Reflections on a Half Camino – The Practical

September 2, 2013

It’s been five days since I returned home from my round-the-world adventure. Having walked and cycled about 280 miles of the Camino de Santiago, it’s an appropriate time to share a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from the experience.

#1 – Proper Training is Important but Unachievable

Unless you’re walking the distance you plan to walk each day, and then repeat that for the number of days you plan to walk without a break, you have not trained properly. Add to that the need to replicate the terrain, trail surfaces and weather conditions of the Camino, and the ability to prepare yourself adequately becomes impossible. You may be a stud or studette on your home turf, but the Camino experience is different.

I believe the best way to train is 6 days of walking a variety of conditions and distances followed by a rest day. Most pilgrims, of course, do not have the time to do this (I surely didn’t) so that leads us to observation #2.

#2 – Take It Slowly for the First Week

My hiking/walking experience is primarily in the mountains/canyons of the western US. I typically carry 35-40 lbs and hike 5-10 miles a day. My trips typically last 3-5 days. I have been to the top of Mt. Whitney at 14,500 feet and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I provide this information as background for probably the most important lesson I learned: start slowly and build speed gradually.

If you review my blog posts, you’ll see that my average daily speed including all rest stops started around 3.5 km/hr for the first five days. After that, it dropped steadily until it bottomed out around 2.8 km/hr by day #10. Now, you may think that 3.5 km/hr isn’t very fast but the fact is, it was too fast for me to sustain for ten days.

Like the disclaimer says, your mileage may vary, but the lesson I learned is to really go slowly for the first week or so. This lesson leads us to #3.

#3 – Do Not Pre-Plan Your Camino

You’ll have to have some sort of plan for travel to/from your start/stop points, but other than that, allow your physical and emotional state to dictate your experience. My buddy Nancy summarized it best: “I’ll get there when I get there.” Easy to say but tough to live by, especially for me. Other than my start and stop dates, I had an intermediate deadline to meet my wife in Burgos on a certain date. That required me to average 13.5 miles/day for 10 days. That mileage was too much for me and I paid the price. Next time I’ll allow at least one flex day per week so that I can rest before I injure myself.

The last night in Mansilla de las Mulas, we met a woman who had pre-planned every hotel, breakfast and dinner on her entire camino. I think that worked well for her but I would have been out big money if I had done that. Start each day with a general objective and then adapt to your body, head and heart speaking to you along the way.

#4 – Beware of the Odd’s and End’s

I carried a Osprey Talon 33 liter pack which had plenty of space for my stuff. In fact, my clothes and sleeping system only filled half of the pack. What filled the rest was the odd’s and end’s – the little stuff that doesn’t weigh much by itself but adds a lot of weight when taken together. I’m talking about toiletries, first aid, laundry soap, power cords, converters/adapters, etc.. A lot of these items are carried “just in case.”

I ended up wearing every item of clothing and all of my sleeping system at various times during my camino. I probably only used about 20% of the “just in case” stuff. When my camino continues, that’s where I’ll focus my weight saving efforts.

I also added water and food items to my pack weight every day. Having bonked during a hike in the Grand Canyon, I tend to carry too much water rather than not enough. That said, is there anywhere I found that I need to carry more than two liters? The answer is no. Regarding food, you can save money by shopping at a supermercado rather than buying food at a roadside bar/restaurant but you’ll have to carry your groceries until you consume them. Consider the weight vs. cost tradeoff.

Adding the odd’s and end’s with food and water will quickly take your carefully planned 15 lb. pack to 20+ lbs.

#5 – Bring the Mayo and Mustard!

Don’t get me wrong. I love sandwiches as much as anyone. But most of the sandwiches you buy in Spain will be dry. That is, devoid of mustard, mayo or other sauces. (Some places will put olive oil and vinegar on theirs.) So before you leave home, pack some individual servings or Grey Poupon (like in the movie), mayo, hot sauce or whatever you slather on two pieces of bread. You’ll thank me for it.

So that’s the practical lessons learned after a half-camino. My next blog will focus on the more abstract things I learned along the way.














September 1, 2013

It’s been a few days since Kathryn and I returned home from Spain and I’ve had some time time to reflect on my round-the-world adventure. Before I get into that, however, here’s a wrap up of our last night in Madrid.

After we arrived at our hotel (Preciados), Kathryn went out to wander the streets and do some shopping while I relaxed and posted on my blog. Since we had to carry whatever we purchased along the way, we had kept our new acquisitions to a bare minimum. Now that we were converting to air travel, we could add a few items to our backpacks.

When she returned, we decided to take a tour of the city on an open air double decker bus. We walked over to the bus stop around 8 pm. It was a perfect summer evening – the night was warm and Madrid’s streets and parks were filled with people walking, relaxing on the grass and benches, and talking with friends.

The tour eventually wound its way to the western part of the downtown area where a large crowd had gathered to watch the sunset. Kathryn and I jumped off the bus to enjoy the show. The setting was a group of government buildings perched on the edge of a 100-foot bluff which allowed a broad view toward the west. The sunset spectacular lasted about an hour which allowed us to grab a some wine and tapas from a streetside cafe.

We got back on another tour bus as it was completing its run for the night but soon jumped off again to check out the Plaza Mayor. First thing I learned in Spain: when in doubt, go to the Plaza Mayor. Every village, town and city has one. Before we got to the plaza, however, we saw a cool-looking glass building and found a high-end food court inside. The place was packed with people tasting food and drink from all over Spain and the world – wine, cheese, olives, sushi, chocolates, coffee, tapas, English beers. We tasted some Sangria (first of the trip) and got the secret recipe for our future use.

We finally cruised through the Plaza Mayor but didn’t feel the magic of any restaurants so headed back toward our hotel. Just before we got there, we noticed a Cuban restaurant down a small side street, It was a small family-run place and it provided a perfect setting for our last dinner in Spain.

The next morning was all business as we packed our bags, had breakfast and took the light rail to the airport. We checked into our flight easily and took off around 1 pm. We had some great seats in the economy plus section and settled in for the 10-hour flight to Dallas.

On the plane, we struck up a conversation with Brady, who was on his way home after a few months sailing with his family. They had bought a boat a few years ago in Thailand and were slowly sailing it around the world. Brady was 18 years old and finishing his high school education online. As he shared his stories of adventure, I realized that my “around the world” journey paled in comparison. I was really only stopping in two countries, while he was experiencing the day-by-day progression. I was reminded of my experience on the camino. It’s not the destination…

My next post will provide some thoughts on my experience.

Notes from today:

Left Madrid at 1300 local time
Arrived Los Angeles at 1900 local time
Total time 15 hours
Total distance 9950 km
Average speed 660 km/hr (a new Camino world record!)












The Sun Also Rises

August 27, 2013

What would a Camino be without getting up before the sun rises and racing to the next albergue? In our case, it was a bit different circumstances. In order to catch our 0935 train from Leon to Madrid, we had to wake up around 0630 to catch the 0750 bus to the Leon train station. Since the sun doesn’t rise until 0730 or so, Kathryn and I got to walk the streets of Mansilla de las Mulas before dawn. We got to see a few peregrinos on bicycles heading out of town.

As we took the bus westward toward Leon, we passed a good number of pilgrims walking along the path. Given their distance travelled, we figured they must have been on the road by 0630 or so. It was only a 20-25 minute ride into the city and we enjoyed a brief walk along the river between the bus station and train station.

Our train originated in Gijon on the Atlantic coast and was right on time. Soon we were blasting along at a peak speed of 250 km/hr. There only a few stops before Madrid and we arrived just after noon.

Our first mission of the day was to go back to the Qatar Airways CTO and ask for a refund of the ticket I had to buy between Jakarta and Madrid (see previous post). Luckily they were open this time and couldn’t have been more pleasant and helpful. One of the agents saw our scallop shells and asked about our camino experience.

With that burden finally resolved, we grabbed some lunch before heading over to our hotel. We stayed there last year and it’s located on one of the pedestrian only shopping streets. The people watching in Madrid is among the best in the world, and this street is a great place to take it all in.

Our plans for tonight are still open. We’ll probably wander around a bit and enjoy the beautiful warm weather and all the activity in the streets near our hotel.

Notes from today:

Left Mansilla de las Mulas at 0750 via bus
Arrived Leon at 0820
Total time 0.5 hours
Total distance 18.6 km
Average speed 37.2 km/hr

Left Leon at 0935 via train
Arrived Madrid 1222
Total time 2.75 hours
Total distance 335 km (approx.)
Average speed 121.8 km/hr







Final Day on the Camino (for now)

August 26, 2013

Last night we stayed in a really cool hostal in Sahagun. It was very quiet and the place had a lot of soul in the way the rooms were decorated. We had arranged to meet our friend Nancy for dinner, so we wandered down to the Plaza Major around 8 pm. We had last seen her in Burgos one week ago so we had a lot of Camino stories to catch up on.

Since we were taking the highway route versus the ancient Roman road, our day today was able to start a little later. We enjoyed a full breakfast, did a bit of grocery shopping and finally left town around 1030. The highway route features a shaded pathway for walkers and a virtually empty roadway alongside. The landscape reminded me of Montana with rolling wheat fields and mountains in the distance. It might be a little boring for walkers but it was a great cycling route.

There were only a few towns so the miles passed quickly. We stopped for a brief snack at a shaded picnic table at the turnoff to Villamarco and then a bit longer for lunch outside Reliegos. By 2 pm we were entering Mansilla de las Mulas, the final stop on this chapter of our Camino.

Since our train to Madrid left from Leon at 0930 the next day, we stopped by the Estacion de Autobuses to confirm our bus departure. our guide book had indicated that buses leave every half-hour starting at 0700, but it turned out there was only one bus that would work for us. It would be our earliest wakeup call for the entire trip.

We had previously booked a hostal for the evening so that we could coordinate the drop off of our bicycles. The price was a little higher than we been paying but the place was great and the owner Javier went out of his way to take care of our needs.

The afternoon was spent getting the bikes ready for transport, taking showers, doing laundry and relaxing. Later in the day we took a walk over to the rio Esla and strolled along the walls of the medieval city. After a beer at an albergue with a really nice garden, we went back to our hostal and enjoyed a quiet dinner on the patio with Bach playing in the background. The menu was priced like a typical menu peregrino but the food was unique to the region. We enjoyed gazpacho, tomato salad, and rabbit.

At the next table, we got to know Michaela from Germany. She had started her Camino in Logrono and planned to take about 30 days to reach Santiago. Unlike other pilgrims we had met, Michaela had pre-arranged her entire trip, including hotels, meals and daily baggage transport. She shuddered when I described sleeping on mattresses on the floor next to other pilgrims. It would be easy to dismiss her as a tourist rather than a “true pilgrim,” but it was obvious that this journey was a stretch from her usual comfort zone. I think her Camino will be just as important as all the other pilgrims I’ve met.

Tomorrow morning we start our journey back to the United States. I mentioned in a previous post that I would have some deep thoughts to share. So far, they are still wandering around in my brain. As I head home, I’ll try harder to get them out.

Notes from today:

Left Sahagun at 1030
Arrived Mansilla de las Mulas at 1400
Total time 3.5 hours
Total distance 36.5 km
Average speed 10.4 km/hr
















The Morning After

August 25, 2013

“There’s got to be a morning after,
if we can hold on through the night…”

Maureen McGovern sang the title song from “The Poseidon Adventure,” one of the great disaster movies of the 70’s. The words of the song were running an endless loop through my brain when I woke up at 6 am to the throbbing beat of the mobile disco parked about 25 meters from our hotel window. Actually, this was not too bad a situation – the disco had started at 1 am and I actually slept through the first DJ’s set and the first couple hours of the second. Thank you, ear plugs and Ambien.

When we checked into the hostal, we were warned that the music would go all night long. It finally ended at 8 am, just in time for the brass band to start playing below our window. Bars in Orange County close at 2 am at the latest, bars in Chicago close at 4 am, bars in Spain never close at all. Imagine that.

Kathryn and I went out around 11 pm to catch the first set of a 12-piece show band. They seem to have a lot of bands like this in Spain – 4 singer/dancers and a full backup band including brass. Think of the most over the top wedding band you’ve ever seen, including full lighting and smoke machine, They’re a lot of fun to watch.

The photos below were taken from our hotel window between 8 and 9 am. Those people had been partying all night long. The interesting thing is that we have not seen anyone fighting or passed out drunk. Just a lot of people keeping a steady buzz on for the entire night. Did I tell you that they drink red wine mixed with Coke? Try it sometime, but only when you ready to party until the sun comes up.

We finally rolled out of the hostal around 1030 and walked our bikes around the corner to get some breakfast. The streets were littered with trash and broken glass, but the cleanup crews were hard at work. I think we had lived through day 3 of the 4 day festival.

Our bike ride continued through gently rolling countryside with few towns along the way. We met Ignacio (Nacho) from Milano, Italy who lent us a tire patch in case we needed it. We also passed Hannah from Germany who we had seen two nights earlier. She had been pounding out 35-40 km days (on foot) and was looking a bit tired. Someone had taken her socks off the clothesline a few nights earlier so Kathryn gave her a pair to use. Our Camino will pause after tomorrow but our socks may make it to Santiago this year.

Notes from today:

Left Carrion de los Condes at 1100
Arrived Sahagun at 1600
Total time 5 hours
Total distance 39.8 km
Average speed 8.0 km/hour











On Angels’ Wings

August 24, 2013

We got a bit earlier start for our second day of cycling. We packed our bags, paid our bill and had some cafe con leche by 0815. The road out of Castrojeriz heads toward a small river and then climbs steeply for over 1 km. There were some cyclists who were able to climb it in very low gears but Kathryn and I decided to walk and push our bikes up the hill. Luckily, the wind was already blowing against our backs at almost 20 mph so it only took us 30 minutes to get to the top.

Once on top, we cruised with the winds blowing us along. We had a couple of technical downhills but hit them cleanly albeit slowly. We arrived at Fromista a little before noon after riding 25 km. Once there, we decided to take an extended break and have lunch and visit a local church that has a multi-media presentation on the history of the Camino. It was an interesting presentation and an opportunity to test our Spanish because the English translation wasn’t working.

After 2-1/2 hours, we got back on the road and still needed to ride 20 km to our destination. We took the scenic alternative route along a river and finished in 1-1/2 hours.

When we arrived at our destination, Carrion de las Condes, we set out to find a place to stay. First stop, no answer. Second stop, all full. Next stop, one room remaining so we grabbed it. While we were checking in, the manager told us that it would be very noisy tonight due to a five-day fiesta scheduled in town. We had already noticed the portable bar set up in the street in front of the hostal. We weren’t too concerned until they started to set up the mobile disco in the street in front of our hotel.

Before dinner, we enjoyed a classical guitar concert in the church. We had a great dinner and then headed back to the room for some rest before we go out to check out the fiesta around 11 pm.

The disco is scheduled for 1 to 4 am. It may be a long night.

Notes from today:

Left Castrojeriz at 0815.
Arrived Carrion de las Condes at 1545
Total time 7.5 hours
Total distance 45.7 km
Average speed 6 km/hour

Note that this includes a 2-1/2 hour stop for lunch.












The Best Blog Post Ever

August 23, 2013

I wrote the best blog post of my life but the WordPress system crashed and I lost it. Take it from me, it was Pulitzer Prize winning stuff. Since I don’t have the patience (or memory) to recreate it, here are the highlights:

Packed up the bikes and left Burgos at 1015.

Kathryn found the place where they shot the scene in “The Way” where the gypsy father and son carry Martin Sheen’s character’s backpack to the edge of Burgos. I coined the term “Way-dar” to describe the ability to find the locations used on the movie. I may copyright it.

Leaving Burgos, we entered the meseta. The meseta is a series of high plateaus (mesas) that offer almost no shade and very few towns. Perfect place to use a bike.

Bicycling, even at our slow pace, is a lot faster than walking. It compresses the camino experience and changes everything. The towns, churches and landmarks approach at the speed of light compared to walking. For the reason, I feel I am not continuing my Camino after walking to Burgos, I am starting a new one on a bicycle.

We decided to stay in a hostal tonight. Hostals in Spain are like B&B’s without the second B. Very nice room with great view and private bath.

Did you know that parcheesi is a popular game in Spain? Check the photo in my post from the beach in Santander. Those four ladies crowded around something were playing parcheesi. Tonight in the bar downstairs, there was a big group playing.

We had a great dinner tonight. Turns out that the town where we’re staying, Castrojeriz, is the garlic capital of this area. The food was great but the hospitality was even better. The owner of the restaurant Eduardo and his wife Dolores gave a tour of the caves underneath their house. They believe they date back to Roman times due to the size of the stones used to form the walls. It was really nice of them to take the time to show us.

Notes from today:

Left Burgos at 1015
Arrived Castrojeriz at 1515+
Total time 5 hours+
Total distance 41.2 km
Average speed 8.2 km/hr















Back to Burgos

August 22, 2013

Today we woke to overcast skies, similar to the typical weather at home in Southern California. When I went out earlier for Kath’s morning coffee, I noticed a desayuno especial at the local restaurant so we decided to eat a big breakfast while we were waiting for the weather to figure itself out. The food was really good – fried eggs, sausage, bacon, juice and coffee. A lot more food than the locals normally eat.

By the time we ate and packed our bags to leave, the clouds started to burn off so we headed back to the beach until our bus left for Burgos. The tide was really low and the crowds were much less than yesterday so the beach had a whole different vibe. We were able to walk out to some tide pools and around the rocks to the adjoining beaches – Playa de La Concha and Playa del Camello. It reminded me of Laguna Beach.

We continued our walk to the larger peninsula that protects the mouth of the Santander harbor. It features a well-developed City park with lots of facilities to enjoy the now beautiful weather. I’m constantly struck by the number of people walking the streets, sitting on the park benches and taking full advantage of public gathering places.

As an architect and land planner, I often try to recreate these type of places in new communities but the result often seems contrived and under-utilized. I’m convinced this is a cultural problem primarily caused by our dependence on the automobile rather than public transport. Spain is supposed to be in severe economic crisis but their public transport system is excellent. City buses take you anywhere for less than $2. Our 2-1/2 hour ride from Burgos to Santander cost about $16 on a deluxe touring bus. Right now I’m writing on a upscale Supra bus with leather seats, wifi and bottled water. This ride cost us a whopping $25 each.

I’m a little apprehensive as the bus nears Burgos. After four days of rest, our Camino continues tomorrow with a bicycle ride westward. Our bikes should be waiting for us at the hotel so we should have time to take a test ride tonight. After several days in the 90’s, the weather is supposed to be cooling to the 70’s, which should be perfect for riding.

What does the Camino have in store for us?








A Taste of Santander

August 21, 2013

Last night’s hotel was perfect to celebrate our anniversary and we took full advantage of it by checking out as late as possible. Today’s challenge was to find accommodations more typical to our price range.

After checking the list of hotels provided by the tourist office, we found a pension near a beach that we heard was pretty nice. The room was about 1/3 the cost of surrounding hotels so we set our expectations accordingly. After about a 15 minute ride on a city bus, we arrived at Playa de El Sardinero. The beach was packed with people but it was really a stunning setting. The beach was about 1.5 km long set between rock peninsulas that jutted into the Atlantic Ocean. After dropping off our bags and picking our room, we headed back to the beach. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the beach, having lunch and laying on the sand. I may have snuck in a little siesta as well.

We stayed on the beach until 7 pm and then went back to our room to get changed and enjoy the cocktail hour on the pension’s front patio. it was around 9 pm when we left the pension and grabbed some nondescript food down the street. After that we headed over to the sports stadium to check out a festival that we had heard about.

It turned out to be food and music festival with offerings from around the world. We were really bummed we had already eaten dinner but we enjoyed the dance music and some libations at the Mexico booth. It was after midnight when we snuck into the pension quietly as possible.









The Road to Santander

August 20, 2013

Since we now have the opportunity to relax for a few days, we need to decide how best to use the time and then how to continue the Camino. I tried to answer the second question first. I haven’t mentioned it before but one thing that you notice when walking the Camino is how many people are following the trail by bicycle. For the most part, the trail is ideal for a mountain bike. When I was crawling along with my swollen legs, I thought more than once how it would be fun to do a section of the Camino with a bike.

Now I have a chance to do so. I investigated a few companies that provide bikes in Spain and eventually arranged for two mountain bikes to be delivered to our hotel in Burgos on Thursday. If we ride 25 miles a day, we can make it Mansilla de las Mulas (just short of Leon) in four days. We’ll leave the bikes there and take a train to Madrid the next day.

I tested my legs while riding a bike in Burgos and it seems to be more comfortable than walking. Even with a leisurely pace, we shouldn’t have to ride more than 3 hours a day. The weather is cooperating as well. Yesterday, today and tomorrow has been very hot (around 90) but it’s cooling off starting on Friday when we start our ride.

The other question above is what to do while I rest for a few days. Since it was going to be very hot in Burgos, we decided to take a bus to Santander, a resort town on the Atlantic coast. I had no idea what to expect but it has turned out pretty great so far.

The bus ride was incredible. Rather than follow the freeway, the route crosses a spectacular canyon with narrow roads, switchbacks and gorgeous scenery. It reminded me of the high country in Utah, except there’s 400-year old villages scattered around the countryside. Eventually, we reached the coastal plain of Cantabria which features beautiful beaches and dramatic cliffs that drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

Since it was our anniversary, we splurged on a fancy hotel downtown with a spectacular view of the harbor. Honoring my policy to ignore the actual cost of non-Camino expenses, I’ll just say that it cost 16 nights in a private albergue. After we checked in we enjoyed a bottle of local red wine and a few snacks that we had collected from the grocery store. The sunset on the mountains across the harbor was magnificent.

Once it got dark, we went out prowling the bars and restaurants in the neighborhood surrounding the hotel. Given the warm nighttime temp’s, the bars were packed with locals and tourists. We finally found a table at a popular place and enjoyed our official anniversary dinner.

Tomorrow we’ll move to a different (cheaper) hotel and enjoy another rest day before heading back to Burgos on Thursday.