WARNING: This entry is not for the casual reader. It is crazy long. I'm sorry but there was just too much to share. I won't be offended if it's just too much for you.
I had a puente last weekend, which is what they call a long weekend (it also means bridge as a side note). Since I had Monday off, I thought it would be cool to do something. Maybe get out of the city. My friend Stephanie had mentioned that she was hoping to walk part of the Camino del Santiago on the puente. I had no idea what that was so I googled it. The Camino del Santiago is a pilgrimage trail that leads from the French border of Spain all the way to Santiago del Compostela near the Atlantic Ocean. The pilgrimage dates back to the Middle Ages. Los peregrinos, pilgrims, would walk for over 6 weeks and be housed by monasteries along the way. Well the pilgrimage has become popular in recent years for people who simply want to hike or those with a spiritual mission. I thought it sounded really interesting so at 1am on Friday morning we made plans to leave the same afternoon at 6pm.
We made decisions a little last minute to say the least. We chose a portion we thought we could cover in 3 days of walking, and booked bus and train tickets. Well I realized that night as I was going to bed that I didn't in fact own a backpack here. So I got up early the next morning and headed to the department store to buy a back pack. I didn't want to spend a lot of money so I just got a little pink Nike backpack. I figured I could make everything fit. I got out of class at 4:30pm and the train left at 6pm. So I had to run. Literally. My metro to the train station had problems so it ran late. So I sprinted through the train station, screamed at Stephanie, and jumped on the train as the doors closed behind me. I couldn't believe I made it, red faced and sweaty, but I was on the train to Leon.
We got to Leon a couple of hours later. Stephanie had spent a summer in Leon in high school so she knew the city pretty well. We decided to walk to see the cathedral lit up at night and I'm so glad we did. It was gorgeous. I love gothic architecture and this church is known to rival Notre Dame in Paris. The stained glass was insane.
The next morning we went to a monastery to get our credenciales. It looks just like a passport for pilgrims and at every church or monastery or refugio you stop at along the way you get it stamped. Los refugios are hostels designed specifically for pilgrims so they're really cheap. As in 4-6 euros for the night. They tend to be basic but it's cool to meet your fellow pilgrims.
With our credencial in hand, we set off. We planned to walk 22km the first day and follow an alternate route that was more tranquil and further away from highways but it added 5km to the next day. We were still green so we though that was no big deal. The only markers on the path are yellow arrows or conch shell signs or symbols. We started jokingly calling them affirmations because we would get so amped when we saw one. We knew were going to the right way.
El Virgen del Camino was the first city we got to and I thought it was just a monastery on the south side of Leon that it took us an 1 and a half to walk to. I thought we were never going to make it if we were still in Leon. Then Steph clarified that this was our first pueblo. There are a ton of little villages along the way and this was our first one. We visited the monastery and I got a ring with the Virgen del Camino on it to bring us good luck on our journey.
On the first day the path was mostly asphalt with some flat dirt roads. But the landscape kept changing. One second I would feel like I was in Kansas and the next second the clouds would part and I could see huge mountains in the distance. I think Stephanie said that "the land in Spain is on acid." It did make for an interesting walk. It was great to breathe in the fresh air and enjoy being outside. I love the bustle and opportunities Madrid offers but it's nice to get away every once in awhile. We found the refugio in our stopping point for the night and passed out early, sunburned and exhausted.
The next morning we knew we had a big day ahead of us: 28km. I was a little nervous about it but we set off. Every hour we got closer and closer to the mountains. We started going up and down the hills and it was such a feeling of accomplishment to know that I was in the foothills of the mountains I had seen yesterday that seemed so far away. But the path was a lot rougher and my knees could tell that I was not wearing proper footwear. We called ourselves the idiot pilgrims because we had tiny schoolbags and were wearing running shoes. Needless to say, we were not properly equipped. The other pilgrims had metal frame backpacks, walking sticks, insta-dry pants, and hiking boots. I had my pink backpack, pink running shoes, and perfectly matched outfits. We looked a little absurd.
When we reached the top of a particularly tough hill, we just laid down in the shade under a tree and felt the breeze for at least a half an hour. It was so relaxing. That sense of accomplishment at the top of every big hill is really what kept me going. And the cool villages helped too. We walked through this town with a Roman bridge too! I feel like Roman structures are just no big deal here. It's so weird to me.
We made it to Astorga that night, and it is the cutest town in the world. In the main plaza there is a clock with wooden figurines that smack it on the hour.
The town is also known for their pastries which officially makes it my favorite place I've been too! That night we grabbed a bite with some fellow pilgrims from Germany and Spain. It was really great to get to talk about our experiences and just connect across cultures. My favorite was a German man in his 60s walking the camino alone. He only spoke German and some broken English but there was a German who spoke Spanish so there were three languages flying across the table. I really liked Astorga and wished I could've had a little more time there but we had 22km to walk the next day and we had to be in Rabanal del Camino by 4pm. So we left Astorga at 7:30am and stopped at a bakery just opening for napolitana chocolate which is my favorite Spanish pastry. It's basically a chocolate croissant, but the one in Astorga was the best I've ever had.
Our final day was pretty easy in terms of walking, but we did have a time crunch. We managed to leave early so we had a delightful lunch in Rabanal del Camino. We were supposed to take a bus from this town to Ponferrada where we would take a train to Madrid. So I asked that waiter where the bus stop was at which point he told me that no bus comes to this town on Mondays. PANIC TIME!!!! Ponferrada is 30km from Rabanal del Camino and I didn't have it in me to try to walk that far. A taxi ride was going to cost more than we could afford and of course this town had no ATM so Stephanie came up with the idea to hitchhike. This couple in their 40s from the Canary Islands thought it was a great idea. The husband just said that if we thought the people seemed weird to say no. So we headed to the side of the road. The third car stopped.
I debated not putting this in the blog because I knew it would worry my friends and family. So I'd like to put a disclaimer on this: IT WAS A BAD IDEA BUT WE WERE STUCK! I never intend to hitchhike again. Have no fear I realize it was terribly irresponsible and dumb.
So the car stopped and we ran up to see a couple in their 50's. They asked where we were going and the destinations matched so we got in. I was a nervous wreck. I thought for sure I'd made the worst decision of my life. Even as Feli, the wife, talked about how they were worried bad people would pick us up, I was freaking out. To end the suspense they were incredibly nice. They stopped at key points for us to take pictures, took us for sodas in their home town, and gave us a tour of Ponferrada. Feli has such a huge personality. She couldn't get enough of us. When they left us at the bus station, she gave us her phone number and asked her to call us if we were ever in the area. I was just so relieved that we made it to the bus station!
But we had to wait 5 hours for the bus which left at 1:30am. So we decided to try and sleep, but I kept waking up to this homeless man staring at me. Obviously that made me a little nervous so I ended up listening to the Pride & Prejudice book on tape Adrienne gave me until the bus left. I got back to Madrid at 6:30 with sore knees, a sunburn, and a sinus infection but it was an adventure to say the least! I'm really thinking about trying to do the whole 6 weeks in June. I just loved the communal aspect of the camino. All the pilgrims just want to hang out and share their stories. I'm so glad I got to be a part of that even if it was only for 3 days!