Chapter 1: Leaving the Camino Bubble
(then tell me why)
There I was sitting on the couch on the third floor of Albergue Seminario Menor, the largest of Camino de Santiago Albergues. It was my second day resting after my grueling 8-day walk. From here, I had to continue onwards towards my destination, Lithuania. I had two feet, still blistering and painfully walkable and no freaking idea how I was going to travel, now that I wasn’t duty-bound to walk the Camino anymore. To give you some perspective of what it felt like walking with my bags, each step felt like tightly hugging a body builder while wearing a big stone necklace digging into your chest, only for your feet. I needed rest…
I couldn’t stay in that bubble, the only thing people ever talked about there was the Camino de Santiago, “I just finished biking the Sevilla route, I think I’m going to do the Madrid route now. What did you do?” that or, “You should do Fisterra next!” Don’t get me wrong, it was a challenge and I get how invigorating it feels to have finally finished walking/biking/bussing the Camino and you just want to share your hardships and spiritual accomplishments. I couldn’t tell if they were listening to me when I recounted my tales, frankly, when they talked I was too busy thinking what I was gonna share next.
Though I knew I had a guaranteed pretty route if I did the Fisterra route, I knew I wasn’t in walking condition, Second, I had to go another direction, one that wasn’t in the opposite direction of Lithuania. What percentage of my peers actually break off of the Camino to do their own Camino? Every single person I met on the Camino thus far was there to walk the Camino and fly home. Maybe no one goes to the Galician coast line just north of Santiago de Compostela. “That’s it!” My next destination will be A Coruña directly north of Santiago de Compostela right on the coast!
Planning for the Unknown
Since I brought everything with me on my 8-day walk, I had all of my electronics and my camping gear, I was free to break off of the established path. While searching for a way up there, I found the trains unbelievably affordable compared to the Amtrak monopoly in the United States. For around 5 euros, a train, in 30 minutes, could take me 2-3 days walking distance. Furthermore, I was too timid to commit myself to wild camping in a country I’d only been in for six days, so I booked the cheapest €18 hole-in-wall hotel I could find at Hostal Hotil. I didn’t have the balls or the budget to come to a new place without security knowing where I’d sleep, my feet hurt like f**k!
That Sunday evening I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I have until tomorrow to figure out where I’ll sleep next. I knew I couldn’t keep up this way of traveling with the €25 euro/day budget I carved out for myself. The last time I set off on such a journey was a year ago in Ukraine, I set out like an ant exploring for food in any diven direction. As exhilarating and affordable it was to roam through Ukraine, it ended with most of my stuff getting stolen out of my tent due to naïvety and carelessness. That was Eastern Europe, you could wild camp wherever your heart desired, you just had to keep an eye on it, and this was Western Europe, aka more rules. The last thing I wanted was to cough up a hefty fine for doing something illegal, furthermore, Spain is one of those countries with very fuzzy laws on wild camping. I decided I would ease myself into this uncertain form of travel, like a frightened Guinea Pig slowly entering cold water.
I packed my belongings into my backpack and stuffed it into the unlocked locker beside my cot. Previously in the day, two dormmates invited me to dinner later on. Seeing as a lone traveling man usually doesn’t have plans, I agreed and there we met to go out. We convinced a Chinese student lying in the cot between us to come along, and off we went!
If you’ve never been to Santiago de Compostela, It’s a magnificent city in terms of architecture. The cobbled streets and medievalesque stone architecture give it a grandiose feel and the sunsets those two nights in early May were majestic. The streets crawl with tourists and pilgrims alike, like a Charlotte’s Web festivity with all of the neighborhood’s pigs, ducks and sheep raucously stumbling around. Right now, I’m one of those sheep, a hungry one hobbling around with two bad feet in sandals that haven’t been broken in…
We found our way to the much-recommended Casa Manolo to learn that it’s closed on Sundays… Instead, we settled on the nearest paella serving restaurant in the vicinity. We were four: a Chinese, German, American, and Dutch and our conversations were light, Camino themed and just as unmemorable as the mediocre paella we were served. I ungratefully paid the rude waitress €10 then while walking back tried to forget I ever went there.
The golden rays of the sun were descending behind the last structure of the city as we reached the top of the hill from where our Albergue overlooked the city. I was relieved to finish my ~230-kilometer walk from Porto but the real voyage was about to begin. I returned to the large room where my cot was and spent my last waking minutes packing everything into both of my bags because everyone gets kicked out of the rooms at 11 tomorrow and my train leaves at 12:30, no stress, no stress…
Ear plugs in, sleeping mask on, 5-minutes in, I’m asleep…
Monday, May 8th
The next morning I woke up to the familiar sound of bags ruffling and zipping along with the quiet murmur of pilgrim’s voices through my achy plugged ears. I hate having to wear these things but ever since living with my snoring college roommate, to whom I had to yell Carajo Jose! Cajate la boca! (God Damnit Jose, shut the hell up!), I realized I would have to take matters in my own hands if I wanted real sleep.
I got up, packed my sleeping bag and made my way down to the mess hall in the basement. I scrambled together all the food I had: pasta, garlic, and onions and quickly devoured it while anxiously looking at the time every couple of minutes (I get anxious when I have to be somewhere at a certain time). Even after eating, both of my backpacks are exploding at the seams with everything I own (I know that bringing a glass bottle of olive oil is extra weight, but I’m stubborn…)
The train station was roughly a kilometer’s walk away. Uncomfortable, but nothing to complain home about. Owing to my anxiety of being late, I end up at the train station a half hour early. I’ve never ridden a train or bus in any of these countries, I don’t know what I’m worried might happen, it’s not like the train will come and leave before schedule.
The train arrived a few minutes late. I seized both of my bags off the queue and tossed the bigger one in the first open spot and I parked my butt half way up the train car so I’d have some people to watch, as well as a window view. Once the train started moving, I was enthralled, an analog display on the ceiling of train displayed the accelerating velocity as it plateaued around 154 kilometers/hour. To think, this train was covering a day’s worth of walking in just over ten minutes! Looking out the window, the changing landscape all but resembled the tortoise like transition as when I walked; this view more resembled an ever changed Monet painting of yellow, green and sky blue streaks that darted across the canvas. I’d be there in no time!
I walked out of the train station and into a scorching summer day in Galicia’s second largest city. A Coruña felt different from the previous Spanish cities I visited. For one it was bustling with cheap produce being sold on every street of these concrete neighborhoods that stood between me and the intriguing boomerang shaped peninsula I was going to. Second it wasn’t plastered with pilgrims!
Right now was not only vacation for me but a time to educate myself, on wine. I purchased a local bottle of Robalino red wine and canned tuna and I managed to cram them in my bags and I move on. I crossed through a park that divided two neighborhoods of the city; the fresh produce stands were less abundant in comparison to the chain stores and higher end restaurants. Yup, this was the center.
A half hour after leaving the train station I find myself outside of the entrance of Hostal Hotil, only problem was that it didn’t open for another hour. Feet already aching, I made my way towards the port closest to the hotel where I found a bench under the sun and I munched down on the surplus of poor-man’s-food I had with me. I was curious to observe the little differences in the way these cities existed. I noticed a lot of bikers stopping by a miniature stationary bike repair workshop to the right of me, basically, a metal stand with a plethora of hand held tools connected by a long metal wire that anyone could use. Otherwise, this place felt like Spain, as far as I knew what Spain was, a more Westernized version of Portugal.
I killed that hour munching on bread, olive oil and the left over pasta I had packed in a tupper ware and I people watched. Finally I got access to my room where I could drop my big bag off and explore in sandals.
Then I was off!
From the outset, it was obvious that A Coruña was a major port town. I returned towards where I ate and started on my stroll up the coast on the Paseo Marítimo, Europe’s longest promenade covering 13 kilometers (8 miles) around the entire peninsula.
I made my way past the fancy hotels that I would never see the insides of, and the fountains and castle that juxtaposed each other as I made my way towards the tip of the peninsula. On I walked, past the locals jogging their daily distance, past the visitors clicking their cameras and past the brave souls swimming in the cold waters below. In the distance I could see where I was going.
What originally caught my eye on the map when I decided on A Coruña was a tower and an unfamiliar rocky coastline. Naïve as I was, I considered trying to wild camp on the park grounds around this tower (it was green on Google Maps). Thank god I didn’t…
What I saw, upon reaching the hilly meadow, was intriguing. The coastline was an organic mishmash of rocky formations, endlessly battered by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. I glared enviously at the joggers who lived close enough to run past the crisscrossing pathways dissecting this strange plot of land. Perched atop the rocky hill was the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use, the Tower of Hercules. I didn’t come this far to admire it from the outside, I had to go in!
The Tower of Hercules was built in the second century AD, possibly by emperor Trajan and it is thought to have been modeled after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. One of the myths surrounding this tower is of the hero Hercules, who slew the giant tyrant Geryon after three days and three nights of continuous battle. Hercules then—in a Celtic gesture— buried the head of Geryon with his weapons and ordered that a city be built on the site. The lighthouse atop a skull and crossbones representing the buried head of Hercules’ slain enemy appears in the coat-of-arms of the city of A Coruña. (Wikipedia)
The tower is a UNESCO heritage site and museum. Stairways lead upwards to the top of this 55-meter tower, while it is believed in Roman times, ramps predated the stairs (I find that hard to imagine, walking on an incline up a tower, how steep were these ramps, how many times did it wrap around the tower?) The inside of the tower was a continuation of its outside facade, stones on top of stones on top of stones. Once above the subterranean level of the light house, the rooms were bare, save for some signs and descriptions. My mind was conceiving possible scenarios, ancient A Coruña natives spotting foreign invaders sailing upon their shores from atop this tower. This tower has seen things…
“Wait a second! Isn’t this the coastline they were talking about in Fisterra?”
I didn’t know what I was missing by not doing the last Camino de Santiago route to the place where St. James’ bones, something or other, arrived from somewhere, something something Santiago de Compostela. I don’t claim to know the story of Camino de Santiago, nor did I care, I just wanted to see something. So far since leaving the States to start this journey, I had spent 7 days in the Azores Islands, 2 nights in both Porto and Santiago de Compostela and 8 days walking the Camino and somehow it was only now that I felt like I was starting my journey!
Camino de Marius©
It was there I decided on the next leg of my journey. I would travel along the northern coastline alongside these mountains that skirt up against the ocean. From here on I would give myself a guilt free conscience to not only walk but to train, bus and hitchhike to reach my destination. I didn’t have the time to walk all three-thousand plus miles, I had a festival to be in by August. I told myself, “As long as I cover at least 50 miles per day in the right direction, that’s good enough for now” I kept my Camino de Santiago passport which I would attempt to use at Albergue’s along the way to stay for cheap and I would try to see as much of northern Spain for as little money as possible. I want to live and travel like this for as long as I can afford it, or until I get bored!
I walked over 12 kilometers around A Coruña in sandals that day. I got back to my monotone tan colored hotel room which felt isolated from the busy streets outside. The only outside noise I could hear was the humming of the air conditioner outside my window, which overlooked a closed off roofless shaft between neighboring buildings. “Best I cover the window, nothing to be seen out there…”
I opened my wine bottle, rested my body on the bed and started tasting. I would taste, but not drink. For one of my New Years resolutions, I gave up getting drunk; the last hangover I got last November was a strong reminder why I made that decision. That way I could maintain my alcohol tastings as just that. That’s not to say I didn’t get tipsy off that red wine as I lay in my room procrastinating on Wikipedia instead of figuring out where I was going to sleep the next day.
Night time rolled around and eventually, I did start planning forward. Looking on the map I could see that I was on the far opposite side of the large bay which I had to circumnavigate if I wanted to get on course. Secondly, I was still in no condition to walk with all my gear; I could walk a few sporadic kilometers to-and-from the stations but nothing more.
This is where I started getting queasy and nervous. The map was telling me I had to go to Ferrol. I had waited until night to start looking for a place to sleep the following night. There was not enough for me to see here another full day, I decided I would brave the buses of Spain. I booked a room at a surfing hostel, on the coast north of Ferrol. Assuming I could find my way to Ferrol, there was only one bus that could take me the 11 kilometers from Ferrol to the hostel. “Hope I arrive tomorrow!”