Tag Archives: walking routine

A stone marker for the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Little Scraps of Paper

After I had been on the el Camino for a couple of weeks in fall 2014, I had gone through so many Spanish villages that I began to get confused with the names. I also would lose track of the kilometers I walked from place to place. I would stop and dig out my guide book, but this became a significant effort, especially in bad weather. By the time I had walked 35 kilometers or more, I would never remember even the name of the albergue I was headed for that night!

Lately, I developed an evening routine of studying my guide book, which helped me the next day. I would rip out a small strip of a blank page from my journal, then write down all the towns I would pass through the next day, the distance between them, and where my destination would be at the end of the day. I would stick this paper in my pants pocket, then take it out and look at it when I entered each town. My little piece of paper would be crinkled, faded, and ripped by the end of the day, but it would help me through the mileage each day. When I passed a Camino trail marker, such as the one in my photo at the top of this blog post, I knew how many kilometers I had walked, and my piece of paper spared me from taking out my guidebook each time—or just not bothering at all after a while.

Sometimes my pilgrim friends would be walking with me along the way and ask me where I was headed for the night. I would dig out the strip of paper and show them the name of the village. We would all laugh in understanding of what we were going through together. Smart phones could not be depended upon in places where there were no towers, and when walking, it is best to go light, carrying as little as possible.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

Keeping track of where I was going was motivating, especially when I would take out my shred of paper and knock off another village or hamlet: Barbadelo, Rente, Mercado, Peruscallo, Cortiñas, Morgade, Ferreiros, 9 km; Mirallos, Rozas, Moimentos, Cotareio, Portomarin, 9 more kilometers, or 18 kilometers total now walked, and here was an albergue with 160 beds (in case of an emergency, you see, I could stop here, but on that paper I had more names); on to Gonzar, where there were 20 beds but no food, for another 7.5 km more that I had walked, or 23.5 kilometers total; Castromaior, Hospital de la Cruz, 29 kilometers total, to my resting place with 22 beds. I also tried to remember what I had read the night before, so I could prepare for making a long walk with no place to stop for water, ascending up high climbs, and going through a forest. The strips of paper kept my mind straight, motivating me each time I knocked off another village, and the kilometers added up.

Everyone I knew had a treasured guide book on the el Camino. One night, after I had spent the day climbing up the steep O Cebreiro, in the rain, on a muddy trail, I stayed in the small safe haven of a private albergue. I came in, wet and tired, and met Mark, a man from Quebec. Like the rest of us, he was tired, too. But on top of everything else, he had lost his guidebook somewhere that day. Things like this happen—perhaps it could have fallen out when he opened his pack to take something out, such as a rain jacket. I let him borrow my guidebook and ripped out a blank page from my journal. He sat and wrote down notes to get him through the next couple of days.

There are some things that are important on long pilgrimages or hiking trails. For me, a trail book and these little scraps of paper were convenient methods to use while walking. This was a reminder of my long, four-month hike on the Appalachian Trail; without my trail book, I would not have survived a day. On the el Camino, a trail book is a necessity for places to stay, distances, elevation, and information on each section of the trail. You know, for memory’s sake, I still have those little scraps of paper tucked in between the pages of my journal.

(posted May 5, 2015)

Madelyn Given took this photo at the outdoor cafe in Najerilla, on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: A Municipal Albergue

Albergues are a safe haven for the pilgrims on the trail. Although they close during the day to encourage pilgrims to move on, they open in the afternoon for guests to stay one night. An el Camino passport is needed when registering each day, and hikers don’t want to miss the necessary daily passport stamp. Pilgrims carry their own sleeping bags to use on the beds; the albergues are sparse but clean. These lodgings are spaced along the trail in certain towns or villages, and their beds fill up in the afternoon almost as soon as they open. I was concerned that I would get to an albergue, find it full, and have no other place to sleep for many more kilometers. This was one reason that I started early in the morning.

This morning I heard people moving about in the albergue when I got up and quietly went outside; I was on the trail by 5:30 am. It is the beginning of September 2014 and still very warm. Today I hiked steadily, walking through fields and vineyards without stopping for a break until noon. It was hot!

I walked into Najerilla, crossed the Rio Najerilla, and walked along the street parallel to the river until I came to the municipal albergue, which had not yet opened. There were a few other pilgrims already waiting there, all sitting on the pavement or a couple of the stone benches by the entrance. Only one hiker did I recognize: Miguel, the lone Spanish man from Barcelona. When I looked at the pilgrims, they were the typical picture of hikers after an exhausting walk: hot, tired, and very quiet.

Directly across the square was the municipal police station, and behind that the rest of the town set nestled into the side of steep pink cliffs. There are small caves in these cliffs where wine and wild mushrooms are stored.

Also built into the cliffs is the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real, which surrounds a small cave. Here in 1004, the king Garcia III was hunting birds. He sent his hawk after a bird and it went into the cave. Garcia went inside and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary, with the hawk and partridge sitting peacefully nearby. Garcia III took this as a blessing and decided to build a church here, using part of the treasure from capturing the Moors.

Inside the church, this statue has a place of honor. The original crown that was on her head had many jewels and is no longer here; the jewels were divided up and one, the Black Prince Ruby, is the stone on the front of the English Coronation Crown.

Next to the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real is the Pantheon Real, where the tombs hold the remains of the kings from 10th to the 12th centuries. On the other side of the Municipal albergue is the Rio Najerilla. In the late afternoon I sat on the grass, under the shade of several large deciduous trees, and wrote in my journal, watching the water fowl swimming against the gentle current and the rays of sunshine gleaming on the water.

At one o’clock the manager opened the door and the pilgrims filed in. We waited in line to register and be assigned to one of the 90 beds available in this single story rectangular building; in little more than an hour, all the beds were taken. We were packed in like sardines!

I sat down on the bottom bunk, in the corner against the wall, and took it all in: the pilgrims hurrying to take a shower, going through their packs, dumping their bags, and leaving to get something to eat or drink. A man opened the screenless window near me and I hoped for a little breeze, as there was no air conditioning in any of the albergues.

I was relieved that I was feeling good after 9 straight days of hiking and my feet were holding up well since my treatment a few days ago with the woman at the tiny hotel spa. I cleaned up and was about to go outside when the manager singled me out—we sat down and had a pleasant chat. He works for two weeks, goes home to France, and then returns; he has friends in Quebec and has visited Maine.

It was so hot in the albergue that I left and went outside. Later six of us went to dinner: Marilyn from Estonia, the four Italians, Miguel from Spain, and me. There is so much activity in town in the evenings and it is enjoyable to sit in the outdoor cafes. People are so pleasant and I always felt safe. At the top of this blog post, you can see the friendly atmosphere in the photo I took that day.

I did not relish the idea of going back to the hot and crowded municipal albergue, but it was my destination that night. Around 9:30 pm, as I lay on my bed reading, I could hear a man singing outside—it was a voice that was melodious beyond belief. Soon the pilgrims began to go outside, sitting down on the pavement and forming an audience for this elderly local man, who sat on the concrete bench and performed for us. He had undivided attention and commanded an audience of young hikers from around the world as he hit every note to perfection. Without any fanfare, after about forty minutes he finished his last solo and got up, and everybody clapped and cheered. He bowed and departed. Something unexpected and pleasant brightened each day, making life in the albergues quite an experience.

(posted January 27, 2015)

Madelyn Given's view from one of the tunnels on the El Camino.

El Camino: Learning Spanish History while Hiking the Trail

The fifth day I was on the trail before 6 am and hiked in total darkness with only my headlamp until 7:10 am. In the early morning I spent a long time walking on a Roman road and thought of what it would have been like here so long ago. The stars were very bright and it was so beautiful and peaceful. It was cool walking but it was September 1st and by mid-day it would be very hot.

I went slow and steady and tried to adjust to the very hot days. Walking was hard on my feet; I developed blisters and made up my mind to cut back on my mileage—no more than 30 kilometers in one day. As I was heading west, I had to stop and turn around to see the sun rise over this beautiful land. Dawn is grand out in the open country!

It was a good hike to Lorca, the first village since I left the albergue, then on to Villatuerta and Estella. In Estella, there were still banners hanging across the streets from the recent Fermin Festival—a tradition dating back many centuries—when they have the running of the bulls down the old narrow streets. The bones of St. Andrew are in one of the local churches. The palace and the government buildings are typical of the grand Spanish style.

In the nearby town of Ayegui, I came to the Fuente del Vino, where there are two fountains, one for agua and the other for vino, supplied by the winemaker Bodegas Irache (established 1891). Since I began the el Camino, this place had been mentioned in conversations: it is the one and only place on the entire trail where you are offered free wine! No one is there to supervise, and when I arrived alone, no one else was there. Soon a few hikers caught up to me and we all toasted each other, “Buen el Camino!” I only wetted my lips; it was still morning and cold water tastes best while hiking. This was wine growing territory and I was walking through vineyards dating back to the twelfth century.

I walked a long track over rolling hills, crossing roads and going over medieval bridges, past farms and farmlands, over streams, past abandoned buildings, and under a high Roman aqueduct. The trail went under roads through tunnels decorated with graffiti, as you can see in the photo at the top of this blog post. I continued on to Azqueta. It was hot by this time of day and all up hill.

I met Kim, from Korea, on the trail and we walked together for the rest of the day. For miles and miles as I walked I could see an ancient fortress sitting at the top of a distant mountain. This was just above the town where I was headed: Villamayor de Monjardin. The castle had been captured from the Moors in the tenth century and Charlemagne had won a battle here.

When we entered Villamayor de Monjardin, Kim and I were so hot and tired that we took the first albergue we saw. It was a new, private, small one and cost a few euros more, but it was a welcome change from the big albergues. At evening Mass, one of the three young priests who I had met hiking on the trail asked me to do a reading. I declined because I was in shorts, as all my other clothes were in the washer or dryer at the albergue!

Carrying everything in a backpack for almost two months means you go light: you take only what you wear (several layers). In most cases it works out. Later that evening Kim and I walked about the town and enjoyed a meal in an outdoor café. Every day was eventful, fun, and a great learning experience.

(posted January 6, 2015)