Spain’s 500-Mile Walk

Sunflowers along the 500 mile pilgrimage walk route in Spain. David Rich photos.
Sunflowers along the 500-mile pilgrimage route in Spain. David Rich photos

The Walk: Camino Santiago Pilgrimage in Spain

By David Rich

Was I bonkers to walk 500 miles from France through Spain, along with the dozens of characters I’d met during an amazing month lugging an obscene pack along an ancient Roman road through medieval citadels crowned with castles and cathedrals? Everyone back home said only a numbskull would walk 500 miles at one go.

I stood at the Camino’s end, awed at the fantastical Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque Cathedral sprawling in the center of old Santiago, the reputed burial place of the Apostle James, realizing early blisters had been eclipsed by the marvelous fellow psychopaths I’d met along the way, at which a familiar bellow burst the reverie.

Hey, baby, yelled the Dude, roaring up like Viking warrior from a tapas-bar table next to the Cathedral. Yes you, Sexy Feet, he whooped, cigar in one hand and glass of rum in the other, howling at me from across the square. Where you been? How’s those sexy feet and where’s Twinkletoes?

The Pocket Princess

The Pocket Princess from Argentina, a striking two feet shorter than the Dude, stood waving madly at his side. At least I thought she was standing until I got closer. It was hard to tell with the Pocket Princess. Twinkletoes, TT for short, was my hiking buddy. I wouldn’t have walked 500 miles if he hadn’t asked. Anyway I wasn’t worried about TT. He’d show up eventually, the only guy on the Camino with a nickname for his nickname, dubbed Twinkletoes for disappearing without notice, and consequently, often lost. Those carefully watching for signs with seashells or yellow arrows didn’t get lost.

The Dude and the Princess, I shrilled, grabbing them around the neck. I thought I’d lost you in Leon? We celebrated with hugs and smooches as I added; Twinkletoes is lost, as usual.

Beginning of the walking journey.
Beginning of the journey.

But signs were scarce in towns and hard to see before sunrise when peregrinos began each morning’s walk.

The Princess punched me in the ribs, Let’s see those sexy feet.

I grabbed a chair, accepting a cigar and glass of rum from the Polish Dude, straight out of the Big Lebowski, propping my feet up on the table for the Princess’ goggling pleasure. Fivefingers were unheard of in Argentina and I’d seen none on the Camino, which gave me a nickname to shatter the ice with everyone I met.

You didn’t start out with those, pointed out the Dude, blowing smoke rings at a distant spire.

Twinkletoes couldn’t wear them because they screwed up his achilles so he bought trekking sandals in Viana. I tried the Fivefingers and they were perfect. A perfect magnet for cute persons of the opposite sex.

I’d ignored Camino footwear recommendations, how you need a size larger shoe after four or five days when blisters explode like airbags. Kurt, a Danish kid, sprouted so many blisters that his feet looked like rusty mops draped like bloody curtains. An 80-year old Swede on his fifth Camino had swabbed, clipped and nursed Kurt’s feet so he was back walking in two days.

Twinkletoes accused me of avoiding spirituality by incessantly kvetching about my blankety blank pack but I had two instant replies. Every time a bus rolled by next to the Camino I’d sing, de bus, de bus, here comes the bus, channeling Tattoo from Fantasy Island. The pack was a wave of hot lava, self inflicted pain like the first time I got married. The easy solution would have been de bus, always packed with pilgrims on a trial separation from the Camino.

Coffee Break
Coffee Break

I offered to help TT with his own spirituality and save weeks in the process. If he’d strap his right hand to a table I’d drop an anvil on it and he could achieve instant spirituality, saving us both a month of blisters and burning packs. Only the vision of an auto de fe kept me going, a dream of burning the loathsome pack in front of the Santiago Cathedral. The spiritual me would have preferred walking the Andes, Karakorums or Himalayas, with a porter.

Newbies from Europe and the US

The last few days were as bad as blisters, said the Dude, savagely flicking an ash. The newbies from Europe and the States clog the Camino, tour companies carrying their packs while they prance the last hundred kilometers to get the Certificate. He jumped up for an illustrative prance, rum in one hand and cigar in the other. And the newbies don’t have a [expletives deleted] clue about albergue etiquette.

Boy ain’t that the truth, I said.

Now, boys, chirruped the Pocket Princess. Everyone doesn’t have a month off work to walk 500 miles. Anyway, I didn’t mind the newbies as much as the bicycles sneaking up behind, scaring me out of my wits.The Dude flashed his incisors, Bell-less bikers are worse than vampires.

I snorted, I got into a shoving match with a newbie in Melide. It was a twelve bed room and except for a French couple everyone was up and ready to leave when I turned the lights on at six thirty. The French guy gave me a shove and turned them back off. Before the last 100 kilometers, 62 miles, we’d always turned the lights on at six thirty to make sure we weren’t leaving stuff behind in the dark.

Burgos, Spain.
Burgos, Spain

Boys, boys, the lost is found, said the Princess pointing madly. Here comes Twinkletoes.

I wasn’t lost, said TT. I heard someone say Melide. That means octopus and I found a great octopus place two blocks over, only six euros. Let’s go.
We adored octopus, specialty of Galician Spain, boiled tender slices drenched in olive oil, sprinkled with cayenne. We also loved the tapas in every little bar, snacks ranging from dried ham, lomo pork loin and anchovy sandwiches, quiche omelets, Italian coffees and chocolate croissants. Every albergue had wifi, half with meals and most with wine, beer and tapas.

Ignoring early blisters and too heavy packs we hadn’t roughed it a nanosecond.

Octopus for All

We crowded an outside table at The Pulperia, ordering octopus for all, rum and cigars for the Dude, red wine a dollar a glass for the Pocket Princess and Mahu beer for me, on draft for a Euro. Many pilgrims are champion drinkers because the price is right and we chose to believe the rumor that the more you drank the less you snored. Many albergues helped combat snoring with vending machines dispensing San Miguel beer for a euro.

TT tossed a small bag of earplugs on the table, I’m leaving these here because there are no albergues left to shield from harm. He’d started the Camino with a beanbag full, handing them out to everyone, preserving the peace when TT, also abbreviation for teetotaler, shook albergue rafters.

Octopus Lunch
Octopus lunch.The Dude’s smile wrapped his face; We had some great albergues, didn’t we? Like that medieval castle in Villatuerta where they gave us hot salt water to soak our feet.

I said, The dancing albergue hostess in Belorado, who made us dinner and wanted to dance all night long.

The funny folks running around in their underwear, said the Pocket Princess. Albergue bedrooms were coed unless ecclesiastical. She giggled, Not cute.
No one who looks good in underwear walks around in underwear, said TT, adding wearily, we had to do hand laundry every other day.

Tough life, I said. TT took shower in his clothes and called them laundered.

I rubbed on special soap, protested TT.

The author chose to hike in these 'shoes'
The author chose to hike in these ‘shoes’

The Dude asked, How was the line when you got your certificates? Our credentials were completely full and we got the Latin certificate. Albergues require the presentation of pilgrim credentials to stay the night, costing about $15 for hopefully a bottom bed in from three to ten bunk rooms.
I said, We got to the Pilgrim’s Office early with only three in line. Took only ten minutes to get the certificates and mail them home. But there were dozens in line when we left, all the way up the stairs.

The Certificate

Did you read the certificate, asked the Dude? The translation says “has devoutly visited this church on a pious cause.” I’m not so sure of the devout or pious part but I cried when I got to the Cathedral and some guy ran up, hugged me and said, “Thank you for doing the Camino.” He was a softy, the dewy eyed Dude.

I loved all the people, said the Pocket Princess, swaying in her chair. Like Craigo from Cleveland who ran five miles every morning and did a half hour of pushups before walking 20 miles, and he did it every single day.

Santiago Square
Santiago Square

How about Andrea from Austria, I said. We met her at that albergue where TT got locked out of the big upstairs bedroom and had to sleep on the downstairs table. Andrea started in Zurich and I saw her yesterday. She’d walked 1250 miles, 35 miles on her longest day, an incredible woman.
TT said, How about Roncesvalles where all six of us at the table found out we were from Arizona?

I’ll never forget the two Russians we met in Burgos, I said.

I was with you in Burgos, said the Dude, and I don’t remember any Russians.

Viana Friends
Viana Friends

Well, I paused, I don’t really remember the Russians but they’d had bedbugs the night before so they were barred from the next albergue. I itched all night long.Yeah, but you never got bedbugs, said the Pocket Princess, though I remember you searching pharmacies for bedbug spray.

The funniest thing was you two, she pointed fingers at TT and I, trying to ditch Hans-Jo.

I still have nightmares, I said, looking nervously around the square. He could show up any time. Oh, baby, said the Dude. I laughed my butt off. You two hiding in that bar for hours, waiting for the bus so you could ditch that poor ole Dutch engineer who’d attached his lonely self to you. You tiptoed from your hidey hole to catch the bus and up walks Hans-Jo. I thought Sexy Feet was going to cry.

More like have a seizure, I said. We finally ditched him in Burgos with the excuse that TT’s wife had bought him a fancy hotel room for his birthday so we couldn’t go to Hans-jo’s albergue. That evening we’re sitting at a restaurant on the square when someone spotted him and we slid under the table like wet noodles, just in time.

Pamplona Head
Pamplona head

I didn’t see any of you at the Pilgrim’s Mass, said TT. I sat in the back with the Danish lady who was friends with the French woman with the gray braid and waist belt that dragged her pack on a wheel, whatever you call it. I couldn’t believe 45 minutes of Latin before launching the big smoky thing on a rope. Oh, TT, said the Dude. It’s a botafumiera, a Thurible. You gotta get the lingo down.

 Obanos Bridge.
Obanos Bridge.

I was in the transept, I said. Over on the side so I could get photos of the big smoky thing overhead, the buncha fumes. I loved the guy taking the offering, said the Pocket Princess. He never let that big velvet sack out of his hands. Are pilgrims that dishonest, present company excluded?
TT said, The whole Camino’s a money-spinner, 500 miles of towns founded in the Middle Ages to serve pilgrims.

My favorite was Hospital de Orbigo, said the Dude, pounding the table. Drinks around. I counted 19 arches on that bridge, Puente del Passo Honroso.

The ancient jousting ground next door is still used and you can practically feel the great steeds thundering down the field during the long walk across that incredible bridge. My favorite was Astorga, I said.

The incredible Gaudi Church, Cathedral and fabulous town square with bacon and eggs for two bucks. How about Viana, said TT, where we had dinner with Kurt, the wounded Danish kid and the old Swedish guy, and every time a car came by we had to move the table to the edge of the cobblestones?

We only had to move the table twice, I pointed out. How about the ripe blackberries the whole way, or the sunflowers picked out in patterns and the vineyards stretching to the horizon?

A Toast

We have a toast, said the Dude, sloshing rum into every cup and thimble except TT’s water glass. We solemnly raised our drinks and repeated in unison, To the numbskulls.

For the potentially certifiable who might walk 500 miles in one go: 200,000 peregrinos walk at least 100 kilometers of the Camino every year, a doubling of numbers since the 2010 Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen movie, The Way. Many begin in Sarria, 113 kilometers (70 miles) from Santiago, an easy five day walk. For shredded feet and those toting too heavy packs every village offers free medical care. Those completing the 500 miles include Charlemagne in 813 B.C.E, St. Francis of Assisi, Dante, El Cid and Twinkletoes.

You could be next.

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