An apple orchard along the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Final Day to Santiago, Part 1

Yesterday I watched the trail markers all day – now there is one for every kilometer. This was the final countdown from hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago trail. As I left the trail last night, the last one I saw said 20.5 km. I planned to start early again. I stayed in Arca, in a private albergue with my own room. I was tired but too excited to get a good night’s sleep. I kept waking thinking about getting off the trail after 29 straight days. Then I would enter a big city and make the transition, which would be quite a change from the countryside scenes, like the apple orchard I had passed (see my photo above).

Today is September 24th, my husband’s birthday. I am far from home, but it is a day I will remember. It is the last day of hiking the el Camino. I started in St Jean de Pied de Port, France, on my son’s anniversary—the reason for walking el Camino—so both days I will remember.

I was full of excitement that I could hardly wait to leave my room and tip toe out past the big bunkroom full of sleeping hikers. It was just before 6 am and dark except for the streetlights. No one was in sight. It was cool and calm as I walked up to the top of the hill, turned right, and walked almost out of town (Arca), where the sidewalk ended.

I carefully watched for the yellow el Camino arrows and spotted one across the main highway heading into the woods. I turned on my headlamp and walked only a few feet into the darkness when the light became so dim it was worthless. I dropped my bag and started looking for new batteries. By the time I changed batteries, a young man from Texas had appeared. He had no headlight. I tried my light and it still didn’t work. I was deciding whether to go back, when along came a group of young Italians I knew, so the two of us joined them.

This was a first for me, going without my own light, stumbling over rocks and roots, hurrying faster than my own pace, and depending on others. I felt welcome among these young Italians: I knew them from staying in the same albergues, talking with them, and hiking with them the past few days. I was determined to finish early today, or I would not have done this silly thing of walking without my own light. This group of happy-go-lucky young Italians were not the same group of hiking friends who I had spent so much time with for so many days. Those were all behind me or had fallen off the trail. So now I had met two groups. The Italians are unlike any other hikers I met—they like to hike in a group and are very social and friendly.

The Italians were at ease, laughing and happy to be finishing the trek today. They just seemed to glide over the rocks, holes, and streams, despite the darkness. After a while—what seemed a long time, but in reality was only a couple of kilometers—we came to a tiny bar and they stopped for a coffee.

I would have taken a break with them, but two older Swedish couples came along, also going at good clip, intent on making time. They stopped to say hello and I told them my light wasn’t working. It had been so dependable for all these days and the final day it had petered out! They said come with us. I told the Italians I would see them in Santiago, and off I went, in the middle of the huddle.

The Swedish couples were quite concerned about making it to Santiago by mid-morning, but they planned on having breakfast anyway, and after a while we came to another bar/café in the crock of the trail. This was their stop. Now I was by myself again: I could either continue with no light or take a break here. I was standing on the trail, making my decision, when along came Paddy, an Irishman, and the young guy from Texas was trailing him. I told Paddy my light had given out, and he said no matter, come along, and I did. Paddy had a good light and we moved along at a good clip, but every few hundred feet we would have to stop and wait for the young man, who was noticeably ill. He would stop and put on his jacket, then take it off again a few minutes later. He was perspiring, stumbling, and just plain sick. He said his sister was waiting in Santiago for him. Of course we felt bad for him, but we also wanted to get to Santiago by mid-morning. Paddy knew it was difficult to get a seat at the Cathedral for the 11:00 celebration. This now became our focus. I didn’t want to miss this and stay another day for just that reason.

We came to another bar/café and went in to get a rest and a drink. I ordered an orange juice. Along the trail, this is always made fresh, while the customer waits. After I finished my drink, I said I was going on, and left the two men sitting there. By now it was dawn and I could move along at my own steady pace. I really was relieved that I had made it though without any problems and not too much inconvenience. I was also thankful for such good people on the trail.

It was only a short while later, when I had stopped to take off my rain jacket, when Paddy came hurrying down the trail, trying to catch up with me. The young Texan was not with him. Paddy had been so patient with him, but left him sitting at the café. It was cool and pleasant, and we were both focused on walking, so that I cannot remember much about the places I passed.

I do remember the runway of the airport, as the path went along a fence beside it for the whole distance. More significant, after a rise in the path along a hillside, was the Monte del Gozo, Mount of Joy, because years ago, this was the first sight pilgrims had of the spires of Santiago de Compostela. Now tall buildings block the way. In 1993, the Holy Year, Pope John Paul II visited this site, and a monument marks the spot. It is visited by many people unable to walk the el Camino, so it is significant. It is about an hour’s walk from my final destination. After a quick stop there, Paddy and I hurried on at a steady pace, headed for the closest of the seven gates into the city, considered the third holiest Christian city in the world. My day was just beginning, and it would turn out to be a day to remember.

(posted June 30, 2015)

A kind, friendly farmer--one of many on the Camino de Santiago trail. Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Friendly Farmers

All along the el Camino, farmers would be working in the fields as I passed by on the trail. Some would be raking hay by hand rake, while others would be working on tractors in the fields. Others would be in the vineyards or corn fields, and some would be pruning in the olive groves or apple orchards. One of them is pictured in my photo above. Sometimes they would stop and talk with you if you could speak Castellano, Basque, or Galician. But always they would wave, smile, and send you happily along by saying, “Buen el Camino.”

The farmers would assist you by pointing the way at an intersection or offering you water. They had a sense of humor: they would laugh at you in a good way as you trudged along with a pack and they sat on a bench under the shade of a little tree. There were places on the el Camino where a local would park his car and set up a temporary food stand and sell you fresh-squeezed orange juice or a banana. Sometimes they would ask to see your el Camino passport and then offer you something free and stamp your passport. All the pilgrims I saw left a donation as they waved good bye.

At the albergues, the menu del día was locally grown food, often served by the wives of the farmers. It was the best food—savory and fresh. Besides the farmers and their wives, there were the animals. There were the dogs: each farmer had one or two. Some as work dogs, mostly shepherd types, and smaller ones as pets. The locals loved their animals and treated them with care and kindness. The cows were clean and healthy in the pastures. The cats were free to go into the fields and catch mice. The farms are small and well-managed, completely unlike those huge, scientifically-run farms that have lost the human characteristics of dedication and personal touch.

In several places along the trail, in the early morning, I would hear gun shots and see hunters in the distance, hunting for birds like quail. The last several days, near the final destination of Santiago, there are farms that rent out horses for pilgrims to finish the trail on horseback. I never saw anyone on horseback, but I know the option was available.

On one occasion a farmer’s dog barked, as it was before dawn and we were passing by his yard. The farmer came out of his house to help us, as we had missed a turn and were headed in the wrong direction. There were many places where the trail went through a farmer’s yard, around a barn, or through pastures, vineyards, and many fields.

The farm land was a special part of the el Camino, and I will miss that, as I now have only one more night before heading to the large city of Santiago. I hiked 33 kilometers today, though the countryside of farms and hamlets and small villages. I walked through Arzúa, known throughout Spain as a center for cheese making. I ended my day in Arca, a town with a supermarket, a few shops, and several restaurants. Tomorrow morning would find me in Santiago de Compostela!

(posted June 23, 2015)

The largest scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago trail! Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: the Scallop Shell

The scallop shell is a definite part of the el Camino and has been for centuries. Like many things unknown to me until I became entrenched in the walking of the el Camino, little did I realize the impact it makes each day. The scallop shell is the trail marker through all the cities and towns. It is brass, cemented into granite posts and under our feet on cobblestones. I saw scallop shells in iron fence designs in front of people’s homes. The scallop shell was painted on signs for places of business. One home, on a curve in the path through the village, stood out because the entire part of the building facing the path was covered with scallop shells, cemented into the walls top to bottom.

After the first day of walking the el Camino, when I signed in at the albergue in Roncesvalles, I bought an official el Camino scallop shell, with the tiny red symbol painted on the back; I tied it to the cover of my pack and wore it all across Spain. It was a visible sign, along with my well-worn clothes and trekking poles, that I was indeed a pilgrim of the el Camino.

One day recently I saw the largest scallop shell symbol on the el Camino. It was out in the country, on the side of a small, one-story building. A well-worn path went to the front door, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. It was a small trail café, and when my friend Jack and I entered, it was standing room only. People are so friendly and pleasant on the trail. I spotted familiar faces, and enjoyed a coffee and a snack there before moving on, with more scallop shells to follow.

The scallop shell made me think of the maintenance of the trail. The signs were always in good shape. The trail all along 500 miles was safe, hazard-free, and clean of liter. There was graffiti on the cement trail underpasses near the cities and larger towns and on a few signs there, too.

The scallop shell symbols also brought to mind the cruceiros along the entire trail. As I would be walking up a hill or near a mountain pass, there would often be a big cruceiro, which is a stone cross where pilgrims pile stones in memory of those they love. For my part, in memory of my son Michael, I had brought a very small bag of tiny black pebbles from the fireplace mantel of his home on the Maine coast. Michael had placed those on his mantel for a special reason—a memory of one of his adventures. As I walked along the Camino de Santiago, I took those smooth, tiny pebbles and placed each one at the base of a different cruceiro. One very tall cruceiro had wide beams, and I decided to throw a pebble on to that cross beam. After two or three tries, I landed my pebble on the cross beam, and there it sits as a reminder that special people are never forgotten. Now only one of Michael’s pebbles is left for Santiago—the finish!—and a few more scallop shell signs will lead me there.

(posted June 16, 2015)