Monday, August 19, 2013

Why are you closed on MONDAY of all days? To Cornellana, then.

Leaving Escamplero

We were as usual the last ones to leave the albergue at the shockingly late hour of 8am (for some reason these peregrinos were more fanatical about starting early than the ones on the Camino del Norte...). Because there was no hospitaliero (host) at the albergue, the last to leave had to go give the key back to the restaurant down the street. I returned the key and walked on. 

The difference with this Camino was that everything was more gray in the mornings - there was mist everywhere, it was more cloudy, and in general it was a bit cooler. Not to say that it wasn't gorgeous, of course. 

In our never-ending quest to find happiness with the three different walking paces of Leah, Kayla, and I, it became by job to buy lunch food in the next town (which happened to be Grado).


... is mixed up with their days. Well, not really. But Grado is famous in Asturias for it's market, but it's market is open on Sundays. And since every people need a day of rest, if you work on Sunday then your day off is on Monday. Guess what day we ended up going through Grado? Yep, Monday. 

I got to Grado around 11am and went straight for the center of town for some lunch (I was completely out of food) and wifi. The wifi didn't work so I just ended up eating a small bocadillo (sandwich) and café con leche (coffee with milk) and reading some of my book before hunting for a supermarket in the closed town. Of course I had a really hard time finding anything, so all I bought was canned peaches, real peaches, and a box of cereal bars. There was absolutely no cheap cheese or baguette or anything of that kind, so we were going to have to rely on our sardine and tuna stores today for lunch. 

After Grado the path was straight uphill - we were not stopping at San Juan de Villapeñada, which was halfway up the steep hill, but our goal was to make it to Cornellana. Part of the way up, I struggle-hiked next to a French man named Bernard who did not speak very good English. It was talking to him that I realized I don't know French - between words in English, Spanish, and French, we basically figured out that we were both computer people and that we were both walking with people who were a bit slower than we were. But beyond that, the communication was minimal. He walked on to San Juan de Villapeñada while I stopped to wait for Leah and Kayla at the top of the steep uphill.


We got to Cornellana around 6pm. The albergue was in a corner of a hard-to-find abandoned monastery, but eventually we found our way there. There was a washer and dryer, and all of our friends from the night before. While our clothes were washing, I walked into the town and bought a ton of pasta, vegetables, and pasta fixings. We were so hungry that the three of us ate all the food that I had bought - and went through a bottle of cidra. I also bought milk and chocolate cereal to test our 30km+ hypothesis...

The next morning we split from our new-found friends again (we get up around 7:30am, already later than when many of the other peregrinos start walking) and aimed for a 30km day to Tineo. 

Reflection time

At this point it is getting easier to deal with hiking at different paces - we've figured out a system where we split up earlier on in the hike and only regroup at maximum 2 points during the day, for meals. We have started carrying our own shares of food, and getting to the albergue earlier is OK. It is nice to have people with you sometimes, and it is nice to be alone sometimes. Overall, friends are worth the small annoyances that come with them. It is already 14 days into the Camino, and I don't see a change in my attitude. I was hoping the Camino would make me more forgiving, more patient, more relaxed than I was before. But two weeks in I am still hoping there will be a magic change....

I do sometimes walk and hear small snippets of poetic phrases pop into my head; it would be nice to see if anyone had written a book of Camino poems that talk about sore feet, nice views, sounds, smells, tastes, the constant yellow arrows, and the whole concept of "what is the Way". I haven't heard about any, but many peregrinos cite Ithaka as a poem that reminds of the sights and sounds and feelings of the Camino.

Tomorrow I want to go 30+km - I did buy milk and chocolate cereal for a reason. We've had two easier days of hiking (in terms of distance), and I am excited to get 10km straight uphill before our push to Tineo!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Primitivo Day 1: Asturias and Escamplero

The start in Oviedo

Today was our first day on the Camino Primitivo - not only was Leah coming off of two days rest, but it also made sense for us to start this new thing slowly and only go about 12km today. The goal was to end up in El Escamplero, the first albergue our book provided along the Primitivo. 

Taking advantage of the fact that we didn't get kicked out of an albergue at 7am, we slept until 10. Then we just went downstairs to our El Tayuelu tavern and got tortilla española (omlette with potatoes), complete with a side dose of our favorite wifi. Leah decided to finally throw out the bag of frozen peas she had been using to ice her leg so we won't have to carry it, and we decided to try to find groceries for our lunch. The problem was that we had yet again found ourselves in a major city on a Sunday. 

Sunday is a holy day in Catholic Spain, so everything is closed on Sundays. It took us a long while to find a place that would sell us some groceries, but we ended up buying bread, tuna, and beans for our lunch. We found a bakery to buy sweet pastries for our midday snack - no one can resist the delicious. It also magically happened that I dropped my Spanish cell phone, rendering it completely incapable of making calls. Since at this point Kayla still did not have a cell phone, we only had Leah's phone between us. We hoped this would be enough...

After all the morning adventure, we only managed to leave Oviedo at 1pm. Given that we had no idea where the Camino was through Oviedo, we were lucky to run into two women (who we would later meet as Susana and the Norwegian woman) who pointed us in the right direction. On the way out of town I saw an internet cafe and sat there for about half an hour while Leah and Kayla went ahead (we figured this would be ok, since I walked faster than they did anyway). 

Walking through Asturias

Asturias is different. For one, we are no longer walking by the sea. To give you an idea, here is a map:

The red is the Camino del Norte (the Northern Way), and the green is the Camino Primitivo (the Primitive Way). While the northern route we had been talking so far had been close to the coast, the primitive way was more inland. This means the climate was different (for one, there was less breeze, and it was hotter during the day), but it also meant that we were at higher elevation more in the mountains, and it was colder at night. It also meant the sounds of the ocean were too far to be heard. 

Sensory information was replaced: the low rumble of ocean waves was replaced by the clamor of cowbells. 

The salt small is replaced by a faint smell of cow dung, and the insects seem 1000 times louder. Of course, there are still blackberries lining the sides of the trail, but fewer than before. The mountains (I assume they are the Picos de Europa) are never far from your sight, looming behind you as you walk. It is true that there are fewer people, fewer villages. Finally, we have found the real hiking. 

The villages themselves are more quaint. Every house or complex seems to have a hórreo - a type of granary used to store and dry corn and other food. 

And of course, the views of the countryside are always stunning.

El Escamplero

We had been warned to  not expect as much direct hospitality at the albergues on the Primitivo, and the first albergue on the Primitivo was no different. There was no hospitaliero - you had to go to the one restaurant in the town of Escamplero to check in to the albergue (the first one has to get the key from there too). I got there at 4, so I had plenty of time to relax. When Leah and Kayla got to the albergue in the evening, we and all the other peregrinos staying at the albergue went out to eat dinner at the one restaurant in town. Complete of course with cider sangría - darn good if you ask me. 

We were quite the motley crew: our new Polish friend Susanna, a Polish man in his 30s, a Norwegian woman in her 30s who had done the Camino Francés the year before, a young German guy from Dortmund, a French man in his 30s, and us three silly Americans. We had a great dinner, for the first time with a large group of other peregrinos (aside from my adventure in Güemes). It seemed like the start of a family. 

Back at the albergue the Norwegian woman was trying to lighten her load, so Kayla acquired a set of plastic camping bowls and I acquired some more basic first aid supplies.

Looking ahead

The promise of a washing machine tomorrow sounded like a better promised land than anything we had ever had before - I was flat out of clean underwear for more than 3 days at this point, and my pants had not been washed the entire trip. I was ready to get back to walking a lot and washing out the salt stains from the knees of my pants. Today was 12km and I was hungry for more!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Promised Land #2: Santander, #3: Oviedo, the Primitivo Decision Point

Leaving Güemes

That morning I didn't rush to get up - I read before I went to bed and still got a quiet and calm sleep, waking up naturally before my alarm at 7am. Breakfast was again communal, with tea, coffee, Cola-Cao, biscuits, and jam. The usual Spanish breakfast. I ate, chatted with some more new people, and left. I shook Ernesto's hand and thanked him for his hospitality. 

Walking down the hill from the albergue I was recognized by a family who had heard me translate the hermita discussion. I walked faster than them, but I stayed with them until the split-off between the three options to Santander. We all decided that we would take the scenic route, which didn't exactly follow the Camino, but hugged the coast and eventually ended up where you needed to go. 

We knew that there was a ferry from the village of Somo to Santander, so our objective was just to walk along the coast until we got to Somo, then take the ferry. Alba (the daughter of the family that I met) and I walked faster than her parents, so after making the requisite conversation with them we split off and walked the 15km along the coast to Somo. 

Walking up and down the sand dunes is just like walking through the snow without snowshoes - I was post-holing through the sand, and when we got back to the road I had to spend a few minutes emptying my socks and shoes of sand. 

All throughout the 15km, Alba and I communicated in Spanish - we talked about our education, what we were doing now, and exchanged stories and stereotypes of Spaniards and Americans. We got to the boat dock in Somo after not really having followed the Camino, but all the time we were walking we saw both the dock and Santander, so we knew we were on the right track. 

At 11am, I left Alba to wait for her parents at the dock, and paid the 3 euros for the river crossing to Santander. I ran into none other than the German woman I was talking to the night before, so we sat with each other at the back of the boat admiring the view. 

"the shoes and water incident"

(One of the sad disclaimers in all of this is that I don't know this German woman's name. If she told it to me, that information is lost in the sands of time. If not, we never talked while needing to know each other's names, so it never seemed relevant. Lastly, the chances of our seeing each other again in life is not zero, but negligible, so I did not make an effort to get her contact information or email or name, because I knew that if we were destined to see each other again, it would happen. So this embarrassing story about her will never be tainted with her name.)

She had already changed into her sandals and strapped her shoes to her pack, so  her feet could get some rest. This day was her last on the Camino, as she was taking a bus back to San Sebastián the next day and flying back to Germany. When we were approaching the dock in Santander, she grabbed her pack and slung it over her shoulder. A few seconds later, we both turned around to look back at the water after hearing a large SPLASH sound. She gave a cry of surprise at seeing her hiking boots (Asolo approach shoes, no less), floating away in the water. 

Thankfully, the boat was basically docked and the shoes were no more than 20 meters from the dock shore. So of course, she wanted to go in and save her shoes. We ran off the ferry and she handed me her pack. I sat and watched as she quickly took off her sandals, shirt, shoes, and glasses, and jumped in after her shoes. She was very athletic: a climber, hiker, and biker. So presumably she was a good swimmer as well - it took her no more than a few powerful strokes to get to her shoes. Even though she couldn't see, she skillfully dodged both the fishing line off the side of the pier and the stares and points of the people along the pier. 

She got out triumphantly holding her shoes, carefully put on a second pair of dry clothes, and we walked into the center of town. We parted ways as she went to the municipal albergue in Santander while I went to search for Leah and Kayla. I tried to take some pictures of Santander, but my camera phone was not working, so I only ended up with one artsy picture of Santander. 


I found the girls in an internet cafe (cheap! 2 euros an hour) inside the bus station in Santander. We wandered around to find menu del día for lunch as usual. We were on our way back to the bus station to find the schedules to Oviedo, but we ran into German girl and Romanian girl in a square in Santander, ended up chatting for a few hours and grabbing a beer.  We didn't see any of Santander, nor did I want to. I (as always) wanted to keep going, since I didn't need a rest day. Leah's feet were feeling better from a two-day rest, and Kayla had gotten the chance to sleep off her death march the day before.

How Kayla got to Santander

When we were sharing stories of our experiences the day before (I of Güemes, Leah of Santander), Kayla shared her story for how she ended up in Santander: in short, she got to Bareyo exhausted, decided to press on, and ended up being driven the last 10km or so along the highway to Somo. She met up with Leah around 7pm in Santander, and they spent a relaxing evening doing laundry and relaxing in Santander while I was having a good time in Güemes. 

Where to go from Santander: continue or change trails?

The day we were in Santander was August the 17th - 12 days into our official walking, and around 14 days from when I had to leave Santiago de Compostela. At the moment, it had taken us 12 days to walk about 275 kms, and along the Camino del Norte route we had another 500 km to go. If we wanted to get a feel for a different kind of trail (more mountainous, more up and down, less road), we had the option of splitting off to the Camino Primitivo at Oviedo, and at the same time covering some lost ground and making closer progress to Santiago. We could not reasonably make it another 500km in only a few more days of time than we had already walked, so we wanted to bus through from Santander to Oviedo (about 200km), and set a target of 300km from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela in the next 15 days or so.

Ultimately we decided that we wanted a slightly varied experience on the Camino - we had already done 12 days of the Camino del Norte and wanted to see some real mountains on the Primitivo. So our decision was to just bus to Oviedo and start on the Primitivo the next day.

Santander to Oviedo

We only made it to the bus station (and got on the bus) at 5:50pm, scheduled to arrive in Oviedo at around 8pm. We made it to the bus stop just in the nick of time, so I was sent on a quick 3-second grocery store run to get Nestea and cookies for the bus ride. Turns out we didn't actually need it, since the bus ride was basically like a short plane flight - it came with an attendant, wifi, infinite drinks, and some snacks. (For future reference, this 2-hour luxury bus ride with the SUPRA company cost us 25 euros each). 

In Oviedo... at least 4 mistakes

Oviedo where we were headed was the capital of the Spanish province of Asturias, best-known for it's cider. We clearly couldn't start hiking that late at night, so we were going to spend the night at the albergue (camp outside, if nothing else) and then start the next morning. 

Asking at the bus information center is where mistake #2 happened: asking for the albergue and not asking for a map - we got a bus stop instead. This was mistake #2 (mistake #1 was not looking this information up either on the wifi-enabled bus or at the internet cafe in Santander). Mistake #3: getting off the bus too early. Mistake #4: on Leah's 3G-and-Google-maps-enabled device, clicking the address for the "albergue juvenil" rather than the "albergue." (Remember my post about the meanings of different Spanish accommodations more than a year before...). This meant that this was a "youth hostel" rather than an official albergue for the Camino. This particular albergue juvenil happened to be not only way out on the outskirts of town (which to us was not surprising, given that the albergue was either on the outskirts of town or in the center next to the church), but also happened to be part of the international hostel association. This meant bad news for us, since we could not stay there without this international hostel card that we did not have. And we couldn't even buy said hostel card directly at the hostel. (Later when Leah and I were discussing this business model we came to the conclusion that it was basically the dumbest business model ever...)

So here we were, 9pm, on the outskirts of town, not knowing where the albergue was, not having any public transportation options, and not having any food or knowledge of where the Camino was. We didn't even know whether the yellow arrow blazes were as prominent here, or whether they changed into something completely different. 

We were lucky that the man at the albergue juvenil took pity on us (and the fact that I spoke good Spanish helped immensely - he was not that comfortable with English), giving us a map and a list of pensiones to try. We called the closest one and asked how much it would be for three people to stay in a 2-person room (we did after all have all of our camping gear, so we would be totally OK sleeping on the floor. As already established before, a roof is the most important feature). Often we would be forced to stay in a 3-person room (which was of course more expensive), but finally one pensión agreed to let us stay. We walked there (yet another 30 minutes in our exhaustion) and negotiated the price down to 30 euros for the night. Kayla ended up sleeping on the floor, but it was Leah's or my turn next). 

El Tayuelu, and cider

The pensión was called El Tayuelu, and it was also connected to a Sidrería (like a tavern, but specializing in cider, which is called sidra in Spanish). We got dinner there (tapas, specifically chipirones, which are fried whole squids) and extravagantly-poured cider. The cider tradition is that it needs to aerate before it can be drunk (so it is sweeter), so the waiters take a bottle way over their heads in outstretched arm and pour the cider into a cup held in the other hand as low as possible. There's a great show, a great splash, and a great hurry as the buyers of the cider try to drink it as fast as possible. Delicious and alcoholic and sweet. We went to bed late, enjoying our opportunity to sleep in, before starting off on our first short leg of the Primitivo the next day.

Thus ended Day 12. For me, Güemes -> Santander -> Oviedo. The end of the Camino del Norte route, the start point of the Camino Primitivo.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The most unique albergue on the Norte: Güemes

tl;dr - stop at the albergue in Güemes, on purpose.

Hasta la vista (in Santander), baby

We spent the night in the 25-person room at the albergue, and I woke up still exhausted. (It didn't help that I had tossed and turned all night from having a headache and runny nose, needing to take a roll of toiler paper from the albergue to use that day). But I felt invigorated from taking two half-days at the beach and not walking a lot (by that I mean sub-20km) for two days. We had 28 or so kilometers to go until Güemes, and another 20 or so (turns out it was less than that) to go to Santander. We had never pulled a 40+ day, and despite Leah's feet being destroyed, and despite my head feeling like it was the size of a watermelon, I felt up for the task. I knew that pushing forward would clear my head of all it's clutter.

Leah's feet were screwed. Like, completely screwed. If it hurts more to walk in flip flops than in hiking boots, you know your feet deserve a break. We decided that Kayla and I were going to keep walking and Leah would take a bus to Santander. She needed a day-or-two break anyway, and Kayla and I wanted to keep walking.

We had breakfast at the albergue, an early one, left Leah to find a bus from town, and headed off, either planning on meeting in Santander either that night or the next night. Kayla and I gave Leah our map of the town (that also showed where the Camino was out of town) and headed out. We had a really hard time finding the path, but a number of helpful locals pointed us the way. 

We eventually found our way out of Santoña along the beach and had to scramble up and down a cliff that connected the beaches of Santoña and Noja. 

Note the arrows - they are everywhere. 

The beach stretched for miles - we walked at least 3km along the beach or the path next to it. It is hard to walk on the sand, weighed down by your pack. Especially when your shoes are mesh and sand gets into them all the time. The beaches are amazing - whether they are completely empty except for a single couple enjoying the good weather, rocks jutting out along the sand, or a lone young runner along the waves. It is an amazing feeling, standing alone along the shore at peace with the waves and the salt and the sand, seeing only a few people in the distance. 

We passed a camping-albergue, a small supermarket in Helgueras (where we were adventurous and bought a can of canned octapus (pulpo) to supplement our otherwise strict regimen of tuna, sardines, baguette, and tomatoes. We walked into Noja (another 3km from Helgueras) to get food for dinner, each carrying enough for ourselves. We figured Leah would be fine, since she was going to Santander. 

The route

Our book map looked like this: 

so we thought the signs would be hard to follow. Turns out, they were easy, and took us through San Miguel de Meruelo and eventually to Bareyo. We did not pass through Castillo but did pass through Noja. So basically, it was really unclear where exactly we went, but we got to Bareyo eventually. 

Kayla and I split up almost immediately after Noja - I continued to Bareyo until about 3pm when the temping sign of "café, wifi" caught my eye. I had been walking along the road for a while so I was almost tempted. But I thought Güemes can't be that far, so I just paused for a quick granola and water break and pushed on. 


I got to Güemes, expecting a slightly-larger-than-the-usual-10-house-town, but was greeted by none other than my favorite café-church combination. I did not see a sign for an albergue until I got to the edge of town, so I stopped to ask for directions. My pamphlet said 1km off the path was the albergue, so I eventually saw the sign (and many interesting Camino-shell-signs):

until I eventually found the place. 

It was the earliest I had ever arrived at an albergue - it was barely 4pm. I spent some time admiring the pristine cleanliness, the washers / dryers, the triple-bunks, the mess hall. I also spent some time chatting with our various friends we'd met along the way - the French couple from Portugalete, the Spanish couple from Laredo, a few others.

The most unique albergue

When I first arrived at the albergue, I walked into a group of 10 people of various ages and nationalities, some wearing hiking clothes and some wearing farmer clothes and some wearing nicer clothes. There were a few small children with their parents or grandparents as well. The group was sitting on chairs and benches outside the foyer of a two-story ranch house. 

I came up the hill and was immediately beckoned to sit, given a glass of water, and told to relax. An older man was in the middle of a song with his guitar, accompanied by his wife singing. I sat transfixed at the scene before me - I felt like I had just entered into a surreal, musical world. For 15 minutes I was lost in the Spanish guitar, the voices, the melody, and the atmosphere of rural northern Spain. When the songs ended, one of the volunteers at the albergue checked me in and showed me to my room.

I was left mostly to myself for a few hours to nurse my blisters and relax until the next day. I got to admire the triple-bunks, the cleanliness, the washer/dryer (which I didn't actually use because I thought it was too expensive), and the relaxed atmosphere. A German group was in the room next to mine, so there was the low chatter of German. I spent some time lying in the sun reading my book, enjoying just being outside and relaxed in such a nice atmosphere. 

At 7pm, we had a "peregrinos meeting" where Ernesto, the owner of the albergue, explained the history of the albergue and the various ways to get to Santander from Güemes. 

There were about 30 people in the albergue that night, each with his own unique group and unique story to share.

The history of the albergue

Ernesto, who sported a 2-inch-long white beard and exuded the wisdom of decades, explained in great detail his life and the story of the albergue. A large portion of the guests there that night did not speak Spanish but spoke good English, so a translator was necessary. Fortunately for me (I speak great English and pretty decent Spanish), a British girl had already befriended Ernesto and was chosen to be the translator. She did ask me a few times when she didn't catch Ernesto's phrases to translate, but mostly I got to enjoy and listen to the story.
  • The house the albergue is in was Ernesto's family's home. It was vacated in the 50s by his family, but he moved back here to restore and rejuvenate it around 1975, at the start of the popularity of the Camino del Norte.
  • Ernesto studied to be a priest (in Spanish, a cura) and worked for many years in a small remote village at the top of a mountain. He showed us the picture of the village he worked in (and the trail he used to walk up to it), and it made me glad for the existance of motorized vehicles. 
  • After he finished his studies and working for a time, Ernesto took a "doctorado de la vida" as he called it, traveling the world for two years, stopping in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. 
  • Ernesto loved traveling and meeting people so much that he wanted to bring that experience back to his native home, and decided to open an albergue on the Camino del Norte. 
  • The albergue would be a meeting place for travelers, peregrinos, and enthusiasts. The payment would be by donation only, with each paying as much as he thought appropriate for the services and experience he was given. 
  • Those who wanted to stay longer at the albergue could volunteer their time in exchange for room and board for (almost) as long as they wanted. (For example, I met an Irish woman who was working at the albergue for 3 months before going back to Ireland to re-start her new career as an accountant). 
  • Those who stayed at the albergue were encouraged to share their stories and experiences with one another, and bring their positive values back to their home societies.
The end of the meeting also included a song by the man who was singing earlier, revealed to be Ernesto's cousin. 

We were also explained the three different ways to get to Santander: 
  1. 10km along the highway (...groan from the peanut gallery)
  2. 13km half-highway, half-coast
  3. 15km along the coast (cheer!)
Right then and there I decided that I was going to try to go for the coastal route - if I started early like everyone else was bound to do, it would take me only 4 hours maximum and I would meet Leah and Kayla in Santander before lunch.


After the peregrino's meeting there was a communal dinner, cooked and served by the volunteers and full-time staff of the albergue. I sat and chatted with a German woman working at Mercedes-Benz (her adventure stories made me miss my fellow MITOCers and their crazy world travels), a Romanian woman recently-emigrated to the UK starting a new career, a Korean couple, and a plethora of Spanish couples young and old. The young women who were hiking alone were more drawn to talking to each other, since we all were eager to share our stories and experiences. During dinner Ernesto made us all make a communal toast (not religious of course) and pointedly showed us where the donation box is. 

The hermita

After dinner Ernesto needed yet another translator to talk about the hermita on the albergue property. The word hermita in Spanish is most closely translated as a "hermit's lair" without the negative connotations. It is a place to work, sleep, eat, think, pray, and study. 

Ernesto's hermita was an 8-sided structure (not circular to facilitate the building of benches along the inside walls), painted and decorated by a Brazilian artist friend of Ernesto's. Ernesto spent some time explaining the significance and story of the paintings along the walls: 

The Camino is a journey of life, for the heart and the soul as well as the feet. The travelers are laden with their bags and in various stages of tiredness and exhaustion, looking down at the trail for the yellow arrows that mark the path. The shells mark the signs of the Camino, their use for the peregrinos multi-faceted.

The outstretched (multi-racial) hands are asking the universe for a good experience of the Camino. The eyes are constantly searching for the right Way, and the feet are always sore from the day's exertion.

The peregrinos are always searching, always looking, always reaching. They are sometimes lost, discouraged, confused. They are reaching forward towards something, sometimes unclear about what they are searching for or where it is. They all think they are searching for the yellow arrows that are pointing them along the Way.

Some travelers are so focused on the trail that they only follow the yellow arrows without regard for anyone else or their troubles. But some (man, woman, black, white, all kinds) help each other through the troubles of Camino (and of life). Those who help are REALLY the ones following the Way, as shown by the angels bringing down a yellow arrow to the altruistic group.

The Camino is a place to share meals, stories, experiences, and life. It is a place to meet other travelers and experience the goodness that is inside each ordinary person. People walk the Camino to be reminded of the ordinary pleasures of life.

Once you have found that the Camino is about meeting people, helping each other, sharing experiences, and finding the goodness inside yourself, then you have succeeded in finishing the Camino. The end of the Camino is not in Santiago de Compostela (and that is why it is not depicted here), but the end is inside each one of us, as soon as we discover the goodness that is inside each other. The world is brighter for these discoveries, and we need them for the survival of humanity at large.

And onwards

I eventually heard from Leah that Kayla had made it to Santander (I would get the full story later), but because I had such a great time meeting travelers in Güemes, I forgot about the original plan to meet here. I went to sleep happy I had met these interesting people, and glad that I had accidentally stopped in Güemes for the night. If you follow the Camino del Norte, make sure to stop in Güemes, but on purpose.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Better beaches and communal showers

An uneventful morning (other than the constant gorgeous countryside of course) before a coffee / wifi break in Liendo. In some towns, the concept of "town" is stretched quite a bit. Like in Liendo, which was bigger than many towns we passed through. But here, the main restaurant, bar, and grocery store (and hospitaliero for the albergue in the off-hours) was actually the same place. After stocking up and eating, we decided our aim was for Santoña that day. The map said 23km, and from Liendo (we had already gone 11ish), totally doable for the afternoon. 

We stopped by the albergue on our way out of town to talk to the hospitaliero (on a tip from a lovely Spanish couple, who told me to ask about the shortcut), who told us not to take the Camino. She said we would run into a sign along the Camino for a left turn, but that she had written a "NO" on it, just to make sure people won't go there. According to her, it's a terrible hike - poorly maintained, lots of ups and downs, and completely wooded with no good views of neither the valley below or the coast across the valley. Sure enough, we found that sign: 

And found some other Camino folks sitting confused next to it by the side of the road (including our French guy friends from the church a few days before). 

But it turns out, the shortcut along the highway was definitely worth it. We were rewarded after a few kilometers walking with gorgeous views of the biggest beach we had seen so far (even bigger than at Islares!). Turns out, the beach was 5km long!
We were so tired from the incredible heat that day that after acquiring our map in the town center, all we could do was be exhausted.
So we just called that afternoon a beach afternoon, celebrating with some tinto de verano (the first and only of the entire trip). 

When we were done at the beach, we walked all the way down to the end of the beach, where across the small channel we saw the town of Santoña. For 2 euros, we got a 30-second ferry across from a tiny boat that just pushed up on the shore of the beach on the Laredo end and bumped into the dock on the other. 

The municipal albergue was far away from the center of town - at least 1.5 km. But the cool part was that it was part of the YMCA building that was built over a marina. Santoña was surrounded by three sides on water, so the albergue just happened to be right over the water, overlooking the path back towards Laredo. It's external doors closed at 10, so we quickly ran to town, had a menú del día for dinner, and ran back. Then we had to take showers. 

What we didn't realize until the morning after was that the showers for the albergue were the same showers that were shared with the YMCA - downstairs. The rooms were all upstairs, holding about 25 people each. Each room also had a shower, but they were YMCA-style communal showers. This was the first time we had ever seen communal showers in the albergues; it is normal in gyms in the US, but we had never seen them in Europe. Not a problem, just pretend you're at the gym and all is well. The snoring, creaking, sniffling room of 25 people meant a decent sleep but not the best we'd had all trip.

A 10-day reflection

At this point in the trip, we had walked 10 days. I wasn't sure how I felt about the pace, the group dynamic, my own Camino experience in general. The day was a good one - we did have tinto de verano and the beach, but I was getting the feeling that we were behind what I considered to be our ideal schedule. We had one very long day to Santander, or two shorter days if we stopped at Güemes in the albergue there. Leah's tendons were not doing well, Kayla still didn't have a phone, and I still felt responsible for the group. Over the past 10 days, I felt like I was giving up my ability to go faster in exchange for sticking together with the group. I did enjoy spending time with my friends, but it wasn't how I was envisioning my Camino. I counted, and at this pace we would have to bus through some sections of the Camino. In principle, the Camino is not about how far you walk or how fast you walk, but it's about the journey you take while you walk. And the people you meet. And the experiences you have. For me, I felt like all these things were true. If I could have all the experiences, meet all the people, make the journey, and NOT have to bus through any sections, wouldn't that be a more complete Camino?

Today we had accomplished day 10: Guriezo to Santoña, 23km, and I was ready to push forward.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monokinis and The Beetle War: Bushes, Beaches, and Churches

Getting up in the morning in Portugalete, Leah and I were getting nervous about not having heard from Kayla. We were definitely less nervous than the last time we lost Kayla, but this time we had seen her last at 3pm the day before. Now it was 8am and our plan was to go to the albergue (she knew where it was) and hopefully that would be our rendezvous point. Thank goodness in the middle of this conversation my phone rang and it was Kayla. She was waiting for us at the albergue. 

We finished our breakfast (again of tortilla española and coffee, at a bar inside the town this time), taking advantage of being in a town to get some non-supermarket food to eat. 


We met Kayla at the albergue (which turned out to indeed be quite a walk from the center of town - we never would have made it the day before with our pained feet) and heard her side of the story. Apparently she got to Castro-Urdiales around 8pm and felt too tired to walk to the albergue (sound familiar? Apparently Kayla had been having a "death march" of her own), so she just went to the church at the end of the beach, hoping it would be there. When it didn't seem likely, she just found some bushes between two properties, set out her sleeping bag and pad, and spent the night in the bushes. Way more intense than me and Leah. But at least we had a shower. Regardless, second breakfast was in order, so we split our food, ate breakfast, and continued onward.


The walk that day promised to be gorgeous and along the coast. It definitely delivered. 

The town was Islares, in Cantabria. The campground next to this enormous beach had cars from the Netherlands, France, Germany, even one from the UK. It was clearly a destination spot where families brought all their belongings and set up camp for weeks at a time for the summer. To say there were "tents" is an understatement - more like polyester palaces. And plenty of mobile homes of course.

This time, after the death march of the day before and the weather being nice, we decided to treat ourselves to a (half) day on the beach. First, of course, we had hamburgers at the beach bar for lunch. You know how you crave hamburgers after a day of hiking? How about after 9 days? Yea, I enjoyed it too. 

The mono-kini musing

Kayla and Leah both had bathing suits so their plan of attack was to change and enjoy. (They both also have a much higher tolerance for cold water than I do, so my swimming tends to last all of 5 minutes). But I did not have a bathing suit, as I was planning to use my sports bra and swim shorts instead. Or go monokini (for those who don't get the joke, a "bi-kini" has two parts, whereas a "mono-kini" only has one). But I noticed something interesting about the pattern of topless women. My misconception of European women is that they are always topless at the beach. But it seemed that I was wrong in that respect - there were definitely rules. If you were a woman going topless at the beach, you were stationary. There were no women actively swimming, jogging, or even walking while topless. If you were topless, you were sitting or lying down, most likely sunbathing. Age didn't seem to break this barrier either (unless you're a girl under the age of 12, then you just wear underwear and call it a day), since there were older women and younger women going topless, but they were all stationary. 

In light of the recognition of these rules of play, I went swimming in my sports bra and while it dried out in the sun, I napped and read (while lying down, motionless) topless. It was quite the liberating experience, since in the US toplessness at beaches is not only frowned upon, but illegal in some places. 

Churches (or, one specific church)

By the time we woke up from our beach naps (clearly having burned the back of our legs), it was 4pm and probably time to get going. The closest albergue was in El Pontarrón, some 3km away. This would only take an hour, but the next one after that would be another 10km more. No way. We were already tired so we decided we'd go for the albergue. But we had a slight problem: we didn't know exactly where it was. The Camino had followed along the highway while paralleling the beach, but now it split, and it was unclear whether the sign was pointing 300m along the highway (not along the Camino) or along the Camino (not along the highway) to the albergue. I thought it must be on the Camino, Leah thought exactly opposite. Turns out, Leah got 5 points and I got -1. She was most definitely right. 

On the plus side, we passed a supermarket along our path and got our food for the next few meals. At this point, we were resigned to tenting tonight - now we were on the lookout for a spot. Turns out, we were more lucky than we thought. Two French guys had been in the supermarket alongside us, doing very similar shopping. They spoke no English, and Leah spoke broken French. We discerned that they had started the Camino from Marseilles in France and had rarely slept in an albergue - their method was to go from church to church, sleeping in the patio out of the wind. Because they would leave so early in the morning, they would always leave before disturbing anyone.

After some half-serious deliberation about what we would do if a priest / monk / friar would come out of the church and tell us that we can't stay there (in which it was decided that I would start speaking in Russian in the hopes that he was Russian, all else failing telling him nicely in Spanish that we were peregrinos), we decided to follow the French guys to the church right next to the supermarket. There was a perfect patio with a covered roof and sheltered from the wind, so we gave it a try. 


A clear con of sleeping in a stone patio was that there were bugs. Like the giant beetle that fell from the ceiling, about three times as large as my big toe. I had a fencing fight with it just to show it who was boss (photo credit to Leah).

After that incident (and having to throw the bug multiple times off the patio to keep it from coming back), I refused to sleep without a roof over my head, so we pitched the tent. Kayla of course got the best part in the bargain because she found her two perfect trees for the hammock. 

The end of day 9 was only about 15km from Castro-Urdiales to Guriezo, but boy was it a memorable one - bushes, beaches, churches, monokinis, beetles, and French guys. Where else but on the Camino?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Day 8: "The Death March"

You know there's going to be some kind of story when the title of this post is "The Death March." I guess there's not really as much of a story as there is hurt feet. 

Portugalete - Castro-Urdiales (31km)

My getting to Portugalete early the day before meant that I had time to buy groceries for breakfast, which of course included cereal and milk (yep, the kind of milk they have in Europe that is UHT, or "ultra-heat treated," popular in hot countries like Spain as an alternative to having to refrigerate milk). I as always wanted to push onward, hard and fast. After a terrible walk the day before through the industrial wasteland that was suburban Bilbao, I wanted to get going. The chocolate cereal and milk that morning was supposed to be another data point in our test - so far, it seemed that if we ate chocolate cereal with milk in the mornings, we would go at least 30km that day. It started out a nice day - slightly overcast, so not too hot, with the promise of slightly cooler than the previous days.

A common feature of Camino paths is that there are many options - this time, there was the option of taking a "shorter shortcut" path to the small town of Pobeña, or walking along the coast starting at La Arena (a town who's name means "the beach" in Spanish). Naturally, we wanted to walk along the coast, since that was part of the reason for choosing the northern route in the first place. 

Our of Portugalete the Camino went along a very unique suburban bike path - it was an elevated bridge that circled around huge highways, through parks, and around all the clutter of the highways below. It was an elevated walkway that connected Portugalete all the way to the beach at La Arena, 10km away. I saw many people running, biking, jogging, walking, strolling, and just enjoying the day. A few other Camino-goers were about, but mostly there were elderly couples, older groups of women, and older single men getting their exercise on this mostly-flat bike path. At the point where the path diverged between Pobeña and La Arena, I stopped to look at my map and wait a bit for Leah / Kayla. A very helpful gentleman came up to tell me the way to find the Camino along the beach at La Arena, advising me that the way through Pobeña was ugly and industrial. Good, I wasn't planning on going that way anyway =).

As I got closer to La Arena around 11am, the clouds looked ominous and it started to rain. I hid in a cafe right next to the beach to use the wifi, get a coffee, and wait. Leah and Kayla joined me, so we figured we'd just have lunch there and get rid of some of the weight we were carrying. Using the intelligence I picked up from miscellaneous-stranger-on-the-bike-path, we walked along the beach to find the Camino on the other side. Kayla, as always, wanted to go swimming, but because it looked like it was going to rain and we had a long way to go today, she settled for just walking in the sand to meet us at the footbridge on the other side. The beach was gorgeous - long, sandy, with precipitous cliffs on either side. This is the view from the cafe:

Another feature of walking in a country with 15 regional languages is that the towns usually have two names - this gets especially confusing when your guide shows towns in two provinces on the same page. Do you write the name in Basque? In Gallego? In Castellano? In English? Spanglish? You get the point. One such town was the town of El Haya. I mean Kobaron. I mean Cobáron. Whatever - at some point after this town, the province of Cantabria started! This means we had walked through TWO provinces! Only 3 more to go....

Walking onward past the town of Ontón, we had the option of maybe walking along the highway to cut down on some time. It really sucks to walk along the highway, so we decided to not go that route. It was still early, it was warm, we had a tent, it would be fine. The signs were easy to follow (you never know when you enter a new province exactly how the signage was going to be), and there was a 2km-long chunk of straight uphill switchbacks. Leah and I were walking together, having gone ahead of Kayla about an hour before. We were on the hunt for a supermarket - our pamphlet said there would be one in Ontón or Baltezana (we saw none in either), so we sat in the shade to wait for Kayla and munch on some granola bars. I was hungry, so I ate 4 bars and ended up with no more in my pocket. We were going to have to find food or a supermarket soon, because we all know what happens when MICHELE HUNGRY. Waiting for an hour while reading our books, we decide that we should press on (remember, Kayla still doesn't have a phone at this point), else our hunger get the best of us. At 4pm we leave, thinking we have about 10km more to go to Castro-Urdiales (for those who are counting, this should take about 3 hours walking at a reasonable pace). I hadn't eaten all that much and we were taking long breaks after periods of intense walking on more paved roads than usual. A dull remember-we're-here pain started to develop in my feet. After taking my weight off them for a few minutes at a time it would go away, but 5 minutes of walking later would just re-ignite the dull fires. 

Our hunger overtakes us in Santullán. We see no grocery stores but see a bar - jumping at this opportunity, we get coffee and Leah's first tortilla española (in English the word "tortilla" is the flat bread we use to make wraps with, but in Castellano, tortilla española is an omlette with cheese, milk, onions, and potatoes), an incredibly filling first dinner. I even forgot about my aching feet, glad for the chance to sit down.

Asking an older man we see outside the bar for the supermarket, he points us in the direction we think Castro-Urdiales is, saying "the closest one is 2km there, in Castro." My feet were killing me. We thought we had another 4km or so along the Camino, but this man was telling us 2km to Castro. Leah's ankles were starting to hurt too, so we jumped on the chance - it was likely that the Camino didn't go past the three giant supermarkets this man was promising us. This "road" he pointed us to turned out to be CA-250 - a provincial highway between the towns. Good thing provincial highway in this part of Spain just meant one-lane road with more-than-the-occasional car on it. It did mean no sidewalks, and it did mean pavement. 

My. Feet. Hurt. It hurt to walk, and I needed my poles to make any progress at all. They had never hurt this bad before, and they both hurt equally. As I walked I did a quick mental assessment: I hadn't tripped or twisted any ankles, I hadn't stepped on anything pointy, I hadn't gotten bitten by some kind of animal. They hurt equally, which meant that the most likely candidate was just exhaustion from walking, not eating enough that day, the heat, not drinking enough water, or a combination of all of the above. I concluded I was in no immediate danger and should just press onward until the next break would come. Every few steps I would let out a grunt of exertion, and I could hear Leah behind me in a similar state. Clearly we needed to get to Castro - if it was that close - and rest. 

We passed the as-promised enormous supermarkets and made quite the show of hobbling through the aisles (Leah could walk better, so she took most of the groceries. I needed my poles so tried hard not to knock anything over while I stumbled around). We hadn't seen or heard from Kayla all day, but made sure to buy dinner and breakfast for her too, assuming we'd see her in Castro-Urdiales. 

The beach, port, and marina came soon enough - we were in the city, so we knew we would be OK. Stopping frequently along the boardwalk (but still going faster than the elderly couples going for a stroll!), we got to a tourist information booth around 7pm. The man was friendly - he gave us a map, told us a bit about Castro, and in a very nice voice explained to us that the albergue was not only 1km out of town, but it was also filled to capacity. He showed us some pensiones on the map (and the campground about 1km away). Leah and I made a show of trying to decide what was better - spending 40 euros for one night in a pensión or saving a few bucks to sleep at the campground. After hobbling in the town for a few blocks we quickly realized what the answer was - we were in no mental or physical state to walk another 1km to the campground (and a shower is always nice), so we walked to the nearest pensión and asked for a room. They were full. Next one. Also full. Damnit, we only have 3 more options! This time we call them, finally finding the last one we called (the one farthest away from us, of course) to have space. We walk there, check in, eat dinner, and hunker down to wait for Kayla. We spent 45 euros that night for the two of us to sleep in a bed, have a private shower, and not get woken up at 6am when all the other peregrinos leave. It was totally worth it, and my poor tired feet appreciated it. (Little did we know that we would walk by the albergue the next day to see that we could have just set up our tent on their lawn for free. Oh well.). 

After dinner in Castro, still not having heard from Kayla, we decided to go to sleep after getting some concession-frozen-yogurt right next to the pensión

The hot shower helped my feet, but most of all the sleep and elevation helped them get better overnight. The next morning I woke up feeling completely rejuvenated - the death march of the day before completely forgotten. No other day on the Camino felt as bad as this one did for my feet - after consulting with other peregrinos along the way, we all concluded that the hardest day is Day 8. Not only are you walking on pavement more than you are used to, but your body is weary, drained, and ready to give up. The only way you make it is if you work through the pain to keep going, onward, westward, towards Santiago. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Promised Land #1: Bilbao

We were coming up again on the city of dreams. Of hopes. Of showers, culture, an art museum, a half day of rest, the chance for internet, large supermarkets, SIM cards, and much more. To us, Bilbao was the Promised Land (#1, as it turned out. Santander, Lugo, and Santiago de Compostela would also be Promised Lands, but we wouldn't figure this out until much later).

A bit about Bilbao

Bilbao, home of the Athletic Bilbao soccer team, is the capital of the autonomous community of Viscay (also spelled Biscay or Vizcaya). It is an industrial center, a big city (population more than 350,000), an art center, and a religious center. The city is not situated on the coast, bur rather along a small river that runs near the old city. The Casco Viejo (old city) is a series of winding street with great tapas restaurants, situated right near the train station. 

From first glance it is an industrial city, but it definitely boasts lots of Basque pride. 

8/11/2013: Eskerika - Bilbao (~21km)

Starting in Eskerika, we only had to go about 21km to get to Bilbao - an easier day than we had been having so far. I got ahead of the others a short while after Zamudio. There was a huge uphill after we all stopped for a granola bar / lunch break. The panoramic view on top of the mountain overlooking Bilbao was breathtaking - it gave a little prize for the uphill climb just made. 

But it was blazing hot, so out came the sun gear! 

On the trail, I met some older Spanish men who I played leap-frog with up the mountain. The way into Bilbao was marked well enough until I went all the day downhill into the central square where there was a huge grocery store - the biggest one we'd seen so far, closed, of course, because it was Sunday and everything is closed on Sundays in Spain.  I followed the arrows until the center of town and the obviously-closed Pilgrim Information Booth, from where the arrows completely disappeared.

I had gotten a call from Leah about 45 minutes before that saying she had gotten off the trail, but was with some Spanish guys (I assume the same ones I had run into earlier) and they were taking a bus back to Bilbao. I had no way of calling Kayla (she still didn't have a phone by this point - they are hard to buy not in large cities), so I hunkered down at the place where the arrows stopped to read my book, eat the rest of my granola bars, and wait. 

When Kayla arrived about 45 minutes later, we walked to the river and sat on the steps of yet another church to wait for Leah. Apparently we were magically still on the Camino, because Casey, a friend we had met in San Sebastián, walked by, so he sat down with us and chatted. At this point I was famished because I had eaten too many granola bars that morning, so I was probably not in the happiest mood, but with trips like these you have to learn to take what you're given. Thankfully, Leah had both GoogleMaps and GPS on her phone, so she met us at the church 20 minutes later. At this point it was 6pm, and the albergue in Bilbao was another 3km away up a large hill (and far away from the center of town) so we followed Casey to the hostel he was staying at, the Bilbao Central Hostel

We got to the hostel and ended up sitting outside for a while (the buzzer didn't work and the guy at the desk wouldn't believe me when I called so we only got in when he realized he hadn't been seeing people come up in a while) with a crowd of 8+ people. 

Casey didn't have a reservation, but got one of the two remaining beds. He nicely asked the guy at reception for "las chicas gratis" ("the girls are free, right?") but got a laugh instead. There was no more space for the three of us, but the receptionist and I had a small discussion about the facts. We needed a place to sleep and we had sleeping bags so could definitely use a floor. He wanted more money and publicity for the hostel. Win-win! He let us into a room on the second floor that the hostel owned but didn't rent out. For 8 euros (instead of the 15 for the "normal" hostel approach) each, we got this "private room" with access to the showers, living room, computers, and laundry on the first floor. We could leave our stuff in there unattended, and all of us could simultaneously leave our phones to charge without worrying that they would be stolen. The catch was two-fold: the air mattresses in the room were the loudest air mattresses I'd ever slept on, and it was unclear about whether we were actually supposed to be on that second floor at all. His warnings about security cameras and not to touch anything might have meant nothing at all, but we followed his instructions to the letter. 

For dinner we wandered into the old city for some pinchos as an appetizer (essentially single-person portions of some kind of tapas, served on a small piece of bread) and then went to a restaurant to get wine and a piece of meat for dinner. Fed, showered, and relaxed, we went to bed on our squeaky air mattresses. 

8/12/2013: Bilbao - Portugalete (the short way, 15km)

Laundry and internet are luxuries, as we quickly realized, so we did laundry and internet in the morning at the hostel while we had the chance. On the way to the museum in the morning, we even passed by an outdoor gear store and walked in. Leah decided ultimately that she didn't need to carry both a towel AND an extra shirt, so she forewent buying a camp towel and continued to use her extra shirt for the rest of the trip. 

The one thing Leah and Kayla wanted to do in Bilbao was go to the Guggenheim. I had already been there last year, so I decided I'd rather have a calm walk and relax at the next albergue. 

The weird interesting thing about the Guggenheim in Bilbao is that it was designed by none other than Frank Gehry, designer of MIT's Stata Center. 

(photo taken from Wikipedia)

While Leah and Kayla were being cultured, I walked the "alternate route" to the next albergue in Portugalete and said goodbye to our First Promised Land. Through Bilbao itself, it is a 19km walk. This alternate is flat and 15 km. 

What our book doesn't say is that the green line trail leads you through the industrial wasteland that is the suburbs of Bilbao. And the arrows along the trail are as confused as you are:
(it is in fact pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction, while the sharpie is in fact correct)

The walk itself was terrible - I liked walking alone to just relax, think about puzzles, and get some exercise. But there was absolutely nothing to see, and I should have just taken a bus. The one redeeming thing about the walk was that you get to cross on foot the famous Biscay Bridge. 
The bridge, rather than being a traditional drawbridge or twisting bridge, looks in structure similar to the Tower of London bridge, with a high parapet above the water, but to get across there is a cable-car-like piece that almost swings back and forth. Cars, pedestrians, and bikes alike pile onto the bridge and are ferried across on this interesting structure. 

Right before the albergue, there was a nice local bakery where I couldn't resist the urge to buy a napolitana de chocolate (think chocolate croissant). And the real strange treat with Portugalete was the moving walkways - to get to the center of town you need to go up a hill, but why walk when there are moving walkways up?

When you know a bit of Spanish, you always translate

 The hospitaliero was an extremely friendly lady - she didn't speak much English, so asked me to translate for a number of people who had come in who did not speak Spanish. From her I learned that Portugal is gorgeous, and definitely worth going to at some point. There was a couple from France who had been section-walking the Camino for a number of years (this year ending in Santander). Mr. (actually, Dr. as it turned out) spoke French and a bit of English, and Mrs. was very good at charades - I was the go-between between them and the hospitaliero in my three words of French, good Spanish, and excellent English. It was going so well, in fact, that the Dr. and the Mrs. started speaking to me in French, forgetting that I couldn't really respond, let alone understand what they were saying. 

A time for rest

Getting to the albergue at 4pm instead of the usual 8pm was a welcome change - it's nice to get your walking out of the way early in the day and have an entire evening to relax and recuperate  I knew this would be a rare occurrence on the trip (especially since I most often wanted to push hard and press on), so I took advantage by going grocery shopping early, reading my book, having two meals, and just lounging in bed. Tomorrow would be a harder day, so I took the time to rest when I could. 

Promised Land and Industrial Wasteland, you were indeed what we were looking for.