08 Mar Camino Frances – walking solo from St Jean to Santiago
“I left thinking I knew who I was,
only to return with the knowledge
that I am so much more…”
I started my first Camino on the 5th of July 2005. Subsequently I have walked again in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014, covering sections of the Camino Francés, the Via Podiensis (the section from Le Puy en Velay to Moissac) and the whole of the Camino Portugués (from Lisbon to Santiago.)
I flew with Ryan Air to Biarritz, then took the airport bus to Bayonne and from there the train to St Jean. Shockingly effortless! I was bowled over by the pretty little town of St Jean – I met a young French teacher and the two of us spent a leisurely evening walking on the town wall and talking about the big adventure that lay ahead of us. We decided to set off together the next morning very early and we walked together for a few more days until she had to break her Camino (after Pamplona) because of terrible infected blisters.
My days quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. Most mornings I only started walking between 6 and 7 (you have to understand: from about 4.30 the snoring gives way to torches, the rustling of plastic bags, not-so-soft-whispering….) I cannot eat so early in the morning, so I would walk until about 11 o’clock when I would stop off at a bar/cafe and order myself a “bocadillo” (a huge roll filled with sheep-milk cheese or a wedge of Spanish tortilla or jamon) And a coffee – the Spanish do know about good coffee ; even with the heat up to 40 degrees Celsius, I still ordered my small coffee !
Then I would buy a fruit as snack for later, fill up the water bottles and hit the road again. I drank up to 4 liters of water a day! On average I walked about 27 km per day – I often would rest under a tree somewhere in nature and “siesta” out in the open even if I could have reached the Refugio. You have to listen to the fellow hikers snoring all night long – at least rest in peace in the afternoon! I always tried to claim my bed by 3 so that I could be showered and my clothes on the line by 4. Then I would visit churches, museums etc. Interestingly enough, most of the friends that I made on the Camino were people that I met on these afternoon/evening excursions. As I walked by myself, my socializing times would be evenings over dinner or during excursions into the cities/towns.
The refugios were so different, some very basic with bunk beds and mattresses covered in plastic, others with clean sheets ; sometimes just a mattress on the floor; sometimes just a space on the floor where you could roll out your own thin camping mattress. Only once was the bathroom so dirty that I just would not use it and had to contend myself with a “bird bath”. Three times I took a break from the communal sleeping by booking into a small pension / B&B. Either that or I knew I was this close to nudging these strange men in their backs and ask them to “roll over and stop snoring” .As that works with my husband, surely they were all just snoring because they needed a woman to nudge them in the back?
Evening meals were either communal dinners in the refugios / albergues or many bars offered a special “pilgrim’s menu” consisting of a 3 course meal ,including water and beer or wine for about 8 euro. Because you do not have to carry food one can get away with a backpack weighing as little as 7 kg – the first few days I would often see people off to the post office to mail excess luggage back home. It was not worth it for me to buy food to prepare for myself, but on occasion a few pilgrims would club together and cook an evening meal if the refugio had a kitchen available.
My backpack weighed 6kg, without my water, and that was perfect. I carried a light weight down sleeping back and a pillowcase which I would stuff with clothes to form a pillow. Most Alberguses did provide a pillow though. I walked with Nike cross-trainers (Storm Pegasus) and a pair of heavy cross terrain sandals – both recommended by Cape Union Mart and both the worst choice possible: the waterproof shoes meant that once your feet were wet they could not dry naturally either. I also found my feet were very sweaty – a problem that I do not normally have. The sandals were far too heavy and the little round bobbles on the sole were a nightmare on the bottoms of my feet.
Every two hours I stopped to air my feet and change to dry socks – I only got blisters on day 10 – because I walked with a young Spanish man who had lots of go (he only had 10 days to do part of the Camino) and I broke my rule of airing and drying my feet every 2 hours. He so amused me with his life story that I did not notice how time flew by. Important Camino lesson: As with life, it is best lived at your own pace!
The terrain changes every few days; you cross 3 mountain ranges – the worst being the Pyrenees. The track is very long, steep and tarred: very hard on your feet. My saving grace was that I walked on the gravel on the side of the path – I think that is why I did not get blisters like most of the other walkers on the first day already. I do not blame anyone for starting at Roncesvalles (Spain) and not St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees! It is a terrible climb for the first day. If I had to do it again, I would leave later and break that first day by sleeping at the Albergue in Orrison.
The central part is very flat and tedious (the plains of Spain…) Many people just get on a bus and skip that. It was definitely the hardest part for me – because there were not many people on the road (normally, even if you’re walking on your own, you would have lots of conversations with people you meet) and this part I spend long hours uninterrupted, thinking/meditating all sorts of issues, so I found it emotionally very draining. One of the long hot days walking through endless corn fields I started thinking about friends who lost their 23 year old child in a car accident and suddenly I burst out in tears. I’m talking sobbing my heart out here. It’s just as if I was so stripped of my normal defenses that I could not control my emotions. I am very glad for this part of my Camino too : like life there is the bitter and the sweet and I am happy to have experienced all the different aspects.
I was mostly alone , never lonely. It was amazing how helpful and friendly people were toward each other. When you normally visit a foreign country you are just another foreigner ; with the Camino the locals embrace you as a pilgrim irrespective of your nationality. The majority anyway – you’ll always have those who only look at the Euros you have to spend!
I made a point of attending mass or vespers whenever I could (I am not a Roman Catholic Christian) I walked in the school/university holidays , so the majority of the walkers were young people. All very “seeking”: themselves, nature as god, God in nature, a religious experience of some kind… and looking with renewed interest at the Roman Catholic faith too (with some credit to the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown) I saw a lot of religion, not so many Christians.
I originally planned to hike a Biblical 40 days, but reached Monte del Gozo on outskirts of Santiago the morning of day 31 – along with 10 young people that also started out from St Jean on the same day that I did. I decided to stay there and walk into Santiago with them the next morning. At the end of every day I wrote up how many kilometers I had walked and to my surprise this totaled 823 km – not taking into account that I would average about another 3km per day on my daily sightseeing excursions.I always chose the longer “scenic road” opposed to the “road route” when given the choice. If I added that it totaled 998km!
The cathedral in Santiago was packed – it was a religious/holy holiday and many people flew in for the long weekend. Some of the young Polish people I had met over my last days of the walk were devout Catholics and knew that the priests at the Benedicion de San Francisco had a recreational hall where they allowed mattresses thrown out in the evenings. They invited me along and I found a mattress on the floor. I was so thankful, because there was not a bed anywhere with so many people in the city and a proper mattress is one step up from my roll up camping mattress. These miraculous sleeping places when I did not know where I would find a space to lie down at night is material for another blog; even a book…
That evening the young priest delivered a moving mass service, and even though I couldn’t understand Spanish he spoke with such compassion that I actually got the gist of his message: that we’ve done great in completing our pilgrimage, but that Jesus was inviting each pilgrim to walk the Camino of life with Him.
It took me nearly 1 ½ hours to get my Compostella and then I had to find a flight out of Santiago – this proved to be a major problem with it being a holy long weekend. I was surprised to find that the prices offered at different travel agencies differed so greatly. The cheapest flight was with Iberia bought from a tiny little Travel agency that I passed on my way to Iberia main center.(a lot cheaper than Ryan air even!)
I have not said much about the many people I got to know on my long walk. Just because that would take up another few pages! I was blessed by kindness, friendliness, compassion….. I was also occasionally shocked by selfishness, meanness.
Pain is inevitable, misery is optional. The Camino is life and as in life you take your happiness with you…