The Camino de Santiago more comfortably

By: Nancy Friedman
This item appears on page 30 of the November 2017 issue.

For my 75th birthday, in September 2015, my sons Ken (age 54) and John (48) and I walked 110 kilometers (68 miles) on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. My 83-year-old husband, Ray, wanted to accompany us, so we rented a car and he became our “Sherpa.” 

Ray, Nancy and John Friedman at Casa Garcia in Gonzar, Spain, on Day 3. Photo by Ken Friedman

The Sherpa’s mission each day was to find our hotel and buy cold beer, a bottle of red wine and ice for my martini. Even though the hotels were only about 10 miles apart and he had GPS in the car (my sons had GPS on their phones), it wasn’t always easy for him to find our hotel. While most were right on the Camino, some hotels were farther into town, and smaller roads were not well signed or on maps. 

We picked up the car at the airport in Santiago and drove to the town of Sarria. Walking to Santiago from Sarria is the shortest distance you can walk the Camino and still receive the certificate documenting your pilgrimage. 

We made our hotel reservations about two months in advance. Only one hotel canceled on us; we had to scramble to find another one.

Most hotels were also hostels and had only two or three private rooms with toilets (which we required). Some had parking and some did not; that could be tricky. Some hotels were better than others, but all served our purposes; I was usually exhausted and slept well. Most offered breakfast for an additional fee; often, we just had coffee and a cheese stick.

We had two identical guidebooks, one for my husband and one for us pilgrims. “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago,” by John Brierley (288 pages, $29.99), is well organized and easy to follow, with maps and contour maps plus lots of good advice. It’s really the only guide you need, and it’s lightweight!

We began our pilgrimage in the morning the day after arriving in Sarria. You can collect your “pilgrim’s passport” at a church as you leave town. The church not being open yet, we picked ours up somewhere between Sarria and Mercadoiro; we just asked others where we could do that.

There are numerous places along the Camino where you can have the passport stamped. Most of the time you have to ask where to get the stamp. To receive your documentation at the end of the journey, you must go to the Pilgrims’ Reception Office in Santiago with your stamped pilgrim’s passport.

We tried to walk about 10 miles a day on the following route: Sarria to Mercadoiro to Gonzar to Palas de Rei to Mélida to Arzúa to O Pedrouzo to Vilamaior to Santiago. 

Ken and John insisted that I needed a scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino. They purchased a very large one for me (most were made in China!) at a souvenir shop at the beginning of the walk. I carried it on my knapsack for only one day; it was heavy! 

It was a steep climb out of Sarria. I made the mistake of wearing my tennies and did not take my walking sticks. I thought I was in fairly good walking condition. Think again! My sons were sure I couldn’t make it to our hotel, but I did. From then on, I wore my hiking boots and carried my walking sticks.

(My walking sticks are Pacerpoles [pacerpole.com], made in England, and I ordered them on the Internet for about $100-$120. I LOVE them. They’re ergonomically correct for your hand position. I have a tumor that affects my balance, so I use them for any uneven surface. They will be my “canes” when the time comes.)

Even though it seemed like the Camino was all uphill, I found walking downhill so much more difficult.

The days ran together. The Camino is marked along the way with yellow arrows. Sometimes it was difficult to find the arrows, and directions could be confusing. Usually we just followed others who looked like they knew what they were doing. The Camino was never crowded, and there were pilgrims of all ages but no children. Everyone greeted us with “Buen Camino.”

We walked through lots of farmland (including many fields of gigantic sunflowers) and some forests, on narrow stone pathways and some dirt trails and along rivers. Most of the Camino where we walked was bordered with rock walls about 4 feet high.

Ken and John were taken with the cemeteries, the granaries, the ancient slate buildings and the peacefulness. 

Weather was moderate, never too hot, though there was one pouring rainstorm. 

Most taverns had restrooms, in varying conditions (always carry toilet paper!).

Water from the tap was okay to drink, but cold beer was better. Finding food was never a problem. There were many small taverns to stop at for a snack and a cold drink. Most often, our dinners were the “house specials” at the hotels (they were okay). 

I had brought from home a small, collapsible cooler that stayed with the car. It was leaky and needed ice every day, but it was very useful.

Once you arrive at the outskirts of Santiago, it’s a long, mostly uphill trek to the cathedral. 

Finding our apartment in Santiago, the Bolboreta Suites (www.bolboretasuites.com), about three blocks from the cathedral, was challenging but worth it. Our flat was truly an IKEA showroom, clean and white. We had two bedrooms (one very tiny), a sofa sleeper, one bathroom and a full kitchen.

The owner, Silvia, was there to meet us. She left us a big basket of goodies — coffee, croissants, juice, fruit, candy, etc. We were overwhelmingly happy.

It was no problem finding excellent food in Santiago. Steak and seafood, such as pulpo (octopus), seemed to be the favorites.

There are numerous tour companies that will supply you with varying degrees of service for a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, including making hotel reservations and transporting your luggage to each hotel. We even saw a group of pilgrims being picked up by a taxi. 

We were very happy with our method of renting our own car and having my husband for a driver. Each day, my sons loaded and unloaded the car for us. On the Camino, we carried in our small day packs only water, cups, a guidebook, sunscreen, plastic ponchos and, of course, TP.

I had been to Santiago previously; however, it was the movie “The Way,” with Martin Sheen, that inspired me this time. 

We were very lucky to arrive in Santiago on a Friday; the swinging of the Botafumeiro (censer) in the cathedral takes place on certain religious celebration days. Arrive early if you want a place to sit. The swinging was as spectacular and spiritual as it was in the movie.

My purpose for writing about my experience was to let others know that, while it does take some planning ahead, and while there were many things we found we did not know, a trip like the one we made is very doable. If you have questions, I can be reached at nancyxfriedman@gmail.com.

NANCY FRIEDMAN
Beaverton, OR