By Anita Hamilton
This is how Anita Hamilton described the pilgrimage across Spain that she and Stephan Kettmus undertook in 2015.
Ten years ago I walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain for the first time and it changed my life. Not only in terms of how I started to deal with all the possessions I had (downsizing big time) but also in that I met Stephan then as well. While there was no thought of “pairing up” at that time, somehow it did lead to a relationship a couple of years later and our marriage and my move to Germany five years ago. This year being an anniversary of sorts, we thought we’d walk the Camino again, only this time from south to north (the Camino de la Plata from Seville to Santiago de Compostella).
We’re now back from that 1,000-km trek and, hence, here is the description of another one of our trips. Nothing gruelling like the one over the Alps last year, but this one had its moments, only of a different flavour. Before we started the walk, we first flew to Granada for a couple of days of being tourists, then took the bus to Cordoba and spent two days there and finally went to Seville, from where we began our walk on September 1st. Here we are, starting at the stone in front of the cathedral in Seville.
Right from the beginning, we found this route to be very different from the traditional Camino Francés route. First of all, there were very few walkers when compared to the hundreds that start in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles daily. I would say that under 10 start in Seville and of those 10, very few are women. For the first 12 days I was the only woman at the hostels. I was joking that I slept with between four and 10 men every night. And of the men walking, they were either lone wolves who raced on, or were in groups of usually four who stuck to themselves (mostly French or Italian). The pilgrim comraderie that we were used to on the Camino Francés was totally missing. Fortunately, we are quite happy toddling along or being on our own, so that wasn’t a big problem —just a “would have been nice…”.
Our trek started out walking through olive plantations, then on through cork oak forests, vineyards, fields and almost desert areas. Very beautiful. Quite often we were reminded of scenery in the Kalahari Desert or in Namibia. Part of that was the late fall season, with its yellow and brown colours. Apparently this route is very different in the spring, when multitudes of wildflowers are in bloom.
The next big difference on the Camino de la Plata was the lack of infrastructure. Distances between points we were going to were often huge (for us non-marathoners) —33 to 37 km — with nothing in terms of services between the starting and ending points. No villages, no water access, no benches — nothing but the hot sun and the two litres of water, nuts and dried fruit we carried with us for sustenance. The temperatures at the beginning of our trip were in the high 30s. On the Camino Francés, a big deal is made over ONE 17-km stretch that doesn’t have services. We were doing twice that distance on a regular basis in 37-degree heat.
Once we got to Merida we took a day off to be tourists again, along with spending a couple of nights in a hotel, sleeping under clean sheets, having proper towels to use and our very own bathroom. What luxuries!
Back on the road again, we found that the excellent markings for the way had all but disappeared and Stephan had to spend time figuring out our navigation. In addition, very frequently we found that the route was interrupted with highway construction — a LOT of highway construction — with minimal warning or detour signs. I have not seen nicer highways anywhere than those in Spain. The crazy thing to see was how FEW cars there were on the existing highways, and yet a new highway was being constructed right beside one with so little traffic. When I say “little traffic,” I’m talking about standing on a bridge in the middle of the day and counting at most 10 cars driving by within one minute — and that includes cars going in both directions. Nonetheless, highway construction and the construction of a high-speed rail system (that we also had to circumvent a few times) seem to be the major source of work from what we could see. And all the projects had big EU-financed signs to go with them. (I should also mention at this point that the WORST roads and highways I’ve seen in Europe happen to be here in Germany, the country that’s doing the bulk of the financing of these other projects … go figure).
Walking through the rough countryside of the Extremadura had its own charm. While it’s a nuisance not to have access to shops and bars (bars being that, cafés and restaurants all in one), there was quite an appeal to being totally out of touch with the rest of the world. The rural areas of Spain have probably been exactly like that for hundreds of years now.
And then, joy! Oh joy! Here and there we started to run into some women walking. At one hostel we all even cooked a meal together (paella) and had a lovely evening that was reminiscent of the pilgrimages we had been used to. Of the women we met, only one, other than me, walked the whole way from Seville to Santiago. Most of them (the men as well) were either walking segments of the route or dropped out altogether. Need I tell anyone that I have a stubborn streak? 🙂
Just before we got to Salamanca (just over the half-way point) we almost quit ourselves. We were so sick and tired of the long stretches and lack of facilities, we started to wonder why we were doing it at all. We’d all but decided to take the bus to Leon and finish the walk on the Camino Francés. However, one day’s rest in Salamanca (and the treat of a hotel) and we thought we’d give the Camino Sanabrès a try — this is the stretch that leads off westwards from Salamanca to Santiago. Temperatures now that we were farther north had also cooled off, so that walking was more pleasant. Here and there we even CHOSE to take a break in the sunshine instead of hunting for shade.
From this point on, the infrastructure started to improve as well and the route often led through a village or town in the course of a day, so that one could get a coffee or something to eat along the way and not have to carry as much. In addition, more people were walking! We started to meet people who were not racing on and who we would see again over the course of the days and even got to know a bit. Here we had the best of both worlds: infrastructure and people, yet without the crowding of the Camino Francés. No need to get up at 5 am in order to make it to a hostel before it was filled up. There was always space. And food! We finally ate some really good meals, some even memorable so that every drop had to be savoured.
While we still had lots of crappy stretches to walk along or beside highways and past dumps and neglected areas,
at least they were more than balanced out by the beautiful sights.
And then we finally got to Galicia and the world changed from hot and dry to very wet and cooler.
In the mornings, we’d be bundled up but by mid-day would enjoy temperatures in the twenties. Perfect hiking weather, other than for the rain. While we have good rain gear, the problem lies in drying the clothing you have with you. On this kind of trip, you have only two outfits: the one you are wearing and the one you put on after you shower in the evening. The one you were wearing then gets washed and has to dry before the next day, though being your own washing line over the course of a day, with things hanging off your backpack, drying as you walk, is a common occurrence. Continuous rain is then a nuisance, as nothing dries. We did one stretch of 3 days in the same clothes every day until our “other set” was finally dry enough. These were also times we treated ourselves to a hotel room. Running into a place with a washing machine and dryer was a real thrill, I can tell you. Virtually everything went into the wash on those days.
Still, minor stuff compared to the beauty of being out in the country and breathing clean air. There is something incredibly wonderful about having such simplicity in your life. There is only one thing to do and that is walk. And with that walking comes a calm and an inner peace that is hard to describe.
On October 9th, we made it to Santiago and met up again with three of the friends (German, English and Irish) we’d made along the way. Here we are, standing beside the stone in front of the Santiago cathedral, the “goal”.
Then back home to our dog, Jerry, and our normal life.
Very happy that we did this trip but would not do it again – at least not the first 600 km. Nor would we recommend it to anyone without lots of hiking experience. To do this as one’s first Camino would be pretty brutal. However, for anyone considering walking the Camino Francés, we would highly recommend heading south at Astorga and walking to Santiago via the Camino Sanabrès. You avoid the huge crowds that begin walking the last 100 km to Santiago and the walk into Santiago itself is far, far prettier. You walk in through smaller towns (instead of industrial areas) and can actually see the cathedral spires from the outskirts of town (instead of when you’re right in front of them). All in all, well worth it.
I seem to have written so much negative stuff here. I’m wondering if I’ve mentioned enough good stuff to balance it out. For us, the balance is there — and I don’t think I can bear re-writing this whole thing. It was what it was and this is what it is. 🙂
Photos: Stephan Kettmus