I just got back from the adventure of a lifetime, walking the Camino de Santiago with my parents. One of my friends told me when she heard about this trip that now she knew where I get my adventurous spirit. That’s right, from these two characters!
I only did the last week with them, but they arrived a whole month before me and started in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. They had some trials and tribulations, possibly stemming from their hike over the Pyrenees, which they both describe as the hardest thing they’ve ever done, but they also agreed it was their favorite part. (See what I mean?) They met some really cool people during that part of their journey, a few of them even showed up toward the end so I could see for myself how cool they were. One guy, Alvyn from Wales, walked the entire 500 miles with only 25 percent vision in his “good” eye. He said he couldn’t see well enough to read the markers so he just followed the pilgrims directly ahead of him and hoped they knew where they were going. Sometimes they didn’t! My parents met a lot of other interesting characters, but I’ll save their stories for their Camino tell-all.
I met up with Mom and Dad in Sarria, Spain, which is a typical starting point for those of us who can’t take off a month to walk the entire 500-mile distance. Sarria is about 110 km (or 68 miles) from Santiago de Compostela, which is the minimum distance you can walk and still qualify for the compostela. My dad had been suffering from a lot of problems with a strained Achilles’ heel that started back in that infamous trek through the Pyrenees. Since then my parents had been alternating between busing and walking, depending on how well Dad was holding up. But when I arrived, the plan was to walk every step of the way from Sarria to Santiago. It takes a crazy long time to get to Sarria, Spain, from Savannah, Georgia, so we were going to have to do the walk in six days, which could mean a couple of really long days.
The first day from Sarria to Portomarín was supposed to be about 13 miles, but probably turned out to be more like 15. Dad’s Achilles’ was still bothering him so we took our time, enjoying the scenery and talking about my dad’s childhood summers spent working with his uncles on a dairy. They don’t mention it in the guidebooks, but the last stretch of the Camino is serious dairy land, verdant and green, and a bit smelly. But all those cows meant lot of good cheese, if we could only get our hands on some!
Finally after about nine hours of walking, our destination was in sight. Of course, when you’re driving someplace you don’t really think about where your hotel is located or how far it is from the entrance of the town. But as I quickly learned, when you’re on foot, your destination is inevitably on the other end of town and nearly always involves walking uphill in the final stretch. In this case, we had to climb a flight of about a billion steps (see pic below) to get to Portomarín. Just when we thought we were home free!
We found our hotel, got cleaned up and while Dad rested with his foot up and some ice, Mom and I went out to find some dinner. The big surprise of the trip for me was that you can walk so far and not be hungry. We did manage to eat though! After sharing our first claras con limón together (my favorite Spanish drink, aside from wine, it’s basically beer with lemon soda), we limped over to a restaurant a few doors from our hotel and shared a few appetizers. Mom tried pulpo a la gallega (octopus) and pimientos del padrón (little green peppers…usually not spicy, but some of them are…fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt) for the first time. She liked the peppers, but the pulpo was just okay, so I could understand her lukewarm reaction.
The next morning I wasn’t sure if Dad was going to be up for doing this all over again, but he got up, laced on his shoes, and off we went. It helped that we ran into the Rachels, two nice girls we’d met the day before who were doing the Camino as part of a program at their college. They were fun to talk to and kept us all going on that wet, dreary day. Here’s a shot of Dad (such a great coach!) showing the Rachels how to use walking sticks.
This was a short 7.5-mile day because we’d read that the climb would be terribly steep. Poor Mom was really nervous after the steep incline over the Pyrenees. (She described it as five miles uphill that were so steep that you could practically reach out and touch the road in front of you as you climbed.) As it turned out, it wasn’t much steeper than the day before, but it was awfully rainy, so we were all too happy to stop for the day at around 2 o’clock in a little town called Ventas de Narón.
At the albergue there, we wound up running into one of my parents’ friends from earlier on the trip whose wife had joined him for the last part of the journey. With him were a nice couple from South Africa who were cracking us up with their tales of the wisdom of Chuck Norris. Apparently there’s a woman on the Camino who will give you a reading from her Chuck Norris book that will heal whatever ails you, or at least make you laugh so hard at the absurdity of Chuck Norris’s awesomeness that you forget your aches and pains for a minute or two.
The next day was a beautiful, if a tad overlong walk to Melíde. I think we were planning on a 13-mile walk, but it turned out to be more like 15. Those extra miles at the end really take it out of you. The charming stone houses and beautiful countryside seem a lot less interesting when your feet are screaming, “Are we there yet?”
Apparently Melíde is where you’re supposed to eat pulpo a la gallega if you want the good stuff. But after our long nine-plus-hour walk, we could barely stumble to the restaurant across the street from our albergue to eat whatever they had to offer. We ran into the Rachels again that night at dinner. Not that any of us could tell you what we ate. We were bone tired. Wait, did Dad have spaghetti again? That was his go-to pilgrim menu meal, and it usually looked pretty tasty.
Our albergue was humble, but the people running it were incredibly kind and helpful. Staying there was the first time I’ve seen my parents try to sleep in bunk beds. That was hilarious! At least it was to me. Dad wasn’t super into it, especially because at 6’4″ he doesn’t exactly fit in those tiny beds. Nonetheless, after dinner we fell into our beds exhausted and ready for a little shut-eye. Except tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep. Everyone thinks of Spain as hot sunshine and flamenco dancers, but up in Galicia it’s a lot more like Seattle: cold, damp, and rainy, and I was freezing my ass off. The cold plastic mattress covers they use to keep away the bed bugs made it impossible to get warm. I guess payback’s a bitch, isn’t it? Who’s laughing now? Eventually I managed to get a few hours in but it was not a fun night.
Day 4 took us to Arzúa. We walked through more beautiful green rolling hills and saw a lot more cows. We finally got to try some delicious cheese from the area, one called ahumado for its smoky flavor was our fave. We couldn’t find a place to stay in Arzúa so we had a cab take us to the casa rural where we were staying outside of town. Then in the morning we got another cab back to where we’d left off the night before in Arzúa. Pretty snazzy, huh? The place we stayed was really rustic and cool and the woman who ran the place was amazing. She helped us get our laundry done, cooked our dinner and breakfast, and would have carried all our bags up to our room for us if we hadn’t stopped her—all while doing the same for about nine other people, all by herself. We’re still not sure if we paid her for the laundry. Dad kept asking, are you sure that’s all? And when he tried to leave her a tip, she wouldn’t let him. She worked so hard, she had more than earned it. We thanked her profusely for taking such great care of us.
On Day 5 we set off from Arzúa and walked another 12 miles or so to O Pedrouzo. We stopped along the way at a little cafe/bar where we met up with the Rachels again (see pic with Mom below) and the owner insisted we had to try the zamburiñas (little scallops) grilled in the shell. Well, the scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, so when in Rome, right? Those little bites of goodness completely blew our minds. Even Dad, an admitted scallop snob, liked them. They had a special sauce on them that really gave them some extra zing. When I guessed that one of the ingredients in the sauce was vinegar, she told me it was made from olive oil and apple cider vinegar. I’m so trying that next time we make scallops.
That night we had trouble finding a place to stay in town again, so we took a cab to another casa rural that actually took us back in the blink of an eye past the miles we’d spent the last several hours walking. Really makes you realize what a different world it is when you’re on foot. This place was an old stone farmhouse that had been in the owners’ family for hundreds of years. It was beautiful and a really unique place to stay. But we didn’t feel like we quite got the local customs and wound up feeling like the odd pilgrims out while we were there. While the other guests were enjoying wine and snacks on the porch, we were shivering in our rooms wondering when we could get something to eat. When we went downstairs to see what the deal was, we weren’t invited to join them, though we did try. Dinner later was really good, so that was nice. Mom was obsessed with this massive column out front (see pic below) and how they made something round out of the flat stones. Seeing how well my Spanish served in getting us an invite to the pre-dinner cocktail party, I decided to leave well enough alone, so I guess we’ll never unravel the mystery of this engineering marvel.
The next morning we woke up to some serious rain. It was our last day on the road to Santiago and I think all three of us were feeling a little uncertain about whether we were going to make it through the downpour. But off we went and while it did pour, it also let up just enough every now and then for us to keep forging ahead.
We giggled when we stopped in Lavacolla, a town supposedly named for being the point at which the Christian pilgrims who hadn’t bathed during the entire Camino, and in fact ridiculed the Jews and Muslims for bathing so frequently, finally stopped to wash their private parts. Apparently they didn’t do such a great job because the censer (or botafumeiro, aka, “smoke belcher”), in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is one of the largest in the world and legend says it was originally employed to cover the unholy stench of the pilgrims during mass.
After Lavacolla, we ran into Alvyn, Mom and Dad’s friend from earlier in the Camino. He’s a great guy and Dad had a lot of fun swapping stories with him as we walked. We also passed people riding the Camino on horseback, which looked like a pretty classy way to do it. Next time!
We stopped to wait out a big storm at a cafe near Monte de Gozo, or “mountain of joy,” where on a clear day you can see Santiago de Compostela waiting below. No such luck. When the rain finally let up, we got back on the road and walked the last few miles into Santiago. It was a 12-mile day, but I think the excitement about finally getting there propelled us forward because we managed to finish in record time, arriving at the cathedral by about 3. Woohoo!
After some initial confusion, we found Rich. The four of us shared celebratory beverages and then it was off to the compostela office, where we heard we’d be facing a two-hour wait. They weren’t lying. I didn’t cross the Pyrenees, but for me standing in that compostela line waiting for hours was the hardest part of the whole journey.
A few hours later, compostelas in hand, we headed back to the little Airbnb apartment we’d rented, marveling that it was all over. I had a blast and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And even though she had some tough days, Mom would too. Dad’s not so sure, but I think we can convince him… Who else is in?
Edited to add: By the way, you might have noticed that we’re all wearing the world’s ugliest shoes. They’re Hoka One Ones (pronounced oh-nay, oh-nay) and they have the softest, smushiest soles ever. A lot of people on the interwebs tend to get really worked up about what they consider the proper footwear for walking the Camino, and a lot of those people recommend hiking boots and scoff at the very notion of walking it in sneakers. My mom discovered the Hokas and read that a lot of people had used them and never had a single blister walking the entire Camino. She got my dad onboard and then they both tried to convince me that Hokas were the way forward if I wanted to avoid blisters and the other foot ailments that plague pilgrims. I was like, “Hell, no! I’m not putting those ridiculous shoes on my feet.” But then I tried them. And that’s when I realized that wearing them was like walking on fluffy marshmallow clouds and that they were as light as whipped air, and ugly though they may be, I was buying ’em. I only walked for six days, but then so did the Rachels and at least one of them had some pretty banged-up feet by the end of those six days. But I didn’t. And my parents walked close to 300 miles in theirs and had nary a blister. Worth every penny and every moment of ugliness, in my opinion! I also highly recommend the amazing Superfeet insoles my brother told me about. They saved my poor 47-year-old hips, which were not happy with my previous footwear choices (basically either flip-flops or ballet flats and the occasional brokedown pair of Nike sneakers). The Hokas helped, but adding in the Superfeet was magical. So if anyone tries to tell you that you can’t walk the Camino in anything less than the most technical badass hiking boots, know that there is an alternative.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming back in Savannah, where the saving for the cruising kitty continues!