My Camino de Santiago – Anna Smith, Crime Novelist

by Anna Smith on August 22, 2013

IMG_8488I could never describe myself as a huge walker. An eight mile hike is the most I’ve ever done, so the prospect of the Camino de Santiago did make me twitch a little, because the last thing you want is to take this on and find you wimp out half way through.

But I made it. And I’m here to tell you, that this is a the trip of a lifetime.

Everyone should do it once – for the sheer feelgood factor you get, not just at the end of it when you finally plank yourself down, exhausted in the square at Santiago Cathedral, but for the whole experience. Below, is my take on the trip, which I wrote for the Scottish Sun newspaper as part of a series of travel articles across Spain.

Screams1-1 (2)I write crime novels, www.annasmithscotland.com, spending much of my time in front of a laptop fretting about characters who don’t actually exist! So, when the Sun commisioned me to travel Spain, I jumped at the chance.

The Camino was the high point of months of travelling for me – most of which I organised myself, with the usual fraught problems of finding accommodation and planning ahead.

So going on the Camino with MacsAdventure was fantastic….

You can tailor make the trip to suit yourself, but as you’ll see from my journal below, the best way to do it is have your lovely hotels and guest houses booked, your luggage picked up and delivered to your next destination each day. It just takes the stress out of things and lets you get on with the enjoyable process of walking, making friends and throwing yourself into the journey.

Sure, you’ll get a blister or two…or in my case three or four. But it’s all part of the test as you push yourself every day.

And if I can recommend every walker one other thing – I’d say, take a pair of FitFlops in your day pack. Because after three hours hard walking in the sunshine, your feet are on fire, and if the terrain is walkable in Fitflops, then stick them on. Your feet will be singing and dancing in the freedom! I know they’re not usually in the hiker’s backpack, but honestly couldn’t have completed it without them.

My Camino

LYING in the dark on a bottom bunk bed, I’m thinking if push came to shove, I could probably handle a short stretch in Cornton Vale women’s prison. There’s a cetain camaraderie in the confined space of a four-berth female cabin….No, not that much camaraderie – but a sense of empathy with other people who are knackered and heading north for the gruelling Camino de Santiago.

The Camino is a 490 miles pilgrimage walk in northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it the remains of St. James were taken by boat from Jerusalem and buried there.

Ok, I’m only doing the last 80 miles over five days – but it’s no stroll in the park.

The overnight train rattles upwards and across the country from Madrid, and when I awake at daybreak, as the mist clears from the tall trees, it looks like I’ve slept so long I’m in Fort William. But it’s Sarria, Galicia, and this is where the expedition begins.

It’s freezing, bitter cold and damp under the black sky – and I’m in Fitflops, having left the heat of Andalucia a few hours earlier. But hey, I’m a pilgrim now. It’s all about suffering.

I’m travelling with Glasgow’s MacsAdventure, specialists in walking and cycling holidays. They tailor-make your trip, collect your luggage each morning and drop it at your next destination. It’s much better than going on your own steam, sleeping in tiny hostels and shared dormitories with a dozen farting, snoring foreigners. My cousin Mairi breezes into town from Glasgow, so we begin our preparations, as pilgrims arrive from all over the world – many having already walked for weeks from France.

Ok. Map, check, boots, check, plasters, check. Right. Time for lunch.

We find a pub that looks like a hole in the wall and the barmaid is wrestling with a dead octopus, snipping, clipping and seasoning the delicious Galician speciality of ‘pulpo.’ We sit down and relax – it’s good to get the weight off your feet, even though we’ve only walked 200 yards.

We’re dressed like walkers, and after a couple of glasses of wine we look tired. People stepping it out on the Camino stop and ask us how far we’ve walked today….Er..Well, just from the hotel at the bottom of the road, actually. We’re a bit ashamed to meet a 75-year-old Finnish lady, travelling alone, who has been walking for nearly a month. Her family gave her the Camino as a birthday gift. If my family did that at 75, I’d assume they were plotting against me. But her story of trudging through hills and torrential rain has instilled the spirit of the Camino into us, and we’re raring to go…..

DAY ONE…23k.

We begin on a bright sunny morning that makes you so glad to be alive you could burst into song – if you had the puff to sing and keep pace with the others.

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Even though we’re all strangers in a foreign land there’s a great spirit, and it’s a bit like a family outing. Marching through woodland and lush green fields, you have to keep pinching yourself to realise you’re not in Perthshire, Loch Lomonside or Ireland. Beautiful, gentle countryside, so still, you can hear the cows tearing the grass off the ground.

About 16 miles  in and I can hear my hip bones grinding. My feet are on fire and I had to do the last nine kilometres in my Fitflops.

We arrive in Portomarin – so that’s the first 23k nailed. And crucially no blisters. They the killer, everyone says, as we all compare aches around a table of cold beer. I’m hoping to lose weight on the walk, but so far there’s no feeding me – I’ve had the Galician version of a huge mince round, and a sandwich for lunch. I’d expected to be singing sea shanties at night with my new friends from Waterford, Dublin and Germany, but by 10pm I’m collapsed in bed.

DAY TWO…25k

Ah, the steady drizzle. It’s getting even more like Scotland now. I feel as though I’ve been hit by a train, my legs are aching and back stiff. And my additional problem from years in front of a computer means my back and shoulders are seizing up.

There’s a level of slog now, but we persevere, and by late afternoon we’ve cracked the 16 miles and arrive at Palas de Rei. Two glasses of vino and a huge meal later, I’m hobbling to bed.

DAY THREE…28k

IMG_0906This is the big haul, and I could barely get out of bed this morning. Plus it’s raining again, heavily. By about four miles I feel as though my feet are bleeding, so we stop. And they are bleeding – hacks on my toes and blisters. Mairi’s also got a blister. So we wrap them in padding and grit our teeth.

I’m trying to rationalise why I’m walking in the rain with blisters and aching bones, in what looks like the backroads of my house in Ireland. If you had a blister on your foot and sore back, you’d lie around the house all day, maybe send someone to the shop or phone for a takeaway. You definitely wouldn’t put a bandage on and say, ‘Oh, my feet are killing me, so I’ll just walk 12 miles on this blister, in the rain.’ You just wouldn’t do that.

It’s bizarre, but something is driving me on. Maybe it’s the rain chilling my bones and the thought of a hot bath, the determination of others around me, or hunger – even though I’m now eating two loaves a day.

There’s a lung-bursting, final two kilometre climb, and I can hardly walk another step by the time I get to the little town of Arzua. Searching for the hotel, a little old Spanish lady gives me directions – the opposite direction from the hotel. This is clearly how she gets her laughs every day, sending knackered pilgirms the wrong way and creasing herself at how they fall for it every time.

Another huge dinner, and I’m so beat I can barely finish my vino.

DAY FOUR..19k.

I must be losing my mind, because I’m happy that it’s only 12 miles to Rua – a mere stroll. My aching shoulders mean I had to ditch my backpack for a carrier bag, and I’m now walking continually in Fitflops. The purist walkers, dressed like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, are gawping at me as though I’ve got lost on my way to the beach.

But I’m loving easy friendliness – no-one’s got an  agenda except to get through the day, and there’s much laughter as we support each other. It’s like a big family that you don’t have to put up with all the year round.

Mairi’s infected heel looks a bit gangrenous, and I’m suggesting we get a taxi, but her steely determination drives her on as I trot behind her. She’ll not be saying that when she loses her foot, I tell her. I’m now starting to sneeze a lot from the rain and wet clothes.

DAY FIVE…18k The last day.

IMG_0936We walk 10 miles without a break – more than three hours. Not even a toilet or a cafe in sight, and I have to step behind a bush, hoping it doesn’t end up on Youtube. Finally, we’re at the top of another hill where we look down at Santiago in all it’s ancient glory, and when we get there and the Cathedral bells toll, I swear I heard angels singing!

Our pilgrims’ passports are stamped. We made it.

Time for serious drinking, but I’m now sneezing so much I can hardly speak – plus my blisters burst on the way to the bar.

But when the going gets tough…The tough drink gin. And so we did, with dozens of other pilgrims high as kites on the adrenaline of an incredible experience that just has to be repeated.

Editor: Anna’s story is available to Sun newspaper subscribers here.


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Anna Smith is an award winning journalist and has spent a lifetime in daily newspapers as a frontline journalist reporting from all over the world. Anna writes novels full time now, her highly acclaimed debut crime novel, The Dead Won’t Sleep, is the first in a series of successful crime novels.
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