‘Are we crazy?’, I asked out loud. Maybe it was only me, but walking over 100 km didn’t sound like the best way to rest during our holidays. I’d kind of pictured a lazy week doing very little, so when my friends suggested we do a pilgrimage along The Way of St. James I was surprised how quickly I said yes.
Pilgrimage sounds old fashioned and religious. I was thinking of it more like this. It was a chance to get out of the city, move my legs instead of being cramped up in an office, spend some time in the lush green countryside of Galicia and do something a little different than your average sightseeing trip. So, off we went, the three of us, marching out like characters in The Hobbit, unaware of the adventures to come.
This is not going to be the sort of post that gives you tips for walking the Camino de Santiago. There are plenty of better blogs out there on the subject. What I will do is tell you why, despite being one of the most challenging things I’ve done lately, it was worth every step.
I walked over 100 Km to Santiago de Compostela and I’d do it again.
I was nervous going into this trip. At any other moment in my life, I imagine things would have been a little different and I more enthusiastic at my prospects of making it all the way to our destination. But I wasn’t at my fittest and my tendency to get hangry – especially when I’m tired – made the prospect of walking non-stop all day quite daunting.
We planned and we got kitted out, we bought some essentials and booked transport to our starting point: Tui. We packed and I worried. I couldn’t quite get my brain wrapped around this trip. I was beginning to panic for no other reason than things looking different than I’d imagined.
This wasn’t such a big challenge after all. We would be doing the Portuguese route, one of the easiest, if not the easiest route to Santiago. Many people embark on this journey and enjoy it. Lots walk far further than we would. Everyone I spoke to recommended it. Why should our Camino be any different?
Having completed our test walk to Santiponce from Seville, I was able to get a better understanding of what to expect. The key for me was going to be having enough snacks (and carrying them all in the backpack).
When nothing goes to plan, just roll with it.
How ever much you plan a trip, there is always going to be something that doesn’t quite happen as you hoped. After a series of not-entirely-catastrophic-but-not-wholly-anticipated events, we finally managed to set out. Later than expected, in the rain and carrying two microwaveable lasagnas as extra weight in our backpacks. I’ll come back to them in a minute.
After the initial excitement, the first few photos by a kilometre marker, the pointing at yellow arrows* and stopping to look at every single interesting plant, we set a rhythm and walked. And walked. And walked some more. About an hour and a half in, the drizzle turned to a downpour. We kept going as the road turned into a river. A string of pilgrims walked in front of us, striding uphill in their rain gear, the cars zoomed by to our left and to our right the tall trees of the woods were swaying back and forth.
As the rain lessened and stopped, so did we. The first round of snacks was followed by a change of socks for D, whose poncho had let all the rain drop into her boots, and a spell of stretching. Unknown to us, 10 minutes down the road there was a coffee shop. Having checked the map, we decided it might be the only loo for a while and stopped again, taking the opportunity to stamp our pilgrim pass as well.
I couldn’t help but feel we were making slow progress. We’d set an ambitious goal for the day, with 32km to get done before bedtime, our longest stage all week. Tui to Redondela.
Not long after we set out again, the rain decided to accompany us for another stretch of the way. After a few hours, my raincoat decided it couldn’t take all the water and some started to seep through. We arrived in O Porriño by lunchtime looking like drowned puppies. I needed feeding, D needed dry clothes and C was doing far better than any of us.
Hospitality along the Camino was incredible.
As we stopped to eat at a celiac-friendly restaurant a group of enthusiastic Portuguese girls marched past us, stopping only to check the name of the town with us. I wished I had half their energy! We’d done just over 18km by then and, at that point, I had no idea how I was going to get my sore feet to keep going all the way to Redondela. Why were we doing this, again?
Galician hospitality, however, restored my faith in the world and in myself. A hot meal, a chance to dry our wet clothes in the boiler room and a few hours rest gave us the courage to attempt the next part of the journey. This same hospitality was extended everywhere we went, along with much encouragement and chimes of ‘Buen Camino‘, may your walk be a good one.
The sun was shining when we exited the restaurant. We ditched the torn useless poncho and renewed our march north. Walking in the dry was an entirely different experience! We enjoyed the scenery, we chatted and laughed. Perhaps we’d arrive in Redondela in good time after all.
Somewhere around Mos, we decided to acquire a second trekking stick. If we’d seen more experienced pilgrims use one thing, it was these, and we soon discovered just how useful they could be. Our last uphill stretch for the day greeted us with some graffitied encouragement: ‘No pain, no glory’. Quite how much more pain my legs could take was debatable.
We walked on, confident our beds were booked for the night and encouraged by the lady in the pilgrim shop that we could finish the remaining kilometres in time for supper.
It’s all downhill from here.
That was supposed to be an encouraging statement, but looking at the road ahead, I wasn’t so sure. We’d finished the climb from the shop and looked down into the valley. The road sloped almost vertically, or that’s what it felt like. By now my feet were blistered and my knee was giving me trouble. We’d giggled earlier at a Dutchman walking backward down a slope but I now adopted his strategy. Far better for the knees, not so much for the calves. We reached the bottom quite worn out and wondering how much further we had to go.
C was getting impatient. It was about 8pm and we’d been on the road for almost 12 hours. All she wanted was to arrive and we were slowing the pace. Just in case, she decided to call our hostel to let them know we’d still be a little longer but to assure them we were on our way. We all wanted to get there but we also needed that break.
The lady on the other side of the line asked for the name on the booking. Was it C’s? Was it D’s? I certainly hadn’t booked it. She eventually found our booking, except it had been made for the following day, and she had no beds left for that night! She warned us most places were full and there were people sleeping in the sports centre. Still, she gave us the name of a place and asked us to let her know if we found beds.
We hung up and phoned the other place. If we had sleeping bags, we could have the last three beds, we were told. Phew! But we had to get there soon as they were closing for the night. It was still another 2,5km into Redondela and the new hostel was two kilometres on the other side of town. We called a taxi. It felt like cheating but the alternative was to sleep under the stars.
All is well that ends well.
Never have I been happier to have a bed to sleep in. As luck would have it, our new roommates were the Portuguese girls from O Porriño, still as energetic as earlier. Supper was almost over, but our hosts gave us some salad that was left over and lent us a microwave to heat the lasagna. Lucky for us, we’d bought them in Valença the previous evening hoping to have them on arrival. However, finding our hostel in Tui lacked a microwave, we hurled them all the way to Redondela, not wanting to waste money or food. Good job we did. It was the best lasagna I have ever had.
Set a goal and work towards it.
Our first day of the Camino was tough. From then on, despite another late start the following morning, everything went much more smoothly.
I won’t bore you with the details of our less eventful days along the Camino. We loved the beautiful scenery. We made some friends along the way. In Caldas de Reis we welcomed dipping our achy feet in a thermal water fountain along with a friendly bunch of pilgrims and we soon forgot quite how miserable we had felt that first morning.
Time seemed to stop still. It felt like every day was worth double. Not in a dragging-on-for-ever kind of way, but in that you felt you had lived and experienced twice as much as you would on any normal day at home.
I was reminded of what is essential in life. Food, shower, and bed. Also friendship, hospitality, helping and being helped by strangers, sharing stories and experiences, learning about people and customs from all over the world, the importance of being alone with one’s thoughts from time to time…
The feeling of elation, accomplishment and sheer relief when we walked into the Plaza del Obradoiro, was a pretty memorable one. We had made it. We persevered. We had arrived. The cathedral welcomed us, along with a crowd of pilgrims who had also completed the journey.
Exhausted, we sat there for a moment, contemplating our achievement.
‘Would you do it again?’. I thought about it for a second. ‘Not right now, but, yeah, definitely’.
However big the challenge, you can tackle it one step at a time. I think that is true in life as much as on the Camino. Don’t you?
*The Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago is indicated with yellow arrows at every crossing, turn or just every few meters to guide you along the right path. Not quite Yellow Brick Road, but not far off.