The last couple of weeks of my life have basically consisted of following yellow arrows and the occasional scallop shell. Day after day of waking up, having breakfast and then strapping my backpack to my back and finding the nearest yellow arrow. That's the Camino de Santiago in a nutshell anyway. 230km of yellow arrows. But there's much more to it than that of course, and I think yellow arrows will now forever hold a special place in my mind (the overwhelming urge to always go where it points).
Before travelling around Europe the very idea of walking 230 odd kilometres would have made me laugh. Sure some people might enjoy doing that, but I sure as hell wouldn't have thought myself to be one of them. How things change. I've just finished the walk from Porto to Santiago with Vanessa, and we are now leaving tomorrow on a 5 hour bus trip north to start another walk. This one only around 100km mark, a short 1 week stroll really. There's something about getting up in the morning, having a leisurely breakfast and then just walking. Of course I'm sure a lot of it was to do with the company kept. It might have been mind numbingly boring otherwise. I enjoyed it immensely, but not only that, there's such a huge feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and a touch of pride when getting to the end. This is something I never thought I would do (which is half the reason I did it) and I'm super glad I did.
For the first few days of the walk I was taking notes at the end of each day for this blog with the anticipation that I'd probably write it as a day by day kinda thing, a little like the road trip entries. I didn't take any notes past the halfway point though, which kinda kills that idea. Why did I stop taking notes? I'm not really sure. Probably largely because I just got lazy. But I think it was also in part down to the days kinda blending together. Sure interesting things happened each day, and those were mainly the things I was taking notes of, but when all is said and done, they probably weren't worth writing out in a chronologically based daily entry style. So instead I'm just going to write it as I kinda overall overview of the whole walk and the vibe of the whole thing.
As we started the walk on the first day we had about 25 km ahead of us, unfortunately a lot of that was actually just walking through Porto which wasn't particularly interesting. What we didn't know is just what walking 25km with probably about 7kg attached to your back actually does to your body. The first 4 hours or so it's fine for the most part. But then the fatigue and the muscle pain really starts to set in. By 6 hours it's mostly just pain. But you gotta just push through it, there's nothing else you can do. Stopping is only temporary relief. The longer you stop the more painful it is to get started again as your muscle get cold and stiffen up.
This only got worse over the first 6 days or so. By the end of day 3 or so we were both hobbling. Ness was mostly having blister problems. Mine were mostly groin muscle related. Every step was just agony down the legs. It got so bad that when we reached the halfway point of Valenca on the Portuguese/Spanish border we booked two nights in a hotel to recover. And it mostly worked. For most of the second half of the walk we were fine and mostly pain free. It's kinda awesome to really be able to see the improvement in my body after just a couple of weeks of solid walking. I feel like I could walk anywhere now and feel great.
Accommodation along the walk was always interesting and varied greatly. In most towns small and large along the way there were what they call Albergues which are essentially hostels setup specifically for pilgrims. They usually had for more dorms per room than a hostel and stricter rules about curfew and being out early in the morning, but they were also cheap. In Spain they tended to be of quite consistent quality with pretty clean mattresses and you'd get disposable pillowcases and sheets. But in Portugal it was a bit different. The very first night we actually stayed somewhere free and it really did sum up the expression "you get what you pay for". Dirty mattresses, cold showers, no pillows. This was the worst place we stayed, though not the only time we saw a place like this, the next time it happened we chose to move to a little bed and breakfast and actually pay for a bit of extra comfort.
On the complete other end of the spectrum there was one place we stopped at where the only two options were to walk another 18km after already walking 18km, or staying in a place called Casa do Rio. The place was somewhat out of our price range, but after having free accommodation the first night it wasn't so bad and they still gave us a large pilgrim discount. This place was absolutely amazing! They had a massive yard where they also grew their own fruit and veg. They had chickens for their own eggs. The rooms were cozy, the beds comfortable and they even had a cinema with a huge projector screen and massive sound system in an old barn (we watched World War Z). I'm not sure the pilgrims of old had these kinda luxuries, but we didn't care. In the morning they made us an amazing breakfast of cakes made with homegrown ingredients and juices and jams again made from homegrown ingredients. Then we even got to pack a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches. Again, you get what you pay for.
Food-wise it has to be said that this pilgrimage was actually more of a cafe crawl. The first few days we would buy sandwich ingredients and make our own lunch but we soon discovered this was a waste of time as there were bars, cafe and restaurants at regular intervals along the way most days. And most of the time when you stopped at one you could get a stamp for the pilgrim credentials. So we would have breakfast, and then a drink break, and then lunch, and so on. It was great though. We got to try a lot of local foods and it was always cheaper for pilgrims. For dinner restaurants around the pilgrim accommodation would often have pilgrim menus which you could only get with pilgrim credentials but were super cheap for the amount of food you were given. Just what was needed after a full day of walking.
I think what really made this walk feel like more than just a walk though were the people we met along the way. Sure we walked through some nice scenery, some great wooded areas and small towns and by rivers etc. But when we kept running into the same people along the way, whether at the night's accommodation or at bars or cafes along the way, it kinda felt like we were part of some little community. Everyone one of us all feeling the aches and pains of the walk. It was also quite funny to see every evening that pretty much everyone was hobbling around in thongs. Shoes off as soon as the destination was reached. We were meeting people from Germany, Sweden, America, all from ages of early 20s right up to some in their 70s. Really hope I'm still in shape to do something like this by the time I'm that age.
Now on to perhaps some of the not so great parts of the walk. I say not so great, but really I think without what I'm about to write about the whole journey would have felt incomplete. When things didn't go quite right it just added to the adventure. It made it feel more like we were just taking a long stroll. And I think it made getting to the end just that little bit sweeter. The culprit for the most part was really the weather. I remember having the notion that we'd be walking in nice sunshine the whole way. It'd be tough, but nice. Hell this was the reason I bought that cork hat. Turns out that hat came in more handy keeping the rain out of my face than the sun. We had very few sunny days. Even when it wasn't actually raining it was usually overcast. Though in hindsight this wasn't the worse thing in the world as walking in heat really is somewhat worse. But at the time it seemed horrible. But there were a few days where it was just absolutely bucketing now non-stop for the entire eight hours or so we were walking. Days like this just really felt like a slog. Thankfully there were always some pubs and cafes along the way to help things along. I remember one day in particular when the rain was just relentless and it was a particularly long walk that day. We actually took a fair detour because we saw a sign pointing to a pub (establishments often did this along the route, pilgrims are good for business I guess). When we got there we weren't the only pilgrims hiding from the rain.
The rain did more than just makes us wet though. Hell, that wasn't even close to the worse part about it. It made the ground wet. Now this sounds like a pretty stupid and obvious thing to say. But the reason I point this out is because there were large parts of the route which weren't exactly paved. The rain turned these areas in terrain which ranged from being a bit muddy to basically trying to walk through a river. The first time we came across an instance like this we weren't prepared for how bad it was. It was one of those dirt roads all churned up by tractor tracks. Now we could tell it was soggy and muddy, but just not quite the extent of it. That was until I was ankle deep in mud. There was no other way around and we ended up finding some rocks and throwing them in the mud to make a path. There were many places like this over the walk, sometimes we could go around other times it was just a matter of stepping carefully and testing each step before putting your full weight on it. Thankfully there were no other incidents involving completely mud covered shoes.
The worst case however was when the entire path literally became a river. Half the way we were walking along rocks on the edge and then they just vanished and the path wa knee deep water. There were fenced fields on the sides and after a good hour or so of hunting around we did eventually manage to find a way through slogging along a very soft field with every step a risk of just sinking in. Then right at the end having to make a leap over the river to a dry path on the other side. Remember that during all this stuff too we still had a our backpacks on. But I wouldn't trade these moments for anything. Though at the time I probably would have said differently.
I think I will end this entry with one last random event that I recall from along the way. We were in a town called Pontevedra. Ness had been dreaming of Bangers and Mash and the like for a couple of days at this point I think and I offhandedly remarked that we needed to find an English pub. You could always find Irish pubs throughout Europe, why not English ones. Next thing you know where walking around for a place to get a drink and we walk past a place called the Beer Museum or something like that. Turned out that wasn't the name, it was actually called the Basset Hound. But it was a freak'n English pub. What were the chances of finding something like that in place like this. It was an amazing place too. Great comfy seats, amazing beer and awesome beer snacks. It may have even been here that we discovered our love for corn nuts. Didn't end up actually having Bangers and Mash though.