Camino de Santiago – finally made it!

So I made it to Santiago!  Just me and my little ding-bat mascot.

110km, 7 days, 7 blisters, 2 aching feet and one rather tired body – quite an effort for someone whose ability to get on the aeroplane to Paris was under question a few weeks ago.  It has been tough and I have a feeling the most difficult bit is still to come as my body is slowly winding down from the excitement and battering it has taken and is falling into a warm, comfortable haze of fatigue and a bit of pain from the feet.  I ended up having a rest day in Melide and that lead me to discover that the blister on the ball of my left foot was infected – fun times!  Salt baths and antibiotic cream for me.

The next day in Arzua I met a Puerto Rican band and their friends who were making their way along the Camino, also from Sarria, walking during the day and then playing in town plaza´s of an evening.  I made some wonderful friends and was gifted with a spanish/English copy of the new testament – you don´t have to be religious to appreciate the gesture and even though it was extra weight and I will probably never read it I couldn´t bring myself to leave it behind.

The camino has a funny way of throwing people together, it is Camino destiny.  You are meant to meet all the people you meet and only the Camino knows if you will see them again and if you do, it will be when you least expect it.  On the way to Arzua I met Daniel,  an American who was completely carefree and had an amazing zest for life.  Later  that night in Arzua I met Domenico, a larger than life Italian also walking by himself.  We struck up a conversation whilst puzzling over the significance of a fountain in the town square depicting children hugging cows.  The next morning I walked with one of the girls traveling with the band, named Ruth.  We walked 19km from Arzua to Arca.  It was my biggest day so far and it rained for most of it.  We made our soggy way through the Galician countryside, slipping on cow poo and inhaling the scent of wet Eucalyptus.  I was exhausted and shuffling by the time we crossed paths with Daniel and he was not much better having acquired a bit of tendonitis.  We shuffled into town and went our separate ways, me to a hotel and them to their respective Albergues and pensione´s.  That night I followed the music to the Plaza and found all the girls with the band including Ruth and also Domenico.  Daniel showed up shortly after parading around with a palm frond he had picked up somewhere.  There was dancing and general hilarity and afterwards, hot chocolate!  Hot chocolate in Spain is something else and has to be tried to be believed.  It is so thick and rich you almost need a spoon!  I plan to ditch any unnecessary items from my pack and fit as much as I can on the way back to paris.

Everyone was going to walk to Santiago the next day, apart from Domenico who was only going to walk part of the way.  It would be 18.5km, slightly shorter than Arzua-Arca, or so I thought.  I slept in and ended up booking my hotel in Santiago as I thought there might not be much left by the time I arrived.  Here´s where everything changed for me.

The last road is, I suppose, the one you remember the most but this one was memorable for many reasons.  I left Arca in the light drizzle and the path immediately entered a forest, a gorgeous mix of oak and eucalyptus.  The smell of damp leaf litter and eucalyptus filled the air and it was gorgeous.  The scenery was beautiful and I was in a fantastic mood – it was the last day, I had come so far and there was only a short way to go.  I had nearly accomplished what I had set out to accomplish.  A feat that had resulted in tears, pain, fear and anxiety before I even left the country.  I was listening to my iPod, I can´t tell you the song because I dont remember but suddenly as I was walking I was assaulted by an overpowering feeling of love and protection that stopped me in my tracks.  Then by itself the thought popped into my head as if planted there by something else, “everything is going to be ok”.  Wow, just wow.  Nothing like that has ever happened to me before.  I don´t know who or what was respoinsible, nobody claimed responsibility for it but it was undeniably there.  The magic of the Camino was alive in me and I knew that everything indeed was going to be ok.  Now I don´t know what specifically is going to be ok, whether I can now be well, whether I will get into medicine, whether I will find love and happiness, whether I will die of old age with a large and loving family around me having made a difference to the world – I don´t know, all I know is that whatever happens it will be ok, I will be ok.  And if it took me flying half way around the world and walking 110km to find it then it was all worth it.  Worth the pain and the sweat and the tears and the blisters.

I also realised that I didn´t have to walk any more, once I got to Santiago that would be the end for me.  I didn´t need to walk on to Finisterre or Muxia.  A little further down the road, in the middle of nowhere I met a man.  An elderly Spanish man with no top teeth wearing an old woollen jumper and carrying an umbrella.  We had a 15 minute conversation, him in Spanish and me in English and confusion.  I love language barriers in Spain, it doesn´t seem to matter, they try and talk anyway! from what I can tell the conversation went like this;  “You going to Santiago? ah yes, not so far now, only 16km now and there is one small hill and one big hill to go to Santiago.  Where did you start? ah Sarria, is long way, very good.  Travelling by yourself? you are very happy/fit/fat/beautiful/brave” – not too sure about the last bit there were a few different words and gestures but yeah, that was the gist of it.

I walked on, for what seemed like forever.  Throughout the day I was periodically overwhelmed by my earlier expereince and the thought that I was going to make it and what that meant to me.  The waymarkers counted down the kilometres and people had begun leaving more messages on them and the occasional pair or ruined shoes.  The last sign said 12km then they stopped showing the distance.  The way kept going and going, surely it had been nearly 10km by now!  Then I heard that the way was actually 4km longer to accommodate for the airport – I was furious! but there was nothing I could do about it, it was the Camino throwing me a final challenge and I would rise to it.

I caught up with a bunch of Japanese walkers, tripping along happily with their cameras, walking poles, white gloves and borad brimmed hats, waving at anything that went past – including cars that were really trying to get past them not have a pilgrim encounter!  On to Monte de Gozo and the first view of Santiago, nearly there!  Down the bottom of the hill and across the highway overpass, the entrance to Santiago is less than inspiring after such a beautiful and spiritually significant experience but it is Santiago nonetheless.  I caught up with 3 girls I had met previously, one from Spain and one from California whom I had met two nights previous in an Albergue in Arzua and a german girl I had met earlier on in the day.  We walked (or rather hobbled and shuffled) our way throught the neverending streets of Santiago to the cathedral which seemed to be running away from us.  By the time we got there it was 4:30, we collapsed in the cathedral too tired to move and way too tired to look for the band that was supposed to be playing at either 5 or 6 in a plaza somewhere in Santiago.  We stayed in the cathedral for around 40 minutes, looking around in silence and taking in the atmosphere.  It is a beautiful cathedral, high arches that have very little decoration, the altar stands out as everythign that can be carved and gilded has been.

After our sit we decided to get our compostela´s and wandered outside, only to find the band playing right outside the cathedral!  We listened, danced and too photos.  Apparently Domenico had made it to Santiago after all and so had Daniel.  I missed them but that is ok.  Afterwards we went to our hotels to rest and refresh in anticipation of what was sure to be an epic night.

I wandered through the streets of  Santiago to find the tapas bar the girls were at and who should I run into at another bar?  Zie Germans!  They were only one day ahead of me after all, if I hadn´t had my day off in Melide I would have finished with them.  What an end to an epic journey, everything tying together perfectly.  After that we met some local guys and went tapas and bar crawling – I got rather drunk (we all did), some time during the evening someone decided tequila was a good idea, I´m not sure why, tequila is never a good idea!  It was a memorable night, made more so by the hangover I had the next day.

Today I am at Finisterre, I arrived yesterday in the sunshine for a spectacular sunset but that will have to wait for the next post, this one is long enough.  I will leave you with some things I have learned from the Camino;

A Bacon, cheese, lettuice and tomato toasted sandwhich tastes like heaven after walking all day in the rain.
A bath is one of the best things in the world
People come into your life as needed and go, they leave you a better person for having known them and you don´t need to hold on to them to make it special, just remember the times you had
Sometimes the best and most impressionable encounters last only an hour but touch you for a lifetime
Santiago will always be there – there is no need to rush, go at your own pace, do what you have to do
Listen to your body, you need it
The Camino is life and fate condensed
Living with very little makes you realise you don´t need much to get by if you have to but also makes you really appreciate things you do have – like nailpolish remover when your toenail is about to come off and looks dreadful

till next time

Hasta Luego!


Camino de Santiago days 1-4; Sweat, blisters and red wine

It seems ages since I last wrote and a LOT has happened.  Wow, what a lot to update!  I have walked from Sarria to Melide, around 60km and my feet can definitely feel it!  I have another 50 to go till Santiago de Compostela and while I might not be moving as fast as many of the other peregrinos I am still moving. 

So far I have learned a lot about peregrinos, blisters, hiking, communication and my body.  Here are some of the things I have learned:

Pilgrim life:  The life of the modern day peregrino seems to consist mainly of sweat, blisters and redwine – and none of them in moderation.  The majority of Peregrinos are European, with Spanish, Italian and French making up the most of that group and Germans, Danish, Dutch, Belgian in that mix as well.  Apparently there are a few Australians around but I have yet to meet any.  I have also encountered Canadians, English, Scottish, Irish and Americans.  There is no typical Peregrino.  The pilgrim´s dinner at a private hostel or bar nearby is the best place to meet people. 

Pilgrim food:  The pilgrims menu is found at most bars along the camino and consists of 3 courses including desert and wine or water (most choose wine) for 9 euro.  The servings are huge and most options are very tasty.  Dinner usually starts at 6:30-7:30 depending on where you are.  Breakfast usually consists on tea or coffee and toast for 3 euro. Lunch can be harder to find as siesta is at the most inconvenient time (from 2pm-5pm) and often consists of bocadillo (like a small baguette) with different kinds of stuffing.  They eat a lot of bread here!

The way:  There are 2 ways to do the camino – on foot or on bike.  Most peregrinos greet people along the way by calling out ´hola!´or wishing the person a ´buen camino´.  That is fine if you are on foot.  They cyclists tend to yell ´buen camino´ as they zoom past and cheerfully knock you into a ditch on the side of the way.  Hiking poles or walking sticks are quitepopular and I am very glad I brought mine, they help take the pressure off the knees and double as rythm sticks and/or dancing accessories if you are so inclined.  Blisters are taken very seriously and everyone has an opinion. 

Meeting people and making friends:  So far I have met 2 very english retirees, on separate days.  One was the typical english fuddy duddy who smoked a pipe, couldn´t figure out how to send an email to his daughter and complained bitterly when the germans got guiness and he didn´t.  The other was slightly more technologically inclined but also rather english.  I met a couple of Americans and a Dutch girl the other day, we had a great night at the bar drinking vino, teaching the bar tender English and generally being ridiculous – they were walking 45km per day! crazy!  The next morning I walked a while with the Dutch girl who was lovely but I was a little slow moving for her and she headed off after a while.  It is very easy to meet people, sometimes they just join you walking.  Some make it a little difficult, for the first two nights there was a woman staying at the sameplace as me and she was having a snooze at 3pm both times I arrived – it is impossible to unpack your pack and find things quietly!  She alsoleft at 5am.  it made me wonder why on earth she was leaving so early if she was only going relatively short distances like me.  Another serial encounter was ´zie Germans´, a family group of 5 previously mentioned in connection with Guiness I encountered them a few times the first day then they stayed at the same place as me the first night.  Then I saw them a few times again the next day but lost them when I ended up at the hostel.  A few hours later I walked into the bar for dinner and there they were!  The last I saw them was yesterday afternoon, I think they must have gone a little further than me that day so I think I´ve lost them, it´s sad, they were very nice and it was entertaining how they kept popping up everywhere!

Language barriers:  A few of the Peregrinos speak English reasonably well and love to learn more.  For those who don´t it is easy to get on with a few words, had gestures and a smile as everyone is happy to chat and I have not encountered any grumpy people along the way.  I also seem to get by ok making myself understood by shop and bar staff – I have a few words of Spanish but not many and my ear is getting tuned more to it.  I find it is easier to understand than speak and I keep trying to speak French!

Pain and resilience:  I think that if I had not been unwell for so long and forced to struggle and be strong I would be having a harder time of it.  That being said, if I hadn´t been unwell I would be fitter, my feet would be more used to walking and standing (nursing is good for that!) and my muscles would be stronger.  So far my energy levels have been the least of my worries so they have kindly stayed ok so I can focus on the more loudly complaining parts.  My feet are killing me; each day I find new blisters, my shin muscles hurt from picking up my feet, my knees hurt as per usual, my quads hurt, my hips are tight and sore and my lower back muscles hurt from compensating for my hips and carrying the pack.  So it looks like a lot of the same muscles and tendons are used for hiking as with roller derby!  but it´s ok, I keep going, I go as far as I can by 2pm and see how I feel then or by the timeI decide I can´t do more.  So far I have had 3 days of just over 15km and one of over 10.  Distance is hard to measure here, there are carved stone wayside markers that are the most accurate but I forget what they say when I stop!  My guidebook is useless and around 5km out. 

Santiago will always be there:  No matter how fast or slow you go Santiago will alywas be there at the end waiting for you, it´s been there for hundreds of years and will be there for hundreds more.  It doesn´t matter if it takes me longer, it´s not a race so as long as I get there it is all good!  Sometimes it is tough to keep my feet moving but then I put in the headphones and walk to the beat – it works wonders

One more thing I have learned is that baths are fantastic!  I checked into a hoteltoday when I heard they had internet, a bar/restaurant and baths in the rooms.  So my feet thoroughly appreciated the soak even if myknees ended up around my chin as the bath was only a half size!

Tomorrow I am off again, maybe I will get to the next main town, maybe I will find a smaller one somewhere, who knows, it´s an adventure!

Next time I find internet I hope to post about this area of Spain (Galicia), the people who live in it and the scenery!  But for now, Hasta Luego!

Lovely Leon and Medieval Madness!

My last couple of days in Leon and surrounds have been really nice but I’m quite keen to get going.  There are some lovely historic buildings here including a building designed by Gaudi and a cathedral with dozens of spectacular stained glass windows, pillars and carvings.  The town itself is kinda small but quaint, cute little paved roads twist around typical Spanish architecture – a little like French but less ornate, more colour in the window boxes and a lot of orange tones. 

I left Paris with 1.5 Euros expecting to be able to find a travellers exchange at the airport – well I significantly overestimated Leon Airport and Spain on a weekend…
Everything was closed, there were no taxi’s outside and I couldn’t find an ATM.  I found the bus stop and asked the driver how much to Leon, it was 3 Euros so no luck there.  A taxi finally pulled up and I asked him if he took a credit card – No.  So I wandered round the airport a bit more until I found a woman I had seen helping others and asked her if she spoke english – No.  But she did find me someone who did.  I discovered that I had mistaken an ATM for a coffee machine so all the stress and half hour of wandering around in circles could have been avoided.  So I caught a taxi and he dropped me off in front of the hotel after pointing out the sights in a mixture of Spanish and English on the way.  It´s a good thin I got a taxi as central Leon is like a maze and I didn´t have a map!  The rain began as we pulled up outside. 

The hostel was full so thankfully I had a booking and my room is very cute – small but airy with a balcony overlooking a plaza, garden and fountain (and a street lamp as I was to find out later).  With some help I found a supermarket and got some dinner and breakfast in the form of baguette and chocolate spread – yeah, real healthy Claire!

After a good sleep courtesy of my ear plugs (there is also a restaurant outside my window) I headed off to nearby Hospital de Orbigo and their annual medieval fair – it was fantastic!  People dressed up in medieval clothes, stalls selling everything from cakes to crockery, leather goods to costumes and herbs.  The streets were adorned with colourful streamers and coats of arms on flags.  There was a jousting and tourney field (unfortunately I missed the jousting) where tents were set up among the displays of weaponry, falconry and kids games.  There were belly dancers, medieval clowns and a jester on a unicycle juggling scimitars.  Sadly I had to restrict myself to one purchase as everything I get I have to carry and settled on a pretty copper enamel scallop shell on a leather necklace – perfect!  The festival is well worth a visit for anyone thinking of coming to the area over the first weekend in June.  It is held annually in honour of the story of a local knight who, for the love of his lady, challenged to break 300 lances before journeying to Santiago de Compstela.  The story supposedly inspired the tale of Don Quixote. 

The bus was supposed to leave at 3 so I headed to the stop 10 minutes early so as not to miss it.  I was still waiting at 4 when an elderly lady from across the street started calling out to me in Spanish.  With the help of her daughter, grandsons and a map she explained that the bus didn´t stop here on the way back to Leon on a Sunday but stopped further up and round the corner and wouldn´t be there till 4:45.  By this stage it was starting to drizzle again and I had a migraine from the previously relentless sun, crowds and not enough water.  Finally the bus arrived and I headed back to Leon. 

Spain is a lot like Fiji –  nothing happens how or when you expect it to, it seems to run on its own time and everything revolves around siesta!  The main difference between the two is that Spain is loud, chaotic and over the top where Fiji is laid back almost to the point of falling asleep.  The Spanish and Fijians, unlike the French are happy to help if they can and happy to help you understand and explain – they have a lot of patience and are a very friendly people. 

This morning I got my pilgrims passport and checked out train times.  The train to Sarria leaves at 5am or 5pm so I can either spend the day wandering around Leon with my pack on my back and arrive in Sarria later with the potential of having nowhere to stay, take a day to get to somewhere nearby and stay there or catch the 5am train that arrives in Sarria at 8:45am and start walking the.  The latter option is the most appealing so I guess I’m going to become a peregrino tomorrow!  The taxi driver said something along the lines of; Leon survives off the pilgrims back, well, feet I suppose, but I guess that would be right, the place probably wouldn´t get much else in the way of tourism and they certainly cater for the pilgrims.  Everything from special meals to hiking stores and the image of the scallop shell is everywhere.  Tomorrow I will be following the scallop shell to Santiago de Compostela – wow, the time is finally here!

Hasta Luego amigo´s!

Off to Leon and unchartered territory

Well it’s back to Orly airport today and off to Spain – how exciting!  The weather in Paris has been lovely and warm and they tell me that there has been a drought, yes, 2 months without rain and the French start to panic!  It certainly is a different country!

Actually that isn’t the only difference between France and Australia, stay tuned as I am putting together a list of interesting, amusing and confusing things you find here every day which should be completed when I return.  My Aunt and Uncle took me on a drive last night around Paris along the Seine so now I have a better idea of where to walk when I get back so I can see and do all the typical touristy things.  My aunt was quite keen for me to get all that out of the way before today as the big end of year sales start the day before I get back and she believes that should be everyone’s first priority – but of course!

Still, that sounds a lot like busy crowds and a frustrated Claire to me, I ended up not visiting Notre Dame on Thursday as it was a public holiday in Paris and everything was crowded – it put me in mind of visiting Euro Disney as a child.  The French may not mind lining up for hours to do something but it is not the Australian way and certainly not something I enjoy – particularly as it was 27 degrees in the sun.  So I went for a wander instead and got happily lost away from the crowds amongst the streets of Paris.

My main problem today is how to transport my hiking poles as they are too long to fit inside my pack and it would be death to my pack to put them on the outside to submit the pack-pole combination to the less than careful attention of the baggage handlers.  Hopefully I can talk them on to the plane with me (and by me I mean my uncle and his fast and persuasive French).

Up until now my holiday has been fun and different but still safe as I have been staying with family but exploring by myself.  Now I enter completely new territory – by myself in a foreign country whose language I do not know.  I just hope there are no gypsy women selling Avocado’s or I’ll have no hope (a family joke at my brother’s expense referring to his first solo trip to Spain and being cheated in the price of avocado’s due to his poor grasp of the language!).  It is both very exciting and very scary

I hope to keep this updated as much as possible but I have no idea how often that will be.  My plan now is to start walking the Camino on the 9th but I might start before then, who knows what will happen!

Au revoir!

Bonjour part 2 and visiting Versailles

After my not-so-amazing flight over I was pretty well useless for the rest of the day even after a 2 hour nap.  My exhaustion and lack of brain function can be used to explain my poor choice of catching the metro to my relatives house – not my brightest moment!

For starters the Paris metro system is not designed for suitcases, there is also no easy way to get from Orly airport (the Paris equivalent of Avalon in Melbourne or Gatwick in London) to where I was going and my trip ended up involving 4 different trains, lots of stairs and one short trip on a bus with a rude, angry bus driver who yelled at me for using my ‘franglaise’ (mixture of French and English) to tell him the ticket machine was broken at the bus stop and how can I get a ticket!  So I couldn’t remember the word for ‘machine’, I thought I was understandable and he yelled at me in English anyway so the aggro was rather unnecessary, particularly seeing as I had been traveling for 35 hours at that stage.  The French have a notorious reputation for being arrogant, rude and unhelpful to people whose French is either non-existent or less than perfect.  I had found this to be not entirely correct on my last visit as many people were more than happy to help and very encouraging of our efforts with their language – of course there was the occasional ridiculous gesticulating Frenchman who seemed to think that yelling louder and getting angrier somehow made him easier to understand…

All that aside I survived my crash course in Paris public transport and arrived intact and with all my luggage.  My first full day in Paris was lovely.  The cold and clouds went away so we were gifted with a perfect day of sunshine and mid-20’s temperature, perfect weather for strolling in the gardens of Versailles.  After a morning of market shopping with my aunt I caught the train to Versailles all by myself like the independent girl I am and even got off at the right station (which wasn’t too hard as it was the end of the line).  According to my cousin, Versailles is easy to find and well signposted.  So I guess that makes me the only person who could get lost trying to find one of Paris’s most iconic landmarks!  So the sign across from the train station said ‘Versailles 500m’ and an arrow, but the arrow pointed to a lane which ended with a house and I couldn’t see any way through.  The tourist office was very close so I bought my ticket and the girl serving the counter said up the street and next left which I did but it was the wrong left.  But with some perseverance I found it, actually it’s kinda hard to miss once you can see it!

I wandered around the chateaux for around an hour and a half before I was due to meet my cousin for a stroll through the extensive gardens.  The palace is beautiful; marble hallways lined with marble statues of significant figures of French history including Joan of Arc, one of my personal favorites

Most of the chambers high ceilings exquisitely painted with colourful scenes that vary from chubby cherubs to greek legends and famous battles.  Anything that stood still long enough had been gilded or tapestried to within an inch of its life and the chandeliers were shimmering crystal masterpieces.
 I walked along halls and through rooms that had been walked through by kings, queens, revolutionaries and countless thousands of tourists before me and pushed through tour group after tour group.  That bit was a bit annoying as the last time I visited the place was practically deserted, but the beauty of history is that it can be shared and appreciated by people from all different backgrounds.

After the palace I met my cousin and we took a rather brisk stroll through some of the famous gardens at Versailles.  He is one of those people with rather long legs who is incapable of ambling but that was ok, my energy levels were surprisingly good and we covered a fair bit of ground.  I got a little distracted at the large lake by the white swans (a novelty for us Australians as our swans are black), I’ve seen them before but that was a long time ago and only now do I appreciate the size difference, compared to these monsters our black swans are quite dainty (which is hard to believe if you’ve ever seen them bail up a toddler for his sandwich).  Here is the stunning view looking back towards Chateaux Versailles from the first pond (not that the word ‘pond’ does it justice)

After the gardens my cousin snuck me into his school (university) to have a look around; the buildings are typical Versailles style – classic lines and large with extensive rambling gardens and no harsh colours.  One thing I love about Paris so far is the abundance of wide? leafy avenues lined with double or triple story neutral coloured houses sporting a large number of small; decorative and ornate balconies, shuttered windows and window boxes overflowing with (usually red) flowers – it is so different to home and so very cute!

We caught the train home in the evening, it is still very light here at 7pm which feels strange at the moment having just gotten used to it being dark around 5pm at home now.  Finally walking through the door at 7:30 after a huge day for me, I haven’t been able to do that much in one day in a while – maybe it’s the medication, maybe it’s the 3/4 skinz leggings helping my blood pressure, maybe it’s something in the hard and over-chlorinated Paris water but whatever it is I am enjoying it immensely!  It took some calculating but we came to the conclusion I had done around 10+ km of walking – if only it had been in my hiking boots instead of my work shoes as my foot is getting grumpy again, I’m sure, however, that I can bully it into submission!  Everything is looking good for Spain on Saturday!

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