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A few weeks after the Camino finished, something wholly unexpected occurred: I was itching to get back on the road with my rucksack, and to have another adventure before going back to work.  I suppose you could say that I’ve caught the walking bug, and you’d be right.

This time, my Camino buddy and I decided we’d like to try a different sort of challenge: the Camino was challenging in terms of the sheer longevity of it – comparable to a marathon, let’s say; this time, however, we fancied something akin to a sprint – a shorter walk, but on tougher terrain.  The Tour du Mont Blanc was the perfect solution.

The Tour du Mont Blanc, or the TMB as many call it, is a 170km trek around the Mont Blanc massif; it takes the walker through France, Italy and Switzerland in around eleven days, with almost 10,000 metres of sheer uphill elevation throughout this time. Unlike the Camino, the accommodation is slightly pricy in places, as many of the mountain refuges are simply very high up, and transporting food and goods up there – and taking all the waste back down – is a costly business. As result, we decided to do it au naturel and wild camp for the majority of the trek.  This meant that our rucksacks were quite significantly heavier than what we’d experienced on the Camino due to the new camping gear, as well as lots of food (there are no supermarkets in the middle of the mountains, believe it or not).  It’s worth mentioning that you’re not technically allowed to wild camp in many sections of the TMB – especially in Italy, where you need to be above 2000 metres (I think?)  We made sure we found sheltered areas, high up where possible, and took great care to leave no litter behind.

Rather than talk you through every last detail of our walk, I wanted to share what became our itinerary (we don’t tend to plan in advance!), and one of the memorable highlights that we experienced each day. These memories all have something in common, but I’ll leave you to guess what their common factor could be. Answers at the end!

I’ll mention now that we didn’t complete the whole of the TMB in the end: we probably had about three days left on the Swiss section, which we might go back and complete at some point soon.  The reason for our early departure was that it had rained non-stop over the final few days of walking. Visibility up high was very poor, and all of our available clothing was simply soaked through. Generally you wash your clothes on an evening and hang them out to dry for the following day. When it’s raining buckets, however, they NEVER GET DRY…. We had a wet tent, wet trousers, wet tops, wet fleeces, wet boots (wet boots = blisters)… you name it!  We came to the conclusion that instead of trudging uphill in wet shoes for another few days, we’d come back when the rains had cleared and when the beautiful views could be seen.  Prior to walking the Camino, I’d probably have been really disappointed at not having ‘completed’ the TMB. I’d have gritted my teeth, got my head down and kept on walking until the end, despite seeing only fog and mist.  Now, though, I think “to what end?” If you start not enjoying something, then why are you doing it?

Day 1: Les Houches – Bionnassay

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Here we wild camped by the waterfall of glacier water that thunders down the mountain.  This was my first wild camping experience, and it was such fun to have a ‘shower’ in one of the little streams that trickles through the walking path.  As the sun went down, I sat on the rope bridge that crosses the waterfall and watched the snow of the glacier turn pink in the evening light. Soon the stars came out, clear and silent, and we lit a bonfire to keep us warm.

Day 2: Bionnassay – Les Contamines Montjoie

The day begun with an uphill trek in the scorching heat, and ended with a downhill scramble through thunder, lightning and driving rain.  The lightning began when we were high up in a forest, so it was key to make it to lower ground as soon as we could. Upon reaching Contamines we were both soaked through, with every item of clothing sodden and sticking to our skin.  Squinting at each other through the curtains of rain, we decided to grab a hot chocolate in a local bar and wait out the end of the rain before we put up our tent.  Upon leaving the bar, we crossed a woman in her seventies who was smoking outside.

“Are you doing the Tour du Mont Blanc?” she asked, taking a drag on her cigarette.

“Yeah we are” we replied, smiling wearingly.

“Where are you staying tonight?” she continued.

“We’re at the local campsite” my Camino buddy answered, reaching down to grab his rucksack.

“In this weather?”

We nodded.  She raised her eyebrows doubtfully and shook her head.

“Come to my place, I’ve got spare mattresses, and you can see whether you’d prefer it.”

Not quite believing our luck, we followed the lady across the road and into her apartment. That night, she and her husband were having a party with guests, and they set two extra chairs at the table for us. After a hot shower, we shared champagne, a delicious meal, and plenty of anecdotes with their numerous guests – many of whom had walked the TMB. Later, we were free to make ourselves at home amongst cotton sheets and pillows in their attic room.

The following morning, over a breakfast of freshly-baked croissants and bowls of hot coffee, I asked the lady’s husband a question:

“Why did you both offer to look after us for the night?”

He smiled, gazing out onto the balcony which overlooked the snowy mountains.

“There’s a real mountain spirit here in Alps, and we just want to keep it alive.”

Day 3: Les Contamines Montjoie – Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

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Here we camped at 2,443 metres on the side of the mountain, within walking distance of the Refuge. The night was a cold one, as our tent was constantly battered by the wind and the rain! I had made a slight mistake in bringing a smaller, lightweight sleeping bag (mainly as the larger one wouldn’t fit in my rucksack) and so slept fully-clothed (including hat and gloves!) in order to keep warm.  It just goes to show that even in the height of summer, it can get pretty chilly when you are camping at a high altitude!  The guys at the nearby refuge were wonderful, and allowed us to take a hot shower and use their facilities for free. The next morning, shivering from lack of sleep, we decided to be indulgent and buy our breakfast there, which was a great idea. If there’s anything that lifts the spirits of a hiker, it’s the prospect of something good to eat.

Day 4: Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme – Refuge Elisabetta

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We’d reached Italy on day four, and were hoping to camp by Refuge Elisabetta. Upon entering the refuge to enquire, however, we discovered that the Italian police are hot on the tail of campers who do not camp higher than the 2,000 metre rule. As a result, we were told we’d have to hike back uphill in order to find a place to sleep.  That clearly wasn’t happening, so we decided to sample a night in a refuge for a change. It was wonderful. It was warm.  The highlight, for me, was meeting lots of interesting people from all over the world at that evening’s dinner. I felt as if I were on the Camino all over again.

Day 5: Refuge Elisabetta – Courmayeur (somewhere in the woods above Courmayeur)

After a copious lunch in Courmayeur, a delightful Italian Alpine town, we trekked in the afternoon heat up the hill and into the woods beyond. Spotting a cool river cascading down the hillside, we decided it would be the perfect place to camp for the night, provided we were well-hidden.  That evening I lay on the rocks by the water, taking in the remainder of the afternoon sunshine.  Camping is lovely when the weather holds out!

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Day 6: Courmayeur – just before Refuge Elena

Again, we wild camped on the side of a mountain overlooking the peak of Mont Blanc.  The evening was sunny and I was itching to take a wash in the river that ran alongside our camping spot.  I grabbed my bar of soap, and wrapped myself in a towel before scrambling barefoot over the rocks towards a little pool of water, ideal for bathing in. I winced each time my foot slipped into the river, as the water was icy cold – this was going to be fun. In a moment of carelessness my bar of soap slipped out of my hand and into the river. I scrambled desperately to retrieve it, but it floated away from me, slipping down cascades and bobbing its way down the mountain, leaving a soapy trail behind.

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Day 7: Refuge Elena – La Fouly

We’d finally arrived in Switzerland, and decided to go ‘luxe’ and camp in an actual campsite with actual showers.  Here we reconnected with the friends we’d made on the route and in the refuge some days previously.  The night went relatively smoothly, apart from a moment of terror, when I discovered a HUGE spider chilling on my arm in the tent. It was about 11pm at night, and I can only apologise to my fellow campers for the blood-curdling scream that they will have heard, emanating from our little tent.

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Day 8: La Fouly  – Champex

A rainy day of ascent through forest terrain. That night we arrived in Champex and decided, once again, to camp in a campsite.  The rain had gotten to us, and our fellow TMB-ers at this point. I channelled my inner Englishness, and suggested we drown our sorrows in the local pub.  So there we found ourselves in the middle of the Swiss Alps, drinking beers and complaining about the weather.  That’s when we decided to call it a day. We’d got what we’d came for – which was an adventure and a wild-camping experience, and we were happy knowing that this alone was enough.

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So there you have it, my TMB experience.  Did you manage to guess what my highlights had in common? When I think back to the memorable times on my walking trips, I always come to the same conclusion: the best parts of the trip, the bits that will stick in my mind forever, were the unexpected surprises that DIDN’T COST A THING.  There you go.

So, what’s next on the cards?  I am going back to work next week after a wonderful six months of hiatus (I am so very lucky, that I know!) but am already thinking ahead to what next summer might bring.  I’d like to do some more hiking, maybe even actual mountaineering this time, or discover a new place that I’ve never been to before. We will see!

Where are you next itching to go to?

If you’d like to read a fantastic article on the TMB, look no further than this one, which appeared on the Guardian’s site recently.

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I reached Leon, Spain, on the 27th May this year, in peak Camino season.  Having begun my Camino in France, I had, at that point, been on the road for almost two months.  I had started walking on the Via Podiensis, taking in the stunning scenery of France, and now found myself a couple of weeks into the Camino Frances (confusingly named, as this is the part that meanders through northern Spain towards Santiago).

As much as I loved the Camino Frances up until that point (in peak season, it sometimes feels like being part of one long party), I had begun to miss the relative solitude and calm that I’d enjoyed on the Via Podiensis.  I missed the varied landscape, the greenness of the surroundings, and walking late into the afternoon without worrying whether or not I’d have a bed for the night upon arriving.

It was therefore at Leon, that I decided I was ready to experience a quieter and more physically challenging Camino towards Santiago.   I would take the Camino de San Salvador up from Leon to Oviedo (121 km), and then follow the Camino Primitivo (a Camino which runs between the Frances and the Norte) for the remainder of the way.

I hadn’t heard of the Camino de San Salvador before setting off on my Camino; indeed, there is no reason why I should have done, since there aren’t any major published guides to the route just yet.  This in itself was a huge attraction for me, because I had no idea of what to expect beforehand and was free to make my own mistakes.  It was actually a hostel owner that had recommended it as we shared a coffee one afternoon some days before reaching Leon.  I had been telling her about the great contrast that I’d experienced between the two Camino routes I’d traced up until then, and that I was looking for something a little more like what I’d known in France. Her eyes lit up, and she turned to the contour map that was hanging behind us on the stone wall of the hostel. She traced with her finger a line between Leon and Oviedo, and proceeded to tell me about a different Camino whose existence had escaped me up until that point.  She described it as a ‘hidden gem’, and didn’t hesitate to share with me a famous poem (among San Salvador veterans, anyway…) about the route:

Quien va a Santiago

Y no a San Salvador

Sirve al criado

Y olvida al Señor

He who goes to Santiago, without going first going to San Salvador, is he who bows to the servant and forgets all about the Master.

(Apologies for my dodgy translation.)

I thanked the hostel owner for her advice, and mulled over the idea of veering from the path that I’d decided to take many months earlier, in order to try something completely new and unexpected.  After much deliberation regarding budget, and the date at which I’d need to be in Santiago to catch my flight home (this new Camino could prolong my journey by almost a week) I decided to go for it. I’d come all this way for an adventure, and an adventure is what I was going to have.

With the help of 3G on my phone, as well as a visit to the Leon pilgrim’s office, I was able to gather some more information on the new route such as accommodation options, and places where food was available.

This site was particularly helpful to that end, as well as this brilliant guide, which I saved onto my phone.

As much as the idealist in me would have enjoyed setting out with no preparation whatsoever, and just seeing what the route brought, I was glad to have had both of these guides at my fingertips – particularly the second one, which contains indispensable pointers on some hard-to-navigate sections of the path. I was similarly thankful to have found out a little about the variants on the route, as some are weather dependent, and some more scenic than others.

I’ll leave *you* to peruse these if you’d like a little more detail on the specifics of the San Salvador. Below, for what it is worth, is the somewhat sporadic itinerary that I ended up walking.  Please note that the San Salvador can be walked in as little as four days, or as many as seven days.  I ended up doing four, because I was keen to have a ‘rest day’ to explore Oviedo. Also, budget concerns 😉

 

Day one: Leon – La Robla (27km)

On the 28th May, I set off on the first leg of the San Salvador.  Coming out of Leon, pilgrims walk past the famous Parador hotel, and it is here that you see two yellow spray-painted arrows on the ground below: one points to Santiago; the other, to Oviedo.   It felt strange *not* to be walking the quickest route to Santiago, and instead taking a detour, and mindfully prolonging my journey for the first time. How un-pilgrim of me. My fellow pilgrims and I frequently debated the use of cheeky shortcuts along the Camino in France. We reckon that medieval pilgrims totally would have gone for the shortcuts.

Much of this first day was spent ‘leaving’ Leon through suburbs, but soon the path ascended into shaded hilltop paths.  I walked through the leafy, dappled shade and looked out onto green valleys below. This was the solitude that I’d been craving so badly.

I spent the first night in the pilgrim’s municipal hostel industrial town of La Robla, in the heart of the hills.  There were only four other pilgrims there: Spanish walkers who had taken a long weekend to walk the San Salvador. The hostel itself was well-equipped as far as hostels go, with a kitchen and separate shower blocks for men and women.

It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that the accommodation and food options on the San Salvador are less copious than that which is found on the Camino Frances: understandable, really, as the number of pilgrims on the route is but a fraction of those that walk the more famous routes. I found this charming, however, and enjoyed the excitement of staying and eating within towns that don’t solely cater for pilgrims and tourists.

Day two: La Robla – Poladura de la Tercia (23km)

This day began with a relatively steep climb into the heart of the mountains, with stunning views throughout.  I really felt as if I had left the ‘beaten track’ once and for all. The municipal hostel at Poladura de la Tercia was once again very well equipped with a kitchen and even a TV and sofa (oh the luxuries!).  That night, I saw the same Spanish men that I’d come across in the hostel the night before.  In a gruff voice, one of them asked me in which town would be eating my lunch the following day:

“Pajares” I answered confidently, having verified the existence of a local bar in the area.

“Aren’t you going to phone them to let them know you are coming?” he asked.

“No, I’ll just turn up and see what they have on offer” I replied.

To my surprise, the portly man laughed. “They are preparing a three course lunch for us!” he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking over at his Camino companions, who were now trying to get the old TV to work, “it’s worth calling them”.

I nodded politely, thinking how civilised, and organised of them!

Later that night, I laughed with my Camino buddy, thinking of the ridiculousness of phoning ahead to organise lunch. It’s a bar, I thought, surely they are used to having customers??

Day three: Poladura de la Tercia – Campomanes (31km)

This was one of my favourite days of walking on the San Salvador – and potentially the entire Camino, too. The walk led me past an abandoned Parador hotel overlooking the valleys and hills in Pajares. I spent the morning walking along a narrow route tracing the winding cliffs, trying not to fall off, and thinking wishfully of how I would decorate the Parador hotel should I suddenly become a millionaire and be able to purchase it. I decided it would make a very nice spa retreat (!)

I arrived in the local town at around midday. As my Camino partner and I entered the small cliffside town, a five year old boy with a football ran up to us.

“Are you pilgrims?” he asked, his eyes wandering up and down our doubtlessly bizarre Camino attire.

“Yes we are!” I laughed, amused at his curiosity.

“Are you hungry?” he replied.

“Yes!” I answered, astounded that he’d anticipated our needs.

“Follow me” he shouted, running ahead, clutching the plastic ball under his arm, his blue Oviedo football shirt billowing in the breeze.

I looked at my Camino buddy in amazement, and we both followed the young boy in silence, who led us to the local bar.  We thanked our young companion for his help, and he nodded, suddenly shy, before running off.  The bar was one of those empty local places akin to that in the famous American Werewolf in London scene. A stony looking woman stood at the counter, with her back to us, wiping the surfaces hurriedly.  At this point we were famished, and the smell of warm food cooking in the kitchen sharpened our appetites further. It smelled good.

“Hi” I said in Spanish, straining to be heard over the chattering TV in the corner of the room.

“Hi” the woman responded bluntly. She turned and looked at me below a heavy brow.

“Erm, we’d like to get some food to eat please.”  My eyes wandered towards the kitchen door hopefully.

Without saying a word, the woman shook her head wearily.

“We have no food.  You need to call us ahead. We are preparing a three course meal for some other pilgrims.”

Oh dear. They were right.

I gazed pitifully at four gleaming coffee cups laid out upon the counter top. Each accompanied by a large, appetising biscuit.  I should have called.

The woman was kind enough to search out some leftovers in the kitchen for us, which turned out not to be so bad at all.  Our four Spanish comrades entered the bar just as we were leaving, grinning at the prospect of their delicious three course meal.

I learned my lesson.  It goes to show that it’s worth thinking ahead and planning ahead on the San Salvador when it comes to food, especially in remoter areas: local bars serve local people, and won’t necessarily stock up for tourist lunches, because tourists on this route are fewer and farther between than those that walk the Camino Frances.

That night we stayed in Campomanes. This town didn’t seem to have a municipal hostel, so we spent the night at Pensión Casa del Abad, which was a beautiful and welcoming pensión, and a bit of a naughty treat. You don’t appreciate the sheer luxuriousness of fresh cotton bed sheets and actual cotton towels (as opposed to microfiber!) until you’ve walked the Camino…

Day Four: Campomanes – Oviedo (40km)

I wouldn’t advise anyone to walk this in just one day!  Here’s how it happened: deciding to make the most of staying in a pricey pensión for the night, we woke up at the civilised hour of…. midday (!) and raced our way up and down hills, and through tiny villages. That evening, at around 7pm on the route, we had been high up in narrow forest tracks, and mist had begun to set in. Neither my Camino buddy nor I had brought a headlamp (I’d posted mine back earlier on the Camino – doh!) and it was looking as if we’d be walking in the dark. In the mist. On a hilltop. That’s when survival instincts kicked in and we sped up and down the final few hills, before cheering with elation when we spotted the glinting lights of the city below us. Luckily, night fell just as we entered the city, breathless as we were from the marching pace.

When I think of this final day of the San Salvador, I think mainly of the epic pizza that was consumed upon arriving in Oviedo.

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The following day, we took time to explore the beautiful city of Oviedo, which I’d describe as a pleasant mix between Barcelona and Paris (two of my favourite places!)  We made sure to pay a visit to the Cathedral, too: it is worth mentioning that there is a separate Credential and certificate for those who complete the San Salvador – the latter being obtained from Oviedo cathedral.

So there you have it, my personal experience of the Camino de San Salvador. This is a lovely little gem of a walk for those who wish to join the Primitivo on the way to Santiago, or indeed for those who have a week’s holiday and would like a taste of that elusive Camino ‘spirit’ that we all crave. The views are stunning, and the tracks are unspoilt. Please be aware, though, that if you’re looking for the ‘comforts’ of the Camino Frances (walking shops, cafés at regular intervals etc.) you won’t find that here… and that’s part of the beauty of it, I’d argue.  But *shh!*, promise not to tell anyone about it! 😉

So this is an article that I’d proposed to a couple of publications about the Camino in France, to no avail! (I’ve been writing for a while now, I am used to the ‘no’s) Not wanting to waste it, I thought I’d post it here…

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In 2014, the Camino de Santiago saw a whopping 238,000 pilgrims walk along one of its many paths to Santiago to receive a Compostela, the certificate awarded at the end. The surge in popularity has been fast and furious: step back into the late 1980’s, and the annual number of pilgrims was less than one thousand.

Thanks in part to films such as The Way, as well as popular books and guides, around 70% of pilgrims opt to start the walk somewhere along the Camino Frances, dubbed the ‘original’ pilgrimage route to Santiago, which begins at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and takes in Spanish cities such as Burgos, Logroño and Leon.

In the spring this year, I walked the Camino de Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay near Lyon, France before joining the Camino Frances, the Camino de San Salvador and later the Camino Primitivo. Two and a half months, four different Camino paths, over 1,600km walked and a bout of tendonitis later, I am now back in the UK readjusting to post-Camino life. A question I am often asked is: “what was your favourite part of the Camino?” Normally this would be a difficult question to answer: each section of the Camino, whether in France or in Spain, has its own unique identity, which is inevitably coloured by the individual experiences had there, and the people encountered. So how do I answer this question? I don’t, I rephrase it:

“If I had just a couple weeks to spare, which part of the Camino would I happily retrace?”

This makes everything much easier, and the answer, for me at least, is surprisingly simple: I would begin again in France, at Le Puy-en-Velay. A route known as the Via Podiensis (and also the GR65), the Camino from Le Puy-en-Velay has been walked by pilgrims for over one thousand years, most notably by Godescalc, the Bishop of Le Puy, back in the winter of 951 AD. It takes in 730km of French countryside before joining up with the beginning of the Camino Frances in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Whilst a well-known getaway for French nationals, with handfuls of Parisians walking sections during their holiday periods, the Via Podiensis is less frequented by British and Irish pilgrims.

If you are looking for a pilgrimage route, or simply some memorable country walking here are five reasons why it is worth considering a couple of weeks on the Via Podiensis, even if time constraints mean that you might not make it to Santiago. After all, if there’s one thing I learnt whilst on the Camino, it’s the following: it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

1. The Via Podiensis is the ideal pilgrimage route for those who wish to escape the beaten track

Less than 2% of Santiago-bound pilgrims begin the camino in Le Puy-en-Velay, which means if souvenir shops, queues, and 300-bed hostels of the Camino Frances aren’t your thing, you’ll appreciate the tranquility of this route through French countryside. Solitude and peace are easily sought amongst the vineyards and luscious forests that you’ll travel through, and pilgrims are rewarded with frequent Haltes des Pèlerins: tables, chairs, coffee and cakes set up at the side of the way by generous locals, who often accept a simple donation in return for their kindness.

2. The scenery is both stunning and varied along the entire route

Whether it be the dramatic, austere landscape of Aubrac – somewhat reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales, with its moss-covered drystone walls- the quaint villages ensconced in the Valley of the Lot, or the view of the cloud-like Pyrenees from one of the many vineyards in Armagnac, the scenery along the Via Podiensis is some of the most breath-taking along the entire Camino de Santiago. This makes for varied and interesting walking: along clifftops, through shaded country lanes or alongside stretches of canal, with no two days resembling each other. A real feast for the eyes.

3. Fewer pilgrims make for more personalised accommodation

Whilst generally a little more expensive than in Spain (10-20 euros, as opposed to 5–10 euros per night) the range of accommodation options along the Via Podiensis is rich and plentiful, with a number of little gems amongst the gîtes d’étape, chambres d’hôte and Acceuils Chrétiens where the welcome is warm, and the experience, personal. Highlights include La Chapelle des Ursulines in Aire-sur-l’Adour: a converted church, with dinner served in the Nave to the sound of rousing classical music, and beds in the side chapel; La Maison Philosophale de Navarrenx in Naverrenx: home of the ‘Alchemist’ of the camino, where the evening can be spent relaxing in the garden hammock before enjoying a vegetarian supper by the fireplace; finally, the Gîte de la Boulangerie Broussé, Arthez-de-Béarn: where breakfast is served by the local boulanger in the kitchen of the boulangerie itself – expect hot coffee, and a veritable feast made up of freshly baked croissants, cakes, buns and breads.

4. Each department along the way has a rich gastronomical tradition: in other words, thefood is delicious

Nothing is more important to the seasoned pilgrim than sustenance, notably of the edible variety. With regional specialities such as the famous ‘L’Aligot’ of Aubrac (a rich mixture of mashed potatoes and melted cheese, mixed until it becomes stringy), the foie gras and confit de canard of the Valley of the Lot, not to mention a whole host of regional cheeses, wines and brandies, the pilgrim on the Via Podiensis never goes hungry. What’s more, many hosts invite their pilgrim guests to partake in breakfast before setting off for the day, and it’s not unusual to be offered a selection of fresh, homemade bread and jams. At La Halte de Larressingle, near Condom, pilgrims are even offered the option of Yorkshire Tea by its Anglophile hostess.

5. Le Puy-en-Velay, the starting point of the Via Podiensis, is easily accessible, as are many of the prominent towns and cities thereafter

From the Gare de Lyon in Paris, there are regular TGV trains which take you to Saint-Etienne, where there is a local train connection to Le Puy-en-Velay. Trains also run from Paris to Figeac, Cahors, Moissac, Decazeville and Aire-sur-l’Adour allowing pilgrims to begin, or continue, their walk further along the Via Podiensis. Plane connections are also available to Lyon for those who are time-pressed. This makes the Via Podiensis an ideal route for those who are limited to shorter holiday periods, as the walk can be split into accessible sections and continued over a number of months or years – as many pilgrims do.

And that is why my fondest memories of the Camino lie not in Santiago, or in the days leading up until my arrival, but rather at the very beginning of the journey, in France. I’d heartily recommend this section to walkers and pilgrims with a couple of weeks to spare, and a yearning for a rich new experience. If you are interested in finding out more, a number of guides are available, with two of my favourites as follows:

The Way of St James: France (Le Puy to the Pyrenees) – A Cicerone Guide by Alison Raju

Miam Miam Dodo: Saint Jacques de Compostelle (GR65) – Les Editions du Vieux Crayon by Lauriane Clouteau and Jacques Clouteau (in French, containing exhaustive list of all accommodation, and facilities along the way, updated each year).

What was your favourite section of the Camino?  Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Overwhelmed and soaked through with rain, I received my Compostela on the 12th June 2015 in Santiago. Two and a half months, over 1,600km, and a multitude of experiences later my Camino as I knew it had come to an end.

They say that walking the Camino de Santiago changes you, transforms the way you are and the way in which you look at the world. Upon setting out on my journey, back in April, I wasn’t sure whether this fabled ‘transformation’ would happen to me. I’d decided it was like hearing a lot of hype about a bestselling book, or a box-office-smashing film, and then discovering that it didn’t live up to overly-elevated expectations.  I didn’t want to think about it too much for fear that it wouldn’t happen in the way that I’d wanted.

Now that I’m back in the UK, back in the same old bedroom, typing at the same old computer, I sometimes find it difficult to see or quantify how I’ve changed – for I know that I have, but how?

I see change as a lesson learnt, or maybe of lessons to be learned. After all, awareness is the first step towards any form of progression.  In this spirit, I am going to share with you the top five things that the Camino taught me.  I’ve structured these as a ‘to do’ list of sorts: whilst on the Camino, I mentioned to my fellow walker that I was a sucker for ‘to do’ lists – I have notebooks full of them, pages and pages of instructions, many of which (most of which, in fact) I never end up fulfilling.  Rather than approaching these points as things that I must absolutely do, then, I’m choosing to treat them as simple intentions to keep in mind when launching back into my professional life in a couple of weeks’ time.

  1. Don’t stick rigidly to plans, or even try to anticipate how the future will go

If you’d asked me what shape I thought my Camino would take back in April, I can guarantee that my answer would have been completely different to what it actually turned out to be. I have the Excel spreadsheets to prove it. Yes, I did plan out my Camino on Excel – each stage, and each form of accommodation.  When I arrived, however, I quickly learnt that I didn’t need to stick to my plans at all – I had the luxury of being flexible with regards to my return date- and besides, I had no idea who I was going to meet, and whether or not I’d want to walk with them for a few days, or more. To put this into context: I’d originally planned to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago via the Via Podiensis and then the Camino Francés. I actually ended up walking the Via Podiensis, then the Camino Francés to Leon, at which point I took the Camino del San Salvador up to Oviedo to join the Camino Primitivo (adding over 100km further kilometres to my journey). Had you told me this some weeks earlier, I would probably have panicked and rushed out to buy five new guide books (I didn’t even know what the Camino del San Salvador was at that point!)

My point is that my Camino journey turned out to be much more varied, exciting and instructive that I ever could have imagined or planned for. Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected. Sometimes you don’t know what you need until it comes to you quite naturally.

  1. You don’t need as much as you think you do

When I look back at my earlier post, detailing everything I brought in my rucksack, it makes me laugh. My rucksack had weighed in at around fourteen kilos at its heaviest (including water), which I was then able to reduce down to seven kilos at its lightest.  That’s HALF of what I’d originally decided to take with me.  Even with hindsight, though, I wouldn’t have changed a thing: we don’t know what we do or don’t need on the Camino until we actually arrive and begin walking. You can tell someone to bring less, but unless they see for themselves what is necessary, and what isn’t, it is a lesson only half-learned. What’s more, everyone’s rucksack contents are vastly different depending on their needs and what they deem to be important. I, for instance, decided that I didn’t need my lunchbox, the six or so guidebooks I’d brought with me (Miam Miam Dodo was by far and away the most useful, and the only one I kept); however, I’d also decided that – for me- some comfortable pyjamas to change into on an evening were very important. Living out of a rucksack, quite happily, for over two months showed me that I don’t need to be surrounded by lots of possessions in order to be content. Indeed, my contentedness seemed to stem from the liberation experienced by travelling lightly.

  1. Spend time developing relationships with those around you (with TIME being the operative word)

On the Camino, I was astounded by the generosity of others and their readiness to share things: whether it be food, time or a helping hand. People stopped to listen to what others were saying, asking pertinent questions with genuine interest. Relationships formed within a matter of days, and people made friends with ease. The magic ingredient in all of this was time: on the Camino there’s plenty of it – after all, we are only walking and know we’ll arrive at our destination eventually.  There’s no rushing off to finish work, or to catch a train, or to run errands. There’s time to listen.

  1. Don’t try to ‘find yourself’ – instead, try to find other people

I had time walking alone on the Camino, and time spent with others in a group.  Whilst I value (and often need) alone time to recharge, I found that being amongst a group of people was integral to understanding myself, and others, a little better.  I enjoyed discussing topics and beliefs that I’d kept to myself for years and years, not having the opportunity to alter, refine or strengthen them.  If the Camino gave me any form of faith at all, it was faith in other people.

  1. Find something meaningful to do in life

This is probably the most difficult one of all. I realised that I am happiest when close to nature, and when living as simply as possible in good company. I now wish to seek a lifestyle that allows me to experience this as closely as possible – with an emphasis on quality of living, and NOT quantity of money.

Did you experience changes whilst on the Camino? Do any of these intentions speak to you? Do let me know!

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.

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 🙂