Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Welcome to Our Blog - Camino de Santiago along the Camino Frances

This blog describes our walk along the Camino de Santiago (a.k.a. Camino Frances and GR65) in September and October 2016.  We hiked 800 km from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain over 35 days.  It was a wonderful experience that changed the course of our lives.  For those of you interested in hiking the trail, we have included a description and review of the clothes and gear we took with us.  Thank you for reading, and we hope you enjoy!
Camino de Santiago Frances tracking map

Thank you to everyone who has followed in our hike along the Camino Frances and our adventure! We hope you will join in following our other treks including:

To follow our hike on the Camino Frances from Day 1 onward follow this Link.

For a sneak preview of some of the highlights of our trip, follow the link below to watch a 20 min slideshow of our walk from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela click here.

To follow our hike on the Via Podiensis / GR65 follow this Link.

To follow our hike on the Camino Portuguese follow this Link.

To follow our hike on the Camino Finisterre from Santiago to Muxia to Finisterre follow this Link.

To follow our hike on Newfoundland's East Coast Trail follow this Link. 

To follow our 27,000km Expedition across Canada on the Trans Canada Trail follow this Link.

We hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Post Camino Reflections and Advice

 Come Walk With Us Camino Frances Compostella 

We have now been home back in Canada for almost a month. Home is wonderful, relaxing and welcoming for about two or three days. Then one night you wake up thinking (hoping?) you are still in an albergue, or your body becomes frustrated by sitting at a desk rather than hiking 20, 30 or 40 kms at a day and you begin to look up long distance hiking trails around the world and you realize (in the words of Robert Service) "you've become the worst of the worst" and you're hooked. You are a Camino addict and you begin the plan for next year's trek two weeks after having finished the "impossible task" of hiking 800 km. So here we are, and we have begun looking at a range of possibilities including the Camino Norte, the Portuguese Camino, or one of the routes through Frances (Le Puy and Arles are the front runners). However, with all of our planning and wishful thinking aside we also realized that we had some post Camino advice to pass along to anyone about to head off on their adventure.

Camino Frances shell patch The Way of St. James pilgrim passport

In terms of practical advice a few points stood out for us:

(1) The trains in Paris and France are listed by the time they leave and by their station of origin and final destination. Upon arrival to Paris we found this confusing as our train from Paris to Bayonne was listed as the train to Irun, with no indication of any of the intermediate stops. This initially made finding the correct train confusing for us being used to how VIA Rail and Amtrak stations list their trains.

(2) As we discovered, when you buy SNCF tickets - even if they are bought for a train route - it does not necessarily mean that the entire route will take place on the train. Sometimes, owing to a variety of factors, passengers can be switched to buses. Though we were shocked, and a little confused, the bus trip was perfectly comfortable and allowed us to have a little longer tour of the region which turned out to be great. So if you get put on an SNCF bus instead of a train - especially in the midst of one of France's labour disputes - trust that everything will work out.

(3) While ATMS are prevalent throughout Spain and along the Camino we had one difficulty for which there was no warning. Namely when we withdrew funds we could not pick which account (Savings or Chequing) to withdraw from. Similarly when we received our ATM receipt it showed how much was removed but not the balance left, hence we could not even guess which account it was coming from. As a result we ended up having to have family look into our account to ensure that the funds were coming from the right account. Just something to be aware of when you use Spanish ATMS.

(4) Perhaps one of the hardest things for us to get used to on the Camino was the timing of Spanish meals. Pilgrims need to be aware that dinner in Spain is between 7 and 8:30 and that this can be hard if you have had a small breakfast and a limited lunch on the go. In addition there is only a limited amoutn of fast food in Spain and it is usually found in the larger cities and certainly not in the smaller rural towns along the way. In other words, while there are fruit stands and cafe bars along the way, you also need to be prepared as it can lead to a long day if you are not ready to wait until 7 or 8 pm for your dinner. A note here, especially for North American pilgrims, the key to food in Spain is to visit bars. Bars in Spain, unlike Canada and the United States, are not primarily for dispensing alcohol. In Spain bars serve coffee, orange juice, breakfast, lunches, tapas, and of course beer, spirits, and wine. Hence bars in Spain are more like cafes and restaurants and therefore become the main go to for almost all of your daily needs while hiking. In particular along the Camino they also provide you with the chance to get more food, to rest, to recharge your devices, check your digital networks through wifi, and get your pilgrim stamp en route. Also notably bars are often one of the few things which are regularly open - early in the morning for breakfast, often during siesta in the afternoon, and late at night for sports games and drinking.

(5) While public water fountains are prevalent along the Camino and in Spain, when you go to a bar or restaurant for a meal things get a little trickier. At each meal in a public restaurant (not albergues) asking for a glass of water leads to the waiter informing you that you have to purchase a bottle of water. To us this did not seem to be a problem, however waiters often seem confused that anyone would actually buy water and strive to inform you that a bottle of water costs more than a bottle of wine and try to convince you to get wine instead. While we often did get a bottle of wine later with our meal, the task of explaining that we also wanted a bottle of water often led to a longer conversation at the outset of most of our meals.

(6) Finally, and while on the subject of waiters and waitresses, it seems that tipping wait staff in Spain leads to confusion on their part and often we found led to a large amount of animosity on their part towards you. Hardly a day went by when one of us was not yelled at for trying to leave a tip.

Camino Advice Come Walk With Us

In addition to our specific practical advice we also felt that there was some more general guidance that we could pass along for those hiking the Camino:

(1) My first and perhaps most important piece of advice is, that when you think you want to give up (and you will think this), take a break, get a private room, get some sleep, and then hike on for at least two more days. By then either you'll be sure it isn't for you, or realize that it was just a hard day or exhaustion getting to you. Trust that we all get frustrated and disillusioned on the way, but that if you can get through that feeling you're in for a great adventure!

(2) My second piece of advice is something we were told on our first day in the first albergue we stayed in. At the time neither of us realized the depth of its meaning or its importance. That being: to accept rather than expect. We only saw it after reflecting on the Camino, but it became clear that most of the problems we encountered were because we had expectations that either could not be fulfilled or simply were not fulfilled. As such, the problem was not with the Camino or the albergue or anything else, the problem was within us and what we had demanded from the situation. In talking with others we hiked with we have also seen that many of their frustrations and disappointments were because they too were expecting a specific result rather than seeing what was given to them in each moment. So many wonderful people who we came to know on the Camino were disappointed weeks in because they did not find a partner, a wife, a husband, or had not yet had all of their difficulties resolved by the hike. But in seeing the Camino through our expectations we missed experiences that we could have learned from. If only we had accepted rather than expected. Even albergue owners along the way talked about their frustrations with pilgrim's expectations - those who wanted a hike mirroring the movie "The Way", or to have a friend like Yost, make lifelong friends, find their life partner, have a jail experience, or find an eccentric residence host. Indeed one albergue owner said that given the pressures and expectations of the movie "The Way" many hostel operators who now considered "performing as the eccentric host" to garner that type of reputation and get noted in the Brierley guide as a "necessary experience". This too is unfortunate, since the reality is that there are characters in every hiking group, there are experiences to be had without the expectations and pantomimes which follow. If you accept the Camino for what it is including the challenges ranging from snoring bunk mates, to rainy hiking days, to tough climbs, you will find that new avenues of interest and adventure reveal themselves to you. Always remember that often the Great moments on the Camino and in life come right after the tough moments, you just have to be open enough to see and embrace them.

(3) Third and final piece of advice would be to remember that getting to Santiago is not the end all and be all of the Camino. Some people cannot finish the trek, some people get hurt, some people chose to walk away from the trail. All of this is ok! We all walk our own Caminos, if you can't finish it then there is a lesson to be learned there and you need to figure it out. Remember that the Camino is more about the voyage than the destination. By extension if you do get to Santiago, you'll likely realize that this isn't the end of the pilgrimage either. Some people go onto Finisterre or Muxia to continue their treks, which certainly would give you a geographic conclusion to this particular hike when you get to the Atlantic. Ultimately however remember, that Santiago is just a city, the Cathedral is just a building, and the Credential is just a piece of paper - all are beautiful and symbolic of your achievements but the key is to keep the spirit of what they represent alive everyday in your life. 

Thank you to everyone who has followed in our hike along the Camino Frances and our adventure! We hope you will join in following our other treks including:

To follow our hike on the Camino Frances from Day 1 onward follow this Link.

For a sneak preview of some of the highlights of our trip, follow the link below to watch a 20 min slideshow of our walk from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela click here.

To follow our hike on the Via Podiensis / GR65 follow this Link.

To follow our hike on the Camino Portuguese follow this Link.

To follow our hike on the Camino Finisterre from Santiago to Muxia to Finisterre follow this Link.

To follow our hike on Newfoundland's East Coast Trail follow this Link. 

To follow our 27,000km Expedition across Canada on the Trans Canada Trail follow this Link.

Camino Frances Compostella Shell


Friday, 7 October 2016

Day 42 - A Return Home : Paris to Toronto

We were awake at 5 am out of habit, but we both sat in the hotel room until 8 am, uncertain what to do with the extra time. By 9 we had enjoyed a brief breakfast in the lobby, checked out, and boarded the shuttle to the Charles de Gaul airport. Checked in, we were on the 11:30 am flight from Paris to Montreal before changing aircraft for a short jump from Montreal to Toronto. 

Our flights were again long, but safe and uneventful. Without the excitement of the Camino keeping us awake as we crossed the Atlantic this time, we both slept well and arrived into Toronto at 8 pm. 

Here we again gathered our luggage, and waited for the Airlink bus which took us from Toronto to the small town we currently call home. We arrived home at midnight. Here it did not take long for the silence of our own home in our own neighbourhood to get to us. Ironically, after weeks of being frustrated by the noises of others at night, and the hurried mornings on the Camino, it is the silence of our own house which is irritating. The hum of the refrigerator, the click of the furnace, the sound of the pool pump, are now all unnerving electronic noises. The snoring of the albergue, the rustling of others in their bunks, the crickets outside, and the smell of fresh cut hay are all just memories. Our adventure in Spain has come to an end and the trick will be figuring out how to make sense of it all and keep it fresh and meaningful in our daily lives.

As we sit here, safely back home, I want to say thank you to everyone we met along the way, and to everyone who helped us make this possible.  Although it hasn't sunk in yet, I think we are different for having made this journey, and we couldn't have done it alone.  Thank you!
Practical information:

Distance: 6,017 km
Max Temperature: 15°C
Accommodations: Home, Simcoe Ontario

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Day 41 - Fast Transit Navigating Home : Santiago de Compostela to Paris

We awoke this morning early and wandered back to the cathedral to spend some time watching excited pilgrims rush into the main square. It was here that the depression began to settled in. Our trek was done and we didn't belong in the flood of new pilgrims who came with their groups to finish their quests. Two days after arriving it is clear the transformation from pilgrim to tourist is complete, and it is time to go home and figure out how to fit the Camino into our lives back in Canada.

With all of this in mind we began our homeward journey. We hired a taxi from our hotel to the small, clean, and modern looking Santiago airport to catch our Air Iberia flight to Madrid.  At first his was a stunning experience, as the taxi was travelling at a much faster speed than we had been for the past 4 - 5 weeks.  However, by the time we arrived at the airport we had already begun to adjust back to the pace of automated world we had left behind. 

With few other people in the airport we were quickly checked in and took the time to admire a scale model of Santiago and the Cathedral which was set up in the waiting from. 

We caught our flight to Madrid, where we had a two hour layover before catching a flight back to Paris.  By 8 pm we were back in France, and from the airport we caught a Le Bus Direct to the Ibis Styles Paris Roissy hotel. 

Given our late arrival into Paris we were advised to order dinner before closing time. As such, after rather basic fair in the hotel restaurant, we were back in our room by 10 catching up on our final journals and preparing for our morning flights from Paris to Montreal and then from Montreal to Toronto, and our final shuttle drive back home. 

By the end of the day both of us had sore legs and sore backs - ironically from sitting all day on planes and not being able to get out walking or hiking. How quickly our bodies began to expect certain lifestyles and physical demands. Ultimately today was relatively uninspiring and uneventful, but I suppose that is how you want things to go when you are on a series of plane flights. In the end we are grateful to have been able to safely travel from Santiago to Madrid to Paris without incident and to arrive at our hotel in time for an evening meal.

Practical information:

Distance: 1,495 km
Max Temperature: 17°C
Accommodations: Ibis Styles Paris Roissy Hotel (95.95 Euro / room)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Day 40 - Pilgrimage comes to an End : Santiago de Compostela

We awoke early on our final morning in Santiago in order to return to the Cathedral and partake in the early morning mass at 8 am. Today's itinerary had been the subject of debate for almost a week prior to arriving in Santiago. Shortly after leaving Portomarin we had begun discussing the possibility of what to do with our extra day. We had explored the notion of taking a bus to Finisterre and back, but thought that it would be better to have the time to more fully enjoy that route.  We had also considered moving our flights by 2-3 days in order to hike to Finisterre and Muxia, but that option came at the cost of almost $800.00 in fees.

Added to all of this was the fact that any of these choices meant that we would have to essentially walk away from our friends after the pilgrim's mass without any time for goodbyes or reflection. As a result, for our "extra day in Santiago" we ultimately decided to spend the time, enjoy the city and museums, and to have a final dinner with our companions. In the end, we made the right decision!

Following mass we enjoyed a cafe con leche and fresh pie in a cafe located beside the cathedral. After this we spent several hours exploring and photographing the cathedral interior, which was beautifully illuminated by the morning sun. After a second breakfast we sat in the main plaza awaiting the arrival of our Canadian friends at the conclusion of their Camino. At around 11 am they came trekking down the stairway, exciting by their achievement and stunned to see that so many others had waited to cheer them on. 

Now left with the afternoon to ourselves, we decided to visit the nearby pilgrim museum and to take the roof top tour of the cathedral. Our first stop, the Museo Das Peregrinacions e De Santiago (1.20 Euro / individual admission), or the Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago is a collection focused on the history of pilgrimage to the region. Inside we enjoyed displays on historical and worldwide pilgrimages, with the main focus of course being on the Camino throughout Europe. We also got to see artistic representations of pilgrims and saints, displays on symbols, rituals and documents related to pilgrims, and examples of ancient Compostela documents including copies of the original Codice Calixtino! We thoroughly enjoyed all of this.

Next we visited the Museo Catedral and purchased our tickets for a roof top tour of the Cathedral (10 Euros / person) later in the afternoon. The Cathedral Museum itself is fascinating and includes art, historical displays, descriptions of the cathedral's restoration, as well as various other religious pieces including previous butofumerios. During our visit we were able to wander the hallways of the building and visit the upper balconies of the cathedral to get a great view down into the church. We were also able to go out onto a narrow outside balcony which overlooked the main plaza in front of the cathedral. 

While we wanted to continue our visit, our roof top tour was set to begin at 4 pm, and so we returned to the museum entrance to meet our guide. Our tour began with a brief history of the cathedral during which time we were lead upwards through a series of long narrow stair cases to a doorway which opened outwards onto the roof and set between the two front spires of the western facade (front) of the church. Once on the roof we were led onto the stone tiles over the nave of the cathedral, where we were allowed to walk around freely. Surprisingly, despite the slant of the roof everyone was able to walk with great ease and stability while the guide detailed the history of the church and the city. In the roof we were able see the back of the state of St. James on the front of the Cathedral, and we able to walk to both the central tower and the clock tower.

From our vantage point we could see through windows down into the church, walk under archways, see down into the surrounding plazas, and see the nearby Seminario Mayor, which is the main lodging for most pilgrims in the city. As with most of our trip, today we were truly luck to have had a wonderful and clear day to visit the cathedral roof and enjoy such a beautiful view of Santiago. I would certainly suggest that anyone who visits Santiago should make the time for this tour, even if one in your native language is not available.  It is still well worth it.

When the roof top tour came to an end we realized that it was nearing time for us to meet our friends for our final meal together, as most of us were set to either hike onward or take a bus to Finisterre and Muxia the next day, or fly out to Paris, London, or Madrid early in the morning. We all met at 7 pm outside of the Parador beside the Cathedral and together made our way to a nearby restaurant, the Casa Manolo.

Here, after a long meal, we slowly made our goodbyes to most of our comrades, and returned to the cathedral with others, where we gathered outside in the plaza, and then slowly parted ways.

Afterwards we wandered the city, talked some, photographed some, but in general we mostly just tried to put off returning to our hotel. By 1 am however we are back in our room, packing and preparing for our morning flight from Santiago to Madrid, and then from Madrid to Paris. And just like that, the Camino is done, our friends are returning to their lives, and we are about to return home.


Practical information:

Distance: 0 km
Max Temperature: 19°C
Accommodations: Hotel San Lazaro (45 Euros / room / evening)