Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Day 27 -28

Day 28- June 24, 2009 , 42,6,km (7h58min), Arzúr to Santiago de Compostella.

I have arrived to my final destination, one day ahead of schedule. It was only fitting the I decided to end up with the marathon distance. The first 750+ km was my training for the final test on my way to see Saint James. Upon arriving at 13h53, I visited the amazing cathedral and the crypt of Saint James. I then collected my Compostalla certificate at the pilgrim office. Tomorrow, I will have a chance to attend the mass at noon. It was a day full of emotions. I just loved the whole experience and to a certain degree, I did not won't it to end. But I can't wait to see my family and share my experiences. The journey was one of self discovery. In all honesty, I don't think it could have gone any better.

Day 27 - June 23, 2009, 15km - Mélide to Arzúr

When I have the time, I will fill in the gaps, add photos, tips of the day, etc....

Monday, June 22, 2009

Day 20 - 26

Day 26 - June 22, 2009 - 32,6km - Gonzar to Mélide
Up before the crack of dawn, I was out at 5:45 am with my flashlight guiding me in the wooded trail that lead out of Gonzar. We are at 500m in altitude. As I get to the main road, I am greated by the most spectacular sunrise yet. The valley below has an immense cloud that from above is puffy, but from below is perceived as fog. A few peaks are able to rise over the clouds, one of them has a telecommunication anthena.

Day 25 - June 21, 2009 - 30 km - Sarria to Gonzar

Day 24 - June 20, 2009 - 21,6 km - Tricastela to Sarria

Day 23 - June 19, 2009 - 30,9 km - Ruitlan to Tricastela

Day 22 - June 18, 2009 - 26,5 km - Cacabelos to Ruitlan

Day 21 - June 17,2009- 31 km - Riego de Ambros to Cacabelos

Day 20 - June 16, 2009 - 34 km - Santa Catalina de Somoza to Riego de Ambros

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 15 - 19

Day 19 - June 15, 2009 - 26,6 km - Hospital de Orbiga to Santa Catalina de Somoza

Day 18 - June 14, 2009 - 24,7 km - Virgen del Camino to Hospital de Orbigo

Day 17 - June 13, 2009 - 19 km - Arcahueja to Virgen del Camino

Day 16 - June 12, 2009 - 30 km - El Burgo Ranera to Arcahueja

Day 15- June 11, 2009 - 31.4 km - Terradillos de los Templarios to El Burgo Ranero

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Day 9 - 14

Day 14 - June 10, 28 km - Carrion de los Condes to Terrodillos de los Templarios.
In the heart of the Meseta. Extraordinary flat vistas that I love, and appear to be one of the few who does. The town was once owned bt the Knights of the Templars.

Day 13- June 9, 19,3 km - Fromista to Carrion de los Condes
Carrion de los Condes is a charming little town, with a beautiful park, filled with colorful rose bushes and a nearby river. Here we are staying in the Monastary Santa Clara.

Day 12- June 8, 36 km - Hontanas to Fromista
Light rain, strong front wind. Walked through Castrojeriz, a town dated back from the 9th century, followed by a major climb of Alto de Mostelares. After a steep descent is the start of the Meseta. Flat terrain composed of cereal fields as far as the eye can see. Crossed the Castillo Canal 1753-1859.

Day 11- June 7, 30,7 km- Burgos to Hontanas

Day 10 - June 6, 32km- Villafranca Montes de Oca to Burgos
Burgos is a beautiful and vibrant city. We can see it from at least 10 kms away from atop a hill. I am now walking with two French pilgrims, Francoise who lives near Lyon, and Jean-Marc who originates near the Belgium border. On this Saturday afternoon, we saw at least four weddings taking place, and parties that carried on through the night.

Day 9 - June 5, 24,1 km -Redecilla del Camino to Villafranca Montes de Oca

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Day 7-8

Day 8- June 6 - 32,4 km - Najerra - Redecilla del Camino. Overcast am, Sunny & Hot (caliente) pm. Saw the two live chickens at the Domingo de la Calzada Cathedral (related to a fable). I've been eating Tortilla Patata every morning. The landscape here is much flatter. In the valley of Rioja, vinyards are as far as the eye can see and the same can be said about grains and cereals fields grown on the rolling hills. The is an abundance of red poppies growing everywhere, just like a Monet painting. At times I do feel like I am moving inside a painting.

The Spanish people and pilgrims from all corners of the earth are extremely freindly. Many walkers are afflicted with blisters, not always very nice to see, even if I am a nurse. I have been spared so far. There is a very strong fraternity among the pilgrims, even if we don't always understand the languages. It much more of a spiritual trek than religious, so far anyway. Buen Camino!

Day 7- June 5- 30,7 km - Logronos - Najera - 30,7 km , Sunny T- 3o+ C

Monday, June 1, 2009

Day 3,4,5,6

June 2 - Day 6- Los Arcos - Logrono - 28,5 km - Sunny 15-34 C. In the early morning hours, my walk on the way to Sansol is magical, especially as I am approaching the village, the fields of yellows and greens is criss-crossed by a winding road that leads to the village. It feels as if I am actually moving though a painting of a landscape. Every morning as the sun is breaking, and every thing seems to come alive is always the best moment of the day. I realize how fortunate I am to be doing this. As my day ends, I met up with three friends from Barcelona, Rosa, Carmen & Agatha. They are only on the Camino for only a week, and I will have a chance to mingle with them until after Burgos. I first met then on Day 4, when the offered me a tomato, when I found out the all store were closed on Sunday afternoon. They spoke very little English, but all the same, we found a way to communicate and poke fun at each other.

Just upon arriving to the city of Logronos, there was a large field of red poppies, popping up everywhere in a cereal field. The city is a urban hub of the region.


June 1 - Day 5- Cirauqui - Los Arcos - 36,5 km- Sunny - 25-30 C, Passed by the Irache Fuente de Vino , where pilgrim have a choice of water or red wine at a drinking fountain. Here we are in wine country, vineyards as far as the eye can see. The fountain is courtesy of a local winemaker where you have the option to also purchase some if you want. But everything counts in a backpack, so for this time I will have to pass. I then have a great view of another charming village above another long inclined road, Villamayor de Monjardin. Then a 2h45 minute walk through winding roads, cereal fields to Los Arcos. The sun was in full force after midday. The few trees that provided shade often had a pilgrim taking a break or a nap while I kept moving on. It is as this point the I realize that it is important to get out early in the morning to take advantage of the cool morning air. That afternoon, I got the last available bed at the Albergue (Hostel), as I was one who also had walked the furthest. I was on the road a 6:00 am and arrived at my destination at 2:40 pm.


May 31 - Day 4- Cizor Menor - Cirauqui - 27,4 km

Sunny - 30 C, light breeze
For Raymond & Marguerite

Last night, my wife Suzanne came to me at the foot of my bed waking me by tickling my toes. I sat up and looked at her. ''What are you doing here?'' I said. '' I miss you so much and couldn't wait until the fall to walk my Camino, so Dad is with Jean-Luc and I'm coming with you''. I was so happy to see her. She then climbed up the ladder to my bunk and curl up besides me and fell asleep. When I woke up at 6:00 am, Suzanne had vanished and I realized that it was only a dream. At that very moment I realized how much I loved and missed her.

By 6:50 am, I was on the road. At first, I walked alone and for a very long time. The narrow trail was bordered with wild flowers of all kind. Jenêt, a bush with tiny yellowing blooms that has a scent of lilac, rustic roses, honeysuckle bushes, and fields of red poppies as seen in Claude Monet's painting ''Les Coquelicots''.

When I reached Alto del Perdon I caught up with a pilgrim I had seen every day since I've started the Camino. Up until now, we had only exchanged a few words. He exuded a very positive vibe and also had a very generous smile, that said a lot about his personality. Jean-Marc C. 59, was a retired fireman who once lived in Paris and was currently living in Dunkerque near the France-Belgium border. He had a love affair with repelling and exploring caves (la spéléologie). He had travelled across Europe to fulfill this passion.

Alto del Perdon is where a grouping of cutout figure statues of pilgrims is located on top of a hill. The site marks the change from the Pyrenean foothills to the mild climate of the Navarra, characterised by wine growing and agricultural fields. The panorama from the top at Alto del Perdon is breathtaking. Across the valley at a distance is another foothill with many wind turbines. Jean-Marc took a photo of me posing next to the statues.....but I would accidentally delete it by accident later that evening. I also took a photo of him. I had already realized even though I had only been walking for 4 days, many very nice people I had previously met would no longer be part of my days, and I needed to remember them in a visual way. I told him that he was ''un bon vivant'' (happy-go-lucky guy).

The descent from Alto del Perdon is more than a km long, rather steep and stony. As Jean-Marc decided to take a break, I continued alone. Within minutes I was now walking with Thomas, 45 from Germany, who slept on the bottom bunk while I was on the top at the Albergue in Larrasoana . He was a rather reserved chap, but we struck a friendship all the same. Puenta de la Reina was supposed to be my final destination for Day-4, but as it was only 11:00 am, I decided to continue for another 9 kms. We had an early lunch at a local bar where I ate my first Tortilla Patata (potato omelet pie). This one was infused with small pieces of chorizo (a spicy Spanish sausage). It would also be the most flavorable one I would eat on the Camino. Since Thomas was a vegetarian, instead of eating Tortilla Patata, he ate two creamed filled doughnuts. I sat outside under an umbrella at a bistro table with another pilgrim who was enjoying a smoke and having a beer as his walking day was already done with. This guy had an impressive built with a massive upper body. ''Are you Austrian?'' I asked. ''No, I'm German'' he said. Have people ever told you that you look and sound just like Arnold Schwarzenegger? ''Yes, I get that all the time, my nickname is The Terminator and somethings they call me Rambo''. We both started laughed.

After crossing the 11th century footbridge of Puente la Reina, Thomas and I would walk for another 2 hours up to Cirauqui. An extremely steep hill before Maneru had Thomas regretting his choice of snack. In retrospect, it felt like the steepest section of the whole Camino. We had a back wind and the noon sun was at it warmest. Thomas was sweating bullets, and breathing quite hard. He stopped briefly to check his pulse......''160 per minute'' he exclaims. I suggest that he turn around to take in a bit of the wind to cool down and catch his breath. He snaps the waist buckle from his backpack and the unbuttons the top button of his pants, because he felt bloated and had a tummy ache. ''It's those doughnuts I ate.......I feel like Homer Simpson''. His comment completely caught me off guard and I was in stitches.

Cirauqui can be seen from at least 5km away. Approaching the medieval town that dates back to the middle ages, the trail cuts across cornfields and vineyards. Cirauqui rises from the horizon like a cone shape fortress with a church bell on top that resounds throughout the valley every half hour.

The first corner store I spotted, I stopped for an Aquarius. The streets in Cirauqui are extremely steep, and the side walk have stairs to reduce the effort of climbing or descending. This is my first Sunday on the Camino. We arrive at 13h15 and check-in at Albergue Maralotx. The Albergue itself is superb, modern, Spanish tiles through out often set in a mosaic pattern, sporting a eating/sitting area on the second level balcony. After a quick shower and hand washing my clothes, I make my way to the nearby grocery store only to find out that it is closed. As the Albergue is serving a pilgrim supper, the hostess omitted to tell us that stores close at 14h00 on Sundays and don't re-open. From here on out, I would carefully consider restocking my food provisions on Sundays before 1 pm.

As I was eating tuna and bread from my backpack, three Spanish ladies from the next table offered me a nice ripe tomato. I would use my Swiss Army knife to split it in two and share it with Thomas. During that afternoon, I would also meet a lovely couple from la Réunion. A young Australian who had quit his job to walk the Camino and had hooked up a pretty American just few days ago. When he asked me where I was from, I said Moncton, NB. To my surprise he said, ''I've been there''. As it turned out, he had cross Canada in a rented van. By the time he got to Vancouver, he had picked up a few hitchhikers who decided to join him on his journey. I them mentioned that he should have filmed everything, as it would have made a great reality-travel TV show.
At this Albergue is also where I was formally introduced to Françoise L. who lives near Lyon, France. I had also seen her since Day-1. She had started a day before me and had slept her first night at Orisson, at the 8 km climb of the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Like Jean-Marc C., she had previously walked the 800km stretch of the Camino between Puy-en Velay and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. She works as a laboratory technician in a hospital. She and Jean-Marc shared the top and bottom bunk next to me, while Thomas was once again my bunk mate on the bottom bed.

As I am writing in my journal and enjoying this spectacular view from the balcony, on this Sunday I truly feel at peace on the Camino, and would not want to be anywhere else. The man seated next to me in this photo is also German. My estimate is that he's at least 65 years old. He did not talk English or French, so we only exchanged smiles. I would see him once in a while during the first week. This guy did not let his age damper his ability. He was a real fine-tuned walking machine, and I could only keep up with him for brief periods of time.

Supper was great and served in the basement of the Albergue which featured stone laid walls and had a pub atmosphere. It was accessed from the left side of the building. There were three tables, one for Spaniards, a second for the French and I sat at the International table. I felt sorry for Thomas when he mentioned that this was his first hot meal since he had left Germany a week earlier. When I asked why he had not eaten the pilgrim supper the previous evenings, he just said that no one had ever mentioned that such a meal was available. This is when I realized how important it was to establish connections with others around you. If you remain in your shell, opportunities just passes you by. This was also the last time that I would also see Thomas from Germany, although I did hear that he was in a neighboring Albergue in Los Arcos the following evening and would eventually walk ahead of us.
Tip of the Day- Bring some headgear. A cap or a broad rim hat made out of breathable material, that has a UV protection against the sun. These will also protect your eyes. I suggest that you also wear sunglasses with a UVA/UVB protection. This head wear is also easily hand washable and dries quickly on a clothesline.

May 30 - Day 3- Larrasoana - Cizor Menor - 20,7 km -
Sunny - 32 C shade / 40 C Sun
For Suzanne & Claude

Woke up at 6:00 am. From this point on, I would always prepare my own breakfast with only a few exception. Usually a piece of baguette bread with some peanut butter or jelly, a piece of fresh fruit, a yogurt when a fridge was available and a glass of water. Just enough to get me started. I was on the road by 6:50 am. Nice and cool at first, some wooden trails that are still partially muddy from a moderate amount the rain received the week prior. There's no precipitation in the long range forecast at this time.

At Arleta there is a service park with picnic tables along the main road. I stopped here for a banana before a steep path the continued along a mountain side. As I remove my backpack a large peleton of elite cyclists came whizzing down a hill at full throttle. The neighboring town of Villava is the birthplace of Spain's greatest cyclist, Michuel Indurain, a five-time winner of the Tour de France.

There are beautiful little cascading falls as we cross the River Ulzama, a branch of the Rio Arga in Trinidad de Arre. I have been walking part of the morning with a German man who started his trek back from Köln (Cologne), when there was still some snow on the ground. I had seen him a few times in the previous days. He mentioned that people along the Camino route have gone out of their ways to accommodate him. In some villages, there have a list of people who will take in pilgrims for a night. Often asking where is would be sleeping the following night and make arrangements prior to his departure the next morning. He carried an umbrella with him, the only pilgrim that I would see along my Camino boasting one. We stopped at a café after crossing the falls for a mid-morning snack. When he saw what they were serving, his face instantly light up and he exclaimed ''This is what I have been dreaming of since I left Köln, a hot bacon & egg sandwich''. I ordered one, while he ordered two....and they were delicious. He was right, as it was the only time that I would also get to eat one. He would stop in Pamplona and was planning to stay there for two days to visit the city.

I truly considered and reconsidered everything I had packed in my backpack before crossing the Atlantic. My wife had lent me her Mountain Equipement CO-OP backpack that she had purchased for here own Camino. It was very sturdy, and very user friendly with a side zipper for easy access. The problem with it was that it was a bit heavy, 5½ lbs empty, and there was not large enough. I had only pack the bare minimum, but I quickly realized that I should have packed even less, because I did not have enough space for food. I could have shipped some stuff by mail to Santiago de Compostela, but opted to send it back home instead to Canada. My father-in-law had send me a good luck card and a $50 bill before I there you go. I decided to put it to good use as it cost me 36,39 euros. I send a foldable carry-on used on the plane, anything long sleeve, a pair of short and one t-shirt. I gained much needed space and my trapezoid muscles thanked me for it. Afterwards, I would often detached the buckle the held the two shoulder strap together and slightly push them outwards to give these sore muscles a break. You learn a lot as times goes by.

I found the Spanish people to be extremely accommodating. I stopped at a produce market to ask directions for the Post Office (Correos). I wanted to ask the clerk, but as there was two line-ups of clients waiting, I asked a young man who was pushing a baby stroller. As he started to point out with directions, three older ladies in the other row all jumped in to help. After leaving the Post Office, I was heading in the wrong direction when a young man on the third floor of an apartment building yelled out to me, ''CAMINO SI''.....Si, Camino, I replied. Then he pointed with finger towards the street I should take.....''muchas gracias'' I bellowed. In Pamplona, at one point, I lost track of the yellow arrows and asked direction to a senior. He pointed the direction towards an intersection. I turned around and walked a few paces. As I turned my head again, he was following me to make sure I took the correct street. Moments like these are but examples of the hospitality of the Spaniards. You do feel as if they are honored that you have come all this way to walk on their land, on this sacred road that has part of their history for the past Millenium.

I found Pamplona to be exceptionnal beautiful. I entered through the fortified entrance of Old Pamplona.

It is here where the running of the bulls takes place at the time of Sanfermines (July 6-14). It was Ernest Hemingway's book, The Sun Also Rises (1926), that brought this event to the public's attention a Global scale.

As I opened the door of Iglisia de San Lorenzo, music greeted me as I entered. A young man was singing lead as a group of equally lovely ladies were singing back-up as they were reheasing a pop song. Amazing voices, beautiful arrangements and great accoustics made me instantly started to well up and became teary eyed, even if I didn't understand a word they were singing.

I bumped into François (59) from Paris while buying a few groceries. Then walked a while with him across the University park and we ate lunch under the shape of trees. It was super hot that afternoon wtih the mercury pushing 40 C in full sun. We arrived at Cizor Menor at 13h40 and decided to call it a day. Staying at Albergue of the Order of the Knights of Malta next to Iglesia de San Miguel. A 12th century small fortress-like Romanesque church built by the Order of St John.

I later ran into France & François at the corner store down the street from the Albergue. They arrived to Cizor Menor before me and are staying at the beautiful Albergue Maribel Roncal, that boost a full kitchen and they graciously asked me to have supper with them with France preparing a beautiful meal.

Danielle and her son were also staying at the same Hostel as I. Later that evening a young Knight of the Order of Matla came to our Albergue to take care the blisters under her feet. She had hardly slept the previous night as her feet were sore. The epiderma was completely missing in some areas where she had blisters. He desinfected the area with a Betadine solution and applied dressings to her feet. He recommended that she take a day off, in order to recuperate and speed up healing. The next morning was the last time I got to talk to them.
Tip of the Day- Choosing proper clothing before leaving. You should avoid cotton, as it retains sweat and humidity, takes much longer to dry and does not breathe. A cotton t-shirt might be OK for the evening, but why carry more when you have limited space in your backpack.
Now a days, there are so many new fabrics available in the sporting apparal market. All your clothing should be lightweight, breathable, that wicks perperartion to the surface in order to keep you dry. They are usually 100% polyester or blend of polyester nylon and Spandex. These microfibers are known under various names such as Cool-Max, Dri Fit, Clima Fit, Clima Proof, Hydrenalite, Gore-tex, Dri-weave, Polartec etc... While some fabric are meant to keep you cool and dry, others are meant to retain body heat while keeping you dry on colder days. These fabrics are usually quite thin, so they also take less space when packing. It is better to dress in layers when it is cool, and peel away a piece as it gets warmer. When layering, they all work together to wick perspiration. A lot of these fabrics also have a UVA/UVB for skin protection against harmful sun rays.
These fabrics are also wrinkle free, are easy to wash and also dry very quickly on a clothesline. If you are on a limited budget, wait for a sale and plan ahead. The garments will give you years of wear and are worth every penny. Pants with zippered pant legs that can be converted into shorts are the best choice, because they serves as a dual purpose and will save space in your backpack. Even my underwear was made of a dri weave and the rarely felt damped. At one point, I saw some people walking in jeans and handwashing them in wash tubs with a soap bar. What a nightmare to wring the excess water before hanging them on a clothesline, and they take forever to dry if it is not windy and hot.
Your jacket should also be made out of a breathable, water repellent material that wicks sweat to the surface in order to keep you dry. If not, these will retain moisture and before long your jacket will start to feel like a sauna. During winter activites, the sweat will actually freeze and create a frost on the inside of the sleeves when they are 100% Nylon. Again, it is best to invest once, and you can enjoy these pieces for years to come.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 29- Day 2- Roncevalles to Larrasoana - 29 km

Rolling hills, Sunny and very hot, 30 +C.
For - son Jean-Luc, Happy 14th Birthday!

Before going to bed last night, I took a two sniff of Drixoral nasal spray to keep my nasal passages clear, which completely did the trick. I would continue this practice every evening before retreating. With my earplugs in, it was total silence, and I could not hear myself breathing either. It may have taken one hour to fall asleep, but my mind was completely blank of any thoughts. I was in a Zen state, this is as close to perfect mediation as I have ever experience. I woke up the next morning at 6:10. As it was dark, I thought that no one was up until I removed my earplugs. A cacophony of sound caught me by surprise. From people snoring, coughing, whispering, getting out of bed, packing their stuff in noisy plastic bags ..... I got up and was on my way a half hour later with Thomas W. After 2 kms of walking, there was a café where I had a light breakfast of croissant, a banana & juice. During the mid-morning, I walked for about one hour with a young man in his mid-twenties from Switzerland. He had departed from his hometown on March 25, and had walked 1400 km so far. He was barefoot in his walking sandals and mentioned that is shoes were causing him blisters. He had a very laid back attitude that I admired. He was in no hurry to get to Santiago.

There are still some difficult climbs that feels at least 2 kms at a time. By 11 am I had to slide into my sandals once more, as my toes were sore during some descents. While passing through small towns and cities, it is important to be attentive for the yellow arrows, St. James shells, or white and red stripes that indicated the route of the Camino. I got lost in Espinal for about 5 minutes, then took a wrong trail. I knew I was lost, as I could not see any shoe prints on the semi muddy trail. I immediately thought of the TV show Mantracker on OLN, who is always on the lookout for foot prints. Luckily a woman who spoke a bit of English assured me that this road would eventually meet up with the Camino again. Twenty minutes later it did. After a few days on the Camino, you get a 6th sense about where to look for the arrows or when you've ventured off course.

During the early part of the afternoon, I caught up with a mother and son team from Carleton, Québec. Danielle had just turned 50, and this was her milestone gift to herself. Her son 20 was a University student and wanted to be a writer. When I mentioned that my wife Suzanne had also turned 50 earlier this year and was walking the Camino in September, her face just light up.

Stopped at Zubiri for a light lunch. Drank some Aquarius for the first time. This is an electrolyte replenishing drink bottled by Coca-Cola, which is the equivalent to Powerade in North America. This would become my staple drink of the Camino. I drank at least one each day. They are readily available in dispensing machines and in almost every corner store. I said my good-byes to Thomas W. who was stopping here for the day. He had teamed up with three young South Korean women who spoke English fluently. They had the same time frame for their Camino of 40 days or so. He gave me a nice bar of Lindt dark chocolate in recognition of me helping him with communications and our friendship.

I completed my day of walking at 2:30 pm. The guide book said 26,5 km for Day-2, but I had actually walked one hour more than yesterday on a less difficult course. When I arrived in Larrasoana, François the elder from Paris, told me that his GPS indicated 29 kms from Roncevailles. I am referring to him has François the elder, because during this trek I would meet a lot of people with the name France, François and Françoise.

I took a shower when I arrived at the Albergue, my trapezoids (top shoulder muscles) were so sore from the weight of my backpack that in order to lift my arms to shampoo my hair, I had to bend my elbow at 90 degrees and push it upwards with the other hand in order to reach my head.

Walked around town and had a beer (Spanish- Cerveza) with France and François G. before supper. Also had the pleasure of their company for supper with new acquaintances at our table. As I got up from the table to return to the Albergue, my quads felt like cement (Lactic Acid).

Municipal Albergue in Larrasoana - 6 euros.
Supper at Casa Sanglo Reposo y Descanso Del Perigrino - 12 euros.

Tip of the Day - Having proper footwear is the most important piece of equipment you will need to consider for this trek. I purchased a pair of lightweight Northface (summit series) just above the ankle hiking boot with the uppers made of Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex is a material that not only breathe, but is waterproof. I walked about 150km in mine at home, and it was barely enough to break them in. They proved to be the right choice for me. When trying out a new pair of shoes at the store, ask for assistance when possible. You should consider your type of foot ....flat foot, normal arch, high arch....pronator, supinator. If they are noisy when walking, it usually means that they don't fall right when hitting the surface. A proper fitting walking shoe or walking boot is usually silent when you walk in them. I also brought along a pair of Northface walking sandals which also proved to be a good choice. Today was the last time I used Vaseline on my toes, and the sliding action inside my boots would also stop.


May 28 - Day 1 -Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port France to Roncevalles Spain - 26,5 km

Weather- fog/humid , sunny/windy, T: 15 to 25 C
For my wife Suzanne

Last night was my first experience sleeping in a dorm room with others. The rather small room had two bunk beds. I had brought some earplugs in order to sleep soundly in the presence of snorers. They did their job perfectly in blocking the outside noises . My nasal passages were possibly a bit congested, because when breathing through my nose it sounded more like I was snorkeling under water. The sound of the inhaling and exhaling just resonated within me. Earplugs just amplifies every internal sounds. I had a hard time falling asleep, and going to bed with a full stomach certainly did not help either. After a while, I removed the earplugs only to hear all three of my bunk mates were snoring. When I did finally fall asleep, I did a series of bizarre dreams and one nightmare that seemed straight out of a horror movie.

Woke up at 6:15 am and packed my stuff. Breakfast was served at 7. I embarked on the Camino a half hour later with Thomas W. It was very foggy and humid for the first 6 or 7 km. On this first day of walking, we are on a steady climb of the Pyrenees for the first 20 km (12 miles). This is when all of my past experience and training for endurance sports really comes in handy. I have been a runner since the age of 14. For a decade (1992-2002) I trained and ran 22 marathons. I am also an avid cyclist and cross-country skier in winter.

In a perfect world, the most difficult terrain would be near the end of the Camino. After you've grown accustomed to walking day after day with a 10 kg (22 lbs) pack back, and you've become fitter. On this trek, Day 1 is by far the most difficult. The start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is at 163 m (534 ft) above see level. At Col de Leoeder 20 km later, you will have climbed to 1430 m ( 4690 ft), the last 6,5 km is mostly downhill. During the whole day, there is only one stop for food, at Auberge Orrison at km #8 at 650m (2132 ft) in altitude. Some people opt to sleep here the first night. When the hostel is full, the only other option is to sleep outside in tents that are located behind the building. On days like these, it is wise to always have a day's worth of food in your backpack.

For the first few days, I decided to stop every hour for a 5 minute break. With the high humidity, I was sweating profusely. I only felt winded at times, but I could feel my heart pumping. The very fact that you are carrying a heavy backpack and gravity is pulling you down, makes it a whole different walk.

After Orrison, we had climb above the clouds and clear sky revealed the majesty of the of the Pyrenees Mountain range. With lots of green pastures, sheeps and cows are part of the decor for the first half of the day. Thomas is walking at a slightly faster pace than me at first, and he is a bit more winded than I am. If you feel winded when you walk on steep inclines like this, it is a good plan to slow down a bit because you might be hitting the wall later on when you start to have lactic acid build up in your muscles and your body has a harder time to bring oxygen to your now deprived leg muscles. After a few hours, Thomas had slowed down and I lost sight of him after a while.

I stopped for lunch just before the Fountain of Roland, named after a knight in the army of Charles the Great during their quest of reconquering Spain from the Moors (8th century).

At this point, François and France G., a father and daughter team from Quebec had caught up with me. They had trained hard before coming here, and at 70 years old he was just blazing through this steep terrain. He too was once a marathon runner and his P.B. done during his forties was under 3 hours. I had seen them both the previous day as they were in the same wagon train as me. After a few minutes of talking we instantly struck a friendship. France spoke four languages. French, English, German and Spanish. She had taken Spanish lessons and spent several months in Costa Rica with her husband and children during a extended vacation. She seemed very grounded, was homeschooling her children and a former employee of the Quebec government.

By the time we reached the summit of Col de Lepoeder, it was extremely windy and much cooler. You could see for miles and miles around. At a distance, there are snow covered peaks. I joking mentioned that if my backpack was a parachute, and I was to accidentally pull the cord, I'd be out of sight in no time flat. Roncevalles could be seen 4 km away.

As we stated our descent, I did find it more difficult. As gravity is now pulling you downwards there was some movement inside my hiking boots. As before, my heels felt snug against the back of my boots, now I had a feeling that my feet was sliding a bit and my toes were been crammed in the front. I had applied some Vaseline between my toes, which only seem to enhance the sliding action. As friction started to take place, I decided to stop and put on my only other footwear, a pair of Northface walking sandals. This liberated my toes and stopped any blistering action that had started. I wore socks to avoid direct friction between the skin and the sandal. I would finish the day with a blister on the tip my large right toe, and a tiny one on the 4th left.

On the final long descent of the day before reaching the a paved road, you have the option of either taking a right or a left trail. It is wiser to take the right route even if it indicated that it is longer. The left route has a pitch of 25 degrees. I later heard that evening that some took that trail and found it very scary and dangerous with poor footing doing down. I arrived in Roncevalles at 2:30 pm. Registration to the Albergue only opened at 4:00pm, so I sat at an outdoor café table and got a cold drink, then wandered around to explore the grounds.

The intimidation factor when you enter an Albergue of this size is over whelming at first. A very large stone building with tall ceilings and tiny windows letting only a bit of natural light in. This becomes the setting for this one room, 110 bed dormitory. As I was unpacking by gear, a Frenchman by the name of Robert came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ''Don't worry, this may look intimidating at first, but you will soon get use to it''. It merely echoed my exact sentiments the moment I heard these words. He somehow knew exactly what I needed to hear.

Two bunk beds are stacked once against each other becoming one unit with a narrow passage way between the next. I had the top bunk. The neighbor to my right was an Irish lad in his mid-thirties. He was on a short vacation and was walking the Camino for one week only. He was in fact so close to me that if I had extended my arm, I could have touched him. There is a beautiful hotel only a few steps away which is an alternative option.

By the time I hit the shower, the water was cold, but it felt good anyway. I hand washed my clothes and set it to dry outside on a clothesline. This would become part of the daily routine. At some restaurants, you have to reserve ahead of time for the first sitting at 7 pm. The second sitting starting at 8:30pm. I sat with France, François G., Thomas W. and two other girls at restaurant, La Posada. The fixed menu consisted of a first course of pasta with a tomato based sauce and Chorizo. A main course of poached trout and french fries and yogurt for dessert. A glass of red wine accompanied the meal for 9 euros.

Afterwards, I attended a pilgrim mass in Spanish celebrated by at least six priests. At the end a the mass and before blessing the pilgrims, a priest named all the countries from which the pilgrims had registered at the Albergue. It felt more like a meeting of the United Nations.
An American I had met at Esprit du Chemin the previous day sat in the seat in front of me. He looked exhausted from his day, as he kept dowsing off during the enitre proceedings. I was in bed by 10 pm.

Tip of the day- The most important thing that you can do to prepare for Day-1, which by the way is the most difficult terrain that you will have to walk on during the whole Camino, is to get in shape prior. Depending you your current personal fitness, you should be able to at least walk two hours at a time without feeling too tired, three times a week. You should start months in advance, in order to get a good cardio base. Getting accustom to wearing a backpack should also occur before embarking on the Camino. Any kind of aerobic exercise and cross training will help you on the long run, and it does not have to just be walking. The more your heart and lungs are in shape, the easier it will be. If you are to develop any kind of heart related stress due to walking on this type of terrain, it is better if it happens while training at home, rather than on an isolated path in the middle of nowhere, in foreign country where you don't speak the language. A medical exam with a cardiogram is a must, and you should get the OK from your doctor before heading out.


May 27, 2009 - Toulouse to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France - by Train

I had purchase my train ticket ahead of time and it was delivered at my home address before leaving. I would find out that it was not necessary. There were lots of empty seats on the train as I embarked on a 6-hour train ride to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino Francés. Before entering the train, ''il faut composter le billet'', to have your train ticket validated by a punching machine that is located on route to the platform. If you forget, a ticket agent will punch your ticket while the train is moving. I arrived in Bayonne at 2pm. There was a 1h15 min wait for the next connecting train. Bayonne is located just south of Bordeaux. It is at this point that I realized that if I could have landed in Bordeaux, instead of Toulouse, the train ride would have been much shorter (75 minutes).

During this last connection, I became aware that there were many pilgrims on board and being in their presence has already awaken in me a sense of belonging. The sky is overcast as we get a peak of the Pyrenees as we make our way through a dense forest. I arrive as planned at 4:30 pm. From here I just followed other pilgrims for a short walk to 40 rue (street) de la Citadelle, where I stayed in my first Hostel (Spanish-Albergue), named ''Esprit du Chemin'' (Spirit of the Road). Directly across is an office where you can get your credential (pilgrim passport) for 2 euros.

It is with this passport that you will get access to stay in Hostels for pilgrims each night. Upon arriving to an Albergue, the first thing that they will ask you is your credential. You will receive a stamp (sellos). This stamps gives you access to your next stay and so on. The price per night varies from 3 to 12 euros, while others are on a donation or voluntary contribution (Spanish- donativos). It is also the necessary proof for obtaining the certificate of pilgrimage (Compostela) when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela. Along the route, you can also collect stamps (sellos) on your passport in certain churches or café/bars for free. Just keep in mind the amount of space remaining on your passport in order not to run out. You can always have your personal journal stamped in order to save space on your passport. The stamps collected other than the Albergues are optional and for reference or a souvenir of having been there.

At the passport office, I met Thomas W., a 27 year old man from South Korea. He spoke a bit English and no French, so I played the role of interpreter as he sat besides me while we were filling out our passport forms and a volunteer explained how things work. When the volunteer asked us if we had a place to stay for the night, Thomas answered ''No''. I mentioned that there might be a bed available at Esprit du Chemin, as I saw a note on the door stating there was a vacancy. He was very lucky to get the last available bed. There are a few albergues in town, but it is advised to book ahead of time as space is limited. Thomas would become my sidekick for the next 2½ days. We had a very good rapport.

I then visited this charming town. A fortress wall was built around a large part of the municipality. I walked to where would be our starting point the next morning. If you have yet to buy all of your hicking gear, now is the time to do so. There are several shops that cater to the hikers and trekkers. If you have not purchased a rain poncho, some shops sell a variation with a hump that will accommodate extra space for your backpack.

Supper at the Albergue was great and served at 7pm. A local liqueur shot to start, then a hearty soup, potatoes/endives/ham for the main course , yogurt and wine for 9 euros. Unless you are preparing meals yourself, European always eat at this time or even later, which is not the North American norm of 5pm. The total cost for my stay here including supper and breakfast was 20 euros.

Tip of the Day - Before leaving, do purchase a Camino guide book. I had two.

1- Le Chemin de Saint Jacques en Espagne (French) by Jean-Yves Grégoire & Louis Laborde-Balen - Rando éditions. This guide has a very detailed description of the route. Handy when you lose sight of the yellow arrows (Spanish- flecha amarilla), St James shells or red and white lines.

Rother Walking Guide - Canimo de Santiago - Way of the St.James from the Pyrenees to Santiago by Cordula Rabe. This was my true companion during my trek. It's is pocket size, packed with so much infomation. All Algergue have a 1-3 shell rating. The distance between each town is indicated. It is an essential guide to plan your day ahead. To know what services are available in the next town is essential ex: Grocery store, ATM machines, restaurants, bus services, post office (Spanish- Correos) etc.... This is possibly the most popular, as it is translated in many languages.

To find train schedules in Europe, please click on this
Rail Europe link


May 25-26, 2009 -Halifax, N.S to Toulouse, France

Departed from Halifax International Airport at 8:50 am. It was very emotional saying goodbye to my wife Suzanne. She wishes she could come along. As we have a 14 year old son at home, it was impossible at this time. Suzanne will be walking the Camino in mid-September with a close friend of the family. I'll be able to give them a first-hand account of my own experience when I get back so they'll have a greater sense of what to expect when their turn comes.

I arrived in Detroit at 10:50 am, a layover time of 7 hours awaited me before my trans-Atlantic flight departing at 6:15pm. During that flight I sat next to a man from Georgia, USA who was going to Munich to visit his son who plays professional American Football in a European league. He was an ex-player himself. He mentionned that his son was living his own dream of playing in the big leagues.

There was a 45-minute delay with my last connecting flight from Amsterdam to Toulouse. In addition we had to go through customs before embarking the plane. During the finale connection, I sat next to a business man from Holland who was flying to Algeria. He told me that he had gone to Santiago de Compostella on business in April and there was still snow on the ground.

I arrive in Toulouse, France before noon. Upon exiting the airport's terminal door, there is a small ticket office (Tisséo) where a shuttle bus links Toulouse-Blagnac Airport to downtown Toulouse in 15 minutes. Departing every 20 minutes for a fare of 4 euros. The shuttle brings you to la Gare Matabiau (train station). As luck is on my side, I learn that the train strike will be ending at 10:00 am tomorrow morning. My train will leave at 10:10 am as scheduled.

I am staying at Hôtel Le President, very basic accommodations but only a 10 minute walk to the train station. After a half hour power snooze, I headed out to visit Old-Toulouse with my map in hand. It is a very charming city with a rich history in architectural buildings and details.

I first make my way to Saint-Sermin Basilica. Built during the 11th century, it is considered as the world's largest Romanesque church in the world and Toulouse's most famous landmark. It was originally built to house pilgrims on their way to Santiago De Compostela in Spain.

A vast open square, Place du Capitole is lined with shops and cafés. City Hall is located in this block.

From the inside corridor of City Hall, you can access la Salle des Illustes located on the second level. Here the walls are graced by several mural paintings by artists Henri Martin and Paul Gervais. In an adjoining hall, I witnessed a civil wedding taking place while another wedding party was having their photograph taken in front of Gervais's romantic fresco ''Amour, source heureuse de la vie''. Next came Jardin Goudouli (garden) and Wilson Square where there is a beautiful Carousel.

I continued strolling the streets of Toulouse to visit Hôtel d'Assézat, a 1555 building by top Renaissance architect Nicholas Bachelier. Home of the Bemberg Foundation, a display of their beautiful collection of Fine Art that included a room dedicated to artist Pierre Bonnard in which there are at least three dozen pieces. Other artists from the collection include Manet, Monet, Degas, Dufy, Gaugain, Toulouse-Lautrec....

After a walk along the Garonne River and Place de la Daurade, my final stop is a visit at Église des Jacobins. A church built in 1230, a marvel in Gothic architecture that has a row of 7½ columns located centrally holding the vaulted ceiling like branches of a palm tree. At the base of one of the front pillars is a large round mirror creating the illusion of doubling the height of the column while permitting a view of the intricately laid brink work on it's ceiling without looking upwards.

I am exhausted, and it's light out at 9 pm for me.

Tip of the day - Make reservations that are flexible for anything you can before leaving home. Reading, reading and more reading ahead of time will not only prepare you on what you can expect when visiting a foreign country, but it will also save you a lot of time when you are on a tight schedule and you are on foot to visit sites.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tomorrow I leave for Halifax

I'm leaving this Monday on the adventure of a lifetime, where I'll be walking the Camino Francés. A 5-week solo trek backpacking in southern France and in northern Spain. I've been to Spain once before during our honeymoon in 1986. Back then we visited the south of Spain, Gibraltar and Portugal over a 2-week period. This is my first posting on this new blog, so that family, friends and anyone planning to walk the Camino in the future can get a glimpse from my own perspective.

Not wanting to spend my life savings on this one trip, it's important to plan ahead, find great deals and spend wisely. Since I had enough Airmiles for my flight, I only had to pay taxes, extras and fuel surcharges. The best deal I could find was with NWA / KLM, departing from Halifax. But in order to get to my final destination I will have my passport stamped three times. It will feel like a leg on The Amazing Race just getting there. Departing from the Halifax International Airport on Monday May 25, with connecting flights in Detroit and Amsterdam before reaching Toulouse, France.

Hopefully I'll be able to catch some Zzz crossing the Atlantic. With a late morning arrival on May 26, I am planning to do a bit of sightseeing of Toulouse (France's 4th largest metropolitan city). I've reserved a hotel room near la Gare Matabiau (train station). On May 27, a five hour + train ride should bring me to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. France has a notoriety for strikes and public demonstrations. This morning I received an e-travel Alert to advise me that Rail nationwide across France is planning a strike on May 25-26. I am crossing my fingers that service will resume on the 27th. Since my train ticket was purchased ahead of time on-line and delivered at my doorstep, I might be in luck. I also have a reservation for one night in a hostel for pilgrims in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, so this is where it starts to get tricky. Everything has to fall into place in order to stay on course and on schedule. With all of this said, I marvel that I was able to plan everything myself by surfing on the Internet, reserving rooms and flights ahead of time, and the new Google Street is amazing.

On May 27, it's from here that I will become a pilgrim and embark on The Camino Francés, a 800 km walking trek across the Pyrenees into Spain, then westbound to Santigo de Compostella. The Camino or The Way of St. James has existed for more than 1000 years, but has become more popular in recent years following the released of the books, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho and The Camino by Shirley MacClaine.

I first heard of it about 10 years ago when my wife Suzanne mentioned that it was something that she would love to do. Since then, her dream has also became mine. Since we have a 14 year old son at home, I will be walking the Camino first. My wife and a best friend of hers will be departing in mid-September on the same route. It will become a journey of enlightenment, of will and courage, adventure, sight-seeing, discovery, introspection, contemplation, going back to the basics, meditation and prayer, revelation, without forgetting the physical what more can you ask for. In a nut-shell, a spiritual journey. I will be walking roughly 27-30 km /day over 29 days. Once in Santiago de Compostella, I will celebrate with other Pilgrims, then board a plane to Madrid for a 3 night stay to visit the city and it's prestigious art museums.

I've been taking some Spanish lessons.... at least I have the correct pronunciation, and with my French and my pocket electronic translator, I'm hoping it's enough to get by. I am not sure how often I will have access to the Internet for updates, and I don't want this blog to become a crutch and a burden either, but I will do my best. After my return and once my solo art show is up in October, I'll fill in the blanks with journal entries, do some editing and add more photos.

Hasta Luego!