Camino de Santiago: Advice, and Things Learned

This is going to be a somewhat mixed bag. It’s all the result of (sometimes bitter) experience. Some of it will refer specifically to the Camino Francés; some to pilgrimage in general; some to any kind of long-distance walk. Pick and mix, as you feel moved. I may come back to this and add bits as I remember them.

– I think pretty much everyone reading this will already have worked this out, but it’s still top-of-the-list important, so I’m still putting it down. Know at least a bit of the language of every country you’re going to pass through. That tiny bit of consideration makes the people you meet that much more likely to want to help you. Even if it’s just to order a cup of coffee. And yes, there are still places where people don’t speak English, and yes, there will come a time when you need to ask for help.

– Rest days are important. It’s horribly tempting just to press on, because yes, I know that I can easily walk another 10km before dinner, but before you know it, it’s 30km through waist-deep snow, and you’re exhausted. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) Keeping on doing that day after day ruins your feet and your knees. There is no shame in walking only 5km in a day. Or 1km. Or not walking at all.

– You can get away without earplugs, so long as you’re always the first one to bed and are a sound sleeper. But there are people who snore at a quite remarkable volume.

– Look after your feet. My own personal routine went like this: in the evening, wash, dry, talc, sleep. In the morning, vaseline, let it soak in, socks, boots. Liner socks + hiking socks. Well-fitting boots. I didn’t get a single blister until I was actually in Santiago de Compostela, and spent too long wandering around in sandals that didn’t quite fit.

– If you have a pair of telescopic walking poles, people will mock you, but it’s worth it.

– Looking back on it, waterproof trousers would probably have been a good investment, particularly in the snow. The problem was not so much walking through it, as melted snow running off my [waterproof] rucksack cover and soaking me from the waist down.

– It’s quite nice to have a map, for moral support, but once you’re well into Spain you can just follow the waymarkings.

– Do practice walks. Do practice walks with a heavy rucksack, because that’s the part that’s wearing: it’s not the walking (well, it is the walking, but you know what I mean) but the carrying.

– Speaking of heavy rucksacks, make yours as light as possible. You do not need: razors, deodorant, bivvy bags, books, inflatable mattresses, binoculars, makeup.

– I always set out with 2l of water, which was probably too much – I only finished that on a couple of days, and I’m pretty sure we passed fountains on those days. Do take water, though.

– You will end up stinking, but so will everybody else you meet. Just don’t take clothes you’re particularly fond of, and shower whenever you get the chance.

This is a useful diagram depicting the stuff you actually need.

– You’ll be doing a lot of laundry by hand. Safety pins are good for attaching socks, pants, etc, to the back of a rucksack to dry along the way. Not if it’s raining, though, obviously.

– Hi-tech fabrics tend to be beautifully light, but may not dry very fast. Try it out at home.

– Soap is soap. We ended up using cheapo shampoo for hair, body, and clothes – though be careful if you have sensitive skin, of course.

– Useful things: a credit card and a mobile phone.

– There is always somewhere to sleep. There was only one day in seven weeks where we had to walk on to another village to find a bed.

– The Confraternity of Saint James are very useful people.

– Compeed is fantastic stuff, but do NOT repeat NOT put it on blisters that have burst. The result is painful.

– Don’t leave your walking boots too close to an open fire, no matter how sodden they be.

– I had a navy blue Guernsey sweater. While this was relatively heavy, most days I was wearing it, so didn’t notice. Most importantly, I didn’t have to wash it once.

– Take as few valuables as possible, and keep them with you. There are no safes.

Camino de Santiago 15: farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies

Santiago and the journey home (7th-15th May 2007)

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain,
For we’re under orders to sail for old England,
And we may never see you fair ladies again.

One is meant to hug Saint James – his gilded, pilgrim-clad statue that stands behind the altar in his cathedral – but I couldn’t quite work up the courage. I patted him on the shoulder, instead. I did hug Anne, though, just before we went in. It was a quite remarkable feeling, having got there, having got there together, being in the place we’d been aiming at for so long.

Black Madonna in Santiago cathedral
Black Madonna in Santiago cathedral

We wandered around the cathedral in a bit of a daze. It’s a remarkable building: a lovely Romanesque structure encased in a baroque exterior (the latter adorned here and there by various forms of plant-life, which was not what we were used to). The famous botafumeiro, the giant thurible, hung at the crossing: we’d just missed mass for St John’s day. I’m told that it’s quite spectacular in action.

Having gawped at the cathedral, we toddled off to the pilgrim office to have our passports checked and our certificates awarded. Since we counted as ‘religious/spiritual’ pilgrims (as opposed to sporting/cultural/other sorts of pilgrim) we got Latin compostelas. On our way out, we saw Gillian again – she’d had her hair done as a celebration, and she looked fantastic.

Anne and Gillian outside the pilgrim office
Anne and Gillian outside the pilgrim office

We meant to go to Finisterre. We really, really did. We were in Santiago in good time to set out for Finisterre and return to catch our train (not that we’d booked a train, but we had a pretty good idea of when we’d need to hop on one, and that time was several days away). When it came to it, though, we just never left. Didn’t want to. We were in Santiago de Compostela and that was good enough for us.

Instead, we spent the time exploring the city. We left the refugio we were in and booked into a guest house in the old town – very reasonably priced for a twin room with a balcony, and much less guilt about taking up beds that other pilgrims might be needing.

We went to the midday mass every day. Admired the singing of one particular nun, and despaired of that of everyone else. Met new friends and re-met old ones. Returned to the sundae bar for chocolate con churros – the thickest hot chocolate, by the way, that I’ve yet seen. Mocked (at a distance) tourists in the cathedral shop who were telling each other, ‘well of course, in the olden days people actually walked here, on pilgrimage, you know?’ Visited the Museum of Pilgrimage, learnt about the jet trade. Bought scallop shells carved in jet. Explored the cathedral, including its crypt and chapels. Bought skirts – after seven weeks in the same pairs of trousers, these felt like a real luxury. Went to the final of a Galician folk music competition with the Ely Four (gaitas very much in evidence; also the percussive effect of a bowl of water.) Ate all the things we’d been craving that were impossible to carry. (Watermelon. Jelly. And so on.)

We met the Ely Four again. How did it feel, we asked John and Linda, to finally be at Santiago, having stopped and started again so many times as they walked a few weeks at a time? Very odd, they said. Very odd.

And we found perhaps the most hilarious translation blooper in the history of the Camino. Speaking of a cad who was so bold as to attempt to make off with the cathedral bells, the English version of the ‘Legends of the Camino’ book we had in Spanish proclaimed, ‘Some type of divine punishment receives Almanzor, because your horse dies exploded after drinking water from a fountain.’ To this day, ‘your horse dies exploded’ proves a handy filler for awkward gaps in conversation.

So we passed our time in Santiago de Compostela. The day before we were due to leave, we wandered down to the station to buy tickets to Ferrol. No such luck. We could only get tickets that went as far as A Coruña. No matter. The trains we were aiming at, running along the narrow gauge Via Estrecha from Ferrol to Santander, only left a couple of times per day, so we would have plenty of time to sort out the next leg when we got there.

Loco commemorating Holy Year 2004 in the forecourt at Santiago station
Loco commemorating Holy Year 2004 in the forecourt at Santiago station

After all, we were in no hurry. If we had been, I wouldn’t have planned a rail journey that took two days; as it was, taking our time over the return seemed fitting, even if we were no longer walking it. And I’d been promised that the Via Estrecha was as spectacular a train ride as any in Europe.

It took the best part of a morning to get from Santiago to Ferrol, changing in A Coruña (which, at least in our admittedly transitory experience of it, bore few signs of Sir John Moore’s dramatic end). We ate lunch in Ferrol, making the most of the hour’s layover, then boarded the little train for the antepenultimate leg of our journey.

There really are no words to describe the Via Estrecha. One doesn’t hear much about the north coast of Spain, and I have no idea why, because it’s utterly beautiful. For almost all the way, the railway runs as close to the sea as it can get, albeit about a hundred feet above sea level, clinging to the cliffs, in and out of tunnels. Through the afternoon we travelled through Galicia and into Asturias. (In Asturias the horreos are different – larger and squarer.) As night fell a bevy of teenagers joined the train, dressed up for a night out in Oviedo. We also alighted in Oviedo, but in search of a bed rather than the bright lights.

My anxiety about finding somewhere to sleep, never quite alleviated on the pilgrimage, went into overdrive now we weren’t on the Camino Frances. However, even from the station we could see a sign advertising camas (beds), and, despite the relatively late hour (it was gone nine o’clock) we had no trouble getting a room in the building to which it was attached.

The next day we breakfasted at the station before setting off again on the narrow-gauge. The landscape was not quite so spectacular, but all the way the presence of the sea on our left told us: we were on the way home.

Today our objective was Santander – the end of the line, and the last stop in Spain. We had booked our ferry tickets home when we booked the tickets out, so the sailing was a fixed point. No danger of missing it, though: we had almost twenty-four hours in Santander. I put the hotel bill on my credit card, and we set out to explore.

Santander is a pleasant town, if not wildly interesting. It being a nice sunny afternoon, we wandered along the seafront, vaguely considered a boat trip, thought better of it, and bought ice creams instead. A small child in the queue tested out her English on me, much to Anne’s amusement.

And then we went back to the hotel. Showered. Made use of the more frivolous toiletries we’d acquired (i.e. more frivolous than plain soap – these included razors). It may or may not have been due to the fact that our room had no windows to speak of, but we discovered we were utterly exhausted, and went to sleep. This meant that we missed dinner, but that saved having to think about it.

In the morning we checked out and hauled our rucksacks around the town. A little more wandering took us to the cathedral, which reminded me agreeably of Portsmouth in its mixture of ancient and modern, and nautical associations. At lunch we discovered further hilarious translation errors (‘Galician Octopussy’ – ‘Hake of hook to the Roman’) which, together with the people ordering in English and not even trying to speak Spanish, reminded us that we were in a port, and, more to the point, in the port on the way home.

About the voyage home, the less said the better. It was the one and only time I’ve ever been actually seasick. We didn’t even attempt the reclining chairs this time round, and bagging a decent spot on the floor was definitely a good move. It still didn’t improve matters much. And then the only available reading material was the Daily Express. The Madeleine McCann case was just breaking, and so was the ‘silver ring’ test case.

All in all, sleep was a blessed relief, and I didn’t wake until the call came over the ship’s tannoy that we would soon be docking in Plymouth. ‘Soon’, in this case, meant ‘in a few hours’. Ironically, we’d dissuaded my boyfriend from driving down from Exeter to Plymouth to meet us on the grounds that he’d have to go far too fast if he didn’t want us to wait around for hours. In the event we were about an hour getting off the boat, so he would have made it easily, but really, getting the train was hardly going to kill us.

The Exeter train was quite full, and our bags were large. Anne and I lolled in the vestibule, and grinned at each other in an accomplished, tired, contented sort of way.

Niton. Portsmouth. Caen. Saint Palais. Ostabat-Asme. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Roncesvalles. Viskarret. Larrasoaña. Cizur Menor. Puente la Reina. Estella. Los Arcos. Viana. Logroño. Navarrete. Azofra. Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Redecilla. Villafranca Montes de Oca. Atapuerca. Burgos. Hornillos del Camino. Castrojeriz. Frómista. Carrión de los Condes. Ledigos. Bercianos. Reliegos. Arcahueja. Virgen del Camino. Villar de Mazarife. Hospital de Orbigo. Astorga. Rabanal. Riego de Ambros. Cacabelos. Villafranca del Bierzo. Vega del Valcarce. Hospital de Condesa. Triacastela. Sarria. Portomarín. Ligonde. Palas de Rei. Arca. Santiago de Compostela. A Coruña. Ferrol. Oviedo. Santander. Plymouth. Exeter.

And then?