PC #61 – Things Unexpected

There were things I discovered on the Camino that came as a complete surprise to me –

For starters – Cuckoo birds.

I had no idea there were so many Cuckoo birds along the Camino.

When I first heard a Cuckoo bird, I couldn’t believe it. (I think it was when I was climbing up the Pyrenees, and it’s a wonder I heard anything above my thumping heart!)  But I thought you only heard Cuckoo birds in Bavaria, or Switzerland.

In fact, if someone were to ask me what sounds did I associate with the Camino, then I’d have to say Cuckoo birds, and cowbells. The sound of cowbells was everywhere too, which again surprised me.

And storks nesting in church belltowers. I’d seen that in Alsace, and in parts of Germany too – but it came as a surprise to see it in Spain.

What else was unexpected? The generosity of spirit.

I’d read that the Camino engendered this kind of thing, but I saw it regularly first hand, and was a recipient of “random acts of kindness,” and generosity, several times. People gave me things which I never asked for, but needed. People helped me when I needed help – and sometimes when I didn’t even realise I needed help.

The level of generosity was unexpected.

But perhaps the biggest thing that surprised me, that was unexpected, was the injury toll I witnessed daily. I didn’t expect to see so many people with bad injuries.

I’d researched the Camino thoroughly before I left – and so I knew about blisters and tendonitis etc… but I was astonished to see just how many people were suffering each day with physical problems. And early on in the walk, too.

It’s understandable, I guess. It’s a long way over rough terrain, and many pilgrims come unprepared – with footwear that hasn’t been properly worn in, or is ill-fitting. Or, their backpacks are too heavy, or they haven’t prepared their bodies for the ardor of the walk.

But it was unexpected, because it seemed like there was a conspiracy of silence. Pilgrims didn’t want to post on blogs or forums that they were doing it tough, because it might appear like they were pussies.

I was a pussy. I didn’t mind whining. I still whine.

Last thing that was unexpected – I didn’t expect everything to be so cheap.

Coming from Australia, which is a very expensive country, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that you could have a great three course meal for €10, including wine. You could get a coffee for €1, or sometimes less. A coffee in Australia is $4.50. That’s nearly €3.

An equivalent three course meal in Australia, in a pub say, with a carafe of wine would set you back $50, easy. That’s €34. So in other words, food in Spain was a third of the cost in my home country.

That was nicely unexpected.

What did you find on the Camino that was unexpected?


107 thoughts on “PC #61 – Things Unexpected

  1. Bill, is it selfish of me to look forward to the company of the sufferers on the Camino? I have to clarify that its not for reasons of service or comfort that I could offer. If there is ever something I can do for someone, I am more than happy to do it. Its what my whole life is about! Instead, I look forward to their company because , for a while it means I won’t be the one that stands out with my cane, the daily pain, all the times I have to stop for what looks like no apparent reason.I’m reconciled to being ill for the rest of my life, but I’ve never been comfortable with the attention it draws. For a little while, on the Camino where so many people are suffering, I can blend into the crowd, and after so long that really appeals to me.Is that selfish, self centered, or wrong?


      • Bill, it could never be the main reason, or the only reason- but its certainly a very real one.


    • Sister, I would suggest that whatever reason you have for walking the Camino, you will come home with a new one. If you approach it without expectation, then you don’t have to have a reason. You just go and leave God in charge of what you get.


      • I am completely happy to go to whatever God has to show me there. Whatever that is, He called me, so it must be wonderful, as His Blessings always are.But I agree with Jen in that I don’t have to walk 800 km to find God. I don’t have to go to Spain, or save the world, or walk the Camino to grow closer to Him. God is here with me the moment I open my eyes in the morning, here when I close them at night.He is here beside me when ( or if) I sleep, when I dream, and in my waking He is always here to walk beside me, my Father, my Most Holy Companion, all the days and moments of my life


        • But, you have made a decision to walk the Camino, not because that is what you must do to find God, but because you want to, and are allowing yourself to experience whatever he has in store with you along the Camino. So, go as an open canvas and let him paint you.


          • Exactly!!!!!!!! And one of the things that fascinates and excites me is going to places where others have found God, whether that’s what they call Him, or not.There is a residual energy of Presence there that to me is like standing in the middle of a spiritual lightning storm!


      • And its a remarkable energy , tuned to each of us, yet remaining unique and appropriate to all seeking souls.How can anyone not want to find that for themselves, or refresh and renew it once it becomes familiar to them?!


  2. The food surprised me ……. For some reason I was expecting great food. Everybody said it was great.
    Sure the vino tinto was beautiful, plentiful and very cheap.
    Coffee was a real treat.
    Delicious chocolate.
    The freshly squeezed orange juice kept me going many times.
    And I do remember a superb paella at a tiny little cafe in the middle of nowhere.
    But where were the vegetables? We passed beautiful crops growing but never seemed to score any at meal time.
    I remember one stop where I was able to get a bread roll with jamon (I think) and cheese and a lovely lady asked me if I would like tomato on it as well. I thought all my Christmases had arrived. The tomato turned out to be a sort of watery, reddish coloured liquid scraped over the bread.
    And the bread …. Oh my goodness ….. Stale white bread and more stale white bread.
    Now I feel bad for complaining because the food was extremely cheap by Australian standards and I was hardly malnourished. It just surprised me.


      • Yes Sister … As Bill said …you do pass shops selling fresh fruit and veggies. In fact I often made sure I had a banana and maybe a yoghurt to have with my first cafe con leche wherever that may be.
        I found that by the time I arrived wherever I was staying for the night I was totally knackered and was quite happy to accept the offer of the albergue meal that night. I think it is all a bit of luck really. Occasionally the albergue meals are great, often not. But you certainly don’t starve. And the bread, salads and pasta dishes are mostly very ordinary.

        Just remembered …. The first time I walked was cherry season and I have never eaten such beautiful fat red cherries before or since. And the gorgeous part was that many of the elderly villagers would send us down a track where the best tree was. I loved the old folk in the little villages…. Real treasures.


    • Ah Debbie,

      I should host a gastronomic tour of the Camino!

      I ate superbly.

      Often the albergue food was crap, granted, but I’d often eat outside in the town restaurants, which were just as cheap as the albergue meals. Most restaurants had 8-10 pilgrim meals, which were sensational. I had some fabulous meals on my walk – but I also had a few shockers too – really bad. You just need to follow your PGS (mine if finely tuned to good food!) and you’ll get great meals.



      • Can you settle a debate? Regardless of price,cause as you say, its cheap compared to home, which is better food, the Pilgrim’s meal, or the meal of the day?


        • hi sister –

          the pilgrim’s meal and the meal of the day are usually the same thing.

          The meals served in the albergues were usually ok, but not great. Some weren’t good at all, but not many.

          I often though had to go into a bar or restaurant after a day’s walk to blog, to get the free wifi, and so that usually put me in a place where I could have a good meal.

          There is free wifi in a lot of the albergues, but I usually liked to have a glass of wine, or a beer, at the end of the day while I was writing up the blog and downloading my photos.

          The advantage of an albergue meal though, putting aside the quality of the food, is in meeting people. It was always a great occasion to meet new people, or catch up with old friends.



      • My surprise was that I actually enjoyed walking and grew to be comfortable with my backpack. I had been so apprehensive that I just planned to survive and endure. I know that sounds horrible, but I was really there for my husband and not myself. When I get there this time I am feeling I will be showing up in a different way. However it did make almost all the things I experienced a surprise! And it was a great treat. I was surprised by the beauty, the people, the food, the spanish culture and the wonderful feeing of living simply and lightly day to day. And when I went home I was really surprised I had not lost weight!


      • I’m with you Bill,

        Not once did I think my meal was less than good. And more often than not, I thought it was downright fabulous. I also never had stale bread, in fact the bread was always wonderful, crisp on the outside and perfect on the inside. I had plenty of vegetables (but the were usually side ordered). The cheeses I ate were great also and the fresh fruit was too.

        Maybe because, I too ate in restaurants and small local establishments as well as bar/restuarants.

        My absolute favorite was the Pulpo, oh, and let me not forget the morcilla sausage I had in Burgos! And you can’t forget the pincho and tapas bars along the way.



  3. I agree with Bill, I ate well on the Camino. I opted when possible, for the Menu de Dia, which is the upgrade to the Menu de Peregrino. What surprised me was the constant French fries… WHY??

    Bread, I found to be always fresh, especially in the mornings, just after the bread tuck tuck van arrived and all the village women go and get their daily portions. Tomatoes are almost a religion in Spain, the best however come from the southwest of Spain. Whenever possible I ordered the mixed salad as my first course, that was such a treat especially with the locally grown fresh asperagus. And later on when vegis got sparse, I opted for Caldo Calego.

    What surprised me was the lack of grapes as a dessert or in the stores, they all go into wine making. But I loved the wild raspberries along the way, sweet and juicy and you could pick them by the handful. I loved the figs and many times got handed to me with a Buen Camino.

    I loved the fish, as long as it was somewhere with a rio, then I knew it was freshly caught. And of course in Galicia, I loved pulpo.

    Burgos and Leon are the capitals of Morcilla and if you are not squimish, try it. I grew up with bloodsausage as a child and loved those treats.

    When it came to cheese, I preferred the sheep cheese, the aged one, it keeps well without refrigeration. When it came to hamon, I preferred the cecina version, not from pig, but either cow, sheep or horse. YES, I ate cecina de cabalho, I am used to horsemeat from childhood on. Can’t eat it in Canada.. we don’t eat horses.

    I walked in fall, so the chestnuts were ripe and fallen off the trees, all over the ground, I picked my pockets full each day and we roasted in the albergue.

    I loved the yoghurt, it was thick and creamy, just like the flans, caramelly and wiggly and sweet.

    Oh and in October, the mushrooms… wow giants and all kinds and freshly picked each day and on the menue that evening.

    Cuckoooo cuckooooo , yes they were wonderful to hear, no storchs in the fall, the nest were empty by then. In Leon I saw Magpies… what a wonderful bird… that was a surprise to get so close to them. They are rather chatty.

    Surprised by the fire salamanders walking down from Ganso. Rather big black slugs with yellow dots.

    Surprised about the fragility of the eucalyptus trees, how tall they grow and how those barks just peel and the tree than dies. I know nothing special for Australians, but this Canadian had never before seen Eucalyptus growing.

    Oh were do I stop… you think I am in love with things Camino… yup and counting the months now before going back next year. Camino de mis sueños, cómo te extraño.


  4. MMMM…the incredible hot chocolate in the chocolaterias (oh, yeah, and the churros), the ensaladas mixtas, the jamon serrano & the fresh bread & cheese & tomatoes in the bocadillos, the octopus (pulpo) in Galicia, the stuffed piquillo peppers in Navarra. Sometimes the fruit in the stores was pretty green, but in the farmers’ markets it was beautiful. For energy food, and to avoid killing someone before the late dinner hour, I would buy Marcona almonds and dried fruit at a fruteria, good to have in the pack, along with chocolate from Astorga. Fresh mountain trout at the Casa de Beneficiados in Roncesvalles. Caldo gallego with bread in it like pieces of cloud. Yeah, take me back!!


    • Yes Eliza, thick hot chocolate so the spoon stand in it and fresh churros. Oh and the Pemientos de pardon… ah, you start eating those, you can’t stop. Oh and the garlic soup… now that was an adventure.. cause not everyone did a good job…lol


      • I’m having visions of fresh mountain trout with asparagus, and some, no- lots of the marvellous chocolate I keep hearing about. As a chocoholic, My mouth just waters every time someone mentions it.


      • Eliza Sister…One of my favourite meals on the Camino was trout in a restaurant in Samos. It was divine.
        And after a visit to a Dr I was taken out to a café and had my first “real” hot chocolate that was just as Eliza described.

        I almost live on chocolate when I travel. But only the real stuff…e.g. 60% plus coco. It gives me energy without to much added sugar, and protein (e.g. if it has nuts in it) and bonus I get my fruit to if it as a raisin in it as well. Its like a complete food 😉


  5. Sister, chocolate is something that you have with you always. It gives you immediate energy. You are going to love Astorga… Chocolate museum, factory and every shop carries their specialties. I ate the best chocolate con churros in Leon, and there is a great place in Santiago, but I never found the place. I was in Santiago in the later part of October, and they have the chestnut roasters at many street corners. You buy by euros, 1 euros is enough for a taste, but of course more euros, more chestnuts.

    In Pamplona in loved the pinxtos (tapas), different then in Santiago, but they too have wonderful morsels.

    I know everyone keeps talking abut vino tinto, I must confess I was not a fan. I started enjoying wine in Galicia, the white Rebeiro wine…


    • I forgot about the Tarta de Santiago, lovely almond tart… I have the recipe and I went through every kitchen store in Santiago to find the template for the sword. I got it. Tarta goes well with anything, but is of best with Tea… 😉


      • Abbey and Ingrid ,everything you describe sounds delectable. I also carry the chocolate thats good for living on, nuts and currants, but there has to be always room and time for the gorgeous stuff you can stand your spoon in, or the thick, soft bars that waft out their presence and promise as you walk along. I remember a bar like that from when I was a child- so moist, fresh, thick- it had softened further in my pocket on a sunny day, and I sat down in the grass, under the shade of a tree, and peeled back the foil wrapping that by then was thoroughly painted with the chocolate that was oozing between my fingers. It was sooo good. That was the beginning of my love affair with chocolate


    • The chocolate bars were so inexpensive. I scored huge ones with 72% cacao for less than 1€! In the U.S.A. A similar size costs $2.99 and up! I ALWAYS had a chocolate bar in my pack.


      • At those prices, I wonder how much it would cost to ship some home. Its hard to find truly wonderful chocolate here. I like to treat myself for my birthday, and lately I haven’t been able to find chocolate thats good enough for special treats.


  6. I don’t remember hearing any cook koos, But….my first memory of stepping onto the path and La Faba is the cows with bells.
    I was gobsmacked when 10 min into my walk a heard of “BIG” cows came round the corner (with huge horns) and bells. It was a real buzzy moment.

    But for me the unexpected was the roosters.. I remember walking through a village and hearing a rooster go “Cocka doodle Doo” just like they do in the fairy tale books. In NZ they don’t sound like that.
    But it stopped me dead in my tracks and I said out loud “That rooster just went doodle do!”
    And then I just cracked up laughing…..I was on my own…so anyone watching me would have gone that women is ..”cook koo” 🙂

    Sister…Lovely to see a photo of you. You look just like I imagined you to look.


        • Thank you! Could you, if its not prying, explain the meaning behind your screen name? I am only familiar with the gum tree in its association with the kukaburra -being Canadian, I am intimately familiar with snowflakes.


          • I did not know Kukaburra was Canadian. But I did know he sat in an old gum tree, and was the merry, merry king of the bush.


          • Thank you, Steve-and of course, you are correct. Like many Canadian spellings, ie: centre, colour, cheque ( sorry, stuck on the ‘c’s’) …..the Canadian Kukaburra has its own unique spelling. I applaud your cultural sensitivity.


          • Which spellings do the Aussies favour, Bill? I remember when I started to work in the US in the newspaper business, one of my early jobs was to call up regular advertisers for their weekly changes. I usually asked for brand names to be spelled, and one afternoon got into a mess trying to clarify if the letter should be ‘zed’ or not. The poor woman on the other end had never heard that before, and kept saying, ‘zee, zee’, which made me think she was Mexican, and agreeing with me- in the end, we agreed on another product to put on sale because even being neighbours geographically, we just couldn’t understand each other!


          • That’s very funny sister.

            Whenever I’m in the US I have to remember they pronounce Z(zed) zee.

            I have quite a neutral Aussie accent, but even so, Americans find it hard to understand me. It’s not because I mumble necessarily, i’s just because they’re not used to non-American speak, excel for Spanish, of course.



          • Hi Sister,

            Yes, I was born in London while my parents, both dentists from Australia, were over there working. I came back to Australia when I was 9 months old, but still have dual nationality.


          • Bill, I am sincerely sorry to hear that. I have a real phobia about dentists. I had those awful steel braces on my teeth when I was eleven, and neither my dentist at the time, or the orthodontist had a ‘light touch’. I’ve been scared about going to the dentist ever since.I’m sure its alright if you have a good one, but that’s not been my experience. I’ll be sure to say a prayer!


  7. Eleven sleeps and we are off for the Camino. I was hoping that I was going to be able to lose a few pounds with all the walking. After reading the above, I guess that’s not going to be a possibility. Looking forward to all of it. Question! Should we get the box lunch from Le Esprit De Chemin (sp) or some croissants, cheese and pastries before leaving SJPDP.I don’t think Spain uses all the chemicals, toxins and hormones that the USA does to mass produce food. Looking forward to actually getting the vitamins and taste of real food.
    Lynda and Dale


      • Lynda and Dale, I am not sure if this applies to anyone who has serious wheat issues, but the first 2 weeks I walked with a few pilgrims who had all kinds of allergies. Lots of the young ones too. They were rather innovative in what they ate. But I do remember one hungry adventurers soul who one day just took a chance and ate the bread… no reaction…she ate again.. still fine, this spread like wildfire amongst the pilgrims. I am not suggesting for anyone to do the same. But I believe, the food is as pure as food can be, locally grown, harvested and consumed. We all consumed a lot of calories, but the energy spend was greater.
        Myself, I lost a lot of weight the first few weeks… and I ate like a horse. Never worried about my consumption, I walked it off and more the next day.

        It leveled out by the time I reached Santiago.

        Now, of course I have gained it all back and some more… being unable to walk or exercise until 2 months ago, didn’t help. However, I swear our food here is so messed up, just by looking at it, you can gain a few pounds. 😉

        Enjoy the taste of good food. Buen Camino Ingrid


    • I am here, catching up. Went to dinner and a movie with my daughter tonight. She did not have her kids and that is a rare treat for both of us.


        • Two Guns with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. Trying to support Bill’s industry.


          • Movie coming up in December called “Lone Survivor” starring Wahlberg. It is about Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell who was the lone survivor of a fight with the Taliban in Afganistan where his three team mates were killed and sixteen other seals were killed same day coming to rescue when their helicopter was shot down. Spellbinding story and book. Looking forward to that one.


      • I saw R.I.P.D. this week. Don’t bother. It is awful! I will watch for Lone Survivor. I just recently returned to the big screen cinema. Harkins Theaters offer closed captioning now. It is such a treat! Bill, don’t forget to close caption your films if affordable. A sleuth of us who are deaf, or close to it, cannot enjoy a film unless captioned.


  8. One of my strongest food memories from my first trip to Spain, in 1974 at 18 years of age, was Truchas a la Navarra, beautiful mountain stream trout pan fried with jamon! Yum. Can’t wait to try it again in Navarra in about five weeks. Peter.


  9. BTW, I had some great meals along the way, but overall, I found the food lacking, but that was just me. Ensalada mixta was always great, but the entrees and deserts were marginal most of the time. Be ready for lots of fried potatoes, and french bread. The bread was fresh but very hard to tear and my jaws are still sore. Having said that, I committed to eating and drinking whatever the Camino provided and that is exactly what I did without any complaint whatsoever. Don’t be surprised if you do not lose any weight because you are eating tons of fried potatoes, french bread, fried food, ham sandwiches, having sugar in your coffee several times a day and half bottle of wine per night. That is not designed to trim your waist line. Thank goodness for all the walking or we would all have to roll home. And I did not even include the chocolate that I have been hearing so much about. Other than an occasional Kit Kat, I did not have any chocolate.


    • OK – I have finished revisions on Chapter 20, so I can jump back into this for a bit –

      Except, the Swannies have a bit match starting in a few mins, so I will jump into that soon!

      My best meal?

      Let me tell you this sad sad story. It was my last night on the Camino before getting to Santiago, and I wanted a really good steak. That’s all I wanted, a good steak.

      In fact, you know what – this is a lengthy story, and I have photos, so I will post it as a separate blog

      Coming up shortly –



    • Steve, my daughter, who lived in Spain for 8 years and who cycled the Camino, warned me before I left that the food was going to be lousy.

      I found the pilgrim meals depended in part on whether you were staying in a municipal albergue or a private one – the private albergues, which were often family run, normally went to a bit more effort with their meals – but overall, the meals were adequate, but not great.

      However, you could skip the albergue meals, which I often did, and find a little bar or restaurant in town, and they often had Pilgrim meals for the same price – around €10 for 3 courses, and they were often terrific.

      Of it you didn’t want a 3 course meal, which often I didn’t, I’d just select off the menu for a main meal of around the same price, (they’d throw in a carafe of wine for free), and I’ve have a great nosh up.



  10. Sister, I had the most interesting conversation with Tomas the Templar in Manjarin. I initially was going to stay there, but I moved on. He asked me why I was struggling on, if it was that important to me to reach Santiago, what was I looking for. I told him it was a spiritual journey, a quest of some sort ant that I felt very much at home on the Camino. He ask, so you are not here to get closer to God or find him? I explained it felt good to go to mass, it felt right and a peaceful way to end the day but it was not the reason for my walk. “Good he said – because unless you carry Him inside your heart already, you will not find him here”. He then asked me why I was wearing a TAU, and I told him the story of how I was given a Tau in Pamplona. “it is good, you were chosen, honour it”. I always felt that the Camino chose me, not the other way around. Tomas, is a very wise man.

    Light and Love Sister, Ingrid


    • Tomas the “Templar” in Manjarin has always been a bit crazy, but he keeps an “interesting” albergue, and though I’ve never slept there (and probably wouldn’t), I could never just walk on by without popping in for at least a chat with whomever I might find there.

      I met another pilgrim in IIRC ’94 who had interrupted his pilgrimage for a VERY lerngthy stay there, and who had either just left, or was just preparing to, and finally ending his pilgrimage.

      I love the liminal quality that exists there, both geographically and psychologically (I’d hesitate to say “spiritually”), in that place where one side of the mountain becomes the other, and where the pilgrim can suddenly become the hospitalero.

      Sus Eia indeed !!!

      I’ve heard the help and assistance that he provides to the winter pilgrims, in the midst of snow and fog, is unsurpassable.


      • He is becoming more peculiar as the years pass, but you are correct, what would the pilgrims do in winter or fog. I have been following a pilgrim for a few weeks now on FB, and he tells me that his group arrived late a few days ago, and refused the return of their pilgrims passports because it was too late to go on. They had to stay and were allowed to leave after breakfast… lol He tells me, this one night is worth a movie script and the most interesting and memorable experience of his Camino so far. Vintage Tomas!


  11. “Expect the unexpected.” Isn’t that the expression? I am not sure what to expect so I cannot comment in the context of one who has experienced the Camino.
    However, thanks to the wonderful posts and detailed descriptions, I am now expecting delicious chocolate. If it is anything like Italian hot chocolate served in a large bowl, [ with no calories of course] I will be in chocolate heaven. Can you get this treat in most places?
    Any unusual sights from anyone?


    • Dear Anne, I had a really hard time getting my body to come to terms with basically getting no breakfast (I need at least oats to survive the start of the day – should probably have been a horse!)… that is until I discovered ‘ColaCao’ which is hot frothy milk infused with powered chocolate (and no doubt sugar!) – very addictive and it infused me with so much energy that I could go on for a few hours without needing real food!! I brought home a few satchels and just wish I’d filled my suitcase instead 🙂


    • hi Anne,

      as others have said, the chocolate place on the Camino is Astorga.

      If you are in the habit of eating muesli bars as I am, to give me an energy boost as I walk, then take them with you because the ones they sell in Spain aren’t that crash hot. They’re small and not very nutritious.

      The sweet thing I liked from Spain was the freshly made cakes they made – home made, and just delicious. With your coffee of a morning, a big slice of cake really got your energy up for the day’s walk ahead!



  12. Wow, “unexpected” ? Tough one for me, except for my conversion to Christianity which came completely out of nowhere, but I can’t really talk about that in this sort of thread ; tough because my first Camino was 20 years ago, and I’ve done three others since then …

    1993 … hmmmmmmmm …

    I can’t even say that anything in Spanish life really “surprised” me, because we’d lived in Menorca, Barcelona, and Cataluña back in the early 1970s, and I’d been back to Barcelona in ’92 or thereabouts for a wedding, with an epic very camino-like hitch-hike mad experience getting back out of there …

    hmmmmmmmmm … aim for three things …


    I think my biggest surprise was just HOW MUCH I loved it !!! If anyone had told me even 12 months earlier that I’d be getting pleasure from trudging across several hundred miles of often very barren countryside, sun beating down relentlessly on my flesh, far from the comforts of civilisation and home, sleeping rough, I’d have looked at them like they were out of their mind ; even WITH the experience that I already had from hitching.

    But the fact that I’d spent several weeks training, the fact that my feet were (almost too hard for blisters on Day One, my disproprtionately long legs, my ultra-light pack weight, and the whole carefree nature of it all just coalesced into a feeling of Joy.

    Unexpected number 1 — the Joy of the Camino


    The biggest shock, so therefore one of the biggest surprises, came from the absolutely rudimentary starkness of the “albergues“.

    grummmble grummmble — you kids get it so easy these days, back in my own time, you were lucky to get a free area of dirt to cast your sleeping bag down on and a tiny area of stone wall where to sit and eat your bread, sardines, tomatoes and cheap red wine straight from the bottle …

    The five, and then the four, and then the three of us slept in converted pig sties, on hard, empty classroom floors (there’s still some of this is France), in groves of trees on the Meseta, in lonely, empty, cold Xunta albergues built to shelter a hundred. In tiny overcrowded stuffy rooms with space for ten but sleeping thirty, often with just one malfunctioning cold shower to wash the sweat and grime off, and sometimes just the queue in front of the cold tap for your turn to clean yourself and your clothes as best may be …

    And if you think that sounds a bit too much like deliberately becoming a tramp in Spain for a few weeks ? Ultreia, it’s what the Camino was LIKE 20 years ago …

    Unexpected number 2 — the Spartan tramp-like Camino


    But perhaps the deepest surprise, the most unexpected, is what I have already written of, and I’ll quote again here ; our second arrival in Santiago after returning from the Atlantic Coast ; under the Seminary in a back-street, in darkness, no moon, drenching rain, total silence — and a mediaeval stair up between an ancient wall and darkened houses, exhausted, hungry, longing for home, making our way up centuries-old slippery cobbles towards the single light we could see burning in the city up in the Seminary, not knowing if the door would be open, not knowing if there would be a bed, but certain that we would not be eating until the following day, but at the same time marvelling in and humbled by this fact of arriving in Santiago in the EXACT manner of the pilgrims of centuries before.

    Burning in me, the knowledge that I hadn’t been a “true pilgrim”, and that I needed to walk to Santiago again, from home, “properly”, and with no compromises, no failures, no surrender to the weaknesses along the Way.

    But with this dark and shining memory always with me, this unplanned and unlooked-for and utterly beautiful mediaeval arrival, that no matter the difficulties along the Way, the perfect arrival in Compostela was simultaneously in my memory and in my future.

    Unexpected number 3 — Yet another Pilgrim Returns to Santiago


    • Hi Julian,

      A wonderful and rich response you’ve given us all once again, thank you.

      But you are a wicked influence on me, because after our last little interchange of messages, I am giving a lot of serious thought to doing the Camino properly, as you say, by walking from my home in Mudgee to Santiago.

      Perhaps not the next one, but possibly the one after.

      That would be a journey of some 2500 kms, I estimate – but that to me would be a proper and true pilgrimage.



      • I think about 2100 — Paris-SJPP is a fairly straightforward and not so difficult ~900 ; SJPP-Santiago another ~900 ; Mudgee-Sydney you say 300 ?


      • Le Puy ???

        Why, that’d be a HUGE detour !!! I’d really not advise it.

        The Paris-Chartres route leads to Tours > Poitiers > Saintes > Bordeaux > SJPP

        From Tours to SJPP it should have a few albergues and whatnot, and it’d be a damn sight easier on your knee !!!

        Even going via Vézelay would be a massive detour !!!


      • Julian, I love reading about your Camino experience so many years ago. It reminds me of the stories Stuart the Scott told me, while helping me finish my Camino last year. Stuart is now 82. He has walked the Camino many many times, and talked about the hardships of being a pilgrim. He also mentioned that todays CF route is a bit different then 20 years ago, including the height of Monte a Gozo apparently, he said they leveled it down a bit to make room for the gigantic albergue to accommodate all those pilgrims for the last Holy Year? He recalled that on his first Camino, he got a letter of introduction from his parish priest, explaining that he was a true pilgrim and deserving the Compostela, just in case they didn’t think so in Santiago. Apparently you got a lot of questions to verify that you were a ‘true’ pilgrim before issuing the Compostela.

        Julian, thanks for sharing. Ingrid


      • The traditional pilgrim route from Paris is :

        Paris > Orléans or Chartres > Tours > Poitiers > Saintes > Bordeaux > (a few variants) > SJPP > Camino Francès

        This is the Via Turonensis

        http://www.pelerins-compostelle.net/ (map missing the Chartres variant that I’d recommend)

        There’s info about pilgrim hostels here :





      • Ingrid, probably the most incisive questioning I’ve ever had was from a 80/90-yr. old (wonderful) priest in 2005, who unbeknownst to me at the time had done the pilgrimage in the 1950s, and thought that every “modern” pilgrim was a pampered luxury-seeking tourist (including, as he seemingly thought, me).

        Only after I expressed my delight at being able to sleep on the garage floor (instead of outdoors) did he start to relax, and he even invited me for breakfast in the presbytery in the morning, decorated extensively with Camino and Saint-James memorabilia, and he did have the grace to look a bit sheepish as we compared notes of his old pilgrimage and my own solitary one from Paris in ’94 …


  13. Bill, talking about books, I devoured Nellie’s (Only in Spain) after I bought it a short while ago. Astonishingly mature writing from such a young person. I loved it, and can highly recommend it to any of you reading this and will be interested to know if she will be publishing anything else any time soon 🙂 When I was reading of some of her adventures, I was wondering how much you and Jennifer were told at the time they were happening? Scary to be parents of outgoing, outspoken and adventuresome children, eh?! … and looking back I now sympathize with what my parents must have gone through when I first moved to Australia!!


    • Britta, that’s so WONDERFUL!

      She’s a clever writer, isn’t she. It’s a very readable book. And very funny at times too.

      So pleased you liked it – and thanks for recommending it to others!

      (And yes, when my wife and I were reading the manuscript as she was writing it – she would send us chapters for our feedback – it FREAKED ME OUT to read some of the things she’d been up to, unbeknownst to us!)

      The book is being released in the US for next summer. She’s got a good publisher, and has one of the top literary agents in the US, at Writers House.



  14. Bill, so many things surprised me, experiences, coincidences, feelings, how cold it was in October, etc. But one that stands out is that I did not think when I started, and I had been thinking about walking the Camino for 16 years, that I would feel both much joy upon arriving at Santiago but also some sadness for the reality that the experience had ended. My husband and I had two kids (16 and 7) waiting at home and although we wanted to see them soon a part of us would have loved to stay longer. We have returned twice after the first Camino in 2006 and it is always bittersweet when we arrive at the cathedral in Santiago.


    • Hi Maite –

      it’s fantastic that you felt such joy coming into Santiago.

      I didn’t feel anything, but as I’m writing my book now, I remember earlier in the day about 12kms out of Santiago, I called my wife and I just broke down on the phone and cried and cried, I felt such an overwhelming rush of emotion.

      But when I arrived in Santiago, I felt strangely flat.



  15. The unexpected was the beauty of the countryside. We especially enjoyed the Meseta. Also liked how inexpensive it was to eat and drink. We had some very cheap Camino happy hours! The amazing sense of community was more than we dreamed.


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