Tag Archives: Practical Information

Walking the Voie d’Arles and Camino Aragonés: An Interview with The Solitary Walker


[Mountain view]

Between Jaca and Santa Cilia on the San Juan de la Peña detour of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

But the Camino had not finished with me. It had gripped me. It had got under my skin. It called me again this year. It drew me back. Be warned, Camino lovers, it does not let you go.
– Robert, The Solitary Walker, introducing his pilgrimage from Arles.

Robert’s wonderful blog, The Solitary Walker, has thoughts on walking and philosophy, poetry and life. It also describes his three pilgrimages to Santiago. The second of these began in Arles, along one of the four major Camino de Santiago routes through France.

[Sarrance]

Sarrance, France. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

Three of the routes meet up just before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Voie d’Arles or Via Tolosana, the southernmost route, crosses the Somport Pass and continues through Spain as the Camino Aragonés before meeting up with the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina.

Robert walked the 870 or so kilometres from Arles to Puente la Reina in 46 days in 2008. He was recently kind enough to answer my questions about the route.

As usual I had no real strategy. My preparations were fast and minimal. I would see in the due course of time what might unfold, what the Camino might reveal…
– The Solitary Walker

Anna-Marie: How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés and the Le Puy route?

Robert: Well, first of all, both routes are absolutely lovely—very rural, sometimes quite remote—and I’d walk them again like a shot. They are different, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, despite various landscape features common to south-west France:

[Horses]

White horses of the Camargue. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

hills and gorges, woods and forests, flat and rolling farmland. Whereas the Le Puy route starts in the hills of the Auvergne, the Arles route begins on the flat, drained deltaland of the Camargue, a strangely haunting area of rice fields, black bulls, white horses and exotic wading birds. But it’s not long before you’re high up on the breezy plateau of the Causses, with its deep gorges and spectacular limestone outcrops.

On the whole, the Arles route is probably more difficult: it has steeper climbs, more extensive forests, fewer waymarks, a more rigorous descent from the Pyrenees. (To balance this, however, there are three days of flat and easy towpath walking along the Canal du Midi.)

[Camino Aragones]

The lunar landscapes of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

On the Spanish side, before the routes join at Puente la Reina, the difference in the two trails is quite marked. The Vía Aragonés takes you from the awe-inspiring, high-sided mountains of the Spanish border to the little-visited, lunar landscape of the Aragon valley west of Jaca: a lonely and remote, undeveloped, captivating region of low hills and terraces, deserted villages and friable, grey rock.

From reading your blog, it sounds like there was a lot of pilgrim accommodation. What was it like, in general?

In September I had no difficulty finding pilgrim accommodation and never booked ahead (of course you don’t reserve places in the Spanish albergues anyhow.) I can imagine, though, now the route is becoming a little more popular, a few places will be extending the range of their accommodation to cope with demand. Having said this, I met with only a scattering of pilgrims (and weekend walkers and mushroom gatherers!). Indeed, sometimes I even had a gîte or albergue to myself—or perhaps shared with just one or two others). The standard varied enormously, as usual, but I was pretty impressed—Lacommande, Boissezon, Borce and Santa Cilia come to mind—and a gîte in Lodève was more like a boutique hotel, complete with lifts and an hospitalier who was also a talented chef (not the norm, I might add.) At the other end of the scale, the basic gîte in Barran had flea-ridden bunk beds and a kitchen solely consisting of two rusty electric rings which took an age to heat up.

[Toulouse]

A monastery turned art museum in Toulouse. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

The Arles route goes through a more touristy part of France than the Le Puy route does. Were there more people who spoke English than on the Le Puy route?

I suppose this is true, though to be honest very few parts of the route are ‘touristy’. Of course there were lots of tourists in Montpellier and Toulouse (you pass through these superb cities on the Arles route—well worth spending an extra night in both) and in some historic towns such as Castres.

As for English being spoken, well, it just isn’t—except in some of the tourist offices. Luckily I’m reasonably fluent in French, and can get by in Spanish, so the language barrier isn’t a problem.

You mention being bitten by mosquitos at the beginning of your trip. Was that a problem throughout the route, or only at the outset?

No, only at the outset. The marshy, low-lying Camargue area in late summer teems with mosquitos. Go prepared with a good repellent. I didn’t have any other issues with biting insects for the rest of the trip.

[The Solitary Walker]

Robert and a GR balise (way mark), on a tricky part of the Voie d'Arles after Sarance.

You say you lost the route fairly frequently. Was it usually easy to find again?

Did I really say that? Come to think of it, I suppose it’s true—I often lose my way briefly, though rarely seriously. Quite frankly, if you have a guide book, you’re not going to get lost. Also there are plenty of signposts and red-and-white striped balises and reassuring conchas. I lost the path once in the vast forests of Bouconne, but manged to retrace my steps. Truth to tell, I’m lazy—sometimes I just trust to my instincts rather than bother to get the map (especially if it’s raining!)

Were there serious differences between walking in France and Spain on the Arles route/Camino Aragonés?

The main difference was the utter contrast of landscape, climate and culture between France and Spain—which became immediately apparent as soon as I stepped down that precipitous path from the Col du Somport. As far as difficulty goes, when you’ve crossed the Pyrenees (which isn’t that difficult, in fact) the rest is plain sailing.

What was the best part of the walk for you?

[Limestone pleateau]

The limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

Oh, so many wonderful places and people encountered, it’s hard to pick out the best. The high, airy limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. The wooded valley of the Aspe gradually rising up to the Col du Somport. The banks of the Aragon river. Meeting up again with young Spanish pilgrim friends in Puente la Reina. Sharing raw, freshly picked wild mushrooms anointed with olive oil with some friendly walkers from Lyon. So many great moments, so many rewarding experiences.

The worst?

Well, it would have to be that day and night in Barran, wouldn’t it? You can trace it on my blog if you want the whole, sordid tale! Total physical exhaustion, a thunderstorm, and a flea-ridden mattress. Need I say more?

If someone was having trouble deciding between the Arles route and the le Puy route, what would you tell them?

For someone new to walking Caminos I’d recommend the Le Puy route first—slightly easier, more frequented, more plentiful accommodation, better signposted. From the very start you’re in beautiful countryside—peaceful villages, country churches, gentle hills and valleys. After that you’ll want to return to do the Arles route as soon as you can—I promise you!

[Puente la Reina]

The famous bridge in Puente la Reina, where the Camino Aragonés meets up with the Camino Francés.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to people who are considering walking the route?

If you don’t know any French or Spanish, you’d be amazed how just a few words and phrases—along with a friendly smile and an inquiring expression—make all the difference. If you can learn more than this—perhaps go for a few French or Spanish lessons beforehand—I guarantee you won’t regret it, and you’ll have a far deeper and more meaningful Camino. Buen Camino, everyone!

* * *

You can read more about Robert’s journey along the Voie d’Arles (and see a lot more photos) on his blog. Scroll down to the bottom on each page and click “Newer Post” to navigate through the entire pilgrimage.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:29 am
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Walking with a Donkey: An Interview with Roland Garin


[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

I photographed a donkey in Santiago’s pilgrim office when I was there at the end of May. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Sarah De Martín (thanks, Sarah!), I discovered that the donkey was named Praline. She walked some 1,900 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago—from her home in France to Finisterre—with Roland Garin.

Roland was kind enough to answer my questions about walking with Praline. Thanks also to Aude Verbeke, a friend from my first Camino, for editing my translation from the French. (Ici est la version française.)

Anna-Marie: Was this your first time walking the Camino?

Roland: I walked previously on the Camino de Santiago from Lyon to Le Puy to train myself. The first time was with two donkeys. Praline was accompanied by her friend Amandin. The second time with Praline alone, and then we did the GR-70. It’s also called “The Stevenson” in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer, the author of the adventure novel Treasure Island.

Where did you begin your walk?

We left from Saint-Pierre-la-Palud, a village of 2,500. It’s 25 kilometres from Lyon, in a region that we call here “les monts du Lyonnais.” We took the following route: Saint Pierre to Le Puy to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela to Muxia to Fisterra. It was around 1,900 kilometres in 77 days of walking.

Why did you decide to walk with Praline?

Why with Praline? That’s a good question! Some people go alone, with a friend, with their wife…. Me, I like donkeys. (There are four at my house.) Praline is my walking partner and since we’ve been walking together we’ve made a good couple. Between us there is a complicity and an affection that only donkey owners can understand.

[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

What was the best part of walking with a donkey?

As I told you already, when there’s complicity between the man and the animal, it’s a true pleasure. Praline regulates the walk: it’s not the man who guides the donkey! The man walks in the footsteps of the donkey. I must confess that I’m lucky to have an exceptional animal. I talk to her all day and even if some people are skeptical about this, I know she listens and understands every word … to the right … to the left … straight ahead. Sometimes she follows the marks on the way before I have the time to tell her! I am very lucky.

The worst part?

There’s no worst part with a donkey! It’s a question of education … the donkey is a very intelligent animal. Some say that it’s one of the most intelligent species of animal in the world. Unlike a horse, you don’t train a donkey: you educate him.

All is complicity, sweetness and patience … you don’t impose your will on a donkey! Some say that the donkey is stubborn. That’s not true; he thinks … he analyzes the road, the danger, the sounds. When a donkey doesn’t want to advance, it’s up to the man to understand why. And when the man becomes as intelligent as the donkey, all goes well!

Where did Praline sleep?

At night I slept in a tent and Praline slept beside it. Donkeys sleep very little and they use the night to eat. Praline felt secure to know that I was next to her. Sometimes I slept in gîtes d’étapes … she was very unhappy and that caused problems because she didn’t stop braying all night. The other pilgrims didn’t always appreciate that!

Did she need special food while walking?

Above all, don’t supplement a donkey’s diet. The donkey is a rustic animal; he is happy with grass and hay. And fresh water … and, as a reward for working all day, a fruit or a crust of stale bread. If you really want to make him happy, a handful of crushed barley…. But he himself needs to carry it … so….

Did you have any difficulties walking through cities?

Walking in a city isn’t always easy. The man with a steering wheel in his hands thinks he’s master of the world, so he often becomes the worst of the boors and cretins. I’ve never had a problem going through big cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago). Praline is used to cars and they don’t bother her.

I was especially afraid of being stopped by the Guardia Civil, because some guides specified that donkeys and horses were forbidden to pass through cities. But I never had any problems. On the contrary, representatives of the police force made me feel very welcome. I even took some photos with them. The biggest difficulty was crossing certain metal bridges. Praline didn’t want to! So we had to avoid them … and all went well.

The most dangerous thing wasn’t the cities, it was when we had to walk along national roads with heavy traffic. The trucks were fast and made a lot of noise, so any animal could have been scared…. I had to stay close to Praline to give her confidence. The worst is when people honk their horns … but I can’t blame them: it comes from a good sentiment. They want to say hello to us.

How far did you walk each day?

That depended on the road, on the place: we walked better in the forests than in the cities. It also depended on the altitude of the stage. As I told you already, it’s not the master who commands; it’s the donkey who controls the speed on the path. It depends on whether the road is rugged or easy. We did some 20-kilometre stages, but also some stages of almost 40 kilometres. But our average walking was 25 kilometres per day.

Do you have a favourite story about Praline on the Camino?

[Praline]

Praline joins the pilgrim throngs outside the pilgrims' office in Santiago de Compostela.

There are hundreds of stories about Praline. In fact, she’s started to write her memoirs…. The book should be 600 pages! We work every day to write this work. Praline dictates her impressions to me and I transcribe them on the keyboard. It’s not fast, because she is very, very demanding and often the work from Monday goes in the garbage on Tuesday. But we have done the Camino together … so we also write together.

The most fantastic story is that not a single day went by in Spain without someone wanting to buy Praline from me. Someone even tried to steal her! Each time someone asked me “Se vende? se vende?” I answered no, obviously. But the people insisted, so I said: “Okay, 30,000 euros … 50,000 euros with the equipment.” The exorbitant price discouraged the buyers. But I confess I would have been very annoyed if someone had accepted, because I wouldn’t be separated from my Praline for all the gold in the world.

Where is Praline now? Does she live with you?

Praline is in her meadow, next to the house in the village of Saint-Pierre-la-Palud. She is with Cadine, Florentine and Kakao. She rests, waiting to go out on another journey … maybe at the end of the month of September we’ll go on a fifteen-day hike in the centre of France. Sometimes on Sundays, we go on walks through villages, and meet people who are interested in the Camino de Santiago. We speak of the association “Le Chemin Pour Tous” (The Camino for All) which takes some people with disabilities to Santiago every year.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Other things that I want to talk about…. I’m going to write about them mainly so that others may benefit from my experience on the Camino. I want to tell them about the beauty, the hazards, the fantastic events but also, because nothing should be concealed, about the hardships of the road.

It’s the road of stars … but you know, both roses and brambles have thorns.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:33 pm
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Some Random Camino Tips


[Pilgrim laundry]

Pilgrim laundry in Aldea del Cano on the Vía de la Plata

There are lots of helpful things to know before you walk the Camino de Santiago or any other pilgrimage route.

This list is a collection of bits of information I learned while walking or before walking, and thought others might find helpful.

It is, of course, far from comprehensive.

Dripping Laundry

I always wring out my laundry in my tiny sports towel after washing it. This works even after the towel is sopping wet. It helps prevent dripping water all over albergue floors when the washing facilities are inside, and makes my clothes dry faster.

Wet Boots

If your boots are wet on the inside, take out the liners after you stop walking and stuff the boots with newspaper. The newspaper soaks up the water, so the boots are generally dry by morning—or at least more so than they would otherwise be.

Breaking in Sandals

On the Vía de la Plata, I wore sandals when I wasn’t walking with my pack, and for wading through the occasional stream. I spent a lot of time breaking in my boots, but it never occurred to me to wear my sandals before the trip. I ended up spending the first few weeks with horrible sores where the sandals chafed my feet.

Next time, I’ll work at breaking my sandals to my feet (or probably more importantly, my feet to my sandals) at home.

Navigating Through Cities

I’ve spent a lot of time lost in cities—both entering and (more often) leaving. I don’t know if the way marking is actually worse, or if I’m just worse at seeing it.

In any case, I finally developed a relatively easy method of getting out of a city. I just go to the nearest tourist information office, get a map, and if the Camino isn’t on the map (sometimes it is), I ask the tourist information people to show me where the route is.

Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re passing through a city between 2 and 5 p.m., when everything—including the nearest tourist information office—tends to be closed.

Internet

Spanish libraries usually have free Internet. The potential downside of this compared with, say, Internet cafés, is that libraries tend to have limited opening hours—they close for siestas, and in small towns they may not be open on weekends. Also sometimes there are a lot of people waiting, so you don’t always get a lot of time.

Of course, small towns don’t usually have Internet cafés, so except in cities, if there’s Internet at all, the library is probably your only option.

If there’s no library, sometimes the town hall has free Internet.

Scrounging

If you leave an albergue later than most others, there’s often a lot of food free for the taking, left behind by pack weight-conscious pilgrims. (Thanks to Steffen and Thomas for this one.)

And More?

If you have your own Camino tip, please leave it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:02 am

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The Vía de la Plata and Camino Sanabrés Overview


[Arrow on stone]

Before Fuente de Cantos, on the Vía de la Plata.

I can’t believe I’ve been home for two weeks! “Real life” still doesn’t feel very real….

I’ve scattered impressions of and information about the route throughout my Vía de la Plata posts, but I thought it would be helpful to bring them together. This covers the Vía de la Plata from Sevilla to Granja de Moruela, and the Camino Sanabrés variant from Granja de Moruela to Santiago, which I walked from April to May, 2011.

My Stages

I spent 44 days walking, and took five rest days, plus a week in Santiago. Much to my surprise, I could have done the walk in fewer days, but it was nice to be able to take my time—some days, anyway.

The longest stages I had no choice but to do were the 29/30 kilometres on Day 3 from Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata, and the 33 kilometers from Casar de Cáceres to Cañaveral. It’s usually possible to break up that last section, though—I was limited because the albergue at the Embalse de Alcántara was closed due to a water shortage.

My few other 30 kilometre-plus stages could have been broken up into shorter stages. However, there are definitely longer gaps between accommodation than on the Camino Francés, and sometimes you have to choose between quite a short day’s walk and a very long one.

Day 1: Sevilla to Guillena (23 km)
Day 2: Guillena to Castilblanco de los Arroyos (18 km)
Day 3: Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata (30-ish km)
Day 4: Almadén de la Plata to El Real de la Jara (15 km)
Day 5: El Real de la Jara to Monesterio (22 km)
Day 6: Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos (22 km)
Day 7: Fuente de Cantos to Puebla de Sancho Pérez (21 km)
Day 8: Puebla de Sancho Pérez to La Almazara (17 km)
Day 9: La Almazara to Torremegía (34 km)
Day 10: Torremegía to Mérida (16-plus km)
Day 11: Mérida (0 km)
Day 12: Mérida to Aljucén (17 km)
Day 13: Aljucén to Alcuéscar (21 km)
Day 14: Alcuéscar to Aldea de Cano (16 km)
Day 15: Aldea de Cano to Cáceres (22 km)
Day 16: Cáceres to Casar de Cáceres (11 km)
Day 17: Casar de Cáceres to Cañaveral (33 km)
Day 18: Cañaveral to Galisteo (28-ish km)
Day 19: Galisteo to Oliva de Plasencia (26 km, including 6 off-route)
Day 20: Oliva de Plasencia to Aldeanueva del Camino (I think about 28 km, including 6 off-route)
Day 21: Aldeanueva del Camino to La Calzada de Béjar (22 km)
Day 22: La Calzada de Béjar to Fuenterroble de Salvatierra (20 km)
Day 23: Fuenterroble de Salvatierra to San Pedro de Rozados (28 km)
Day 24: San Pedro de Rozados to Salamanca (24 km)
Days 25 and 26: Salamanca (0 km)
Day 27: Salamanca to El Cubo del Vino (36 km)
Day 28: El Cubo del Vino to Zamora (32 km)
Day 29: Zamora to Montamarta (20 km)
Day 30: Montamarta to Granja de Moruela (23 km)
Day 31: Granja de Moruela to Tábara (25 km)
Day 32: Tábara to Santa Croya de Tera (22 km)
Day 33: Santa Croya de Tera to Ríonegro del Puente (28 km)
Day 34: Ríonegro del Puente to Asturianos (26 km)
Day 35: Asturianos to Requejo de Sanabria (27 km)
Day 36: Requejo de Sanabria to Lubián (18 km)
Day 37: Lubián to A Gudiña (24 km)
Day 38: A Gudiña to Campobecerros (19 km)
Day 39: Campobecerros to Laza (16 km)
Day 40: Laza to Alberguería (13 km)
Day 41: Alberguería to Xunqueira de Ambía (20 km)
Day 42: Xunqueira de Ambía to Ourense (22 km)
Days 43 and 44: Ourense (0 km)
Day 45: Ourense to Cea (22 km)
Day 46: Cea to Castro Dozón (technically 14 km)
Day 47: Castro Dozón to Silleda (28 km)
Day 48: Silleda to Outeiro (24 km)
Day 49: Outeiro to Santiago de Compostela! (16 km)

Pilgrims: Very Rough Statistics

[Pilgrim sculpture]

A very modern pilgrim sculpture outside the bar at Valverde de Valdelacasa.

Out of the walking pilgrims I met or heard of, the vast majority were Europeans—German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, Italian, English, Belgian, Irish, Swiss, Hungarian, in more or less numerical order (there were a lot of Germans, and I only met one each from the last four countries). If I included bicigrinos, the number of Spaniards would jump drastically. There were also Americans, Canadians and Australians (also in more or less numerical order), one Japanese man, and a large organized group of Koreans.

The youngest pilgrim I met was 24, and those of us under 50 were definitely in the minority. The vast majority of walkers were retired. (Again the statistics would change if I factored in bicigrinos, who tended to be younger.) I met the greatest number of young pilgrims in the last week. They all seemed to be doing 40-ish kilometre stages.

There were a lot of couples and some other people who’d come with walking partners—in a number of cases they’d met on the Camino Francés years before. But there were also a lot of solo walkers.

More pilgrims seemed interested in solitude than on other routes—even some of the couples had come to spend time alone together. For future reference, spring on the Vía de la Plata isn’t the best time/place for solitude, although if you don’t want to bump into a constant stream of pilgrims, leaving a little late can really help.

A number of people occasionally took taxis, trains and/or buses, either because of injuries, to get to off-route accommodation, because they were running behind schedule, or to skip stretches of the route that ran along the highway.

Pilgrim Numbers

Several hospitaleros and other people along the way told me there were more pilgrims on the Vía de la Plata than any other year—one specifically said there were a lot more even than last year, which was a Holy Year.

The Pilgrim Office statistics suggest there were actually more pilgrims on the route last year, but I wonder if a much larger number of pilgrims just did the last hundred kilometres or so.

The relatively vast numbers of pilgrims was a problem in terms of albergue beds. It came up as a potential difficulty for me quite near the beginning, and the bed squeeze lasted until somewhere on the Camino Sanabrés. Some people told me the problem was tied to the Semana Santa (Holy Week, when apparently a lot of Spaniards and some other Europeans go on holiday), but there were full albergues after that, too, so I don’t know about the cause and effect there.

I was expecting the competition for beds to become more intense after Ourense—after all, it’s the logical starting place to walk the last hundred or so kilometres. However, it actually seemed quieter after Ourense, possibly because there were variants, like the detour to Oseira.

Landscape

[Near Granja de Moruela]

Near Granja de Moruela on the Vía de la Plata.

There was some walking through ugly parts of cities and a few small industrial areas (though nothing as bad as Burgos and León on the Camino Francés). There were gorgeous walks through countryside and along huge reservoirs and in forests (the types of trees changed along the way). And there was everything in between: run-down villages and pretty villages; heavily cultivated land with tractors everywhere and pastureland with crumbling stone walls and the occasional herd of cows or flock of sheep.

I guess the landscape is repetitive, with similar scenery for days at a time, but I enjoyed it.

Of course, this being spring, there were flowers everywhere. I can see how, without them, the landscape would be a lot bleaker.

Towns

At the beginning, there were long stretches with no towns or villages. By the end, on the Camino Sanabrés, some of the villages ran into each other, and there was often (but not always) somewhere to stop for coffee every five kilometres or even less.

Terrain

During the first several days out of Sevilla, I met some other people who had the same English guidebook that I did. We were all surprised to find that there were some serious hills along the route, as our guidebook had led us to believe there were no serious climbs from Sevilla to Astorga.

So for the record: there are some serious climbs on the route. They’re not frequent—it’s nowhere near as difficult as, say, the Le Puy route. But the terrain is often undulating, and some of the climbs and descents are seriously steep. They’re not usually incredibly long, but they can be difficult.

The Camino Sanabrés goes through the mountains, so of course is more difficult, with longer, often steeper ascents and descents.

Way Marking

[Way marks]

Sometimes it's easy to get lost ... and sometimes it isn't. I saw these way marks sometime after Lubián.

This was generally at least okay, though it varied quite a bit. Sometimes there were yellow arrows and other signs everywhere. At other times there was little to go on.

Sometimes I really had to look around for the way marks, which might be down low on curbs or up high on houses.

I found that if there was no sign of an arrow, it was generally safe to keep going straight ahead. Also, in Extremadura, I followed the cubical way marks. These didn’t technically show the pilgrimage route, but the yellow ones generally coincided it. The line on top of these shows where the route goes (though it’s not directional like the arrows).

Considering my lack of a sense of direction, I actually didn’t get lost all that often. And when I was lost, or about to become so, there was often someone around to ask.

Weather

At the beginning and end of my trip the temperature was in the low 30s Celsius, which when walking in the sun felt incredibly hot. From what I heard, this was warmer (and, at least in Galicia, drier) than usual, although not completely out of the ordinary. Other days started out quite cold: in the mountains on the Camino Sanabrés there was sometimes frost in the mornings.

Rain-wise I was lucky. I had a few awful days with downpours, and several days after that with intermittent downpours or drizzle. But after that, the storms came in the late afternoon or evening after I’d finished walking—making for muddy paths, but at least I didn’t get drenched.

Apart from that, there were some seriously overcast days that were great for walking, and sunny spring-like days that were a bit warmer and prettier.

Although weather can be radically different from year to year, from what I’ve read, the spring still seems the best bet weather-wise, at least if you don’t like insane heat.

Local People

I got so much help from local people, who would point me in the direction of albergues, bars, grocery stores, or even the Vía de la Plata itself. Some even escorted me all or at least part of the way to my destination.

In some sections especially, lots of people in cars honked and/or waved when passing, and tons of people wished me “buenos días” or “buen viaje.”

I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my trip when I made a real effort to strike up conversations—with people walking to the next village or people working in stores or bars. I found admiring the area—which I always truly did—was a good icebreaker: “Es muy bonita aquí.” After that, even people who’d seemed abrupt or slightly surly tended to chat.

Which brings us to….

Language

Obviously, the more Spanish you speak, the easier it is to get by. And of course it’s harder to chat—with local people or Spanish pilgrims—without a reasonable command of the language. That said, I met people who spoke very little Spanish and managed to get by.

As far as foreign pilgrims go, English would tend to be the common language, but there aren’t tons of native English speakers. French is a helpful language to know, for speaking with the large numbers of French pilgrims. And while German-speakers tend to speak some English, there would often be large groups of them (and Dutch people, who seem to generally speak some German). So a grasp of German would be helpful to understand a lot of conversations.

Of course, there’s often someone around who’ll translate for you, and a lot of big conversations are a multilingual muddle.

Dogs

I’d read before I left that dogs could be a serious problem on this route. However, I suspect this information is out of date.

Of course, there’s always a chance of being bitten by a dog anywhere you go, but neither I nor anyone I met had any problems with dogs. The big dogs generally weren’t interested in people walking by. The little ones might get excited and bark, but they were usually behind a fence or on a leash.

For some reason I never understood, I got barked at constantly for two days after Ourense (by dogs behind fences), before barking levels returned to their usual low levels.

Crossing Streams

[Submerged stepping stones]

Mostly submerged stepping stones, between Cáparra and Aldeanueva.

There are a lot of streams to cross (and a number of paths that pretty well turn into streams).

I managed to make it across most on stepping stones (sometimes makeshift). Once a stone tipped and I got my foot half-wet, but generally they were manageable—particularly with a stick.

The only time I really had to wade was between Cáparra and Aldeanueva. There were two places with very high water—the stepping stones had been submerged by the first stream, and I couldn’t even see any stones for the second.

Cost

Food: This got gradually more expensive as I got closer to Santiago.

I often had yogurt or something bready for breakfast, a cheese and tomato sandwich that I made myself for lunch, and assorted fruit, chocolate, ice cream, orange juice, wine and cafes con leche throughout the day. For dinner I’d generally have more sandwiches or go out.

I could often buy breakfast and lunch at a grocery store for under €5, though closer to Santiago it was often a little more than that. It also helped if I could find someone to split a four-pack of yogurt with, when I wasn’t allowed to buy part of it (usually in small stores they don’t mind if you break it up). Drinks and snacks were usually a euro or two each.

A three-course set meal was generally €8 to €9 at the beginning, and €10 to €11 by the end. A “mixed plate” (usually fries with some combination of salad, meat and eggs) was around €5 or €6. Pre-made sandwiches were anywhere from €3 to €5.

Accommodation: Albergues were sometimes free or donativo. The rest generally ranged from €5 to €12. In Extremadura, there was a stretch with only albergues turísticos, which were usually €10 or €12, often with breakfast for €2. In Galicia, the Xunta de Galicia albergues (and they’re almost all Xunta de Galicia albergues) are €5 and quite nice.

I don’t have nearly as much experience with other forms of accommodation, but towards the beginning, at least, you could generally get a cheap double room for €25 to €30, and a single for €15 to €20. It seemed to get more expensive toward the end—€35 to €40 for a double and €20 or more for a single. Of course, there were often more expensive options (I plan to stay in a parador one day … when I’m rich).

Other: I really didn’t have a lot of other expenses. Sometimes I had to replenish supplies (shampoo, dental floss, blister pads). And then of course there are souvenirs in Santiago. People who took taxis/buses/trains of course had to pay for those.

Theft and Loss

Theft doesn’t seem to be a huge problem, but it does occur. In Castilblanco de los Arroyos, I met a couple who’d had their bikes stolen. In Zamora a woman had her camera and sunglasses stolen from her pack in the albergue. And in Santiago, a man at my albergue had all his valuables stolen while in the cathedral.

As far as losing things goes, I talked a lot at the beginning about worrying about leaving things behind. I gradually stopped being so neurotic (at least in that respect) and in the end, all I lost was a pen, a few safety pins, and a thing of lip balm that someone gave me. This was a serious improvement on my last Camino, when I lost or left behind such important items as a pair of socks, a small bottle of clothes washing detergent, a pair of clip-on sunglasses, and a sweater.

So….

I hope this covers everything. If not, please feel free to add comments or questions.

Oh, and I’ve been meaning to mention this: Wim, with whom I spent a wonderful day on the Vía de la Plata, was walking partly to raise money for Shelterbox, an organization that provides shelter for people who have lost their homes due to natural disasters or other catastrophes. For more information, you can visit his fundraising page. Wim also has posted his beautiful photos from the trip, which show the route from Salamanca.

Also, Hermione, an Englishwoman I met at the beginning of my walk, has almost finished her walk from the Canary Islands to her home in England. I’ve just been going through her blog, and it’s a wonderful read. I even pop up briefly a couple of times.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:28 am
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Have Stick, Will Travel


[Walking stick]

My second wooden walking stick—the one I just brought home from the Vía de la Plata.

I’m back in Canada, and not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’m busy sorting my photos, which I will soon add to my blog posts. In the meantime, I thought I’d cover a topic close to my heart: how to get a wooden walking stick home from Santiago.

I’m not going to enter the Great Stick Debate over whether to have a walking stick and what kind of stick(s) to get if you do have one. I’ll just say that I, for reasons that have more to do with the romance of the thing than with practical considerations (although it is very useful), like to carry a single wooden walking stick on my pilgrimages.

On my first Camino, I bought one in Le Puy-en-Velay before setting out. On my Via de la Plata trip, I looked for one in Sevilla but couldn’t find any. I ended up picking up a stick from a pile of wood by the side of the road on my third day of walking, and a week or so later a friend shaped it into a proper walking stick for me.

There’s something about a walking stick.

You—or at least I—can get more attached to it than to any other item of gear. My sticks were right there beside me over vast numbers of kilometres, and if I walked off without one, I always turned back within a few steps. I felt naked with a pack on my back and no stick in my hand.

A lot of pilgrims seem to leave their wooden walking sticks behind in Santiago, or hurl them into the sea at Finisterre. On both my Caminos, I thought about leaving my sticks behind. But each time I decided it was worth trying to bring them home.

And it worked. I brought both of my sticks safely to Canada on a total of four airlines.

I can’t speak for every airline, of course, but I’ll tell you how it worked in the case of my walking sticks so you have some idea what to expect if you try to get yours home.

My first stick was relatively easy to get home. I took it with me on the night bus to the Madrid Airport, where I had a flight—I think it was with British Airways. In the Madrid Airport they had a machine that could plastic wrap your backpack for you, and I was told that if I plastic wrapped my stick to my bag, the whole thing could be oversized luggage.

I did so, and didn’t see my stick again until we both arrived safely at Vancouver Airport.

My second stick was more of a problem, not because of anything inherent in the stick, but because I had three totally unrelated flights. I didn’t think there was much chance that my stick would be allowed on all of them, but decided to try anyway.

I left from the Santiago Airport on a Ryanair flight to London. Since I’d only paid for one piece of checked luggage, and Ryanair is known to be very sticky about its regulations, I didn’t have much hope for my stick. But I guess in Santiago they’re used to dealing with these things. I was allowed to check my stick for free.

Then, of course, I had to sit around in the oversized luggage area of Stansted Airport for ages after my backpack had appeared. The lost luggage guy didn’t hold out much hope of my stick turning up, but it did eventually appear.

My second flight was from London to Toronto with Air Transat, a Canadian charter company. I was told I could take my stick onto the plane, but it might be taken away from me and kept with the strollers. As it turned out, no one looked twice at me as I walked onto the plane with the stick, and I ended up stowing it in a very large overhead bin.

Then, of course, I had to check off “wood products” on the declaration form for entering Canada, which worried me. I was convinced my stick would be confiscated—maybe Spain had some terrible tree disease that my poor stick might be bringing into Canada.

But the customs guy actually asked fewer questions than usual, hardly looked at my stick, and let me back into the country within 30 seconds of first glancing at my passport.

My third and fourth flights were with Air Canada, to Vancouver, and then on to Kamloops. The check-in woman in Toronto told me I could pay $20 for extra luggage, and check my stick. Thinking of my first stick, I asked if I could attach my stick to my bag and check the whole thing as oversized luggage. She said that I could and gave me some very sticky airline tape.

Friends who met me at the Toronto Airport helped me firmly tape the stick to my pack. Relatively firmly, anyway. As I watched the whole thing disappear down the oversized luggage conveyor belt—stick first—I had serious misgivings about the whole thing. It wasn’t nearly as securely attached as my first stick had been, and this stick was a little bent and seemed likely to snag on something and crack.

My flight out of Toronto was an hour late, so I only made it to the plane that would take me to Kamloops 15 minutes before it took off. I was reasonably certain my pack with its hopefully-still-attached stick had missed the flight and I wouldn’t learn its fate until the next day.

But then the conveyor belt at the Kamloops Airport started up, and my pack was one of the first to appear. To my surprise, the tape held up and the stick was still attached.

My walking stick had one final journey in the trunk of my sister’s car before arriving home.

It’ll stay here for a while, now, in a corner of my bedroom, reminding me of my last trip and waiting for another adventure.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:17 pm
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Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide


Note: I updated this on June 22, 2011, after my own Vía de la Plata walk.

When I walked the Camino Francés, I got a list of albergues at the pilgrim office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It included basic information on the albergue facilities, and amenities in the town.

I had a guidebook as well, of course, but it was nice to have something to glance at quickly to figure out where I might stay that evening.

I couldn’t find anything like that on the Vía de la Plata, so I created one myself … and thought I would share it with you.

It’s based on information from Mundicamino, the Eroski Consumer site, the Camino Guide, and my own experiences. I also got some distances from the Godesalco Camino Planner. When two sites contradicted each other (and another didn’t weigh in), I put in a question mark, two numbers with a slash in between, or in the case of distance, a range.

It’s four pages, and includes the Vía de la Plata from Sevilla to Astorga, and the Camino Sanabrés from Graja de Moruela (soon after Zamora) to Santiago de Compostela.

Disclaimer

I’m sure this is nowhere near one hundred percent accurate, and it really shouldn’t be used without a guidebook—it doesn’t give any route instructions. Also, some of the albergueslisted may be closed—at least for part of the year.

I’d appreciate any updates you want to send me, but since I’m now back from the Vía de la Plata, it’s unlikely to stay completely up-to-date.

A Few Explanations

I suspect that often when there’s a question mark under “Heating,” the albergue in question has a very basic form of heating.

Under “Price,” “WB” means with breakfast and “HB” means half-board, (bed, breakfast and dinner).

“Hours” sometimes seems to represent the hours you can check in, and sometimes just the times when the albergue is open. I’m not sure of the difference myself.

“Reservations” means that reservations are accepted. It often means the accommodation isn’t solely for pilgrims.

Places with a restaurant or bar might not offer evening meals (since not all bars serve meals).

Stores may only have very sporadic opening hours—some are only available a few days a week—and bakeries may be located in grocery stores.

Internet isn’t widely available in albergues, but it’s often provided in libraries or other public buildings for very specific hours.

The Downloads (PDFs)

Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide – Letter size

Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide – A4 size


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:19 pm
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