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..

Holland: Hiking, Biking and much more

  Tulips came originally from Turkey in the late1500’s to the Netherlands. So it seems only fitting that we, newly arrived from Turkey, immediately set off to visit Holland’s most famous garden: the Keukenhof. In fact, on our last day in Turkey we visited the palace of the very Sultan who gifted the first tulips ever to arrive in the Netherlands. What started with one bulb is now a major export industry. The Dutch brought tulips to countries around the world, including to Canada as a perpetual gift for hosting the Dutch Royal Family during the war. An enormous show garden, the Keukenhof has thousands of bulbs blooming at any given time in the spring. Beds are planted in such a way that there is a multitude of color, and fragrances, through the spring. We admired rows and rows of hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. 

There are even special buses running to this major attraction from Schiphol airport. We caught one and within a half hour we were dropped off at the entrance. Fast and easy. If you visit Holland in the spring, be sure to include a visit to this world famous garden. See: www.keukenhof.nl

Transportation in Holland is pretty impressive. If you ever plan to travel here, you might want to do the following: buy a OV chip card which you can use for all public transport.

You start by buying the card at the airport or at a train station, or at supermarkets or newspaper/book stores. Throughout the country are special posts where you can upload credit, swiping your creditcard and then your OV chip card to load credit onto it.

Each time you travel by tram, bus or train, you swipe your OV chip card when you board and when you disembark. Upon leaving the bus or train, the reader will show your cost and your remaining credit. Simply upload as needed.

This is a fantastic system since it makes public transportation seamless. Just don’t forget to check out. Trains have a large number 1 for first class on the outside, or a 2 for the regular, economy class. Trains also now have many ‘silence’ compartments, in which you cannot have loud conversations or be on your cell phone! A wonderful bonus. And while public transportation in the Netherlands is efficient, it is not cheap.

To plan any trip, across town or across the country, access this website: www.9292.nl  You can select any date, place and time here to see the most efficient way of getting somewhere. We bought a SIM card for our iPad so that we can access this great service anywhere in the country.

I like alliteration, which is why I used ‘hiking’ and ‘Holland’. But, technically, we are not in Holland right now. We are in the Netherlands. If you’d like to know the difference, besides the simple fact that Holland refers to the provinces of North and South Holland and that the Netherlands means the entire country – check out this funny video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE_IUPInEuc&feature=youtu.be

Today we traveled by train and bus from Amsterdam to the province of Drenthe – a beautiful, rustic part of the country with sleepy villages, gorgeous old farm houses and heather fields with flock of sheep. Here we will spend some time hiking the Drenthe Pad, a beautiful long distance trail.

Poffertjes!

 

Right now, we are circumnavigating the province of Drenthe, which is in the north eastern part of the country. The Drenthe Pad is a hiking trail of some 325 KM. And it might well be one of the best kept secrets in the world of hiking.

The trail is well marked, in most places. A yellow/red symbol is nailed to posts or painted on trees almost everywhere. But the comprehensive trail guide and map issued by NIVON: (http://www.nivon.nl/wandelen/detailpad.aspWandelpadID=28&GroepsID=180&GidsenID=10)

is a valuable addition. As far as I know this guide is only in Dutch but with the map and the signs anyone should be able to follow the trail. The terrain is relatively flat which makes it easy. And it is very varied: from ancient, sleepy villages you enter a quiet forest, cross a sandy path and walk along the moors (fields of heather which will bloom in August), then along a farm field, back into the woods. On the next heather field you might encounter a large flock of sheep, with or without a real live shepherd and his dogs.

Today, just when I said “We haven’t seen any kind of wildlife!” a large deer slowly crossed the path. We heard woodpeckers and met a large flock of curious sheep with their newborn lambs.

In a country of 33,889 square kilometers of land (13,084 square miles) and a population of nearly 17 million, the Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries of the world. However, on this trail we hiked for the last two days without seeing a soul until hours after we started. Yesterday, we saw two people all days. It is rare in this country not to see a church spire, or power lines or hear traffic noise. On this trail, there is complete silence except for the singing of many different types of birds. It is probably one of the few areas in the country where you can still get completely lost and wander.

For 19 E p.p. this was our home for the night

Usually most hiking trails here have an abundance of benches, picnic tables or little restaurants with a patio. In Drenthe you can walk 20 KM and not see one. But the wild swans on the lakes make up for not being able to order a coffee.

We have walked from town to town and stayed in either B&B’s or local hotels. If you are planning a hiking or bicycling trip in the Netherlands, and there’s no better place to do either, you should join this organization: Vrienden Op De Fiets (Friends On Bikes): http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/nl/ (or .en for the English version).

This fabulous network across the country offers accommodations in private homes, much like B&B’s, but at a cost of E19 p.p.p.n. including breakfast. Accommodations are typical Dutch hospitality. No need to reserve long in advance, depending on the time of year, you can often phone the day before. Rooms can vary from a simple spare room to your own whole cottage. We’ve always had clean rooms, comfortable beds and a great breakfast. But – you can only arrive on foot or by bike. If you rent a car, you can’t use this organization. Annual membership fee is 8 euros and that includes the complete catalogue of 5,000 addresses and contact information.

After having walked some 60 KMs this week, from village to village, we have arrived in Appelscha, Friesland. This is just across the provincial border.

Lucky for us because not only does each region here have its own dialect and culture, it also has its own speciality foods.

Now we enjoy Frisian sugarbread (gooey bread with lumps of sugar baked into it) AND Drents raisin bread (weighs as much as a brick).

Not only do the Dutch brew Heineken and Grolsch, they also produce many local beers ranging from dark to blond to fruity.

For this weekend we found a place to stay 2 nights, basically for the same price as the Friends On Bikes network plus dinner. The hotel had a special super deal that includes an elaborate breakfast and dinner. Since the forecast was for rain, we decided to stay in one place for two nights.

Instead of walking tomorrow’s section of the Drenthe Pad, we rented bicycles. The Dutch have state of the art bicycles, including tires that will not pop anymore. Cost for a full day bike rental is 7 to 8 euros. We cycled through the village, across farm fields, national nature reserves, forests, a wild bird sanctuary and historic fields of peat moss. No less than 60 KM! Now, in addition to sore backs and feet, we also have sore butts and knees….Halfway it started to rain. We donned our rain capes – thank goodness we did not carry them for 2 months without ever needing them! I never felt more Dutch than pushing the peddles across a windswept bike trail through the fields.

Those bike trails are amazing. Our route for today looks like this: 60 – 65 – 72 – 73 – 79 – 91 – 84 – 65 – 60. Sounds like a secret code, doesn’t it?

But it’s all you need to find your way across the country. It’s a mind boggling system of (mostly) paved or concrete bicycle trails. At an intersection you will see a small sign with a number, either the number of the path you are already on, or pointing to the next number you need to follow. Simple. Just don’t miss one. At major crossroads there is a large regional map showing you all the routes so that you can easily change or adapt the route you are on. Ingenious.

And the best part is that most bicycle paths are away from roads or other traffic. Just you and nature. It’s a system of hiking and biking trails that the Netherlands can be proud of. And that more countries should adopt.

160 KM of hiking. Ten days. Fifteen kilo packs. Two blisters.

We did it.

And it was fun.

Mostly it was fun because we took it easy. We slept in, had a lazy breakfast and still headed out on the trail by about 9 AM each day. No rush, no race.

We stayed with the ‘Friends On Bikes’ accommodations which are just like B & B’s and allowed us to stay in different Dutch homes, meeting interesting people.

 We also stayed in a few small hotels and we enjoyed roaming the villages, visiting the bakery, sampling typical regional dishes.

Holland may be a small, densely populated country but in Drenthe it is still very green and very quiet. There were days when we barely met other people on the trail.

We visited the very cute village of Orvelte, which is more like an open-air-museum with its historic farms. There is a glassblower, an antique store, a cheese maker and much more. We toured a historic farms full of furniture and household items of at least a century ago. The tour included a very nice movie about the village and life as it has been here during the ages.

This village is high on our list of recommendations, but only during the shoulder seasons. In high season it’s supposed to be very, very crowded!

Several times while hiking across the moors and heather, we met large flock of sheep. No shepherd, just a very special local breed of sheep on skinny legs and with long tails. These sheep help keep down any invasive species and promote the growth and expansion of the heather.

We also found large Highlander steers and cows with enormous horns on our path. The drawback of hiking in April was the fact that farmers were spreading manure. The smell was often overwhelming. We only had 2 days of rain so can’t complain. It was a sunny, early spring in Holland.

Concentration Camp Westerbork

On one of our last days of hiking we entered the Westerbork concentration camp area: an area where Jews were interned and from there shipped to extermination camps by the Germans during the war. It is an impressive and, of course, very depressing area but important to be preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war. While we were there, hundreds of school children visited the Museum.  See: http://www.kampwesterbork.nl/museum/index.html#/index

One of our favorite events was being in a small village (Dwingeloo) while an age old tradition was going on: Palm Pasen or Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. The children of the town all showed up for a parade with wooden crosses, decorated with garlands of candy and flowers, crepe paper and topped with a rooster made of bread. When I was a child I made the same cross and joined a similar parade. It was fun to see this tradition continue. We completed about half of the Drenthe Trail and hope to hike the remainder soon. Next time I will carry much less weight and will make do with fewer clothes etc. The best piece of clothing I brought on this trip was a large scarf. It served as blanket in the plane, as shawl when it was cold and as head or shoulder cover in churches and mosques.

 Our last night in The Netherlands is spend in a very futuristic hotel at Schiphol Airport: http://www.citizenm.com

Decorated in black and red, the lobby feels as if you walk into the future. The staff and technology reminds me of a Mac Store, the compact rooms of IKEA. One remote controls the blinds, lights, temperature and TV. Our view from the kingsize bed is directly onto the runway! The hotel states that:

citizenM is a new breed of international hotel, welcoming the mobile citizens of the world- the suits, weekenders, explorers, affair-havers and fashion-grabbers.

Hhmm… wonder which catagory you would put yourself in?

For now, we are headed home after an amazing two months of exploring. We can’t wait to hug the grandbabies, play with them and show them what we brought back.

A real sign spotted in a Dutch forest!