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Sunday, September 18, 2005

El Camino de Santiago, August 9 - 14

Deciding to extend my trip another 31 days, first to meet with Tubes and his family in Venice, and second to head to La Tomatina at the end of August, I found myself with about a week to either hang around in Madrid or head to some other nearby cities. I thought about hopping over to the Atlantic coast and visiting Portugal, but decided instead to go to Santiago and do a part of the Camino de Santiago.

For those of you that don't know, the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage route ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain, where the Tomb of St. James lies. Unfortuntately, I missed the Jubilee Year (or Holy Year) of St. James, which occurs when July 25, the feast of the martyrdom of St. James, falls on a Sunday of that year. The last was Jubilee Year of St. James was in 2004 and it occurs with a periodicity of 11-6-5-6 years. However, I was fortunate enough to enter Santiago on a Sunday morning to check out a mass. The pilgrimage route can be made by foot, cycle, or horseback, but no one goes by horseback anymore. There are many routes, stretching from all parts of Spain and further to places such as England, Scandanavia, Russia, and Greece. The most famous route, however, is El Camino Frances, which begins in Roncesvalles just across the border of France and Spain. To complete that route by foot requires about 31 days, but to officially be recognized as partaking, you only need to complete 100 km by foot or 200 km by bike or horseback. No modern forms of transformation can be taken. Sarah and I started in Pedrafita do Cebreiro to begin what would end up being a six day journey.

Sarah decided to come along with me on the hiking adventure and we had originally planned to leave Madrid for Pedrafita do Cebreiro Monday morning, but found the next bus leaving departed at 23:59. Bummer. So we hung out with Corey, Annemiek, James, and met Jen and Megan and all of us had some dinner in El Parque de Retiro, before heading back to the bus terminal. It was about a five hour ride and got dropped off in a small village in front of a fountain at about 5:20. We were the only two people that got dropped off at that stop, it was still dark out, and we didn't know what was going on. So here's the first picture of the name of the village we started from about 100 m away.

Fortunately (and randomly) a cop car drove by us and asked us what we were doing in the middle of nowhere (almost literally) and I explained to them that we just got dropped off by the bus and didn't know what where to go. You'll want to know some Spanish if you're going on the Camino, because little English is spoken. So they showed us how to get to O'Cebreiro, which was 4 km up the road, where the next albergue was. Albergues are basically hostels for pilgrims and when you get into the Galicia region of Spain, of which Santiago is a part of, the albergues are free for the night. They accept donations and albergues further away from Santiago, lodging is only a few euros. We had to wait in O'Cebreiro until the church openned so that Sarah could obtain her credenciales. I was able to obtain mine at the Asociacion de Amigos de Los Caminos de Santiago de Madrid. So we had breakfast there, met a couple French people who explained how things worked on the trail, and we were off. This is the Pilgrim's Statue right outside O'Cebreiro.

Pedrafita do Cebreiro is about 150 km out and there's a traditional trail for pilgrims by foot that goes through small towns of only few houses. There are these shell indicators along the way as well as yellow arrows, which point where to go when you hit a fork. People occasionally take the time to make an arrow out of pebbles or scribe it in the gravel along the way. After a day or so, you become familiar with the process really quickly.

Still the first day, and a whole bunch of Italians roll by. They were cyclists with disabilities, but they were smoking us. Along the way you'll hear the phrase, "buen camino," which technically means, "good road." Most cyclists and hikers will slow next to you and say that as they pass, wishing you good journey. Many will talk to you, mostly in Spanish, but you will meet a ton of people. It's impossible not to.

After about 40 or so km of hiking on the first day, we arrived at a town called Samos around 17:30. We found our way into the albergue, which was a monastery. Most albergues fill up between the hours of 12:00 to 14:00, depending on when they open for the day, so we were very lucky to find the last two spots here. They happened to be two mattresses in the garage of the monastery, as all the bunks were full. This is the Mosteiro de Samos and that evening and night, it poured.

The next day, it was still raining and Sarah had gone ahead. All I had was an umbrella, which was little protection from the downpour that I had to hike through for about two hours. But I met a couple Italians, David, Fabrizio, and Felipo, who I chatted with for about 45 minutes. They were carrying 25 kg packs because they were going to Finisterra, which is on the Atlantic coast of Spain. It's called so because until the discovery of America, it was thought to be the end of the Earth. You'll want to keep your packs light, less than 12 kg (which is how much my pack was), if possible. The ideal size is probably around 6 to 8 kg, including a couple changes of clothing (but not much, you can do basic laundry by hand in most towns), toiletries, a foam mattress or sleeping back, good hiking sandals(by Keen, they were great), rain gear, and things like water bottles.

Here is the 100 km marker, which was tagged a lot more than most others. I averaged between 25 and 30 km per day, which was plenty. It's not really a good idea to push it further than that for a couple reasons. One is that hiking that far in extreme heat carrying another dozen kilograms is exhausting enough. The second is time. Most packers and pilgrims get up before sunrise (some around 5:00) to begin the day's journey. Every generally reaches their destination by 13:00 or so and the free or cheap albergues are generally full by then. A good pace, I'd say, is five kilometers per hour.

Here's Portomarin, where I reached around 16:00 and could find nothing except a hotel to stay at. But it was nice, even though it was 20 euros, with a great hot shower and a spacious single. I was extremely exhausted coming into Portomarin and headed for the supermarket and a did a binge eating in the hotel room. That night, as well as most after that where my body was completely drained, I crashed at around 20:00. I met an Italian cyclist who rode in late for the night, Andrea, and briefly talked. He had lived in New York for several years, so his English was good, and currently lived in Paris.

The next day, I left around 7:00 (when this photo was taken, morning fog and all), and about an hour down the road, Andrea cycled by and we wished each other a buen camino. Every day feels somewhat different, partially because of the weather, the varying terrain, and the people you meet. Some days you may even need to get out of the way of a herd of cows.

Along the way, you'll find things like this Fuente del Peregrino, which provided water, coffee, tea, cookies, and some information on the Camino for free to pilgrims. I was once even offered crepes with sugar from a village woman who had made some for pilgrims passing though her small town. The people are very friendly and almost all people you come across will talk to you. And you are never alone unless you travel past 14:00 or so. There will always be pilgrims within sight ahead and behind you. Just follow the backpacks.

I reached Palas de Rey completely dead. Along the way, I met a couple older peoople from the Catalan part of Spain and we talked for about an hour. We kept running into each other along the path for about three days. I also met three girls in their mid-20's from Barcelona, who I chatted with for awhile. They were interested to know how I found out about the Camino, so I told them about how I saw an episode of Globe Trekker, and they were pretty amazed. Of course, these conversations were all in Spanish. In the entire journey, I met people from Italy, France, Germany (who I spoke some German to, and they were excited), Alicante, Barcelona, and other parts of Spain. I never met a single Brit, Aussie, or American. I got to Palas de Rey around 13:00 along with many other people and surprise, the albergue was full (completo, in Spanish), so I went to the tourist information booth and asked for the cheapest place to stay. I headed to the pension recommended and for 10 euros, got a great single room with a terrace. That's living large; it would cost at least double in any large city. So here I am, pretty exhausted. When people make it into town, they "descansan" or rest and relax after a hard day's walk or bike. This means having a nice meal and taking in the afternoon heat in the shade. Around 16:00 to 18:00 is when the sun really is unbearable. I slept on my bed for an hour or two before getting some food. Remember to stretch before and after walking because your muscles will cramp up.

You'll also want to keep hydrated. This is at a supermarket in Arzua, where I stayed the next day, and it was definitely the cheapest I saw in Europe. 0,59 euro for five liters. Very cheap considering you have to pay for water everywhere. Anyway, I got to Arzua at 13:30 to see a line formed out the albergue, which was full about ten minutes after I got there. The Barcelona girls were there and decided to head to a rural albergue further along, which is basically what you see Sally Field doing in the movie, Forrest Gump. I had been hiking about 30 km to this point and could not go further, so I ended up looking for another place to stay, which ironically enough, took me about an hour anyway. I found a pension, which is essentially the same as a hostel, but with single or double rooms, not dorms. They also generally have less guests and are cleaner. I got a huge single for 15 euro and next door were a couple Spanish teens blasting some house music. Nevertheless, after some food, I promptly fell asleep.

The next day, I ran into six Spaniards from Alicante, some of which knew English and I hiked with them for awhile. Along with the set of Barcelona girls, they were the youngest people I had met. The guy waving is Pedro and I don't remember the names of the others, but they shared some food with me and were pretty impressed at my age and that I was hiking alone. They were high 30's and included a married couple. Being 22 made me by far one of the youngest person travelling besides families with kids. It's interesting because I met and talked with many groups of people for at least an hour, but after that week, I would probably never see them again. Hiking for six hours a day, the amount of people you meet and talk to adds up. I would hear a little about where they were from and gain some perspective on the world, which came in the form of instant friendship, then instant detachment.

That day I reached Monte do Gozo, which is five km from Santiago. It's a long hike from Arzua and at about 12 km out, the kilometer markers stop. But you can see the airport and Santiago in the distance, so it's a nice feeling to know you're near. Pretty much no matter when you get to the albergue, there will be room for you. It can house something like 800 pilgrims (I think there were a little over 600 pilgrims there, to give you a feel of how many people do the camino, which is year-round). Here is a monument to the camino right before getting to the albergue. The toothpick is from a restaurant down the road. Typically, there are daily menus, where you can choose three or four courses from a pre-selected menu at a reasonable price.

Here's a shot of the view from the complex at Monte do Gozo at sunrise the next day. I had met a French couple who had taken the northern route for five weeks, so it was nice to see talk to them considering they were now only an hour hike away from Santiago. Monte do Gozo is a major stop for pilgrims so that they can take the short walk into Santiago early the next day refreshed. Luckily, that day was a Sunday, so you can see the religious proceedings.

Obviously, I need a picture with this city limit sign. When exiting a city or town, the sign is the same, but with a slash through it.

As with many parts of Spain, many Spaniards take vacations for all of August. They head to the beach or bum around Europe a little bit. Some even do the camino. So if you decide to go to Spain or Italy during August, you may find whole streets completely shut down for a month. It's too hot. Believe me.

As I said, all you have to do is follow the backpacks. You may notice a lot of pilgrims carry walking sticks, which has kind of become symbollic of the camino.

After six days, I reached the zero marker point, the Cathedral of Santiago. It's really quite amazing and a great feeling of accomplishment once you get there. And I only hiked six days. People along the way had told me that for those who just visit Santiago, it's another cathedral, but for pilgrims, it's the most marvelous sight. That's not too far off. You may also find out something obvious along the way, but might not have thought of it. Pilgrims in the old days (dating back to the 9th century) could not simply hop on a bus (as I did) and leave Santiago. They had a reverse pilgrimage walking going by horseback the same distance back home.

Santiago, as I was told many times, was famous for Galician food. This is empanada, which is a type of flakey pastry with things like ham or cheese or vegetables added. Santiago is also known for seafood, which is some of the best in the world. It comes from the Atlantic coast being bombarded by the open sea, whereas the Mediterranean is calmer. A Galician specialty is pulpo or octopus.

Inside the cathedral at noon was the mass, where the bishop read out the nationalities and starting points of all the pilgrims that entered Santiago that week. This is known because you have to get to the Pilgrimage Office to have your credentials verified and you receive your official document of recognition. The cathedral was large and beyond full, little standing room, backpacks and all.

This is the Plaza de Quintana right next to the cathedral, which is bustling with tourists. The architecture is really something to see.

If you explore a couple blocks away from the cathedral, you'll find a park with street vendors on a gravel path. There's a little grassy hill on the side that is the perfect spot to lie down for a bit. It's shaded, comfortable, and has a great view of the city's old center.

Plaza del Obradoiro is the large square in front of the cathedral and it's great to see so many people just sit down in it and relax. Riders and pilgrims are all taking pictures and excited to have made it from wherever they started. After a couple days of being on the trail, your body and mind become accustomed to the rhythm of things and you can spot the hardened veteran pilgrims from the tourists simply stopping in Santiago by plane, train, or bus. But everyone's happy to be there.

This is what the pilgrims and only the pilgrims receive upon reaching Santiago de Compostela. It's a Catholic document with your Latin name, stating that you have completed the pilgrimage route.

You obtain this because along the way, you get sellos or stamps at all the places you stayed at or passed through as evidence you completed the route without use of other transportation. You can only stay at albergues if you have these credenciales also, so be sure to obtain them when you begin. It should be free if you get it at an association of the camino or maybe a euro on the trail.

Taking part in the Camino de Santiago was probably one of the most rewarding things to do. It's an experience unlike typical European backpacking and you get a real sense of the countryside. Though most of it is walking past manure filled dirt roads, living roughly, and eating meagerly, your Spanish skills will be challenged. So will your body, mind, and soul. Everyday is completely exhausting and you have a lot of time to talk to others as well as ponder life by yourself. The landscape is beautiful and you'll pass so many farmers and workers. There will be small towns of a dozen houses with generous and friendly people. It's just a completely different way to see any part of Europe because it's more about rural life and many people are religious, so it's a different crowd. By the way, the Camino doesn't need to be done all at once. I met some people who over the course of four years, went a week per year, starting from Roncesvalles, and every subsequent year got a week's worth closer to Santiago. It can be your pilgrimage, vision quest, exploration of northern Spain, hiking excursion, money-saving backpacking strategy, cultural immersion, bonding experience with friends, family trip, or what have you. The Camino is your own. Buen camino.


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