Sick in Spain; Day 5 on the Camino de San Salvador (Pola de Lena to Oviedo, 34km)

My fifth and final day on the Camino de San Salvador was, in a word, miserable. 

I was going to try to gloss over the hard parts or put a positive spin on it (and, well, I probably will find something positive from it), but I don’t want to be misleading about what this day was like for me. It was pretty miserable.

In my last post I was writing from the morning of Day 5, in that warm cafe, sitting at a table with a faded pink tablecoth, watching a woman bring trays full of croissants and pastries from an oven in the back kitchen, listening to the rain strike against the pavement. I knew that I wanted to stay in that cafe for awhile and so I did. When I finally set out, the conditions were actually pretty good for walking: only the lightest mist of rain against my cheeks, and a perfectly cool temperature.

The first 7km were on a flat, paved road that ran somewhat adjacent to a main highway. It was often bordered by trees but you could always hear the roar of traffic. At times there was that very light mist, at times it was totally dry. I kept my rain jacket on and walked, and walked, my stick clacking against the road with every step. 

(this is actually a photo of me from later in the day, sitting against a stone wall and staring at my shoes and trying to will myself to keep going)

I was dragging myself along. Those 7km seemed to last longer than entire days on the Camino, and that worried me. These were the first 7km of a 34km day, and while the first part of the day was flat, I would have some ascents and descents ahead. But I kept walking, my pace slowing down, and I did my best to focus on my destination- a town with a bar- where I could sit down and order some orange juice. 

And I did just that when I arrived in Uri, and the tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. But sitting in the bar, I could feel how drained my body was. Every single part of me was tired, but it was more than that. I was sick, an unignorable kind of sick, and probably not the “push through anyway and walk 34 kilometers through chilly, damp weather” kind.

I left the bar knowing that in another 8km or so, I’d arrive in another town with another bar, and if I needed to, I could stop there. I told myself that I could stop whenever I needed to, that it didn’t matter when I arrived in Oviedo. So I started walking again, and I started worrying again. Then the rain started to come down a little harder, and I pulled the hood up over my head. As I walked, I passed a train station, and I paused for a long time, uncertain of what I should do. “It’s right there!” I said to myself. “All you have to do is go over there and buy a ticket to Oviedo and the trip will probably take twenty minutes.” I took a few steps, I stopped again. I took a few steps back, stopped, but then continued walking. The same thing happened a little later, when I passed another small station. 

I think I may have learned a lesson in here, somewhere. I never got on a train, I walked all the way to Oviedo. And I never stopped again for a rest, either. As I continued along, I just found a steady, persistent rhythm, and as I passed through each town, I told myself that I would just stop in the next one. But mostly I just wanted the walking to be over, I wanted to be in Oviedo. 

I should have taken the train. There was some stupid stubborness in me that wanted to walk the entire San Salvador route. It reminded me of my time on the Camino Frances, how serious I was about walking every step. But that time, nothing really challenged me like it was challenging me now. What was I trying to prove, anyway, by walking every step? What did it matter? It’s like I had this plan in my head and I couldn’t let go of it. Of course I was going to walk to Oviedo! That was the entire idea!

But man, sometimes, you’ve just got to take a break. At some point during the walk, I made the decision to rest in Oviedo. To not go to the albergue, to not try to walk again the next day. I was going to find my own little room somewhere and hole up for two nights and sleep as much as I wanted and try and try to get better. 

I think the last few hours of walking were a practice in visualization. I just kept picturing a small hotel room, a bed, I pictured a shower and told myself that before I knew it, I would be cleaning the day off of me. At this point it was raining rather steadily; just a light rain, but it was enough to wet my clothing, my hair, my hands. A bit outside of the city the path wound up a hillside; I’d been walking on pavement for practically the entire day but as soon as the Camino moved to a trail, it was a narrow one that was once again overgrown. More thorns, brambles, wet leaves and branches but at least I was wearing long pants this time. Sometimes the trail was dirt-packed, at other points it was an old medieval road… which was cool, until I realized that it was mostly a bunch of really smooth, slick-from-the-rain stones that were extremely slippery to walk over. My already slow, slow pace grew a whole lot slower as I struggled not to fall.

I made it to Oviedo. After a few tries, I found a perfectly small and inexpensive hotel room not far from the cathedral. I took a shower and crawled into bed and even though I intended to go out and find some food, I never did. I slept for a long, long time.

My rest day in Oviedo was my birthday, and thank goodness I made the decision not to walk. It would have been a 30km slog into a large, industrial town, and I didn’t want another miserable day. So instead I slept in and had a birthday cafe con leche along with some freshly squeezed orange juice. I went to the pharmacy for medicine, then took a tour of the cathedral and knelt before the statue of San Salvador. “Thank you for helping me get this far,” I prayed. “Please help me make it further.”

The really sad thing about being sick in Spain is that I don’t have much of an appetite. I’ve been forcing myself to eat, but not much tastes very good. The cafe con leches, the vino tintos… they just don’t seem that appealing. But the freshly squeezed orange juice? In the past, I’ve seen other pilgrims order this day after day. And for some reason, I never did on my past Caminos- all I needed was my cafe con leche. But now? I’m a convert. 

Oviedo is a beautiful city and the perfect place for a rest. I wandered a bit, I spent time in my tiny room, I slept as much as I could. And then it was time for a return to the Camino Del Norte… but this time there were a lot of questions. After losing a few days, I knew I couldn’t make it to Santiago in my time frame. Which part would I cut out? And would I be feeling well enough to walk the next day?

Walking each other home; Day 4 on the Camino de San Salvador (Pajares to Pola de Lena, 28ish km)

I’m writing this from a warm cafe on the morning of Day 5, my last day on the Camino de San Salvador. It was raining all night long and rain is in the forecast for today, too. It’s only spritzing a bit right now so I suppose I should get a move on, but I couldn’t resist a nice and hot cafe con leche. 

It’s going to be a long day into Oviedo- 34km- and that’s going to be made to feel a lot worse in the rain. Yesterday wasn’t exactly a stellar Camino day for me, either. I wasn’t feeling great (as in, I think I’m getting sick), and I was moving slow after only a few hours, dragging myself up hills that were barely hills (that being said, yesterday did involve quite a lot of ups and downs). The weather was gray and cloudy and a little humid; while most people prefer not walking under the heat of the sun, gray weather tends to drag me down a bit. 

I was looking forward to another beautiful day, my guidebook raved: “It’s hard to think of any day of more beautiful Camino walking” and “It (the path) is well marked and very well cleared”. I should have remembered that this guide was put together back in 2009, so what was “well cleared” 7 years ago might not exactly be well cleared now. 

And it wasn’t. Remember my post from La Muse when my legs got all scratched up from the ‘field of thorns’? Well this was sort of a repeat. Not nearly as bad, but guess who wasn’t wearing her long pants? Just as the old scratches had finally faded, I’ve added a fresh set of new ones (just baby ones, luckily). The path was overgrown, it was wet, the gray skies obscured the promised glorious views. In fact, I was wondering where those views were- the track through the forest was so thick with trees that I couldn’t see out to the mountains. 

And when the path did open up, I could see that there would be stunning views if not for the clouds. And to add insult to injury, I reached an area where this was painted on a rock:


It’s like the person going along marking the Camino decided that a yellow arrow just wouldn’t do. I looked out at the impressive view and knew that a lot of it was obscured. 

But this is how it goes: my first day on the Camino two years ago, through the Pyrenees, was perfect- clear and cool and sunny. When I walked the Hospitales route on the Primitivo last year, clouds covered everything. Two days ago was another perfect day, yesterday not as much. 

The highlight of my walk, however, was the dog friend that I picked up (we’ll call him Salvador, thanks to my sister for the name suggestion). I’d stopped by a fountain in a small village to rest and have some water, when I heard growling and barking. There was a small pack of dogs in the street, they seemed to be ganging up on one guy, a light gray fluffy dog who was trembling in the corner. The bully dogs moved away, and when Salvador spotted me, he ran over and jumped up on the wall where I was sitting, burying his face into my chest. Then he backed up and looked at me and I swear he was saying, “Save me.”

“Don’t worry buddy.” I hefted up my pack and grabbed my stick. “I’ve got you.”

We moved out of the village together, Salvador taking quick and nervous looks around, while I brandished my stick at any dog who dared to come close. Once we were well clear, Salvador ran ahead joyously, then would double back to make sure I was still following. He’d come at me in a fast gallop, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and when he reached me he would jump in the air and wriggle his body and try to lick my face. Then, as quick as anything, he’d tear on ahead again. This continued for about 45 minutes, and I was reminded so much of my walks with Homer, at La Muse, of how nice it felt to have a dog along for company, to lead the way, to check on me and make sure I was coming along. But after awhile I started to get a bit nervous- how far would Salvador walk with me? Where did he belong? What if he never left? And then, because I was all alone, I worried that I would never want him to leave. But how could I stroll into a city, much less walk through Spain, with a dog at my heels?

I didn’t have to worry. Eventually, Salvador ran off down a sloping hill towards a building, and he never came back. I assume that he found his way home.

I found my way home, too- home for the night anyway. It was something between 25-30 kilometers to Pola de Lena, a small, gray-looking sort of town. I found the albergue, it was locked, and when I rang the bell no one responded. By now I knew the drill; I had seen a pay phone on my walk through town and so I doubled back to call the number that was posted on the albergue door. This time, all I had to say was, “Hola, soy peregrina” and the voice on the other end of the line said he’d be there in 5 minutes. 

Within about an hour of my arrival, the 4 Spanish men showed up, and then another younger Spanish man. The younger guy had walked from Poladura (where I had started the day before), and he brought me reports on other pilgrims on the trail. “There aren’t many,” he said. “Last night there were only three of us in Poladura. I heard that you were the only one the night before, and the night before that, there was no one!” But he also told me that last week there were 18 people staying in La Robla one night. 18! I can’t even imagine it after the quiet days and nights I’ve had out here.

The Spanish guy and I went out for dinner together- he was very intent on finding the best food in town, and I think he succeeded. We went to a small place that specialized in homemade dishes, and when our waiter found out we were pilgrims, he offered us a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ that we hadn’t realized we could get. I chose the Fabada bean stew to start, a specialty of the region, and then we shared a plate of some sort of fish- chipirones- and I’m not even sure what it could possibly translate to in English. When the waiter put the dish down I was slightly alarmed, but each bite was smooth and silky, with the most mild and delicate flavor. My only regret was that I wasn’t feeling that welll and despite all the walking, I didn’t have much of an appetite. But the food was so good I ate a lot anyway, and polished off my entire bowl of arroz con leche (rice pudding, but you’ve never had rice pudding quite like this!). There was a bottle of La Rioja wine, too, which is some of the best wine in Spain, if not the world. 

Throughout dinner I was reminded of how sometimes, the Camino can feel a lot like dating. I was sitting across from a man in a cozy little restaurant eating a good meal, and we hadn’t known each other before that afternoon. But I guess the nice thing about the Camino is how easily stuff like this happens, how little pressure there is. It’s natural for pilgrims to connect with each other, to gather together in the evenings, to come together for a day and then separate. There’s none of the pressure and stress that I tend to put on myself, either. I wasn’t thinking, “What am I going to wear? Do I look good enough? What will we talk about?” I mean, besides my hiking clothes I have one other outfit, I’m not carrying make-up or beauty supplies, my eyes were a bit puffy and my nose a bit raw from the cold that was descending on me, and it just didn’t matter. I’d walked all day, and I wanted dinner. 

But throughout dinner, my desires changed. All I wanted to do was go back to the albergue and get into bed. I was starting to feel worse and worse, and my companion talked and talked. Sometimes I would try to say something, and he would kind of pause to give me room to speak, but then jump right back into whatever else he wanted to say. He kept trying to convince me to switch my plans and walk the Primitivo, saying that the part of the Norte I was going to do was the worst part. “It’s really awful,” he said. “You walk on the road all the time and people don’t have the Camino spirit.” And at one point I even started thinking- “Maybe I should do the Primitivo instead…” but then I snapped out of it. The thing is, everyone has an opinion about the ‘best way’: how things should be done, how you should walk, what you should carry, how you should act (true in life, as well…). I’ve already walked the Primitivo, and I’ve never done this section of the Norte. Maybe I’ll love it or maybe I’ll hate it, but this is my Camino. I need to walk it how I need and want to walk it. I’ve learned that already.

So after a day slugging uphill on an overgrown and brambly path, befriending a dog and eating a darn good pilgrim’s meal, I sank into bed and wished I could stay there for a long, long time. But the trail beckons, and it’s just 34 km into Oviedo, where the Camino de San Salvador ends. Time to carry on. 

The night I jumped over a fire; Day 5 on the Camino del Norte, Monastery Zenarruza to Albergue Eskerika, 27kms

Each day on the Norte seems to bring something completely new. Maybe it was like this last year on the Frances- I’m sure it probably was- and yet, on this Camino, it feels like I’m getting a very, very different experience with each day.

I’ve had my walks alone, I’ve had my walk in a group, I’ve stayed in a train station and in a monastery.

After walking for so much of the day with others yesterday, I had anticipated that I would set off on my own today. And I did, but just ahead of me was Christine, a 63-year old French woman with a 14 kilo pack who can outwalk just about anyone here (except maybe this other French guy, who literally runs down the trail. Man, can the French hike!).

For much of the morning I wanted to be alone, so I would leave some room between Christine and I, but inevitably I would catch up with her when she would stop to check her guide. She’s fast, but what slows her down a bit is a need to always know exactly where she is on the route. So on and off I would catch up to her, and finally thought I lost her for good after I stopped for a break on a bench next to a church on top of a hill (for someone who doesn’t often check her guide, I had no idea where I was).

It was 10am and I’d been walking for about three hours and here’s the thing: I hadn’t had coffee. The Norte is a beautiful route and while it’s difficult, I can handle the hills and the rocks and the horrible ascents and descents IF I can start my day with some coffee.

Sometimes, I have a feeling it’s going to be inevitable: I’ll stay in a place without a kitchen or a bar and I’ll have to walk for hours before I can reach the first town big enough to be selling coffee. But today I made a mistake. The monastery offered breakfast, but it didn’t start until 7:30. Once I ate something and had coffee I wouldn’t be hitting the road until 8:00, and that’s late considering I had another nearly 30km day planned and by late morning these days get HOT (maybe these are unseasonably hot June days; all I know is that walking in the heat of the afternoons has been really difficult).

So before setting out this morning I studied my guidebook and saw that a town about 4km away from the monastery would have two bars, so I planned to stop there for my first coffee of the day. Except when I got to the town around 8:30, it was deserted. I tracked down a woman and asked her if there was a bar nearby and she said it wouldn’t open until 10. Noooo!!! The guidebook warned that there would be no more services until Gernika, a further 13 kilometers away. Oh boy.

At one point when I was walking with Christine I tried to tell her about needing coffee (she doesn’t speak much English so our conversations are in French) and she said, “Oh, I had coffee this morning at the monastery.”

“But weren’t the others in your room sleeping?” I asked. (The small ‘kitchen’ was in the same room as the top floor bunk beds).

“Yes, but I used the microwave and I didn’t care. They are pilgrims, they should be waking up early.”

So next time, if there’s a kitchen with coffee tucked away in the cupboard, I know to make some for myself regardless of whether others are nearby sleeping or not. Because my morning walk without coffee was tough. I thought walking all day in the rain was tough, and it was, but now I’m not sure which is worse.

So it was 10am and I had been walking for three hours and I sat down outside of a pretty church and Christine was next to me, chattering away in French. My head had a dull ache, I had a high suspicion that there was a small blister forming on the ball of my right foot (there was), and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone, much less in French. Eventually Christine walked on when she saw me open a can of tuna. She probably thought I was a little crazy to be eating so early but I needed something for energy, and a can of tuna fish was about my only option.

The day turned around for me a few kilometers before Gernika where I found an open bar, and once I had my coffee I was good to go. I ran into Christine again in the city, she had just been to the tourism office and was headed to the Assembly House- a quick and free stop for pilgrims. I followed her and did a 15-minute sight-seeing stop and as we were leaving the Assembly House Christine reaches around in her pack and pulls out a tall can of beer. She pops it open and while walking takes big swigs, and it’s all I can do to keep up behind her.

I laugh to myself, because she is something else. As we walk out of the city we talk a bit, and I learn some things about her: that she is recently retired, that she has been wanting to do the Camino for 30 years, that before this pilgrimage, she rarely drank. I already knew that Christine had started her walk in Paris, just over two months ago. Paris! She truly started this pilgrimage from her doorstep, and she is more full of life than anyone I’ve seen here, yet.

I’m writing about Christine a lot because she is the only other pilgrim I encountered on my walk today. After leaving Gernika we pretty much stuck together, although she was always a bit ahead of me. And today, for some reason, this arrangement suited me. Yesterday I felt a strong need to go off on my own, and was so happy when I went off to do my own thing. But today, I didn’t mind so much that Christine and I were headed to the same place, and that we were sort of walking together.

The Camino is a funny thing. I’ve said that I want to be open to whatever kinds of experiences the Camino gives me, and I also want to be open to and aware of whatever I’m feeling, moment to moment. If I’m able to, I want to follow my feelings, even if they change one day to the next. So yesterday, I continued to the monastery even though I was leaving my friends and it would have been so easy to stay with them and have a comfortable evening. And today, I didn’t fall behind Christine or attempt to move ahead of her. I stayed close.

I’m now at my albergue for the evening- Christine and I arrived together around 4pm (so many late days on the Norte! It wasn’t like this at all for me on the Frances, and the only thing I can say is that the difficulty of the walk makes each kilometer take that much longer). When we arrived there was only one other pilgrim here, a man from Spain (who can’t speak English but can speak a little French… so it seems like another evening of practicing my French!). It’s now 6:30 and we’re still the only three here. 

It’s a place called Albergue Eskerika, about 10 kilometers past Gernika. And once again, it’s a beautiful albergue. Our bunks are upstairs in a large, lofted room, and since there are only three of us we’re spread out around the room, giving us each our own little space. There’s a lovely outdoor space with a covered kitchen area where we can make food (unfortunately I didn’t know what the eating situation would be like here, only that meals were ‘available’, so I didn’t bring much food with me. Turns out that you can cook anything you have with you, or you can purchase something from a small list of items for sale. Since there’s no town nearby, I’ll probably buy some pasta here for about three times the cost it would have been at a grocery store. So future pilgrims take note! If you stay at Albergue Eskirika, bring some food items with you!).

There are picnic tables and a large sunny yard, tables and chairs in the shade, a small dog named Lolita running around and begging for food scraps, small trees and red flowers in green pots. It’s another ideal spot, and so peaceful and quiet, especially with only three of us here.

I’m starting to get used to the solitude of this Camino. There’s still part of me that longs for the vibrancy and fun of the Camino Frances, but it’s important for me to remember that most of the time, I found that Camino to be a little too noisy and party-like… that I intentional needed to carve away time for myself, and work hard to seek out smaller albergues in tiny villages in order to find some peace and quiet. And here, so far, I’ve loved these peaceful and quiet spots. 

I’m also beginning to accept that this is a difficult Camino for me. So often last year I remember thinking, “This really isn’t bad at all!” And most of the time, it wasn’t. I trained well and started slow and lucked out with next to no rain or blisters.

But this Camino? It’s been so different. Every single day has hills to climb, mountains to climb. My mind knew it, but I don’t think my body did, because the road is taking it’s toll on me. Towards the middle of the day my legs sort of say, “Okay, we’ve had enough of the hills. No more going up.” And then when I force them to go up, they protest every step of the way. Each step is a slow slog through molasses. And then my feet begin to protest as well; they don’t like the rocks I have to climb over. So much so that the right foot has decided to stage a protest and grow a nice little blister on the ball of the foot. How did this happen?? Maybe I thought I was immune to blisters after not really getting any last year, and never getting one on a training hike. I’m sure my days have been a little too long, this early on… and the rocks aren’t helping either. The end of today had me limping a bit into the albergue. We’ll see whether this blister becomes an issue or not…

To end the day, we celebrated San Juan Day. The French were talking about this last night, it’s an annual celebration of the shortest night of the year, the summer solstice. I heard talk about fire and making wishes, and a few hours ago the hospitalero said that we would celebrate. I was sitting outside, studying my guidebook when I heard him call out something in Spanish. And then, slowly, “The fire is burning!”

The three of us walked over- Christine, the Spanish man and I- and when I saw the fire I made a face and said, “This is the end of my Camino.” The fire was huge, and laughing, the hospitalero said, “You jump later, when it is lower.” So we waited and watched the fire burn, and when it was only small flame and embers we took turns jumping over and making a wish. 

What a way to usher in the summer. 
So that’s Day 5 on the Camino: quiet, lacking in coffee, full of French, a little painful and lots more beautiful scenery and stunning views. And fire jumping. Tomorrow, Bilbao!