I’ve been wanting to do Camino de Santiago (or some form of it) for a few years now. If you don’t know what Camino de Santiago is, it’s a road (or a network of roads) used by pilgrims to get to Santiago de Compostella, where they will receive, after they completed the pilgrimage a “compostella”, or the proof that you actually did it. I wasn’t in it for religious reasons, but mostly for curiosity.
I started to plan 2 weeks ago, and I decided to make it in two stages: Camino de Levante (Valencia to Granja de Moreruela) and Camino de Sanabres (Granja de Moreruela to Santiago de Compostella). Total distance was little over 1200 km (800km Camino de Levante and 400 Camino de Sanabres). I had 3 weeks to do it, or 23 days, so I aimed for 52 km / day. Now, that was the initial plan. As I was soon about to find out, this wasn’t going to happen.
Since my ultra-running days I know how important is to test anything before a competition. So, one week before the departure date I took a weekend to do a dry test. I packed my bag at 90% capacity, used the exact same shoes and clothes I was planning to do during the real thing, and started from the exact same place, namely the Catedral de la Virgen from Valencia. I aimed to do more than the standard stage, but not a full 52 km. I ended up with a decent 43 kilometers, stopping in a city called Algemesi.
The test took me roughly 9 hours, and out of these I walked in direct sun about 8 hours and a half. The remaining half an hour I spent it at a restaurant, to get some lunch. The heat was intense, the weather report showed most of the time temperatures around 33 degrees Celsius.
After I got back to Valencia, I realized I had a mild insolation and that my feet were a bit tender. No blisters yet, but it was close. All in all, I considered the test a success, I packed a couple more ointments for blisters and went on with my life.
The Real Thing
So, after exactly one week, I start from the exact same place, the Catedral de la Virgen, and I start doing the same road, this time prepared to come back home only after 23 days. Days in which I was planning to cover 52km, constantly.
Everything went perfect until 11AM, I was a bit ahead of the schedule, when the heat became way too intense. I could feel that I was making less progress and thirst was more frequent, but I didn’t know why until I watched the weather report: there were 36 degrees Celsius, in the shade. That means in direct sun, where I was walking, there were probably 42-43.
Another thing which seemed weird – and it didn’t strike me during the test – was that there was no other pilgrim on the road. I would expect to meet at least a few people on 43 kilometers. But I didn’t, not during the test, and not during the real thing, that I was doing now.
I reached Almussafes, the city where I was planning to have lunch, half an hour later then scheduled, and more tired than expected. I was also drenched in sweat and drinking 2-3 times more water than usual. After the lunch, I kept pushing, and continued to walk during the most intense part of the day 2PM- 5PM.
At 5PM I reached Algemesi, where I had to stop to get myself together. I was feeling dizzy and nauseous and I was almost sure I had some insolation. It took me about half an hour to recover in the shade of a small park. I decided to push it until Pobla Larga, which was the place where I was expecting to spend the night, in an albergue (a special type of hostel, operated by churches or, in some cases, by local municipalities or police). I’ve previously made a call for that, a day before, and got assurance from a police lady (the albergue was officially closed because of Covid-19, but it was operated by the police) that I could stay there, just call them with one hour in advance.
Because of the heat, I reached the last town before Pobla Larga, Carcaixent, when it was already dark, 9:30PM. I called the police in Pobla Larga, to make sure I will have a place in the albergue, but, to my surprise, a new voice told me that I need my carta de peregrino (this is a document which you can procure in any church or albergue). I didn’t have one with me, as I was expecting to get one in the albergue. The policeman made it very clear that if I don’t have the carta de peregrino, I won’t be able to spend the night there.
So, after a few more trials and errors (for instance, I tried to find a hostel in Carcaixent, or a taxi back to Alzira) I realized it’s already midnight. A bit puzzled, and tired, after 47 kilometers, I decided to spend the night exactly where I was, meaning on a bench in the Plaza Major of Carcaixent.
Which is exactly what I did. Obviously, I didn’t get too much sleep, mostly because of the heat (it was 27 degrees Celsius) and because I was too tired, but I was able to do a lot of introspection. About Camino de Santiago, about overcomitting and about a lot of things in my life. At 6AM, when trains started come and go, I hopped on the first one and went back to Valencia. I spent the entire Sunday just recovering from my insolation and catching up on sleep.
The Other Way
Monday morning, I went to the Turia park, put my hammock there, and started to think at my options. It was clear that Camino de Levante doesn’t want me – no pilgrims, extreme heat, no overnight staying – but that doesn’t mean I should stop going to Santiago de Compostella. I could just choose a different camino, not necessarily Camino de Levante.
Which is exactly what I did. After a little bit of research, I realized that Camino de Sanabres – basically the second part of my initial plan – was doable, and also had a few advantages. First of all, it was shorter, just 400km (more or less), which meant I should go with about 30km per day – almost half of my initial plan. Second, it was in an area where at least nights were a bit cooler than the days, which meant I should be able to get some sleep during the night, even if I had to sleep in my hammock (more options for that too, according to the satellite images I could find). And third, it looked like it was closer to my expectations of a Camino, going a lot through countryside, as opposed to Camino de Levante, which, at least in the first 50km, was mostly industrial areas and long, flat rice fields or orange groves.
The rest of Monday was spent doing the logistics: buying train and bus tickets, hotel reservations (I decided to spend a night in Zamora, before getting to Granja de Moreruela), even getting my hands on a carta de peregrino, just to be on the safe side. And then, Tuesday at noon I was on the train.
So, I’m writing this in my hotel room in Zamora, waiting for tomorrow’s bus to Granja de Moreruela, from where I will start my first leg of the Camino de Sanabres.
There’s always another way. It may seem in the beginning that you’re out of options, but that’s just an illusion. All you need is some time off, a bit of patience, and then a solution will appear.
It always does.