For most of May, I walked in the footsteps of my father. Literally. Starting on the 6th of May, we hiked the Camino Primitivo, an ancient route from Oviedo in the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela on the west coast. 343 kilometres in 11 days. It was tough but beautiful. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
My father had turned sixty the previous year, and I decided to let him choose his birthday gift. (My gold standard for him is chocolate and I was unable to conjure up something more creative.) Sensing an opportunity, he mentioned that he has a short ‘bucket list’, and that hiking the Camino is at the top. Not knowing much about the Camino, I happily agreed. I would be in Europe in 2016 in any case, and we tentatively decided that May would be a good month to go to Spain.
His preparation started almost immediately after this conversation. He would put on his backpack and, almost daily, hike the 24km mountain route from our home in Paarl, South Africa. He would send me tonnes of emails of people who had done ‘the Camino’. Deciding to do some research of my own, I soon realised that there were many decisions to make long before arrival. What route? How many days? How to get there and back? Where and how to get a ‘Camino passport’? What shoes to wear? What to pack?
We decided on the Camino Primitivo for mostly three reasons. The first was that it is a manageable length given our available time. The Primitivo is also, according to legend, the most ancient route. Fearing the Moors to the south, two bishops from Oviedo hiked the Primitivo around 800 CE to visit St James’ tomb. And, according to the few sites I could find, it was also a physical challenge. That sounded like something we would enjoy.
Our journey started on the morning of the 6th. We met in Bilbao the day before, and took an ALSA bus that arrived at 22h30 in Oviedo. We had brought no map of the city, and had to ask a few people before we managed to find our hotel. That is also when we realised the language barrier may be bigger than expected. The next morning we were up early, ready for our first day. We found the cathedral where we would start from, but were slightly disappointed that there were no signs pointing the way. We still had no map, and we thus walked, a bit less confidently, in a generally western direction. And then, after maybe half-an-hour and an increasing unease, a random woman stopped us and pointed to the street where we would see our first arrow – we had found the route to Santiago de Compostela!
It was a beautiful hike through the farms and small villages that dotted the hilly landscape. Our first night we spent in Grada in an overpriced, dodgy hotel because we could not find the albergue, the hostel for pilgrims. The second day we stayed with Micheal in his private albergue in Salas, although, looking back, we could probably have hiked a bit further. We paid for it on the third day, when we hiked a total of 40km to Campiello. The day was memorable for another reason too. Walking down a hill, my father in front, I slowed down a bit to enjoy the view.
Thinking my father was still in front of me, I continued downhill only to realise, at the bottom, that he was not in front of me anymore. I could see the shells (pointing to Santiago), so I knew I was on the ‘right’ route, but what had happened to my father? I asked a farmer who was working in a neighbouring field whether he had seen anyone, but his English was as bad as my Spanish. He did point me to the actual correct route whence my father should come, and so I decided to run (with my 8kg backpack) back on this route. Needless to say, after about 1km of running (having already hiked about 25km), I was dead tired. I also realised I wasn’t on the actual correct route anymore: there weren’t any shells. So I turned around and ran the 1km back again, deciding that I would probably just walk on and hope to either catch up with him or wait at the next town. But fortunately, just before the ‘correct’ route intersects with my ‘wrong’ route, I could see him coming down a hill towards me. We had a few laughs afterwards, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. That evening, another 15km after my run, we found a wonderful albergue, Herminia’s in Campiello. That was also the first evening we would meet people that we would see throughout our journey, and ultimately in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
The next day the path split in two, and we decided to choose Hospitales. Here is the recommendation in a booklet we (unfortunately) only purchased after our trip: ‘The Hospitales option leads into the mountains and away from civilisation for most of the day. While this is one of the most demanding walks on any Camino, made more so by the lack of resources, it is strikingly beautiful with expansive mountain vistas unfolding in all directions.’ That is spot on. The views are just incredible, and we were fortunate that we had clear skies for most of it. (It can be misty, but the route is very well marked, in contrast to what we were told beforehand.)
That night we also had our first experience of one of the hallmarks of any Camino: snoring. We ended up in a room with 12 people. One of them, a Spanish guy, which we would unfortunately meet later on the journey again, had a remarkable snore which no earplug in the world could keep out. I’m not sensitive to sound; you can’t be if you’ve spent four years in a university dormitory. But I think I didn’t sleep more than two hours that night, and judging by the other people’s faces the next morning, neither did they. That is what makes the Camino a physical challenge: hiking 30kms and then not sleeping, and not eating very well, and hiking another 30kms, and not sleeping. We did this for another five nights until we reached Lugo, a city with an incredible Roman wall, where we decided to stay in a hotel. By that stage we were tired and dirty, but in good spirits. Our feet miraculously had no blisters (in contrast to some of our companions on the journey), and the next morning, after circling the Roman wall, we decided that we could push through to Santiago de Compostela in three days. That, in hindsight, was maybe the wrong call.
Our first night of the last stretch we stayed in a very nice albergue. Some fantastic paella was served, and the Spanish snorer had decided to go to a different spot so we could at least enjoy a good night’s rest. The route from Lugo to Santiago is less hilly. You walk along tarred roads most of the time. My expectation was that this would be easier, but it turned out that the hard surface was tougher on our feet and knees. By the second evening, after a 38km walk, I had cramps in my right leg, and my feet were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The next day would be our final stretch to Santiago and I hoped the legs would last for just one more day.
They didn’t. With about 10km to go, my right leg could barely bend. Those last kilometres, when you could see Santiago in the distance but it would not get closer, was gruelling. The road into Santiago (the French route, which we joined two days earlier) descends steeply, and I had to shuffle sideways for most of it, keeping my leg straight. There were hundreds of other hikers on this stretch. Some had been on the road for weeks, even months. You could see it in their faces and the only thing you could do is to applaud their achievement. There were unfortunately also those, in larger numbers, that had just signed up for three days or even just one day of hiking, and were now crowding the route. That did make it feel a bit touristy.
After we entered the town, there were another three kilometres to endure before we finally reached, through the archway, the Cathedral square. It is difficult to describe the emotions at the ‘finish’. Elation, yes, but you’re mostly just dead tired. (Our last day was another 38km.) We took a few photos and then went to get our compostela (certificate), and then to find our hotel. The rest of the week we relaxed in Santiago and Finisterre, a small village on the western coast of Spain where the Camino reaches the ‘end of the world’.
Many have asked me since we’ve returned whether the Camino is what I expected. I envisaged a lot of time philosophising, thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That did not really happen, because, and this is perhaps due to nature of the Camino Primitivo, most of your time is spent deciding where to step so that you don’t fall. It is a technical walk, especially because it is almost constantly wet and muddy underfoot (both of us fell twice, luckily without serious injury). Yes, there were times when you could let your thoughts wander, but often those thoughts just wondered about where the next shell indicating the route might be.
I did not come to any major new insights. And, actually, I am perfectly fine with that. I did something with my father which we both enjoyed. It was challenging – I lost 4kgs in 11 days – and that ‘intellectual break’ was perhaps exactly what I needed after an eight-month sabbatical. We did meet some fascinating people along the way, many with their own compelling (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories. But I also think the pilgrims that choose the Primitivo are slightly different than the rest: they are there because they want the physical challenge. And they are okay with walking for an entire day without seeing anyone else.
Will I do it again? Maybe, but there is no urge to return immediately. And yet, there are times that I miss the simplicity of it all. Only two sets of clothing. Only two choices of bocadillo (ham or cheese), only two types of coffee (with or without milk). Just me and my dad on a mountain path in a country where no-one speaks your language. And where it is sometimes good to get lost, so that you realise what it is you value most.
The Primitivo route I’d suggest (if you want to do it in 11 days):
Oviedo -> San Juan de Villapanada -> Bodenaya -> Campiello -> (via Hospitales) Berducedo -> Castro (bookings required) -> Padron -> Castroverde -> Lugo -> Ferreira -> Arzua -> Santiago