It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure. Quite possibly the first-and-last-time too, but then again, I have absolutely no regrets of embarking on the Camino de Santiago. Also known as The Way of St James, the Milky Way, the Jacobean Way or The Strange Road to Santiago, its a pilgrimage trail that runs through the Galicia province northwestern Spain, leading to Santiago de Compostela wherein lies the Cathedral of Santiago, where legend has it the remains of one of Jesus’ disciples, St James, are buried.
These days, the route doesn’t just attract pilgrims on a religious or spiritual journey, but is also popular with walking groups, hikers and backpacking enthusiasts from all over the world. At any one time, there will be thousands of people walking on the camino, famously marked by yellow arrows and scallop symbols, at different times and sections (depending on which route you take, it runs from 15km-650km, and there is no one route that is more important or less significant). Mi Camino was, I felt, a calling from God to make time to walk with Him, away from a big city. How physically difficult it was going to be for me, He seemed to have left that out on purpose but I digress. The one thing that every pilgrim, religious, spiritual or otherwise, will take from the Camino de Santiago is the unconditional fellowship and camaraderie between people of all races, of all nations…
From 14 to 20 Sept 2013, I walked the last 100km from Sarria to Santiago, ‘cos it’s the shortest distance that enables you to receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. Well, I’m proud to say that I managed to get that but not without lots of pain and humbling moments. Here’s my adventure in detail in hope that it will proved useful to others who may want to embark on it…
Sept 14, Santiago de Compostela-Sarria: This was what greeted me at the only cafe at the Santiago de Compostela airport, before my guide Jesus (pronounced Hey-Zeus and a cutie at that) from CaminoWays.com, an Ireland-based tour agency that specialises in Camino tours, came and greeted me. I’m now a pampered traveller. Thanks be to God that I have reached a point in my life where I need not budget my travel spending to the last cent but is able to pay for certain comfort and convenience. As it was my first time in Spain, I didn’t want to risk wasting time checking for things in an unknown place. I chose a pre-paid tour that will collect me at the Santiago airport, sent me to Sarria (111km and a 2-hr bus ride away), provide me with meals (breakfast and dinner), book all my hotels for me (7-8 on this trip alone) and collect my luggage from hotel to hotel. There are travellers who just have the agency booked the hotels for them. There are B&Bs and dorm-like places known as albergues available.
Most people start their trek first thing in the morning, so it’s best to arrive at your hotel the day before and just before dinner. The Spanish have their dinner late at 8pm. So arriving at Santiago in the early afternoon will have you arriving in good time at Sarria before dinner and have a good rest before the trek next day. (If you have a late arrival, some people stop over at Armenal, 15km from Santiago, before travelling on to Sarria or elsewhere.)
Hotel Oca was our Sarria hotel and for a one-night stay, it’s okay but if you could find another hotel elsewhere, I would recommend that. The room was spacious and relatively clean, as was the bathroom, but the bedcover and mattress were rather worn. The hotel also doesn’t have a restaurant so we trotted just a short distance down the road amidst a woods area to a restaurant called Carta de Vino that served decent food and good wine.
Well, our First Supper with Jesus went deliciously well (hee, hee). Spanish portions are huge and they love serving big huge crunchy bread with either butter or olive oil as starters. I felt bad not being able to finish my pasta starter and main course stewed beef with potato wedges but the portion were really huge. And did I mention the wine is good?
After the meal, some members of our 17-strong group went to a outdoors/camping store just a street away to get some last-minute necessities. FYI, the tap water in Galicia is safe to drink, so I didn’t spend much on bottled water. What I spent most on during my 7-day trek is – wait for this – Compeed blister plasters. Trust me, you will need a lot of these.
Here’s a list of must-haves if you are embarking on the Camino de Santiago in September:
1. Hiking shoes that are truly broken-in – as in they are “moulded” to the shape of your feet “broken in”
2. Hiking sandals – in case your hiking shoes ain’t that broken in, these will save your life and your camino
3. Blister plasters – you will have blisters. There are pharmacies in every town but best to have a or two stack with you
4. Hiking pants (long) – unless you live in cold countries, the mornings can be rather cold for those who live in the Tropics (12-14C). Even when the sun comes out, it can be chilly at parts so make sure you have long pants (not jeans) as well as bermudas
5. Walking stick – no matter how young you are, you will find this useful. Those with creaky knees, you should have one, if not two
6. Water bottle – though there are pubs and eateries along the way, occasionally there are long stretches without. So be prepared with water
7. Ventolin Inhaler – especially if you have asthma like me. Those steep slopes, road or hill, I warn you, are killers…
This list is by no way comprehensive. Will add on in the other Mi Camino posts… 🙂