Camino Summary

It’s been a while since I last posted. Entirely my fault; I should have known better than to try and post daily when I was spending most of the day walking, eating, sleeping or otherwise recovering from walking. Not to mention socialising and intermittent internet. The multi-day post format worked better on my Noma trip (www.allroadsleadtonoma.com) as I was able to take notes over the days and compile a more concise post – rather than ‘Dear diary, X, Y and Z happened today’ repeated daily. Trying to post daily inevitably leads to expounding on mundane events (‘Saw a donkey today.’) that would otherwise be reserved for greater occurrences. Not that mundane events are inherently bad, but they need to have some connection and relevance. I’ve seen the daily post format work well, but it needs to be seriously brief and minimalist. No photos, composed on phone, et cetera. Probably a more sensible choice for the Camino. Oh well. I still have plenty of material from the Camino days; I’ll wrap up the last nine days in this post and then try and continue as ‘normal’.

So, a brief update: I made it as far as Oviedo, in the Asturian heartland – just over 400km into the northern route, and about 400km from Santiago – before being forced to return home by circumstances outside of my control. I walked for 19 days – more or less on-schedule, with a rest day or two included to make the most of the country I was passing through.

I flew back in to Lisbon one week later with my brother, Miles. We had considered finishing the Camino together, but decided instead on a more varied trip. Neither of us felt like slogging through mountains for three weeks. Writing this now, a month-and-a-half after coming back to Europe, I think that was the right choice. We travelled from Lisbon down to Lagos and Sagres in the sun-baked Algarve, before heading east into southern Spain. We passed through Seville, Cordoba, Ronda and Malaga before arriving in La Linea de Conception, just a few hundred metres from the border with Gibraltar. From there I found a ride on a Norwegian catamaran headed to the Canaries, and spent six days at sea under the stars and sun. I lingered too long in Gran Canaria – almost two weeks – and now find myself in the foothills of southern Morocco, in a tiny mountain town called Tafraout. From here, I’ll summarise the last two months over the next few posts…

The rest of the Camino passed in a slow-motion blur, in that all the daily events that seemed so significant at the time now meld together into one big lump of time. Time during which the routine reigns supreme: the early starts, café con leches, walking ten kilometres before breakfast, enormous dinners, endless hills and beautiful scenery. With the exception of some unique events, though, it’s startling how much it all just blends together. Looking back over photographs I took, I can still reconstruct individual days, but they’re all inevitably variants of scenery, walking and food.

Dawn leaving Noja, the day after being soaked

It’s worth mentioning the best albergue I stayed at: La Cabana de Abuelo Peuto in Guemes. It was on about day 12, and I almost didn’t stop there. During a particularly sunny stretch I came across an old church which had been repurposed for an ‘exhibition of the Camino’. It showcased the last 18 years of one albergue’s guestbook; the highlights in terms of drawings and heartfelt messages. And impressive it was, with messages from all over the world – ranging from deep and meaningful quotes with pictures of sunsets to one-liner jokes and New-Yorker-style cartoons.

Coming to the end of another picturesque green inhabited valley – I’d compare it to the endless landscapes of South Germany – I heard the clanging of sheep bells and caught a faint whiff of frying onion. Other than being a nice change from the general farmyard aromas of the day thus far, it *was* around lunchtime. I topped a small hill, and was greeted by an enormous white farmhouse with a scalloped red brick roof. It was the albergue from the earlier exhibition, looking awfully inviting in the rare midday sunshine. I had only walked 20km so far today and was feeling good – I could make it to Santander by 3:30pm or so. A German woman came out and spoke to me in Spanish, offered me a glass of water while I decided. As I sipped, an enormous dalmatian bounded up to me and started licking my hand… My resolve was swaying. I poked my head inside and saw an old farmhouse interior with great big roof beams. In one corner, a group of Spaniards were peeling pears in front of a crackling brass fireplace – no, oven. I had made up my mind: I was staying. This place ended up being one of the most unique – and by far the best. It’s an entire community, a way of life – mostly volunteer run, and donation-only. There’s a beautiful old farmhouse with well-made triple-tier bunkbeds (I had an excellent night’s sleep on the top bunk), a chapel, a library. There are overflow tents out the back, and they cook and serve communal dinner and breakfast each day. It was amazing, arriving at 12:30 as the first of the day, to watch the pilgrims swell to about 60 by nighttime. By this point you start to recognise people, having seen them night after night. There were reunions all around, from people who hadn’t seen one another in days. I saw the young couple with their baby again – once more, the subject of much affection. The dinner was excellent: a mutton stew, an incredibly simple-yet-delicious garlic and bread soup (much thicker and tastier than it sounds) and pears poached in vanilla. There’s a whole philosophy connected with this place, and every night they deliver a speech about ‘Abuelo Peuto’, the place’s namesake, and his work for the nearby communities as a rural doctor. Really, a special experience. I recall many longing glances back as the building shrank behind us, and later, many fond mentions from other pilgrims.

The couple with their baby

Being spoken to about the albergue’s ‘mission’

Me with Fentan, an Irish man I walked with for several days. I’m not sure why I had corn.

Spanish engineering

An infamous railway bridge – technically illegal to cross, but it shaved 7km off the day’s walk. Naturally, we obeyed the law. Definitely. I would never do otherwise.

The picturesque seaside town of Santillana Del Mar at dawn

Going back through these pictures and my notebooks now, I still can distinguish the days from one another. Things always stand out – a particularly good pilgrim’s menu with roasted pork ribs, or an interesting discussion with a person, a friendly animal or an uncommonly picturesque view. I suppose that’s what makes it unique – everybody walks the same path, to the same goal, but always for different reasons. And everybody has a different experience, different highlights. I met some people who just wanted to rack up kilometres and push themselves physically, others who had their bags carted ahead.

People often talk about their ‘Camino family’, a group of people they fall in with for days or weeks at a time, developing stronger relationships through time spent walking together. By about day 10 you start to recognise people time after time, and as people fall behind or catch up with one another you see them at more erratic – and proportionally more surprising – times. Despite not actually going all the way to Santiago, I spent my last five or six days with a small group. A young German nurse, a retired Texan oilman (that seems funnier now, in retrospect), a fitness instructor from Idaho and an Irish man. It’s welcome to have people you know relatively well to share the long days and mealtimes with.

Glassy water in a nature reserve

Now firmly in the green hills of Asturias

A heart-cloggingly, blood-sugar-skyrocketingly large chocolate-covered palmier. We all contributed a euro to this group mood-uplifter.

The albergue at Colombres

Naturally, just down the road from the Colombres albergue there was an authentic Mexican restaurant, complete with mezcal. Pay no attention to the crayons. They were fully utilised.

On a hill overlooking our destination – the cluster of buildings on the coast. This was to be my last full day of walking. As if to somehow give that meaning, we spent the night in Poo. Yes, that’s really what it was called.

Fentan bravely upholding Irish stereotypes

I wasn’t joking

From Poo, I caught a local bus – the Asturian coast is surprisngly well-connected – into the hub of Oviedo. It’s a large, sprawling city which manages, like most mountainous Spanish cities, to fill up its alotted valley with mid-rise apartment buildings. I farewelled the people I’d spent the last week with at a local market – but not before making the most of said market.

A welcome sense of humour. Part of me wishes Jon Snow did have a ridiculous curly purple moustache.

If you’re ever in Oviedo, do yourself a favour and visit Jamon Jamon. It’s a bar centered around – you guessed it – Jamon. I arrived with a new friend from the hostel at 6pm; we were lucky to be the first ones allowed into the dining room. It was fully booked out for the rest of the night. We both had the jamon jamon, a ‘pizza’ of jamon, cheese, mushrooms and truffles on a very thin fried base. I’d say it’s worth the flight – or walk! – to Oviedo.

My last activity in northern Spain was stumbling across a local sports event on a Sunday morning. Apparently it’s quite the Asturian tradition for kids of all ages to dress up in protective gear, don roller blades, wield ski poles and hurl themselves down a tarmac hill, zigzagging between poles in the style of slalom skiers. A curious and entertaining sport to watch.

As I rose up out of Oviedo, bound for a convoluted series of flight connections that would take me to Australia, my Camino came to an end. I didn’t – and still don’t – see it as a failure that I didn’t reach Santiago. At some point in my life I will, but for now I’m perfectly fine with leaving it where I did. Below are some further thoughts and brief reflections on the Camino, given the months I’ve had to think about it.

Reflections on a Camino

My time on the Camino was memorable, not only for the walking itself and the realities of day-to-day life but for the tapestry of people you meet along the way.  But I did not find it as enjoyable or fulfilling as I had expected. Perhaps I was not ready or properly prepared. I certainly felt like I lacked a serious enough reason for walking. Many people I met seemed to be walking in reflection of a marriage or working life. I felt eager to be done with the Camino so I could go and live the life and have the adventures these people were reflecting upon. Certainly, there were enjoyable moments: the satisfaction of a day’s walk completed, the ridiculous volume of delicious food we were able to eat, the coffee breaks and pastries, the cross-section of interesting people. But I lacked an overall satisfaction. Instead, paradoxically, I felt restless, like I wanted to go off and travel ‘properly’ instead of being chained to the routine of following yellow arrows day in and day out. I may go back to properly ‘finish’ the Camino. But not before I know I’m ready; that I actually want to.

Enough people before me have waxed lyrical about the life of a pilgrim, carrying one’s house on one’s back, the quiet determination on the road to Santiago – so I will not. Perhaps my words are invalidated by my not reaching Santiago, but I found that the whole thing was, at its core, just a long walk. You get up early, you eat local food and hot coffee, you put one foot in front of the other day after day and you inch closer to your destination. There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with that, it just is. A lot of it is enjoyable, some of it not. Many of the people I met were on a spiritual journey – of self-discovery, of penance, of healing, of reflection. But when all seated in a circle at the end of the day, invariably asking one another, ‘So, why are you doing the Camino?’, I found myself saying – depending on the company – ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Because I’m an idiot’. It’s not a sane thing to do, to subject oneself to walking, day after day, with all your possessions on your back. And yet, just shy of 300,000 people will walk the Camino this year.

‘Til next time,

Alex

Day 10 – The Best One Yet

Today was a massive day. I was mostly alone on the road for about 10 or 11 hours over about 40km. It was also the day I crossed from Basque country into Cantabria – the neighbouring, comparatively placid province. I was woken up by a Swedish strobe light from the bed below mine. A man from southern Sweden seemed hell-bent on turning the once-dark dorm into a rave, swinging his headlight around at 6am. One light became two, two became four, and before long the only point to staying in your sleeping bag was spiteful protest.
I managed to get everything repacked into my bag and out of the hostel by about 7:15 – still well before dawn. The dark-blue night sky glimmered overhead as I made my way towards to coast, following the dim yellow arrows. After a few minutes’ walk I came to a seemingly-endless staircase. Flight after flight it continued, straight up through dense seaside forest canopy before finally levelling out into a tunnel of foliage. A glint of light at the end turned into a golf ball, which in turn became a gate and fencepost and horizon. I pushed past the gate, leaving the foliage altogether, and was greeted by a stunning sight.

The dawn sky

Along the horizon were monolithic cumulonimbus illuminated by the rising sun, illuminated pink and gold and orange. Round a corner there was a row of wind turbines rotating with the gusts. I thought they looked more like the vertebrae in a dragon’s spine. The path wound its way along the coast, chiselled into the hillside, passing through crumbling ruins and little towns. Large white brush plants all but obscured the coastal view at times. The ever-present crashing of the heaving sea on jagged rocks below gave the occasional showering of salt spray. Nowhere deserves to be this pretty, I thought. Clearly, the Cantabrians enjoy a dramatic welcome into their province, famed for mountain stew and practically still-wriggling seafood. The endless skyscape of clouds and distant deluges provided a magnificent backdrop as pilgrims filtered into Castro-Urdiales, the first large Cantabrian town.

Remnants of the British mining industry, where they perfected supply-chain management back in the 19th Century. They would ship metals back to Britain across the Bay of Biscay. From old tunnels like this to seaside furnaces and little strip mines, the scars could be seen everywhere.

The view to our backs after a highway hill climb

Castro-Urdiales

Locals at brunch

Neighbourhood dog

On the walk into Castro I struck up a conversation with a socks-and-sandaled Dane whose daughter was on the Danish Brexit negotiation team. He himself was an architect of Danish social housing, ostensibly doing the Camino as ‘research’ for how Spaniards maintain such good social cohesion. I bit my tongue instead of mentioning Spanish economic performance. It was true that there was a unique style of drab apartment building all along these coasts, and people seemed to congregate around pubs, cafes and eating houses.
I left the Dane and went to explore the town. A lovely little place with a dramatic bay and a lighthouse. After getting lost on a cliffside looking for the hostel and finding some kindly Scots who redirected me, I finally found the albergue. It looked reasonable, though there was already quite a crowd outside and reportedly only 16 beds. It was 1:30pm, and the Dane had said the next albergue was just 4km away. I decided to press on. Seven kilometers later, after some more stunning coast, blackberry-lined lanes and a gnarled coastal wood, it turned out the next albergue was ‘temporarily closed’. Some Italians I met soon after said the next albergue – three more kilometers – was, according to reviews, the ‘worst of the Norte’, with bedbugs and all. We inevitably ended up in a pub at 3pm and the barman confirmed this. There was a bus to Laredo, otherwise 27km away, at 6pm. We decided to wait. There was apparently a nunnery/church/albergue that was very nice.
 Before long some Germans wandered into the bar. The six of them were doing an ‘easy’ Camino together, in that they had their bags ferried to the next stop and a taxi to pick them up wherever they wanted. They were very curious why an Australian could speak German decently, if at all. After chatting with them for a few minutes and watching them down several beers in succession – as only Germans on holiday do – they bought the whole pub a round of schnapps. They wished me luck and, in a whirlwind of booze, were on their way again.
I felt no shame in catching a bus with the Italians; no moral obligation to walk every step. In fact, the luxury of zooming over terrain that would have taken hours otherwise was not lost on us. We came to the nunnery in Laredo in a drizzle, where we were welcomed into an ancient church and shown to simple dorms. Before long a circle was formed, lyric booklets were handed out, and little Spanish nuns started leading the groups in such classics as ‘Oh, Jesus’ and ‘Hallelujah’ – yes, the Leonard Cohen version. There were even lyrics for ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Let it Be’. They used a Spanish guitar and drum surprisingly well. Afterwards, introducing ourselves in Spanish and French, my brain got quite a workout.
 Afterwards, we all sat on long tables in a whitewashed hall filled with images of Jesus for a communal meal of bread and pasta. Simple, hearty fare with good conversation and plenty of wine. I got the feeling that this was what the Camino was all about – and, in hindsight, it’s one of the highlights. I had a conversation with an elderly Frenchman in very poor French; I think he told me to join a choir. I translated German into – again, broken – Spanish with middling success.
Looking back, this was an enormous, satisfying day. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of light rain and a dripping drainpipe.
‘Til next time,
Alex