Thursday, May 2, 2024

Spain's Camino Primitivo, Part 1: Picking the Proper Camino

From March 20 to April 4 of this year, I hiked one of the Caminos in Spain to a grand cathedral in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostella.  Hiking the Camino has become increasingly popular world-wide over the last few years.  This posting talks a little about the Camino, its history, and how I chose the route that I took to reach Santiago - the 3rd biggest pilgramage destination in the Christian world, behind only Rome and Jerusalem.  It is the first of many Camino postings, all uploaded simultaneously, with photos and explanations from my trip.  It is probably too much for most everyone, but it serves as my documentation for myself of my journey, written before I forget the details.

I first became aware of the Camino back in 2010 when I took my family to Staunton - about 30 miles from our Charlottesville home - to see a "hiking movie" at the fabulous (and now closed) Dixie Theater called "The Way," staring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez.  That was the closest the movie came to being shown in Charlottesville.  There were relatively few people in the theater, and my understanding is that the movie was not particularly successful at the time.  But it developed a kind of cult status among hikers over the years, and when it was shown again at a Regal theater in Charlottesville for a single night a couple of years ago, there was a good crowd of outdoorsey types in attendence.  (A type that seems to be enormously more popular since the movie first came out.)

Watching The Way actually turned me off to the idea of walking the Camino - the hostels looked big and crowded (smelly!  noisy!), and the trek looked generally flat after the first day.  But about three years ago I read a book about someone's experience on the same journey, and I started to warm up to the idea.  I've since been to local presentations by Camino veterans, talked with others who had done the Camino, and watched lots of videos on YouTube.

What I learned is that there actually is not a single Camino but many of them.  They start in multiple towns throughout Spain, and it is possible to walk from remote destinations like Paris or Warsaw or Geneva, all the way to the city of Santiago de Compostela.  What most people think of as "The Camino" is the one filmed in the movie - the Camino Frances, which starts near the France/Spain border and travels all the way across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella, located north of Portugal.  Below is a map showing the major Caminos in Spain, converging on Santiago de Compostella in the northeastern part of the country.  The Camino Frances is the line in a deep blue color.  ("Santiago de Compostella" literally means "Saint James in a field of stars" and is a destination because its cathedral is legendarily believed to house the remains of one of Jesus's apostles.)

Everyone who walks over 100 kilometers to Santiago, and who collects stamps along the way proving their journey, can show their passport with stamps to the church in Santiago to receive a certificate memorializing their trip.  That is about 64 miles.  When they receive the certificate, these pilgrims (or "peregrinos," as they are called in the native language) must fill out some demographic information.  As a result, there is extensive information about everyone who obtained a certificate going back about 20 years.  This data is available online.

What I learned from looking at this data helped me immensely in deciding which Camino I wanted to travel.  For example, over the last two years there were slightly more women than men that obtained the certificate.  (Not surprising in my experience, as when I lead a group hike, I never have more men than women sign up to attend.  I don't think that is because of my personal charm!)  

The church also keeps records of how pilgrims traveled.  On foot is the choice of the overwhelming majority of peregrinos, but others have arrived by bike (you need to travel 200 Km to gain a certificate), on horse, even via wheelchair.

A breakdown by age is also available.  Shown below.

I found country of origin very interesting as well.  Not surprisingly, a large percentage of peregrinos are from Spain.  Apparently many Spaniards hit the Camino during holidays - and in my experience on the Camino this was true.  I've only included the top countries here, but if you want to determine how many pilgrims hailed from Burkina Faso in 2023, the data is there.  Note that the U.S. "Estados Unidos" is 2nd among the world's countries, but a very distant second behind Spain.

The number of peregrinos completing their journeys by month was very instructive - I could get a better sense of when the Camino would be crowded.  Here, you can see that the warmer months are much more popular, but there were increases over the first 5 months of the year, compared with 2022.

And finally, of interest was data about which Camino a pilgrim chose for their journey.  This was most helpful to me!  (There is also data about cities where pilgrims started their journeys, with a vast majority staring in one of the cities around 100 kilometers from Santiago de Compostella.  This interested me less, because I hoped to do an entire camino.)

Note above that over 81% of all people completing a Camino in 2023 arrived either via the Camino Frances or via one of the two Caminos originating in Portugal.  I immediately rejected those three routes for my Camino.  I did not want an experience like the one shown in the photo below!

But you don't want to go too remote for a first Camino, either!  Despite two years of self-taught Spanish (on top of three years of high school attempted learning), I knew I wasn't close to being conversant in the language.  This isn't too much of a problem if I take the major Caminos, as people are used to a wide range of pilgrims.  In some of the more rural and less traveled areas, however, it could be a big issue, especially if there were not other pilgrims - preferably bi-lingual ones - journeying at the same time I would be going.

And then there is infrastructure. Caminos which see fewer travelers naturally have fewer hostels, restaurants, and signage showing the route.  (Camping is generally discouraged.  This isn't the Appalachian Trail.)  It might even be difficult to find open businesses that could provide the required stamps for the pilgrim's passport.  This issue is more pronounced early and late in the year.

I eventually settled on the Camino Primitivo.  When I say "eventually," I mean less than a week before I flew to Spain!  I had chosen a late March - early April timeframe.  This meant that it could still be cold and some hostels would not be open - many do not open until April, and after Easter.  An even more remote Camino I had seriously considered got ultimately rejected because several hostels would not be open in my timeframe and the distances between reasonably priced accommodations became too great.  But I like hiking in Virginia in early Spring, and I'd rather hike when it is cold than when it is hot.  So late March/early April seemed like a good choice.

The Camino Primitivo is presented in the next posting. Link.

Or, you can skip past Leon and Oviedo to the first day on my walk: Link.

Spain's Camino Primitivo, Part 2: The Appeal of the Primitivo, and getting there

 After looking at multiple Camino routes in Spain, I ended up choosing the Camino Primitivo.  I could hike the entire route in the three weeks I would be in Spain, unlike several longer caminos.  It was a less crowded camino, with only about 4% of camino completers claiming to have arrived via that camino.  And several accounts listed the Primitivo as among the most beautiful, rural, and rugged routes.  Many sources discouraged first time pilgrims from this route, and it seemed that I would obtain a more authentic and less touristy Spain hiking this route.  

My friend Larry wanted to hike part of my route, and taking the Primitivo meant that we could meet in Lugo, which he could reach pretty easily from Madrid, and it would give him the 100 Km needed for a certificate.  And I really wanted to see Lugo, with its UNESCO World Heritage certified Roman wall, completely surrounding the old city.

Some examples of the opinions on this Camino are shown in screenshots below.

My flight from Virginia took me to Newark and then to Madrid, arriving at about 9:30AM local time.  From there, I made my way via subway to one of Madrid's two train stations before taking a high speed train to the city of Leon, where I would spend my first night.  (Train tip: Look at the difference in price between 1st Class and 2nd Class seats.  For this trip, it was about 20 euros, and going 1st Class meant that I had access to the lounge in the Madrid station - with free snacks, drinks, and beer, and had a much nicer seat with a power outlet and strong wifi. I could pick my seat. Plus I got a box meal on the train! I think they lost money on my upgrade.)

Leon is a large city for this part of Spain, with about 125,000 residents.  It is the capital of the provence of Leon and is a major stop on the Camino Frances.  

Although I was especially interested in seeing the cathedral in Leon, shown above, there were several additional buildings in this city that warranted a stop prior to reaching the start of my camino.

I stayed in my first hostel on the trip here in Leon and learned some good lessons about hostels.  I made the reservation while on the train a few hours before checking in.  But I failed to communicate when I would arrive at the hostel.  Many hostel owners/managers do not live on site (in fact, very few do), so I needed to coordinate my arrival in advance.  I showed up and the door was locked!  After texting back and forth, I killed an hour walking around the town center before checking in.  Neither the owner nor the only other guest that night knew much English, but we managed to get me checked in and understanding how things work.  I slept in a room with about 8 beds, and only one other bed was taken besides mine.  I never again saw the other woman staying there - she was a true Spaniard, staying out late and remaining asleep the next morning when I got up, packed, and left.  Some photos below show the hostel.

One nice thing about this hostel was a small balcony outside the door shown in the last photo above.  I could hang out there and watch the street activity.  There was always something going on!  And I discovered while out there that my accommodations that night were directly on the Camino Frances - there was a yellow arrow on the sidewalk in front of the hostel, shown in the photo below.

I explored Leon extensively the next morning, after sleeping very well.  I was afraid that I'd be jetlagged, but slept very little on the overnight, trans-Atlantic flight, so it was easy to adjust to the new time after staying awake all day from Madrid to Leon.  One thing I worked on was trying to follow the Camino through town - training my eye to look for arrows, metal shells in the sidewalk, and signs on buildings that guide peregrinos.

I made my way to the Convento de San Marcos, which was a convent but now operates as an ultra-luxury "parador" hotel.  If you have seen the movie "The Way," this is the luxury hotel the group stayed in while on their trek - the movie briefly shows the exterior with the main protagonists standing outside.

Next to that monestary was a church and a local museum that I toured, but I did not go into the parador.

The plaza in front of the parador is also where two caminos split - the Camino Frances, which heads west to Santiago, and the Camino del Salvador, which heads north to Ovideo - the start of the Camino Primitivo.

I met my first peregrino here, a Belgian woman who had started in France in late February.  I took her picture for her and talked with her for a little while about her experience.  And, just west of the parador, the Camino Frances crosses a river on a bridge built by the Romans.  That has to be one of the oldest structures I've ever witnessed.

After this, I walked back into the center of town and toured the Cathedral.  It was the most amazing cathedral I had ever seen!  It would be eclipsed later in the trip, but this was a jaw dropping experience.  Wikipedia says that this church has "one of the largest collections of midieval stained glass in the world," dating from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.    

Witnessing the interior of this cathedral during the morning light was an amazing experience!

Also in Leon is an early example of architecture by famed Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, whose work I would experience again at the end of my trip - during a side journey to Barcelona.

But simply walking around the city and experiencing the narrow, pedestrian oriented streets kept me endlessly entertained prior to heading back to the train station to continue to Oviedo, on an early afternoon train.  I had some extra time before the train, so I stopped in a mobile phone shop and purchased a Spanish SIM card from a company called Orange.  For 20 euros, I replaced my Verizon SIM card with a Spanish one that also had plenty of data for me to send texts for the 3 weeks I would be in Spain.  Or so I thought...

I immediately lost my Verizon SIM card, which is the size of the fingernail on my pinky.  All of this would prove to be an issue later in my trip.

And, just before reaching the train station, I stopped in a grocery store to get some snacks.  I marveled at the price of wines!

I took 2nd class this time, just to see what that would be like.  (Predictably, it was not nearly as nice, but there is no lounge in Leon.)  I was excited for this leg of the trip because it follows the route of the Camino del Salvador.  I was excited to see some of the towns along this route, as I had researched this Camino prior to settling on the Primitivo.  What I discovered was miles and miles of tunnels through the most mountainous sections of the trip with only brief glimpses of the countryside.

It was a brief trip into Oviedo - a little over an hour.  And I arrived around 2 PM excited to explore that city before heading out on my pilgrimage the next morning.  

Oviedo is covered in my next post. Link.

Spain's Camino Primitivo Part 3: Oviedo and the start of my Camino journey

 I arrived in Oviedo mid-afternoon after a short train ride from Leon.  Oviedo presented much cloud cover - a big transition from the cloudless skies of Leon.  Oviedo is only about 20 miles from the ocean, but is elevated and is bordered by the mountains I traveled through (literally) on my way from Leon.  As a result, it has a much more maritime climate.

With time to kill before checking into my hostel, I wandered around town and enjoyed the wide variety of statues in this city's public places.  Perhaps the strangest one honors movie director Woody Allen!  

It was evident almost immidiately after stepping off of the train that Oviedo is a larger city than Leon was.  With a population around 220,000 residents, it has much more of a big city feel than Leon did. The first photo below shows the train station, and the photos that follow give a little sense of the urban nature of the city.  

 But the city was still very walkable and enjoyable to explore, with much of the center having limited car access.

I had my first travel hiccup here, upon attempting to check into the Green Hostel.  After helping another woman to find the bed she reserved, the host told me that I had actually reserved a bed for the night before!  She said that they tried to call me multiple times, but that I hadn't answered.  While I had seen the calls come in, I ignored them, not knowing the source.  She told me that they might have one more bed, but I remembered that another hostel had emailed me saying that I had a reservation with them - one that I had forgotten about because I made the reservation back in January.  I made my way over to La Hosperderia and stayed there for the night, sharing a room with 4 or 5 bunks with only one other person - a young guy from Belgium who was using his vacation to bus around Spain and France.

La Hosperderia's location was fantastic - maybe 100 yards from the Cathedral where the Camino Primitivo starts. I was very happy with my choice - much closer than the Green Hostel to the start of my camino. And I was able to purchase my Camino passport at the cathedral for 2 euros, and purchased another for good luck.  The passports each already had their first stamp - from the cathedral.  I needed a passport in order to get the stamps required to prove at the end of my camino that I had walked the entire distance.  And, although I only needed one stamp a day for the first 220 kilometers of my walk, I also got one at the hostel, as a souvenier.  I would not need another one until I reached the hostel the next night.

I did not tour the cathedral.  It is not as spectacular as the one in Leon, and is known primarily because of the religious relics that it houses, including the Shroud of Oviedo, said to be the cloth placed over Jesus's face after he died on the cross.  It is only shown to the public three times a year.

But the square in front of the cathedral is a nice, large open space, and it includes a large sign advertising Oviedo as the origin of the camino.  

After dinner and a drink, I settled into my bed in anticipation of the next day's journey, but did not sleep very well. Excitement?  Jet Lag?  Not sure.  But I started wishing I had brought something stronger than Melatonin from home.

The next day started my journey, and is covered in the next posting.  Link.

Spain's Camino Primitivo: Day 1 - Oviedo to Grado

My first day of my Camino journey started relatively late - just before 8:30 AM on March 20th.  But it was still a little dark and overcast when I arrived at the Cathedral as Spanish dawns are much later than in the U.S.  And there were relatively few people on the streets when I started.  There is a split in caminos very close to the cathedral, but I had a secret weapon on my journey - I had downloaded other people's camino routes onto my phone and GPS to help me in case I got turned around.  On the phone, I used the GaiaGPS app, premium edition, which featured a great map of Spain.  My GPS also had a map, though it was not as good.  I used the GPS primarily to record my route and measure distances walked.  Having routes previous hikers had uploaded to the internet helped me determine when there were variations in the route, and was really helpful in cities like Oviedo because it was often hard to follow the route through the streets of the city.

Since Oviedo is a large city, it took me an hour walking along the Camino route before I left the city - 2.6 miles.  This included a stop at a panaderia (bakery) right along the route, where I picked up a breakfast donut and a baguette for the trail.  (Note the shell in the sidewalk right next to the bakery.  In the province of Asturia, the shell's lines point the direction of travel, so the shell is upside down to the direction traveled.  This switched later in the journey, when we passed into the province of Galicia. This photo is looking at the direction I had come.)

On the edge of town I started seeing markers for the camino, and these would guide me over much of my journey.  

Leaving town the overcast skies started to burn off, and the day turned wonderful as I journeyed into the countryside.

Sometimes along the way, it felt like the Camino went right through people's yards!  I would always check the route on my phone before proceeding too far.  The Camino here went between this person's house (and dogs) on the left and the grain crib on the right.

I was amazed that I was finally on this journey that I had planned for so long!  Walking along these rural roads was endlessly interesting - so exotic compared to walks back home.  For a short time, I even followed another hiker and a man leading a horse.  I never determined whether the hiker was a pilgrim - I did not talk to him.  But he could have been a guy I ran into again several days later.  Not sure, because that later guy was walking with a woman companion.

Otherwise I did not encounter another pilgrim until I met up with Antonio 10.6 miles into my first day's journey. He was laying down on a bench at a picnic area when I passed by it just before 3PM.  

Antonio also asked whether municipal albergues required Camino passports, as like me, he planned to stay in the Grado albergue that night.  I responded that they do, but I had purchased an extra!  So he bought my extra (I tried to simply give it to him), and he was suddenly an "official" peregrino.

We walked together to the hostel that night, and I ended up hiking with him for the rest of his journey.  Antonio is a Basque - bilingual - and I was very grateful for his presence and the assistance he gave me along the way.  At one point later this first day, a woman came out on her balcony and started speaking to us in rapid fire Spanish that indicated great urgency.  Antonio told me that she was letting us know that we had missed a turn on the route, so we retraced our steps.  Thanks for your language skills Antonio!

The wrong turn was at the fork shown in the distance in the photo below. We should have gone right, but went left instead.  With so much to look at, we missed the critical arrow.

We ended the day at the municipal albergue in Grado. Grado is a lot smaller than the cities I had been staying in - only 7,300 residents. Below is a photo of the bedroom in the hostel.  Only four people ended up in this room, so it wasn't as crowded as the number of mattresses made it seem.  Each of the three other people staying with me were pilgrims that I encountered daily over the next week or so, including two from Basque, and one from Israel.  I would get to know each of these people much better over the following week.

Along the way, very few people camp.  It isn't worth carrying a tent, though some municipal hostels offered camping space outside of their buildings. I never saw anyone with a tent.

Part of the balance in choosing a camino is the infrastructure along the way.  More popular caminos offer more restaurants and hostels along the way.  When planning a camino at the very beginning of the season, I had to be careful to look for whether hostels were yet open for the season.  I contacted several for confirmation, using Google Translate.  Private hostels are usually a little nicer and offer more amenities - such as charging plugs for every bed and night lights, while municipal hostels are less expensive.  Private hostels are also reservable in advance, while municipal hostels are not.  Municipal hostels are often - but not always - open year round.  This was very reassuring to me, as the Primitivo has municipal hostels at reasonable intervals for a traveling pilgrim in good shape.

All hostels supply a mattress and a pillow.  Some hostels provide sheets - often these are paper, single use sheets.  Not all hostels are heated!  Traveling in March-April meant that I had to haul a heavier pack, as I brought a better sleeping bag than I would have a month or two later, in case there was no heat.  And I needed clothing that could cover both warm days and cold mornings.

Under Spanish law, every hostel is required to log information about the hiker.  As a U.S. citizen, I had to provide my passport when signing into a hostel every night - public or private.

There are online resources which give pretty accurate information about each albergue, what it offers, and what it costs.  My favorite one was this one:  Link.  The costs had often increased from what was reported, and very few albergues now do not offer Wifi, but otherwise this link provided great advance information about each option along the Camino Primitivo.  I constructed my own spreadsheet, which I had on my iPhone, containing the viable (and open) options in each town, and I further looked at resources such as Google Maps, which could give me user opinions about the options.  If a hostel had particularly good reviews, I would highlight it in my spreadsheet. 

Below shows me in front of the municipal albergue in Grado.  Our bedrooms and showers were upstairs, and the kitchen and common area were located downstairs.  I believe that I was charged 8 euros in cash to stay there for the night. (Many municipal albergues do not accept credit.) Antonio helped me check in, because the woman running the hostel knew very little English.  But later, another Camino volunteer showed up, and he was from England and was bilingual.  So I would have been ok either way.  The Englishman strongly recommended a private albergue for our next night's stop.  These two volunteers provided a sense of community that I appreciated and was never replicated later on the Camino.

I encountered my first example of the famous Spanish "siesta" when I went out to get dinner at about 4:30.  The bar waitress said that the cook would not return until 8 PM.  Too late for me after a long first day!  Fortunately, they had some sandwiches available, so I dined on a sandwich and a beer.

Day 1 Camino stats:

Date: March 20, 2024
Distance: 16.4 miles
Time: 6 hours, 31 minutes
Start time: 8:28AM
End time: 2:59PM
Total daily steps: 38449

Day two on the Camino Primitivo is found on the next posting.  Link