Highlights and lessons from the Camino

One year ago, at this time, I was enjoying my adventure on the Camino del Norte. It had been one of my dreams for many years, however I had no idea what was in store for me and what it felt like to walk about 6-8 hours a day along the coast of Northern Spain.

Looking back after having processed the trip in the last 12 months, here are some of my personal highlights and lessons learned.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Architecture-wise, the coolest place was the guided tour of the El Capricho designed by Gaudi, so many insanely creative ideas built into one house!

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  • The favorite albergue where I stayed was La Ferrería in Alimandi. I remember the warm welcome from the host Sergio serving us local cider and picking fresh japanese plums in the garden. Great chats with the other peregrinos over a delicious vegetarian dinner, while rainshowers came and went outside.

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  • The most improbable place I visited was the sand cemetery near Bayonne, where the tombstones are made from sand and decorated with beautiful scallop shells. Since the elements erode the sand, the tombstones need to be made again every year.

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  • The awesome people from all over the world who I met and travelled with on the Camino made the experience unique.  I’m so grateful to have shared this experience with Tom and Cindy, Kim, Sara (and her courageous dog Freccia), Anna, Isolde, Justine and Mike, Maricruz, Carlos and Irene. It’s funny how quickly conversations with near-strangers become deep and personal when you walk kilometer after kilometer together and share a ‘menu del día’ after many hours on the road. Also the joy of meeting pilgrim friends again by chance after our paths seperated was wonderful.

LEARNINGS

  • Take more time off that seems necessary. I regret having shaved a few weeks off from the 2 months I had initially asked to have off work. In the end the difference between 6 weeks and 8 weeks off is minimal when you are at the office, but 2 weeks extra would have been wonderful on the Camino.

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  • People always want to give advice and tell you how you should walk the Camino, but in the end it’s your Camino. You will see people doing it differently and making other choices. They may walk more or less kilometers per day, stay in cheaper or more expensive accommodation, carry heavier or lighter backpacks, get up earlier or later, spend more or less money, taking leisurely breaks to drink wine at lunch time or rush to arrive first in the albergue…  Comparison is the thief of joy, in the end you have to do it your way if you want to really enjoy it. It’s your Camino.

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  • I loved the power of the Camino to make everybody equal. It is humbling to see that when we walk several hours a day we are all the same. No matter what our age, nationality, sex, strength, equipment or how healthy we are, everyone is doing the same thing, putting one step in front of the other and doing their best. There’s an amazing common feeling of empowerment linked to the simple act of being able to walk great distances.
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Plants and the city

Spotting cute plants growing out of cracks in the pavement, in between bricks of a wall or high up on roof tops is something I really enjoy doing as I walk around a city. I love seeing how plants find a way to thrive regardless of humans building over every available surface with bricks and cement, or spraying sidewalks with toxic weed-killer.

The plants somehow just persevere and find new nooks and crannies to call their own. Like these stunning pink flowers that caught my eye, growing out of a guttter on the roof of a church in the center of Bilbao .

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Or these plants and ferns that amazed me as they held on precariously to the top of this brittle stone wall in an alleyway in Santillana del Mar.

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The power of a book

Before leaving for the Camino, I explained how I was inspired to walk the Camino by a Paulo Coelho book I read as a teenager (The Pilgrimage).  So I found it a funny coincidence when just recently I stumbled across this interview of Paulo Coelho on a podcast where he speaks about his experience on the Camino and how afterwards he took the decision to start follow his dream and begin writing.

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I really enjoyed the interview (which is not just about the pilgrimage).  I found myself nodding in agreement to many of the snippets of wisdom. I particularly liked how Paulo Coelho explains what he went through to get his book (The Alchemist) published after its initial failure, what he says about his relationship with his wife and them not being the same people as who they were when they met so many years ago,  as well as how we have dreams as teenagers that we forget but life gives us second chances.

Interestingly I re-read part of The Pilgrimage shortly before going to walk the Camino and I didn’t actually like the book anymore! It makes me really grateful for the image of the Camino that my younger self found within those pages at the time.  I’m so glad that my mind held on to that impression for all these years, without letting me forget to follow this amazing dream.

On top of the world

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On my 3rd day of walking, between Irun and San Sebastian, I followed the sign at the bottom of a very steep hill that said: “Peregrinos alpinistas”. This alternative path had been recommended by the pilgrims who hosted me on my first night in Bayonne, who said it was a bit longer but really beautiful (I’m glad they insisted it was less difficult than it sounds because I’m not sure I would have spontaneously considered myself an “Alpinist pilgrim”…).

At the top, I was totally alone, since it is not the standard route. As I walked on the path that followed the crest of the hill, surrounded by mountain peaks on one side and the sparkling blue sea on the other I felt such incredible joy!

I walked through this field, just a few steps from the horses who ignored me completely and went on with their peaceful activities in this breathtakingly beautiful place on the top of the world. Totally worth making the detour!IMG_3649

Soothing sea views

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On the Camino del Norte, the path mainly follows the coast and the sea is always just around the corner, making it one of the most beautiful Camino routes. However when you look at the route on the guide book, it’s difficult to imagine what the day’s walk will really look like.

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The element of surprise was really helpful, because so often when I felt I couldn’t go any further, or I was wondering ‘what am I doing here??’, I would come across a view like one of these and then it would all make sense again. I’d stop thinking about my feet and remember how lucky I was to get to see such unspoiled nature.

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I loved the fact that the nature looked different every day and I never knew what to expect. Stumbling on an amazing beach after a few minutes or a few hours of walking was always magical for me. Depending on the weather the colour of the water, the sky and the clouds would vary incredibly.

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Usually I was up on the top of the cliff which meant a beautiful perspective over the sea. Sometimes the path would go up and down all day with tiny coves at the bottom of the hill before going back up the hillside.

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Coming across a spectacular view point was always an excuse to take a break to eat an apple or simply sit to rest and watch the water. The snacks I ate overlooking the sea were usually really simple, but enjoying them in front of these magical views made them taste like a real feast 😉

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20160518_135451I love how you can actually see that the earth is round on this picture!!

My dream greenhouse

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On my very first day of walking, heading out of Bayonne, I stopped to see the Sand Cemetery in Anglet, which was recommended by my pilgrim hosts the night before. The cemetery was original, but what really caught my eye were 2 long buildings on either side of the entrance of the cemetery which were full of succulents!!

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The plants were really well tended to and there were all sorts of different species. I tried to get in to take a closer look but unfortunately the doors were locked… so I could only sneak a few pictures through the bars of the windows. These pictures don’t really do justice to what a beautiful sight it was:)

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‘Having a green house to grow my succulents’ is on my dream list (as ‘walking the Camino’ was for many years), so I took stumbling upon my dream greenhouse on my first day as a good omen for my trip;)

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¡Vivir es increible!

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I’ve been back from the Camino for nearly 2 months and still working through my thoughts about the experience. I can’t believe how fast the trip flew by. Once again I am back home and sucked into the routine of work and daily life…

People keep asking me how it was to walk the Camino and I find it really hard to give an answer, as there are so many things to tell, so many aspects. Though the walking was sometimes tough, even when I was tired from walking and my body ached I felt extremely free, excited and grateful to be there.

The best way I can find to explain it is: ‘Vivir es increible‘ (Being alive is incredible!). These 3 words, hand-painted on the red step in the staircase full of wise words, jumped out at me. They express so simply what I felt intensely throughout my trip.

Sometimes I feel like that amazing sensation gets drowned out in the daily rush, the noise of emails, things to do and other busy-ness.  I want to look out for it more. I’m doing my best these days to use ‘Vivir es increible’ as a mantra in day-to-day life in Amsterdam too, when I feel the routine weighing down on me or when I’m cycling to work in the rain for example.

In an attempt to process my experience, I want to share some snapshots and thoughts about walking the Camino, even if they are just a tiny piece of the whole experience. I’ll be posting them in the next days:)

I’m leaving!!

I’m off to walk along the Camino de Santiago!

When I was 17 or so, I read a Paolo Coelho book about the Camino and since then I’ve had the desire to walk the Saint James way (as it is called in English). Since then the idea kept popping up every time I would write my dream list. Over the years, I did a bit of research about it here and there and once in a while I would browse the book my parents bought me about the Camino del Norte. Every time I heard someone saying they had walked the Camino, I would feel a little tug in my heart and say “That’s on my dream list, I want to do it too!”, but never got around to actually organising it.

So why now, 16 years later?

I’ve been wanting to take a sabbatical for a long time and this year the timing was good. I’ve been working hard for 10 years, with no more than a few weeks between jobs, so I felt like giving myself this gift of some freedom in the form of unpaid leave, which I decided to use to explore the Camino. I also feel like time is always flying by so fast, so I’m glad to take time off from day-to-day routine to take a step back and reflect.

I’ll be gone for about 5 weeks, I’m starting in Bayonne and will walk along the Northern coast of Spain. I probably will not reach Santiago de Compostela and that’s fine. Firstly because I don’t want to rush, I want to make this trip about the journey not the destination (I know… such a cliché). This means if I feel like staying longer in a place I like or want to chill on the beach for some time, I can:)  Secondly because if there is a bit of the Camino left to walk I will have the chance to come back another time to finish it:)

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I am really looking forward to walking every day. I’ve noticed that walking helps me move through problems, get fresh ideas, find solutions to issues, get creative, feel more grounded…

I have no idea what to expect, but these are some things that come to mind as I am preparing my trip:
-I crave take time out from my routine,
-I want to spend time alone,
-to finally have time to process what goes on in my busy life,
-to take time to grieve the people in my life who passed away and
-to travel slowly to enjoy discovering a part of the world I’ve never been to.

I’m trying not to have too many expectations and let the Camino surprise me. I’m really excited to see how it goes!