Somos Peregrinos: Walking El Camino de Santiago (Part 1)

by connal on November 9, 2009


Early on the morning of October 27th, Anjel and I set out to walk El Camino de Santiago for 10 days. Known as Le Chemin de St-Jacques in France (where we started) or simply The Way of St. James, the walk is a traditional Catholic pilgrimage that has been traveled for over a thousand years.

There are multiple routes and several traditional starting points but they all finish in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We walked the route known as the Camino Francés which starts in St-Jean Pied-de-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees into Spain, and passes through cities like Pamplona and Lyon on its way to Santiago de Compostela. This was the second trek we’ve done on this trip, and one which we expect to differ from all the others we attempt.

We met several other walkers when we hiked the Dingle Way in Ireland, but the Camino has a religious and spiritual history, not to mention the physical and mental challenge of 30 or more days of continuous hiking, that draws a very diverse group of pilgrims. We met a 20-year old Indonesian girl who walked because she had just been asked to leave the Medical School she was studying at in Germany and wasn’t sure what she was going to do now; we met a French woman around our own age who had worked professionally in a range of occupations but had decided to leave it behind and move on to something that was more personally fulfilling to her – she had already been walking for 40 days before our paths happened to cross; we met a retired Australian couple for whom the Camino was more of a physical challenge than a spiritual one – one of many such treks that they undertook; and dozens of other people, each with their own reason for the walk.


Each day usually starts and ends in a auberge – a pilgrims-only hostel with anywhere from 10 to 200 beds (though one of the auberges close to the end has over 3000 beds). Almost all auberges offer a bathroom with a shower, a kitchen and a bed. How nice those facilities are can vary greatly, but in our experience the simplest auberges we encountered would be described as spartan, rather than seedy. Prices are generally 5 to 10 Euro per person (with the occasional auberge offering a “suggested donation” rate) and though some include “breakfast” it is rarely more than coffee and bread. Every morning around 6 or 7 people start to get up and get ready, and most Auberges close by 8:30 (so everyone out!) and reopen around 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s important to note that we walked during the off season, so our experience was VERY different from those who walk during the high season. The main difference being a lot more pilgrims in the high season and the very real possiblity of there not being any available beds when you finally arrive at your destination for the evening.

The distances people walk varies greatly. We found several guides online that outlined a course of roughly 20 to 25 kilometeres a day. This happened to square almost exactly with the map that we recieved at our starting point at St-Jean Pied-de-Port and was what we stuck to – though some people (Germans mostly :D) would walk 40 or even 50 kilometers a day. We had a fixed number of days but no final destination, and there was no fear of not having a bed at the end of the night, so we walked each day at a casual pace and tried to enjoy the walk itself, rather than focus on the days destination.


Day 1: St. Jean Pied-du-Port to Roncesvalles
27 km – 17 mi

We left St. Jean in an early morning mist and starting walking paved roads out of the city and up into the Pyrenees. The day was almost entirely one long climb, from about sea level to over 1400 meters (~4600 feet) over the course of 13 miles. Had we studied the altitude map closely for the day we would have been intimidated, but it was the first day and we were just excited.


As we climbed higher and higher, we would pause frequently to look back over the ever-increasing vista that was opening up below us. Most of the fog had burned off by the late morning, but there were still valleys covered in fog that dotted the landscape and that these photos do not do justice to.


There were only a handful of other pilgrims that left from St. Jean that morning and we spent the first part of the day leap-frogging each other every hour or so when one group would stop to rest or take a break for food. We had read that one should to keep an eye out for hunters, though since we were walking on the road and not through the forest, “looking out for them” consisted of little more than us hoping we weren’t grazed by a stay bullet as sporadic shots were pretty consistent throughout the day. October was the last month of Dove season and we there were dozens of hunters out on the mountain – usually crouching behind permanent cement blinds erected about 50 feet off the roadway.


About 4/5 of the way up the mountain, after a good 10 miles or so of steady climbing my inner thigh muscles started tensing up quite a bit, my stride shortened and (in what would turn out to effect the remaining 9 days of walking) I started to favor my left leg which after a while started to put a weird strain on my left knee. The result was that by the summit, my knee was now hurting more than my groin and it was very uncomfortable to walk; our usually brisk pace was slowed to a crawl. Though it was slow going we stopped occasionally to rest and stretch and thought the last little bit was unpleasant, the day was gorgeous and we arrived in Roncesvalles a few hours later than expected, but in one piece.


That night we had our first Pilgrim’s Menu – a meal offered by some restaurants in towns along the camino. Some restaurants had a menu to choose from and others simply had a pilgrims menu that would vary by day – which is what we got in Roncesvalles. The meal was 8 Euro per person and (not speaking any Spanish – a topic that deserves a post in itself) we were glad to simply be seated with the understanding that we’d be receiving something to eat. A few minutes later the waitress came out with a 2 liter bottle of water, a full bottle of wine, large server full of potato soup and a basket of bread. We were thrilled!


We poured ourselves full glasses of wine, served up the soup and devoured it and most of the bread. We sat back, thinking what a great deal it was when the waitress came back, removed the potato soup and brought us each a plate with a good sized grilled fish with a side of french fries! It’s amazing what walking all day will do to your appetite and we though we were the luckiest people alive.


After dinner we walked over to the Church next to the auberge (some auberges are municiple, some private, and some connected to the church) for Mass. Though entirely in Spanish, it was a Catholic service and relatively easy to follow, though even if I hadn’t understood anything that was going on, it would have be a great experience. At the end of the service the priest had all the pilgrims come forward and offered us a blessing on our voyage.


We retired back to the auberge and were asleep before the lights went out at 10:00.


Full Day 1 Flickr photo set here.

Day 2: Roncesvalles to Zubiri
20 km – 12.5 mi


When we hiked on the Dingle Way we were absolutely destroyed the first few nights, but surprisingly felt almost 100% the next morning. That was what I was hoping would happen with my knee – but it was not to be. If anything it felt more painful than the night before and the first few steps of the day picked up exactly where I had left off. We walked about 3 km to the first village with an Indonesian girl (the ex-Med student) but I was walking so slowly and painfully that I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to walk at all.


We stopped off, had a coffee, and suggested that the girl might be better off on her own since we were moving so slowly. I was really disappointed about how things were going, since we had both been looking forward to this walk – we even debated me catching a bus to the next town to rest for the day. Before giving up we decided to “see if it warmed up a bit” by walking to the next town, another 2 or 3 kilometers away. By the time we reached it, things hadn’t improved, and we were having the same discussion again, while I was leaning against a park bench trying to stretch out.

It was then that an older woman walked by and asked if there was a problem with my leg. At least that was what we assumed she asked she spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish. I mimed that, yes, it was my knee, but it was not too serious. Pilgrims are a common sight on the Camino year round, and this was not the first time that someone had hurt themselves on the climb over from St. Jean. She asked (we guessed) if we had any muscle cream (based on her mimed actions) and we said no. After another minute or two of earnest but unclear communication between the three of us she got a very determined look on her face and gestured for us to follow her.

Though we have not been traveling for long, Anjel and I know exactly how adventures start and this was it – someone you don’t know, and probably can’t understand, offering to take you somewhere. We knew better than to say no to what was clearly going to be an interesting story, whatever the result, so we packed up our gear and hobbled along behind her.

I was having a hard time keeping up with Carmen (which we later found to be her name) and after the second block was about to pause for a rest when she stopped at a building and motioned inside. The sign on the outside said “Consultorio Medico” and even we could figure that one out so we went inside with her and sat down to wait. There was a 20 ft by 20 ft entrance room with 3 chairs on each wall and several doors. She sat down on one wall and we sat down on the other side. A minute or two later another older woman walked in, said hello to Carmen and gave us a curious glance as we sat there smiling at her like the very enthusiastic but completely-unable-to-communicate people that we were. Carmen related the entire story to the woman who she glanced over at us from time to time. This scene was repeated two or three more times as more people came into the waiting room. After about 15 minutes the Doctor walked in.


It turned out that we were ridiculously lucky in that many of these small towns do not have a full time doctor, but rather one doctor who travels through several small towns a day on specific rounds, and may visit a town once a day or maybe only once a week – and often for only an hour or two.


After waiting for some of the older ladies to go first (where we were in a rush to?) we went in. The doctor was very nice and understanding, but also spoke no English. She flexed my leg a bit and asked me (I assumed) if that hurt. There were no shooting pains so she suggested “ibuprofano” 3 times a day. We asked her to write it down (easily one of the wisest things you can do in such a situation) and headed back out to the waiting room where Carmen was still waiting.

We showed her the doctor’s suggestion and asked if there was a pharmacy (farmacia) in town. There was not, and the closest one was 4 km away, but not to worry, one of the other women who was waiting took the paper asked for 10 Euro (I gave her 20 to pick up some muscle cream too) and she drove to the next town and returned 15 minutes later with the ibuprofano, muscle cream, and my change. I tried to give her 5 euro to at least cover gas but she wouldn’t hear of it, wished us good luck and headed on her way.

The doctor had written down a prescription for 600 mg of ibuprofin to be taken 3 times a day. Being familiar with the American medical system, and recognizing that this was not a prescription (and therefore not prescription strength) and considering that my knee was KILLING me, I decided to double the initial suggested dosage and go ahead and take 4 pills. I assumed this was 1200 mg until Anjel pointed out that we were in Spain and that EACH of those pills were 600 mg (way more than you can get in a single pill in the States) and I had just consumed 2400 mg of ibuprofin which is a stupid thing to do, but also explains why I was practically pain free 15 minutes later and actually had a fantastic day of walking (combined with the muscle cream and the fact that I had wrapped my knee with an ace bandage.


Though not everyone we met on the Camino was as helpful and kind as Carmen and her friends, there’s a very different spirit in many of the towns than you might come across as a backpacker in other places – and a respect for the people that are walking the Way. Not a respect for the physical effort as much as an understanding that most people walk the Camino for a reason, and while some walk for sport, for the vast majority of people it is an intentionally spiritual or reflective experience. It was not something that we had thought much about before we arrived, and found ourselves amazed to be a part of.

The rest of the day was beautiful and relatively easy going. For the next 8 days, my knee and groin would pretty much be a constant nag that would hurt more or less depending on the day, but never enough to stop us and amazingly, the knee improved significantly over the week, despite that we were hiking an average of 12 to 13 miles a day – not usually the recommended way to handle a knee strain.

Full Day 2 Flickr photo set here.

Day 3: Zubiri to Pamplona
21 km – 13 mi


Most auberges have a bookshelf of books that people have left behind. The books are free to take, and if you have one you don’t need any more, you’re free to leave it behind for others. We were browsing the shelf of the auberge in Roncesvalles when we found a partial copy of Don Quixote. I say a partial copy because it was only the first 130 pages or so (including the cover) which had been torn out of the rest of the book leaving (based on the page numbers in the table of contents) roughly 700 pages of Cervantes somewhere out along the Way. It was a fantastic find because we frequently read aloud from books when walking and we had just been saying the other day that Don Quixote would have been a perfect book to read while we walked – and there it was. We began the book on Day 2 and continued today, reading Spanish literature while walking through beautiful Spanish countryside.


The initial walk out of Zubiri is actually not the greatest as you go by some industrial factories, but soon enough you leave those behind for pasture and fields.



To be honest, this was not one of the greatest days. The scenery was pleasant, but not breathtaking (the first two days were difficult to top) and the last two or three hours is mostly city walking as you approach Pamplona through its suburbs. The towns are nice enough, but we much prefer the walks through wilderness and we’ve also found that walking on pavement tends to get your feet aching much earlier than dirt trails. I’m sure it’s a combination of the hard impact of the concrete, along with the fact that the strike of your foot on the ground is never altered by rocks, ruts, or off-camber trails that change the pressure points – all of which make for a flat but relatively unpleasant walk.


Regardless, we were very excited to visit Pamplona – and to visit it when it at a time other than the week long festival when they hold the running of the bulls. I’m sure it would be an amazing spectacle, but it was great to be able to see the city in more of a day-to-day world.

It wasn’t too late by the time we reached the auberge, so we checked in, took off our packs, and rested for a bit before heading out to explore the city a bit and grab a bite to eat.


Full Day 3 Flickr photo set here.

continue reading part 2…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hannah November 10, 2009 at 2:29 am

I have a friend who did the Appalachian Trail last year, and it sounds like a similar experience, albeit involving much more wilderness than civilization. He blogged about it here:


2 mariska December 1, 2009 at 12:25 pm

woohoo! feel so cool to ‘deserve’ a mention on your blog! 😀 Met so many people on the camino, but you two were certainly the more memorable ones 🙂 thanks for the encouragement on my first few days of camino! 🙂

I reached Santiago in the morning of 25 Nov. I would have liked to claim that I went through every mile of it on foot, but… I took a bus ride to Leon (so that I could arrive there early and play tourist for the whole day!) and another to Sarria when my blistery feet couldn’t afford to walk down the steep hill, hahaha. But I’m still proud that I could reach Santiago on my own two feet at the end – and was in time to catch my flight on the following day!

So many occurrences, so many people I met, so many lessons to learn – but one thing for sure:
I am grateful to the Lord that He let me walk the camino; I am grateful for every single thing that happened on the way (yes, that includes every single blister on my feet!)

Wish you guys all the blessings for your dangerous business! Would be following your news here on the blog 😉



3 Neagunreasles January 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

La ringrazio per intiresnuyu iformatsiyu


Leave a Comment

We are not evil! If you do choose to include your email above, it will not appear on the site with your comment, nor will we spam you or sell your address, it's just a way for us to (potentially) respond to you directly.


Previous post:

Next post: