In the Footsteps of Pilgrims; an Overview of the Camino de San Salvador

Quien va a Santiago y no a San Salvador, sirve al criado y deja al Senor.

He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, honors the servant and forsakes the Lord.

I saw these words painted onto the wall of the albergue in La Robla. It was the end of my first day walking the Camino de San Salvador, and I knew remarkably little about what to expect of the 120km route, and I was walking it alone. What did the words mean? I snapped a photo but quickly I pushed them to the back of my mind; all I could focus on was my hunger, the strain in my legs, the eerie quiet of the albergue.

I walked the San Salvador in late July 2016, with little knowledge of the route. I knew where it would begin and where it would end, I had a 13-page guide written in 2010 saved onto my phone. The route began in Leon, and like I’d done on past Camino’s, I found my first yellow arrow and just started walking.

It all worked out in the end; I made it through the mountains, I found things to eat, I found beds to lay my head on at night, and I made it to Oviedo. But it was not an easy Camino, it was not without struggles. The thought of pulling together a short guide for this route came to me as I was walking my final day. I would have loved some tips on how to get into the albergues when I arrived to find them locked, I would have loved some general advice about the trail, I would have loved to know what the waymarking was really like.

So this is that post, a collection of general thoughts and specific advice and information about the Camino de San Salvador. I’m including several links which will be immeasurably helpful for anyone undertaking this particular journey, and I will be more than happy to try to answer any of your questions, if you think of something that is not included here.

If you’d like to read about my journey before looking through this post, here are those entries:

Solitude and Cheap Red Wine; Day One of the Camino de San Salvador (Leon to La Robla; 27km)

The Things We Carry; Day Two on the San Salvador (La Robla to Poladura; 25km)

The Only Peregrina on the Trail; Day Three on the San Salvador (Poladura to Pajares, 15km)

Walking Each Other Home; Day Four on the San Salvador (Pajares to Pola de Lena, 28ish km)

Sick in Spain; Day Five on the San Salvador (Pola de Lena to Oviedo, 34km)

Why Does This Route Matter?

Here’s a quick history lesson (and it makes me wish that I had been more fully aware of the history of this route while I was walking it!): The 120km Camino de San Salvador connects two major cities in the north of Spain- Leon and Oviedo. Back in the 7th century, King Alfonso II made a pilgrimage to Santiago, beginning in Oviedo. At the time, Oviedo was the capital of Spain, and King Alfonso had a holy chamber built in Oviedo’s cathedral to guard all the relics that had been moved there, to be kept safe from the invading Moors. When political power shifted and the new capital moved to Leon, the main pilgrimage trail also shifted: away from the Norte and Primitivo routes, and to the Frances (which remains the most popular to this day). But the relics stayed in the cathedral in Oviedo, and because pilgrims were encouraged to pay devotion here, it became necessary to develop a route between the cities of Leon and Oviedo. Enter, the Camino de San Salvador.

I may have been hazy on the details while I walked the San Salvador, but I knew enough to visit the cathedral in Oviedo when my trek was finally complete. Pilgrims receive a discount on the audio tour and, I believe, don’t have to pay anything if they only want to visit the statue of San Salvador. (My memory about that could be incorrect; in any case, it’s worth it to pay a few euros and see the cathedral). Make sure to stop at the statue! You can pick up a Salvadorana (like a compostela), a document that certifies your completion of the route, in the gift shop of the cathedral as well as in the Oviedo albergue.

Why Should I Walk This Route?

I wouldn’t recommend the San Salvador as your first Camino, unless you are an experienced trekker/hiker and prefer solitude while you hike. Otherwise, I’d encourage you to begin with the Frances, or even the Norte or the Primitivo. I’ve heard that the Camino Portugues is another good option. There were many times on the San Salvador when I forgot that I was on a Camino; instead, it felt like a good, hard trek through beautiful mountain country in the north of Spain. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re interested in the social aspect of a Camino, then this route may be a little too ‘off the beaten path’ for you.

But, there are so many reasons to tackle this Camino. I think it’s the perfect second or even third Camino, especially if you’ve already done the Frances and/or the Norte. The San Salvador is about a 4 or 5 or 6 day trek, and then it easily links up with the Primitivo, which begins in Oviedo. The Primitivo averages about 11 days, giving you a solid 2+ week Camino into Santiago.

The route is beautiful. It is well-waymarked. There are just enough albergues and towns with accommodation to allow you to plan a route to your fitness level/liking. You get to hit both Leon AND Oviedo. The locals, when you encounter them, are friendly and curious. And you earn a little Camino cred when you can tick this route off of your list. “The San Salvador?” people who’ve heard mention of it will say. “Isn’t that the most difficult, most beautiful route of them all?”

So How Hard Is It, Really?

It’s no walk in the park. My experience may not be the best measuring stick; I’m a strong and fit walker who once did a 50+ km day, but for almost my entire San Salvador trek I was feeling under the weather (and was very sick on my last day of walking). So overall, I found the route to be rather difficult, but I wasn’t at my best. And, surprisingly, I didn’t think the most difficult section was as difficult as I’d feared. It wasn’t easy, but just take it slow and you’ll be fine. You’re going to climb, but is it any more difficult than the trek through the Pyrenees on the first day of the Frances? Or more difficult than the Hospitales route on the Primitivo? Or the first several days of the Norte? A lot depends on how you split up your days, and I (wisely) chose to keep one of the most difficult stretches to a short, 14km day. I think that helped a lot.

The route can sort of be described by three sections: the first is in the province of Leon, and for about 40km follows the east bank of the Rio Benesga. This walking is fairly flat, there is some minor road walking but it’s mostly on dirt paths. The second section crosses the Cordillera mountain range (part of the Picos de Europa) to Pajares, a village in Asturias, and there are some hefty ascents and descents here. Guides claim that the last section of the trail is relatively flat (though all I can remember from my last day of walking was a very long, never-ending uphill stretch and I thought I would never make it to the top. So in this case, ‘mostly flat’ must have meant ‘no mountains to cross’. Basically, expect some hills in this last section).

How Long Does it Take to Walk the San Salvador?

There are many ways to break up this route, and I’ll list a few of them for you based on my own experience and what I’ve found in other guides. I intended to walk the route in 4 days: I consider myself an experienced pilgrim and before coming to Spain I had been doing some light hiking in the mountains in France, so I thought I might be able to tackle some long days. But after my first day of walking I decided that I needed to slow down and tack on a extra day to the walk, splitting the 120km into 5 stages. This worked for me; some will use 7 or 8 days to complete the trek, and I met a woman who did the San Salvador in 3 days (HOW????). So think about your comfort level and experience and how much time you have, and plan accordingly. (Note: the distances are approximate; sometimes my phone showed me very different totals, but these are what the guides I found report).

My route (5 days):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27 km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km

4 days:
Day 1: Leon – Buiza, 40km
Day 2: Buiza – Pajares, 28km
Day 3: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 4: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km

5 days (another option):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Campomanes, 28kmDay 4: Campomanes – Mieres, 27km
Day 5: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km

6 days:
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 6: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km

7 days:
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16km
Day 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 4: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 5: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 6: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 7: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km

8 days:
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16kmDay 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Buiza, 15km
Day 4: Buiza – Poladura, 10km
Day 5: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 6: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 7: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 8: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km

I’ve Heard the Route is Very Isolated; Am I Going to Get Lost?

I was a little worried about this after walking my first day on the San Salvador. That first day was well-marked, but I knew that soon I’d be heading into the mountains, and the guide I had warned of several confusing sections ahead. In the albergue on that first night I found another guide on the bookshelf, this one was a thick booklet, compiled by a man named Ender, filled with pages of photos and descriptions in Spanish (here’s the link, this one has been translated to English, and I’ll reference it again later on). I snapped a photo of every single page and kept these stored on my phone in case I’d need to use them. This guide, as well, showed several areas in great detail, as if to warn pilgrims of the possibility of losing the path. So I was worried when I headed off into the mountains, but I hadn’t needed to be: the waymarking on the entire route was exceptional. Sometime in the years between when I walked (2016) and when my guide was published (2010), someone came through and carefully put markings all along the path, especially in the confusing sections.

Now, I want to add that I was very careful to read through my guide and study the photos from Ender’s guide before I set off each morning, and typically checked them again on my breaks. I wanted to have a visual of the areas I’d be walking through, and to read up on anything about the trail in case it would be helpful. Maybe I didn’t need to be this careful because I remember lots and lots of arrows along the route, but I still think my preparation helped. I was alone, so this extra vigilance gave me some confidence as I walked through the isolated mountain paths.

The Camino markings changed with each section of the route; the first 50km are marked with brown posts, the middle section with yellow metal scallop shells (welded and painted by Ender, author of that wonderful guide!), and the last 50km have the concrete posts with the blue and yellow shell (like those you’d find in Galicia). All along the way are yellow arrows, as well.

You’ve Mentioned Wandering Alone Through the Mountains. Am I Going to Meet Any Other Pilgrims?

Maybe. On the route, possibly not, but almost certainly a few in the albergues (unless, perhaps, you walk in the winter but I wouldn’t recommend it because of bad weather on the mountain passes. Be careful in the spring, as well). You will most likely meet at least a few other pilgrims, but they won’t be many. All of the Camino routes are becoming more popular (and I’m writing this guide with hopes to encourage others to try this route, so I suppose I’m adding to this trend), but I suspect that the San Salvador is never going to become overwhelmingly crowded. It’s a little too unknown, and to those who’ve heard of it, it has a reputation of being difficult.

That being said, more are walking than a few years ago, and I suppose that some days can feel ‘crowded’. Rumor had it that a week prior to when I walked, there were 18 people (!) staying in the albergue in La Robla (where I spent my first night). On my trip, I was the only one in that albergue until 7:30pm, and then was joined by a few bikers and one other walker. On my second night I was all alone in the albergue, the third night I’d needed to take a room in a pension because the albergue was closed (bed bugs, I suspect), though 4 pilgrims were also staying in that pension. Then, on the last night before Oviedo, there were 5 other pilgrims in the albergue with me. But this was in July! And in all of my walking, I only passed that group of 4 pilgrims once on the 4th day of walking. Otherwise, I never saw another pilgrim actually on the path of the Camino. For someone like me, who loves solo-walking, this was incredible, and I felt like I had the mountains all to myself. But an isolated route like this one might not be to everyone’s taste (or, if you’re worried about being alone, bring a friend!).

What Other Tips Do You Have For Me?

#1: This is the biggest one: have a working cell phone with you. There are a few reasons this could come in handy: for one, you’re on a rugged, sometimes difficult trail through the mountains and there are not many people on it with you. If anything goes wrong, it would be good to have a way to get help. I need to follow my own advice because my US cell does not have an international calling plan, and I neglected to set up a SIM card in my phone that would allow me to make local calls. Luckily, I never needed the phone because of injury or danger (and to be honest, this didn’t occur to me as I walked but I promise I’ll be smarter about this in the future), however, I did need a phone for a different reason: the albergues.

Twice on this route, I arrived to an albergue to find it empty, and locked. There was always a sign on the door with a phone number- problem was, I had no way to make the phone call. But in both instances the albergues were in small towns and in the first I was able to have a woman in the tourism office help me, and in the second I was able to find a pay phone. At another point on the route, I’d needed to call ahead to a town to reserve dinner for the night, so I needed to track down another pay phone to make this happen. You could always ask another pilgrim to use their phone- but it’s hard when you’re in an albergue alone and have no one to ask.

Click here to be taken to a link on the Camino forum about how to set up a SIM card on your phone, once in Spain.

#2: My second tip is this: learn a bit of Spanish before you go. I’ve been on a few Camino’s in Spain and have picked up just a tiny bit of Spanish (which means I can sometimes understand a few words of what is being spoken around me, and have learned the basic pilgrim lingo). But on this Camino, I really wished I could have spoken at least conversational Spanish. I got by without it, but I think I met three people in those 5 days who could speak a little English, and it was frustrating to have questions about the route and the albergues and how to find food in the next town and not be able to easily ask them (or understand the answers when I could). Plus, how nice would it be to chat with the locals, rather than only wave and smile?

#3: Take your time walking the middle-ish section through the mountains, which could possibly mean stretching your planned walk from 4 days to 5, or 5 days to 6 (and more specifically, I recommend doing a 14km day from Poladura to Pajares). This section is difficult, so it may take you longer than anticipated anyway, but you will appreciate having extra time to go slow and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Tell Me About a Favorite Moment from Your Camino:

I wrote about this on my blog, but I’ll tell it again, here. On my second day of walking I was about to head into a long, isolated stretch that wouldn’t pass by any towns or villages for a long time. I had a decent amount of food in my pack but I wanted to stock up a bit more, so I set off to find a grocery store. It was early in the morning and neither store I found was opened. Rather than wait around, I decided to head into a bar and buy a pastry; it would be my treat once I got to the top of the mountain. But when I asked for a croissant ‘to-go’, the man behind the counter just looked at me in confusion, then disappeared to the kitchen for about 10 minutes. When he finally emerged, he handed me a beautiful package: a croissant on a plate, wrapped in tissue paper and tied up with brown string. He placed it in my hands and I thanked him over and over but all I could think was- how in the world am I going to fit this into my pack? I couldn’t. So I walked up that mountain with my walking stick in one hand, my croissant in the other. And when I finally made it to the top and found a place to rest on a large, flat rock in the sunshine, I finally opened my package. That croissant was maybe the best thing I’d ever tasted.

Here are some resources to help with your planning:

Link to Ender’s guide, translated into English
San Salvador page on the Camino forum (with tons of helpful threads)
CSJ Guide (this is the more updated version of the one I had)
Piers Nicholson’s Picture Website (300 photos of San Salvador)

There is so much more I could describe and share from the Camino de San Salvador, but this is a good start. If you’re interested in this route, please write a comment or send me a message- I would love to answer any questions you might have.

Buen Camino!

My Travel Plans for 2017

2017 is already shaping up to be a good year, and it’s only just begun. Somehow, incredibly, I’ve already got my summer plans figured out.

This is unprecedented.

Last year, in particular, I had such a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do, and I became frustrated by my indecision. I have this somewhat unique opportunity to spend two months of my year doing whatever I like, and I was letting myself become stressed over the decision. I felt ridiculous. And yet, I went back and forth a dozen times, wanting to do it all: wanting to return to my favorite places and experiences, and wanting to try something brand new. I wondered if I should travel to some place other than Europe, I wondered if I should stick closer to home.

You already know what I decided (England, France, Spain, Scotland), and it ended up being the perfect balance of all the things I was craving out of my summertime adventure.

This time around? A few weeks ago I decided to see what flight prices to Paris might be like for June/July. And what I discovered nearly took my breath away: the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen on round-trip, direct flights from Philly to Paris in the summertime. (Well, that’s not entirely true, I got an even cheaper flight back in 2003 but that was a long time ago).

So I did something a bit out of character- I ran into my bedroom, grabbed my wallet from my purse, and before I knew it I had purchased the flight.

Then, I shot off an email to the owners of La Muse (the writer’s and artist’s retreat I visited last summer), and asked about availability. There’s been talk of a few of us from last year reuniting again in July, plus there was an attractive holiday discount being dangled around. The next day I got an email back- “We’d love to have you return!!” and before I knew it, I had myself booked in a room for three weeks.

And then, after a week of browsing through Airbnb apartments in Paris (which was way more fun than I ever expected!), I found a tiny little space on the 7th floor of an old building in St Germain, that has a balcony with views to the Eiffel Tower.

This year, there was very little of the indecision that I’ve had in the past. There are still so many things I want to do and so many places I want to travel to, but for whatever reason, this year’s choice felt easy. I’m going back to France, and I’m going to spend the entire summer there.

I love France, you already know that. Each of my trips to Europe these past four summers have included some time in France (and a mandatory jaunt through Paris, even if only for a day, like this past year). I can speak French- not well, but I improve the more I have the chance to speak. I studied abroad in Toulouse back in 2000-2001, and at the end of that year I said to myself: “This could be a problem. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I have a feeling that instead of going to new places, I’m always going to want to come back to France.”

And it could almost drive me mad, the thought that I was existing in the world and Paris was existing too but that I was not there.

Some people, when they travel, will always want to go somewhere new, and I can understand that. “Why return to the same place when you’ve already been there? There are so many places in the world to explore!” they say. I think I will continue to travel to new places throughout my life, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I love, I don’t often get tired of it. I can go back- again and again- to the same things and places and learn to love them more fully. And I experience so much happiness when I return to a place that I love.

And so, I’m going back to France.

The trip is going to have three parts- La Muse and Paris, but what would a summer trip be without some walking? You knew this was coming. But instead of squeezing in a trip to Spain, I’m going to stay settled in France, and try a couple weeks on one of the Camino trails through this country. My plan, for now, is to walk the Le Puy route, which cuts a sloping line, east to west, sort of through the southern half of France. I’ll begin at the start- in Le Puy-en-Velay- and walk as far as I can in two weeks. I’ve heard that this is the most beautiful and popular Camino route in France, and that some parts may be challenging but I suspect that it’s nothing I can’t handle.

A walk in France isn’t a walk in Spain; there will be some big differences. France is more expensive, I’ll need to make reservations each night, there won’t be nearly as many people on the trails (though I sure had a large dose of isolation on the San Salvador!), and most of the people walking will be French.

The walking will kick off my trip, then I’ll take a train to La Muse and continue work on my writing and my memoir. The summer journey ends with a week in Paris, and this feels just right. It’s my favorite city in the world, and I certainly have more exploring that I need to do there. But settling into an apartment in the heart of a city that I’m already familiar with gives me the chance to just… be. To drink coffee on the little balcony and stare at the magical views. To make my way to a different café every day and scribble away in a notebook. To keep writing in a city where so many greats have gone to write. To wander, to roam.

It’s going to be a very French summer, and I have to tell you, I’m so excited for it. 2017 already feels like it’s going to be a big, incredible year, and having this trip half-planned sure helps. So as they say in France: Bonne Année! Let’s all make it a good one.

The Last, Perfect Camino Day; Day 9 on the Camino del Norte (Miraz to Sobrado dos Monxes, 25km)

Warning: this is a long post. I think this is what happens when I write after the Camino ends, when I’ve had time to think about my days and reflect on all that happened. So maybe grab a cup of coffee or a glass of good Spanish wine and read about my last day on the Camino.

It seems like each time I do a Camino, I have one perfect day. Or, a day that’s just all-around so good and I feel so happy that I don’t want to even think about it too much- I just want to be in the day, in each moment of it, soaking it all up. On the Camino Frances it was the day I walked into Burgos; last year, it was the day on the Primitivo when my friends and I cobbled together some food and ate in the garden of the albergue under a setting sun.

And this year, it was my very last day on the Camino. How beautiful is that? It seemed like good Camino symmetry, that I’d had a rather difficult and isolated time overall, until the very end. And the very end felt magical.

All three of these ‘perfect days’ have something in common: I spent them with people whose company I truly enjoyed, people who I felt connected to. This makes me laugh, because I spend so much time alone on these Camino journeys; walking alone is important to me, facing challenges alone makes me grow, being happy and content with my own company is something I admire about myself.

But in the end, I need people. I think we all do.

My last post left off in the albergue of Miraz, where I’d eaten a hearty pasta dinner cooked by an Italian woman and eaten with a table full of new friends. I woke in the morning knowing I wouldn’t get an early start- the hospitaleros prepared a simple breakfast for us that they began to serve at 7am, so after a couple cups of strong coffee and a large stack of jellied toast, I didn’t set off until well after 7:30.

From my seat at the table in the albergue kitchen, I had watched the light change out the window. At first a dark, almost navy blue that slowly shifted and thinned, turning pale and then pink and orange tinged at the horizon and it was a perfectly clear, pastel colored sky.

I sat watching this sky in the albergue, wanting to be out there, walking, but at the same time content to sip my coffee and crunch into another piece of toast and make groggy conversation with the pilgrim sitting across from me. I almost felt like I was beginning to master something on this Camino (though in reality I’ve probably still got lots of work to do): I was able to just be in the moment, letting go of expectation and control of how I thought things should go or how I wanted them to go. I had learned to let go of worry or stress, and to just sort of take each day for what it was going to give me. I’m still frustrated that I got sick on my Camino, but if there was one take away, it was that everything felt so much easier once I started to feel better. And that I was reminded that feeling and being healthy is maybe the thing I’m most grateful for; if I have my health then I’m able to walk, I’m able to enjoy the food on the table in front of me, I’m able to smile and talk to a stranger. I’m able to be alive in the world.

So for the end of my Camino, I felt so settled into my days, accepting of whatever they would look like: if I would be alone, if I would make a new friend, if I would fly through the walk or if I would feel the burn in my legs. I had no need to make my last day into anything- to frantically fill it with all my favorite things, to make sure I drank Rioja wine or to have a cafe con leche break, to ensure that I would walk alone, to walk to a beautiful sunrise, to arrive at an albergue at any given time. Maybe I’d have these things and maybe I wouldn’t; it was okay.

This is a long way to open a post about my last day, but I’m reflecting on it now because I think my attitude probably contributed to how beautiful this day turned out to be (and it’s a reminder of how I try to keep living, back at home… it’s awfully hard but I’m trying).

When I did finally leave the albergue, full of coffee and bread and the warmth of the hopsitaleros and my new friends, the walk was beautiful. The day was beautiful: it was barely 60 degrees and a strong wind was blowing and the world around me felt a little wild, and free. And by extension, I felt a little wild, and free. I was alone for most of my walk, facing forward but also turning around to catch the sun reaching over the peaks of distance hills. The light was golden and cast long, deep shadows across the reddish dirt and rough stone. I walked, sometimes feeling like I was gliding, being pushed along by the wind.

And as I approached my destination, Sobrado dos Monxes (after a 25km walk), I didn’t feel sad or anxious to try to capture the last steps of this year’s Camino, to savor each one. I just felt… good.

Just before the small town of Sobrado is a small lake, and sitting off to the side along a stone wall was a big group of Spanish teenagers and a few young adults. One of them flagged me down, and began speaking quickly. When I told them I spoke English, another came over to translate. “Do you know where we are?” he asked. They wanted to know where I had come from- they were walking in the opposite direction, not on the Camino exactly, but maybe on a scouting/camping trip. I mentioned the names of towns I’d seen as I walked, and pulled out my guidebook and pointed at a map, to help them orient themselves.

I walked away feeling satisfied that someone had asked me for direction, knowing that I felt sure about where I was, what was behind me, where I was going. I walked a few more steps and saw two pilgrims sitting on a small dock at the water’s edge. They were two English guys who I’d seen a couple times the day before; we chatted for a few minutes- they were killing time because apparently the albergue in Sobrado didn’t open until 4pm. It was almost 1:30 at this point but I didn’t want to linger too long, I wanted to get into the town and find a restaurant where I could get a good meal. One of the guys nodded and said, “Natalie passed by about 15 minutes ago, so she’s just ahead of you.”

I grinned as I walked away, pleased that this pilgrim had linked me together with Natalie, even though I’d only met her yesterday. And I was pleased that she wasn’t far ahead of me. I’d known that just about everyone I’d been in the albergue with the night before was planning to stay in Sobrado- the albergue is in an old monastery and there were over 100 beds available for pilgrims. So I continued walking and I arrived at the monastery to read a sign posted on the door: the albergue had been open until 1:30, and would reopen at 4:00. I checked my phone for the time- it was 1:38. I had just missed a chance to drop off my pack and claim a bed, but in keeping with the theme of the day, I wasn’t bothered by it. I noticed a German man who I’d met briefly the morning before, and for some reason- even though he hadn’t stayed in the Miraz albergue with us and I didn’t even know his name- I considered him part of our group of solo walkers. I grinned and shrugged at our bad luck and said, “Lets go find some lunch.”

We went back to the main square of the town, looked around, and I picked a bar that had a large black board propped against the wall, listing some items from the day’s menu. After using translators on our phones to decipher the food choices, we ordered and took glasses of wine to a table outside. No sooner had we settled in than Natalie, Silvia, Michael and Matthias walked up (they had made it into the albergue before 1:30). They laughed and cheered when they saw us, and we all crowded around the table, then moved inside when the wind started blowing over chairs and knocking over glasses.

My food came out first, and it was then that we realized we had stumbled onto something great. This wasn’t just another Spanish bar with bland lettuce and watery tomatoes, fried slabs of meat, hunks of white bread. I’m sure there are restaurants like this in larger cities on the Camino (I’ve even been to a few good ones), but this was a hidden gem in a small, dusty town. On the outside and on the inside, it looked like any other bar, maybe a touch more modern, a touch more clean. But the food! The guy bringing out our dishes was the chef, and he owned this restaurant. He was young and full of energy and ideas. He could speak some English (which I hadn’t encountered much), and explained that his menu evolved; he aimed to use the freshest, most local ingredients, and so he cooked with whatever was available and in season.

And it was evident in the food that we ordered. My salad wasn’t a normal ‘ensalada mixta’: the lettuce looked like it had been picked sometime in the last hour (and maybe it had; it took awhile for the food to get to us). The tomatoes were the right color of red, there were thin slices of radish and a broiled cheese that I couldn’t identify but the flavors burst on my tongue and I scraped up every last bit. My next dish was mounds of smoked salmon piled on top of an avocado mousse and layered on thick toast and there was so much I could only finish it because it was so good.

I’m not totally sure of what everyone else was eating because I was so absorbed in own meal, all I know is that everyone was raving over the quality of the food. I saw some sort of pulled pork, and long plates of deep green padron peppers. We drank glasses of wine, and then more glasses of wine. When the chef came to ask us if we wanted dessert, we rubbed our stomachs, looked at each other, and asked what he was making.

I ordered his personal recommendation, in English he called it “cream cheese with jelly”, but even he knew that this description didn’t do the dish justice. “Just try it,” he said. “It’s made with ingredients unique to Galicia, and it is the very best.”

And it was. After dessert we ordered coffee, because there’s nothing like a strong shot of espresso to end a really long and really good meal. We thanked the chef countless times and raved over his food and he urged us to come back later that night. (I’m kicking myself for not noting the name of this restaurant; my google searches are bringing up nothing).

Just as we were leaving, I noticed the two English guys I had passed on my way into Sobrado. One of them- the handsome, blond one with long hair pulled back into a knot at the back of his head- was paying at the bar and I decided to walk over and talk to him. I did it without giving it much thought; he had caught my eye and I wanted to say hi. I was feeling good from the weight of the wine and the fullness of my meal, from the soft morning sunlight and the wild wind, from the freedom I’d felt as I walked and the confidence I had at the end of this journey through Spain.

We stood at the bar, talking, then moved outside to where his friend was sitting, then all walked together back to the monastery. We stood in line together and waited to check in, talking about the day’s walk, about where we lived, about our ideas for the future. I was so distracted by the conversation, by the English guy’s light blue eyes and his nice smile that it wasn’t until we were almost at the front of the line that I realized I had left my walking stick behind.

My stick! You guys know how much my walking sticks mean to me on these Caminos, and this year was no exception. I’d found the stick on my second day of the San Salvador and it was different than the sticks I’d carried on my other Caminos but I’d learned how to carry it so that it fit into my hand perfectly, I learned to love it. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten distracted by a guy and left it behind. I was about to turn around and go retrieve it, but then I realized that I didn’t need it anymore. My walking was done, the stick had fulfilled its purpose, I was going to leave it behind that day anyway. (I did go back later to look for the stick, but it was gone. And that, despite knowing I was going to leave it behind anyway, made me a little sad).

I’m amazed that I don’t have a good photo of this year’s walking stick. So here’s another shadow photo.


We got our beds and I showered and a French woman I’d never met before asked if I wanted to share the washing machine with her so I didn’t have to hand wash my clothes. While my clothes were washing I walked around, exploring the monastery. I couldn’t quite believe that I was staying here on my last day of Camino walking. It was my kind of place. Old and nearly abandoned, crumbling and decaying, vines growing through empty windowpanes, the flap of pigeon wings echoing around the vacant spaces. In many ways it was sad to see this beautiful, imposing building left to rot, left behind. But it was also quietly beautiful, more beautiful to me than so many of the gilded and ornate churches that dot the path of the Camino.

The rest of the afternoon and evening went by too fast, and I wanted more time. Time to run my errands and wander through the town. Time to write postcards to my friends and family, time to explore more of the monastery, time to talk to my new friends. I was able to do some of this, all of this, but I wanted just a bit more. More, and yet, what I had was enough. A big group of us did go back to the same restaurant where we’d had lunch, we ordered several bottles of wine and plates of tapas and stayed until just before 10:00, and then we had to rush back to the albergue before we got locked out.

At some point in the evening, Natalie asked me if I was sad that my Camino was over, that I couldn’t continue on to Santiago. And you know, I surprised myself a little that my answer was ‘no’. It would have been wonderful to continue on for two or three more days to Santiago, to try to stick with the group I’d found, and with the people I was continuing to meet. But a few days into the San Salvador I’d known that I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago this year, and despite my recent connections, I was okay to say goodbye that night. The entire day had felt surrounded by a haze of that ol’ Camino magic- and I was happy. Content with the way I’d walked, excited about a new adventure to come, but mostly just focused on the beautiful place I was in at the moment, the beautiful people surrounding me.

Walking back to the albergue under a half moon and the fading light of the sky, my friends before me, I thought to myself, “This is the perfect end to a Camino. I don’t need anything else.”

The Camino Magic is Back; Day 8 on the Camino del Norte, Baamonde to Miraz, 15km

It was my second to last day of walking in Spain when everything changed. I’m not sure what happened; I think it was the moment I decided what the Camino experience was going to be like for me, when I said: “It’s just a really solo walk. Not about connection and families and friendship, it’s about me.” That’s when the Camino showed up and responded with, “What have I tried to tell you, time and time again, Nadine? You’ll never walk alone.”

I suppose I helped determine my own path a bit, in addition to whatever Camino magic was happening in those last days. On the morning of my 8th day of walking, when I left Baamonde, I stopped in the bar just around the corner from my albergue for a cafe con leche and a croissant. As I got ready to leave, I saw a girl sitting alone at a table near the door; I’d noticed her the night before, as well, sitting alone on a couch and reading.

When I passed her I paused, and then stopped and introduced myself. Her name was Natalie, and she was from Belgium. We chatted for a minute, talking about where we were going that day, and when I moved towards the door to leave she said, “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you soon.”

She was right. I walked alone for the first 7km of the day and then stopped in a bar for a second breakfast. It was the first place you could stop on that day’s walk so there were lots of other pilgrims there, as well, and the place was actually like a little pilgrim haven: it was attached to a new, private albergue and was filled with pilgrim paraphernalia. The owners were friendly and welcoming and I was immediately comfortable. Natalie walked in about 15 minutes after me and we shared a table- she chatted with some other pilgrims she knew and introduced me, and suddenly, I didn’t feel different or isolated, not like I had the night before. Here, I was a pilgrim like everyone else, and suddenly- for one of the first times since I’d been on the Camino this year- it seemed easy to talk with people, easy to fit in. I felt part of something and not separate, like I was doing this on my own.

Natalie left the bar a bit before me but once I started walking I caught up to her, and then we walked together. At first I hesitated; this was the first time I had walked with anyone on my trip, and initially I was resistant to it. But it was a short day- only 15 km to Miraz and the albergue I’d heard so many good things about- and already the day was half done. Natalie was planning on staying in the same albergue as me, and so we walked the rest of the way together.

And it was great. It still surprises me when I can meet someone who I almost instantly feel comfortable around, someone similar to me even though they’re from a different part of the world. We discovered that we had near identical beliefs about how we wanted to walk our Caminos: connecting with others when it felt right, but always going our own way and following our instincts, which often meant walking alone and not sticking with a group.

Because the day’s walk was so short, it, almost strangely, felt like a rest day to me. I had been walking really long days (and the shorter days I walked when I was sick felt like they would never end), so it was a treat to be feeling good and only walking 15km. Natalie and I both didn’t want to rush to Miraz to ensure we got a bed in the albergue we wanted to stay in; I’d decided days ago that I wasn’t going to stress about where I would sleep, and I liked that Natalie had the same view. So we took our time, or maybe the Camino encouraged us to take our time.

Our first stop happened when we passed by a house with intricate carvings in the stone wall out front. We heard music blaring from the lawn and a bright yellow arrow pointed the way through an open gate.

“Should we go in?” Natalie asked.

I looked at her and nodded. “I think we have to at least check it out.”

It was the home of Francisco Chacon, a stone sculptor with a studio in a garage attached to the side of his house. He was working when we wandered in, but put his tools down and came over to talk. Natalie could speak some Spanish so mostly I just listened to their conversation, doing my best to try to understand what I could and communicating my appreciation for his work.

Examples of it were everywhere: in the stones under our feet, covering the walls of his house, designs carved into columns, small figures lined up on table tops. He took us inside his home to show us more, and then back outside to give us stamps for our credentials- hot orange wax dripped onto our pilgrim passports and stamped with his seal.

We walked away, grinning and chattering about how happy we were that we’d made the decision to poke our heads inside. We kept walking, but it seemed as though every 10 minutes we stopped. First a man flagged us down, just wanting to say hi and ask how we were doing, then an older woman who heard Natalie’s French accent and wanted to tell us all about the 4 years she lived in France when she was in her 20’s.

Then we saw a deer bound across the road, then we passed a few pilgrims that Natalie knew. Before we knew it we had arrived in Miraz- it was noon, and the albergue didn’t open until 3:00. We joined a few other pilgrims who were seated outside the entrance, and I was pleased to recognize them all. Two Spanish boys I’d met in the kitchen the night before, Michael, the Swiss lawyer who I’d had coffee with several days before (it turns out that he had been in the hospital for a day with stomach issues!), and Silvia, an Italian girl about my age who I’d first seen in the albergue in Gontan, and again the night before in Baamonde.

Since we were so early, Natalie, Michael, Silvia and I decided to walk to the next village to have lunch, so we left our bags propped up against the albergue wall and sauntered out of the village. Our lunch was wonderful- caldo gallego (a white bean soup that’s a specialty of Galicia), roasted chicken and rice, ice cream and wine and bread. We took our time eating and made it back about 30 minutes before the albergue opened.

And once the albergue did open, I realized why it had been recommended to me. It’s a simple place- there’s nothing fancy about it- but instantly I was comfortable. It’s run by the Confraternity of Saint James, which is a UK-based charity that helps promote the Camino, and the hospitaleros were warm and kind and soon as we walked in. The albergue is donativo and they provide breakfast in the morning, and tea or coffee any time we liked. The kitchen was large, clean and well stocked, and the bunkrooms were also clean and spacious.

After showering and washing my clothes I made myself a cup of tea and settled in with my journal at one of the long tables in the kitchen area. But no sooner than I sat down did I hear someone say, “The fruit and vegetable truck is here!” It was like I was back at La Muse, waiting for the honk of the weekly bread truck so I could run outside and make my purchases.

A group of us ventured outside and when we saw that the truck offered more than just fruit and vegetables, we decided to buy ingredients for a big pasta dinner that we could enjoy together. We walked back to the albergue with plastic bags full of round, heavy tomatoes, onions and garlic, olive oil, two packages of penne.

Silvia was tasked with making the pasta because, well, she was Italian. She set to work immediately, even though it was barely 5pm. “I have to let the sauce simmer for as long as possible,” she explained.

At 7:00 we went over to the village church where the hospitalero gave a small talk explaining some of the history of the village and the church we were in, and we were invited to sit quietly and pray, or just reflect on our pilgrimage. I sat for a few moments but then I walked outside, where I had to zip up my fleece against the cold air and the chill of the wind. I walked in a long, slow circle around the church, and thought about the day. How was it possible that I’d found myself in the middle of such a kind, welcoming group of people when just the night before I had felt alone? When, in fact, I’d felt alone for so much of my time in Spain? Suddenly it was as if the Camino was back, and back in full force.

The rest of the evening was beautiful. We all sat around a large table and feasted on the pasta that Silvia made. Matthias, a German man with light blond hair and ruddy red cheeks had procured a few bottles of wine at the neighboring bar, and the rest of us pulled out bits of bread and cheese and crackers that we’d been carrying in our packs. Michael invited the hospitaleros to join our meal, I included the two Spanish boys who, with only two potatoes between them, looked hungry.

We talked and laughed and toasted and when I went to bed that night, I felt full. I come back to Spain, time and time again, because I love walking through the country. I like that I can spend all day outside and not have to worry much about where I’m going to sleep at night, that I can have my cafe con leches and my vino tintos and that it’s an incredibly affordable way to spend weeks in Europe. But I also come to Spain and come back to the Camino for the spirit, for the like-minded people, for the community. It took awhile this time, but finally I’d found it, my own group of solo-walkers, people who were doing this Camino on their own and in their own way. Somehow, we’d all found each other that night, and just like that, and even for just a very short time, we became a little group. A family. I fell asleep feeling full, and happy.

Photo credit: Natalie

Like it was all a dream

I’m back! In more ways than one: back with another blog post, and back home in the US.

Back home, already? I was gone for 7 weeks- I did a whirlwind few days through Bath and London and Paris before spending three weeks at La Muse in southern France, then two and a half weeks in Spain, and then a week in Scotland. Before I left for my trip, I was overwhelmed with everything I had planned, with all the different parts, and I worried that it was too much. And when I started the Camino and then got sick, I still worried that it was too much. “Why am I going to Scotland?” I asked myself. “Why did I decide to do so much?”

But in the end, I have to say, I’m glad I decided to do it all. And the traveling and the unpacking and repacking of bags, the different bed every night, the connections and the directions and all the different towns and cities… by the time I got to Scotland it didn’t feel too difficult or too hard. In fact, I sort of felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I had never been to Scotland before. I felt like, maybe just a bit, I’d gotten rather good at this traveling thing.

That being said, it’s good to be home. In the last few days of my trip, I kept thinking to myself, “I only have to do this two more times. I only have to do this one more time.” “This” referred to showering in cramped and not-so-clean hostel bathrooms, to waking up in the morning and trying to be super quiet while packing up my stuff, to having to dry myself with my incredibly small travel towel that I should have upgraded to a larger size two years ago.

But it’s also strange to be home. Nothing has changed here, and I wouldn’t have expected anything to, and yet, when you’re away from home for a long time and have seen and done so much, you return and expect that the changes are at home, too. That everything should look a little different, should sound a little different and taste a little different. But my apartment is my apartment- a bit musty and cobweb covered but everything is in the exact place where I left it. My mailman waved to me yesterday and said, “Welcome back”, at Trader Joe’s the shelves are reassuringly stocked with the same familiar products, the sounds of cicadas come in through the screen door and it’s like background noise that has always been there.

I fell asleep on my couch last night around 7:30; I was trying to stay up as late as I could to beat jet lag, but I decided to close my eyes for a just a few minutes and of course that sent me into a quick and deep sleep. I awoke with a jolt about 40 minutes later and blinked my eyes and looked, confused, around the room. Where was I? Home? Why am I here? It was the strangest feeling, I struggled to understand that I was in a familiar place, and for a split second, it felt like all of my traveling had been a dream. Like I had been on that couch all along, and had only dreamed of the writing in France, the trekking through Spain and Scotland, the different lands, the new friends, the sunrises, the green mountains.

My next post should be back to the Camino, to finish telling you about that journey, and then I’m anxious to write about Scotland and my experiences there. I tried to write a bit in the last week of my travels but I never got very far. The faulty keyboard made it difficult, and to be honest, most evenings, I didn’t feel like writing. I sat in bars with a glass of wine and a hearty meal and watched what was going on around me and sometimes chatted with the locals, or other travelers. I just wanted to absorb where I was. One night, I set up my keyboard and iPad in the hostel in Glen Nevis and started writing a post but then a Londoner named Tony started talking to me and then so did a woman from Minnesota and then a man from Norway and so I folded up my keyboard and put it away.

But my keyboard is open again, and I’m so happy to return to writing, to telling these little stories, to processing my experiences and then looking forward to my next projects. It was good to be away, and now it’s good- in different ways- to be back home. Thank you all for following along, for your comments and emails, for any time you took to read what I had to say. I hope you’ll keep reading.

An Adventure All My Own; Day 7 on the Camino del Norte, Gontan to Baamonde, 40km

I’ve been having some slight technical difficulties over here; my trusty keyboard that a good friend gifted me before my first Camino has been malfunctioning. Sometimes it seems as though certain keys don’t work at all; just now I had to wait for awhile and fiddle with it and tap and tap on each key until everything started working. There’s a lag in my typing, the ‘m’ key never seems to register and I always have to go back through and add the ‘m’s’ back in. But right now it looks like things are in (somewhat) working order so I can finally get around to writing another post.

I’m days behind. In fact, in “real time”, I arrived in Santiago today! (by bus, I just didn’t quite have enough time to make it all the way by foot). And tomorrow morning I’m off to Scotland, and it seems surreal. This was a fast, fast Camino- just 15 days of walking which is half of my usual time out here. And the first five days were a totally separate Camino from the Norte, and awfully isolated, and then I was sick for nearly a week, and it wasn’t until 5 or 6 days ago that I finally felt like I was “in” a Camino.

It’s been disjointed, but as I’m sitting here in a bar I know and love, drinking a glass of vino tinto, listening to the happy sounds of pilgrims on the street, I feel great. The end of my Camino was amazing and unexpected, in only the way that a Camino can be. 

I’m going to eventually write about it all and who knows, maybe I can keep churning out posts, but some of these recaps will probably be delayed. I have no idea what my trek through Scotland will be like- if I’ll have extra time, if I’ll have time to myself, if I’ll be able to write- and it might remove me too much from what I’m experiencing to be writing about Spain while I’m off in a different place. 

A tiny plate of tapas was just delivered to my table- a wedge of tortilla and two croquettas. I’m going to miss Spain. Just as I was getting my footing back, finding my joy again, remembering all the things I love about doing a Camino in this country… it’s time to leave. The overwhelming feeling of the past few days has been that I want just a bit more time here.

But the last three days were so great, each in a very different way. So lets go back to where I left off, back to Day 7, the day after I felt like I was flying through the mountains.

I was planning on a 40km day. I’d already done one a few days before (and really, the day through Ribadeo registered at around 4o as well, with the extra city walking), so I wasn’t too concerned about taking on too much. But as I well know from past Caminos, no good feeling lasts forever. I’d had such a strong, strong walk the day before, but now my body was asking for a little rest, or at least an easier day. And I said, “Sorry… I have big plans.”

I think I knew pretty early on in the day that my feet were tired and that my legs weren’t moving quite as quickly. I wasn’t in a hurry- my destination was Baamonde, the site of one of the largest albergues on the Norte (I think about 96 beds?)- so I knew that even if I arrived in the evening, I would have a place to sleep. So when I realized that I was tired, I took my time. 

And sometimes, even with fatigue, days like this are fun. I kept thinking of it like one big adventure- planning a long, epic day of walking, pouring over my guidebook to plan my breaks, thinking about what food I would buy when I passed a grocery store, wondering how I would feel when I reached 20km, when I reached 30km. 

I barely saw other pilgrims on the walk either, and this added to the ‘adventure’. Just me and the road- lots and lots of road.

I crossed into Galicia two days before, but on this day I really felt like I was in it. If I had the time or the memory to give some background on this region of Spain I would do it now, but I have neither. What I do know is that there are strong Celtic influences in this region, and that some parts of the area have a very mystical feel. I can’t think of a better word than mystical, though I’m not sure that’s quite right. In any case, whenever the trail passes through the woods, it’s a different kind of wood- the trees are large and knarled and twisted in a way that I don’t see at other points on the Camino. Everything seems to be covered with a thick layer of moss- the heavy tree trunks, the crumbling stone walls. If I conjure up an image of Galicia in my mind, it is always darker here, more confined, quiet, almost a little spooky. 

There was a heavy wind while I walked, it whipped through the tree branches and blew dust up over my legs. When I entered into a dark tunnel of heavy trees, I saw the first pilgrim in many kilometers. He was standing in the middle of the path and he seemed to be waiting. I had a slight feeling of trepidation- I knew that everything was fine, but the wind and the dark green moss and the wild tree branches all made me feel a little uneasy. But when I reached the pilgrim, he only asked if I could take his photo. And then the took one of me. 

On this walk I began to feel like the towns and villages I passed through were more conscious of the presence of pilgrims, they took note of us and respected the path we were on. Just when I was craving a piece of fruit, I passed a house that had a table set up outside, filled with baskets of peaches and nectarines and melons and plates of cheese. There was a hose that poured out fresh water, and a small bowl that asked for donations. I pulled some coins from my pocket and picked out a round peach and just as I was walking away, a woman opened the window of her home and waved to me with a great smile. “Buen Camino!” she called out, waving her hand furiously. 

I walked and I walked and I walked and I stopped for tortilla and orange juice, I stopped for an icy cold coke, I stopped in a town with a big grocery store, I stopped to set up a picnic lunch on a patch of grass between a chapel and a small cemetery.

And then I kept walking, and walking. Forty kilometers is a big day, but this one seemed to last forever. The trail kept passing over the highway, and while I appreciated that it often wound away from the big road, I knew that it was snaking and curving and adding on extra kilometers. I’d pass signs that said, “Baamonde 7km” and then I’d walk what felt like 3km and I’d cross the road again and see another sign and it said, “Baamonde 7km”.

The day was sunny, and hot. By 4pm I just wanted to be out of the sun but there was no shade on the path and it was inescapable. I pulled out all the stops- my ballcap to cover my face, my buff to cover the back of my neck, but man, the sun was strong. (I’m attempting to post a video- one of the only videos I took on this trip. This is what the end of a long day looks like!)

(Side note: I’m still in this bar in Santiago, writing, and I asked for a second glass of wine. With the wine came another plate of tapas and a small bowl of potato chips. I love Spain!!)

I finally arrived in Baamonde and it was after 6pm and it was probably one of my latest Camino walking days. The albergue was large and clean, the space was really beautiful (and I regret not taking photos). But I walked in and felt like a stranger. I didn’t know anyone or recognize anyone, and people were sprawled out and settled in and sitting in groups and laughing together. I knew it was more my own feeling of shyness than anything else, but it felt really difficult to walk up to a group and start a conversation. And I didn’t even feel like I was in an albergue on the Camino, it just sort of felt like a nice youth hostel where a bunch of people were there for different reasons. It’s possible that I had just spent too much time alone that day, that I’d been spending too much time alone on the Camino in general- but whatever the reason, I retreated from the groups of people and spent the rest of the evening in much the same way as I had the evening before- in a bar around the corner, doing some writing. 

And when I woke up the next morning, I told myself that it was all okay. “It’s a quiet Camino,” I thought. “This one’s just not about other people, this one is about you.” I thought I had things figured out, but it turns out that the the Camino had other plans for me. Isn’t that always the way? Just when you think you know how something is going to go, you realize you don’t know anything at all. So stayed tuned for what turned out to be a day on the Camino that was the last thing I expected, but exactly what I needed.

Small Connections in Galicia; Tapia to (some small place whose name I forget) 34km

The previous day I had taken a slightly alternate route to get to the albergue in Tapia, the one with the million dollar views. Well, I’m not sure if it was an alternate route or not- the guidebook says it was, but in the meantime it seems as though official Camino markers have been placed all along the path. In any case, I was taking the E-9, which runs more closely along the coast (and is an option at other points on the Norte as well). I continued to follow the E-9 out of Tapia, hoping that I would have more coastal views, but mostly it ran through endless corn fields (which, incidentally, I loved).

But then the path wound down to a small beach and I happily walked on the sand for 10 minutes; this was the last day that the Norte would be along the coast, the last moments, actually. As soon as I reached Ribadeo, which I would in about 8km, the Camino would move away from the water and into the mountains. 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I returned to the Norte this year; I remember that last year I was a little sad to veer off onto the Primitivo, and regretful that I would miss more coastal walking. But since coming back to the Norte, views of the coast have been slim, and the official Camino path stays frustratingly far from the water. Really it had just been this one day- the night at the “albergue with a view”, and the morning’s walked that dipped down to the beach (and, I suppose, that day that offered a couple close coastal views). 

I wished I could have had more coast time, but I soaked up what I had. There was a bar that overlooked the water and I stopped here for a good long cafe con leche break. Once again, I was feeling strong that day, and even stronger after the coffee and toast. 

I crossed a long bridge into Ribadeo, and as soon as I reached the city I met a couple from New Zealand, who must have been in their 70’s. We walked together for about 10 minutes until they found the bus station- they were frustrated with never being able to find free beds in albergues, and were giving up on the Norte. As we said goodbye they shook my hand. The man gave me a long look and said, “I wish we had met you before this.” 

I continued into the city and promptly got confused. The Camino markers completely disappeared, and I complicated things by making a few turns to find a grocery store and an ATM. I think I started to walk in circles but then found another pilgrim and we walked together for awhile until she turned off to get a coffee. I finally found the tourism office, asked for a map, and was given good directions to get out of the city. On the way, I saw a pilgrim far behind me who had been at the albergue in Tapia. He looked confused, so I waved my arms over my head for a minute until he saw me, and then pointed to the path I was on. Either I helped him, or he thought I was crazy. Maybe a little of both.

Once out of the city the fuel came back into my legs and I powered on. I walked for a little bit with Roman, from Luxembourg; he had brought a hamock and was spending most nights in a bed strung between the trees. “It’s better this way,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the stress I see in all these other pilgrims, who are searching for a bed.”

All of these interactions were good for me. I think I expected to come back to the Norte and instantly be surrounded by a pilgrim communiity- maybe I could even find the one I left behind last year. But it takes time, and I needed to settle back into this, or maybe I just needed to find my footing again and get out from under the cloud of sickness, to have these kinds of interactions. 

When I crossed the bridge into Ribadeo, the Camino left Asturias and entered Galicia. And strangely, almost as soon as this happened, it seemed as though the crowds and the craziness disappeared. The route wound through the countryside, and there were several albergues scattered along the way. I poked my head into each one, the first two were empty. I had planned to stay at the second but there was another only 2km away so I decided to continue on in hopes of finding more people. 

But even that third albergue was quiet, with only 3 other people there when I arrived (it filled in a bit, but was never close to full). Nearly everyone else there was German, so my evening was quiet- the restaurant in the village was closed because of a fiesta that night, so I cooked up some pasta and ate outside, listening to conversations I couldn’t understand. It’s funny how a little time and experience can change things; last year, this would have been frustrating to me. But now, I was just happy that I had a bed and a meal and was around other pilgrims. 

The fiesta was less than a kilometer away- up a small hill and in the middle of an open, empty countryside. The festivities didn’t start until 10:30- past my bedtime- but I could hear the music until late into the night. 3am, maybe even later. It didn’t keep me up, not really- instead I think it entered my dreams, a Spanish soundtrack to my Camino sleep.

No Stones in My Pack: Day 4 on the Camino del Norte (Luarca to Tapia, 42 km)

Just before Beatrice left our hotel room in the morning (Day 4), she said, “I hope it doesn’t feel like there’s a stone in my backpack today.”

I understood exactly what she meant- on the Camino, sometimes your pack feels perfect. It’s not too heavy, everything is sitting perfectly, it’s just like an extension of your back. But on other days, and sometimes inexplicably, the pack is heavy. It pulls away from you, it feels like it hangs low, there is an extra, very heavy stone inside.

When I left Luarca that morning, a little after Beatrice, I began walking up the steep pavement that led out of the city. Up and up it climbs, and for the very first time since coming to Spain, it felt like I did not have a stone in my backpack. And that’s when I realized that not only had it felt like I’d been carrying a stone, it felt like I’d been carrying a great big bag of rocks for the past week. Suddenly, the weight had lifted, it was gone. I powered up the hill, it felt easy. Then the path flattened out and I walked away from town with the sun rising aginst my back, the light of the sky pale and soft in front of me, and I felt the Camino. I remembered what it was like to walk with the rising sun, what it was like to walk and not think of how difficult it was to walk… to walk and just be. 

I marveled at how good I felt. And before too long, I passed my first group of pilgrims, the first time I’ve done that on this trip. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last, but it felt good to be back. So good.

I flew across Spain that day, and I wanted to dance down the trail. I didn’t feel one hundred percent better, but man, was this an improvement. Everything looked more beautiful, too- the light was gorgeous, the fields seemed to glow. Even the barking dogs sounded friendly, and not menacing.

I stopped for a cafe con leche and orange juice and tortilla and sat outside a bar amongst other pilgrims. I still didn’t really know anyone, but I felt a little less alone, just being surrounded by pilgrims. And as the day continued, I began saying more than hi- I asked where people were from, when they started, where they were going. Basic Camino language, but for the past week it was almost like I’d forgotten how to speak it.

After a stop in a grocery store to buy a few lunch supplies, I sat outside on a bench with an American girl and German guy. They reported that the Norte was very full, and that they were reserving ahead whenever possible. We split a bag of Doritos Roulette (one in every 7, or something, is hot and spicy), and I thought about what they had said about reservations. Nothing has really changed about this for me- I still don’t like calling ahead to reserve a bed on the Camino. I think that part of what I love so much about walking a Camino is the ability to just be in the moment, to not have to plan, to follow your feelings. I knew that I’d already run into some trouble and couldn’t stay in the albergues I’d planned to, but I was going to continue to trust that if I showed up to a town and really needed a bed, something would come through. Or that I would figure something out.

I ended up walking 42 kilometers that day (I can just hear you all now: “Nadine!” you’re saying. “Didn’t you just drag your sick self through a 15km day??”) But I have to say, I felt good for all of those 42 kilometers, though my feet were a bit sore at the end. I wouldn’t have gone so far if I hadn’t been feeling so good, and in the end, my destination was more than worth it. It was, hands down, the best albergue I’ve ever stayed in. The actual albergue was only so-so; not very new, two floors of rather rusty bunks, a “kitchen” that was a microwave and a few dishes (no knife, grr). But the view, oh, the view. The building was smack up against a wooden barrier that overlooked the water. We were right on the coast, we were practically on a cliff.

There were three beds left when I arrived at 5:00, and before I could do anything, Beatrice was ushering me into town to find the tourism office so that we could get our keys for the albergue (things at albergues have been a bit weird, I’ve yet to see a hospitalero on sight when I’ve arrived, and at this place you sign in and then go find a key, which we never ended up needing, so who knows). As we were walking there I ducked into an ice cream place for a few scoops, and in the grocery store picked up a coke and chips, along with salad stuff to share with Beatrice. This is significant only because it really meant that my appetite was coming back- the first ice cream of the trip! (Still no vino tinto since I’ve been sick though- is it really a Camino if I don’t have a glass- or 2 or 3- of vino tinto? I don’t have an answer to that yet…)

And once back at the albergue I barely budged from my spot overlooking the water. The wind was cool so Beatrice and I sat against the stone wall that had been warmed all day by the sun, and we ate our salad and later drank from mugs of tea, all the while listening to the sound of the waves. I recognized a few people in the albergue- a Spanish girl and guy who walk fast with their clacking poles, Yoko from the albergue in Cadavedo, the young girl from Madrid who’d been at the same albergue.

I didn’t feel like such a stranger on the Camino anymore. I felt like I was back, that the Camino was back- though really it had never left. I had just needed to find it again. 

The Last Bad Day; Day 3 on the Camino Del Norte (Cadavedo to Luarca, 15km)

I’m now several days behind on posting, so because I know what happens in the next few days and you don’t, yet, I’ll give you just this little preview: things get better. I say that because this is going to be another sort of downer of a post. And before anyone starts thinking that I’m having a no-good, horrible, unfortunate Camino, have no fear. Things start looking up, and soon.

But lets go back to Day 3 of the Norte. In the comments of my last post (thank you, by the way; your words of understanding and encouragement were such a needed booster), a few Camino friends urged me to stop in Luarca. A charming port town only fifteen kilometers from Cadavedo, it would make for an easy day giving me plenty of time to rest and explore and eat ice cream.

Oh, Camino.

The day started out overcast, and a light rain began to fall around 9am. It was just enough to be a nuicance, but by the time I got to Luarca it was falling heavier and I was a wet pilgrim mess when I entered a warm and cozy looking bar. But, no matter: the walk still hadn’t felt easy (my pack continued to feel heavy and my legs like lead, my sickness was zapping all my energy), but it hadn’t been long. I ordered a cafe con leche and orange juice and settled into a table. It was eleven thirty, the albergue would open at noon, I was in no hurry. The day’s walk was done.

But then I heard the urgent tone of a frantic pilgrim. “The albergue is already full. People have called ahead and reserved.” He was talking to two pilgrims at another table, and they, too, had looks of panic on their faces. “And everything else is booked in this town,” he continued. “You can try the albergue and see if they have suggestions, or maybe the information center in town.”

I sat back in my seat, feeling rather defeated. The last thing I wanted to do was scramble all over town, trying to find a place to sleep. The next albergue listed in the guidebook had closed, and the albergue after that was… far. And it was raining.

(A note on the shortage of beds: the best I can guess is that this is a bad stretch of the Norte for albergues. I’d run into this problem once last year, aroud Llanes, and had to stay in a pension. From what I’ve heard, there are currently a lot of pilgrims on the Norte, and to make matters worse, this is high tourist season, so it’s difficult to find a free bed in a hotel or pension. And when you do, often the prices are a lot highter than they’d normally be).

So I went over to the pilgrims to talk over what I had just heard, but didn’t come up with any solutions (one of the pilgrims had injured his foot and proclaimed this to be “the worst day ever”). I went back to my table, and finished my drinks. For some reason- maybe I was just tired of things not working out- I wasn’t too worried. Because for as much as things didn’t seem to be working out well, I had a feeling that I’d figure out a plan. I was in a large town, I wasn’t isolated. I could always just take a bus or a train… somewhere. Further ahead on the Norte, or maybe just all the way to Finisterre where I could find a room and stay for a week and recuperate and write. That plan was starting to sound better and better.

I weaved my arms through the wet sleeves of my raincoat, hoisted my drippping pack onto my back, and headed back out. I made my way over to the albergue to see what the scene was like, and the only one around was a female pilgrim in a long, draping skirt. She called to me from across the street, “Albergue is full! But come over here, we’ll figure something out.”

Enter: my Camino angel. Beatrice, from Sweden. 

She has more energy than nearly every other person I’ve ever met, and I would find out later that she averages at least 40 km days on the Camino, always. She did the San Salvador in 3 days, the Primitivo in 8, the Frances in 23. Her “not walking” energy is high, too. We ducked into a hotel across the street, found out it was full, but used the shelter of their lobby to look for other options. She whipped through her guidebook, called a number, and in muddled Spanish managed to secure us a double room for 60 euros, coming out to 30 a piece. I’ve been spending a lot on this Camino with all the unexpected private rooms, but standing there in Luarca, all I could feel was relieved that I had a place to spend the night.

We spent the rest of the day together- luxurating under the powerful water pressure of our shower, wandering through town in the rain to find a place to eat, holing up in a cafe for tea and pastries. I was happy to have some long overdue company, but I was also exhausted, and it was hard to keep up with Beatrice. I should have just told her that I wanted to go back to the hotel and take a nap, but this was the first sustained human contact I’d had in awhile, and besides, I also needed to eat, and find a grocery store (and on the plus side of things, I realized that my appetite was slowly starting to return. I was craving a plate of calamari, and it felt good to be craving something other than orange juice or Sunny D or Fanta).

But I coughed all through the afternoon and the evening, and for as much as I wanted to be attentive to Beatrice and participate in the conversation, I knew I was only half there. It didn’t seem to matter though, and I was relieved for that, too. Beatrice just kept talking and telling me stories, and even though I was essentially sharing this day and this hotel room with a stranger, the Camino makes things like this easier. 

But I went to bed thinking that this Camino wasn’t much fun, not much fun at all. And the question that had been lingering for the past few days continued to burn through my thoughts: Should I stop doing this? Should I just stop walking?

The only peregrina on the trail; (Poladura to Pajares, 15 km)

It’s the end of day 3 and I’m in my own sweet room above a bar in the town of Pajares. My double doors open to a small French balcony that overlooks the spire of the church, and beyond that, to the rugged peaks of the mountains. Mountains that I passed through earlier today. 

I’ve been tucked up in this room for quite awhile; aside from lunch downstairs at 3 (the standard three courses with wine and bread; the food wasn’t exceptional but it was just what I needed), I’ve been up in bed, staring out at my view, taking advantage of the wi-fi. This is the town where the albergue is closed, and even though I arrived early, I took my chances with the room above the bar. I’m glad I did. 

I think I might be battling another small cold- this has not been the healthiest summer for me! It’s not enough to stop me from walking, but just enough to make me feel drained by the end of the walking day… more drained than usual. So maybe it’s a good thing that this is truly a sola Camino, that I can stay alone in albergues and private rooms and try my best to rest up and recuperate.

I was, indeed, alone last night. I had the fleeting thought that it might be a bit scary to to be all alone in a big and empty building, but I was too tired to worry much. I went over to the inn to pick up my dinner, which was all packaged up for me to take back to the albergue. An appetizer of chicken wrapped in puff pastry, a first course of salad, a second course of paella, fruit, wine, bread (8 euros!! Gotta love Spain). For all my worries about not having enough food, I’ve been totally fine. There was even a coffee machine in the albergue so I could have my shot of caffeine before leaving this morning- perfecto.

Today’s walk was splendid. This is what I came to this Camino for. I left Poladura and immediately began to climb into the mountains, and for the next 10 km, I went up and down and around, on wide tracks and small dirt trails, though meadows of high grass and wildflowers every color of the rainbow. These evenings may have felt just a bit lonely, but to have the path all to myself during the day? I feel lucky, grateful, blessed. As ever, I think to myself, “How did I manage to get my life to this point? To be walking precisely here? Amid this beauty? To have it all to myself?” 

The guide I have says not to underestimate the challenge of the first 10 kilometers out of Poladura; the trail is remote and rugged and it took the authors just shy of 6 hours to walk the 10 km. Me? It took me about 3. But the weather was perfect and once I got going I didn’t want to stop. My pack didn’t feel as heavy today- maybe I’m getting used to the weight- or maybe I was too awed to notice my fatigue.

I slowed a bit towards the end, during the last 5 km descent into Pajares. One moment I was standing above the clouds, and in the next, I was moving down towards them… then into them, through them. The path wove through a forest and it was dark, eerie, and with the sun now gone there was a chill on my skin. 

And the weather has mostly stayed like this- when I look out my doors I can see the mountain peaks framing the village, but they are hazy. I’ve hung my laundry up to dry, but I think my socks will still be damp in the morning. 

That’s all for now; a quiet night following a spectacular day. I’ll take it. 

(One extra note: I actually wasn’t the only pilgrim on the trail. 4 Spanish hikers, men probably in their 50’s/60’s were also staying at the bar. And since writing this post I’ve heard of a few others behind me, all guys. But maybe it’s safe to say that I’m the only peregrina- female pilgrim- on the trail for now.)