Being a nature lover, I had my doubts about “getting my nature fix” by doing a pilgrim route. Pilgrimages I thought were for more devout followers of religion than me or those with a strong faith and that the path might be more road than trail, more town than tree. I also believed that in order to do a pilgrimage I would need to dress in robes, carry a staff and possibly walk and survive without a backpack. Ha. Kidding. Modern day pilgrims as I discovered still carry a few comforts and party on the odd occasion along the way too (phew I hear you say).
I had heard of the Camino years ago (after watching a movie – the Way) and after trekking friends of ours mentioned we should do it, I loved the idea of walking huge distances across mountains and countryside to experience the journey and space a month or so on the trails would offer. Seeing Spanish countryside and walking between towns and villages sounded like a pretty good idea!
Why would people do this? Well the Camino is about following the Way of St James. For many Catholics this pilgrimage is a rite of passage and when you learn about just how long people have been walking to Santiago de Compostela to the cathedral that contains the remains of St James, it will blow your mind. For over a thousand years people have journeyed across Europe on foot to reach Santiago or Finisterre (the coastal town rumoured to be the end of the World by those who believed the earth was flat many centuries ago) making sacrifice and living in hope that they will reach the cathedral (and then often return home again) with honour and protection. Over the years though, more and more people have sought the Camino for more than just religious reasons. The Camino speaks a truth (be prepared for that) and facilitates a journey that is often difficult to describe – even by the those who do not prescribe to Catholicism or Christianity in general.
I decided to walk the final 115km from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela with a team of Wise Women Walkers and co-host Amanda Panazzolo who has completed the French Way twice from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Like many Camino walkers, Amanda has goals to complete more ways into Santiago and after doing just one small section I can now understand what draws people in and leaves them wanting more. Walking from Le Puy in France in 2019 is on Amanda’s list…….
Those who sign up for a Camino (no matter what the distance) are signing up for time and space either to themselves or with other like-minded walkers. You meet people from all over the world, at coffee spots, in the toilet queue and at the accommodation you stay in or you can successfully avoid people too and walk solo for most of the day. Solitude is possible on this walk regardless of whether you are in a group or walking in peak season as we discovered.
Rather than connecting with religious beliefs, I feel an incredibly strong connection to the natural environment. I was not sure I would be able to feel that inner calm and peace that I knew I could feel if I was on the hilly trails at home by walking between towns and villages and next to roads. I was hopeful the trails would be quiet and not too busy – to allow for that time in my head as well as chatting with my awesome travel buddies and fellow Wise Women Walkers. I was seeking a good dose of Vitamin Tree and I was not let down. Almost as soon as we started to walk out of Sarria the trail headed straight past the backyards of local residents, farming land and into forests of green. The region of Galicia is known as the wettest part of Spain so seeing hydrangeas growing with full bloom, thick mossy trees and forest hinted a rainy day or two might be ahead of us.
OK so here’s the 8 day recap…..grab a cuppa!
Day 1 Sarria to Morgade
Our first day was to be 12km from Sarria to Casa Morgade, a delightful place to stay and recharge with a café and restaurant right on the Camino – the building is a magnificent stone structure that felt like a historic farm house. We sat outside and ate lunch, had cool drinks and people-watched as pellegrinos walked on or stopped to rest their feet before their final push to their accommodation further on. Our luggage arrived by private transfer so we only had to carry day packs. We learned about the importance of getting your stamps (this is in the credencial that pilgrims carry so that they can receive their Compostela at the end of their pilgrimage in Santiago). 2 stamps a day with a minimum 100km of walking is required, 150km if on horse back or 200km if cycling. We stopped for a leisurely coffee stop along the way and felt the initial gentle undulations according to the profile in the guidebook. Highlight of this first day was patting a horse and connecting with this beautiful animal before our coffee stop. Being a coffee snob, I was fast getting used to the comforts on offer! I am also used to walking with a full pack when on multi day hike so even carrying just a day pack (and my new Osprey 36 litre lime green backpack Kermit) felt pretty good. The trail was a mixture of forest paths, stone footpaths and rocky patches – the climbs today were minimal.
Day 2 – Morgade to Portomarin – we had a typically wet Galician start to the day but the clouds and drizzle soon cleared. Only 10.5km today and again mostly undulating and downhill. After staying in lovely homely accommodation, I felt amazingly refreshed. Rest in a good bed was what really matters (a Camino gift some might say?). More amazing scenery awaited us along with refreshing crisp forest air. The morning coffee stop did not disappoint.
We had a small narrow (potentially slippery) rocky gorge to walk through and with another rainy day possibly ahead we had decided to see how the day progressed before deciding which route to take. The Camino offers lots of these choices known as historical or complementary routes. The day ended as a challenging one for me on an emotional level after arriving in the cute village of Portomarin. I needed time to sit with my thoughts – in church and rid myself of some toxic energy. Not being a religious person, I still like churches. I went to a Catholic school and had attended Mass many times even though I was not baptised Catholic. I don’t really connect internally with Christianity but I have shed a tear in St Peters Cathedral in the Vatican and felt overwhelmed in many places of worship over the years. I love the architecture, the vibe and the opportunity to reflect in solitude and in silence. Something an extrovert like me could do with from time to time. This beautiful little church gave me some much-needed peace that afternoon.
Day 3 – Portomarin to Ventas de Naron – 12.8km
Today’s walk would have bit more uphill challenge early in the day and with a few faster walkers in our group, we set a morning tea meet spot and then also a final meet spot as our accommodation was off the Camino and we would need to be transported by road an extra 9km to our stunning Casa Rurale – an 18th century property called Casa Roan. The morning’s walk had some gradual uphill climbs through the most stunning green forests and offered views of rolling hills. We did walk along some roads today too but only briefly before stopping for lunch and organising our pick up from Ventas de Naron. Easy to overshoot this small village, today we had our first walker who got lost in her thoughts and walked on. We arrived at our accommodation with many oohs and aahs – the buildings were 2 old farmhouses surrounded by serene gardens and had a kitchen serving tasty home cooked meals – the cheese served here was amazing.
Day 4 – Ventas de Naron to Palas del Rei 13km
Today we had a mini adventure before we started locating a couple of lost items, thankfully found with much relief and a few prayers to St Anthony by our Wise Women Walkers (he was called on MANY times on this trip!). We were dropped back to the café we’d ended our walk at yesterday for a couple of coffees before locating the missing items – phew! Today’s highlights included the free hug spot (volunteers come to do this – I could totally put my hand up for this – I love hugs!) and I enjoyed a beautiful heartfelt embrace with a complete stranger. It got me thinking of the pilgrims who were walking solo and going without that physical connection of hugging loved ones. It was a beautiful offering. There was a bit more roadside walking today before we reached the town of Palas del Rei and the second highlight of the day included sitting outside a bar and having an impromptu “sing off” with 4 male pilgrims who outdid us with their deep manly harmonies, all in Spanish of course. We tried our best version of Johnny Farnham’s “You’re the Voice” but we soon gave up, handed them the title (for now) and took taxis to our accommodation some 8km out of town. The accommodation was in two towers that resembled circular thatched roof huts and also in the main building in attic style rooms. There was a pool onsite but our later arrival and early departure the next day would mean we would miss a swim this time.
Day 5 – Palas del Rei to Melide – 15km
After 3 taxi journeys, our team was reunited in Palas del Rei, where the morning market was pumping and fresh fruit called out to be purchased. Fresh bananas, strawberries and lots of donut peaches (the stumpy kind, we don’t see them too often at home) were on display as well as the cheese known as Tetilla or nipple cheese. Tasty stuff and on most menus in the region of Galicia. Our walk today took us past sculpture and inspiring quotes on postcards early on.
A truly reflective morning walk and accentuated by a short stop at a tiny church where many of us chose to light a candle, take a few minutes to remember those passed. A few tears slipped here before moving through forests and on to villages containing buildings made of stone that had me guessing their age and admiring masonry work. We stopped for lunch and realised a phone had been left behind at the last rest spot a kilometre or two back so a couple of us returned to find the missing phone – following the Camino backwards is a tad challenging as the markers are not there. We had a lovely wander along a road past cornfields in full sun before we realised we had stopped seeing pilgrims walking the other way and the road was not familiar. We had only gone 10 minutes too far and turned back, once again St Anthony delivered and the phone was found. Lots of hugs of relief and on we went. Walking into Melide, we realised that many pilgrims walk on and do a much longer day to sleep at the next town. Accommodation options here were scant. Our hotel was convenient to the main street for eateries and supermarkets. After 5 days of walking our group were doing well – just a few sore feet here and there and a couple of blisters. A couple of us had succumbed to a respiratory virus that had required a visit or two to the pharmacy but overall, no-one had wanted to take a taxi or needed to consider this. So far so good!
Day 6 – Melide to Arzua 14km
Another gorgeous day of walking as we left Melide with the crowds today as we tried to head off early and beat the heat along with the pilgrims who walk most of the day we headed downhill and into the forest. It was nice to walk in the cool air as the sun rose behind us. We also had a lot more uphill today to cover and the challenge was there with warmer temperatures. The landscape today contained cows and corn, a beautiful patch of countryside to breathe in and enjoy while chatting with our fellow walkers or spending time in our heads mulling over stuff that only ever pops up when you allow yourself some time to. Our café stop served a free slice of cake with coffee which was such a nice touch. We had rock hopping and creek crossings today surrounded by greenery. Awesome. Arzua is known for philosophy, honey and cheese – the quotes pinned to fences and sign posts to read along the way kept us thinking about our “why” for doing the Camino and would we return home thinking the same way?
The day ended a very warm one and after lunching with ice cream, taking taxis out of town, our group were thrilled to find a pool in the gardens of our accommodation – a 16th century property complete with library, living rooms and plenty of hunting trophies on the wall and floor (I stepped around the zebra skin on the floor, it was a bit confronting) but the charm of this place had me – the stunning bathroom and laying in the most heavenly bed listening to the thunderstorm in the distance after a 3 course feast was the perfect end to the day.
Day 7 – Arzua to Pedrouzo – 19km
With another very warm day ahead we tried to start our day as early as possible – with sunrise after 8am and a later breakfast in Spain, it made it a little trickier to beat the heat. With our taxi taking us back to Arzua at 8am, we thought we would try and get cracking. The air was chilly to begin with and started with many pilgrims heading off at first light.
Lots of shady forest to walk through today but also lots of open areas where it felt like we were edging closer and closer to civilisation. A few roads, a few stops including an iced tea in a tiny clear bag and a straw (so cute!) and an uphill climb to finish our longer day in the small town of Pedrouzo where lots of choices for eating were on offer and yes the icecream beckoned me once more. With just one day to go and another big walk ahead, a bit of sadness started to creep in that our journey was coming to an end. But really was it?
Day 8 – Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela – 20km
We did try to head off early again knowing full well the day was going to be as hot as yesterday. We set off to where we had ended the previous day and found ourselves walking through amazing green forests with planes landing and taking off behind the trees as we walked past the airport for Santiago de Compostela in foggy conditions. I’d decided not to get my certificate/Compostela at the end of our walk but I did like collecting the stamps and this one spot offered tiny scallop shell charms glued into our credencial.
We had plenty of uphill walking and once at the Monte do Gozo where statues and a small chapel sat on the hill, we rested. Some visited the chapel as you could write an intention and leave it for a small donation. The path now into Santiago would be on footpaths mostly, downhill passing over the freeway, the industrial side of town before suburbs and finally the old town of Santiago de Compostela. By this stage it was hot and slow going as feet burned and fatigue set in. Passing through the archway to the Cathedral as the bagpipes played brought a feeling of emotional overwhelm as we watched pilgrims who had walked from all over Europe to reach this point. The journey means different things to different people – walking the distance is irrelevant if you cannot understand your why for doing the Camino. With the heat, it was a super quick photo shoot for a few members of our group and off we went to celebrate.
Lucky for us our time in Spain didn’t end there – we had a rest day to explore the gorgeous streets and alleys of the “old city” and do laundry, go to Mass, get a massage or go shopping. I chose to do a walking tour to get the history and also found out that the 7.30pm Mass meant the swinging of the Botafumiero and was also told of a church that stayed open for the public to hear Gregorian chanting by nuns after Vespers.
We headed to Finisterre for 1 night to be by the sea, and also spend time at the other “end” point where many pilgrims continue on from Santiago to the lighthouse along the rocky coastline where the 0km marker exists. Some of us walked the 6km return from town while others took the tourist train or a taxi. This idyllic little village was also the perfect spot to try pulpo (octopus) as Galicia is known for amazing seafood. Finisterre also gave our group the opportunity to collectively reflect on our Camino experience, listen to those who wanted to share what the Camino had meant to them. Wisdom shared in walking groups for women like ours is what makes our experiences so uplifting and I love the way walking facilitates growth in us all.
I am secretly hoping in my lifetime to complete more sections of the Camino from Portugal and France but for now, I am grateful to have experienced the small piece of what can be hundreds and thousands of kilometres of walking and with an awesome bunch of Wise Women who through the collective act of chatting, listening and laughing helped many of our team feel the growth and truth of the Camino.
Extra notes and helpful tips about the Camino
– It doesn’t matter where you started from – a true Camino experience is what you want it to be and not judging others – don’t buy into the true pilgrim propaganda – remember not everyone can walk to Europe from their doorstep.
– June July August is HOT and BUSY.
– You can stay in albergues (first come first serve dormitory style) or pre-book your accommodation to take the stress out of finding a bed at the end of a walking day.
– Spain loves siesta! Time your walk so that you siesta too as most shops and eateries close until evening and dinner is rarely served before 8pm – have a big later lunch and if you are not walking, REST too.
– Luggage services can be pre-booked so you can carry a lighter backpack.
– Only 10% of people train for the Camino – a good base level of fitness is needed for the final 115km from Sarria to Santiago but most importantly wear in your boots/shoes as the most common injury is blisters/foot issues.
– Choose your Camino wisely – are you looking for mountains, coast, challenge, shorter walking days or seeking a quieter path? Look at the alternative Ways you can walk as all offer something distinctly different.
– Dietary requirements and allergies can be tricky – learning some Spanish around this is a good idea and if only walking a week or so, bring your own snacks if you cannot eat foods containing gluten or other allergens. Vegans will find a salad on the menu but not a lot else, vegetarian salads often contain tuna. Typically food is basic and homely prepared. If you are looking for gourmet high end dining experiences you will be disappointed. Share plates/tapas are a great idea when dining in a group.
– Try learning Spanish and try speaking it especially when ordering food and drinks. Many locals speak English but in rural areas, Spanish and Galician are the main languages.
– Pack light – you only need an outfit for walking, an outfit for sleeping and an outfit for when you are washing your gear, you WILL need wet weather gear if walking through Galicia (year round).
– Book ahead if you want your accommodation and itinerary pre-organised especially if you are travelling in peak season June – Sept.
Want to join us on the Camino? We offer a selection of walking experiences for women only and men and women. Head here to register your interest.