Day 9 kicked off the second half of my Camino de Santiago hike along the French Way. In 8 days I’d covered 240 miles, and striking out before dawn that morning I had 240 miles to go to Santiago de Compostela. I was hiking across the wide open Meseta plains of Central Spain following long, flat, exposed gravel tracks through fields and alongside roads. I passed cornfields and felt like I was back home in Indiana, except for the small historic stone villages I walked through several times a day. The flat monotonous landscape did have a benefit though, I covered 33 miles in just 10 hours of hiking!
I started day 10 out on spider web patrol as the first person on the trail for the day. I found a tree branch and carried it in front of me to reduce the strands that tangled across my arms and legs and in my beard. An hour later I caught up with hikers from another town and was able to ditch my web stick. Around noon I wandered through the crowds of tourists in León, following the trail markers back into the quiet countryside. By the afternoon the wind had picked up and started blowing spider webs across the fields and I was back on spider web patrol. I stopped for an afternoon cola from a vending machine and finished a 31 mile day at a small albergue and joined hikers from Sweeden, Switzerland, and South Korea for a family style dinner and beer capped off by sharing a bottle of Korean rice wine.
Day 11 was miserable. I woke up several times during the night to run to the restroom and get sick, at one point even laying down on the floor in the hallway until I had enough energy to make it all the way to the bathroom. By the time morning rolled around I was dehydrated and depleted, but the albergue was in the middle of nowhere and I wanted to at least make it to town before spending a day recovering from food poisoning, or the rice wine, or whatever was going on. To top my stomach issues, the weather was in the 40’s with a howling wind blowing sideways cold rain, and the trail led up and over the first mountains I’d seen in a week. The first 4 hours of the day were grueling. I tried to get a burger and beer down at lunch to no avail, bought myself a pair of gloves so I could feel my fingers again, and walked 4 kilometers out of town before giving up, covering only 17 miles for the day. I fell asleep at 3 PM, snoozed until dinner, which I attended but still couldn’t eat anything, and promptly went right back to bed. Whatever upset my stomach the night before was definitely taking a toll, but I hoped a good night of sleep would hit the reset button and get me back on pace.
I woke up for day 12 after sleeping nearly 12 hours in an attempt to kick the food poisoning bug. I felt much better, donned my pack, and was the first person out of the albergue. I walked 2 hours before stopping in a cafe for scrambled eggs and coffee, the first food I’d had in more than a day and a half. With that I felt back to normal. Unfortunately the rain had returned, but fortunately the wind had not, it was warmer, and I finally had gloves. I put my head down and spent the morning traversing the mountains in a thick mist until I reached a final summit and started a steep descent into sunny Ponferrada, the city and weather cheering me up. I finished a 29 mile day and headed to the McDonald’s down the street form my albergue to replenish lost calories!
I left town around 7:30 AM for day 13 on the Camino, wandered the dark city streets, and eventually stopped for breakfast on the outskirts of town. By noon I was walking through Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the most picturesque towns I saw in Spain. From there I followed an old country road as it meandered through quiet villages at the bottom of a steep river valley. High above, perched on monolithic concrete legs hundreds of feet tall, traffic flew by on a modern 4 lane highway, an interesting mix of the old and the new. I followed the trail as it climbed out of the valley and away from the pavement, turning into a narrow cobblestone path through lush green forest and moss covered stone walls. Eventually I reached the ridge, 2,500 feet above the river, and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. I rolled into the municipal albergue around 6:30 PM for a 32.5 mile day and got one of the last available beds in town.
I woke up on day 14 cold in the municipal albergue and started hiking to warm up. As I wound down the mountain the morning light illuminated the valley below and around noon I stopped in a small village for lunch. I passed through a large city with plenty of albergues but wanted to continue on a few extra kilometers, even knowing that the weather forecast called for early evening rain. At 5 PM the sky opened and a steady drizzle drenched everything. I finally pulled off the trail after 31 miles and picked up the last bed in an albergue with a fireplace and hot shower. I joined hikers from Germany and Italy for the community dinner, helped finish a bottle of wine, and drifted off to sleep, happy to be warm and dry in a comfortable bed.
I was the first hiker out of the albergue for day 15 and walked with my headlamp for over an hour before the sunrise finally shed enough light to see the world come alive around me. By mid morning I passed through a town and joined the masses of pilgrims making their way toward Santiago. The trail was very busy through the early afternoon, but eventually people started peeling off to find albergues for the night. I walked until dinner, covered 31 miles, grabbed a bunk in a downtown hostel, and fell asleep just 32 miles from Santiago.
I got an early start on day 16 to make it to Santiago. I hiked consistently through the morning, stopped for a sandwich and snack, and continued on. Around one corner in the afternoon I was surprised to run into the German hiker I’d had dinner with 2 nights before. He said I’d been talking about pushing myself to see how many miles I could do each day and he decided to do the same. When we left the albergue the previous morning he hiked through the day, through the evening, and through the night. He passed me and slept a few hours on the trail and was on his final push of a 2 day, 100 kilometer hike to Santiago, it was incredible!
By the late afternoon I was passing through the urban sprawl of Santiago. I fell in line with other backpackers all making their way to the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela and the end of the pilgrimage. I could see the steeples in the distance and eventually walked through a stone archway into a wide open square and turned to see the church, the finish of the French Way of the Camino de Santiago.
In 16 days I’d hiked 775 kilometers, or 481 miles, from France, across the Pyrenees, all the way to Santiago. The cathedral is the end of the traditional pilgrimage, but my own personal goal was to make it to the Atlantic Ocean. I found an albergue for the night, cleaned up, and went to bed early to set off the next morning on the Camino Finisterre.
Day 9 – 33 Miles
Day 10 – 31 Miles
Day 11 – 17 Miles
Day 12 – 29 Miles
Day 13 – 32.5 Miles
Day 14 – 31 Miles
Day 15 – 31 Miles
Day 16 – 32 Miles