On a crisp, sunny morning in the hills of northern Spain, Bruno and I set out on an unusual adventure. Trading in our Toyota for a couple pairs of walking shoes, we would journey hundreds of kilometers along Spain’s Atlantic Coast, by foot. In doing so, we would join countless pilgrims who’d gone before us along the ancient and infamous Camino de Santiago.
It’s unusual for Bruno and me to travel without our trusty Totoyaya. In the last few years, Wandering Footsteps has chronicled our overland-style travels. Content involving long-distance hikes and backpacker travel don’t feature very frequently here, anymore.
Perhaps that’s why our decision to become walking pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago requires a bit of an explanation. That, then, is the subject of this blog entry: what this adventure is all about, why we decided to do it, and how we prepared for a different style of travel than we’re normally used to. (For those looking for stories about our experience on the Camino, two posts on the subject will follow in the coming days.)
I described the Camino de Santiago as both “ancient” and “infamous.” I chose those adjectives deliberately; it has existed as a pilgrimage for over 1,000 years, but has experienced a rebirth in popularity in the last thirty years or so. The “Walk to Santiago,” also called the Way of St. James, is a journey, via any of dozens of ancient routes, to the holy shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. It is one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages in the world – the other two being Rome and Jerusalem.
St. James was one of Jesus’ disciples. After Jesus’ death, his disciples scattered to different regions of the world, from Ethiopia and India to Persia and Armenia, spreading the message of Christ. James went to Spain, where he succeeded in converting nine Iberians to Christianity. Eventually, he returned to the Holy Land and was martyred. According to belief, James’ body was brought to Spain (perhaps by angels in a holy boat?) and buried in a Roman burial site near the northwest coast.
James was forgotten for 800 years, until a hermit saw a bright star in the sky, followed it to the field where James had been buried, uncovered the body and saw that it was still intact. James became the patron saint of Spain and helped the Iberians fight back the Moors. Word of the miracle spread and pilgrims began to arrive from all over. Monasteries and churches were erected, and by the 11th century, the Way of St. James was a heavily-traveled pilgrim route.
In 2015, it is still – or I should say, “again” – a heavily-traveled pilgrim route. Sometime in the 1980s, the Camino de Santiago was declared the first European Cultural Route and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pilgrims once again started to flock to the trails; for some, it was a religious pilgrimage, as it had been for centuries; but many walked for other reasons – an interesting form of tourism, a challenging long-distance hike, a chance to commune with nature, a spiritual meditation.
Bruno and I are part of that second category of walkers. I hope I won’t offend anyone, but we weren’t taking part in the Camino as a religious pilgrimage. The truth is, I’ve become interested in long-distance walks in the last couple of years and have been searching for an opportunity to try one for awhile now. The last time I went on more than a day walk was trekking in the Himalayas while I was living in Nepal. Even though I hold amazing memories of the experience, walking wasn’t my favorite pastime back in 2007. It was become so in recent years.
In the last year, in particular, I’ve become minorly obsessed with the idea of a doing a long-distance walk. I subscribe to a podcast called “Sounds of the Trail,” which documents the experiences of through-hikers in the US. I researched Turkey’s 500km cultural walk, the Lycian Way, and sampled a few days of it when I realized we didn’t have the time or equipment to walk the whole thing. I often daydream about what it would be like to do nothing but walk for months on end, and relish the opportunity to undergo the physical challenge and the emotional growth that I assume would come of such an experience.
So when Bruno proposed that we walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago when passing through Northern Spain with our camper van, I didn’t think twice.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes!
To be honest, I was surprised that Bruno was game for a long-distance walk. He loves walking – maybe even more than me – but he also loves the simplicity of being able to return to his home at the end of the day – maybe even more than I love the comfort of it. I didn’t expect him to want to go through the preparations it would inevitably take to embark on a long-distance walk.
That’s why the Camino de Santiago was the perfect walk for us. Essentially, the Camino is a walk from village to village, where an extensive support system is in place to help pilgrims on their journey. Practically speaking, this means you don’t need to have much gear and that you will always be able to find a hot meal and a bed at the end of the day. There is also excellent signage, so you don’t even really need a map or to know where you’re going. You can pretty much just show up, unprepared, and start to walk.
That isn’t exactly what Bruno and I did, of course, but it’s almost. I did enough research to determine which route section we would walk. There are a half-dozen or so routes on the Iberian Peninsula that lead to Santiago de Compostela, and all of them are between 700-1,000km long. We already knew we would walk the Camino del Norte, the northernmost route along the Atlantic Coast. Not only was it along the route we’d already planned to drive with Totoyaya, but it’s a much less popular route, and we prefer roads-less-traveled. We also knew that we wouldn’t walk all 825km of the Camino – Bruno’s knee surgery was just three months ago, after all, and we didn’t really have the five weeks needed to devote to the trail. So we needed to figure out which part of the Camino del Norte to walk.
I quizzed our good friend, Phil (of Phil and Angie, overlanders extraordinaire), who’d done the entire Camino last fall. With his tips, I pinpointed the area a day’s walk after Bilbao as an ideal section of the Camino for us to try. It seemed to maximize coastal views, minimize industrial areas, and allow flexibility for us to walk as little or as much as we wanted. We set ourselves the goal of walking anywhere between 5-10 days.
By this point, we were in already in Spain. We started catching glimpses of Camino paraphernalia and realized we were driving along the Camino Frances, the most popular way to Santiago. Signs, yellow arrows, and scallop shells popped up along roadsides near Jaca. Albergues and hiker shops appeared when we turned corners of old alley streets in Pamplona and Estella. Pilgrims, clearly recognizable with their walking sticks and scallop shells tied onto heavy packs, paused to look at an old building or to localize the next yellow arrow in Bilbao. All these little pieces of Camino evidence got me really excited for our own upcoming pilgrimage!
It was time to pack. Because we live in a camping car, Bruno and I have a limited amount of trekking gear. We could have done a major shopping spree in Pamplona or Bilbao, but we opted to do the walk with what we already owned, as much as possible. This meant packing all our belongings into our tiny day backpacks. It meant sewing up bed sheets as makeshift sleeping bags for the albergues. It meant bringing along our big rain coats and fleece jackets, even if they took up half the space in our bags. The only things we allowed ourselves to buy were a small towel for me (my regular one would have taken up the other half of the bag!) and long plastic ponchos that would cover our bags and legs if it rained heavily (we didn’t have rain pants).
When our bags were packed, they each weighed less than 5kg, I’m sure. Here’s what we brought with us:
- A pair of hiking pants each
- A rain jacket each
- A fleece jacket each
- 3 t-shirts each
- 3 pairs of undies and 3 pairs of socks each
- Warm leggings and a turtleneck for evenings and nights for me
- A towel each
- A makeshift sleeping bag each
- A pair of flip flops for showers and evenings each
- Two pairs of walking shoes each
- A hat each
- 2 1L Nalgene water bottles
- An iPhone
- My journal
- One point-and-shoot camera
- Toiletries, including sunscreen, toothbrush and paste, lotion, shampoo, and floss
- Medical supplies including alcohol, a needle and thread, band aids, cotton, Second Skin, medical tape, aspirin, and an ankle wrap
- Sections of a guide book on the Camino del Norte
We were packed pretty lightly, and in retrospect it was a good idea. Apart from the first two hours of walking, when I was adjusting to the weight of my bag, my load never bothered me. I could pack and unpack my bag in five minutes. Sure, I had to wash my clothes every evening in the sink and hang them on the back of my bag to dry the next day. And yes, when we bought food at the supermarket we had to carry it in a plastic bag because we had no extra space in our packs. But I had everything I needed (except, maybe, for rain pants).
So, we were packed and ready to head out onto the Way of Santiago! We met up with a couple of Phil and Angie’s friends who live in the hills of Northern Spain. We spent an afternoon getting to know Javi, Jasmine (a Canadian!), and their son Emeric, and getting a tour of their beautiful little farm home. We shared dinner together. And then, Bruno and I slept in our Totoyaya one last night. The next morning, we would start our pilgrimage unlike most: We would leave our vehicle parked at Javi and Jasmine’s, walk the 7km to the nearest town (Ramales de la Victoria), take a 45-minute bus to the coastal town of Laredo, and finally start our Camino de Santiago!