Sunday, 15 November 2009

Itchy Feet

Arghhhh. October is gone and the diary for November is full. My plans to return to the Madrid route to finish the new Guide have disintegrated. That will have to wait until next year. As the rain hurls against the window this morning I was drawn to vivid memories of walking that route earlier in the year. Crossing the mountains again into Segovia to stand gazing at the Roman Viaduct will have to wait. But my feet are itchy to be walking again so I have hatched another plan! Next year is a Holy Year in Santiago. Whenever St James's day (25th July) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Holy Years fall every 6, 5, 6, and 11 years: the most recent one was in 2004. The next Holy Years will be 2010, 2021, 2027 and 2032. The Puerta Santa (Holy Door), which gives access to the Cathedral from the Plaza de la Quintana is opened on 31st December on the eve of each Holy Year, and walled up again a year later. (For more on the history of the Jubilee year, the plenary indulgence, and the Compostela document, click here.)
Next year over 5 million visitors are expected in Santiago and the Pilgrims' Office estimates that the number of walking or cycling pilgrims will more than double to 250,000. Local authorities and groups of Amigos are furiously preparing extra accommodation along the pilgrim routes to cope with these vast numbers. On New Year's Eve thousands will cram into the Plaza de la Quintana to see the wall being torn down and the Holy Door opened. It is considered great fortune to pass through the door on this night and to pick up a fragment of brick. In the summer Joaquin the organist in the Cathedral invited us into the organ loft to witness the ceremony on CCTV and to have a bird's eye view of the ceremony which follows. I've thought hard about this and decided I'd rather be walking. For me this is a better way to mark the beginning of this special year.

So the flights are booked and me and companero Esteban will fly to Madrid on 28 December after a punishing schedule of Advent and Christmas musical events. We will make our way North to Ponferrada and walk into Santiago by about the 7th of January.

This is the approximate itinerary:

Ponferrada to begin walking on Wednesday 30 December.
Wednesday - Vilafranca del Bierzo or Pereje.
Thursday 31st - O Cebreiro
Friday 1st - Triacastela
Saturday 2nd - Sarria
Sunday 3rd -Portomartin
Monday 4th - Palas de Rei
Tuesday 5th - Arzua
Wednesday 6th -Pedrouzo
Thursday arrive Santiago

Total - 211 kms. A good walk. I'll try to keep everyone posted as we go along.

The weather is unpredictable and on my last winter camino I got a very nasty chest infection. I also experienced freezing conditions in some albergues. So using the new Camino Travel Centre I've booked hostals along the Way for this trip. It was all remarkably straightforward apart from the fact that it is not yet clear where we will stay or eat on the last day of the year, the Noche Vieja, or for us two Scotsmen, Hogmanay. But one thing is sure wherever we end up the bar takings will certainly be boosted that night.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to treat winter walking in Spain exactly the same as I would in Scotland. The cold can be just as cold and of course in Galicia the rain and wind can be just as fierce. In saying that I've also needed sunscreen and had to roll up my trousers into makeshift shorts in January in Spain. So preparations have already begun selecting the gear. I expect the rucksack to be heavier than the 5kgs I managed to get it down to in the Summer but the target is no more that 7 kgs or so.

The key, of course, is good layering with lightweight but highly effective "technical" clothing plus an outer rain shell.

As I've mentioned before on the message boards for the last three or four years I've relied on advice and supplies from a really good company called Itchy Feet They have two shops, one in London and the other in Bath. They also have an excellent on line shop. This is a company run and staffed by experienced travellers. They try out the gear they sell and they know exactly what they are talking about.

Over the years I've always advised people preparing for their Camino to only go to suppliers during the week to avoid being served by inexperienced weekend temps. That may be true of other companies but with Itchy Feet I've always found the sales assistants interested, knowledgable and quick to seek advice from other members of staff if they don't know the answer to a question.

And it isn't all about sales or profits. I went to buy walking sandals before going to write the Guide to the Portuguese Route as I knew it would be very hot. Alex in the London shop waxed eloquent about sandals he had walked in in very rugged conditions. Alas they aren't made in the size which fits me best. I was going to make do with a slightly bigger sandal but Alex was quick to point out I'd run into problems. I plumped for a pair of cheaper Tevas that did the job just as well.

I have also noticed particularly on the American message boards a number of people recommending Patagonia raingear. The Patagonia range isn't particularly cheap but it is very good. The R2 Jacket is for me the rolls royce fleece and is indispensable. I also purchased a Patagonia Rainshadow jacket as an outer shell. It sat in the cupboard for nearly a year before I brought it out recently to try out in heavy rain. It felt good. But by the end of the walk I felt cold around the shoulders and when I took it off my shoulders were wet to the touch. Without really thinking more about it I found a couple of complaints on walker message boards about these jackets not being waterproof. I wrote to Itchy Feet asking if any other customers had complained of this problem. Within a few days I got a reply. No they hadn't but they would happily send the jacket back to Patagonia for testing and if shown to be faulty then they would replace it or offer a refund. Really good service.

But that got me thinking. Had I been too hasty to assume the jacket was faulty? Heavy rain was predicted all of this weekend in London so I thought I'd try it out again. First I stood under the shower for 15 minutes. I was dry under the jacket. Hmmmm. Then a brisk walk in the rain. After an hour or so I checked again. Yes - I was wet. Then it dawned on me. This was condensation not rainwater. I'm cold blooded so I always wear layers and have to take them off when I heat up. No matter how breathable outer shells are if you generate heat and perspiration - moisture will build up. This time searching the message boards I found reviews which said things like..."and the only time I felt wet with this jacket was from my own sweat".

Therefore on the second walk in heavy rain I properly adjusted the pit zips for ventilation and wore only one layer. Result: Less wet.

Lesson learned. Take my own advice and try things out properly. But thanks to Itchy Feet for great equipment and a speedy response.

Roll on Hogmanay.


  1. I see sil has already reported there is snow at O'Cebreiro. I remember once reading a blog by someone who ended up hitching a lift on the road on the descent to Triacastela as conditions were so bad. So you take care there Johnnie...... I will be wanting to share a meal with you in London when I finally get back to your part of the world!!!!

  2. Good luck Johnnie - when you are back home after your walk I would love it if you would consider doing a guest article on my Walking in Winter post.
    Big hug to keep you warm,