After the Via Dinarica the plan was to hike across Spain via the Camino de Frances route of the famous pilgrimage to Santiago. There are numerous routes beginning across Europe, all ending in Santiago. We chose the Frances because it’s the most popular route and we figured we’d get the true Camino pilgrimage experience.
Well I only make it 160 km, about 5-1/2 days, before I decide this trail just isnt for me. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I knew it would be crowded and I’d pass through lots of towns. That was actually part of the appeal after the remoteness of the Via Dinarica. Somehow it just dorsnt feel right. Even from day one, the town of St Jean Pied De Port in France where the trail begins is crammed with shops selling Camino de Santiago paraphernalia—hats, scarves, walking sticks, etc. Only a few miles into the walk there’s a vending machine for the pilgrims (the term for anyone walking this path) with snacks and cold drinks. There’s even a food truck near the top of a pass so you can buy sandwiches and beverages. It’s ridiculous how much stuff there is marketed towards this trail. I didn’t expect it to be so commercialized.
All day long I’m constantly passing people because I’m naturally a fast walker. I feel like I spend the whole day weaving in and out of people, politely saying “Buen Camino” to let them know they’re too slow and in my way. (“Buen Camino” is a phrase to say to other pilgrims on the trail. It’s kind of a hello or goodbye or, in my case, a you’re walking too slow and in the middle of the path can you please move over?) I look ahead and see a constant stream of people, a line of ants shuffling slowly towards Santiago.
The accommodations are terrible. Unless you’re wealthy and can afford your own private room every night you’re stuck staying in the albergues, which are hostels for the pilgrims. Most are too hot and crammed with bunk beds and there’s always the fear of a bed bug infestation. I’m used to camping every night and being alone in the wilderness, not sweating in a creaky top bunk breathing in stagnant air while listening to horrendous snoring. Sounds lovely, huh?
I do have to admit that the scenery is beautiful and some of these little towns you pass through are so cool and filled with so much history, but it’s not enough to motivate me to keep doing this for three more weeks. I’m not doing this for any spiritual purpose and I’m just not seeing the point of putting myself through this.
I meet a girl from Brazil on my fourth night, she tells me about the Camino del Norte. It follows the northern coast of Spain before dipping south to reach Santiago. She has a friend who is currently on it and shows me pictures. It’s beautiful! Spectacular ocean views and supposedly it’s way less crowded than the Frances. She’s bailing from the Frances route and switching to the Norte in the morning. The following night while suffering from insomnia in a dirty bunk bed in Logroña, I decide I’m skipping to the Norte as well. I should also mention that at this point Express is already a couple days ahead of me because she’s just crazy fast, so switching routes doesn’t seem like a big deal since I’m hiking solo anyway.
I take a bus in the morning to the charming seaside town of San Sebastián and begin my Camino #2. It starts out wonderfully. The trail is quiet, it follows the coast, the vegetation is lush and green, a welcome change from the dry brown landscape of the Frances. The first night I stay at a donativo (meaning you just pay whatever you feel is appropriate) albergue and get my own private room! I meet a great group of fellow pilgrims there and we sit outside in the garden sharing bottles of wine and charcuterie and chatting until bedtime. This is what I’d envisioned the walk to be like! I feel happy and think I’ve made the right choice and this is the route that is finally going to click with me.
Well, unfortunately I never see any of the people I met that night because they’re all hiking about half the daily distance that I am. They’re all still new to this long distance walking thing, nursing blisters and random aches and pains. The route also becomes more and more of a road walk, which I loathe. There is nothing worse than the beating your feet and legs take from slogging along asphalt for 25 miles a day. Sure, the scenery is amazing and I can stop at a beach and sunbathe topless (it’s the norm in Spain!) but I’m still just walking on a road. I also find that I still can’t stand the albergue scene and I’m just not clicking with any fellow pilgrims. I guess my first night was a fluke, I haven’t met any new people that I’ve connected with. Since I walk farther than most people, I never see the same people at the end of the day. It becomes tedious making the same small talk night after night. I also have a weird feeling of being an imposter or something. I’m not sure how to describe it, but most people are walking this pilgrimage route for some sort of religious or spiritual or finding themselves sort of reason. I’m not. I’m honestly just walking for the sake of walking and it’s a really cheap way to be a tourist in Spain (and stay in shape). I have this strange lonely feeling that I just don’t fit in, I’m not part of this group, and it makes me uncomfortable and depressed.
I make it a bit farther on the Norte, about 240 km, a week or so, before calling it quits in Santander. I decide to completely switch gears and head to the Pyrenees to do some actual hiking. I still want to walk, just not on roads and through cities and suburbs and industrial zones. I take a 6 hour bus to Madrid and stay for 2 nights. The plan is to take a 5 hour train north from Madrid to a small town called Canfrac to begin hiking eastward along the GR-121 long distance trail that follows the Spanish side of Pyrenees mountain range.
I’m all set and so excited to be in the mountains again until I check the weather forecast the night before I’m scheduled to leave. Most of the week is forecasted to be a rain/snow mix with highs in the 40’s and lows reaching below freezing. Sounds horrible! Great, now what??? I still really want to hike and certainly can’t afford to stay in the city, so I begin googling trails near Madrid. A Camino de Madrid pops up. I’d never heard of this one. I begin reading about it, even though I swore off pilgrimages, and it actually sounds pretty cool. It begins in the center of Madrid and once you leave the city there are almost no roads to walk on, just footpaths and some ancient Roman roads. It goes through a national park and through pine forests and hardly anyone actually walks it. I read a few blogs from people who were on it last year and they said they saw maybe 5 or 6 other pilgrims the entire time. That’s crazy! It also passes through fewer towns than the other routes and aside from Madrid, the towns it does pass through are super small, so no urban sprawl or industrial wasteland. I have to go to Santiago anyway to pick up a package and I want to keep walking on some sort of trail, so I figure the third Camino’s a charm.
The only hitch in this plan is that the Camino Madrid only lasts for about 320 km until it joins the Camino Frances for the final 380 km to Santiago. So if I commit to actually completing the pilgrimage all the way to Santiago I’ll be stuck on the Camino de Frances super highway for the second half. I guess I’ll just decide when I get there.