Surviving the Camino del Norte: 800+kms of crazy pilgrims, sublime beauty and failed attempts at enlightenment
Whether you are looking for enlightenment, just like slow travel or interested in an intensive way to lose a few kilos while gorging on cheap vino tinto and delicious jamon, the Camino de Santiago could be for you.
Spain’s latest travel craze all started in the year 830 a monk in a remote corner of the northwest of Spain found what he believed to be the tomb of the apostle Saint James. The news spread like wildfire and thousands of people all across Europe took to their feet and dragged themselves west to pay homage. The came for miracles, redemption for crimes, and of course entrance tickets to heaven.
A pilgrimage was born and today is no different with thousands and thousands of people embarking on a journey using the same routes established during the middle ages.
I don’t particularly enjoy church or religion, and if someone held a gun to my head and said chose one, the one thing I know for sure is that “Catholicism” would not be what popped out of my mouth. So what is a non-believer, joyful sinner doing on what originally was a religious pilgrimage? There are many reasons people embark on the camino and most of reasons are intensely personal but we all have one thing in common, wanting to get to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in one healthy piece and not lose our minds in the process.
In effort to help my fellow walkers I put together a couple of simple lessons, but really tricks for surviving and thriving on the camino have a lot in common with normal life.
Lesson 1: Stretch to get ready.
I also Vaselined my feet every morning – they really liked it! I swear my feet have never looked better, not usually the case for people on the camino, where you can see all manner of gross foot deformities.
Lesson 2: Stay hydrated.
But keep in mind Lesson 3: Don’t attempt to open wine bottles using a flip flop in a method you learned off Youtube.
Lesson 4: You don’t need a lot of stuff the be happy
People are gear crazy on the camino, I have seen many a pilgrim look down at my trail running shoes and “say how do you walk in those?” because they don’t have ankle support. Enter my friend Charlie who decided spontaneously to do the camino and has been walking in Vans slips on. Vans really should be sponsoring this guy. When asked how his feet are doing he always replies “perfect!!” and he means it. At the point in the trip where many people are having an issue, this man’s feet are pristine. I think he is onto something or the Flemish people are far tougher and cooler than I had previously been lead to believe.
The rule for gear applies to pursuit of pleasure. Sunshine, cheap beers shared among good friends in the central plaza in front of a medieval/Renaissance cathedral – if you can’t be happy here something is wrong with you.
Lesson 5: Approach every day with a broad smile and pair of short shorts.
Self explanatory – let’s all thank Hilario for providing this example.
Lesson 6: Take the roads less traveled, and don’t be afraid to take the longer path if it’s more scenic
There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela – the most popular being the Camino Frances but I knew for this trip that I wanted something a little less discovered and the chance for solitude along the way. I started on the Spanish/French border in the city of Irun and walked the Camino del Norte until branching off in Oviedo and taking the Camino Primitivo, which as the name suggests is the most primitive of all the routes and was the route taken by the first pilgrims.
People tried to talk me out of it but I listened to my instincts and forged ahead a bit apprehensive. A hard less traveled route fostered unbelievable camaraderie and a sense of discovery and adventure that the Camino Frances didn’t have for me – I would chose it again in a second.
Lesson 7: Find boys who like to cook and put them to work.
Lesson 8 and 9: Take good photo opportunities when they smack you in the face and make your best effort to keep your hair photo ready, you never know when the photographer may strike.
Lesson 10: Make the effort to make friends (of all species)
Germans (so many Germans!), Dutch, Texans, Canadians, Spanish, Flemish, one Colombian, one Czech and one Austrian, horses, cows, all types of farmer animals etc. I didn’t discriminate (expect in one special circumstance with an italian woman that stole my croissant – unforgivable offense) – the world is a big tough place, it’s better with friends.
The big question remains, will you be spiritually enlightened?
I was walking along quite happy and I happened to pass two french women, I said bonjour and continued on, only to hear her call out behind me that I was walking too fast. My response? I left that hag in the dust and enjoyed passing her every day afterwards. Bad person? Maybe, but I am not one for being told how to do something.
Last lesson – everyone walks their own camino (and lives their own life) and you have to take time and listen to yourself for what is best for you even if it is unpopular, all of those other bitches can suck it. Buen camino!