Camino de Santiago – Unabridged

This is the full unabridged version of how Alison walked across Spain on the pilgrim’s path, on her own, with no Spanish language skills, over 27 days. What started as a hike finished as a ‘pilgrimage’, as the Spanish people shared their expectations, history, culture and goodwill. Alison learned to meet those expectations, value the history and culture and appreciate the goodwill.

Day One: Thursday 22 March 2001 – Pamplona to Puente la Reina – 25 kms

The track is like an old cart track – rough in places but OK and walking is physically easy. A gentle ascent to a mountain ridge covered with windmills, through small villages all with huge churches built in the 12th century. Then a gentle descent to Puente on the river. About two thirds of the way I stopped for a sandwich at a private pilgrims refuge – a family home really and received a joyous greeting. Had a cup of hot soup, a boccodillos (A Spanish specialty – a French breadstick sandwich) with scrambled egg and fried sausage in it and then on my way again.

At this point I discover that I have some aches and pains – sore hips from the pack and blisters starting on the balls of my feet – both feet. Only another 6 km to go, but in hindsight I should have stopped and taped them. Now as I write this I have two large blisters – buggar!

Met interesting people on the walk going in the other direction: and old lady with an old English sheepdog who stopped to ask if I was a pilgrim going to Santiago, where was I from etc. I didn’t realise the warmth of the reception by the locals – I have started to think of it as the “pilgrim factor”. Arrived at Puenta Reina, really footsore, and the refuge was closed. The monastery stamped my passport and directed me to the local square and cheap hotel – $40 Australian. Had a hot bath and collapsed into bed at 6 pm. Then woke at 5 am.

Day 2: Friday 23 March – Puenta la Reina to Estella

Actually met my first peregrino this morning checking out of the hotel – a German man about mid 40s who had come down the other path from the Pyranees – they converge at Puenta and he was just giving up with knee problems.

Had breakfast at a local bar – fairly hilarious – discover our common language is French and then describes this horrendous car accident where the truck drives off a freeway bridge to the road below – the driver had died of a heart attack.

Walking is painful with the blisters but they settle down as the day goes on – just when I stop for a rest and the restart it takes a few minutes to adjust to the pain level. Through fields to a medieval town on a hill – 12th century, and then along a roman road. Wandered off it in a walker’s meditative state and I had to retrace my steps about 1 km.

The most interesting part of the walk today was the descent into Estelle through the olive trees – they were really old trees growing on terraces with the path wending its way between them. Met my first pelegrino on the track – a young man who was too busy to stop walking very fast up hill. The roman road was quite impressive where it was still in place – you could imagine the battalions marching through.

The main interactions are with older people out walking who are interested to know where I’m from and if I am going all the way to Santiago and where did I sleep last night. My Spanish is getting better and I can give pigeon answers to their questions. The Estelle refuge is grand and I think there’s only me staying there.

The Spanish bar has its own characteristics too – it feels weird having breakfast in a bar! Went out for a walk and around 5-7pm thousands of people gather in the plaza (pronounced platha) and go window-shopping in their best clothes. Breakfast was a cheese boccadilla – a bit hard to get down and two cups of coffee. 500 pesetas to stay at the refuge – amazing value – about $2.

Day 3 Saturday 24th March Estelle to Los Arcos

A really hard slog along a road for about 12 kms which seemed to go on forever.Tender feet and blisters on the toes have developed. Decided to have lunch at Los Arcos and see if I could recover enough to do the next 8 kms to Torres del Rios. Had artichokes at the restaurant. The owner would not let me take my boots off! Had cider very alcoholic and hobbled out of the restaurant in maximum pain and decided I could walk another 8 km. Started up the hill and there was a sign for a private refuge, on a house. The old man on the balcony saw me coming and called his daughter so I decided to stop and stay with them – I’m the only one. The whole backyard is devoted to vegetables.

The highlight of the day – the wine fountain at the vineyard built especially for pilgrims. As much red wine as you want. A very young wine it was too – drank it with the lid of the water bottle.

Day 4: Sunday 25th March – Los Arcos to Logrono – 28 kms

Walked a longer day today to make up stopping early yesterday, and the first twenty kms were fine. But the last eight kms were painful and I did the last 2 kms practically crawling. I have been hobbling around the city this afternoon in my sandals and now have a blister on my heel. Today has been very windy and even though the sun was out I had to wear my parka to keep warm.

Arriving at Torres del Rio for breakfast after having walked 10 kms on an empty stomach and discovering the bar is not open till the afternoon. Had some chocolate instead. Found the albergue (Spanish for refuge) and the warden spoke some English – she was Italian and potting up pot plants on a Sunday morning. There was a steady stream of people going past on their way to mass. She let me fill my water bottle and use the toilet. Said she had not seen a pilgrim for 3 days. But in summer they are wall to wall. Bought a phone card and called Digs but no answer, so on to the next village.

Arrived at Viana travelling through interesting country – an old donkey trail and a roman settlement, still with the ruins. Came across a small flock of sheep with three dogs and a shepherd – in this day and age – a beautiful young man with a big smile. Got to Vianna just as everybody comes out of mass so hundreds of people spilling into the cafes. My lunch plans evaporate and I change to Plan B – stop at the little shop and buy some chocolate and a coffee scrolly thing. Sat in the square in the sun just massaging my toes and people watching. A little boy asked me in Spanish – where are your boots? I even understand and was able to answer him in Spanish too.

The last stretch is a killer. Past this 12th century church in the middle of nowhere and there are hundreds of people picnicking in the grounds – cooking paella. Only 4 kms out from Logrono and this horrible red bitumen pathway appears built especially for peregrinos and a killer on the feet. One km out of town on the descent and a little old lady with hairs all over her chin, or should I say three double chins, was lurking waiting for any peregrinos. She had three dogs chained up at the fence to let her know I’m coming and a table set up covered in plastic. She peels back the plastic and there is the Camino guest book to sign. She wants to stamp my passport with her special stamp, so I let her. Then she offers me a biscuit – chocolate – from a very suspect collection. I take one to be polite, leave her a donation in the plate and then hobble onto town. I later find out that she is one of the famous eccentrics who live on the Camino.

Outside the cemetery on the edge of town I am just about stuffed and a woman my own age comes and stops to talk – the usual questions and then she says “Sola?” I thought she was saying it was sunny but she was asking me if I was walking alone and when I replied that I was she reached out and touched me on my arm. I was discovering the power of being a pilgrim walking alone and the respect in which such a person is held by the locals.

Staggered into the refuge – I’m the only one staying. The warden is a young woman with no English but very helpful. Lovely hot shower and then 15 minutes to walk to send an email – I debate whether I am up to it. Make the effort and discover lots of messages in reply to my postcard – from friends who had been to Spain

Nothing from Digs. Rang again at 7.30pm and no reply. The streets are absolutely packed with window shoppers – it’s a Sunday night and everyone is promenading. Find a bar and it is absolutely packed with old couples playing cards, the TV is blaring with a soccer match, and the smoke is thick. Decide to have some tapas from the bar – I am too hungry and tired to wait until the dining room opens at 8.30. No self respecting Spanish person eats before then. The tapas turns out to be disgusting – calamari and it’s covered in oil. Staggered back to the refuge. Am planning an easy day tomorrow. Actually able to buy some yoghurt and orange juice for breakfast tomorrow.

Day 5: Monday 26th March Logrono to Najerra

A llong day – another 30 kms from Logrono – so much for the easy day. This day turns out to be one of the worst in my memory of the Camino. The option was to finish at lunchtime at Navarette or continue on. So I chose the painful alternative. Rang digs from a phone box on the way out and actually spoke before being cut off. Bought ‘compeed’ for blisters and shampoo.

A long walk out from town along the main highway until the two petrol stations where there is meant to be a left turn. Quite an industrial zone and an African guy in a uniform sees me and waves me over to give me detailed instructions – in English! Said he had been to Sydney, Port Kembla and Woollongong as a seaman. He was black as black with a beaming smile so his face seemed to be full of teeth. Found the path out OK – a bitumen track which was the local ‘exercise’ track and hundreds of people went jogging and cycling past me.

Finally arrived at a reservoir which in the early morning light looked fantastic. A walk through vineyards and wheatfields to Navarette. Staggered into the bar opposite the albergue and ordered a boccodillo with bacon and camembert – delicious – and the girl at the bar spoke English. My feet still feel OK so I decide to push on. The afternoon walk through vineyards is interesting and leads to a high mountain ridge where pilgrims used to be robbed by brigands dressed as monks from the nearby monastery. An old monastery site with thousands of rocks which had all been piled into little cairns by bored peregrinos.

The last 8 kms – the descent from the ridge to Najerra in the distance turns out to be an epic. My feet are really sore with blisters and the weather closes in. The temperature drops and an electrical thunderstorm develops overhead. I am wearing my parka and shorts with two layers on top. Rain is heavy and I can’t keep warm, even though I am moving quickly. The bottom half of me starts to go numb. It seems to take forever to reach Najerra, even though you can see it in the distance. Pounding on through the pouring rain, walking as fast as I could despite the blisters. Finally hit the outskirts of the town at 4.15pm. It takes another 50 minutes to go through the town in the peak time to get to the albergue located at the monastery in the old quarter.

Pablo was waiting and saw me coming through the rain. I staggered inside frozen and he took my pack and helped me remove my boots. My hands were frozen and he enveloped me in a great big crushing bear hug – two lots of kisses on both cheeks – and then told me all in Spanish to be ‘tranquilla’. A Gregorian chant is playing in the softly lit stone cavern. He took my pack and carried it up to the dormitory, and then asked me if I would like a wine. He had obviously been partaking for some time so I said ‘si’. He asked me if I was alone, and was I afraid to be alone in the albergue – if so I could sleep in the locked room. This took some translation and a resort to the phrasebook to sort this out. After a hot shower and a red wine the world started being benign.

An American from California turned up – Darryl Howard. His brother had married an Aussie girl and taught at Lake Bolac in Victoria. He asked me if I knew Ballarat as he had a brother who taught in the vicinity. I said I too had a brother at Ballarat who taught!!!! He was checking out the Camino with the idea of bringing a group of students on a cycling trip next year. He spoke a little Spanish – Mexican Spanish – which is very different. Between the three of us – Pablo, Darryl and me we had a great conversation.

Time to eat so Pablo said he would take us to a bar about 40 metres away – another red wine at the bar. He arranged for the chef to give us dinner and departed. Dinner was hilarious as we didn’t have enough English to communicate and there was no written menu per se – we finished up with a delicious meal – three courses with wine and bread. The first decent meal I had eaten for days. Darryl insisted on paying so I let him and then Pablo arrived to escort us home – a great way to end an awful day. It was freezing outside and snowing on the mountains as I discovered the next day.

Day 6: Tuesday 27th March – Najerra to Santo Domingo

This was going to be a short day – only 20 kms. Daylight saving started last night so it was an early start. Pablo woke me up with a Gregorian chant which fitted in perfectly with the surroundings – old stone walls and archways. I did not get a chance to say goodbye – he had vanished when I was ready to go so I wrote a goodbye in the guest book.

A long walk through vineyards and wheatfields to Alfirza where I had breakfast at the bar and replenished my chocolate supply. Snow on the hills! Then to Cicueza whee I had a hilarious conversation in Spanish with a farmer about his Jack Russell terrier – a little black dog about to have puppies. Then up over the range and there is Santo Domingo and a flock of sheep with dogs and farmer in blue overalls coming my way.

Arrive at Santo Domingo early – 3 pm at the albergue. The greeting could not have been more different from the previous night. I was interrupting the caretaker reading his paper. Nothing volunteered, no friendliness or warmth – but a wonderful hostel. Headed out for a real lunch and dined at mason El Peregrino on seafood soup, salad, crème caramel and a bottle of wine – absolutely wonderful served by a guy in a suit with a bow tie. Finally I get to eat a decent meal on day 6. I have walked a long way on oranges and chocolate with the shops always closed and the restaurants not open when I want to eat. The shine rubbed off this hostel when four Austrians on bikes arrive and laughed loudly until late and then snored all night. I had been spoiled sleeping alone in refuges up until now.

Day 7: Wednesday 28th March – Santo Domingo to Belorado – 24 km

A freezing day – sunny but really windy so beanie and parka and numb legs all day walking into a headwind made it quite unpleasant. Passed through four villages and mainly followed the N120 the main highway heading west, so not that great for walking. Cold and cough have set in and a continually running nose. Now that my feet are fine this is the next challenge to get over.

Had lunch at the last village – a huge gourmet delight of cured hams and sausages hanging from the roof – took a photo it was so spectacular. Arrive at the albergue to find a peregrino called Franco from Portugal who was heading for Rome. He had already walked to Santiago from Portugal and was now walking the Camino backwards to France. The warden or hospitalero was a volunteer who had walked the Camino himself – Michelle a frenchman who was walking back to France and wanting to commence studying in a seminary. A young Mexican couple arrived also walking the trail – I have caught up to somebody at last!!! Lucretia and Francisca.

Spent this arvo in the local bar having a vino tinto with Michell. He is cooking for us tonight and I look forward to the communal meal. A pleasant evening meal together – six of us as two more arrive – a cyclist Lewis who is Spanish and Elizabeth from Germany an older woman who walks in the opposite direction to a small village further on to do a 3 day course in how to be a hospitalero. These are voluntary positions and are apparently in high demand – mainly by people who have already done the walk and want to give back some of the ‘spirit of the Camino’ to others.

Day 8: Thursday 29th March – Belorado to San Juan de Ortega – 24 kms

Michell provides us with breakfast which is basically coffee and bread and jam and I head off at about 8.30 with Lucrecia and Francisca following behind me. Did not see them again all day and as I sit here in the bar writing up my diary in the warmth I wonder if I will see them again. I have been here more than an hour and a half and there is no sign of them so they may have decided to have a short day.

An interesting walk – started in my long cotton trousers instead of shorts, walk into a hail storm so finally get to wear my goretex overpants for the first time –with woollen beanie, mittens, parka, 2 layers of lifa under parka and I am able to stay as warm as toast, while the wind and hail rage around me. I walk through farm land paths and stop for coffee at a little bar at about 10.30am and then walk on to the town of Villafranca.

After that the track climbs steeply – to the Montes de Oca which translates as mountain of the goose – through oak forests with no leaves and it is quite spooky. For the first time on the walk I am alone away from the traffic and in the silence imagine what it was like a thousand years ago with brigands lurking to set upon pilgrims and pilgrims getting lost in the forest. The reason why the monastery at San Juan was built in this ‘inhospitable area’ was to provide pilgrims with a safe stopping place. The church was built in the 11th century and then other bits added later. Quite an impressive architectural marvel for its time and now being restored. The guide books talks about pilgrims being lost for days in the forest eating fungi to survive. I walk through it in three hours and arrive in the small settlement to find a little bar with a pot belly stove and wonderful welcome. Decide to have an omelette with cheese.

After buying bread and eggs which I had carried all day I discover that the albergue has no kitchen. It is freezing and the wind is howling. Old double bunks in huge rattling rooms – not very inviting. Thank goodness the little bar is here. Runny nose has settled in and a cough which will probably keep everyone else awake all night – if anyone else turns up.

Covered today’s distance easily and probably at about 4 km an hour. My feet only got tired in the last kilometre. Pity about the runny nose or I would be fighting fit! As I go out to make a phone call to Digs who should arrive on the doorstep but the American Darryl Howard. He had rung a refuge ahead to find out where I was and figured that San Juan would probably be where I would be tonight so he came looking. Have a very social evening in the bar with him and the two Mexicans who finally arrive with Lucretia spilling a glass of red wine over my trousers. Temperature outside is 4 C while we eat our meal and 18 C inside with the heater on. All the farm dogs are inside too watching us eat with big red eyes.

Day 9: Friday 30th March – San Juan de Ortega to Burgos – 29 kms

A really cold day with mist giving very poor visibility all morning and light rain. Wearing shorts because my trousers are still wet from the wine washing, overpants, 2 layers on top plus parka, beanie and mittens. OK as long as I don’t stop moving.

Lovely walk through wheatfields, following ridge tops but no view because of the mist. Stopped at Atapurca for breakfast about 6 kms from the start. There was a family restaurant which they open especially for me – had potato and egg omelette and a coffee and back out into the mist and freezing rain. Once off the mountain stopped at a little bar for coffee and cake served by an African, and then a 12 km drag on the bitumen into the town of Burgos. Have to walk down the main pavement of the highway through the large industrial area. By this time I am absolutely busting to go to the toilet and feet are aching like anything from the hard pavement. Yellow arrows are a little difficult to follow. Get down to the old quarter OK, find an internet café but it is closed and then down to the cathedral. Amazing structure – admire it for ten minutes and then head down to the river and across the park to where the albergue is a portable cabin stuck in the middle. Just after I arrive two Italians walk in – have seen their names in the log book and have been following them for days. Lucretia and Francisca arrive around 7 pm. Speak with Digby on the phone and he calls me back. Great to catch up on the news – he has taken our first internet booking for the B&B in October (even though it is still to be finished!)

As I write this diary I am sitting in a restaurant attached to a nearby bar waiting for dinner. It is not served until 8.30. Twenty people in the bar and all male apart from me and the bar girl who has told me to wait ten minutes until 8.30. It is really smoky and my eyes sting. Men are drinking wine from a strange carafe thing that looks like a teapot with a spout and a handle which is clutched by the hand to pour into the mouth through the spout. Weird. Have forgotten to bring the phrasebook so the menu is incomprehensible. She tries to tell me what is on but my Spanish is not up to it. I hear two words I recognise – paella and pollo – and order both! Chicken and rice for dinner. Trust me to forget to bring the phrasebook when I need it – the woman serving me tells me (in Spanish!) that she walked the Camino with three friends in 1980 – but that she does not understand how I could do it ‘sola’. She is amazed. I try to tell her it is good to walk sola, that it makes you strong but with limited words it is difficult. A whole bottle of wine, a paper tablecloth, and just like the French, lots of bread and leave the cutlery on the table for the next course. Piped music in the background, the noise of the bar intruding on my solitude, plus the TV and the dining room is empty except for me at 9.15 pm. Still too early for the Spaniards to dine.

Day 10: Saturday 31st March – Burgos to Hontanas – 29 km

A beautiful sunny day – blue sky no clouds and no wind. As the day gets warmer, I peel off all the layers until I am back to walking with shorts and shirt, sunhat and sunglasses and a ‘muchilar pesar’ (heavy pack). The last five 5 kms seemed to on forever, but the rest of the walk was OK – high up on the plateaus with just the horizon and not a tree in sight. But lots of farmers doing things with their tractors in the wheatfields. I stop at a street market early in the day and buy some apples and oranges. One of the women shopping smiles at me and asks me if I am a peregrina walking sola to Santiago. ‘You are baliante’. I later discover the translation is valiant or brave. This makes me feel invincible.

The apples are soft and awful – the last lot I had were fantastic. No bar open at the mid day village so I basically walk all day without food apart from the coffee and pastry for breakfast and a chocolate bar and orange for lunch.

Arrived at Hontanas after 5 pm but the Albergue and the bar are all locked up. A very picturesque village with narrow streets. I wandered up and down the main street – only as wide as a tractor looking for some sign of life – nothing – and in the distance a lady appears at her door and then disappears again. I go down to the house and knock on the window where I can see her sitting inside with two other women. In my best Spanish I explain the problem – ‘me pilgrim – refuge locked – please help’. They immediately took over the problem and went looking for the hospitalero after depositing me back at the door of the albergue. Much scurrying and to and fro-ing from one house to another, and soon another woman wearing an apron and missing a couple of teeth appeared with a huge iron key. After much hysterical conversation, she agrees to cook me dinner with bread and wine for 8 pm. I told her there were four other perigrinos behind me, but it was difficult to explain that I didn’t know if they would want dinner – that they may not turn up at all. They don’t turn up and I never see the Mexican couple again – which is rather sad. We sort out the arrangements – if they come and want food she will feed them. If not, no fuss. There is no water pressure so I can’t have a shower.

I sit in the sun in the street in front of the albergue on a small wooden stool and write up my diary. Up the road 30 metres, at the church the village priest in his black robes appears and starts making hand signals at me to come and pray, holding up the rosary (not that I recognised it at the time). I put away my stool and go up to the church. After a convoluted conversation in which neither understands the other, I think he is inviting me to mass, so I follow him into the church and take a pew. This seems to make him happy. He is a white haired old man but really friendly. He reappears at the altar, with a white frock over his black outfit, and lights some candles. The church interior is freezing so I can’t see the candles making much difference. It is all stonework and statues – really ornate with flowers everywhere. Fake gold leaf on wooden panelling behind the altar. Five of the village women arrive, light candles and take their places. They are dressed in black overcoats to cope with the chill in the church. I am starting to relax relieved that I am not to be alone, and suddenly the priest starts to recite, and the women reply. To my ear it sounds like they are speaking at a hundred miles an hour – the priest uses a microphone. It is rather deafening especially the echo with only six of us to absorb the sound. The women kneel, except for me. A little old lady in my pew sits on her personal cushion which is left there for her. It’s all over in half an hour – the women suddenly stop chanting and get up and leave. The priest gives me what looks like a blessing and I go outside to the warmth from the afternoon sun.

No sign of the other peregrinos. One of the women is the hospitaleria who had organised me earlier. I tell her there is no water – hot or cold – for a shower. She tells me it would be OK after 8 pm. I prepare to believe it when I see it. Another old woman from the service joins us and we have another one of those hilarious conversations. I ask them if I can take their photo and they ask me to send them a copy. They ask me ‘did I like the church? – was it beautiful?’ and I actually understood! She said ‘wasn’t the church cold’ and I understood that too! And then the hospitaleria said ‘ the other peregrinos must have stopped at an earlier village, and I understood that as well !!!!!! At least there is water in the fountain next door to the albergue if I need it. Used my face washer and just cleaned my hands and face.

Still sitting outside at 7.30 starting to feel ravenous and the tractors start coming home down the narrow streets back from the fields. Huge tractors with heated cabs – the latest in agricultural technology are as wide as the street and seem rather incongruous in the 12th century landscape. As I am sitting in the freezing kitchen waiting for my 8 pm dinner to be delivered, a Spanish couple – Francisca and Carmen arrive. Francisca speaks really good English and a pleasant evening ensues. He goes and buys some firewood and produces a ‘good bottle of wine’ (price is $6A). He takes the glass I am drinking of rosido that came with my dinner and says ‘ let me give you a GOOD glass of wine. I let him. They have walked backward along the Camino for the weekend. They do the same stretch 6 – 7 times a year. There is nowhere else to walk. Two friends arrive in a car – Antonio who runs the bar at the next town Castrojerz . They have a drink and go. We discuss a wide range of topics. They hate bullfighting, they are not Catholics, they live in an apartment, Carmen is divorced with a 15 year old son who lives with his father, Francisca has been to Nepal twice – the Annapurna circuit and the Everest base camp. They read philosophy, Carmen is a public servant, he works as a freelance with a telephone company. Their only reference for Australia is Crocodile Dundee – this is not the first time that Spaniards have mentioned him. He made a big impact especially the ‘toros’ scene where he hypnotises the buffalo! And then they have this stereotype of Australian women as ‘strong’. I roar with laughter. Crawl off to bed about 10.30 pm after a great warm evening. A bit of trail magic today.

Day 11: Sunday 1st April – Hontanas to Fromista – 34 kms

The original plan for that day was to walk only 30 kms but Francisca tells me that the refuge is closed and I will need to walk another 8 kms to Fromista so I mentally prepare myself. They depart early and say they will meet me at Antonio’s bar in Castrojerz for breakfast. I follow them 20 minutes later on an empty stomach.

A lovely walk on a grass track through the valley with ruins of an old convent on the way. I arrive at the bar and get clapped as I walk in by the local clientele who have been waiting for ‘the Australian’. Antonio gives me a welcome as if he has know me all my life. I drink a coffee, eat an omelette and am on my way.

Francesca offers me a lift from the next village where they have their car – they can take me to Fromista – it will save me 10 kms but I say no, I will walk. Later on the walk they catch me up and we walk together with Bernie, Antonio’s dog. Antonio will come to the next village to collect him in an hour or so. The 10 kms go quickly. I see a little snake –a viper – on the track. We talk about many things on the way and I decide to accept their offer of a lift and see what unfolds. We finish at the village and find Antonio and go to a bar for two beers.

I use my phrasebook and impress them no end by saying ‘it is on me’ in Spanish. Pile into the car and follow the Camino to Boadilla where we stop and have lunch at a park with a picnic table. A feast is spread before my eyes – bread, a ‘good’ wine, salami and cheese ‘from sheep’. Then they drive me on to Fromista – another bar for coffee and t they walk me to the refuge and say goodbye, and exchange addresses. A lovely couple and an insight into Spanish life – better than slogging along on a gravel road by myself.

I discover a new blister – huge – on my right heel. The lift has meant I have time to do my clothes washing and get it dry – the first time in eleven days that my t-shirt and lifa top which I have worn every day get washed. After so much booze – two glasses of beer, and two glasses of red, I am ready for a sleep. It looks like I am going to be sola again tonight. I don’t expect to see the Mexicans or the Italians again. Antonio has told me that there is a French woman only a day ahead of me.

Day 12: Monday 2nd April – Fromista to Carrion de los Condes – 19 kms

Blue sky for most of the day with strong cold winds. I have breakfast at one of the bars, hoping the shops will open so I can buy some food, but it means waiting another hour until 9.15 am so I decide to wing it without carrying any food and head off the day.

A major blister is now on the back of the right food and means quite a bit of pain, even through it is a short day. A boring walk along a gravel path beside the highway for most of the day. Limped into Carrion and the refuge is closed. A man tells me to go round the corner and then a lady lets me into the refuge. It looks like another ‘sola’ night – two cyclists went past earlier in the day, but no walkers. It is a major town so I plan to shop.

Have lunch in a restaurant – fish soup, some sort of chop with salad and crème caramel – which they call ‘flan’. Wait in the village square in the pouring rain for the shops to open freezing to death. Buy some bread, cheese, fruit, yoghurt and some Compeed from the chemist for the blister on the right foot.

Arrived back at the refugio to find another walker who had come that day from Itero – where I had the ride with the Spanish couple – Bernard is from Belgium with 2 weeks holiday and started in Burgos 2 days ago, and had spent a night at a village before Hontonas with the two Mexicans who had mentioned me to him. Then he said later a car had stopped to tell him there was an ‘Australian’ up ahead of him, so now he had caught me up.

The refuge is run by the priest’s sister Marguerite, a lovely middle aged woman with absolutely no English – this didn’t stop her having long and involved conversations with me – I just had no idea what she was saying, but it was all very participatory. At 7.30 a young Spanish man arrives – Enrico. It is freezing in the refuge so went to bed early and had 12 hours sleep! The showers were really something at this place – really hot and not timed.

I didn’t know it at the time but Enrico and Bernard were destined to become my longterm trail companions and friends.

Day 13: Tuesday 3rd April – Carrion to Terradillos de los Templarios – 25 km

Beautiful blue skies, no clouds and no wind, though it sprung up in the afternoon – I still walked in cotton trousers and they were fine. A really hard day on the feet – pure bitumen for 5 km before turning off on to an old Roman road – 12 kms long and dead straight, built up above the surrounding swamp lands. Constant pounding of the feed but with Compeed the blister seems fine.

Arrive at Terradillos and am alone. It looks like the two ‘boys’ Bernard and Enrico have gone on to the next town Sahagun another 10 kms, but this is not for me! I am staying at a privately run albergue. The charge is 1000 pesetas for the bed and 1000 pesetas for dinner. There are three bathrooms to choose from, each with a bath you can sit in while you shower and soak your feed so had 30 minutes of bliss just soaking pouring the shower hand held thing all over me.

A quick walk around the town reveals no bar of any description – all the buildings are mudbrick and rendered. Walking down one back lane I hear all these birds twittering behind a wall and peer through the door crack. There is a flock of sheep all under shelter, walls on three sides open on the fourth. All the sheep are sitting down and the birds are flying around picking insects off their fleece. As I look through the crack, all the sheep look back at me.

I spend the afternoon in the courtyard sitting in the sun writing up my diary. Dinner is in the family kitchen with heater. Stewed beans followed by stewed chicken, salad and fruit. Early night. Blankets over the sleeping bag.

Day 14: Wednesday 4th April – Terradillios to El Burgo Ranero – 29 km

Overcast and cloudy all day. I wear beanie, 2 layers of clothes, parka and trousers all day. Most of the day the path follows the ‘senda’ a hard gravel packed path built especially for peregrinos which is so hard it gives blisters very easily. Arrive in Sahagun about 11.30. There is an amazing albergue – a mudbrick church conversion. Stopped in a bar for a cup of coffee and a takeaway boccadillo – wrapped in extra gladwrap. There was a lovely welcome from the hospitelero who wanted to know if I was staying, as she would let me in. Even the guy in the bar opened the door for me. Rang Digs even though it was only 11.30 as it was the first phone I had seen for days. He said he was already packed to leave Samoa even though there is still three weeks for him to go!

Got lost in Sahagun, eventually finding my way out by asking for help every 100 metres. Then a long slog in the afternoon. Stopped at Berianos in the bar – full of men and watched the Simpsons in Spanish while I drank a cup of coffee. Getting quite a dose of Spanish daytime TV – no bullfights yet though. Yesterday it was ‘days of our lives’ which made gripping viewing even if you can’t understand the words, the body language says it all.

Arrived in El Bergo and walked right past the albergue – no obvious sign. An old man redirected me and stood and watched me go back to it, shouting directions when I tried to wander off the path. A beautiful mudbrick building with a new hospitilero – husband and wife who have decided to give their lives to being hospitaleros on the Camino. They have had two years at Hospital de Orbago and had just arrived here two days ago. Both active Christians. Bought a ‘kiwi’ at the local shop for breakfast.

Covered 30 kms today and the last five were a drag, but able to keep up the pace so I think I should be OK. Had dinner at the bar-restaurante with Josette, a French woman who has walked the Camino in two week stages over the last 7 years starting at Le Puy in France

Day 15: Thursday 5th April – El Burgo to Leon

It turned out to be a real killer, this day, though I did make the distance but my feet ached all night. The whole day was virtually on hard surfaces. Blue sky all day, and the wind picked up in the afternoon. Wore long trousers and t-shirt for most of the day. Early morning mist. Three French walked the first 10 kms as a jaunt. I just slogged it out km after km. Stopped and had coffee twice in bars along the way but basically didn’t eat anything except fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. The 10 kms into Leon was awful – virtually walking along the motorway, with traffic travelling at 100 kph screaming past very close – a real nightmare. Finally found the refuge in the old part of the city in a convent. Elizabeth was the hospitalero – I had met her the previous week at Belarodo. Lots of lovely old winding streets with the old city wall still in place . Met up again with Bernard and Enrico from Carion. I had thought I would never see them again. Had dinner with Josette and two young ‘basque boys’ who were cycling. They had left Pamplona 4 days ago!! Averaging 110 kms each day. We had a hysterical evening communicating with them. My Spanish phrasebook has a Basque section so I kept trying out all the phrases. Once of them has a sister in on a working holiday at the moment, so I gave him my card.

Went to the ‘pilgrims blessing’ in the convent chapel at 10pm – 20 minutes. All the nuns look over 60 except for a couple in their 40s. The place gave me the creeps. I wouldn’t want to be doing Elizabeth’s job for anything. Lots of people staying – about 16 – mainly cyclists. The trickle becomes a flood. Meet an Austrian group who are just starting from Leon and will meet again and again over the next 10 days.

Day 16: Friday 6th April – Leon to Villar de Masarife – 20 kms

Decided I would leave and not have a rest day as originally planned so I look at the town in the morning and walk for the afternoon.

Went off and checked out the Cathedral and Basilica – the cathedral was amazing with all its stained glass windows – but really noisy with workman hammering in the restoration of the place. Coin in the slot electric candles – a priest actually hearing confession in one of those confessional boxes. Each priest gets his own with his name out the front – must have his own clients who know when he is going to be IN! Headed back to the convent, said goodbye to Elizabeth – she has 3 weeks to put in as a volunteer, and started the slog out of town. It is 8 km along the highway before the track turns off – what a killer. Then a really nice wander on ‘soft’ tracks through open woodland for the rest of the day. Passed by two English boys who had bussed from Burgos to Leo. Saw no-one else. Staying in an old two storey house in the village – very basic but has a great shower. The front door keeps blowing open from the wind.

A quick walk through town locates the supermarket which is actually open so I buy bread, yoghurt and fruit for breakfast and drop in at the bar to if they would feed me diner – arranged for 8.30. Signs all over the place in Leon saying ‘Hay Limonade’ and they were just putting one up in the bar so I had one – a light wine with lemon added – quite tasty. Went back to the refuge and crawled into the sleeping to plan tomorrow and wait for dinner time curled up in the sleeping bag. A poor dog – an Alsation is tied up on a very short chain on the other side of the wall. Did not see it off the chain while I was there poor thing, but could hear the chinking of the chain all night through the wall.

Dinner at the bar was good – many young women having a drink and teenage girls at the bar – the first time that I had seen this in a village. Some more ‘limonade’which I think is Sangria. All the men are thick at the waist in later years but in generally better condition than their counterparts in Australian.

Day 17: Saturday 7th April – Villar de Mazarife to Astorgia – 32 kms

Blue sky and windy as hell. Head wind or side wind for the whole day making it difficult to walk vertically. Wear beanie, parka, 2 layers all day. The track is good mostly farm roads with a grass verge so really soft on the feet. Piles of turnips 4 metres high on the road. A harvester getting corn – already dead and dried on the stalk with people walking the fields collecting the cobs missed by the machine. Wonderful bar stop at Hospital de Orbigo at lunchtime – a bacon and cheese bocadillos and a coffer. The man behind the bar gave me a special ‘Easter Cake’. Next week is Easter week with the main days in Spain being the Wednesday and Thursday rather than the Friday and Sunday. A lovely walk in the afternoon, despite the wind. A group of ten day walkers go past me. In one village there is a very friendly young dog who comes over to say hello so I give him a cuddle and he decides to join me, right through the village and then 1 km out the other side. I start to think I have a problem when around the corner come a flock of sheep with four sheepdogs who chase him back over the fields to the village.

Walk through some oak forests which were out of the wind, up to a farm barn with a grazing flock of sheep with two huge dogs who come over to make sure I was not a threat. In the barn the farmer shows me the ewes with lambs – too windy for them outside I guess. Astorgia appears on the horizon below the lookout – 5 kms away. Slogged through a small town and along the bitumen highway into Astorgia, built on a hill a Roman city with Roman ruins next to the refuge – another cathedral and Disneyland gothic structure next to it which looks rather amazing.

There are about 10 people staying at the refuge – the Austrian family, Enrico – who seems to have slowed right down, and two Spanish girls from Barcelona, starting from here, after having done the earlier part in stages over the last few years. I go out to dinner with these two and find out that they are both primary teachers.

The main thing about the refuge is that it is heated – incredible and so appreciated with the wind blowing so much. Looking forward to an easy walk tomorrow – only 20 kms to Rabanal. At 8pm a cyclist arrives having ridden from El Burgo Ranero – amazing to think I was there 3 nights ago. It would have been absolutely awful cycling into that wind today.

There is also an Argentinian – Fabian – from Patagonia who today walked from Leon – 51 kms – aren’t young men amazing. Our paths converged at the Roman bridge at Hospital and he asked me to take his photo. Then he directed me to the ‘best’ bar.

For the first time it seems like the end of the journey is in site – only 10 days of walking left and only 259 kms to go. Pamplona was 707 kms from Santiego so I have covered 450 kms on foot over 18 days. There’s no question of not completing the journey now. The hardest and the steepest is still to come, and also the wettest. Let’s hope it is also the most interesting.

Another ‘menu del peregrino’ which meant tasteless soup, something stewed with chips on the side and a crème caramel – flan. Am I starting to be fussy?

Day 18: Sunday 8 April – Astorgia to Rabanal – 22kms

A leisurely departure after a terrible night’s sleep – too hot, too stuffy with 16 peregrinos and a snorer – king sized with his own loud speakers. I was amazed the next morning to discover so many slept through it. The culprit turns out to be a 60 year old Spanish male who is to haunt me for the remainder of the trip. His party leave really early – god knows why as everyone stops at Rabanal which is only 4 hours walk away. I vow that I will not endure another night like this one and decide if necessary to take my mattress out side.

Beautiful blue sky – no clouds and only a light wind. What a great day. The path mainly follows the highway, then a minor road with gravel footpath and the last 6 km is the dreaded bitumen. Through three beautiful villages all made of stone. The refuge at Rabanal is made of of stone and fully restored and staffed by volunteers. A fairly unsympathetic couple from northern England who have retired and have little love to lavish on the peregrinos although they are here doing their bit for ‘Christian charity’.

Had a great lunch at a little bar – vegetable soup, calamari and the dreaded flan. Ate with Enrico who had arrived about an hour before me. Met another Belgium guy – Vincent who walked with me for about 5 kms telling me how he had found Jesus on the Camino and how his wife had told him she needed space and wanted to live apart for 3 months and could he please go away for this time. So he decided to walk the Camino.

Stopped for a rest in the lee of a stone wall and within 15 minutes there were seven peregrinos – the four Austrians who started in Leon, Vincent, me and an Italian guy who turns out to be an airline pilot who is wonderfully generous. It is as if this group are going to be walking together to Santiago now. The two Spanish girls Rosa and Assumpta arrive at the wall. It is their first day on the trail and their feet are not in good condition.

Tried calling Digby this morning – tried two different phones before finally getting the operator to put me through and then no answer. It is 9 pm and I assume a Saturday night in Samoa.

Having trouble keeping my trousers up and the crotch is hanging down and rubbing the skin on my inner thighs, so they are really sore. I guess I must be losing some weight. Finished walking today in my t-shirt then washed my clothes and sat in the sun and read! There are some English books in this refuge. Went into the little chapel with Vincent and Enrico to listen to two monks singing Gregorian chants and drinking wine from the chalice. All very atmospheric and exciting for the first half an hour and then it was rude to leave so I stayed and listened for another hour. Enrico and Vincent both thought it was wonderful.

Day 19: Monday 9th April – Rabanal to Molineseca – 24 kms

The warden running this place is ex-army and the place is fairly regimented, and intolerant of pilgrims and their foibles, and he has only been here a week! Woke everybody up at 6.50 am, switched on the lights – the first time I have actually been ‘woken up’. Free breakfast – a cup of tea with bread and jam and we are pushed out into the day – all 24 of us.

The sun has still not come over the horizon and it is quite dark and freezing. The pink colours on the mountain around us are wonderful and the moon has still not set. I am one of the first to start walking – heading up to the highest point of the whole walk – but going at a slow pace so everybody passes me and I have solitude again. I am finding it difficult having so many people around me. All the groups talk as they walk – as opposed to us ‘long distance solo’ pilgrims who relish the quiet.

I arrive at the summit – a cross surrounded by a mound of stones 30 metres high. Every pilgrim traditionally puts a stone on – so I do too. Enrico was waiting at the top for me and took my photo under the cross with the snow capped mountains in the background. The four Austrians were there as well as the Italian pilot – Don Camillo who is sketching in his diary. We stay awhile – it is a beautiful day with blue sky, no wind and it is starting to get hot. In fact it turns out to be the best day of the whole walk – great weather, great views, and after the initial asphalt to the summit a wonderful footpad and descent. It reminds me of the Milford walk in NZ – 40 people starting together and meeting and remeeting during the day. I walk for a time with a Norwegian, and then with Don Camillo.

Villages on the downside of the mountain have completely changed their architecture. There are now slate roofs and stone walls – the mudbrick has been left behind. I drop right down into the valley and a classic ‘touristic’ stone village with narrow streets – a bit like Nepal villages in the mountain trails. Don Camillo buys me a drink at the bar and he decides to stop for the night here. I think I will go on – it is still early and I am feeling fine.

I stop in the next town at the bottom of the descent – Molineseca- the refuge is an old converted church with a mezzanine floor for bunks. I am the first one to arrive here. All the fast walkers have gone on to the next big town another 7 km away. Then the 2 Spanish teachers limp in, the four Germans head past and the old man who snores so loudly walks on past the refuge thank goodness.

As I sit here in the sun drinking beer at an outside beer garden next to the trail the four Austrians arrive and then they are followed by a group of 18 Norwegians. One of them stops to talk – they are getting the bus to cover the next two days in two hours. In my superior way I classify them as tourists not real pilgrims. I am not sure when I started thinking of myself as a pilgrim rather than a walker – the Spanish people identified me as a pilgrim long before I did. I have actually decided to buy and start wearing the pilgrim badge – a scallop shell. It’s interesting that I have covered three quarters of the distance and not seen any pilgrim souvenirs or artefacts until yesterday. The Rabanal refuge recorded 52,000 pilgrims last year, 226 of whom were Australian. So many peregrinos start at Leon – and give a boost to the souvenir trade.

The trickle of people on the trail has become a flood, but I have enjoyed having some social interactions at last, especially with other solo long distance pilgrims. There is so much common understanding – we have all been through the pain and the suffering and the long miles of nothing – it creates quite a bond, and friendships are very quickly made and very open. I hope to see Enrico again – he is 32, a computer programmer who has quit his job and walking the Camino to work out what he is going to do with his life.

I went to the supermarket but at 5 pm it was closed. Now I’ve been boozing in the bar for an hour and it is 6pm so will give it another try. Otherwise no food for breakfast and will have to walk to Ponferrada on an empty stomach tomorrow. Had planned to cook but will now have to eat out at a restaurant – a hard life. Finally had dinner at a restaurant with Rosa and Assumpta who is in great pain as it is only their second day of walking. The Spanish father and daughter, Lourdes, – the father is in great pain after today’s steep descent. I am feeling lean and fit!

Day 20: Tuesday 10 April – Molineseca to Villafranca – 30 kms

Another beautiful day – blue sky, little wind, walked in shorts and t-shirt all day. And a wonderful walk today as well – mainly flat. Walked into the large town of Ponferrada – 8 kms. It has a 12th century castle, just like you would imagine it to be with a drawbridge, moat, turrets – the works – just like in a fairy tale. Had breakfast at a bar nearby and ran into the four Austrians again. Headed through the city – it was really well signposted, and then two kilometres on the other side I missed a crucial turn in the suburb. Within 2 minutes I had people trying to redirect me. I finally relocated the trail on the third attempt after a man at an intersection stopped his car in the middle and got out and came round and took me back two streets – amazing the support really.

A wonderful walk through the vegetable gardening zone, with everyone working the ground, getting ready to plant – lots of tractors like ours – old ladies in scarves, gumboots and aprons, the men in blue overalls. In one field the two men were using a donkey to pull the plough, so I asked if I could take a photo and they were very keen to pose! Stopped at a quarter to 12 in a little bar for a boccadillos and in two minutes who should walk in but Vincent – it’s his birthday today and he is feeling very down because he would like to ring his wife, but he has promised her he will stay away for two months. He is walking with a Frenchman – Pierre – who I walk with later in the day. We spend a pleasant half hour and Vincent tells me that Jesus wished him Happy Birthday! Ran into Michel, the hospitalero from Belorado on Day 8 who cooked dinner for us – he is walking the Camino in the opposite direction, looking for a Dutch girl.

The last 6 km is a grind. Pierre walks with me – he is limping and an old man comes to congratulate him and shake his hand “Buen Camino” – to do it with pain and suffering – the Spaniards show respect for this. We walk and talk the last 6 kms. Pierre is married with two sons, one of whom is 19, and he would like to send him to Australia for a holiday. He is walking the Camino in stages since 1998 from Arles in France.

He only has 6 days and wants to finish it this time, so he does not stop at Villafranca. We swap packs for the last kilometre. His pack is lighter but it is not as comfortable as mine.

I have run out of water and cross the road to stop at a fountain, which is not working. Two young pilgrims behind me, catch up and ask if I would like some of their water. “I’ll live – its only two km”. They ask me in Spanish and then switch to English once I respond in Spanish!

There are three refuges in Villafranca. I choose the refuge run by a Spanish family, rather than the municipal one or the religious one. No-one else seems to be staying here. I meet Enrico at the supermarket – grand reunion. He is staying at the municipal refuge. He comes back to my refuge with a large (double Australian size) punnet of strawberries and we demolish them together sitting on a wooden bench in the sun. He is very insistent that I go and wash them first, and gets quite upset when I wipe my ‘strawberry hands’ on his t- shirt. He reminds me of an old friend – batchelor living alone and very particular about cleanliness etc. There is no sign of Vincent who must have gone on to the next town. I later discover that he went to Perelizo, a small village another 6 kms and had a ‘good’ birthday with 6 other pilgrims.

The Spanish family has scallop shells for sale, so I finally bought one – $2 Australian and now it is around my neck I am truly labelled ‘pilgrim’. This is the badge. It has only taken me 20 days to ‘join the pilgrimage’. I later discover at the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago that traditionally pilgrims receive the scallop shell as an award after arriving.

At the family refuge, they ask me how old I am – and I get allocated to a room with a sign on the door ‘For the solo over 40s’. What a good idea – but there’s only me and a very young Spanish woman – a teacher on holiday- and less than 40 who is here as a volunteer to work on the house.

As I sit here in the sun, writing my diary and drinking a beer! – yes me – its 7.30 – and Lourdes and her father walk past. They planned to stop at the town 6 km before but the refuge was closed so a man gave them a ride in his car. Rosa and Assumpta were in the same boat, but they had already started the struggle of the last 6 km so the man stopped and took their packs in the car. So it looks like everyone from the last night refuge is now here down at the municipal place, while I am here. Saw a big male Rottweiler today, on guard at a house fence. Very quiet until I went over to him, and then we got the ‘don’t mess with me’ performance which was very convincing.

Dinner with the Spanish family was interesting. There were only the two pilgrims at the table and it wasn’t served until 10pm, when the men returned from the bar. And then came a lovely thick lentil soup. You chopped a hard boiled egg into it, and drank copious amounts of red wind and bread with it – everyone had 3 helpings. The men wolfed it down at a hundred miles and hour, and reached across the table to get whatever they wanted even when it was a two meter stretch. Then the cheese was brought out – a huge round soft white cheese – castella! – fantastic and it was served with quince jam, followed by yoghurt and apples for dessert. The best meal I have had for ages. A Scottish young man and the young Spanish woman were living there as ‘wwoofas’.

Later met another perigrina who had stayed there and said the food was terrible – there had been ten pilgrims and not enough to go round, so they went to bed hungry. Enrico thinks I am crazy wanting to stay here rather than at the municipal place.

Day 21: Wednesday 11 April – Villafranca to O Cebeiro – 30 kms

Another beautiful day – how many can we get? Woke up after a wonderful sleep – no snorers – and packed to head off. Went downstairs to open the front door to leave, and the old man called Jesus (pronounced Herrrghsuss) stopped me. He had breakfast ready for me – coffee with hot milk, bread with jam, and rice pudding. So the breakfast I had bought the night before I carried all day!

I headed off and completely missed the turn-off for the variant and found myself on the main highway with trucks whizzing past. Seven kms out and Enrica caught up to me, and then Jo the Canadian (19), and then they went passed. We leapfrogged all day. Stopped in a bar and shouted Jo a coffee and a donut, then Enrico arrives and we had a fine time. I went to put my sunhat on to discover it had dislodged from the pack and I no longer had a hat. Enrico was insistent that I have something to cover my head – ‘iss very importante’. They both delved for bandannas. Jo said his was spare and giggling like two school boys they tied the scarf around my head to make me look like an old Spanish woman working in the fields. Later Jo says ‘That scarf has really changed you – you really do look like a pilgrim’ and I start to adjust my self concept to accommodate the scarf.

A long road bash – probably about 24 km though most on a minor road going through villages thank goodness. Then a 700 meter climb over 5 km right up into the mountains to 1500m, following an old cobbled road lined with stone fencing. The two boys leave me and I climb by myself, and see no other pilgrims. Meet a man with a donkey at a water fountain in a small village on the climb.

I am now sitting in the bar drinking red wine with Enrico – he says ‘It is too early’ – he has a drink anyway to keep me company and in the refuge, all the pilgrims arrive. I have covered the 30 kms in 8 hours, including two half hour stops and feel terrific. As I reached the highest point – it is the boundary of the last region – Galicia – I took a photo of the marker – 153 kms to go. Now in Galicia every 500 m there is a marker counting down the distance. It reminded me of the climb up Mt Kinabalu in Sabah.

Arrived at the refuge and had the choice of sleeping in a room with Enrico who was nowhere to be seen or an unknown cyclist, so chose Enrico. This turned out to be a good choice, as the cyclist was a snorer. He snored so loud it came through the walls. The four Austrians had to put up with it. At one stage in the night one of them shouted at him and he stopped.

Met Mary, an Australian girl – I had been following her in the guestbooks since Mazarife. I seem to be travelling at twice her speed. Had a shower, and Enrico arrived back – he had been to a restaurant for lunch and said he had seen Vincent in the church. We sat on the bunks and had a deep and meaningful conversation about relationships. It turns out he is gay – which explained why I feel so comfortable with him. When an important English word comes up to explain something, everything has to stop while we resort to the Lonely Planet phrasebook to clarify the meaning. After an hour we are both mentally exhausted by the conversation. He decides to cook me dinner – great – and I catch up on conversation with the Australian girl. Two other young men join us – both Spanish speaking from Columbia, and one is carrying a didgeridoo.

Day 22: Thursday 12 April – O Cebeiro to Samos – 32 kms

It’s 8pm and I am sitting in a pub with Vincent drinking a beer after escaping from a deadly boring monastery tour by switching tour groups to get out early. Poor Enrico – he missed the double play and was trapped.

A beautiful day. I head off at 8.15am – it was like walking in the French foothills in Provence – rolling green hills and lots of little villages built of rock with slate rooves. The Galician people ignore us and so do their dogs – over exposed to pilgrims.

The sun is just rising and the peak of the mountain has a large statue of a bronze pilgrim in silhouette – really stunning in the early morning streaks of light. I am just wondering how to compose this photo when another pilgrim arrives and I get him to take one of me in the same pose off set a little bit. Great shot and this becomes a memorable moment of the whole walk.

After a particularly steep climb I arrive at a café at 10.30 and decide to have a coffee and a sandwich. Ten minutes later Enrico arrives and has the same. He then walks with me for the rest of the day, making me walk in front (sound familiar) and he sings to me songs like ‘To dream an impossible dream’ and ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’. All in Spanish of course in a beautiful tenor voice. A memory to be treasured amongst the green rolling hills and stone fences.

At a rest stop we have a Spanish lesson – my Spanish moves ahead rapidly. And I have a wonderful opportunity to watch Spanish machismo at work. I relax and he takes charge of the day. We stop for lunch at Triccastella and then head off for a road bash. Round the corner Vincent is having lunch in a field. I stop to take a photo and converse. Enrico is annoyed that I stop and he keeps on walking. I let him go and enjoy Vincent’s company for a while. Then I find myself walking by myself through little rural lanes with rock walls covered in moss and very shady and picturesque. Vincent passes me, but around the corner I find both the ‘boys’ waiting for me at a huge landslide. The track has been washed away for a stretch of 5 metres and it is quite scary to cross.

The track eventually returns to the highway for the last three km – a real slog on the bitumen after such a long day. Enrico is walking with me again and urging me to walk faster with the chant ‘Come ON, AlisON. I start to wilt and slow down. We finally arrive at the monastery where the refuge is located. The three of us take showers and then Enrico and Vincent take me to an evening mass. It is the Thursday before Easter and it is a special service with a village procession with banners and foot washing. The church is packed but freezing. Enrico encourages me to come with him on the monastery tour – ‘It will be very interesting’. I believe him. Fool that I was. Cut back to the beginning of this diary entry…..

Day 23: Friday 13 April – Samos to Fereiro – 24 kms plus a 5 km detour

I am sitting in the sun outside the refugio writing up my diary. It is nearly 7 pm and the sun is still warm. My feet are aching from all the road pounding and there are two new blisters.

Today turned out to be a bit of a disaster. I left the refuge about 8 this morning to follow farm lanes through farmland to Sarria 9 kms away. However one the bridges had washed away and I had to backtrack and find another bridge to get over the river and then walk back to the right route. In all, I think I wasted about two and a half hours, and mentally it was a terrible blow.

Enrico had left earlier than me. He had obviously decided to walk alone today – a pity – if he had been with me I would have been tempted to negotiate the smashed bridge over the raging river, but alone it was too dangerous. I bet he went over it though – being a young male. I had to back track and found a farmer milking his cows in a shed who directs me to the bypass route.

When I finally relocate the yellow arrows, I stop to say hello to an old Spanish man and it turns out he has worked in Melbourne for 10 years at GMH and lived in Fitzroy! He spoke good English and was able to describe the floods that had washed out the tracks and the bridge. He said they had had a major flood on 17/18 December and that it has only stopped raining in the last week. I guess I can’t complain. I asked him how far it was to Sarria – he said 6 ½ kms!!! This meant I had only gone 3 ½ kms in 3 hours. I couldn’t believe it. All the roads were bitumen and the blisters started to cut in.

Arrived at Sarria and was tempted to stay and have an easy day, but kept on going through picturesque lands and villages. I am heading for Fereiro which is 12kms out of Sarria but I didn’t think I was going to make it. The last 4 km I walked with a Spanish man who had also stayed in Samos and had taken the road route to Sarria. I was lying on the track with my head on my pack, completely stretched out trying to get enough energy to make the last bit when this man turns up. I think he thought I was dead. He helped me up and walked with me over the last 4 kms. He even offered to carry my pack! Once he got me to the refuge, he then kept on going into Portomarin where his wife was picking him up.

There were only 7 pilgrims at the refuge at 7.30. Went up to the bar for dinner and met a lovely young groups of Spanish pilgrims who explained the menu to me. Went back at 9 pm and it was full of cyclists.

Day 24: Saturday 14 April – Fereiro to Palas de Rei – 32 kms

An easy walk into Portomarin mainly descending through farm lanes lined with rock fences. Generally the locals completely ignore you – overexposed to peregrinos I guess. The refuges feel like school camps – large groups – people talking all night – and so few long distance walkers amongst all the rabble. I feel overwhelmed..

Passed Antonio and Camillo this morning – the two boys from Columbia – Antonio is still carrying the didgeridoo. They had climbed over the smashed up bridge. No sign of Enrico or Vincent so I guess they are hours away now. Saw my first Eucalypt plantation today – that would be the main point of note in today’s walk. Only two nights left after this , and looking forward to finishing now as the atmosphere in the refuges is so terrible. A really long day,making up the distance from yesterday – so looking forward to the next few days which are relatively short.

In my dorm – a group of 8 from Cambridge – 7 students and their ‘tutor’. This is day 2 or 3 for them and many have severe blisters. Two have hitched the last 5 km and I sense the party will be facing a situation tomorrow where some of the girls are not able to go on.

There is also a solo walker – Beth – a young Californian girl about 20, blue-eyed with long blonde hair. She has just arrived walking in the other direction. she is just starting a European 7 month walk to Greece following one of those so called long distance footpaths. This track is non existent in Spain so she has resorted to walk the Camino backwards – quite a difficult feat as the path is only marked from the other direction. Four days into her walk and she has already lost her two walking poles, her sunhat and today her digital camera. She asks me to have dinner with her to talk about what she faces – she has found the first 4 days disappointing. Will it be like this all the way? The Galician tracks are better than most so I have to break the news that it will only get worse – the highway slogs, the long roads through the wheat fields. I don’t think she has mentally sorted out she is doing – starting a journey versus visiting ‘nice’ places. But I guess she will get it sorted out in the end. She has not come to terms with being ‘alone’ – but if you thought about it 7 months walking would surely give you this concept. Each to their own. She wonders whether she should go to the Pyranees and do the walk in the same direction as everyone else. We have a nice dinner.

Day 25: Saturday 15 April – Palas de Rai to Ribidaso – 26 kms

An easy day – beautiful blue sky as I have come to expect and quite hot in the afternoon. No chance to sleep in for once as the Cambridge group are up at 6.30 to sing hymns in the Plaza to celebrate Easter. I later discover they are all divinity students studying to be ministers. Their tutor snored all night and the ear plugs actually worked.

Wandered off through little country lanes with stone fences. I sit in the spot where Beth can last recall having her digital camera – no sign of it – and a group of ten come past. They turn out to be a boy scout group (and girls) from Italy, and I later discover that they all speak a little English. We leapfrog each other all morning, and when I stop at a beautiful outdoor bar with terrace for an omelette sandwich we chat and become great mates. The next time I see them on the outskirts of Molide outside a medieval church and they greet me like a long lost relation!

The church is open and the woman wants to give me a ‘sello’ – a stamp for my Credenciale and a guided tour of the church. It’s just that she doesn’t speak English. It’s amazing how much I actually understand – so many words that are similar. She tells me this statue of Christ on the cross is ‘oonique’ and I work it out. I am being shown a very early Romanesque church, it is very simple and from the 12th century.

On to Melide – it is Easter Sunday and the town is absolutely packed. All the bars are crowded and all the shops are open. I have to wait 5 minutes to cross the road, and there is a market in full swing in the main square. I find a bar with a sign ‘pizzeria’ outside and go in to see if I can get a takeaway to carry to the next refuge 10 kms away. Check the phrasebook, get my words together – they understand me but the concept blows them away. I have to mime cutting up the pizza into quarters, stacking it and wrapping it for my ‘muchilar’ (pack). All goes well and while I am waiting for it to be cooked, two Norwegian women in their late fifties come in. They were at the refuge last night but kept to themselves. They have quite good English but never seem happy with anything. Whereas – me – as a peregrina – I am very easy to please these days, and take what I get given.

I head out of town as the first of the Cambridge group arrives. The Italians are staying here so I won’t see them again. A pleasant afternoon but my left foot decides to start giving trouble. It has been perfect for 3 weeks so I guess it’s about time. I count down the last four kms and arrive at a beautiful old stone building by a river. There is a fly fisherman casting. The whole complex is very old stone buildings that were an original pilgrim hospital and are now restored.

I am sitting in the courtyard in the sun (after a freezing shower) with a view overlooking the river and the old arched bridge, so I can see pilgrims as they arrive – a young Spanish couple – we communicate in my pigeon Spanish and work as a team to find the showers etc. The Norwegian women walk straight past – they don’t even stop to have a look. There is a constant troop of tourists walking through. At around a ¼ to 7, the first of the Cambridge contingent arrive – the bus contingent! They tell me that one of their party was swept away trying to cross the broken bridge near Samos!! I stopped just before the refuge at a bar and had a large beer, so I am feeling very mellow.

I have checked through the register and see that Jo the Canadian is now a full day ahead of me, as he stayed here last night. I experience a sense of loss seeing Jo’s name a day ahead, and know that I probably won’t see Vincent or Enrico again, and I start thinking about the two Mexicans and others to a lesser degree. It seems to be a major thing about the Camino – really open deep friendships for a short time that the paths cross – and then the moment in time and space changes – people walk on at their own pace, and you never see them again. The essence of the friendship is a caring and sharing that I have not seen before. People walk long distances in solitude – it must heighten the feelings and understandings of the pains and loneliness that each has gone through. And there is no bullshit on the Camino. Everybody except me seems to have a reason for walking the trail – a life crisis or a decision to be made. It’s the perfect place really – there’s lots of thinking time on the trail.

I have caught up to two young women now travelling together who started the Camino at St Jean Pied du Pont about a week and a half before me. It has been interesting to swap observations and compare notes. I shared the pizza, they made me a cup of tea. They too had walked with Don Camillo the Italian pilot who I walked with from Rabanal Croix de Ferro down to El Acebo. Apparently there has been an‘Easter’ tourism rush right through the Camino with a large pulse aiming to be at Santiego Cathedral for Easter Sunday.

Day 26: Monday 16 April – Ribidaso to Arca – 20 kms

Another beautiful day and because we are in the bottom of a valley it is very misty in the early morning. It is only 2 km up to the large town so head up there for breakfast. Just behind my is Diego. We both stop at the first bar to have breakfast. He speaks beautiful English and orders me toast with marmalade and a freshly squeezed orange juice and a coffee. What bliss! If only I had learned the Spanish for freshly squeezed orange juice a little earlier in my walk! Diego looks about 40. We walk together for most of the morning. It turns out he has worked for the Spanish Government overseas in aid programs Panama for the last 7 years, and has just quit. He is back in Spain now working in the head office and he hates the bureaucracy. We stop at a little kiosk and talk with the Norwegian women. Walking through Eucalypt forests for a lot of the time. The bitumen kills my feet but the time passes quickly as I walk with Diego and we discuss a wide range of topics from Spanish politics to Aboriginal reconciliation.

I arrive at the refuge around 2.30pm and Diego decides to continue another 17km. I will cover the last bit tomorrow.

I have a shower and head down to the restaurant for a meal as it is still lunch by Spanish standards, being only 3 pm. When I come back to the refuge I find the bus advance party from the Cambridge group has arrived. One tells me they are all studying for the ministry. The Austrian group of 4 who started with me in Leon have also arrived also by bus. And the four young Spaniards I had dinner with several nights ago at Fereiros are here as well. Because the last two days have been so easy everyone is catching up to me!

I am looking forward to arriving in Santiego – my clothes need washing, I want to send emails and desperately hope there will be an English bookshop and a room with a bath so I can soak.

Day 27: Tuesday 17 April – Arca to Santiago – 17 kms

I left really early with the intention of trying to get to the midday pilgrim mass at the cathedral. Started walking in the dark with only the street lights and dawn arrived after about 20 minutes thank goodness, as the markers don’t exactly stand out in the gloom of the eucalypt forest.

Just plodded on and on, my left foot deciding to give trouble and my right thigh doing its usual ‘hot and cold twinges’ routine. Counted down the markers every 500 metres, until I crossed another municipal boundary and not only the style of the marker changed but the actual count changed – an increase! of 2 km – which completely stressed me out as I didn’t think I could do it in time. But I just kept up the pace. It just seemed to be still a possibility, once I hit the edge of the city and you could see the spires of the cathedral about 2 km away.

I was practically running and laughing to myself – who would believe this – Alison running for ‘mass’. They had already locked the main cathedral door when I arrived after winding my way through all these medieval alleyways to get to the cathedral. I had to head around to the side entry. It was a weird mass – there would have been 200 people altogether and about 10 pilgrims. Diego was there. And then all the tourists wandering around as well even taking flash photos while the service was under way.

Headed off afterwards to find somewhere to stay – 2 young pilgrims and an older man from the church invite me to join them for a drink on the terrace next to the cathedral so I accept – and they do their best to talk in English so that I do not feel excluded. Relax in the sun and then the two young ones heading for the station take me to the chosen hotel as it is on the way – how helpful they were.

I am ensconsced on the third floor overlooking a narrow lane only 100 metres from the cathedral – with restaurants and bookshops everywhere, and constant noise. Lying on the bed with the sun streaming in through the open window and the constant roar coming up from below – echoes, feet, tables and chairs scraping, voices – absolute vitality and I don’t know whether I can cope after all the days of solitude. Am I becoming a recluse?

Found the tourist office and located the internet café – nearly next door – and found out where the automatic laundry is for tomorrow. No English books to speak of although lots of bookshops. so far I have found only 6 books written in English. My dreams of browsing the lonely planet travel section are fading fast! Took 2 ½ hours to clear the emails and towards the end the system was really slow. It took 7 minutes to send a quick message to Digs so at that point decided to call it quits and went and had lunch at 4 pm!

Then wandered the streets and came across 3 sets of pilgrims I have walked with over the last few weeks, including the two Norwegian women (once again complaining about hotels restaurants etc) Bought postcards, laminated my Compostela which I had collected from the peregrino office; bought a t-shirt with the route marked on it and big yellow arrow, and also a key ring with the scallop. Then went and collapsed on my bed in the sun for a couple of hours snoozing. I had piled up the dirty clothes in one corner and there was a distinct smell.

Under the hotel is the bar owned by two brothers who must work 18 hour days. I sit in the bar drinking mineral water and eating olives and deep fried things which taste rather good and more olives. Life revolves around the bar. The bar is packed and the two brothers keep a watchful eye on me and I can get my drink replenished with no drama. You never pay until the end, in a Spanish bar. The Spanish couple from Hontanas had explained this customary behaviour to me. The bar man just keeps running totals for every table. It seems to work. I find it difficult to adjust to the custom, and once I forget to pay and go upstairs without paying for my mineral water. Confess up the next morning and the two brothers laugh. I tell one of the brothers in my best Spanish that he works very long hours and he laughs out loud. I didn’t see him on my last day – so at least he must get a day off.


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