STAGE 2 of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: PAMPLONA TO LOGRANO
The physical stage became less consuming but remained a dictator of your mood and decisions. My feet seemed to be where my physical issues arose. No matter what I did, I could not prevent blisters regardless of my past mountain climbing experience. Tricks like Compeed or second skin, threading the blister and Vaseline just distracted but did not prevent. Walking through the pain became normal along with a few Advil. It was hard to get started on the walk early each morning but somehow after an hour, the pain would numb.
Groups of friends formed one by one. First, there were the Israeli friends, then the 2 Italians – 1 North 1 South, a German girl just out of school and moi. A simple wish of “Bon Appetito” as I bit into my fresh peach from the roadside actually brought us together. It seemed each one of us had our own stories and physical challenges. One friend had only shoulder pain and no problems with her feet. Another had knee problems which made the downhill more difficult than the uphill. Uphill is tiring but downhill is painful. We started to believe the Camino was sending us a bit of a message. I know this sounds very “pilgrimmy” but, honestly, it was hard not to read into these things. The Camino told me to SLOW down through my feet. The Camino told Zarah that she needed to lighten her load and it told Davide that he should watch where he was going. All of this through the physical messages we received from our own bodies – feet, shoulders, knees. Ok so I will not get too into that. Otherwise, I am sure you will think I am super granola and non-credible! Although I was eating blackberries from the bushes that lined the Camino – very granola move!
The second stage began to feel like the MENTAL stage. You are now accustomed to the Camino – it’s markers, varied terrain, sleeping quarters, early mornings, food options, shared showers, hand washing socks, etc. The time begins to allow for lots of real thinking. I found that while walking you were thinking about your life in terms of the big 5…where you live, your job, relationships, family and accomplishments. A lot seemed to focus on the logistical… Do I want to move to another city? What will my next career move be? What should I change so I can meet someone? Do I need to pay more attention to my family? What do I want to accomplish next? I expected to think about these things so it was not surprising and felt good.
Rest days, to take one or not? I found when I took one it was shocking. Why? Because I missed walking! I couldn’t believe it. I hated not “getting anywhere.” So, I only took rest days when I could not walk because of the blisters. Every now and then, there was a place that offered foot massages. And yes, this New Yorker was all over that.
One of the best albergues was Hotel Jacko in Puente La Reina. There seemed to be a sense of community and a really nice shady, outdoor space to hang out. I stayed in a combination of municipal albergues for about 5 euro a night, private albergues for about 10 euro a night and hostels for 18-35 euro a night, a rare private room treat.
Views from this point started to include huge sunflower fields, lots of tall picturesque windmills standing above the fields, statues in honor of the pilgrims that define this part of the country, very little shade, an occasional stream to soak our feet in and old stone bridges that lead right into each new town. There were times it was a real treat to take the extra side trail or detour to see something great that may have been off the path a bit. For instance, on the day we were walking to Pamplona, there was a fork. Choosing the more challenging uphill trek was awesome in the end. Megan and I wound up visiting the church of St. Stephen, with the oldest bell tower in Navarro. The volunteers at the quaint and special church even let us go up and ring the huge old bell.
STAGE 3 of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: LOGRANO TO LEON
Burgos. This was a pleasant surprise. A fantastic city, which was even better than I had expected. It was not as big as Lograno or Leon but full of personality with the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen, a vibrant nightlife, main square, good tapas or pinchos, mazes of cobblestone streets, museums and tree lined streets along the waterway. If you are a pilgrim, use this as a rest day.
This led into the Meseta, also known as the inferno. A section that is skipped if a pilgrim needs to make up time or is not going to have enough time at the end (Burgos to Leon). This area is a huge open space with nothing but a flat path, tall grass and sun beating down until the miracle of the next small village magically appears (just as you begin cursing how you ever wound up on this damn trip in the first place.) But, the nights do offer satisfaction that you made it another day because you are 30 kilometers closer to Leon and you have some of the Meseta behind you.
One of my favorite parts of staying in the albergues with new friends was when we would decide to get food at the market and cook together. The Italians surprised us with an amazing Pasta Carbonara dinner that brought us closer as a group and even saved us money. Most places have a full kitchen knowing that “home” cooking is common for pilgrims to do on the Camino.
STAGE 4 of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: LEON TO SARRIA
Astorga is a smaller city, but lively, with a few unusual highlights. When walking the streets, there seemed to be many café options surrounded by a pilgrim museum and the mark of Gaudi architecture everywhere. For a pilgrim, or anyone really, the famous artisanal chocolate was awesome and guilt free after walking 30 kilometers a day.
Stage number 3 is the EMOTIONAL stage. You are no longer having tip top thoughts about life. You are digging deeper without even realizing. Instead of wondering about next steps in my career, I found the thinking to be more along the lines of “Am I REALLY happy, I mean really?” Eventually, everyone hits close to rock bottom here, unearthing concerns and issues that maybe were not apparent at home when days move so much faster.
Between Rabanal del Camino and Molinaseca is the Iron Cross. This is where pilgrims leave that rock they have been carrying all the way from their home country. It is left as a symbol of leaving troubles and burdens behind. The feeling of being lighter was hard to miss after this stop, and my rock was only the size of a walnut.
While visiting the Castle of the Templar Knights in Ponferrada with my new Swedish friends, we heard the stories of how the knights protected the traveling pilgrims from the Moors and other wrongdoers. Plus the castle was out of a storybook. A good stop.
In the municipal albergue of Villafranca we were served a huge group paella dinner. This sense of community and the sharing of stories made the night special… Australians, British, Polish, more Italians, Southern Spanish and Japanese at a large farm table. Take this unique Camino opportunity if you find it at an accommodation.
I found some other things along the way: a woman biking with a bird in a birdcage on her back instead of a backpack, a sweet man selling jewelry at the House of the Rosary in Herrerias, a German run albergue in La Faba, the opportunity to ride horses for a section of the steep trail to OCebreiro and a man that had been walking for 5 months – he started in Budapest!
STAGE 5 of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: SARRIA TO SANTIAGO
Unfortunately this is the part where reserving a place to stay a day or 2 ahead of time becomes necessary unless you are prepared to sleep outside under the stars (which is not entirely a bad thing). This planning is needed because Sarria marks the last 100 kilometers. You are able to get your certificate of completion of the Camino in Santiago as long as you can show you walked the minimum, which is the last 100 kilometers of the way. So many that do not have enough time or are not interested in the entire pilgrimage will start in Sarria and inevitably create a scramble for beds. The feeling becomes one of “just deal with it” so as not to tarnish such a journey. But it does become quite crowded when walking.
Pleasant surprises to note: In Portomarin, we found a huge public pool to indulge in at the end of the days walk. Surprisingly, there are pools in some towns on the Camino and, at certain albergues, there are even private pools. Another surprise was when we came across a festival where the locals were singing and dancing and playing music in the town square. This can often happen in the summer and on weekend nights. The town of Melide had the most amazing presentation of octopus I have ever seen and we were not even near the coast! The smell of eucalyptus we had heard about finally grabbed us in the forests of Galicia along with the rain. At least we used our rain gear. The last thing a pilgrim wants is to carry something across Spain that they did not use!
In Santiago, it was disappointing that the Cathedral was under construction due to last winter’s snow but the 12:00 pilgrim mass and smaller masses offered in your native language were beautiful and a way to come to grips with the last stage, or stage 4, of the Camino – the SPIRITUAL. I won’t say religious but I will say spiritual because it applies across all beliefs. Santiago was a reality check because of the number of tourists but your elation when standing on the line to get your Compostela does, in fact, overtake all of that if you let it. Cobblestone streets, a Celtic overtone, a thick history and, of course, the end of the 800 kilometer Camino make this a coveted place after walking for 5 weeks. Yes, walking for 5 weeks. In my American mind, I just walked from Eastern New York to Ohio!
STAGE 6 of the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: SANTIAGO TO FINISTERRE
Many of the pilgrims choose to continue walking to the coast, the end – to the small fishing village of Finisterre. Finisterre is most known for being the end of the earth before Columbus made his great find. After walking the four extra days or 100 kilometers more, the tradition is to embrace one of the most amazing sunsets in the world and to burn an item you have been carrying the entire Camino for complete closure. My trail sneakers were the obvious choice. And it did feel like a new beginning watching that little fire burn over the sea on the edge of Spain.
What I really learned on the Camino de Santiago can go into these simple buckets:
- It IS possible to walk or work through pain.
- Living in the moment is not a cliché but a something real to strive for.
- Everyone does it their own way, and there is not a wrong way.
- You never know what or who is around the next corner.
- We really don’t need much, what you can carry on your back is actually enough.
- Taking care of yourself IS important, all else fails if you ignore this.
- The challenge is much less scary if you take it literally one step at a time.
- I am going the right way.
When I learn things like this, my trip becomes an experience and a part of me rather than just a trip.