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

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?

Somewhere in Spain, Walking and Coughing; the first 2 days on the Camino Del Norte (Salinas to Cadavedo)

I’m sipping a cup of tea in the little kitchen of the albergue in Cadavedo right now; this albergue is old and worn, small and basic. The kitchen is a sink and some plates and utensils, but there’s also one of those things that heats up water, and several boxes of leftover tea. Perfect for me with this lingering cough. And with a long wooden table filling the room, the perfect space to catch up on some writing.

  

I’m two days into the Norte now (two walking days that is), so lets backtrack to where I was yesterday morning. I woke up in my hotel room in Oviedo, and I felt… still not great. But I didn’t want to sit still any longer and I figured I’d try to walk, just to see how it would go. There’s no way I have enough time to make it to Santiago- I did the San Salvador in 5 days and not 4, like I originally thought I would, and I lost a day due to being sick (plus I’m going to have an extra day in Scotland because of flight logistics, which took off yet another day off of my Camino-ing). So basically this means that I need to do some trimming, and I thought that the best place to begin would be at the beginning. My guidebook has this to say about the link between Oviedo and Aviles: “… this is not the most pleasant of walks- you’ve only just passed the industrial outskirts of Oviedo before joining the highway into Aviles…”. So yesterday morning I took a bus from Oviedo to Salinas, a small town about 7km past Aviles, and began walking from there. But before I could start walking, I was instantly stopped by two young Germans, sitting on a bench. “Do you speak English?” the girl asked me. She and her friend had gotten off track, and worried that they had lost the Camino.

I had just stepped off the bus and hadn’t quite figured out where I was yet, myself, but together we figured out the route. I let them walk ahead of me because almost right away, I could feel that walking was going to be a strain. Not as bad as the day into Oviedo, but I wasn’t feeling as good as I hoped. The day was sunny and bright- thank goodness no rain!- and while I knew I wasn’t far from the coast, unfortunately this day’s route didn’t allow for even a glimpse of the water. The day felt uneventful and long, though that was probably because I still wasn’t feeling well. Mostly I just wanted to arrive at my destination. I toyed with the idea of trying to find my own room again, knowing that getting good rest was still so important, plus I didn’t want to bother anyone with my coughing. But in the last few kilometers I didn’t really care if I had my own room or if I was in an albergue; once again, I just wanted to arrive.

And when I did arrive, to El Pito, where my guidebook promised there’d be an albergue and a couple pensiones, there was “no room at the inn”. The woman running the “albergue” (I’m not sure what it was, more like a hostal and it wasn’t just for pilgrims I don’t think, and it took reservations and it was sort of expensive), she wasn’t very helpful. She just sort of looked at me and said,  “sorry” and told me that I could just keep walking to the next town with an albergue, which was 12 kilometers away. At this point it was already after 4:00 and I wasn’t feeling well and the thought of another 12 kilometers just made me want to sit down. There was another pilgrim there- who had made a reservation- who tried to help me, and I was so grateful for it. She sort of bounded over to me, stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Marcia Jane, from Germany” and then we sat on the ground and looked through her phone for ideas of where I could stay. It was good to be in the company of another woman, and someone who was kind. 

We didn’t find much, though both Marcia Jane and the owner of the hostal thought that I could give the camping sites a try. And I started to walk towards them- in the opposite direction of the Camino, under a still burning sun- I walked and walked and then thought, “What in the world am I doing? I don’t feel well, and I don’t even have a tent. I don’t want to do this.”

So I just decided to keep following the Camino. My guidebook said there was a hotel in another 2 kilometers, and when I arrived there, lo and behold I found an available room. Hurray!! This place was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing else around, but I had a room and it had a bed and much like the day when I walked into Oviedo, I took a shower, washed my clothes, and then fell alseep.

Middle of Nowhere to Cadavedo

As I slept in that big hotel room in the middle of nowhere, Spain, I had strange dreams. Or maybe they weren’t so strange- I dreamt that I was back at my apartment, then back at my parents’ house for a few days. It was a little reprieve from the Camino, just a little time to rest up and figure out what to do. It’s what I had fallen asleep thinking about- if I continue to feel sick, if I continue to be isolated, do I want to keep going? And if not, where do I go, and what do I do?

I woke up this morning feeling as though something had shifted. I definitely wasn’t totally better, but I felt like I had a bit more energy, and that was definitely true as I walked. Not my normal Camino energy by any means, but I didn’t feel like I was dragging myself along quite as much. 

It was a long day, 34 kilometers, but there weren’t many (or any!) options on places to stay until I arrived in Cadavedo. The walk was bookended by brillance- I walked just at the edge of gorgeous, secluded beaches, a sprinkling of sunlight falling through the tree branches, just enough to make everything feel like it was glowing.



But in between? It felt like 30 of the day’s kilometers were under a gray sky, on a narrow track that was advertised as the coastal route, but which stayed too far from the coast, and always up up up and then down down down. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. There’s beauty around me, I know there is, but it’s been harder for me to see it. Everything feels a little harder than it used to be. 


This Camino feels different. I’m not even sure what I’m comparing it too- I wonder if it has anything to do with just starting in the middle, feeling as though I’ve been plucked down into something totally foreign and strange. Or that I haven’t figured out how to belong here yet, but since I’m here I have to just go, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I see a few clusters of pilgrims throughout the day, and everyone smiles and greets each other, but I’m not part of anything or anyone. I don’t know these people, not yet. Many of them already know each other. Or maybe I’m still in the mindset of the San Salvador, where there were no other pilgrims, it was just me and the path and that was different, but ultimately, it was good.

In any case, when I arrived to Cadavedo, I was worried that the albergue would be full. It had taken me the full day to walk, and I arrived at 4:30 (which is a bit late in the day, especially when there are lots of pilgrims on the path). When I rounded the corner, following a sign for the albergue, the only building I saw looked old and faded and my first thought was, “Oh no, this albergue has closed.” Turns out, it’s just an old building. There were some young Spanish guys sitting out in the back and a woman washing her clothing in the yard, and when I went upstairs I saw a sign posted that the hospitalera would be back at 6:30, and to take a bed in the meantime.

There were several beds open (and the albergue never filled up) but despite being around other pilgrims, it was still a very quiet night. The Spanish guys kept to theselves, and there were only a few others. I chatted with Yoko, from Japan, and later with a girl from Madrid, but everyone mostly did their own thing. 

Was it like this for me last year? I’m trying so hard to remember. Somehow this feels very different to me, but last year, there were definitely evenings when I felt rather alone, or when I shared an albergue with people I didn’t know. And besides, I’m not feeling well! Of course that throws everything off- the walking, the eating, my connections with others. 

So, everyone, that’s the recap on the last two days. Definitely a different sort of Camino experience for me- one that’s more challenging, not quite as fun, not quite as carefree. At least for now. But you know, as I was walking today, I asked myself, “Would I rather be home?” And I think of the dreams I had last night, of how nice home would be, just for a few days. But only a few days, and then I would be restless, knowing that I had more of summer to be off exploring and having adventures.

These days are adventures- maybe not the sunny, laughing kind (fingers crossed those come soon), but they’re important adventures to me all the same. 

To Summer, To Travel, To Time

The great summer trip of 2016 begins in less than a week, so I thought it was about time that I check back in here with an update. And the only update I really have has already been said: I leave in less than a week!

Does time seem to be moving fast for anyone else? Like, really really fast? Until only a few days ago I was convinced that it was still May, that I had over a month to plan and prepare for my trip, that the days are continuing to lengthen, that summer was still far off.

But all of a sudden it was summer, and work had ended for the year, and the only thing that was looming before me was my big trip. I should be used to this by now, it’s been my pattern for the last three years: work ends around the middle of June, and I promptly hop on a plane for Europe.

So why does it feel like this trip is still weeks and weeks away? Last year, on the first day of summer, I was doing this:

I’d already been walking on the Camino for a few days, life at home felt like it was another world away.

My trip begins a bit later than usual this year, maybe that’s part of it. Or maybe it’s just that life is speeding by so fast that I yearn to hit a pause button, and give myself some time to catch up.

But there’s no stopping time so here we go. I think that finally, in these last few days, I’ve accepted that summer is here. I’ve gone to a baseball game and drank a coke slushey and had a dish of ice cream and spent a day at the beach. I’ve stretched in the lounge chair on my porch with my feet in the sun and read a book that I was too busy to finish months ago. Two days ago I went on a 10-mile hike; tomorrow I’ll try for 12-miles. This is the most hiking I’ve done in a long, long time, and well, it’s about time.

And then next week, I’ll leave for Europe. My first stop is England, something I don’t think I even mentioned in my Summer 2016 blog post. It sort of got lost in the shuffle of my mind, and stayed lost until just a couple days ago. But- oh yeah!- I decided to fly into London because it’s been a solid 15 years since I’ve been there and I thought it could be nice to do something a little new.

This photo is from my last trip to England, all those years ago:

My friend reminded me that our original plan was to spend a few days in London, then head to Stonehenge. But in 2001, Stonehenge was closed for 5 1/2 weeks because of foot-and-mouth disease, so we went to Liverpool instead (and honestly, this was probably my vote all along… Long Live Ringo!).

It’s a bit crazy to think back to that trip- parts of it that feel like a lifetime ago, other parts that are so recent in my memory I could swear that I was just there. Wasn’t I just there? Leaving notes for our friends on scraps of paper at the hotel lobby because this was just before any of us had a cell phone; crossing the street at the wrong end of Abbey Road (and causing quite the pile up of traffic in order to get a photo); battling a cold on the train to London and the endless cups of tea to soothe my throat; noticing that a small magnolia tree was growing in the front yard of the house where George Harrison grew up.

These memories are creeping in because I finally sat down and planned some things for my three days in England. I focus on these details for a moment- there’s a Jane Austen Centre in Bath! I can finally make it to Stonehenge!- but then an email pulls me into another part of the trip. It’s from the writer’s retreat in southern France- our host has forwarded a suggested shopping list so that we’re not overwhelmed when we arrive and are whisked off to the grocery store. And then I think back to my time there three years ago, and how I was overwhelmed, and didn’t buy quite enough food. Will that happen again? What will the village be like- will it be just as I remembered, or will there be changes?

And what am I like, this time? Three years wasn’t all that long ago, and yet, I know that I am different. And certainly, I’m different than I was 15 years ago, on that first trip to London and Liverpool.

Different, and yet… still me. Always me.

There’s more, too: another Amazon package arrived at my door, it’s a guide to walking the West Highland Way. And then I need to push the days in England and the writer’s retreat from my mind, and focus on Scotland. Scotland! I know nothing about Scotland! Shouldn’t I learn something, shouldn’t I do some research? A friend warns me about the haggis, and I wonder if I will try it.

And then, finally, in the very back corner of my mind, I remember that I’m also walking a Camino. That I’m returning to Spain. I’ve barely given it any thought, because this is the thing that feels the most familiar, the most comfortable. Other than breaking in a new pair of shoes, I haven’t done much in preparation. I have all my gear, I know where I’m going; this is the thing that I don’t have to plan for.

But remember just two years ago? My fretting and my fear in the weeks before I left for Spain that first time? Wasn’t I just memorizing the Spanish words for ‘I’m allergic to nuts’ and wondering how, exactly, I was to go about hand-washing my clothing?

Ah, time. I still don’t know what to make of it, of how quickly life is streaming past, yet of how far I’ve seemed to travel in what feels like very fleeting moments. I know that in August, I’m going to be back here at my computer, in my apartment, marveling over how fast the summer just went by.

Of course I will. But I’m not at the end yet, I’m only at the very beginning. So, here’s to summer! May it be the best one yet.

Solo Travel on the Camino

The school year is ending and summer is approaching and that means I’ve been asked, a lot, about my summer plans. I find myself explaining to a whole crop of new people that I’m going to walk the Camino. “What’s the Camino?” they ask.

It’s always the first question.

And the second question, once I’ve explained that it’s a long walk across Spain, is invariably this: “Who are you going with?”

But I had a strange experience the other day: I was talking to a principal at one of the schools I work at, he was telling me that he and his wife and kids are doing a big cross-country road trip this summer. He asked me what my plans were, and I started like I normally do. “Well, I’m going to Europe, to do a thing called the Camino de Santiago.”

His eyes lit up. “The Way? Seriously?”

Turns out he knew all about it, and we got into a long conversation about the outdoors and hiking and the beauty of moving yourself across a great distance.

But it wasn’t until I was driving home from work that I figured out what really struck me about the conversation, more than the fact that he actually knew what the Camino was. He didn’t ask one question about who I was going with, if I was doing it alone. It hadn’t even seemed to matter.

And I really loved that. I get why people want to know if I’m going alone or not, but sometimes I get a little tired of all the explaining I have to do. Like, “It’s actually really safe, you meet loads of other people, there’s always someone walking nearby.” Even with these explanations, people still sometimes give me a look. They’re confused, they feel sorry for me, they look at me as if I’m a bit strange for wanting to do something like this alone.

But after two 500-mile treks across Spain over these last couple of summers, I have to say, I’m beginning to think it would be difficult to walk with someone.

There are lots of benefits, certainly, to have a walking partner, or a small group to go with. Even I have to admit that sometimes, I’m a little envious of the friends that come to the Camino together. I’ll pass them, sitting tight around a table at lunchtime, bottles of wine and beer and baskets of bread and they’re laughing and joking. They get to share this great experience with someone who knows them really well. I think that would be a cool thing to do. And sometimes- even in a crowd (most especially in a crowd, perhaps)- the Camino can feel lonely. There were a few nights on my Norte last summer when I envied the pilgrims who never, ever had to worry about eating dinner alone, who always had a companion with them.

And there’s the safety issue, too. To be honest, I very, very rarely felt unsafe on either of my treks across Spain. Nervous, sometimes, when a dog barked loudly. Anxious when I hadn’t seen a yellow arrow for a long time. But never unsafe. That’s not to say that bad things can’t happen on the Camino, and as always (and especially as a woman), I needed to keep my wits about me, to be observant and aware, to do my best to not put myself in a compromising situation. And I continue to do that, any time I travel.

But these points aside, I really love my solo-Camino time. In some ways, it feels like one of the most special things I can give to myself at this time in my life, and I know how lucky I am that I can spend a month being totally and completely selfish. I walk when I want to walk, I stop when I want to stop, I can walk a 50+ kilometer day and I don’t have to try to convince anyone to do the same.

A solo-Camino might not be for everyone, but I think it’s a wonderful experience to have. Two summers ago, when I started walking away from St Jean Pied de Port, I was so scared. I’d barely slept the night before, I froze in my bunk because I was too nervous to get up to close the window because I thought I would disturb the person sleeping beneath me, the clothes I’d washed hadn’t dried, I wasn’t even really sure how to get out of the town and onto the path of the Camino. But then I started walking, and that first day still goes down as my absolute favorite Camino walk. It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement, bravery, energy, love, peace, pride, solidity that I felt as I moved myself across a mountain. Others who had come alone were already pairing off, walking in groups, finding their “Camino Families”, braving the Pyrenees together.

I walked alone.

I eventually made friends, and there were times- especially on the Camino Frances- when I felt like I wasn’t as alone as I would have liked. But here was the beauty of coming into this experience myself: at any time, whenever I wanted, I could separate myself. I could walk with others, I could walk alone. I could take a rest day, I could walk a great distance, I could eat french fries for twelve days in a row and no one had any idea.

And it wasn’t just being alone whenever I wanted, it was the ability to be with others. I still think that a solo-pilgrim on the Camino attracts others in a way that pilgrims in pairs or groups don’t. Many, many people approached me to say hi, to start a conversation, because I was alone. And I, in turn, approached others when I was feeling a bit alone. You’re going to meet people on the Camino regardless of whether you’re alone or in a group, but the opportunity for new friends increases, I think, when you’re solo.

People help you, too. They look out for you, they take care of you, when they know it’s just you (well, they help you if you’re in a group too- Camino angels help everyone). On the Frances, I had so many mothers and fathers out there. I even had a little sister and a little brother, and someone who reminded me of my own grandfather. People who asked me how I was doing whenever they saw me, asked if I was wearing my sunscreen, made sure I had a place to sleep, that I had enough to eat.

One time, on the Primitivo, a Spanish guy had been walking ahead of me. We’d left a cafe at the same time and he was fast, and soon he disappeared down the path. But a little later I saw him standing off to the side of the trail. He was waiting for me, and he explained that there was a large dog up ahead. “I didn’t want you to be afraid, so I waited for you, to help you pass,” he said. The same thing happened a few days later- a different guy, and this time, a cow.

I wish I could explain about all of this, when anyone seems concerned that I’m going off to Spain alone. I wish I could explain that I’m never really alone out there, that in fact, I think the Camino Frances is probably one of the safest places in the world for a female to travel solo. And I wish I could explain that going alone isn’t so bad, that actually, it’s quite wonderful. That sometimes it’s good to do things by ourselves, to learn what we’re capable of, to remember what we’re capable of.

I’ve got another Camino coming up- soon- and once again I’m going alone. One of these years I’d love to share this experience with someone, and I have no doubt that I will. But for now I’m solo, and I couldn’t be happier.

8 Things I Loved About the Camino del Norte

I’m going back for my third Camino this summer, but if we’re being technical about it, it will actually be my 4th. I walked the Camino Frances in the summer of 2014. In the summer of 2015, I walked two-thirds of the Camino del Norte and all of the Camino Primitivo. And this summer, I’ll finish the Norte and also tack on the small Camino del Salvador. Which makes four Caminos, in three summers. All in Spain.

There are other great Camino paths to walk in Spain, and beyond; the Le Puy route in France is #1 on my dream list, and I have a friend on the Camino Portuguese as we speak (and reports from the trail are stunning).

All this to say: if you want to walk a Camino, you have options. Lately, the Camino feels more popular than ever, but maybe that’s because it’s spring, and maybe because it’s been such a big part of my life for these past two years. I have lots of Camino friends, read lots of Camino blogs, am part of a Camino group in my area. So, it’s on my mind. But it sort of feels like people are flocking to the Camino, like it’s becoming more well known, that it’s become this ‘thing’ to do (then again, I could be totally wrong. Whenever I talk to someone about my summer plans, they stare at me blankly when I mention a pilgrimage in Spain).

In any case, popular or not, I’m here to write a post about the Camino del Norte, to talk about what I loved, and to give you some reasons to consider this route. A few disclaimers: first, this is not at all a comprehensive guide to walking the Norte. I’m undoubtedly leaving lots of things out. And this is also not meant to convince you to walk this route, or that any of this means that it’s the ‘best’ path to walk. Every person, every pilgrim is different, and no two roads are the same, either. And no two times on the same road are the same!

But, all that being said, I thought the Norte was pretty great. I’ve gotten a few emails from people who have stumbled across this blog, and they’re curious about the Norte. There’s a lot of information out there (the Camino forum is a great, great place to begin), but I thought it could be fun to highlight a few of my favorite things about this northern route across Spain.

1. It’s not crowded!

I have to start with this: the Norte is not crowded. At times, it feels rather isolated, like you’ve got the whole great thing all to yourself. I had a couple days when I didn’t encounter a single other pilgrim (though, keep in mind, I like walking alone and so would purposefully start before or after other pilgrims, or sometimes stay under the radar in towns/villages). But even if you walk with others, this path feels open, in a way that the Frances often didn’t. There’s a lot of quiet space to let your mind wander, and sometimes it’s amazing to feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

Also, word from the pilgrim’s office in Santiago is that the Camino Frances is PACKED right now. The Pope declared 2016 a Year of Mercy, which doesn’t happen that often, and this means that there are many, many more people opting to take a pilgrimage this year. I’ve read reports that albergues are quickly filling up, that people are being forced to call ahead for reservations, that the crowds are unbelievable. Whether this is true or not is a bit up in the air; before my own Camino Frances in 2014 I read that summer was the worst time to go because it was sure to be crowded and I would have to race for a bed and that wasn’t my experience, at all (not until I got close to Santiago, but that was to be expected). But in any case, with more pilgrims on the Frances, the Norte could be a nice option for those seeking a quiet and contemplative pilgrimage to Santiago.



2. Despite the uncrowded nature of the path, there is opportunity for great community.

I personally think the Norte has the best of both worlds: days of quiet walking, and evenings of pilgrim community. The Norte isn’t crowded, but it’s not completely empty, either. In 2015, it was the third most popular Camino route (behind the Frances and the Portuguese), walked by 6% of pilgrims who arrived in Santiago (compared to 65% on the Frances, 16% on the Portuguese). Six percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but here’s the thing- it’s just enough to feel like there’s a great community of pilgrims who are walking with you. Because there aren’t so many people, you tend to recognize the same faces over and over, you really get to know your group. On a few of my Norte evenings I was in an albergue with just a couple other people (and again, that’s because I was often doing my own thing), but mostly I was within a pilgrim community of a few dozen others who I either knew or recognized. For me, this was a perfect balance: quiet days of walking, evenings sitting around a table drinking wine with familiar faces.



3. That beautiful blue water (and beaches!)

Since the path of the Norte runs mostly along the northern coast of Spain, this means that there are days of walking next to or near the water. My heart would always sink a bit when the Camino path dipped down and away from the coast, but it went back enough to keep me satiated. Before I started my Camino I imagined that I would have multiple days of lounging on the beach after a long day’s walk, and while this wasn’t the case for me (lots of factors influenced this, including not bringing a bathing suit or beach towel), I walked on many stretches of sand, and knew of other pilgrims who spent time on the beach. But mostly, I just loved when the path of the Camino ran close to the coastline, sometimes even hugging the coastline. It was a special kind of beauty. 



4. The animals!

Was it just me, or were there many more horses and cows on this path than on the Frances? And not just like, “Oh look, there’s a cow off in the field,” but “Oh look, there’s a cow standing directly in my path, blocking the way.” Not just once, but many, many times. Horses, too, several of them, just sort of standing around as if they were waiting for me to pass by. Goats, too! At some point, I even began to say, “Hola la vache!”, a confusing jumble of Spanish and French but the cows didn’t care, they just blinked at me lazily and swatted their tails against the flies.



5. The food!

I’m probably not the person to be talking to about how to eat well on the Norte, but the thing is, I know it’s very possible. Overall, I think there are just more opportunities for pilgrims to eat better on this route (compared to the Frances, in any case). The towns and villages along the way don’t really cater to pilgrims like the Frances does, and while this has its drawbacks, it also means that when you sit down in a restaurant, you’ll be eating what the Spaniards are eating (rather than the hunk of meat and mound of fries that often define the pilgrim’s menu). And in the north of Spain, this means lots of fresh seafood. I’m fairly easily satisfied when it comes to food, and often preferred to eat simply on my Camino (think: coffee, bread, cheese, fruit, ham, wine). But I also had some beautiful salads and salmon and calamari and things I don’t even know the name of but that tasted oh-so-good. If you’re a foodie and want to walk the Norte, do a little research, and I bet you can eat very, very well on this pilgrimage.



6. The route, especially the beginning of it, is challenging.

So, this might be a drawback for some people, but it was an important part of my pilgrimage. Walking 500 miles is going to be difficult no matter how you do it, but after the Frances, I found that I wanted something that pushed me a little harder. And maybe it was because I responded to the physical challenge of the Frances in a way that surprised me: my favorite days were the difficult ones: over the Pyrenees, the alternate Dragonte route, my 40+ km day into Leon. So when I set out on the Norte, I welcomed the challenge. And boy oh boy, did those first two weeks challenge me. I walked with a huge blister on the bottom of my foot and the muscles in my legs groaned and I can’t count the number of times I stopped in the middle of a hill, looked up to the top, and muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Sometimes it just wasn’t fun, but the overall feeling I’m left with? I feel accomplished, and strong. And now I want to walk higher hills, I want to climb other mountains. The Norte helped me learn that I’m stronger than I think.



7. Fun, alternate forms of transportation

On the Frances, I considered myself a bit of a Camino purist (a standard I tried to hold to myself, and myself only). As long as I was able to, I wanted to walk every single bit of it, and I did. But on the Norte, I think I was on a bus after the first day of walking. Not to skip a section of the path, but just to get me back into San Sebastian from the albergue which was on the outskirts of the city. I did the same thing in Bilboa, but it wasn’t just those little bus trips. The Norte is just full of strange transportation options to help you navigate the trail. You’ve got to take several short ferry rides, there’s a cable car, there’s an elevator, there’s even a moving sidewalk. Also, many pilgrims take a short train ride to bypass a rather risky section of the trail. Buses, trains, ferries, cable cars, elevators, moving sidewalks… this time, I used more than my feet to move me across Spain, and I was totally okay with that.



8. An opportunity to practice my French

This is not going to apply to most people who walk the Norte, but for whatever reason, I was often surrounded by French pilgrims. Maybe the French are numerous on this route? Or maybe it was just when I was walking? But I often found myself in a group of French pilgrims, and this meant that I spoke more French than I have in probably the past 15 years, combined. It was a bit challenging, but it was also wonderful. I worked hard to learn a second language for a reason, and it was great to dust it off and to be able to communicate with pilgrims who couldn’t speak much English.

Ahh, just writing this has me excited, all over again, to return to Spain for another Camino. What will walk #3 have in store for me? Hopefully all of the above, and much more.