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Walking to Santiago de Compostela, Walking in Spain, Cheap travel to Spain
By: Jason Gurvitz (justin) 2012.01.06

"Eighty miles, on foot." Those four words hung in the air for a few moments as my girlfriend Adriana, two other friends Tom and Kiarash, and I watched the Spanish landscape fly past us. We rode the train from Madrid towards the region of Galicia, in Northern Spain. We were heading for the small town of Sarria, our starting point along the French path of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the enormous cathedral in the Spanish religious center of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino, which dates back to the middle ages and branches off into hundreds of different directions, stretches throughout Europe reaching as far North as Sweden, as far East as Krakow, Poland and as far South as Patra, Greece. Pilgrims came to Santiago from almost all the nations then known and from all walks of life including commoners, saints and kings.

We don't think of ourselves as religious, commoners, saints and we could hardly say we traveled as kings, but we trekked through rain, wind and cold just the same over five spectacular, tiring, difficult, and thrilling days. Each year more than twenty-five thousand pilgrims make their way to Santiago on foot, bicycle and horseback. For the year 2000, which is a Jubilee year for the Catholic Church, Santiago de Compostela is a European city of culture, a rotating title throughout the cities of Europe. This extra attention just meant a more crowded road. The paths were thronged by those seeking religious enlightenment, or as in our case, adventure. This, I guess, means we weren't really pilgrims in the traditional sense at all. But after so many miles walking with the spiritually inspired, even if we were more concerned with blisters than sins, we felt accepted into the community of pilgrims that develops on the trail. Since so many people take on the Camino each year, the road to Santiago is marked with the trademark pilgrim shell and yellow arrows leading into every nook and cranny along the route. It is so well organized that even a young child could find his way without much trouble.

Day One
We finally arrived in Sarria after ten long hours on the train. A cold and wet downpour dashed our hopes to step off into a charming city. Regardless, we immediately put all thoughts of catching the next bus out of our head and took our first steps towards the first town, Portomarin, a whopping twelve miles away (five days later, walking twelve miles felt like child's play). With our ponchos covering our bodies and our backpacks like a turtle's shell, we confidently arrived in the city eight hours later, completely worn out, and still faced with finding a place to shack-up for the night. With another eight hundred pilgrims in the shoebox-sized city, we were very lucky to find a lady sympathetic to our cause who allowed us to sleep in one of her extra rooms and even allow us to shower. That was much more than we had ever expected, but there's an air of openness on the pilgrimage road for those in need. And we needed that shower.

Day Two
We all woke up groaning the next morning. Previously unknown muscles were punishing us for torturing them the day before. One of the aspects of the pilgrimage is forgiveness for the pilgrim. I prayed for my muscles to forgive me. After a much-needed coffee and short whimper contemplating the day we had before us, we headed off towards, Palas do Rei, a route spotted with some of the most classic Spanish pueblos and greenest landscapes in all of the country. We happened on the longest trail of the sweetest wild raspberries we had ever seen, growing along the length of the trail for miles. This discovery slowed our walk considerably, and enjoyably. By that point, we had picked up our pace a bit as we began to get a better feel for the terrain and get more accustomed to the changing weather conditions. Five minutes downpour. Then cold. Twenty minutes of light drizzle. Hot. Very hot. Cold. Raining and hot. By the end of the day, we were just as tired as the day before, but surprisingly our muscles complained less and it actually felt like we were getting back in shape again.

Day Three
We were wrong. Our knees began to pop and ache, blisters welted up, and some of our toenails began to take on un-toenail like shapes. Not a good sign. However, that was not about to stop us. We wrapped up sore joints, popped and covered unwanted blisters, and, with the toenail situation, just did our best to prevent any other nails from suffering the same fate. Then we groaned to our feet, reluctantly hoisted our backpacks, which felt unexplainably heavier, and followed the other twenty or so pilgrims hobbling in front of us to Arzua, eighteen miles away. This was to be the longest day of all. Fortunately, a few things went our way to help us survive it (considering the situation we were in, we could safely say they were small miracles.) First, the rain did not hit as hard. Second, the hills folded away in an amazing horizon. Long winding paths canopied by endless lines of trees, made it look from afar as if those same trees were chasing each other alongside tunnels where only thin painterly rays of light could break through. There were still the raspberries lining the path, like an answer to the pilgrim's prayers. We cannot forget about the raspberries. Unfortunately, that was the good part. About half way to Arzua, Kiarash's knee gave out. He, like all stubborn travelers with a goal in mind, tried to continue for another couple of miles. As his knee finally collapsed, and our day looked as if it would never end, we convinced him to take a bus to Arzua. The three of us still resisted the temptations of a short ten-minute bus ride over the last six miles with Kiarash, and opted for the four-hour walk that remained instead. At that moment, a part of each of us wished we were hurt enough to pull out honorably. We trudged on, wondering if Kiarash's knee was a sign of some sort.

Day Four
It was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day at this point. But, knowing that we only had two days left, we followed the same morning rituals: coffee, groan, eat, groan, backpack. All ready. Kiarash was still in no capacity to walk, so we escorted him to the bus stop and again resisted the temptation to join him. We would be meeting him at Arca, a tiny town another ten miles away. Again, we found the yellow arrows and followed them like Dorothy and her brick road. We arrived with gnawing stomachs demanding a full meal, and quickly found out just how small Arca really was. Two restaurants. Both had run out of food. "Too many pilgrims," they said. "But you're a restaurant, and you know that hundreds of pilgrims come through here each day. You think you would be prepared...aaah, forget it." So we stocked up on whatever we could find at the local supermarket and took in the afternoon sun. With one of the shortest days of the whole trip, it was the first afternoon we could actually enjoy from a sitting position.

Day Five
We made it. Knowing we were on the verge of completing one of the most historic pilgrimages in the world, along with another couple thousand pilgrimages, helped those last ten miles feel like a walk in the park. Our first major stop after Arzua was Monte do Gozo, literally translated, Mountain of Relief, which looks over the spectacular city of Santiago de Compostela. Once we took in the city from afar, we cut through the small alleys to the central plaza, flanked on all sides by the main cathedral and its monolithic adornments. The night was quite clearly dedicated to the pilgrims. A renaissance-style play moved from one plaza to another, with thousands in the audience following them. As pilgrims, I guess it came natural for us follow them, to keep walking.

We received certificates the next day, but we didn't need them as proof of our journey. The blisters, sore joints, images of the the Spanish countryside filled with fellow pilgrims and the lingering taste of fresh raspberries were proof enough.

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