Oh, hey! Last month I went on holiday and never blogged about it. Better late than never.
The Camino de Santiago is one of Europe’s most treasured paths. For centuries, since the height of medieval times, pilgrims have walked from across the continent to reach Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral, in honor of Santiago, the saint who (allegedly) drove the Muslims out of southern France and the Iberian peninsula. Most of the paths converge at Roncesvalles, France, from which point pilgrims would have walked the Camino together across northern Spain, a total of thousands every year. And they’re still at it today.
My friend Carina and I decided to start where most pilgrims then and now stop. (Oh, hey, she has a blog too.) We began in Santiago de Compostela and completed a leg of the journey which most pilgrims consider a sort of beautiful postscript: the three-day journey to the Atlantic Ocean and the town of Fisterra (literally “the end of the earth”). Once there we walked for another two days up the coast.
We traveled light. The trail is dotted with albergues, or refuges, which are essentially hostels for hikers, with slightly more service than the typical hostel (you don’t have to bring a blanket or pillow) at a slightly kindlier price, and this lightens the load a bit; so too does a bit of economizing. For example, I discovered Flipbacks, which are tiny full-length books which fit in the palm of your hand and use that special extra-thin paper Bibles have. Incredibly lightweight and pocketable. Also recommended: have a friend who doesn’t mind you (and whom you don’t mind) reusing clothes not infrequently.
The most important thing not to mind, though, is walking. And walking. At some point walking becomes your default state and it’s actually harder to stop walking than it is to keep going; chalk it up to inertia or repetitive-motion exercise, but at the end of one day I realized that, as tired as I was, stopping, sitting down, and standing back up would be more exhausting than to simply continue.
That afternoon (on the second day) was really the only time, though, when I was self-conscious about how crazy it is to just walk for five days on end, a total of 120 km (74.6 miles). The first day had the irrepressible adventure of something new, and ample scenery: lush green hills on the way out of Santiago…
…perfectly tinted skies…
…and the unforgettable Ponte Maceira, a medieval arched bridge in a village of the same name. The bridge happens to be just downstream from an arcing waterfall:
The second day found us in deeper forests and rolling farmland, on what may have been the longest stretch at roughly 21 miles. The path–wonderfully marked, by the way, with quite a few charmingly needless arrows and kilometer markers at every major roadway–took us through serious agricultural country on this day, before winding down with a final steep ridgeline on which we talked of the Scottish moors and after which we had to ask a kindly local for some water.
The village of Olveiroa, that day’s destination, was having its annual feast-day, in honor of its patron saint (another, unrelated Santiago). The fiesta was quiet, though, because the village was just a tiny warren of old stone buildings with one cafe (closed) and one restaurant (stupendous, and featuring menus printed onto decorative wine bottles). In the morning we would discover that some intrepid artist-resident has covered three of the walls of Olveiroa in wonderfully bright, trippy painted murals.
The third day is as long as the second, but the scenery makes it miraculous. We began atop forested ridgelines, in a thick early-morning mist…
…but the mist eventually burned off and dissolved into a glorious vision:
Yes: at long last, the Atlantic! It’s a thrilling moment and nearly everyone stops to take it in. Two Spanish bikers had an impromptu picnic lunch, standing up, at this marker; Carina and I sat in the grass and snacked; a group of six Americans turned up, including an older fellow on a not-too-young bicycle with a little wagon hitched to the back. (Note: do not plan to carry your stuff on the trail by means of a little wagon.)
The descent is steep, but you end up in the port town of Cee, where the traveler is rewarded with the very first case of bad signage on the trail. The Camino enters narrow streets of the city center and then disappears, leaving walkers to fumble their way to the waterfront, ask locals for help, and gradually regain the trail on the other side of town. It all culminates in a tiny stone staircase which left the poor guy with the wagon hitch flummoxed and traveling via the main highway.
From Cee to Fisterra is a stretch of quick ascents and descents as the trail cuts through the middle of a couple peninsulas. Then, at the end of a straight path between fields and groves, you round a bend and:
There is really no way to show it on a camera, or to put it into words. That tiny little mound juts out into water, surrounded on three and a half sides, like a defiant joke or a loner made to sit in the corner. In real life it looks like a spot in a canvas of blue. No wonder people long thought it was the end of the earth.
The village of Fisterra is more touristy than others on the Camino, since the town is accessible by road, but even the tourist-oriented fish shops are still selling fresh-caught fish from the bay–you can see the boats at work and in the mornings you can see the vans bringing in new fish on ice–and the town preserves its old feel. We thought about trying a pizzeria, but it was closed, just because the owners wanted the day off.
On the next day we visited the true “end of the earth”–the lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip–and walked from there back through Fisterra and north to the village of Lires, only 15 km away. (The leg from Fisterra to the northern seaside town of Muxia is meant to be done in one day, but we decided to split it in two and enjoy ourselves at a little more relaxed pace.) The walk to Lires included an enormous sandy beach…
…a beautiful forest…
…and eventually Lires itself, with a beachside bar for watching sunsets and a cute guesthouse called Casa Raul, whose owner provided us with the only room we had during our trip with its own bathroom (and which we didn’t need to share with twenty other people).
An early-morning walk to our final destination, Muxia, was dispatched by noon the next day, and the walk was complete. It was time to head back to Santiago, by bus, for some serious relaxation time, a nice washing machine, and some saintly upscale Galician cooking. (If I remember to write it, a forthcoming blog post will discuss the people and food of the trail…)
A long walk like that makes you feel accomplished. Sure, you slump into your chair/bed each night exhausted, but you feel like you’ve done something important. And then the bus drives you back in two hours and you realize that what you’ve really accomplished is to have terrific fun. And to walk for five days with a friend imparts a wonderful sense of both feeling alone with the natural world and having company to share the feeling with. It’s just about the best way to travel. We all want our solitude, sometimes, but in case it turns out to be wonderful we also want someone to know just how it felt. So grab a friend and go exploring.