October 1, 2015
Day 1: San Sebastián to Orio: 11 miles
Today we started hiking the Camino del Norte, the northern route of the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. This journey will take us anywhere from 4-5 weeks to complete.
Camino de Santiago, a religious pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, started in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims undertook the long, dangerous journey to Santiago in order to worship at the tomb of St. James, whose remains are purported to lie here. These days, people continue to walk the Camino out of religious devotion, but many others have more secular motivations; in our case, we chose to do the Camino because it’s been a dream of ours for several years. We want to experience the culture and beauty of Spain on foot and also challenge ourselves physically and spiritually.
Norte is one of the many ancient paths that crisscross Europe, and like many of these routes, it was used by the Romans and others traversing the continent long before the pilgrimage existed. In the Middle Ages, Christians began using the path as a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela; it was one of the safest routes, as the Moors were never able to maintain control of northern Spain.
We chose to do the northern route because much of it runs along the northern Spanish coast and is supposed to be one of the most scenic of the Caminos, as well as one of the most difficult. The first leg of the trail takes us through the Basque Country, which is the most mountainous region we’ll cross.
Day One started by trying to find the Bishop’s office to get our credentials. All peregrinos (Spanish for “pilgrims”) have to get a credencial, or pilgrim’s passport, before starting the walk. We will carry these passports with us for the entire journey and will get sellos, or stamps, each night from the hostels in which we stay. After an hour of wandering, we found the office and then walked through town to the trailhead, which took us out of the gorgeous city of San Sebastián and into the woods.
We immediately started up a steep climb, and I thought, oh crap, I’m in trouble. We’re carrying packs that weigh around 15 pounds. I’ve never carried a pack that heavy for more than a mile or two and have never done any multi-day hiking trips, so I was seized with fear that I was in over my head, and perhaps, maybe, we should turn around and head back to the beach??? It’s amazing how strong that urge was, to abandon the hike, in those first few minutes.
But we continued on, slowly, getting into our stride. We were slow and tired and hurting, me with my chronic foot pain and Dale stiff, but Dale is steadfast and stoic, my rock, and I worked on the meditation techniques I had learned for coping with stress. By focusing on the cool breeze brushing my forehead, I quit worrying so much about the nagging pain. I also reminded myself to smile, and each time I did, my outlook instantly changed. I felt gratitude and awe at what we were experiencing. These techniques were quite effective at ameliorating the pain.
What a day it was! The trail took us through rural countryside as we climbed up to a high ridge and then gradually descended before going back up again. There was a view of the ocean for much of the hike as well as forest and lush, green farms perched on the sides of the mountains. We saw enormous cows and fat sheep grazing on the incredibly green grass. It all pulsated with well-being. The second half of the hike moved away from the coast a bit but was still beautiful, with groves of trees and verdant farms. It was some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. Dale and I smiled at each other frequently and shook our heads at the pleasure of being in such a place, feeling amazement over and over again.
When we came to the albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) just outside of the tiny town of Orio, we were more than ready to stop for the day. The albergue consisted of a bunkhouse with around 20 beds and a separate building that served as the common area for meals. Several older gentlemen had arrived earlier, and a few more people trickled in throughout the evening, all of them older than us with the exception of a young Frenchman who had been hiking Italy, France, and Spain for the past two months. We met a couple from Norway walking a week through the Basque country, a Spaniard using his vacation to bike the trail, three Danish men with bum knees and a fun attitude who had a month to get as far as they could down the path, a German man who had completed a portion of Camino del Norte last year and was hoping to do the whole thing this year, and a Danish woman who was starting her third Camino. The albergue was run by two spunky Basque women who provided excellent hospitality and big smiles. We had dinner and breakfast together in the common area, and it was such fun getting to know these people over delicious traditional Basque food and numerous bottles of Rioja (a regional wine). The communion with others was one of the reasons we wanted to do the Camino in the first place.
After dinner, we all retired to our beds. I felt happy that we had gotten through our first day successfully, overcoming initial doubts and experiencing such a beautiful day. I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but for the first time, I believed we might actually be ready for whatever came our way.