Total distance: 780km
I decided to walk the Camino around the sixth month mark after moving to London. At the time I was working in a crowded office, a total shock to the system having always worked independently, or in an outdoors environment. It was a little overwhelming to say the least, being crammed into a bank of desks. A co-worker said she was taking time off work to walk a section of the Camino de Santiago and explained a little about it. A Pilgrim passage? Huh? Never heard of one, I googled it and pretty much by the end of the day decided this is something that’s got to be done, and soon.
Excited by the thought of fresh air, sun and wide open spaces I ordered a couple guide books to start planning the trek. Seeing as it was the first long walk I’d ever attempted, I decided to try and raise money for the hospice my Grandpa was in to somehow contribute with their fantastic work (thanks St Helena Hospice!). It’s also another reason not to chicken out and kept me going through the rougher times.
Having read blog posts from other walkers on the Camino I knew the directions side of it was straight forward and I wouldn’t have to learn about where the stars are, direction of the wind or the location of the sun in the sky to find the way, Bear Grills style (…phew).
The next few weeks consisted of me putting together a list of gear I needed, reading online reviews and pestering sales assistants in outdoors shops.
What followed was a backpack, boots, tent, weird mini plastic strips that called themselves soap and shampoo (not recommended) and so forth. Each item was carefully chosen on its weight. Ideally your backpack when fully packed should be equal to 10% of your body weight, making mine 5kg… like that’s going to be possible. After packing and re-packing my bag multiple times I got it down to 11kg, it was the best I could do.
Random bit of prep but I started walking to work with the boots on instead of getting public transport. I felt I didn’t need to do much more in the way of training as preparation, although I did a few 10km practice walks with the backpack and new boots on, which felt fine, I was ready. Ideally I would’ve liked to have started the walk end of May when it’s quieter and not as hot, but I was contracted to work until the end of June so the start date had to be mid July. I launched my JustGiving page and booked a one-way flight, it was officially happening!
Packed and ready to go I flew from Stansted to Biarritz where I took the airport bus to Bayonne, and then the mountain train to St, Jean Pied de Port.
I arrived a few hours later, found the campsite and assembled my coffin shaped tent. By now it was the evening so having said hello to the elderly couples enjoying their tea outside their caravans, I headed out to explore the town. St, Jean Pied de Port is beautiful, a proper picture postcard town with quaint houses and restaurants surrounded by mountains and even a castle at the top of the hill, definitely somewhere I hope to return to one day.
Now the next thing that happened may be shocking to some, brace yourself… I had dinner in a restaurant on my own for the first time ever. Yes, ever. It is ridiculous that after travelling and living in countries all over the world on my own, the thought of walking into a restaurant and dining on my own absolutely petrified me. (I’m now a convert to the point in which I wish in some scenarios that I was dining alone). After wolfing down a pizza and comparing trekking notes with an over enthusiastic American on the next table, I headed back to the campsite and looked over the route for the next day, read from my Kindle and went to sleep.
The Pyrenees stage took three days, this was the hardest part in terms of gradient on the walk and sorry to say, possibly the most beautiful. The first day was incredibly steep and although it does warn you about this in the guide books, nothing really prepares you for it. It was pretty slow going, cursing as I walked pass people by with the same “help me!” expressions, but when you reach the top you are rewarded with amazing panoramic views. Perfect for taking off your boots, keeling over, and dying quietly on the side of the path for a while. Word of warning it’s here where the weather changes quickly and can become dangerous when foggy as the sides of the path are steep, you will see memorials as a sobering reminder.
After a hefty decline back down the other side I staggered into the campsite and set up the coffin, to the astonishment of a group of 10-year-old Spanish school children, who’s English skills were pretty impressive and were keen to test out on me. I don’t think they could grasp the concept of why a young English woman would want to come to Spain, walk a very long way and sleep in a stupidly small tent… I don’t blame them, at this point I was thinking the same thing. With home for the night set up, I found the canteen, popped a beer open, then swam in the nearby river whilst the sun was still out, bliss.
The next couple of days were a similar story, sore feet, more hills, woods and strange looks at my tent. I made friends with possibly the tallest man on the Camino, Robert from Vienna. We found ourselves walking at the same pace and although staying in different accommodation we’d bump into one another whilst walking, so walked together for the next couple of days. I spoke to him in German and he to me in English, he kindly leant me his walking poles on the steep bits. As much as I enjoyed having a walking buddy we decided to part ways as I wanted to be alone with my own thoughts, plus I was sure there would be chances to meet again in the future.
The weight of my pack was really starting to hurt, my back and feet were in incredible pain, so much so, early morning on day four after an hours steep uphill climb a moment of madness came over me. I pulled my tent out of the backpack and launched it into an unsuspecting farmers field (to this day I still get pangs of guilt about potentially ruining his combine harvester). I then took off my heavy boots and walked 3km to the next large town in flip flops, much to the amusement of other walkers. I found a sports shop and explained my situation to the owner, he didn’t speak English but I think through the vigorous pointing at my feet he understood and presented me with the brightest pair of New Balance trainers. I tried them on, yep this is what it feels like to walk on a cloud (tip: you don’t need walking boots for the Camino, just a really good pair of trainers with ventilation and removable inner soles, preferably really brightly coloured too – makes them easier to spot amongst 40 other pairs at 5am).
It wasn’t until the end of the day that I realised what I had actually done, I needed to change my accommodation plan for the rest of walk. Crap.
Luckily it was still early in the walk and I managed to buy a Credential for a few euros in an Albergue that night (they take this Credential business very seriously), I lied and said I has lost mine. Lies… I feel this probably goes against everything the Camino stands for but I needed to be able to stay in Albergues from now on, and hey I had already most probably destroyed a combine harvester that morning, I was on a roll. Karma did catch up with me though as when I opened my backpack to retrieve my kindle for my evening read only to find a large crack down the screen L. I dined on a jar of olives, cheese and red wine and made a rough plan of my accommodation options for the rest of the trail, and forwarded it to my concerned parents.
Looking back, it was pretty unrealistic to think I could have camped the whole way and to be honest staying in the different Albergues were a big part of the overall experience. You never really knew what you were about to enter, you could be in a shared dorm with 30 others having a competition with one another to see who could snore the loudest. Or have the luxury of a whole Albergue to yourself where an old lady who doesn’t speak a word of English uses ferocious hand signals to get you to strip down to your underwear (I had my limits), takes your clothes away and hand washes them in the garden. Once clean and feed, she introduces you to her son… we’re married now and he lives in Clapham (just kidding… Clapham’s too expensive).
After a week of walking I fully got into the routine. I’d pack my backpack as much as I could the night before, and look over the next day’s route, the distances between villages, gradients and end destination. I would wake up just before 5am and leave quietly as possible. A 5am start is pretty normal for long walks… shocking I know, never saw this hour in London unless full of overpriced lager and waiting for Dominos.
It would be dark for the first hour, so I’d be walking under the stars and walk whilst watching the sunrise, to see this sight for twenty-something days straight was pretty special. After about 5km I would have breakfast consisting of either left over baguette or if you stumble across a café a mere two euros will get you a coffee, fresh orange juice and toast. Spot on!
Next I headed into the Rioja region. I admit the thought did cross my mind to just walk from vineyard to vineyard and add an extra week to my trek, but when passing some very hot, very hung over and sick fellow walkers you’ll quickly change your mind.
Most Albergues offer dinner for Pilgrims, if not the Albergue then a restaurant nearby. Costing a maximum of 10 Euros, this would get you a starter (a hefty salad), main (being a vegetarian it would usually be pasta and ketchup), dessert (a yoghurt) and half a carafe of red wine and bread. So match that with being in Rioja, land this was perfect motivation to get to the next Albergue. More wine please!
I passed through pretty villages made up of cream and red stone buildings and churches, the scenery is still green at this point. The next large town coming up is Burgos, but before reaching it there’s a grey uninspiring 13km walk through an industrial area. It was quite hard to navigate and there are a couple of different routes to take, I suppose because it’s forever changing and being developed the path can get lost sometimes. At the end of the trudge I was rewarded by a very pretty town with lots of cafes and restaurants to choose from, but the main star of the show is the beautiful Cathedral. I got to my Albergue, showered the industrial fumes off and wandered around the area. That night I treated myself to a proper fancy meal in a proper fancy restaurant, no pasta and ketchup tonight!
Unlike the schlep into Burgos, the walk out is pleasant. The next few days are made up of pretty villages, but supplies aren’t as easy to get hold of so do stock up before you leave. While passing Olmillos (don’t miss the castle) I was at a fork in the road and couldn’t see which direction to take when a father and son duo pointed out the way. They were from the Tirol region in Austria and had walked the Camino for two weeks every year starting from their own front door. They had another week to go and next year would be the last as they would finally reach Santiago. I walked with them for an hour exchanging stories when the father asked if my name was Kat and was I from London, as it turns out they’d met Robert! Sadly, after a week he’d gotten stress fractures and returned to Vienna hoping to come back next year, out of everyone I’ve met so far I didn’t think it would be him to have to exit early. I left them to it and plodded on.
The next large city on the walk is Leon, but before that is smaller city of Mansilla de las Mulas. The city itself is quite pretty with yet more cafes and shops, it also has an ancient wall surrounding it dating back to the 12th Century. It was here I had planned to meet my boyfriend (the non-imaginary one). He came out for a couple nights and walked with me. Although it had only been a couple of weeks, I’d had little or no contact with anyone so it was surreal seeing someone from back home out of the ‘walking bubble’. It was a mission to get here from London, so I was happy and thankful to see him. Knowing my kindle had died he brought me a book to read, Dan Browns Inferno in hardback… quiet possibly the largest/ heaviest book to have ever existed, ah well it kept me entertained for a while so was worth the extra weight.
We walked to Leon the next day, him getting blisters within the first couple of hours… really (enter eye roll). We checked into our über luxury hotel complete with fluffy robes and slippers, wandered around the city, ate lots of Tapas and drank lots and lots of Sangria. Our time together zoomed past too quickly, and was sad saying goodbye again. Plus, I was a little wary of what was to coming up next as I’d heard rumours…
The desert stage (the next section of the walk) was the most difficult both mentally and physically. This is why I recommend to walk it earlier on in the year because of this section alone. It was nearly a week of walking through endless hay fields (hay fever sufferers remember your medication), flat and uninspiring scenery with nothing to see on the horizon and no escape from the burning sun. I caved and started listening to music, the ten songs I had on my phone over and over again, imagining and pretending I was in different music videos just to pass the time… yeah really sad, but the only way to keep sane. I heard a lot of people skip this stage and take the bus. I mean come on guys, that’s cheating, if you’re going to do it, do it properly. Plus, it makes that beer at the end of the days walk a hundred times more rewarding! Trudging the last 5km imagining that ice cold glass, gold liquid shimmering almost glowing, holding it up and against your forehead to cool you down and to top it off the smugness you feel that it cost you under two euros. All worth it in my eyes.
I also gained a pretty wacky tan, who says vest and sock lines aren’t sexy? (I admit I did have to fake tan my feet back in London to look acceptable again).
After a week of the burning sun I was now back walking through the damp cold woods again where the weather changed every hour, I could literally feel my body and skin cooling down. The last 100km of the walk is hectic to say the least. A lot of Spanish walk this section on their summer holiday as you can still receive your Compostela at of the end of it.
I really recommend to book up your accommodation for this bit in advance (the week before when you have more of an idea of your timings). I didn’t know this so on my second to last day I ended up walking a painful 56km being turned away from every Albergue, B&B and hotel until I veered off path and found a huge motorway motel. My feet were in agony, I was tired, frustrated and had long ran out of water. The receptionist informed me they only had their penthouse suite left, it had been twenty something days now, like I could afford that. The weight of that day came over me and I burst out crying, explaining my sorry situation through loud sobs filling the hotel lobby. He either took pity on my state or wanted to get me out of there as quickly as possible, so gave me the suite at the price of a single room. I am forever grateful!
I burst out crying again when he let me into the room, I think I was overwhelmed by the kindness and man oh man my body hurt so the sight of the 80’s pink Jacuzzi bath was just heaven. I cried in the bath too at the realization that the walk was going to end tomorrow, and I didn’t want to feel sad on my second to last day, so of course I cried about that. I was a mess. My face was a wreck and I could barely see through my tear stained slit eyes, unfortunately room service wasn’t available and I was incredibly hungry, I had no choice but to go down to the hotel restaurant for dinner, after another little cry.
The hostess showed me my table were I proceeded to devour the entire bread basket on offer, the couple on the next table asked I would like to join them. They were walking the last 200 km Camino and were interested in what the beginning stages were like. We drank a lot of wine and chatted for most of the night, my spirits were lifted. It’s moments like this you bring home with you, really never underestimate the kindness of strangers and how someone can change your day around.
I woke up the next morning feeling indifferent, it was the last day and I only had 13km to walk, I enjoyed my daily routine and didn’t want it to end. So I walked slowly mixing in the mass crowds, taking in the buzzing atmosphere. I got chatting to group of Spanish guys who were doing the last 100km, and became my cameramen taking my pictures with the final landmarks. We got to Santiago, passed the impressive cathedral where they received their compostela and had celebratory beers, agreeing to meet up later for dinner I left them to check into my hotel. This I had actually thought to book in advance, shocker. I informed my family it was over, great sighs of relief from their end. I showered, ate and watched the television, actual TV, but soon got bored so went outside for a walk…
A big thank you to everyone who sponsered me on this walk, it means so much to me still. Together we raised a massive £1500!
A wee bit of advice:
I would recommend the Camino de Santiago as your first walk or if you are wanting something not to difficult or strenuous (walking holiday). Now that I have a few other long distance walks under my belt and I wouldn’t do the Camino again or suggest it to seasoned walkers due to the amount of people and lack of challenge.
Wi-Fi along the way can be hit and miss. You’ll know instantly which Albergues have Wi-Fi as you’ll walk past and everyone will be either looking down glued to their phones or waving them frantically about to find signal. I found it a bit of a relief not having much access to the rest of the world, and when I did it was just to let my worried mother know I was still alive, and to encourage people to donate to the hospice I was raising money for.
Don’t think twice about doing it alone. You meet so many people along the way and at the Albergues, everyone is in the same boat and you all have something in common, you’re walking the Camino! Everyone does it for different reasons and you exchange stories, a lot of people I met were at a crossroads in their life, just been fired, quit their job or relationship split and didn’t know what to do so had taken time out to figure out what they really want in life. Then you meet a few with wacky stories like the guy who said an angel came to him in his dream and told him to walk the Camino…