Preparing yourself and how to not to go on the Camino

Ponferrada Travel Blog

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My mind had been made up - I'm going. I prepared myself by doing what I do best: research. Numerous tv-reports, books, internet forums, anything I could find on that matter. Also, guides to trekking and hiking, for that was a completely new area for me. I was a little worried about how I would cope walking for hours through woods and lonely little villages with a 10 kg backpack strapped to my 56 kg body. Sleep in houses that might not have heating and shower in likewise cool showers - I get shivery too easily. But, I knew I wouldn't be at peace unless I at least try. I picked the last 200 km and a period of 3 weeks. I didn't want it to be a marathon, and my goal was to enjoy the nature and meet new people. They say "The road is the goal".

I purchased a guidebook that had every step of the Way covered. I mean, really, descriptions go as far as "50 m from the church turn right, climb down the steps, after 100 m you'll reach a forrest, follow the dirt road that crosses a brook that can be flooded after heavy rain". There are detailed descriptions of the inns, the so called albergues, with opening times, charges and amenities. The places you go through include notes about shops, pharmacies, internet-access, etc. I got the Outdoor-issue "Spanien: Jakobsweg, Camino Frances" (Conrad Stein Verlag GmbH), and it's small, light and detailed - and 4 years later almost completely out of date. And it's in German, since there was absolutely nothing in Croatian to find. Hm, maybe I'll write something ;)

To my surprise the Camino to Santiago de Compostela is fairly unknown in my catholic homeland. Everyone I spoke to had never heard of it including the staff at the archdiocese's office. That's were I went to collect my Credencial del Peregrino, a sort of pilgrim's passport. In every place the pilgrim passes on the Way, he collects a stamp with the date, and after arriving in Santiago presents it in the Pilgrim's office as a proof of his journey. For walkers 100 km minimum are required to acknowledge the completion of the Way, for bicyclists 200 km. The Credencial can be acquired at any parish or albergue along the Camino, and that's what I did, getting it at the parish of Ponferrada.

Packing the backpack was another very important matter. Everything you carry, you literally CARRY. Recommended is that the pack should not exceed 10 kg. The backpack itself weights about a kilo, so does the sleeping bag, and now you do the math. Galicia is the most humid and rainy region of Europe, so you absolutely need a waterproof cover for the backpack, waterproof pants and rain cape, maybe an umbrella. Robust, comfortable shoes are a must, a pair of trousers, tees, sweaters, underwear, socks, and I'm just getting started. A flashlight, tissues, a rope and clips, safety pins, pain killers, cell phone, chargers, camera, batteries, .... geez! Shampoo, body lotion, comb, hair dryer, .... doing the math? I think I'll update this after I'm back, because that's when I'll know for sure what is useful and what just unnecessary weight on my shoulders. 

One thing, though, is a must: the scallop. Every pilgrim attaches a scallop to his backpack, the symbol of the pilgrimage. Legend has it, that a young noble rode to meet the ship that was bringing St. James' body, but he sank into the ocean (what the heck was he thinking horseback riding in the ocean anyway?!). Santiago rescued him, helping him to get to the shore (I wonder what happened to the horse), but now he was covered in scallops. Ever since, the pilgrims carry the scallop as a guardian. In Croatian the scallop is even called St. James mussel.

I first went on the Camino in October 2006. My mum was so concerned that she decided to join me. I tried to talk her out of it, for I didn't want her to just go through the motions, but she argued she's in better shape than me which, again, might be true to my shame. We have a family business that opens only during summer season. It's 5 month 24/7 work for all my family and when we finally wrap it up, we are so exhausted that everyone just sleeps for a week. But I had picked a week after wrap up to go to the Camino, because it was getting autumn. It was a mistake. After just 3 days my mum and me were exhausted, it was raining constantly, and the albergues were chilly. We decided to stop and went instead on a little round trip by bus. I learned my lesson, and can say that if you're tired, don't have the appropriate clothes and intend to rely entirely on the shops to buy your dinner, you're screwed. Which brings me to more important must-carry items: muesli, cookies, dried fruit, anything that fills your stomach without having to cook it.

Okay, so, Ponferrada - I picked this little town as starting point because it's about 200 km away from Santiago and it has a Templar castle. Well, the ruins of it. After we had settled in a very nice albergue, we went to see the castle. It was raining buckets, so the whole event was rather disillusional. Then we went to buy something for breakfast, but couldn't find a store. Eventually we did, in a corner of a building with no sign outside and inside two wooden shelfs with the basics of the basics on display. We went to dinner in a restaurant recommended by my guide and then back to the albergue. It was a very nice one with rooms that have 2 bunk beds each, clean and warm bathrooms and a nice kitchen. In the morning we left around 8, every albergue has to be left by 8 a.m., and followed the dirt road into the woods, along fields, through little villages and it was a beautiful day. We made over 20 km that day all the way to Villafranca del Bierzo. There we spent the night at Jato's albergue, a renovated hospital from the middle ages. Jato is a sweetheart, the albergue rather uncomfortable. And it was raining buckets. Here we met Lindsay, a nurse from the US who was volonteering. She attended to our blisters and was a total sweetheart. We made it an early night and went to sleep in the 50-bed-room in the attic with rain coming through the roof. The next day, my mum wasn't feeling that well, and Jato offered to drive us to the next stop. From Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce there's a steep climb through the woods, and Jato took the backpacks of the other pilgrims to drive them to the next albergue. That was so sweet of him! From Vega de Valcarce we continued to O Cebreiro. After settling in a dorm, we went for a sightseeing. O Cebreiro has these traditional round houses and is a very beautiful little place. Again it was almost impossible to find an open store, but we had a nice dinner and tried the traditional Galician dessert, sheep cheese with honey, yummy. We also attended church service in one of the most beautiful churches I've ever seen. The next morning we continued through woods and up and down the hills. And it was raining buckets. Finally we made a stop at a little tavern and tried to dry and wait for the rain to stop. We were not alone, there were more pilgrims with the same idea. My mum finally said that she doesn't want to continue this, and I could see she couldn't. Frankly, I wasn't having such a good time either, and didn't see the avail in continuing. We weren't seeing much of the country, wrapped up in our rain capes, and spent most of the time trying to dry our clothes. We continued though to Triacastela where we catched a bus to Santiago and from there went on a little round trip by bus, visiting Salamanca, Madrid and Toledo.

When going on the Camino, the pilgrim doesn't have to make the whole route in one piece. That would be impossible for most people for it takes time and money. That's were the Credencial comes in, where all the places the pilgrim has passed are recorded. Most of the pilgrims pick one stage, return home and come back later to continue the Way starting from the point they left the last time. That's what I'm doing. My mum isn't eager to go back, but I want to finish what I started. Tomorrow I'm going back to Triacastela and commence the 154 km still left to Santiago de Compostela. I hope to make it this time.


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photo by: Mortyzia