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.


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...


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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