This past Spring, I walked/hiked/struggled the Camino de Santiago. For those who don’t know, it’s traditionally a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela near the West coast of Northern Spain from several points all over Europe. The route I chose, the Camino Frances, begins in France and ends some 800+kms later. (For an idea of what it is like, watch the incredible movie, “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez-who also directed the film.)
I flew into Paris and spent a few, last days among “civilization” before heading out on my trek. After wining (whining too) and dining, and visits with some of my friends, I took the “pilgrim” train towards the charming, small village of St. Jean Pied de Port (literally, St, John at the foot of the mountain pass) nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees where I would begin my journey on the Camino de Santiago.
I had no idea, then, what effect it would have on my life. I knew it would be special, but it was more than just special. It was life-changing. The people I met and the experiences I had were among the very best of my entire life. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy (someone implied before I left, that it was just a walk- they could not have been more wrong!). It was the hardest, most physically demanding, most mentally challenging thing I have ever done. And I loved it!
Sure, there were tears. Lots of tears. There were extremely hard uphill climbs and sloshing through calf deep mud.
There were long days when my feet burned with blisters and my muscles seized and the kms seemed to never end. There was horrid weather- rain, hail, freezing temperatures.
Then there was heat and scorching sun and I had a “stupid” hat with a brim that refused to stay down, so my face reddened in the sun. There were the albergues (or hostels), some sparse and very basic and then some almost like hotels. They were clean and they were dirty. But you couldn’t really complain at 5-10 euros a bed. There were communal showers with flimsy curtains and towels that were the size of washcloths (I finally bought a large one in a major city) and you’d have to dry off and dress in the shower stall so you wouldn’t flash the world. There were the bunk beds (I nearly always had a top bunk- and a Moro reflex to go along with it!) and the mummy sleeping bag that slid around the bed and trapped me inside in a stifling position. I usually sleep with one knee up. No chance of that with my mummy bag.
Then there was “Lucifer”. Lucifer was the name my backpack earned as it was truly the devil on my back. That pack weighed nearly 20kilos at the start and dropped down to around 16kilos and no matter what I got rid of, it stayed around 14-15kilos for the entire trip. By the end of the journey, I gave up carrying “him” and sent him by car “Jaco-trans” or by Peugeot to my next destination. The problem with that though was gauging what I needed for the day hike and exactly how far I would have to travel to meet my pack (and sleeping bag etc.) each night.
25kms became my breaking point each day. But there were some days where we walked 30 or even 35 kms. And then there was one day where we stopped counting after 35 kms! Needless to say, that was not a good day.
But there were the people I met along the way…people I walked with every day, and people I only walked with on some days, but each person had a story to tell and each person was absolutely pure in heart and soul. The kindest, warmest and most wonderful people I have ever known and I am truly blessed and honored to have met each and every one of them. Some, I am lucky enough now, to call lifelong friends and family; My Camino Family. I love them all dearly. They made the trials, tribulations and the trip worth everything.
And of course, there was the wine. And the food. And the liquors.
We would start each day with the “Pilgrim” breakfast- usually a café con leche and leftover (stale toasted) baguette with butter or jam. By the first village, we’d stop at the bar (bar/café/only thing open in a town that may or may not serve food) for café con leche and a slice of Tortilla, a potato omelet. Some were bland, but many were delightfully flavorful. Some even were cheesy and filled with other vegetables. There were also the Bocadillas (sub sized sandwiches) filled with hams and cheeses. If we were lucky, there might even be patatas fritos or patatas bravos (French fries or French Fries with a spicy sauce). We’d linger over our cafés and then we’d order the most delicious, fresh squeezed orange juice that has ever passed your lips. They were served in large glasses with a packet of sugar, which we’d take with us as an emergency energy boost later in the day. With our bellys full, we’d be able to get some miles (kms) under our belts before stopping for lunch.
Some days we’d pass a Panadería/Pastelerias (bakery/pastry shop) and stop in for treats. Crème filled pastries, éclairs, napoleons or sweet almond cookies called Polvorones, leaving us covered in powdered sugar as we ate them.
Many days, early in the journey, were spent traveling through the wine regions of Navarra and Rioja. We became very adept at ordering vino tintos (red wine). Most notably, a Rioja Crianza became the wine of choice. The term “Crianza” refers to wines aged for 2 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak and 12 months in the bottle before being allowed to be sold. These wines tend to have more body with strong acidity that helps them to pair well with heavier foods – like roasted meats and rich sauces (for instance, we drank it with the famous lamb made in Burgos). We consumed many a glass of this ruby red treasure.
In the afternoons, we’d stop for tapas or rather, Pintxos, as they are called in Northern Spain. These little bite sized delights sat on top of small pieces of bread and ranged from seafoods (shrimp or eel) to vegetables (mushrooms) to meats (hams). We’d order a variety with a cerveza (beer), take off our boots and put our feet up.
Later in the trip, as the weather turned warm, we’d stop for ice creams too. Magnum Ice Cream Pops were very popular along the trail. A decadent dessert at home, but a welcome cool treat on the hottest of days. The Double Caramel was sinfully good. Surprisingly, or not, even with all of the sweets and treats, I lost weight on this trip!
But what was most wonderful, were the evening meals where I’d gather with other pilgrims, either at the albergue or at a restaurant. We’d talk about our lives back home or our day and how far we traveled, how hard the trail was, our body aches and what we wanted to the next day. We’d talk about all that we saw along the way and we’d toast to surviving another day on the trail. We’d eat until we were nearly asleep. And more so, we’d laugh and laugh, giddy with exhaustion. This time together and these meals were really the sustenance that kept us going and it was what we looked forward to each day.
My journey lasted exactly 5 weeks, 35 days on the trail, far more than I could ever explain here, however, over the next week I’ll fill you in on some of the most memorable meals and experiences I had along The Way.