There is no doubt that the Camino is a very long walk! I had the time, enjoy walking so decided to cover the whole distance in one go. However, there are many people who are not so fortunate and have limited time or cannot physically manage it in one ‘hop’ and so walk it in stages. They return each year until they have completed it and this can sometimes take years.
There are also those who catch the bus for short distances either because they want to reach Santiago but do not have the time or because they have injured themselves.
I certainly met a number of people who started out with all good intentions of walking the entire 780km but encountered problems with blisters, sore feet or some such other injury and decided to go by bus for a portion of the route.
Even when I fell and those with me encouraged me to take a bus or taxi to Estella, a distance of some 13km, I still felt as though I had to walk. (This could have been stubbornness or stupidity!) In my strange way of thinking on that day, I felt that it would have been cheating to go any other way than on foot for the entire distance. I also met people who had had to go to the next town by taxi at night in order to find a bed but then returned the following day to the point where they had stopped walking the previous day.
I chose to wear hiking boots, which were relatively new although I had worn them for short walks in England beforehand. They provided me with ankle support that I would not have had with trainers or sneakers. It is probably not necessary to wear boots but many people do. It is really what you are comfortable with.
The guide books and advice recommend only carrying six or seven kilos. I started with about nine in a 35 litre Osprey framed pack. Going over the Pyrenees, I decided that it was too much and left a couple of items of clothing in the albergue. With hindsight, I could probably have managed the weight as that first day was the worst. The only other steep part where I was glad that I was pack free was the ascent up to O’Cebreiro. I was used to carrying a pack though so it depends on your ability and fitness to some degree. There were certainly people carrying very large packs but, I think, that would certainly have been too hard for me for that distance.
I don’t think there are many pilgrims who escape without one or two blisters or sore feet. I certainly had my fair share of both although, thankfully, the blisters were only a problem for a few days. I tried Compeed, the recommended first aid remedy to protect the feet once blisters had formed, but found they did not suit me. Thankfully, Jane, an Australian lady and one of my ‘Camino Family’, provided me with paw paw ointment to put on them, which worked wonders. (I’m not sure of the availability of this ointment outside Australia and N.Z. though.)
For the soles of my feet, I bought a silicone foot protector, which went through the toes like a flip flop/thong/jandal (depending on what country you come from!) and covered and cushioned the balls of my feet, which were suffering the most. Silicone protectors are available for the heels as well, I believe, and also as whole inner soles. I would thoroughly recommend them. I bought them from a pharmacy in Spain and my only regret was that I hadn’t known about them at the start of the walk as my feet would have been much happier. I also rubbed Vasoline into my feet each day before I started walking.
I developed a cough whilst I was walking and no matter what cough medicine I tried, I could not get rid of it. Apparently, this was the Camino cough and was quite common! I can’t say I noticed anyone else with it at the time but it was obviously sufficiently widespread to have it own name. So beware!
The guide book
Many pilgrims use John Brierley’s ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago’ as their manual for the path. This gives information on albergues, the distance between places, places of interest and the towns and villages that are passed through. It also divides the route into 33 stages, each of which are between 20 and 30km long. I took 49 days to walk to Finisterre and did not adhere to the suggested stage points in the book, although many pilgrims do. I found when I stayed at a place at the end of a stage it was always very busy so actively tried to be out of kilter with these.
I had 4 rest days during the time I was on the Camino. I had always intended to do so but found the actual days were dictated by injury. Firstly, after getting my arm plastered in Estella, I stayed an extra day as I was still quite shaken by the experience. The second night rule didn’t seem to be applied quite so strictly in this particular monastery. It might have been because I was in a private room rather than a dormitory or maybe they just felt sorry for me. The second one was in Burgos to get an x ray to ensure that the bones had set correctly and I had a very surreptitious second night in a convent there. The staff weren’t very happy about it but also felt sorry for me. (I was really ready to go home by then!) The third rest day was in Leon to give my feet a chance to recover from blisters and to see the city. Despite sore feet, I still managed to wander around a little and had a bed in a beautiful hostel that was privately and commercially run so they weren’t concerned about me staying two nights. The last rest day was in Santiago itself in a hotel and, of course I had to stay, as I had to queue to collect my Compostela and to attend Mass in the Cathedral and see the incense swing! This latter was, in fact, one of my unexpected highlights.
The track itself is extremely well marked and I only lost my way once. There was no reason for this other than I missed one of the signs. The are many variations on the iconic shell sign, which are placed in the pavement, on walls or on signs. Sometimes, they require sharp eyes but with the number of people walking, even if you do miss the path, you will soon come to the realisation that you are on your own and probably not going down the right road. On one occasion when I was dithering about which way to go, an American lady kindly pointed out the right direction.
The Camino passes over two mountain ranges if you start at St Jean. The first, of course, is the Pyrenees, which I crossed in snow, rain and strong winds. It was the worst weather of the whole walk. It was too cold to stop and there was only one small shelter, in which everyone had a short rest before moving out so that the next pilgrims could come in for a brief respite from the elements. It was a long cold and wet 5 hours to Roncesvalles from Orissson! The other mountain range is approaching Galicia. The path up to O’Cebreiro is probably the steepest of the entire 780km. I was very thankful to be pack free that day!
I walked anything between 13 and 26km in a day. My preference was for around 20km but that did not always coincide with an available bed. If I wanted to stay in a particular albergue, I would walk more or less distance to reach it on that day. For me, 20km was comfortable. As you get used to walking, it becomes a lot easier to walk further and on the day that I did do 26km, I felt that I would have been able to continue if I had had to although I was more than ready to stop for the day. Everyone is different though and you might have to adjust your expectations even if you consider yourself to be fit. There are sore feet to be taken into account!
The scenery, not surprisingly given the distance, is extremely varied. The route winds through small towns, villages and big cities, alongside vineyards, green fields, rivers and hills as well as across the very flat Meseta. There are some spectacular views and some very industrial landscapes. There are also sections adjacent to or on some very busy and noisy roads.
Storks nests are visible all the way along. It is quite incredible how these birds manage to perch on the top of chimneys or church towers! In Galicia, it is hard to miss the rectangular old granary buildings and close to Sahugun note the old bodegas or wine cellars that are built into the hillsides.