Wandering on the Camino de Santiago

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A little over a week ago I finished walking the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest corner of Spain. For me it was a wonderful experience of spending 28 days walking through a beautiful landscape that was always changing; meeting people from over thirty countries; becoming friends with many of them and forming a “Camino” family that gained and lost members as the walk progressed; and finally participating in a shared experience with many many others.

Everyone walking the Camino will have their own Camino experience and reason for doing it. Some will do it for religious or spiritual reasons; others will do it to have some space to think about what they want to do with their life; and many others will do it just to go on a long walk. All of their reasons are good.

Regardless of why someone may start the Camino, it would be very difficult for someone not to develop some sense awareness or spiritual awakening when they have spent a month or more walking every day, day after day, all day long, through fields, hills, mountains, and communities while listening to birds and spotting animals throughout the day.

Over the next few blog posts I hope to share with you some of the aspects of what makes the Camino so special. In this blog post I would like to show some of the landscape that you will pass on your way to Santiago. In other posts I’ll address what it’s like to be a Peregrino on the Camino, how every day was special, stairways along the Camino, and many other topics.

As mentioned earlier, I started the Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. It is a medieval town with a restored wall, battlements, and gates. It felt like a movie set and I half expected to see Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole dressed as knights, being welcomed by a cheering throng, as they triumphantly entered town on horseback.

Inside the wall in St. Jean Pied de Port

Inside the wall at St. Jean Pied de Port

Outside the wall of St. Jean Pied de Port

Outside the wall of St. Jean Pied de Port

I officially started walking the Camino the next morning and began by going over an old Roman bridge. The route I took followed lightly used roads through beautiful French countryside. Later in the morning, the route crossed into Spain and began climbing to the top of the Pyrenees. In many places the Camino was a footpath, much like the Appalachian Trail, and almost as steep as an elevator.

Leaving very early in the morning to cross the old Roman bridge to begin the Camino

Leaving very early in the morning to cross the old Roman bridge to begin the Camino

Walking through wonderful French countryside

Walking through wonderful French countryside.

The route soon left the road and started climbing the Pyrenees.

The route soon left the road and started climbing the Pyrenees.

The paved lane soon became a footpath through the mountains.

The paved lane soon became a footpath through the mountains.

The first night on the Camino was spent at the top of the Pyrenees in a huge albergue in the abbey town of Roncevalles. There must have been over two hundred people staying at the albergue. What’s funny is that I saw only a handful of people on my walk to Roncesvalles. Albergues and what it’s like to stay at one will be discussed in a future blog post.

The albergue at Rocesvalles

The Albergue at Rocesvalles

The next morning was almost like rush hour as everyone poured out of the albergue onto the Camino.  Fortunately the crowd quickly stretched out and the walk became quite peaceful as it went through sheep and horses country in the foothills of the Pyrenees. (Animals and their smells will be part of the Camino all the way to Santiago.)

Horse Country in the Pyrenees foothills

Horse Country in the Pyrenees foothills

The Camino route was always changing. Here it is a paved footpath.

The Camino route was always changing. Here it is a paved footpath.

On the third day of walking, I reached Pamplona. In addition to its famous running of the bulls, Pamplona is an amazing medieval city of narrow canyon-like streets with activity going on in every direction. I even managed to find the Hemingway statue next to the bullring and signboard advertising “Better Call Saul.”

The bulls run down this street during the festival of San Fermin.

The bulls run down this street during the festival of San Fermin.

At the end of the street is the bullring and this statue of Ernest Hemingway.

At the end of the street is the bullring and this statue of Ernest Hemingway.

And not too far from Hemingway was this sign advertising Albuquerque's favorite son.

And not too far from Hemingway was this sign advertising Albuquerque’s favorite son.

West of Pamplona the crowds on the Camino thinned out and on most days I had long periods of time where I had the Camino to myself. At this point the Camino goes through beautiful hilly farm country. When I went through in April, the canola was in full bloom and I could see yellow flowers far into the horizon. Along the Camino itself the wild flowers were blooming. No word other than special can describe the experience.

If you only have a week or so to walk on the Camino, I would recommend that you start in Pamplona and head west.

Canola (Rapeseed) was blooming everywhere west of Pamplona.

Canola (Rapeseed) was blooming everywhere west of Pamplona.

Most of the towns in this part of the Camino are built on hill tops. I typically would walk up a hill to reach a town and as I went down the hill on my way out of town I usually could see the next town (or two) in front of me. It’s almost like you can see and plan on where you’ll be eating your next snack or meal.

The Camino would always go through the oldest part of a town. This is Puente la Reina.

The Camino would always go through the oldest part of a town (Puente la Reina).

The Camino would usually cross a river on the old bridge. (Puente la Reina)

The Camino would usually cross a river on the old bridge. (Puente la Reina)

Leaving one town (Maneru) and seeing the next town ahead (Cirauqui).

Leaving one town (Maneru) and seeing the next town ahead (Cirauqui).

That's Cirauqui on the hill ahead.

That’s Cirauqui on the hill ahead.

There were wonderful flowers along the entire Camino.

There were wonderful flowers along the entire Camino.

When I left the town of Cirauqui I was actually walking on a real Roman road. How cool is that?

This is an actual Roman road!

This is an actual Roman road!

The Camino enters the province of La Rioja just before it reaches the city of Logroño. This is Spain’s “wine country.” Although there have been and will be vineyards all along the entire Camino, they are non-stop in La Rioja.

The town of Navarette in La Rioja is ahead. But if you notice almost all the fields are planted in grapes.

The town of Navarette in La Rioja is ahead. But if you notice almost all the fields are planted in grapes.

I also saw my first stork in Logroño. From here I saw storks every day until I reached the mountains many days to west. I loved watching the baby storks frantically clicking their beaks begging for food from their mothers.

This was the first stork I saw on the Camino in Logrono.

This was the first stork I saw on the Camino in Logrono.

I then saw storks in every town until the mountains.

I then saw storks in every town until the mountains.

Storks weren’t the only birds. Every day was walking through birdsong and even though I never saw one I could hear cuckoo birds all day long. On many days the birdsong was augmented by the croaking of frogs jumping in the drainage ditches along the Camino.

The Camino enters wheat country after leaving La Rioja.

The Camino enters wheat country after leaving La Rioja.

The Camino eventually reaches the city of Burgos with its enormous cathedral. Soon after leaving Burgos, the Camino enters the “Meseta.” The Meseta is Spain’s central plateau and is generally flat. Here there were horizon to horizon farm fields. Some people found the farm fields boring. I found the fields going on forever calming and meditative.

Before reaching Burgos, the Camino crosses several limestone ridges and very rocky trail.

Before reaching Burgos, the Camino crosses several limestone ridges and very rocky trail.

This is the backside of the Burgos cathedral. It is so large that it is very difficult to photograph.

This is the backside of the Burgos cathedral. It is so large that it is very difficult to photograph.

Entering the Meseta west of Burgos.

Entering the Meseta west of Burgos.

Towns now, rather being on the tops of hills, were now in the dips of the Meseta. Here one could walk an entire afternoon wondering if they’ll ever reach an albergue, and then all of a sudden stumble on a dip in the land and find a town and albergue right in front of them.

We couldn't see the town of Calzadilla in the Meseta until we were on top of it.

We couldn’t see the town of Calzadilla in the Meseta until we were on top of it.

After passing through the Meseta, the Camino reaches the city of Leon, and to no surprise, Leon also has a huge cathedral. A couple of days later the Camino begins to climb into mountains.

Some of the stonework at the entrance of the Leon cathedral.

Some of the stonework at the entrance of the Leon cathedral.

one of the many stained glass windows in the Leon cathedral.

One of the many stained glass windows in the Leon cathedral.

Approaching the mountains a couple of days west of Leon.

Approaching the mountains a couple of days west of Leon.

When I went through the mountains, the flowers were amazing. There were wildflowers at my feet and the mountains were covered with a purple flower which I assumed to be a type of heather. Whatever it was the purple hills and mountains were breathtaking.

The mountain flowers were amazing.

The mountain flowers were amazing.

Purple mountains were everywhere!

Purple mountains were everywhere!

There were also wonderful flowers right on the trail.

There were also wonderful flowers right on the trail.

Here the Camino followed amazing mountain footpaths. They eventually lead to another wine producing area of Spain. When I reached the town of Villafranca, the Camino began to climb another set of mountains, and again there were mountain footpaths. At the top of this mountain the Camino entered the province of Galicia. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and I was now getting very close.

I especially liked following a footpath into a town.

I especially liked following a footpath into a town.

And then following another path to leave the town.

And then following another path to leave the town.

There is no shortage of wine in Spain.

There is no shortage of wine in Spain.

With Galicia being on the Atlantic Ocean it is the wettest part of Spain. This was the one area where I had to wear raingear for some part of the day several days in a row. Because of the rain the landscape of Galicia is very much like the British Isles.

Galicia!

Galicia!

The Camino in Galicia.

The Camino in Galicia.

These rat proof grain bins were very common in Galicia.

These rat-proof grain bins were very common in Galicia.

When the Camino reaches the town of Sarria in Galicia there are now only be 115 kilometers to go until Santiago, and it is here where the character of the Camino changes dramatically. Up until this point most people walking the Camino have been on a long walk going from albergue to albergue. For many of them it has been a lifestyle of walking rather than a vacation.

But not everyone can take a month or more to do a long walk on the Camino, and many people who only have a week or so choose to start in Sarria. They start in Sarria because it is the closest town to the 100 kilometer mark from Santiago, and to qualify for an official certificate of pilgrimage (a Compostela) from the cathedral in Santiago, a pilgrim has to walk the last 100 kilometers of the Camino.

All of a sudden everything becomes crowded and you now have two different mindsets on the Camino. It’s very much like business travelers and vacation travelers on the same airplane. While the business traveler is quiet and preparing for his or her upcoming meeting, the vacationer is living it up by drinking a Bloody Mary at 8:00 in the morning.

It’s not that one way is better than the other. It’s just that the change was so abrupt after being one way for so long. And the truth is that someone else’s Camino experience is every bit as valuable as mine.

The nature of the Camino definitely changed at Sarria!

The nature of the Camino definitely changed at Sarria!

With that being said there was still plenty of beautiful Galician countryside to walk through and Santiago was now only a few days away. And after 28 days and 490 miles of walking, I reached Santiago, obtained my Compostela, and attended the Pilgrim Mass at noon.

Approaching the Cathedral in Santiago. Almost there!!!

Approaching the Cathedral in Santiago. Almost there!!!

Made it to Santiago. Yes!!

Made it to Santiago. Yes!!

The Botafumeiro!

The Botafumeiro!

And I have to say that when they start swinging the Botafumeiro (giant incense burner) at the end of the Mass, it is spectacular. But even if there wasn’t a certificate and the swinging Botafumeiro, the walk itself and the opportunity to be outdoors walking all day long and meeting great people was wonderful and worth well more than the price of admission.

The pictures in this blog post are only the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be sharing other pictures in future posts.

Buen Camino

11 Comments

  1. Lovely! Thank you. I will post a link to Camino Amigos, Albuquerque Chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino. https://www.facebook.com/caminoamigosabq

  2. Kudos to you. I notice even the cats like the vineyards. That would be my place to retire. However, I’m wondering where do people shop, I see no stores or places to obtain groceries in those small villages. Beautiful scenery and looking forward to lots more pictures. The beauty and peacefulness reaches out to the reader.

    Thank You

  3. So beautiful!!!!!! Let’s move there…..
    I’m so proud of you Dad, I love you:)))))

  4. Great story. I look forward to reading more about the details of your journey.

  5. Sounds like a trip of a lifetime, David.

    Nancy

  6. I have contemplated this walk for 3 years. I am a long distance hiker, middle- aged and female.The thing that dissuades me is the crowds. If I were able to pitch my tent outside the aubergue and use their showers, meals it would be do-able for me. Yet everything I’ve read says that you can’t pitch a tent. To have to co-habitate nightimes with a room of strangers does not appeal to the wilderness adventurer in me. I am still tossing the idea of the camino. I have read several of your books and would value your opinion greatly! Is it not for me? Thank you.

  7. inspiring photos. Were any people using ” Go Pro” cameras to record parts of there walk. It seems like these images would stay with you forever without our digital powers. I guess I’m just curious how modern pilgrims juxtapose in such an ancient setting.

  8. Can’t wait to read more posts–what a journey! Great writing and photos. So cool that the Roman roads/bridges are still around–guess the soldiers got to be expert builders as they got more and more experience. Loved the Hemingway statue too.

  9. Your pictures bring us happy memories of a trip we took on the Camino de Santiago in 2003. Our walk was shorter and easier than yours. We went with a Wilderness Travel tour group. It was a 13 day tour with 11 days of walking. Wilderness Travel still does the tour, but now it is much shorter, 8 days with 6 days walking, and starting in Burgos. We are glad we did it in 2003 because the hike over the pass and through the woods between St. Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles was one of our favorite walks. We also liked visiting the towns of St. Jean Pied de Port and Puenta de Reina. Your Pilgrim’s Way photographs are exactly as we remember the route and we look forward to reading more about your trip.

  10. The pictures are wonderful and I am in awe of your accomplishment. What a fantastic experience. It appears that the weather was not a major factor and the pictures of the trail and the cities were just great. I especially appreciated your descriptions and commentary on the photos. Buen Camino.

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