Final Photos and Facts About Camino del Norte 2012

Wrap-up from Santiago — Yesterday as we collected our compostela pilgrimage completion certificates from the cathedral office I felt tears welling up in my eyes. This has been an amazing adventure, a month of walking and exploring that brought reunions with old friends, warm bonds with new friends, and rich experiences of the colors and beauty

Twenty-eight days in Northern Spain from Bilbao (right) to Santiago (left). Click to see detailed Google Map.

of northern Spain that have filled my heart with joy.
My three heroes during the walk are Sebastian, Martin and Jacqueline, dear friends from last year’s camino who made time to join me for this year’s walk. Even though we were separated by thousands of miles for nearly a year we quickly picked up where we left off and renewed and strengthened our friendships. New friends also enriched these days of walking, and in my upcoming two days here in Santiago I know I will share many greetings and good byes with these fellow pilgrims.

My eyes tear up even as I write these words, and I have to stop and dry them before I can continue. Santiago is always an emotional experience for me. Four times now I have sat in the cathedral a few blocks from here and one by one thanked God for the blessing of each individual camino friend. I know that people walk the Camino de Santiago for mystical reasons or for exercise or to enjoy Spanish culture. It’s clear to me that I walk the camino to enjoy the pilgrims themselves. In well over 100 days of walking since the start of my first camino in 2008 it is the faces and memories of pilgrims that stand out most in my mind. The close ties of friendship and affection that form with camino friends are, to me, the very presence of God.I have appreciated the thoughts and prayers of past pilgrim friends, friends and family from home and also of other pilgrims and soon-to-be pilgrims whom I’ve never met but who’ve communicated their support on this site and elsewhere.

Many have asked how I’ve held up. Other than being a little weepy, which is expected in the last days of a pilgrimage, I’m fine. My feet and legs are still sore from yesterday’s 40 km walk. I have a head cold that I’ll try to keep from moving to my chest. I’ve lost 14 pounds (6.5 kilos) and my face is pinkish brown from sun and wind. My arms and legs are deeply tanned, my skin is a little too dry, my hair is begging to be trimmed, and I have a smile on my face.

Some details of the walk, in no particular order: By the numbers, I walked 677 km in twenty-seven days of actual walking. I took two actual rest days.

I stayed in albergues, mostly, but also in a couple of pensiones and a couple of 4-star hotels in some of the big cities.

I did take the train once, for a three minute ride across a river that otherwise would have added 11 km to my total. The three minute ride, due to my own mistake, ended up adding about two hours to my day — roughly the time it would’ve taken to walk the 11km. I took boats twice, also to cross rivers, and loved every second on the water.

I met pilgrims from at least these nations: Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, UK, Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, Canada and the USA.

I posted every single day on my blog, for which AT&T reaped a rich ransom through its International Data Plan, and since I began the walk my blog has received over 10,000 hits. Blogging this camino was an exercise in self-discipline that became a welcome time of daily reflection. I hope it will be a helpful resource for future pilgrims considering the Camino del Norte. All blog posts and all photographs were created on my iPhone 4Gs and posted through the WordPress iPhone app (thanks, Sophia).

Though my Spanish is still rudimentary I am getting better at listening and understanding, as well as expressing myself. I need to go back to my college textbooks and bone up on verb tenses and vocabulary. After that, with more practice, I could become a decent Spanish speaker.

My actual itinerary was:

  • May 28 Arrived Bilbao, met by Sebastian, overnight at hotel
  • May 29 Portugalete (walked with Sebastian, stayed at pension)
  • May 30 (Pobena) Castro Urdiales
  • May 31 Laredo (beach town albergue with 2 English kids)
  • June 1 Guemes (Don Ernesto’s albergue)
  • June 2 (Galizano, Loredo, Somo) Santander
  • June 3 Boo (goodbye to Sebastian; Santander overnight)
  • June 4 (Mogro, Mar) Santillana del Mar
  • June 5 Comillas (argue with hospitalero boss)
  • June 6 Colombres (Mad Men motel)
  • June 7 Llanes (TV tower, pink hotel)
  • June 8 Ribadesella (goodbye to Spanish 5)
  • June 9 Sebrayo (remote albergue with food truck)
  • June 10 Deba (Gijon – albergue in campground with swimming pool)
  • June 11 Gijon (rest day)
  • June 12 Gijon (rest day, Martin arrives)
  • June 13 Aviles (factories)
  • June 14 Cordillero (left Martin)
  • June 15 Cadavedo (met Michael, Stefan; hotel with Julian)
  • June 16 Luarca (Martin awaits)
  • June 17 La Caridad (explosives, ritzy hotel with antiques; chicken/fries dinner)
  • June 18 (Tapia, German, giant bridge) Ribadeo
  • June 19 Lourenza (big church, with Julian for dinner)
  • June 20 Gontan (albergue, Methodists)
  • June 21 Vilalba (tall, black albergue by fire station)
  • June 22 (Baamonde) Deva (vegetarian albergue)
  • June 23 Deva to Sebrado dos Monxes (met up with Martin and Jacqueline)
  • June 24 Sebrado to Arzua (walked with Martin, Jacqueline and Carina)
  • June 25 Arzua to Santiago (40 km in blazing sun)

I’ve now walked approximately 2,700 kilometers (1,687 miles) on four camino paths (Camino Frances, Via de la Plata, Camino Finisterre, Camino del Norte) since 2008, and yes, I’m brainstorming now with pilgrim friends about the when and where of the next walk.

My only real regret about this year’s walk is that I did not throw off my pack and most of my clothes when I had the chance and swim at one of the many beautiful beaches I passed along the way. The other regret I have is always the same on every camino: I deeply miss Gail, my family, my home, my church and my friends. As much as I love the camino, I’m ready to return to summer in Seattle.

Thanks for faithfully reading along as I’ve described and reflected on this adventure. Thanks for your support and encouragement which helped motivate me to write. These reflections were composed in albergue bunks, on tables in outdoor cafes and bars, sometimes outside on cold steps or benches, but nearly always between ten and midnight after other pilgrims were fast asleep. I’m sure some thought it odd that I often had my nose in my cellphone until late into the night, but your encouragement meant that writing was never a burden, always a blessing.

Here are a few photos from the trip that I haven’t yet posted but are of sights I enjoyed:

20120626-103931.jpgSantiago (St. James) a dear friend and fellow pilgrim. In Bilbao at the start of the walk and with me each step of the way.

20120626-104200.jpgThis is my first photo of Jon of Calgary (in red), seen at the Castro Urdiales albergue, showing he was there almost from my start. I’ll meet him for lunch here in Santiago in about an hour.

20120626-105011.jpgTwo burros whose photo I share to represent all the livestock and other animals I passed along the way — burros, horses, cows, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, hawks, fish, snakes, lizards, an eel, and one road kill badger.

20120626-105303.jpgThis sign says “turn left.”

20120626-105640.jpgThis sign also says “turn left” but only because it’s in Galicia, not Asturias.

20120626-105903.jpgLocal kids at Luarca partying with way too much beer. They laughed hard that a tourist/pilgrim would take a photo of them.

20120626-110510.jpgKitchen of the Aviles albergue. No, I’m not kidding.

20120626-111009.jpgProud Elena of Cafe Roxica with her homemade cheese.

20120626-111104.jpgAnd to all dogs of all caminos, doing their work of keeping their packs safe.

How Do Some People Do This in Two Hours?

Day Twenty-seven: Arzua to Santiago — At dinner last night in Arzua we calculated that today’s walk of 40.5 kilometers (26 miles) would be almost precisely the distance of a marathon. Sometime during our long hours of walking today Martin asked, “how long does it take to run a marathon?” I remembered an approximate record time almost exactly, since it was nearly 1/3 the time it took me to run my own marathon in 2011.

“Two hours, three minutes was the winning time of the Boston Marathon in 2011.”

“How is it humanly possible that anyone could cover this distance in that time?” Martin said.

We shared only the distance in common with a true marathon, since our “marathon” took eleven hours and thirty minutes. The temperature reached 82F degrees (25C) so as well as the distance, the sun was a challenge during a very long and tiring day.

But we are here. In Santiago! After 700 kilometers (437 miles) walking from Bilbao to Santiago on the Camino del Norte over 27 days, this pilgrimage is complete.

Tomorrow I will write a full wrap up, but already we have seen John of Calgary, Florian of Amsterdam, and heard from Julian of Honolulu. There is sharing and storytelling and eating to do with these pilgrim friends. The night is young, but short. Let the celebrations begin!

20120625-201643.jpgMartin, Sandy, Jacqueline in front of Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, June 25, 2012.

2012 Brings Increase in Pilgrims to Santiago

In response to a question on the Camino Forum I help moderate I dug into statistics at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s website to see if the Spanish economic crisis is affecting the quantity of pilgrims heading to Santiago. Surprise! The numbers are actually up — and pretty dramatically.

Pilgrim boots at the albergue in Najera

So far this year 5,441 pilgrims have received their compostelas in Santiago, compared to 4,493 in the same months in 2011. This follows the general increase of the last decades in which interest in the Camino de Santiago has grown each year. A 20% increase is a pretty big number.

Still, the numbers are smaller than in the first three months of the Holy Year of 2010, in which 8,691 pilgrims received their compostelas. However, at a 20% annual increase that number will soon be matched. Clearly the Camino de Santiago is on a big upswing as more and more pilgrims find something special in their journeys to the bones of Santiago.

Planning my Camino del Norte for this Spring

Map of the Camino del Norte. I'll begin in Bilbao

After flirting for a time with a month long walk on the Via Francigena I decided what I really wanted was another Camino de Santiago. The primary benefits are: more pilgrims to have for company and more albergues and other services along the way. So, Camino del Norte it is, and I’ll arrive in Bilbao to begin there on May 28. Wish me a buen camino!

June 17, 2011 Santiago to Negreira

Met Luke and Gal at 09:00 at Plaza Obradoiro and Luke’s experience of walking to Finisterre/Muxia in 2009 was helpful in getting out of town. Arrows actually became plentiful after a bit and before long we were on a hill opposite the cathedral with a great view.

Continued up large hill and across ancient bridge over beautiful river. Much rain and wind into Negreira. Happy to find town, but albergue was on opposite side of town and separated from all shops and restaurants by almost 1 km. Got beds at albergue and walked back to town for lunch at local restaurant. Then grocery shopping and return to albergue for showers and laundry followed later by cooking by Gal.

Vegetarian dinner by Gal was huge and delicious. Best dish was friend cauliflower. Shared dinner with Matthieu and enjoyed wine and conversation. Shower and bed in room with 10-12 single beds. Quiet night.

July 26-27, 2010 Santiago de Compostela

Adios, Santiago, mi amigo

July 26 — Slow day here in Galicia. Knowing I would miss Finisterre I hunted down the train station and bought my overnight ticket for 7/28 to Madrid. I then emailed my Spanish teacher back home to ask her about a Madrid museum she mentioned, then I booked a hotel near the train station and museums. My flight to SEA was set for very early Friday morning. I had a goodbye lunch in the afternoon with Artur and also Andre of Montreal following pilgrim mass. There was still a huge line for hugging the Santiago statue, so I decided to wait for that until tomorrow. I found a quiet corner in a square and sat and jotted down the completed itinerary of my camino and reviewed my emails so I wouldn’t forget details.

July 27 — Caught up on my sleep today. Slept until 07:30, then off to breakfast and a 1 hr wait to hug the apostle. Then back to the room to sleep until 11:30. Wake for lunch then visit to museum, then back by 15:30 to sleep until 20:30 an wake up in time for dinner.

The museum was definitely the highlight of thus sleepy day. As well as pilgrimage relics and cutaway models of the cathedral there was an incredible show of time-lapse photos of six camino routes, including my two. The photographer traveled the caminos over six years, taking a photo every 11 steps. Each photo is given about 0.5 secs so the result is like a movie of every foot of the caminos. They’re all 6 projected simultaneously by video projectors on large screens in a black room. The result is a presentation that gives an astounding sense of distance and time. I watched for over an hour

Tonight got ready and jumped on the train to Madrid. Farewell, Santiago, mi amigo. I shall return to see you again.

July 24-25, 2010 Santiago de Compostela Festival

Wow, an incredible day and a half here in Santiago.

On Day Eleven (July 24) I had a nice breakfast with Artur then packed and (since both the Costa Vella and Altair were full) went to the hotel Gail so nicely reserved for me, saving me a ton of time searching for a room in this city that is now jammed to the gills with festival tourists and pilgrims. It was a nice suite in a hotel with a big atrium and only about 3/4 mile from central Santiago.

After checking in I wandered the streets, watching the various street characters, including giants, fire breathing dragons and grotesques. There also marching bands and many street musicians. I took a break in a cafe, plotted my week’s strategy over a late lunch, then headed to Plaza Obradoiro to wait for the Fuego (fireworks).

Lucky I did. I got there at about 19:00 for the 23:30 show, and at about 20:00 they closed the square. There were perhaps 10,000 people in the square and I lucked into a group from Seville sitting next to a Uruguayan mother-daughter pair who live in Vigo. The leader of the Sevillians is an Internist named Javier. The Uruguayan daughter just graduated med school. So we talked about Gail, my doctor-wife.

Then the fireworks started. I have never ever seen anything like these. The entire facade of the cathedral had been prepared with lasers and rockets and strobe lights. At times I worried for the cathedral building itself, which sometimes seemed to be exploding. My seat was spectacular– too close possibly– and we were showered many times by falling ash and debris. Truly an overwhelming experience.

After all 10,000 of us pushed our way through the narrow streets after the show I headed to the hotel for a few hours’ sleep in advance of an early assault on the pilgrims’ office for my compostele. I got to the office at 07:00 on Day Twelve (July 25, Santiago Day) to find 75 people already there. By the 09:00 opening I would estimate there were at least 500 pilgrims in a line stretching more than 3 blocks. Still, the cathedral was well organized, with many stations. I had my Holy Year/Holy Day compostele by 09:30.

I checked my festival schedule just then and realized that the grand procession to the solemn cathedral mass would begin at 10:00. I headed back to the plaza and stood in a group of thousands to enjoy a procession of soldiers, clergy, nobility, governmental leaders, and finally the King and Queen of Spain. People around me shouted “Vive el Rey!”

Knowing the cathedral was already packed (the line was even longer than for the pilgrim office) I pushed through the crowd once again, got breakfast, got my backpack, and headed to my home for the next three nights, the Altair.

People seemed to be enthralled by my iPhone film clips of the fireworks, so I put together a YouTube video and uploaded it right from my phone. Amazing new technology. Not the greatest video, but still….

On the way to the Altair I saw Kristina of Poland and the Italian from Modena who walked with Corrado and Pascal. He said they’ve both now gone home. Our thin stream of Via de la Plata pilgrims is quickly emptying into the ocean.

After that I laid low at the Altair and ventured out for dinner after the crowded streets emptied. Beautiful, clear day, slight breeze, probably 20c degrees. I’m glad I was here for the amazing fiesta, but my dallying among the celebrations has meant I won’t have time for Finisterre. Oh well. Some other year!

July 23, 2010 Ponte Ulla to Santiago de Compostela

July 23, and here I am in Santiago de Compostela — two days ahead of plan. The weather is perfect, the streets are crowded with pilgrims and tourists, and my legs are tired and sore from walking 266 kms.

I overslept this morning and knocked on Artur’s door at 8:00 — an hour after our planned departure from Ponte Ulla. The nice restaurant owner made us toast, then we donned our mochilas and were off for a 22 km final stage to Santiago.

The day was perfectly uneventful. We dutifully followed the yellow arrows as they snaked us up and down farmland and forest hills, then finally through the suburbs of Santiago. The Via de la Plata brings pilgrims into Santiago from the south, and sure enough our first vista of the cathedral was its southern face. As we wound through the city, though, somehow we ended up approaching the cathedral from its northwest side.

Because he immediately wanted his compostela I showed Artur to the pilgrim office then left him there to check into my hotel, arranged at the last minute (since I wasn’t certain the day of my arrival) by our friends at the Altair. Once I realized my room had two twin beds I returned to the pilgrim office (after lunch) and waited for Artur so I could offer him to stay in my room.  Since he had no room arranged he was happy to accept, so we dumped his stuff in my room, headed to the pilgrim mass, then had a nice dinner at one of the restaurants I ate at with Gail in 2008. Afterward we walked the city and enjoyed taking photos of street minstrels and magicians who seem to be in most every plaza.

As always, the mass was emotional for me. I thought about and prayed for the many pilgrims I’d met and celebrated with gratitude and relief that I’d safely completed this long and challenging endeavor.

Some statistics:

  • Days walked: 10
  • Kilometers walked: 266
  • Avg kms per day: 26.6
  • Miles walked: 166.25
  • Avg miles per day: 16.6

At this point I’m still not sure about walking to Finisterre. I expect it will be very crowded, and I’ll know very few pilgrims. If I do I will leave most likely on Monday, but a Sunday start is also possible. I’ll think and plan more over the next days.

Meantime, tomorrow is festival day and the festival organizers have mounted a huge framework for lights, fireworks and lasers on the cathedral facade. If I can I’ll get a seat in the main plaza and witness what, according to the papers, will be an amazing fireworks show tomorrow night. If not, apparently there are also goods seats at a few nearby parks. Off to bed at the Costa Vella hotel where the room I’m sharing with Artur has a delightful westerly view.

July 22, 2010 A Laxe to Ponte Ulla

After my super long day yesterday I was certain today would be a total drag. I woke up with the kids from the van saying “good morning” to me to practice their English. I thanked one of their leaders once again for helping make a place for me at the albergue and he told me, in Spanish, that he could tell I really needed one. I asked him how he could tell and he pointed to his eyes and drew his fingers down his cheeks then pointed at me. I hadn’t realized I’d looked so desperate, or that my tears (ahem, watery eyes) had been obvious. Yes, I’d shed some tears, mostly after my place at the albergue was assured. I’ve learned about myself that after 25-26 miles of walking I tend to get weepy. Oh well.

Soon Artur hunted me down and after some vending machine coffee we set out. We would walk together all 26 kms to our evening destination of Ponte Ulla.

The walk was through farmlands as well as one small city — Silleda. Not much to say about the walk except that we met about 40 Spanish kids who’re walking together, and Artur told me his battle story.

I learned a few day’s ago that if I could find the right question I could get Artur talking for hours as we walked and that I was always entertained by what he had to say. So we  talked about women priests, Americans, CS Lewis, great military campaigns, transubstantiation, etc. We marveled at an enormous bridge being built in cantilever fashion out over the river valley whose original bridge had given the tiny town its name. Before I knew it we were in Ponte Ulla, our goal for the night. We found a hotel with very inexpensive rooms and the owner agreed to do our laundry!

Here with us in a simple pensione were an English/ Turkish father and daughter and Kjell and Oddbjorg of Norway. We had a cervesa together then dinner separately. Then off to bed for the remaining 20 kms to Santiago. I will arrive 2 days ahead of schedule after a great Via de la Plata.

Can’t believe this camino is just about over. I’ll see how I feel Sunday before making a decision about walking to Finisterre. I’m already feeling a good sense of accomplishment and am  not sure I want to fight the inevitable crowds going to Finisterre. But we’ll see.

July 19, 2010 Xunqueira de Ambia to Ourense

In My Dinner with Andre last night we had a tender discussion about angels and saints. He told me about his family and divorce and the 1000s of kilometers he’s walked on caminos. Afterwards it was off to the albergue for a good sleep.

As usual in albergue living people start to stir and head out at the ridiculous hour of 05:00. Dawn didn’t come until 07:00, so clearly their reason is to get a jump on albergue beds in the next town. That makes me so sad that beds become a competition. I prefer to begin my walk sometime soon after dawn and trust to the camino to provide a bed at day’s end.

At 06:30 I gave up trying to sleep and was next to last out of the albergue. Today’s walk to Ourense, largest town in my camino, had three main stages — a) tiny bedroom villages, b) industrial zones, c) dense urban areas leading to the old city.

I walked through the tiny bedroom villages with Kjell and Oddbjorge of Norway. Kjell’s English is quite good and he told me the story of how his 1998 camino changed his life. After the camino he came home, simplified his lifestyle, and retired so he’d have more time to volunteer at church. Then he complained bitterly about the Norwegian government forcing the Norwegian Lutheran church to accept homosexual clergy.

Kjell and Oddbjorg walked slowly, so I walked mostly alone through the industrial zone. Here I nearly flipped my first bird (yes, nearly) when a driver missed me by inches from behind as he passed a truck on a narrow road. I jumped as his car whizzed by just inches away.

As I started into the urban section I caught up with the kissy Spaniards and their friend, who was hobbling now with an injury. I tried to help them find the albergue, but I wasn’t that committed given I had my heart set on a cheap hotel somewhere in the center city.

In the urban areas the yellow arrows always seem to disappear, so I had to ask directions several times to get to the Plaza Mayor. I finally found it then was about to sit down for the day’s first beer when I was stopped by a camera crew. A man in a rainbow tank top asked me if I’d be interviewed. I told him I didn’t speak Spanish that well, so he did the first part of the interview in English. He asked me how I liked Ourense (me lo gusta) and where I was from. I told him and also volunteered that I’d just walked 22kms and was very tired and was looking for a hotel. He asked me how many stars, one, two, or three? I told him 2-3 and, off camera now, he sent me to a hotel about a block off the Plaza Mayor.

I checked in, went across the street for a great enselada mixta, then sat to type my daily note to Gail on my iPhone and strategize about laundry (do it now) and dinner (do it after the blazing sun goes down). Ourense has a reputation as the hottest town in Galicia, and today’s temps — likely 95 to 100F — were confirmation.

I spent some time at the cathedral — a beautiful church. And I debated with myself about a change in my plan to stay at the hotel I’d reserved given my quicker pace. I could pretty easily get to Santiago on the 23rd at my current rate, but my hotel reservation isn’t until the 25th. I decided to ask Gail’s help online to try to find an available Santiago hotel for the 23/24 then head to Finisterre on 25/26. I left the decision open, though, as I knew a lot could change and I had laundry to do.