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Walking the Way Your Own Way // Camino De Santiago, Portugal & Spain

Walking the Way Your Own Way // Camino De Santiago, Portugal & Spain

For those of you who haven't heard of the Camino de Santiago, it is a famous pilgrimage to the Catedral de Santiago in Santiago de Compestela, Spain. You must walk at least 100 km of the last portion to be considered a pilgrim. It directly translates to "The Way of St. James," and his crypt remains underneath the Cathedral to this day. The main Camino that traverses Spain has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for over 1,000 years. Now, there are 12 routes beginning all across Europe that head into Santiago. They follow roads through medieval villages, modern cities, farmland and forest, and past churches (some dating as old as the 12th century).

Many who have done the Camino de Santiago say that it is too unique an experience to explain to others. While this may be true, I think the lessons and challenges I faced are relevant to many people's journeys in life. The Camino is the ultimate journey, though. One that is famous for its history and ability to transform its travelers. Everyone does the Camino for different reasons, though I've found that many peregrinos (pilgrims) enter into it with a purpose of finding some sort of change in their life. Or an answer to a question.

The best way to share my experience doing the Camino Portugués Interior, which starts in Porto and works its way north into Spain, is to share with you snippets from the journal I kept along the way. Buen camino!


5.22.15 - Day One - São Pedro de Rates

     I sit below a small cascade beyond the medieval bridge, on the shore of a lazy river. I've walked somewhere close to 8 miles already. Much of the road has been cobblestone, passing through small towns and farmland. Everyone I greet is friendly and the old ladies call me "Mi niña" (my child).

I eat my baguette, cured goat cheese, and prosciutto which are just perfect for the occasion. I've also been snacking on the powdered figs I bought from the kind shopkeeper this morning, where I received my first stamp on my Pilgrim Passport (my credential stating I am officially a pilgrim, allowing me the many benefits pilgrims get along the way like discounted meals and lodging). The hill in front of me is terraced in vineyards with beautiful white clay homes and red roofs. There's a man fishing out front.

Lesson 1: When there's a shady spot near water to rest, take it. Another one won't come for at least 2 hours.

I arrived in São Pedro de Rates in the afternoon at the volunteer-run Alburgue--a government-owned basic accomodation for pilgrims that charges 5 euros (though some are donation-based), and stacks pilgrims in bunk beds sometimes 60 to a room.

I feel very young here. Everyone I've met so far is 60 and above, with one couple that is 75 years old.  I met one very particularly funky older couple from Dublin who have done the "French Camino" 3 times. You hear a lot of that lingo--how many "Caminos" people have done and which they've done. They said they wander on the Camino. Sometimes they don't even get to Santiago. It isn't the point for them--it's the journey itself that is. They barely seem to calculate mileage and allow their days to unfold at will. 


5.23.15 - Day Two - Barcelos

     I had breakfast with a fellow pilgrim--a 70 year old woman from Belgium who was on her 4th Camino. She and I had played the Tortoise & The Hare all morning, where it didn't seem to matter how quickly I walked (then rested), there she would appear slow and steady right alongside. 

Inspired by her, I decided to slow things down, take a bit of a risk, and go the alternative scenic route. While it was lovely walking through eucalyptus trees, I found my (2013) guidebook already out to date. And rather than just enjoying the path, I spent too much time just trying to figure out where I was. I had had aspirations of sitting at the top of the viewpoint, outside an old church looking at the ocean, writing barefoot for the afternoon. When I suddenly found myself in town, 2 km past where the viewpoint was, eating messy canned tuna in a hot bus stop, I nearly cried from dissapointment and frustration. 

Lesson 2:  Let go of my expectations of how my day will evolve--the pace, the view, the activities, all of it. Trust the path as it stands.


 5.24.15 - Day Three - Ponte de Lima

     I walked 34 km today--21 miles. I've never walked so far in a day in my life. By the 20th km, it felt like the soles of my shoes were melting on the 86 degree asphalt and my feet were like wet noodles dangling off the ends of my legs. And yet my day was wonderful.

Lesson 3: Always take your shoes and socks off when you take a break. And always sit. Bonus: rub your feet for some lovin'.

The path became truly lovely at Tamel, where it dropped into the lush green Lima valley. At Balugães, I hit the halfway mark at noon. I was really speeding along. There was an equally fast older couple that had been at my heels all day, so I decided to walk with them. They were a friendly older couple from South Carolina. She was an Episcopalean priest, and he was retired "from a little bit of everything." We were instant companions and talked politics, feminist ideals, church philosophies, travel stories, and more. They shared my enthusiasm for shouting things like "Wow! How fragrant are these orange trees!"

Now I feel as if I've made my first "Camino friends." I feel an opening in myself of kindness and compassion--from a genuine place. This is one of the things I wanted to find on this path. Santiago shows you the way, they say. I feel at peace with the world and with myself. I feel like a true Camino traveler.


5.25.15 - Day Four - Somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiães

     I've adopted a walking stick. I tied my bandana at the end of it for comfort. I thought that was rather clever. The landscape has begun to change as I make my way out of the Lima valley. The surrounding hills are getting taller and denser with varieties of pine and oak. Today the trail has meandered alongside a river and it's been shady and cool. I saw some of my Camino friends but let them pass at the first chance. Today, I want to walk alone.  

I entered a dream state, wandering over various thoughts as they came and went through my head. It was a relief from the physical stresses of my body--the aching of my feet, knees wobbling, my back petrified in a convex arch. But my mind disconnects from my body, and I just place one step in front of the other. I read in Chatwin's Songlines today that "...wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe." He was writing about Aboriginal walkabouts but I can start to feel its truth.


5.26.15 - Day Five - Somewhere between Rubiães and Valença

     There is a common Camino saying that keeps replaying in my head when I begin to judge myself (on pace and stamina) or the other pilgrims (who get their heavy packs driven) on the Camino. The saying goes "Everyone walks The Way in their own way." Each person has different goals, different itineraries, accomodation styles, food choices--and this makes each Camino different. For me, the Camino is about taking the time to walk and travel alone. For others, it's about visiting historical monuments, or it's an inexpensive way to spend their holidays. For some it's spiritual, others religious, physical, or just plain fun.

I like that about the Camino. Each village, cafe, and alburgue adds twists and turns to your journey. From the people you see everyday to those you have a brief conversation with by the side of the road build up to the bigger journey. And when things seem to turn for the worst, a friend you met 3 days ago re-appears and all feels ok again. I'm learning to trust Santiago and in doing so, trusting the world.

Lesson 4: Everything is as it should be.


5.27.15 - Day Six - Tui

     I came across a bar that advertised "Last Bar in Portugal on the Camino." So I'm celebrating Portugal with one last hoorah--a giant gin and tonic with a little tapas. I feel a warm and heavy heart leaving Portugal, a country that has been so welcoming and generous. But I am also excited to cross the Río Miño into Spain, where the food and language will change.

Tui, now spelled Tuy in Spanish, should be called the City of Bells. There are so many churches on either side of the river and they all chime their unique song at the top of the hour. I've just walked over 100 km in the last 6 days, which means I've hit the halfway mark for my Camino.

Spain has such a vibrant energy. Everyone gathers in the plazas. I like that there are spaces to sit and socialize--or be alone--for free. To me, Seattle breeds solitude. And New York is like one giant social space. The Camino feels as if I can have both.


5.28.15 - Day Seven - Redondela

     I began my walk before the roosters rose, in an effort to get a head start on another 33 km day (20 miles). I have been relatively lucky so far in the health of my feet. Though within the first 3 miles of today, the small blister that had been subtly forming on my right heel started to invade the rest of my foot until every step sent pains through my heel, to my knee, and into my hip. 

They say that the halfway mark in a marathon is 20 miles. Today, I walked 10 miles in the first 3.5 hours. And 9 miles in the last 6 hours. The mental warp of feeling near to the end makes it painfully slow.  It is a balancing act between listening to what your body needs (food, rest, water) and pushing it to go further than it's ever gone. 


5.29.15 - Day Eight - Pontevedra

     Today is about leisure. Today, there is no urgency. Instead, I've found a pace devoid of mileage and time. There is so much freedom in that--space for whim and spontaneity. I will rest wherever it is beautiful. I'll eat where it is charming. I'll sip my tea slowly.

I'm starting to track time with the length and direction of my shadow. The sun always rises on my right, hits my back at noon, and falls to the left side of my face in the afternoon. The trail always heads North. 


5.30.15 - Day Nine - Caldas de Reis

     At Caldas de Reis, Santiago gifts the pilgrims a hot bath for their feet, at a constant 40 degrees C (104 F). Caldas de Reis is known for its natural thermal baths that flow out of fountains along the streets of this small medieval town, with spots for pilgrims and locals to sit and rest their feet in the water. This was once a famous stop for the Romans to bathe in; (this is also where you start to see the remnants of the old Roman military road that's formed much of this portion of the Camino).

Tonight is also the last major stop I have before I head into Santiago de Compestela--the final stop for pilgrims. To celebrate, I splurged on a tapas dinner including mini fried sardines, chorizo made of deer meat, octupus in olive oil and paprika, blistered padron peppers (which hail from the neighboring city of Padrón), and hearty bread. I enjoyed it with laughter and friendship along the river at dusk.


5.31.15 - Day Ten - Padrón

     There is so much energy on the Camino today as all the peregrinos enter the last stretch towards Santiago. Today is finally one of those grey, misty days everyone talks about in Galicia. This area of Northwestern Spain is known for being very wet and green, similar to Ireland (which explains why the Celtics landed here ages ago).

Despite the many new friends ahead of me, I've chosen to spend this day alone--my last day to do so. 

I stopped in a cafe on the way that advertised "Santiago cake," or Tarta de Santiago. It was a curious place with a strange man who took on the appearance of a hermit artist from an obscure French movie. His hair was long and black, and balding at the top. He cleaned and drilled holes in buckets of shells while listening to a very sad, beautiful woman singing. When I asked who it was, his only response was that she had died. There was a creepiness to his clutter, and to his personality, but my curiousity was too high to resist. I sat down and ordered a cake and a coffee.

For 15 minutes, I heard clanking in the back room. I wondered if he might be baking the cake to order. He then suddenly emerged with a tea tray, plopped himself down across from me, handed me a bright pink timer, and told me the French press would be ready when the timer ran out. Then he got up in the same unceremonious gesture and went back to drilling holes.

The cake was delicious--a version of the traditional cake served all over Santiago. It is soft but dense like a pound cake, with lemon zest and hints of almond. The top is dusted with powdered sugar. As I ate, he occasionally spoke to me in the middle of his stream of thought, as if a curtain were suddenly opening into his mind. Then he would fall silent again and retreat into reticence. Once I got over the creepiness of it all, I came to appreciate the cafe's uniqueness, like the little soldier dolls glued to the tops of the napkin holders and signs like "Foot Bath: ask us for fresh mint to scent it" posted above a decaying dried-up fountain.

Lesson 5: When you come across something curious, follow it. (Unless it feels really unsafe.) It usually leads to something worthwhile (and being too tired to detour is rarely a good excuse).


6.1.15 - Day Eleven - SANTIAGO DE COMPESTELA!

     I have just walked 260 km -- 160 miles. It is officially the first day of summer in Spain, June 1st, and is a perfectly symbolic day to arrive. Spring has ended and a new season will begin.

The plaza outside the main cathedral is full of pilgrims hugging, cheering, and embracing their fellow pilgrims. Some are just laying star-shaped on the ground looking at the sky. People have come from every direction, on bicycle, by foot, and even some by horse.

The mass at noon inside the cathedral was even more moving. There is a ritual that each pilgrim takes when they arrive: hug and kiss the gold statue of St. James, visit his crypt where you give thanks for your safe arrival, then find a seat among the hundreds of pilgrims for noon mass. Most of mass was in Spanish, but the real joy was at the end when they lit the Botafumeiro--the old thurible that was used to fumagate the often disease-ridden pilgrims. Now it is just lit with incense. It was a stunning spectacle as 12 robed men pulled a thick rope to swing it high above the crowds, emitting smoke as it travelled. The old organs played and pilgrims around me cried tears of relief, joy, and accomplishment.

After mass, I took my walking stick that had been my stronghold, my cane, and my rhythm. I wrapped the stone I had brought from Seattle into the bandana, wrote a line of gratitude and the date, and placed the cane at the bottom of the steps of the cathedral. I promised Santiago that the next few days would be about rest, ease, and laughter.

Lesson 6: Just as you've allowed something to enter your life, allow it to exit. Letting go is equally as important as letting it in.


6.2.15 - Day Twelve - Finisterre, the end of the world

     I am at the end of the road. I walked until there was no more. Just an invisible hazy horizon faded between sea and sky.

I arrived to Finisterre by car, crammed in a small Fiat with 4 of the friends I had met in the Camino--1 Aussie, 1 Dutch, 2 Germans, and myself. We walked to the lighthouse at the end of the spit, where pilgrims come to burn their clothes and throw their shells back into the sea. (Every pilgrim buys a sea shell on the Camino and carries it on their bag as a symbol of both the pilgrimmage and of this region of Galicia, Spain.)

I feel as if I've wiped my slate clean so that now I can see the world with fresh eyes. Partly, this journey has been about renewing a child-like faith in the world--that the universe will look out for me. Partly, it has been about gaining the confidence to travel alone. I also wanted to answer questions I have about my future and where I will go.

I walked to the edge over the water, holding my shell that I had gotten my first night in São Pedro de Rates. Holding it to my heart, I said these words:

Thank you for this beautiful journey. I found courage, friendship, challenge, and joy. I want to carry what I've learned into the next stages of my life. But mostly, I promise to keep walking. For "our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.*

Then I kissed it and threw it into the ocean, where it returned back into the sea.

* Quote by Blaise Pascal, copied from Songlines by Bruce Chatwin.

A Sea of Blue // Saronic & Clycades Islands, Greece

A Sea of Blue // Saronic & Clycades Islands, Greece