A Chatham Arch couple recommend it – and offer some advice
An abridged version of this essay was featured in the November edition of Urban Times. Much of the extra material in this report offers the advice Penny and John Hall offer. Scroll down to “THEIR ADVICE…”
Edited by WHITNEY ERTEL / For the Chatham Arch Archives
Penny and John Hall were blessed to check an item off their bucket list as they recently walked The Camino de Santiago, a 358-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain. (Each carrying only the items that could fit in their respective backpack for a month-long adventure!)
They stayed in 27 different towns along the way – some large, such as Burgos and Leon, but many small, with populations of fewer than 100. Their journey started in the tiny town of Belarado on Aug. 20. They walked west, averaging 13 miles a day until they reached Santiago (where Saint James rests in the Cathedral de Santiago), nearly a month later on Sept. 17.
“We picked Belarado as our starting town simply because we had a window of time for this walk between two of our grandchildrens’ birthdays,” said John. “Our newest grandchild, Elliot, was due to be born in early August and our granddaughter, Caroline’s, 3rd birthday was Sept. 23. We wanted to be home for both, so the mileage dictated that we end in Santiago (as all Spanish caminos do) and start in Belarado.”
Penny shared, “The walking wasn’t terribly difficult, particularly since walking was all we had to do each day, but it wasn’t a stroll through the park either. There were many steep and long uphills and downhills (up and down mountains, actually) that our Monon Trail training hikes here in Indy couldn’t prepare us for. We were also cognizant of potential blisters, strains and injuries that can cut pilgrimages short. We were fortunate to have few issues and appreciated that fact when we saw others tending to their injuries along the way.”
As they walked, they enjoyed “breathtakingly gorgeous scenery” that included beautiful mountains, the flat plans known as the meseta, pastures, farms, tiny stone villages, centuries-old churches and larger bustling towns. The locals were welcoming and helpful in steering John and Penny back to the Camino if they inadvertently missed one of the yellow arrows that marks the trail.
This journey of a lifetime had been on John and Penny’s minds for several years. They planned to walk in 2019 but an early retirement opportunity for John caused them to postpone to 2020 – but then Covid-19 made 2020 impossible. In August they were happy to stop planning and start walking.
John and Penny are active with a local group called Hoosiers on the Camino. Many in this group have walked the Camino multiple times, and one walker told John several months ago that once one has walked the Camino, it “gets in your soul.” This is certainly the case for John and Penny now, and while it would be difficult to be away from the kids and grandkids for more than a month again, future Caminos are certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.
A Q&A with John:
Must one be fluent in Spanish to make this type of trip? Folks can get by on The Camino with little or no English but my advice for English-only speakers is to study up on Spanish food if nothing else. Don’t worry about trying to conjugate verbs or even being able to form sentences. But being able to say huevos, café con leche, tostada, zumo de naranja, etc. can make the experience much better.
All of this food talk is making me hungry. What did you eat? The food was wonderful, and very reasonably priced. Lunch and dinner for Penny and me were often from a “pilgrim’s menu,” which were typically two nice courses, dessert and a bottle of wine for around $10-13. Tapas (small plates of a variety of good things) were common as well. Breakfast availability was sporadic, which was tough for me as I am a big breakfast eater. Often, small cafes would have pastries, toast, and coffee only. After a week or so of walking hangry for several miles in the morning, I started carrying around small vacuum-packed portions of jamon (Spanish ham) that was available in all grocery stores. When a breakfast cafe had toast and coffee only, I simply whipped out my jamon stash, topped my toast with it and walked happily for 5 or 6 miles until second breakfast or lunch.
How long did it take to travel there and what was the flight to/from and what cities did you fly direct or were there connections? We flew from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Madrid with a layover in New Jersey. Flight costs to Madrid were very reasonable ($500 – $700 round trip). We bused a couple hours from Madrid to Burgos and then cabbed from Burgos to Belorado, the tiny town that we started walking from. All in all, it took us about 24 hours to get from West Palm Beach to Belarado.
You each really traveled with just a backpack? No rolling suitcase or concierge in tow? We brought nothing other than what we carried in our backpacks. We were very, very careful about what we brought, as we planned to carry everything with us. We scrutinized everything for weight and brought nothing we thought we could do without. Some pilgrims use a service to ship their backpacks from stop to stop and carry only a small day pack. This is easy and inexpensive to do. Penny and I kept this option in mind but never exercised it.
Did you bring iPads and laptops or just phones? You’d recharge each night? Were you staying somewhere different each night? We brought only phones – and used only one phone between us, as my ancient I-phone 4 did not work outside of the U.S. (despite Verizon assuring me before we left that it would). I thought not having a laptop would be tough as I like to stay connected but adapting to only a phone was not difficult, particularly since we are both retired and don’t have any work connection needs. We did recharge every night and stayed in a different place each night.
Did you walk every day or were you able to take breaks to sightsee, etc? Every evening we got to walk around in whatever town we were in. The tiny towns could be explored pretty quickly, but the larger towns had quite a bit to see – always an ancient church or two and often a cathedral. We planned non-walking days along the way in two larger cities, Burgos (day 4) and Leon (day 12).
How did you communicate with the kids and grandkids while away? We posted a short, daily update on Facebook as many friends and family were interested in our progress. So facebook and email were fine for communication.
THEIR ADVICE FOR ANYONE CONSIDERING SUCH AN ADVENTURE:
1. Go up at least one size on shoes – and go wider if possible. Walking for many hours day after day, with a backpack, can make your feet swell (more than running does) and swollen feet can rub and cause blisters.
2. Trail running shoes are the most common shoe choice. A few people wear hiking boots, but the greater stability for most doesn’t justify the increased weight. A few people wear sandals at least part of the time, and crocs with socks are wonderful for the evening (and very fashionable!).
3. The Facebook group “American Pilgrims on The Camino” has a lot of good advice that comes from folks who have, or are currently, walking.
4. Take some training walks before you go and make them as accurate as possible – with backpack, walking poles, intended shoes, socks, etc. There are many variables and everyone is different but making changes and corrections at home is much easier than making changes along the trail.
5. If you can’t take a month off to do this, many shorter options are feasible. If Penny and I had not cancelled the Camino trip we intended to take in 2019 (when I was still working), it would have been much shorter – 10 days or so.
6. Don’t be intimidated about getting lost or having to spend a lot of energy finding your way. One of the wonderful things about the Camino are the yellow arrows present along the entire way. At almost every possible turn, there are one or more yellow arrows (some permanent and some hand painted) pointing out the correct way to Santiago. This all but eliminates the stress about whether one is on the correct trail.
7. Don’t be intimidated about walking the Camino alone. Many (maybe most?) pilgrims make the trip solo. The Camino is probably one of the safest places to be in the world and many people love being able to walk at their own pace, talk to fellow pilgrims when they want to or ponder their own thoughts when they don’t.
8. The cost of a trip like this is surprisingly reasonable. Lodging can cost anywhere from $10 to $25 per night for a municipal albergue (hostel) to $40-$70 for a private room. Restaurant food (including beer and wine) is much cheaper than the U.S. and there are some very reasonable flight options.
9. There are many Camino movies that do a pretty good job of showing what Camino walking is like. The Way with Martin Sheen is the most popular.
PHOTO ABOVE: Penny and John Hall at one of the helpful trail markers on The Camino de Santiago.
Gallery Photos: John and Penny Hall of Chatham Arch walked The Camino de Santiago.
The trail isn’t always the smoothest of byways. John and Penny Hall on their month-long adventure.
The Camino de Santiago covers the hills and mountains of northern Spain.