Northwest Spain is a blind spot in the mental landscape of the collective mind. Hearing the word 'Spain' images will appear of say, Costa del Sol, where the sun always shines but where there is never any vacant space on the beach. Or Barcelona with its iconic buildings and strollings on the Ramblas. Or another spot on the Mediterranean coast with tapas and sangria and cervezas and vinos and luxury appartments and all the comforts of the world. The nortwest stays out of view. And luckily so. My advice is to keep away from this region. There is nothing of interest to be seen here.
Except for El Camino de SantiagoOr in other words, this the collective name for the centuries old pilgrim paths that lead to Santiago de Compostla where, according to legend, the body of Sint Jacob lies burried. (For those without a Christian background: he was one of the disciples of Jezus). But a pilgrimage...isn't that only for people with a spiritual crisis? Yes exactly. That's why this article is written for the searching among us as well as for those who can appreciate the magic of long walks. Explanation is unnecessary. Four unconventional but essential tips for the modern pilgrim.
1. Thread & Needle
This should be on everyone's list of walking accessories. Needle and thread should be inseparable with the trail. Because blisters. And blisters are the natural enemies of every self-respecting foot traveller. Many have discontinued their expedition because of these oval fuckers filled with slimy liquid. It starts slowly. Gradually you will notice an unpleasant but not an insurmountable sensation. As if a little stone happens to be in between your foot and the sole of your shoe. The more you walk, however, the worse it becomes. The little stone is exchanged for a blunt knife. And soon you find yourself in a classic catch-22 situation: when you walk on with a full-grown blister, the pain becomes worse, but when you take a break to get rid of the agony, the even more intense pain when standing up again takes away the previous relief you felt. Or, to sum it up: you're fucked. And you still have to walk 12 kilometers to the next lodge. That's why needle and thread are indispensable. Instructions: stick a piece of thread through the eye of the needle, subsequently heat the needle with a lighter (to make it sterile) and pierce then through the blister. When the thread is halfway through, take away the needle. The thread should stay while you walk. The reason to perform this trick is so no more fluid can be build up in the blister.
2. Take a tent with you
According to official numbers from the institute for pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela, around 275.000 persons reached the finishing line. That are a lot of people. But don't worry: the majority of those people start at an exact distance of 100 kilometers from the cathedral. The rule is that this is the minumum distance for one to be recognized as a pilgrim and thus the possibility of receiving a certificate. Nevertheless, when you want to do the walk in the summer months, there is a chance that you will encounter a full lodge after walking a long day. Then you will have two options to consider: or you walk on to the next albergue de peregrino or you pay big money for some other accomodation. Often the nearest lodge means walking on a few more hours and in some cases there will be no other accomodation other than the full lodge. That's why it is handy to take a tent with you: you will always have a place to sleep. And carrying a tent with you doesn't necessarily contribute more weight in your backpack: a one-person tent weighs less than 1,5 kilograms and doesn't cost more than a few tenners.
3. Don't choose El Camino Frances
There are more roads that lead to Rome, but to Santiago too. There are 8 main routes. By far the most popular way is the so called Camino Frances that starts in the French town St. Jean Pied de Port. A lot of people think that this is the only way to Santiago de Compostela and because of this that this route is walked (or biked) the most. Likewise, film and literature have contributed to its popularity. In the eighties, Paulo Coelho wrote The Pilgrimage and the Camino Frances is used for the movie The Way with Martin Sheen. However idyllic it is presented though, the fact is that the Camino Frances is relatively busy. Sleeping in a room with over fifty people is the rule rather than the exception in the albergues municipal, and also on the way itself you will never be your own company for long.
For those with fear of loneliness, this would be the best option. If you prefer a calmer way, then I would suggest choosing the Camino del Norte for example, that runs along the coast. This one has the charm of the ocean, there are less people on the road (but still enough to form life long friendships. I met my current girlfriend along this route) and is certainly not less beautiful from an aesthetic point of view.
4. Push on to Finisterre
Nope, we're not gonna go home...yet. If walking the Camino has become from a habituation to an overwhelming addiction, and after seeing the Cathedral you've realised that it's a damn shame to finish, there is always the choice to walk on to the end of the world. That would be about another 100 kilometers. Why not? March on the tones of life and carry out the ultimate pilgrim ritual: sleep on the beach of Finisterre, make a bonfire and burn your shoes or something else that is of sentimental value for you. And drink wine till the sunrise.
Northwest Spain. El Camino de Santiago. An eye-opener for the mind. Viva la libre! For those who know why. But...please keep the jewel of Spain a secret to the plebs. It would be a shame when the traffic jams on the Route du Soleil would shift to El Camino. And then be required to zigzag around a queue. For those poeple there is this advice: just stay where you are, sitting on your big towel. There is really nothing of interest to be seen here.