Let’s start this blog post with a short (or in this case not so short) video.
Overall I would describe this part of my Camino as the most enjoyable part. While the first few days of my Camino were also enjoyable, there was still all the excitement, the apprehension – whereas now emotions were much calmer. It is like when you fall in love with someone. The first few months are magical, you are high on hormones – but this state is also rather tiring – whereas after a while you settle into a much calmer version (if you are lucky enough to make it there ;)). I had recovered pretty much from all of my injuries and enjoyed walking without experiencing (more or less) excruciating pain. But if I hadn’t known pain – would I have been able to enjoy the time without pain just as much?
When I woke up in the hostel in Leon that morning I found myself in one of those moods where I could not really make up my mind. Should I stay for another night, should I start walking again or take the bus to reach the outskirts of Leon or stay with the cool people I had been cycling with or continue on my own… The good old problem of choice… Because I could not make up my mind I decided to postpone my decision and have breakfast/wander about Leon for a little while. And again, if you just stop fretting about something and do something else instead, maybe a solution will present itself…So, one by one all of my fellow travellers disappeared (one decided to finish her Camino, the other one had an early start and the third one met a pretty girl). OK – one choice down. I then tried to locate the bus – but although everyone was so helpful and pointed me in directions it seemed just impossible to find the right bus stop. After walking up and down high street for an hour – I knew what I had to do: just keep walking….
As mentioned earlier, walking through the outskirts of a large city does usually not belong to the most picturesque walks but after a few days of not walking I felt ready for pretty much everything.
Although I had only planned on walking to one of the albergues in the outskirts of Leon I found, after I reached it, that I much rather wanted to continue walking. An albergue in suburbia – no, thank you. Although it was already rather late (2pm) and the next albergue was 13km away I decided to continue walking. What strengthened my decision was that I also met two other pilgrims, much older than me, who also continued walking. Apart from realising now that I should stop comparing myself… I did compare myself that time and thought: well, if they can do it, I can definitely do it.
And I did. It was another hot day and one of the few days where there just seemed hardly any other pilgrims around. I don’t actually know how it works – sometimes there were hundreds of pilgrims around and then sometimes throughout the day you just saw a handful of them…Magic. I really enjoyed the solitude that day. To me the perfect hiking day looked like this: walk by myself, meet people in bars/cafes on the way and have a nice social gathering in the evening (with lots of wine and food) Perfect.
Here are some of the advantages of walking by yourself:
- You actually get to consciously observe what is happening around you
- You walk at your own pace – not too fast – not too slow
- You can process information
- People cannot annoy you with some boring stories 😉
- You get to decide whether you just want to enjoy the silence or have an inner dialogue with yourself (depending on your level of mental awareness this might not be a choice for everyone).
However, that being said – when I was walking there all by myself I also realised that I could not really relax. I guess, my mind was busy fabricating scenarios where it creatively added content from various horror films I had watched in the past.
When I finally arrived at my destination for the day – Villar Mazarife – I had been walking for around 20km.
This night there was only one other person with me in the room. A Danish pilgrim. She had just started the Camino and was still so excited about it (pretty much like I had been 3 weeks before). Isn’t it funny that although I had only been walking for 3 weeks I felt much calmer, much more like I had figured it out how the Camino works (although I had not really), but yeah… I was kind of an experienced pilgrim now, well, at least in comparison to her.
After dinner I spent a few hours just sitting next to the gentleman above – it was a beautiful evening: sunset, storks clacking, faint Spanish music from a bar in the village. It was one of these times when the world just stands still – for a little while…
After a good nights sleep (so much better with only one female person in a room) I was ready for another Camino day. Although I usually preferred having breakfast somewhere along the Camino (it is just nice to reward yourself after your first 5km walk) I decided to have breakfast in the hostel. Toast and coffee – cheap and quick. The morning included a lot of walking on a paved road – and that is painful after a while. I remember, after hours of walking on tarmac on the Camino del Norte I had to stop to check whether my shoes still had soles – that is how painful it was.
Although I pretty much walked by myself that day I bumped into the same people over and over again. In every bar or cafe I walked into the same people were already there or walked in shortly after – it was hilarious. The afternoons were very hot now and I thought to myself that I should start walking earlier, in order to avoid the heat. I only walked for 17km that day and arrived at Santibanez Valdeiglesias rather early. The albergue seemed to be the central place of this village, hence the whole village had gathered there to hang out and join in on the village gossip (probably difficult to gossip if everyone is present). I enjoyed to finally have time to read my book before devouring another (more or less) delicious pilgrim’s meal.
The next morning general wake-up time was at around 6:30am – it was not really my chosen time – but as I mentioned before: sometimes you don’t really have a choice. This morning I skipped breakfast and after an hour of walking I felt REALLY hungry and my thoughts were pretty much only revolving around how to get a hold of food. And that is when I found myself in David’s pilgrim’s paradise. David, a happy hippie type chap told me that he had built his paradise with the help of an association and he told me that he lived there for most part of the year. His outdoor cafe offered everything (and much more) the modern (health conscious) pilgrim’s heart desired: fruit, coffee, biscuits, soy milk, oat milk, nuts etc.). Donations were obviously welcome – but David was very easy-going and whether you wanted to donate or not – he did not really care. His motto was: life should just be lived… 🙂 I took a nice long break there – enjoying David and his paradise.
Shortly afterwards I reached the town of Astorga. Reaching a bigger town usually also meant walking on concrete =pain. After walking in the countryside for a few days it always surprised me how busy those towns were, especially Astorga. That day was a local public holiday and it seemed everyone was outside enjoying themselves.
I bought myself some delicious ice-cream and just observed all the hustle and bustle. Later I visited the cathedral – before I continued my Camino. I really liked the slow Camino days – so much more fun, if you do not rush and just take it all in. Days like that are almost a bit magical – it is like you and the world around you become one. I wonder why some people are so proud of doing the Camino in 25 days or so. I mean, what for? OK – you are a fast walker – congratulations 😉
I then continued walking until I reached my destination: the little village of Sta Catalina de Somoza (20km). While it had been really hot in Astorga the weather changed suddenly and for the first time on my Camino it rained – for approx. 3 minutes. However – enough time to finally try out my rain-gear. The rest of the afternoon I spent sleeping on a park bench and reading my book. The funniest thing happened when I was approached by a German guy who asked me my favourite
question of all questions (and the most creative one as well): where are you from? When I told him that I lived in northern Germany (I grew up in Frankfurt – but I did not tell him that) he replied: ‘Well, I am from Frankfurt – but it is quite obvious that you are from the north…’ Yeah, right. 😉
That night was the first night I had dinner just by myself – and I actually enjoyed it. I ate all the junk food that was on the menu and finished off a litre of wine by myself before going to bed at 9pm. What an exciting life ;).
The good thing was that I woke up at around 6am the next day – and for the first time I was the one who woke up everyone else – very enjoyable ;-).
That day I had a long day ahead of me. My plan was to walk for approx 30km – the longest I had walked on my Camino. I had already walked 12km when I finally stopped for breakfast: I was almost starving. The walk was beautiful though.
I continued walking until I reached the village of Foncebadon. The village once flourished during the Middle Ages – but due the protestant reformation, wars and the construction of new roads most of Foncebadons residents migrated to nearby cities. By the 1990s there were only two people living among the ruins. However, the recent influx of modern-day pilgrims had inspired entrepreneurs to purchase and renovate some of the most emblematic buildings.
In Foncebadon (in one of the renovated buildings, obviously) I was just enjoying a delicious cold beer when a coach carrying an Italian tour group pulled up outside. I gulped down my beer, packed up my things and hurried out of the bar in order to reach the famous Cruz de Ferro before the tour group, but as you might have seen in my video that did not really work out. The Italians won.
After spending some time at the Cruz de Ferro and finding a perfect spot for my poo-like looking stone I realised that I only had another 10km to walk. So, my destination was just around the corner – kind of… The thing is, when you walk long distances every day 5 or 10km really seem to be very close – whereas in ‘normal’ life hardly anyone would walk for 5 or 10 km on a daily basis, let alone even 30km. So I took it really easy. On the way I stopped at Thomas Huette: Thomas, a pilgrim himself had walked the Camino in 1993 and decided not to return home but to stay and run his own albergue. It is a rather colourful place, a bit hippie and a bit smelly, too. However, I got a cup of coffee and I had a nice chat with the hospitalleros. By the way, Thomas was not present. I found out that he is retired now :).
I continued my Camino – walking through hills covered in heath.
I was still convinced that I was very close to my destination for the day- the village of El Acebo. It did not take long until I walked passed a caravan that sold refreshments. Another perfect opportunity for a break, I thought. I ordered a beer (jeez how many beers did I drink that day) and was soon being joined by an English cyclist. An hour passed and we had a very enjoyable conversation.
Slightly tipsy and very happy I continued my Camino – just to find out that the really difficult stretch was just ahead of me. Oh no… The path descended steeply and was covered with little pebbles, which made it extremely slippery. So there I was with a tipsy head and an injured ankle trying to navigate my way down. When I finally reached El Acebo I was knackered – but hey: I made it.
For the first hour I was just lying on my bed regaining my strength. Then down to the bar to enjoy a ‘special’ lemonade (I think I was almost turning into an alcoholic). One of the girls I had started my Camino with was also in town, thanks to modern technology these days it is just so easy to stay in touch. But hey, I had to see her… my initial Camino family. Yay. We had a glass of wine (yes, more booze) and exchanged our Camino stories. In the evening I shared my dinner with an elderly Danish pilgrim. He was not very convinced when I asked whether I could join him – but, hey, maybe sometimes you have to force yourself upon people. And it paid off. He told me that he had walked the Camino 13 times since 2009. And once he actually started walking from his home – knocking on people’s doors to find a place to sleep. He was in his mid 70s. Very cool and inspirational. I felt like a not very adventurous traveller in comparison to him.
After weeks of eating chips and potatoes and fried stuff I was happy to spot a vegetarian pilgrim’s meal on the menu – which included hummus and salad. I was excited. However, when I woke up in the middle of the night with a bad tummy ache my excitement had vanished. That is what you really want. Spent a night in a 10-bed dorm, inside temperatures around 5C and a squeaky bathroom door when you have a funny tummy. I was glad when the night was finally over and was one of the first to leave.
The path continued to descend into the valley. Even though it was freezing cold and I had bad stomach cramps the beauty around me still made it very enjoyable.
By midday I arrived in Ponferrada – and although it was still very early and I had only walked for 17km I was glad when I checked into the albergue. Ponferrada is the last major town on the French route of the Camino de Santiago before it reaches Santiago de Compostela. It has a population of around 70.000.
Ponferrada is also noted for its Castillo de los Templarios, a Templar castle which covers approximately 16,000 square meters. In 1178, Ferdinand II of León donated the city to the Templar order for protecting the pilgrims on the Way of St. James.
The rest of the day I spent sleeping, exploring the castle and old town, doing my washing, stocking up on Compede blister patches and snacking on junk food (which seemed much better digestible than the healthy vegetarian dish I had eaten the night before).
The night was much better than the night before. The only problem was that the albergue had turned up the heating. We were seven people in a small room and temperatures were sauna-like.
The next morning I got another chance of waking everyone up – because I was, again, the first one to get-up. And I succeeded – yay . I left the albergue just before 7am. It was freezing cold, probably around 0C.
After a rather quiet Camino week there were now a lot of pilgrims on the Camino again. In order to wait for Camino peakhour to pass I walked into a small cafe. While drinking my coffee a song was being played on the radio. A song which I had heard in almost every single bar and saw supermarket staff jump up and dance wildly. I asked the barman what song that was. He said: Despacito. I had never heard of it before… but it would not be the last time that I heard that song… it became one of the most popular songs all around the world in the summer of 2017.
The track that day was beautiful… At some point I listened to music and danced a little (in my hiking boots and with my backpack on) when I realised that I was being watched by a few topless guys (oh la la) who were working in the vineyards – and who were all waving at me.
What really surprised me were the billboards along the Way – which advertised all sorts of things a pilgrim might need – or not… Huge billboards next to a dirt track… kind or weird, isn’t it?
After 25km I reached the beautiful town of Villafranca del Bierzo. Villafranca’s Saint James Church, is home to the ‘Puerta del Perdón’, the gate or door of Forgiveness. This 12th century church dedicated to St James is the only other temple along the Camino de Santiago, besides Santiago’s Cathedral, where pilgrims could receive plenary indulgence. The requirements: having walked the necessary distance, attend mass and say their prayers, as well as being able to proof they can’t physically continue all the way to Santiago de Compostela, due to illness or physical weakness. Thus, Villafranca is also called the small Santiago.
In Villafranca I stayed in a very basic albergue, run by an old man, who had been probably running this place since the Middle Ages. He was quite a character – telling people off for putting their bags on the seats (he said: a rucksack does not need food, well, he’s got a point) and so forth… my guidebook says that apparently he has healing powers – who knows…
The rest of the day I went exploring the old town.
The evening I joined the communal dinner – which was simple but tasty – and which thankfully included, as every pilgrim’s meal, lots of wine :).
The night that followed was probably the worst night on my whole Camino. The rooms were simple and the door did not properly shut. There was obviously no heating and with temperatures around 0C it just got freezing cold. Even 2 blankets and a sleeping bag could not warm me up. I spent the whole night lying in bed shivering – and when it finally dawned I was one happy person. This was one of the few times in my life that I was thrilled about getting up at 6:30am.
Pretty much the whole of the next morning I spent walking along the main road – which was not very picturesque – but at least I had music. And when eventually the Camino left the main road I rewarded myself with a large breakfast…
… only to find out that afterwards the Camino led straight back onto the main road AGAIN… wahhh…
But at some point it did happen and the Camino led into a
beautiful valley. I had heard before that apparently in this valley it was possible to rent a horse and ride up O’Cebreiro – one of the highest points of the Camino Frances. The idea of skipping that strenuous section somehow just sounded extremely appealing – but I just could not find the horses. So it seemed destiny wanted me to walk up that hill -and join all the other pilgrims. Damn, and I thought I was special and deserved special treatment ;). After an extra large bocadillo (sandwich) I almost flew up that hill – well, kind of…
Altogether I had walked for almost 30km that day so I was very much looking forward to a cold beer or two in the evening.
A few words about O’Cebreiro: Nestled, at 1,300 metres of altitude, the village is home to traditional mountain dwellings of pre-Roman origin, called ‘pallozas’. These unique homes can only be found in this region of Galicia – which we had just entered. Built in circular or oval shape, with granite or slate walls of up to 1.70 metres high and thatched roof, a ‘palloza’ is a great example of traditional houses of Celtic design.
In O’Cebeiro I met the Danish women I had been walking on and off with since Leon and we enjoyed a few beers together. For sunset I climbed up on a hill overlooking the village and the mountains. Simply beautiful.
That night I slept in a room with around 80 beds – so it was another of these nights where I thank the genius who invented earplugs for saving my life.
However, at 6am even the best earplugs failed. The first thing that I discovered was that hundreds of ants had found a new home in my backpack. How wonderful. Although, I did value their liking for my smell (and probably even more so the food I had been carrying around) I tried to convince them gently that they had to find a new home – but in the end unfortunately some of them had to pay with their lives for their preferences… yeah, it is a tough world…
The path led pretty much downhill today – which was pleasant. Here are some impressions.
I pretty much spent the whole day walking with a girl from Peru – and that was a rare thing for me on the Camino, because as I mentioned, usually I walked most of the time by myself. It was very enjoyable though…I guess, I had done all of my thinking and meditating over the last few weeks and was now ready for more interaction.
After 21 km we reached the small town of Triacastela where we both decided to stay. And so we continued spending the day together. A walk through the little town, a snack and a beer, pilgrim’s mass afterwards (it had been a while) and then a pilgrim’s meal and lots of wine. Yes, very enjoyable indeed.
And then it happened. After 3,5 weeks without rain (well, apart from the 3 min shower) it rained – heavily. It was cold (up in O’Cebreiro it snowed) and it rained and rained and rained… So this was the first morning when no-one got up early. Finally a good sleep-in.
When I finally did leave – and believe me, I really had to force myself, I only walked for 10 minutes into the next bar to have breakfast. And guess what, it was packed. Seems like other people had similar ideas – surprise, surprise. But ah well, I did want to walk to Sarria today – which was only around 18km away. Easy… And after a while I even got used to the rain – and even kind of enjoyed listening to the raindrops dripping on my poncho… And there were less people – yay.
After a short while I bumped into the Danish lady and then I had another social walking day – which again was very enjoyable. Maybe I was enlightened enough that I did not need any more time by myself – who knows ;). Or: a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved…
We arrived Sarria in the early afternoon – cold and wet. Sarria is a popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago; many pilgrims choose Sarria because the distance from this point to Santiago allows them to cover the necessary kilometers to reach the Compostela…and this is what I will tell you about in my next blog post…
So far I walked approx 395 km, took a bus for around 100 km, cycled for 185km and I had been walking/driving/cycling along the Camino for 27 days.
To be continued….