Indagare member Noelle Alejandra Salmi recently returned from trekking the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s famed pilgrimage. Here are her impressions from such an ambitious trip.
I just returned from an incredible journey, walking the last five days of the famed Camino de Santiago. Together with five girlfriends from Barcelona, where I live, we trekked with backpacks through forests, pastures and small villages in Spain’s rural Galicia province.
The best-known route for the Camino de Santiago begins in the French Pyrenees, traversing westward across northern Spain until reaching Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle James were said to have been brought from Jerusalem.
The Camino de Santiago has been drawing pilgrims since at least 900 AD. In fact, so many pilgrims traveled the Camino that it’s credited with bringing central European architecture and culture to Spain during the Middle Ages. Nowadays, as many people travel the Camino for personal reasons as for religious ones. Equipped with proper shoes, backpacks and walking sticks, modern pilgrims usually complete the whole trek from France in about a month. Those who don’t have a month to spare can walk or bike a portion of the Camino, but must travel at least 100km to receive an official pilgrimage certificate from the “Pilgrims’ Office” in Santiago. For that reason, five of us started our trek in Sarria, located 111km east of Santiago along the Camino trail.
Minutes after arriving in Sarria, a hilly town crossed by a tree-lined river, we found ourselves chatting with one animated pilgrim after another. I’ve seen that open hearted spirit in just a few places in my many travels, and I quickly realized this is one reason travelers return to the Camino again and again.
On our first night we stayed at Hotel Carris Alfonso IX, a modern hotel that felt upscale for our backpack-toting selves, but which was filled with other pilgrims. A short walk from the hotel led us over the river and up a steep pedestrian street lined by two and three-story old stone buildings. Many of the houses have been converted into quaint “albergas,” inns offering dormitory-style accommodations, with several bunked beds to a room, for just a few Euros a night.
We headed to the Monastery atop the hill to pick up our pilgrim passports. Each day, pilgrims should get at least two stamps – provided at chapels, inns, or even roadside cafés – in their passports as proof of their journey. From the Monastery we took in the sweeping view of the springtime, pastoral landscape we’d soon be crossing, then started downhill.
Back in the old town we found our friend Sidney, who’d started five days earlier and already had over 100km under her belt. She was seated at the outside table of a casual cantina, sipping a glass of local red wine, looking profoundly relaxed after her solo trek, and wearing flip-flops. (Little did I know how desperately I’d covet the moment I could take off my own, painful trail shoes at the end of each coming day…)
The next morning, we gulped coffees, donned our backpacks and set out on our trek. We passed several farms, at times sharing the road with cattle, admiring fields covered with yellow or purple flowers. Elsewhere we walked across rivers, over hillsides dotted with oak trees, and through dark, fern-filled forests.
The landscape was ever changing, as were the types of refreshments we found along the way. At one café we sat under trees, sipping strong coffee and sharing thick slabs of Galician bread topped with local cheese; at an unmanned fruit stand we grabbed baskets of cherries and left our coins in a can; one late afternoon we ate ribs grilled outdoors, accompanied by salad and cold beer.
Everywhere we went, we encountered travelers from incredibly varied places. We dined twice with Margot from Australia, who had been trekking on her own for a month. The jovial Cuban-American retirees from Miami were making their five days on the Camino as pleasant as possible, using a baggage service to transport their many suitcases from one hotel to the next. Charlotte from Texas, walking with her son all the way from France, recited poetry as we passed through a quiet forest.
On our fourth day, the six of us decided to walk solo. I was glad for this, because by this point my blistered feet were painfully sore. I now understood the unique shrines I’d seen so often along the Camino: a pair of abandoned hiking boots lain atop a stone wall, always decorated with pine cones, flowers or stones. It was a way to say, “Thank you for taking me so far on this journey. I never want to see you again.”
After trying every bandage possible, I’d realized I simply had to get into a walking rhythm, without stopping to chat or take pictures, and the throbbing would ebb. Day four was a long one, through a forest of majestic eucalyptus trees, along a dusty road facing the blazing sun, next to a chain link fence bedecked with thousands of twig crosses placed by pilgrims nearing Santiago.
On our last night we stayed in a beautiful country inn, just a 10km walk from Santiago. We drank local liqueur and thought about our journey. The next day we left the countryside, passing the industrial outskirts of Santiago before reaching the historic center and eventually the famed Cathedral of Santiago in time for the noon pilgrims’ mass. We shared hugs and congratulations with people we’d met along the way, and later shared champagne at an outdoor table.
We flew home to Barcelona that night, my feet aching. I woke up the next morning glad to not be putting on my trail shoes, but somehow sorry I didn’t have another day’s walk ahead of me.
How we got there:
Vueling and Iberia have several flights daily from Barcelona or Madrid destinations/161/departments to Santiago de Compostela. A taxi from the airport to Sarria costs €125. Bus service from Santiago’s main bus station to Sarria is also available every day around 6pm and costs about €15. (www.monbus.es)
Where we stayed
- Hotel Carris Alfonso IX (Rua del Peregrino, 29, Sarria; +34 982 530 005; sarriahotelalfonsoix.com) This hotel is spacious and modern with friendly service.
- Pousada de Portomarin (Av. Sarria, s/n., Portomarín; +34 982 545 200; www.pousadadeportomarin.com) This elegant old building boasts expansive river valley views.
- La Cabaña (C/ Doctor Pardo Ouro, Palas de Rei; +34 982 38 07 50; www.complejolacabana.com) These cozy wooden lodges are also known for their large restaurant where pilgrims gather.
- Casa Teodora (Calle del Lugo, 38, Arzua; +34 981 500 083; www.casateodora.com) This diminutive hotel has cute, tidy rooms.
- Pazo Xan Xordo (Xan Xordo n6, Lavacolla, Spain; +34 981 888 259; www.pazoxanxordo.com) This historic country estate has lovely grounds.