"Well hello, a fellow Canadian pilgrim?!"
The words come from behind me, interrupting my anxious confusion as I stand awkwardly outside the small airport in Biarritz, France, where I'm attempting to decipher a bus stop sign in a language I probably should have learned yet definitely didn't. I had just spent the last 2 days sleeplessly making my way through airports and trains across the world to get to this point, and with only two bus rides to go before reaching St Jean Pied de Port, the reality was finally setting in that I was about embark on this crazy solo journey that I had dreamed of for years and yet had no idea what I was doing. I may have been slightly freaking out internally when I turned around and met David, a friendly fellow with a spark in his eye and a kind, adventurous face behind his white beard.
"It's the Canadian pin on your backpack. I'm from Canada too, the east coast. This your first time walking the Camino? I must say, after travelling all this way, it's comforting to finally meet a fellow pilgrim! This feels more real now."
My sentiments exactly. I breathed easier from here on out, enjoying the comfort in good conversation and mutual excitement as we navigated the bus system together for the next few hours until finally reaching St. Jean (by which point we were surrounded by several other nervous and excited pilgrims as well). From here, I would pick up my pilgrim’s passport, spend some time wandering around that beautiful little French town, and then finally catch a few hours of sleep in an albergue before waking up at 6am to, well… start walking.
What made you decide to walk the Camino de Santiago?
One of my most frequently asked questions. It was maybe 5 years ago when I first heard about it, the route followed by pilgrims since the 9th century to Santiago de Compostela... Since I heard of it, I've had a constant nagging desire to someday walk it. Earlier this year after a bit of a hard January, I hit a point where I felt the need to go on a solo trip somewhere. Not to escape life - but rather to chase it and to experience something entirely new. Something outside of my comfort zone. Something I dreamed of doing in the back of my mind for years but lacked the courage to just go do it, until given a little push in the form of a reminder that life is a gift meant for living. And so that's how I found myself suddenly using my savings to book a ticket to Europe, grabbing a new pair of shoes and flying out with no real plan but to just wing it and see what happens. (Fun fact as a photographer: I didn't bring my camera. Crazy, eh? So yeah, the pictures you see here are my phone snaps.)
What route did you walk?
I opted for the Camino Frances route (The French Way), the most popular route as my first time Camino experience. Starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, the route goes across the French border into Spain, across the entire northern part of the country, ending at Santiago de Compostela (or, in my case, I finished ahead of schedule and walked further to end my journey at Cape Finisterre, once believed to be the "End of the World" where the land meets the ocean.
The first day was cold, clear and beautiful. Other than getting lost right off the bat for the first kilometer (but making good friends while doing so, and enjoying a spectacular sunrise!), the rest of the day was spent hiking up through the Pyrenees mountains to reach Roncesvalles, about 24 km away. There were patches of fog resting in the valleys and hovering over the farm fields, with the sun bursting through the trees in beautiful golden beams. With a quick stop in a grocery store a few km in, I loaded up on chocolate, fruit, nuts and bread to keep me going the rest of the day until dinner. All my nervousness from before simply vanished as I followed the yellow painted arrows and other fellow pilgrims up through the forested valley and over the mountain pass, greeting farm dogs and sheep along the way, listening to the rushing rivers and gazing up at the wind blowing the snow off the tops of the surrounding mountains. My heart was soaring with happiness this first day, and I felt in high spirits all week despite my sore feet, catching a head-cold and walking through the rainstorms that later set in.
- How far did you walk each day?
On average, I walked about 31 km per day, with one break day in Santiago de Compostela (day 26) before continuing another 3 days to Finisterre and adding an extra bonus day up the coast to Muxia (so 30 days altogether, 29 of them walking). Not every day was exactly 31 km though - the shortest day I walked 22 km, and the longest day was a whopping 48 km.
- What did you pack?
I kept it real simple: One pair of pants, one t-shirt and one sweater for during the day, one change of clothes to spend evenings/sleep in, a couple pairs of socks and underwear, rain jacket, rain pants, lightweight down coat, toque, gloves, trekking poles, travel-size toiletries, lightweight pack towel, small first-aid kit, lightweight sleeping bag, sunscreen and hat, phone and charger. All my life's essential belongings were narrowed down to just 16 lbs on my back... an invigorating feeling!
- So considering you wore the same clothes every day, how often did you do laundry?
Uh... Not sure I want to answer that with the truth. But hey, what's the point of doing laundry all the time if your clothes are just gonna get dirty and sweaty within the first hour of every day anyway, right?
- On that note, how often did you shower?
...More than I did my laundry.
- Where did you stay for nights?
I stayed in albergues (a system of hostels for pilgrims, averaging 7 euros per night). Most towns had a few albergues to choose from, so it was never too hard to find a place to sleep and shower.
Things I learned/highlights from week one:
-I can eat truly obscene amounts of chocolate and not worry about it one bit.
-If you put on your rain pants, it won't rain. If you take off your rain pants, it will rain. 98% of the time.
-It's amazing the amount of snot one's nose can produce while walking all day with a cold. Absolutely amazing.
-Doing this trip solo was a great choice. I really enjoy walking at my own pace, stopping where I want, and spending time delving through my own mind without distraction. And if I get lonely, all I have to do is say hello to the next Pilgrim I see, and a new friendship can be born instantly.
-Continuation of the last point: All the pilgrims I've encountered are so friendly! It makes the walk so enjoyable to chat with people from all over the world, to learn about their lives and what led everyone to this place in this time. It's easy to make friends as I often see the same people several times while walking. Everyone's so uniquely different, but with the common ground that we're all in this walk together.
-Man oh man, proper foot care is soooo very essential. Also, your feet will look ugly every time you pull off your shoes after 30km. Embrace it. Take care of them.
-I should probably learn Spanish so I can order a coffee without feeling like a fool.
-Be open to conversation with strangers, they'll teach you a lot. One memory that sticks with me the most is the 2-hour conversation I had with a spiritual director who was walking the Camino for his 5th time. We were the only two people in the albergue that night, and I was about to hit my bed early after 40km that day, when his first words from across the room were the question of why I seemed shyly quiet (yes, I can be very shyly quiet at times). And so I engaged, and then listened while he told me many true things he observed about my personality whilst talking with me that evening. He told me of his own life and what led him to become a spiritual director. He then shared inspiring advice for combating anxiety before leading me through calming breathing exercises during conversation. I fell asleep feeling very light and peaceful, and to this day I still feel braver and inspired by our conversation.
And so the first week proved to be a great introduction to my trek along The Way, finishing a total of 200km. I remember between big juicy bites of an apple while walking alongside one of my new friends, I could't help bursting out, "You know what? I know this is only the first week, but I could TOTALLY get used to this!"
"....Well this sucks."
Fast forward another week from my last cheerful statement... Here you'll find me: Covered in sticky mud up to my waist, shoes soaked completely through from nonstop rain for the last 6 days, fighting a terrible head cold for the past 10 days, rain and hail flying at me from all directions, unrelenting wind literally knocking me off my feet every few minutes, no scenery but flat, muddy fields as far as the eye can see, and taking the shortest, slowest strides imaginable due to incredible knee pain. Backwards. Yep, I was walking backwards. Somehow slightly less painful than walking forwards (though I did flip myself back around every time another pilgrim passed, so as not to appear weird...not that I should have been concerned with that at this point.) Crossing the flat, endless Meseta of Spain during week 2 was almost my downfall. Though beautiful in its own way, even the locals all agreed the spring weather had not been this terrible in several years. I'll be honest, on this particular day (which was not unlike the last 6 days in a row leading up to this moment) I began to break into tears as I realized I would not be able to continue much longer with the combined knee pain, sickness and storming weather. The last small town I passed was about 7km behind me, and the next another 10km ahead, and meanwhile nothing and no one in sight all around.
I stood still in the mud for a good long while as the freezing rain and wind thrashed all around me. I tried to pray the knee pain away and seriously considered grabbing a taxi in the next town to the airport where I could supposedly fly to Barcelona to spend the remainder of the month lazing around in the sunshine, while also being angry at myself for not finishing what I set out to do. In the end, I decided I wouldn't think about making any decisions until I reached the next town... which took many hours. But guess what: even snails get places.
It seemed an impossible task to finish the last 10km to the next town, but falling into the backwards walking rhythm with one very short step at a time, the progress was made slowly and gradually. By the end of the day I arrived at the edge of the town, and was grateful to stumble into one of the first buildings which happened to be a pharmacy. It was here I met two lovely sisters about my age, on their own pilgrimage across Spain, who had struggled as much if not more than I on the road, and who bore the most uplifting words and advice that convinced me to continue the journey rain or shine, pain or no pain. It's amazing what a bit of human connection and loving words can do. Leaving the pharmacy with my knee taped and bandaged up and supplies to keep it that way, I settled into the nearest albergue for the night.
Right before falling asleep, I decided to do a purge of sorts, ridding bad thoughts as well as extra supplies in my backpack that I didn't need to lessen the weight on my bad knee. At one point I pulled out a bottle of sunscreen, and with one glance thought "hell, it's been 2 weeks on the Camino and I've never used this once. Be gone with ya!" And so I threw it away, lightening both my backpack and my spirit by letting go of the things and thoughts that no longer served me.
The next day the sun came out and I burnt to a crisp.
- What did you think about while walking? Did you have a method for keeping your mind on track during the bad days?
Yes, actually. Starting from day one, I dedicated each day to a specific person in my life, and I would walk for them. I would think about how grateful I was for that person, and would spend the day praying for them. Whenever I faced a hard day and felt down on myself, I'd re-direct my thoughts to the "person of the day" and realize how lucky I am to have such people in my life. My energy felt restored when not just walking for myself, but for someone specific that I love.
- Any typical Lizzy Gadd embarrassing stories during your pilgrimage?
Oh many, yes. Here is one: One evening as I was settling into an albergue, I made eye contact with a sweet French fellow about my age sitting in the bunk across from me. He lifted a chocolate bar in his hand and asked, in broken English, if I'd like a piece. Of course I couldn't say no... So he came and sat next to me and we spent the next half hour talking about life and the love of chocolate. Soon we went our separate ways for dinner, but later that evening I noticed him walking around the room asking if anyone had seen his chocolate bar, for he seemed to have misplaced it and was in quite a turmoil state. I felt immense anguish for the fellow, for I know how saddening it is to have one's chocolate go missing. When he came to my bunk, I met his eyes and said with utmost sympathy, "I'm so sorry, that is a tragic loss. And I do swear, I did not steal it." He sighed deeply and continued his search, to no avail.
I did steal it. The next morning when I awoke at 6am and opened my backpack, I found his chocolate bar right there with the rest of my chocolate stash. It all came back to me... we were sitting on my bed chatting, sharing a few pieces of his chocolate bar, when he got up to go to dinner, absentmindedly leaving the bar on my bed. Naturally, and also absentmindedly, I saw the chocolate bar on my bed and assumed it was one of mine. So I put it in my backpack. And I watched as the poor fellow searched the room for an hour before bedtime.
As I threw on my backpack and walked passed him towards the door that morning, I gave the bar to him... "So uh... I, uh... had your chocolate bar." I left before he could ask more questions.
Notes/Things I learned/Highlights from week two:
-I can ask for a coffee in Spanish now. Huge milestone.
-I'm amazed by how much distance one can cover simply by walking. Using my legs has become my favourite form of travelling, allowing me to slowly soak in all the surroundings as I go. It only sucks when it won't stop heavily raining and hailing (which is every day this week... but there's beauty to be seen even in the rain, right? Right?! Keep telling myself that).
-A night's rest goes a long way, you'd be surprised how much the body can recover in a few hours. Mentally and physically. Seriously.
-I've yet to ever see a sunset in Spain, for I've fallen asleep before dark every day. However, waking up at 6am for 14 days in a row breaks my record for early rising.
-Super excited to find peanut butter in the market, though only in giant tubs... weighs down the pack a lot. Worth it.
-Still haven't done laundry yet. Whoops.
-Trekking poles are a serious knee-saver. Not to mention, using them for 6-10 hours a day is making my arms sexy.
-A point previously made, but must be said again: Be open to things. Sometimes this can be hard when all I want to do after a long, hard, painful, rainy, cold day of walking is to curl up in my sleeping bag and wallow in self-pity as I wonder what the hell I'm doing. But when I crawl out and open myself to the world, the best things happen and I meet the coolest people. It's all worth it, every experience where I've left my personal bubble has been a memorable one.
My knee makes a miraculous come-back, and more. My entire body has adjusted to the trekking lifestyle. My feet are rock hard. My legs are steel beasts. I can effortlessly blaze 40km a day, almost twice as far as I was able to the first couple weeks. I am 641km into my journey. I am bionic woman.
Week three led me out of the flat land of the Meseta and through, up and over a couple beautiful mountain ranges and valleys, passing through mountainside hamlets (the tiniest villages I've ever seen!) and coming out to green rolling hills covered in vineyards and herds of livestock.
At the highest point in the mountains (and the highest point of the entire Camino route) I came upon the Iron Cross. It was very early, still and quiet, surrounded by fog so thick I couldn't see more than several yards ahead. I sat down in the fog and watched as an older couple walked up to the cross, nailed a few notes to the wooden pole, bent down and prayed for a long while. As they left they walked by me and smiled, and I noticed they had been crying. It's a symbolic place, a place where people feel they can leave their burdens before continuing the journey. I pulled a couple small stones from my pocket and prayed as well, before placing them at the cross among the thousands of other stones - all representative of the lifted burdens from pilgrim's shoulders.
There was a new energy in the air now. People told me of it, the flow of energy you'll find within the last week before reaching Santiago de Compostela. It was true. The closer I got to Santiago, the more I could feel the buzzing energy of every other pilgrim along the way, all motivating and spurring each other on with smiles and stories and the excitement of getting closer to their goal. These days started foggy and cool, turned warm and sunny by midday. The land was all freshly green with Spring as I walked through all the rolling hills and fields and forests. I was reminded of the Shire.
- What was the strangest encounter you had along the Way?
Without a doubt, this: I was walking through the woods in the early morning, when an old fellow with wild gray hair appeared out of the foggy forest, walking towards me in a long trench coat, accompanied by several dogs and a hand-held radio playing music that he had held up to his ear. His face lit up with a massive, toothless smile the moment he saw me, and he grabbed my elbow and very excitedly starting talking to me in Spanish. I didn't know what he was saying, except for a few words when he asked me, "Santiago, yes?!". I responded, "Yes, I'm on my way to Santiago!". He reached into his trench coat pocket and pulled out an acorn nut, pressing it firmly into my hand as he leaned in close and said, "To Santiago! For ME!", and then quite literally almost skipped his way down the trail with all this dogs trotting behind. So, I held onto the acorn for the next 100km, bringing it to Santiago for him. I didn't know what to do with it once I got there... I left it on the stone steps of a random building.
- A favourite moment from the trip?
On that same day as the encounter described above, and only an hour or so later, I came around the corner of the path near the top of a hill to find a little stone building with a coffee shop that had just opened up. It was 9am, I had been walking for a few hours already and hadn't had breakfast yet... I got a coffee and some food as other pilgrims began to arrive and had the same idea. I sat outside at a shared table with 4 other strangers, each from a different country, each of them so very friendly, all of us struggling to converse in our own languages to each other but all happily trying. The fog was just starting to clear up as the sun was coming over the ridge of a nearby hill, shining in epic light rays through the trees towards our table, the first warmth on my skin that day. Suddenly a cat appeared out of nowhere and hopped up on my lap, curled up and fell asleep. Then a large dog walked around the corner of the building, saw me snuggling with the cat, became jealous and sat down next to me, demanding to be patted. So I sat there, coffee cup in one had, petting a dog with another, a large cat sleeping on my lap, looking out at the view of the green hills, feeling warm sunbeams shining on my face, and surrounded by jolly wonderful people... The coffee shop owner came outside and saw me trapped under his cat and stuck petting his dog while struggling to eat my breakfast, and looking rather concerned and embarrassed, asked "Are you happy?"... I smiled big when I responded "I couldn't be happier!". I meant it.
Notes/Things I learned/Highlights from week three:
-There are some serious bone-rattling snorers in this world. Sharing a room every night with other pilgrims, earplugs might help reduce the sound, but you can physically FEEL the room rattling and vibrating. Crazy!
-I keep hearing people say they're losing weight like crazy from walking all day every day on the Camino. I kinda thought the same would happen to me, but 3 weeks in I don't notice any difference... Though I have been buying souvenirs in the form of chocolate covered pastries in every single town so far...
-There will be ups and downs. Don't take anything for granted. The downs are worth it, they teach us to take care of ourselves, to not give up, and then appreciate the ups like never before. Last week was rough, yes. This week I'm happier and stronger than I've felt in a long time, walking almost 40k a day, and so thankful for every moment along the way.
-The people here are by far the best part. Whether it's singing songs with a group of happy nuns, making dinner with fellow pilgrims, walking with a ukulele playing father-daughter duo, or taking wisdom from an old funny man from Slovenia... This week I've really learned almost everyone along the way has a meaningful message for you. Be open and listen for it.
-For some reason, everyone thinks I'm Australian... only three people this month have guessed I'm Canadian. Probably from seeing the Canadian flag pin on my backpack. I don't think I sound Australian, so I'm not sure what's up.
-There's something wonderful about not knowing what to expect each day. You just gotta wake up and start walking, take each moment as it comes and see what happens. I've never felt more in the present than I have during this month on the Camino.
Finally arriving close to Santiago, the finishing point for most pilgrims, the flow of energy was unstoppable. Though maybe that has to do with the fact that there were pop-up coffee shops around almost every corner for the last 100km... so much coffee. So, so much. Coffee.
The morning before I arrived, I woke up with the song "Imagine" by John Lennon in my head. I sang it quietly to myself while walking through the fields that morning, it somehow felt very fitting. I then came upon a large boulder on the trail with the words written on it, "Imagine all the people...". About one km later, another large boulder - "...Living life in peace". I laughed. Funny how the world comes together that way.
I accidentally walked 48km the day I arrived at Santiago de Compostela. Accidentally, because I had meant to only walk 30km, to give myself a short 18km the next day. But alas... I was lost in my imagination when I passed the last town where I had meant to stop for the night, and there were no places between there and Santiago. By the time I realized I had missed my stop, I was already a couple km ahead and didn't want to bother backtracking... so I kept going for a few more hours. I'm not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way I lost the trail... of course it would happen to me that the only times I lose the trail are at the very beginning of my trek 4 weeks ago, and the very end. I was following random suburban roads, completely lost, but I knew the main city must be close, so I set my eyes on the setting sun and followed it west for a couple hours. Several cars honked at me as I walked alongside the roads. I like to think they were cheering me on. Eventually I came over a hill and finally saw the tall spires of the Cathedral of Santiago in the far distance... I had made it! 48km later, I treated myself to a small private room in a hotel for the first time all month, had a shower, watched the sunset, and then instantly fell asleep soundly (was a real treat not needing earplugs!). I had reached Santiago 5 days ahead of my original schedule, so with the extra time I decided to spend the next entire day casually exploring the city, and then tack on 4 more days of walking to reach the ocean.
Santiago de Compostela was beautiful. I explored all the streets I could, marveled at the buildings, sat in the Cathedral for the morning church service, wandered around some lovely parks, ran into several other Pilgrims I had made friends with at various points along the Way, treated myself to lots of coffee and good meals at various cafes... All the while pondering the last few weeks and letting it sink in that I had reached my original goal. And feeling excited to continue the journey the next day.
The last 100km or so to the ocean were quiet and peaceful. It was the perfect way to wind down the journey from the entire month. The air was subtly warm, and oddly felt almost tropical. I wandered through beautiful eucalyptus forests, alongside blue rivers reflecting the shining sun, through some lovely little villages, up and over green hills and then through some evergreen woodlands that reminded me slightly of home. There was a hint of salt in the air, brought on the breeze from the ocean. It felt so quiet compared to the week before, with most of the pilgrims having ended their walk in Santiago. I enjoyed the silence. It was a perfect time to reflect. And eat sandwiches uninterrupted.
Oh, that feeling when you come over the mountain to see the sun reflecting on the ocean in the distance... It is like non other! I yelled for joy when I saw it. After walking surrounded by land for 29 days, seeing the expanse of open ocean was like seeing a whole new world ahead. Slightly bittersweet, it officially marked the point where I could physically walk no further, and yet held a feeling of relief, fulfillment and rest for both the mind and body.
- How much money did you spend per day?
Honestly, I don't think I spent more than 25 euros (sometimes as low as 12-15) per day. Most of the albergues I stayed in cost between 5-8 euros each night, sometimes a few extra for dinner and breakfast included. For the rest of my food, I made my own meals and snacks by picking up ingredients from markets along the way.
To be safe, it is suggested to have about 30 euros per day.
- Did you lose weight from all the walking?
Uh.... Okay, this might be a rare phenomenon for having just walked 900km in 29 days, but... I gained weight. If I'm gonna be burning 3,000 or more calories a day from walking, Lord knows I'm gonna be eating at least that much in chocolate each day. Wait, I probably just gained muscle mass. Yeah, let's go with that.
- What stuck with you the most from the trip?
The kindness of others along the way.
- Would you do it again?
Yes. Yes, I think I certainly would.
- What would you do differently next time?
I'd probably take a few extra days to slow down next time, explore in more of the cities along the way, and really work on opening myself up to engage with other people more. Yes, I did come out of my shell a lot over the course of the trip, but there's still so much more to learn. Not only do I want to gain more knowledge and understanding of others, but I'd like to work on offering my own words and listening ears and be of service when I can, always open to everyone around me. A lot of people helped me along The Way. Next time, I want to put more effort into helping them also.
The Last Days:
I meandered along the beaches, dipping my toes in the blue water and collecting random shells as memories. I made my way towards Fisterra, a town on the edge of a peninsula on the west coast on Spain. "The End of the Earth", they call it. One of my very favourite towns, I spent the day wandering around the streets and then walking the gorgeous 3km road further up the peninsula to the very end, where I could sit by the lighthouse and watch the sunset over the open ocean. That evening, looking into the endless water as far as the eye could see, watching the golden sun sink down below the waves, I felt a grand feeling of promise... the end of one journey, the beginning of the next chapter.
(Turns out my next little chapter involved another 30km walk further up the coast to see the town of Muxia, getting completely lost along the way of course, enjoying the beautiful beaches and forests nonetheless, and then taking the bus back to Santiago for one entire day of eating all the pizzas and pastries I could find before flying back home.)
It's been a walk I'll never forget. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me along the way... I learned much about love, strength and patience on this trip, and I will certainly be taking what I learned with me into the future.
Was the whole journey worth it for me in the end? Yes. A thousand times yes.
Much love to every one of you!!!