Walking El Camino de Santiago (the stories behind the photos)

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For me, the beauty of the Camino lay in the stories along the way. In how wonderful the food tasted. The showers at the end of another day’s journey. The quiet morning walks in the dark before sunrise. And, of course, the people.

There was the loud student of mine from one of the summer courses I had taught. He had heard of me walking the Camino, and came zooming over to pick me up at the only pilgrim’s hostel in Ponferrada. He introduced me to his boyfriend, and they went on about what a crazy foreigner I was, using my vacation time to tire myself out… by walking. “¡Que guiri eres!” But since I had walked all this way already, they may as well show me their town’s pride and glory, Las Médulas, which had been the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire, and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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We sat and had cold beers at a farmer woman’s outdoor patio as she told us of the annual tradition she and the townspeople had just celebrated. A tradition of bar-hopping and getting baby goats drunk. Then her vicious turkey shat all over my leg and my old student guffawed and declared the rest of my journey would be lucky.

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There were the five Spanish women from a village in Valencia whom I met on my first morning in Astorga. It was their fourth year walking the Camino. Leaving their families at home, they take a week off every summer to do a different stage of the Camino. I always found them along the way and in the albergues, talking up a storm and laughing loudly. I shared a room with them once, and they were ready to come looking for me because it was past 10 o’clock and I still hadn’t shown up. When I arrived, they scolded, “¡Hija mía! ¡Que haces andando sola! ¡Que valiente eres, nena!

Sometimes the early mornings were too dark to walk. My flashlight wouldn’t work, so I’d rush and find them just in time, tottering away in the darkness with headlamps resting on their foreheads…

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Then there was the Portuguese guy who walked alongside me on my second day. An overly chatty actor/poet who thought Americans were dumb. But he was friendly and always ready to offer a smoke and his company over cold cañas.

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Portuguese actor introduced me to an older couple from Denmark. Their son had just walked the Camino and had encouraged his parents to do it, so there they were, trekking across Spain! The woman had a great high laugh where she threw her head back, and you couldn’t help but laugh with her. One afternoon, we made our way up the 1,293km-high mountain of O’Cebreiro. After hours of hiking we thought we’d nearly made it to the top. So we celebrated prematurely and skipped around in the meadow pretending to be Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. Our Swedish friend took this photo before informing us that we still had another 2 hours to go.

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There was the boisterous group of Northern Italians who always raised their beer glasses, shouted words of encouragement, and could be found taking their daily siesta somewhere on a patch of grass or on stone picnic benches along the way.

There was the tall, skinny Venezuelan monk who left his career as a journalist years ago before moving to a Belgian monastery to become a monk. He had then traveled to France, where he began his own journey on the Camino. The only protection on his feet were a pair of sandals, and he didn’t have a single penny to his name.

There was the old woman from Australia who was traveling with her sister and brother-in-law. She was taking her time on the Camino, spreading her husband’s ashes whenever she found a spot she thought was beautiful. She had already sprinkled some in Italy and some back in Australia. We leaned on a fence and watched a newborn calf learn to walk as she chatted about her late husband.

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There was the real estate agent from Texas and the olive-skinned Italian woman from Rome who had met at the beginning of the French route. They had been walking together for weeks.

There was even the chicken that crossed the road…

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And there were the women who, like me, had come alone.

The older Brazilian woman who’d smile, always with a quiet “bom apetito” or “bom día” and “ola, tudo bem?” The freckled, spirited Italian woman who had fallen in love with a Dutch man earlier on in Roncesvalles, and was hoping to find him once she arrived in Santiago. The bubbly, laid-back Canadian girl with huge eyes who’d taken a year off before starting university to go live in France, and then postponed her return home by slowly making her way along the Camino. She’d been sleeping in albergues a few nights at a time since it was no longer high pilgrim season.

There was the French-Canadian woman who had done the first half of the Camino the year before, and had returned to finish it that summer. El Camino de Santiago was the only part of Europe she’d ever traveled to, and what a beautiful part to travel to! She was peaceful and in her element. There was the energetic Pennsylvanian who was living in León and had decided to use her summer vacation to trek the entire French route. She was the fastest and most cheerful, though she had been walking for over a month and her toenails had begun to fall off.

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And then, there were the long stretches alone…

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*     *     *

The days went by quickly and, as we began to near Santiago de Compostela, there was a sense of excitement and sadness – not wanting it to end, but wanting to arrive at the Cathedral and unwind. Along the way we began to hear of those who had already reached the city, and those who were a day or two behind us due to bed bugs, blisters, or tendonitis. There were messages passed along by word-of-mouth, “I saw so-and-so yesterday; she wanted to know how your ankle was doing”.

I considered stretching out my last two proper days on the Camino, going slowly and giving my body a much-needed break. I arrived in Pedrouzo at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The cheerful Pennsylvanian and I settled for tuna bocadillos and cold cañas. At 4 o’clock a group next to us began to tie their boots back on.

The next albergue was 16km away. An estimated four to five-hour walk.

The spunky Korean girl from the group came up to me. “Are you coming?”

“Don’t know if I should do it.”

“What do your feet say?”

“That they hate me.”

“Yeah, you should do it.”

So we began our trek towards Monte do Gozo, or Mount of Joy, which is the hill overlooking the city of Santiago. Signs of the city were becoming more and more frequent now.

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The last hour found us hungry again and I had run out of water. We sat down to eat, and a barista at a tiny coffee bar refilled half of my water bottle with cold beer. The rest of the journey was heaven, and we finally arrived at Monte do Gozo at 9 o’clock in the evening, where we celebrated with hot showers and a tarta de Santiago.

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As for finally reaching Santiago the next day?

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There really are no words…

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47 thoughts on “Walking El Camino de Santiago (the stories behind the photos)

    • Definitely break in those boots! I did the Camino Francés, and since I only had two weeks, I began somewhere between Astorga and León. In the end, I only walked 10 days because I got called in for work.

      Read those books, but when you go, just bring the maps with you (it’s all about the weight!)

  1. I love this! Felt like I was there with you, I love that sense of wild adventure; and love how many people you met from so many different places and with so many different stories! Especially the word of mouth coming from other travelers on the trail…love it all.

  2. You are an inspiration – congratulations to you on an amazing achievement and a beautiful blog post which bought tears to my eyes. There’s a book in that journey waiitng to be written!

  3. Aww, this is so AWESOME! It’s like being on the journey with you… and now I actually want to do it too. The best part is taking the journey with others. It’s amazing the bonds we make and the things that bind us together in the shortest period of time. I love that kind of camaraderie. It makes life so much more worthwhile :)

    • It’d definitely be a great experience to have with your mom! One of my students told me that she did the Camino when she was 15 years old with her family (parents, uncle, cousins!) and that it brought the family closer together.

  4. I love how you highlighted the various folks you met. I feel I was walking with you but without the blistered and hating feet!

    You got me laughing with this convo:
    “How do you feet feel?” They hate me.
    Impressed you disobeyed your feet and joined the crew. Then again, knowing myself I’d likely have done the same! Ha.

    Have to admit glad you elaborated on the beer story the other day- you didn’t mention how he looked at you like you we’re crazy but obliging filled it up!

    Beautiful post, beautiful photos. Love your adventurous, go-get it, be silly, have fun attitude!

    • It was definitely funny the way she personified my feet.

      Yeah, the beer story is a fun one, but I thought I’d focus a bit more on the people I met along the way rather than my cheeky escapades. Hahaha. :)

      Thank you for being such an avid reader and, again, for motivating me to get back to writing.

  5. It sounds like you had such an amazing experience, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Like they say “el camino es el destino” – it really is the experiences along the way that make it such an incredible time. It’s been almost three years since I did it and reading your post makes me want to go right back again tomorrow!

    • El Camino es el destino, indeed! It really is similar to life… it’s all about the journey, the people you meet, and the experiences you gain.

      I’m definitely planning to go back soon. I want to try walking El Camino Primitivo, and perhaps later on the Camino Portugués.

      Maybe I’ll see you along the way. :)

  6. Wow, this sounds so cool. I love your stories of all the different people you met, and the little notes along the way. It’s amazing how supportive they all were.

    The Camino looks and sounds incredible. Definitely on my ‘to do’ list for Spain!

  7. Congrats, you pilgrim you!!

    I’ve been intrigued by the camino ever since I read the book “Off the Road” by Jack Hitt. The author also highlights just how important the crazy characters are, as well as the silence in between. Glad you enjoyed the experience–do you plan on doing it again in the future?

  8. Im so glad I waited to read this until I had some time alone and could focus! Im so proud of you! You are so brave. This must be one of the most amazing experience youve had – and life changing probably to some extent. You have inspired me to want to do this sometime in the near future if possible – either alone or with a group of close girlfriends. I once traveled alone on the Italian coast in my 20s and I had to dig deep for courage on some days. But I never forgot it. I image you won’t also. Amazing. I like that you focused so much on the people you met or saw along the way, because that really is much of what it;s about also..

    • Hi Monique, I’m always so glad to hear from you! I didn’t know you had traveled along the Italian coast on your own, have you written about it? I’d love to read about it.

      There’s something about traveling alone… I found myself in my own head a lot of the time, but I was never lonely, and in retrospect I did learn a lot about myself, more than I imagined I did at the time. The people and the little moments I remember so brightly are what pieced together the journey together for me, like a mosaic of memories now. I’d love to do it again, and bring a friend or two or three along. :)

  9. Epic stuff. Seriously, you absolutely nailed it with this post. Love how you highlighted the characters you met along the way and your gutsy resilience! I want to do this so much after reading. Thanks for sharing!

  10. What a fabulous trip! I love traveling alone, but have to admit I’ve kept it to city tripping, when there are a lot of other people around me. Bravo for tackling such a journey and thank you for capturing it so beautifully. What a load of characters you met along the way…

  11. Hey Michelle! Wonderful posts! And such gorgeous pictures! Thanks for sharing… You really are so brave… I am thinking of doing the Camino myself this year, but am concerned it might be dangerous for women doing it alone… Any advice? By the way, I’m Andrea (from Brazil) and I’ve bee wanting to do this for many years….

    • Hi Andrea!

      In my opinion, it was very safe. There are plenty of people traveling along the Camino, especially on el camino francés (which is the most travelled route). I met plenty of women traveling alone, and we formed a sort of group amongst us. Though we walked alone a lot of the time, we always managed to find and check up on each other along the way, as did other pilgrims. If you’re really worried about it, I’d suggest going in May-September, when there are loads of pilgrims traveling along the French route.

      • Thanks Michelle! I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. It seems everywhere I look there are only good stories about the Camino. Now all I need is to get my boss to approve my 30 days vacation in September. Hope its not too cold! Cheers!

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