Sunday, 26 June 2016

Walking the Camino de Santiago

In March of this year, my dad and I walked the Camino Frances.
The walk took us 35 days and we managed to walk just under 755 kilometres (minus kilometres travelled by one bus due to terrible blisters and gastro, one taxi to find our hotel and one train trip after walking for a solid five miserable days in the rain).

I first found out about the Camino 4 years ago when my friend Amy and I were in Paris. I went out on my own on a city bike tour and met a lovely mum and daughter. They were spending time in Paris before doing a section of the Camino. At the time I had no clue what it was. After working in Catholic schools for years, I heard more and more about the Camino. Then Amy's father-in-law did it.
Then I quit my job, moved back in with mum and finally I began to think this could be a way of escaping my belated quarter life crisis. Finally, dad received an email inviting him to do the walk with a group of colleagues from around the state. We signed up almost immediately.

I know a few people are interested in the trip so I thought I'd cover a few of the questions I received the most.

Did it change your life?

I don't think so. The thing about travelling anywhere is you return home changed yet come back to normality. That transition has definitely been a bit tough. I was very thankful to use my brain productively again and while it was hard to settle back into teaching - my Year 8s were much louder than I remembered - it was a good reminder that I do love my job so it was reassuring to be reminded of my purpose.

Weren't you bored?

During most days, dad and I would begin together and generally he would walk a little ahead of me. At the beginning, it was much harder for me, as my boots were suffocating and gave me terrible blisters so I would walk quite a way behind dad. If I felt overwhelmed I would generally listen to either Monocycle or No Such Thing As A Fish. Both were funny and gave me a sense of escape, and also distracted the tears if I was finding things too hard. I'd also pop my headphones in if I didn't think I could walk any farther. Listening to something took my mind off what was hurting. For the days that were boring, I mostly tried to embrace it. I felt like this was a big part of the challenge. The one time I let loose and tucked my phone into my backpack strap (because my earphones were too hard to reach) and had Adele blasting, we walked into an enormous herd of horned cows. I turned the volume down quick smart! It was a great reminder that the scenery changes quickly and the boredom or pain moves on.

What was the highlight?

Obviously reaching the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela was exciting but for me it was really more of a relief. The cathedral is currently under construction and there were people all around it, including many beggars, so it wasn't perhaps wasn't the picturesque arrival you'd hope for. Highlights for me included reaching the top of Alto del Perdon as the iron statues were such an iconic image in my camino research and it seemed to be a sign of surviving the first, tough part of the trip.
At Alto del Perdon

Very blurry/very happy to be in Santiago
After that there were some very lovely moments to certain days - even our most difficult day 29.8kms to Najera was three-quarters great.
I loved a lot of the days towards the end of the walk but I think that was purely because I work better with small, bite-sized goals. On these days it felt as if we'd finally built momentum.

What were the days like?

We learned by Day 2 that we had to be out of most albergues by 8am. This was more flexible at family run/private albergues. The second morning was a mad scramble and the door basically hit us on the way out as we had been keeping the volunteers from their breakfast!
Here is what our days generally looked like:

6:45am - wake up. My alarm was always set and I kept my phone close by. Some places played music as a wake up call and this was always a nice change.
  • Go to bathroom. I'd change into my outfit for the day in the bathroom and take my little dry bag of toiletries with me. I'd wash my face, put my hair in a mid-ponytail, put on a Nivea moisturiser I bought half way through the trip and add some 50+ sunscreen.
  • Dress any wounds and take medication. This meant cutting up our Mefix tape. My nurse friend calls this "second skin" and it was far better for preventing blisters than anything else I saw. (Don't even get me started on Compeed. Don't use them.)
  • Pack bag. I'd fold up my bedding and put into its sack. Dad and I were terrible packers as we liked to unpack most of our things. I'd read a little article about how to pack your backpack well. It suggested the heaviest thing should be in the very centre of your pack so I would hacw to pull bits out in order to repack properly.
  • Do a final check. Dad left his medication at one place we stayed so we made sure to do a good look around after that.
8-8:30am - leave accomodation and begin walking.

10am - by 10 we'd have usually stopped for breakfast - only on a couple of occasions did we have to walk for a while longer.

Best breakfast on the Camino at Trabadelo:
muesli with goat's yoghurt and a chai latte
Breakfast was typically a white baguette chopped in half spread with butter and jam. Sometimes I'd have a hot drink and dad mostly drank tea. Mostly we'd have lunch in a cafe, sometimes we'd stop and eat these incredible Nutella things with a beautiful golden delicious apple.

Lunch time? In terms of lunch, sometimes we'd just walk through to our accommodation and then go wild on their hot chocolate machines and the Milka chocolate I had stored in my pack. There would nary have been a day I'd have gone without some Milka or Haribo. Other days there'd be somewhere to stop for a rest and buy some lunch. In that case it was either tortilla patatas, bocadillio or a hamburger with Kas Limon or Coke. Never has soft drink tasted so good.

Burgers and soft drinks for lunch in Itero de Vega
Lunch with our friend James
Hot chocolate in Najera:
it was the only thing that could take my mind off my aching feet
2-4pm Arrive at the night's accommodation. Dad I were happiest when we'd finish walking by 3pm. Walking in the afternoon was much harder. The kilometres pass by more slowly.

A 12 bed room all to ourselves at Puente La Reine
One of our favourite places: Acacio and Orietta
 Upon arrival we'd snag our beds and put our bedding out. Most days we would do some washing. Washing facilities were very easy to find and most places had coin operated machines. I'd go shower and then dad would. During this time I'd try to update facebook and work out how many kilometres we conquered.

It was always awful when your accommodation was upstairs
The afternoons would be spent washing, meeting other pilgrims, trying to find food and waiting impatiently for dinner. This was the best time of the day. Dad and I would also fill in our travel diaries. Usually over a beer somewhere warm.
Time for a cider in Acebo

7:30/8pm - Dinner! 3 courses usually for 10 Euro - soup or salad to start followed by a meat dish and then Santiago tart or creme caramel for pudding.
Entree: boiled beans with garlic and ham
Galician Soup
Beef, peppers and rice

Main: slow cooked pork (?) and chips 
Natillas: Spanish Custard
Lights out by 10pm

Repeat x 32

Did you pack everything you needed?

I was quite happy with my packing list - dad was not happy with his.

Here's my list:
3 x black plastic knickers - not really but they sure don't feel luxurious
1 x comfy bonds (travelled over with another old pair that got thrown after the flight)
1 pair Peter Alexander cotton pjs (many would argue against this but I didn't once regret being able to pull on my pjs at the end of the day. The cotton was also a nice change after wearing lycra most days)
1 Lululemon t shirt
1 Icebreaker Merino blend shirt
1 long sleeved Lululemon top - kind of like this
1 pair Lululemon Inspire tights
1 pair of Shants (didn't love these. They were a bit tight before I left but within two weeks they fit well. There was a tag inside the pants that chaffed by outer thigh so badly dad had to hack it off with his pocket knife on the path one day. They also had no stretch. I wouldn't by these as I didn't really want to wear shorts/it was too cold anyway. I'd maybe have bought a pair of Trango World pants. Dad got two pairs while we were away and they were perfect.)
1 x merino wool Buff
The socks and boots I took were terrible - they were far TOO HOT.
I bought some Saloman hiking shoes and they were fantastic. Dad and I both bought a few pairs of Lorpen socks while on the way.
I also bought a pair of rain pants at Castrojeriz after being sleeted on the day before. I wore them about four times so was glad to buy them.
Day 1: my Buff was as good at the end of the trip as it was on our first day

Would you do it again?

Yes, I would. My head has never felt so still and clear as it did while we were walking - and not in a zen way because I was frustrated a solid 70% of the time (at my hoes, my body, my dad, other pilgrims). It was refreshing not to live a "normal" life and be a part of a little community. There was a lovely sense of familiarity when you saw other pilgrims. It is also a relatively affordable way to see some parts of Spain you might not otherwise see.

Dad outside Puente la Reine

Graffiti at Belorado

The view on the way towards Acebo

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