While taking A Million Steps the Camino de Santiago, my daily experiences were vastly different from those at home. The mixture of meeting new people, getting physical exercise, finding beauty in nature, appreciating the simplest things in life, and living with a tiny pack full of…
I give up one thing that doesn´t fit any more (like training hospitaleros) and another, bigger, more interesting thing zooms right in to take its place.I came to terms with the Depression. I agreed to sit still while the darkness lasted, because maybe there is something down here for me to learn. Sitting still is against all my upbringing. It is un-American. When anything is less-than excellent, you get up and do something – anything! — to make it better. Even when doing something is really not the best idea. So it is hard for me, just sitting here. But sitting here, after a while, I start to see the big picture. The writing on the wall stops being part of the décor and starts demanding translation. With fewer and fewer pilgrims stopping here, I don´t need to focus on accommodating them. I have lost a lot of interest in things Santiago. I have answered the same questions 100 times, and I´ve barked up the same trees at least as often to fix the things that don´t work so well. And I realize maybe the Camino does not need any fixing. It is exactly what it is. Pilgrims come and go, like they´ve done for a thousand years. We´ll continue giving them a bed and a meal if they need it. But what I achieve, or don´t achieve, camino-wise, means little or nothing. So I decided to stop training people to be volunteer hospitaleros. I sent in a resignation to the Canadian Confraternity and the Spanish federation a week ago, and posted the news on www.caminodesantiago.me, the forum where I am most present, camino-wise. Nary a ripple was seen on the stream. And a day later, up from Moratinos jumped another fish to fry. It´s fiesta week, and the town is heaving with friends and relations, come home to see granny and the cousins in the old pueblo. Everyone is happy to see the new chestnut trees and flowers blooming in the plaza, the cleaned-up streets, the fincas now for sale. Both church bells rang for the Santo Tomas procession, a jolly racket that echoed for miles across the fields and made all the dogs howl out loud. procession of Sto. Tomas ApostolAnd so we struck. A little group of us year-round residents rounded-up the visitors and founded a new Cultural Association, aimed at preserving Moratinos´ memories, informing outsiders of our little hidden treasures, and maybe shoring up our crumbling cultural patrimony, which is made of adobe. Response was overwhelming. No fewer than 55 people put their names down, along with a 10-Euro note to get things started. Men and women, young and old, all of them with some tie to this town, people determined – even though only 20 of us actually live here all the time — to not let Moratinos die. I was made president. No one asked me. I was told. I think it is because everyone can talk to me. My uncle didn´t offend their cousin back in 1985, so I am OK. I am a goober, clueless to a lot of historical inter-familial bullshit – when that comes up, I pretend to not understand. I work hard to keep a civil relationship with everyone here. Costume contest: the Asturian chickensThis, I think, offers an opportunity to heal old wounds.Only one family told me No, this can´t work, that people need to go home and mind their own business. They´ve been hurt in the past. I think they are just taking a “wait and see” stance. Once they see how things progress, they may jump on board, too. Because I feel pretty positive about this. And when I set out to make something happen, it usually works. I don´t have to handle money. There´s a treasurer for that. No need to take notes, because we have a secretary, too. Total transparency will be written into the bylaws. I might have to mount a FaceBook page, and update it with photos and copy – I can find someone to help me translate. Maybe this will improve my Spanish. Maybe someone will step up and make a web page. There is a lot of talent here. Talent is cheap. Follow-through is what will make it really happen, once the initial enthusiasm goes. I am as hard-headed as a Castilian. I can make this stick. I just hope I do not step on too many peoples´ toes on the way. this year´s winner: a Pirate Ship!We are starting out small. Tomorrow we will deposit all those ten-Euro bills in a new bank account. We will file papers to make ourselves an official Asociacion Cultural in Palencia province. (You can join, too, and donate as much money as you like!) We will clarify our goals. We will settle on what to call ourselves. And then start doing. I have ideas, simple things we can execute with or without help from ministries or government groups. A sad fact is, many people here wait around for the government to improve things. They don´t step up til they have a grant in hand, and grants don´t happen so much any more. But we can build a signpost, an information station to tell visitors what those caves are in the hillside, (bodegas), what those round buildings are in the fields (dovecotes). We can organize ourselves enough to open the church, open our bodegas, to show our children and our visitors that this is a rare sight, a disappearing resource, a rustic little gem to be treasured. Small things, simple things. If we can make that work, we can tackle larger projects. Make the collapsed bodegas safe. Fix the uneven pavement in the plaza. Rationalize the reams of mouldering historical documents into a small archive. Label old photos. Collect old recipes and craftwork and stories from the elderly, while they are still here.Things people say are impossible, or too much, or beyond the reach of a small town and little people. We are not many, but we have a big reach. We are scattered all over Spain, and most of us have some skill or another to offer. We love Moratinos. And we are only as small as our expectations. And here in the dark is something I believe in, something new worth working on.
The morning after we finished our camino Robin and I walked up from Plaza Obradoiro, through the archway up (past the musician) to the Plaza Inmaculada. It was a beautiful clear crisp morning with temperatures in the low 60′s F. We both were wearing light down jackets against the morning chill. We stepped down to the door of the cathedral, and entered. Our purpose was to attend the 10:30 English mass sponsored by the Camino Chaplaincy. We found our way to the Chapel of our Lady of Loneliness, located in one of the oldest parts of the cathedral (800 years old). As we stepped into the small chapel we were warmly greeted by an Irish nun, who was part of the volunteer staff, and made to feel at home. Good things were happening. We just felt it. Before the mass started the priest, a Venezuelan, who spoke English, introduced himself, as we all did. He welcomed us with a smile that lit up the chapel. His name is Fr. Juan Carlos. After we introduced ourselves and gave a brief synopsis of where we were from, where we started, and the route we walked, the mass began. Robin and I had no idea what we were about to experience as the liturgy began. But, once we reached the point where the priest gave his homily it became apparent that this priest was gifted in his ability to preach. He purposefully made his remarks short, but was able to say all that needed to be said in just a few minutes. He spoke of the longing many have for God to speak to them. How our prayers seem to go unanswered, and disillusionment sets in. We close our hearts to God’s words because we just cannot fathom how all this is supposed to work. Fr. Juan Carlos offered that God is waiting for all of us, waiting with unbounded joy, if only we can find a way to open our hearts, and respond to the love God showers upon us. Simply offering prayers without a heart that truly believes God is present in our lives, does nothing. We must learn to trust the very small voice that is trying to reach us amidst the clamor of many worldly distractions, and reflect the love God gifts to us. In short, it is up to us to take action if our faith journey is to go forward. This was a very simple, but profound message. God loves us, and our peace is only found in us being able to love God in return. Sounds easy enough. But is it? Obviously not, but it was the message of hope we needed to hear. After so many days of walking it started to dawn on us the magnitude of the journey we are truly involved in. Ours was not a journey that could be measured in kilometers, but only in prayers. We were at once both humbled, and encouraged that all that we have done, and will do, in this life serves only one purpose, to complete the journey Home. As we sat in that ancient chapel we paused to reflect on the gift of faith, its joy, and what that calls us to do.A further discussion with Fr. Juan Carlos led me to the Gospel According to Matthew. He suggested a series of readings in chapters 5, 6 and 7. In these parts of Matthew’s gospel many key teaching’s of Jesus can be found. He suggested that I should read small portions daily, and then allow myself time to to reflect, to listen carefully for the faint voice of God that always guides us. Above all be patient, and hopeful. He assured me that God’s grace abounds, and what you seek will be found.As I read through the suggested parts of Matthew’s gospel several things started to come together to reinforce what Fr. Juan Carlos had told me. His suggested readings opened a portal that had always been there. Concise instructions on how a true disciple of Jesus must live to enter the kingdom of heaven. There are challenges aplenty as Jesus calls us to behave in ways we are not always able to do. But, when we fail he always encourages us to place our trust in God’s abundant love, and find comfort in the hope found in the journey home to God, the Father. He reminds us to depend only on God for all that we need. All our earthly worries will not advance us one step in our journey of faith, only opening ourselves to God’s love, and mercy accomplishes that. He reminds us that “the lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound your whole body will be filled with light: but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the Golden Rule, cautions us about being judgmental. After all, who are we to judge. Pray unceasingly, for it is to those who knock that door eventually opens, and it is those who seek that eventually find (yes, action on our part is required). Challenge yourself to “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. How narrow the gate, and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” The true disciple, is one who does the will of the Father, not the one who offers lip service in place of righteous deeds. Finally, Jesus pulls it all together by warning that those who follow his teachings will be like a wise man who builds his house on rock, not sand. The house built on rock (His teachings) will be able to withstand all the calamities that life will throw at it. The one built on sand will be ruined.As Robin and I walk the camino we try to embrace our hiddenness, our smallness, and use these moments to listen for that faintest of voices that fills us with hope that our lives are on the right path. So, it was not surprising that the true joy of our most recent camino was not found among the many splendid hills and valleys we traversed, but in the dark confines of the musty stonework of a small cathedral chapel where, once again, the faintest whisper was present, and we listened.
While taking A Million Steps on the Camino de Santiago, I was able to reflect on many aspects of my life. Around the 13 year mark, I began to experiment with beer. Unfortunately, I was really good at it and allowed Coors to consume the…
It was only three days, supposed to be five. I only made it partway, and I should’ve stopped after the first day, but I kept on going. I thought it would get better, that I would get better. I didn’t. I got worse. It got bad, very quickly.It was a really self-serving hike anyway. The day of the last blog post, the day we saw through the neighbors’ house, was the day Momo Cat was last seen. Time went on, he didn’t come back. Pad and I both started looking glumly at one another, started giving up hope. So I did a Spanish thing. I made a promesa to Santiago. Momo comes back okay, I will go to Valladolid on the train, and walk home, as a thanksgiving. I said it out loud, in front of witnesses (Paddy and the outside dogs). And once the neighbors came back for the weekend, Momo reappeared, shouting loud outside the back door, not a scratch on him. We think he somehow got inside their house while it was open, and was locked in all week when they left. Thank God they’re coming back on weekends these days! Thank God indeed. You’d better start walking, Paddy said. And on Monday, full of expectation, I took the 11.05 train to Valladolid with my backpack good to go for a short hike across the meseta on the Camino de Madrid.In August. I’ve been wanting to walk the Madrid for a long time. I was willing to do just the top bit, from Valladolid, just for a taste — it is hard leaving Peaceable for longer than a few days, seeing as Paddy can’t drive the car. I should’ve taken the 7:30 a.m. train. Should have got an earlier start. In Valladolid I knew which bus to take up to Simancas, where the Camino Madrid passes through. I knew which bus, but I could not find a bus stop for it. I wandered the city for an hour and a half, from bus stop to bus stop, like an idiot. No one knew. I finally took a taxi. By the time I hit the trail it was 1 p.m. The sun by then was cranked up to 10. Only seven kilometers to Ciguenela, an easy two hours. In August, only mad dogs and Englishmen do that. And mountain-bike riders. Everyone with an ounce of sense stays in the shade with a cold drink.I walked long and hard, I was thankful for each little breeze that blew up the lonesome country road. Roads out there are Kansas-quality dirt, mostly straight, angled around property lines. Towns hide behind hills, you can see the church tower for hours before you get close. If you’ve walked the big Camino Frances, you’ll remember that long strip after Carrion de los Condes. This is something like that, but it goes on for days. I fell into my long-distance stride. Heat shimmered up off miles of stubble. About four kilometers in, I saw two figures on the road ahead, moving toward me. Bicycles. Two men, sweaty, weaving and laughing. Maybe heading home after a long, loaded lunch, I thought. As they came closer I realized they were not drunk. They were mad. Their handlebars waggled because their bodies shuddered. Their faces were like clown masks, they greeted me with wild hilarity and a wave that almost took one of them over. I played it cool, smiled and waved back as they passed by — I didn’t want to give them a reason to stop. They rolled past, up the hill I’d just come down, very slowly, out of sight. I walked on. I heard my pulse rushing in my ears. I felt light-headed. Soon as I stopped walking, a headache started. And a cold. I met the only other walking pilgrim on the Camino Madrid, in the lovely albergue of Cigunuela. He was very happy to see me.He had not seen two crazy guys on bikes, he said. I wondered if they were real. His name was Luis, from Aranjuez. He was dark and slender, a runner. He worked in an auto-parts factory outside Madrid. I could not keep awake to chat. Later on, through a haze, I saw him soaking his feet, then putting himself to bed. He was beautiful. In the middle of the night he woke me up. I was crying in my sleep, he said. He gave me some water. I was sweating hard, but I felt cold. My head pounded. Only a couple of hours of sun had done that. Luis was gone when I got up in the morning. He’d been doing 40 kilometer days, but his lightweight trainer shoes were shredding his feet. The early-morning walk was superb. I said all my prayers. I saw rabbits and hares, sheep and shepherds and sheepdogs, a weasel, a kestrel, and a hoopoe. My nose ran, I snorted and coughed and hacked. I was glad to be alone. I still felt light-headed. I drank lots of water, wore sunscreen and a hat, I walked in the shade at every opportunity. I saw Luis again in Penaflor de Hornija. He was slowing down. He’d see me in Castromonte, he said. I had trouble forming Spanish sentences. I drank two quick claras. (half draft beer, half 7-Up). I left Hornija just after 11, and the thermometer read 30 degrees. I went slow. A beautiful, medieval sunken lane, all dappled and dark, opened onto miles of endless wide-open blast furnace. An Allman Brothers song played an endless loop in my head. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy on me. Miles on I could see a line of scrubby oak trees. As I drew closer I saw some enterprising person had set up a piggery among them, and dozens of fine black swine browsed behind makeshift fences. Acorns. Black pigs. These were Spain’s famous Bellota hams on the hoof. They were friendly, they nosed up to the fence to say hello. And in the next pen were mother pigs, and a vast number of wiggly, wormy black piglets. They squealed and swarmed and ran, ran, ran, full of energy and joy. The moms were pretty active, too, at least the ones not fenced inside numbered concrete bunkers. Luis was there, snapping photos, grinning. It was impossible not to smile. We walked on, and on the right heard something crashing in the bushes next to the trail. Out burst a line of leaping piggies, escapees, playing chase through the woods. They saw us, screamed, and split up, some running up the trail ahead, others diving into the bushes. They kept us company for a half-mile more, the most joyous pigs I ever met. Maybe that’s why the jamon is so tasty — their lives may be short, but they have them some fun! Me and Luis straggled into Castromonte in the heat of the day. It is a gorgeous albergue. We did not see much of it. We slept. We walked into town and banged on the butcher’s door til he opened up and sold us some food. We saw inside the church, with its images of 25 saints — they take them all out for a parade every year, the Saturday before Pentecost. Beautiful adobe houses, leaning every which way, plaques marking birthplaces of forgotten fascists. We ate simply — pan-fried pork loin and cheese on bread. Olives. Plums from the tree outside. The scrap-end of a chocolate bar. Luis made me a “isotonic cocktail” with energy drink and powdered minerals. I repaired his blistered feet as well as I could, with the minimal first-aid supplies I had. Tomorrow, Medina de Rioseco, I told him. There’s a health center there. They can give you a proper bandage job. There’s a bus station there, too, he said. I can pick up there next year, walk on. He’d made a promesa, he said. His mom, last year, a cancer scare. She’s fine now. And so now he has a promise to keep, even if it takes him three years of holiday time to get to Santiago. (I did not tell him about my promesa.)We both were asleep before the sun went down. A man painted a wall outside. The roller went shush-shush-shush. I said goodbye to Luis in the morning. I did not see him again. It was another beautiful morning. I do not remember it very well, but I liked it at the time. At Medina de Rioseco I toured the churches of Santiago and Santa Maria — the equal of any tourist attraction in Spain, and pretty much unknown outside this region. I had a horchata (an Arabic almond milkshake, cold and wonderful) at a bakery/bar run by a jolly family, but I couldn’t taste anything. I enjoyed that beautiful little Castilian town — it is known territory, a place I have always liked. But I do not remember it clearly. I stayed at a hotel. I took a bath with salt, I drank a lot of Luis’s isotonic cocktails. I came home the next morning on the earliest bus. I thought I might try walking if I felt better, but I had the shakes in the night. Defeated by the sun, smitten, I am taking my time getting back my energy. Paddy is being kind and patient. We’ve had few pilgrims, and none since my return, and that’s probably good. I am not fit company. Momo cat slinks about, utterly ungrateful. I didn’t exactly fulfill my promise, but he is only a cat. Do not let me walk in August any more.
While taking A Million Steps on the Camino de Santiago, people often relied on strangers for help and comfort. Gazillions of random acts of kindness were disbursed on that sacred soil each day. It may have been sharing a blister bandage or maybe just an…
Christina and I wake at a normal hour. We don’t have to pack and leave by 0800 today. We go downstairs and enjoy . . . what’s it called again?? Oh, yeah. BRUNCH. It is our last day on the Camino. Tonight we will be in Santiago. Can it really be over? We walk at … Continue reading →
This, our most recent camino, was one in which we truly embraced the notion of walking ultralight. We have never fallen victim to the “what if” justification for stuffing our backpacks with needless items, but we did use some pretty heavy backpacks on our previous caminos. This time around we looked for some much lighter gear (see my packing list, and Robin’s). Our biggest improvement in weight savings was found by switching our Aarn Peak Aspiration packs (5 pounds with balance pockets) for Zpacks 45L Arc Blast packs (1.28 pounds with extra pouches, and chest pack). The Arc Blast material (cuben fiber) is very light, and waterproof (tested and true), but we used Granite Gear ultralight dry sacks to sort our gear in the pack just in case we had a tear (which we did not). The extra pouches we purchased to fit the Arc Blast were needed to carry small items externally. We also found that the chest pack we purchased was perfect. It comes with a water resistant zipper, but when it was wet I always put my iPad in a plastic bag just in case. I carried my iPad mini, pilgrim documents, passports, cash and credit cards, guide book and maps, and occasionally my camera, and it all fit, and stayed dry. The nice thing with this chest pack is that you can unclip it from the backpack and rig it as a shoulder bag for walking around town. We did not need 45L for this trip but that was the smallest we could get. 35L would have been sufficient. I cannot recommend Zpacks equipment highly enough. It is a great company with excellent customer service.We then researched lighter rain gear so we could get rid of our heavy Altus ponchos (1 pound). We went to Montbell’s Versalite line for both rain jacket and pants (.65 pounds). That saved some weight, but then we added a trekking umbrella from Golite and that added .5 pounds back on. So, in the end we carried 1.15 pounds of rain protection instead of 1 pound, but we had much greater flexibility. The rain jacket could be worn as a light windbreaker. The rain pants could be used as hiking pants in muddy conditions (they wash off easily and dry quickly), and the umbrella could be used on warmer rainy days, or for sun protection. It turned out to be a perfect solution. I was skeptical about the umbrella at first, but now would not leave home without it. The number of times I saw people sweating in heavy rain gear, because that was all they had, and us walking in t shirts under an umbrella told the whole story. The Golite Chrome Dome trekking umbrella worked great. It was occasionally bent in some weird ways in heavy winds, but it never broke (surprisingly).Chest pack can also be worn around stomachMontbell also came to the rescue with their Nano 1000 down jacket (.29 pounds), and their Thermal Sheet (.9 pounds). Both Robin and I wore the down jacket at night almost all the way to Santiago. It was perfect. The Thermal Sheet is a lightweight sleeping bag rated for 50 F. While we did not stay in a lot of gîtes or albergues when we did this bag worked great. If we had planned to stay mostly in private lodging I would not have carried it. But, if you intend to stay in places where you have to provide your own bedding, then this is a great solution. There were times when just a sleep sack wouldn’t have been warm enough for me. Now, a word about footwear. I changed boots for this trip as my Solomon Quest boots were just too heavy, and warm for this route, and season. I found that the Teva Kimtah mid height mesh boot fit me well, and they were about .6 pounds lighter (unfortunately I think the mesh mid height model is now out of production). They were also Goretex, but in the future I would not use Gortex boots. Your feet are always going to get wet in certain conditions, so just accept that, and look for a boot that dries quickly. My feet got pretty wet in a couple of storms, and I just walked all day with wet feet. I always used Nok cream (shea butter) on my feet, and even when they were wet I never got a blister. I also use hikers wool (purchase online from NZ or AarnUSA). This wool is a must have item for me. I use it in between my liner, and outer socks whenever I feel anything rubbing. This, for me, is usually the outer sides of my big, and little toes. I use adhesive (sports) tape, and hikers wool religiously, and for a 1,000 miles never had a blister. Prevention is the key. I also used a nice big pad of it under the balls of both feet (still in between my inner and outer socks) once my Superfeet insoles started to run out of life. Very nice indeed. I also elected to switch from Smartwool mid weight outer hiking socks to Icebreaker mid weight hiking socks, as they were lighter, and I felt would be better in warmer weather. They were just fine as were the Injinji liner socks. It was a great combination. An added bonus is that the Icebreaker socks dried more quickly than the Smartwool socks, which Robin chose to wear.We also used our Pacer poles which, once again, proved invaluable. I see many people using hiking poles improperly. They just use them as outriggers to maintain balance. They don’t seem to understand how they can also convert arm swing to thrust as you walk. Pacer has some excellent videos describing their use. We use them all day long whether on the flat, climbing or descending. They work. Another plug for using the rubber tip covers that come with your poles. Why some people pound the pavement with a metal pole tip (which does absolutely nothing) just amazes me. It also is pretty annoying especially if you find yourself surrounded by a cluster of like minded pilgrims.Now a quick word about walking in pants or shorts. Many people seem to prefer shorts when the temperatures allow, but I wore long pants all the way. I found there were just too many narrow trails with too much interfering vegetation (thorns, rough plant stalks, stinging nettles, etc.) to walk in shorts. I saw one guy’s legs after he came through a narrow section of trail, and his legs were carved up pretty badly. I found it simpler to just go with long pants, and be done with it, rather than try to second guess what the trail would be like on any given day. Robin tried a skirt, for awhile but gave that up in favor of long pants as well.All in all, I could not imagine a better set up for gear then what we carried. Innovation continues, and additional ways to save weight, while maintaining durability, will certainly be found, but for now I cannot fathom how I would improve over what we used on this pilgrimage. As always, the real way to save weight is simply not to carry much. I was always amazed at the mountainous backpacks people would struggle with. Most of the burden came from too much stuff, not from heavier materials. Hope this helps as you plan your next trip.
Now that Robin and I have been home for a bit more than two weeks it is time to look back on our latest camino and reflect on the routes walked, and the gear we walked with. First, with regard to the route we walked. We left Le Puy en Velay, and followed the Chemin St. Jacques (GR 65) to St.Jean Pied de Port. At St. Jean we took a bus to Bayonne, and then trains to Hendaye, and Irun, in Spain. We left Irun, and followed the Camino Norte for a bit over two weeks until it intersected with the route to Oviedo, and then we walked from Oviedo along the Camino Primitivo to the Camino Frances, at Melide, and then onward along the Camino Frances into Santiago. We walked for 63 days through a wide range of scenery and weather, and eventually found ourselves being swept along the Camino Frances into Santiago along with a horde of other pilgrims and adventurers.It was simply a wonderful journey. Not always easy, or at times pleasant, but wonderful nonetheless. Many people ask would you return (a second bite at the apple), and I am always hesitant to affirm what I might do. A pilgrimage is based in the present so to zip forward into the future seems, at the least, a bit reckless. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, nor should we. Just try to be ready as best you can. But, from a pure like or dislike point of view I can say the following. The first couple of weeks along the Le Puy route are, in my opinion, the best of it. The terrain approaching the Aubrac Plateau, walking along it, and descending down from it are just beautiful. I noticed many people walking as far as Conques, or Figeac or even Moissac, but beyond that it is only the through walkers bound for St. Jean, or more likely Santiago, that push through the Gironde valley and the flatlands associated with it. Just a quick word about the Célé Valley variant from Figeac. We walked this route and thoroughly enjoyed it. My only criticism would be the hype associated with visiting St. Cirq Lapopie. France has many pretty little villages and St. Cirq is just another one. It is a little touristy for my tastes, and it simply isn’t that special. But, to each his own. Rocamadour was another diversion we took (by train from Figeac) and enjoyed the cliff hanging town for the day we spent there. It has a touristy feel to it as well, but there is a lot of history, both religious and secular, underpinning the town that helps mute the roar of the throngs descending from the tour buses.If this is your first time walking the Le Puy route then by all means do its entirety. You will not be disappointed, but if it was a second time through I am not sure I would walk the second half as the scenery, while pleasant, isn’t stunning, and the amount of road walking is significant. On behalf of all French citizens, I apologize for the stereotypes forced on you by unknowing Americans (and others). My experiences were quite to the contrary. The French people we encountered were kind, helpful, and fun to be with. They have a beautiful country, and they seem to know how to enjoy it as I noticed (and learned) how many holiday makers seem to spend their time just walking through the countryside (time and time again).France has a system of hostels (gîtes) that are mostly privately operated. Unlike the municipal albergues in Spain, where reservations are not permitted, the gîte system in France recommends it. We found this particular true in the month of May where a few national holidays (Google national holidays in France before you go) allow people to tag on personal vacation days, and enjoy a nice long holiday. In our experience, many of those people were walking the GR 65 just for the fun of it. This puts a bit of strain on the available accommodations so reserving a bed (especially in May) is essential. I read much about shop closures on weekends and Mondays, but we always found something to eat or drink, and did not notice much inconvenience. Admittedly, the smaller the town the more likely you might find the one market closed. In those situations the demi-pension (bed, dinner, and breakfast) selection would be prudent.The Le Puy route has a bit more concentration of hills early on and this can come as a surprise to those who set out not quite as fit as they should be. We encountered many people who had leg and foot problems due to the early demands of the journey. They simply overused parts of their bodies that were not yet adapted to the terrain. The trails can be steeper, narrower, and rockier than what people see on the Camino Frances. In many cases the words goat path come to mind as I try to describe some of the trails. But, with reasonable preparation, the route is very doable, and I highly recommend it. We also had the benefit of unusually pleasant weather. Many of the trails would be much more challenging in a steady downpour. We, for the most part, were spared that experience. As the Camino Frances becomes increasingly more crowded I foresee many more people walking the Chemin St. Jacques. My guess is that they will not be disappointed. Next the Camino Norte.
We had never intended to walk the entirety of the Camino Norte. The Camino Primitivo was always our first choice for getting to Santiago. That being said the Norte had some surprises for us. First, it has some gorgeous scenery to enjoy. The terrain starts out quite varied, and includes many climbs and descents as you walk into and out of coastal towns. Having joined this route after walking from Le Puy the climbs were not a problem. Robin had some leg problems back on the Le Puy route so we were cautious about how much strain was put on her legs, but she was always able to handle the terrain. Many people single out the elevation gains both on the Chemin St. Jacques, and the Camino Norte for special caution. There certainly are many hills to go up and down, but the Camino Frances has them as well. One could argue that on any given day there are more on one route versus the other, but what’s the point. If you are in reasonable shape you will complete any of these routes. You certainly can up your happiness quotient by training a bit more, and watching your pack weight, but these are universally true whenever, and wherever you set out to walk. The first day’s walk from Irun takes you up a hill that has a low route, and a high route (Purgatorio Route). The high route offers expansive views of the sea, as long as the weather is fair. I would not recommend the high route, if the view isn’t there. The trail is quite narrow and follows a ridge where you are exposed to the weather. If the weather is bad, you have no view, you are being blown around, and your happiness quotient just took a dive. The lower route is a sheltered path with interior mountain views. Your choice.The numbers of pilgrims on the Norte seemed manageable. Typically we were seeing 15-24 people in a day. But, there were days when the crowds thickened, and that was usually associated with arriving in a town with more beds. Makes sense. The most I ever heard of was a crowd of about 80 at Guemes. We were with about 35 (or so) other pilgrims when we stayed there. The Norte runs through many tourist areas, and those towns typically have a large variety of lodging (if you have some extra cash). The albergue beds can go quickly in some towns, so allowing for a bit more in your travel budget might be prudent. But, the Norte is definitely a lot quieter than Camino Frances, even in peak season. We stayed in a few albergues, but mostly we chose private accommodation. Just a personal choice. We never had any lodging problems.The weather, much like the time we spent on the Chemin St. Jacques, was mostly fair and dry. However we did have some rain, and that caused a bit of a problem as we departed the monastery just outside of Bolibar. The trail you follow is an old logging road, with huge tractor ruts. Once this softens up it is a slog. The descent down is also tricky as the trail becomes steep, rocky, and slippery. If it was a wet day I would avoid that trip through the woods, and find alternate transpiration to Guernica. We did skip the stage from Guernica to Bilbao due to the trail conditions we experienced en route to Guenica. We just decided to give the camino a day to dry out. However, after that, we never had a problem. Just a quick word about whether to abandon the trail or not. Walking a long distance requires continuous assessment of the trail you are following. If that trail becomes unsafe due to the prevailing weather, then by all means find safer ground. It will do you no good to get injured just trying to tough it out. Be sensible, and evaluate the risks you are exposed to before deciding when, and where to walk. Enough said.Another discovery was the amount of road walking we experienced on the Norte. It seemed like after the first week we were hitting the pavement with increasing regularity. In many cases that meant walking most of the day (6-7 hours) on paved roads. Normally, I don’t mind the occasional road, but when you walk roads all day long, and then repeat that time, and time again, it becomes hard on your feet, and your body. Heavy traffic, with little or no shoulder, was also a problem on some of the roads. Not good. One surprise that caught me was the feeling that this route was more like a hike than a pilgrimage. I suppose some people think, what’s the problem? Robin and I walk as pilgrims, not as tourists. Yes, we can become tourists for day when we are enjoying some time off, but our journey always involves our faith, and its strengthening. For us this route just had a different feel to it in that regard. Maybe that is unfair, and it was just the place where we were, as individuals, that caused this feeling. Perhaps the second half (which we did not walk) is different. I’ll probably never know. The Norte does not disappoint on the scenery, but in the end we were looking for something more than that. The Primitivo, which I’ll talk about next, filled that void.