible.

6) What are you carrying with you?

I haven’t decided yet, but the basic guideline is to carry no more than 10% of your weight, which includes the weight of your bag. Most people take two changes of clothes (one to wear, one in the bag), hiking shoes and socks, a pair of shoes to change into after walking each day, flip flops for the shower, a sleeping bag or sheet (depending on time of year), a towel, toiletries and medications, and whatever assorted electronics they need. Each pilgrim’s list is personalized, and everyone seems to have an opinion on what’s necessary and what’s extraneous. I’ve talked to women who wouldn’t dream of leaving home without some mascara and lip gloss, and others who didn’t even shave their armpits for the trip because the razor would have added too much weight. Some people have no problem packing a DSLR, while others are happy with taking pics on their cell phone. Still others don’t bring any electronics at all, saying that it’s not genuine to the spirit of the Camino.

My bag is 36 liters, and weighs around 3 lbs. My sleeping bag weighs another 1.5 lbs. I’m aiming for 15 lbs, max, though I know I can comfortably carry as much as 18 lbs. This gives me between 10 and 13.5 lbs to work with. I’ll be keeping my clothes very lightweight – athletic leggings instead of pants, trail runners instead of boots, the bare minimum in my toiletry bag – but I’m also going to be carrying a camera, my cell phone, and an iPad mini with a keyboard. I want to be able to write and photograph from the road, so I’ve made the decision to cull clothing options in exchange for keeping electronics. It’s definitely a far cry from those ancient pilgrims who left home with just the shirt on their backs.

Just found these used Athleta 2 in 1 capris on Ebay. I wanted to wear leggings, but be wearing something that showed a little less of my shape. I've heard good things, so crossing my fingers these will work!

Just found these used Athleta 2 in 1 capris on Ebay. I wanted to wear leggings, but also show a little less of my shape. I’ve heard good things, so crossing my fingers these will work!

7. Are you going with someone?

Short answer: no. Medium answer: not exactly. Long answer: not at first, but I expect to make friends pretty quickly. The Camino experience is an eye-opener for a lot of people, and I fully expect that it will work its magic on me, as well. There’s this great piece of advice that gets passed down in all of the books and forums out there: walk at your own pace. It might be the best advice I’ve ever read, even though I haven’t stepped foot on The Way yet. It’s certainly been helping me, spiritually speaking, in my everyday experiences for a couple of years now.

In physical terms, knowing your own pace is something every long distance runner understands. It’s bad news to start out hot right out of the gate. You’ll wear yourself out when all of the other people are just starting to find their stride and pull ahead. When running or walking, people who start with a loved one often find that their paces naturally differ. A 5’3″ person and a 6’1″ person are not going to have the same stride. The short person will have to speed up, or the tall person will have to slow down. When you’re walking 500 miles, going too fast day after day leads to physical injuries. Going too slowly day after day can lead to boredom, and maybe even a grudge. This being said, plenty of people with different paces find a way to walk this thing together, but many find it easiest to take off, walk their own pace, and reconnect at the end of the day at the next alburgue.

What most people seem to do on the Camino is start walking and see who they run into. The stages of the trail are similar. Most of the time if you start walking in SJPP, you’ll stop walking that night in either Orisson or Roncesvalles. When you leave Roncesvalles in the morning, you’ll most likely walk to Zubiri. Over time, you’ll end up leaving and arriving in time with the same group of pilgrims, and many people end up cultivating what they call a “Camino Family” – a group of pilgrims that end up walking together, sharing stories, sharing meals, and generally looking out for each other. I will meet people from all over the world, and probably have at least a couple of new, lifelong friends when I get back from Spain. So no, I’m not leaving the US with anyone, and I’m not starting my Camino with anyone, but I’ll almost definitely be finishing up in Santiago de Compostela with my Camino family.

Click through to read a fabulous post all about Camino Families over at See You Soon Mom.