Thursday, August 23, 2012

Camino de Santiago

After one of my less eventful train rides, my Camino adventure got off to a flying start (literally) when I suddenly realised we were at my station (cos an announcement would be too much to ask for). Clambered over my apparently unconscious seatmate (he would have had some surprise wake the hell up bruises when he finally returned to consciousness), grabbed my bags and, seeing as the train had just stated rolling away from the platform I did the only sensible thing, and jumped. Can't say as the security guard on the platform was quite as impressed with my feat of daring as I was, but then my Spanish is so bad he could have been offering me a job as a stunt double for some famous Spanish movies star, guess we'll never know :-)
Anyway set off to see what Ponferrada had to offer, which at 5 am is not a lot. But there was a castle and I was right in time for the pilgrims to be starting out for the day so I could, all creepy like, trace their steps back until I eventually found an Albergue (pilgrim hostel) and a helpful pilgrim who spoke enough english to make sense of my pathetic Spanish and mime routine to help me get a credencial (a passport for the camino to prove you really were crazy enough to walk as far as you say you did). And then I walked. For 12 hours and over 33km I walked through towns and villages, up and down hills, through woods and vineyards and into the occasional church. So that was day one. Made it to my first night's stop, snagged a bed in the Albergue and despite having lost all feeling in my feet several kms earlier (probably for the best) I was feeling pretty happy with how well I'd adjusted to hiking all day with a full pack, something I've not done in years.
And then I woke up feeling like a particularly aggressive croquet team had decided to use me as target practice during the night.
The next 7 days continued about the same, though gradually getting shorter (in duration if not distance). Set out about an hour before sunrise each morning, which was the only time you had to worry about getting lost as the yellow arrows marking the way were sometimes tricky to see in the dark. Usually got 8-12 km done before finding a trackside cafe for coffee and toast with the other early starters. Averaged about 20-30km per day, trying to find somewhere to sleep by mid afternoon. Gradually my muscles adjusted, my pack grew lighter as worn out clothes were discarded or little things were left behind while re-packing in the dark. Got blisters on my blisters and found muscles I'd long since forgotten ever existed. Occasionally would find someone moving at the same pace to walk with for a bit, but mostly enjoyed the solitude, exchanging 'hola's and 'buen camino's with other travellers along the way.
In the last few days, with the trail growing more crowded, and now fairly certain I would make it to Santiago with plenty of time to spare, my afternoons (once a bed had been secured for the night) were free to explore the area, sample the local cuisine, mingle with my fellow peregrinos or simply sleep. Enjoyed a few communal dinners and plenty of laughs, even if I didn't know what was being said most of the time.
It was an amazing experience, and the stunning scenery, sense of community and challenge of it more than made up for the aches, blisters and bruises along the way. Would love to come back and do the whole thing someday!
Arrived at the beautiful cathedral in Santiago today just in time for the noon pilgrim mass (didn't stay long as being neither Catholic our able to speak Spanish I was fairly lost), and with plenty of time to look around this place I'd walked so far to see, pick up my compostela (certificate of completion) and now comes the wait for the train back to Madrid and a (comparatively) relaxing week at Pueblo Inglés.

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