THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
FINAL STAGE, SARRIA TO SANTIAGO JULY 2013
Tuesday 2nd July 2013 was the day I started out on the challenge of doing the last stage of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, a historical walk taken by thousands over centuries which commences, for the Camino de Frances, from St Jean in France and carries on in stages until you arrive at your destination in Santiago de Compostella in Galicia. We were to do the last stage from Sarria a small town of little note other than it’s the minimum starting to point that you can do to get your “certificate” to say that you have done the walk of Pilgrims, over 100 kms and we probably did around 120 kms by the time you have added the extra wanders in to bars, overnight stops, interesting chapels or just to take in a view. I am claiming the 120 kms!
Now those who know me I think know that I am really not at all religious, I may have become more than a little spiritual, and these days I have started to question life a little more. I have always been fairly sporty, loved the racket games over the years to varying degrees, enjoyed the gym, spinning, more recently yoga, I even enjoy taking my dogs for a walk every day, but 20 kms and then go and repeat it the next day, no way! However, this year I met a lovely Spanish nurse who lives in Cadiz, she and a doctor friend were going off on this challenging walk and wondered if I would join them. Before realising half of what I was getting myself into, I committed myself fully. Finally 4 of us congregated at the home of Reyes in Seville the night before setting off well before light on a 6.00 am flight to Santiago. There we were met by Morchilla David who was to not only taxi us from the airport to the starting point but was also to take our bags on to our first night’s stop. They magically came to everywhere we stayed and took our rucksacks on to our next destination. I know any purist would say that this is not the sentiment for pennant missionaries but I was certainly more than grateful that the only bag I had to carry whilst walking was the Camel (water carrier) on my back.
So here we 4, Lourdes, Reyes, Enrique and myself ready to set off on our adventure. We intelligently decided upon a short 12 kms for the first day as a training for what was to come. Reyes, was soon worried her shoes were not fitting well and so we started like all good girlies going shopping! Dived into the first shop and the girls were at it, trinket bracelets, a rainproof poncho for me (just in case which turned out to be a wasted 3 euros) and a new pair of boots for Reyes. I think she now knows why rule number one is do not go with new boots, break them in gently for a week or two around the house before embarking, but more about that later! So first photocall on the steps on the Camino. We soon learnt the salute between fellow walkers which is almost a constant chant “Buen Camino”, … “equalamente”! Half a dozen steps later we were to take our first breakfast stop (I think our record was only 3 breakfasts a morning!). Finally we were all ready to walk. Uphill, quite a memorable hill, quite steep taking past all the old houses up to where there was a great misty view across the town of Sarria and out into the fields. We soon came across our second stop for a coffee and found ourselves talking to some American strangers. There is a very true saying on the Camino, that ‘there are no strangers, only friends you do not know yet’ and certainly every day on the Camino you chat to people from all over the world, from all walks of life, it is truly a most exceptional ambiance. Sometimes conversations are a little benign like “where are you from“ and a short chat about Camino experience, other times conversations were deep and meaningful and you felt just for a moment you gained life from a different perspective. There is certainly no one purpose or aim for the Camino, everyone passes through in different ways, but generally speaking it is not a race, and one should try to set out without making limitations (sadly one disadvantage of having a service carrier take your rucksack on to the next port of call is that you have to elect and book up before you leave each morning, but as the alternative is to carry 15 kilos or more it is certainly well worth booking accommodation ahead).
We had 2 double bedrooms sharing a bathroom booked at Casa Morgade just 12 kms down the lanes from Sarria. The Inn keeper was a tall young good looking man who must have been a basketball player in his former life! This was a gorgeous old stone farmhouse with a lovely courtyard, small dark bar area, rustic dining room in a hamlet with just 3 or 4 houses and a lot of cows! Unfortunately the beds were certainly the worst we had at any of our night stops. I don’t think any of us slept that night well.
Next morning my fellow walkers were all complaining of stiffness and Reyes new shoes had certainly eaten into both her feet which were sore from blisters. As I was the first to be ready I said I would go on a head and stop in about an hour for a breakfast and that they could catch up. How was I to know, at almost the next hamlet, there would be an Illy cafe sign. This is the best coffee of all, so I thought I would just sneak in and have a quick cup before the others caught me. Busted! Just about finished, was just paying as they trouped in. I was to find out that Reyes really doesn’t function without any coffee so we all ended up having a quickie, except for Enrique who was not budging until he had his full order. Next breakfast was a full hour further along, just some toast but welcomed after our first early morning start. Enrique soon caught up. We walked up hill and down-dale, through farms, fields, woods, streams, rivers, pass reservoirs, old buildings, crosses, Roman ruins and bridges, ancient churches. There were to be several more stops before we called upon our next rural casa for the night, for our hosts to come and get us as they were based a few kilometres outside the “Camino”. As we had done around 28 kms that day there was no way we were going to walk any extra!
Casa Ruan was wonderful. A delightful restored farmhouse with some very old wood beams, stone oven and set in acres of farmland and woodlands. Here we met the neighbours, delightful old couple, whom my 2 Spanish friends assured me were almost impossible for them to understand, their dialect was so strong! We passed an amusing couple of hours with them before dinner as they told us their life history and lots about their lifestyle. Hilda (the wife) was hilarious she told us how she frequently killed her own pigs to make amazing chorizo and we even sampled some along with her homemade liquor (chopito) which sensibly most of us sipped and shared rather than consuming a whole glass of this potent stuff! Unfortunately Enrique helped himself, added on top rather copious amounts of wine at the dinner table and ended up telling us that he was going to get a taxi to our next stop and miss out a day’s walking. As I say there is no wrong or right way to do the Camino but I feel sure that this is not the true “spirit”!
So the next morning it was up to us girls to walk the walk, and talk the talk, and by God the girls talked, so much that occasionally I had to walk on at a pace just to get some peace!! The girls were great at correcting my awful Spanish. We had such a laugh particularly over my made up words like “amusante” which I am sure I have been using for years. We decided that although the verb ”diverter” can be used in some cases its not really got the same meaning so we are still on the lookout for the Spanish equivalent for the verb “to amuse”. Meanwhile we adopted “amusante” as a Camino word and started a campaign to add it to the Spanish dictionary. Our third day was to be one of the easiest which is just as well as apart from Enrique opting out altogether Lourdes and Reyes were in big trouble with blisters and aches and pains. Fortunately just 12 kilometres gave us plenty of time to sit and chat with a delightful lady walking on her own who came from Tenerife and a philosopher from Barcelona. We stopped for around 2-3 hours with them at their delightful hostel along the Camino. That’s Camino life for you, no plans to a day other than putting the world to right! Finally we got to our Spa hotel. The girls found out it was my birthday so we enjoyed a special tea with Tarte de Santiago which is just the most amazing almond tart out! The spa was quite luxurious with indoor pool the lot but as it was a hot day anyway we just enjoyed the beautiful grounds.
Next day was an early start again. Full day’s walking. I think this was our hardest day, not least because it was the hottest day with temperatures reaching 32-34 C. We had started out really early at 7.00 am (as it turned out not our earliest day of the holiday) and set out at a pace to Fogar de Lecer in Arzua. Unfortunately this was when Lourdes developed a really bad knee problem and spent most of the time trying to walk with my two walking sticks and without bending her right knee at all. The day was really really hard for her and I have to congratulate her valiant efforts for making it to the end. I had no blisters, and no aches and pains, my training days beforehand had paid off (just 10 kms a day), well almost, I nearly fell to the extreme heat, arriving at a top of a hill with severe shakes, clearly dehydrated! Finally we all made it in together and flopped on the large covered terrace at the hotel where we were the only guests.
By this time the end was in sight and Lourdes, really got the Pilgrim Bug and decided for our last night that we had to be true pilgrims and spend the night in a hostel. Fortunately we were able to book an Auberge (almost as bad as a hostel but at least bookable so you know you wont be turned away with no room at the inn). Just ten euros each it was a bargain! At least we chose a modern, brand new hostel, with I think 65 beds, our dorm had around 14 of those. Showers were really good with plenty of hot water, we cleaned up and went out for an excellent meal. Lourdes doesn’t drink so that left Reyes and I to share the wine and consume a few beers. We were not at all quiet as we entered the hostel. On our journey we had heard amusing (amusante) tales of beds being taken whilst out, or dirty showers and other horror stories, so I am afraid we collapsed with laughter when we went upstairs opened the dorm door and found not only a room full of early to bed snorers but also my bed occupied by some big hairy man! Fortunately I found an empty bed for the few hours I was allowed to enjoy it! I don’t think we will ever find ourselves repeating this part of the pilgrimage!
The trouble was with Lourdes now having an almost crippling knee we were not able to get on as far as we wished but she stoically decided that come what may she would make it to the end. In order to reach Santiago with enough time to be certified (no not for madness although by now that may have seemed appropriate but for having done the walk…. You have to prove this by showing a booklet full for stamps which you gather along the way in bars, hostels etc along the way); get to the Sunday Cathedral service specially for walkers, and most important catch our flight back to Seville, we had to get up at 5.00 am the next day. Yes, it is still pitch black darkness, but we were far from alone, everyone in our dorm was getting up at that time and setting out. We set out with my iphone shining the way. Lourdes was hobbling along. I got chatting to a lady who plays the piano in an Orchestra in Toronto but who was returning to the Proms as her boyfriend plays for BBC Philamonic! I went on ahead and promised to stop at the first open bar, you see Reyes was not the only one to need her coffee but unfortunately that morning we had to wait and walk for at least an hour. As the girls chatted (as usual!) I had to remind them that the pain in the knee was just as bad at a pace as it was slow and only by walking approximately 4 kms an hour would see us into the City on time. I think the quote of the day or even the trip was when I was walking with a student from Dominican Republic who upon passing a fellow walker he had previously met said “ah, here you are …. You are almost there!”! Just outside of the city is a place called Lavacolla where traditionally Pilgrims cleaned up before entering the city. I have a video of an Italian priest and pilgrims walking singing Psalms, it was an amazing and unique experience. Finally the 3 of us arrived together in euphoric mode at 11.00 am. at the Cathedral steps, just time to collect our certificate and get to the service. The cathedral is amazing and I even got to see the incredible sight of the Botafumeiro (look it up on utube if you don’t know what it is, but tradition for spraying the church with incense rather than smelling stinking pilgrims)!
Our walk was over! This for me was by far the furthest I had ever walked in my life, although I dare say Ayers Rock to Alice Springs was something similar. I have never had so much fun and met so many interesting people! Like the young man on his bicycle (not everyone walks it) who had cycled the entire Camino after leaving his home on his bike from Lucerne. Or the middle aged man who had walked out of his home in Belgium all the way before starting out and was now hoping his wife was meeting him at Santiago, the two girls from South Korea who giggled there whole way! And not least the kids from Andalucia who sang Sevilliana along the route who made us really feel at home. The ambiance on the Camino is truly special and I cannot thank my friends enough for being kind enough to invite me to join them on a very special journey.
Anyone can do this journey. You don’t have to be super fit, you can go independently and organize your own pace, you don’t have to go to hostels but can stay in very reasonable quality casa rurales, it suits everyone of all ages and all types. I thoroughly recommend this trip for anyone, especially if you think this year you cannot afford to go on holiday. This could be your cheapest and yet best holiday ever!