So here are a few travel notes on my week on the Camino; I hope they are of interest and that the tips help those wishing to plan a similar trip.
- Day One – Getting to Galicia
We had been frequently looking up at the departures monitor, wishing the flight delay to minimise, but instead it was growing in 5 minute increments. Traveling from Malaga to Santiago in June meant that Ryanair was the only direct service (Vueling offer their superior direct service in July), and it was looking like things were not getting off to a very good start.
Jose Luis, our driver from Xacotrans was waiting for us in arrivals. He greeted us, took our bags, labelled them with our week long itinerary and drove us the 120 kilometres to Goian, a small hamlet outside Sarria.
It was dark as we drove through rain and fog, arriving at the Rectoral de Goian, at midnight.
This historic Old Rectory, deep in the Galician countryside, reached through narrow lanes with steep mossy banks of ferns, grasses and wild flowers, was to be our first stop. In the darkness it was hard to see much, but we could smell the fresh damp country air and the outside lamps cast just enough light to show the welcoming charm of this place.
Javier the owner had stayed up to greet us. He handed us our key and showed us up to our spacious room, with thick stone walls and dark wooden roof timbers. We went to bed excited and slightly nervous for our adventure ahead.
HOTEL RECTORAL DE GOIN
When to Travel:
We’d chosen late June for our Camino. Having visited Galicia at different times of year, I knew just how wet and cold it can be in North West Spain, with powerful weather fronts sweeping across from the Atlantic.
We were fortunate, as the rain had passed by the time we started and although our first day was overcast with spots of rain, from the afternoon onwards it was sunshine all the time with comfortable temperatures in the low to high 20s degrees centigrade for the rest of the Camino. Early autumn is also popular, as dry weather is likely and the crowds of July and August and the summer heat have passed.
Where to start:
The Camino Frances, the French Way is probably the best known of the many pilgrimage routes that head into Santiago de Compostela. It runs from the east, just over the border in France, at St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and threads west across the north of Spain through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and onto Santiago. This 800 plus kilometre route is typically broken into 31 daily stages or ‘etapes’ of between 20 – 30 kilometres each.
Many people like us, choose to enjoy a flavour of the Camino with a week or two walking, with the most popular starting points including Leon, Astorga and Sarria.
Sarria is the last starting point for those wishing to obtain the ‘Compostela’ certificate confirming completion of the Camino – a minimum of 100 kilometres is required (200 kilometres if you choose to cycle).
How to get to Sarria:
We started in Sarria. We took a flight to Santiago (operators include Vueling, Ryanair, Iberia et al) and then, due to a very late arrival at the airport, we took a taxi direct to our hotel near Sarria, a transfer of about 1 hour 45 minutes. For earlier arrivals, one can take a bus to Sarria, via Lugo.
Taxi service and luggage transfer:
We chose to travel light and walk with smaller backpacks and have our overnight luggage collected each morning and taken to our next stop by a backpack taxi service. We used Xacotrans, who I would recommend.
José Luis Vizcaíno
Tel: +34 608 581 206
Although purists prefer to carry their clothes etc. with them in a rucksack, it is more and more common for people to use this type of service. We didn’t encounter any stigma because of it, and at the end of the day it makes the Camino much more accessible to more people, who can enjoy the experience both as a challenging and thoughtful time, but also as a holiday.
Even for a week on the Camino, one needs to be fit. With stages of between 20 – 30 kilometres a day over mixed terrain from roads to dirt tracks, over both flat and hilly land, you should expect to be walking for 4 – 6 hours a day. Make sure you are comfortable with your footwear, rucksack and clothes BEFORE you go. Walk for 4 or 5 hours for consecutive days with your kit in advance to see where any problems may occur. Don’t buy anything new for the Camino, as typically new socks, shoes, clothes, (even inner soles as I discovered) can change everything and potentially lead to blisters, muscle aches etc.
I was recommended not to shower in the morning, so as to keep my feet dry. This really works. Take a shower before bed, then just wash in the morning, and put on socks with very dry, powdered feet. Air your boots or shoes each night so you start with dry shoes the next day. I took a change of socks for each day’s walking so at lunchtime I could change sweaty socks for clean dry ones.
- Day 2 – First Day Walking – Sarria to Portomarin ; 24+ km
The day started a little before 7.30 when we were woken by the resonating call of a cockerel from its garden pen window. The light was already forcing its way through the wooden shuttered window, and 24 kilometres lay ahead of us on the Camino de Santiago.
The first thing that struck me as I walked around the property, early before breakfast, was just how green everything was! It reminded me of Scotland, and although I am familiar with Galicia, it still came as a surprise how different this part of Spain is to the Mediterranean south in June.
The Old Rectory is a family run hotel; Javier and his wife and children live one end of the large house that opens out onto a typical courtyard with cobs of corn hanging to dry. Out on the edge of the garden is the ‘Gallineto’, home to the hens and the cockerel that provided our natural alarm clock.
By the entrance is a tiny chapel, a reminder of when this was a Rectory.
Javier had prepared a superb breakfast, one that was actually to be the best of the week. Small omelettes made with their organic hens eggs, homemade orange muffins and even homemade yogurt.
We started our Camino in Sarria, so Javier took us the 9 kilometres or so into town. He left us at the edge of old town to start walking. Our Camino had begun.
The Rectory had given us our ‘credentials’; the pilgrim passport where you can collect stamps or ‘sellos’ along the way, show your progress so that when you arrive at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago you can prove your route and obtain your ‘Compostela’ certificate.
So our first stop was the 13th century Church of St. Saviour (Igrexa de San Salvador) in Sarria to get our first stamp and then the walk really began. The overcast weather made for a welcoming cool start. With the excitement of the first day, it’s hard to know how to pace yourself so I think we were walking quite fast, in excess of the typical 4 km an hour we were to maintain over the week, so we soon came across our first café and shop. This was where we bought our staffs (typical wooden walking poles that were to be our companions for the whole experience) and a concha shell. (Although I had already been given a scallop shell, I wanted to bring some for friends who are planning to experience the Camino too).
The route was truly picturesque and peaceful. The dirt paths were still wet from the recent rains, and the countryside was verdant and moist. We would discover small chapels and churches on the way, their ancient stone walls covered in lichen and moss. We became familiar with the stone markers along The Way, sometimes every half a kilometre, other times less frequently.
We stopped at the 100 km marker for a photo – completing this distance was going to be our goal.
Staying on track is easier than you might think – despite the multitude of tracks and paths through the countryside, and the myriad of hamlets and farms along The Way, at each potentially confusing interchange we’d find a yellow arrow or `flecha´ painted on a wall, or an arrow made of stones, laid out on the path.
Despite our enthusiasm, energy and excitement, there is no denying that this first stage of 24 km is a challenge. I was eager to enjoy the homemade food on the way, but be warned, once you have eaten lunch, and enjoyed a cold beer, it’s a lot harder to cope with those hills and valleys in the afternoon! We stopped to eat at the Mercadoiro Alberque – the place is in a lovely setting with views over the valley, but food and service average.
By mid-afternoon the sun was shining, and in the distance we caught sight of Portomarin, a town that was relocated up on a hill when the original town was flooded to make a reservoir.
Crossing the bridge over the reservoir confirmed we had completed our first stage and we felt great. We walked on to the ‘Casa Rurales’, Santa Maria, overlooking the lake. It was a simple complex of timber cabins, an old stone house and camping grounds.
Portomarin is not well served with elegant or interesting accommodation, but Santa Maria is in a flawless location, with a friendly team that prepare great food.
Taking a shower on that first day felt so good!! I went out to take some photos whilst Anne, my walking companion wrote the first day’s entry in her Camino diary. We later enjoyed a few drinks on the terrace, watching the grandmother collect cherries and vegetables from their market garden, accompanied by her granddaughter.
As the sunlight began to soften, warmly illuminating the grape vines, we headed into the simple restaurant, for supper prepared by Enrique. (Slow roasted pork in cream and white wine – very tasty!).
Casa Rusales Santa Maria
We found that an average of 4 km an hour was comfortable, with short breaks every 2 hours. Lunch can be filling, so it’s a good idea to eat light, although I personally really enjoyed a morning Estrella Galicia beer!
The last part of the route is challenging as there is a very steep decline, with loose gravel on the path that is dangerous – it’s easy to slip when you are tired. A fellow pilgrim we met at this stage (all the way from Singapore), who was in her 4th week of walking recommended we walk diagonally down ‘zig-zagging’ down the steep hill, as it was easier on the knees!
- Day 3 – Second Day Walking – Portomarin to Ligonde; 17+ km
It was surprisingly easy to get up, despite it being 7.30am and the morning after our first long day’s walk. The sun was shining and I felt motivated.
Breakfast was disappointing; it was to become a theme through the week that most places, however simple or sophisticated, offered basic breakfasts of toast, ham, cheese, yoghurt and coffee – not the best start for a day’s walking.
After breakfast we walked the kilometre or so back into town and up to the 12th Century Church of San Nicolas (painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone from its originally location now under the reservoir waters) to get our first official stamp of the day. It didn’t open till 10am, so we took a coffee nearby, sitting on the terrace looking out across the Plaza Conde de Fenosa.
The first part of the day was steep, with the narrow path running through beautiful woodlands providing welcome shade. These woodlands seemed magical and mystical; the abundance of flowers, ferns and moss lent them a fairy tale quality.
Based on the traditional approach to the Camino, the next two stages over the next two days were set to be long, at around 27 km each, so we have decided to split these. So today we only headed as far as Ligonde.
Hay and dairy cows were everywhere! I’m not really a hay fever sufferer, but my allergies really kicked in on this second day. I am just not accustomed to so much wild hay meadows and so many cows. So from this day on I started to take hay fever tabs which made a big difference.
However, the route was stunning, with tiny stone built hamlets punctuating The Way, with most houses still maintaining their ancient stone ‘hórreos’ – small shelters built especially to dry maize.
In Ligonde, we were collected by the owners of Pazo de Ludeiro, an old Galician manor house that remains a family home and also a small hotel. The property is full of authentic features and the location is beautiful. Food was good but not that impressive; but the natural and friendly service by the owners more than made up for it.
PAZO DE LUDEIRO
The stages to Palas de Rei and then on again to Arzua are demanding, so if like us you want to enjoy the Camino as not only a retreat but also a relaxing experience, then splitting these stages really makes sense. It gives you the opportunity to still walk much of the day, but have time to stop, explore the hamlets and churches on the way and also have time at the end to enjoy tour overnight destination, sharing a beer with fellow pilgrims and walkers. We met a group of Brits and two Americans and had a lively afternoon and evening!
When one arrives at the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago de Compostela, to collect the certificate one has the option to state that taking the Camino was for purely religious reasons; for religious/spiritual reasons; or cultural reasons. Along The Way are many opportunities to get stamps in the credential/passport, from pop-up cafes offering refreshments for a simple donation, to bars and restaurants. There are also churches and provincial-run ‘albergues’ or pilgrim lodgings. We were advised that to show proof of your route, one needs at least two official stamps a day, from an albergue or church, but we also added to these with stamps from the hotels and businesses along the way – everyone has a stamp!
- Day 4 – Third Day Walking – Ligonde to Casanova (via Palas de Rei); 16+ km
We continued our Camino where we left off, in the hamlet of Ligonde. We started with our first stamp of the day at a small, voluntary run alberque (Fuente del Peregrino) offering ‘free hugs’. It was a fun way to start the day. The initial path narrowed to a single file through tall grasses – somehow it felt reminiscent of how the Camino must have been in centuries past.
Lunch in Palas de Rei was superb. It seems that meals in the main towns at the beginning and end of each stage are far superior to those in the bars on The Way, many of which appear to be just a tad weary of pilgrims, and don’t offer a very welcoming or good quality service.
We enjoyed a first plate of Salpicon de Pulpo (a fresh seafood salad with octopus), where the octopus had been delicately cured with lemon juice – just delicious, and then baked salmon – and of course plenty of that rustic Galician bread.
The highlight of the day was a detour to Vilar de Donas, and the tiny 14th Century church of El Salvador. It has unique frescoes and stone effigies of the Knights of Santiago. Waiting in the doorway was a voluntary guide, an elderly man who was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the church! This intimate space is full of iconography dating back to the beginning of Celtic culture in the Galician peninsula – I really recommend visiting it. It has a detour of about 5 km roundtrip. Alternatively once you have arrived in Palas del Rei, you can get a taxi to the church, round trip about 10 – 12 euro.
Along the way, the familiar stone kilometre markers are often embellished with discarded items. It seems that it is a custom along The Way for walkers to lighten their load as they go – leaving clothing, books and other belongings in the lodgings and on markers. It was also becoming a familiar sight to see single boots left aloft markers – not sure how to interpret them. Worn out boots left by pilgrims? Simple honours to walkers that had died on the way? Who knows? Small crosses and shrines are also found along The Way, in memory of these that had died on the way – people compelled to take the Camino despite illness or age.
As the days began to pass, we got into a good rhythm. Some hours would be full of conversation, other silent and reflective.
Our destination for the day was Casanova, near the River Pambre, as we were staying at Hotel Balneario Rio Pambre. From the terrace you can look out across the river valley towards the Castle, (Castillo Pambre) in the distance.
This is traditional stone built house, with two large round houses, where there is additional guest accommodation. It seems a popular choice with people on The Way and so easy to meet other walkers. We met a group of Australian women who had started in Astorga.
It was San Juan, the 23rd June, so as is customary, we all celebrated after dinner (the day was also notable for the ‘super moon’) with a bonfire, whilst drinking ‘quemada’ – the ‘Fire Drink’ of Galicia. This is an alcohol (fermented fruit alcohol or brandy etc.) drink of sugar, citrus, coffee beans and cinnamon, that is ignited before serving – it’s very strong!! The evening passed with music, dancing and drinking.
I slept well, but woke feeling dehydrated – not a great way to start a day’s walking!
HOTEL BALNEARIO RIO PAMBRE
The Camino is very much about being reflective and retreating from modern life. However it is fact of life that most of us need to, and want to, stay in touch with loved ones and the outside world. Almost all bars, cafes and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi, so for the price of a cold beer or a coffee you can connect.
Most places along The Way offer fixed priced ‘menu del dias’ for about 9 – 12 euro, although in my experience having a three course lunch is tough if you have walking to do afterwards. Sometimes it is best to get up early and finish early, so you can eat say at 2.30 or 3pm at the end of the daily stage and then relax.
If you are staying in an albegue, often there is the opportunity for self-catering, or to eat in a neighbouring bar or restaurant. If like us you are stay in a guest house or small hotel, then there is a nightly set menu for about 12 – 16 euro. After a long day walking it is a real luxury just to shower and eat in the hotel – no need for taxis, or more walking. The food is typically homemade, and although not fancy is tasty and filling. The bread in Galicia is particularly good and served with every meal!
- Day 5 – Forth Day Walking – Casanova to Arzua; 21+ km
This route is more attractive than I expected, from the write up in guides. One has to pass the industrial estate on the edge of Melide, a fairly uninspiring town, but in the main, The Way is beautiful, passing over small bridges, like the ancient Ponte Velhe Furelos leading into the village of Furelos, through woodlands, and across countryside. Just outside Melide is a beautiful 12th century church, Igrexa Santa Maria de Melide (note here many names are in Gallego, not Castellano) full of interesting frescos.
We stopped for lunch at the Bar Aleman, one of the few places that were between main towns that offered really fresh, tasty food and a welcoming service.
On the way one passes small churches and chapels. As is customary in some of the smaller places, the stamp and ink pad is left for you to stamp your own passport and carry on.
Be warned, the afternoon is gruelling on this stage! The distance to Arzua looks more than manageable, but it is very hilly- it crosses about 5 or 6 river valleys. Although by now we had really established our routine and pace, this was undoubtedly one of the hardest days. I was so pleased we had split the earlier stages and started this one at Casanova, as some of those we met at the hotel that had started in Palas de Rei were in bad shape by the time they had arrived.
By this, our fourth day on the Camino we had enjoyed plenty of time to reflect, think and retreat, as well as talk about life, the universe and everything – it was proving to be a very special week.
However, we were pretty exhausted by the time we had reached Arzua. Yet we still had a few extra kilometres to cover to find our accommodation for the night – the very special, Pazo Santa Maria. This rambling former farmstead is now an elegant small hotel, with well-furnished public spaces and comfy rooms.
HOTEL PAZO SANTA MARIA
- Day 6 – Fifth Day Walking – Arzua to Pedrouzo; 20+ km
The scent of eucalyptus filled the air for much of this day – the mystery and charm of the shady oak woodlands had given way to more open countryside and large eucalyptus plantations.
We started the day heading to the Church in Arzua to get our first stamp of the day. This modern church is dedicated to St. James and has images of him as both a pilgrim and as a warrior, the Moorslayer. The town didn’t strike us as being that special, so we quickly took up The Way leading us out of the town and back into countryside.
We had again opted to stay the night off the beaten track, in a former water mill that was some 4 or 5 kilometres off the Camino. So once we had reached KM 19, we stopped for a bite to eat and later our host collected us by car and took us to the Mill.
As had been the case each afternoon, our luggage was already there, waiting for us – we were really happy with Jose Luis’ service.
O’Muino de Pena remains a family run property. It’s a former mill, and beside the dining room is a small, homespun museum. Outside, across the weir and beyond the sound of the crashing water is a small nature walk through stunning river side countryside. It may sound crazy to relax after a day on the Camino with yet another walk, but it is worth it! Coloured damsel flies fleeted from leaf to leaf, butterflies fluttered from shade to sun, and the ferns and grasses were so vividly green, they seemed as if taken from a botanical greenhouse.
Our room overlooked the river. With the window open, one could hear the sound of the water cascading down the weir, whilst the evening sunlight bounced off water and danced on the leaves of the silver birch – this was a really magical place to stay.
Here dinner was sensation. Javier the owner manages to work between the kitchen and the restaurant and deliver wonderful results. Starters included (appropriately) perfectly cooked scallops on the shell; ‘Piruletas’ of goat’s cheese (like little lolly pops of crispy coated cheese on cocktail sticks); croquetas chipiron (squid ink croquettes) and fresh salads. Second plates included river and see fish, a mammoth 500gram steak and much more – what a fantastic way to end our penultimate day of walking.
HOTEL OMUINO DE PENA
- Day 7 – Sixth (and final) Day Walking – Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela!; 20+ km
It’s hard to explain the feelings of this day. As we set off, I was a little tired, but excited at the thought of arriving at our destination.
Sadly for such a momentous day, the route is not that inspiring; large expanses of open countryside, with few interesting features and also quite a bit beside busier roads. Strangely, as one passes the perimeter of the airport, the wire fence is covered with crosses.
Many walkers wake early on this last day in order to arrive in Santiago by 12 noon, in time for the Pilgrims’ Mass. We’d decided for a later start, and instead attend the mass the following day, before our flight home. This turned out to be smart decision, as we walked most of this supposedly busy stage almost alone, in tranquillity. Most pilgrims were ahead of us, and few behind.
I’ve already written about our arrival at Santiago – it was a truly memorable moment.
After taking in the scene, we headed up to the Cathedral. In the past, pilgrims would place their hands on the ‘Tree of Jesse’, an ornately carved pillar in front of the impressive Door of Glory entrance. But now this is no longer possible, with the marble pillar protected from further erosion behind barriers. None the less, the 12 century carvings of the entrance are impressive to observe.
We then climbed the stairs behind the high alter to see the statue of Santiago (tradition suggests you give the Apostle a big hug) and then descended below, to the crypt, to see the large silver casket where his relics are said to be interned.
After the visit to the Cathedral we went straight on to the Pilgrims Office to get our final stamp and our Compostela certificate – we did it!
Luckily for us, on our day of arrival there was a 7.30pm Mass that featured the famous giant, swinging incense burner (the Botafumeiro)! So didn’t in the end have to wait ’till the following day to enjoy the unique Cathedral experience. The huge incense burner was originally used to fumigate the sweaty and probably diseased pilgrims, but now it is just a traditional part of the service. Twelve ‘tiraboleiros’, or attendants are needed to hoist this huge vessel high up and swing it – there are a few videos on YouTube showing this.
For me it was great to go to a normal Mass, as often the 12 noon Pilgrims Mass can be overcrowded and noisy and the visitors often are using cameras and mobile phones all the time. I can understand this, the desire to capture the moment and a memory, as I do that all the time, but it was great just to experience the beauty of the Mass, with the choral music and the amazing setting without the desire to reach for my phone. I’m not religious, but the Mass was poignant and meaningful.
As a reward for our achievement over the past week and our spiritual indulgence, we enjoyed a truly worldly indulgence at the very classy Relais & Chateaux hotel near Santiago. (I will later post a review of this on my blog on www.andrewforbes.com)
The Pilgrims’ Office can get busy, with walkers queuing to get their certificates, so go during the 12noon Mass, after the main arrivals
I didn’t embark on the Camino for religious reasons but I still wanted to experience Mass at the Cathedral. One option is to set off early to get to the daily 12 noon Mass. The other option is to attend the following day. There are two advantages to this; firstly one avoids the final day rush and crowds, and secondly, the following day one’s arrival is recorded in the statistics that are read out in the Mass, saying how many of each nationality arrives and from which starting points.
We happened to be lucky that the evening Mass included the use of the Botafumeiro which is very much part of the spectacle and ritual of a Pilgrims Mass.
Enjoying the city:
Once you arrive, chances are you will start to feel quite tried as your body starts to relax, but I recommend heading the short distance to Alameda Park that affords great views back across to old town and the Cathedral.
I also recommend visiting the monastery of San Martín Pinario – it’s not in great condition, but the place is just stunning. An immense alter freeze combines with ornate chapels, whilst above is a religious art museum – really extraordinary.