Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Camino de Santiago (Part 2)

All those places you are blessed to walk through when on the Way...
St. Jean Pied de Port - The Beginning
People start in various places along the Way, I started from St Jean Pied de Port (France) and decided to walk over the mountains, to Roncesvalles (Spain), in two days. Thanks to that decision on my second day on the Camino I woke up to see the sunrise in Pyrenees, with the sharp mountain ridges glistening gold and casting long shadows on the valleys still covered with darkness and fog. Wherever I looked, there were high, rugged mountains all around me, huge and overwhelming. No photo could give them justice.
Walking the Pyrenees with Nancy from San Francisco.
For the next few days I was walking through the mountains, rolling hills and tiny, pretty and surprisingly clean villages with stone houses and flowers on the windowsills. Everything was so remote, peaceful and beautiful. Still not used to every-day 30km-long walking, with a rucksack on my back, not knowing how to pace myself, I struggled with the Spanish heat.

Not sure how much I needed to drink, I ended almost every day dehydrated. Not able to eat bread, I lived on bananas and nuts (and also on chocolate for the last two weeks of the trip), which was fine with me but apparently worried Sean who sent me a text message one day “Please, don’t turn into a monkey”.  I just about managed not to.

Just after Pamplona, with Monte del Perdon and windmills on its ridge in the background.

That was also the time when I cursed the ancient way of building towns on top of the hills, which is an obviously reasonable way of doing it when you want to provide your town with some security but which doesn’t seem such a good idea to someone who has already climbed 15 such hills in the last 8 hours and just arrives at the bottom of the next one. Maybe if the Way of St. James was created today, it would look differently, but 1000 years ago it was crucial for the pilgrims to go from one village to another, where they could find food, water and shelter.
If only I’d known how much I would soon miss those hills…


After 12 days of walking I reached Burgos, the first big city with an impressive cathedral, shops, streets and crowds. I spent hours sitting in front of the cathedral, or inside, and just staring at it, analysing its construction, admiring details, absorbing its excellence and beauty (a structural conservation engineer on holidays…).
From one point of view it was nice to be back to civilisation, but after a few hours I already missed being "out there", in the nature, in the wilderness.

It was more or less there where meseta began. Meseta is a vast plateau spreading, roughly speaking, from Burgos to Leon i.e. approx. 180km. And there is nothing there. Harvested fields to the horizon, wherever you look. Everything flat, not a hill, not a tree, not a single bush. Golden-orange fields, golden-orange sandy road between them, and you, also golden-orange from the dust. Not the slightest breeze, just the sun pouring its heat on you from above, and dry earth reflecting it on you from below. Dry, cracked soil which hasn’t seen a drop of water for over a month. Dried weed along a dried road. Mind-numbing for me, however some found it beautiful.
First: long climb. Then: crazy steep descent. And meseta all around.

And of all the beautiful places it was on the meseta where I got lost. I did only a few extra kilometres, but it was almost 40 degrees that day, I ran out of water, was in an obviously bad mood so didn’t feel like eating and at the end of the day there was no energy left in me at all. For the entire day I didn’t meet anybody, so apart from physical fatigue, my morale was shattered. A question “Why am I doing this?” crossed my mind a few times that day. People are saying that you always walk Camino for some reasons, even if you’re not aware of that, but I thought I had already answered all my existential questions. I could even point to days no. 7 to 10 when it happened. It was during those days when after having spoken to dozens extraordinary people I felt that I needed to be on my own. And somehow for the next three days I hardly met anybody, I was walking alone and only met people in the albergues (pilgrim’s hostels) where we ate, drank and talked till late.
During those three days thoughts were just flying through my mind, in chaotic way, disconnected, just popping up and disappearing. And then they all seemed to take the right place, like self-solving jigsaw puzzles, showing me the life as I always wanted it to be, I had just forgotten about it somewhere between jobs, house, responsibilities and all those other things an adult has and does. Sometimes it’s so easy to forget what you really like, what you really want.
So I thought on that hot, long day that I had all my issues sorted, there was no need for me to do some extra miles to have extra time for thinking. All the thinking had been done, I should have just focus on the touristic aspect of Camino. Little had I known…
But that bad day ended, I came to an albergue just before it was closed, took a hot shower, a nice lady cooked me a tortilla and gave me a bed. Whatever the day was, that was all you needed at the end of it.

A long long road and grapes! Breakfast from the bushes - yummie!

By the end of meseta I had covered approx. 460km. I realized then that the pain of my feet was not a result of not being used to long walking but of having poor insoles. Well, better to find it out after two weeks than after four, isn’t it? The whole 800km track was graveled with stones of various sizes and shapes so if you felt all of them – it hurt. I bought the cheapest insoles in a Chinese shop (one of those shops that have absolutely everything in)… and it was like a different Camino after that! I walked 38km and still felt well. Amazing how a simple little thing can have such a huge impact on much bigger issues…


As if the day was not good enough, it ended in a beautiful city: Leon. It was one of my favourite cities on Camino, together with Astorga located 45km further west. The first one big and crowded, the latter smaller and calmer, both with beautiful old centres, splendid cathedrals and fantastic buildings by Gaudi. In Astorga I waited for three hours for the end of siesta and the Gaudi’s Bishop’s Palace to open – it was worth it!

13th-century cathedral in Leon. The cathedral was impressively
spacious inside, with huge, extremely detailed and colourful
 stain-glass windows in all walls. Because of it's size, it was quite
dark inside (hence no photos), illuminated with candles and
  sunlight going through the colourful windows.

Casa de Botines by Gaudi, Leon.


Cathedral in Astorga.
 Details of the portal of the cathedral in Astorga.
Is that a sheep there?!
The Bishop's Palace by Gaudi, Astorga.
A chapel in the Bishop's Palace.


More here:

Part 3
Part 4

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