Thursday, July 27, 2017

Los Caminos de Santiago

Hello, my friends, after a long absence. Oh my, lots has happened and there is lots to talk about. In this blog post I'll describe my incredible walking tours, yes two!, on the fascinating El Camino de Santiago.

Las Tortugas Ancianas
I have trike toured in Spain twice and loved it.  Both times I rode many different Caminos that go to Santiago de Compestela. These Caminos are ancient pilgrimage routes that all end at a gorgeous church in Santiago de Compestela in the Galician province of northern Spain where the bones of the apostle St. James are interred. Every Camino is fantastic and wonderful to experience. On my tours, there were a few other cyclists but mostly the Caminos are for walking. These pilgrimage paths have a long, rich history and people have been walking them from every part of Europe, and beyond, to Santiago de Compestela for over 1,000 years. Every day I would meet people from all over the world and it seemed like everyone had a distinct purpose for walking. Some pilgrims were walking for religious reasons, some for spiritual reasons and lots more were walking to get through difficult times in their lives. I met people who were grieving the loss of loved ones, getting over relationship breakups, celebrating surviving cancer and others trying to overcome addictions. The stories I heard were endlessly fascinating. After traveling by tricycle for many years I decided to mix it up and do a walking tour following the ancient pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago del Norte.

There are many popular starting points for each of the Caminos. People fly, take trains or buses to get to starting points. Others simply open their front doors and start walking, often thousands of miles from Santiago. I met people who started walking from Bavaria, London, Vienna and even Belarus. After the experience of meeting so many pilgrims, I felt compelled to walk as well.

There are many Caminos to choose from but I was interested in only 2, the Camino del Norte and the Camino Frances. Both Caminos start just over the Spanish border in the French Basque country.   The Camino Frances is inland and the Camino del Norte is along the coast. I chose the Camino del Norte for a particular reason. The year that I wanted to walk turned out to be a special one. This was a year of mercy which is a holy year in the Catholic calendar where the holy doors in the grand churches are open. For Catholics, it is a big deal to take a pilgrimage and then enter the church in Santiago through the holy doors.  Because it was a holy year, the most popular Camino, the Camino Frances, was far too crowded for my comfort  and so I decided to do the Camino del Norte. After posting on Facebook about my plans, 2 gals I know through triking asked to join me.

Guggenheim Bilbao

After lots of research and planning into how to pack for a walking tour, including buying my first backpack, I flew to Spain in early October to start my own Camino. The 2 gals, who also ride tricycles, joined me in Madrid. One gal, Susan, lives in Montenegro and April lives in Connecticut. They didn't know each other but both are also big time hikers. I was a bit apprehensive how they would handle my slow speed. Yes, it's true, I'm not just a slow triker but a very slow walker as well. We continued together on a short flight to Biarritz France to start the Camino del Norte. This Camino is considered the most difficult and also the most beautiful.

The reviews for this Camino were spot on. It was spectacularly beautiful everyday and also very difficult. Some hills were so steep I felt like they were actually dangerous.  But wow, the views were incredible. The three of us called ourselves Las Tortugas Ancianas, the old turtles. Most days we would walk alone not seeing any other pilgrims until we got to the Albergue, pilgrim accommodation where we could stay the night. I have a difficult time sleeping under the best of conditions and the snoring at the Albergues was very hard on me. Not being able to sleep well can really wear me down. Luckily, we were able to stay in many towns that also had hotels. Usually, Susan and April would share a room and I would get a private room. This helped a lot. Each day we walked through quaint countryside with jaw-droppingly gorgeous views of the sea. The whole Camino was stunningly beautiful every day. The path was also super hard for me. It seemed like everyday I would hobble into town completely exhausted.  I have terrible depth of perception and the steep paths required I walk at an even slower pace. By the end of the day I was so tired often I actually had trouble moving my legs. Sometimes all I could do was collapse in my bed and the gals would go out and get me food. I learned a ton about hiking from April and Susan and I don't think I could have finished without their help. We also had fun but, unfortunately, we really weren't the best matched trio. It is hard traveling with 3 people and then so intensely for 6 weeks. With the personality issues, we were all pretty tense and uncomfortable. In the future, I think I would ask more questions about trip expectations to get a better feel for personality fit. I would also figure a way to build in an escape option ahead of time when traveling for so long with others. Many days the mileage was more than stated in the guidebook and sometimes we had to walk 15 miles or more which is too much for me. Being exhuasted and in pain every day didn't help either. That being said, we survived and made it to the end. It was a true feeling of accomplishment to arrive at the church in Santiago to finish the Camino del Norte. Unfortunately, the holy year ended 2 days before we arrived and the holy doors were shut. None of us are especially religious people so this wasn't a huge disappointment.

Pilgrim passport needed to stay in Albergues and receive the Compestela

The experience of being in Spain also inspired me to learn more Spanish. I was the only one in our trio who was able to speak even a little Spanish and that little bit proved very helpful.  Learning Spanish has been a goal of mine for many years and it felt like the time had come to start that challenge. I returned to Portland for a family event in late November and began researching where to study Spanish.  I also kept feeling like my Camino experience with the 2 gals was incomplete and it, somehow, felt unfinished. I kept feeling like I wanted to have a more contemplative and meditative Camino.  I wasn't sure exactly what that meant but the feeling continued to haunt me.  Then a lightbulb went on. Why not go back and walk another Camino, this time alone? I immediately loved the idea and made plans to do the Camino Frances. But first, I decided to go to Mexico and spend 2 months at a Spanish language school. I not only want to learn more Spanish to use while walking another Camino but, in the future, I also want to do trike tours in Cuba, Central and South America. Knowing more Spanish will make those trips easier, safer and much more rewarding. Not to mention that Spanish is the 2nd most spoken language in the world, after Chinese. More people speak Spanish than English. Spanish is spoken in 22 countries and all over the US.

In January, I went to Guanajuato, Mexico to study Spanish at Escuela Falcon on the recommendation from a friend. Guanajuato is a Pueblo Magico and a Unesco Heritage city high in the mountains of central Mexico. I signed up for classes 3 hours a day/5 days a week for a total immersion experience. When I enrolled, 2 months seemed like such a long time but, in reality, studying a language for 2 months will only give the very basics. I've been to this city before when I triked for 6 months through Mexico in 2007. Guanajuato is one of the few places that truly captured my heart and I have always wanted to return. One of my goals was to feel more comfortable speaking Spanish. I am painfully shy to speak Spanish. It takes me so long to hear what someone is saying, translate and then think of a response I know the words for. The teachers were incredibly patient with me and little by little it became easier. I loved the teachers and, even though it was very hard, I had a great time learning Spanish at Escuela Falcon and want to return to learn more.

In April of this year, I flew back to Spain to walk the Camino Frances. I followed the same transportation method from just a few months previous. I flew into Madrid, took a short flight to Biarritz, France and then a bus to the starting point,  St Jean Pied-de-Port. The first day I walked over the Pyranees mountains. This Camino is the most famous of all the Caminos and there are always many people on the path. There is a lot to see on this Camino. A lot of art, culture, architecture and history. I walked with people from all over the world. Some of the most fun people I met only spoke Spanish and they loved that I was trying. I couldn't believe that I was not only able to communicate but be understood. My Spanish is still very basic and it takes me a long time to translate in my head and think of words I know to form a response but, hopefully, as I speak more this will get easier.

One of the most amazing aspects of walking the Camino is carrying so little on my back. I walked with only 10.4 lbs of gear and didn't miss anything. There is a lot of freedom with carrying so little. I gave myself 2 months to do the Camino Frances. I ended up in Santiago with 2 weeks until my flight and so I walked a loop out to the coast and KM marker 0.0 in Finesterre. Then I walked to sweet Muxia before returning to Santiago. Upon completing atleast 100 kms of any Camino you can receive a Compostela and a certificate of distance from the pilgrim office in Santiago. There are 2 more certificates for walking from Santiago to Finesterre and Muxia. I left Santiago with 4 certificates. Each is very different and a nice momento from the trip.  The last loop was lovely and capped off the trip nicely. The Camino Frances is very busy and the walk out to the coast is tranquil and quiet. It was this last bit that gave me the contemplative and meditative Camino I was looking for. I enjoyed the extra time to digest all the walking and experiences and felt totally done with walking when I returned to Santiago. 

Another thing that happened is I have a whole new appreciation for cycling. Oh my goodness, walking is so much harder than cycling. On my trike, I can go further, carry more and I have more options available. My body doesn't hurt as much either. I'm really happy I did these Caminos and got it out of my system. Now I'm ready and excited to get back to trike touring.

Stay tuned for my upcoming trike tour plans!