Archives for the month of: April, 2015

After a number of train journeys from Paris to Le Puy, I finally arrived in Le Puy at a little past five o’clock. The moment I stepped off the train into the evening warmth, my stomach started to flutter: other people, they too carrying rucksacks adorned with the Coquille St Jacques, walked in the general direction of the town. I wasn’t sure where exactly I was going but soon enough an Australian man approached me: “Are you going to the Cathedral?” He asked. I supposed I was, so we walked together. The man, a couple of years into his retirement, had stepped off the plane from Australia but a few hours earlier that day. He was wearing a teeshirt bearing the Australian flag and was short of breath – he’d packed too much, he said.

My hand travelled to my rucksack strap unconsciously, it had already started to dig into my shoulder. Maybe I had packed a little too much aswell. Three others joined us, all from France, and we found our way to the Cathedral to pick up the ‘Creanciale’ – our pilgrim passport, if you like- before the shop closed for the night. The Australian and I filled in the necessary forms together, each noticing that the other was left handed. We then made our way to the Pilgrim’s welcome drinks nearby.

Upon entering the room and placing my rucksack next to five or six others, I looked at the faces before me – people of varying ages and physiques smiled back. It’s true that you can spot a pilgrim a mile off when you’re in a town or a city. Just look for their rucksack, their shell, and perhaps a tired gait. It’s also true, however, that no two pilgrims are the same – each with his or her reason for walking, each bringing his or her own experience with them. Despite not knowing who these strangers were, or what brought them here, I didn’t feel nervous for some reason. Usually the prospect of entering a room of unknown people is enough to make me tremble, but this time it was more a form of excitement and trepidation that I felt. After all, we already had one thing in common at least, since we were here, by choice, at the same time and place.

After a detailed explanation of the Camino, including the various possible routes, I stayed on for a couple of drinks and met two French pilgrims, both of whom had walked the camino before. They’d brought with them a casserole filled with a homemade stew for the first evening, and invited me to join them for dinner. I accepted gratefully, slightly surprised at their generosity, and relieved that I wouldn’t be eating alone that night.

I was soon whisked away to their hostel for dinner. Upon arriving, the owner offered me a chair and spoke to me passionately about the camino, insisting that I stay the night and even longer should I wish to explore Le Puy. I’ll admit, I’d already booked a bed elsewhere that night, but couldn’t turn away from such a warm welcome. It was then and there that I broke with my planned schedule, and decided to stay after all. Just the notion of choosing to stay somewhere spontaneously was so alien to the way in which I’d operated until that point (I am a sucker for planning ahead, and in great detail) – it felt both liberating, and a little bit nerve-wracking. “I’ll start as I mean to go on”, I told myself.

That night we ate plenty, with red wine and a raspberry dessert – a wonderful start! After a fitful sleep (pre-camino nerves) I got up and had breakfast, ready for the pilgrim’s mass and blessing at 7am in the Cathedral. I recognised a number of pilgrims from the welcome drinks the night before, and some new faces had appeared too. Regardless of each of our beliefs – religious or not – attending the pilgrim’s mass was a fitting way to mark the start of the journey, a way of taking time to meditate on our intentions for walking such a distance.

I set off that morning alongside the two French pilgrims with whom I’d dined the night before. Walking boots and clothes still fresh, we breathed in the crisp morning air as we descended the steps outside the Cathedral of Le Puy. The sun was out, and I smiled to myself with excitement – the journey had finally begun.

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It’s now been around 12 days that I’ve walked the Camino, and have finally found a moment to jot down a few words and impressions of the experience so far. I’m totally going to elaborate on this once I have time (and a computer as opposed to a mobile phone on which to type) so bear with me.

I’m currently at a little village called Beduer, not far from Figeac, having walked around 264km so far. That means I’ve got around 1,300km left to go until my arrival at Santiago – not that I want the journey to end!

I’ve stayed in a variety of places: from family homes, private youth hostels, converted schools and even a caravan park. Just as my lodgings have changed, so has the landscape: from rolling hills, to medieval towns, to rugged moorland – all in the space of a few days.

What has surprised me the most, however, is what I’ve learnt so far about the Camino and the people with whom I am walking.

So here are my ‘Top 10’ camino lessons from the first stage:

1. The ‘camino spirit’ cannot be understood until you arrive at your starting point and begin the journey. I, personally, didn’t expect to feel such a distance between life back home and camino life. It’s a new type of existence – a part of a flow of people, a community that is constantly in flux. You can’t make plans and stick to them – heck, you don’t want to- and that’s what makes it so special. You never know what lies around the next corner.

2. Humility is key, and if you aren’t already humble, the camino will pick you up and shake you until you are! I, and a couple of the ‘younger’ pilgrims experienced this first hand over the first few days of walking. We arrived fresh-faced, feeling fit and raring to go. We did over 60km walking in the first two days alone – with rucksacks not yet honed to a lighter weight. You know the story of the hare and the tortoise? Go figure. Here we are with varying degrees of tendinitis, taking it slow and steady. A good lesson to learn nontheless.

3. It’s all about enjoying the journey. We walk for the sake of walking – it’s not necessarily the end goal that counts here. Taking time to rest, look around and just ‘be’ is so alien to our goal-oriented personal and professional lives. It feels good to shift to this new way of living.

4. The camino will put you back in touch with your body. Whether it be new aches and pains, hunger or lack of sleep, you are urged to listen and respect your physical self. In a world in which intelligence and the mind take precedence in much of our professional lives, this is a whole new way of being that we must re-learn as pilgrims.

5. I, personally, don’t need much to be happy. I have 2 changes of clothes and a rucksack on my back. I spend the day walking and thinking. Life is simple. I’ve never felt better. The question is how do I take this feeling and knowledge, and apply it to my post-camino life? What will it mean for my life choices?

6. Being open to new experiences and people is key. So far it is very much the people that I’ve met and the conversations we’ve had that have made the journey what it is. There is a strange sense of coincidence when meeting people with whom you have a surprising amount of things in common – it’s nice.

7. On the camino, age and social status don’t matter. I cannot express how liberating it is to speak to people of all ages and backgrounds as equals – without worrying about how I come across, what the relationship will mean and the thousand other pressures that often go hand in hand with some personal and professional relationships.

8. We are each on our own, individual journey and it can be easy to lose sight of that: whether it be by walking faster to keep pace with someone else, or changing plans to coincide with those of others. It’s okay to walk alone if you want to, or to walk slower if you prefer. It makes you realise how difficult it is in everyday life to listen to yourself and make choices that come from the heart, and not as a result of pressures from others around us – whether intentional or not.

9. You get to know people well within a short space of time: after 6 hours of walking beside someone and a night in a dormitory together, you’ll feel like you’ve known each other for a lifetime already. You’ll probably even share thoughts and stories that you’ve never shared with anyone else before. Why? Because it’s the camino, and because you can.

10. Santiago is still so far away, but you’ll want to savour every moment until you get there. It’s a long distance, but time sure does fly.

What did you learn from your camino? Let me know 🙂

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With just a couple of days to go before I start my camino in Le Puy on the 7th April, the time has come to start packing up everything I’ll need for the walk – and no more!  Of course, I’m sure my final ‘list’ of items will change quite a bit throughout the course of my journey, depending on what turns out to be useful, and what the weather is like.  I thought it would be quite fun, therefore, to show you what I’m bringing to start with and why, and I’ll be sure to let you know whether I was on the right track with my preparation in a couple of months’ time!

So here goes:

First of all: THE BIG STUFF

  • Rucksack: Osprey Women’s Kyte 36 Rucksack (my Christmas present!) – this is a 36 litre rucksack, with lots of pockets and zips for stashing away those essentials that I might need to access quickly on the walk. As it’s a women’s rucksack, it’s supposed to suit the female shape and minimise any damage to the back and shoulders. Also, as it’s not mahoosive, I’m hoping it will deter me from carrying far too much (!) As a relatively petite person, I can’t afford to carry more than I should.
  • Walking boots: Asolo Stynger (Women’s) These are boots that I had fitted at Cotswold, as they suit narrower feet. So far, they have fared well on the walks that I’ve done, although I’ve yet to wear them alongside my full rucksack so we shall see! I’d highly recommend Cotsworld for boot fittings, as they know exactly which shoes suit both your gait, and shoe size (unlike some stores, which simply ask “which shoes do you like the look of?” *shakes head in dismay*)
  • Platypus-style water pouch: This fits nicely into my rucksack back pocket, and with easy access I won’t be tempted to forgo a regular sip of water.
  • Silk sleeping bag liner: Small, lightweight, and will hopefully keep out the bedbugs (we shall see!)  I am not bringing a full-on sleeping back, as the weather will start to get warmer (plus, I can always opt to pay for extra sheets in hostels if need be).
  • Lunchbox: For those days in remoter sections when I’ll need to prepare some food the night before.  Hopefully will soon contain lots of nice cheese, bread and saucisson.
  • Passport and money: for obvious reasons! I’ve opted for one of those travel cards onto which I’ve put a bit of money, but am also bringing a credit card just in case.
  • EHIC health card: Just in case!
  • Personal alarm: Not sure whether these are useful or not, but good to have in remote areas for peace of mind.

CLOTHING
I got most of my clothing from Sports Direct in their winter sale, and managed to bag some great bargains.

  • Poncho: Incase of rain… and also, as The Mighty Boosh say:

Poncho

  • Karrimor walking sandals: Lightweight, comfy and less than £25 – perfect for wearing on an evening or in the shower block.
  • Convertible trousers/shorts X 2 pairs: My boyfriend laughed when he saw these, but needs must! If they’re lightweight and comfortable, then that’s all good.
  • Short-sleeved wicking tops X 2
  • Long-sleeved wicking top X 1
  • Lightweight fleece X 1
  • Lightweight rain jacket X 1
  • Gloves and hat X 1
  • Gaiters X 1
  • Walking socks X 3 pairs
  • Pyjamas/chill-out clothes: harem pants + cotton long-sleeved teeshirt
  • Underwear X 3 pairs
  • Sports bras X 2

TOILETRIES

  • Lightweight microfibre towel: this should be fun to use! Let’s hope it’s bigger than a teatowel.
  • Bar of soap + shower gel (for hair washing and clothes washing)
  • Toothbrush and mini toothpaste
  • Mini Deoderant + mini moisturiser
  • Makeup: MINIMAL makeup, I hasten to add! I’ve brought some mascara and BB cream as a bit of a crutch, but hoping I’ll end up chucking these in the bin once I get going (!)
  • Medi-kit: suncream, paracetamol, Compeed, couple of plasters, hand-warmers, rehydration powder and  insect-repellant
  • Lip balm

BOOKS + MAPS, with the main ones being:

NON-ESSENTIAL ESSENTIALS

  • Earplugs: I am a very light sleeper, so hopefully these will help me get to sleep in a big dormitory.
  • Notebook: Ever the diary-keeper, I want to keep a journal of the route.
  • Mobile phone: just in case!
  • Coquille St Jacques  pilgrim’s shell: I’ve heard that traditionally Pilgrim’s wore this once they’d already completed the Camino, however, I will bring it along anyhow – especially since it was a gift from my parents.

To get to this fairly select bunch of items, I’ve done a bit of research both online and in books – with this particular book being a nice source of both humour and information (thanks to my boyfriend for picking it out for me!). It’s not the book for the seasoned walker, but rather one aimed at people who are doing the chemin for the first time ever, and probably leans more towards women at that. It reads like a blog, or a magazine, with plenty of jokes and quizzes (how to spot a camino snorer//what your camino hat says about you etc – you get the picture), which is a nice counterbalance to some of the other camino literature out there – although the fluffy tone isn’t for everyone, though, granted!

Chemins

So there you have it, my camino pack is now ready!  I’ll be setting off to Paris tomorrow to spend a final weekend with Léo, my boyfriend, before getting the train down to St Etienne and Le Puy on Easter Monday.  The next time I see him, it may be in Santiago – who knows?

I’d love to know what your one *essential* camino item was, or would be? What couldn’t you live without for a few months?  Let me know in the comments below!