15 favourite moments along the Camino de Santiago

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I've read a lot about the Camino de Santiago over the years, it's a journey that has intellectually fascinated me for a long time. Last month the opportunity arose to walk it with one of my brothers. I leapt at the chance.

I should say that I was doing 'Camino Light' by which we were hiking just the very best bits of the Camino Frances. That's the main walking highway which enters Spain over the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles, drops down into the plains of Castille and then takes a more or less due westerly path all the way to Santiago de Compostela.

There's so much to say about the Camino that I'm not going to even attempt to go into detail. But I would like to write a little about the things which most surprised me about the walk. So here are 15 of my very personal highlights, random as they are:

1. Rock of ages

This is just below Roncesvalles so in the Navarran Pyrenees, just after Burguete. That's me crossing a tiny stream by means of that great slab of a stone bridge. It felt as if it had been there forever. I got a palpable sense of the history which had passed over this stone, all the footsteps which smooth it, each one leaving the most tiny imprint. That's the thing about the Camino - it's ancient, it's very low impact, nobody's racing, nobody's walking along talking on their phones, it's resolutely un-modern and very, very human - in a good way.

2. Birdsong

This stretch of the Camino runs through the lower part of Navarre. It's when you come out of the Pyrenees and cross the hills, you emerge to a landscape very much more recognisably 'Spanish'. Rolling hills, vineyards, sandstone villages, olive trees. But what I loved about this part of the walk were the smells and the sounds. Wild fennel, sage, wild flowers and blossom surround the path. Birds cheep, church bells ring, people talk. Normally I'm a very fast walker but the Camino made me want to slow down and be present to take it all in.

3. Street sardines

This was in the village of Cirauqui, near the start of the Camino. When we got there, it was 'Lady's Mass in the church which involved the ladies of the town dressing in traditional white clothes with red kerchiefs to go to afternoon mass accompanied by pipers. After mass, it was round to the village square where the men had set up tables in the shade with wine flowing freely and these huge metal trays set onto the street. Bundles of dried vines were squirted with extra virgin olive oil and set alight in order to grill piles and piles of sardines. And that was it, a lump of bread, fresh sardines and a cup of wine. Not a tourist in site, this is Spain at its most unguarded and engaging.

4. G&T anyone?

This is a massive gin & tonic in a restaurant in a small village in La Rioja, near Haro. The point is that Spain at the moment is going through something of a gin & tonic craze. Here we were in a village restaurant being served a g&t prepared with twists of lime, juniper berries, even a hand crushed pair of cardamom seeds. The Fever Tree tonic was poured carefully down the twisted stem of the spoon by our characterful but somewhat tooth free waitress. I don't mean to be rude in saying that, it's just that the surroundings were simply not those you would expect to be producing the best g&t of your life. And yet, this is Spain, they care about their food and drink and I love that!

5. Sunflower signs

This might be my favourite Camino moment of all. It's the stretch of the walk when you emerge from the Montes de Oca forests and come out to San Juan de Ortega - a particularly pretty monastery. You see yellow arrows all over the place - tiled into walls, bolted to signposts and painted onto surfaces both vertical and horizontal. Then you come across the more 'artisan' versions - carefully arranged stones pointing you in the right direction. And here, on the edge of a field of sunflowers, someone had taken the time to stop and pluck out the seeds one by one to make this perfect arrow. In truth, I think it was done to make people smile - as you can see, there really isn't a way to get lost at this point in the trail.   That someone would take such time to create something so fleeting to benefit strangers on the road behind said something reassuring about the world to me.

And then they'd also made a big smiley which also deserves its moment of fame.

6. Ancient Atapuerca

This beautiful tree stands out on the grasslands near Atapuerca. Right here is where our earliest ancestors roamed. The remains found at the Atapuerca archaeological dig date back as much as 1.3 million years. What you are looking at here is the most important archaeological landscape in Europe, arguably the world. But what you are also looking at is quite simply a beautiful, open landscape of grassland punctuated with enormous, ancient oak trees. It's a place you can walk in silence and absorb the space.

7. The plains of Castile

This is the view from the Altos de Mostelares down towards Orbigo. There isn't a soul out there. The path stretches out ahead with no obvious sign of where you'll spend the night. This is a journey.

8. Talk to each other

You'll be getting the sense now that it's not all walking - this is in a bar in Burgos. So happens that they served another g&t which sits amongst the all time greats but that's by-the-by. It's the sign I love, it translates as: 'We don't have wi-fi, talk to each other.' Genius.

9. Random acts of kindness

This barn or mud hut or half finished pile of mud and bricks sits in the province of Leon, high up on the plain as you approach the town of Astorga. It's not a forgiving place - brutally hot in summer, unbelievably cold in winter. And yet, up here lives a young man, looks much like our received images of Jesus - beautiful, beatific and bearded. That little stall there is filled with drinks and snacks and refreshments for the pilgrims. It's not a shop, it's not for sale. It's for the pilgrims. I love the spirit which underlies this simple, ongoing act.

10. The guitarist of Astorga

Look him up, he's famous on YouTube, according to him he's got millions of views. Be that as it may, he's quite the character. Sitting just outside Astorga at the point where the two branches of the Camino meet: the Camino Frances with the Via de la Plata coming up from Andalucia. It's at this point that the Camino starts to get busier, you feel the atmosphere rising as you see more and more pilgrims around you. To come across this chap singing away as you come off the plains creates an excitement all of its own. Brilliant.

11. Temptation

The art of food. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, along the way, we encountered beautiful food. Made with such care and flair and presented so beautifully that it is near impossible to resist working your way through everything on display. I can resist everything except temptation.

12. We'll get you to the top!

Here's Matthew emerging at the top of O'Cebreiro - the section of the Camino de Santiago which brings you into the province of Galicia. Bear in mind that the day before, we'd been walking into Astorga across the plains of Castille so the change in landscape is dramatic. It's an 8 or 9km uphill slog to get to this point but the views are fantastic. Down at the bottom of the hill is this inspired piece of marketing of horses for hire 'Te subimos!' - We'll get you to the top!

13. Galician shepherd

Sorry, I don't know his name. But I did stop for a chat. We sat on the wall and talked about the goats, the Camino, life in the country. This was a man at peace. And yet, I know that rural life in Galicia is terribly hard - over the generations the farms have been split between children and then split again until nobody has a plot big enough to sustain their families. And then there's the notoriously harsh weather. But on a day like this, the sun streaming down through the trees, the clanking of the goats' bells, this is a fortunate man.

14. Arriving

And at the end of it all, you get to Santiago de Compostela. I've read so much about this place, I've heard so much about this place and yet never really thought about it. In short, my expectations were a bit blank. Which is a wonderful way to be knocked off your feet. Here's a small provincial city in all of its glorious Spanishness - lovely food, buildings, culture, people. But it's a small provincial city which, for a thousand years or more, has welcomed people from all over the world. It's open and welcoming and accepting of diversity in a way which you don't generally see in Spain. And that's before you ever step foot in this, Plaza do Obradeiro, the place where most pilgrims finish their journey. There is singing, there is dancing, there's a lot of crying and lots and lots of noise. It's incredibly energetic and spectacularly moving.

15. Pulpo

Sitting in the heart of Santiago de Compostela with a glass of cold Albarino wine and a place of warm octopus sprinkled with olive oil and paprika. Pulpo a la Gallega (Galician octopus) which ironically is called that everywhere in Spain except in Galicia where it becomes Pulpo a la Feria. Which sort of translates as 'party octopus' which conjures up such a wonderful image that this is where I'll stop.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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