25 October 2012

The Camino de Santiago, the Pilgrim's Trail to Santiago de Compostela, October 2012

For the second time this year I find myself in Spanish territory, this time walking sections of the famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, from León to Santiago de Compostela in the far north west of Spain.

The route is also known as the Way of St James or the Road to Santiago, and was first described by a French pilgrim in the 12th century. Said to have been first travelled in the 9th century, this walk forms part of the 'French Route', bringing pilgrims from the Pyrenees across the northern reaches of Spain to the tomb of the Apostle James the Great. According to legend, a local shepherd was guided to the spot in a field ('campo') by a star ('Stella' in Spanish), to find the remains of St James (San Tiago in Spanish), hence the name 'Santiago de Compostela'.

The route came to be protected by the Knights Templar, and there are some impressive castles en route, such as the one found in the town of Ponferrada.
It's a very popular trail, walked by thousands each year, and just one of the various routes across Spain that take the pilgrim to Santiago. Many carry a pilgrim's passport, the Credencial del Peregrino, and having obtained stamps in this along the way as proof of passage, can obtain an 'indulgence' from the Catholic Church, absolving the holder from their sins. Needless to say, as a very sinful person, I have carried the passport along with me in the vain hope that I might be forgiven by somebody...

The journey from the UK took me to Madrid, and then by a fast train to León. León is an attractive town of about 200,000 souls, with a vibrant and historic central district closed off to traffic, and housing a magnificent cathedral and the Basilica of San Isidoro, this hosting the tombs of the 30-odd Kings of León. A short distance outside the historic centre is the impressive monastery of San Marcos, now housing a luxury 'parador' hotel.

Parador San Marcos
Once again, I'm travelling with Headwater, who choose characterful hotels and arrange to have your luggage moved on to the next one as you progress along the route. So, looking forward to good accomodation, good food and a light rucksack along the way!

I read Paul Coelho's book The Pilgrimage on my journey to León which gave me a flavour of the privations necessary for a true pilgrim along the path, although, as usual, Coelho left me exhausted and exasperated with his writing style. It's the story of a chap trying to gain entry into an ancient Order of Knights, and goes through a period of sometimes painful self-discovery as he is accompanied by his 'Master' along the Road to Santiago. I suppose it stresses the importance of compassion for all sentient beings, the nature of wisdom, the certainty of death but the relative unimportance of this event given faith in the concept of rebirth, the pivotal role of mindfulness, and following one's own intuition. But, above all, the importance of using the wisdom and knowledge that you accrue along the way. More to do when I get home then...

León is great at night, with the cathedral and many other historic buildings, some by Gaudi, beautifully lit, and lively plaza with many bars and restaurants. Most of the bars offer complimentary simple tapas with a drink ordered at the bar. The place was buzzing at the end of a weekend festival, with a great atmosphere and no drunken bother that you'd see in the UK.

Santa Maria de León Cathedral

León by night, a Gaudi building to the right
Camino Day 1

Inside León Cathedral
León, near the Pilgrim's Passport Issuing Office
Start point, Cruz de Ferro
The first day on the Camino involved a one hour transfer westwards from León to the Cruz de Ferro, high up in the approaches to the Cantabrian Mountains, an attractive ride across the northern 'paramo' or plateau, with expansive views to the snow covered peaks of the Picos de Europa in the north east and the wind farm speckled foothills of the León mountains.

So, boots on, and into a stiff wind that had reduced the temperature to 6 degrees C! A bit of surprise, but much warmer as I descended to lower elevations later in the day. Appealing pine forests accompanied the path into Manjarin, home to a curious little pilgrim's stop called Tomas' Place, festooned with flags outside and the paraphernalia of the pilgrim inside, including the scallop shell which symbolises this pilgrimage (the shell being the marker that you will have reached the coast at Finisterre, just beyond Santiago de Compostela). The scallop shell is found on signs that mark the Camino, although at times this reduces to a simple yellow painted arrow.

Tomas' Place

The trail rose gently, with great views of the Cantabrian mountains from a broad ridge that carried the path for much of the distance, before a sustained descent of some 900m through verdant valleys to the little hamlet of Molinaseca, a total distance of almost 19km for the day. Molinaseca is an attractive stopover, with local specialities of smoked ham and fine pimentos (sweet red peppers) to satisfy a hungry walker.

Approaching Molinaseca

Camino Day 2

The second day on the path could not have been more different weather wise, with an Atlantic front bringing early rain and cloud above 900m. Sunflowers with their heads bowed to the ground rather said it all! So most of the day was like walking through a long grey tunnel, but after a climb of some 600-700m the reward was the historic village of O'Cebreiro, situated on top of an exposed ridge, featuring stone houses with thatched roofs called pallozas and the oldest church on the French Road, Santa Maria la Real, notable for a transformation of a peasant into the body of Christ, an event marked in the 12th century by Queen Isabella who had a crystal reliquary made to retain the items used during the Eucharist in which this event is said to have occurred.    

12th century Templar Castle, Ponferrada

I know how they feel...

Fortunately, the clouds parted later in the day to give fine atmospheric views into the Valcarce valley, a little reward at last! However, it is still overcast and the wind has markedly increased. A stormy night ahead. Ah well, off to the bar then...

Views from O 'Cebreiro

My diet is working...

O Cebreiro

A palloza in O Cebreiro
My hotel turned out to be the busiest in O'Cebreiro, early evening filled with locals, many of the chaps sporting distinctive bushy moustaches in keeping with local tradition, and fully occupied in the serious business of playing cards and drinking vino tinto. Food included more local ham, and some delicious soft cheese served with honey. Yum.

Camino Day 3

Day three on the path started a little further to the west after another transfer, crossing a high point on the road at over 1300m, before descending to my start point for the day at Triacastela. It had been a stormy night, as predicted, and the day started with the cloud base at around 900m and continuous light rain which was to become a lot heavier on the approach to Sarria, today's end point.

Yesterday I had crossed the border into the region of Galicia, the most north-westerly part of Spain and the wettest. It rather reminds you of Devon in the UK, with rolling hills, albeit at a higher elevation here, populated by herds of dairy and beef cattle. Dense woodland comprising oak and chestnut features here, and maize and marrow crops were seen in abundance at the lower levels. And then there's the rain. Yes, very like Devon!

This was to be a zero photograph day, a rare event, and my overnight stop was high in the hills above Sarria at a delightful little hideaway called Rectoral de Goian, an old stone parsonage 8km from the town. Very peaceful, and just right for a well-deserved nap! The food here is superb. Recommended.

Rectoral de Goian
Camino Day 4

Early the following day I was dropped off at a small Roman bridge to continue the walk. From Sarria, I was immediately surprised by the number of pilgrims and walkers joining the path here. I suppose we are about to reach the final 100km of the Way before Santiago de Compostela, and this is the 'qualifying distance' for the 'indulgence' referred to earlier. You need at least two stamps per day in your Credencial del Peregrino to qualify, so I'd better be diligent now if I want to be forgiven!

Only 100km to Santiago de Compostela!
I saw hundreds of walkers spread out along the path today, old and young, including an American lad of seven travelling with his mum and grandfather (having started in Pamplona three weeks earlier), and Americans and Australians seemed to be the dominant nationalities. It never ceases to amaze me that folks still insist on shuffling along in full waterproof gear, even when the weather is being kind. It's been dry today, albeit overcast, but the forecast is good and a glimmer of blue sky was even spotted to the west!

A Galician grain dryer, seen throughout the region

On the Camino...

The terrain is now rolling dairy country interspersed with stands of oak and chestnut. It was very pleasant, with relatively easy walking, and a distance of over 22km today to reach the riverside town of Portomarin. It's an unimpressive town, overlooking a reservoir that hasn't filled this year because of low rainfall levels, so revealing the original medieval bridge under the more modern counterpart - a rare sight, apparently.

My lodgings were a little out of town, the characterful Casa Rural Santa Marina, set in its own vineyards. Sustenance, with vegetables, tomatoes and potatoes from their own garden, and wine and a schnapps from their own vines, was excellent. Simple but very flavoursome. Recommended.

Camino Day 5

Another day beckons, another 20km plus to do. I seem to be walking in a 'pod' of walkers now, most of whom I had seen the day before. Everyone seemed to set off at 9 a.m. so it required a lot of overtaking to get the trail to myself.

Fat chance.

This, for me, is the one downside of the Camino...I like walking in relative isolation, but on this route that's never going to happen, even in the colder months. But there's a kind of community growing, familiar faces, a little bonhomie, the familiar exchange of the greeting 'Buen Camino', or a simple 'hola', and admiration for folks who are clearly struggling with the distance, the interminable hills, or some other disability. I even passed a family early on today, on a rising forest track, with a young child on his father's shoulders and another, younger, sibling in a push chair. Rather them than me!

Autumnal glory on the Camino

Today's route from Portomarin to the fine Rectoral de Lestado, near Palas del Rei, is about 21km, with a sustained but easy uphill for the first 13km. The weather could best be described as 'brightening fog', which finally cleared just before midday to reveal rolling hills, pine forest interspersed with newly planted stands of eucalypts, with bracken and heather on the higher elevations. As I arrived in Lestado, three buzzards soared overhead, almost as if to mark my arrival. The Rectoral is in a fine old stone building but the interiors are 'understated modernity', cleverly done, and the public rooms have fine views to the hills eastwards. A very chilled spot to restore an aching body. I might even try to meditate later...

View from the rooms at the Rectoral de Lestado
Camino Day 6

...well I didn't. I just enjoyed some good food and an early night in the Rectoral, awakening to clear blue skies and a slight frost on the nearby meadow. In the distance, early morning fog was busy making up its mind to clear. The Way was essentially clear of pilgrims when I started off, most of them starting from the small town of Palas del Rei 4km further to the west. So, apart from a few annoying dogs, it was a beautiful autumnal morning to start day six of the walk, fresh air, a few crows and the odd chirp from a robin to break the silence. A falling chestnut was enough to make you jump!

It's a fairly short (13.8km) walk today, on easy ground with a few ups and downs, across rolling fields and through eucalyptus and oak woods, the latter with leaves just turning to a rusty hue.

My accommodation for the night is the Casa de Los Somoza in O Coto, a rustic Turismo Rural, with real character. And a good drop of beer too! A relaxing afternoon beckons...

...and then the two affable American priests arrived. A couple of middle-aged chaps, now full time Catholic priests in Virginia, one early retired after selling his own business, and the other, an ex-roadie for U2. I enjoyed an entertaining hour discussing the emergence of personal spirituality, of being a 'seeker', and their view that their God will find me one day.


Nonetheless, it was a pleasant conversation, and thought-provoking for my part and (I hope) theirs. They tootled off, sore muscles and blisters reminding them of the struggle ahead, certainly a  physical one over the kilometres to come, and also perhaps metaphorically for the survival of the institution they represent, as it is so clear that the under '40s of today are now leading a wholly secular existence, as the ageing priests, congregations and physical structures of the many small churches along the Way bear testimony.

Camino Day 7

It's now Sunday. And another 21km day ahead. A bright start, but now feeling very autumnal, with the first sign of leaves starting to fall in earnest. An undulating route took me through the market town of Melide, apparently famed for serving octopus in the local restaurants (although a bit too early in the day for me!), and across a series of ridges and valleys all the way to Arzúa. I walked in almost complete isolation today, a pleasant change, although it did feel a bit spooky in some of the more secluded forest sections.

Typical Galician country...oak, eucalyptus, chestnut and maize
Rio Iso

Santiago de Compostela is nearing. It seems almost impossible that I've been walking solidly for seven days in a row, but there's a kind of rhythm attached to multi-day walking, and many hours can be spent in a kind of meditational trance as you amble along the trail. Very soporific, as the inevitable afternoon nap testified!
Camino Day 8

The high, wispy cirrus clouds building over Arzúa yesterday presaged today's weather, a red dawn breaking over Arzúa behind me as I began my penultimate day on the Way, with intermittent light showers. The old legs ached a bit today, and although this is a relatively easy stage, sometimes it felt like interval training, dropping down into one valley and then crossing a ridge to the next. Today's walk was not especially exciting, more woodland today, including some very high eucalypts and paths thick with fallen chestnut shells. Lunch was good though, a veal cutlet with local 'Pimientos de Padrón', delicious small green peppers of the region.

Inside the O Muiño de Pena

My stay tonight is in a converted mill, the delectable O Muiño de Pena, where sleep will be accompanied by a gently flowing river outside my window after a dinner served amidst the cleverly preserved paraphernalia of mill machinery in their restaurant.


Camino Day 9

I decided to have an early start today, walking the 20km final stage into Santiago de Compostela, in the hope that I could avoid a busy trail and have some time to enjoy the city.

Well, that plan didn't work.

I started tramping along just before dawn (not difficult in mid October when dawn doesn't occur until almost 9 a.m. here in Spain), and immediately ran into many of the folks I'd seen in the preceding days, all of whom seemed to have the same idea. So, 'foot on the gas' and I'd passed many of them in the first  hours, giving myself some relative solitude again.

A fine start for the last day on the Camino

Monte de Gozo

It's very easy to underestimate just how hard this last day's walking is. There's a steepish climb up to Cimadevilla and then a long steady ascent from Lavacolla to Monte do Gozo. And much of the day is spent on hard surfaces - well packed paths, tarmac, and pavement when you finally reach the outskirts of Santiago. For me, the last 4km were the hardest. The sudden shock of the cacophony from this vibrant city, full of students and weary peregrinos. Tired feet and knees, and energy sapped by the relatively high humidity of the day. And the overwhelming 'pull' of the Cathedral, the final stopping point, near to which you then join a short queue for your Credencial del Peregrino to be checked and then your Compostela to be formally issued.

Queuing for the Compostela, Santiago de Compostela
My Compostela, although I doubt if my sins have been absolved!
A refreshing shower in my hotel, the historic Hotel Virxa Da Cerca, did a little to reenergise me, enough to find a decent place for tapas, this time pulpo (octopus) on toast, some squid, and more of those delicious peppers from Padrón. The inevitable sightseeing tour of the city followed, exploring the narrow streets and the huge Prazo do Obradoiro facing the Cathedral, filled with exhausted pilgrims revelling in their achievement. The cathedral is massive, and you can file past the relics of St James, kept in a silver casket just below the altar.

Mosteria de San Martiño Pinario, Santiago de Compostela
Stumpy at the Cathedral in Santiago, at last...
Santiago de Compostela, one of Christianity's three great pilgrimage centres

Praza do Obradoiro
Inside the Cathedral

Access to the tomb of Saint James
A peregrino arriving late in the day
The Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela
Inside the Hotel Virxa Da Cerca
My final evening was spent wandering the area around the atmospheric Rúa do Franco and Rúa del Villar, eventually settling on a popular local's tapas bar O Piorno in Rúa Caldeiría for my final dinner in Spain...scallops of course!

A few statistics: 9 days walking, total 170km (about 107 miles) at an average speed of 5.35 kph (3.3 mph).


I think the faces of the folks I saw queuing up the stairs into the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela said it all. Tired, reflective, and physically drawn after walking the Camino for many days, or weeks in some some cases, but then suddenly elated when they emerge from the office clutching their Compostela.
This walk is often written off as an 'easy' walk by the trekking community.
Well, it shouldn't be. Day after day through undulating terrain, some long distances to be covered on some of the stages, and outside the final 100km, some very lonely stretches too. And, in season, subject to the heat of the Spanish sun.
It's a worthy adventure, and the camaraderie genuine and uplifting. I'd not want to do it like most people do, carrying everything on their backs and staying at basic auberge each night. Far better to have your luggage moved on for you each day and have a comfortable rural inn or hotel restore you.
But if you're hard-core, then consider one of the other routes to Santiago de Compostela, the routes following the coastal and mountain areas of northern Spain, or the long haul up from Seville or through Portugal.
Another day perhaps...


Anonymous said...

I am wanting to do walk this trek and thoroughly enjoyed reading this - thank you for sharing your story...

Leonie G said...

My husband and I would also like to do the Camino and I like the 'civilised ' way you did it. I enjoyed reading your travel diary and especially enjoyed the photographs which clearly show the beautiful scenery and parts of the track. Maybe 2014 will be our year?

Colin Stump said...

Do it as soon as you can! This route gets more popular as time goes on, and our legs never get younger...
Enjoy 😊

Anonymous said...

Currently on Camino and what an experience
Within 24 hours of our destination Santiago. Amazingly sociable although Saria to the end in sections can be busy. Must be at least 1000 folk on the camino (French route, irrespective of all the other routes) at any one time. Today we met a guy with a donkey returning from Santiago with his donkey to Assisi. Just heard about the Jerusalem way linking Santiago to Jerusalem. The world could be a network of trails and caminos. The Camino is a tonic helps one to finds one's self. Linda and John Wales

Colin Stump said...

Hi Linda and John
Glad you enjoyed the Camino. More than just a walk, eh?
Best wishes

Unknown said...

I really want to do this. Is it suitable for a woman travelling alone? Is the rail easy to follow? Thanks for your blog. Really interesting and beautifully writte.

Colin Stump said...

Hi Julie
I would say it'll be perfectly fine for a lady travelling alone. I met several on my journey, and there was plenty of opportunity for a chat as they went along, or you may just want to amble in perfect silence. The choice is yours!
Some sections of the Camino are quite isolated, but there's usually walkers about, especially if you avoid setting off too early in the morning.
It's extremely well signposted throughout, with little chance of getting lost.
Go for it!

Unknown said...

Highly energetic blog, like it. Read more about Santiago de Compostela from Pilgrimstays.com