A Camino Diary
Published by Gringo Latino Books 2015
Copyright Steve Devereaux 2015
All rights reserved
This is not a love story.
It’s about two lives running parallel for a while
with common aspirations and similar dreams.
The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara, 1952
The first time I walked The Way of St. James was at the end of the summer of 2012. It was a fantastic experience that I simply couldn’t forget and as a result, two years later, I decided to do it again. However, even though it started out in the same way as before, with a wild weekend at the Notting Hill Carnival in London followed by a flight to the south of France, the Camino I found the second time around was very different.
‘You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one.’
Emilio Estevez in The Way
Day Zero: Tuesday 26th August
I woke up later than planned and could still feel the alcohol in my blood. I jumped out of bed, rapidly got dressed, downed a cup of coffee in a single gulp and grabbed a slice of hot toast. Then I said a quick goodbye to my two hosts, Simon and Jess, and raced off to catch a train to Stansted Airport, where I got through the security check without any of the problems I’d previously encountered there. At the start of my first Camino, one of their officers had confiscated my mosquito repellent, my hair conditioner, a bottle of sunscreen and my underarm deodorant.
Upon touch down in Biarritz, I happened to meet a Londoner called Natasha who was taking a week’s holiday to walk the first part of the Way before starting a new job as a personal trainer. On the bus ride into town we were also joined by another British pilgrim, named Andy, and we quickly learned that he, too, was at a changing point in life because he had just given up a well-paid job to go back to university. Consequently, on reaching the town centre, the three of us all walked up to the station together and bought tickets for a train to a village in the mountains called San Jean Pied de Port.
We spent the following two hours sitting in the sun outside a café close by, drinking beer and chatting while we waited for the next departure. However, a German lad called Joe soon joined us, and he was a student who was planning to walk the Way before continuing with his university studies. Like many Germans of his generation, he spoke English much better than most Americans do, so we had a long chat about the challenging hike we were all about to undertake. Then we took a train packed with an international mix of pilgrims, up through the French Pyrenees and to the start of The Way of St. James.
Once we had reached the Basque town of San Jean, we didn’t need to follow the usual protocol of rushing to the pilgrim office to get a Credencial del Peregrino (a pilgrim passport) because all four of us had already managed to get them before leaving home. Instead, we started looking for somewhere to spend the night, and after two or three attempts we found a hostel with four empty beds at seventeen euros a head – pretty expensive for the Camino but typical of prices in this tourist town.
After checking in and getting our pilgrim passports stamped, we dumped our backpacks in our dormitory and went to take a wander through the streets of this picturesque medieval village. It was an enjoyable little stroll and we eventually had dinner at the same place I had dined at two years earlier, where the food was just as good as I’d remembered it to be. Following our evening meal, we made our way back to the albergue, and I had a quick shower before climbing into bed. Then the lights in our dorm went out at exactly ten o’clock, leaving me to finish writing my diary by torchlight.
Day 1: Wednesday 27th August
Early the next morning, the keenest pilgrims started leaving long before the sun had risen but we all stayed in bed until just before eight: the normal ‘kicking-out’ time at most of the albergues on the Camino. We quickly got dressed, packed our things and had some breakfast in the communal hostel kitchen. Then we began a five-hundred-mile hike along a well-walked path that led to the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela.
There were two possible routes for this particular stage. The first time I had done it, a recent knee injury had forced me to take the less demanding one through the valley, but this time we chose the more challenging mountain-top route and without a doubt it was the toughest stage of the entire pilgrimage. We first made a gruelling two-hour climb to a crowded café, where we stopped for a snack and a well-deserved rest. Then we continued on our ascent along a path filled with an endless procession of pilgrims, although Andy was starting to struggle so we also took plenty of breaks.
On reaching the top of the plateau, we sat down for a picnic lunch and were joined by an old Irish fella who claimed to know all about The Way of St. James, since he said that he’d walked it once before. However, it soon became clear he had only hiked from the town of Sarria, which is the minimum distance you need to cover in order to claim a Compostela (a certificate of completion) and also no more than the final seventy miles! Even so, he eagerly gave us plenty of advice on footwear, a subject frequently discussed by many hikers, and due to his wisdom I ‘christened’ him Two Socks, reviving my old habit of giving a nickname to some of the pilgrims I met along the way.
This route was very busy, unlike the one through the valley, where I had seen less than a dozen other walkers during my whole day’s hike. Nevertheless, I was still very happy that I’d chosen the ‘real’ Camino this time, although I had no idea of the pain and suffering this decision would cause me over the days and weeks to come.
Once we had begun the descent, I went ahead at a faster pace and found the final hour to be extremely hard going. It was an incredibly steep trail and you had to negotiate a very rugged and winding path while struggling not to crash into the forest of pine trees before you. As a result, by the time I had reached Roncesvalles, my thigh muscles were burning and I could feel some serious blisters forming on my feet.
Upon arrival, I bought a bottle of beer at the local bar and sat myself down at the side of the trail to wait for the other three to arrive. They eventually turned up about half an hour later and we all checked in to an enormous municipal albergue, a place that felt more like a boarding school than a backpackers’ hostel. We got our pilgrim passports stamped prior to taking hot showers and hand-washing our hiking clothes. Then we went for a communal pilgrim dinner at a very large restaurant next to the pub. After our meal, the others raced off to attend Mass while I sat on the patio outside the bar and wrote my travel journal, but they joined me a little later for a night cap before we headed back to our dorm and another early night.
Day 2: Thursday 28th August
Everyone was woken up by hostel staff at six, and after a breakfast bought from vending machines, we were ready to leave by seven. The second stage of the Camino started at the iconic SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA road sign, so we took a few photos and had a good stretch before finally setting off on our day’s walk.
The first hour was easy, although after ten minutes Andy realized he’d forgotten his walking sticks and had to rush back to the hostel and collect them. He managed to catch up with us while we were shopping for some food at a local supermarket, and then the four of us all walked together until we reached the next village, where we stopped for a mid-morning coffee.
Once we’d got going again, Natasha and I soon left the boys behind because we found their pace just a little too ‘relaxed’. We chatted as we hiked on ahead, and I also learned all about my walking partner’s Jamaican heritage and the holidays she took there every year with a large group of her London-based family. A little later, while we were following a road through a large field of red poppies, Natasha happened to mention that it reminded her of Alice in Wonderland, which left me at a loss for a while until I realized she must have meant to say The Wizard of Oz.
At one point, we took a break so I could pierce some nasty blisters on my left foot. Then we continued non-stop for nearly three hours along an undemanding route until we finally reached Larrasoaña at just after two. It was a sleepy one-street town situated on the north bank of the Río Arga, a river we would be following all the way into Pamplona. I had stayed in this village two years earlier, so we found the municipal hostel without any problems and got beds in exactly the same dorm that I had slept in on my first visit. Then we took our showers and hand-washed our hiking clothes – I could feel the old pilgrim routine returning – and eventually Andy and Joe arrived about an hour and a half later and got the last two beds at the albergue.
Once they had settled in, completed their ablutions and done their laundry, we all wandered down to the local pub for a post-walk drink. It was already pretty busy but we found somewhere to sit on the veranda outside, and even though it was approaching early evening, we still saw a few more pilgrims arrive and struggle to try and find themselves a bed for the night.
Finally, we ended the day with a communal pilgrim dinner at the pub and it was a very sociable affair. There were about two dozen of us seated at two long banquet tables, and the conversations flowed almost as freely as the wine. During our meal, we also learned that the Australian lad sitting at our table was celebrating his thirty-second birthday, which led to a little party but by no means a late night because a walk into Pamplona loomed on the horizon and our bunk beds were beckoning us.
Day 3: Friday 29th August
After a bad night’s sleep, I awoke at five, was up at six and ready to leave by seven. We set off in our group of four, but Natasha and I stopped on a bridge at the far edge of the village to have a good stretch and eat some fruit while the boys hiked on ahead. We finally got on our way again and around mid-morning we stopped at a café with some interesting iron sculptures outside, and also bumped into the boys as they were leaving. We bought ourselves some breakfast and then found an empty table in the garden, where we enjoyed a tasty bacon sandwich with a cup of strong coffee and another chat about our lives back home.
We met Andy and Joe again about five kilometres short of Pamplona, and I told the other three to go on ahead while I stopped to check on my blistered left foot. Regrettably, I discovered that my big toe now looked a lot like the Elephant Man’s head, so I decided Pamplona would be my final destination that day. Once I had caught up with the others, we all walked into the city together before ultimately going our separate ways, seeing as Natasha and Andy planned to carry on hiking whereas Joe had reserved a bed at the German albergue in town.
I left them in the main plaza and checked in to a municipal hostel that had previously been a church and, as a consequence, had the same institutional feel of the albergue in Roncesvalles. Then I followed the usual shower-and-clothes-wash routine before taking a stroll through the streets Ernest Hemingway’s favourite Spanish town with Brett, the Australian ‘birthday boy’ from the night before.
We went to take a look at the city’s cathedral and on catching sight of this immense edifice of worship, Brett exclaimed, ‘Well that’s all we need. Just another frigging church!’ Fortunately, I was also not a fan of religious architecture, so we skipped the tour and went for some pinchos (tapas) at a place on the more modern side of town. Just as we were finishing our lunch at a table in a busy pedestrian street, Joe happened to pass by and we made plans to meet up with him later. Then the two of us headed back to our holy halls of residence so that Brett could take a siesta and I could catch up on my Camino diary.
At seven that evening, we all met up outside the municipal albergue and our little entourage included me, Joe, Brett, another Aussie named Annie, and a Kiwi girl called Lea who had also been with us the previous night in Larrasoaña. Following a quick drink at a local bar, we found a cheap but appealing restaurant, where the other four asked me to order food for everyone because none of them could speak any Spanish. Then we dined on an economical pilgrim meal accompanied by a couple of bottles of local red wine, before finally hustling back to the hostel through the bustling evening streets of Pamplona for yet another early night.
Day 4: Saturday 30th August
Once again, I was up at six and out at seven, but this time I was on my own. I stopped in a large park on the western outskirts of town for a quick stretch and some fruit for breakfast. Then I set off at a very fast pace and found myself overtaking other hikers all morning. In fact, a group of four middle-aged German guys even shouted Schnell! at me as I passed them by.
A little later, I walked with a couple of young Czech lads for a while and we climbed the Alto de Perdón together. This very exposed, mountain-top location was home to another Camino icon: a wrought iron representation of a line of medieval pilgrims heading west, their heads bent into the oncoming wind. Following a brief photo session, I hiked with the Czechs down a steep narrow trail on the other side of this mountain, and once we had reached the next village, I left them to an early picnic lunch in a park and went to a nearby café for a coffee.
As I was putting my backpack down at the entrance, I heard my name called and saw that Andy and Natasha were sitting at a table inside. I went in and joined them for a chat, and once they had finally gone on their way again, I managed to order myself a coffee and a cream cake. Then I found a chair on the crowded terrace outside and spent the next twenty minutes trying to clean and dress a big toe that still looked a lot like John Merrick’s head.
From the café, I walked with an English lad called Robbie, who had slept in the bunk next to mine the night before and had also studied at the same university as me, although he’d graduated more than two decades after I had. Even so, we still had plenty to talk about and on passing through a hamlet called Óbanos, we found that they were celebrating the fiesta of San Juan, so we joined the locals on a parade into the plaza and then continued on our way to Puente la Reina.
Just as we reached the edge of this picturesque village, we happened to catch up with Andy and Natasha again. It had been another stopover on my first pilgrimage, so even though Andy was on a tight schedule and really needed to continue hiking, the rest of us checked in to a modern albergue I knew of on the far side of the river.
Following my cleaning chores, I met an old German lady who was sharing our tiny four-berth dorm and noticed that she, too, had very blistered feet. Consequently, after brief introductions had been made, I reached for my first aid kit, disinfected a needle and then gently pierced a very large blood blister on her left big toe, while Natasha held her hand and Robbie looked on in silence.
Once we were all sure the old dear felt comfortable, the three of us left her and went back into town for a late lunch washed down with several bottles of ice-cold beer. While we were sitting at a table outside the local bar, a pilgrim at the next table suddenly turned to me and asked if I had found Jesus yet. This was a question I had waited nearly twenty years to be asked, just so I could use a classic line from my all-time favourite movie, Forrest Gump, and I instantly replied, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.’
In the end, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the village pub, sitting at a table on a sun-drenched patio and surrounded by other tables all crowded with Camino hikers. Then we went into the restaurant of a hotel nearby that had a cheap pilgrim menu on offer, where we dined with our Kiwi friend, Lea, yet again. Finally, we returned to the albergue for a night cap or two at the hostel bar before eventually climbing into our bunks at the very late hour of eleven.
Day 5: Sunday 31st August
I was woken at half past five by a loud ringing inside my head, but this wasn’t due to a hangover. It was simply because an early morning pilgrim was leaving the hostel with a souvenir cowbell tied to their backpack. I got up about an hour later and spent quite a long time preparing my feet for the day’s walk, and then I finally left Puente la Reina with Natasha at just before eight.
It was a beautiful sunny morning, perfect for a few photos by the bridge that had lent this village its name. Then we began a very easy and enjoyable off-road hike through the peaceful countryside. It was great to be walking with Natasha again, just the two of us hiking together at our usual speedy pace, and we quickly fell into a relaxed conversation that passed our lips just as smoothly as the booze had done the night before.
Unfortunately, a few hours later my left foot really started to bother me, so we stopped and had a snack at the roadside while I attended to my injuries. Following a welcome rest, we started hiking again and passed several familiar faces along the way, although now I didn’t feel so self-conscious about overtaking them because now I wasn’t walking on my own.
On reaching a busy market town called Estella, we bought some food at a mini-mart and headed up a small hill to the hamlet of Irache and the next major icon of the Camino: the free wine fountain. It had been established by Bodegas Irache in 1991 for pilgrims to fortify themselves for the long journey that lay ahead, and we were planning to do some serious fortification there.
We had come prepared and filled two family-sized Coca-Cola bottles with the ‘free’ flowing wine before beginning what eventually turned into a four-hour picnic at a table in a park nearby. It started with a leisurely lunch of ‘homemade’ tapas, and I also called a couple of hostels in the next village but they were already fully-booked, so I reserved a cabin for the two of us locally at a place called Camping Irache. Then we continued drinking red wine while listening to music on my backpacking ‘sound-system’ and watching a parade of pilgrims pass by, although one or two of them stopped for a chat and I even made a few calls to book beds for those who couldn’t speak any Spanish.
Around early evening, we finally made our way to Camping Irache and found it was more like a Butlins holiday camp than an albergue – but without any of the ‘Redcoats’ of course. Regrettably, there was no other option available, so we checked in to a twin-bedded cabin for thirty-seven euros, and even though this was pricey for a pilgrim, we still felt lucky to have somewhere to stay for the night. However, while I was taking my post-walk shower, I soon realized it was going to be a much more expensive stay there for me. As I gently bathed my blistered feet, it was obvious that I would have to take a rest day at Camping Irache because my battered ‘plates of meat’ simply couldn’t take any more punishment.
Eventually, we ended the day with chicken and chips for dinner at the restaurant of the three-star hotel opposite the entrance to our campsite. Following a pleasant evening meal, we wandered back to our hut and my head was still swimming in a vat of free red wine, although my drunken happy feeling was also mixed with a little sadness, seeing as my walking partner would be leaving me the following day.
Day 6: Monday 1st September
We woke up at six and Natasha left at seven, though our goodbye somehow felt a little brief after all we had shared together over the past few days on the road. Once she had left, I went straight back to sleep again and didn’t get out of bed until around eleven. Then I made myself some breakfast and spent the rest of the day at a table on the veranda of my cabin, reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry while bathing my left foot in a bucket of warm salty water. It wasn’t the most exciting way to pass the time but I knew that it had to be done.
Towards the end of the afternoon, I got my Swiss Army knife from my backpack and started doing some crude ‘surgery’ on my severely deformed digit. I carefully cut away as much of the dead skin as was possible, then I disinfected any open wounds I could see and finally put a fresh dressing on my Elephant Man’s toe.
In the evening, I went out for chicken and chips at the hotel restaurant again, although this time I dined alone. Then I returned to my chalet and when I finally got back into bed, my left foot was starting to feel a little better, so at least I fell asleep in a slightly more positive frame of mind than I had the night before.
Day 7: Tuesday 2nd September
Following a very long rest the previous day, I woke up before my six o’clock alarm and was on the road again by seven. I was apprehensive at first because I really needed to get back on schedule but I didn’t want to do any more damage to my feet. Even so, despite some initial discomfort, I soon got used to the pain and walked completely alone at a very good pace through a landscape of open countryside with almost no shade at all.
I stopped for a mid-morning coffee at a van in the middle of nowhere, which was owned by a Camino enthusiast who had his vast collection of pilgrim passports and Compostelas displayed on a large board behind him. We had an interesting chat about the ‘wonders’ of the Way while I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a quick smoke. Then I continued hiking for a few more hours until I reached a hilltop village called Torres del Rio, where I decided to check in to the local albergue.
It was a friendly little hostel run by a couple of lads from Ecuador, so I got another stamp in my pilgrim passport and dumped my backpack in another cramped dorm. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with a global mix of pilgrims, while sitting on the terrace of the bar of a new hotel just down the hill. I shared conversations (and several bottles of wine) with two Brazilians, a couple of Canadians, a small group of Kiwis, an American, a Korean and two old lively Irishmen. And it also appeared that almost everyone was in the mood for a party.
At around seven that evening, we all went inside for a communal pilgrim dinner at the hotel restaurant, and the wine continued to flow just as freely as it had on the terrace outside. Once our stomachs were full and our plates had been cleared away, the more ‘hardcore’ members of our group of party pilgrims began collecting up the half-empty bottles of wine from the deserted restaurant tables, and then we returned to the terrace to try and finish them off.
Towards the end of a long session of drinking cheap red wine, I remember starting to dance a bit of salsa with a local villager who had happened to pass by. However, my subsequent memories of that night become rather hazy, although I believe we were joined by one of the Latino lads from the hostel and he opened up the village disco for an ‘exclusive’ pilgrim party, since by then only five of us still remained. There was a Canadian lady named Natasha, who was about the same age as me and also shared the same party spirit. There was a thirty-something, pony-tailed Brazilian guy called Pierre, a young Asian lad whose name I don’t recall and a blonde girl about whom I remember nothing.
Despite feeling sure that, somewhere deep inside my inebriated mind, I must have known that a party was a stupid idea, I simply couldn’t resist because the music was good, the company was fun, the drinks were free and the dance floor was waiting.
Day 8: Wednesday 3rd September
I woke up at kicking-out time to an empty dorm, an aching head and a swollen left foot. Obviously, I knew it would be impossible to walk that day, so I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee and saw Ellen, the old German lady I had met in Puente la Reina, and she was sitting at a table right outside the front door. On catching sight of me, she immediately exclaimed, ‘Doctor Stephen!’ so I went out and joined her for a chat and some breakfast.
Once she had gone on her way, I borrowed a bucket from the hostel kitchen and bathed my left foot in warm salty water for about an hour until one of the Latino lads finally took pity on me and said that I could go back to bed. I eventually got up at around five and wandered down the hill to the hotel so that the lady who ran the massage clinic there could take a look at my left foot. She gave me plenty of good advice on a wide range of products and methods of treatment. Then I spent a couple of hours reading a bit more about Harold Fry’s unlikely hike until it was time for the communal pilgrim dinner.
Even though it had been a depressing day, my spirits were lifted a little during the meal, when I was seated with a Scottish lady called Freda and the two lively Irishmen from the night before, named Patrick and Kevin. Over an enjoyable three-course dinner, we chatted about our lives and our Caminos so far, and I also learned that Kevin was suffering with a foot that looked even worse than my disfigured big toe. Consequently, I concluded he had to be in even more pain than I was, so I forced myself to look upon this frustrating delay as just another part of the ‘pilgrim’ experience, despite feeling worried about my slow progress along the Way.
Day 9: Thursday 4th September
After another early morning, I set off at half past seven and the pain in my feet wasn’t too bad at first. I hiked alone at a good pace for a couple of hours until I joined Freda on the walk into a small but lively town called Viana, where we decided to stop at a café for a cup of coffee.
While we were sitting at a table outside, I saw Patrick and Kevin at another café just down the street, so once I’d finished my drink, I said farewell to Freda and strolled over for a chat. It turned out that Kevin really needed to see a doctor about his seriously injured foot, and since neither of them spoke any Spanish, I took them to the local health centre and then acted as an interpreter before continuing on my way about an hour later.
The next town I reached was called Logroño and I found the final stretch into the centre of this city to be immensely painful. As a result, I took a very long lunch in a large park by a lake on the western outskirts of town, so I could attend to my injuries and give my feet a good rest. Yet, in spite of this two-hour break, when I finally got going again I simply don’t know how I managed to carry on hiking. It honestly felt like I was walking barefoot over broken glass, and I began to wonder if I would actually be able to finish my Camino this time. Nevertheless, a few hours later I arrived at the municipal albergue of another small hilltop town, called Navarette, and got the last bunk still available, which was in a twenty-bedded dormitory hidden in the attic.
Early that evening, I wandered into the village to find some dinner and saw Ellen sitting on a wooden bench in front of the cathedral. I went over for a chat and soon told her the ‘horrific’ story of my painful ordeal that afternoon. Then, once I had finished my brief tale of woe, she took me to the local pharmacy and helped me select some essential medical supplies for my severely wounded feet, just like a mother trying to help her wayward son. Finally, we dined together al fresco at an Italian trattoria in the centre of the town plaza, which was a pleasant way to end what had definitely been my most demanding day so far.
I was up at seven and on the road by eight for another tough morning filled with pain. I walked on my own for the first two hours along a path through endless fields of vineyards, although I’d read about an ancient law that permitted pilgrims to eat as many grapes as they wanted, so I took full advantage of the situation.
Around mid-morning I met my Camino ‘mum’, Ellen, at a roadside coffee van, so I stopped and joined her for a hot drink. During our little chat, she asked if I could call to reconfirm her bed at the Puerta de Nájera hostel, which was in a town of the same name about an hour’s walk away. While making this call, I also booked a bunk there for myself because the terrible state of my feet meant that I couldn’t go much further that day, but this wasn’t the only reason for making a reservation. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t forced to stay at the municipal albergue in Nájera because, even two years later, I was still having bad dreams about the night I had spent there in a huge, ninety-bedded, ‘prison-camp’ dormitory.
Yet again, the final stretch was almost agony for me, but eventually we arrived at a popular hostel that was only accepting pilgrims with reservations. After a twenty-minute wait in a queue of exhausted hikers, I explained to the receptionist that I’d called ahead to reconfirm Ellen’s booking and also reserve myself a bunk there too. However, it transpired that she had mistakenly booked two beds in my name – one for me and another one for Ellen – which meant that there was still one bunk available for the night. On loudly announcing this to the long line of waiting pilgrims, a girl at the back rushed forwards and quickly said that she would take it.
The Puerta de Nájera was a well-organized albergue, so we first took off our hiking boots and stored them in a wooden rack next to the reception desk before going upstairs to find our dorm. As expected, we had been given a set of bunk beds, although Ellen immediately said she was happy to take the top one. Out of politeness and respect for her age, I told her that I really didn’t mind sleeping there, but this kind-hearted old lady insisted on being on top because she said it would be very difficult for me to negotiate a ladder with my feet the way they were. The wonders of the Way at work!
Following a refreshing cold shower, I put my dirty laundry into a washing machine for the first time since leaving home. Then Ellen and I went and had a picnic lunch on the banks of a river close by, where we bathed our blistered feet in the cool flowing waters while telling each other the stories of our lives. She was a fascinating lady who’d spent a over decade of her retirement years travelling all over the world, and she had piercing blue eyes and an enigmatic smile that made me feel sure she must have been an absolute heartbreaker in her younger years.
About an hour or so later, I finally said goodbye to my aged ‘sweetheart’ and set off to find a pharmacy and buy some more essential medical supplies. On Ellen’s advice, I got myself a ‘callous knife’ because she’d explained that I needed to cut away all the dead skin from the soles of my feet, and I also bought a new pair of silicone insoles for my hiking boots. Then I returned to the hostel for a long session working on my ‘plates of meat’, while also translating for a Spaniard who wanted some time away from the Korean who’d been at his side for several days, since he needed to decide if he was going to get a divorce.
After a quick call to wish my sister a happy birthday, I went out for some dinner and happened to see Patrick and Kevin again, who insisted on buying me a ‘thank you’ pint of beer. Not long after they’d gone on their way, I bumped into the Spaniard from my dorm that afternoon and he insisted I joined him for a ‘thank you’ glass of wine. This ultimately led to us going on the Ruta de Pinchos (the tapas route) together, and we also shared a lengthy conversation about all the problems of married life, a subject about which I have no personal experience.
Finally, I made my way back to the albergue and just as I arrived I met the young girl who had got the last bed due to the earlier mix-up with my reservation. She said that her name was Christina, told me she was Swiss and also said she was about to have a cigarette outside the hostel before the 10pm curfew. Consequently, I decided to join her for a quick smoke and a chat, which was a nice way to end the day, although I was still quite worried about what lay ahead for me down the Way.
Day 11: Saturday 6th September
I woke up later than I had over the past couple of days, and I was the last to leave the albergue at a little after eight. To tell the truth, I wasn’t actually the last to leave because Christina, the Swiss girl I had met the night before, came out just as I was about to shoulder my backpack. As a result, we decided to walk together for a while and we quickly slipped into an easy conversation, seeing as she had studied in the USA and subsequently spoke English almost perfectly.
I soon learned that she’d overheard my ‘interpreting’ between the Spaniard and the Korean in our dorm the day before and had been impressed by my patience and concern. This led to a long and candid discussion about our own past relationships and we found we had quite a lot in common. One of the reasons why we were walking the Way was to try and free our minds of past heartaches, and we’d also started our Caminos on exactly the same day. Consequently, we shared our personal histories openly while hiking through an equally open landscape of recently harvested fields of hay.
A few hours later, we stopped at a café crowded with pilgrims in the main street of another charming hilltop hamlet. Following a short chat over a cup of coffee, Patrick and Kevin suddenly appeared when we were getting ready to leave, so I said farewell to my female walking partner, bought another coffee and sat down for another chat with my two amigos from the Emerald Isle. When I finally got going again, I walked alone for a couple of hours at my normal speedy pace along an almost unchanging path through empty countryside, and I also passed my new Swiss friend along the way.
A little later I happened to bump into Ellen, so we stopped and bought a cold drink from a guy with an icebox at the roadside and it wasn’t long before Christina had caught up with us. Then, on Ellen’s advice yet again, I walked a further four kilometres with this lovely young lady into the ancient city of Santo Domingo. We arrived a few minutes before the municipal albergue was due to open, so we had a cup of coffee prior to getting our pilgrim passports stamped and checking in to an untidy ten-bedded dormitory. Then Christina went off to find the Wi-Fi zone while I went off to take a post-walk shower and wash my clothes before finally heading out to find some lunch.
Eventually, I came across a little café in a pedestrian street beside a church that had evolved into a cathedral, and Christina happened to pass by just as I was about to order my food. She asked if she could join me and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon together, enjoying a pilgrim meal with a couple of bottles of local red wine and a long chat about the Camino, our lives back home and our favourite movies and literature. It was another enlightening conversation and I also realized that I had been very wrong about this girl, whom I had first seen in the attic dorm two days earlier in Navarette and had perceived as a ‘spoilt American chick’.
After a brief shopping trip to buy some new earrings – for me, not for her – we took a stroll through town and then made our way back to the municipal albergue. Upon arrival, we found an empty table in the hostel gardens, opened a bottle of wine, put some music on my sound-system and began recording the events of the day in our travel journals. Once our diaries were up to date, I lent Christina a copy of a travel book I had written called Half-Time, and then I decided to continue reading about Harold Fry’s unplanned pilgrimage.
I found it strange, trying to concentrate on a travel story someone else had written while the girl sitting opposite me was reading a collection of my own travel stories, but it was encouraging to see that she was enjoying what I had written. Over a late night snack of bread rolls with sliced chorizo and cheese, we decided to walk together as far as the city of Burgos because Christina wanted a few more days to finish reading my book. We also made plans to hike a ‘long one’ the following day and then retired to our bunks, feeling very tired at the ghostly hour of half past eleven.
Day 12: Sunday 7th September
We were the last to leave the albergue again, and this was only after Christina had been woken at ten to eight by a hospitalero ringing a cowbell in her ear. However, on beginning our day’s hike, the initial pain in my feet died away quite quickly, so at least it was a good start to the day for me.
The weather was pleasant and the walk was undemanding, which made it easy for us to find a pace we both felt comfortable with, and we chatted together while enjoying the passing scenery. About an hour later we stopped for a stretch in a village called Grañon, and then we finally left the province of La Rioja and crossed into Castilla y León, the largest autonomous region in Spain. The line that divided these two counties was marked by a huge sign at the roadside showing the route of the Way through this enormous province, so we first took a few photos before continuing with our hike.
The next part of the Camino was very familiar to me and brought back a few memories of a great night I had spent at a five-star hotel that also had a pilgrim albergue. Consequently, I pulled the guidebook out of my backpack, thumbed through the pages and made a call to reserve us two beds at Hotel San Antón Abad in their spacious, twelve-berth, ten-euro dorm.
By then we were in desperate need of some caffeine, so we stopped at a café and I ordered two cups of coffee fortified with Liquor 43, since Christina also needed some help with a hangover. A couple of hours later we happened to meet Ellen again, who appeared to be very happy to see the two of us hiking together, and we all had a nice little chat before saying our last goodbyes to this enchanting aged lady.
Our next stop was Belorado and, for me, the final few kilometres into the centre of this town were extremely uncomfortable. As a result, we took a long break while I changed the dressing on my left foot and also swapped my blood-stained hiking socks for a fresh pair. Then we continued on our way towards the village of Villafranca and our ultimate destination. The final hour was tough going for both of us, although we still made it there in pretty good time, but when we eventually reached the albergue they told us we had been allotted two top bunk beds in the cramped, twenty-four-berth, five-euro dorm!
To soften the blow of this upsetting news, we went straight to the hotel bar for several post-walk drinks and a well-deserved rest. A couple of hours later, after hot showers and a change of clothes, we had a pilgrim dinner in a hotel restaurant that was almost empty, and seeing as no one had told us about the 10pm curfew, we also had to gulp our final glasses of wine before being sent to bed by an angry hospitalero. It was an unfortunate way to end a long and demanding day, but we did hold hands for quite a while as we were falling asleep, our arms linked together across the narrow space between our two top bunks.
Day 13: Monday 8th September
Christina woke me at dawn and told me she wanted to leave right away. Unfortunately, I was still suffering from the demanding hike the day before and really needed some more sleep. As a result, we shared a rather ‘clumsy’ farewell and then she grabbed her backpack and left me to return to my dreams. When I eventually woke up again, I found I was the last pilgrim still left in the albergue, so I got ready as rapidly as I could and was back on the road in less than twenty minutes.
Initially it was pretty painful, but eventually my pace improved as I climbed a steady incline along a rugged winding path through a thick pine forest. Once again, I passed many pilgrims along the way, although I did make a quick stop to take a photo of an unusual ‘monument’ to the Camino that had been built around one of the numerous stone way-markers. At about half past nine, I got a call from Christina to let me know that she was waiting for me at a café four kilometres ahead, so my pace picked up a little more and we were drinking coffee together no more than forty minutes later.
From there, we made a short and easy hike to the village of Atapuerca, which was set in a landscape very similar to the Australian outback and also the discovery site of the earliest human remains ever to be found in Europe. By then it was only midday but Christina was already exhausted because she’d hardly slept a wink the night before, so I told her we could get ourselves a couple of beds at the local albergue. However, she quickly made it very clear that she wasn’t prepared to spend the night in another noisy cramped dormitory, so I made a few calls and booked us a room at a casa rural just around the corner.
After a cold drink at the village bar, I went to pick up the house keys from the local bakery and we eventually got to the cottage just as the cleaners were arriving. It was an enchanting old Spanish abode with thick stone whitewashed walls, wooden-beamed ceilings and creaking varnished floors. We also found that it had five bedrooms, two modern bathrooms, a large living-room with a flat screen television, and a kitchen equipped with a dishwasher and a washing machine.
We waited on an enormous sofa in the lounge while the cleaners worked away upstairs. Then, once they had finished their duties, Christina rushed up a wide wooden stairway to choose which room we would sleep in that night. I got up and followed her, with our backpacks slung over my shoulders, and was flattered to find that she had chosen one of the two double bedrooms. After dumping our luggage in our room and inspecting all of the modern home comforts on offer, we decided to make the most of the sunny weather, so we showered and changed and went back outside again.
What followed was a wonderful afternoon and evening of eating, drinking, chatting and reading, while sitting in the street on garden chairs right outside the front door of our casa rural, just like an old retired Spanish couple. Finally, we put our dirty laundry into the washing machine and headed upstairs to get ready for bed, and as an added bonus we also had the whole house to ourselves, since none of the other rooms had been rented out.
Day 14: Tuesday 9th September
We took full advantage of the peace and quiet in our private lodgings and got up late, at well after nine. Christina began cooking some bacon and eggs while I hung the washing out, and then we had a long and lazy breakfast at our table in the sun before finally getting organized. Eventually, we left our country cottage and wandered back into town to drop off the house keys at the bakery, where we had a cup of coffee and then ultimately hit the Camino at around noon.
By that time of day, it was already very hot and this part of the hike was up a very steep hill. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as it had first appeared to be, and we made good progress on our climb through the midday heat. Once we were on the other side of this hill, Christina suggested taking an off-road ‘short cut’ that she believed would save us a couple of kilometres. Regrettably, this resulted in us hiking through a private hunting area, which was more than a little worrying, although we managed to make it back to the Camino again without getting shot.
On reaching a nearby village called Castañares, we stopped for a cold drink and a smoke to recover from this rather ‘harrowing’ ordeal, and from there it wasn’t much further into the city of Burgos. Unfortunately, the route that led into this ancient Gothic city was far from glorious because it first took us along the entire length of the airport runway and then through a very ugly industrial suburb. In addition to this, my feet were really starting to throb and a long walk under the relentless afternoon sun was also beginning to take its toll.
As soon as we arrived in the city centre, we went straight to the tourist information office to ask about cheap accommodation. They recommended us one or two budget-priced pensiones, although just as we were leaving this office we were stopped in the street by a man who offered us a double room for forty euros. This was more than we had planned to spend, but we’d already seen several other pilgrims struggling to find themselves a bed for the night, so we followed him on a very rapid walk through some very busy streets to a very cheap hotel on the far edge of town.
Our plan was to spend the night there and then explore the city in the morning before continuing with our hike in the afternoon. Consequently, on checking in to a room that wasn’t much bigger than the double bed it contained, we took hot showers in a communal bathroom not much bigger than a photo booth, changed our hiking clothes for ‘evening wear’ and went back into town for some dinner.
We first had a drink and some pinchos at a café in an immense plaza in front of the third largest cathedral in Spain. Then, just as the sun was about to set, we decided to take a look at the medieval castle of this ancient city. On completing a twenty-minute climb to the top of a small hill, we sat ourselves down on the castle walls and bathed in the beauty of the panorama below us, as Burgos began turning its lights on. Finally, we had a ‘creative’ al fresco pilgrim dinner at a little restaurant near the central plaza and then strolled back to our hotel and climbed into bed at just after midnight.
Day 15: Wednesday 10th September
We woke up very late and went straight back into the city to buy a new Camelbak water bag, seeing as my old one had split a few days earlier. Following a successful purchase and a slice of Spanish omelette for breakfast, we returned to our room and started packing the confusing mess of possessions that completely covered our unmade bed. Once we were finally organized, we left our luggage at the hotel reception desk at just before the twelve-thirty check-out time and then set off to see the city’s cathedral.
Christina’s mother had told her it was a place that she simply had to visit, so I had (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to join her on a tour. However, after collecting our headsets and starting a long circuit of this gargantuan homage to a belief I didn’t share, I soon became bored and we ultimately lost each other in one of the transepts. I spent quite a while trying to find my walking partner, but in the end I had to accept defeat and headed outside to wait for her on a bench in the plaza.
She eventually turned up about twenty minutes later and we returned to the hotel to collect our luggage before finally beginning our day’s walk at the shamefully late hour of two. On our way out of town, I could feel a little tension between the two of us, possibly because we had been at each other’s sides almost constantly for more than three days now. As a result, I thought some time apart might be a good idea, so once we’d reached a park on the western outskirts of town, I told Christina I was going to hike ahead for a while.
It was a nice change to walk at a slightly faster pace and it also reminded me of the nickname a few other pilgrims had ‘christened’ me with during my first week on the road: The guy with the bright red backpack who always walks really fast. In addition to this, it was another part of the Way that I remembered very well and just as I was looking forward to a cold drink at an old stone water fountain not too far ahead, I came to a diversion due to a new motorway under construction. There were several temporary way-markers but the route wasn’t very clear and I was quite worried that I might be going the wrong way. Fortunately, I eventually managed to get back on track again and I immediately called Christina to let her know about this confusing diversion.
I stopped a couple of kilometres short of our destination for a cold drink, and once Christina had caught up with me, we finished our day’s hike at each other’s sides again. We had beds reserved at an albergue in a village called Rabé de las Calzadas and, on checking in, we found that I was the only man sharing our compact eight-berth dormitory. Consequently, I freshened up in the privacy of the bathroom and then we went downstairs for a communal pilgrim dinner, but we were forced to sit at a table in the street because there was no more room in the hostel restaurant – although this suited both of us perfectly. Finally, we ended the day with a couple of drinks at the local bar before returning to an eight-bedded dorm filled with six old women who were all snoring extremely loudly.
Day 16: Thursday 11th September
Everyone in our room got up late, so we got up even later. After breakfast at our table in the street, we hit the road at half past eight and managed to reach a pretty good pace once my feet had settled down. In fact, I even walked ahead for a while, although Christina overtook me when I stopped to put a plaster on a blister and I didn’t catch up with her again until we’d reached the next village, where we took a break for a mid-morning coffee.
Sitting at a table outside a busy café, I happened to see Pierre, the pony-tailed Brazilian guy I had met a week earlier at the ‘pilgrim party’ in Torres del Rio. We went over and joined him for a chat and then continued on our hike through the plains of northern Spain to a tiny hamlet called Honatas. This cute little village was completely hidden in a dip in La Meseta and was also a place I was looking forward to seeing again.
I had called ahead to reserve two bunks at a municipal albergue run by nuns, but in the end we decided to get a room at the same hostel I had stayed at the last time I was there. On my first visit it had brought back many fond memories off my backpacking days, so we checked in to a cheap double room, took hot showers, hand-washed our hiking clothes and then went for a late lunch at the hostel café.
Honatas really was a ‘one-street town’ (and a very narrow street at that) but its friendly, laid-back atmosphere had made it a popular stopover on the Camino. We sat ourselves down with a group of fellow pilgrims at one of the tables on the crowded terrace, ordered some hot food and some cold drinks and then began making some more new friends.
I also began to understand why this place had more of a backpacking feel than a pilgrim one. As I looked around me, I suddenly realized that I was the oldest person sitting at our table, which came as quite a surprise because most of the pilgrims walking the Way at this time of the year were from the Waiting-For-God Squad, not the Gap-Year Generation.
After a long lunch followed by a bottle of wine shared with our Brazilian friend, Pierre, we bought a jug of sangria at the café and adjourned to the hostel patio. Just as we had found on the terrace outside, it was also very crowded and we ended up spending the rest of the day sitting at a garden table with several other albergue residents, all chatting about everything and anything whilst sipping endless glasses of Spanish grape.
Towards the end of the evening, we headed out for a snack with an English lad we had met called Ed. We quickly found the only café in town that was still open at such a late hour, where the three of us each enjoyed a large portion of papas bravas washed down with a tall glass of Cuba Libre. Finally, we staggered back to the hostel, said a drunken goodnight to Ed and fell into bed at the end of what had been our best day together so far – although I couldn’t understand why I had a Spanish phrase book in my hand.
Day 17: Friday 12th September
We woke up later than planned and had to quickly get organized because it was almost kicking-out time. After checking out, we spent over an hour having a very relaxed breakfast on the terrace of the hostel café and then finally set off on our way at a little after nine.
We made an easy two-hour hike with hardly a pilgrim in sight to a village called Castrojerez, where we decided to take an early lunch. This tiny provincial town was described in the guidebook as having a population of only 600 who seem to be permanently occupied with siesta, and it was an accurate description. The streets were almost deserted and it took us ages to find the only place in town that served hot food at that time of day, but after all the booze we had consumed the day before, we were both in desperate need of a ‘home-cooked’ meal.
While we were waiting for our food at a table in the sun, I removed my hiking boots to take a look at my worrisome feet. On my first Camino, I had walked this far without any problems at all. Yet even though I was wearing the same boots and socks as before and following the same daily regimen of preparation, this time I was having some very serious problems. We still had about five hundred kilometres left to cover and my feet already looked absolutely terrible. Consequently, Christina told me to give her Crocs a try, and despite not being a fan of this ‘oversized’ style of footwear, I slipped them onto my feet and immediately found they were incredibly comfortable.
At the end of a welcome break, I returned the Crocs to Christina, pulled on a fresh pair of hiking socks, laced up my boots and was ready to get going again. Over lunch we’d agreed to hike around a large hill that lay in our path, and it wasn’t long before we discovered the highway to be virtually empty, since very few pilgrims had the courage to break the protocol of following the official Camino route.
Eventually, we joined the long procession of faithful hikers who’d all chosen to take the hilltop path. Then we made our way into the next village, where I had booked us two bunks in a six-bedded dormitory at the local albergue. On checking in, we were told that only two other pilgrims were sharing our room, but when we finally met them we were disappointed to find that they were two of the female snorers from our dorm just two nights earlier. This was quite a worry, so during our post-walk drinks I consulted the guidebook and made a call to reserve a cabin for the following night, just to give us the guarantee of a good night’s sleep to look forward to.
Early that evening, we took a little wander through the village and also visited the local shop to buy some food for the following day. Then we returned to the albergue for another ‘predictable’ three-course pilgrim meal before finally ending the evening with a quick game of cards.
Day 18: Saturday 13th September
Our roommates left at six, just as quietly as they had slept, and I got up at seven and went into the lounge next to our dorm to work on my feet without disturbing Christina. Once I had completed my daily first-aid routine, I went back into the room and woke her up so we could start to get organized, and we were packed and out the door by eight.
We had some breakfast at a café on the edge of town, and then we shouldered our backpacks and finally began walking. About an hour later, we stopped for a cup of coffee before following a tree-lined path along the banks of a canal that led all the way into a little town called Fromista. For me, it was another familiar stretch of the Camino and I also remembered it was where I’d started having problems due to pain on my first pilgrimage – quite a change from what I was finding the second time around.
We did some shopping at a small supermarket in the main street of this peaceful village. Then, on our way out of town, we happened to come across a young German peregrina who told us she’d been robbed of more than a thousand euros the night before at the local pilgrim albergue. She went on to explain that she’d had to appear in court that morning to give evidence, and even though the thief had been found guilty, her money hadn’t been returned. This was very sad news, so we gave her a couple of packets of tissues from the large multi-pack we’d just bought and then wished her a Buen Camino before setting off on our way again.
The rest of the walk was easy in respect to the landscape but the final hour was pretty painful due to my boots pinching at several broken blisters. However, when we eventually reached a rustic retreat named Amanecer Albergue, we discovered it to be a backpacker’s paradise! There were several hammocks swinging in sprawling gardens filled with farmyard animals and sweaty pilgrims, there was an appealing bar with an inviting price-list, and we also had our own hut booked for only eighteen ‘bucks’ for the night.
After checking in and completing our cleaning chores, we went straight to the hostel bar for a couple of post-walk drinks and found that Ed from England was there. We joined him at a table on the veranda and a laid-back Dutch hospitalero, who was also very new to the Camino, came over and introduced himself as Wilbur. He was an older guy who seemed to have lived a very interesting and productive life, so we spent a lazy afternoon of chatting with him over some lunch and a bottle of wine, while also making sure that the donkeys didn’t nibble at any of our stuff.
Following a short siesta in our cabin, we headed back to the bar for a ‘hippy’ communal dinner that included plenty of lentils, rice and beans, but absolutely no sign of any meat on the menu. Then we sat ourselves down at a table on the veranda with Wilbur and drank glass after glass of cheap vino tinto until long after midnight, while I tried to teach my new Dutch friend some elementary Spanish and also enjoy an electrical storm that was flashing away on the horizon.
Day 19: Sunday 14th September
At the end of a quiet night’s sleep, we got up very late and had a communal donativo breakfast in the hostel kitchen in a ‘community’ of only two. After a cup of strong coffee, a bowl of cereal and a slice of hot toast, we tossed a few euros into the money jar on the table and then returned to our hut to prepare our feet for the day’s hike. Once we were ready to leave, we said goodbye to Wilbur and I also gave him the Spanish phrase book I’d somehow acquired on our drunken night in Honatas, before we finally set off at a little after eleven.
This stage of the Camino was notorious for an extremely long, seventeen-kilometre stretch that followed an old Roman road and offered no amenities at all apart from a couple of water fountains. Fortunately, the morning’s walk was quite easy and didn’t involve too much pain (although ‘pain’ had become part of my daily life by then). Once we’d found a pace we both felt comfortable with, I made a call to book us beds at an albergue in a village called Ledigos, since we’d be arriving very late. Then we hiked to the town of Carrión de los Condes and decided to stop for a cooked lunch at a restaurant in the plaza. While we were waiting for our food at a table on a crowded veranda, I also remembered that this was where I’d first discovered the benefits of silicone insoles on my previous pilgrimage – once again, quite a change from the second time around.
Following a filling three-course meal, we nipped into a local mini-mart and bought a small stash of ‘survival snacks’ including Snickers bars, a large bag of crisps and Coca-Cola. Then we started walking the longest undeveloped stretch of the Camino de Santiago. It was very hard going, although this wasn’t due to the terrain but simply because it was through an almost unchanging landscape along a very long and straight path that appeared to go on forever.
We stopped for a couple of rests at picnic areas along the way, and during one of our breaks I also found a solar belt that a fellow pilgrim must have forgotten to collect from in its place in the sun. It appeared to be an expensive accessory, so I stuffed it into my backpack with the intention of finding the real owner later on, rather than just give it away like a Spanish phrase book to the next deserving pilgrim I met.
Towards the end of an almost never-ending path, the clouds closed in and the wind suddenly began to blow. This made the final hour very demanding for both of us, and by then my feet had also become extremely uncomfortable. Even so, it was another occasion when I was happy that I wasn’t alone, and as we hiked along a completely deserted path, I told almost every joke I could remember and even sang a few songs to keep our spirits up.
Eventually, we made it to the next village, where we took a break for a cold drink and I also asked every pilgrim in the café if anyone recognized the solar belt I had found, but without any success. Then Christina suggested I wore her Crocs for the final five kilometres, so I took her advice and what followed was almost as easy as a walk in the park. They really were the most comfortable things I had ever put on my feet!
We reached our final destination at dusk, checked in to a cheap twin room and had a glass of red wine while Christina made a call to wish her parents a happy 30th wedding anniversary. Then we dined on the now customary three-course pilgrim meal, served at exactly half past seven, before catching up on our Camino diaries, taking our post-walk showers and then heading straight to bed at the end of a long day’s hike.
Day 20: Monday 15th September
Following a good rest, we woke up early, had some breakfast and started walking. I’d decided to wear Christina’s Crocs again because the weather was dry, the route was flat and they helped my feet considerably. As a result, we managed to hike at a steady pace throughout the morning and, after a quick cup of coffee in the village of Terradillos de los Templarios, we passed the halfway line of our pilgrimage, although there was nothing at the roadside to mark this somewhat significant point of interest.
With less than four hundred kilometres left to cover, we carried on to Sahagún and eventually found the only supermarket in this sleepy town, where we filled our food bag and then went for a picnic lunch on the banks of the Río Cea. This picturesque location held some special memories for me because it was where I’d camped out overnight on my first Camino, exactly two years and two days earlier. Unfortunately, it had been a rather restless night’s sleep because just as I was bedding down, some gypsies had turned up in a truck to dump a load of construction rubble in the woods next to the river. I knew that my campfire made it clear I was sleeping rough, so I’d subsequently spent the rest of the night trying to stay wide awake, since I was worried they would come back later and steal my backpack if I fell asleep.
Following a relaxing lunch in the sun, we gathered our things together and crossed the single-lane bridge that spanned this small river. It was another memorable place for me because, at the end of an almost sleepless night, it was where I had made a YouTube video called ‘Leo Sayer on the Camino’ while singing this British performer’s most famous song on the banks of the Río Cea. We took a photo of this significant point of interest and then continued on our hike through a barren landscape until we reached a village called Bercianos, where we stopped for a cold coke and I also made a call to reconfirm our beds for the night.
On finishing our day’s walk, we checked in to La Laguna Albergue and found that they had saved us two of the best beds in the whole place. Both of them were bottom bunks and they were in a more spacious, six-berth annex of the somewhat overcrowded main dormitory. It had been a tough day’s hike and Christina was really tired, so I popped out to the local shop and bought a bottle of rum and some coke to make us a couple of Cuba Libres. Then we enjoyed our post-walk drinks in the peaceful hostel gardens, while Christina used her smart-phone to reserve a double room at a three-star hotel in León for Wednesday night, and I used the guidebook and my ‘stupid’ phone to book two bunks at an albergue for the following night.
We finally managed to muster enough energy for our cleaning duties, and then we ventured into the village to find some dinner. There were two restaurants to choose from and both of them seemed to be busy, so we sat ourselves down at a table outside the more ‘elegant’ of the two and enjoyed a delicious three-course pilgrim meal. In fact, we had to agree that it was the best food we had been served with since starting our Caminos. Eventually, after paying for our oral pleasure, we wandered back to the hostel, got undressed and climbed into two bottom bunk beds in a quiet little dorm at the end of another long day.
Day 21: Tuesday 16th September
With my daily packing-up routine completed, I grabbed my first-aid kit and adjourned to a picnic table in the garden to begin my other, more depressing, daily routine. I started cutting away all the dead skin from the soles of my feet with my callous knife, piercing any blisters with a disinfected needle, dressing any open wounds and then covering my feet in a cloud of talcum powder before pulling on a fresh pair of hiking socks. Unfortunately, I also noticed that my medical supplies were getting very low, so it was obvious I would have to visit a pharmacy very soon.
It was a complicated morning’s walk because Christina was really struggling whereas I really needed to reach a drugstore before the one o’clock siesta. However, my mood improved a little when we happened to come across a graffiti I had written two years earlier. A tradition of the Way is to greet fellow pilgrims with the phrase, ‘Buen Camino’ (Good Camino) but I had soon got tired of this and had switched it for the words, ‘Gran Torino’ (the name of a Clint Eastwood movie), which I had also left as a written message at regular intervals.
Nevertheless, I eventually realized I would have to hike ahead alone, so I walked almost eight kilometres in just over an hour and arrived in a town called Mansilla at ten to one to find it was a fiesta and the farmacia was closed. This was extremely frustrating because my rapid hike had left me with even more blisters and my desperate need for medical supplies was now even greater. Even so, just as I had found with my Irish amigo in Torres del Río, there was always someone else worse off than you were. And while I waited for Christina to catch up with me, I saw the unlucky German girl we had met a few days earlier in Fromista, who was also now in desperate need of medication because her whole body was completely covered in bedbug bites.
Once my walking partner had arrived, we enjoyed another peaceful picnic on the banks of another small river and then continued on our quest to find a pharmacy that was open. A few hours later, we finally came across one in a village that seemed to supply the surrounding environs with nothing more than farming equipment. Fortunately, it was a well-stocked chemist’s and I spent a small fortune replenishing my first-aid kit, while Christina also spent a significant amount of cash on quality hair products. Then we had a quick drink at a café across the street before setting off on the final stretch of our day’s hike.
Despite wearing the Crocs, the final few kilometres were still close to agony – like walking barefoot over broken glass all over again – but at least it wasn’t as soul-destroying as my hike from Logroño to Navarette had been. This time there was one big difference because now I wasn’t walking on my own. Now I was hiking with Christina at my side and she held my hand the whole way in an effort to keep my spirits up.
Around early evening we reached a village called Arcahueja, where we checked in to a modern albergue named La Torre. We were greeted by a friendly hospitalero, whom we each paid eighteen ‘bucks’ for our bunk beds, dinner and breakfast, prior to taking showers and putting all of our clothes into a washing machine. Then I borrowed Christina’s smart-phone to check my emails and was happy to find that someone had just bought a copy of my backpacking book, Half-Time, from the Amazon website. A few months later, I also learned that this particular purchase had been made by my Jamaican walking partner, Natasha.
Finally, we had a very late dinner in a deserted hostel restaurant (dressed in nothing more than our bath towels) before retiring to a large six-bedded dormitory, relieved in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be woken by early risers because all of the backpacks had been stored in a separate room.
Day 22: Wednesday 17th September
We only had a short walk to make that day, so I awoke in a good frame of mind. However, things quickly changed when I realized it was raining, and from the loud noise coming from outside, I also concluded it was some serious precipitation. We had a late breakfast in a deserted restaurant yet again, seeing as everybody else had already left. Then we donned our wet-weather gear for the first time since starting our pilgrimages, and I put my hiking boots on for the first time in more than two days because the rain meant that Christina’s Crocs would be impractical.
Fortunately, my feet didn’t feel as bad as expected, and we enjoyed an easy hike into the ancient capital of the kingdom of Asturias and León. On reaching the outskirts of this historical city, we stopped at a supermarket and filled a shopping basket with bread rolls, sliced ham, a big chunk of cheese, a jar of pâté and a family-sized bag of crisps – plus a bottle of Cava, courtesy of Christina – and then continued on our way into town.
On my first visit there, I had spent a very expensive night at the five-star Parador Hotel featured in the Emilio Estevez movie The Way, the film that had first inspired me to start walking the Camino. Nevertheless, this time around Christina had managed to get a fantastic deal a three-star hotel on the banks of the river that flowed through this city. We found the hotel at midday on the dot, which was perfect for us because it was the earliest time we could check in and we also wanted to make the most of our luxury lodgings for as long as possible.
Christina had a lot more experience of three-star hotels than I did, so she took control at the reception desk and I was very impressed by her performance. After the customary form-filling and photocopying of identity documents, she confirmed that our thirty-six-euro room came with a double bed, an en suite bath and a view of the river, and then also asked for a bucket of ice to chill our bottle of Cava.
Following a ride in a mirrored lift, we left our luggage in a large double room on the seventh floor of a glass-fronted tower and nipped over the road for a cup of coffee at a café run by a guy who looked a lot like Che Guevara. Then we returned to our hotel room and spent a lazy afternoon and evening in the most comfortable surroundings we had experienced in ages. It was such a change from the life of a ‘pilgrim’ that it almost felt as if we were cheating in some way. Even so, this feeling soon vanished when we had a picnic lunch on a bed about the size of a five-a-side football pitch, and a little later I also braved a downpour to buy another bottle of booze and a few more ‘bar snacks’ from a local shop. Finally, towards the end of another great day together, I even called to order a Chinese takeaway, which was delivered to the door of our room.
Day 23: Thursday 18th September
The morning brought more rain, so we abandoned any plans of seeing the sights of the city and instead chose to enjoy a few more hours of luxury at our three-star lodgings. We eventually checked out at just before noon and went over the road for a quick cup of coffee with ‘Che’. Then we finally hit the road at the very late hour of 1pm, both dressed in all of our wet-weather gear again due to the damp climatic conditions.
Regrettably, we got lost in heavy rain on the far edge of town and wandered in confusion for quite a while until we realized we were going the wrong way. This particular stage of the Camino offered three different routes, and from the map in the guidebook I concluded we were on the most direct one to the next main town. Our plan was to spend the night in a small village called Villar de Mazarife, so we stopped at a roadside plaza to discuss what to do about this unexpected situation.
Eventually, over an impromptu picnic lunch, we agreed that the best course of action would be to take a taxi across to the ‘correct’ Camino. Consequently, on finishing our food, we went into the local pub to get the number of a cab company and the barmaid kindly called one for us. About ten minutes later, the two of us climbed into a car for the first time in more than three weeks, and at the end of a fifteen-euro fare, we found ourselves back on course again.
We walked for another hour or so to a friendly little albergue I knew called Tío Pepe, where I’d booked us a twin room with two bunks and a picturesque view of the village church. After our post-walk drinks, we had a pilgrim dinner at the hostel bar and then finally climbed into beds a lot smaller than the one we had slept in the night before.
Day 24: Friday 19th September
I was woken at dawn with the distressing news that Christina needed to see a doctor. As a result, I jumped out of bed and went straight downstairs to get some help, but unfortunately the receptionist told me that the nearest doctor’s surgery was in a village about fourteen kilometres down the Way. However, she also said that we didn’t need to make an appointment, so we had a quick breakfast at the hostel bar, rapidly packed our things and then set off like Hussein Bolt towards a medieval town ironically named Hóspital.
Despite Christina’s ill health, we still made it there in pretty good time and arrived at just before midday. Even so, we had to patiently wait for almost half an hour on a bench outside the surgery with a bunch of ailing pensioners, while the doctura had a cup of coffee and a croissant at the local café. Then, once she had returned, we all followed her into the medical centre and waited to be called for a consultation.
Eventually, Christina and I were the only ones left in the waiting-room and the doctor finally asked her to come in. However, she reappeared at her door a few minutes later and asked if I could come in as well because she didn’t speak any English and needed me to act as an interpreter, a role that was beginning to feel familiar. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to explain what the problem was, and then we raced off to find a farmacia and fulfil Christina’s prescription before the one o’clock siesta.
With medication purchased, we had a picnic lunch in the plaza opposite the chemist’s and I also made a call to book us bunks in a village about five kilometres away because my walking partner couldn’t go much further that day. Around an hour later, we reached the municipal albergue of an isolated hamlet and, on checking in, we discovered the hospitalero to be an ‘unusual’ young fella who instantly reminded me of my movie favourite, Forrest Gump. He told us that we were the only ones staying at this hostel, which was quite strange because almost every albergue we had stayed at so far had always been fully-booked by this time of the day. Even so, he also said that we could choose whichever room we wanted, so we ignored our worries and settled into a snug little four-berth dorm by the main entrance.
Once we had taken our post-walk showers and hand-washed our hiking clothes, Christina said she really needed to take a siesta. Understandably, it had been a very tough day for her, so I retired to the enchanting hostel gardens for a couple of hours and finally found out how Harold Fry’s unlikely pilgrimage had ended. Then we strolled down to the other hostel in the village and had another three-course pilgrim meal chosen from a menu that was virtually the same as at every place we had dined at since we had started walking.
Eventually, we both got a much-needed early night in the quietest albergue we had stayed at so far, although we did hear a few strange noises coming from Forrest’s room during the early hours of the morning, but luckily these unnerving noises didn’t last for very long.
Day 25: Saturday 20th September
Church bells woke us at dawn and Christina was still unwell, so we got up and organized our things at a much slower pace than usual. Once we were ready to leave, we said goodbye to our friendly hospitalero, who shook my hand in the same energetic manner of his movie namesake. Then we headed down the hill to the other hostel for a long breakfast mixed with several types of medication, seeing as my injuries meant that I, too, needed to take a few pills every morning.
Finally, we began our day’s hike at just before nine and initially everything seemed to be okay. Even so, I eventually realized that Christina felt very uncomfortable and obviously wanted to walk on her own, so I told her I would hike ahead for a while. A few hours later, I stopped for a drink at a café just outside an ancient city called Astorga and it wasn’t long before Christina had caught up with me. After a cup of coffee and a chat, we made our way into this medieval town and did some shopping in a maze of narrow streets tightly packed inside the overbearing city walls.
By then it was time for some lunch, so in an effort to absorb a little culture along with our food, we had a picnic on a bench in front of the Bishop’s Palace, a striking neo-Gothic ‘fairy-tale’ edifice designed by the Catalán architect, Gaudí. Then we walked together for the rest of the afternoon until we eventually reached a hamlet called El Ganso, where I’d booked us two bunks at a rustic retreat named Albergue Gambino.
Following two weeks on the road together, a familiar routine had developed, so we found some seats at a table on the hostel patio and joined a couple of other pilgrims for a post-walk drink. While I was talking to a Spanish lady who was repairing her hiking boots, Christina started chatting with the lad sitting opposite us in a language that I didn’t recognize. However, I soon learned they were speaking in Hungarian and subsequently also discovered that the Swiss girl who’d been walking at my side for the past fourteen days was actually half Hungarian.
After our showers, we put our dirty laundry into a washing machine and then I took Christina to meet a man I had met on my first visit to this village. His name was Ramoncito and he was another ‘unusual’ fella who had reminded me of a movie character, but this time it was from the film The Way. As soon as I had met him, I’d felt sure that this extremely eccentric bar owner must have been the inspiration for the wacky hospitalero named ‘El Ramón’, a disturbing character who also bore an uncanny resemblance to Hitchcock’s hotelier, Norman Bates.
Finally, we returned to the albergue and dined on bread, ham and cheese in the communal hostel kitchen whilst chatting with a middle-aged Canadian lady called Cindy, who also happened to be another of the six female snorers we had shared a dorm with ten days earlier.
Day 26: Sunday 21st September
I was woken by pilgrims leaving at well before sunrise, and I was quite cold because someone must have ‘borrowed’ my blanket during the night. Consequently, I got up and climbed into Christina’s bunk to warm myself up a bit, and we didn’t get out of bed until long after all of our roommates had left.
Following twelve days spent hiking through the plains of La Meseta, it was the day when we would be back amongst the mountains again. As a result, we made the most of the all-inclusive breakfast at the albergue and then had a very long stretch before finally commencing our day’s walk at a little after nine.
It was a tough morning’s trek to the medieval village of Foncebadón, and on reaching the Cruz de Ferro – the highest point on the Camino – I followed an ancient custom and left a stone I’d picked up in San Jean Pied de Port. I had learned of this tradition from the movie The Way, and it required each pilgrim to carry a small rock from San Jean to the Cruz de Ferro as a penance for all of their sins. However, as I placed my pebble at the base of the ‘Iron Cross’ for the second time around, I remembered a comment my sister had made when I was preparing for my first Camino. On seeing the compact, 32-litre backpack I’d just bought for my pilgrimage, she had immediately exclaimed, ‘Well that’s nowhere near big enough to carry a rock the size of all of your sins!’
Be that as it may, with an important Camino custom fulfilled, we had a picnic lunch in the sun and then continued on our hike through a rugged mountain range. Unfortunately, I soon began to feel very uncomfortable due to a large blister that had recently appeared on my left heel, and the final hour was nothing short of agony. Nevertheless, at the end of a very difficult descent made even more of a challenge due to my new injury, we reached a hybrid hostel/hotel that had opened for business only four months earlier, where I’d booked us two bunk beds for the night.
We got another stamp in our well-used pilgrim passports and checked in to a four-berth dorm in the most modern accommodation we had stayed at so far. Then we bought a couple of over-priced drinks at the hotel bar and sat at an empty table on the veranda, where we were eventually joined by Natasha, the fun-loving Canadian whom I hadn’t seen since the ‘pilgrim party’ night in Torres del Rio. After catching up on nearly three weeks of Camino news, we left her and went to take our post-walk showers and change our clothes. Then we finally headed back into a village filled with an appealing ‘Dickensian’ charm to end a very tough day with an appetizing three-course meal not chosen from a pilgrim menu this time.
Day 27: Monday 22nd September
We awoke at eight and the other two guys sharing our dorm were also late risers, so we packed our things while chatting with a couple of ‘cycle’ pilgrims from Madrid. This was a class of pilgrim for which we had developed a distinct dislike due to their insistence on cycling along the Camino path, even when it ran parallel to the road, and also their reluctance to use a bell whenever they wanted to pass by.
Regrettably, the rain had returned, so we decided to follow the road rather than continue along the mountain trail that had brought us there the previous day. It was an easy downhill hike and the highway was almost deserted because, once again, very few pilgrims had the courage to leave the official Camino route.
On reaching Molinaseca, a beautiful little hamlet that looked almost mystical in a valley filled with a band of low cloud, we stopped at a mini-mart to buy some food. This wasn’t always easy in small villages because Christina was celiac intolerant, but once I’d informed the shop assistant of this, she led us down the aisle to a large selection of gluten-free products. Obviously, we took full advantage of the situation and filled our food bag before having brunch at a picnic table at the side of a narrow cobbled street, right outside the front door of the mini-mart.
From there, we walked for over two hours through an unrelenting downpour into the historical town of Ponferrada. However, I had some ‘personal’ history in this city because on my first visit I’d collapsed upon arrival due to heat exhaustion and a blood infection contracted from a broken blister. Consequently, we spent quite a while trying to find the hotel owned by the man who had taken me to hospital and then taken care of me for the next two days, just so I could thank him once again for all his help. When we eventually arrived, he recognized me almost immediately and invited the two of us for a drink at the hotel bar, clearly quite touched that I had taken the trouble to come and visit. Then we headed back outside and spent over an hour hiking through more torrential rain, as we struggled to find our way out of a city paralysed by an international cycle race.
On the outskirts of town, we stopped at a characterless modern hotel for a cup of coffee mixed with Liquor 43 to boost our spirits. There was also free Wi-Fi on offer, so Christina spent half an hour on her smart-phone trying to book us beds at anywhere not too far ahead, but in the end we had to accept defeat and decided to continue walking. In fact, Christina simply suggested that we forgot about the persistent rain and carried on hiking to our planned destination.
As we slowly plodded on, we happened to come across a new hostel not listed in the guidebook, but a quick phone call confirmed there were still plenty of beds at a municipal albergue about an hour’s hike down the Way. It was in a village called Cacabelos, which I found amusing in a schoolboy sort of way because caca means ‘crap’ in Spanish. Even so, I had also read about a pilgrim hostel in this village that consisted of thirty-five, twin-bedded chalets set in a semi-circle around a medieval church. As a result, we both agreed that it had to be worth walking another six kilometres in the rain, just to see what this unique albergue looked like.
At a little after seven, we eventually arrived and discovered that ‘lady luck’ must have been looking down on us during our hike through the relentless rain because the hospitalero immediately told us there was only one cabin still available. Filled with relief, we checked in to our chalet, took refreshing hot showers and changed into warm dry clothes. Then we finally enjoyed an evening meal of bread, ham and cheese accompanied by a bottle of cheap red wine, while sitting on garden chairs on the veranda of a hut that had cost us only ten ‘bucks’ for the night.
Day 28: Tuesday 23rd September
We were woken at exactly two minutes to seven by the worst music I’ve ever heard, and the speaker was mounted on the wall no more than five feet above our heads. I could also hear that it was raining very heavily outside, so I didn’t really feel like getting out of bed but I knew that it had to be done.
We reluctantly packed our things, a lot of which was still wet from the previous day, and then we sat at the picnic table on our veranda for some breakfast. With our stomachs full and our backpacks prepared, we set off on our way at a little after nine, although we first had to take a long stretch due to aching limbs from the demanding day before.
Fortunately, it stopped raining just as we were leaving the village of ‘Crapabelos’, so at least our late departure had been an advantage this time around because all of the pilgrims we passed along the way were already soaking wet. We took a short break at a café in Villafranca, another mystical mountain village, where our Canadian friend, Natasha, also stopped and joined us for a hot drink. Following a quick chat with her, we said our goodbyes and then went into the central plaza to do a little shopping before eventually heading on our way out of town.
There were two possible routes for this stage of the Camino. One was a challenging mountain-top trail, while the other was an easy walk along the edge of the highway through the valley. As we stood at the point where these two very different routes diverged, Christina suddenly saw a hand-written sign taped to a roadside bollard that read: Natasha Girard, take this road. Nice, but up! It was also followed by an arrow pointing to the mountain-top trail, so we concluded it must have been a message for our Natasha and decided to take her friend’s advice.
Nevertheless, we soon discovered it was very tough going, almost on a par with the first stage of the Way, but the views from the top more than justified the pain it had taken us to get there. On finishing a very demanding climb, we had a relaxing picnic lunch sitting on a mountain ridge before a vista that resembled a landscape artist’s dream.
Unfortunately, the route back down was quite tricky and we both struggled to negotiate a very steep and slippery path without falling over. Be that as it may, at one point I did race ahead to return a pair of flip-flops that had come untied from a young German lad’s backpack, and on reaching him I also taught him the English word for this particular type of footwear.
After a cold drink and a welcome rest, we carried on hiking to a hotel where we had a double room reserved for the night, and I also noticed that my feet didn’t feel too bad for that stage of the day. We checked in to our room, showered and changed and then went downstairs for a few drinks a little stronger than our usual post-walk tipples, seeing as Christina was on gin and tonic and I was on Cuba Libre. Then we handed our dirty laundry in at the reception desk before enjoying a very amusing pilgrim meal, since by then we were both quite drunk. Finally, we went up to our room for an early night, although I had to pop back to the bar and enquire about a black thong that appeared to be missing from our basket of clean clothes.
Day 29: Wednesday 24th September
With only one week left until our planned arrival in Santiago, we got up quite early, packed our things quite quickly, found a clean black thong under the bed and were on our way again by nine. It was a beautiful morning’s walk through a landscape that reminded me of a summer holiday I’d taken in the Welsh valleys with a classmate at primary school. In addition to this distant childhood memory, it also followed a country road that was very easy on the feet, although all of this began to change once we had bumped into our Canadian amiga, Natasha.
We met her at the start of the most challenging stretch of the day’s climb, and as we struggled onwards and upwards in a compact group of three, the hike was only made more bearable by the immense beauty of the surrounding environs. Finally, we reached a small hamlet called La Faba and stopped for a cup of coffee and a rest, reassured in the knowledge that the worst of the Way was now behind us. Then we also left Natasha behind us and continued with our walk along a rocky mountain trail, and the sun even came out as we crossed into Galicia, the complete reverse of the last time I had been there.
On reaching the village of O’Cebreiro, we went into the local restaurant and ordered a pilgrim meal from a waitress who served us as if we had just murdered both of her parents. To make things worse, when the food finally arrived, the chips were stone cold, the salad was lukewarm and the steaks were so undercooked that they still had a pulse. Even so, we ate what we could, left a ten-euro note on the grubby table, grabbed our backpacks and made a hasty exit.
Unfortunately, our problems weren’t quite over. On our way out of town, we happened to pass an old Australian bloke from the hotel bar the night before and he made a stupid joke about Christina’s underwear and the difference between our ages. Understandably, this upset my walking partner quite significantly, so we hiked in silence for a while to give her some time to calm down. Then we stopped for a cold drink at a café amongst a small cluster of houses called Liñares and I also called to reconfirm our room for the night.
The final part of the day’s walk seemed to bare no resemblance in any way at all to the chart in the guidebook, but following a few more unexpected ups and downs, we eventually reached a little farming village called Fonfría. We had a post-walk drink at the hostel bar before checking in to a modern twin room with an en suite bath for only twenty-five euros. Then we took some very welcome hot showers, changed into warm clean clothes and headed straight back to the albergue bar for another glass of wine.
It was much colder at this altitude and Christina had lost her fleece, so I made a call to book us beds in Sarria for the following night because she needed to buy a new one and Sarria was the next main town we would reach. At half-past eight, we went for a communal pilgrim dinner at the hostel restaurant, and in an effort to stay on budget we only paid for the main course and the dessert. Even so, it turned out to be good value for money because we each had three helpings of a delicious main course, since everyone else had already filled up on the starter. Then we enjoyed a tasty slice of Tarta de Santiago and also got through more than a bottle and a half of red wine between the two of us, and all for only six euros a head!
At just after ten, we returned to our accommodation and, fortunately, Christina had turned the heating on before we had left, so we came back to a nice warm room. To make things even better, while we were getting undressed I suddenly realized that it was the first time in nearly three weeks that I’d been able to wear my Adidas trainers. This meant that my feet were definitely on the mend and I finally felt sure that I would be able to finish my second Camino. Santiago was within my sights.
Day 30: Thursday 25th September
The alarm went off at about eight and, after a ten-minute snooze, we were packed and out the door by nine. We had a lazy breakfast on the edge of this picturesque village, sitting outside a café with a steady stream of pilgrims passing by that included more than a few familiar faces. Then we finally set off at just after ten, following a long discussion about what each of us had hoped to discover through making our pilgrimages compared to what we were ultimately finding.
It was an enjoyable morning’s walk and after a brief stop to buy some food in the medieval town of Triacastela, we carried on until we came to a perfect place for a picnic lunch on the garden wall of an old stone farmhouse. During our meal, Natasha happened to pass by with another pilgrim and we all had a chat together while Christina and I also tried to decide if her male walking partner was more than just a ‘hiking’ companion (since the Way is always rife with rumours of romance). Once they had left us, I called the hostel in Sarria to cancel our beds because Christina had decided not to get a new fleece, although I booked us two bunks at an albergue about three kilometres short of there.
The afternoon’s walk was also very pleasant, apart from passing a Coca-Cola vending machine at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere. Then we stopped for a drink at a café about an hour before reaching our destination and I phoned to reconfirm our reservation, just as I had done almost every afternoon since we’d started walking together. Fortunately, due to an overbooking, I was told that we had been upgraded from dormitory bunks to a twin room with an en suite bath and breakfast included, and all for the same price of only twenty euros. In addition to this, when we eventually arrived at the albergue, we found that we couldn’t have chosen a better a place to spend the night. It was set about a hundred yards back from the road, with several hammocks swinging in the peaceful surrounding gardens, and it had a wonderfully laid-back and relaxed ambience.
We checked in to a comfortable twin room with clean sheets, fresh towels and even a hairdryer in the bathroom, which rekindled all the memories of our night of luxury at the three-star hotel in León a week earlier. After dumping our luggage in our room and freshening up, we also discovered that we already knew a couple of the hostel residents. Consequently, I enjoyed a nice chat with an aged Spanish man named Antonio, whom I had met on day nine of my Camino, while Christina caught up with an American lady she hadn’t seen since the first day of her pilgrimage. The wonders of the Way at work again!
It was a warm dry evening, so we sat at a table on the far edge of the garden to enjoy our post-walk drinks and record the events of the day in our travel journals. Once our Camino diaries were up to date, we did the shower-and-clothes-wash routine in shifts so that we wouldn’t lose our table in the garden, and I also phoned for some takeaway food because the pilgrim menu at the albergue wasn’t very celiac intolerant. Finally, we ended the evening with a long chat over another carton of cheap red wine, and then we eventually turned in at around ten, when it was starting to get a bit chilly but we soon warmed up once we were under our fresh-smelling sheets and blankets.
Day 31: Friday 26th September
We awoke at eight and went for an all-inclusive breakfast of hot coffee, cereal and toast in the communal hostel kitchen, although we did have to pay a ‘buck’ to get some butter and jam from a vending machine. Once again, we were the last to leave the albergue and we finally set off at about half past ten to begin the short walk into the town of Sarria.
Upon reaching this well-known pilgrim city, we decided not to follow the official route into town because I knew of a short cut that would save us at least half an hour’s hike. Also, unlike my walking partner’s suggestion on our third day together, I was completely sure that there were no private hunting areas ahead of us.
We crossed a bridge on the main road into the centre of the city and went straight into the first supermarket we could find, where Christina had a brief moment of frustration on discovering there was no gluten-free bread on sale at this particular retailer. However, her mood improved a little at the checkout when she watched me pour a sixty-cent carton of wine into an empty coke bottle, just like a wandering homeless vagrant.
Following our short shopping trip, we popped into a bank to replenish our funds and then found the way-markers and continued with our walk. On reaching the western outskirts of town, Christina started to struggle due to a nasty pain in her left shoulder and she asked me to hike ahead for a while. It was very different for me this time, leaving Sarria at midday and walking this stretch of the Camino on my own. On my first pilgrimage, I had hiked this particular part in a slow-moving, early morning procession of platinum pilgrims – Christina’s new nickname for those who had started their hike in this city – but this time I had the whole Way to myself.
About an hour out of town, I stopped at a roadside café and waited for Christina to catch up. Once she had arrived, we had a cold drink together while I gave her shoulder a gentle massage, and then we both agreed it might be best if I continued at a faster pace to make sure that we didn’t lose our beds at a hostel where they seemed reluctant to reconfirm our reservation Consequently, I hiked the next twelve kilometres in well under two hours and checked us in to a remote but appealing albergue, where we’d been put into a six-berth dorm with only one other couple sharing the room.
Christina arrived about twenty minutes later with that ‘gin-and-tonic’ look of desperation in her eyes, so we quickly completed our ablutions and headed straight to the hostel bar. To tell the truth, Christina went straight to the hostel bar, but I first headed to a washbasin in the garden and hand-washed our hiking clothes. Then I joined her at a table on the terrace and we subsequently spent a lovely afternoon and evening of chatting, reading, writing travel journals and phoning a few friends back home, while also enjoying a large number of generously-poured cocktails.
We had an agreeable pilgrim meal at the albergue bar and the hostel owner also copied my ‘International Chillout Mix’ onto his sound system, which he then played non-stop for the rest of the evening. Finally, we turned in quite early by our standards (and also quite drunk) and cuddled up together on a bottom bunk bed in the corner of a silent dark dormitory. It had been another great day, which had ended in Mercadoiro, a town with a population of only one: an ex-businessman called José, who had got tired of the rat race in Valencia and had bought an old derelict country house, which he had turned into one of the coolest albergues on the Camino.
Day 32: Saturday 27th September
We got up at our usual time, long after everybody else had left, and Christina happened to see Natasha through the window. The night before, we’d both wished she had been there with us to party a little and it turned out that she’d stayed at another albergue just a few kilometres back down the Way. During a chat from our first-floor dormitory window, we learned that she’d had a fall the previous day and had injured her right knee, so I threw a knee support down to her that I no longer needed. Then I also told her where we were planning to stay that night and suggested we all met up there for a post-walk drink.
After getting organized, we had a leisurely breakfast at the hostel bar and made a start at about half past nine. Annoyingly, not much later we realized we’d forgotten to get our passports stamped at ‘the coolest albergue on the Camino’, but our Credenciales del Peregrino were already nearly full, so we both agreed it wasn’t really worth turning back. Instead, we decided to carry on hiking to the picture-postcard town of Portomarin, where we stopped to use the toilets of a posh restaurant before continuing to a village called Gonzar for a picnic lunch.
With our hunger abated, we set off on our way again but a silly disagreement led to me walking in Palas de Rei on my own. Fortunately, during my lonesome hike I managed to overcome my childish stubbornness and when I finally reached this town, I checked both of us in to the local albergue. I had also phoned ahead to book our beds, so on arrival I found that they had saved us a private room with two bunk beds at the end of a confusing warren of dormitories, and for only ten ‘bucks’ a head.
Christina turned up about half an hour later and we managed to settle our differences over a jug of sangria at a table on the hostel terrace. It was another relaxed albergue, with a guitar and a pair of bongos behind the bar, and I had also been checked in by a young and very laid-back Dominican lad. On arriving, he had asked me where ‘Christina’ was because I was paying for two beds but I was on my own. However, once she had finally arrived, he’d given me a look that had made me feel like I was one of the luckiest men alive, seeing as my gorgeous female companion was also young enough to be my daughter.
On finishing our drinks, we gathered our things together and made our way to our room to take a well-deserved siesta. When we eventually woke up and realized what the time was, we quickly had our post-walk showers, rapidly changed our clothes and then headed into town to find some dinner at the very late hour of twenty to ten. We stopped at the first place we came across with a pilgrim menu on offer, where we had a meal that included an appetizing seafood starter followed by a well-cooked steak with a fried egg and a tall stack of hot chips. Even so, we did have to wolf down our deserts because this restaurant was about to close, and then we wandered back to our albergue along the almost deserted streets of another tiny provincial town.
Finally, with the problems between us forgotten, we fell asleep together on the bottom bunk bed, although Christina had to get up a few times and stand by the window to cool down, since the thick cloud cover at a lower altitude had made it a very muggy night.
Day 33: Sunday 28th September
As always, we were the last to leave the albergue, but without having breakfast because we’d decided to first walk six kilometres to a village called Mato-Casanova. Upon arrival, we bought ourselves some coffee, a couple of cream cakes, a few bread rolls and two Snickers bars, and then bumped into our Canadian ‘stalker’, Natasha, yet again. She joined us for a chat at a table outside the busy café, and we all agreed pretty quickly that the platinum pilgrims now made up a distinct majority of those walking the Way.
We continued on to Melide, an unattractive town where we chose to forfeit the traditional lunch of Galician octopus because it was quite pricey and the atmosphere at the place recommended in the guidebook was way too hectic. Instead, we headed out of town to the village of Santa Maria, where we bought a couple of cans of coke at the local bar and then had a far more relaxed picnic lunch in the central plaza of this appealing little hamlet.
It was another sunny day, the complete reverse of the last time I’d been there, and after our meal we found the rest of the walk to be very enjoyable along an easy and undulating route. We stopped at a café along the way, where we joined Pierre for a glass or two of vino tinto and Christina also texted her mum to arrange a Skype call for later that day. Then we continued on our hike, although the final hour was quite uncomfortable due to an old blister on my left foot that had suddenly come back to life.
Nevertheless, I struggled on until we eventually reached an idyllic oasis set on the banks of the River Iso. It was made up of no more than two pilgrim albergues, where we had ten-euro bunks reserved in a spacious four-berth dorm that we were sharing with a young couple from Korea. We unpacked our things, put our dirty laundry into a washing machine and then found an empty table on the patio to enjoy our now ritual post-walk drinks. A little later, Christina got on her smart-phone and caught up with her family back home in Switzerland, while I got on my stupid phone and tried to organize accommodation for our penultimate night on the Camino de Santiago. The first hotel I called was already fully-booked, but following a few more failed attempts, I finally got us a double room at a place for fifty-nine euros with breakfast included.
Following our post-walk showers, we went for a pilgrim dinner with Pierre at the restaurant of the neighbouring albergue, where we feasted on an ‘energy-filled’ meal of roast chicken, grilled bacon, fried eggs, mixed salad and a mountain of chips. At around ten, we made our way back to our hostel and then I gently massaged Christina’s shoulder while she used her smart-phone to book us yet another amazing deal, this time for a modern apartment in the centre of Santiago for only fifty-five euros a night! Finally, we went to bed at a just after eleven and had a very quiet night’s sleep, apart from a short burst of snoring in the early hours of the morning from our male Korean roommate called Song.
Day 34: Monday 29th September
The Koreans left at a little before six without making a sound, but this particular albergue didn’t have a kicking-out time, so we didn’t get out of bed until long after eight. Not surprisingly, at such a late hour, we found we had the whole hostel completely to ourselves and, as a result, we enjoyed a lazy breakfast at an empty table on the sun-drenched patio in peace.
We set off at just before ten, after I’d left the solar belt that I’d been carrying for over two weeks at the reception desk, since I didn’t want to carry it any further but I didn’t want to throw it away. Then we hiked eleven kilometres before stopping for a cup of coffee at a tiny café hidden away in a deep dark forest, and it was a pleasant change not to be surrounded by crowds of platinum pilgrims, all dressed in designer clothes and with their luggage being ferried on by minibus. Also, the guy who ran the place even took the time to make a picture of my face in the froth on the top of Christina’s cup of coffee, complete with the New York Yankees baseball cap I’d found on a beach in Hawaii over twenty years earlier. Needless to say, it was a hot drink that I still remember.
We had intended to try and reach a popular over-night stop called Pedrouzo for some lunch, but not long after recommencing our hike, my left foot really started to bother me and we were also both feeling quite hungry. Consequently, we decided to stop a few kilometres short of there in a village named Santa Irene, where we bought some cold drinks at a café and then lunched on bread, ham and cheese whilst sitting on a bench next to an old stone water fountain at a roadside plaza on the far edge of town. After lunch, we continued with our walk and passed through an immensely beautiful eucalyptus forest before traversing the main highway by means of a tunnel and then taking a short break for an ice-cream at the hotel where I had spent the penultimate night of my first pilgrimage.
The next part of the Camino was new to me because I had done it in the dark before, so I hadn’t really seen very much. However, even though it followed an attractive route along a path through another forest of beautiful woodlands, by then we were feeling very tired and the pain in my left foot was getting worse by the minute. In addition to this, the map in the guidebook also appeared to be incorrect, so I eventually called the hotel to ask for directions and was subsequently told that it was no more than a five-minute walk away.
When we finally arrived, we found I’d booked us a well-appointed room with a large double bed and an en suite bath at an appealing three-star hotel, so Christina invited me for a glass of Cuba Libre to celebrate my success. We enjoyed a cocktail in the hotel gardens and then I borrowed a pair of scissors from the reception desk to give my walking partner a haircut, seeing as the dust and dirt of the Camino had turned her lovely long locks into a thick matted mess. Despite being the son of a hairdresser, I was quite nervous at first because I’d never cut another person’s hair before but I could sense that she really trusted me, so in the end I think I did a pretty good job.
Early that evening, we went downstairs to the restaurant for a pilgrim dinner but on discovering that it cost twenty-two euros a head, I apologized to the waiter and we had a three-course meal for less than half the price at another place not too far away. Finally, we ended the evening with a couple more cocktails at our hotel bar, and also shared a conversation that included the combination of three short words that I find very difficult to say to any female who isn’t a close family member. Nevertheless, the moment these three words had passed my lips, Christina instantly replied, ‘Me too! I’ve been wanting to say it for ages!’
Day 35: Tuesday 30th September
Despite a late night, we both woke up early due to the excitement of what we were about to achieve. We were about to finish a very long hike across the north of Spain that pilgrims had been walking for over a thousand years. Out of respect for the gravity of the occasion, we spent a little longer getting organized than usual, and then we went downstairs for some breakfast at the hotel restaurant. However, this time we didn’t have to dine alone because it appeared that many of the platinum pilgrims also chose to follow a more ‘relaxed’ daily routine.
Eventually, we shouldered our backpacks, shared a quick kiss for good luck and began walking The Way of St. James for the final time. Almost immediately, I started singing a song by an American artist named Rodriguez. It was taken from an album that had become my own personal soundtrack to this pilgrimage, and as we wandered through the lush Galician countryside, I couldn’t stop singing the words of ‘I Wonder’.
On getting closer to our final destination, Christina became a little emotional and just as we were passing the penultimate Camino icon – El Monte del Gozo (The Hill of Joy) – she even shed a tear or two. Fortunately, she had regained her composure by the time we reached the city centre and we hiked into Santiago hand-in-hand, with enormous smiles spread across our faces. Then, finally, at the end of thirty-five days on the road, we walked under the Gothic archway that led into the Praza do Obradoiro to the sound of bagpipes playing. We had done it! We had completed the Camino de Santiago!
We shared a long hug in the centre of a plaza that was much less hectic than the last time I had been there. Then we toasted our momentous achievement with a carton of cheap red wine before calling our families back home to let them know that we’d arrived. At midday, we attended Mass at the cathedral where the last remains of the apostle, St. James the Great, had been laid to rest, and the ceremony was just as ‘great’ as I’d remembered it to be. After the ‘wrecking-ball’ Botafumeiro originally used to combat the odour of sweaty pilgrims, we grabbed our backpacks and made a hasty exit from the ultimate Camino icon. We went straight to the pilgrim office to get the final stamp in our pilgrim passports and our well-deserved Compostelas, and after a thirty-minute wait in a queue of numerous familiar faces, including Natasha and also Pierre, we headed off to celebrate our success with a proper post-walk drink.
Sitting at a table in the sun, Christina with a gin and tonic in her hand and me with a Cuba Libre in mine, we looked into each other’s eyes and bathed in a blissful sense of achievement. We had done it. We had completed the five-hundred-mile hike along the well-walked path that led to the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela. And even though our lives had only run parallel for a short while, we had endured over eight hundred kilometres of nothing but blood, sweat and tears. We had survived more than a month of aching muscles, bursting blisters, early risers, rude cyclists, the same bloody food every day and nights spent in dorms with the same bloody snorers. And we had endured almost three quarters of this amazing, life-changing experience at each other’s side.
On finishing our final post-walk drinks, we collected our things together and headed off to find the apartment that Christina had booked for us. Unfortunately, she wasn’t feeling very well, so I took her hand in mine and then it was my turn to become a little emotional. As we walked side by side, just as we had done for more than three weeks now, I thought about all we had shared together during the brief time we had spent with each other on the road. It had been a fantastic journey filled with joy and pain, tears and laughter, tiring days with sweet moments after, and I was sure that I had fallen in love again.
However, as this wave of emotion brought me to tears, I also remembered crying like a baby on arriving in Santiago two years earlier. Consequently, I knew that my sudden outburst of emotion hadn’t been the result of any feelings I had for the young lady who was walking at my side. It was simply because, once again, I had fallen in love with the Camino de Santiago, and right then I knew without a doubt that this hadn’t been the last time I would walk The Way of St. James.
If you have enjoyed reading my Camino diary, you might like to take look at a travel book I wrote called Half-Time.
[+ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Half-Time-Steve-Devereaux ebook/dp/B00KVI1B6S/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449029934&sr=8-1-fkmr2&keywords=half-time+steve+devereux+]
This is not another guide to The Way of St. James. It's a day by day account of what it really feels like to hike the Camino de Santiago. It tells one man’s story while also including many typical pilgrim experiences along the way, but with little reference to religion or history and a lot more emphasis on the joy and pain of walking 500 miles through the north of Spain. If you are thinking of hiking the Camino, this diary will give you an honest and open impression of what you might find. And if you have already walked The Way of St. James, it will give you an opportunity to reminisce about a wonderful experience.