So Spain … walking El Camino de Compostela … or at least the last 300 km of the (depending on where you start) usual 800 or 1000 km route going across the northern part of Spain – in a total understatement, it’s an experience!! I walked with a group of 8 – 7 from Australia and a lone Brit, who was a friend of one of the Aussies. As a group we gelled very quickly and decided very early on that “what was said and done on The Camino, stayed on The Camino”. Pat and Gordon, our guides, were a font of knowledge (they walked the entire route a number of years ago and this was their 8th time guiding others!) – and within a very short time we all felt like old friends, who could joke, share stories and confidences and at times much needed comfort food – it’s amazing how important a hand-full of nuts, a square of chocolate or a bit dried fruit can be at just the right time!
The Group at the Start of the Walk
After a hard days walking, we’d usually meet in the bar – sometimes, if it’d been a particularly hard walk, having only just dropped our cases in our rooms, and at others, after a more leisurely time spent having a much needed shower or bath! A fair amount of ‘wino tinto’ was consumed with our evening meal, and of course it was imperative that we tried as many of the local wines as was at all possible!!
Typical landscape for the first part of the walk
For someone who likes to start the day with a solid breakfast, Spain was a huge disappointment. At the most basic, there’d be coffee or tea, a slice of toast or a croissant (ie not both!) – and that’d be it! How anyone is supposed to survive on that I’ve never worked out!! I learnt to just get on with walking the next 2 to 3 hours before our first stop where I very quickly discovered “Cola Cao”: a mug with hot, frothy milk infused with cocoa and sugar, which would give me enough of a hit until a few hours later at lunch where usually we could get an empanada (a sort of Cornish pastry with meat and vegetables) or a tortilla, an omelet, often with a filling of potato, and at it’s best, slapped in a huge slice of French bread. I could not believe how much bread I ate during those 2 weeks!!
One of many amazing churches we got to see.
We walked between 4 to 10 hours a day and despite walking 3 of the earlier days in snowstorms, we were basically quite lucky with the weather. I had to point out to some of the others, that we were much better off with the snow, cold as it was, rather than a few degrees warmer and rain!! We were all prepared with the right clothing, and really, were only very occasionally uncomfortable because of getting wet. The sun was a reluctant visitor, although one day we walked for hours towards a double rainbow – spectacular in the landscape we were walking in! Only towards the end of the walk did we have persistent and driving rain, but even then we were lucky that it was not too windy and as we were often walking through quite dense forest, the canopy of trees dispersed some of the rain.
On the last day (having walked rather longer than was comfortable for the 2 days prior) we only had 10 km to go and managed to pretty much stay together (throughout we’d often be scattered over ½ to 1 km and all only meet up for our meal stops) – and the sun was out and warmish the entire time!! – a good omen for finishing just before the world renowned noon pilgrims’ mass at the huge Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – we all piled in as a group with thousands of others and in my usual fashion I managed to be separated from the others and only 1 ½ hours later when I emerged in the sunshine and saw Pat scanning everyone going in and coming out, did I realise that they thought I’d been ‘lost’!!
Walking in the snow!
Vineyards, scrub and snow-covered hills!
We finished off with an amazing dinner, with gifts and speeches given and labels ‘attached’ to each of us. I was both the ‘changeling’ and ‘the healer’ – as the changeling, I was either, when walking, out in front or behind the group, putting on or taking off clothes, depending on the weather, or how hot I’d got!! And as the healer, I massaged feet, for days in a row, massaged a back that’d been whacked out of sync and shared my tennis ball to use as a foot massager at the end of the day!
It was an amazing fortnight that I’ll treasure for a lifetime – am meeting up with a couple of my fellow walkers during the June long weekend, and in July, with a visit from the Brit and his wife, the whole group will get together again. Pat & Gordon confessed that they have huge reservations about taking another group, as we set such a high standard in terms of being whacky, fun-loving, seriously naughty, good drinkers, unconventional, and generally good sorts for the rest to follow!!
How did I prepare for walking the last 300 km of The Camino? … With a great deal of difficulty and dedication!! I started my preparations in August 2011 by spending a lot of time, thought and money purchasing the – for me – right pair of boots. In every publication I’ve encountered talking about getting ready to take on The Camino (from Shirley MacLane’s ‘A journey of the spirit’ through Tony Kevin’s ‘A modern pilgrimage to Santiago’ to Elizabeth Best & Colin Bowles’ ‘The Year We Seized the Day’ – and many more) they all hammered home the point that THE most important item to get right was … the boots – so I followed their collective advice!
Having got the boots, I started using them! Again, it was important to have the right pairs of socks (yes plural!), namely, a pair of fine, thin liner socks, and then the real socks, to comfortably use with the boots, which also means that you get the boots slightly larger than you’d normally use – another important lesson.
I combined walking outside several times a week, with visits to the Virgin gym, where I’d do weights, occasional bouts on the treadmill, use the step and the upright bike. I also had a program for the Power Plate, the Swiss ball with weights and stretches and of course the various press machines, leg curl, ab- and adductor – just so I’d not get bored! To wind down after an exercise session, I’d just about every time end with a few hundred metres in the pool, with or without fins, paddle board and hand paddles – and the best part of the day would then be to visit all the stations in the spa, 5 minutes in the sauna and finish off in the plunge pool.
I also often joined a yoga class, and of course the Young @ Heart was a favourite!!
Reading it through now, it sounds exhausting, but I thrived on getting really fit after years of set-backs with my health.
For the outside, there in real nature, taking on the weather as it appeared every day, I started out a few times a week with one to 1½ hour walks, always carrying my 1 kilo weights. Because of having previously suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis, I find that if I don’t carry something, my palms start becoming uncomfortable, and besides using weights is a good way to build strength in your arms, which is good when swimming butterfly and it definitely stops you ending up with those unsightly ‘grandmother’ floppy bits on your upper arms!!
Over a period of a few months I lengthened the walks to always being at least 2 hours – this about 3 times a week, and if not walking the other days, doing some form of exercise, and eventually during the last 6 weeks before going overseas, I did several 3+ and a couple of 4+ hour walks, which, according to my walk ‘hosts’ was plenty to show that I could put in the long days planned for our 2 weeks on the Camino.
In the end, out of the 14 days on the walk, we had two days with only 10 km (the 5th and 14th days) and the rest we walked between 20 and approx 32 km … e v e r y d a y!!! Relentlessly!!! No ifs or buts!!! Which basically meant we walked between 4 to 10 hours a day.
To ‘recuperate’ and, frankly, to keep warm (for a couple of days we walked in snowstorms!) I wore my Skins (decompression pants) and I’d hate to think how I’d have pulled up without them.
When I returned I was not sure how visiting the gym would fit in with my possibly less active lifestyle, but I found myself up there at Virgin Active within a few hours of getting off the plane!.
To make sure I keep up keeping fit, I’ve entered the Pub2Pub fun run (although, as I can’t run, I always walk it!), which is happening on Sunday 26th August – 13 km from Dee Why to Newport Arms Hotel. Check it out at http://www.pub2pub.com.au.
To help with keeping me on track, as it happens, Cancer Council NSW, where I volunteer 2 days a week has just started The Great Walking Challenge, a 6 week challenge for staff to get walking at least 10,000 steps a day (and also recording how much fruit and vegetables you consume daily). This, of course, fits in perfectly with preparing for the Pub2Pub and just to make it even more fun, I’m also fund raising for Bear Cottage. If you don’t already know about this amazing place, go to http://www.bearcottage.chw.edu.au/ and if you do feel like supporting me with raising funds, check out my Every Day Hero profile on: http://www.everydayhero.com.au/britta_huttel.