Walking across Northern Spain for 30 days. It sounded like the perfect start to my new nomadic life. A good old-fashioned pilgrimage. Cliché as it sounds, I had just commenced my own “great resignation”. Hearing from friends about the physical and emotional challenge of walking the Camino de Santiago, I felt that it would be just what I needed to cleanse my corporate demons. Roughing it with other “pilgrims”, sleeping in bunk beds and eschewing all personal belongings that I couldn’t carry on my back. I pictured Dick Whittington, but with an Amazon fresh 30L backpack. Here’s how I fared on my first time walking the Camino.
The Start of walking the Camino
All set to start my re-wilding journey, I packed my knapsack and flew to Biarritz. Not an obvious start to the trek of a lifetime, but the nearest airport to a small Spanish town “Irun”, otherwise known as the official start to the Camino Del Norte (The Northern Route).
There are various Camino routes, that all converge in Santiago De Compostela. I opted for the North route, as it sweeps through Bilbao and San Sebastian and along the coastline. Having located my Pension for the evening, I found the Municipal building in Irun to collect my Pilgrim credential; essentially a concertina piece of paper that would be my access all areas VIP pass to Pilgrim only accommodation along the trail.
The next morning, we enthusiastically set off at dawn, creeping about in the dark so as to not wake up our fellow walkers. A move that we would deftly perfect in coming weeks. Striding out on the streets, we looked for our first yellow arrow accompanied by a shell, the symbol of the Camino that would direct us to Santiago. Within five minutes, we were lost and accepting directions from a confused looking German pilgrim who confessed to having slept under a bus shelter, needless to say, he was not a trusted source.
The first day flew by, a relatively short 25km hike along a shady trail, which eventually opened out to the town of Pasia, a quaint harbour awaited us. We took a short boat (a novelty on the route), before a steep climb up a cliff which eventually revealed San Sebastian, a treat for anyone walking the Camino for the first time.
Arriving in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is of course known as a gastronomic power house, so we rewarded ourselves for the first day of hiking and set to work on the Pintxos bars which line the pretty cobbled streets. We took in numerus Cali Mocho, a noxious red wine and coke mix, along the way, later realising that we had spent nearly a week’s budget coiffing wine, which didn’t feel very “pilgrim”.
We decided from then on out to be much more chaste and the next night headed to the most basic Albergue we could find. Upon arriving, we were given 10 minutes to lock away our belongings and remove our hiking shoes. Presumably this is to ensure that nobody brings bed bugs into the room (the Camino has in the past been infamously associated with these cretins), but it felt a bit like entering prison. Men and Women were separated and we were sent to the sinks to wash our smelly clothes. This was one of the first shocks of walking the Camino for the first time.
The next morning started early, pilgrims all creeping around in the dark, picking our clothes off the lines and queuing to use the 1 euro coffee machine. The talk amongst the men of the group was about an incredibly loud snorer who had kept the entire room awake, I heard torches were shone in his face and yet he continued his train-esque snores.
Feeling smug and grateful to have slept amongst the very quiet and conscientious women, I set off for the hills feeling refreshed. The next few days pass by in a bit of a blur as we ascended hills and wound through small Spanish towns on the way to Bilbao.
Lazy Glutes as I walk the Camino
A week or so in and I started to really struggle with the walking portion of the Camino, which is quite a significant issue. An old knee injury, which I’d been told was an inflamed fat pad (gross) had flared up pretty badly. I’d come prepared for this eventuality and packed a knee brace, which I’d hoped would be a “just in case”, but after 10km every day I was now completely relying on it.
Sitting on top of a hill, I threw by backpack to the ground and commenced, what can only be described as, a massive sulk.
“I can’t go on.” I said between tears. “Its too painful.” (Classic first-timer response to walking the Camino.)
My partner, not quite sure how to react, thought carefully before saying “You kind of need to darling. You’ve got to figure this out.”
That day we pulled up early, stopping far short of the marker point we had been aiming for. We sunk a few drinks, consoled ourselves and found an emergency Airbnb for the evening. I spent the evening googling “walking with knee injuries”, frantically trying to devise a way forward. I was interested to discover that often knee pain can be caused by a lazy posterior. Sitting down at a desk for years and years can make your glutes switch off. They get lazy!
The next morning, after our Airbnb host cooked is an incredible (but somewhat reluctant) breakfast at 0500, we set off. Me with my new mantra “recruit the glutes” and overly emphasising the heel to toe action. Who knew I’d be learning to walk properly again in my 30s? Quite miraculously, this actually solved my problem and I’ve not had knee pain since. Marvellous.
Trucking on to the end of the Camino
From here, we left the Basque country and moved on to Cantabria. Our routine now pretty firmly established, wake early, hit the road, spend a few hours listening to podcasts and not speaking (we refered to this as “logging on”) and thinking about nothing but where our first coffee would come from.
Then as the scenery flew by, we talked absent mindedly, waved and chattered with fellow pilgrims, whilst our minds remained firmly focused on lunch. Sometimes we would picnic on a cliff, or even on a roadside. Other days we were less organized and frantically searched Google maps for anywhere that would sell us a Croissant, or on one occasion a vending machine with a sole pack of pork scratchings.
In the afternoon it was all about getting to the Albergue, getting our credentials stamped and finding more food and some drinks to celebrate the end of our day. A glass of red, a quick beer or increasingly frequently we would enjoy a Gin and Tonic (free poured by a generous barman). Sometimes there were fabulous communal meals with others in the hostel. Often, we would snack on whatever we could find whilst staring at each other gormlessly, and secretly hoping it was nearly 2100 so we could rest our weary bones!
Asturias, Galicia and Onto the End of the Camino
We entered Asturias, enjoying cider and delicious Cachopo, eventually winding our way to Galicia with its sweeping beaches and crisp Albariño, I started to feel a deep sense of the “end” creeping up on us. The blisters were still there, the foot pain and sleep deprivation too. But there was also a sense of nostalgia, sprinkled with gratitude that I’d been able to have this experience.