In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk 🙂

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil? 


Madrid, España

I can’t believe we’ve been home from Spain for a month tomorrow, or that we’ve already almost finished our first week back to school!  Summer is gone. (Although both Andrew and I would like to point out our school calendars have completely missed actual summer, which doesn’t end, according to the seasons, until September 21st.) 

Catedral de Santiago Andrew and I with our “Compostellas”

This was one of those summers that makes you feel like you’ve lived up to your goal of living life to the fullest.  We spent a month and a half in Spain, mostly walking the Camino de Santiago, but we also, gloriously, spent a week in Madrid. 

Andrew with Don Quixote y Sancho Panza
La Plaza de España

I’ve encountered Madrid before, but never in ideal circumstances.  I know, how could it be that, while in the capital of Spain, across the ocean, in my most favorite country, that I’d failed to see Madrid for all it has to offer, from top-notch art museums, to beautiful green spaces, and efficient public transportation? Well, during my maiden journey to Madrid, I landed alone, for the first time in a Spanish speaking country, and met the rest of the group from the USA that would be studying abroad together in Granada, Spain.  It was a confusing meet and greet type-time, clouded by jet-lag, and punctuated by a visit to Madrid’s rowdiest discoteca with a group of over-ambitious sorority girls. I did not enjoy myself.

Puerta del Sol

The second time I tromped around Madrid it was after eight weeks spent in Germany with a love-sick boyfriend. I was ready for a real, hot shower, meals at home on a kitchen table, some good foundation, and no pressure. To be clear, Andrew led this Madrid expedition, and he exhausted every resource he had in the city, introducing me to a myriad of sweet, kind folks. Unfortunately, Madrid in August is a furnace, and sleep is out of the question, especially when air conditioning isn’t a typical amenity in homes. After allowing a bactrum acne pill to disintegrate my esophagus, and after dealing with red, itchy eyes caused by wearing the same contacts for so long, I couldn’t take this trip anymore. (Admittedly my issues were entirely self-inflicted, but stress will do these kinds of things to a person.) So, despite an effort worthy of the boyfriend of the year award, I left Madrid without much desire to return anytime soon. 

El palacio de cristal, Buen Retiro

While we lived in Spain, amazingly, we only spent a couple of hours in Madrid, mainly at the FedEx outpost in the airport complex to mail our outrageously heavy suitcases back to the US. Priorities.

Maybe it was the lack of expectation, or the fact that I’d spent each day for a month before that walking insanely long distances, but after my most recent adventure, Madrid now tops the list of cities where I’d one day love to reside. Andrew and I spent hours wandering the streets of the old town, walking the Paseo del Prado, and enjoying El Parque del Buen Retiro.  We had a successful night of tapas in La Latina, and even tried out one of the city’s only craft beer haunts. 

I was also impressed with our planning, as we found places to visit that Andrew had never seen before.  He is basically a Madrid expert, so it a challenge for us to find new sights that we could experience together. 

We shopped on Gran Vía, a first time experience for Andrew, and an anytime please experience for me. 

The Sorolla Museum, the former home of the successful Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla, is not only a beautiful home, and a picture of what a working artist’s studio looks like, but it is also impressive architecturally and decoratively. 

Paddle boats on the pond at El Buen Retiro come highly recommended. 

And the Plaza Mayor induces a stand and stare moment for just about anyone. 

El templo de Debod offers a free, fun spot to explore, and enjoy the views of Casa del Campo, as well as el Palacio Real. 

I couldn’t ever pass up a free visit to The Reina Sofia or El Prado, Madrid’s premier art museums, and the Reina Sofia is worth the time it takes to gain entrance just to ride up and down the outward facing glass elevators to see Atocha, Madrid’s main train station, from above.

Finally, while Madrid isn’t a city bursting with beautiful, awe-inspiring Cathedrals, it is fun, if you speak Spanish, to visit San Francisco El Grande and chat with the two guides who lead the tours.

I’m plotting my return to Madrid already, armed with a list of places to go and restaurants to try, inspired by our most recent trip.  I’d have to say that Madrid isn’t one of those places that tries to romance you immediately.  Hidden under the tarnish of a confusing daily time-table, and lack of any real monuments, like an Acropolis, or an Eiffel Tower, is a warm glow, a city that offers up world-class art, a humble park where all are welcome, and the glitz and glamour of a Royal Palace and 18th century avenues. Patience, and the willingness to operate in line with a Spanish lifestyle is all it takes to discover the allure of Madrid. Andrew’s kayak alert is accordingly set for fares from TYS to MAD-Barajas, and with any luck, we’ll be headed back soon.