The camino is an amazing experience. When I first considered doing the camino I was not really sure what was compelling me to go, but none the less I was indeed compelled. As I began to prepare, read books, walked, and accumulated my gear, I had no idea what I was in for.
In the last few weeks before leaving I began to question my decision. What the heck was I thinking? Could I actually walk 800k. I was not sure but I just knew that I had to go.
Once I arrived in Madrid I began to meet pilgrims. All of us were feeling mostly the same way. Wondering what it would be like and how the heck we were going to make it.
After a three hour train ride I was in Pamplona and ready for the last leg of my journey to my starting point in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port, France. The last part was a taxi ride. It only took about an hour, but I remember wondering as we went down the steep hill, are we there yet many times. The longer it took the more my heart sank. It seemed like it took forever to get down to the bottom.
Once in SJPP, I wandered to the pilgrims office to get my first stamp and secure a bed. It was about 4:30pm and I had not slept in a day or so. All I wanted to do was get something to eat and to sleep. I was able to get a bed in the municipal albergue.
The next day was the hardest of all. The climb seemed never ending, but I got through it and was better for it. I had met many new pilgrims that would walk with me through out my journey. All of us feeling the beginning stages in one way or another. The first 5 to 7 days of the journey are most definitely the most physically demanding. Mainly because our bodies are adjusting to the daily walk with the extra weight on our backs. During this time you really ask yourself if you need everything in your pack. Most likely the answer is NO.
I typically walked each day alone. For no reason other than I started earlier than most. Each afternoon and evening was spent in a different albergue, meeting people, talking with old and new friends, washing clothes and the like. You get to know people from all over the world, all ages, all religions, each with their own reason for being on the camino. Many sharing a similar theme of being in between something and needing time to figure out the next chapter of their lives. I was fortunate enough to spend time with several unique and amazing pilgrims.
On the days that I did walk with others the conversation was in some ways cathartic. Each of us felt the freedom to express our thoughts and to openly listen to the thoughts of others. Sometimes leading to lively discussions and other times just empathy and support.
For the most part I began to feel better and better as the days went on. I think that you develop a camino rhythm as you go along. In the beginning 20k seems like a huge undertaking. In the end your asking yourself, if I only do 20k today what am I going to do from noon on…lol.
The day I reached Cruz de Ferro was by far the most emotional day for me. I feel like the first three weeks or so was to do the work that I needed to prepare for my arrival there. Several camino angels were there to help me along the way.
The most brutal down hill was the walk down from the Cruz de Ferro to Acebo. Several kilometers of steep rocky paths. It took intense concentration and sure footing to keep from getting hurt. The tall cold beer in Acebo never tasted so good.
Camino food and drink – as a pilgrim you are not really living the Spanish lifestyle. In Spain people start their days closer to 9am, have lunch between 2 and 4 and dinner no earlier than 9 and usually closer to 10pm or even later. We typically started our day between 7 and 8. Breakfast is usually coffee con leche, zumo Naranja (Fresh squeezed Orange juice), and tostada (toast with butter and jam) or tortilla (Spanish omelet of potatoes, onion and egg).
For lunch I typically ate a bocadillos which is a simple sandwich on a loaf of bread about a foot long with your choice of many items. I usually ordered Jamon and queso. I like to say that I ran on bocadillos power…lol
For dinner which was typically between 7:00 and 8:00pm. We were offered the menu del pelegrino. A three course meal consisting of a starter such as a mixed green salad, or soup, or spaghetti with meat sauce. Sometimes there would be choices and sometimes the menu was fixed. The second course was typically meat or fish and potatoes. The third course was yogurt, or fruit, or sometimes ice cream, flan, or even a homemade desert. Dinner always included vino or water and bread. Spaniards eat bread at every meal. Dinner typically cost around 10€, breakfast and lunch were 5€ or less.
With each passing day I met more and more interesting people. Each afternoon after our chores (read, showering, washing clothes, and preparing for the next days walk) most pilgrims would relax, rest, have a beer or two and just talk. We talked about the days walks, family, politics, healthcare, jobs, told camino stories, and where we might go the next day. Many times several pilgrims would plan to end up at the same albergue at the next destination. Sometimes we all pushed each other to go a few extra k’s. The closer that I got to Santiago the more new people I would meet each day. Only a small percentage of all pilgrims start in SJPP or Roncesvalles. The largest concentration of new pilgrims begins in Sarria. From there you can still earn a Campostella.
I believe that the best thing I did was to go alone. Although you are never really alone on the camino, by being unencumbered I had the freedom to do what was best for me. Each of us walked our own camino in our own way.
It is a blessing.
When I arrived in Santiago I had not really slept all that well the night before. The guy in the bunk next to me was a world champion snoorer. I actually had two separate pilgrims help me stay on the right path. As I got close to the pilgrims office my wife was waiting for me. I was looking but she found me first. I was so happy to see her. Being away for such a long time was tough. It was great to get my Campostella and see the amigos from the American pilgrims on the Camino there to greet me. I went to mass and confession the next morning to bring the walking part of my camino to a proper conclusion. Shared the noon pilgrims mass with many of my camino friends and then again at 7:30 went to mass and had a chance to see the baotafumeria swing. WOW!
I am not sure that the spirt of the camino and the lessons I have learned have fully sunk in. I hope that my experience will deepen as time goes on.
Location:Calle de Montalbán,Madrid,Spain