Galicia Trip: September 2015
Disclaimer: this is not a blog about walking the Camino de Santiago, as I haven’t even done one mile of it. It’s not even a blog about hiking, or even about the end of the world.
This is my story about running the Camino de Fisterra, which is the last stage of the pilgrimage routes that converge on Santiago de Compostela from all over Europe. I had such an enjoyable and rewarding experience, I wanted to share it – so whether you’re thinking of walking, running, cycling or riding along part of the Camino, whether you’re 16 or 86, read on.
So what’s the Camino de Fisterre?
It’s an 89km pilgrim route which leaves Santiago and heads west to the lighthouse at Cabo Fisterre. It’s famous as it’s the last part of the pilgrim route and the only one which leaves Santiago rather than finishes there. Fisterre comes from the Latin meaning finis terrae “end of the earth” and back in the Roman times when the world was flat, this was where you could go no further (without falling off the edge!)
That was until Christopher Columbus came along in 1492 and ripped up that theory by “discovering” America (it was there before and happily inhabited by lots of advanced civilisations, thank you very much).
So why did I run it?
Well everyone knows I love running, it’s the purest form of exercise and a great way to discover the outdoors. I run around Dublin all the time, I run on holidays in new cities to discover the sights and sounds.
The idea of running the camino came when I googled it, as I was sure there were plenty of blogs or resources talking about it. To my surprise, I found it hard to find information. One great blog was by Kerry woman, Moire O’Sullivan, who ran the entire Camino in 2012. This blog got me hooked – walking the camino is an amazing experience I’m sure, but I’d be too impatient and while I have the legs and the energy why not? I can always walk it when I’m grey and grumpyJ
How long did it take?
I ran 126km over 3 days, covering approximately a marathon a day (38-48km). Day 1 I left the Praza do Obrodoiro in front of Santiago’s Cathedral and headed west. My plan was to at least cover 22km and stay in Negreira, but if feeling good to continue further.
I’d researched the route a bit, so knew the way the Camino’s work is that you follow the marked route on trails or roads, indicated by yellow arrows or clamshell signs. Albergues (pilgrim hostels) are located along the route – 5 towns in total on this route, spaced about 20-30km apart (a day’s walking distance).
Five things I learned on the Camino de Fisterre
- Time slows down
Garmin watches tracking your 1km splits don’t matter, so just enjoy the moment, be present in your surroundings. The landscape changes around every corner, so take it in.
2. Listen to your mind
No headphones or phone calls, only the odd pilgrim you pass to say “Hola” or “Buen Camino”. Those hours alone gave me so much time to think and sort out all those thoughts flying around my head. It’s a form of meditation, all that self-reflection and contemplation. Something we don’t have time for in our busy lives at home.
3. The human body is a machine
You meet so many older people, in their 70s and 80s, happily motoring along the camino. You meet people with bad hips, limps, or carrying too much weight – but they all are out there conquering doubts and pushing through those mental and physical barriers we can create. The body and mind are very resilient and adaptive.
4. Everyone has a story
Meal time in the albergues is when you discover a new story each day. Milt, the 81 year old man from Madrid who has walked the camino many times and was doing a week alone this time. Or the guy from Cordoba who’d cycled all the way across Spain to get to Muxia.
5. You will get lost!
Taking a wrong turn can easily happen, even though the route is usually well marked with stone posts and yellow road markings. I made several “deviations” – they were great levellers, as they bring you back to reality, just when you’re getting confident and cocky, thinking “I’m making good time, will be there soon.” You quickly learn to accept the reality, don’t blame anyone, just keep moving, you’ll get there. It’s all part of the journey.
Day 1: Santiago to As Maroñas (43km, 4hrs)
Day 1 was a joy. A real relaxing experience, even if I did run a full marathon. The day started slowly, with time wasted queueing in the Pilgrims Office. An Irishwoman in the queue was offering good advice to pilgrims: “feelings – what are we if we can’t love ourselves first?” Deep for 9am on a Monday morning, but wise words.
Anyway off I set, hoping to cover 2 hours and assess things from there. I wasn’t sure how many accommodation options there were ahead. The official maps left me doubtful. That sense of going with the flow is one of the pleasures of the camino. Que sera, sera!
The route of the camino is a mix of roads, trails along rivers and through forests and farmland. You don’t meet many people but pass some pilgrims and even more sheep and cattle. Some beautiful Roman bridges, sleepy villages and farmhouses.
I stopped for a late lunch, un bocadillo con tortilla francesa y queso, plus a tarta de Santiago set me right so I motored on to a private albergue, Casa Pepa, 40km+ from Santiago. €12 per night sounded great, even if the official albergues are only €6. After watching la Vuelta de Espana, I’d a lovely dinner of lentil soup, pork milanesa and a bottle of wine enjoyed with an 81 year old man, Milt. We’d a great chat. What a great advertisement for old age? Walking a part of the camino in his 80s. Turns out his son-in-law is the manager of the Equatorial Guinean football team.
Now I understand the buzz people feel talking about the unique experiences of the camino. The random people you meet.
Day 2: As Maroñas to Muxia (48km, 4:30hrs)
Day 2 was full of new experiences. Second marathon distance in 2 consecutive days. Running a longer distance and for longer than ever before. My legs and back surprisingly are sore – more blisters on my feet and chaffing on my inner thigh.
Anyway after a restless night in the dorm, listening to snoring and heavy rain, I was keen to get going. After a tostada con mermelada y un café con leche, I hit the road at 8:30am. The morning was dry. I’d 45km ahead. Most of the camino is well sign posted with yellow scallop shells. But I still managed to miss a turn and paid the price by adding another 3-4km to my journey. Ah well.
You pass many farmhouses and notice these little house like structures in the fields. They could be raised kennels, chicken coops or storage spaces. But they’ve no doors. Finally I discovered they’re called “heroes” and have a more sombre purpose – hosting the remains of loved ones.
Today’s route took me past river valleys, reservoirs, farmland, beaches, main roads and villages. Places like Olveiroa, Dumbria and finally Muxia. Muxia is happening this weekend – their patron saint or the Virgen da Barca, is big around here. There’s a 15th century church built on the edge of the Atlantic. Apparently the Virgin appeared to the Apostle Santiago here to give him strength.
The festival is one of the biggest in Galicia – la Romeria de la Virxe da Barca. The town is full of people camping, drinking, street stalls, music, amusements. I cooked dinner in the albergue – swordfish and red pepper tortilla with €0.30 beer. Not bad before el partidazo: Atleti – Barca, which Barca won 2-1. To finish, fireworks at midnight were great.
Day 3: Muxia to Fisterre (38km, 4hrs)
My body was feeling the effects of two days on the road: my shoulders hurt from carrying the bag, my lower back hurt, my feet hurt, my hamstrings were really tight. Yet today felt short, given it was less than a full marathon distance and was flatter than previous days. I was looking forward to the route, heading south parallel to the coast.
At 9am, the party was still going in the dance tents down by the port, as I passed on my way out to the Santuario de la Virxe da Barca. The sound of the Atlantic waves crashing onto the rocks filtered into the old church through the open main door which overlooks the sea. The fish could go to Mass, we were that close.
Off I set up the first decent climb of the day. This turned out to be my slowest day pace wise, even though I thought it would be my fastest due to flat profile and shorter distance. The cumulative miles in the legs put those plans to bed and I just went with the flow.
This route was busier, with more pilgrims walking in both directions. We passed through lots of forest trail, as well as lots of villages and farmhouses. You really get an insight into rural Galician life – it probably hasn’t changed that much in centuries. Saying “hola” or “buen camino” as you pass people. A nice café con leche at halfway gave me a boost. My only trouble was a few angry dogs who chased me up a lane. That got the heart racing as that snapped at my shorts and legs.
Arriving into Fisterre, I could see the Cabo rising behind it and knew I’d another 3km after the town before reaching the lighthouse. I’d lunch in my bag (bocadillo de tortilla francesa con pimientos) so my plan was to enjoy it from the end of the earth overlooking the wild Atlantic. I ran the last kilometre with a local runner which was nice. We’d a chat and then he motored on.
The feeling of accomplishment and “I’ve done it” wasn’t as big as I expected. There’s no finish line, there’s no race time, there’s nobody cheering you on. You just walk to the cliff edge, take some time to soak in the Atlantic air and think what this place means and what it was like 500 years ago. This was it back in 1492 until Columbus did his bit.
You see ashes on the rocks, as it’s a tradition for pilgrims to burn something like shoes or clothes on reaching the end. I only had one pair of runners so didn’t want them carbonised. Luckily I avoided rain over 3 days, which beat all forecasts for inclement weather. Such luck, as it doesn’t look as enjoyable trudging through the muddy paths in the rain, with no views to occupy the mind.
I celebrated with chipirrones and a beer in the port, then caught the (slow) bus back to Santiago. I’d a great chat with a local student, Milena, who spoke about how hard it is to get work in Spain. They’re all curious about Ireland as have friends there who have got jobs and seem to be doing well.
I felt good thinking while I ran today. I was stiff and slow but enjoying every km. No phone, no watch, no talk – just taking in the views.. It definitely helps calm the mind. I think about all sorts – the news, my family, farm animals, will it rain? When will o be there? What will I have for lunch? Where will I go after Santiago? What would I do if I lost my job? Make a list…