He may have been bitten by a ravenous rat, stopped in his tracks by unruly mountain sheep and kept awake by Olympian snorers, but guest writer Ash Bolton was seduced by the Camino de Santiago – not to mention the tasty tapas and fine wines along the way.
It may seem like an obvious statement to make, but the Camino de Santiago is a very long and gruelling journey—and much tougher than I had imagined. At 800km (just short of 500 miles) this blister-inducing trek should not be undertaken lightly and without prior training, lest you want to finish like some of the pilgrims I saw hobbling and moaning like a plague of zombies with their feet bandaged up after a long day’s walk. The Way of St James—as it is known in English—is a UNESCO recognised pilgrimage route that traditionally starts in the north east of Spain near the French border and finishes in the Gothic cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela, in rain-washed Galicia (pictured left). It’s arguably the world’s most famous Christian pilgrimage and since the Hollywood film The Way came out in 2010, its popularity has soared.
Almost 200,000 pilgrims attempt The Way of St James each year, with approximately 80 per cent doing so on foot, 20 per cent cycling it and a few brave souls arriving on horseback or with donkeys. Walking the Camino takes between four to five weeks depending on age, fitness, determination and how many rest days you have. Walkers will typically do 25 km a day (16 miles), whereas if you are on two wheels you can easily clear over 100 km (62 miles) a day. So armed with 14 days off work and a vague notion of which direction I was heading in (west in case you’re wondering!), I made my way to the Pyrenean hamlet of Roncesvalles, where Spanish pilgrims have started their epic quest for centuries. I arrived late on the evening of Saturday 7 September 2013 and was welcomed by quite possibly the heaviest torrential downpour I’ve ever experienced in Spain.
Leaping off the pilgrim-packed bus, I headed for the rather spooky looking albergue* (pictured left), which was almost completely hidden in mist. Albergues, by the way, are subsidized shelters found dotted along the Camino and offer pilgrims a place to wash, rest, eat, sleep and snore. They typically cost between €5—€10 a night (£4—£8) and are occasionally free, meaning the cost of your trip won’t break the bank. But there is no space for modesty as you sleep close to your fellow pilgrims and nearby snorers can drive you mad.
My plan had been to catch a taxi over the Pyrenees and into France to reach the traditional starting point of the Camino Francés, which is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. But a quick look for a taxi proved fruitless, so I took this as a sign that fate wanted me to start here—that and I spotted a rather inviting looking bar.
I wanted to experience what it was like to walk the Camino too, so I hiked† for the first couple of days from Roncesvalles to Zubiri and on to Pamplona, home to the world famous San Fermin Festival, a.k.a. the Running of the Bulls. From Pamplona I spent the next ten days cycling via: Puente la Reina (beautiful bridge), Estella (medieval looking), Irache (FREE wine fountain‡), Nájera (heartbreakingly beautiful), Burgos (my favourite place), Frómista (nice church, but small), Sahagún (a bit of a yawn-fest), León (you’ll want to stay longer than one night), Molinaseca (took nine hours and 101km to arrive here, but one of the prettiest villages of the trip- pictured below), Sarria (the best thing about Sarria was leaving the next morning), Palas De Rei (you can start from here and still claim to have walked the Camino) and finally Santiago de Compostela (one of the world’s most beautiful city centres).
A typical day involved being woken up at 6.30am by the early risers, bag rustlers and those with torches attached to their heads. The majority have a quick breakfast before setting off at between 7am-8am, just as it starts to get light. Most days there would be another stop for “elevensies”, a quick lunch at around 1pm, and then an afternoon of cycling anything between 20km and 110km (12-68 miles). But the beauty of the Camino is that you stop when you’re tired or when you like the look of the town you arrive in.
Thankfully, I only got lost once on the outskirts of Nájera, thanks to a rogue arrow that someone had painted on a rock to attract pilgrims to an out of town winery – lucky for them I didn’t find the winery and unleash a rage of biblical proportions! But in general, I didn’t need the map as there were yellow arrows pinned to trees, painted on the roads and in every conceivable place you could imagine. Highlights of the trip involved cycling to the highest point of the Camino on the way to Molinaseca, where after not having seen a soul for three hours on a lonely mountain road, I was stopped in my tracks as hundreds of sheep crossed in front of me.
Another incident involved being bitten by an unidentified creature that I like to refer to as the Beast of Molinaseca. It happened at 4am in an old monastery that had been converted into an albergue. My hand had been dangling precariously over the edge of the bed while sleeping on the bottom bunk, when something sank its sharp teeth into the tip of my middle finger. I instantly leapt out of bed, blood dripping from my finger, but couldn’t raise the alarm as it was pitch black and everyone was sleeping (or snoring). After a quick scan of the floor with the light from my mobile phone to confirm it didn’t have back up, I retreated cautiously back into bed and pulled the sleeping bag back over my head lest the beast returned.
Most days followed the same routine. Upon arrival in a beautiful city I would decamp my possessions with military precision on to my bed (in case someone else pinched it when you were in the shower), have a wash, load the washing machine, and with what little energy I had left, I would go out in search of a meal, banter and a cold beer.
Along the Camino you can take advantage of the Pilgrim’s Meal (pictured right), which were priced between €7.50 – €10 (£6 -£8), and included three courses and wine—sometimes an entire bottle. Perhaps for this reason, a popular Spanish saying along the route is ‘no vino, no camino’ (no wine, no pilgrimage).
There were a couple of days when I cycled more than 100 km (62 miles) and spent several hours laboriously climbing steep mountain roads, only to find an even bigger mountain lurking ominously at the top. I managed to sustain a broken bicycle chain 20 km outside of Burgos one day (here’s a tip, bring a spare chain!) meaning I had to get the bus into the city with my bike. But apart from a couple of ill-timed punctures, I was relatively problem free. I was also incredibly lucky with the weather as the only rain I saw was on the first two days for a couple of hours. The rest of the Camino was gloriously sunny, with temperatures hitting 30c most days.
On a whole, the experience of travelling the span of an entire country was breath-taking, exhausting and well-worth the effort. It was also a great opportunity for meeting people from all over the world. During my pilgrimage the Irish and Australians made up the largest percentage of people followed by Canadians, Spanish and the French – although I only met one other Brit on the route.
I’m not religious so for me it was more of an adventure and an ideal way to visit remote and historical parts of Spain. It was also an excellent opportunity to sample some of the tastiest tapas and finest wines that the country has to offer. Part of the camino goes through Spain’s famous Rioja region and you’ll pass countless vineyards. The camino is also great way to lose weight; I went down a trouser size during the camino thanks to all the exercise – and that was despite eating and drinking to my heart’s content.
Things to look out for on the camino included the spellbinding Castillo de los Templarios, a.k.a. the Castle of the Knights Templar in Ponferrada, the striking cathedrals of León and Burgos, La Cruz de Hierro (a large iron cross where people deposit stones from their country to offload their sins—pictured left) and an abandoned village in the mountains above Molinaseca that is being re-habited by hippies. There were also countless churches, fairy-tale looking castles and quaint villages with stunning landscapes.
Near the start of the Camino there was a fountain that poured unlimited free red wine and water (pictured left)—a very popular stop off for pilgrims with aching legs as you can imagine. The only downside to the Camino was that when arriving in an enchanting city such as Burgos, which has so much to offer, once you unpacked, showered and washed your clothes, there really wasn’t enough time to explore properly.
For most weary pilgrims arriving in Santiago it’s an emotional finish as many have been heading there for weeks and met countless friends along the way, so the realisation that it’s all over is a bitter-sweet moment.
But would I do it again? Yes–in fact I had so much fun I’m going again this September with two cycle keen friends. For anyone thinking of doing the Camino, I would recommend walking it if you have the time, especially on your own. There is a great spirit of camaraderie and it’s very easy to make friends as you all have a goal in common. Plus, there’s plenty of time to get to know each other, away from the distractions of modern life. On the other hand cycling is great fun, but the downside is you don’t speak to as many people along the way.
One word of advice, when you’re queuing up for your certificate in Santiago they’ll ask you why you did it– always declare for religious reasons, even if you did it for an adventure, as you get a much more impressive finishing certificate. And most importantly, bring earplugs for a good night’s sleep!