Leicestershire & Rutland Ramblers

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela

St. James' Way or the Way of St. James, called in Spanish, el Camino de Santiago, is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. Legend has it that this is where the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Each year 1000s set out to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, often undertaking a religious pilgrimage, but sometimes just for the challenge inherent in any long distance trail. They follow numerous different routes starting where they choose really, but the most popular route is the Camino Francés (the French Way). Depending on fitness and ambition people start anywhere along the route. Whilst people now come from all over the world, historically many of the pilgrims came from France, hence the name given to the route.

For this reason, the Spanish consider the Pyrenees the beginning. A common starting point on the French border is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port which is where a few years ago, David McMahon of Leicester set off from, to fulfil a long held ambition.

The following is his record of the trip.

"Some of you might remember me writing an article some years ago on the same subject. On that occasion I only did a part of the Camino because of holiday restrictions, but now retired, I set out to do the route in its entirety, all 774 kms starting from the French side of the Pyrenees.

I flew into Bilbao on the 2nd of September and immediately caught a bus to Irun on the Spanish/French border. From there I crossed the border to Hendaye and carried on to Bayonne, where I caught a train to St. Jean, eventually arriving along with several dozen other would-be pilgrims about 10.30pm. We were met by a French organisation, Les Amis du Chemin des Saint-Jacques who fixed us up with our `credencials' (a document that gave us access to the refuges along the route) and arranged for us to sleep in an  old school. They also supplied us with a schedule which broke the Camino down into a34 day schedule. Although, I looked at it and decided some days I could do a different mileage. In fact there are so many refuges along the way it's possible to do as many or as few kilometres as you wished. I met one hospitalero (warden) who had taken a leisurely two months to complete the route.

As they took us through the village I thought I'd take a few slides before I started walking as it looked quite pretty, but the following morning it started to rain as soon as I set foot outside the door. So, that day's walk to Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side, which was 27.1 kms in distance and involved climbing up to a height of 1400 metres, took place entirely in a downpour.  The following day from Roncesvalles to Larrasoana wasn't much better. It did clear up late afternoon and we had relatively little rain for the rest of the time I was on the Camino.

I quickly settled into a routine; I would look in the guide book and decide where I was headed the next-day. I would awake early whilst it was still dark (Spain is an hour ahead of us) If there was a cafe open at that hour I would breakfast on coffee and croissant and be on my way. Lunch was usually a boccadillo, a Spanish sandwich, quite filling as it is about the size of a baguette. Alternatively, if it was available I'd lunch on Spanish tortilla (potato omelette)

On arrival at my-next stopping point I'd have a shower, do some washing, eat a bit of chocolate and some fruit and have a siesta. Later, at night, I would go out for a three-course meal. Most restaurants offered a `Pilgrims Menu' a three-course meal plus bread and wine or mineral water at a price which varied between 8 to 10 Euros. As all the refuges operated a lights out policy at 10 o'clock I was soon in bed-ready for the next day's jaunt.

I refer to the night stops as refugios (refuges) but they all seem to have been renamed and are now labelled as albergues (youth hostels). Originally, all accommodation was in convents, monasteries and churches but in 1986 the European Union adopted the route as part of European culture and this resulted-in many local authorities building municipal albergues with both charging prices about 4 Euros per night and some relying on 'donativos' (donations) only. A more recent development is an increase in private albergues offering a more likely chance of the shower being hot, Internet access and both evening meals and breakfast at extra cost. Some even have swimming pools! This added luxury would cost about 8 Euros per night with about the same price for the evening meal and about 3 Euros for breakfast. I always dined out but all the albergues had kitchen facilities and many people used them instead.

There were people who used neither, I saw one French group who had a motor home as a backup vehicle and they met up with it during the course of the day and slept in it at night.

The Camino is very much an international thing and you're likely to meet people from all over the world. On this occasion there were quite a few peregrinos (pilgrims) from Korea as well as the usual percentage from the continental countries. What did surprise me was the very high numbers from Germany.  One night I was at Boadilla del Camino staying at the municipal albergue but having my evening meal at a private albergue where I was completely surrounded by Germans, some of who were busily scribbling away. One said to me: "Aren't you keeping a diary?" I just tapped my head as if to say anything interesting happens to me I can memorise it. However, I was puzzled as to why so many were keeping records. Over the weeks it trickled out someone in Germany had written a best selling book about the Camino and this was the reason for it.

The author was a Belgian, Hape Kerkeling, working in German Television as a humorist. He had begun to suffer health problems (deafness) caused by stress (as we Brits don't regard the Germans as having a sense of humour it's not surprising he was stressed out) Anyway, jokes apart, he took a sabbatical and walked 400 miles of the Camino. The book ‘I’m off for a bit then’ is the diary of his thoughts and what happened to him.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be published in this country, nor has it been translated into English.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada was the stop on day 9 and at the evening meal I was told morcilla was the local delicacy and without knowing what it was I bravely ordered it for the main course. On arrival it turned out to that old favourite black pudding, and very enjoyable it was!

It was now day 15 and I was now into an area of Spain known as la meseta made famous by Professor Higgins and his ' the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain'. Unfortunately, for myself it was more of a case of ' the pain in Spain falls mainly on the plain' I had reached a village called Carrion de los Condes, where I picked up a stomach bug. I set off the following day intending to walk 26.6 Kms to another village, Terradillos de los Templarios. I reached my objective but felt bad all day and was unable to eat my evening meal. There were other people in the same albergue who also had the same problem. I think we had all eaten in the same restaurant.

That night, between people with upset stomachs, pilgrims with blisters and various other leg problems, the dormitory was more like a hospital ward. The next morning I didn't feel any better (no breakfast either) and decided to trim my sails and to walk to a village called Sahagun, only 13.3 kms further on.

I eventually arrived there not feeling much better and paid a visit to the local medico. He examined me and gave me a prescription which I obtained from the local farmacia.

The next day I did another short stint and walked 17kms to El Burgo Ranero and visited yet another farmacia who sold me something which turned out to be similar to what the doctor had prescribed.

The following day I still felt weak but decided to up the distance and walk 36.6kms to Leon, quite a large city, and then take an extra day's rest and feed myself up. It worked and I set off for Hospital de Orbigo in good heart. Also, I was now on familiar ground as I had reached the area I had walked over previously. I might also add at this point there are a few villages along the route with hospital in their title as that is what they were in medieval times. Likewise, there are villages with del camino (of the camino) after the title, indicating they grew up along the route.

Day 24 saw me reach Villafranca del Bierzo with a big decision to make. There was a choice of either a mountain route of 29kms to Cebreiro which involved two very steep climbs or follow the less scenic road route of 27kms and one steep climb. I opted for the hard route and was quite glad I did as once I had reached the valley ridge it gave me some magnificent views. A steep descent followed and it was then a stretch of road walking on to the second climb which took me up to a height of 1300 metres.

I was now into Galicia and from here on were concrete way markers every 500metres indicating the distance to Santiago de Compostela.

Day 30 saw me at Monte Gozo, a reception area just outside of Santiago de Compostela and almost at my goal. Day 31 saw me do the short 4.5kms stint into Santiago to find some accommodation. The refuge I had used before was closed so I opted for a room in a nearby hospederia and then went off to collect my Compostela which is supplied after you show them your credential.

The following day I took a bus to El Ferrol and found a room for the night. The next day I caught a train on the narrow-gauge railway (FEVE) which runs along the north coast of Spain, after I had first of all purchased a tarjeta azul (blue card) which entitled me as an over-60 year old to a discount of 50% on the fare. I had wanted to do this train journey because it runs through some magnificent scenery. The coastline-is dotted with inlets with sandy beaches and little villages with tiny harbours. Inland, later on in the day, you eventually pass by the Picos de Europa.

I arrived in Santander after travelling all day and quickly found a room. Next day I travelled on to Bilbao and also found a room there for the night. Finally, on Sunday the 7th of October I made my way to Sandi; the seaport of Bilbao and booked a passage on the ' Pride of Bilbao' which sailed about 2pm and docked at Portsmouth about 6pm on the Monday. I caught the shuttle bus to Portsmouth Station, jumped on a train to London Waterloo.  From there I made my way to St. Pancras and a train which left at 9.30pm, arriving home in Wigston about midnight.

Finally, I must say that for whatever reason you do the Camino, whether it's religious; you enjoy walking or as many people do, see it as an inexpensive holiday, you are still spending money and providing an economic lifeline to what was an impoverished rural part of Spain. Many of the villages on the Camino were almost becoming ghost towns as people left but now are even growing in size as refuges, bars, restaurants and even hotels are being built to supply the endless supply of humanity trekking along its length."

David McMahon has in fact now become a Hospitalero. On his walk he stopped at various refugios (refuges); virtually all of which were staffed by volunteers who had previously made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and gave up their own time to staff them to let others do so. Accordingly he later volunteered to work for 2 weeks at Refugio Gaulcelmo, a refuge ran by the London-based charity, The Confraternity of St James in the village of Rabanal del Camino some 1149 metres high in the Montes de Leon.


As a novice he was originally paired with someone with previous experience but he became ill and had to cry off and he ended up with a fellow novice, Minda Berbeco, and she was flying in from the States. She was a thirty year old mature student from Boston, Massachusetts and was studying Biology. Fortunately he arrived at the refuge two days early and the outgoing hospitalera Maggie Gardner showed him the ropes before she left.

After overcoming early difficulties they settled down and made quite a good team dealing with the day to day problems of the refuge and the peregrinos (pilgrims) of whom they processed 396 during their time there. Officially, we had a capacity of 24 beds but there was also a small dormitory of 4 beds which was used for sick cases and people could also sleep on mattresses in the salon. The most they had in one single night was 28. There were 4 refuges in the village and they were the most popular as they only asked a donation whereas the others had fixed fees They apparently upset one of the opposition by taking over capacity as she spent a day at the entrance to the village telling pilgrims that David’s refuge was closed and that night they only had 3 takers.

On the day they had 28 they did turn some away and were accused of doing so to one pilgrim because he was German.

Breakfast was officially from 7am to 8am and pilgrims were told this on arrival but they rarely ever appeared before 7.30. As the idea was to get them out the door as early as possible so they could do the cleaning David eventually, when on breakfast duties , went into the dormitory and switched on the lights at 7am prompt, but it still made no difference!  They had a coffee percolator and the local bread hogaza was purchased daily from a travelling baker. It was a coarse, ready-sliced loaf and was quite filling. They kept it in the freezer and brought     it out the night before to defreeze for breakfast along with margarine and marmalade ready for the pilgrims when they eventually got up.

One female French pilgrim paid the penalty for getting up late as her walking poles were stolen. Many pilgrims carried palos (sticks) aping the medieval pilgrims who carried them a protection against bandits and dogs. In our refuge the poles are banned from the dormitory as there's no room for them and they are left in the reception. Hers had been stolen by an early riser who had already left.

Minda and David operated an early and late shift system. If you were on breakfast duty you went to bed early. Otherwise you stayed up to lock the outside door at 10.30pm, also you'd set the table ready for breakfast the next morning.

Many pilgrims wrote something in-the acknowledgment book and all the English speakers were very complimentary. Unfortunately, many pilgrims wrote in their native language and we had no idea what they said. They had only 9 English Pilgrims but there were many English-speaking; mainly Aussies, a lot of bi­lingual French-Canadians and a few South Africans and one New Zealander. Most were Continental Europeans with the French and Germans predominant.

South Korea has a strong Christian element and both last year and this year there were a good number.  This year it was noticeable they were nearly all female, whereas last year it was an even mix. Towards the end of David’s tour of duty, one of these Korean females thumbing through the acknowledgment book pointed out an entry made by one of her compatriots who had written a romantic book about the Camino, hence its popularity with the females. Refuges offer self catering facilities for pilgrims who want to prepare their own food and for whatever reason the Koreans very rarely, if ever ate out.

There were two restaurants in the village and in order not to upset either of them; the staff used them alternate evenings. The meal was the usual limited choice menu del dia available along the Camino and at a price of 10 Euros although David, as part of his contract didn't pay for it. It was the only thing that was free, apart from breakfast; the flight and bus fares to get there were out of their own pockets. Neither restaurant thought it necessary to change their menus as     most pilgrims were only there for one day and as such David and Minda had    the opportunity to work their way through everything on offer at both eating establishments.

Outside were two wash basins with a built in scrubbing board for pilgrims do their washing and then hang it to dry so by morning most people had dry clothes. It was however surprising how much stuff was left behind and in reception there was a lost property box and everybody was welcome to help themselves.

Unfortunately there was an outbreak of bed bugs along the trail and David & Minda had to go to great lengths to keep decontaminating both the premises and their visitors. Even people saying at nearby hotels chose to call into the refuge as they needed their card stamping. This compostela is a certificate which grants you access to a refuge and evidence of your journey.

One thing David did notice was the number of pilgrims who had met on the Camino and had paired up. Every day he booked in people who had started at different points and were also of different nationality. He still wonders what happened after they reached Santiago de Compostela. Did they keep in touch or just go their separate ways? He will never know.

Next to the refuge was a small Benedictine monastery and every evening at 7pm they held Vespers, this was a service of Gregorian chant lasting about thirty minutes and was very popular with many pilgrims who had read about it in their guide book. The refuge committee had an agreement with the monks to supply five speakers, one each of English, Spanish (naturally), French, German and Italian to read a piece of scripture in their native tongue during the service and it was David’s job to get certain pilgrims to volunteer. It wasn't that difficult; apart from there was a shortage of Italians but one day he couldn't find a Spanish-speaker.


Sunday, December 16, 2018