Starting something without any expectations whatsoever can lead to unexpected surprises, and honestly, I am a fan of these moments. I’ve never had a great interest in the Camino: I always considered it too paved, it seemed far too touristic, and with no tenting options it didn’t really lean close to my idea of a good hike. So I set out merely for the sake of joining up with Patrick for a few days, to get some miles in our legs together again after a sad goodbye in Bluff one year ago.
Yet soon enough I found myself enjoying it pretty well. It is still not anything close to my own idea of hiking and disappearing out into the woods, but a comfortable hike every once in a while can’t hurt anyone, after all. Why did I never embrace the idea of a warm bed every night, a fantastic selection of pinchos, pilgrim meals and great wine along the road? A year ahead from now, when hopefully I’ll be out in the woods somewhere, I’ll surely think back of that. If only there was a bar with pinchos and a good cerveza 10 kilometres down the road might be a thought that pops up rather many times.
Patrick’s hike started in Le Puy, a good 800 kilometres before St Jean de Pied, where most hikers pick up the trail. He was well walked in and admittedly I was slightly nervous that he would outrun me all the time. We reunited in the city of Burgos, where he was spending a final evening with his friend Liz. I felt a lousy pilgrim having a bit too good a time that night and starting the trail with a slight headache. Then again, the fun surely helped to fall asleep through the orchestra of snorers in the albergue. I would join him for 5 days, a bit over 110 kilometres, to Terradillos de los Templarios.
It was colder than I thought in Spain, and I was happy that I had followed Patrick’s advice and brought the exact same clothes I had worn through New Zealand. Gloves and a beanie were no unnecessary luxury, especially not once we left the city and hit the countryside. During the first two days we walked through hilly farmlands, with some nice views towards the mountains and over the villages from the tops. I was glad I was walking at the same pace as the American giant.The walking went easy without camping equipment, without multi-day rations of food weighing my pack down. We talked for a while about ultra-light hiking, feeling the comfort of an unburdened back. But we both knew the bottom line pretty well, where we wouldn’t sacrifice our personal comfort for less weight anymore.
The first night in Hornillos we joined the pilgrim’s dinner and listened to the other hikers’ stories. Many of them had never hiked before and, as we had noticed by the amount of hobbling pilgrims we passed that day, were severely breaking through their own physical barriers along the way. We sat and smiled as we listened to their stories. Good on them for daring to come out here, I thought. That night I realised that the only downside about the Camino was a lack of sleep, as snorers are ever-present in the albergue dormitories. But the albergues are such a big part of the trail, that it would be a shame to miss out on them.
We came early to Castrojeriz the next day, having walked through a cold and windy morning. The charming village with narrow streets and old houses lay at the foot of a hill that held a 9th century castle, open to everyone and offering beautiful views over the surrounding area. We hung out in the cafes in the sun. Most people are following the same route as described in Patrick’s handbook, so several faces started to become familiar. I was already happy that I did not end up here in the high season, because I found the trail to be crowded enough. For some it was a thing they dreamed of for a long time, for others it was a way to re-enact the movie “The Way” and search for the adventure of a lifetime. Of course, if you look too hard, you might just miss it.
As we ventured further onto the countryside we passed through many more tiny, sleepy villages dotted across the farmland. The scenery became less interesting and very flat, though the villages made up for that. I might be living in Lapland, but I wondered a lot about what people here are doing. Siesta does seem to be a considerable part of it. And these are still along the Way of Saint James, where tens of thousands of people pass every year. I could only imagine the ones 10 kilometres north or south of that line. In every village we stopped for a coffee, a juice and a bite, be it a sandwich with some tortilla or a small portion of calamares, which turned out to be our most beloved pincho. The food was never disappointing, and never expensive, just as the wine. There was breakfast, sometimes second breakfast, elevensies, lunch upon arrival, and the occasional supper and dinner day. Patrick laughed at my enthusiasm for all the good things and made my trail slogan: “The only pain you will feel is in your stomach.”
Admittedly, and without wanting to denounce anyone else’s effort, we did have an easy time those 5 days. I found Patrick reluctant to say he started in Le Puy, or to talk about the New Zealand trail, maybe as to not wanting to sound arrogant. It’s a lucky feature being fit and healthy, and able to keep it up. It’s a hard process for anyone to get past their own fitness level, and it’s a process that I remember is accompanied with a lot of physical pain and mental desperation. I saw people that I wondered how they were making it, yet they did every night. I saw blisters to the like I have never seen before and felt myself hurting watching them.
My favourite walker that we kept meeting in those five days is Jeremy, a 75 year old Brit, walking from St. Jean to Santiago. His age alone already commanded some respect. He was one of those that looked hobbling and seemed to be suffering every time you passed him, yet every time he greeted you with a smile and he was always up for a joke. Very courageous I found him, as he kept going from one town to the other, not cheating in any way (yes, there is a bus going between the towns). A well-travelled man, speaking many languages including Dutch to my own astonishment. After a few days he asked if I could have a look at a blister he had on his heel. When I managed to peel off the compeed I had to think for a bit: this was the biggest, blood-filled blister I had ever come across, roughly the size of half a tennis ball sticking out of his foot. I drained it and disinfected it for a day, until he decided that he needed to let it heal and took the bus ahead to Leon. I told him I really hoped to hear a story of him making it to Santiago and gave him a hug before leaving on the final day of walking.
When there is a lot to talk about, five days seem to fly by before they even begun. We revived old memories, talked about life after we left New Zealand, about things of interest, and about things to come. We talked to many nice people along the way: Dutch, Ozzies, Americans, Brits, the occasional kiwis (always good seeing them around), and a few very excited Asians. I figured I’d want to do something in the future that has this social aspect. It’s great venturing into the wild and getting lost in your own thoughts, but it’s also great meeting like-minded people to share your experiences with. It will have to be a bit of both. There’s nothing like a bond forged out of a fair share of common misery.
Will I ever come back to walk the full length of the Camino? As for the Way of Saint James, probably not. It has become just that bit too crowded and too commercialised for my part. But I do have en eye on the Camino Norte, the rugged route along the north coast. In due time it will be the hour for pinchos again.