Saturday 10 June 2023

To be a Pilgrim: Recollections in Tranquility

 From the desk of mr mike: 

Postscript:  The Life of a Pilgrim on the Camino

My wife sent me instructions before I departed from Spain.  Don’t talk about it when you return, it will bore everyone.  Well, I feel I have to get it off my chest, just in case anyone wonders what its all about.

There are several Caminos criss-crossing southern Europe, all leading to Santiago (“St James”) the home of the remains of St James in the magnificent cathedral of Santiago. They were never intended as a holiday. They were always intended as a test of the Pilgrim; primarily a test of devotion, and to that end it is a physical and a mental test. And it certainly is a challenge
The physical part is obvious – not many can say that they have walked 30kms in a day, never mind done that every day for over a month carrying everything on their back over demanding terrain.
But the mental aspect is a challenge also, and initially unexpected.  Inevitably, there will be problems; injuries (blisters, sprains, ankles, knees, are all common), and its necessary to push on regardless. So, the first part of the mental challenge is to overcome these physical problems and press on.
But a deeper mental challenge emerges as the Camino progresses. From walking alone all day, in silence apart from bird song and the wind in the trees, with only your mind for company. It induces a form of meditation; self-examination of one’s life. I can only report my personal experience – it's quite profound. The experience gets stronger as the Camino progresses.  It is not necessary to be religious (I’m not) to experience these spiritual aspects.
Both the physical and mental challenges are compelling, which is why I have now completed five Caminoes.
Then there are the inevitable housekeeping aspects of every day life on the trail. Where to sleep; where to eat; how to avoid problems; how not to get lost – all in a foreign country.  On your own, its necessary to keep your wits about you at all times. A simple mistake can lead to a world of problems. Pre-planning and preparation is essential, but there will inevitably be unknown-unknowns to overcome.
As an example, as I learned only in the last couple of days:  a golfing friend of mine was doing the Camino Française at the same time as I was doing my Camino.  It is usual to leave your boots at the entrance of the albergue (more shortly). In the morning at first light he picked up what he thought were his boots.  It was only after 2 hours he realised his feet were hurting and he had the wrong boots. He cut out the toes of the boots, but ended up having to abandon his Camino. A one in a million unknown.
In Spain, the Camino is well regarded for historical and religious reasons, but also for the revenue that it brings to rural areas.  There is a network of “albergues” along the route that provide Pilgrim accommodation. There are municipal (i.e. council-run) albergues,  privately-run albergues, and “refugios” run by religious orders. Some are “donativo” (i.e. free, but you can donate if you wish) but most cost 10-15 euros per night. Generally, the accommodation is good quality: a bunk bed with disposable cover sheets and sometimes blankets (so its necessary to carry a sleeping bag); always hot showers (essential after a hard day – orgasmic almost); usually somewhere to wash clothes (washing machines or at least hand-washing facilities) and often a kitchen where you can prepare food.  Always Wi-Fi is available. 
View from my top bunkbed.
I also like, from time-to-time, to stay in a pension when they are available. You have your own room, and generally a bath (heaven).  The cost is higher 30-40 euros, but occasionally it is necessary so you can move at your own pace rather than the rhythm of others. 

In Comillas

Food is an absolutely essential part of a Camino.  First: because of the physical exercise you are using more than twice your normal daily energy consumption.  So, I aim to eat twice what I usually eat, but even so, I know I will lose weight.  This time I lost 6kg – it was a hard Camino.  I’m normally 70kg at just over 6 foot; so now I’m skin and bone. After 10 days my pants were falling down, but fortunately some farmer’s string fixed the problem.  But, second, it is normally a chance to meet fellow Pilgrims because there are usually only a few (if more than one) places to eat.
What and where you eat is a personal thing. Some like to buy food and prepare it themselves in the albergue.  My choice is to go to a bar or restaurant and have a menu de dia (sometimes known as a menu perigrinos – pilgrim menu). Even the smallest villages always seem to have a bar. The cost this time was higher than previously - in the range of 12-15 euros. Always it's a substantial three course meal usually with some limited choices. You can choose what to drink – most pilgrims go for wine, and more often than not a full bottle is provided, included in the price. Also a basket of bread.
A note on the wine:  it is usually local and less alcoholic than what you would normally drink.  So a bottle doesn’t have much effect other than cheering you up and easing any aches or pains.
I have my first menu de dia at about 3 p.m. at the end of the day’s walk after a hot shower; I then go back to the albergue, check my phone and do any washing, then have a siesta until about 7.30 p.m.; then I usually have a second menu de dia.  Lights out is usually 9 p.m. I try to read up about the next day before falling asleep.  Most Pilgrims depart at first light the following morning (6.30am).
I usually choose soup as a starter 
Waiter! There’s a crab in my fish soup! The soup was delicious. 

 This was in a restaurant in Pola de Allande. Note there was a very nice pre-starter of fish pate and little toasts. The soup was all for me; white beans, potatoes, cabbage in a ham broth; there are pieces of ham and black sausage on a side plate. For second course I usually have fish, but on one occasion the Spanish lady insisted on choosing for me.  I think she thought I was looking thin so she super-sized me (no extra cost). 


The food is unfailingly good and excellent value. But as I mentioned I did lose 6kgs over the course of this Camino.
This is typically the rhythm of the Camino, though every day is a new day and a new experience.
Finally, I would add that I find the Spanish people very friendly and helpful towards the Pilgrims. Even though I have only about 25 Spanish words in my vocabulary, it is always possible to be understood. One meets other Pilgrims of many nationalities, usually at eating time, and because we are all following the same route familiar faces emerge. As the Camino progresses a strong bond begins to form between the regulars.
Apologies, but I couldn’t resist showing the stars of the show
my feet back in Sydney. I had no blisters, but 3 black toenails on my right foot. This was probably because the descents were tough, but there was no discomfort.

My pilgrim credential with all its stamps from overnight stays. There are actually more stamps than stays (31) because in the last 100kms it is necessary to get 2 stamps each day.  


Anonymous said...

Not to diminish the zen of it all, but you could have called this post The Pilgrim's Plates.

Thank you a fascinating insight, mr mike. Bravo.


Bungalow Bill said...

Great to read, Mr Mike. A serious achievement of body and soul.

mrs ishmael said...

Thank you, mr mike, for taking the trouble to share your amazing pilgrimage with us. Much appreciated.

ultrapox said...

congratulations on your sensational sisyphean achievement, mr mike: it all makes the ridgeway look like a stroll in the local park.

where next?

Mike said...

Thank you all for the kind words.

As to what next, Mr ultrapox: its too soon to say, but this last jaunt took me to my limits, so it will have to be something a little easier.