Camino de Santiago

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In 1999 I walked the Camino the Santiago with my brother Rob. When I mentioned the Camino to people back then, I got a blank stare. Hardly anybody had ever heard of this 1000 year old pilgrim path that runs from the France/Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, a distance of over 700 km or about 450 miles.
When I mentioned in 2013-2014 to my hiking friends that I was going to walk it again, they either had done it themselves or they knew someone who had done it. This trail has become very popular over the last few decades. Where in 1998 about 50,000 people hiked it, in a recent holy year about 250,000 did the same thing.
In order to qualify to have hiked the Camino you officially only need to do the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 by bike. However, just doing the last 100 is not really ‘hiking the camino’. It requires the endurance of the hardships for the full 700 km. Including sore legs, blisters and any inconvenience you can imagine. People have made this pilgrimage since the year 800 and in the Middle Ages literally thousands of people walked it every year. The benefit is, apparently, that you cut your time in hell in half when you walk the Camino. So I figured that if I hike it twice I am scot free and will go straight to heaven 🙂

After many months of preparation I was ready to leave. Margriet will join me for the last 100 km (just to be sure she qualifies for half her time in hell). However I will start in Pamplona, the first city after the Pyrenees where the trail starts. The reason I start there is because the first couple of days you only walk downhill and several friends have had to quit right then and there because they got shin splints so bad that they could not continue. When I walked in in 1999 with Rob I joined him there after he had walked from Amsterdam, several thousand kms. Unfortunately Rob succumbed to cancer a few years ago and even though we had promised each other that we would do it again together, we were never able to do so.

So this time I was going to do it by myself, until a few weeks before I left, a mutual friend of Margriet and I, Lies, whom we have known for 45 years, announced that she would join me for the first 2 days. OK, that was fine.
Margriet took me to the airport last Wednesday to get on the plane for (eventually) Pamplona. Victoria, Seattle went fine, no problems with the customs thanks to my Nexus card, on to Amsterdam via Delta Airlines. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a crammed place but at least you can watch as many movies as you want, so it is not too bad. In Amsterdam my luggage arrived no problem, which was an improvement since last February when they left my pack in Paris.
Got on the Iberian Airlines flight to Madrid, but it left 20 minutes late and as a result it lost it landing sequence into Madrid. We circled for an hour and then we had 5 minutes to make the connecting flight. I raced over to that gate and found my friend who was going to join me in Pamplona racing to it at the same time. That was a surprise because we had agreed to meet on the steps of the cathedral in Pamplona the next day at 11 AM. So, we made it but our luggage did not.
Lies went to her hotel 20 minutes from the airport which she had arranged beforehand and I found a hotel close to the airport to await the luggage. Since there are only 2 flights between Madrid and Pamplona a day, it made no sense to sit and wait so I went into Pamplona the next day. I had to buy a few things anyway, so that worked out fine. We explored Pamplona and walked the first 5 km of the Camino through Pamplona. I went to the  airport at 9 PM and lo and behold there were our packs.
The next morning we were planning to leave early, but when I called Lies at her hotel she had not slept well and was not sure she would make it very far that day. By 10 am we did make it to the spot where we had left the trail the previous day. Lies did fine that day, we hiked, climbed and cursed our way though some of the hardest 14 km the Camino can throw at you.

Day 2 announced itself with dark clouds and a forecast of thunderstorms that day. However, we decided to take a chance and go for it. First we had to take a bus to the point where we left the trail yesterday at the southern end of Pamplona. There the real hiking started. Lies did not feel very well and was not sure how far she would make it that day. However, after the first few miles she started to improve and felt a lot better. Lunch at a small village 2 hours out of Pamplona. There we had to make the decision to tackle the hardest pass we would be facing on the first part of the Camino. Or to stay put for the rest of the day. Lies decided that she felt good enough to continue, so off we went. I had trained a lot in hilly country but Lies, living in Rotterdam never had that opportunity and obviously that played a role in her falling behind quickly. However she is a determined person and did make it to the top of the pass and down on the other side. By that time we had done probably 15 km and those were some of the hardest 15 km the pilgrims face in the first half of the Camino. We found a nice refugio in a small village on the other side of the pass and stopped for the night. These refugios are like hostels with 20 or 40 people together in one large room in bunk beds. We had the first pick of the beds, but within a couple of hours the beds filled up in the room. These refugios are between 5 and 10 euros a day and a pilgrims meal is from 10 to 15 euros, ($15.- to 22.50). Not bad, although it does add up after 30 days on the trail.

A quick shower, washing sweaty clothes, a beer and a nap or email and a meal – and we felt better. Lies and I had agreed that we would walk up for 2 or 3 days and then we would each find our own way to Santiago. I wanted to have some time to reflect by myself and be alone.

The changes I noticed compared to 1999 are (at least so far after only a day):
• in 1999 I noticed about a dozen pilgrims the first day on the trail. Today it was more like 50.
• In 1999 there were no mountain bikes on the trail, now there are numerous ones and not always very considered of the slower hikers.
• There are many more refugios, hostels and hotels along the route ( a good thing)
• the trail obviously is much more known and popular. It has become a multimillion dollar tourist attraction for the Spaniards.
These are just the initial changes I noticed between 1999 and 2014.

One Determined Pilgrim

Day 4 on the trail.
Yesterday was a ‘killer’ hike, today was slightly easier. I still don’t recognize any of the trail locations we walked 15 years ago. I wonder if they moved Santiago and had to built a new trail to get to it!
Nothing looks familiar, until I got to the overnight place today in Villamayor. Here I have been before. It is a regufio run by a Dutch religious organization so I can join in the service they offer tonight (if i am not asleep already). We left late, the last ones to leave at 8 AM. However, there are some people on the trail who are really hurting and hobbling along so we overtook several within the first 2 hours. How they ever will make the next 650 km is a wonder.
It is a lot quieter today. The first 2 days we walked, it was weekend and obviously many Spaniards are joining the trail just for the weekend. Still more hills than I liked, but that is Spain for you. My feet are not doing very well, the balls of my feet are hurting pretty good and I may have to take an extra rest day soon. In the last 20 years of hiking (including the 1999 Camino walk) I never had a blister and in the first two days on the hike now I have 2 blisters. Exactly on the same location on both feet so I blame the new insoles of my boots for that problem. Anyway even if I have to crawl the last 650 km I plan on making it. The first 3 days we did about 60 km so a pretty good average of 20 a day.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot more people are speaking English these days here in Spain. Especially the owners of all these new refugios are able to communicate in English. In 1999 nobody over 35 could speak any English and now I have not had a problem yet between their English, my few words of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. I get what I want.
The refugio tonight is again a dormitory style with 8 bunk beds. Next to me is a deaf/mute man. I wonder if he snores being mute?
Well, off at 7 AM tomorrow because by 9:30 the sun is already too hot to walk comfortably, so up earlier from now on.

100 KM done, 620 to go!

Well, the first 100 KM are done, only 620 left. The last 2 days we have been lucky. Dark clouds all around us, but no rain at all. It sure helps to keep the temperatures down during the day. When the sun is out is get easily up to 30 degrees, but with a cloud cover it stays down around 25-27 which makes it just a little more comfortable. By leaving at 7 AM or even earlier, you get most of the hiking done before 1 or 2 PM when the heat starts to make walking uncomfortable.
I am not following the official stages which are described in most guide books of the Camino. Those stages usually lead from town to town but I try to find the smaller villages to stay in.
So on Monday morning (August 11) I left Lorca, half way between Puenta La Reina and Estella. Estella is famous for its beer, although it was too early in the day to try it. Ten km past Estella I stopped in Villamayor de Monjardin after a tiring climb up a steep hill.
The next day via Los Arcos on to Torres del Rio. That was enough for the day because after that village some very steep up and downs awaited. I’ll leave those for early next morning when the weather is still cool.
The landscape is interesting, but not spectacular. More and more vineyards are appearing, this area is famous for its wines apparently. The hills are primarily brown and yellow since there has not been much rain lately, few trees to be seen. Lots of old buildings, many just ruins.  Every village has a great church or even cathedral, often worth visiting.

Wednesday morning I left Torres del Rio and immediately had to climb several steep hills to gain (and loose again) several hundred meters in elevation. By 1 pm I walked into Logrono and finished the first 100 km of the planned hike. 
Even though my feet are still giving me some grieve I am glad that the head of the monster has been slain. Tomorrow is a long stage (30 km) which I am not going to do in one day I think. When I walked the Camino in 1999 with Rob we did do stages of 30 and even one of 38 km, but with 15 more years on this body I am not going to try that again. Twenty km per day is fine and that will get me well in time to Sarria where I will await Margriet’ s arrival a month from now.

A NEW EXPERIENCE – WHY, WHY, WHY?
Friday, August 15.

It is a special holiday in Spain today and everybody is enjoying a day off. Fortunately the stores and bars are open.
My last blog entree was from Wednesday afternoon I think. I was staying in a refugio run by a Dutch religious organization. That evening after a communal dinner, someone tried to make me believe something I could not believe. But his stories reminded me of a book I read 40 years ago called God’s Smuggler, an intriguing book about a Dutchman who smuggled bibles in his VW Beetle to countries behind the iron curtain. We had a cordial discussion about religion but after an hour I think he classified me as a lost soul.

Refugio Lorca

The next day I walked 20 km and by 1 PM found a refugio where I was welcomed by a very friendly nun who spoke excellent English. “Six euros for a bed, lights out by 10 and at 6 AM we wake you with music,” she told me. OK. This morning at 6 I heard some very faint chanting. It gradually grew louder and louder and by 6:30 the Gregorian chants were blasting through the refugio. Nobody was sleeping anymore. I laid back in my sleeping bag and enjoyed the chanting for half an hour before I got up. That was the first time I was awoken by Gregorian chanting, very very nice. I’ll try it on Margriet one morning when we are back home.
(Note from Margriet: not sure if this means Kees will do the chanting or if he plans to play a CD of actual Gregorian chants… The story reminds me of waking up in Saudi Arabia to the call for prayer coming from minarets).
So why in the world would anyone want to walk a minimum of 100 km – and many people walk 750 km – to a city for a look at a statue in a cathedral?
That’s what I wondered 18 years ago when I first read about the Camino de Santiago.
Well, as the article in Reader’s Digest explained at that time, Santiago de Compostela in the north western corner of Spain is considered the third most important holy city in the world for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Around the year 800 the bones of apostle James were discovered in the area. Ever since Christians have been making a pilgrimage to the site. Of course a church was erected on the site and it became a cathedral of great beauty soon after. During the Middle Ages literally millions of people made the pilgrimage. Considering the fact that the European population at that time was many times smaller than today’s population it was quite remarkable to have that many people make the pilgrimage. During the 18/19th century for some reason the pilgrimage became less well known. Not until the 1990’s did it again gain in popularity, primarily as the result of some articles in magazines and several books from people who had walked it.
By the mid 1990’s about 50,000 people walked the trail. However by 1999 150,000 people hiked it because it was a holy year (this happens about once every 10 years).
By 2013 the annual number in a non-holy year had shot up to 150,000 and in a holy year it is closer to 250,000.
I met a German lady who had just lost her entire family, husband and three children in a horrific car accident and she walked it to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. I met a Brazilian lady who hiked it because she had read a book about it by a famous Brazilian writer. I met a Belgian man who was in his 80’s and who claimed to have walked it 18 times. (He said he did at least 50 km a day!!) A Japanese fellow said his minister told him he needed to do it to find himself. Unfortunately all he found were some robbers who took his money and camera. I ended up sending him copies of all my pictures so he had at least some positive memories. Many people just want to experience the culture and the history of the ail. Some like myself want to do it because it is a challenge.

New albergues, even new provinces.

Finally my feet are getting with the program and have stopped complaining about the daily mistreatment I dish out on them. Yesterday I did 32 km and today 23 without any problems.

Wow, I am very impressed with the tremendous new infrastructures the Spanish people have developed over the last couple of decades. Brand spanking new highways, new subdivisions, a whole new city (Ciruela) have sprung up in places where I just saw raw land 15 years ago.

Also the infrastructure they have developed for the Camino is really impressive. Where 15 years ago you had to walk on the edge of the highway are now separate pathways, adjacent to the highway, but protected by guard rails and sometimes vegetation. I suspect that the Camino is being developed and maintained by provincial departments because signs often refer to a provincial department. Many cities have gone out of their way to develop nice picnic sites, parks and campgrounds. Not every thing is well maintained, but they sure are doing their best in my opinion.

Today I even walked into a new province: Castella y Leon, from La Rioja. La Rioja was really interesting. In the beginning I saw nothing but vineyards, and more vineyards, mile after mile. Finally after more than a day walking through those, a few sugar beet fields showed up and then grain fields, km after km of rolling grain fields, no end in sight. And today suddenly sunflower fields, still grain fields, but also colorful yellow sunflower fields.

Tonight I landed in Belorado after a 23 km day which was a lot easier than the 32 km yesterday. In two days I expect to be in Burgos and probably will take a day’s rest. The weather is absolutely fantastic for hiking, 25-28 degrees, sun, but also clouds from time to time and a little wind to keep cool. Hopefully it will stay like that for a while.

To Be Continued..
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