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The Way To Santiago Compostella - Part 2

The Way To Santiago Compostella - My Pilgrimage (Part 2)

See also… The Way To Santiago Compostella - Part 1

In the month of May this year my wife Wendy and I went on a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, walking 810kms from the village of St Jean Pied de Port (France) to the city of Santiago Compostella (Spain) - the legendary final resting place of St James. The following is a series of emails sent to our families during the course of our 32 day walk. It is accompanied by images taken on the Camino - which translates as "the way". - Alastair Thompson (Scoop co-editor)


Day 11

It was raining in the morning as we set out and we had visions of getting very very wet going over the mountains ahead of us. However by the time we had finished breakfast - a croissant - the rain had subsided.

We climbed up behind the village about 300 meters to the tops at around 1200ms high - all in the mist but with no wind and with only light drizzle.

Once on the top the trail became a very wide and very muddy logging road which gradually sloped down towards the next town of St Juan de Ortega. This town was 13 kms away and we stopped their for lunch. Drizzle still hadn´t given way to rain and we set off for Ages and then Atapuerca which was the half way point to Burgos. Atapuerca had excavations for Neanderthal man but we did not stop to Wendy´s disappointment.

We had left Pepe in Ages and decided as it had warmed up a bit to make a bid for Burgos 20kms away.

Image: A cross atop a hill

The path rose up over a hill, on the top of which was a cross and a spiral circle of stones made by pilgrims - pilgrims like making piles of stones and it seems other things with stones along their trails - signs etc.

Descending from the hilltop Burgos could be seen a long way off. As we descended we briefly got a bit lost owing to poor quality maps, lack of signs and it turned out not very good advice from a passing motorist.

We then got caught in a brief torrential downpour - accompanied with thunder - which gave us a taste for how vulnerable we are to rain. Our shoes were quickly soaked through and the precaution of lining our packs with giant plastic bags seemed remarkably sensible.

Somewhat dispirited after the rainfall we continued on through a couple of small villages - faced a fearsome dog doing a rabid wolf impression - rounded an airport and found ourselves in Villafria an industrial area outlying the city of Burgos with 8kms of road to walk into the city on.

A slog with sore feet, tired minds, wet trousers and generally feeling pretty crap ensued as we made our way into the city.

Wendy managed to get herself locked into a service station restroom also and had to be rescued by the proprietor.

At 7pm we arrived at a hostel near the center of the city where we had rung up and booked. The desk woman was an absolute gem and took our wet clothes off to the laundry for us delivering everything warm and dry the next morning. Not that there is a lot now as we sent about 5kgs of clothes and stuff ahead to Santiago from Ventosa which of course is what made the 110kms in 3 days possible.

Today we have wandered around Burgos doing various things that we rarely get a chance to do whilst trekking, including a long tour of the magnificent Burgos Cathedral which is the resting place of El Cid. It has a baroque facade which looks remarkably like St Mary of the Angels only much bigger and much older.

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Image: Detail from interior of Burgos Cathedral

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Image: The central spire of Burgos Cathedral, built by angels?

Spanish religious art is truly extraordinary and nothing has been quite as impressive to date as this Cathedral though there are so many smaller versions of the same thing along the way that you get somewhat blase about the magnificent paintings and carvings.

Tomorrow we set out over a few more hills and then across the high altitude plains towards Leon which we will probably reach in 8-10 days depending on how far we go each day.

Love to you all

Alastair and Wendy



Another day. Another town. Another installment of the pilgrim saga.

Today we are in the town of Calzadilla de la Cueza deep into the mseta or table lands. Walking here we traversed a 17.5km stretch of roman road which went almost dead straight and seemed interminable. However that is for later in this narrative. We start back in Burgos.

Day 12

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Image: A cold wet day in Burgos

Our first rest day and it is freezing cold and raining, so basically, ideal. We wouldn´t have wanted to go anywhere in this weather in any event. Our wonderful hotel maid has washed all our clothes and so we set off downtown in nice warm dry clean clothes to do some shopping.

Shopping accomplished and post dispatched we move to the Cathedral which is frankly extraordinary

.... man taps me on the shoulder and tells me to finish on internet ....

(to be continued....)


Day 12 continued

Anyway so we basically rested day 12 and visited the amazing cathedral. Sent an email to you guys and then had some dinner and went to bed preparing to rejoin the battle of human vs road.


Day 13

According to the books it is possible for someone reasonably fit to walk the 800kms of the Camino in a month. However experience indicates otherwise. Yes it is possible but it is very very hard. I expect they meant it is possible if you catch the bus. Which we are resolutely avoiding doing.

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Image: Flooding river on way out of Burgos

Day 13 was fairly pleasant we started with a breakfast of bacon in a dodgy looking cafe with people who seemed to have been up all night.

It was not too hot and we set off out of Burgos through some farm land that looked like it could have been in NZ and then got our first taste of the mseta or table land.

Leaving a small village called Rade we walked up onto the mseta and across till there was a valley and a village Hornillos. Sometime in this passage I developed a case of persistent hiccups which I thought not a lot of.

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Image: The mseta or table lands

Hornillos was "complete" meaning there was no room to stay and we set off for Sanbol which was supposedly some sort of hippy commune. The hippys had left however and so we made a final 6km trek arriving in Hotansas at 8pm. Fortunately there was still a bed there.

My hiccups had persisted for most of the evening stopping briefly during dinner when I scoffed down a huge sandwich of chorizo and cheese which was my second big mistake of the day.

That evening sleep proved very difficult but Wendy managed to calm me enough to get some sleep.


Day 14

Image: Yellow arrows show the way.

We left Hotansas fairly late and made our way via Castrojeriz (an amazing town on a hill in the mseta). Accompanying us up the hill was Dolores a 78 year old Californian woman who we had met earlier in the Camino and who was obviously keeping up with us fairly well.

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Image: 78-year-old Dolores makes her way up a hill outside Castrojeriz

Over a hill we went and after a short break the hiccups resumed. We decided to stop in Ermito San Nicolas somewhat earlier in the hope that a rest would cure the hiccups.

Somewhat alarmed by the constant squeaking, burping and shaking the kind Italian custodians of the hospital of San Nicolas decided it was best to take me to the Dr. As we arrived at the surgery the hiccups (Ippo in spanish) stopped. The Dr checked me over and discovered nothing wrong. She prescribed some medicine for gas and told me to eat and drink slowly - advice I will now confirm should be followed by everybody all the time.

The Hospital of San Nicolas is run by an Italian brotherhood and they provided us with an evening meal, washed our feet in a Eucharistic ceremony and gave us breakfast.

We were the only English speaking people among the 10 pilgrims there but Wendy was able to get by passably in French. Not being able to understand anybody gave us an interesting insight into what it is like for many of the other monolingual people all the time.

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Image: Outside ermito San Nicholas - Pasqual plays guitar

The night consisted of a cacophony of hiccups and snoring which mainly disturbed the sleep of a Frenchman called Pasqual who added to the noise by banging my bunk.

Wendy described it thus

Snore... Snore.... hiccup... bang

Snore... Snore.... hiccup... bang

And - thanks to the visit to the Dr - at least I knew that I was not about to suffer a heart attack so felt somewhat better


Day 15

We made about 16kms progress this day before getting pelted with rain outside a town called Poblocion and deciding to take refuge in the towns small pilgrims refuge.

Alastair spent the afternoon feeling sorry for himself hiccuping in bed and reading his book while Wendy met a couple of fairly crazy Northern Irish lads who have decided to spend the Camino drinking for 800kms.

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Image: Some wit lies about the distance yet to travel - actual distance to Santiago is over 400kms.

A nurse from Michigan provided some advice on hiccups and also told us her war stories. She had fallen over and given herself a bad ankle and a black eye. Her companion had earlier abandoned the Camino on account of anxiety over whether she would be able to find a bed each night.

And that is enough for now...

Love Alastair (hic) and Wendy


Hi again....

Picking up on the story of the challenge of the hiccups. At the end of Day 15 we were in Poblocion just outside Fromista.

The trip across the mseta is supposed to be the unbearably hot part of the walk at this time of year but so far it has proved anything but. Day 16 was no exception.

Day 16

We arose late by pilgrim standards - anything after 5.30am is late for pilgrims - nearly everybody was gone except for the 2 Northern Irish chaps who were sleeping off their vino.

For myself the good news was that I had had a peaceful nights rest with no serious ippo issues.

The day was cool but fairly clear. The path was flat and followed initially a river and then a road.

Someways up the road we ran into Dolores again. Like us she had been caught in the rain and had taken refuge in Fromista.

At the town of Villacazar we stopped for a coffee and shortly after first Pepe - the Irish actor appeared - closely followed by Dolores. Pepe had previously had a few meals with us and spent several days on the road together so it was opportune that he had a stone in his shoe as he passed by the bar we were in.

Pepe already had blisters on blisters days earlier but over the previous couple of days he had aggravated this further. Later we would see just how much. But first we had some walking to do.

First stage was another 8kms to Carrion de los Condes a delightful town with an unusually active retail sector by Spanish standards.

The next stop was a further 18kms across the mseta and after a discussion we decided to set off. What followed was an interminably long boring flat straight section of allegedly Roman road to Calzadilla.

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Image: On the Roman road

Pepe´s feet were so bad that stopping was not a good idea. The pain of extreme blistering it seems diminishes a little with repetition. We stopped just a couple of times and after leaving at 1.30pm arrived at Calzadilla just before 6pm. Before the rain.

As we approached the town, helpfully hidden below the mseta by a small dip, the Spanish girlfriend of one of the Northern Irish lads came out to meet us. She was somewhat distressed that they had not yet turned up. We made our way to the albergue (hostel) to recover from our walking and she went off to the bar to wait for her friends.

What I have failed to mention thus far is that except when we stopped I experienced constant hiccups for all the walking sections. Wendy and Pepe - and passing pilgrims - found the sounds that this made a combination hics, burps, snorts and choking sounds somewhat amusing.

At Calzadilla I resolved not to have any dinner in the hope that this would mean another nights rest. A nurse we spoke to informed me that though eating fast probably was the cause of the hiccups it was not the reason they were continuing. Someone she had heard about had ended up being hospitalised and then placed on a thorazine drip!

She did suggest trying some Nurofen which as well as being an anti-inflamatory - and therefore the drug of choice on the pilgrim trail - is a muscle relaxant.

Whether this was the reason or the lack of food or both is not clear but another restful night followed.

Calzadilla like many of the smaller towns on the trail is a town where the Camino is beginning to have a fairly serious impact in terms of finance.

At 11pm our Northern Irish friends arrived and were granted late entrance to the refuge. They had been caught in the rain and were soaked through.


Day 17

A restful night was followed by seemingly the end of the hiccup / ippo saga. Ibuprofen is a wonder drug for certain. Though it might have also been the rosary.

Pepe´s feet however were not so easily fixed. Huge patches of skin had come off the sole of his foot and off the heel. Meanwhile one of his little toes was so sore he wasn´t even going to look underneath the bandages. A rest day was required and we left him there at around 8am. Possibly we will meet up in Leon but unless he catches a bus I doubt it. I would think his feet need a good three days rest minimum.

Image: Pepe's blisters result in a forced rest

The forecast was 70% chance of rain and the sky was forboding and the wind chilling. Fortunately the boring bit of the trail was over and instead we were back to some rolling hills and vaguely windy trails.

We passed through Legido and the then Torres de los Templares which features two brand new pilgrim refuges with all the features. It appears that the trail facilities are improving which is a good sign.

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Image: Our Northern Irish friends have lost their Spanish Girlfriend

The next town featured some houses dug into a hill ala hobbit houses but clearly much older. Many of the houses in this area are constructed out of adobe essentially mud rocks and straw. It is apparent that if there is a problem with the guttering it quickly becomes much more serious.

Dodging rain showers we made 22kms progress today and arrived at Sahagan where I am writing this at 3pm today. It has been a hiccup free day thank God.

This is one of the better appointed hostels and features free internet which is great and explains the burst of communication today.

Having now hopefully resolved the ippo crisis we are now in good health - both Wendy and I - and we will take 2 more days to reach the city of Leon 60kms from here. A rest day will follow as we look around another great and ancient Cathedral city.

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Image: A lizard watches the pilgrims pass.

To date we have traveled 405kms and are therefore now half way to Santiago Compostella. Another 6 days of plains are ahead before we head into the mountains towards Galicia. A 1500 meter high mountain pass follows Astorga which if this lousy weather holds will be a serious challenge. Hopefully grace will smile on us weather wise.

Love to you all

Alastair and Wendy



We are having a rest day today in Leon and Wendy is busy on the internet too. Everything is shut so we can´t do our washing which is the other thing we wanted to do. However since it is six degrees and raining it is great that we are not on the road either. Anyway time for another update.

Day 18

The morning we left Sahagun there was a low fog all around lying low over the city and putting a bit of chill on the air. We are still on the mseta and at around 900 meters high it is fairly cool in the mornings. Leaving Sahagun we cross another ancient bridge this one 11th century, and so dating from the time NZ was settled and England was invaded by William the Conqueror.

On the other side of the bridge is a camping ground in a place called the Field of Lances where 40,000 of Charlemagne's soldiers are said to have died defending the pilgrimage route from the Muslims. Such a huge battle shows how important this pilgrimage route was around the time of the end of the 1st millennium.

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Image: The Field of Lances where 40,000 of Charlemagne's soldiers died has become a camping ground

Our path takes us along the road on firm and dry tracks. The sky soon clears and although there is sun it is not hot which is good for walking. We plan on making some serious progress today to put ourselves within striking distance of Leon on Saturday. We plan on meeting up with our friends Peter and Finn there and knowing them they will almost certainly make a dash over the 40km distance they are from the city today so we need to get there by Saturday night to catch up with them.

We reach Burgos le Romero - a town named for all the frogs that live in ponds near the town - at around 2pm and unlike seemingly every other pilgrim on the road decide not to stop.

Ahead there is a 12.5km stretch of walking with no real shelter and no water stops. Along the way we stop a couple of times for a rest in pilgrim service areas which have really become large outdoor toilets owing to the fact that public toilets seem to be one thing that the EU is yet to introduce the Spanish to.

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Image: Graffiti in one of the Camino rest areas

Eventually we pass under a railway line and around a few bends we arrive in Religios a town at the edge of a 25km wide shallow valley which lies between us and Leon. There is thankfully space for us in the small refuge.

Beds have been packed into the two dormitories so our room which I would guess is the size of a fairly large lounge contains beds for 20 people. Some Germans give us their leftover pasta and we rest our legs which have tired somewhat from the 34km distance traveled this day.

Wendy and I are both now reading Paulo Coehlo´s book "Pilgrimage" after I found a second copy in Sahagun and we read that until the light dies. I sleep well but Wendy not so well.


Day 19

The final leg into Leon is just 26kms but seems much longer. By 7.30am when we leave, the village of Religios and refuge are completely deserted. To our disappointment there is no breakfast available in Religios and so we walk off down towards Mansilla de los Mulas a Roman garrison town which still has much of its original walls. It has now become a rural service center on the outskirts of Leon and reminds us on approach of Levin.

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Image: Mansilla de los Mulas's Roman Walls

We stop for breakfast. The sky is clear today and after breakfast take off our coats for the walk into Leon. Initially the path follows the road and seems a little interminable. We cross a long old bridge and reach some strip development on the outskirts of Leon. Our path takes us away from the road and over some hills before seemingly losing its way at the crest of the hill before we come into Leon.

While normally considerable effort seems to have been gone into to ensure that the pilgrims route is safe with over bridges and underpasses and the like, for a 200m section at the crest of this hill we are invited first to cross a motorway without a crossing or any traffic controls and then essentially walk down the gutter at the side of the motorway for about 200 meters over very rough ground which looks like it would give you a serious injury if you fell.

Images: The Pilgrim's route into Leon requires some attention.

We are a bit concerned at how the likes of 78 year old Dolores will deal with this section. Were she to fall she would doubtless hurt herself badly. Not to mention crossing the road.

Peter and Finn have found us a place to stay in Leon this night, fortunately, since the town seems to be completely full of tourists and visiting Spaniards from surrounding areas. On the way into town we happen across a Burger King and have some familiar food which is cheering.

Our hotel is not the ritz but rather cheap and clean. Wendy is a little disappointed at the postage stamp sized towels and the paucity of hot water but it is definitely a step up from a dormitory of 20 and cold showers so I am happy as I read my first newspaper in several weeks.

The events in China and Burma are truly shocking.

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Image: Leon Cathedral at night

At 7pm we go out for some vino tinto in the city center with Peter and Finn and say our goodbyes as it is unlikely we will catch up with them before Compostella from here. They have been good friends for us and it will be great to visit them in Ireland sometime if we do not reach Compostella by the 31st when they fly out.

We flag dinner partly because it seems to not start till 9.30pm and partly because I am sick of jambon, queso and the rest of Spanish fare. I had heard that MacDonalds has been hugely unsuccessful here - which it is - because the local food was so great and cheap. I can attest to the latter but not the former.


Day 20

Today is day 20, our rest day, and we went to Mass this morning and nearly froze. Leon Cathedral has magnificent stain glass windows and quite clearly no heating. Mass was celebrated by 9 priests in a side chapel of the Cathedral. Singing was led by a single male voice which I could not determine the origin of.

It is possibly the feast of the trinity (or trindad in Spanish) at least that is what I thought I heard in the Spanish Eucharistic prayers.

Tomorrow we head south towards Astorga before taking a right turn over some mountains that we can see from here in Leon and which look like they are cold and high. We are due to climb to 1500 meters in the course of our passage over them and It will need to be warmer, drier and less windy for this to be a practical possibility given our clothing resources.

After the mountain pass, Compostella is a further 8 days walk away across Galacia and the pilgrim's route is likely to get seriously crowded as we approach the end.

More news from the road


Alastair and Wendy



We are now in Astorga at the foot of the mountains which we will head into tomorrow. Lots of new pilgrims are joining the trail everyday and the old crew that we know from the start are now quite spread out over the way. A sign today said 280kms to go so its a relief that we now only need to walk the equivalent of Island Bay to Taihape to finish.

Day 21

Leaving Leon it was fairly cool and we got up fairly late owing to the comfortableness of our bed. We were thinking of doing some shopping before we left the city but silly us did not figure on the shops not opening till 10am. From the look of things opening hours for shopping even in the cities are 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 7pm. So basically 6 hours a day. NZ retail workers have some progress to make before they get conditions like that.

Image: More misleading signs - Foncebadon is still a good 3 days walk away

I was fairly grumpy on account of the shops being closed and Wendy´s attempts to cure me of my black cloud failed somewhat dismally until we finally reached the end of the urban sprawl around 10kms from the center of town. It was threatening to rain but never did and we decided to take the alternative slightly longer route which took us away from the highways which we were by then completely sick of.

After tangling with a motorway interchange - possibly the most frustrating obstacle a pilgrim can encounter - we found ourselves in the countryside and back in something that looked remarkably like the mseta which we had thought we had left behind us.

A couple of villages later and we reached Villar de Mazariffe which had three nice albergues including Tio Pepe to which we retired. Our room had just four beds in it which was pure luxury and plenty of caliente agua - warm water - for our tired feet. I finished reading my newspapers and Wendy had a sleep. In the evening the noise and smoke from the bar downstairs drifted up and through several doors but did not annoy us greatly and we had a great night's sleep.


Day 22

We woke latish as usual and headed out the door at 8am somewhat disappointed that the bar owners had run out of toast for people who were not German.

A fairly longish day was ahead and the rain on the plain in Spain seemed likely to be taking a day off today which was something of a novelty. While the mseta is supposed to be hot and dry it has been anything but for us. Everyday it has rained, fortunately not on us mostly, but nevertheless every day.

This has excited the wildlife something rotten and the swallows and frogs are having a field day.

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Image: A frog enjoys the sunshine

In one pond today we saw at least 50 frogs all babbling away to each other. Meanwhile the swallows swoop and dive across the track and around the trees and mayflies hover over the track while dragonflies and ladybugs mate on the track under our feet.

We headed southwards towards Astorga and after 15kms reached a bridge at Orbigo famous for being the site of a 30 day jousting session between knights of the road which ended their rivalries and left them focusing on preventing banditry on the Camino.

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Image: Rio Orbigo

Crossing the bridge we headed back into the foothills of the mountains that we will be crossing tomorrow.

17 kms of rolling hills follow with low vegetation which reminds us a little of the McKenzie Country, which is not surprising given that we are at approximately the same altitude.

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Image: A pilgrim built statue on the path into Astorga

Eventually Astorga came into view and we crossed another river valley before climbing up onto the hill that the Cathedral town occupies. It is very well endowed with albergue beds, some 300, and we had our best value meal of the entire period in Spain tonight at a local Italian restaurant. Spanish food is beginning to tire for both of us.

Anyway people are calling out to get onto the internet and Wendy wants to quickly look at her mail.



Alastair and Wendy

(continuing…. Tomorrow days 23-33)

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