First Timer’s Guide to Camino de Santiago

Camino1It’s been three months and I can’t get the Camino out of my system.

I only knew of the Camino a week before I started the walk. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t or daren’t embark on this journey if I had known more about it. It was a suggestion by my new friends Irene and Tony, a foolhardy decision on my part, a few days of cold feet, and finally a challenge from my son.

Having walked 350km across the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain and won decent respect from non-believers, I can now claim bragging rights to boast about it if indeed there is anyone interested to hear about my adventure. Surprisingly there are, and I’ve been talking about it to friends and their friends.

The Camino is truly an extraordinary journey and I really want others to try it. But of late, I’ve been busy with work and feel kind of bad not being able to share this wonderful experience to more people.

The next best thing is to write about it as a first timer’s experience in the Camino. So here goes – a Singaporean mid-lifer’s point of view of the grand walk.

What is Camino de Santiago?

“Camino de Santiago” is Spanish for Way to Santiago. It is also referred to as The Way of St James in English or Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle in French. IMAG3075_1 The Camino refers to Christine pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain. The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino routes date back to the Middle Ages and link ancient towns and quaint villages each with its own religious monuments and churches, some humble while others magnificent. Along the way, the countryside is beautiful and tranquil, or harsh and menacing depending on the weather.

There are many routes ranging from medieval trails to modern day tracks and many books written for the pilgrim. Check out http://www.caminoguides.com/index.html Camino2 There are also many videos on YouTube and a movie starring Martin Sheen titled “The Way” which is shot on location with actual pilgrims in most scenes. These should give one a fair preview of what to expect of the Camino.

Preparing for the journey

I am possibly the most unprepared, impromptu pilgrim-to-be. My preparation was less than one week. No training whatsoever. No research of the routes or the weather. Absolutely no idea what the walk was about. So if I can do it, anyone can.

The only thing is one must be relatively fit, been exercising regularly, done some outdoor sports, experienced camping and preferably climbed a mountain.

Next thing to prepare is the gear. I have a pair of trainers with tired soles. No way can they last me for the walk. Searched my luggage packed with clothes for a summer vacation, not a hiking trip.

Thus to Decathlon I went with Irene to buy a pair of walking shoes, a sleeping bag, poncho, energy bars, muscle relief creams, plasters, sun screen creams and dry-fit T-shirts on sale.

Decathlon has a good selection of sportswear and equipment online if you’re gearing up for your trip. www.decathlon.com

To break into my new shoes, we went for a 15km village walk on 25 July, St. James Day. That was when I felt seriously unfit and struggled all the way. But the outdoors, the forest trails, the spectacular views of the vast countryside invigorated me and I yearned for more walking.

My feet felt sore at the end of the walk but luckily no blisters. I’ll be fine with my new shoes.

That was Friday. On Saturday, Tony printed out the final maps and plans of the daily routes of the French Way from Lourdes to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. From there to Spain, we’ll rely on John Brierley’s Camino Guidebook.

Borrowed a haversack and walking stick from Irene and packed 7-kg of stuff needed for the next two weeks. Walk Packing List (minimum)

  • Toiletries – basic personal, sunscreen, lip balm
  • First aid – plasters, joint and ache relief cream, common medication
  • At least one set of dry clothes & socks (wash the set you’re wearing at the end of each day)
  • Light towel
  • Sleeping bag
  • Raincoat / poncho
  • Hat
  • Water bottle (at least 0.75l, top up along the way)
  • Passport
  • Cash (Budget 30euros per day)
  • Credit card
  • Phone, charger, adapter
  • Maps, guidebook
  • Walking stick (optional)

Night before the Camino, I wrote a post on the planned route from Lourdes to Logrono. At that moment, I was still uncertain if all this is ever going to happen at all. https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/gr-78-to-camino-de-santiago/

No turning back

The problem with someone like me who live in the city all my life is I think I could easily get a cab from anywhere to anywhere, that shelter is at most an hour away commuting in comfort.

The morning when Tony dropped us off by the roadside in Lourdes, I was half expecting him to pick us up again for a nice breakfast and perhaps a tour around the Basilica.

That was my first shock. He simply drove off without fanfare, leaving us with our backpacks and sticks, maps and our good legs to bring us across to Spain.

I remembered what Irene said. “This is it, Joan. We’ve just got to keep walking forward till we reach our destination. Are you ready?”

yes…. NO! I’m not ready. What am I supposed to be ready for?

But Irene has already started walking ahead. That’s how it was. The pace was set. I simply have to follow Irene. There’s no time to think about anything.

Within minutes, I was already tired. We barely reached the end of the church where the singing of hymns sounding softer with each step as we approach the forest. How am I going to continue with the rest of the way when I’m already tired before we even started?

Irene probably sensed my plight and paused to talk to me. It helped. We talked on and on about all kinds of things and I forgot about my tiredness. She pointed out the Camino signs that we have to look out for every few kilometres to stay on the right track. These signs are made by volunteers from various Camino organizations in Europe to help pilgrims along the way. Camino3 Be comfortable about being uncomfortable

In the first few days, Irene walked with me within visible or audible distance. When I got more confident on my own, we walked at our own pace, Irene way ahead and I was always far behind, taking photos, resting, munching snacks.

After the third day, I got used to the tiredness, the discomfort of the odd pebble inside the shoe, the weight on my shoulders, the heat, the cold, the dampness, the dryness, the solitude, the new vulnerability of a naked soul in the openness of nature.

All kinds of thoughts drifted in and out of my mind. Random thoughts on heavy breaths. Hours walking like a robot or a zombie, sometimes marching, sometimes dragging my feet. Every now and then, I wriggled my toes to make sure the legs are still with the rest of the body. Hunger pangs came and went. Reached out for the bottle to quench the thirst. Toilet breaks – find a secluded spot, have a quick one and move on.

When we arrived at the day’s destination and checked into an inn or albergue, we immediately freshen up, wash our clothes to make sure they dry by morning, have dinner, relax, record our day’s walk, check for blisters or any injuries, apply muscle relaxant on the legs, ointment on the shoulders and study the route for the next day.

My phone alarm was set for 5am, pretty early and pretty dark. If we had our own room we had the luxury of switching on the lights and making as much noise as we want. But if we’re sharing a room, we had to grope around in the dark and as quietly as possible, grabbed all our belongings and head to the kitchen or reception area to get ready.

We usually start walking before 7am depending on whether we took breakfast in the albergue or along the way. In the Camino, I learned that we walk two paths simultaneously – the outer path which we haul our bodies and the inner pathway of the mind and soul.

For me, it was only after the eighth day that I started to experience the spirit of the Camino and walked the inner pathway.

Sleeping with strangers, walking with friends

The main host for the Camino is northern Spain which covers the proud Basque region through wine-growing Rioja and scenic Leon to historical Galicia. There are UNESCO sites along the way and countless architectural and natural wonders.

Spaniards are very supportive of the pilgrims and will always lend a helping hand when asked. Villages have Camino signs painted on walls and cities have special signs on the pavements. It’s quite impossible to get lost. If you are, there’ll be someone to help you.

The Camino is a collection of routes from different parts of Europe converging at French St. Jean-Pied-de-Port before the pilgrims cross the border to Spanish Roncesvalles. At the pilgrim office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, you register to receive a credential on the pilgrim card and get a printout of important information on routes, contacts and accommodation.

IMAG0903_1

Different villages and towns have different standards and quantity of rooms or bed spaces. On the French side, Irene and I stayed in various types of pilgrim accommodation from priest’s lodging to private suites costing from voluntary donation to 25euros per night. In Spain, the average night stay is 10euros dormitory style. That’s when the fun begins. IMAG1878 It’s been many years since I slept in places with shared bathrooms and beds in a hall sleeping with people from all walks of life and of all ages.

There were people we met along the way who ended in the same albergue. We shared meals together, learned about each other, where we came from, why we’re doing the Camino, exchanged experiences, talked about the next day’s route, what’s interesting along the way, where to stay for the night.

It takes very little to make friends. A simple Bonjour or Hola will open any conversation and heart. Camino pilgrims are all very warm and helpful, no expectations, no strings attached.

In the village Zariquiegui we couldn’t find any available beds. We forgot to book in advance. Been walking for almost 7 hours under the hot summer sun. The next village is 6km away and there’s no guarantee it had available beds.

I couldn’t walk another step, slumped on the first chair I could see, had a cold drink before I could think properly. Was prepared to sleep outside the church in my sleeping bag. No way could I walk to the next village. Irene and I started to discuss our options.

A French lady was listening to us and started talking to someone on the phone. Then she told us to check the albergue again because someone had just cancelled. We did and thankfully found a place to spend the night.

Expect the Unexpected

Along the Camino, we met many interesting people – the young, the old, the in-between, all coming together for different reasons walking the same path. Some walked with us for a few kilometres, or from one village to another, and sometimes the entire way the whole day. Brief encounters, chance meetings, lasting impressions.

Everyone is walking their own Camino. All of us are aware of the effort required and what we are going through, walking the same path overcoming the challenges that face us. Each day into the Camino, it became clearer to me why I ended up in this walk. Destiny perhaps. A divine intervention maybe.

It’s been a long time since I attended mass. The last one got me more depressed than before I entered the church. So I stayed away.

On the eighth day of my walk in Roncesvalles, the Church of Augustinian Canons was offering mass for pilgrims at 6pm. I was half-hearted about going and Irene didn’t want to force me to. But we went. I must confess I went just because dinner was only ready in an hour’s time and there was nothing much to see in the village. Camino4 Entering the church, I immediately felt different. Can’t really describe it, just a sensation of being unburdened and lifted. The mass and hymns were in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word but everything was brilliant, illuminating and crystal clear. I was touched, almost close to tears.

When the priest read out the countries from where we came from, Irene and I were so proud to hear Singapore being called. We went forward to receive the blessings for a safe and meaningful journey in the Camino. It was a beautiful moment.

From then on, the walk became one of mindfulness, respect and reflection. I realized that I’ve overcome the physical pathway and walking the inner path – the road to myself.  

Appreciation – Grammy style

I would like to thank

Irene and Tony for introducing me to the Camino and guiding me all the way.

Everyone following my blog and facebook, cheering me on

My new Camino friends who made my journey delightful and memorable

Fellow pilgrims who shared stories on the road

The church volunteers for tirelessly attending to all pilgrims

The people in the villages and towns who gave us directions and wished us well

The Camino de Santiago Organization for the great work all these years

And my son for pushing me to go for this walk

Joan Yap

Related posts. https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/way-of-st-james/ https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/bon-camino/ https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/back-to-st-jean-pied-de-port/ https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/the-spanish-way/ https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/your-own-camino/ https://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/after-thoughts/

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3 thoughts on “First Timer’s Guide to Camino de Santiago

  1. Dear Joan,

    I had read a couple of times your blog before, and congratulate you for writing so well. This article is so well written and it says real things, since i did the camino i also notice that there is an inner way that comes out through the first days. Anyway, just want to say to you that you write amazing and amb glad have met you in the camino 😊

    1. Dear Lluis,
      It’s a pleasure to know you and very glad you like my writing.
      I try my best to tell stories of my experiences and to represent places I’ve been from a different peperspective.
      Thanks for your kind words.
      Joan

  2. This is amazing! I’ve always wondered why anybody would want to walk when you could get there much faster by other means. I guess it really is about “the journey is the destination” and in this case, the outer and inner journey to find yourself! Thank you for sharing! Now I feel like making a pilgrimage.

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