Remembering the Camino de Santiago, Part 1: Introduction


During Will's last (work-funded) sabbatical, in May and June of 2013, we walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela along the northern border and coast of Spain.  (It's hard to believe that we're nearing the 5-year anniversary of such an important milestone in our lives!)  In English, you might have heard of it as the Way of St. James, and the French name is Chemin de St. Jacques.

Will's recovery from a too-recent knee surgery meant that we started in Pamplona, Spain, instead of from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, but we did make it all the way to Santiago Cathedral where the remains of St. James are reportedly buried.  This trip is one of those "transformational" experiences, and something we think back to fondly, ALL THE TIME.

I was really perfectly OK with walking only 448 miles of this journey instead of the entire 490 miles covered by the most popular route, Camino Frances.  On the other hand, Will is an exercise fiend, and it bothers him that he let something like a 6-week old meniscus surgery to derail him from walking the extra 42 miles (!).  In any case, we are definitely going to cover that lost ground, sooner or later.  One day, perhaps during the next sabbatical or when we both retire for good, we hope to walk the most popular of the four paths actually within France (from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied-de-Port) and then continue on to Pamplona, Spain, thereby completing not only the portion in France but also the extra bit in Spain that we didn't finish in 2013.

While Will's coast-to-coast bike ride does not exactly appeal to me (OK, not at all), I'm actively looking forward to walking another camino.  I can honestly say that the camino is possible for most ordinary people, regardless of age or fitness level.  You see all sorts of walkers: children, lots and lots of seniors, college students, engineers and teachers on sabbaticals (really, we weren't the only ones!), even dogs.  Some people were quite fit and able to crank out over 30 miles a day of walking with fully-loaded packs, while others strolled 7-8 miles each day and had vans transport their luggage.

Many people we talked to about the camino--family members, work colleagues, personal friends, complete strangers--have expressed interest in walking it as well, so it seemed like a series of posts detailing the nitty-gritty of this (mostly) amazing experience might be useful for this blog.  In part, it's to help inform others who have heard about and are contemplating walking the camino.  But it's also to remind ourselves about the trip so that we are best prepared for the next camino, whenever we might attempt it.

In the next few posts in this series, I'll talk about blisters, bug bites, beds, bathrooms, and much more.  And then we'll wrap up the mini-series with a more comprehensive packing list (such as the one Will provided for the bike ride), but let's start this series by reminding all of us that in trips like this--as with Will's Southern Tier ride--less is more.

Feel Liberated with Fewer Choices

If you're one of those people overwhelmed and paralyzed with too many choices to make in your day-to-day existence, the camino is definitely for you!

Will and I had really only one popular and well-rated guidebook to teach us about the Camino de Santiago.  On any given day of our 33 days on the path, we had at most 3-4 possibilities of where we could sleep, depending on how far we wanted to or were able to walk each day.  One day, there was no place to find ANY food or drink for 12 miles, but usually, we could find one coffee "bar" every 5-8 miles.  And when we saw a coffee bar, we almost always went in.


Each evening at dinner, the typical menu del dia for "pilgrims" consisted of at most 2-3 (sometimes only 1) meal choices.  Often it included a salad (which usually, to the dismay of vegetarians, was liberally sprinkled with tuna), followed by fried pork with fried potatoes (above), and then plain yogurt with a packet of sugar.  And choice of either red table wine or water.


When we were given a choice that differed from these, we eagerly grasped at it.  But really, we were happy just to have a hot meal at the end of a day of walking 15+ miles with loaded backpacks (above).

When we woke up in the morning, we got toasted bread and cafe con leche.  Then we started our quest for the next coffee bar that would serve us tortilla (espanola) and another cafe con leche.  We always headed west, for the coast of Spain, along the northern route.  Our choice of clothing?: either of the two t-shirts and either of the two pairs of hiking convertible pants/shorts we each brought with us.  Our greatest choice came with socks (3 pairs!), but that decision really came down to which pair was clean, dry, and least worn down from the punishing days of walking.


In essence, we had practically zero "choice" in what we did every day for almost 5 weeks: what direction to head in, what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, where to stop, where to sleep.  We just kept on following the yellow arrow (above) until we got to Santiago.  And we LOVED it!









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