Adventures of an Unplanned Traveler
Photo credit: Zack Hussain
Overhead loud speakers at Gate E-34, Terminal 3, at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome came alive announcing last boarding call for Iberia flight to Madrid, in the adjacent lounge. Valerio and I hurriedly grabbed our backpacks and continued to pour over our phones, taking advantage of the free airport wi-fi and feverishly scouring articles for our unplanned trip ahead.
A week ago in Rome, Valerio informed me that our planned and paid rendezvous to Mykonos was not going to happen and we should decide on a new destination. After the initial shock wore off, I became excited about prospecting a new adventure. Over the next few days and after many destinations were floated and shot down, “Camino De Santiago” was on the table. I had never heard of it, but after I was told that we would walk around 125 km over 5 days through north-west Spain, I was in.
As we hurried through the vestibule to board the aircraft, we were still not sure of our destination. We were landing in Santiago de Compostela in a few hours after our connection in Madrid, but we still needed to figure out a route to begin our “Camino.”
The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe coming together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region of north-west Spain. Unlike the two of us, every year hundreds of thousands of people of various backgrounds walk the Camino de Santiago. On a whim, having never done anything like this before, we decided upon it without knowing which route we were going to take and the plane had just touchdown in Madrid.
Flight delay in Madrid gave us just enough time to decide on a route: we would do the extension to Camino De Santiago and walk to the Atlantic Coast, along the Finisterre Way or Camino de Fisterra, to the ‘End of the World’! This Camino de Santiago route is unique, as it is the only one starting in Santiago de Compostela. This Camino route
pre-dates Christianity, as pagans would head to Fisterra on to the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) where the pre-Roman people believed the sun died, the worlds of the dead and the living became closer and souls ascended to heaven. Until the end of the Middle Ages, the Costa da Morte was the last outpost in the known world.
We had our plan and our Camino. This was going to be a great adventure!
Focused completely on the walk over the next few days, we landed in Santiago de Compostela. I had no idea what to expect as this was not on my radar;
I was not prepared, I had not visualized, and I was
a blank canvas ready to throw colors of experience on it.
As we entered the old town, I was awestruck; the granite stoned arcaded streets are frozen in time, everything was pristine and the medieval town grasped me in its ancient embrace. The predominantly worn stone structures have an aged patina that speaks of eons of mankind that has grazed its surfaces.
In the quest to find the tourism office to gather pertinent information for our route to Finisterre, we lost track of direction as the narrow alleys pulled us in and we stumbled into Plaza de las Platerías; our eyes could not believe the soaring Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in front of us. To truly appreciate this cathedral where St James, one of the twelve apostles, is supposedly buried, you will have to navigate the vast complex via three major plazas, each unique and spectacular. Plaza do Obradoiro is the main square of Santiago de Compostela old town and gives you the main facade of the cathedral with a very expansive square overlooking the university and the town’s roof tops. My favorite is the Plaza de la Inmaculada which is bordered by the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario and the Cathedral´s North facade. The Cathedral´s original North facade is described in the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus as the `Door of Paradise,´ not only because of its beauty, but also because it represented the story of Adam and Eve, the original sin and redemption. The plaza has beautiful manicured gardens and a festive atmosphere- a great place to relax, watch people and take in the magnificent Romanesque, baroque and neoclassical architectural details of the cathedral and the seminary. Plaza das Praterías is surrounded by museums, bars, restaurants, and the south facade and entrance to the cathedral. It is packed with tourists and one of the must stops.
Santiago de Compostela is most beautiful when it rains as the whole town and the granite stoned streets glisten. It rains quite often in these parts so you will most definitely witness this magical transformation when you are here.
We spent the rest of the evening exploring the medieval town- it was breathtaking in its ancient splendor and we were awestruck. Knowing very well the next few days will be on the road with no expectations of good food, we went well past midnight eating Spanish tapas and paella in local taverns and imbibing to our hearts content on sangria and Spanish wines. Tomorrow we would start walking!
Camino Day 1
25.7 km (16 miles) Santiago de Compostela Negreira
It was still dark outside, my internal clock had beaten my phone alarm set for 5:00 AM by a few minutes. I saw Valerio was also up by the soft glow from his phone’s screen lighting his face, we acknowledged each other’s presence and without missing a beat, go about getting ready for the adventure ahead.
6:00 AM: A fine drizzle greeted us, the sky was overcast, the street lights cast a warm orange glow on the wet cobblestones as dawn breaks over the horizon. We decided to put our ponchos on to stay dry, and we took our first steps.
This was all new to me, my mind raced with excitement; I’m not a runner but I love to walk, I get a walker’s high just like the runners. The most I have walked nonstop is for a couple of hours, but to walk over 100 km for the next 5 days? What does that entail? How do you go about it? I’m not a hiker nor a backpacker, and I have never backpacked anywhere. I do like my basic luxuries when I travel; however, I was carrying a backpack with just the bare necessities. We had a complete medical kit, a couple of t-shirts, walking sticks, blanket, socks, a wash cloth and 2-liter water bag each. What happens when we are in the middle of nowhere? Are there any stops along the way? Will there be any help if we need any? So many unknowns and so many questions.
I heard Valerio’s rhythmic footsteps ahead of me on the wet cobble stones in the still of the morning and I snapped back to reality. The excitement of the adventure was too great to worry about inane details and I found my footsteps matching his.
A short distance just on the outskirts of town, we found a cafe with warm croissants, eggs, and a couple of black coffees to put us back on our feet as we left Santiago de Compostela. We found ourselves rather quickly in the woods and on the trail, with the symbol of the Camino de Santiago- a scallop
shell- placed strategically and frequently along the trails. The shell is seen on posts and signs along the Camino to guide pilgrims along the way.
The next 8 km over a couple of hours took us through mountains, deep woods, and pueblos (tiny villages with clusters of homes). The air was crisp and fragrant as we inhaled loads of it, filling our lungs as we reached a crest overlooking the town we left behind; we could see the spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela far beyond in the morning haze as the sun broke through the clouds.
We continued walking through mountains, fields, crops, and more tiny villages. The scenery is lush, resplendent in vegetation, with hydrangeas growing wild everywhere, adding additional accents to the otherwise brilliant scenery all around.
Halfway through the journey, we stopped at a wayside tavern in the middle of nowhere and come across a few fellow walkers- it was our first glimpse of the others partaking in the same journey. We exchanged pleasantries and then lunched on bocadillos, Spanish omelettes and pasta salad, finishing off with a stiff espresso.
As we got ready to leave, we experienced our first muscle fatigue: the hour-long rest had completely locked our muscles which I had never experienced before, and it was something we would struggle with throughout the journey. As we left the tavern, we heard the words “Buon Camino” from the owners and other patrons. It filled our hearts with gratitude and gave us strength, as we would hear these words throughout our journey and it became a standard greeting.
Within minutes, the weather took a turn for the worst; heavy rains and wind gusts would last the rest of the day, and we adapted to walking in the rain as we can’t stop- there was no stopping. We continued in the rain pushing through the rugged terrain and steep climbs through deep, lush woody trails. As we moved into the afternoon, we could feel our feet voicing their objection. New pains, new experiences.
Along the way, we noticed a small statured lady walking alone. We caught up with her and realized that she was probably pushing in her 80s, soft tuft of white hair neatly tucked under a cap, a red poncho, backpack, and walking sticks; she was taking measured steps and doing it alone. We came to the realization of her silent resolve as she focused on her movements to move forward, our slight discomfort was nothing in comparison. We found new motivation to trudge on.
The highlight of this day was when three quarters of the way we came upon Ponte Maceria, the ancient bridge over the Río Tambre. After the long haul, this was a great place to rest by the waterfall upstream and take in the majestic river flowing rapidly under the stone bridge. The 13th century bridge which literally translates as “Apple Bridge” dates to Roman times. Built on Roman foundations, it leads to an enchanting hamlet with pazos or country mansions along its banks.
I was fortunate to walk over this ancient bridge- millions of pilgrims have walked and crossed this very spot over many centuries. We gave ourselves plenty of time exploring the hamlet and the splendid waterfall. The serenity surrounding the constant roar of the river and the rain overhead was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we forgot the aches and throbbing feet for a while and indulged in nature.
This certainly was a site to remember and it will be one of my favorite sites along the Camino de Santiago.
As we dug our heels and continued, the last couple of hours were pure agony. We thought the endless roads and constant uphill would never end- we made a resolve going forward that no matter how much pain we were in, we would never speak of it negatively. We would motivate each other and maintain a positive attitude.
The difficulty of this hike is considered medium-high and after 6 hours 35 minutes and covering 25.7 km (16 miles) we reached our pitstop, the town of Negreira.
Tomorrow, we almost double the distance: how will our bodies respond and do we have the fortitude to continue? Follow my journey in the October Issue.