Walking the Camino de Santiago

Posted on: 30th Sep, 2018

Last weekend, Mauro and I got back from our main holiday of the year which was walking the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a long distance pilgrimage route primarily in the North of Spain, leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James were once discovered. There are paths to the city from all over the place, including Portugal, Madrid and Valencia and other trails from across Europe join up with the route as well. The main path, which we followed, starts over the border in France although we didn't have time to walk the entire distance, so we chose a 300km section that starts in Léon, ending in Santiago.

route
Part of the route illustrated on a wall

We walked for 12 days, averaging about 25-30km per day. We followed a little guide book which described the distances, the towns we would pass through and gave interesting facts about what we would see along the way. We didn't need a map because the Camino is so well-known and well-maintained that there are arrows and markers everywhere, which are really hard to miss - although we did start the first morning in Léon, at 6:30am, when it was still dark and set off blindly along the first road we saw which turned out to be the complete wrong direction! Not a good start...

I read online that the word for the marker stones in Spanish is mojón which literally means "turd" - Mauro laughed so much when I first refered to the mojones but eventually we heard someone else use the term so I was vindicated!

mojon
Me next to a marker

I was surprised how hard the walking was. I naively thought that walking 25km per day would be easy - after all, I'd just been training for a marathon and was used to running longer distances. But it turns out, walking can be really hard! Especially on days when the terrain was very flat and there was no variation in the muscles you're using, or the area of your foot you're landing on. Hills and valleys were a huge relief after the first couple of days in the province of Castile-Léon, which although beautiful was very flat and just maise field after maise field.

walking
Walking

However, the hills came with their own disadvantages because it turns out (as any seasoned walker would have known) that going downhill can be really tough on your knees and ankles. After about 5 days of walking, I ended up having a really bad pain in my left ankle, which sounded like it was tendonitis. It was so bad I genuinely considered calling for a taxi to drive us the final 3 miles of the day, which would have been a complete sacrilege and I probably would have been struck down by the wrath of God on the spot.

Anyway, I was really worried, as tendonitis needs rest to heal and definitely not more walking, but we didn't have a choice but to continue if we wanted to reach our goal.

Luckily, one evening in a little restaurant (which served vegan food - a mircale!) Mauro asked for some ice for my ankle (I was trying to put ice on it whenever we stopped) and a sweet, elderly lady who was working in the kitchen said she would come and take a look at my ankle as she was a masseuse. Amazingly, she came out and spent about 20 minutes giving me a rigorous foot massage, the kind of which you might give to someone with a dislocated joint to try and get it back into position. She diagnosed my problem as twisted tendons, probably from going downhill carelessly, and told me it was a little bit jodido which roughly translates to 'fucked' and shocked me a bit, coming from the mouth of a sweet Spanish grandmother.

Anyway, the massage really helped and although it remained a bit jodido for the next few days it was a lot better and by the end of the trip was giving me no problems.

river
Stopping by a river

The towns and the scenery we passed through were absolutely stunning. We stayed in just a couple of cities, the majority of the time we were in the deep countryside, lodging in albergues (hostels for pilgrims) in tiny villages and towns. It was lovely to be outside all day, every day, and to have nothing to worry or think about apart from walking, eating and sleeping. It was a true break from our normal lives, and I decided to keep my phone on airplane mode for most of the time and only use it for taking pictures.

Staying at the albergues was one of our favourite things about the trip, because of the many other people you meet who are also walking the Camino, for their own reasons, from all over the world. It is a very communal atmosphere wherever you stop, people will sometimes cook for each other and people travelling alone can be certain of finding other people to explore the towns with or go out to eat with.

mist
Misty morning

The albergues were in general very cheap ($5-$10 a night) because they're often run by people who view the albergue as a Christian service rather than a money-making venture. Some albergues were more religious than others - there was one where we found a Jesus CD on our pillows and were encouraged to come to a pre-dinner screening of a film about Jesus' life which we declined under the very real guise of needing to do some washing - and others were not overtly religious at all, just fulfilled the function of providing somewhere basic to sleep.

One of my favourites was in Foncebadón, a tiny village high up a mountain which was almost completely in ruins, with just a few cafés and hostels emerging from the rubble to service the pilgrims who come through in the summer. We stayed in a fairly religious albergue where the owners cooked us a hearty meal, which 12 pilgrims shared together around the table, chatting for hours in Spanish and English.

eucalyptus
Eucalyptus

For the final few days, we had a burst of energy and managed to walk really long days, going further each day than our guidebook suggested. We were mostly walking through Eucalyptus forests for this part of the journey and the smell was amazing.

We finally got to Santiago de Compostela a little earlier than we'd hoped, giving us an afternoon free to explore the city, which was beautiful, and finally find some good vegan food that wasn't white bread and Pimientos de Padrón. Pimientos de Padrón, by the way, come with their own slogan - on every menu or advertisement it says "algunos picante y ortros no" which means "Some are spicy and others aren't" which is actually true. One in every 15 blows your head off and the others taste of nothing. I really don't know what mother nature was thinking with that one. 🤷 Anyway I would be happy not to see another one for a long time!

santiago
The cathedral

In summary, we both absolutely loved the trip and can't wait to choose another section of the Camino de Santiago to walk in the future. It was an amazing way to have a break from the routine of normal life, far more relaxing than a city break, and gave us such a sense of achievement that you don't usually get from a holiday. We came home feeling healthier than ever, and feeling like we'd been away for months. 💯% recommended!

A few tips/takeaways

👣 Take walking poles - we bought some when we were there, and they helped a lot

👣 Check in at least one bag instead of just taking hand luggage - our walking poles were confiscated at security for a reason I could not fathom and didn't have the energy to argue about

👣 There's no need to plan too much - lots of people will be walking the same way as you, information is easy to come by and goodwill and hospitality abound

👣 Swimwear! Might not be top of the list for a walking holiday, but lots of town in Spain have piscinas fluviales which are river swimming pools. Say no more...

👣 Get the right shoes, and practice walking in them. I wore trainers the whole time - next time I would be interested to see if lightweight walking shoes would be more comfortable.

👣 Take less stuff. I packed pretty light (I only took 3 pairs of socks and knickers, for example) but for some reason I took two paperback books which were unnecessary weight when I could have just used the Kindle.

👣 Schedule in short/rest days. It would have been good to have a couple of 15km days thrown in the mix to give us time to recover a bit better

👣 Earplugs! We were fairly lucky, but once or twice we had some attrocious snorers in the hostels with us. And getting a good night's recovery sleep was SO important

👣 Multipurpose soap - for washing clothes, body, hair, etc. This would have been useful and cut down on the different types of toiletries we were carrying

👣 Deep Heat/Physiocream or some such type of massage cream. We bought some half way through and it was lovely to end the day with a massage for the aching legs