Buen Camino

One of our bravest members, Majella Moyles, took on the challenge of walking the full Camino in 2011 and recently completed that journey this year. Below is her inspiring report that is worth a read with a glass of red!

Buen Camino

In September 2011 I started my Camino de Santiago. This is by tradition a pilgrim walk. There are a number of Caminos on mainland Europe. The most popular ones are in France, Spain and Portugal. I choose to do the French Way, which meant I started my walk in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. This route is 796km from St. Jean to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, plus a further 86km to Finisterre (for those who wish to finish out the Camino to the coast). The French Way route I believe is the most popular and therefore the busiest.

To put this report together, I feel it is necessary to cover all aspects of doing the Camino, from luggage to accommodation, from terrains to weather, and of course why I decided to do it. Also in this report I will focus on my last visit, which was the finishing section, from Leon to Finisterre.

So firstly I will start with my luggage. I choose to do this with a rucksack on my back. The size of my rucksack was no bigger than what Ryanair allow on as cabin luggage. Believe me, it was a challenge in itself to pack a bag to cover 12 days of walking. But I managed, because I had to. My luggage consisted of a pair of flip flops, 3 vest tops, 3 shorts, 1 fleece, 1 long sleeve top, 2 pairs of socks (each pair washed every day), 2 t-shirts, poncho, 1 mini skirt (could have left at home!), sleeping  bag, camping towel, toiletries and my hiking boots. My bag weighed approximately 8kgs every day. It suited me perfectly, rested well on my hips and shoulders. An alternative to carrying your luggage, is to get it picked up and dropped off at your next accommodation. This I would think involves a lot more organisation, and for a lot of reasons, it may be the only way for walkers to do the Camino.  Each to their own!!

One can only do the Camino from April to the end of October. I had covered sections of the Camino during September/October when the days are dry and hot (37 degrees on my last trip). I also covered a section back in April 2012 when it was so cold, windy and wet, that I can remember putting on my pyjamas under my clothes.

The most essential purchase before starting the Camino is the Pilgrim Passport. To receive your Certificate in Santiago you need to show the distance you have covered on the Camino. To do this, you have to get a stamp from each hostel you stay in. Most cafes also give stamps for your Pilgrim Passport. Then from the city of Sarria, it is obligatory to get 2 stamps per day. And believe me, when you go to the Pilgrim Office in Santiago (and queue for over 1.5hrs) to pick up your certificate, they will go through it, study the dates to see did you cover the full distance. Not an easy way to qualify for a Certificate but a lovely decorated piece of paper for a big achievement.

I started my days between 6 – 6.30am. My aim was to cover as many kilometres as I could before the sun would get high and really hot. For about 1.5 hours in the morning I would walk in the dark, with the torch on my mobile to guide me. If breakfast was being served in the hostel before I left, I’d have it, but the majority of time there was no breakfast. I normally had to walk 8kms before I would come across a café to have something to eat. I would have a few short stops during the day for food & beverages…fuel to keep me going. On this trip I covered over 40km’s a day for eight days, and the last two days, I covered 35km’s a day. It took me between 10 – 11 hours each day to cover this distance. I must add, that on my last day of walking, I came across a café only about 3 km’s into our walk. At this stage I was walking with my friend Goretti, she said there would be a café a few km’s on, as she thought she saw it in her book. We walked, and walked and walked. We learnt that morning that there was a sign back at the café we passed, it said ‘next café 15km’s’. We walked 18.5 km’s that morning before we had breakfast.

The terrain I walked varied from day to day. There were days I walked through what I could only describe as the wild west. They were dry dusty sandy roads. No trees to offer shade from the hot sun searing down, and no water fountains to top up my water bottles. Other terrains were the spongy, bouncy forest trails. These were my favourite. The ground was soft, the trees offered shade and I felt so much cooler. And just the smell of the forest itself was refreshing. Without fail, some part of the day I’d have to walk on roads themselves, tarmac and sometimes concrete ones. These terrains I found very hard on the soles of my feet. I think a combination of heat from the roads, the hot day itself and my heavy boots, didn’t help…..my feet would be crying out. Other days I climbed and descended through dried river beds. These could be tricky, with loose stones, and big boulder rocks, it was necessary to keep focused and safe. There were also stone pavements and cobble stone roads to cross. These were mostly evident in and around towns. As the towns were a welcoming distraction, I was able to put up with the stony terrains a lot better.

Now not everyone doing the Camino, does it on foot. You can choose to do it by bike or on horseback also. I didn’t meet anyone on horseback, but came across enough horse dung on a number of trails to know there were a number of people doing it this way. I did however come across a large number of cyclists. These all varied also. The tougher cyclists did the Camino on mountain bikes. You could meet them on forest trails, river beds or sandy roads. I admired them, as I knew it was so tough for them. Remember, they too were carrying their luggage on their bikes. Others did it on what I could make out were fold up bikes. Of course I only met these cyclists on the roads. These bikes were a lot lighter to use. Other cyclists did it the very easy way with a small engine on their bikes. They pedalled loosely but travelled at an easy fast enough pace. I did talk to a few cyclists along the way. Different groups covered different distances. I concluded the hard core cyclists covered a distance of 60 – 80km a day, whereas the road cyclists covered a max of 50km a day.

It is very common on the Camino to come across water fountains. These are normally within town or village centres, sometimes a few km’s out from a town, but not very often. It was necessary to always ensure I had water on me, and thankfully I never ran out of it. Mind you, the water might have been on the warm side, but at least I stayed hydrated.

The symbols of the Camino are the shell and the yellow arrow. The whole route from St Jean to Finisterre is marked out with shells on pillars, roadside signs, yellow arrows on paths & curbs, sides of houses and in towns you would see shells engraved into the path. These all guide and direct walkers to Santiago, and then to Finisterre. At about the 190 km mark, the Camino pillars started showing the count down in kilometres to Finisterre. The kilometres got very long all of a sudden.

My accommodation every night was in a hostel or albergue. The norm was to arrive at a hostel and pray there would be a free bed. When learning there was a free bed, it was then a quick prayer that I would be lucky enough to get a bottom bunk. You would think that by the time I’d reach a hostel after a long day walking that any kind of bed would do….not for me! All rooms were packed with bunk beds. Rooms could vary in size from sleeping 8 to 18. I choose not to pre-book my accommodation, as there may have been days I might walk further than planned or cut it short if necessary. Thankfully I was always lucky to get a bed, I heard from fellow walkers that on a few occasions they were unlucky to arrive at a hostel to be told no beds for them. The difference was, there was a few of them, but only one of me. Rooms were mixed, and so men and women shared.

Hostels could be private (fee) or municipal (donation). Fees would vary from €6 – €10 per night. For this fee you got a bed and a shower. I have to say the standard of hostels have improved hugely over the last 7 years. When I started this journey, I could honestly say that a lot of hostels were pretty grubby. Now you get a clean bottom sheet and pillow case for your bed upon arrival. These small simple luxuries were much appreciated.

Every night, we the pilgrim walkers had a pilgrim meal. This meal could be hosted by the hostel itself, or a café/restaurant near the hostel. This meal consisted of a starter, main course and dessert (normally there is a few choices for each course) plus a large glass of wine and water for €10 pp. Let me add, the wine was just divine….no chemicals added, and no sore head the next morning!

There were a big number of different nationalities on the Camino and ages varied from early twenties who were mostly young college students to grandparents in their late seventies. I met Australians, Americans, Canadians, Germans, Dutch, Danish, French, Italians, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, English, Hawaiians, Lithuanians, Chilean and Spanish people themselves. I heard about other Irish people from fellow walkers, but never met one on this leg. Those who travelled from Australia, America, and China etc. were doing the whole Camino in one trip. They were all spending at least 6 weeks in Spain.  On one of my walks I met a group of Japanese guys who told me they love Irish coffee, I explained to them how to make one and they were delighted as it is so simple.

(At Finisterre, Goretti and myself….Goretti started the Camino with me in 2011, we did different sections ourselves, but always said we’d finish it out together)

On Sunday 30th Sept at exactly midday when the Cathedrals bells were ringing, I arrived at the square of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was such a lovely and moving moment. As I said in my first paragraph, I choose to finish my Camino out to Finisterre, commonly known as The End of the World, so there were a few photos taken in front of the Cathedral and without delay we started walking towards Finisterre. It was noticeable on the last few days the temperatures dropped and a wind picked up. A very welcoming breeze. On Tuesday afternoon, I completed my Camino at Finisterre light house. I was exhausted, injured foot, sore feet and cut toes, but the pain was so worth the feeling of achievement when I stood beside the last pillar showing 0,000 km’s……I had made it.

Why did I decide to do the Camino?? I asked myself this very question one day while walking the Camino, and that same night, it was the question asked around the pilgrim meal. To be honest, seven years ago I took it on as a challenge. To walk over 880 km’s, what a distance to cover on foot, with a bag on my back. I had over 415 km’s still to walk to finish the Camino on this trip. However, this time, I didn’t take it on as a challenge to complete. I took it on, because I was able to. I was grateful every day to be strong, healthy and fit to walk it.

Roll on the next challenge…….

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