In 2003 I set out for a trip to the Spanish Pyrenees with two of my good friends. We set off, each with a back pack stuffed with everything you could possibly need for 4 weeks in the mountains, tents, cookers, boots, sleeping bags etc After 8 long hours we arrived safely in the industrial city of Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country and the capital of the province of Biscay. We had booked a room in the impressive Albergue Bilbao, which we found without any real trouble.
After a whistle stop tour around all the sites, the most notable of which being the Guggenheim Museum, we bedded down for the night in preparation for our trip to the next stop of our journey, San Sebastian. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we collected our rucksacks from our room and made our way like three over sized snails to the bus depot. We ordered our tickets with a mixture of bad Spanish and a few nonsensical hand gestures and awaited our bus, which to our surprise turned up bang on time.
We all come from the north of Ireland where the bus system is a little flexible to say the least. We made the short journey to San Sebastian, where we had a three hour wait on our connecting bus. We went for a short walk around the city center before settling done outside a cafe not far from the bus station. We sat talking about the journey so far, and made plans for the days ahead. A tall dutch lady, whose name I can no longer remember, with a small rucksack and wooden walking stick sat at the table next to us. She overheard us discussing our plans and we got talking about her trip. She was just making her way back from a 5 week track across Northern Spain called the Camino Francés, one of the routes making up the Camino de Santiago.
She went on to tell us that is was the best experience of her life to date and recommended that we scrap our plans for walking in the mountains and to grab the next bus to Burgos and start walking the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela. She spoke of it with contagious passion and we could see she was dissappointed to be going home. She showed us her credencial with all the stamps, sillos, she had collected along the way and advised us of where to go in Burgos to get our Credencial, Pilgrim Passport, and where the Pilgrim accommodation, Albergue, could be found.
Before she left for her bus, she assured us that we would not be dissapointed, and it would be an experince of a lifetime. So we got more coffee in and had a quick chat about what to do, and in the end it was unanimous. We were going to walk the Camino de Santiago! Well at least half of it anyway. So off we went to the City of Burgos. We left Burgos bus station and crossed the Puente de Santa María over the Arlanzon river to the Arco de Santa María, an impressive stone gateway which leads into the Plaza Del Rey San Fernando, home of Spain's finest Gothic Cathedral which completely dominates the centre of the old town and which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.
After stopping off for a rest at a café in front of the cathedral, we set off on the hunt for the albergue. We walked past an ornate font and climbed a set of steps, no easy task with 20kg+ on your back!, and headed out of Burgos center , back across the river and into a large open park area. The albergue was in the middle of what looked like a popular picnic area. The albergue was made up of a number of wooden cabins each with 20+ beds in dorms. We were told that as we were only starting our Camino that we couldn't stay in the albergue but were free to stay in the local recreation center. And so after receiving our credencial, we made our way back into town for something to eat and a look around before spending our first night on the Camino sleeping on an indoor football pitch with 20 or so fellow pilgrims.
The next day came as a bit of a shock, everybody was getting up at around 06:00 and preparing to set off on the road to Hontanas. After much faffing about we eventually set out on our first day on the Camino Francés. There was a nervous excitement about setting out on our adventure across Spain, but this was soon replaced with exhaustion due to the excessive weight on our backs, so we had to call it a day in Hornillos Del Camino. Because we had done a 'days walking' we got to stay in our first albergue. A small building next to the church with all you need for a comfortable nights sleep.
We got our credencial stamped for the first time which was an exciting moment and went for something to eat in the local bar before making our way to the albergue to wash our clothes and grab a much needed siesta. That evening we went through our rucksacks checking what stuff we could do without, which turned out to be most of it. Unfortunately we had to carry it for one more day to Hontanas before we could send most of our stuff back home.
And so we set off again at 06:00 in the morning out onto the meseta, a spectacular desert of cornfields that stretch as far as the eye can see. We walked along slowly, admiring the scene and knowing that we had made the right decision. As other pilgrims passed they would sometimes pause for a brief chat or greet us with "Buen Camino!" which means "good luck and happy traveling"
Even with the sun beating down on us in this open landscape and the excessive weight on our backs, we all knew that the lady from Denmark was right. This was going to be one hell of an adventure, and she was right.
We got our rucksacks down to the 9kg mark and from then on each day brought it's own trials and rewards, and more decorative stamps, and as the days past we got into a meditative routine of eat, walk, eat, wash, eat, sleep, eat and stamp and soon the weight of the world fell off our shoulders and the only thing we thought about was our basic needs, the most important of which was our next meal.
As we wound our way along the Camino Francés we discovered a part of Spain that for many remain a hidden secret. O'Cebreiro one of the most notable. A small mountain top village with it's distinctive round stone houses with conical thatched roofs, pallozas, like a scene from the Hobbit. The sunset was one of the most colourful I have ever seen.
We also got quite obsessive about stamps, collecting them everywhere we went, and by the time we reached Santiago de Compostela both sides of our credencial was covered. We then took our credencial to the pilgrim office were we received our first Compostela, Pilgrim Certificate, with our names in Latin inscribed along the bottom.
All in all the Camino Francés was a wonderful experience and one that I have repeated now every year since along Camino Francés, Camino Portguese and the Via de la Plata .
All I can say is that if you are thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago, stop thinking about it and just do it. It will be one experience you will never forget. And try to remember to keep your rucksack under 10kg! And don't forget your earplugs!