By Lu Sobredo
|A Loaded Backpack. ©James Sobredo|
In the summer of 2016, when visiting the western coastal region of Spain, during one of our drives through the countryside, we noticed a couple of pilgrims hiking the Camino del Norte trail. For a brief moment, my husband was tempted, but the path didn't look that exciting to him, nor was it well-traveled. Besides, it wasn't part of the plan that summer. Thank goodness, as I would not have been able to join him. With my chronic auto-immune illness, my only choice would have been to take the bus or train back to Madrid. He plans to walk the Camino again as many more times as his health, stamina and schedule would allow him in this lifetime. A serious long distance hiker, he talks about other trails and many more miles calling him. It comes as no surprise that he often gets asked about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, particularly about the trek we took as a family.
- What is the Camino? What was it like, why did you go and would you do it again?
- What’s the best time of the year to go?
- Was it physically taxing? What kind of training and conditioning did it take to prepare for the physical challenge?
- How many miles per day did you walk and how long did it take to complete the route you took?
- What kind of backpack did you take and what did you put in it?
- Did you make hotel reservations in advance of arrival, or did you just take a gamble that beds would be available for the night?
- How did you manage with the language difference?
- What were the other pilgrims like and where were they from?
- How expensive was the travel?
What is the Camino?
To prepare for the Camino my husband searched for relevant sites online. That proved helpful in deciding what items to take on our hike. Once on the trail, we also found practical guides from brochures that we picked up for free or at a nominal donation at churches, museums and gift shops. These days, more than ever before, I see internet sites that are full of options about taking the adventure on foot, bicycle or bus for different stages of the trail. In the old days, folks even rode on horse back. I remember mostly hikers on foot, and some bicyclists, but not a single horseman in 2010.
What the Camino Meant to Me
|Walking the Camino: Through Farmlands and Rolling Hills. ©James Sobredo|
Quitting was not an option during some stages of the walk. When walking uphill in the Pyrenees, I swore I couldn't move another muscle. Had I succumbed to the physical will, my family would have been stuck wrapped in the cold of night in an unfamiliar terrain. Luckily, when physical demand became too much during the trek, pilgrims encouraged each other to keep on moving. For my husband, setting up camp in the Pyrenees would have been an exhilarating test of survival. As fortune would have it, my adventurer husband experienced a test of his own as he traversed the Pyrenees again in 2013, and this time while it was covered in snow and ice. Soaking wet and cold, he and his fellow pilgrims managed to reach the next town for warm accommodations and sustenance.
|A Manageable Path Over Water. ©James Sobredo|
Fortunately, my husband purposely planned an abbreviated Camino so as not to overwhelm his family. Besides, the professor had to make time for a scheduled conference in Madrid that summer. Knowing what I know now about my health condition, I am grateful that my husband persuaded me to take the journey then. Venturing the Camino again under my current medical circumstance, although not impossible, is not likely to happen anytime soon.
|Duct Taped Boots. ©James Sobredo|
The small town of Larrasoanna did not have a big department store, so I couldn't buy a new pair to replace my dilapidated boots. What the town did offer were very kind-hearted folks who lived by the plaza right across the albergue where we stayed for the night. I knocked door to door armed with a smile and my limited Spanish to ask for super glue or anything close to it. Even though I trusted the Universe, I knocked in visible panic. The first door that finally answered belonged to an expat, an American retired school teacher who married a Spaniard. She taught and lived in Spain for 40 years, and she considered herself Spanish. Her husband had a workshop in their home and surely he must have some kind of glue. She asked that I come back by by 5:00 p.m. when he was due to return home from work. I did. With super glue in hand, a fellow Camino hiker and I, a young man from Barcelona glued the soles of my shoes together. Pilgrims from Spain teased me to no end certain that my boots were made in the USA, as no doubt Spanish made shoes would have been more durable. I smiled as I shrugged my shoulders out of politeness.
Call it serendipity. My family and I didn’t know about the movie: The Way. We learned about it from the retired school teacher. She mentioned that a few months earlier, a film crew was at the hotel owned by their daughter. Knowing it would be on our trek out of town, she encouraged me to stop by the hotel where part of the filming occurred. Hubby did take a photo of me in front of that hotel. And of course, my family watched The Way as soon as we discovered its limited release in a theatre near our home in California.
|Featured Hotel in the Movie: The Way. ©James Sobredo|
The Camino eased my fear of the unknown. After the first night at the monastery in Roncesvalles, the next couple of stops left me feeling afraid that there might not be enough beds in the next town’s albergues or hostels. Somehow we managed to find a place, each and every time. So we stayed with the decision not to make reservations in advance during our Camino. It was after all, part of the traditional journey which relied heavily on the kindness of strangers. The Camino taught me to go with my instincts, accept with grace the goodness of the Universe, trust the spirit, stay open to serendipity, have faith in the generosity of others, and grow in the human encounter. In modern day, with the resurgence of the pilgrimage in 1987, and by the time of my husband’s repeat journey in 2013, many more pilgrim accommodations and food places were operational in small towns and cities. Old and new municipal or private hostels, albergues and hotels of varying size and quality now abound.
|Early Dinner on the Camino. ©James Sobredo|
What did the Camino mean to me? Whether the Camino was a catalyst or affirmation of personal growth, I'm not entirely sure. Important were lessons learned from the journey. Lessons of living in the moment, transcending perceived limitations and fears, trusting in the kindness of others and embracing glimpses of serendipity were all priceless experiences. And all while being one with family in Spain, the land of some of our ancestors.
Lessons from The Camino
|My Husband on Whiteout Conditions on the Camino. Photo © James Sobredo|
Guided or Self-Guided Tour: There are several guided Camino walks and a number of travel companies specializing in Camino tours. For those interested to walk the Camino by taking advantage of the conveniences offered by a guided tour that can range from 5-10 days, or perhaps longer, with everything arranged for you—hotel, food, luggage transport, etc. All you would need is a daypack while hiking.
|Altar at the !2th Century Chapel: Capilla de Sancti Spiritus. © James Sobredo|
|Our Son Soaking Tired Feet. Photo ©James Sobredo|
After their first full day of hiking, they looked almost as refreshed as when we started. Their feet needed some tender loving care, but not much more. Soaking their feet in the refreshingly cold waters of the river Arga in Zubiri under a medieval bridge was perfect remedy for their tired feet. I, on the other hand, only had energy left to hobble from our room to a bathtub at the hotel. My family tried really hard not to make fun of me. They were full of support and encouragement. They agreed to compromise and make next day’s walk a shorter distance. Unlike the 22 km or about 14 mile hike that took us 8 hours over the Pyrenees, one hour longer than the average hiker would have taken, I settled to walk for 4-5 hours that second day. After all, this was not a race.
That strategy proved to be beneficial on many fronts. It enhanced my personal experience hiking the Camino. Feelings of guilt for holding up hubby and son, melted away. Moreover, my husband took the opportunity to make more stops to photograph the stunning landscapes, to the point where other pilgrims I’d met told me: “We ran into your husband, the photographer, way back there. He seemed to be having fun taking pictures.” Ah yes, the professor became better known on the pilgrim’s trail as the “photographer.”
|Walking with Pilgrim Friends from Quebec, Canada. ©James Sobredo|
This arrangement also enabled our son to venture on his own, especially when he wanted to walk ahead of us or take a longer route to see some unusual relic or landmark. Mostly, he and his dad kept pace with each other, while I made new friends going solo. And we ultimately reached our afternoon or early evening destination close to the same time most of the time. Each of us in the family ended up having so much more fun. blessed with a little independence to enjoy the Camino on our own and on our own terms.
|A Side Trip with Family in Bilbao. ©James Sobredo|
Some of our side trips included one night in San Sebastian and three nights in Bilbao in the Basque country. A must-see in Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum, a modern architectural wonder inside and out. It houses contemporary works of art. While inside sitting on a round comfortable tufted bench inviting enough for reclining, my teenage son filled with awe as his gaze spanned from floor to ceiling, blurted: “This is like being inside art!”
|A Simple Local Red Phone for Texting. ©James Sobredo|
One time, we found him waiting for a couple of hours in front of a local college in Trinidad de Arre, reading a book he brought along that summer. He told us, he already had lunch at a local cafe. Although timid at speaking the language, nonetheless years of Spanish language in school came in handy. Most days, he chose to pretty much stay on pace with his dad, while I walked my leisurely pace. So leisurely in fact, that one of those long stretches during my early morning trek ahead of the pack, hardly anyone yet was on the trail, I sang the entire soundtrack of the Sound of Music under a canopy of tall trees. I skipped and danced while doing my best imitation of Julie Andrews when I felt like it. How fun was that? Hilariously fun!
|Hiking Best with Two Sticks. © James Sobredo|
I could not overstate how critical it is when walking the Camino to have access to drinking water. Each one of my family’s backpack was equipped with a water bladder. It was hooked up in our backpacks in such a way so the mouthpiece is accessible while walking. We each carried an extra liter of drinking water on the side pocket of our packs especially for those rare times when we might run out before reaching the next water source. We happily found out that the water in Galicia was not only refreshingly tasty but clean.
|A Coffee Stop on the Camino While Going Solo. Photo © Lu Sobredo|
Most stops along the Camino trail offered pilgrims “menu del dia.” I was introduced to broiled “pulpo” or octopus for the very first time in the small town of Melide, and I have been hooked ever since. It was love at first bite. The pilgrims were told that it is one of Galicia region’s specialties. My family became intimately familiar with the surprising taste of pulpo. Although some pilgrims indulged in hamburger or sandwiches and French fries, I suggest trying the local dishes. You won’t regret it. Find out more about food in Spain in an essay I posted: Happy Eating on a Budget in Spain.
|Looking for a Night's Accommodations. ©James Sobredo|
One of my biggest fears was not about safety, although, we took precaution like any traveler. My fear was about not finding a bed for the night. That fear was obviously averted. For concerns about safety and to ease our minds about potential theft, each of us in the family carried a day bag that contained essential documents, passport, wallet, cash, keys, etc. that we kept by our side always when at the albergue or when going out to dinner, the market or sightseeing.
|His and Hers Backpack with Camino Shells. Photo ©James Sobredo|
- PANTS—Two pairs of lightweight/synthetic pair of pants.
- At least one that converts to a pair of shorts or pedal pushers. (I chose to also take a lightweight knee-length black skirt.)
- At least one must be in black or other dark colors that could pass for semi-formal if going into a somewhat high-end restaurant, museum or other places. I got mine at Costco and REI in the U.S. Otherwise, Spain has their version of a recreational equipment store.
- SHIRTS—Two long-sleeved shirt or top that are lightweight cotton/synthetic blend or fully synthetic.
- Choose something that works well when layering.
- Take one short-sleeved top that works well as undershirt that could be worn as an outer shirt. I chose black that pairs nicely with my black pants or black skirt.
- OUTERWEAR—coverage for rain, wind and cold.
- One lightweight rain gear/jacket; could double as windbreaker if needed.
- One polartec jacket or vest, perfect for colder weather or air-conditioned places.
- One lightweight (black) cardigan sweater for additional layering and option for a dressy evening.
- SOCKS—Two pairs lightweight wool socks and liners.
- SANDALS—One pair of sandals or Tevas that can also serve as footwear for shower stalls, and for a change of pace when letting your feet breathe while hiking.
- UNDERWEAR—A set of 5 lightweight synthetic underwear which can dry easily when washed. The number you bring could be more or less. I played it safe in case I could not do the wash every night. Most albergues have washing machines or wash tubs when hand washing.
- TOWEL AND ACCESSORIES—some for practical use.
- One sun hat and another another head cover for warmth, such as a beanie.
- One lightweight scarf for additional warmth and to dress up an outfit
- One lightweight synthetic travel towel that dries easily. They come in various sizes at REI.
- SUNDRIES—small travel size containers are perfect for liquid soap, body lotion, toothpaste, sunblock cream, lip balm, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and shampoo (which also works well as laundry soap).
- WIPES—hand wipes, baby wipes, sanitary napkins, toilet paper and ziploc bags could be useful on the trail. It is best to be prepared. Even though there were sufficient stops for food and bathroom breaks on the trail, few pilgrims had disgusting habits of leaving all sorts of wastes near walking trails. It doesn’t hurt to watch where you're stepping.
- MEDICATIONS—Sufficient supply of essential first aid items including hydro-cortisone, vitamins and prescription medications.
|Under a Canopy of Trees. ©James Sobredo|
Some folks who blogged about the Camino described the experience as a metaphor for life’s journey. It was indeed a metaphor for life’s journey with all the ups and downs of physically demanding trails; the highs and lows of emotions felt; the many moments of kindness when connecting with other pilgrims and town’s people; the resilience which grew out of transcending challenges along the way; and although rare, the cold stare from a stranger who wished to walk alone and not interact with anyone. It was easy enough to respect their wish to be left alone. Oh, yes, there were pilgrims who came with a pessimistic, gloomy and blatantly obnoxious attitude. It was easy to keep my distance from them as they were not the norm on the trail. I suspect they remained sullen throughout. One could only hope that they found some meaning later on from their experience.
|Destination: Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. ©James Sobredo|
And I definitely would not trade the family’s spontaneous decision to spend an additional night and a day at a hotel just to soak in the uniqueness of the municipality of Palais De Rei while giving our feet time to heal before resuming our trek. I wouldn’t dream of missing out on speaking in my limited Spanish which improved overtime, or my limited French that translated Spanish menus to help out pilgrims from France who spoke neither Spanish nor English, even though they were the stereotypical French folks with a-stiff-upper-lip. A few of the pilgrims were Americans, but we did luck out when we met some who were school teachers, one principal of college prep school, some university professors, and college students from all around the U.S. I connected the easiest with friendly and engaging folks from various regions of Spain (with some exception): U.S., Canada, Germany, Argentina, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. Most of the traditional Camino hikers were not fond of day hikers who are bused in to join the Camino armed with only light packs.
|Hector on the Camino With a Homemade Cart. ©James Sobredo|
The kindness of strangers and their stories as to why they launched on the Camino are engraved in my mind’s eye and heart. One friendly, middle-aged and slightly rotund gentleman who had knee and back issues hiked in pain and sweated profusely while hauling a cart of his belongings. He hiked the Camino as a promise and tribute to his wife who died of cancer months before.
|Father and Son Bonding on Spanish Beer and Apple Juice. ©James Sobredo|
Acts of loving kindness and mindfulness by my husband and our son were awe-inspiring. Both took steps to ensure I was safe, fed, happy and comfortable. The experience might be flawed in parts, yet beautifully memorable. To this day, I treasure all that I encountered.
|Taking a Rest on the Camino. ©James Sobredo|
The Camino experience deepened my love for life, life with my family and friends being at the center of it all. Consequently, it has become my personal mission to encourage those who are curious, mildly interested as well as those ready and raring to go on the Camino, and remind all to please do it before life events become an obstacle of no return. Go on and take off on your journey. Remember, most important about the Camino is the journey and the friendships you make along the way. Buen Camino!
Thanks to all who are reading this essay, spreading the word by sharing this post, and giving feedback and comments.
New edits completed on April 17, 2019 when reposting the Essay.