Santiago de Compostela

21 April to 24 April, 2019

Santiago de Compostela (km 779.5)

We have been in Santiago de Compostela for three days and on an emotional and physical rollercoaster adjusting to the reality of reaching the end of the pathway.

Unlike many, we had always planned to finish in Santiago, and not walk the extra 100km through to the coastal town of Finistere, a popular completion point.

In medieval times Finistere had been considered the extremity of Europe, and by extension, the end of the world. In more recent times a tradition has taken hold for pilgrims to end their Camino there, immerse themselves in the ocean and burn their clothes on the shore to symbolise completion. (The clothes burning has since been banned for environmental reasons)

Many members of our Camino family had stopped in Santiago briefly, then continued onward, perhaps to stave off the inevitable end of their special journey.

In our case, we had travelled as far as our legs would take us, and once we reached Santiago our bodies told us that it was time to sit down, and stay down.

Many returned travellers have recommended staying in Santiago. There, in a place between The Camino, and the real world, it is possible to reflect upon your journey and achievements, to connect with your Camino family as they progressively arrive, and to rest and recover before starting the journey home. Santiago was also mooted as a place of many sights to see. It sounded like just the plan for us.

After our initial arrival, and greeting of friends, we took a long look at the square we would return to many times in the forthcoming days, and moved to obtain our Compostela certificates of completion. Issued in a building a short distance away, we had been warned that the line could be long, and indeed it was. We didn’t really mind, our legs were tired, and unlike many, we hadn’t even stopped to stow our packs, but it was a very happy place to be, in a corridor of pilgrims who had completed their journeys.

We waited just over an hour, exchanging Camino tales with those around us who had travelled from every different corner of Spain and Europe. We found ourselves next to two Italian cyclists who had completed the same route as ourselves in just 11 days. Often Cursed by walkers on the trail, the cyclists weren’t so bad in real life. They quickly pointed out that they hadn’t ridden electric assisted bicycles, which have become very common, and were clearly considered the work of the devil.

Once again Leo attracted much interest, and, as he sat on the floor and drifted to sleep, there was much sympathy and admiration quietly expressed as the crowd learned where he had begun his Camino. Finally it was our turn, and we filed through to obtain our Compostela certificates, with our names entered in Latin, and our certificates of distance. 779.5km. Now it was time to celebrate.

The Colleens had elected to get their certificates the next day to avoid the crowds, and had waited for us whilst having a long cold beer. Leo quickly obtained directions to the best Chocolate con Churros café in town, and we convened there to introduce our Irish companions to this special treat. This was soon followed by another round of beers and churros, which in some strange way seem to work together on that hot day. Late in the afternoon, we parted ways, agreeing to meet the following day, and we went searching for some accommodation.

We had actually arrived in Santiago a day earlier than originally planned. For the following two nights we had reservations in arguably the best accommodation in town, The Santiago de Compostella Parador, a luxury hotel built in a huge medieval building complex which forms one of the four sides of the Cathedral Square. It was to be a very special treat at the end of our time in Spain. We pondered where to stay our first night as we stood in front of the cathedral, our physical and emotional energy reserves evaporating with the knowledge their work was done. There were rumours that the Parador offered a limited number of rooms at a reduced rate to pilgrims. We investigated, discovered it was true, helped no doubt by the information that sirs already had a booking for a further two nights, and soon enough we were lying on cool fresh linen, with the window wide open.

Sleep and long showers followed before we set out to wander the old town in the late evening. Meals are eaten late in Spain and so there was no problem finding a place to eat, before we wandered back to the main square near midnight. There, under the glow of the yellow lighting we found that many pilgrims had returned, unable to sleep, and drawn back to The Camino’s ground zero to connect with others who had arrived.

Many of our Camino family were there, and many others we knew by sight, but had never got to know, until now. There were many hugs and laughs exchanged as small groups sat down to chat around the square. A row of people were lying down, feet pointed away from the cathedral, looking back up at the spires. A pilgrim explained that a German guidebook claimed an optical illusion occurred when doing this. The watching group were sceptical, but there was consensus that it was good to see Germans doing something zany. Either way it was a good way to simply absorb being there.   We found ourselves returning to the Square late each night, when the throng of tourists were gone, and it became a place for pilgrims.

We had timed our journey well to see the finished exterior of the cathedral, but unfortunately, the interior was now being restored, and it was temporarily not available for masses. The pilgrim’s mass in the cathedral is a highlight for travellers, even for those not journeying for religious reasons. The cathedral can accommodate almost 1000 people and at the beginning of the service a list is read out of the number of pilgrims who have arrived in the last 24 hours, where they come from and where they started their pilgrimage. A giant incense Botafumeiro, which is controlled by 8 people and swung high above the heads of the pilgrims, is a famous visual element of the mass that dates back to the 14th century. It was a disappointment that we would not get to see it, but alas, this simply became another reason to come back some day.

The following two days were spent in the old city, buying fresh T-Shirts to improve our appearance, and smell, and wandering the twisting streets. The simple act of spending more time sitting down than walking was a genuine pleasure. At all times the sound of the Gaelic pipes could be heard, and we could see more pilgrims completing the last km of their journey, their faces filled with expressions of weariness and anticipation.

It had been agreed that if we completed The Camino we would get matching tattoos of The Way scallop shell on our ankles as a permanent memory of this special journey. For Leo this was a very important item. A friend had recommended a suitable tattoo artist in Santiago, but on arrival we soon learned that under Spanish law Leo was too young, even with parental permission. The disappointment was very evident and the artist quickly stepped forward with a solution. He created a non-permanent tattoo on Leo’s ankle that would last for several days, and would not accept any payment for doing so. Now Leo had something to proudly show the eagerly waiting group of friends over the next few days.

It turned out that we were not the only ones treating ourselves at journey’s end with a stay at the Parador. The following day The Colleens, Josie and Tom, all checked-in. We also discovered Gregory and Steeges, and their wives Diane and Shannon, who had joined the boys in Sarria, and had walked the last few days together. It was wonderful to continually encounter them and exchange our latest reactions to being in Santiago.

It was evident that word had gotten out about Leo’s arrival and we received many heartfelt emails and texts of congratulations from our Camino family, many now returned home, but still monitoring his progress. The Colleens left a special gift for Leo, a small replica of a Camino wayfinding marker, now to be known as ‘The Ting’ in honour of the ‘Irish speak’ that had filled our walk into the city. Our remaining time was spent resting, and doing laps of the old town, to have meals and simply soak up the atmosphere of being in the holy city as a pilgrim. Our bodies rejoiced, but clearly our minds and emotions would have a lot to process over the next few months. Our physical journey may have been complete, but our full Camino was far from finished.

Finally our departure morning arrived. Stepping out in our freshly (hand) laundered hiking gear into a warm day, we had to walk to the train station for our onward journey to Madrid, but not before one Last vital task. We had connected with many of our Camino family since our arrival, but there was still one we simply had to find. Leandro had been an important part of our journey. From the excitement of our first night in St Jean PDP, through to the grind of our hardest days, Leandro had brought boundless energy and positivity to every situation when we needed it. To leave without finding him was unthinkable. After days of searching we made contact in the last hour, and we met for an emotional final catch-up outside the cathedral. We walked with him to the road leading to Finistere and watched him go, before reluctantly turning away towards the train station. It was time to go home.

Accommodation: Parador Santiago de Compostella, Santiago de Compostella

Celebrating arrival with The Colleens
Leonem’s completed credential, Compostela and certificate of distance. We wondered how the official was going to determine a Latin version of Leo’s name – given it was taken from the Latin genus name for the lions of his mother’s homeland – Panthera Leo Bleyenberghi
Chocolate con Churros on the port bow, time to celebrate
Outside our humble lodgings, the Santiago Parador
Walking through the Parador courtyards to our room
Our nightly visit to the cathedral square to meet up with other pilgrims
Those zany, crazy Germans, looking for an optical illusion
Dinner with the Colleens, the pizza was excellent, as was the company of course!
A gift left by the Colleens, ……
…an Irish ‘Ting’
With Gregory and Steeges outside the Parador
Steeges, Shannon, Diane and Gregory
The irrepressible Josephine and Liz, organisers of a continuous series of picnics for pilgrims in the Cathedral Square for three days and nights
Nero, the tatto artist with a kind heart! – see you in a few years!
Badge of honour, a tattoo for a day or two
Dusk at the Parador
The masked mystery guitarist, his music became our soundtrack of Santiago – fantastic
traditional Galician concerts filled the square with music each evening
Octopus! …..the specialty of Galicia
Courtyard garden in the Parador….someone has been kept busy
A joyous reunion with Leandro…..
….and a special goodbye
Escorting Leandro to the Finistere road with our Parador in the background
Passing the Gaelic piper on our way out of the Holy City
Leaving Santiago for the last time, to the sounds of our newly acquired cow bell – the sound of The Camino
Tired, but happy, they went home.

Our Gear

25 May, 2019

A [Post] Camino Tale

No blog on the Camino would be complete without adding something about gear. This is a favourite topic of those who have made the journey, and those considering making it. Most travellers have an opinion based on their particular experience and priorities. We had the benefit of a long preparation period and learned much before departing, and more still whilst travelling.

The following is a record of what we took and why. Hopefully it will be helpful for those who may be considering doing The Camino, and also a record for ourselves for next time.

At this stage fair warning is provided that the following reading may not be for those looking for a witty lighthearted travel tale and may induce bleeding of the eyes and headaches if you are not a Camino equipment geek.

Making it light 
Reducing the weight to be carried is a key objective. The rule of thumb often expressed is to aim to carry no more than 10% of your own body weight. We would suggest that your shoulders will thank you for limiting the load no matter how big you are. For James a load over 9kg or so became uncomfortable.

Whilst some experienced travellers have managed to get packs down to 5kg by going to some extreme measures, a pack of even 7kg is a challenge to achieve without careful planning. For Leo we aimed to have a load of 4.5kg including the backpack itself, but excluding water bottles.

It was assumed that James would carry part of Leo’s kit and therefore our approach was to find the lightest items we could so that James’ pack would not get too heavy. With this approach we had to be a bit flexible with budget as in some instances significant weight reduction meant more cost. For example, a One Planet sleeping bag was 250g lighter, and 30% more expensive, than the equivalent Kathmandu one, whilst tripling our backpack budget resulted in half the weight (650g)

Taking Less
Taking less is a logical extension of making it light, but was also an important practical aspect of experiencing the Camino for us.

For many the attraction of the Camino is the liberation of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. The experience of stepping out each morning, having everything you need in a light pack on your back, with no firm plans as to what they day ahead will entail, can be very positive for the mind, and body. 

Although it can be hard to envisage beforehand, walkers soon realise that for a period of weeks, they can quite comfortably get by with two or three sets of clothes and very few other items. 

In a favourite Camino documentary, a Spaniard living on The Way makes the sage observation that “pilgrims carry their fears”. He is referring to the the fact that most pilgrims burden themselves with things for every conceivable eventuality, however likely, or unlikely. 

Faced with the discomfort of carrying a heavy load, pilgrims typically start to reevaluate their fears and needs once they start walking. For most the result is to take things out of their packs, and either send them home, or leave them for others on the table that most albergues have for this purpose. In doing so they lighten their load physically, and mentally. In some instances our fellow travellers started their journeys carrying packs weighing 18kg or more, and ended up shedding over half. It is a symbolic lesson of the Camino.

It took us a little time to really absorb this, and put it into practice. We soon found that the less things we had, and that we had to rummage around in our backpack to find, the easier and more relaxing travel became. Less was definitely more.

Before departing we tried to make sure that things we were taking were necessary. In this we were aided by becoming members of the Australian Friends of The Camino and listening to the experiences of others. 

However, even after scrutinising our kit before departing, we were soon discarding items we had brought, and sent a box of ‘reassessed’ items home a short way into the journey.

The following is the list of items we had at the end:

Individual pack & kit

Backpack:- ZPacks ‘Arc-Blast’ 57L pack (genuinely fully waterproof),650g
Backpack travel bag:- ZPacks ‘Airplane Case’ (fully waterproof lightweight carry bag, used to secure packs in when transporting, or protect against bed bugs), 95g
Backpack waterproof liner:- (Secondary waterproof layer) ZPacks liner bag, 45g
Sleeping bag:- One Planet ‘Nitrous’ down bag, +2 degrees rating, 540g
Pillowcase:- (for albergue pillows) silk pillowcase
Sleeping bag waterproof sack:- (For stowing sleeping bag outside of main pack) ZPacks waterproof sack, 15g
Shorts:- Macpac ‘Rockover’ lightweight quick dry short, 150g
Long pants:- (sun protection + cold weather + ‘formal’ apre wear) Macpac ‘Just Enough’ lightweight quick dry pants, 210g
Short sleeve walking shirt:- Macpac ‘Take a Hike’ lightweight quick dry T-Shirt, 125g
Long sleeve walking shirt:- Rab ‘Pulse’ LS Zip top , 132g
Base layer shirt:- (base layer + sleeping wear + apré wear) Icebreaker merino Tech lite 150 Ultralight Crewe T-shirt, 155g
Base layer leggings:- (base layer + sleeping wear) Icebreaker 200 Oasis Lightweight merino leggings, 200g
Waterproof Shell Jacket:- (wet weather + windy weather + cool day outerwear) Macpac ‘Traverse’ waterproof shell jacket with hood, 340g
Waterproof Pants:- Macpac ‘Hightail ’ rain pants, 150g (Leo), ZPacks Vertice rain pants, 96g (James)
Warm mid layer Jacket:- (cold weather + neat apre wear) Arcteryx ‘Atom Lt’ Jacket, 315g (James) or Macpac ‘Pisa’ Hooded Jacket, 380g (Leo)
Clothes Sack:- ZPacks waterproof sack, 15g
Toiletries bag:- Sea to Summit zip-up pouch with travel toothbrush, toothpaste, roll-on deodorant, cake of soap in small Tupperware container, earplugs, floss, and Sea to Summit Drylite towel, 350g
Sun hat:- Tilley T3 Wanderer, 153g (James), ExOfficio Bugs Away Adventure Hat, 310g (Leo) foldable brimmed hat
Beanie:- Icebreaker or Macpac merino 150 lightweight wool beanie
Socks:- Wigwam merino comfort crew (1 pair) and synthetic cool hike crew (2 pairs)
Underwear:- 2 pairs ExOfficio quick-dry boxer shorts+ 1 pair seamless quick dry boxers
Buff:- (sun protection + cold weather) Buff Hi UV Camino buff
Gloves:- Macpac stretch fleece gloves
Lightweight footwear:- (waterproof shower shoes + after-hiking footwear) Crocs flip flops, 250g (Leo) Vivobarefoot ultra III Bloom aqua shoes, 190g (James)
Hiking Boots:- Scarpa ZG Trek Boots (Leo), Mammut Mercury III Mid boots (James)
Hiking Poles:- Pacer Poles 3-section alloy collapsible walking poles, 650g
Day pack/Front pack:- (travel carry-on, sightseeing and food shopping carry-all, front pack etc) Osprey 18L Ultralight Stuff Pack, 90g

Shared Kit(spilt between the two packs)

Dirty clothes/washing sack:- 
ZPacks waterproof stuff sack, with wash powder in ziplock bag, 5m spectra cord clothes line, and nappy size safety pins (for clothes pegs), 75g
Medication Bag:- 
Sea to Summit zip up pouch with prescription medications, Panadol, Ibuprofen, Gastro stop, rash cream, 50g
Foot care & Blister kit:- 
Ultra Hiker Blister Pod ( with addition of needles, lighter, Swiss Army knife (with scissors and tweezers) and betadine, 350g
Electronics bag:- 
Pencil case with USB charging cords x 2, USB wall plugs x 2, back-up charger pack, plug-in ear pods, 350g
The ‘Miscellaneous Stuff’ bag:- 
Sea to Summit zip-up pouch with miscellaneous item incl notebook, pens, pencils, toilet paper, souvenirs etc, 400g
IPad:- For blogging

Other items
UV 50+ Sunscreen 
John Brierley Camino Guidebook
Notepad + pen
Bottled water (bought on the go)
Tuppaware container for squashable-food storage
Energy bars, muesli bars etc

Items we took but didn’t use/sent home
Head torches (used light on phone for locating items after lights out)
Lightweight cutlery
Opinel folding knife
Belts (used safety pins to tighten pants)
Cotton keffiyeh scarf (replaced by lighter Buff)
Water bottle belt pouches

The best items
Waterproof jackets 
Warm jackets
Long pants
Long-sleeved shirts
Base layers

Special mentions go to Macpac and ZPacks for their really high quality gear. You quickly discern the really good quality clothing and equipment makers from those outdoor brands that Leo’s sister has so eloquently described as ‘Caravan Park’ wear.

New Zealand company Macpac are renowned for their high quality outdoor gear, equal to World’s best for the type of activity we were undertaking. Their items consistently came out as lightest, best fitting, and incorporating more intelligent details when compared to other high-performance brands.

Boutique brand ZPacks hails from Melbourne, Florida, USA. A small company that makes all its items in-house to order, they are favoured by many thru-hikers undertaking the really hard-core long-distance trails, such as the PCT in USA, which place far higher demands on equipment that The Camino. We became aware of them through the books of Indy travel writer Keith Foskett.

ZPacks equipment and clothing was significantly lighter, and higher performance than anything else we could find according to both online reviews, and technical data from makers. For example when compared to the lightest mainstream backpack that suited our purposes, The ZPacks backpack was almost 50% lighter (550g), offered more capacity, and was genuinely waterproof, meaning we didn’t have to also carry and deploy a pack cover when it rained, saving more weight. Available only online, their personalised service was excellent, and their product videos very helpful. Had we been able to view and try on their clothing range we would have probably have bought more of their gear.

The things we would change
Sleeping bags (ours were generally too hot for albergues)
Lightweight footwear (need to be able to wear socks + have cushioned sole)
Hiking poles (James rarely used his)
Short sleeve hiking shirt (seams uncomfortable with packs)
Reducing weight of toiletries, blister pack, electronics etc

“We made it, I can’t believe we made it!”

21 May, 2019

Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostella (km 761 to km 780)

Today we awoke to the most glorious day. It is sometimes strange to realise you have been on a journey so long that the seasons have noticeably moved on whilst doing so. We had taken our first steps over 5 weeks prior, with snow still on the pathway. Today we found ourselves finishing on a stunning warm late Spring day, possibly the nicest we have experienced on the whole journey.

This day we would be finishing the physical journey that had been too incredible to try and comprehend when we started. 780 kilometres. 500 miles.

We dressed and packed quickly and efficiently. Once upon a time our morning preparations had resembled, to use the favourite phrase of a childhood friend “a dog’s breakfast”. Things strewn everywhere. Now everything had a place in our packs, determined and refined by weeks of trial and error, unrequired items long ago sent home or discarded. 5 minutes, done!

We stepped out with Raphaela and Ruth, with anticipation in our steps. Re-joining The Way a short distance out of the town, we found ourselves in a beautiful forest with a soft earthen path, the early morning sun casting long linear shadows as it attempted to find its way through the trees. As we walked The Way took us through a succession of fields, small towns and woodlands, illuminated by sun under a blue sky. All beautiful, but now almost unseen as our minds focussed ahead in time.

In the past two days of travel the number of pilgrims had grown with the addition of those walking other routes, The Camino del Norte, Camino Primativo and Via de la Plata, which had now merged into the Camino Francés. Rather than having our own space on The Way, often with no others in sight, we were now were part of a loose procession of people each contemplating a special day. Some excited and chatting, some solemn and quiet, but all respecting each other’s physical and mental space.

We had only a short journey today, and so there was not pressure to move quickly. We moderated our pace, which always made walking on our overworked legs and feet infinitely more pleasurable, and stopped after a short distance for our last Camino breakfast, coffee or Cola Cao, and Neopolitana (chocolate croissant) 

The cafes were as busy as ever, but everyone who was in a hurry had long-passed through, and we had time to be patient and relax. Leandro, and other Camino family members stopped, to exchange strong, emotion-filled last-day embraces, before moving on, deep in their own thoughts.

Our journey had a slight variation to those travelling around us. Raphaela and Ruth’s time on with us had been confined by the timing of available flights, and the need to be home before day’s end. Unfortunately they did not have the time to travel with us to the very end. 10km from Santiago’s old town The Camino passes the city’s airport, and there they would have to leave us, and dash to catch their flight, wearing their backpacks onto the plane.

Walking through a woodland our solitude was broken by the roar of an airliner taking off nearby, soon followed by the sight of the airport’s perimeter fence. Suddenly, it seemed, we were nearly there.

We stopped to enable Raphaela to conduct an interview with Leo about his journey, to be played to her classmates back in Germany. Ruth commented that it would be nice for them not only to learn about the Camino, but also to hear English being spoken so nicely.

Shouldering our packs, we accompanied Ruth and Raphaela away from the Camino, and towards the airport terminal. It was a curious sensation to be walking into an airport. All too soon it was time to once again say our farewells on The Camino. Long, heartfelt hugs were exchanged, and we stood and watched Ruth and Raphaela continue towards the terminal until they were well out of sight.

We quietly walked back to The Camino pathway, missing our friends already. It was precisely at this point that we bumped into the perfect pick-me-up tonic, the Irish!

Or Irish women to be precise, a flock of Colleens no less! The core of a very impressive and timeless volleyball team, we were informed, ‘Daisy’ (Yvonne), Caroline, Cecily and Triena had flown over for a week to walk The Camino.

Their humour and high spirits picked us up and carried us effortlessly km upon km towards Santiago along roadside verges, forever climbing towards the apex of Monte do Gozo (Mount of Joy) where Santiago, and it’s cathedral would suddenly be visible.

Almost without warning the trees and buildings around us fell away, the sky opened, and there, in the distance, were the spires of the cathedral rising above the city!

Moving away from The Camino pathway, and an ugly sculpture created to mark a visit by Pope John Paul II, we followed a garden trail to a distant knoll where a pair of pilgrim statues stand, well known, but often missed. As we stopped in the sun, we had a wonderful view of our destination, still many kms ahead.

It was here that the realisation of our achievement suddenly overcame us. Tears flowed down Leo’s cheeks as we had a long hug, and quickly the Colleens moved in to surround, embrace and comfort him, a cure guaranteed to cheer anyone!

Here we also met Josie and Tom from Melbourne, who quickly joined our emotional celebration upon meeting Leo and learning of his extraordinary journey. After many photographs and hugs, we formed a walking bus, with Leo in the centre, and set off towards our destination.

The next hour and a half walk took us through the outskirts of Santiago and eventually across a road and into the old city. Here the road lost its modern form and quickly narrowed, twisted, rose and fell in between high medieval buildings, seemingly changing direction at each corner. The path took a downward turn, and suddenly the sound of Gaelic pipes, played by tradition at the gateway into the Cathedral Square to welcome pilgrims, reached us.  Leo could contain his excitement no longer and dashed ahead, down the stairs, through the archway, and burst into the huge Cathedral Square,  Praza do Obradoiro.

By the time James arrived Leo was already in the embrace of several of our Camino family.

We hugged and turned to look at the focal point of our destination, the Cathedral. After years of being restored, and buried from view by scaffolding, it was now pristine and majestic, lit up by the afternoon sun.

We stood and hugged a long time. “We made it, I can’t believe we made it” said Leo, tears once again rolling down his cheeks.

Through the early morning forest…….
…and across green fields on manicured pathways
Last trail trinkets and stamps before Santiago
The airport fence appears all too soon
A Camino interview, on location
Befriended by a flock of Colleens
Yvonne, Triena, Caroline, Leo and Cecily at the Pope John Paul II monument
The pilgrim statues, and pilgrims
The Colleens demonstrating the teamwork that made them so formidable on the volleyball court. Notice the team shirt change.
Closing in to comfort an emotional Leo, Irish style
Hugs from Josie
Walking through Santiago, the cathedral spires drawing us onward.
Almost there, The Colleens, Leo , James and Tom about the cross into Santiago’s old town
“I can’t believe we made it!”

These boots [were] made for walking

20 April, 2019

A Camino Tale

The Way creates a very intense relationship between a walker and their shoes. Footwear is probably the most important item of clothing or equipment to ensuring an enjoyable and successful Camino.

If a walker has experienced some type of issues with their feet during the journey, as we did, their relationship with their shoes can extend beyond mere functional considerations, to one that evokes strong emotions as well.

Travelling with feet that are in pain is certainly no fun, and experiencing cringing agony with each footfall can put the dampner on moving through even the most beautiful countryside the Camino has to offer. Severe blisters and other problems can bring a Camino walk to a premature end very quickly, something that most walkers are acutely aware of. We witnessed several travellers with ailments going to hospital, or sadly packing up their kit to return home, their journey unfinished.

It is seemingly amazing how quickly feet can transition from being healthy, to being in distress, sometimes a matter of just an hour of walking a challenging section of pathway, in shoes that don’t fit, or are failing. Damaged feet have little opportunity to rest and improve. Afflicted walkers know that, once started, things can go from bad to serious in no time, planting distracting seeds of uncertainty and anxiousness about the future of their walk in their minds.

Accordingly, the feelings that Pilgrims have towards their footwear, which are perceived as either enabling, or hindering, their ability to achieve to walk the Camino, can be strong.

Nowhere is this more evident that on The Camino itself, where one soon notices many boots and shoes on the side of the pathway.

In some instances they have been lovingly placed, and sometimes elaborately decorated, shoes that have served their owners faithfully but are now worn out and are being retired with dignity and honour in a place specially chosen.

In other instances, owners have recognised that their new shoes are not right for them, and, simply place them in a prominent position, with the unwritten invitation that they can be taken and worn by anyone who cannot continue with their own footwear. A quiet but strong affirmation of the spirit of giving and support that exists on The Camino. Literally an offer to “walk a mile in my shoes”

Other shoes have been left unceremoniously abandoned, thrown down in frustration, or placed atop the nearest wayfinding marker, by an owner who can no longer endure the pain they are experiencing, and possibly despairing that their journey may be at an end. 

In all cases they are a visible reminder to those who follow that the Camino is a special kind of undertaking.

One last big day

20 May, 2019

Ribadiso de Baixo to Pedrouzo (km 737 to km 761)

Today we awoke to the realisation that today was our last full day of walking and that tomorrow we would arrive at our final destination, Santiago de Compostella.

We stepped out with Ruth and Raphaela into a brisk but clear morning, with mists in the low-lying valleys making the early morning sunshine look magical. Our day started with a climb out of a valley and up to the large hilltop town of Arzúa. On arrival, we enjoyed a long breakfast and bought some essential supplies before setting out for the day.

As for the previous two days, we soon found ourselves walking on natural trails, through forests of eucalypts and passing through a series of shallow valleys and small settlements. 

With the trail constantly rising and falling, twisting and turning, there were few opportunities for distant views and the scenery became one dominated by the fine details about us, the trees above, the ancient stone walls that ran alongside the sunken pathways, and the small medieval buildings that we passed. 

Many authors writing of their experiences on The Camino, express a growing sense of sadness with the realisation that their journey is about to end as they approached Santiago. All mention that their walking pace naturally slowed in response to these feelings, so as to delay the inevitable. For us, the experience was exactly the same, and our walking reduced to a strolling pace, and all opportunities to stop and ‘smell the roses’ during the day were embraced.

Such opportunities included a memorable stop by Leo and Raphaela to have a long conversation with a friendly horse who was watching the passing walkers. This was extended further when a passing traveller supplied an apple to feed their new friend. Ruth and James, who were usually walking a couple of hundred metres ahead, realised after awhile that the kids were not following and so stopped in the forest to wait. Regular updates were provided by fellow pilgrims walking through, including an assurance from a French women that the ‘little people’ with the horse were fine.

As we walked, we came across several appealing restaurants and cafe stops for travellers, created from sympathetic modern conversions of old stone farm buildings along the pathway.

These highlighted that, either through the natural self-restraint of locals, or by considered regulations, ‘The Way’ retained much of its timeless medieval character, and had not been inundated with tasteless tourist trap outlets selling mass produced trinkets. At least not outside the major town centres.

It was at one of these cafes that we stumbled across Michael Matynka’s ‘Wise Pilgrim Project’. Michael is a Santiago-based professional travel photographer who is producing an exhibition of photographs of pilgrims completing their Caminos. 

For a nominal fee, pilgrims can walk off the track into his veranda studio space for 5 minutes, tell their story and have their photos taken. These are processed and the result emailed in time to be used by travellers for their ‘We’ve made it’ messages from Santiago.

It was an opportunity too good to pass up, and the stunning results captured both the travelling ‘look’ we had developed over weeks on the road, and our content expressions. These were a wonderful record of our journey and we took the opportunity to have a family shot, as well as one of Leo and Raphaela.

During the day, we did everything possible to delay arrival at our destination for our last night. These included an impromptu road-side lie down, snack and rest with our shoes off, and a navigational error on James’ part, which saw us miss a key turn and walk an extra km before backtracking. 

Eventually we made it into the main street of Pedrouzo. Once again we found a nice albergue and settled in. As it was the last night on the road, James luxuriated by foregoing the daily clothes washing chore and stuffed our dirty clothes in a bag.

In the albergue, Leo, Raphaela and Ruth met Americans Liz and Josephine, who promptly shed tears of emotion when Leo related to them the tale of his journey, and of Raphaela’s friendship. They obviously treasured the story so much that when they met James, they insisted he tell the story again, with the same happy teary result.

Walking into town to find some dinner, we once again bumped into our favourite Kiwi, Matt ‘Monkey’ and, as always, he had a smile a mile wide when he saw us.

After having a less than memorable dinner, we made our way back to the albergue and quickly settled into bed, with a growing sense of excitement, anticipation and contentment. Tomorrow… Santiago.

Accommodation: Albergue Edreira, Pedrouzo Centro

Misty dawn climb out of Ribadiso
Early morning views before we entered the woodlands for the day
Walking past timeless farmyards. We eventually found out that the intriguing elevated structures, horreos, found on every farm, are for drying the corn harvest out of reach of rodents
A local carving walking sticks to raise money for charities, pay a donation and take one you like
Street art, Arzúa style
Arzúa central plaza with the pollarded trees that are a feature of most formal plazas and avenues along the Camino
Hiking trails don’t get much prettier than this…..
Forests of eucalypts
Ancient stone walls abound the pathway in many locations
Peacefully strolling……
Having a long chat with a new friend
Let’s………lie down for awhile. Having an impromptu break to rest the feet, relax, and consume our remaining energy bars, chocolates and emergency rations.
Big smile?, Kiwi accent?…must be Monkey!
Inflicting the cringing annoyance of humming wine glasses on our not-so-friendly waitress
Albergue Edreira, plain on the outside, but neat and friendly on the inside with everything a pilgrim needs

Pizza, plantations & puentes

19 May, 2019

Palas de Rei to Ribadiso de Baixo (km 711 to km 737)

This morning we fabulous four awoke to a brisk, clear day. As we packed and dressed the boys attempted to eat their previous night’s pizza for breakfast, but the substantial crust hadn’t translated well to a cold meal. Perhaps the girls’ reheating strategy might have been a better idea.

Today The Way took us through delightful green countryside and woodland, crossing six shallow river valleys in the process. The dairies of Galicia had been replaced by a combination of native woodland, and timber tree plantations, the majority of them tall straight-trucked eucalypts, their carefully planted rows and peeling stringy bark creating a striking visual effect.

The Camino passed through six towns and numerous small settlements and villages, offering many opportunities to stop and relax with a hot, or cold beverage.

The beautiful but repetitious nature of the countryside meant motivation began to wane a little, until Leandro, a marathon runner, and seemingly always energised, walked up behind us with his portable music pumping. Soon we found ourselves bouncing along the pathway to an eclectic mix of song requests. 

It proved a very timely intervention by Leandro. Ruth, a lover of music, and a very accomplished cellist, had just revealed she had never heard “Stairway to Heaven”. Leandro, clearly a bit of a heavy rock fan, and shocked at this void in Ruth’s education, quickly made amends at an volume that ensured full musical appreciation, and that all the nearby pilgrims were awake.

Each waterway was spanned by a small puente (bridge), some little more than stepping stones, others beautifully crafted stonework dating back to medieval times. The Camino saved the prettiest one until last, the small arched bridge into our destination town of Ribadiso de Baixo.

The bridge delivered us to a very picturesque setting of a group of restored stone buildings aside the clear fast-running brook, which turned out to be a very unique albergue. Several pilgrims (obvious by their lightweight sandals) lay warming themselves in the afternoon sun on an inviting lawn and we quickly decided this was the place to stay for the night.

Ruth and Raphaela used the kitchen facilities to revive their pizza, whilst James and Leo had an interesting meal at the adjacent cafe. We had come across some curious menu items during our journey, but a main course of omelette with spaghetti was the most unique.

We settled into our dormitory, a former pilgrim hospital, and braced ourselves for what was clearly going to be a very cold night. We had walked 26km and, despite the cold, and the best efforts of a pair of snoring Dutch women, we soon found sleep.

Accommodation: Albergue Ribadiso Xunta, Ribadiso de Baixo

Striking forests of eucalypts
special stamps for our credentiales……
…..provided by a Paralympian raising money for his fellow athletes every day on the Camino.
With the Spaniards at the cafe stop
Bouncing down The Way with Leandro to Justin Bieber
Forest pathways
Woodland trails,…..
…and green pastures
The last bridge…the Puente at Ribadiso
Albergue at Ribadiso
Spaghetti and omelette …..unique

Hallelujah, Hallelujah……

18 May, 2019

Portomarin to Palas de Rei (Km 687 to km 711)

Today the air was filled with the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful, haunting song, as Leo and Raphaela sang and walked The Camino together. Hallelujah has become the theme song of our Camino, being sung both in times of happiness, and when some motivation and endorphins are required to get through a tough stretch of walking. It was wonderful to hear it being sung again with such harmony, volume and joy. The band was indeed back together.

The previous evening, once the excitement of our reunion with Raphaela and Ruth had moderated slightly, we all made our way to our groovy albergue in downtown Portomarin, overlooking the lake and near the centre of town. A quick walk around the town centre allowed us to see a number of historic buildings that had been relocated, stone by stone, up the hill before the valley had been flooded to form a dam. These stood alongside an eclectic mix of sensitive, and not-so-sensitive, modern buildings that now form the town’s centre. Stopping in to a restaurant for a Pilgrim’s fixed menu dinner, we had the chance to try Galicia’s fabled traditional dish caldo Gallego, a thick soup which became an immediate hit with James.

Back at the albergue, as excited chatter continued, and gifts were exchanged, there was more happiness at finding a modern laundry with dryer, accessed by a glass lift with views of the river, and opening windows over our bunks. Joy.

In the morning we stepped out to a grey, overcast day as we crossed the Rio Torres using another bridge and heading up the hillside opposite. Today’s route saw us gradually gain 400m in elevation and then lose most of it descending through hilly terrain into the town of Palas de Rei. The Way led us through a series of forests,  pretty countryside trails and ridgetop trails affording views of the surrounding valleys, that connected a number of small villages and settlements. After the relative excitement of the crowd yesterday, today’s traffic on the pathway was characterised more as a content group who had relaxed into the manner of The Camino a little and were taking time to stroll and enjoy the journey.

Having become wary of accommodation shortages after our early experiences, we had gotten into the habit pre-booking our accommodation each day. This gave the peace of mind of having a place to stay when arriving late in the day after most others, but removed the opportunity to have a look at the options before deciding. Ruth challenged James to live a bit on the edge and follow the Camino mantra “No plan is the best plan” by foregoing a booking and seeing what we could find at the other end.

Arriving into Palas de Rei late in the afternoon after a fairly long 25km day, we quickly found a funky style new albergue and, thanks to Ruth’s fluency in Spanish, negotiated our way into two hidey-hole twin bed rooms in the roof that effectively gave us privacy at a similar price to bunks in the open dormitory. Maybe there is something to this ‘playing it by ear’ approach to travel after all.

A quick foray into town resulted in a nice surprise meet-up with Christina and Bertl in the street, before having pizza for dinner that was so substantial we brought most of it back with us to keep for the next day. The boys intended to have cold pizza for breakfast, whilst the girls envisaging a more civilised re-heated approach for lunch or dinner.

It had been a very pleasant day on The Way by virtue of the cool weather, green countryside, and having Raphaela and Ruth with us to chat to and share the experience. Popping our roof window open, we quickly fell asleep with a pleasant cool breeze, and the aroma of ham and cheese pizza filling the room.

(Portomarin) Albergue Pons Minea, Portomarin
(Palas de Rei) Albergue San Marcos, Palas de Rei Centro

Leaving Albergue Pons Minea, Portomarin
Strolling along The Way with a more subdued stream of pilgrims
More Eucalypts – as we travel towards Santiago the number of plantations multiply, Filling the air with the scent of home.
Taking a break to do some jousting
Final forest for the day
Surprise catch up with Christina and Bertl
Another funky Albergue, in Palas de Rei