My Camino Hell: Part One
By David Whittam
Some things seem like such a good idea at the time, before the reality kicks in.
Last weekend, I found myself in an unusual situation. Most Saturdays and Sundays, I spend my time slumped in front of the television, watching hours of repeats of Four In A Bed or old ITC serials on ITV4.
On Sunday though, I was in an shop that sells clothing for people who profess to actually liking sport, looking for a pair of trousers that zipped off at the knee to become shorts, and getting increasingly frustrated that there weren't any short enough for my stubby little legs.
The reason for me being in such a situation is because I'm doing something so staggeringly out of character, it's akin to seeing George Osborne caring about the poor.
I'm going on a walking holiday.
Yes. I know.
It all started a couple of years ago when my girlfriend, who has Spanish parents, mentioned El Camino de Santiago - or The Way of St James - a medieval pilgrimage trail that starts in France, wanders over the Pyrenees, through northern Spain, ending in the cathedral city of Santiago. It's a walk that takes about 30 days, walking between 20 kilometres and 30 kilometres a day.
"It's supposed to be lovely," she said. "We could do that one day."
"Yeah, we could," I responded blithely, secretly wondering if the bloke on Don't Tell The Bride was really going to spend so much on a stag do.
I didn't hear anything about it for a while and assumed my girlfriend had forgotten about it. We'd pop over to Spain occasionally to visit her relatives in Galicia, and sometimes go to Santiago, where we'd see bedraggled 'pilgrims' entering the city, looking knackered but happy. Probably ecstatic at the thought they could spend the next day watching eight hours of Ven A Cenar Conmigo (I'm reliably informed that's what Come Dine With Me would be called in Spain), rather than walking another 30 kilometres.
It was a while later that my girlfriend and I watched the slightly mawkish film The Way. It's not the best movie ever made, or the worst (that's still Highlander II: The Quickening, the only film that I have considered throwing a brick through my television for, just to make it stop - the simple logic of just using the off button having been forced from my brain by dint of its sheer awfulness).
Anyway, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen, is a film about, yes, you guessed it, the Camino. And with that, my girlfriend's fervour was reignited. Actual plans were drawn up, investigations made, books bought. And all through it, I just nodded along, part of me thinking that it would never actually happen.
On a trip back up to Manchester to see my mum in autumn last year, we ended up going to the cinema to see The Way as well, and I mentioned to my mum that my girlfriend and I had rough plans in place to do the Camino.
Then I did something even more out of character.
I invited my mum to come with us.
And she said yes.
Now, I get on with my mum better than I ever have, but I haven't been on holiday with her for about 20 years and after about a week in her company find myself reverting back my 14-year-old self. And now I was planning on walking with her for miles and miles. One of us is bound to snap sooner or later.
At this point, I couldn't back out, both my girlfriend and my mum were enthused. It was really happening.
For Christmas, one of my presents was a pack of blister plasters. It had gone completely beyond a joke.
Flights were then booked, as was the hotel for the first night - the only saving grace was I couldn't get a full month off work, so we're only going to be walking for 12 days.
I've bought a rucksack, a sleeping bag, wicking tshirts (what the fuck is wicking?), walking poles, an emergency blanket, a head torch and various other items that I only ever thought would be on my shopping list if I knew the zombie apocalypse was coming.
I'm prepared, if not mentally and physically, then at least with all the right gear.
I've called this blog 'My Camino Hell' for two reasons. The first, and the most likely, is that it's going to be awful. I'll be grumpy and moaning about sore feet. My back will ache from carrying a rucksack. I wont have any episodes of Danger Man to watch.
The other reason is I'm worried I'll be converted. Not to Catholicism, obviously, I'm a staunch atheist - but that I'll become one of those people. You know, the ones who actually enjoy walking holidays. The type of person who thinks nothing of scaling Kilimanjaro for a laugh.
So, I'm off to get my Euros and a neat short haircut and I fly out to France later this week and on the first day walking I'll be scaling the Pyrenees. Wish me luck, I'll need it.
And if I don't die, I'll back in a few weeks to give you My Camino Hell: Part Two - The Quickening.
My Camino Hell: Part Two
Well, I've been back from Spain for a week and half, sitting on this blog while I gathered my thoughts and weighed up the experience I just put myself through. Unfortunately, my thoughts all amount to pretty much one thing - I walked over a FUCKING MOUNTAIN.
Apologies for the swearing mum, but you heard much worse from me whenever we turned a corner and found ourselves at the bottom of another bloody hill.
So, what did I make of the Camino de Santiago? Did I hate it utterly? Did I love walking 20 kilometres a day, while carrying a stupidly heavy rucksack?
The answer falls somewhere inbetween. For 12 days I was going to be a 'pilgrim', a name I was initially uncomfortable with as I'm not religious in any way, shape or form. I soon got over my discomfort though, as most of the people I met along the way weren't religious either and just in it for the challenge.
The first day, the walk from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles was both one of the best and worst days of my life. St Jean is about 180 metres above sea level and the top of the Pyrenees mountain we were walking over was 1460 metres high. For someone who lives in London, where it is pretty much all flat, walking up this was going to be the hardest thing I've ever done, with the exception of sitting through an episode of The Only Way Is Essex.
However, going up the mountain was nothing compared to coming down the fucking thing. Don't get me wrong, going up wasn't easy, it was really warm - so hot I got sunburn on my arm, despite wearing factor 30 suncream - was incredibly steep in some places and whenever we thought we'd reached the top, we'd see another stretch leading inexorably upwards.
But coming down was much worse. Imagine driving a car with no shock absorbers, where every meter there's another sleeping policeman in the road. That's what my knees felt like. Every bone-shuddering step was agony. Thank god for whoever invented walking poles, as they helped me drag my carcass up the mountain and then they were being used as makeshift crutches as I hobbled down. This resulted in my knees being strapped up for the rest of the walk and every downhill stretch was painful.
But that's enough moaning, after the hideous first day, which made me vow to never ever climb a mountain again, the rest of the walk was actually pretty good. The scenery was beautiful, the weather was generally okay - apart from the odd spot of rain or hailstones - and I even got used to sleeping in bunkbeds at the albergues we stayed in. One thing that saddened me immensely though was the number of crosses we saw, marking the places where people had died on the Camino - most of them had walked in the heat of summer and they varied in age. It made me realise what I was doing was not just a walk, it could be dangerous if you pushed yourself too hard.
Albergues are the pilgrim-only hostels along the way and my favourite was in a place called Trinidad de Arre. We stopped here after only walking about 16 kilometres because we wanted a short five kilometre walk the next day, so we could spend the day in Pamplona and I'm glad we did. The albergue is located in a 12th century monastery, run by four elderly Marist brothers and has a beautiful walled garden, which was the perfect way to spend an afternoon, chatting with other pilgrims and drinking red wine. At one point, one of the brothers popped up at a window upstairs, playing an accordion. It really felt like a little slice of heaven and, after a couple of tough days of walking, while my body got used to the first exercise it had done in years, I could have stayed there forever.
Talking with other pilgrims was also another highlight. I met some truly lovely people and hopefully some of them will read this and get in touch. There was Ken the Canadian, who also had his knees strapped up and was generally a bad influence on the rest of us with his seemingly endless bottles of wine - and who found the phrase 'bumming a fag' absolutely hilarious. There was David, who spent half of his life in the UK, helping sort out failing schools, and the other half in Burma, deprogramming child soldiers. Laura the Amazonian (over six feet tall and managing the Camino with only one lung) was an angel, providing my mum with teabags and a blanket when we staying in a freezing albergue that was little more than a shed. There was also Deryn, who works just down the road from where I live, teaching English to child refugees, who always had a smile for everyone, and who we oddly bumped into in a park in Madrid as we were on our way to the airport back home.
These were people we bumped into now and again, some would walk further on some days and stay in other hostels, then walk less the next day so we'd catch up with them. Nothing was planned, which made meeting up with them again such a joy and pleasure. We met people from all over the world - America, Canada, Holland, France, Spain, Israel, South Africa - the list goes on. There was Sam from Ireland who kept us entertained with a fine singing voice and, shamefully, a lovely German couple I managed to force out of a room with my snoring. At 2am they'd had enough and got their carry mats and slept on the floor outside the room. Every time I met them after that I had had to apologise (although apparently my mum's snoring was just as bad).
Which brings me nicely onto my mum. One of my main worries on this trip was that I would fall out with her. It would be the longest I've spent with her since I was 21. To start with, she was in 'coach trip' mode, wanting to know exactly how far things were, what was there, what time we'd get to places and had an endless set of questions. She eventually relaxed into the spirit of the trip, which was to see how far we actually got and make decisions on the hoof. And I think she enjoyed it more because of that. It was actually lovely to spend so much time with her and I hope she feels the same. Having said that, on the first day, when I was struggling down the mountain, she did stride off ahead, manage to get lost, ended up walking about three kilometres more than she needed to and had to hitch a lift back to the alburgue. She may be clever but she can still be an idiot sometimes - something I obviously inherited.
We eventually got as far as Belorado on this leg of the trip, which meant we walked about 220 kilometres in total - about 20 kilometres a day. The next day we took a bus to Burgos, stayed overnight and then went to Madrid for our flight home. Exhausted but happy.
The big question at the end of it was, would we go back and do more? I think all of us agreed - a most definite yes. The plan now is to go back later this year for a week of walking, then back again early next year to hopefully finish it off. There's still 580 kilometres or so to get to Santiago and apparently you get a certificate at the end, and I'm a sucker for a certificate. Remind to pack less in my rucksack next time though.
Follow David Whittam (34-year-old manchild, obsessed with Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, videogames and comics) on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidwhittam