Weekly Reports and photos courtesy of Wendy Sullivan
On Wednesday, September 13, 2006, two long time Canadian friends – one in her late fifties and one in her late sixties – began their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage journey from Roncevalles near the northeast French-Spanish border walking towards the ultimate goal of tens of millions of pilgrims who have trod this route since the Middle Ages – Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain.
For retired nurse, Jeannette Graat, this would be her third and most challenging trek along the Spanish Camino; for retired librarian, Wendy Sullivan, it was her first encounter. Their walk lasted 32 days and covered 751 kilometers, while carrying on their backs and bodies all they needed for such a physically-challenging journey. Most days they walked from five to eight hours over 20 to 35 kilometers of varied terrain and slept in pilgrim hostels [albergues] most nights.
Are you up for walking the length of this famous route yourself, as close as you can get today to the style of pilgrims through the centuries? Wendy’s reports from the Camino will give you a realistic snapshot of what to expect. Please note that 1 kilometer = .62 of a mile.
First week on the Camino
On our first day, September 13, we arrived at 7:15 pm in Roncesvalles, by bus from Madrid, bought our pilgrim passports and checked into our albergue, a former hospital, now with 60 bunk beds. We then attended the 8 pm Pilgrim’s Mass, ate the traditional Pilgrim’s Dinner with lights out by 10pm. It was rather discouraging to start our journey at 7:15 next morning in the dark, in the rain! The perigrinos ressembled a line of waterproofed hunchbacks with our rain ponchos covering us and our backpacks! Despite the rain, it really wasn’t so bad except for some muddy slippery downhill stretches. The following days we shared a room with 44 others and 100 in the same room one night.
The scenery changed from forests and hills to vineyards, fields and more distant hills, definitely rural Spain with only modern highways to remind us that civilization is nearby. Everything seemed to close between 2 and 5 pm and dinner seldom was served before 10. I don’t know when people go to bed, or when kids go to school!!!
We spent a second day in Puente La Reina because, unfortunately, Jeannette developed a serious case of tendonitis on her left shin: rest, anti-inflammatories, and ice were prescribed by the local doctor. She was still in pain, but less so, when we hit the road again and managed two further days of painful walking. Then, she wisely decided to completely rest until her leg improved. Not an easy decision! Until this retired nurse felt fighting fit again, she would take the bus to wherever I planned to walk each day, and have dinner ready for my arrival. What a bonus for me! It was small consolation that Jeannette had previously completed two full Camino treks injury-free.
Who are the 21st Century Peregrinos?
There seem to be as many men as women with the 20-30 and 50-70 age groups over-represented. Most travel in pairs but there are plenty of single pilgrims and a few groups. (A crowd of 12 boisterous Swedes kept us from our beauty sleep last night!!) Spain and France contribute most pilgrims, but we’ve met plenty from Ireland, England, Germany and Italy plus those noisy Swedes. Have met only two Americans, and a few more from Canada. The language of the Camino is definitely not English. Besides walkers, many cycle the Camino but in the Camino pecking order, they follow the walkers and some hostels will not even allow cyclists to stay.
There is a great system of Albergues (Refugios/Hostels) to house our weary bones each day with three main types of pilgrim accommodation: municipal, parochial, and private. These are ONLY for the Pilgrims. To prove that you really are a peregrino or perigrina, you must produce your pilgrim passport that gets stamped at each Albergue. To date we have paid from 2.5 to 7 Euros per night (1 Euro = US$1.35), cheap living! All provide you with a bed (usually a bunk bed, sometimes stacked three high!) and almost all provide a pillow, blanket, laundry sinks and drying racks, kitchen, dining facilities and Internet connections. We have slept with over 100 people in the same room but last night only the two of us shared a dorm. On this trip, hooray for earplugs!
A Typical Day on the Camino
Since sunrise is about 7:45 these days, most people start stirring between 6 and 6:30 am. If you like to sleep in, too bad! A dorm full of folks trying to get toileted, dressed and packed is not quiet! We usually have tea/coffee, fruit and bread with peanut butter for breakfast….that was until our 2 lb. jar of peanut butter ran out. We have not seen ANY peanut butter in Spain so we’ve substituted cheese or paté.
Most albergues want you out by 8 am. We stop for a bit of chocolate about 10 and have our lunch about noon, usually bread and paté or cheese and fruit and chocolate. If we’re still on the road about 2, we have more chocolate!!! THE best moment of the day comes when we reach our destination and can FINALLY remove our packs and take off our boots, an A-H-H-H-H-H-H moment if there ever was one, followed closely by the second best moment of the day, hot showering on sore muscles! Next comes laundry, usually done by hand but about once a week we use a washer and dryer (available now in some albergues). Then it’s dinner and re-provisioning in the local shop for the next day.
Jeannette has been a wizard at producing great dinners in the albergue kitchen, taking little time, using few ingredients and little equipment. It’s been great fun to see the United Nations at work in the kitchen, each nationality producing something slightly different but ALL seeming to use pasta as a mainstay. We usually eat early, use the Internet when we can and are in bed by 8:30. We have opted to mainly self-cater but we certainly eat out on occasion. If the weather is bad and it is break time, having a chocolate croissant and hot drink in a warm bar/café is a great consolation!
Have you noticed how often chocolate appears in this account? Yet we’re losing weight. We had a wonderful dinner out in Viana with new friends, Roz and Ian from the UK. Ian is a 5-star traveller who agreed to go on the Camino with his good wife, but only if he could eat every meal out and stay frequently in good hotels! So they invited us out for a posh meal …. white tablecloths, crystal etc. It was a real Cinderella experience for us, and a bit of a nail biter too. Our albergue closed the doors at 10 pm – you were locked you out if late. Our Spanish-time dinner only started at 8: 30 and we were still eating dessert as we raced out of the restaurant at 9:50 to get back to our beds in the nick of time.
Well, week 3 is under our feet and here’s what we did. I do mean WE as Jeannette was able to join me on foot to do all 167.5 km for the week with no ill effects. The week was spent on the relatively flat, exposed plain known as the Meseta; we only had about three hours total of walking in the rain. There was a beauty to the landscape, especially when the sun shone, but we’re glad this part is finished. Many people just skip the Meseta altogether …. of course, we are made of sterner stuff!!!
Nearing the Goal: End of Week Four
A total for 27 days and 635.5 km; 115.5 km left. Our current plan is to complete the route by Saturday night except for the last 5.5 km which we will do on Sunday morning before attending the Pilgrim’s Mass at noon in the Cathedral. Then we are heading to a REAL hotel … you know, the kind with only two people per room, big fluffy towels, no snoring and no one evicting us at 8 am!!!
This week has seen us into and through the Cordillera Cantabrica. Much of the scenery reminded us of Wales (lots of slate), Scotland (lots of heather) and Ireland (lots of lush emerald greenery). Small wonder that this part of the world feels so Celtic, even the jewellery designs. We are now in the final region called Galicia.
The weatherman has truly been our friend this week. In an area renowned for unpredictable, soggy, miserable, cold weather, we have walked in only a few hours of rain. For the first time on her three trips, Jeannette was able to see the Iron Cross (Cruz de Ferro), a monument very near the highest point on the Camino (about 1,700 meters). Traditionally, pilgrims bring a stone from home to add to the collection at the base of the Cross. I brought one from our beach in Victoria, British Columbia.
Let us now tell you how we spent Canadian Thanksgiving Day. We made the steepest, longest climb of our journey, to the summit of O Cebreiro. We had absolutely perfect walking conditions…cool and misty to start with the mist lifting by the time we reached the summit, NO RAIN, sunny but not too hot and a gentle breeze. It was up, up, up on dirt or stone paths for 3 1/4 hours (11.5 km). We felt SO good that we walked another 20 km to Triacastela.
More prayers were answered in the form of a working washer and dryer. You have no idea how important that is when you’ve only got two sets of clothes and the sky is overcast!!! For Thanksgiving dinner, we had bacon bocadillas (artery clogging sandwiches), red wine and, of course, chocolate! As a bonus, there were only two of us sharing a room. That day we had so much to be grateful for not least because of all the warm thoughts and prayers directed our way. However, we realize that some of those prayers were of the “Thank-God-it-isn’t-me” type!
Santiago de Compostela
The eagles have landed!!!!!!! After 32 days, 751 km, and 22 pages of maps, we arrived in Santiago at 10:22 am today, October 15, 2006. We only had to cover a few kilometers this morning as we’d spent last night in a hotel in Lavacolla. A couple of days ago, we decided we needed a Time Out from dormitory living and so enjoyed the wonderful luxury of real beds (not bunks), real sheets (not sleeping bags), real towels (not microfibre), our own bathroom (not sharing with 15+ others), unlimited hot (not tepid) water and no ambient snoring. And once we’d sampled hotel living, there was no going back to those dormitories!
Pilgrim certificates show and tell in front of Santiago Cathedral.
Santiago Cathedral is an enormous, elaborate 11-12thC edifice where we attended the Pilgrim’s Mass there at noon today. It was absolutely packed but we had choice seats. Though it was in Spanish (and Latin), we recognized ourselves when the priest said “Canadians starting in Roncesvalles”! When you finish the Camino and present your passport to the officials at the Perigrino Office, they record your country and starting point and pass that on to the Cathedral.
The highlight of all the Mass was the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a massive silver incense burner (said to be the largest in the Catholic world). It takes eight men to get the thing swinging while controlling its trajectory. The path was right over our heads so we hoped they knew what they were doing…and they did! Afterwards, many pilgrims gathered in the massive square in front of the Cathedral for congratulations, final photos, reunions, goodbyes…and tears shed. It felt like bidding farewell to your graduating class.
Follow Up Facts
This delightful account is the latest to be added to our perennially-popular Camino collection, which includes several other articles in this magazine. They describe and illustrate in detail a shorter segment of the route between Leon and Santiago de Compostela which is the choice of many pilgrims with less time and physical endurance than Wendy and Jeannette.
When visiting Santiago on holiday you can stay in holiday apartments and use them as a base to explore the beautiful cathedral and local architecture.
Walking The World is the world’s leading 50+ hiking tour company discovering the world’s most magical corners in small groups with a maximum of 16 active travelers. We offer guided trips to 30 destinations worldwide, with our Camino de Santiago tours being a consistently popular choice. www.walkingtheworld.com.
Viajes Mundiplus is a Spanish travel agency specialized in Camino de Santiago tours, on foot or by bicycle. We provide Quality lodgings, Van support, Assistance en route, Luggage transfer, Travel assistance insurance, and Pilgrims’ Passport. www.mundiplus.com.
Spain is More knows Northern Spain intimately. We are local experts on traveling all parts of the Camino de Santiago on foot or by bicycle, offering personalized itineraries tailored to individual travelers. Visit our website, www.spainismore.com, for creative sample itineraries.
Since 2006, leading Camino de Santiago tour operator, Follow the Camino, has specialized in organizing walking, cycling and horse riding holidays along both familiar and lesser-known routes. Our approach to this ancestral pilgrimage respects its spirit and enhances its values, making it more accessible, enjoyable and achievable for all.www.followthecamino.com.
Marly Camino offers several fully-supported options for your pilgrimage walk including the French Way, the Portuguese Way, the North Way and the Catalonian Way from Barcelona. www.marlycamino.com.
Now based firmly on home turf in Victoria, Canada, Wendy Sullivan is an accomplished global adventurer who has lived and worked outside Canada in Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Saipan, and Oman while her husband, Steve, has pursued numerous medical contracts. Together with their husbands, Wendy and Jeannette have also hiked New Zealand’s Milford Trek, Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains, and Canada’s infamous West Coast Trail. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click on the picture below to experience a small-group walking tour from Leon to Santiago de Compostela.
Click on the picture below to learn about the ‘pilgrim passport’ and the symbolic scallop shell.
Click on the picture below to share an American pilgrim’s thoughts on the journey.
Click on the picture below for an inspiring essay capturing the rhythms of walking the Camino.