Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Over Alto de Perdón to Estella

This was day 4 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.


The ability of our bodies to recover overnight is simply remarkable. Every evening I felt tired and muscles were aching, but in the mornings I was continuously waking up pretty fresh and full of energy.


What was even more remarkable, M. did not have problems waking up before 6 AM every morning. Actually she had the alarm set for every morning and was the one usually waking me up. Miracles really do happen on the Camino!


This whole waking up to an alarm, set on a wrist watch, thing is a bit funny. Since we were using earplugs almost every night, the alarm was usually beeping for someone else - we often did not hear it. However, if not before, we did wake up ten minutes after it stopped beeping. No one seemed to mind.



A sunny but quite fresh morning was a nice change. Before we left we took the opportunity for a quick breakfast. Good supper, freshly squeezed orange juice and a large selection of tea they offered at the bar made our stay in this albergue even more enjoyable.



The first part of hike included climbing up the only hill of the day. It is called Alto de Perdón (Mountain of Forgiveness) and is one of the famous landmarks on the Camino.
Actually it is more of a small hill than a mountain. Since it was still early and we were quite fresh and full of energy, we did not have any problems with the little climb. At the top there are metal sculptures dedicated to pilgrims and a nice view over nearby wind farms.


We stopped for a while to take a few photos. Since the wind was blowing really hard we did not linger around for too long. We continued downhill.



Puente la Reina was the most interesting town we went through during the day. It was named after Doña Mayor, wife of King Sancho III. She built the famous six-arched bridge over the Río Arga for the use of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It still stands today. Puente la Reina is the first town after the Aragonese Way (Camino Aragonés) joins with the French Way (Camino Francés). This means we will be seeing even more pilgrims from here on.



Our destination for the day was Estella. We were hoping to reach it in time to still get enough free space in one of the albergues. We were still travelling as a group and getting seven beds late in the afternoon was not to be taken for granted.



Since we had 35 kilometres planned for the day, we planned to arrive around 5 PM, which is pretty late. As we learned so far, most pilgrims seem to walk shorter distances and consequently they arrive at their daily destinations a few hours before us.


We had been lucky so far, so we had hoped our lucky streak would continue. It did not look too good when we tried our luck at the first albergue. When they turned us down in the second one, we were getting a bit worried.


The third albergue had just two spaces left and we asked the hospitalero (a guy taking care of an albergue) to call the last remaining albergue in town and inquire about the situation. He said there are just 5 places left and placed a reservation for a part of our group. I had a feeling he was taking advantage of the situation and simply wanted to fill the last two of his beds. In my opinion there were still seven or more beds available in the last albergue but since we were all already very tired I did not want to take chances and insult the guy.


So we split up and agreed to meet up again in the morning. M. and I stayed in Albergue Paroquial San Miguel. It operates as an albergue donativo - you donate as much as you feel it is suitable.


After the check-in formalities we were showed to our beds - a top bunk bed and a mattress on the floor. Beds were pretty basic - old mattresses with (not very clean) plastic sheets. They were all out of blankets. This is why a sleeping bag on the Camino is a must.
Bathroom looked nice and clean and there was plenty of hot water. It was all we really needed.



Apart from another "lost in translation" moment during dinner the evening was pretty uneventful - we chose Maracaibo Restaurante in a corner of the main town's square.
After dinner M. was really tired and just wanted to go to bed. Unfortunately it started raining cats and dogs just as we were finishing our meal. We decided to wait for it to pass before returning to our albergue. A very long half of an hour later we were finally off to bed.


Clicking on any one of above photos will reveal them all in a much more flattering resolution.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

Camino Portraits: A pilgrim and his dog

This is the first post in a series of Camino Portraits. It is a portrait of a pilgrim with his dog.



We met them on our way to Zariquiegui. We never took time to talk, so their names will remain a mystery. We just wished "Buen Camino!" to each-other and after a I snapped this photo we were on our ways. Since they were walking in the opposite direction, they were obviously already returning home from Santiago. On foot. Yes, even some modern-day pilgrims do that.


If you look closely you can see each of them carrying their own backpacks.


Clicking on the above photo will reveal it in a much more flattering resolution.

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Thursday, 17 July 2014

Another rainy day

This was day 3 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.


We woke up into a cloudy morning. Our shoes and clothes were still a little damp, so we did not really enjoy putting them on. We were out of the albergue door just as it started raining again. Not very encouraging, to say the least.


When we started walking our legs felt a bit tired from previous days but it was not to bad. No real problems, just moderate muscle pain. Fortunately we had no blisters. Well actually we had a small blister each, but they were not bothering us. Compeed works wonders!


Rain was not so strong as on the previous day and we also got used to it. It was bothering us quite a bit at first but on the second day we kind of accepted it and just walked on. What bothered me the most was the fact I had the camera tucked inside my backpack. It was also just too complicated and time consuming taking it out for a photo and putting it back in. Result - no proper rainy photos.



Breakfast was our first excuse to get away from rain for a while. Bocadillos con jamón (sandwiches with cured ham) and café con leche (coffee with milk) were enough to get us running. Shoes started leaking again but it was nowhere near the experience form the previous day. After another few hours of walking clouds started tearing up and we were able to see patches of blue sky again. We felt better.


There are quite a few interesting old stone bridges in the area. One of them is also the one Martin Sheen drops his backpack from in the movie The Way. Just before entering the city of Pamplona we crossed the Arga river. We used the Magdalena bridge you can see on the above photo.



The highlight of the day was the city of Pamplona - the first larger city on the way with a population of 200.000. Most pilgrims make plans in a way to spend at least one night there. Unfortunately our schedule did not allow us to do the same. We wouldn't mind stopping for a few days and if we ever have a chance to go back, we will try to do it in time to enjoy the San Fermín festival (and maybe even get a taste of running with the bulls).



When in Pamplona we took time to explore the beautiful cathedral with a museum. We did not like the entrance fee but in the end this stop came at a perfect time to let another thunderstorm roll by.



When walking through the city centre there were moments when we felt a bit lost. For the first time bright yellow arrows and shell signs were not visible enough. Thanks to friendly locals we stayed on the right way.


On the way out of the city we ran into the group of Italians from the night before. We all had same plans for the day and agreed to walk together. Good company helped a long walk through suburbs of Pamplona pass quickly.


Our destination on that day was a small town of Zariquiegui. It was a 27 kilometre walk from Larrasoaña.


Since at that time we were travelling as a group of 7 and La Posada de Ardogi was supposedly the only albergue in town (with only 16 beds), we decided to make a booking in advance. Since this is a private albergue booking was easily arranged by one of the Italians.


Walking through open fields with huge stacks of hay bales was really enjoyable. We took the opportunity to practise our Italian and got to know Roberto, Andrea, Alessandro, Antonio and Jolanda (who is actually Dutch) a little better.


Upon arrival standard routine followed. Stretching, shower, washing clothes and some relaxing before dinner. As a group we took advantage of the laundry machine and just threw all our dirty clothes in.



During stretching and massage I felt heavy pain in muscles running down on the outside of shin (Tibialis anterior muscle) and also in tendons connecting these muscles to bones. I knew muscle pain will go away in a few days. I was more afraid of tendinitis - known as one of the common show-stoppers on the Camino. I was hoping for the best.


All seven of us slept in one small room. It may sound strange but this was a definite improvement compared to the last two days. Beds were comfortable, with clean cotton sheets.


We agreed to continue walking together on the following morning.

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

A taste of rain on the Camino

This was day 2 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.


We were really happy about dry weather on our first day of walking over the Pyrenees. We had our wet gear with us but would not mind if it remained in our backpacks throughout the trip.


Unfortunately 20 minutes after leaving Roncesvalles it started raining. We had to stop at the edge of a forest, next to a cross, just before we got to the first village. At that point I decided to put my camera away and we prepared our raincoats for the first field test. They performed quite well.



Heavy rain started around 7 o'clock in the morning and since we were hoping it to stop, we decided to take a long breakfast break at the first opportunity. When we saw the first opened bar we were already a bit wet.


We ordered "tostadas" and expected to get some kind of toast with ham and cheese. After a while we realised we had actually ordered toasted bread with butter and jam.


We laughed about our first Spanish language lesson over a not too filling breakfast.


We learned how important it is to have a raincoat of proper length. Mine started to curl up over my knees while walking. It did not help even if I took shorter steps. I used one of my walking sticks to weigh down the front part of it. It worked well but at by the time I put the improvement into practise my trousers were already pretty wet from the knees down.


Rain continued throughout the most part of the day. When we already thought we have seen the worst of it, it turned to hail. We could not decide if it was better or worse compared to rain.


I first felt water in my shoes after 3 hours of constant walking in rain. At the worst point I am pretty sure I had half a decilitre of water in each shoe. Since we were worried of having blister problems we were thinking of stopping and changing into dry socks but after a while we both agreed there is probably no point in doing it.


Walking up and down small hills seemed to go on forever. We started the day at 900 metres above sea level and walked to Larrasoana, which lies at 540 metres. We walked 27 kilometres, most of them in heavy rain.


About half an hour before we reached our destination for the day, the rain stopped.


We were surprised how quickly our shoes dried up again after it stopped raining. All that water evaporated pretty quickly - just like sweat. I suppose this was an indication we had bought good shoes.



In Larrasoaña we checked into Albergue Municipal. It is pretty basic and the hospitalero was not all that friendly. Nonetheless we were happy we found a place to sleep and that the wet day was finally behind us.



A hot shower was followed by hand washing of our muddy clothes. Afterwards we tried our best to dry our gear - we stuffed our wet shoes with newspapers and hung our clothes outside. Unfortunately nice weather did not last and we had to move our clothes inside.


We still had enough energy to take a walk around the cute little village. Apart from a few interesting old buildings there is not much to see.



Dinner was quite tasty and fun - we enjoyed it with a group of Italians. They met on the way and decided to walk together.

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Monday, 7 July 2014

Over the Pyrenees

This was day 1 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.


As I have already mentioned in my opening post on Camino de Santiago, we chose to walk along the Camino Francés branch of the way. We flew in to the nearby Biarritz airport and arrived to Saint Jean Pied de Port on a sunny Sunday afternoon of May 18th, 2014.



We started our Camino in France mainly because we wanted to experience the Pyrenees. Another reason was that we had thought we could just squeeze those 800 kilometres into 26 days we had for walking.


The first thing we did upon arrival was stamp our pilgrim credentials. First impressions of SJPdP were not all that great. Prices in the town were quite a bit higher than we had expected. We had one of the worst pizzas ever and it was not cheap either.
We were just hoping this had something to do with the fact we were in France.
Apart from that we liked the look of the little town. It is tucked amongst small hills with Pyrenees already visible to the west.



Pilgrim menus were on offer for 12 Euro. A bed in an albergue dorm room costed the same.


Since the weather can get really nasty in the Pyrenees, we had been hoping for good weather on our initial day. We have heard quite a few stories of recently injured pilgrims on this part of the way. A few people also die on this part of the Camino almost every year.



Luckily at 6 in the morning we woke up into a beautiful morning, had some fruit for breakfast and just before 7 we headed for the hills. Views were getting better and better as we were climbing higher. The steep path got us huffing and puffing at some points but we were able to keep quite a good pace. It seemed like we were well prepared.


We started our day at 180 metres above sea level and reached Col Lepoeder mountain pass at 1.430 metres (the highest point of Camino Francés) before descending again. Roncesvalles, our destination for the first day, lies at 900 metres and is already in Spain.
The total walking distance planned for the day was 26 kilometres.



Roughly after 8 kilometres of walking and a half of the total vertical gain in elevation planned for the day we stopped at Refuge Orisson. Many pilgrims choose to spend a night there and continue in the morning. We were still quite fresh and after a sandwich, Basque cake and a glass of orange juice, we were on our way again. It was quite a break - one and a half hour long.


Apart from a few clouds the sky was mostly clear. The wind however was picking up and at some points it was very strong (gusts of over 90 km/h as we learned later).



Somewhere near the top I had to take care of my first blister. It was a really small one and the smallest of Compeed plasters took care of it. We both took the opportunity to dry our feet and change into fresh socks.



On the way down we kept thinking about a dangerous stretch of the path we were told to avoid. There was a bit steeper section which we think was the "dangerous stretch" but it did not seem like anything special to us. Maybe in bad weather it is a different thing.


At 14:30 we already reached the imposing monastery at Roncesvalles (Orreaga in Basque). Check-in procedure was followed by a thorough stretching session. We were feeling good.



The monastery albergue is really huge (183 beds), well kept and very well organised. A hot shower that felt really good was followed by a relaxing afternoon and a good supper at a nearby La Posada restaurant. We enjoyed supper with other pilgrims and shared a few laughs. Spirits were high.



After supper we got back to monastery just in time to see the end of evening mass. From there we went straight to our room. We were already pleasantly tired and lights out policy at 22:00 made perfect sense. We set our alarm for 5:30, put in our earplugs and drifted away...

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Friday, 4 July 2014

Smartphone app for the Camino

As I have already mentioned in my post about packing for the Camino, you can loose some of your backpack's weight by using a digital guidebook instead of a paper one.


It can work out great if you use it together with one of many available Camino smartphone apps. I looked at quite a few of them and in the end I chose Camino Pilgrim.
It is a free application you can easily download through Google Play. It covers Camino Frances and Camino Finisterre branches of El Camino de Santiago. I was using version 1.4.0. You can see the app's icon on the photo below.



It has all the towns and villages listed in the same order as they appear on the Camino with distances from one to the next. Under the name of each town there are icons representing available pilgrim facilities (albergues, ATM, water fountain, pharmacy etc.).



By tapping on a town's name a list of available albergues opens up. Apart from basic info (address, phone, webpage, email address and opening hours) there is also other information available.
Albergues are arranged into three groups: Municipal, Parroquial and Private. There is another set of icons on this level. They represent facilities available in a specific albergue (kitchen, washing machine, wifi etc.). There is also information about price and total number of beds.



By tapping on an albergue a map by Google Maps with a position of the albergue opens up. When your smartphone has GPS connectivity turned on, your current position will also be shown on the map.


Camino Pilgrim application does not require an active internet connection to work. To be able to use maps off-line, you can even download them in advance. It is however advisable to open the app once in a while, when connected to internet, to allow its database to refresh.



There is still room for improvement:

  • If you are doing the Camino on a bike the map feature might not be very useful - bicycle map is not included.
  • At the moment the app is only available on the Android platform. No iOS support so far.
  • Some photos of albergues would be a welcome addition.
  • The same applies to non-existent user ratings and comments about individual albergues.


There is a useful tutorial available on-line for those in need of step-by-step instructions.


Camino Pilgrim is a simple app which proved to be very valuable on many occasions on the Camino. For instance when the path got crowded and we were walking in a group, getting a bed late in the afternoon was not a sure thing any more. Tapping on a phone number next to an albergue name in the app and placing a reservation, made our walk even more enjoyable.


I highly recommend this app. Try it out yourself - it is free. You are welcome to leave your observations in the comments section below.


This review contains my own unbiased opinion which was not influenced by anyone. I also did not receive any kind of compensation.
User interface photos were downloaded from Google play and therefore I do not own any rights to them.

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Packing for the Camino

What does one take with him on a month long trek? If you take into account you have to carry your stuff on your back for the whole 800 kilometres this is not an easy decision at all.


Packing of our hiking backpacks took quite some effort during the preparation period. It all started by choosing just the right hiking shoes and backpacks.



Choosing a pair of good quality, comfortable hiking shoes is the most important thing. My guidelines were comfort, weight, ankle support, waterproof material, durability and breathability. Also keep in mind that your feet will probably be a bit swollen after a few weeks (one size larger is better than a perfect fit). For a short while I was also thinking about light running shoes but gave up the idea because of lack of water resistance and ankle support.
If you are leaning towards a lighter shoe, imagine walking on a muddy trail for 8 hours while sinking into thick mud over your ankles with every step. Without rain it is a whole different story, but unfortunately weather in May can be quite unpredictable.


It is advisable to keep the weight of the backpack under 10 percent of one's weight. However, if you weigh 50 kilograms (110 pounds) it is almost impossible to stay under 10 percent. In the end we both ended up with 2 kilograms over the recommended limit.


We chose one 34 litre and one 55 litre backpack. 55 litres was more than I needed, but it came in handy when we had to redistribute our stuff for airport regulations compliance.



Only when we were happy with our backpacks and shoes, we started thinking about what exactly to put on the checklist. This is what I took with me:


Camino Checklist
ItemQuantityPacked
Personal ID card
1
Y
Personal ID card paper copy
1
Y
Cash (EUR)
400
Y
Credit cards (Maestro, Visa)
2
Y
Money belt/pouch
1
Y
Backpack
1
Y
Mobile phone & charger
1
Y
Digital camera & charger
1
Y
MP3 Player1
N
Camino de Santiago Guidebook
1
N
Hiking shoes
1
Y
Trekking sandals (e.g. Teva)
1
Y
Flip-flops
1
Y
Trekking poles
1
Y
Sleeping bag (lightweight)
1
Y
Rain-coat / poncho (lightweight)
1
Y
Goretex jacket
1
Y
Fleece jacket
1
Y
Long sleeve shirt
1
Y
Trekking zip-off pants
2
Y
T-shirts
2
Y
Trekking socks
3
Y
Underpants
2
Y
Multifunction scarf (Buff)
1
Y
Hiking hat
1
Y
Towel (large lightweight)
1
Y
Towel (small lightweight)
1
Y
Medical bag (pills, bandage, anti-inflammatory gel,
anti-blister accessories, rehydration pills, etc.)
1
Y
Toiletries (toothbrush & paste, toilet paper,
shaving foam & razor, body & hair shampoo, etc.)
1
Y
Laundry soap
1
Y
Body & face cream
1
Y
Sunscreen
1
Y
Lip gloss (protective)
1
Y
Water bladder (2L)
1
Y
Swiss army knife
1
Y
Sunglasses
1
Y
Head lamp
1
Y
Ear plugs
1
Y
Clothes pegs
3
Y
Cigarette lighter
1
Y
Scallop shell
1
Y


A few comments on the above checklist:

I also took a mosquito repellent with me, but it proved to be useless - during the day I was walking too fast for mosquitoes and during the night there were usually many other targets in the same room.
A head-lamp is not essential, but may come in very handy if you start walking before sunrise. A mobile phone with built-in flash can serve as an emergency replacement.
A music player can also be easily replaced by your smart-phone. All you need is a pair of earphones and enough of free memory on your phone. I did not use it even once, but it did help M. to get over one of many steep hills on the way.
I chose not to pack a paper guidebook. I used a digital version on my phone. I also found one of many free Camino phone applications to be very useful.
My medical bag included:

  • painkillers with anti-inflammatory effect (e.g. Ibuprofen),
  • anti-allergy pills,
  • anti-inflammatory gel (e.g. Voltaren),
  • rehydration pills,
  • magnesium & potassium powder (for muscle regeneration and cramp prevention),
  • plasters (e.g. Compeed - worth a higher price),
  • blister prevention stick-gel (e.g. Bodyglide, Compeed),
  • elastic bandage.
I packed only a few of each and restocked in one of many pharmacies on the way if I ran out of anything.


In the end my backpack weighed 9,5 kilograms (21 pounds) - that is without any water or food. This could be easily fixed by buying a lighter backpack and changing my heavy DSLR camera for a compact version. The empty backpack and my heavyweight camera weigh 4 kilograms (9 pounds).

If you travel to the starting point of your Camino by an airplane, be careful not to pack any prohibited items into your carry-on luggage. Since we had quite a few such items on our checklist, we decided to declare one of our backpacks as checked baggage. It is usually quite a bit cheaper if you think of this at the time of booking.


Feel free to comment on this checklist and offer a suggestion of your own if you think I left something out.

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