La Ramblas, AKA The Camino Frances

Fabrizio (the Veteran) likened the Camino de Santiago in peak season to La Ramblas, that crazy street in Barcelona that never sleeps.

Our scenic, and quite relaxing walk along the Camino Primitivo, ended when the route joined the Camino Frances at Melide, less than 100km from Santiago de Compostela. The end of the Frances route is where two of the other Ways converge, the Primitivo, and the Northern Route, and right at the end, the English and the Portuguese.

The problem with the Camino, is that you only have to complete 100km of any route to obtain your Compostela, and therefore, many a pilgrim begin precisely at the 100km marker. Many of these hoards of people are the dreaded ‘mini-mochilla’ tour groups, hundreds of walkers wearing small backpacks, who stay in hotels, have their luggage couriered to their next stop and walk in large noisy packs. I don’t consider them true pilgrims, and so I don’t appreciate them negating the peace from my Camino that I have been walking for 800km already, quite happily.

At Melide, we checked into our pilgrim hostel which was capable of holding 130 people. There were pilgrims everywhere. As their friends entered the hostel, they cheered and screamed, hugged and kissed. We saw one couple we knew from the Primitivo.

The last 100km of the Camino, along the Frances, was a noisy blur of people, noise, and vandalized way markers and signs. Whilst the track is very beautiful, rarely near the main road, and through beautiful Eucalypt forests, there are bins every 200m, and each and every sign, milestone, bin, and sometimes the odd tree and rock have been written all over with in-jokes of groups, messages of love, friendship, and sometimes complete utter nonsense for posterity or particular pilgrims who would later pass.

(Some of these messages are really quite lovely, but when they appear on the wall of a townhouse belonging to a Spanish local, I cannot condone or appreciate them.)

I walk along, angrily, ruing the explosion in popularity in this amazing pilgrimage. When I completed the Frances in 2007, there was no graffiti, no bins every few steps, and not as many ‘tourists’ rather than pilgrims. The route still seemed respected and loved. Even those who were not walking for any religious reason, still respected the sacredness of the Camino, which has been walked for 1000 years.

So, we walk the last 100kms behind groups of ‘mini-mochilla’ carriers, missing the peace and tranquility of the Northern and Primitivo route, where we knew everyone walking, and every sign or way marker was intact, untouched, and as it should be.

I thoroughly encourage future pilgrims to consider the Northern or alternative routes for their first Camino, but pray that any rise in popularity on these will not lead them to go the way of the Frances.

The Kindness of Strangers #3 – and a New Albergue

I nearly caused a monumental stuff up. We decided – for no real reason – to stay at a new private albergue in San Roman de Retorta. We were enticed by the cheap dinner menu offered, and the idea of our own room, complete with bathroom, rather than the cramped municipal facility which was basically full.

Lucky we made this decision. As the man was stamping our ‘pilgrim passport’ (credentiale) he noted that we didn’t have a stamp from Lugo, where we had stayed the previous two nights. We didn’t get a stamp because of the following reasons: a) I was too lazy to go to the Cathedral and get one, b) due to my OCD need to have our credentiale stamped neatly, I didn’t want to get stamps because it would mean that we would have to turn over the page and stamp the back (where stamps aren’t meant to go) and c) I didn’t want to get the stamp from the hotel where we stayed because it was a hotel, not a pilgrim hostel, so I thought it wouldn’t be very attractive.

So, the man looked at our stamps, and at the fact that we had walked from Irun (on the border of France, some 700kms up the road), and looked at us, concerned.

“You don’t have a stamp from Lugo… You can’t get your Compostela if you cannot prove that you have walked the last 100km of the Camino!” At this point he looked at our passports and said regretfully, almost to himself “and you’ve come all the way from Australia…”

Lugo is 101km from the end of the Camino, so loads of pilgrims start the Camino there, and still get their Compostela, upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela. The Compostela is a certificate basically. It’s pretty to look at, and has your name printed in Latin for a real archaic effect. To me, it is more than just a piece of paper saying you’ve walked 100km, and over the last 1000 years it has been a very important piece of paper, to all sorts of people. Some people believed it would absolve them of their sins, some were forced to obtain one as punishment for their crimes, and more recently, it is a symbol of overcoming a great challenge, of your perseverance and physical endurance, and mental and emotional strength. And, as with any great award, people have tried for centuries to get one ‘the easy way’. Pseudo-pilgrims have been known to catch buses or taxis from town to town, collecting stamps in their credentiale, and deceitfully receive their Compostela.

So, now the Compostela-giving office in Santiago is strict. It has to be clear that you have walked or ridden from Lugo, and now, it seems that to easily prove this, you should in fact collect two stamps for each day within the last 100km of the Camino.

With no Lugo stamp – CAMINO FAIL. And all my fault.

We were saved by the albergue owner. Now this place was not nice. There were no sheets on the bed (they gave us disposable ones), there were no doors between the bathroom and the bedroom, and no door or curtain on the ‘public’ bathroom, which basically, if you sat on the toilet, anyone walking down the hallway would see you sitting there. The food was brought by car in aluminium containers, and most of the building was still being renovated, so there were parts of the ceiling missing, lots of dirt inside, not to mention spiders, spiders everywhere!

But the lovely lady who ran this place with her son, said “Don’t worry – I will get you a Lugo stamp by tonight.”

Thank the Gods. I was picturing us catching the bus back to Lugo to get the stamp. (I sure as hell was not going to walk over 800km and not get my certificate.)

When our food was brought from town with her son, he brought a stamp from Lugo – possibly from the family business in the city – and I was so happy, and grateful.

After dinner we played cards on the grass and chatted to the son-owner of the hostel. He admitted that at the moment, the albergue was not very good. I asked him how long it had been open as we had not heard that there was a new hostel (which was why we were planning to go on further that day), and he said, “Not even a month. 15 days!” We then all understood why the building was ‘a work-in-progress’.

The son brought us another bottle of wine for our card game, and gave all the pilgrims as many cups of coffee as they liked. In the morning when I asked about pharmacies that we might pass to get some more Ibuprofen for Troy’s foot, he replied that there were no pharmacies for miles and miles, and promptly found me some tablets, giving me a whole sheet for Troy to use over the next few days.

Every time an unexpected opportunity presents itself we tend to pay it close attention, because more often than not, it seems to have fatefully provided us with good luck, a good feed, or at least a good time. When the new hostel owner stopped his car next to us on our way to this small village and handed us his flier for the rooms and dinner, we figured, “why not?” In the end, because we stayed in the new, dodgy, work-in-progress hostel, we saved our Compostela, got a great feed and lots of wine, some more anti-inflammatory tablets for Troy’s foot, and most importantly, a load of love and kindness.

And the spider in my boot? That was a bonus.

A Dark Day

I cannot put a finger on what makes me feel down. Today, I did not get out of ‘the wrong side of the bunk’, nor was I hormonally emotional, or have any logical reason for not feeling happy. I had a good sleep, but I certainly think that I was zapped after our big day yesterday over the windy ‘hospitales’ route.

We set out, and my legs were not good. But they were definitely fine enough to walk. I plugged in my ReginaPod and even she wasn’t lifting my spirits. She made me feel worse. Jamiroquai didn’t work either, not even Coldplay’s Viva la Vida made me feel any better. I couldn’t smile. I walked along, thinking of how nice it would be to crawl into a cave and lie in the foetal position for a while. Sometimes I whacked my walking stick into trees, or smashed pinecones as far as I could down the mountain.

Who knows why people have days like this? I wondered if it was due to the big dinner I had had the night before, or dairy products, or the few glasses of wine I had drunk before bed. I had a mild headache – could that be linked? Who knows?

We struggled today to cover the kilometres. It took us 5 hours to walk 10km (other days, we walk this in 2 hours). The road was steep and difficult, up and down, and with our dodgy legs still recovering from yesterday, we went very slowly. But we plodded along, took photos, and stopped to take in the views. It was really a very beautiful leg of the journey.

I don’t think it’s easy to explain depression – or just the feeling of being ‘down’. Today I was down, but tomorrow I will most probably be back to my chirpy, happy self. This Camino has uplifted me, with the exercise, the forever changing scenery and fun people we meet along the way, and the exhilaration of always going somewhere, always achieving something. I have had a string of weeks of only feeling good. No dark days.

But how do you explain to your partner, mum or friend, that today, you just don’t feel yourself? How will it not be taken as a complaint, a whinge, a sook? Physically, you might feel quite fine – but the inside of your head feels like it has been covered with a dark blanket. Saying you feel ‘down’ can make people think you are being melodramatic or making light of people who suffer from chronic depression, and saying you need a hug makes you seem emotional or soft.

So you keep it inside to avoid the trouble of all of the above, and decide to deal with it yourself, but knowing that the people you love might think you’re ‘in a mood’.

Now I sleep – and hopefully – blanket on, blanket off.

The Hospitales – It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I have always loved the wind. Be it an icy gust that freezes your nose when you are skiing, or a hot breeze blowing on a summer’s day. Being buffeted from all sides, leaning your body into this invisible force and feeling at the mercy of the element, has always been something that I have enjoyed.

Today I experienced the strongest, most frighteningly powerful wind, for the longest time. We took the ‘Hospitales’ option – a route that cuts off many kilometres of Camino track, but takes pilgrims up over 1100m through the Asturian peaks. It was the original Camino, before the towns and roads changed the landscape and the Way.

The writer of our guidebook warns against this ‘rugged mountain route’, and describes the walking option in a very dramatic and daunting way. We quickly realise that his fears and warnings about this more remote track are not unfounded. There is no town, no water and no shelter over the 15km of steadily ascending, and then more rapidly plummeting route, and although well way-marked, it is not difficult to imagine pilgrims becoming lost, injured, starved or dehydrated on the exposed mountain tops. Come night time or bad weather, this route that winds past ruins of pilgrim hostels and hospitals would be hard to follow and dangerous.

Troy and I take shelter from the powerful winds within a small, rare group of trees to get some much needed energy from an early lunch. The other pilgrims pass us, and we know that we are, at that point, the last on the mountain. After our food and rest, we re-enter the windy torrent, and very soon come across the other pilgrims who have found refuge in the ruins of another pilgrim hospital. With our hoods pulled tight around our faces, and a scarf up around my dreadfully running nose, we all head off together into the wind. I can feel the straps of my backpack whipping against the back of my head, and we are using all our free energy to stop our bodies being blown off the path. Whenever there is a sudden break in the wind, I fall off line, as I have been literally leaning against its pressure.

I know I am exhausted, as I am constantly tripping over, or stubbing my toes against rocks. We hobble around groups of ruminating cattle, and pass an amazing herd of wild horses. The views are worth the pain, as is the knowledge that we are walking the real Camino, and my imagination paints a vivid picture of pilgrims over the last 1000 years walking the same path. Some would have not survived, and nearly all were forced to write their will before setting off on their journey – precisely due to such rugged terrain and dangerous situations as this.

Taking the ‘Hospitales’ option has been the most difficult, most mentally draining choice that we have made over the 600km that we have covered along the Camino, but has been well worth the trouble, adventure and pain. Providing the weather is safe and reliable, and if you are near or travelling with other people, it is a rewarding trek over the amazing Asturian mountains and may very well prove to be the highlight (not just in altitude) of the Primitivo section of the Way.

A New Way – The Camino Primitivo

A group of young men are playing a Western Asturian game that vaguely resembles Ten Pin Bowling: they are throwing a cricket type ball into a row of 20 wooden prism pins. The pins fly off into the distance, and with the ball, are stopped by a net about 20 metres away. Between goes, one of the men wets the pins and the ball with a watering can. The pins are in a row across – so we don’t really understand whether the goal is to knock as many pins over as possible – or hit them as far as possible.

 

We have started the Camino Primitivo – known as the Original Route, one of the Interior Routes, the Garden Route, and I have also heard it referred to as the National Route. The Camino Primitivo heads down, South West from the Northern Coast of Spain to link with the Camino Frances just before reaching the ultimate goal of Santiago de Compostela.

Asturias has been the first region where we have felt like we are actually in Spain – Cantabria and Basque were very nationalistic regions, patriotic to the region, not Spain itself. Here people fly flags of both Asturias and Spain. The people are very friendly, and the region is full of many traditions and legends that have survived modernity due to the fact that only in the last 15 years major roads have been built into and across the region. (Many, due to the economic climate have remained unfinished and the Camino has led us confusedly around these incomplete construction sites.)

The Primitivo has proved its beauty and ‘garden’-like quality. There are no more hard, hot, asphalt roads, and we have walked beautiful rainforest-esque paths. Asturias is known as ‘Little Switzerland’, and as far as the eye can see, a beautiful mountain range justifies this. The mountain region provide pastures for cows that feed the massive Asturian dairy industry, and even though these mountains have proved painful for the feet of pilgrims for centuries, the views and tranquil nature make it all worth the while.

Maybe. I’ll be more sure of this in a few days.

Stories of the Camino: the Veteran and the Austrian

When I first met Fabricio, ‘the Veteran’, he was powering up a slope past me at the speed of light. With his Mexican-ish moustache, we called him Speedy Gonzalez. That night he was muttering away in Spanish, in his drunken sleep, about getting a taxi to Santiago. It was not until a few days later, that we learnt that he was doing his fourth Camino. Fourth Camino? His fourth Camino in a row. He has done the Frances, the Via de la Plata, and the Northern Route (including the Primitivo), and now the Northern Route again. He has only had rest days at the end of his Ways – in Santiago de Compostela. This means that he has been walking for easily over 16 weeks, and covered 3800km or so. What’s more – he’s not finishing after this Camino, no, he’s off to complete the Portuguese Route.

This is why he is called the Veteran.

Fabricio is a wine-loving, laid-back, friendly man. But he is also very secretive. How could anyone possibly be walking for 5000km and not want to tell people about it? After a few wines he reveals that he had bought and then sold a house for a great profit, somewhere outside of Madrid. But why he is doing his stint of Caminos, he will not say. He tells us funny tales about his Camino walking – like how on the flat of the Frances route, he was talking to a bike rider who had cycled 60km that day, only to realise that he had walked 57km himself. And sometimes, as we walked together and the weather was nice, he would declare that he was sick of other pilgrims and busy hostels and would say – “Tomorrow, I think I will sleep outside!”

Enter Eva. Eva is the ‘Energizer Bunny’. A lovely, outgoing Austrian girl, Eva and Fabricio were an odd couple to become friends and walk the Camino together. Fabricio would not tell Eva anything about his past either, but did reveal that he was originally from the South of Spain, (“don’t ask where – he won’t tell you!” Eva said one night) but she was able to discover his age by looking at his Pilgrim Passport – but she never told us how old he was.

Fabricio has been walking pretty much alone for his three and a half Caminos until meeting Eva. We walked with the two of them on and off for a few days, until Eva, having trouble with her knee, took the bus after Santander. The Veteran went with her for a time, until she went back to Austria. He told us that he has never grown attached to another peregrini, but with Eva, he was very sad to leave her. He certainly cared a lot for the pocket rocket Austrian and after helping her with something in particular, such as buying a knee bandage at the pharmacy, he would say “my job on this Camino, is to help Eva!” With their common language being English (a second tongue for both) you can imagine his confused/excited look when beautiful Eva accidently said “Can you have me?” instead of “Can you help me?” over and over at the dinner table.

We have not seen Eva since she left Santander many a day ago, yelling back at us from down the street “I miss you already!!” and have not seen Fabricio either, although he should still be walking the Camino, but is probably many a day ahead.

I will always treasure the days and nights spent with this odd couple – with Fabricio drunkenly falling off and breaking a chair (something he has apparently done a few times on the Way) and also the way that he refused to say goodbye to us – “I do not say goodbye – but see you in Santiago!”. They were brought together by the Way, and Eva even surprised herself – after being separated from Fabricio for the first time in days – said “I was in this big tent by myself, and you know what? I sort of missed Fabricio”, when a day earlier she had told him that if he wanted to sleep anywhere near her, he would have to have a shower because he smelled.

The Brag-a-thon Begins

We have not been around native English Speakers for a very long time, and so we are a little wigged out when we arrive at the Pilgrim Hostel in San Juan de Villapañada to find two couples and a man travelling alone to be all English. One couple live in Scotland, the other couple live in Wales (“we’re English until there are riots at the Soccer games – then we’re Welsh”) and the solo English man has been living in Spain teaching English for 17 years.
The two couples are much older than us, the Scottish couple are just about in their sixties and the Welsh couple are in their seventies. “Camino Junkies” they call themselves and I am amazed by their fitness and zest for life.
We quickly realise though, that we have entered a Brag-a-thon. Who has done the most Caminos, who has been to the most places in the world, who has experienced the most interesting/scary/dangerous or wonderful countries, or been in the hairiest situations.
The oldies ask us about our travels – “So have you been ill or injured at all?”, and we answer “Yes, Troy was bottled in Thailand” and “Yes, we both sat on the toilet for 4 days”, but we quickly find that this question was merely a lead in to stories about their travels: “Yes, my husband was attacked with an axe” and “When I got Delhi Belly…” I listen for 20 minutes about a trip in Burma and the serenity experienced by the local Buddhist people, and I try to butt in to explain that I have lived in a Buddhist nunnery for 4 weeks and spent 9 days sitting in prayer – but to no avail, no breath is drawn to allow me to voice my experience and my 2-bobs worth.
It’s a little like a more elderly version of young travellers who ask each other how long they’ve been travelling – as if the length of your time away governs your right to call yourself a traveller, or makes you the more superior of those around you. Many a time around young travellers we have copped the “Oh, you’ve only been travelling five months? Well, I’ve been away from home for ten months now… yeah, working in London…” Does working in a place much like your home make you more ‘travelled’ than someone who’s been in South America or Asia, or places where they don’t speak your language, travelling around and experiencing different cultures and really testing your sanity and sensibility?
Clearly travelling is about experience, and there should be no such ‘competition’ between people experiencing the world at their own place and at their own choice – and moreover – sharing your experiences should not be about belittling the next person to speak. But these older pilgrims were engaged in what can only be described as a travelling ‘pissing contest’. With each comment about a place or experience comes the better and more exotic tale from the other party, and so it continues into the night. Many of the tales we heard were wonderful, interesting or amazing, but the conversations were running parallel to each other. With every “That’s just like when we were in India…” comes a “Oh well, when we were in Nepal…”
And so on, and so forth. Maybe I’m just jealous. After 78 years, I’m sure I will have a tale or two to tell.