El Camino de Santiago – Day 26 to 30

Molinaseca >>> Villafranca de Bierzo (32.3km) >>> O Cebreiro (30.7km) >>> Triacastela (23.2km) >>> Sarria (18.8km) >>> Portomarin (22km)

= 133km (Total: 676.8 km)

Days 26 to 28 were by far the most challenging we have had on the camino so far. They were long days over steep terrain with extreme weather thrown in on top. We all suffered in our own ways and came through the tough moments quoting our new favourite phrases: ‘suffer gloriously’ and ‘no pain, no glory’. We laugh at the way we hobble and limp around the albergues. Every pilgrim who has been walking for weeks is the same. It is hard to imagine getting out of bed or standing up out of a chair without pain in every muscle. It is actually quite popular for people to start walking the Camino in the last couple of hundred kilometres as most can’t get enough time off work. So we are meeting fresh faces and reassuring new pilgrims that it is normal for their feet to feel like this, that it will get easier and it is true that the hard parts will become their best memories.

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The weather hasn’t been kind to us for at least a week now. Every night we look up the forecast and it seems to be never-ending rain with a bit of snow or ice mixed in. Fortunately our gear has held up pretty well so our bags and bodies have remained dry. Adam and Jane have had no problems with their shoes, but mine were definitely letting me down.

Until yesterday I had accepted my shoes for what they were. Water vessels. I started each morning with a clean(ish), dry sock. After I attended to my blisters, I would wrap my sock-covered foot in a plastic bag and tape it. Then I would gingerly and painfully force it into my soaking wet shoes. My foot would stay comfortably dry for about an hour before the water crept in and before too long I would be squelching along with every step. At the end of the day I would take my shoe off, unwrap my waterlogged and blistered feet and massage pawpaw ointment into them. I would then rest my shoes up against a heater if there was one available in our albergue in the hope that they would be dry by morning. It all seems quite futile doesn’t it? Like why would I bother if my foot will get wet anyway? But it was my ritual and I would do it without fail, everyday.

After 30 days on the camino I have noticed that when life is simplified down to walking, eating and sleeping, rituals take on a whole new meaning. I have been asking other pilgrims and it is true, we develop these habits or a specific order in the way that we do everything. Everyone seems to have a ‘foot ritual’, a special order that we pack our bags in the morning, the number of stops we take in a day, the way we set up our bunk beds, how we unwind once arriving at the albergue etc. I guess it’s the same in everyday life -just more obvious when you have nothing else to do.

It rained almost the entire way from Molineseca to Villafranca. It was a long 30km and I was not in high spirits. My legs were giving me grief down near the ankles, I was finding it hard to get into my rhythm and my shoes were (of course) soaking. The landscape was rolling green hills and despite the rain, the scenery was beautiful. Every now and then we would have 5 minutes rest from the rain and could enjoy the views of rural Spain.

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When we arrived in Villafranca we were utterly exhausted. We had walked almost 33km and all I wanted to do was crawl into my sleeping bag and cry. The albergue was a bit strange and after a bit of negotiating, we worked out that it was the town’s patron saint day (a holiday) and therefore almost nothing in the town was open. The albergue volunteers told us that they were cooking dinner for the other pilgrims, a Korean couple and a young Spanish woman but it would be served at 8pm. Because of the cold wet weather, we had drunk nowhere near enough water for the amount of kilometres that we walked and had also eaten very little food. Needless to say, we were starving and the thought of waiting another 4/5 hours until dinner was unbearable. But the meal was worth the wait. Steaming hot vegetable soup was followed by Adam’s favourite: San Jacob which consists of two slices of ham with cheese in the middle that has been battered and deep fried and looks like a shnitzle. Then we had creamy rice pudding for dessert. Breakfast the next day was even better. Picture homemade jams, soft poached eggs on slices of baguette, hot toast, pate, fruit, coffee… it was amazing. And boy did we need the energy hit for the day ahead.

If we thought day 26 was bad, day 27 to O Cebreiro was almost our undoing. To start with, the entire 30 kilometres was uphill. This meant it was a slow day which took us 8 hours in total and ended as the sun was going down in blizzard-like snow. The start of the day was beautiful. It went from clear views of the valley and Villafranca to picturesque snow covered landscape. We didn’t mind the uphill climb at this stage as it was keeping us warm.

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We began the day with the Spanish woman, Laura, who had never seen snow before. So we played around in the snow for a bit and walked another 4 hours before the small hills became a serious mountain covered in thick snow all the way to O Cebreiro.

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We were genuinely afraid during the last couple of kilometres when we lost sight of the road due to the depth of snow and strength of the wind was almost blowing us over. Adam and Jane were seriously worried and were thinking up contingency plans such as turning back or finding shelter. Visibility at this stage was at about 75 metres and the wind was very very strong. I had hurt my knee slipping in the snow and was almost in tears by the time we reached the town of O Cebreiro. It wasn’t until we were in our warm, clean albergue when we began to feel calm and started joking about the weather with other pilgrims who had similar days to us.

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Day 28 to Triacastela was shorter but very cold coming down the mountain. About an hour in, a news crew screeched to a halt in front of us, pulled out a microphone and camera and interviewed Jane about the weather. “What do you think of the snow?” and “Are you scared?” were questions that didn’t instil much confidence in us about our situation.

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But we carried on and after a few hours the snow and the cold released its hold on us and we embraced the green countryside and the rain.

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We took it easy over the last two days kilometres-wise. We certainly didn’t have another 30km day in us and the weather was still swapping between light snow and rain. The fatigue from the three previous days slowed us down a bit and our legs were very sore.

As we walked into Sarria, up the hill towards the church, Adam spotted a hiking store. In the window was a wall of hiking shoes and he suggested that we have a look at buying a new pair for me. My first thought was, “What if I spend a ton of money on shoes that are just the same or even worse than my current ones?” But he was very persuasive with his reasons and after we settled into our albergue we walked back and I tried on some shoes.

We were successful. I bought a pair of Salomon gortex shoes (same brand as Adam’s) that were ten times more supportive than my other pair which had become painful with every step. They were guaranteed to be waterproof and they were definitely put to the test on our way into Portomarin.

I couldn’t believe the difference. Sixty percent of the 22km we walked today was wet mud or shallow streams. It drizzled consistently over the course of the day, rained for about an hour and snowed twice. Incredibly, my feet were dry and comfortable the whole time. I took my shoes off this afternoon in our albergue and my feet were dry. Even my blisters from the past few weeks have actually shrunk in size! I am over the moon. On the Camino the comfort of your feet is EVERYTHING. And mine are finally comfortable… touch wood!

Aside from the weather, the scenery today was beautiful. We passed through little farms and towns.

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The town we are staying in tonight called Portomarin is a stunning little town next to a lake.

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We are sitting in our albergue with our new friends Christian, the Italian man we walked with today and Laura. The weather outside keeps changing from sunshine, to rain, to snow and then back to sunshine. We have less than 100km to go before we reach Santiago and right now I feel as though I could dance the entire way there in my new shoes.<

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El Camino de Santiago – Day 21 to 25

Arcahueja >>> Leon (10.9km) >>> Villadangos (23.7km) >>> Astorga (28km) >>> Rabanal del Camino (20km) >>> Molinaseca (27.8km)

= 110.4km (Total: 543.8km)

We almost forgot that we were walking the Camino when we stayed in Leon. It was the biggest city we had been to in a while and we had planned to spend a whole day there. We had only walked 11km in the morning from Acahueja so we weren’t too exhausted to explore which is something that happens quite often.

We found our albergue straight away, showered, dressed and wandered into the old town. The cathedral was amazing. A long time ago, the massive stone building had threatened to collapse and it took multiple architects and decades to obtain stability. For this reason it is particularly special to the people of Leon. The stained glass windows were the prettiest and biggest I’ve ever seen. The audio guide told me that there were over 1000 square metres of stained glass throughout the cathedral which made it so different from the others I have visited in Spain. After that, we pretty much ate our way through Leon. We started with the most delicate pastries and coffee for bunch, hot chocolate and ricotta tart for lunch and tapas and wine for dinner. To say the least, we seriously indulged. And boy did we feel it the following morning.

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The few days leading up to Leon and the 3 days that followed were the worst we’ve had on the walk so far. The monotonous uninteresting scenery and endless stretches of pavement either on or right next to the highway made the days seem to go on for ever. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when cars are whizzing by every few seconds and the landscape is industrial. We had heard that there would be a stretch like this on the Camino that would test our mental strength and morale. We hoped this was it and that it was now over and done with.

Thankfully we left the highway on our way out of Astorga. We also had a new addition to our group – a French man called Guillaume. The path was pretty and we felt like we were getting back to nature as we walked into the cute little town of Rabanal. This was where we started seriously checking the weather. This is because the next part of our journey was going to take us up and over the Leon-Castilla mountain ranges and it can sometimes be quite dangerous to follow the path due to blizzards, cold weather etc. Sure enough, the weather turned the night before. It snowed and the wind was blowing a gale outside. We celebrated Australia Day with a couple of red wines and joked with Guillaume that none of us were properly prepared for hiking in the snow. The next morning we carefully selected our clothing. We donned our fleeces, thermals, waterproof pants, buffs, gloves, beanies, etc. I tied plastic bags around my sock-covered feet before I put them into my shoes – a menial attempt at mitigating the non-waterproof issue. And then we set off in the windy snowy cold. The locals suggested we stick to the road rather than the trail and who were we to argue?

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The road up the mountain was cold, long and arduous. The wind was crazy-strong. Adam had his buff completely covering his face and you couldn’t blame him. The wind was blowing the snow into our eyes, up our sleeves and down our collars. Not only that, the road was very slippery so we had to stick to the edges where there was fresh snowfall to maintain tread. One positive was that it the temperature wasn’t alarmingly cold and we managed to warm up quite a bit by the time we reached the first town at 4.5km. There the temperature gauge showed us it was minus one degree which was enough of an excuse for us to stop for a coffee and some milk chocolate. We were in very high spirits, despite the weather and so we continued up the mountain.

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On one of the main peaks between the next two towns, Foncebadon and Majarin, there stands the very famous Cruz de Ferro, or ‘Iron Cross’. This tall cross has a mound of stones, rocks and other objects beneath it. This is where pilgrims place the rock or special object that they have been carrying ever since they began their journey. It is supposed to represent whatever it is you want to leave behind before your ‘rebirth’ on the final part of your pilgrimage to Santiago. It was a special moment when we placed our rocks beneath the cross. Guillaume explained to us that the rock that he carried represented his sins and his old way of living. He went on to tell us that he was making a new start in life by trying to be the best person he can be. We reflected on this and seeing his conviction and passion we couldn’t help but feel in some way that we were a part of something special. After all, we had walked over 500 kilometres in the last 25 days which was no small feat for any of us and it certainly hadn’t been easy.

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We walked away from the Cruz de Ferro feeling elated and after about a kilometre of walking, we stumbled across a small hut in Majarin and realised that it was the place our friend Jack had told us about. It is a small refugio run by Tom, a man who takes pilgrims in and gives them refreshments in the winter and accommodation in the summer. It was a little wood hut with barely any lights and we sat in there, happy to be warm and out of the snow. He stamped our pilgrim passports, gave us hot coffee and biscuits and we chatted with him about the weather before moving on. He told us that it could be worse and that there was 80cm of snow when the last Australian came through. After reading the register we worked out that this Australian was actually our friend Jack.

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Despite random bursts of snow, hail and rain, the rest of the day was clear and the view from the top of the mountain was spectacular. We parted ways with Guillaume once we reached the down hill stretch and it was like we had stepped out of winter into spring. There was green grass all around us and little mountain streams that crossed the path. Our spirits couldn’t have been higher and we all agreed that it was our best day on the Camino yet.

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That night we stayed in Molinaseca at a lovely little casa rural with a woman who looked after us and fed us the most delicious food. We rested as much as we could because the next few days were going to be big ones (30km +).

But incredibly, we only have a few more days until we reach the home stretch of 100km to Santiago.

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El Camino de Santiago – Day 16 to 20

Itero de la Vega >>> Poblacion de Campos (17.2km) >>> Calzadilla de la Cueza (32.5km) >>> Sahagun (23.3km) >>> El Burgo Ranero (18.2km) >>> Arcahueja (31.1km)

= 122.3km (Total: 433.4km)

Our last 5 days have been the coldest on our walk so far. It’s been a top of 6 and has been getting to 0 and minus 1 in the evenings. Now you might be thinking, that’s not that cold! But when you are walking 5-6 hours in the day and are staying in some fairly basic accommodation with limited clothing and footwear it can be VERY cold.

It started in Itero de la Vega. We were in a little Albergue and we were the only ones. The woman looking after it let us in, took our pilgrim credentials to stamp, charged us 5€ each and told us promptly that she would be back to turn the heating off at 9pm and then she left. We were worried as the albergue looked like somebody’s basement and it was quite cold despite the heating being on. Luckily it had loads of heavy winter blankets and we each took a couple and began to create cocoon-like bedding with our sleeping bags, liners and clothing. At 9 o’clock on the dot, the woman came back and turned off the heating. Despite the cold, we slept well and embarked on a light 17.2 km day to Poblacian de Campos.

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In Poblacian de Campos, it was the same story. When we arrived in the town a lady came out of a neighbouring hotel to let us into the freezing cold albergue that didn’t have heating at all. She was so nice to us and told us that once we had unpacked and showered, that we should come down to her hotel and have a wine to celebrate. Her hotel was glorious and we spent most of the night there beside the fire. She fed us the most delicious pilgrim’s menu which involved whole baby capsicums that were stuffed with meat then pan fried, fresh garden salad, chorizo soup and homemade, caramelised apple tart for dessert. We went back to our freezing cold albergue with full bellies and happily piled our beds high with blankets.

Whilst we were walking to Calzadilla de la Cueza, the sky opened up on us. The rain was ice cold. Then we realised that the rain actually was little pieces of ice. We debated as to whether or not it was going to snow, and then it did snow. Heavily. My gloves were soaking wet and I was beginning to lose feeling in my fingers. Also, my waterproof shoes, turned out to be only water-resistant which was alarming as we were about 18km into a 32km day.

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But it all worked out. After walking in the rain, sleet and snow for a couple of hours, we ducked into a little bar in a town and had a lovely hot drink whilst we watched the snow falling outside.
Fortunately it cleared up within half an hour and we walked the rest of our 30km day in brilliant sunshine with a light dusting of snow on the ground all around us. It was magic.

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Sahagun was the halfway point, distance-wise, in our journey. It was also a lovely city and we had a fun wine-filled reunion with the Americans: Kaya, Renee and Mike who we have been bumping into since our third day on the Camino. We were grateful for the warm, homely albergue where we were able to wash our clothes for the first time in almost a week.

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One thing we have noticed since Burgos is that the albergues seem to be getting more and more basic and less likely to be open. There are two types of albergues, there are the town run or municipal albergues and then there are the private ones. Usually we will opt for the municipal albergues as they are more likely to be open, are cheaper and more popular with pilgrims. The issue is that sometimes we will arrive in the town we are planning to sleep the night only to find that the albergue looks completely closed up for the winter. If it has a sign saying ‘closed for the winter’ then we obviously don’t even bother. But often they aren’t actually closed despite all appearances. We have a mobile that we are able to use if there is a telephone number on the door. Otherwise we make our way to the town’s corner store and ask about the albergue and if it is open, the shop keeper will usually be able to tell us. Most of the time, a volunteer from the town is taking care of it and will come and let us in, take our money, stamp our pilgrim passports and leave us to our own devices for the night. Sometimes we aren’t so lucky.

Today (day 20) we had planned to walk 24 km to the town Villarente only to find, after calling the phone number on the door, that it was closed and there was no other albergue in town. This put our rhythm out. We don’t like it when we have to walk more than we have planned. If we know we have a 30km day ahead of us, we plan where we will take our rest stops, how we will break the trip up with food etc. It sounds silly but once you have a figure in your head, you mentally prepare for that distance and when your feet and joints are aching constantly from pounding pavement, the thought of a couple more kilometres is horrifying. BUT there was nothing to be done. So we walked on to Arcahueja where we found a private albergue attached to a family home/bar/restaurant. We were stoked, as it has heating, hot showers, clean beds and will give us breakfast tomorrow. Also, this means that in the morning, we only have to walk about 8km to Leon – another major city on the camino. The weather is supposed to be sunny with a warm top of 9 degrees. As Adam would say, we are “winning at life!”.

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The Best Albergue on the Camino

We arrived in Granon after only walking 7km. When you have been walking between 20 and 30 kilometres every day, anything under 10 feels like nothing. It feels like walking 1 or 2 km when we’re back in Australia.

We followed the unmistakeable yellow arrows that signify you are on the Camino and found a little sign saying: albergue. We arrived at a little door that sat inconspicuously on the back wall of the town cathedral and thought is this it? In every town you go to in Spain, the biggest and grandest building is always the cathedral. It is the first building you can see from kilometres away and it always bring you comfort knowing there is a town close by. We have only been inside a handful as they are usually closed when we pass through. So we were quite surprised when our albergue was actually located in a church.

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We opened the heavy door that was hiding a dark, stairway that disappeared up into the wall of the church. We climbed the narrow stairs awkwardly with our big bags on our backs until we arrived at a door that said: pelegrinos and then another door and another door until the staircase opened up into a large room with a fire place, dining room, kitchen and an open loft for sleeping in.

The albergue was one of those that runs on donations only and is looked after by volunteers who come from Spain and all over the world. There was a box in the doorway with a sign that read: ‘give what you can, take what you need’. The feeling we got as soon as we walked in was home. Jack said it felt like ‘Grandma’s house’ and you could see why.

The volunteer running the albergue was Alberto – a young Spanish man with a kind face. As soon as we walked in he greeted us with a big smile and offered to make us a coffee. We gratefully accepted and settled in. We were starving after our walk, but Alberto had pre-empted this. He told us that in a few minutes we would all cook lunch together, we couldn’t hide our surprise and delight.

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We all helped prepare our lunch which was an absolute feast of chorizo and vegetable pasta, fresh salad, red wine and profiteroles for dessert with tea and coffee. I couldn’t remember the last time I had fresh vegetables and fruit, let alone the last time I was full to the brim just on lunch. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore and then we cleaned up and sat around the fire/furnace, reading writing in journals and solving the world’s problems. Adam found a guitar and began playing, my sister Tessa sang along and the atmosphere was warming and revitalising.

Alberto told us that although he was not religious himself, that the albergue had many traditions that he liked to uphold out of respect. Apparently after dinner, it was customary for everyone to enter the chapel of the cathedral, sing a song, light a candle and say a few words. As we aren’t religious ourselves, under normal circumstances we might have felt apprehensive about entering the chapel and partaking in prayer for fear of disrespecting the place of worship. However it would have felt more wrong not to participate in this situation. So Alberto asked Tessa if she would sing and after dinner we rugged up and were led up a few more flights of stairs before we entered the chapel from the back.

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Alberto lit candles and the glow in the church was both eerie and beautiful. We couldn’t see anything in the chapel until he switched on the alter lights. That was when we realised that we were above the chapel looking down into the church from the back. It was breathtaking. After a few moments he asked us all to sit and we had a minute of silence. Alberto invited Adam to play, he did beautifully, and we closed our eyes and just listened. After that, Tessa sang Hallelujah (the Leonard Cohen version). Her voice filled the entire church and she sounded like an angel with Adam playing in the background. I couldn’t help but cry and was a little embarrassed until I looked around and noticed that I wasn’t the only one. Alberto lit a candle and we passed it around saying a few words about the camino and what we were thankful for. We were up there for an hour or so but it felt like 5 minutes. That night, in that church is safely the most spiritual moment of my life so far.

We slept like babies up in the loft, and when we awoke Alberto had prepared breakfast for us and we ate, chatted and packed up ready to walk the next leg of our journey. As we walked away we all agreed that we’d just stayed in the best albergue on the Camino.

El Camino de Santiago – Day 11 to 15

Granon >>> Villafranca (28km) >>> Ages (15.8km) >>> Burgos (22km) >>> Hontanas (31km) >>> Itero de la Vega (20.4 km)

= 117.2km (Overall: 314.3km)

The whole way into the little town called Ages, pronounced ‘ah kes’ in Spanish, the signs taunted us. It had rained all morning and we were walking, for the second day, into a really strong headwind. Tessa was having major issues with her Achilles and had to take it quite slow. It was freezing and we were soaked to the bones. When we came over a small hill and finally spotted the little town of Ages, we were beyond happy.

The albergue we stayed in was run by a brother and sister who had this funny sibling rivalry going on. They acted very grumpy and would push each other around but were very sweet to us and the albergue was lovely and warm. The shower had the hottest water and best pressure I’ve felt so far on this trip and we had a room for the five of us to ourselves. We played cards that night and Tessa was facing the hard decision of leaving the camino a couple of days earlier than shed’d planned. Jack was always going to be leaving us in Burgos (the next town) as he had limited time overseas and knew he would have to bus at least one part of the camino which is actually quite common. After weighing up all her options, Tessa decided that she would end her Camino in Burgos where she would catch a bus to Barcelona to spend a couple of days exploring before heading back to Australia.

For days leading up to our arrival in Burgos (a pretty major city on the Camino) we were watching riots that were happening there on the news. Images of people looting, fires, violence and police would be on the TV in every pub, cafe or albergue. It was a bit disconcerting but other peregrinos didn’t appear phased so we didn’t let it bother us.

As we were walking into Burgos through the outer suburbs you could feel an odd tension in the air. There was graffiti everywhere and as we kept moving we noticed that shop windows and ATM screens were smashed. Road works had been dug up and destroyed and there were big shipping containers and other large plastic containers that had been burnt. There were metal park benches all twisted up on the side of the road. Police were everywhere, news crews were doing interviews and setting up cameras and all of the shops were closed. We would have felt really worried if it wasn’t for all of the locals walking through with us. Some were pointing out to their children where the damage was. It was more exciting than scary, but we were a bit concerned that our albergue would be in the immediate vicinity. We needn’t have worried.

The kilometres stretched on and long into the centre of the city. As we started to get glimpses of the Burgos cathedral (one of the most famous in Spain), we noticed that the streets we were walking on had turned to cobblestone and the buildings were older and more beautiful. We were walking through the ‘old city’ which was worlds away from the first suburbs we’d come through. Our albergue, when we finally arrived, was 100 metres from the monstrous cathedral. We never can believe how the pilgrim accommodation in the city always gets the best real estate. Our accommodation in the municipal albergue cost us 5€ each and was in prime location. The church was absolutely spectacular from the outside, and the tour of the inside was interesting and informative. If you are a pilgrim everything seems to be discounted. The cost for entry is 3.5€ and that includes an audio-guide headset as well.

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In Burgos we celebrated Tess and Jack’s last night with us in style. We stumbled upon a restaurant that was world famous for its tapas and sandwiches – it had won a michelin star! And we played cards whilst eating the delicious little morsels and sipping the best red wine I have had in Spain. When you spend 5€ on your accommodation you don’t mind forking out for 1.9€ wines and 1.8€ tapas. We got a little sentimental at dinner, talking about our highs and lows of the camino so far, giving Tessa advice about her next five days of solo travelling and organising catch ups with Jack back in Australia. The next morning we had breakfast together and said a tearful goodbye. Adam and I won’t see Tess for at least a year, potentially two, so it felt a bit emotional watching her and Jack walking towards the bus station – in the opposite direction to us.

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Then it was just the three of us, and it would be until we arrived in Santiago de Compostella. We estimated we had about 20 days left on the Camino. We walked 31km to Hontanas from Burgos. The scenery was spectacular (even though it rained on us) and the albergue when we got there was warm. There we had a memorable pilgrim menu consisting of Castilian soup followed by blood sausage with rice (famous in the region of Burgos) and two fried eggs. I have found that when you are legitimately hungry and tired you will eat pretty much everything. And I have to say, that has been one of my favourite meals of the trip. From Hontanas we walked 21 km to Itera de la Vega. This was our 15th day on the Camino – not even halfway through.

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El Camino de Santiago – Day 6 to 10

Estella >>> SanSol (29.1km) >>> Logronos (20km) >>> Najera (31km) >>> San Domingo (20km) >>> Granon (7km)

= 107.1

Our ‘rest day’ was exactly what the doctor ordered. Tess elevated her ankles and lay in bed all day. Jane, Meg and I explored the little town of Estella and its epic cathedrals, cobblestoned streets and cosy cafes. I am in love with Spanish hot chocolates. They are so thick and rich, whenever a place sells it I always order it -even over coffee (shocking for me). So after a bit of exploring we headed back to the hostel, had a nice quiet night and woke up bright and early for our massive 29km hike to Sansol where the little rural hotel would be waiting for us.

It was a good day. We made it to Los Acros (a town 6km from our destination) relatively unscathed. By this point we’d walked about 23kms. We were in a bit of pain but much better than we felt at days 3 & 4. We had just under 6km to go and we were feeling good. We knew the place we had organised for the next night had a kitchen so we loaded up on groceries and eggs, we LOVE our eggs. Whenever we have a kitchen, we boil up as many eggs as we can and eat them for the next couple of days.

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The walk into Sansol from Los Acros was hard because we could literally see the town in front of us on a small hill but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer and instead of the road leading straight up to it, we were winding around -the long way! But just when we felt we couldn’t go any further we made it up to the top of the hill that the little town sits on. Our hotel was actually a house and it was next to the church waiting for us. The Casa de Olivia, named after the gorgeous little olive tree in its garden, felt like home. The owner had turned the heaters on a few hours earlier so it was toasty warm, the washing machine was there for us to use which was a god-send as we hadn’t washed our clothes since our second day in. She also had breakfast laid out ready for the next morning with peculated coffee, yoghurt, muffins, pastries and oranges. We had found ourselves, once again, in heaven. We spent the rest of the afternoon/night having steaming hot showers, played 500 for hours and ate an amazing and very much needed vegetable and tuna stir-fry with loads of comforting hot rice. The next morning, after a restful sleep we went through the ritual of packing our bags, eating breakfast and suiting up for our walk to Logronos. The sunrise was to die for!

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The best part of walking the Camino is how much pleasure everyone takes in the little things. It could be a hot shower, a soft blanket, a glass of red wine, a biscuit, you name it, after you walk for hours and hours, kilometres and kilometres any luxury, no matter how small it is, can make you feel elated. While we are walking, some of us will have lollies and chocolate that we forget about and then when we discover a packet, everyone feels so happy – until the sugar-high wears off. Coffees that we have in little towns along the way turn into ‘the best coffee I’ve ever had’.

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We have discovered the Camino is a small world. People, like everywhere, talk. You would hear about the people walking behind you and the ones ahead of you. We have all started at different points on the trail, have different needs and agendas. So you might be staying at the same albergues over and over again, or you might meet them once and not see them for the rest of the walk. Jack, our favourite Australian, told us about ‘the Alaskans’ who he had run into on the first couple of days of his walk. He said they were loose canons who were drinking their way through the Camino – which they were walking backwards (from Santiago to the beginning – crazy!). Apparently one had shattered his patella before they’d started the walk but was numbing it with whisky. Mucho mucho crazy!

When we arrived in Lorgronos we met two brothers from Minnesota. They had started their Camino in Pamplona and had walked their last day when we met them. Peter, the older one, had a blister the size of his pinky toe on his pinky toe! And Matt (who had some pretty nasty blisters himself) bonded with him over the best way to bust/pop/drain the blister. Needless to say we had a hilarious night drinking 80 cent red wines and eating the most delicious tapas with them and the two Spanish men they had been walking with. The Spanish men had adopted the two boys as their sons and were full of funny stories and dirty jokes. The Minnesotan boys had also met the Alaskans Jack had told us about. They told us that the Alaskans had talked about the four Australian sisters who they had heard were walking the Camino. Needless to say we found this quite amusing.

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We walked more than 50 kms over the next two days to Santa Domingo where we would say goodbye to Meggy and Matty and reunite with the Australian, Jack. The walk was hard but rewarding. On Meg and Matt’s final day of walking we even indulged in some wine at lunch time. Saying goodbye to two members of our group was hard but we gained Jack who was going to stay with us for another 4 days until Burgos. And we were only walking 7km to the next little town which was said to have the ‘best albergue on the Camino’.

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El Camino de Santiago – Day 1 to 5

Start: Roncesvalles >>> Zubiri (22km) >>> Pamplona (20km) >>> Puente La Reina (24km) >>> Ayegui (23.5km) >>> Estella (0.5km)

= a total of 90 kilometres

All of us were pretty anxious the night before we began walking El Camino de Santiago. We caught a bus from Madrid to Pamplona but when we got there we found out that we had missed the last bus to Roncsevalles which was the little town in the mountains where we would begin our walk. Unfortunately this meant that we had to get two taxis (there were no maxi cabs available) making the beginning of our walk a little more expensive than planned. We also had no idea what the address of the albergue we would be staying at was. Luckily, our taxi driver had done the camino by bicycle before and knew where he was going. When we arrived, the albergue looked like a cold, deserted old convent, with large arches and walls. But within minutes, we had met our first fellow pilgrim – a young man from Korea who was wearing his thermals underneath board shorts. He pointed us in the direction of the office and we paid 6€ to sleep there for the night and 2€ for our precious pilgrim passports which the man stamped promptly. We were pointed towards a little bar/restaurant down the road where we reserved the ‘pilgrim menu’ for 6. The meal was incredible. First course was vegetable soup and fresh crusty baguette, second course consisted of a whole slow cooked lamb shank and potato that melted in your mouth and finally when we thought we couldn’t fit another mouthful in we were served rice pudding that rivalled my mother’s recipe. All of this was, of course, accompanied by a couple of bottles of the most delicious red wine and at the crazy price of 9€ each, we weren’t complaining.

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On our first morning I felt a niggle in the back of my throat. My sister Jane was suffering from flu-like symptoms and I was hoping it wasn’t the beginning of a rough couple of days. A couple of hours in, my throat had swelled up and was absolutely raging. Weirdly enough I had no fever or headache, it was just my throat. Swallowing was painful, the sound of my voice had changed and I could barely speak. The weather wasn’t helping as it was very cold and very wet. I didn’t realise at the time but I hadn’t touched my water and was feeling weaker and weaker as we kept walking, even eating hurt so I did little of that. It was really worrying for me as the rest of the group was travelling fine and feeling good and I didn’t want to be the person having to visit the hospital on the first day of our walk. I also have chronic asthma and whilst I have it under control with ventolin and my preventative when I get sick it tends to flare up badly. Anyway, the kilometres dragged on and I kept my head down and tried focusing on every step. Adam was worried about me, I could tell because he stayed back despite the fact that he was feeling good and going strong. About 17kms in, I managed to get out in a hoarse voice that I needed to see a doctor. Everyone agreed we would look for one in the town we were planning to stay in, Zubiri.

Once we arrived we asked for a doctor, but there wasn’t one. By chance we came across a chemist with a lovely pharmacist who spoke fluent English. She really listened to my symptoms and came out with a natural antibiotic and super-strong ibuprofen. We were skeptical about the antibiotic but I was grateful for the pain relief.

Our next challenge was finding accommodation. Pilgrims walking El Camino usually stay in albergues which are basic pilgrim accommodation with dorm rooms, amenities and varying facilities. What we knew we would have to face is the fact that most of the albergues close during winter as there are fewer pilgrims and the weather can be menacing. Some stay open all year round but you have to do your research as it can mean you can walk for kilometres without finding an open albergue. Albergues, in our experience so far, have been hit or miss. Some have heating, smaller rooms, comfy bedding, wifi and restaurants or vending machines (with beer!) attached and some are cold, basic and throw everyone in a room together (I’m talking smelly 50 pilgrims on bunk beds). The people we have met range from weird and competitive to down right amazing. Everyone is doing the walk for different reasons, as cliche as that sounds, but one thing that we all have in common is the physical suffering that goes part in parcel with walking the Camino de Santiago.

Generally we aren’t as strict on our accommodation options as most of the hardcore pilgrims are. We are open to cheap pensions (private hotels), hostels or other accommodation options. Where it is an option we will stay in an albergue of course, the basic facilities and cold nights don’t scare us. But we have found ourselves in a couple of situations where we haven’t had a choice. The first situation being Zubiri.

Even though the pain in my throat had subsided, I was too dehydrated and sick to walk any further so we had to set up camp in Zubiri. None of the albergues were open much to our dismay. It took us an hour after trying a few different pensions (all of which were closed) before we found one. And it was the most beautiful pension (or so it seemed at the time) run by a little Spanish woman who looked after us and was very kind. It had a kitchen, heating, separate rooms, comfy beds, hot water, couches, wifi and so on. We felt like we had stumbled on a five star resort -it’s amazing what walking 22kms in the cold rain will do to you. We had a wonderful night cooking up chicken noodle soup and steaming hot pasta. We slept like babies and got up early ready to walk another 20 kilometres to Pamplona.

I felt on top of the world on the walk to Pamplona. The ibuprofen had kicked in, the honey antibiotic thingys were working (much to our surprise) and I had got almost 12 hours of solid sleep. It was a day that I imagined my first day walking the camino should have been. About an hour or two before we reached Pamplona it started raining and dropped about 4 degrees. When we arrived we were soaking, freezing and ready to get ourselves checked into an albergue. But then we made a mistake. We walked off the camino path (it is clearly signed the entire way, through cities, towns, the countryside etc) and every albergue we came across was closed. It was very disheartening. We split up looking for a hostel to stay in and I, by chance, found a hotel that had a contact who let out apartments in Pamplona. I thought for sure it would be too expensive but she told me it would be 120€ for a three bedroom apartment I knew we’d struck gold. Sure enough, when we arrived it was BEAUTIFUL, clean, warm, with a large kitchen and right in the centre of the old city in Pamplona. There we had another amazing night ready for another day of walking.

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Days 3 and 4 were by far the hardest on us physically. We made it to Puerte La Reina and stayed in the albergue there. We met another Australian, Jack, who we all got along with instantly. It was really nice to have another member in our group and I’m sure Matt and Adam enjoyed another guy to banter with – travelling with 4 sisters can be a bit tiring at times I am sure.

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We were lucky enough to be there on the night of the three kings which is like Christmas Eve in Spain and the day is a holiday followed by another holiday (which is tough when you want to buy dinner, lunch and brekky). But it was awesome seeing the parade of the three kings through the streets while little children ran after the three floats which had each king on one who had helpers throwing lollies out to the crowd.

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By day 4 we were wrecked. Matty joked that we only had 9 good knees between the (now) seven of us and he wasn’t too far off. Jack and Tessa were suffering quite badly with their achilles and Jane and I had knee issues. Matty took the prize for the most epic blisters and Meg and Adam were probably the least injured but still struggling with sore feet and toes. A few of us were in tears as we hobbled through the small but very beautiful town Estella towards our albergue which was still 1.5km away in Ayegui. We spent that night in the albergue and decided that we needed a rest day before someone did a serious injury. Our plan was to see if there were any accommodation options in the town 6km along the Camino or we would walk back into Estella and find a pension or hostel. Not surprisingly, nothing was open in the town further along so we walked into Estella this morning and found an affordable hostel where we set up camp for the day, rubbed deep heat into sore muscles and just rested (and ate!). The owner of the hostel has taken a bit of a liking to us and recommended a casa de rural (a rural hotel) for us to stay in tomorrow night. It means a 26km walk tomorrow over a couple of steep hills which is making us a little nervous but it is also nice to know we have somewhere to stay. It was also very lucky as he called and made the reservation for us, haggled with the woman over the price and secured us breakfast as well. Jane spoke to the woman on the phone too and said she sounded lovely, so it’s a good feeling to know we will be looked after when we get there.

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I hope I haven’t sounded too negative or whiney in this post. Believe me, we are all in very high spirits and have been all the way. The camino has certainly not disappointed us by any means. And hey, I am told that on tomorrow’s leg of the journey there is a town that has a stainless steel fountain that pours wine. Yes, a fountain of free flowing, free wine.