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!

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.)

The things we carry; Day Two on the Camino de San Salvador, (La Robla to Poladura; 25km)

My thoughts, at the moment: My pack is heavy. I’m alone in the albergue. My forehead hurts because I was stung by a bee.

But lets go back to last night. Turns out I wasn’t alone after all; a Spanish biker showed up, then a Spanish walker, then two more Spanish bikers. The guy who walked could speak English, but otherwise I was just gesturing and smiling at the others. And I didn’t spend much time with them; I had just started cooking dinner when the first arrived, and had finished by the time the others showed up. One by one they all left to head into town to find something to eat, and I was in bed, asleep, whenever they made it back.

So I’m not counting on being alone in this albergue, it’s very possible that other bikers will show up, and maybe the guy from yesterday (who seemed quite surprised that I had walked so fast- even though yesterday didn’t feel very fast to me). And there may be others- two men just walked up, they look like pilgrims and at the very least are hikers, and I can hear them sitting outside and talking to a few villagers but it’s all in Spanish, of course, so I can’t understand a thing.

The next two days are going to have some hard hiking, but I have to say, the most difficult thing about this Camino is not being able to speak Spanish. I sort of felt that on the Norte, a bit, and that was mostly because villagers wanted to talk to me as I passed through, and it was frustrating to not be able to have a conversation. But there were always other pilgrims who spoke English so it never felt too isolating.

I actually don’t mind how isolated this Camino is, but the Spanish I really need is the kind that can communicate some basic needs. I’ve managed to understand what I need to, but it just makes things a bit complicated. Like, yesterday, the hospitalero told me that if I wanted to eat dinner in the only place that sold food in Poladura (where I am now), I’d have to call in the morning the next day to let them know I was coming. 

That’s well and good, but I don’t speak the language and even if I did it wouldn’t matter, my phone doesn’t have international calling. So I strategized, and in the only town I passed through today that had any facilities, I tracked down a pay phone, and attempted to call. A woman answered, I asked if she spoke English, she said, “No.” So then I did my best to throw out enough Spanish words that might make sense… like “pilgrim”, “dinner”, “reservation”, “tonight”. She spoke back, real fast, and I didn’t understand a thing. So I just sort of repeated myself a few times and then I heard some clicking on the phone and the line cut off and I didn’t have any more change.

Unsure if I had actually communicated that I hoped to have dinner tonight, I walked around Pola de Gordon in search of a supermarket, figuring that even though I was carrying food with me, I could buy a couple more things in case I didn’t have any dinner options. I found two supermarkets, both were closed. I didn’t want to wait around until they opened- who knows when they would open- so I went into a bar that had a line of the biggest, airiest croissants I had ever seen. I asked for one to take with me, and then the man disappeared into the back for awhile. When he finally reappeared, he set down an utterly pretty package: the croissant was on a gold plate and then two cardboard arcs crisscrossed over it so that the paper wouldn’t press against the sugar on top and it was all wrapped up in brown string. 

My backpack was filled to the gills; I’d had to get creative about how to string clothing off the back so that I could fit my extra water bottle inside. There was no way I was going to be able to find a spot for the croissant, so that meant that the pretty package dangled from my hand as I walked up a mountain.

  

The last ten kilometers of the day were stunning. I’ve now moved into the mountains and there was a stretch when I stopped about every minute to take another photo. The climb wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t awful either. I can feel how strong my legs are from all that hiking in France, but my heavy pack and the hot sun threatened to do me in. But I just took it slow and it didn’t seem to take so long to reach the top (where I had my victory croissant). 

  
  
  

Then a not-so steep descent, and then a path that wound gently around a mountainside. Despite the heat and some soreness in my feet, I was feeling happy and energized- I stopped to take a photo and heard a buzzing around my head, and when I moved I must have hit the bee (or whatever it was), because all of a sudden he swooped down and stung me on the forehead. What a way to end the day, it felt like someone jabbed a very sharp needle straight into my head, which needless to say is not a welcome feeling.

But despite bee stings and croissants and loaded packs, I made it. The walk today was about 25 kilometers, and it was just enough. I arrived in Poladura, a small village of houses, a church, this albergue, and a small inn (which is where I hoped to find food). A tractor rolled through the streets, a black dog jumped to put his front paws on the fountain so he could take a drink, a kid rode a bike down an alley. Otherwise it was totally quiet, but the albergue door was open, so I went inside. I did my best to read all the signs, I took off my shoes and left them downstairs, then I put my things on a bed and took a shower. 

  

The normal Camino routines, but it feels strange to do them in a place where I haven’t checked in with anyone, haven’t spoken to anyone. But before too long a woman and man showed up, with two kids on bikes. The woman was Maria, the hospitalera, and she spoke a bit of English. I realized then how relieved I was to be able to confirm things with someone, to ask about whether I could get dinner or not (she called to the inn and it turns out that I had communicated well enough that they were prepared to cook for me). She had the keys to the church and she said she has to open it once a day, because it gets so musty inside. I walked in with her- the chapels and churches along the Camino are nearly always locked, so it’s rare to be able to go inside one- and her 6-year old neice, Celia, trailed along behind me, staying close and giggling because I couldn’t speak any Spanish. I think she thought it was both the strangest thing, and the best thing ever. 

I also confirmed with Maria about a sign I’d seen on the door to the albergue… that the albergue in the next town I’d planned to stop in was closed (as of today, of course, it’s having “some problems”). This is the most remote area of the San Salvador so there aren’t many villages or places to stay, but I still have two options: turn my planned 15 kilometer day (not much but it’s a very challenging 15km!) into a 30km day, or stay in a room above the bar in Pajares, the village with the closed albergue. Maria didn’t seem to have much information about it but I figure I’ll try for the room at the bar, or at least see what the situation is like. If not, then I keep walking… One way or another, and even if it’s not easy, I’m sure I’ll find a place to sleep.

In these last two days I’ve mostly just felt like I was hiking through Spain, and not on a Camino. But then there are these moments that remind me of the particular nature of the trail I’m on, that there is so much significance and history of this route. Every once in awhile I’ll pass a small altar, usually set up in the branches of a tree. There is always a bench or a chair underneath and I’ve been stopping and taking a rest, welcoming the comfort and feeling like I’ve found something special. 

  

And then yesterday, I passed by a little pilgrim oasis. I was about 18km out of Leon and the last 10 of those kilometers had been climbing up and down an often rocky path, and whenever I was in the shade small flies would swarm around my head. I didn’t have my back up water supply yet and I was just at the point where I was trying to conserve the water I did have but wishing I weren’t because I was awfully thirsty, when the oasis appeared. It was set to the side of the trail under a small grove of trees. There was a wide picnic table, a trash can, a metal container that held a pilgrim registry and a basket full of blister-healing supplies, and- the best yet- a fountain pouring out fresh, cold water.

  

And today, just when I entered the last village before heading into the mountains, two men passed me. “Una peragrina!” one said to the other, sounding excited. I turned and tried to answer his questions, and soon switched to French when I realized that he knew some. “It’s a beautiful day to be in the mountains,” he said. I smiled and then he wished me a Buen Camino and my smile became wider. Every time I hear it, it’s like I have an extra charge in my steps. “Have a good way,” they’re saying, and it’s said with such genuine care that I believe it, every time. 

  

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

Alone in an albergue, drinking from a 1 euro box of red wine.

Welcome to the Camino, my friends.

This is my Camino #3, and I suspect it’s going to be yet another strange, wonderful, unexpected and challenging journey. I started today- Camino guides say my distance was 27 kilometers but my phone tells me it was more like 34 (though this was with a couple small detours and some back and forths), and this was the easy day on the Camino de San Salvador. Didn’t feel so easy.

But lets back up for a moment, just so I can feel like I’m sort of filling in all the gaps with my travels. I left La Muse on Monday morning and it was tough. I was up at Le Roc for one last visit and it was so hard to pull myself away, and when I finally stood to go, I started to cry. It caught me a bit by surprise, but then again, it was probably the most natural reaction I could have had. I love the mountains around Labastide, I love La Muse, and I really loved the group I was with this year. Leaving something that wraps its arms around you, holds you close and whispers, “This is where you belong, here, and with us,” isn’t easy. Not easy at all.

On the Jeep ride down the mountain, on the train ride to Lyon, I tried to remind myself that I have such exciting things coming up- a Camino! A trek in Scotland! These things help, but I needed the entire day of travel to just let myself feel a bit sad, and to wonder why I was leaving.

I went from the peace of a small French mountain village to the whirlwind and energy of 14 hours in Madrid. I slept for a solid 8 of those hours, and much of the rest of the time was spent visiting the Prado, and looking at yet more art that I’ve only ever seen in text books. It was wonderful.

Then a train to Leon where my college friend, Lani, met me at the station. Lately, we’ve been reuniting in Spain (her work brings her here for the summers) and I really like that. We ran some Camino errands- shipping extra luggage, getting a credential- then joined her family for late night tapas in the square. It was midnight when I got back to my hostel, and I vaguely wondered about how the next day was going to go. What was I going to do? I was going to walk? On the San Salvador? How much do I actually know about this isolated, challenging route?

It’s difficult for me to move from one thing to the next, to the next, without time in between to process what I’m doing. So all of a sudden, there I was, leaving Leon in the early morning hours under the light of the moon, listening to a crane’s clacking high in her nest, stopping by the first open bar for a cafe con leche. Wait, I’m on the Camino? This is the Camino? I followed yellow arrows through Leon to the Parador, where the path splits. One direction continues towards Santiago- and this is the way that all the pilgrims go- and the other heads up to Oviedo. This is the way I went.

I think I was the only one who walked the first stage of the San Salvador today. The San Salvador is a relatively short Camino of 125 km, running from Leon to Oviedo. It’s about a 4-5 day walk (or, as I’m finding out, maybe more like 5-6) and it runs through some remote, mountainous area. I’ve heard it’s difficult, I’ve heard it’s stunning, I’ve heard that not many people walk it. This first day wasn’t so challening, all things considered; aside from a few quick uphill/downhill bursts, the route was fairly flat. But man, it felt hard.

Maybe because it’s my first day- I’ve had some practice in the mountains of southern France, but aside from one long day, my hikes were mostly in the range of 1-3 hours. And maybe it’s my pack- when did it get so heavy? I’ve already done two Caminos so you’d think that I know what I’m doing when it comes to pack weight, but this year… maybe I got a little too confident about what I could handle, maybe I suddenly thought that my pack could hold several more liters than it actually can. Because my pack is full, and it’s heavy. And I even forgot to stock up on a big water bottle (my back up supply), so I have no idea how I’m going to fit that in- or carry its weight- tomorrow. Or how I’m going to carry all the snacks and lunch supplies I bought (this being a remote route, I don’t want to be caught without food).

  
These were pretty much the thoughts running through my head as I walked today, about 30 km totally alone, not passing one person: “What in the world is in my pack? Why does it feel so heavy? I’m not even climbing up a mountain, how am I going to do this? Why did I decide that this was a good idea?” I was also thinking how amazing it was to be back in Spain, to be walking a Camino again. Towards the end of the day I found a good, solid walking stick, I went a bit off route to find a bar and order a bocadillo (sandwich), my eyes became accoustomed, once again, to searching for yellow arrows.

I thought I might try to walk a bit further today (and attempt to do the San Salvador in 4 days), but I was tired. The sun was hot, my feet were starting to hurt, the sunscreen and sweat and dirt felt sticky and thick against my skin. So  I knew that when I reached La Robla (a small town with a few restaurants, a grocery store, an albergue), that I was going to stop. This means that I’ll probably stretch the San Salvador to 5 days (which gives me one less day on the Norte), but I think that will be okay. The albergue was shut up and locked when I arrived, so I went to the tourist office to ask about how to get in. The woman working there called, I went back to the albergue and waited, and a man showed up and gave me the tour. 

It’s a new albergue- so clean and spacious and it has the best kitchen I’ve ever seen on a Camino. The man only spoke Spanish and there were a dozen questions I wanted to ask, and so much of what he explained to me is a bit muddled. But what I do know is this: he gave me a key to the albergue and instructed me to lock up when I leave in the morning, and slip the key in a mailbox. 

I arrived here around 3:30 and I thought there could be a chance that others would come, but now it’s nearly 7:00 and I think I’m the only one. So I went back into town and found the grocery store and stocked up on supplies and now I’m back here, at my own private albergue; sitting on the porch in the shade, listening to the wind, drinking the 1 euro boxed wine (which surprisingly isn’t that bad), keeping a watch for other pilgrims walking down the street but I know there won’t be any. I wonder- will I be totally alone for the next 4 days? Will I be able to navigate through these mountains? Will I be able to sink into this experience, when so much of my mind is still back in France?

I’m excited to find out. But for now, more wine, then some pasta and tuna fish (an old standby), and an early night. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.