Caminos aren’t just really long hikes. They are also fascinating social experiments during which a lot of weird, funny and occasionally freaky stuff takes place. This final entry takes you down that rabbit hole.
Everyone expects a few ailments throughout the course of a 6-week hike. Back pains, blisters, leg cramps, indigestion, fever. Chronic hiccups. But I’m sure the French guy in the albergue in Getaría who already seemed well below 100% (he visited the toilet at least five times in the night) hardly needed to cap it all off by leaving the bathroom light-blind and mistakenly groping my leg in the dark, at which point I yanked my leg back and hissed something, probably “Hey!” or something equally descriptive, causing him, as you might imagine, some alarm, and to jerk quickly upright, smashing his head on the metal frame of Laynni’s top bunk hard enough to shake the entire contraption, stumbling backwards in pain and shock, grabbing at his throbbing head with one hand while desperately grasping in all different directions in the darkness in hopes of somehow managing to track down the right bunk – still completely blind, but now suffering significant head trauma as well. Not a great night for the French guy.
Which nicely leads us in to…
Generally Odd Places We Slept
In case you haven’t been following closely, albergues are essentially hostels geared specifically toward pilgrims hiking one of the Caminos de Santiago. In fact, most require proof of pilgrim status just to get a bed. They vary widely, from multiples rooms with as few as four beds to as much as twelve, to a single huge room with upwards of 100 beds. Usually the beds are bunk beds, and some even have three levels – the worst nightmare of those with height issues, or an unexpected boon for those who like to have a good view of the nightly proceedings.
Anyway, albergues are the traditional lodging for Camino pilgrims, although there are no actual rules and both this time and on our first Camino we ended up staying in a diverse mix of different albergues (municipal, donativo, private), guesthouses and hotels. We usually stayed in albergues when hiking in groups or with friends, and always went with hotels or AirBnB apartments on our rest days. This time around our total split was:
26 nights in albergues (we did have a private room in a few of these, and in a couple we got bed bugs)
9 nights in hotels – Bilbao / Santander / Santillana Del Mar (2) / Santiago de Compostela (2) / Finisterre / Lires / Muxia
6 nights in AirBnBs – San Sebastian (3) / Bilbao (1) / Oviedo (2)
1 night in a campground in Islares that let us rent a little yellow sheet-metal hut with just two beds, plus a decomposing vehicle and impressively large pile of dirt right next to it. Sure, it didn’t have a bathroom, or much light, and gave the overall impression of the perfect place to take someone you had abducted and now planned to spend a leisurely weekend raping and torturing, but still, we had it all to ourselves. On the Camino that’s a win, anyway you slice it.
Our nicest place was probably Hotel Chiqui in Santander, where we got a great last minute deal of 50 euro for a spotless modern room with a balcony overlooking the city’s main beach and bay.
Our worst, in Villaviciosa, didn’t seem at all like our worst…at first…until Laynni woke me at 2 am with the unwelcome news that she was being devoured by bed bugs, and that chances were I was also. The lights, and the use of our headlamps for the occasional closer look, revealed a room swarming with the disgusting little bastards, to the point I managed to actually collect some in a clear plastic water cup. Both for proof against skeptical hotel staff and, I suppose, curiosity. Unable to come up with any workable plan to move at that time of night, or even find someone to complain to, we ended up spending the next 5 hours fitfully attempting to get a few more winks lying on completely stripped plastic mattresses without sleeping bags or blankets. The only saving grace was that the hotel had its own laundry facilities so we were able to spend the first two hours of the following morning baking every single one of our possessions in the dryer at extremely high heat, apparently the most effective way of killing the little buggers off. The worst part was having to break the news to Anna and Lis, who were staying in a different room and hadn’t noticed anything and could quite possibly have been fine, but without knowing for sure had to take similar precautions. Nobody likes the idea of carrying their own personal fleet of bed bugs with them from albergue to albergue. Least of all, those albergues.
We ended up getting bed bugs twice, which is probably about once more than average. Still not cool, though. Never cool. Which is why, even though we were fairly certain we had been bug-free for a couple weeks by the time we finished, we still happily spent 17 euro in change on big industrial washers and dryers in Santiago right before we left for Madrid, meticulously cleaning everything we owned, just for the peace of mind of knowing we weren’t providing any with a free ride to some poor bastard’s AirBnB.
Also, yes, in case you were wondering, snoring IS a problem in the albergues. But ear plugs help, and exhaustion, and sometimes a bunch of beer.
Most Unlikely Brew Pub
The monastery in Ziortza brews its own beer, for whatever reason, money, probably, but it still seemed odd to rush into the monastery gift shop before it closed at 6 pm so we could buy a bunch of their homemade brew. Good beer, too, as it turned out. All around, one of our more unusual stops. We were checked in and given the tour by a really old monk who had been brought in while another monk was on holidays because the other remaining monks at this slowly dwindling cathedral, just three of them, were too old to handle it. So they sent for the spry young 82-year old. The others still did the cooking, though, even if me and a French guy had to help them carry it from the kitchen. Feeling somewhat obligated, we all went to the vespers service that night and watched in fascination as one super-old monk read with a crotchety look on his face, while another – even older – monk stood next to him wearing a big sweater as though he was long past caring about dressing properly for these things, and spent the entire time trying futilely to locate a troublesome hair located somewhere in the back of his mouth. When I tired of watching this I gave the rather random art on the wall behind them a closer perusal, discovering, to my surprise, a sculpture of a baby with a penis on his hip, a priest with hands the same size as his ears, and a crafty-looking pilgrim standing while a small child runs its hand up his thigh. Eclectic, you might call it.
Variety of transport
Unlike on the Camino Francés, being on the coast necessitated the use of several other forms of transportation besides just our weary feet. There was the (literally) 2-minute ferry ride in Pasajes, the subway car hanging from a bridge taking people and cars across the river in Portugalete, the moving sidewalk right after that, the 5 minutes spent on a train out of Boo that saved us a 9-kilometre detour, and the bus into Bilbao, and metro out of Bilbao. Those last two weren’t so much necessary as personal choices to a) avoid hours spent walking through urban sprawl, and b) get us downtown as soon as possible to start afternoon drinking with visiting friends.
When we asked a local where we needed to go, and when, to catch the boat across the bay from Laredo to Santoña he calmly explained (in Spanish) that we should “stand there” pointing vaguely in the direction of the beach, and to “watch to see if it comes. Or stand over there, that is fine too”.
On our way into Santander, basically everyone we knew showed up for the exact same ferry, at exactly the same time, despite all of us arriving from different directions, and then the one person still missing, Leigh, suddenly appeared as if by magic at this weird, out-of-the-way dock partway across.
Attempting to catch a bus for the last stretch into Oviedo we asked around and learned that not only were we not at the right bus stop, we weren’t even in the right town. So he told us to get in his car and gave us a ride to that town. More Camino magic. Or, more accurately, random kindness of strangers.
We came across two separate “medieval festivals”, and heard about a couple more that we missed. Lots of streamers and family crests and swords and straw bales and, of course, so many girls excited to dress up as slutty bar wenches in low-cut push-up blouses. A guy in full knight regalia smoking a cigarette and playing a game on his iPhone. A bored vendor selling swords and armour and maces while dressed entirely in modern clothes except for a large, heavy leather chest plate. With his ear buds in. There were babies in bonnets, of course, and then, suddenly, and rather inexplicably, a belly dancer appeared.
Random “Living With Strangers” Stuff
In Poo, the guy who snuck into the only women’s shower and then proceeded to spend 20 very suspicious minutes in there, before sneaking back out. He even left the toilet seat up for good measure.
In Comillas our group tried to protect ourselves from a night sharing with a snoring Frenchman by impulsively recruiting a middle-aged German woman who, you know, looked nice enough. She seemed surprised at our enthusiastic beckoning, then later had a strange amount of difficulty both taking her bra off at night and putting it back on in the morning. Both of which apparently required her to stand around topless throughout the ordeal.
One morning, while on the men’s side of a bathroom with a wall that economically does not reach all the way to the ceiling, I listened to some very confusing noises coming from the women’s side which, I later learned, were from a woman who spends five minutes every morning slapping the shit out of her bare limbs, apparently in preparation for the big day ahead.
The French guy in Castro who was abnormally concerned with our slightly squeaky door hinge, spending a long time considering ways to keep this from being a seriously detrimental noise issue in the night, then proceeded to snore like a chainsaw all night long.
There was Raúl, a long-haired chain-smoking Spaniard who originally claimed he was from Mars, and occasionally only returned to the albergue at 9 am smelling of cigarettes and rejection. Naturally, we ran into him somewhere around 47 times by the time it was all said and done.
Camino goodbyes are already difficult because, in most cases, every time you part ways with someone there is a chance you will never see them again, but also a chance you will end up sleeping 4-feet away from them 16 of the next 20 nights. A Catalan friend somehow managed to take awkward goodbyes to a whole other level, however, by insisting on his last night that everyone at the table take a moment to give a detailed answer to the bizarrely uncomfortable question:
“What do you think of me?”
Just Plain Weird
In Santa Cruz de Bezana an empty car suddenly rolled down the hill to a gentle stop against the curb where it complacently caused a traffic jam. We stood around in surprise, took a pointless photo (hey, look, a car), then just kept walking.
On one of our alternative coastal routes we rounded a corner to find a large herd of cattle. They all immediately stopped doing whatever they were doing (chewing and shitting, presumably) in order to stare at us, silent and motionless and very creepily, until we passed out of sight.
One rainy morning some guy hiding in the bushes jerked off in front of Lis as she was walking past. Kind of scary, obviously disturbing, yet still a hint of funny. At least in the safety of hindsight. As a group we discussed possible motivations at length, coming to no definitive conclusions. I was suggesting we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he still shares a small studio apartment with his mother, and Lis simply surprised him trying to have some alone time. Hard to say, but apparently a similar thing happened to Anna and Christine in broad daylight in a busy square in Bilbao, as well. Men. We really are the best.
We encountered a lot more people hiking in jean shorts than you’d expect. Or, as we affectionately like to call them, “jorts”. Theoretically, this information is unrelated to the previous point, although I suppose if I had to guess what some guy jerking off in the woods was wearing, I’d probably have to go with jean shorts.
It turns out that – just like when travelling in Italy – Italians will simply speak to you in Italian, quickly and enthusiastically and at length, and assume you’ll eventually just, I suppose, know Italian. To their repeated disappointment, I still do not.
A very sweet old Swedish man with an unfortunate habit of cornering people and boring them to death with a lot of really boring shit, in a really boring way, one day suddenly remembered that he had somehow not yet shown us his pride and joy, a 2004 photo taken in New York of him and some weirdly smiling 35-year old man in an ill-fitting suit.
“Do you know who this is?” he asked eagerly.
“No”, we answered because, well, we had no idea.
“It’s the president!”
“What president? Trump? No, it’s not”, we replied in unison.
Which, as usual, he simply ignored and continued on with his story about how he had been at a trade show complaining to someone about their product and they suggested he talk to their sponsor, and sent him over to this guy, who by this point we’ve figured out must be a low-rent Trump impersonator. Apparently “Mr. Trump” thought it was pretty funny that Bo hadn’t immediately recognized him, what with him being so famous and all. Yeah, that’s probably the part he thought was funny. My questions: How many people has he shown that photo to? And why haven’t his children, or someone, put a stop to this? Why didn’t we? Our disbelieving laughter definitely didn’t do the trick.
I spent most of one strange morning walking and talking politics with a 13-year-old Danish girl. She knew a lot more than I did about, well, everything. Denmark, in particular, though.
Things We Ate
Bocadillos – baguettes with salami and cheese, which we mostly made ourselves and ate along the trail. And by “we”, I obviously mean Laynni.
“We” also made pasta in the albergues many nights.
Whenever possible, we would have a second breakfast of tortillas which, in Spain, are actually baked egg and potato pies. “Filling”, said some guy.
At breakfast at the weird albergue in Poo (yeah, that’s the actual name of the town) I was just about to break open a boiled egg when one of the staff rushed to over to stop me (just in the nick of time!), and point out that my egg actually had the name “Gert” written on it. So, obviously, that egg was for Gert. I, on the other hand, was welcome to help myself to this other egg, mysteriously marked with the number “2”. Why did Gert have his own egg? What was different about it? Why was it mixed in with all the other communal eggs? What did the number “2” denote? And how did that pertain to me? What would it take for me to be a “1”? Sadly, we never found answers to any of these questions. The egg was fine, though.
In Grado, one of the objectively uglier towns along the Camino, and also sadly lacking in public fountains, I accidentally bought a bottle of apple-flavoured water. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I poured it into my regular water bottle. So I not only gagged a few times, but for the next four days my bottle tasted faintly of apple. It was worse than it sounds.
I only discovered “jamonyo” (a bocadillo with bacon and cheese baked into an egg) at a café stop on about day 25, loved it unconditionally, then never found it again.
At our second medieval festival, in Salas on the Primitivo, we decided to join in the festivities by consuming a massive lunch of hake and steak and mussels and beer and chocolate crepes, then had to get up and waddle another 7 kilometres, mostly uphill, all the while burping and struggling and cursing our poor decision-making.
I excitedly ordered a burger one day, then it showed up and was a very sickly beige colour. But I ate it anyway, and it was ok.
Specifically Cool Moment in Time
Reaching the outskirts of Lugo at the end of a long day with my ear phones in listening to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”.
Miscellaneous Spanish Stuff
Apparently Barcelona was trying to separate from Spain. I’m told it hasn’t, though.
Americans may have the reputation but Spaniards talk every bit as loudly, especially in groups. Also, they seemingly love giant pillows the width of the entire bed that need to be awkwardly shared, generally see no point in owning drain plugs, are however brilliant in their standard use of blackout shutters and, sadly, seem to unanimously agree on the need for dandruff shampoo.
Until our next Camino, then…