September on the Camino

The group Route 1

This year around 150,000 men and women will walk, cycle or ride the various branches of the Camino de Santiago. We four (Jennifer Baker, Jeremy Nixey, Bob and Dot Hay) joined them on the most popular route (the Camino Francés), starting on the French side of the Pyrenees, and, in 17 days of walking, we completed around half of the way, reaching Carrion de los Condes, between Burgos and Leon (375 km = 233 miles). We will be back in 2012 to finish the Camino.

Map

Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago (to the shrine of St James) for at least 900 years and it has been estimated that up to a quarter of the population of Europe took part in the middle ages. It was the most important destination after Jerusalem. After fading into obscurity in later times, the Camino was revived in the years following Franco’s death in 1975, although as few as 2,500 pilgrims completed the way in the mid 1980s. Since then there has been an explosion of interest, with many of the pilgrims treating it as a cultural or sporting activity rather than a purely spiritual or religious pilgrimage.

Church 1 Church 2

With the many thousands of pilgrims passing along the way each year, the towns have recognised the economic benefits of providing hospitality, and there are many “municipal” albergues, providing basic dormitory accommodation with double bunks, toilets, hot showers and laundry facilities – all scrupulously clean. Many even have internet connections. There are normally one or more restaurants or bars nearby, providing an evening pilgrim menu: three hearty courses, wine and water for 7-10€ a head. There is a great emphasis on pork and ham (where are the pigs?) but it is possible to fuel the Camino with fish (trout, salmon, hake, sardines, octopus, languistines …) or vegetarian food. Altogether, pilgrims can be comfortably fed, watered and bedded for 20€ a night.

Sleeping area Stamps Door

As well as the standard hostels and bars, there are other possibilities. In some towns, entrepreneurs have set up private albergues that vary from hotel accommodation to hippy communes reminiscent of the 1960s. In the middle ages, pilgrims travelled from church to church, and were fed and accommodated, on a charitable basis, by the parish. In some places, it is still possible to do this, sleeping on mats on the floor within the church building, attending mass and blessing, and then taking part in a communal meal, funded day by day by the donations of pilgrims. In one small refuge run by Italian volunteers the daily programme even involves foot washing. The biggest hazards in all of these communal dormitories are the snorers but, wherever you lie for the night, it is important for your pilgrim passport (credencial) to be stamped as evidence of your slow progress towards Santiago (although there is no way of proving that you didn’t take the bus, rather than walking or cycling – it is a matter of trust). Unless you are incapacitated in any way, you have to move on each day and the albergue door closes at 8am.

Walking the Camino is an uplifting experience, with the local people wishing you “Buen Camino” or “Buenas Dias” as you walk through their villages. Companions appear and reappear as you go along – we were accompanied by pilgrims from England, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Norway, Brazil, New Zealand, the USA and Canada and particularly lively groups from Ireland and Sweden. Our diaries are full of details of memorable meals, troubles with blisters, Visigoth castles and Romanesque churches, dealing with serious snorers, the terrifying behaviour of lycra-clad camino cyclists, as well as the flood of stories along the way. Here is a typical day:

Before 6am, the 40km a day men and women are already stuffing and zipping their packs in preparation for an early getaway; but because the speedy pilgrim cyclists can lie abed until later, we struggle in the dark, searching under the bunk beds for our possessions with torches. By seven o’clock we are out on the road in balmy moon and starlight, our familiar 20 pound packs hoisted up, last night’s laundry pinned on to dry.

The group

We start so early because, even in September, the temperature in the afternoon rises into the mid-thirties, and there is no refreshing rain to test Dot’s capacious poncho. Following a spread-out file of early starters, we flash our torches to follow the yellow arrows and the occasional blue and yellow scallop signs, walking on in the silence of the morning, broken only by the clink of pilgrim’s staffs and the crowing of cocks. Dawn comes up slowly, first a red glow in the east. After 5 or 6km of steady walking on a gravel track, a fiery sun breaks over the horizon and we have reached the next village and breakfast – café con leche and croissants, in the shadow of yet another massive Romanesque church.

Scallop sign Croissant

We have left behind the green beechwoods of the Pyrenees, the pines, dwarf oak scrub and autumn crocuses in Navarre, and the vines of Rioja, still heavy with Tempranillo grapes. This is the meseta, the high plateau covering two thirds of Spain, and we will be over 800m for days to come. The wheat harvest is over and the dry stubble fields stretch to the horizon, broken only by the occasional crop of sunflowers awaiting the combine harvester. The yellow soil matches the adobe walls of the old farmhouses but there are fields of startling white where the plough has brought up lumps of limestone, and other areas of deep rusty red. The landscape is totally free of hedges, walls or fences but we know, from the strong farmyard scents and the piles of manure to be spread, that livestock are housed everywhere. We could be in the middle ages if it were not for the many white windmills striding across the country, with warning lights disturbing the calm of the early morning.

Sleeping area After breakfast we get into our stride again to cover another 20km or so to complete the day’s walk. The route passes a ruined monastery that housed the relics of St Anthony, a second grand monastery church that is now the local museum, and a gaunt Visigoth fortress, over a thousand years old, guarding our final destination. At around 1pm we reward ourselves with big beers and bocadillos filled with cheese or ham but it’s important to get to the next hostel in good time to ensure a bed for the night. The municipal albergue is an impressive new multi-purpose building, painted bright yellow, with a conference centre on the ground floor. Upstairs, there are twelve double bunks in the main hall and ten thick mattresses on the floor between. We are happy to be allotted mattresses because descending from the top in the dark without a ladder has proved tricky on occasions. Our credencials stamped, we shower, do our laundry and snooze for most of the afternoon. After a fascinating rake through the contents of the only shop open in the evening (everything you could want for the Camino and the home – a Spanish MacDougall’s) and a stroll through the village, we tackle an impressive “meal for four with wine”, staggering back to our beds in time for lights out at 10pm sharp in the albergue.

Church 1 Church 2

From Jennifer’s Diary:
Friday 24th, 25th? No idea! Only 19k - an easy one.
So we are Atapuerca, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites and a UNESCO world heritage site. Despite temperatures of 30+ everything is closed because the summer season is over! Bob is very disappointed.

The group walking

Today has been wonderful – mostly woodland walking with paths wide enough for the four of us. Bob tells the story of ‘Kidnapped’ as Jeremy hasn’t read it. He tells it well. It’s strange to be transported back to the Scottish highlands whilst walking this medieval trail.

It’s a magical thing about this walk – the storytelling (Dot is definitely the master) and quiet chat and long easy silences with only the sound of our feet - and my strangled gasping on the inclines.

The beauty continues all day. We stop for coffee at San Juan de Ortega where there is a 12th century monastery with St Juan’s body lying in the church. In truth there are bits of saints’ bodies in almost every church we visit. These guys were amply endowed with fingers, toes and other appendages. Their anatomies don’t stand up to close arithmetical scrutiny.

The walk continues through more woods and fields of sunflowers. I receive my daily text of the progress of my new grandchild Mathilda Wai Ying Baker born on the first day of this expedition. I think my walking companions are thoroughly bored of squinting in the bright sunlight at yet another photograph on my phone.

The refugio is small but bright and clean. We’re in a comfortable room for six and hope that we won’t be joined by anyone else.

We eat a very good pilgrims’ meal in the company of Anthony and Jessie; he New Zealand, she Brazilian. Very interesting chat on architecture; Brazil and New Zealand; the state of the Catholic church in S America; the joy of the cold beer in N Spain; a bit of history and a smattering of maths. They’ve been on the road for three months doing a grand tour of Europe.

When we get back for bed at ten we find that we’ve been joined by two more, making the room far too crowded. And he’s a snorer! How I love my earplugs.

There are huge thunderstorms during the night so that in the morning we set off into freshness and beautiful scents

Looking at a sign

The walking in the dark is difficult this morning. It is a rocky and steep ascent into the mist and sometimes we are anxious that we have wandered off the path – but no – the spirit of the Camino is with us and we make it down the other side. 9k later we walk into the next village to be joined by Rachel from Coventry who walks with us all the way to Burgos.

Church

This is where Franco took power. The Spanish Civil War still feels immediate in this part of the country.

Monument

Some more images:

Church Boots Sculpture View Arch Monument Long road Church interior Sculpture Church Church window Grapes Church interior Wall Knocker Sculpture View

Jennifer Baker (2nd December 2011)
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