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Astorga to Santiago de Compostella

This is not a coaching Blog, more a high level account and diary of the final leg (c 270 km) of my Camino Frances, having completed the other sections of this 800km ancient pilgrimage route during two visits in 2011. See blogs in July /August 2011.

I would recommend the Camino to anyone who has the opportunity to take time out for reflection – it can be walked as one journey ( typically over 5/6 weeks) or as a series of ‘holidays’ in different years. Look up any of the numerous websites for further information and recommendations on how to prepare and kit out etc. While 800km might seem like a daunting challenge to those who have not done it, like every other challenge it becomes achievable with preparation, planning and taking bite size chunks. A mindset of literally ‘one step at a time’ will get you to the finish line.

There are lots of tips you will pick up from websites but I would emphasise the importance of investing in quality kit. Cheap will tend not to last, be uncomfortable, increase the risk of injury (wrong footwear)  and be too heavy/cumbersome to carry. As I found this time (see below) you need to be prepared for all weather conditions. Having said that there is always the temptation to bring stuff you don´t need (almost everybody does). Ask for and heed the advice of seasoned hikers. Also, learn some basic Spanish phrases, at a minimum. In Spain local knowledge of English (unlike Northern Europe) is very limited.

There are two basic ways to walk your Camino – luggage transfer (where luggage is transferred by taxi from location to location every day) to prebooked hotels and the hiking option. The obvious advantage of the former is that you don´t have to carry your own kit and have better accomodation, but it is much more costly and less flexible. The other option is the traditional way where you carry your own backpack and stay in Albergues ( hostels).  It is possible to survive on a budget of less than €35 per day all in taking the Albergue option – not generally bookable in advance.

Having completed my Camino there are still some things I don’t understand :

– Why cafes, bars and restaurants have wall to wall tv’s on all day…and there appear to be more sweet shops than grocery stores…
– How it is possible for restaurants to make a profit on a three course pilgrim menu costing €9 with wine thrown in for free…
– Why it seems over half of the houses in Spanish villages are ‘lock up’, with the streets deserted…
– How the weather in Spain in April /May can be worse than Ireland at the same time of the year!

On a more serious note, for those who are interested, and in order to give a flavour for what is involved, the following is a short day by day diary account of the trip (April 21st to May 5th) :

Day 1 (April 21st)
Stayed the the warm Albergue St Javier (warmth was something we came to appreciate during this unseasonably cold trip) on the night of 20th. Wet and windy start for 27km to from Astoraga to Rabanal. This is not a particularly interesting section but first day was safely negotiated, with no injuries. Quaint village, straight from middle ages – attended sung vespers in the tiny Benedictine monastery in the village. Stayed at small private hostel El Tesin at entrance to village, needed to dry off after recent heavy shower.

Day 2 (April 22nd)
Cold and windy day – 21km to Molinaseca, which includes trek uphill to the highest point, Cruz de Ferro, of the entire Camino Frances, where there is a tradition of leaving a stone from home at the mound below the cross. Did not linger long at the peak in view of freezing and blustery conditions. Molinaseca is a  pretty town – stayed in basic but adequate parish hostel Parroquia San Miguel. Struggled to dry clothes in cold wet weather. Met a german woman that evening who was covered in bites from bed bugs. This is not a common experience these days, but can’t be ruled out. Came across the same person a few days later still suffering.

Day 3 (April 23rd)
26km to Pieros – weather overcast and windy but thankfully no rain. Lovely warm and welcoming Albergue ( El Serbal y La Luna) with enjoyably comunal meal. Met two Irish people and, as it turned out, the only Irish we were to meet on our trip. Awoken at 4.57 am by the sound of a cock crowing. He was  competing with snorers and heavy rainfall – all part of the experience ! We were to join up with one of the Irish and a Dane and we retained this quartet for the remainder of our Camino.

Day 4 (April 24th)
22km to Vega de Valcarce. Conversation with fellow travellors shortened the journey. Originally meant to stay at the municipal hostel ( avoid !) but walked back 1 km to stay in the Albergue do Brasil. Great evening meal and breakfast and fab hostess but the place was freezing cold, with zero insulation – would recommend but only in summer !

Day 5 (April 25th)
25rm to Fonfria via O´Cebriero, another high point of the Camino – a very wet and windy day with lots of climbs, the most challenging of the trip. But the Albergue was like an Alpine lodge and most welcome – was warm. Dried my sogging wet Brierley guide on a radiator. We had a tasty and wholesome evening meal. We woke up the next morning to 3 inches of snow – yes, snow at the end of April in Spain. We walked in these conditions for a few kilometers the next day until we came down from the high ground.

Day 6 (April 26th)
24km to Aguaida, stayed at the fabulous Paloma y Lena Albergue, which had a stylish common area and log fire, very tranquil place – recommended. Aguaida is just 4km short of Sarria, where there are a lot of new arrivals and the increase in numbers changes the character of the Camino – everything seemed to be a bit more commercialized. Lucky with the weather – our twice daily breaks in cafe bars tended to coincide with the worst of the by now infrequent showers.

Day 7 ( April 27th)
29km thru Sarria and onwards to our destination of Portmarin, staying in the O’Mirador Albergue.This was the first day that we could shed our rain clothes. Lots of new arrivals as Sarria is a starting point for many seeking to walk the minimum 100km, the minimum distance to qualify for the Compostelo (certificate of completion). Many of the new arrivals choose the luggage  transfer option – staying in hotels rather than albergues and having their luggage transferred each morning to the next destination (recognizable by their clean clothes and small backpacks!)

Day 8 (April 28th)
Relatively straight forward section to Palas de Rei – 26km. Stayed in the small private hostel (the Buen Camino) – basic but centrally located.  It was very busy along the way with all the new Sarria arrivals. I was in tee shirt ( for the first time and only time) as the weather improved in the afternoon after a foggy start.

Day 9 (April 29th)
26 km to Ribidiso.  It seemed like a very long day with weather holding up reasonably well. Stayed in the municipal hostel described in the guidebook as newly renovated and as ‘idyllic’, being an old stone building next to a river. However, facilities were very basic with no heating and outside bathrooms and showers (some cold) – not recommended. During the night mice knawed thru the side netting of my backpack to get at a packet of nuts!

Day 10 (April 30th)
22 km to Arca. Stayed at Porta de Santiago, a new private hostel, which was heavily advertised along the way. It was clean but facilities were basic. We usually found that hostels that were heavily advertised did not live up to expectations.

Day 11 (May 1st)
Last walking day – 20km to Santiago ! Arrived at our accomodation the Seminario Menor (just 10 minutes from the Cathedral at 1pm ). Booked a single room for two nights, which was a bonus. While cost was reasonable the facilities were very basic and next to no heating- not recommended. We had a celebratory lunch after visiting the Cathedral and collecting our Composellas from the pilgrim office.

Day 12 ( May 2nd)
Attended the pilgrim mass at 12am, which was uplifting. Afterwards, we met some fellow travellers that we had not seen for several days and spent the rest of the day lolling about as the weather continued to be cold and wet.

Day 13 (May 3rd)
Arriving 2 days earlier than planned gave us the opportunity to visit Finisterre (literally ‘the end of the world’ ). A small proportion of pilgrims walk on from Santiago to ‘Fisterra’, as it is known locally – takes an additional 3/4 days. We took the bus – a long and winding 3 hour journey (need to stay overnight for comfort).  But it was worth a visit if you have the time.  On arrival there is a 45 min walk to Faro (lighthouse), where traditionally pilgrims burn some item of clothing to signify the completion of their Camino and spend time reflecting in this beautiful and wild place, where the atlantic rollers collide with the rocks below the lighthouse. We witnessed a pair of hiking shoes ablaze on the rocks when we arrived and some intrepid pilgrims arriving with full backpacks on board, having completed the additional sections on foot from Santiago – now at the end, no place else to walk, next stop America!

Day 14 (May 4th)
Back to Santiago on the bus. This time we stayed in the Seminario Mayor – infinitely better in all respects to to the other seminary, centrally located more like a hotel than an Albergue, great value for money.

Day 15 (May 5th)
Paid another visit to the Catherdal for the 12 am Pilgrim mass before flying home. Need to be in church in good time, say 30 mins before, at least, to get a good seat. A tradition unique to the Cathedral is the swaying seesaw like, back and forth, of the giant incense burner at full extension at the end of a lengthy rope, well into the rafters of the transepts. This in now only an occasional occurrence and didn’t happen at our original pilgrim mass a few days earlier. But we were in luck this time and it was an amazing sight, requiring a team of 8 operating like highly co ordinated bell ringers. Originally this practice was instigated to fumigate the Cathedral after the arrival of sweaty and possibly disease ridden pilgrims.

It was still raining in Santiago as our plane left the runway for the flight back to Dublin !


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