GR1: Week 10/11: The Primitivo and Pilgrim City

“Travelling outgrows it’s motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you- or unmaking you” – Nicholas Bouvier (The Way of the World)

Total KM hiked: 1520

Oviedo- Bodenaya- Lugo- Melide- Santiago de Compostela

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Learning to share the trail as we hike out from Oviedo on our first day on the Camino Primitivo.

Pictures from Week 10/11 on Instagram Here . I have had to make the account private again lately as I keep getting spammed by loads of pointless messages. It is open again as I post this and we’ll see how it goes.

Since we left Oviedo on the Camino Primitivo at the start of week 10, the 12 days following have been some of the most physically challenging of our entire walk across Spain. The Primitivo is known as the toughest Camino as far as terrain goes, but being already fit from the GR1, we were not too worried beforehand. The surprising toughness came from a combination of factors, namely very steep terrain, heatwave temperatures and the increased humidity from descending down to lower levels and being nearer the sea. This may have been managable at our GR1 pace, but, for the first few days at least, the lack of wild camping opportunities along the camino meant we had to walk longer and faster than usual to secure places at the pilgrim alberges. Trying to keep pace with the other pilgrims, especially with rucksacks nearly twice as heavy as theirs (most don’t carry camping gear), was pretty strenuous. It also meant doing 25-30km (up to 20 mile) days by 2pm, whereas on the GR1 we would spread this distance out over the whole day.

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After an early start on day 75 we climbed through mist for two hours before breaking for tea on the trail. Known as the high level ‘Hospitales’ route (after the ancient pilgrim hospitals up there), it would be the toughest day on the Primitivo….especially once the sun came out!

Later in the week as the Camino climbed into the Cantabrian cordellieras, wild camping opportunities improved, but the weather got hotter, so we had to get up early to cram the miles in before the heat hit. From 2pm-7pm it was too hot to walk, typically 27-30 degrees! The early mornings were beauiful though as we walked with headtorches through the forest, shining the lights ahead to find the next waymarker, lapping up the cool air and scent of pine and watching the first sun stream through the trees. By 9:30am the heat would get prickly and from 11am it would be a bit of an endurance test to get to the end of the stage and find an alberge and an emergency Coca Cola to revive us.  The heat drained our energy and motivation very quickly (me more than Barry), but many pilgrims seemed far better adapted or able to cope.

By mid-week however, as the temperatures hit the 30ś and with high humidity, the Spaniards were finding it hard and even the Aussies were starting to complain…. Although the heat was an unwelcome pressure, we did surprise ourselves by how we extended our hiking range, packing in several back-to-back 20 mile days before stopping around 2:00pm. Despite the physical challenges, from the start of the Primitivo, any doubts about being able to reach Santiago and Finisterre were gone, there was a magnestism or inevitablility that just kept us walking those last 350km and made everything beautifully simple.

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A typical morning mid-Primitivo as we walk high above the misty valleys of Cantabria.

To someone reading this from the ‘outside’, the Primitivo may not sound like much fun, and indeed there were times early-on when we did not like it very much. The first few days out of Oviedo were also poor landscape-wise, we had left the ‘old’ Spain of the GR1 behind in the Picos and returned to the lowlands and pace of the 21st century. In general the route was rural (ish), but a different kind of rural, with lots of roads, strung-out dispersed settlements (of modern concrete houses), some industry and much more intensive land use- every bit was farmed, fenced or given over to commercial forestry. It had a discordant feel to it compared to much of the GR1 and we were not the only pilgrims to feel this way. We certainly grew rapidly homesick for our GR1 days and considered how much people would miss if this was their only experience of walking in Spain. I guess it depends on what you expect and what you have to compare it with, and for some people a landscape of green hills is ‘beautiful’ even if it is intensive cattle pasture and pine /eucalyptus plantation.  However, we persisted with the Primitivo and knew that we would have to judge our experiences upon it by slightly different standards.

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A typical stretch of Primitivo along ancient tracks as we headed deeper into rural Galicia.

Probably our biggest adaptation on the Primitivo was learning to share the trail with others again. Some pilgrims walked along in loose groups, chatting and stopping to take breaks together. We travelled apart from any group but were still within a bubble of familiar faces whom we greeted with ‘Buen Camino’s’ and had quick chats with along the way. It was nice at times, but the trail seemed too busy, always someone coming along behind or groups talking very loudly, giving little chance for privacy or solitude. I will admit to having some un-pilgrim like thoughts about this! We really valued the first hour in the morning when we were the only ones on the trail, when it lay ahead un-walked by anyone that day and we could appreciate the birds and wildlife without disturbance. I think that our GR1 days spoiled us with their utter peacefulness and also made us rather solitary, but as the week progressed we did start to appreciate the company of others in our moving community of pilgrims.

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        Granite geology and heather moor dominated the upland sections of Galicia

The Camino attracts an international crowd and along with a mix of Europeans, there were plenty of Australians, American and scattering of Koreans also.  We walked many miles with an Australian environmentalist and comitted vegan called Victoria and whiled away a hot midday hours chatting with a young Frenchman called Jules who, like many on the Camino, was trying to find his direction in life. The Camino is marked by a combination of yellow scallop shells and yellow arrows. Jules commented that the hard part was knowing what to do and where to go at the end when the yellow arrows weren´t there any more…

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Our ‘bubble’ of pilgrims that we travelled in tandem with along the Primitivo.

After 70 evenings with just the two of us on the GR1, the company of others at the end of a long day on the Primitivo was a bit of a change! The evenings in the Alberges were pleasant, and we enjoyed absorbing the lively social buzz even if we did not take part in it much. The alberge at Bodenaya, strung with it’s quirky combination of Buddhist prayer flags and football scarves, stands out in particular as the most welcoming on the Primitivo. The hospitalero David took us all in like a big family and we were fed the most delicious healthy food (pasta salad and lentil curry) and told to help ourselves to the jugs of fruity wine. The communality and spirit of this alberge was important in forging a sort of kinship between our group of pilgrims that were brought together there that night. Bodenaya is run on an ethic of generosity and trust, payment for all the hospitality provided is by donation. The next morning when a pilgrim went off wearing Barry’s shoes by mistake, David sped off in his car to rescue them, returning 20min later having found the chap in question and swapped the shoes back!

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Outside Bodenaya on a drizzly morning with Barry’s shoes safely returned!

By contrast, some alberges could be a little oppressive, the packed, stuffy dorms made me miss nights in the Hubba and I did take my blanket out to sleep on the balcony one night, the cool, fresh air was such a relief despite the hard stone floor. In dorms there is of course the risk of snorers or worse as well. Our fellow pilgrim Victoria lived in dread of sharing a dorm with a group of men she termed ´the orchestra´, who liked to drink in the evenings, and which gave rise to lots of snoring and other noises of a less salubrious nature! Varing between 5-10 Euros for a bed however, the alberges were often great value, and after a long, hot day on the trail, it was great to be able to freshen up and just sprawl aching bodies on a bunk and sleep the afternoon away.

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Traditional grain stores were a regular and fascinating part of the rural Galician landscape.

By the end of the week, as we left the populated lowlands of Austeris behind, the Primitivo was rapidly redeeming itself, not in a spectacular way, but by slow immersion in the peace of rural Galicia. It was like returning to an older Spain again, with many, many miles along shady forest tracks, through lanes cut deep by the tread of thousands of pilgrims, beside tumbling stone walls, well tended allotments, through grey-stone villages and pungent, ramshackle farmyards. Increadingly too we were accompanied by the gentle cooing of the turtle dove, which bizzarely seemed to like to call from Eucalyptus plantations. It was a real privilege to hear and see one of Europe’s most endangered birds and Barry spent time pointing some out to fellow pilgrims who would have otherwise passed this beautiful bird by.

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Old stone crosses line the pilgrim road to Santiago.

There were some extraordinary moments too, notably on two mornings mid-route, when we climbed high, to emerge suddenly above the mist. We stood spellbound, as an ocean of white spread before us with only the tops of the highest sierras visible like islands above it. In the transition between the mist and emerging into the sunlight there would be beautiful effects of light, strange halos and rainbows. Later in the week we also slowed down a bit, there was more scope for camping wild and we able to relax, to sit an brew tea on the morning trail or take long siestas out of the heat and not worry about finding a bed for the night.

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A glorious morning above the mist on the Primitivo.

By Day 82, with just 2 days walking left until Santiago the Primitivo ended and we joined the flood-tide of pilgrims on the Camino Frances. With all chance of solitude gone, we just accepted the crowds as part of a whole new experience, we were part of a big movement, part of a long history, two pilgrims among millions who have made this journey down the centuries. In those final two days there was a building energy of expectation, a focus and determination among the pilgrims. In the alberges people seemed quieter, more introspective, arrival at Santiago means so many things to many different people. 

On our final night on the Camino Frances, we got chatting to a lady in the bunk next to us. Her journey had begun 3.5 months ago beneath the dark, Gothic spires of Cologne cathedral in Germany. Since then she had walked solo, nearly 2600km(!) across France and Spain. Her journey had been a transformational experience, she was glowing with the joy of it, even after all that distance, and the next day promised to be one of the great days of her life. That happy and extradordinary lady was 73 years old! Arrival in Santiago is not wholly joyful for everyone however, myself included, in fact it can be downright complicated. Some have unrealistic  expectations, others have not ´found´ the answers they were seeking and for others, like me, it signals the end (or nearly the end) of a blessed and precious time and the need to find a way beyond…. without those handy trailmarkers.

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Through the bright morning streets of Santiago with a tide of other pilgrims.

On Day 84 we set off in the darkness of pre-dawn and walked the remaining 20km along roads and forest tracks into the great pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela. In some way or other, it was always going to be an anticlimax. We argued a bit on the way in because Barry was intent on stopping and taking pictures of other pilgrims while I wanted to just ´go with the flow´ and enjoy our moment together. Luckily we got over it before reaching the cathedral and merged with the crowds of pilgrims and milling tour groups as a bag piper welcomed the new arrivals. Unfortunately the spectacular towers of the cathedral were covered in scaffolding and the main doors sealed up. Around at a side door we, along with other pilgrims, were then turned away by security guards (!) to deposit our bags (at some cost) elsewhere before we could go in. I got a bit peeved at this point and said ´sod-it, we´ll come back later´. We headed instead to a local cafe for a much needed fry-up and cafe con leche.

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Hello Santiago, we’ve been expecting you! The city sign felt more welcoming than the cathedral…

This was not the arrival enjoyed by pilgrims in previous years, who had been allowed to climb the great entrance steps, touch the famous column at the Portico Gloriana and enjoy the magic of their big moment. The tired, dusty, chaotic and europhic masses of pilgrims have been censured, controlled and denied the spontaneity and gratification that is, I feel, their due. The security guards were pleasant enough, but pilgrims seemed to be treated as uniformly as any another tourist with no recognition. This is sad given that many people have walked across a whole country or even across a continent to be there. For some it is a journey measured in years more than distance – I’m thinking of a Korean lady who, being a teacher, a wife and a mother, had waited 30 years to summon the courage to tell her family that she was going to walk the Camino.

Maybe there are sound practical reasons to not let rucksacks in the cathedral anymore, maybe it is the pilgrim way to just accept this, but I feel strongly that in being practical the ‘authorities’ have lost sight of something very important…the welcome, hospitality and joy  of arrival.

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We did eventually get into the Cathedral, straight ahead is the enormous shrine to St James (Santiago) which lies above his supposed tomb.

In the afternoon of Day 84, we visited the pilgrim office to pick up our ‘Compostelas’ (certificate of pilgrimage). It is necessary to walk a minimum of 100km into Santiago to qualify and to have regular stamps in our pilgrim credentials. Waiting in the office was like queuing in a bank until we got called to a counter to be seen. At the counter I was greeted by a man who smiled and, after folding his hands on the desk, said slowly and simply ‘so…. tell me…’. I was suddenly caught off guard, what on earth could I tell him and how on earth could I possibly tell it? After not feeling much since we arrived that morning and having been a bit grumpy and cynical, that enigmatic phrase ‘so, tell me…’ was suddenly very powerful. I stumbled through some awkward facts about our journey, like where we started and how long and far we’d walked. All of these facts however fell woefully short of really ‘telling’ him anything about it at all.  He must hear similar things from hundreds of pilgrims every day of course, and he just nodded, asking me to tick a box on a form to indicate the motivation for my pilgrimage ‘religeous spiritual or touristic’.

Leaving the office with our ‘Compostelas’ in hand, I realised that I could never have told him or anyone about the last 2.5 months properly. In my blog posts I have tried to explain some of the reasons why, and to tell of our experiences, but they are really only fragments. It is tempting to search for answers or conclusions at the end of this journey, but I think the last 2.5 months will always be a bit of a mystery as they also, even now, begin to seem unreal. Perhaps it is better that way than to diminish it all by dissection- it somehow allows me to leave the experience glowing and intact. Barry of course has his own reasons and conclusions. If you ask him straight-up he will say he did it to look after me (!) and I know this to be true. We also share many ideals about life on the trail which has given us a unity in our purpose. But he has not walked this far without his own, intrinsic motivations and maybe he’ll do his own blog post at some point to give his view on our long, long walk together….

We are staying in Santiago for a rest day now and absorbing the atmosphere as more pilgrims stream into the city. At 12pm we attended the daily pilgrim Mass in the cathedral (just to experience to event and atmosphere) and were lucky enough to see the giant silver biofumeiro (incense censor) ‘fly’- it is not used for every Mass. Spilling fragrant smoke across the congregation as it swung across the nave on its 25m rope, and with the organ music rumbling high among the ceiling vaults, it was truely one of the sights of our travels anywhere and something I will never forget. Thanks to our good friends Mark and Jane, we also had a 3 course meal and bottle of wine in a little restaurant just off the cathedral square. A welcome way to celebrate and something more extravagant than our normal fare. The food was delicious and much needed to satisfy some of that Primitivo induced appetite!

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Not so clear in the picture, but the priests have just lit the silver biofumerio and it is starting to ‘fly’ on its great arc across the cathedral.

So now only 90km remain, and we go west with the sun once more to finally see it sink over the Atlantic ocean from Cape Finisterre. Finisterre is our true end point, for Pagans of old it was the edge of the known world, and more than Santiago, it is perhaps a more fitting finale to our wildpilgrimage. We know not to expect much, there is nothing to be found at Finisterre that we have not already found in those many miles of forests, plains and sierras.  It will be a symbolic end and a chance to celebrate with other pilgrims who have also completed their own journeys there. With the temperatures set to hit 32 degrees, we plan to take it easier and take 4, 5 even six days if we want, but either way, it’s nearly over….better make every precious step count.

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4 thoughts on “GR1: Week 10/11: The Primitivo and Pilgrim City

  1. Are we nearly there yet? Well, very nearly now! So excited to know that you have virtually reached your destination – it’s been great following your amazing journey. I too share some of your sadness (albeit at a very different level) at the coming to the end of such a long and experiential journey – but it is now part of your fabric; who you are and you will be richer for it. Thanks for sharing your journey with us and we look forward to seeing you both soon. Jane

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    • Hi Jane,
      So glad you have enjoyed following along with us via the blog. It has been a great way for me to gather together my thoughts and try to distill our experiences. We are even nearer to the end now. About 11am today we finally spotted the cool, blue Atlantic, 81 days after we left the Mediterranean. As we descended to the coast it was hard to grasp the moment and how we had finally got here! Still one day of trail left though because we have to walk 18km out to Cape Finisterre tomorrow….and have a bottle of wine at sunset 😃
      There should be a book arriving in the post for you any day now. It was one that we both read and loved in our early days on the GR1, and Barry though you might well like it too.
      We’ll be in touch soon to hopefully arrange a visit, look forward to seeing you all then.

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      • Look forward to receiving the book – thanks so much! Hope your final 18km and reaching your physical destination proves to be really special, with a fab sunset and mellow vino! Enjoy and see you soon-ish.

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  2. Llongyfarchiadau ! Congratulations, not just on the achievement of the walk, but also for the wonderful descriptions and photographs of your journey you are sharing with us. I just don’t know how you have kept up the standard, but you have. Very pleased there are still Turtle doves somewhere. Enjoy seeing the sea, taste the salt,
    Kate & Geoff

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