John & Lis Walk the Camino 440 miles in 34 days across northern Spain

In 2001, we celebrated Uncle Johannes's 70th birthday with a large family gathering in Copenhagen. At that time his younger brother, Regnar (called "Mogey") had just returned from the adventure of his lifetime, the 1200-year old pilgrimage walk known as the Camino de Santiago. The Santiago in question is Saint James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and the patron saint of Spain. Since medieval times, pilgrims from all over the world have made their way to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain to pay homage to the bones of St. James, which legend says are buried in the basement of the main cathedral.


For 15 years Mogey's Camino experience burrowed its way into Lis's imagination until it sprang forth as a full-blown plan: in September, 2016, John and Lis would walk from Pamplona in northeastern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest, a journey of 440 miles over 34 days. Some highlights follow, and you can click on the smaller photos to enlarge.

A quick spin around Pamplona before following the Yellow Arrow Trail westward
Pamplona is best known for its summertime Festival of San Fermin and the famous running of the bulls. On the morning of September 22, 2016, the autumnal equinox, we walked out of the city, hiked up the long steep slope called Windmill Hill, past these iron cutouts of pilgrims from across the ages, and down the other side of the hill whose name equivalent we would see throughout our journey: Matamula, or Mule Killer Hill. We about killed our mules on day one.
Roman bridge in the town of Puente de la Reina

The Spanish word for pilgrim hostel, that economical, communal scenario familiar to youth and elders alike, is albergue. The Camino albergues ran the gamut from bare-bones Spartan to somewhat upscale but their attraction, more than the economy, was the camaraderie. We dined at long tables filled with hungry pilgrims all devouring the same simple meal. We slept in dormitories with upwards of 30 bunkbeds. We enjoyed the stories and the companionship of people from all over the planet. The downside of staying in albergues? The snoring. Unrestrained, exuberant, foghorn-strength snoring, often in stereo. Plus the impossible-to-muffle sounds of early risers rustling their plastic gear into plastic packs. To get some sleep, we learned to alternate between albergues, small b & b's, country inns, and the occasional bigger city hotel.

Unlike the Pacific Crest or the Appalacian Trail, the Camino de Santiago is a village-to-village walk. No need to carry camping equipment or food--everything is available along the way and we just had to walk. And walk. And walk some more. We counted roughly 100 small villages and towns, plus four sizable cities along our route: Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, and Leon.

Even two changes of clothing (one to wear, one to wash) plus your hat, jacket, bathroom kit, sleeping bag, notebook and guidebook ends up weighing 15 pounds, including the backpack. And while that doesn't sound like much weight, after 135 miles of carrying full packs every day, we developed feet and hip issues. So in Burgos we bought smaller daypacks and from that day forward, paid five euros to have our large packs ferried to the next destination. Which made ALL the difference...

The Agony of Da Feet

Feet were a big topic of conversation around the pilgrim dinner table. It was the rare person (like Lis!) who didn't develop bad blisters, particularly early in the journey when your system is toughening up and adjusting to the new reality. However, a Camino-experienced hiker (Dan from Virginia) tipped us to the magic cure for foot problems : Beeks Bahpo Roob. If you went into the pharmacy and asked for Vick's VapoRub, you might get a blank stare. But ask for Beeks Bahpo Roob and you'd walk out with what's good for what ails your feet. Keeps 'em cool and friction-free.

The courtyard at Albergue Casa Magica, just east of Estella
Pretty hard (but not impossible) to get lost on the Camino-- scallop shells and yellow arrows point the way

There are many reasons to hike the Camino. In the Middle Ages, they say half a million people walked every year. For them, the journey was almost certainly religious. By 2016, the still-respectable number of pilgrims was some 300,000. Many still undertake the journey for spiritual purposes, others for physical health, perhaps as many different reasons as there are walkers. Lis and I did it to honor the memory of her Uncle and also to celebrate our 65th birthdays. There's a wonderful documentary called "Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago" that follows the journeys of six different people or groups, all with their different reasons for walking.

The Churches. We could make an entire presentation about the churches in Spain. Every village has an old chapel, most small towns have at least one beautiful church, and the larger cities have several, including a cathedral. All are impeccably clean and nowadays well-maintained. The cathedrals in Burgos and Leon are among the finest Gothic cathedrals in the world. And even the modest churches can be filled with stunning artwork.

The Food. One question often asked, "How was the food on the Camino?" The answer: day to day, not wonderful---pretty heavy on the meat, pretty light on the vegetables, often fried and carbo-loaded. But when you walk 15 miles a day, you'll gladly eat and drink whatever is put in front of you and lose weight in the process. However, for a treat, we learned that if we asked our friendly innkeeper what his or her favorite place was, we could occasionally enjoyed special meals like these:

Food, glorious food
A more typical lunch: olives and tortilla, or a bocadillo and a quick cruise through the Camino guidebook

The Routine. Our days developed a simple, predictable rhythm: get up at dawn, pack the gear, find coffee and a roll (Spaniards are not big breakfast eaters), and start walking. Stop midday for lunch, maybe a bocadillo (sandwich) or a Spanish tortilla and an agua con gas. Walk until mid-afternoon and then check in at the lodging. Wash some clothes. Take a quick snooze. Explore the village. Eat dinner and visit with fellow pilgrims. Make reservations for the next evening. Go to bed. Repeat again tomorrow. A typical day's walk was 15 miles. A short day might be 12 while a marathon was 20+. During each day's journey one might pass through four or five different villages, each of which had at least one bar/cafe and one albergue. With that much choice, we figured hey, we don't need to book lodging ahead of time. That laissez-faire attitude lasted up until what we call The Longest Day: "No room at the inn, senor. No beds anywhere in the village." By the time we limped into the next town, Los Arcos, we'd gone 24 miles.

Lis standing under one of the Roman arcos in Los Arcos, showing no ill effects from the "Longest Day"

The Terrain. Over 34 days, we walked through four different major geographical zones. The Spaniards call their states autonomous communities and we travelled through the communities of Navarre and La Rioja, which were quite hilly, reminiscent of the coastal range in central California and everywhere filled with grape vines and olive groves. Then came Castile y Leon with the Meseta (plateau-table land) in the east and the Tierra del Campo (land of the fields) in the west. The Romans kept their population fed with bread from the wheat grown in this region. And finally, Galicia in the northwest has some pretty steep mountains over which you climb to get to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino roadway manifested in every condition imaginable ---from paved trail to rocky Roman road to muddy forest path to dusty dirt track.

Aside: we joked that the Land of the Fields--that flat, featureless, Kansas-like territory in Castile y Leon through which we tramped for a week during the middle of our journey--might also be called The Land of the Flies. The landscape's ubiquitous inhabitants inspired our poem, The Short Glorious Life of Rodrigo LaMosca.

On the right: Lis with Stick Stickley (Sticky for short)

The Legend of Stick Stickley. We bought hiking poles for this trip because experienced Camino hikers recommended them. Somehow at the last minute, the poles became one too many things to keep track of and got left behind. But the Camino provides and the lore says that your intended walking staff will find you. Sure enough, just west of Burgos, Lis found Sticky, the saviour of her hip. She proceeded to decorate this bamboo-like reed with bits and pieces of colored string, plants, thistles, any found object or natural art supply she found along the way. Knowing the airlines wouldn't allow Sticky on the plane, she fretted over his final resting place. In the end, the perfect destination found her: The wonderful Pilgrim Museum in Santiago de Compostela had a fine display of walking staffs and they gratefully accepted her contribution, which now lives on for all to see.

Sticky, before and after

The Pilgrims. We met folks from all over the world on the Camino--from Spain of course, but also from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, Korea, Japan, Canada and the US. One develops a pretty instant feeling of friendship with your fellow pilgrims based on your shared endeavor. No last names required; "Lisa from Los Angeles" or "Tony from Australia" or "Carmen from La Rioja" (we were known as "Portland") did the trick. And when you part in the end and promise to write, sometimes you even do.

The Spaniards we met were warm, generous, patient and loving with their children, blessed with a sense of humor, and seemed genuinely pleased to share their world with a big gang of outsiders. Two Spaniards in particular stand out for their acts of kindness toward strangers...

We got a bit lost in Logrono and approached a group of older women conversing in the street with the question, in Spanish: Excuse us, please, but where is the main cathedral? One of these ladies took me by the elbow, nodded to Lis and said to both of us, in Spanish, Come with me! For the next 90 minutes this nice lady gave us a near professional-level tour of ALL the major churches in Logrono, including the best, which she saved for last, the church where she was married long ago. After politely declining our offer of lunch, she kissed us each on both cheeks and hurried off to the rest of her day. We never even knew her name so we called her La Guia Roja, the Red Guide.

The second fellow was a stone sculptor with a house, workshop, and spacious garden filled with LARGE works just east of Santiago de Compostela. After his two aged German shepherds caught us admiring the artwork and gave us the scariest Woof they could manage, Jose opened his gates and invited us inside for a tour. I kept thinking, How can I get one of these two-ton beauties back to the States? When we parted, Lis gave him a special heart-shaped stone that she had found on the beach on Cape Cod and carried with her along the entire Camino, looking for just the right recipient. She took this photo of the artist, hammer in hand, which we sent to him with the inscription in Spanish: To Jose with love and thanks from your friends, the American Pilgrims, John and Lis.

La Guia Roja and Jose, the Stone Sculptor
The Iron Cross, the highest point on the Camino. It's literally all downhill from here

The completion of every major journey produces mixed feelings. You're exhilarated to arrive at your destination and disappointed to realize that the adventure is over. When we finally walked into the large square in front of St. James Cathedral in Santiago, we both burst into tears. Mostly of joy. Would we do it again? Sure!

This is a stock photo of the cathedral, which I chose because there was a cleaning and restoration job underway while we were in Santiago and the front of the church was obscured by scaffolding.
St. James

If you haven't done so already, maybe one day you'll walk the Camino de Santiago and experience all this for yourself. Then you can have the pleasure of hearing a complete stranger call out, "Hola! Buen Camino!"

Buen Camino!

Parting shots. Some of our favorites from the journey.

El Fin
Created By
John & Lis Silliman


Photos mostly Lis, occasionally John. Text mostly John, occasionally Lis

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