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Lessons learned on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

Ok, I've had lots of questions and requests for tips, so I thought I should put together a lessons learned entry. These will, of course, be based on my experience, so your mileage may vary.

Feet

  • Healthy and happy feet will make or break your experience. I met many walkers with feet issues - usually blisters or black/missing toenails. Some were not able to continue or had to take several days of doctor-prescribed rest due to their feet. The common causes appeared to be 1) shoes that were too small; and/or 2) shoes that were not broken in.

Here's what I did to avoid feet problems:

Footwear

  • good quality hiking shoes with a large toe box (lots of room wide and in front of my toes). I chose Keen lightweight hiking shoes.
  • good quality hiking sandals. I have Teva leather sandals, which doubled as alternate walking footwear
  • shoes 1.5 sizes larger than my normal footwear. I wore thick socks to start and then thinner later as my feet flattened and expanded. My feet are now starting to go back to normal.
  • Superfeet blueberry insoles. I tried another style and found they were not comfortable in my testing. I need insoles because I have flat feet and need a bit of support and because the insoles that come with shoes tend to be lower quality and often (so I was told) don't last through the whole trip.
  • double socks - I used Wright brand, which are built-in double socks, starting with thicker socks at the beginning and thinner later as my feet swelled
  • foot cream - I have dry feet, prone to cracking, so I used foot cream to keep them soft
  • blister bandaids - I used thick good-sticking bandaids to cover the small blister (caused because I didn't use the foot cream at the beginning). I used medical tape to cover any spots that felt "hot" or likely to develop blisters

Blister Preparation/Prevention

  • I tested and practiced with my shoe-sock combo and my pack for over 300 km before leaving, including 250 k in 17 consecutive days.
  • I stopped 1-2 times each walking day at a bar/cafe, where I took off my shoes and socks to 1) dry my feet & socks; 2) wiggle my toes; 3) check for hotspots; 4) massage my feet
  • At the end of the walking day, I always soaked my feet in cold water or ran the shower cold over my feet for 5 minutes. Where available, I used swimming pools, rivers, or foot pools for longer soaks.
  • Switching over to sandals from the hiking shoes at the end of the walking day, gives the feet a good rest, while still providing good foot support (as opposed to flip-flops or crocs)

Sleeping

  • I bought an ultra lightweight sleeping bag (450g), which was very pricey, but worth it to keep the weight down (about $400). I also used a silk liner, which was light weight and protected the sleeping bag from my sweat, etc.
  • I sprayed both with Permethryn insect repellent before leaving to deter bedbugs and other insects.
  • Every albergue where I stayed provided a pillow and a mattress. Only occasionally were there sheets. Often blankets were available. In a couple of places, when the mattress was uncomfortable, I used blankets under my sleeping bag to provide protection from the mattress springs.
  • I slept in the silk liner and was warm enough most nights with just my feet in the sleeping bag (where I also tucked my waist pouch with my passport/money/etc. while I slept). When it turned cold, I pulled the sleeping bag over me. It worked well, and I never needed anything else.

Clothes & other gear

  • However much other gear you take, keep the pack weight down as low as possible. I had an 18lb pack, not including water. During my practice walking, I often had the weight at over 20lbs, so the 18lbs didn't seem heavy.
  • For walking, I ended up wearing the same roll-up Columbia light-weight pants and shirt every day, washing and hanging to dry every day. It was just the most comfortable combination. The shirt was a mesh material that allowed the air to flow, but provided protection from sun and insects.
  • For evenings, I wore shorts and t-shirts. It was good to have two pairs of shorts and two shirts so I could wear one, while washing the other along with the walking clothes. One of the shorts/shirt sets was also for sleeping
  • I didn't take a bathing suit. There was only one actual swimming pool (that I found) and I wore a sports bra and shorts, which worked out fine.
  • My headlamp had a red light for using in the albergue so you don't wake up the other sleepers with the harsh white light. Much more courteous that way.
  • I stopped wearing my hat after Burgos because I found the bugs loved to hang out in the dark shade of my hat brim. Very annoying. I switched to a buff around my forehead, ears and neck for sun protection.
  • The safety pins and fold-back clips were very useful - I used the clips instead of clothes pegs and the pins for fixing things and for attaching stuff to my pack (e.g. socks that didn't quite dry)
  • I also used carabiners to attach stuff to my pack - e.g. my buff, emergency whistle (which I thankfully didn't need, but figured it should be handy in case I did), garbage bag, food bag, etc.

Other tips

  • I'm really happy I chose to stay in Orisson albergue the first night. It meant I only had to walk 8k the first day, which was a good start and the people I met that first night became good friends and I saw them again and again throughout the journey. It was great starting out with an immediate Camino "family".
  • It's really easy to lose stuff, especially when packing up and leaving in the dark. I lost a bra and the bottoms to my zip-off pants, the former by leaving it on the floor next to my pack and the latter by forgetting to take it off a clothes line.
  • Don't hesitate to talk to a pharmacist if you have any foot or other problems. Farmacias are able to prescribe antibiotics and other medication that you wouldn't be able to get in Canada without seeing a doctor. I found most were able to communicate in English, especially with hand gestures, such as pointing to the allergic reaction I was having to the insect bites
  • Walk only as far as you want to walk and take breaks whenever you need to. There are lots of options for staying and resting. If you give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete the distance, you won't have to rush and can enjoy yourself. I took 5.5 weeks for the 775 k, with 2 rest days and walking 20-25k per day. I had three days where I walked longer, with the longest day being 34k.
  • Walking a shorter distance allowed me to finish early in the afternoon, which has many advantages: 1) I was less tired and could walk around and enjoy the town, the fellow pilgrims and the beer; 2) I arrived early enough to generally have my pick of accommodation (often first to arrive and could pick a bottom bunk in a corner); 3) I finished walking before the hottest part of the day; 4) I was showered and my clothes washed & hanging before most other pilgrims arrived - so no wait for the shower or the washing (machine or sink) and the sunniest place for my clothes to dry quickly
  • If you need to, take advantage of the services available. You can have your backpack sent ahead by taxi or take a bus/taxi yourself if the distances are too long or the hills too steep. I didn't have to do this, but many of my fellow pilgrims did this one or more times. This is especially useful if you are traveling with people (e.g. parents) who have a lower fitness level - you can send them and/or their gear on ahead. Make sure you walk the full last 100k to qualify for the compostela.
  • Only carry as much food as you need for the day - it's too heavy to carry much, but nice to have a ready fruit or other snack in case the store or the bar aren't open or don't have healthy food
  • Take a small rock from home to lay at the cross
  • Meet new people and share the experience, but also take some time to walk alone
  • Make note of names and share email addresses or phone numbers - you'll wish you had them later
  • Try the fresh orange juice (zumo naranja naturel)
  • Collaborate with other pilgrims to make a communal meal in an albergue kitchen. Make extra so you can invite others to join!
  • Go to a pilgrim's mass and get a blessing. It is unexpectedly moving.
  • Don't expect the distance markers to make any sense until you get to Galicia
  • Don't go too far without seeing a yellow arrow. They are frequent enough that if you haven't seen one for a while, you may be on the wrong path.
  • Try to see the butafumeiro at the Cathedral in Santiago. The large incense burner is worth the effort to see. Check the cathedral's website to be sure, but it was schedule to be used at every Friday evening mass; although we heard it was at a few of the midday masses, as well.

Posted by Deb Godley 18:33 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Day 36, Santiago de Compostela


View Deb's Camino de Santiago de Compostela on Deb Godley's travel map.

As planned, and so Steve would have the full experience, we met up with Kim and Vittoria at 6:30, before sunrise. We used headlamps, although as usual, I held mine in my hand, having discovered that bugs are attracted to light - so, why would I want it close to my face? I generously shared my light with Steve.

It was nice to be able to start out with friends, but we were slower. K&V were soon ahead, but very nicely waited for us at the first bar in order to have breakfast together. We continued on, stopping every 5 km for a rest and drink while K&V pulled further ahead - we wouldn't see them again until later at mass.

At Monte del Gozo, we took a short detour through a construction area to see the large statue and the pilgrims pointed toward the first view of the cathedral in Santiago, still about 5km away. We found shoes that pilgrims had left behind, some new-looking; others with holes cut in the toe area to accommodate blisters or swollen big toes and loose toenails; and still others looking very well worn.

The construction, when completed will result in a revised camino pathway to pass close to these statues, which we think were moved further up the hill to improve the cathedral view, somewhat blocked by new housing.

It was hard not to speed up as we neared Santiago and my goal of the last 5 weeks, stopping to take pictures at the welcome sign. And then, finally, we arrived! After an emotional hug and sone required hurray! pics, I entered the cathedral through the holy door (spelled "holly door" on some signage :) and followed the pilgrim tradition of hugging the saint from behind (an action fully viewable by participants at mass) and praying for a moment at the tomb of Saint James (Santiago).

Afterwards, we went around the corner to receive my official compostela asserting that I had walked with an appropriate frame of mind and heart, and the confirmation of the distance walked, which is officially 775km from SJPP.

With the long line-ups at these pilgrim rituals, there was only time to quickly check into the hotel (the same one where Steve had stayed and which was storing our luggage) a quick change to non-Camino clothes (!) and find a seat in the cathedral for mass. Wirh the reported popularity of this service, we arrived just after 5 for the 7:30 mass, saving seats for Paul (yes, Paul from before Leon, who arrived 3 days ahead of me having walked up to 40 km per day), Kim & Vittoria. We probably could have arrived at 6, but we had really good seats and were happy to be able to sit with the group.

The mass began with a very personable nun teaching the congregation the sung responses. Even without understanding a word she said, we could see she would be a fun person to get to know and her singing voice was lovely, very melodic.

After communion, the purple-robed guys (not sure if that's their official name), began to manipulate the large incense burner, the botafumeiro) with the rope pulley system. It was an incredible spectacle, swinging from rafter to rafter. Fantastic! Apparently, this is the largest incence burner in the world that is swung in this way.

After mass, the five of us went to a bar that had been recommended to Kim. The bar was lovely, in a very nice garden, but served only popcorn for food. So, promising to return later, Kim was given a recommendation for a nearby restaurant. It turned out to be a Michelin-recommended restaurant and was an excellent choice for a celebratory meal after our great adventure.

Here are some pics of the food. It's not an error, that was delicious roast lamb. We ordered four different desserts (one of each on the menu) to share between us. Excellent meal, great company, dark beer, and Steve finally next to me - what more could I want?

We said goodbye to Paul after dinner - he will most certainly take his wife to dinner there once she arrives - and returned to the garden bar for a final drink.

What a fantastic, amazing day! And no setting the alarm tonight!

Selfie in the morning

Selfie in the morning

Pilgrims pointing to the Cathedral

Pilgrims pointing to the Cathedral

Large statue at Monte del Gozo

Large statue at Monte del Gozo

Shoes left at the foot of the statue

Shoes left at the foot of the statue

Entering the city

Entering the city

Arrival at last

Arrival at last

Selfie in front of the Cathedral

Selfie in front of the Cathedral

Holy Door arch carving

Holy Door arch carving

Cathedral altar

Cathedral altar

Guys pulling the ropes for the Botafumeiro

Guys pulling the ropes for the Botafumeiro

Botafumeiro swinging

Botafumeiro swinging

Roast lamb at the Michelin-recommended restaurant

Roast lamb at the Michelin-recommended restaurant

One of the five desserts

One of the five desserts

Posted by Deb Godley 18:11 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Day 35, O Pedrouzo


View Deb's Camino de Santiago de Compostela on Deb Godley's travel map.

Well, last night was my last albergue and it was a great way to finish. Kim, Vittoria and I left at 6:30 am as usual and walked the 12 or so km to A Salceda, arriving at 10:30 am. We had some food and drink together and then had a photo taken before they left to walk on and I stayed to wait for Steve's bus. They were walking to O Pedrouzo and our pension was in A Rua, 2 km earlier. As such, we didn't expect to see them again until Santiago.

I knew he'd arrived because he emailed me from each airport as well as from Santiago the night before. The bar advised that the bus would arrive at 11:30 and it was right on time, although confused me was watching for it in the wrong direction.

Steve & I started out and walked toward A Rua. The first pilgrim we met said he was really happy to see Steve because Steve was finally someone even whiter than him, not having had the sun exposure yet.

When we arrived in A Rua, we found no pension and discovered it was actually in O Pedrouzo. As soon as we settled, we immediately emailed K&V to arrange a meet. Excellent!

They'd had a great lunch, but the bar was no longer serving food, so we moved to another restaurant around the corner, and also happily away from the leaf blower we'd been shouting over.

Steve had grilled garlic prawns, sizzling as they arrived at the table and I had a great goat cheese salad. Our food was so good, we all agreed to come back to the same restaurant later, K&V for dinner and Steve & I for dessert at 8pm. Here's a pic of us at the restaurant.

The pension was nice - our own bathroom with towels - what a treat. All set to start before dawn tomorrow for the final day's walk into Santiago.

Last picture before we parted at Salceda

Last picture before we parted at Salceda

Very common corn storage

Very common corn storage

Church in O Pedrouzo

Church in O Pedrouzo

With Kim, Vittoria at the restaurant

With Kim, Vittoria at the restaurant

Posted by Deb Godley 18:07 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Day 34, Ribadiso


View Deb's Camino de Santiago de Compostela on Deb Godley's travel map.

Stopped for a quick ice cream sandwich with Kim & Victoria. Kim, Kara (Michigan) and Alejandro were dancing the Macarena as we walked. Apparently, there's a video. Ah, the young.

This is a great albergue!

We are sitting with our feet in the cold water and having our beers. Having already had a shower where I could control the temperature and the shower stayed on until I turned it off! This is a luxury. There's also soap and paper towels in the bathroom. Amazing.

It was a bit of a climb and there were plenty of complaints, especially since we determined that an albergue with "great views of the countryside" would mean climbing for sure.

Well worth the climb, though. The view is great and I could sit here with my feet in the fountain all afternoon...and I just might. Already on the second 1906 Black Coupage. Very dark, very nice...

Shell arrow way-marker

Shell arrow way-marker

Stone bridge

Stone bridge

Kiwis growing at the rest stop, ripe in December

Kiwis growing at the rest stop, ripe in December

Me and my 1906 black

Me and my 1906 black

Vittoria, Kim at the albergue foot fountain

Vittoria, Kim at the albergue foot fountain

Posted by Deb Godley 18:03 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Day 33: Palas de Rey


View Deb's Camino de Santiago de Compostela on Deb Godley's travel map.

I've just met Vittoria (Italy) and Kim (Netherlands et al) and we're sitting in a bar in Gonzar having breakfast. When you ask Kim where she's from, she asks "in which sense?" - she was born in Africa, has both Dutch and Australian passports and just moved from Brazil to Dublin.

Walking with Kim and Victoria. Kim works for Linked-in and Victoria is a lawyer. We've been chatting and exchanging recipes. Currently in line to order something to drink...

Kim & Victoria are planning on single rooms at a hostel, while I am staying in a 6-bed room in an albergue. I just had a great shower with a rain shower head (!)

I meeting them for lunch at 3. Here's a picture from the last rest stop.

At least two of my roommates here speak English, so that will be nice later.

More later. This looks like a nice little town.

I know, another church, but it was literally the only recommended see here. It's a big enough place to have a Museo or something, but only the church and some pilgrim shops to go with the farmacia and supermarcados. And lots of bars, of course.

I've been getting spoiled, I was going to complain that I can't charge my phone while lying on my bed, but this place even has soap and paper towels in the bathroom, a rare treat for an albergue, plus the afore mentioned rain shower head. Anyway, the bathroom is better than most, but I do like to lie in bed with the phone charging, rather than plug the phone in overnight by the door.

Had an enjoyable meal with Kim & Victoria, then we walked all over the central area, which didn't take long. We've agreed to meet at 6:30am for tomorrow's walk, and we may run into each other later.

I hadn't eaten since lunch at 3, so I ventured out looking for a snack and a nice place to sit outside. I found a small shop selling fabulous strawberries, so bought a bit of dark chocolate to eat with them. Yummy.

My fingers are red from the berries.

Kim, Vittoria, and I

Kim, Vittoria, and I

Our shadows

Our shadows

Church in Palaus del Rei

Church in Palaus del Rei

Inside the church

Inside the church

Red fingers

Red fingers

Posted by Deb Godley 17:54 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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