Dry cardboard leaves and wrinkled skin. It is autumn. The smell of decomposition heralds the beginning of winter, but the azure skies are reminiscent of last year in Spain on the Camino.
These happy memories inevitably lead to sadness, made worse by the season’s proclivities. There are almost no leaves left on the trees and part of me doubts if summer will ever come again.
I feel contentment not happiness as I climb in the silence and contemplate this solitude.
In the distance Swiss flags are flying. Nearby there is dung on the path after last week’s flitting when the cows were brought from the slopes for the winter. Lambing is in progress. I can distinguish now between the different timbres of cattle bells ringing round the mountains, their walls creating a huge singing bowl.
I move between open grassy slopes to dark fir woods where no photos are possible. There is also very steep, carefully managed woodland to the tune of bing bong ben. Underfoot are, variously, beech leaf-piles and phallic cones. I breathe heavily with the effort, my muscles toning and strengthening (so I promise myself) as I strain up and higher.
Blue birdseye to match the sky crouches next to the mini-suns of a dandelion-type flower. It is shorts and T-shirt weather and I come across a mountain cabin with a veranda just for me to bathe on.
Here I meditate and muse for an hour facing away from the sun to warm my kidneys and let the rays shine between my vertebrae. It feels as if I have a back of velvet. I hear axe on wood; a bee busys by my ear and it is easy to imagine it is trying to tell me something. If I lived here what would happen? Would my mind be quiet or is it just that I would be able to hear things which usually the world is too loud for?
But no, other noises disturb my reverie. I am not scared, I only want to know what is in the forest over there. However much I watch nothing is revealed. I settle back. It is so still that an inertia or reluctance to walk has come over me. My skin feels caressed by the breeze.
A wood pecker taps. I see spider skeins in the air made visible by the rays. Far away, wisps of cloud sit in the lap of the mountain. Diagonal ribs of grassy slopes ripple down below an opaque turquoise, which in turn sets the rocky teeth of the horizon into relief.
My eating disturbs the silence but then again so does my tummy rumbling. As if this place is my private domain, I sit in my bra. Last night I dreamt of a conversation with a Border collie, and today I congratulate a mother sheep whose newborn couries doun beside her. This landscape is having an influence!
At 927 metres is the closed Carthusian chapter of Chartreuse La Valsainte, Cerniat. It is fitting that nearby there are silent and solitary monks secluded from the rest of the world.
I spot a pair of the raptors I saw yesterday and when they are further away they do sound like the rare bearded vultures on the internet. They certainly looked like them from a distance.
Eventually the sun leaves my idyllic corner, although the wooden door I lean against remains cosy for ages. I didn’t see a soul though I fancied I heard the odd voice wafting up. Maybe they were spirits, given it is so close to Samhain (31 Oct / 1 Nov: the Gaelic festival where a sort of veil comes down between harvest and winter’s dormancy).
Meanwhile aeroplanes create white crosses looking like cotton wool when you pull the whole length out of the bag.
What grand old trees I move between! I am hot again as I negotiate the steep.
Then I am at the first summit and I know what is there below me: Lake Gruyère. I can identify the town of Bulle, and the 2002 metres of Moléson which I climbed 3 days ago, to the left. I have the urge to run uphill – mountain goat madness.
Soon afterwards I am on Mont Bifé.
Sitting down to manage the vertigo ‘in the pit of my stomach’ I feel waves of sensation in my base chakra. I open up the map and the land is open in front of it. There is a viaduct over the Lac de la Gruyère, a castle or quarry (maybe Verchaux), and a black and white bird suddenly flies past in front of my eyes. There is no wind. It is warm, warm. Harebells dangle, and I smell the odour of wild thyme in bloom.
The ear splitting aircraft is a violation of this landscape.
After this, I wander gently downwards, find a helpful signpost, and start to negotiate more slippery, damp-smelling and slightly treacherous pathways on the Yin side of the mountain facing away from the sun.
I have come over the other side of my morning’s world into a shadier environment with places the width of one foot to walk on as I totter round the edge of precipitous rocks on boards which have been laid there to enable access. Then it is down a steep ladder, through undergrowth and over the many fallen tree trunks, before I come out once again into the open by one of the occassional stone houses which shepherds use in the summer.
Now where do I go from here? There follows an hour or traipsing over and under, through and around, until I finally accept defeat and retrace my steps through the tricky part and back to that signpost. I find this very difficult. I like to move forward from a to b and have never enjoyed going back and starting again.
In fact, the way down is easy once found, and I even meet two friendly women coming up, although their conversation seemed so loud.
I get cold and hurtle on to get my circulation going, arriving some six plus hours later back where I started and ready for a cup of tea.
What to take with you (and more helpful info.) for beginners.
Just to give you an idea of the context: I walked the Camino Francés (Spain) in October/November 2016, two thirds of the camino Via de la Plata / Sanabrés (Spain) in December 2016 and May 2017, and some of the randonnée GR223 (Normandy, France) also in May 2017, so you will deduce that I have walked in temperatures ranging from 20 to 41 degrees, in a relatively small area of Europe. I am under 5 foot tall (1.524 metres) and 7-and-a-half to 8-and-a-half stone (50-55 kilos). Take into account that I am female, just over 50 years old, and pretty fit with no injuries.
The basic recommendation is 10 percent of your weight, but given that many women’s weight varies according to time of month / day etc, and that you will undoubtedly lose weight as you walk, this is just a general guideline. It does not include water (1 to 2 litres depending on the weather and the route), nor food (only snacks are really necessary for a basic 6 hour walking day, except on a Sunday).
What sort of rucksack? I took a 44 kilo one which is easily big enough. Buy the strongest and lightest one you can afford, and you will need a cover for it. (Some people travel with nothing, or a laptop case with a toothbrush, but that’s extremely unusual.)
‘Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The “last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying “way the hell too much food”. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for link to Nimblewill Nomad.
So these are the ‘I absolutely cannot do without’ items:
Boots or shoes: The first time I walked long distance, I wore second hand boy’s boots which a kind friend gave to me because her son had grown out of them. I did have blisters for a week or so, but after that my feet got used to the walking and I was mostly fine. They got very wet very soon after it began to rain, and took a long time to dry.
For my second trip I bought light-weight, waterproof, Columbia shoes, and they were wonderful except that they went into holes after 3 months. Not a blister in sight.
When I went to colder climes, I wore heavy-duty Vibram (with gortex) boots, suitable for snow and big stones. One of the little metal bits on one side, which the lace goes around, broke off on the first day, but I was already many kilometres from the shop and when I phoned they said I had to bring it or send it in, even though I sent a copy of the receipt and a photo. The boots have been supportive and comfortable pretty much from the start, with the right socks (see below).
Foot cream: maybe antiseptic or anti-fungal, but definitely creamy cream is an absolute must. I was taught by my guardian angel of a companion on the Camino Francés to massage my feet every day before putting on my socks and shoes, and to do it again and air them well at night or when I stopped along the way. Vital!
Plasters (for blisters): preferably the special ones for all parts of your feet (heel, toes, balls), and I recommend the brand ones as the others come off after one day. A needle and thread – yes you heard right. Here’s why: thread the cotton through the needle and pierce the blister carefully with the needle. Draw the thread through the blister releasing the fluid (sorry!) and leave it there, removing the needle. Then tie a small knot and it should remain for a few days. The build-up of the fluid is the painful part, and this way that drains away whilst the skin remains almost in tact, allowing a new layer to grow underneath with the minimum of discomfort.
Passport and/or identity card, health card (to get free treatment in the EU, make sure it is up-to-date), and money: you may want one credit or bank card for emergencies (see below). I took a post office money card which, once I had worked out how to do it, I was able to quickly top up on my phone with euros.I also used it in big supermarkets and to pay for things over the phone/by internet like travel tickets. Paypal is also very useful if you have money in your account. Once again you can pay in £s or other currency. There are lots of cash machines on the Camino Francés and some on the other caminos. Banks are tricky because you have to be there when they are open and usually you will be walking during the morning and exhausted / too hot in the afternoon if they are open then, which they are not always.
Money: the Spanish caminos are cheap compared with France: allow 10 euros per night if staying at a hostel; coffee and tea are 1 euro each; the pilgrim menu is 6-10 euros; and supermarkets are basically cheaper than the UK. You will probably visit the supermarket every day as you will not want to carry food unless you have to (except for Sundays when everything is shut), and they are mostly geared to sell you one piece of fruit, one piece of fish, even eggs one at a time (watch the clever way they twist paper to make a carrying flute!).
By comparison France is really pricey, particularly accommodation, with the ‘auberges de jeunesses’ (youth hostels) being the cheapest. The ‘randonnee’ I walked was divided into stages but, in my experience, there were no cheap places to stay at the ends of those stages, not for backpackers.
Useful tip 1: for hostels/hotels make sure you research in advance for France and Norway.
Useful tips 2 and 3: Do not change money at the airport as it is very expensive, so take some currency with you from home. Neither should you use your ordinary bank debit or credit card unless you have checked before you go that you do not have to pay exorbitant charges for withdrawing money or paying in local currency. Many Spanish hostels will only accept cash.
Something to carry your important things in: I had a bum bag and liked it, but when it poured with rain everything got wet. My friend had a thick, flat plastic pouch round his neck, under the outer layer, and that was safe and stayed dry.
A ‘credential’, otherwise known as a pilgrim passport, which you can have stamped at every stop and will then present to the authorities in Santiago de Compostella so you can get your certificate of completion, your ‘compostella’.
A smart phone: I would suggest that you get the best phone you possibly can. One that
fits in your pocket
has as much internet capacity as possible (in the UK see ‘3’ for international packages and beware other companies who offer similar but which are geared to ‘normal’ holidays so are only valid for a month at a time)
has the best camera you can afford (back up your photos eg with Google which is free and easy)
has a torch
has maps (also useful for bus and train times etc)
has lots of space for apps (think guidebook app instead of a heavy Lonely Planet book, or specialist maps, airplane boarding passes, bus and other tickets, booking Bla Bla cars or accommodation, getting you out of trouble, making contact with home (or rescuers, or even new lovers)
has a translation app
has the capacity for writing notes as long as it is backed up (I write notes as I walk because I would not remember if not, but have been known to delete by mistake which is terrible ). You think you will remember everything but you probably won’t and so a notebook and pen or phone version may be invaluable
has Spanish or other language lessons on it eg Duolingo
is ‘big’ enough for downloading a film or book if you want.
A smaller, cheaper, old-style phone: I recommend you also take one of these, especially if you don’t have a contract on your smart phone which allows you to communicate outside your own country. You can buy a SIM card wherever you are and this will enable you to phone or text within that place. Also, if you lose it it isn’t the end of the world. The only problem I encountered was that one shop wanted a local address so my friend who lived there used his which caused problems when I wanted to top up. I suspect this wouldn’t always be the case.
A charger: I have had a great deal of luck with people lending or giving me a spare charger, and not much in buying cheap ones. You can charge your phone at all albergues (hostels) but if it is busy there will be a great deal of competition for the sockets, and although they are often by the beds they can also be in the kitchen or hallway instead. This means that you either need to stand beside the phone or trust that no-one will steal it – I didn’t hear of anyone having their phone stolen.
Useful tip 4: In Madrid you can get phone accessories in vending machines so you do not have to wait for shops to open. The quality seems to be good.
Useful tip 5: Always set a password or pass pattern on your phone so that others cannot open it.
Useful tip 6: You can charge your phone while waiting at bus stations. The sockets are at elbow height in the semi-outdoor parts of the buildings. You can also charge and get wifi on all intercity Spanish buses (eg Alsa).
An adaptor for 2-pin plugs: depending on where you are coming from and are travelling to, there are expensive international adaptors which are good if you are going all around the world, otherwise it is cheaper to get a 3-to-2 pin. You will only need one if you only have one gadget!
A wrap: I would not be without this large pink piece of cloth which doubles as a scarf, something to sit on, something to wear when visiting churches or at the mass in Santiago out of respect, a pillow, a cover-up…invaluable.
A sleeping bag or sheet: it depends on the time of year you will be walking and where. In the summer on the Spanish caminos you will not need a sleeping bag, but do take a sheet bag (I doubled over a single sheet lengthways and sewed the edges together), or buy a silk one. They stop you getting bitten in the hostels and keep you warm in the early hours or if the windows are open. In the late Autumn you will need a proper sleeping bag and if you can afford it, get a light-weight but warm one as they pack very small.
A light-weight travel towel: it dries really easily and is worth investing in if possible.
A torch: a head one is very useful if you walk in the dark, ie you might want to leave before sun-up in summer to avoid the heat of the day, and it leaves your hands free. You might manage with a phone torch to avoid the weight though.
Useful tip 7: You can buy replacement batteries easily, so don’t take them with you from home as they are very heavy. Or you could use an eco- wind-up one.
Camera: one person I know buys a cheap one before every trip so as not to carry a big heavy one or risk losing it or having it stolen. I would rather have one piece of equipment so my preference is to get a phone with the best camera I can afford, but I accept that often real cameras are better quality.
Pockets in my shorts: – one for water, one for phone and toilet paper. If you choose to have a water bottle attached to your rucksack with a tube to souk on, you would have a pocket free (see below). If you wear shorts without pockets, well, you decide, but if you take as many photos as me you will be wanting to have the camera on hand.
Useful tip 8: when you are on the path you will not want to keep taking your rucksack on and off unless you really have to because it is unwieldy. You would have to undo and do up, and then probably readjust all the straps, and you do want your hands free for the baton(s), or to swing your arms to keep the circulation going, or to hold hands with someone special.
Poles, batons or walking sticks: I walked the whole Camino Francés without one. Then I was gifted one and used it for the more tricky terrain of the end of the Via de la Plata / Sanabrés and was very glad to have it. BUT. Then I lost it and although I bought another one for the next trip, I also lost that one. SO…
Useful tip 9: Tie your baton(s) to your rucksack or boots when you stop, and at night so you do not leave them anywhere. I bought a children’s one from Go Outdoors for £5 which was fantastic, but then again, I am very short.
A map or guide book: well, it depends. The Camino Francés is very well signposted and whatever time of year you walk it there will be plenty of other people to help you find your way. Some people use theirs for a record, write notes in it and keep it for posterity. Others ceremoniously tear out the pages each night, as a sign of completion and to lighten their load. It is useful for albergues and other places to stay, and many are very well researched and have lots of interesting information. On the other hand there are also fantastic apps. Or you could wing it. As for the other caminos in Spain or elsewhere, in retrospect I would say get a book or app, but you will manage, especially if you speak some of the local language. People love to help even if they do not really know or understand you, so be prepared to be sent in the wrong direction sometimes!
Your specs and/or contact lenses and cleaning fluids if you use them. Sun glasses (whatever time of year).
2 x knickers or boxers (cotton, easy-dry material)
2 x bras if you wear them – it is nicer not to, many don’t
3 x socks double layer ones come highly recommended but they are expensive. Or wear one lovely soft, easy-dry pair underneath with a second pair on top which won’t need washing every night. You will need others in case your usual ones are still wet in the morning, and another pair if it is cooler in the evenings or for bed.
Useful tip 10: Do not wear wet socks!
1 x easy-dry T shirt and one other light top for evening that doesn’t need ironing and doesn’t crease.
1 x fleece, preferably light but warm with a hood to avoid the need for a warm hat. Note that walking by the coast along a linear walk (eg along the Normandy coast or the Camino del Norte) means that there could be a strong breeze in one ear day after day.
1 x sun hat or cap (it is better to have a hat so that the back of your neck as well as your ears and face are shaded). Also a warm hat if you do not have a hood.
1 x light, easy-wash and -dry trousers if you don’t want to get sun burn, bitten or scratched. 1 x other pair of trousers – not jeans as they are normally heavy and even heavier if wet. A belt because you will get smaller!
Useful info: even if you don’t wear your jeans to walk in, your whole rucksack may get soaking wet and then you will still have to dry them and they take days.
1 x rain trousers and 1 x rain poncho / jacket. Make sure they are not just for light showers because if it rains all day everything will be wet through. Hopefully they will pack up very small.
Gloves: you might not need them but they are very small and light. I did wear them in the mornings in late November / December and once at night.
Useful reminder: if you are arriving by air and planning to take your rucksack on the plane, you can only take 100 ml per tube, bottle or pot, and all that has to fit in one very small plastic bag which seals, about the size of a small freezer bag. This includes all sorts of foodstuffs such as marmite and tahini. Neither can you take sharp things, so this also goes for nail clippers or scissors, pen knife and body hair razor.
You may also want:
a cream for between the buttocks /thighs or in the groin if you are male. All that chaffing…!
Sun tan lotion. Toilet paper or tissues. Toothbrush and toothpaste.
Condoms. The ‘pill’ if you are pre-menopausal and that’s what you usually use.
Hair ties are very small and light and you will probably want to keep your hair off your face if it’s hot.
Panty liners, sanitary towels etc. You can buy certain brands along the way.
Find a joint shampoo / conditioner / soap (there is rarely soap in hostels).
First aid: Antiseptic, sprain and bruise cream. I recommend natural calendula for cuts and rashes which also covers sun burn, and arnica (bruises, bumps), or Rescue Remedy cream for the same as arnica plus bites. Rescue Remedy for emergencies for you and others. Mosquito stuff. Any medications you usually take (order more before you leave home), and bring a repeat prescription just in case.
Utensils and food stuffs: A pan which doubles as a carrying pot, a tupperware for left-overs and freshness (bread, soft fruit, opened packets of biscuits, chocolate which might melt), knife/fork/spoon, salt/pepper/spices, water bottle(s), and green tea bags (obviously!).
Talking about rain, I happened to have a newspaper in the bottom of my rucksack (quite heavy in the scheme of things, but fortuitous) the day it rained and it soaked up the worst, whereas my friend’s things all got very wet.
A carrier bag or a small light rucksack: for shopping/evening or sightseeing when the big one is in the hostel but you still need something.
Notebook and pen: if you are not using your phone, and /or a sketch pad and pencil.
‘Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for Nimblewill Nomad link.
The thing I forgot and wish I hadn’t: a small plastic bottle to fill with delicious Spanish olive oil.
And you will probably be happy to have these with you:
Earplugs. Some dormitories are vast and in busy periods they are therefore noisy.
One of those half circular blow-up cushions for plane / bus / car journeys when you might want to shut your eyes. And some like an eye mask.
Clothes pegs – very light and easy to find little tiny spaces for.
A corkscrew (or just buy screw-top wine and ring-pull beer), and a cup.
A swimming costume – there were several times I wanted one. Even when I remembered it on my second trip, I sent it back and then wished I hadn’t!
Think very carefully if you really need these:
A book or kindle: It depends on you. Both weigh quite a bit and personally I have not read much while on the road or seen others read. Many hostels have shelves of free books which you can pick up, read and then swap for another further along the route.
Please note that I have no experience of tablets or other phone alternatives, but do try to keep the number of appliances to a minimum.
A wrist watch: your phone will probably do, and your tissues / flesh swells as you walk, plus there’s the sun and sweat. I found it was a nuisance.
Same with jewellery, especially rings – they all came off and then had to be stored carefully to make sure they didn’t get lost.
Make-up, hair straighteners, drier etc – I would say unnecessarily bulky and inappropriate but you know your self. If you need these things you might prefer to be in a private hostel as they have more amenitities for a slightly higher price.
1 x long skirt for walking: stops you getting your legs burned but I would recommend that you wear light shorts or boxers underneath. You will have to hitch it up for steep climbing eg Galicia on the Camino Francés.
A coat, jeans, woollen jumper or cardi: they are all heavy and hot (even if the weather isn’t great, you will get very hot when walking), they get sodden and are then extremely hard to dry, plus bulky in the rucksack.
Washing powder or liquid for clothes: you can easily use soap. And a clothes line.
You can send things home relatively cheaply, many people do: I met an English man who had bought his guitar to Spain with him, and he was on the way to the post office to send it home!
Before you go, write down what you know of your itinerary, especially if you will be in the wild or possibly without phone signal. Leave it with someone – just in case something happens and they need to know where you are.
Don’t get attached to your belongings! You will probably leave things in the fridge, or forget them in cafés, or want to swap them for a bottle of wine. They are only things. Walking the caminos can help you with perspective.
Finally, always remember that you will not be very far from shops most of the time. Do some research of your route before you leave, but the caminos in Spain and the randonnées in France are near civilisation, at least every few day, so you can buy most things. You will be surprised what you can do without, source from other walkers, substitute, or find lying around.