Remember when I had said in Part 3 that the Camino wasn't short on charms? Well, if I hadn't gotten my socks charmed off at that point, the next couple days would have done it.
Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.
Day 19 - PIEROS to LA PORTELA DE VALCARCE
21 kms (via the Pradela Route with 400m elevation gain, stiff uphill and downhill)
The beauty of the Bierzo wine region is renowned and didn't disappoint. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides and borders the Spanish province of Galicia, as well as the country of Portugal. Its sheltered position enjoys a microclimate perfect for growing vineyards. Grapes were brought here by the Romans and vines were cultivated by Cistercian monks after they settled in the 9th century.
The city of Villafranca is an important one in the history of the Camino and boomed in the 11th century. Pilgrims who couldn't continue to Santiago (usually for monetary or health reasons) could receive absolution here, same as they would have in Santiago, so Villafranca is sometimes referred to as Little Santiago. I would like to stop and explore this city, but it's only 7am when I pass through with Julia and Meike. Besides, the last time I hung around to explore an interesting spot, I messed up my entire Camino schedule.
Just after Villafranca, an alternate road leads you 350m up to beautiful Alto Pradela, where one can admire Villafranca far below (photos below). This detour even boasts a warning sign demanding fitness. The regular road is much easier but less beautiful, following the flat highway on the valley floor.
Guess which way we pick?
A great view of cloud-shrouded Villafranca. Check out the castle far below (seen from Alto Pradela).
What goes up must come down. The steep walk back down to today's destination (La Portela) gives me blisters in new spots; the heat makes my ankles swell up like soufflés. Whatever. I'm still happy. Look at that scenery!
Everywhere on the Camino, people talk about their ailments. Blisters are most common, but there are lots of tendonitis and knee/hip problems. I hear it constantly in the hostels and restaurants, so I don't say much. But when I take my bandages off in the albergue bathrooms, people notice. One girl laughs and moves across the room, as though blisters are contagious.
I'm questioning my methods, as I hike so much back home and almost never develop blisters. What on Earth am I doing wrong? Yes, everyone else has blisters but mine are something. Humph.
As usual, I am comforted (or maybe distracted?) by the thought of delicious food. Tomorrow, I will be crossing over into the province of Galicia, which is known for its pulpo a feira (boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika and olive oil). I'm pumped to try it, as Galician cuisine is famed as some of the best in all of Spain. And that's saying something.
Day 20 - LA PORTELA DE VALCARCE to O'CEBREIRO
18 kms (700m elevation gain over last 8 kms)
Today I cross over into Galicia with my two German girls, Julia and Meike. I'm surprised to learn that this area of Spain has a strong Celtic past, which is felt in its heritage, reflected in its food and heard in its folk music. I'm told the similarities are strongest to Western Ireland; Galicia even has its own bagpipes called gaita.
Despite one of the most arduous climbs of the entire Camino Frances, today is easily one of my most memorable days here. It's always worth it when the scenery is absolutely stunning. The uphills are stiff and demanding today, but we are rewarded with stunning views until our arrival in the very unique town of O'Cebreiro (pronounced «Oh theh-bray-AIR-roh»).
Three absolutely gorgeous photos in the slider (click on side arrows):
O'Cebreiro is the first village you encounter once you enter Galicia, and what a little village it is! Perched over a high mountain pass, you get 360-degree views over its stunning surroundings.
Yes, I'm aware that I'm pronouncing it incorrectly in this video:
For centuries, Galicians lived in pallozas with their extended families and their livestock. Only a few of them still survive; most have been turned into a collection of tiny museums. These unique structures are only found in this small region of Galicia.
The weather in this part of Galicia (high in elevation and in lush, rainy country) is notoriously brutal. The bells of the church used to ring almost non-stop in order to guide pilgrims to the village through the thick fog, fierce wind, snow and rain.
The local language, Galega (a hybrid of Portuguese, Latin and Spanish) is still spoken only by a minority but understood by all locals. I have no hope whatsoever of understanding it.
Say hello to my supper. Pulpo (octopus) is Galicia's famed regional dish and I simply have to try it. As tasty as it is, the chewy consistency makes it a bit of a task to swallow. This is a long way from deep-fried calamari with aioli dipping sauce from back home.
I do enjoy it, though.
I enjoy a beautiful 360-degree sunset with Meike and Julia, along with that bottle of wine. Looking back, this was easily one of the Top 5 toughest days on the Camino (physically).
I'm really enjoying my time spent with ''my two German girls'', as I affectionately call them. I have been nicknamed ''Little Hobbit'' on account of my lack of height (relative to them), my curly hair and my constant raiding of the blackberry bushes along the trail.
This first day in Galicia feels exotic. It's markedly different than what I've seen on the Camino so far. Despite the strong Catholic presence, it clearly never dropped its pagan roots. Nature is venerated and the original medieval journey to ''end-of-the-Earth'' Finisterre put this place on the pilgrim map long before Christianity came along and changed the final destination to Santiago.
Day 21 - O'CEBREIRO to TRIACASTELA
22 kms (Up and down for first 9 kms, then descend for 13 kms)
Leaving O'Cebreiro, we are reminded that we will mostly be walking downhill today, and to be vigilant. Most injuries are sustained going down, not up. The best part? The morning mist gives rise to what the locals call ''floating islands'', when the surrounding mountain tops peek out exquisitely above the clouds.
They say it only takes 21 days to form a habit and my routine has been well-established by this point. What on Earth will I do with myself once I no longer have to walk every day?
How did I ever fill my days before this?
It's enchanting to succumb to the Camino reality bubble. Sometimes I'm indifferent to my own troubles. Carefree. I know that in another time and place, I'll have to preoccupy myself with bills and responsibilities. But for now, it's mostly the now. (My screaming feet assure themselves of that). I just hope that once I'm back in my ''real'' world, I'll be able to carry over some of the serenity I feel on the Camino.
Coming out of O'Cebreiro, the views are absolutely stupendous as we ascend the mountain road. The entire valley is laid out far beneath us.
The road meanders through many villages, the path worn down by the feet of countless peregrinos and local livestock. One thing I haven't mentioned is the amount of cow dung one must walk through on the Camino. There are villages every 6 or 7 kms; many are farming communities made up of barns and manure stockpiles. The smell is something. And you cannot avoid stepping on cow patties. You can try, but you will fail. In some cases, it's not clear whether you're walking on a flattened cow patty or a cobblestone. You can't be squeamish; just trek on through and try not to slip.
When the Cathedral of Santiago was being built in the 10th century, medieval pilgrims were asked to carry stones from the local quarry all the way to a town near Santiago, to assist in building and to gain points from the Big Guy above. We are grateful that this tradition is no longer in practice.
Once we arrive in Triacastela (meaning Three Castles, none of which exists today), we settle into Albergue Oribio, a modern hostel we find on the main road. Shower, foot care, food and drink.
Day 22 - TRIACASTELA to SARRIA
19 kms (Generally flat; 300m elevation gain with Alto Riocabo alternative route)
Oh man. Today, I woke up with a giant head cold -- my eyes are quite swollen. I've got good company to distract me. Good news: With my nose clogged up, I can't smell the cow shit. But unfortunately, I can't smell the eucalyptus groves that are lining the pathway either.
For a few days now, we've been told the Camino will completely change as of tomorrow and that we must brace for it. The quiet, peaceful Camino that I've known for the past month will end and the busy, congested highway of walkers will begin. This is because many tourist companies advertise the Camino starting from the city of Sarria.
This small city is only 100 kms from Santiago de Compostela, and anyone can obtain an official Camino certificate by walking the last 100 kms from Sarria. Many tourists and school trips are attracted by this abridged version of The Way.
It's hard to imagine the Camino being anything other than the thought-provoking, tranquil trail that it is. I feel like I've been here forever and I can't imagine it being any different tomorrow.
We arrive in Sarria and are instantly shocked by the crowds. Groups are arriving by busloads; I can smell perfume and everyone looks so clean! We hadn't realized how disheveled we look until this point (although it is the end of a hot, 19km walk). But still, the contrast makes us laugh, because we're sure we don't even look or smell that good even after our showers.
For such a small city, there are tons of hotels and albergues. With the embarrassment of choices in accommodation, we don't care where we stay, as long as the bed is clean and comfy. We rent a 3-bed private room with adjacent bathroom at Albergue Los Blasones and head to a local restaurant for paella. I slide into bed early, hoping to rid myself of my minor head cold. As of tomorrow, our patience and resolve will be (apparently) further tested. I intend to be well-rested in order to tackle it cheerfully.
Day 23 - SARRIA to PORTOMARIN
22 kms (Gentle uphill for 16 kms, downhill for 6kms)
Today, Julia, Meike & I start walking from Sarria, just over 100 kms from Santiago. It's the last stretch of the 790 km-long trail. I am still feeling a bit sniffly and having a hard time bullying my feet into my shoes in the morning (the bandages really add bulk). But ultimately, as long as I can keep infections away from my toenail-less toe, I'll be good. Ultreia! (Onward!)
For the last 700 kms, the only thing I've seen on concrete markers are yellow arrows; however, sometimes you'll spot distance signs posted along highways and in some cities. They startle me, remind me of how far I've come, but they also indicate how far Santiago still is.
Soon after leaving Sarria, we pass a 100k concrete marker. Woop woop - the countdown is on!
From this point on, the Camino is never quite the same. Not only is it a total shock to see such a small number, but it's difficult not to deduct kilometres in my head as I walk. It changes the mood. I am much less lost in my moments.
The distance between Sarria and Santiago can be covered in 5 relatively easy days. Over 80,000 people a year choose this abridged walk, mostly students on summer break. I'm not opposed to it, as I think it could give reluctant walkers a taste of what the longer Camino entails. And this shorter Camino might be a godsend for anyone with physical ailments. So by all means, sign up for it and see what you think.
But the QUALITY of the experience greatly diminishes in comparison to the last 700 kms. Despite having been warned, I am a bit bewildered by it all. It is now a veritable highway. There are so many people, swarming like ants along the trail. Before, you could go hours without running into anyone; now, it's hard to not run INTO anyone. Cheesy souvenir stands pop up along the trail. I am elbowed by speed walkers carrying tiny day bags. I even spot luggage being pulled, its wheels angrily grinding into the gravel. It is a more dramatic change than we had expected. Breathe in, patience, namaste. Everyone must do the Camino in their own way.
In Portomarin, we explore the downtown core and bask in the sunshine. We find 3 beds in a lovely hostel called Albergue Ferramenteiro, which I remember having a green backyard overlooking the river. Purpose-built for pilgrims, the beds are super comfy, the dorm and lobby are huge and the facilities are modern and comfortable. I sleep like a log.
A tough day on the feet (and maybe morale), but easy on the eyes and the heart.
Day 24 - PORTOMARIN to PALAS DEL REI
25 kms (400m elevation gain over first 15 kms, gradual downhill for last 10 kms)
''A boring day today'', we are told. ''You won't take your camera out''. They were mostly right. The day is spent walking beside tall cornfields over which I could not see. I feel like I am walking through one of those cornstalk labyrinths I bring my students to visit at the local petting zoo.
I somehow manage to snap these shots of Meike and Julia without any crowds in the background; we are certainly not alone today.
Deep breaths. There is garbage everywhere (It's 2013 !). There are teenagers everywhere. There are refreshment and trinket tents everywhere. Oh dear. My quiet serenity has vanished. It's hard not to judge; I force myself to smile and stay upbeat.
Despite the apparent ''lack of scenery'', the energy in the air is palpable.
We're getting close to Santiago!
In Palas Del Rei, we find a hostel called Albergue San Marcos. According to my journal, this is an amazing hostel but I can't quite remember why. A quick Internet search reveals a hotel-ish albergue, modern and convenient. Mostly I really appreciate the rustic, stone hostels but sometimes the 21st-century ones make me happy as well. To each their own tastes!
A word about rhythm: This is something I never noticed before the Camino, even on my hikes back home. It's difficult to walk against your natural rhythm; slowing down or speeding up to match another walker are equally daunting. This is why friends, and often couples, don't always walk the Camino together. One or the other stops in the next village, happy to wait with a cold glass in their hand rather than walk more slowly than their natural pace dictates. I tried slowing down for someone I was interested in speaking with, but to my surprise, I found it was cumbersome after a while. I never quite figured out if it was a natural cadence thing, or just my mind impatient to settle into its pace, knowing how many kilometres I would have to put in that day.
So far, I've abstained from posting photos of my blisters, mostly for the ick factor. But it's important to me to be forthright; anyone interested in walking the Camino should see the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. My German girls also agree that I should recount my story as candidly as possible. One thing is certain: I will never pooh-pooh blisters again. I know what a toll they can take on your trek.
Every afternoon after showering, we assess our feet: My left foot is decidedly worse than my right one. The padding (beneath my big toe) has swelled up with fluid. A new blister is taking shape between my big toe and index toe. An angry bruise has formed on my ankle bone. The three blisters on my big toe, on the inside of my foot and on the outside of my heel are still there. (Where did I think they were going to go? ) On the positive side, my bandaged little toe is doing better - I tend to it every evening/morning and it's healing quite nicely. Also, the blister on my Achilles tendon has healed up almost completely.
The challenge is to keep these ailments from getting infected, in which case they will turn into real problems. I am sometimes confused as to my motivation - Why am I doing this again?
Alright. Now that I've made you lose the contents of your stomach, have a great evening everyone.
I am off to drink some wine and celebrate with my German girls!
Day 25 - PALAS DEL REI to RIBADISO
27 kms (Some elevation, mostly rolling hills)
The author of my guidebook writes that it will be a relatively flat day today. Pfff! A 200-meter climb followed by a 200-meter descent does not equal zero elevation. Shame on his math teacher!
I hadn't prepared my feet in consequence this morning, so today will need to be more about grit than grace. Luckily, I'm more gritty than graceful. Despite it all, it is another good day.
50 kms ! So much has happened since the beginning of my Camino. I've laughed, I've marvelled, I've suffered, I've cried. I've thought and thought and thought some more. I've learned some things and let some things go. I've listened to so many stories and I've built a story of my own. I've met so many amazing people, seen such magnificent scenery, drank such good (and bad) wine. I've received some bad news, then had time to wrap my head around it. I forgave myself, I forgave others. I never had a choice. The Camino pointed the way and I only chose how to travel it. I never chose the direction; only the way I wanted to walk it.
Deep inside myself, I'm getting a bit discouraged, to be frank. I'm congested enough to be wheezing and my feet are in constant pain. A new, very large blister is forming under my right heel (photo below). The constant buzz of noise around me distracts me from my own thoughts; usually, my own thoughts are what distract me from any physical discomfort. I know I'm nearing the end, but the road ahead of me seems endless.
I've run a few half-marathons before, and the last 6-7 kms are always the most mentally taxing, where most runners hit ''The Wall''. Well, the last few days have been my proverbial wall. I'm tired of my feet being in pain, I'm tired of being sneezy, I'm tired of being annoyed, I'm tired of being tired. LOL
Yes, I chose to do the Camino but I'd like to be done now, thank you very much. I laugh and joke around with the girls, and I enjoy the scenery and company as much as ever. The food is just as tasty and the wine goes down just as easily. But I'm eager to get to Santiago and the prospect of burning my running shoes in a huge sacrificial bonfire spurs me on. I am not alone: We are all tired and anxious and we encourage each other to suck it up and forge on. We are extra careful not to trip and injure ourselves so close to the finish line.
The girls continuously tease me as I stuff as many blackberries as I possibly can into my mouth (huge bushes line the trail). And I've discovered a new Galician treat: Pimientos de Padrón. Padrón peppers come from this northwestern corner of Spain and are roasted or pan-fried with sea salt flakes and lots of olive oil. They are fairly low on the spice scale, but they are intensely high on flavour. On a few occasions, I skip out on the typical pilgrim supper and order myself 3-4 plates of these bad boys. My walking is now mostly sponsored by Pimiento Power !
Our albergue in Ribadiso is a charming and clever reconstruction of an old pilgrim hospital, with an adjoining bar and restaurant (converted barn), of which we took full advantage. I remember this evening being very fun. We spend most of the night consuming fabulous Galician tapas (mostly Pimientos de Padrón for this girl) and loads of Spanish wine.
Day 26 - RIBADISO to LAVACOLLA
34 kms (Oops --- Too far !!!!!!!)
This is my longest day on the Camino. Our intended destination today is Arca do Pino but sadly,
it would not come to be.
According to my journal notes, the day starts off with a steep climb and consists mostly of beautiful paths through forests of eucalyptus. Yes! My kind of day.
Yet, years later, I only remember the frustration of trying to secure three beds in the multiple albergues and hotels
in Arca do Pino.
It's so discouraging when, after a long day of walking 24 kms, you arrive at your destination, only to be told that every albergue and hotel is full. It hadn't occurred to us to call ahead and reserve. We have to keep walking.
I remember a few tears falling. It is hot, our feet are killing us, and we are quite tired. Asphalt replaces the beaten dirt path. After Arca do Pino, the trail becomes stifling, as busloads of tourists get dropped off for the last day before Santiago. What a slog this day has turned out to be! On the bright side, this being the second-last day of our Camino, our misfortune now brings us 10 kms closer to Santiago than planned, which will make the following day (our last day!) much shorter and easier.
We are getting used to the busyness of the Camino. We must mentally recreate this journey that had once been so peaceful, so conducive to reflection and introspection. It must become something new, so close to the end.
My toe nail is starting to regrow. The nail itself isn't exactly hard, but I can still tell it's a toenail. Alleluia!
Blackberry bushes can be found lining the road for the entire 800 kms, and they are so sweet and juicy!
Just remember not to pick the bottom ones (animal and human pee).
Having to walk those extra kms, without knowing if we would eventually find beds, completely sucker punches us. We are exhausted, despite a beautiful day spent in eucalyptus forests. Meike is having some Achilles' tendon issues; she has been so strong and tough throughout her Camino.
Frankly, these girls are both tough as nails.
Pushing on to the next towns, we pass the 20 km marker - YAY! That's a hell of a mood booster!
As discouraged as we may feel at times, we are (mostly) all smiles. We're still enjoying ourselves. The weather is beautiful, we have food and water, our bodies are functional, though protesting loudly. What are we supposed to do, curl up and lay down on the side of the road? We suck it up. It doesn't mean we're not happy, it doesn't mean we regret walking the Camino. But was it hard? At times, yeah it sucked. But most of the time, it rocked. It kicked our ass, so we kicked it right back.
After walking through many towns and being told there are no vacancies, we are elated to find three beds in an albergue in Lavacolla. I may have hugged the reception lady. I remember eating a fantastic feast that night. Well, it might not have been fantastic. But after walking 34 kms, shoelaces would have tasted fantastic!
We order three bottles of wine, buckets of Pimientos del Padrón, lentil soup, bread, meat... The works.
We are famished, so grateful and so tired!
Day 27 - LAVACOLLA to SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
11 kms (Slight uphill for 5 kms, downhill for 3 kms)
On this morning, my very last morning on the Camino, I am bandaging my feet for the final time !!!! I can't believe this day has come - what an amazing rollercoaster it's been!
The 11 km walk to Santiago is uneventful and passes by quickly. After feeling like we've only been walking for 10 minutes (it's really been about 2 hours), the city appears from the crest of Monte do Gozo hill. Ancient pilgrims surely cheered hysterically from this perch, as it would have provided their first glimpse of the Cathedral. Now, its spires are blocked by trees and high-rise buildings, so it's less euphoric for us. Regardless, a shiver passes through me.
Walking the sidewalks through the bustling city of Santiago, it's hard to believe my journey will end in a few minutes. I pass by laundromats, video game arcades, cinemas... After only a month, that stuff already feels unfamiliar.
If I was a medieval pilgrim, I would be walking past countless hospitals and churches lining the road, in which I would be obligated to bathe before entering the Cathedral. I would also be passing by the leprosarium, which attempted to prevent leprosy from spreading within the sacred city's walls.
I spot the Cathedral's two spires in the distance, and the yellow Camino arrows lead me through the city. I had seen the spires coming for kilometres, but then I lose sight of them in town. I walk on the stone pedestrian trail, then pass under a stone archway. Suddenly, I find myself in the immense Praza de Obradoiro. I keep walking to the centre of the plaza, not realizing that the beautiful, massive stone facade is right behind me. I turn around, and there she is. The Catedral Basilica de Santiago de Compostela. The moment is intense. I don't remember hearing anything. I don't notice anything or anyone, other than that enormous sculpted wall.
I have finally arrived.
There is a pilgrim's mass at noon. None of us are religious but we are excited to add a ceremonial touch to our journey's end. We want to attend the botafumeiro ceremony. The swinging of the giant incense burner, called the botafumeiro or Smoking Boot, was originally used to fumigate dirty (and possible disease-ridden) pilgrims. It takes half a dozen attendants to maneuver it and although it's still a tradition today, they don't swing it very often. But today is our lucky day. Not a dry eye in the house.
It's time to eat some Spanish food! Octopus (left) is often cooked in its own black ink, which I haven't tried thus far (only the boiled version). But the BBQ squid (right) is delicious - no ink in sight!
Once our bellies have been filled, we get in line at the Passport office to receive our final passport stamp and obtain our official Pilgrim certificate. It's a night filled with music, wine and good food.
Santiago de Compostela, I love you !
Click on photos to enlarge them:
Can you spot the shadow pilgrim in the photos above? This was an absolute fluke apparently. It was ''discovered'' after the city installed a light fixture on the side of the cathedral and lo and behold...
A medieval pilgrim appeared!
Some of the buildings around the plaza are pretty cool. One of them was built in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the same royals who sent Christopher Columbus off to map a new route to India) as a pilgrim hospice.
Day 28 - FINISTERRE
My Camino officially finished, I take a bus to Finisterre. I unfortunately didn't make it to the beach to burn my boots (or my much-in-need-of-fumigation socks), but I did have a few moments of solitude at the ''End of the Earth'' to reflect upon my journey.
No major changes -- one less toenail, better-toned leg muscles, a tan that makes me look like I'm wearing white socks, a bunch of extra blisters and friends made along the way. They say that your real Camino begins once you stop walking, that growth is manifested over time rather than felt immediately afterwards.
Only time will tell.
Would I do it again? Many times on this trip (actually, every night while disinfecting my feet and every morning while putting on my runners), I had insisted that I would never do this again. But looking back on it now, I would do it again. But I'd do it differently: No heavy, waterproof hiking boots, a lighter backpack, better rain preparation, etc. I think it would be fun to do it with my mom or dad, or even my boyfriend. I'd love to build new memories, while honouring the ones created during my very first Camino.
Should you choose to walk the Camino, I wish you a beautiful, fun and enlightening journey.
My baby boot, to remind me how much I wanted to start walking when I was a baby. It was my ''Shut up and keep walking'' token. Attached is my mémère's (grandma's) Saint Christopher medallion that she used to pin to my aunt's shirt whenever they used to travel, for safety.
Mémère was with me every step of the way on my Camino.
Wow, I love this photo! My parents biked over 500 kms in support of my Camino.
Thank you, Mom and Dad - you really are the best parents one could hope for!
Photo collection : Camino de Santiago
Coming soon: WALK THIS WAY: What To Pack (In Your Pack) For The Camino