Saturday, 7 February 2009

A winter Camino

Almost as soon as I heard of the Camino to Santiago de Compostella the ambition to walk the route grew in importance in my mind often at an alarming rate. I have long been in love with Spain and travel there several times a year usually to Andalucia and to the beloved Sevilla. (Have you been there? The photo is my street in the Barrio Santa Cruz)

Therefore when I decided to give up a long held career to seek a different way of life, walking the Via de la Plata from there seemed an appropriate right of passage.

As I was intending to walk the first half of the route in January I took a long time to plan this winter camino. I made extensive use of the message boards on the internet and the published guides in particular the detailed and invaluable guide by Alison Raju. The Confraternity of St James in London could not have been more helpful and put me in touch with someone who had walked that way before. As it turned out almost without exception the route is well waymarked by local Amigos.

My main task before the start was to select good equipment, the most essential of which was a modern and very effective layering system of clothes. I debated questions such as should I take a down jacket or make do with a fleece plus good rain gear? As it turned out I heeded the advice which pointed out that Spain in winter can be as cold as Scotland and thankfully I erred on the side of more not less.

For many years I have spent New Year in Sevilla and so on the 2 of January I set off from Guillena having walked there with friends the previous couple of days. I wanted to break the journey in Salamanca some 518 kms on and I arrived there on 20 January.

Before starting I was aware that in January it doesn’t get light until about 8.15 and sun sets just after 6pm. One of my best decisions was to take a short wave radio with me to listen to the world service in the evenings rather sit around a local bar until dinner. What I hadn’t accounted for was a thick, freezing morning fog for around 15 of the days which I simply had to walk in or I wouldn’t have got anywhere at all! Most mornings it was simply me and the yellow arrows as if walking in a bubble, utterly tranquil. A bright body light made walking on roads safer and fog is so alien to the Spanish even they drove more slowly and carefully. Sometimes by 10am, sometimes as late as 12.30 the sun would break through, burn off the frost and fog and the day would give birth to a clear landscape and rising temperatures. Like walking in two worlds on the same day.

I found very good accommodation all along the way although some of the information I had been given in advance proved not to be accurate. January is the month when works are carried out on albergues and Casas Rurales. Eventually I simply put my trust in the arrows, the obvious awareness of the route amongst the locals, the goodwill I was experiencing and the fact that I was soon confident I had enough Spanish (and money!) to get me out of most difficulties. Very quickly I learned that whoever I was staying with could not only top up essential supplies of food to be carried next day but would also check that the hostal at my next destination or two was open. I was delighted on several occasions when people were expecting me!

The only deviation from the albergue, hostal or Casa Rural being thrown open and a hot meal cooked was in San Pedro de los Rozados nearing the end of phase one. The Casa Rural was closed...the albergue had obras but I was directed to a bar where they confirmed that these facilities were closed but then said "But don't worry you can stay with my granny" and so I did!

I only met one other pilgrim in the whole time and that was only for 5 minutes in Monesterio. A Spanish chap from Seville who is doing the VdlP in day trips. He had just arrived by car and was setting off for the day to get the bus back again to his car. Very quickly into the Camino the routine and rhythm became established. Sleeping a deep sleep, rising early and preparing for the dawn to start. And then the walking simply took over. It is difficult to describe but the simple cadence of putting one foot in front of the other for many hours each day seemed to create its own world in which I actually didn't think about anything else apart from vistas of where I had been and where I was going. I had expected times of deep reflection when in fact my experience was that despite the physical problems I experienced it was in fact the most mentally restful and refreshing thing I have ever done.

In fact on the walk into Salamanca I had mixed feelings about the gradual invasion of the other reality to which I was returning.Deep, penetrating, freezing morning fog was the issue for me. I soon realised it was just like walking in Scotland - normal precautions had to be taken, people had to know where I was leaving from and where and when I was to arrive. On this route at this time with no other pilgrims, few locals and diminished visibility a mobile phone was essential and in lots of towns and villages internet access was available to check weather forecasts. I had discovered with some relief beforehand that the emergency number 112 works throughout Spain even if there appears to be no network available from individual mobile telephones.Fortunately I had appropriate clothing with me. For many hours I simply walked with just the arrows to guide me. And they certainly work.For me it is a route to be walked again at another time as it will have a different personality. But each day had its own treasures no matter how little I could see. The rare farmworker stopping his motor bike for a chat or 6 or 7 hours without seeing or meeting anyone else at all. Coming across isolated parishes where they actually sang during Mass. Some of the best walking and sun filled scenery ever when the fog lifted. Taking off two layers of clothes to start the climb up to Pico de la Duena only to see banks of fog rolling towards me. More clothes than ever put on, hat...gloves...climbing only to the eerie swooshing of the unseen windmills which merged like giants out of the fog...then breaking through into the most gorgeous sunshine above the fog and clouds like flying in an aeroplane where the ground could not be seen.

One of the few disappointments was visibility of only 100 yards or so in the descent down into Salamanca...alas the famous vistas escaped me, this time.I loved seeing another Spain, far simpler than the sophistication of Madrid and Sevilla. But also a poorer Spain, more depressed. Like rural Scotland where the only ambition young people have is to leave. Many farms abandoned and as if every second house is for sale.

Yet this old, old route prevails and I did feel a deep sense at times of the continuity of pilgrims through the ages. Crossing a simple Roman bridge in a field, passing a roman milestone and then walking under the Arch at Caparra standing proud like a monument to the feet which have passed that way before.

However some events are unlikely to happen again. As I trudged across the impressive Roman bridge into Merida having walked 44.4 kms in 11 hours all I wanted was a hostal, a hot meal and bed. “Hola peregrino!” a voice cried from among the on coming pedestrians. This was Anna who had completed the Via Frances and was visiting friends in Merida. Despite not speaking English communication was immediately established. Realising I needed to rest she marched me off to the Parador. All four stars of it. “El Jefe, por favor” she requested at reception. When the manager appeared she explained in a demanding voice “ This courageous pilgrim from Scotland has walked a long way into your city, please give him a good room at a good price”. And so they did. He instructed the receptionista to give me a room at less than half price, including breakfast plus stamped my Pilgrim Passport with great ceremony. Alas Anna was not there as I walked into Cacares… 518 kms walked and now I have considerable impatience to get started again in April when it should only be rain I have to deal with!

With thanks to Howard Nelseon and the CSJ Picture Library for some of these photographs


  1. planning to do the vdlp next year btween februay and april. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write up your experience. Almost five years later, I will be thinking/experiencing your trip this January.

  3. Thank you. I will be walking in Dec/Jan and your insights are much appreciated!