The Beginning: The Camino de Santiago de Compostela

30 03 2018

Training walk on Nantucket

After many years of thought about it, many weeks and months of planning it is finally the eve of my first  Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

It was rough leaving Nantucket.  I had so much to do, preparation of tax documentation to leave with an accountant, piles of receipts, Airbnb preparation for the 2018 season and of course prep for the 2018 season at my snack bar, The Hungry Minnow (cleaning, preparing for the inspections, getting a sign made…), oh and also explaining to my boss (for the beverage sales job I have) that I’m not going to be around for five weeks before the kick off of the season and trying to explain why it will be fine.  Add to that last week’s special events at the Nantucket Historical Association, setup and prep for “There and Back” a visit of 120 3rd graders to the whaling museum.  I taught 60 third graders (15 at a time for four times and four modules for two days) 1. How to speak Portuguese 2. How to play ukulele 3. How to coil rope.  Oh yeah and I had to learn ukulele last week and sea shanties?!  OMG talk about stress.  And I almost forgot I was a contestant in the Nantucket’s Got Talent show, after auditioning I was selected to perform and attended rehearsal, sound check and then performed and sang my original song  “Gotta Go To Sea” on guitar to 300 people!  At the end I got super emotional and actually had a catharsis and burst out crying.  Such a good release of energy though as I was under an incredible amount of stress over the last few weeks.

Although I’d done many practice hikes I didn’t have time for as many recently due to the incredible number of nor’easters we got.  Yet I do feel somewhat prepared for the task.  The last day on the island was spent hurriedly throwing things in boxes, meeting with our tax attorney at the very last minute 7:45am the day I was set to leave, and finally coming to terms that everything I needed to get done before a 40 day journey was just NOT going to get accomplished.  Contingency plans were made and it will all be ok.

At the last minute the bag I had packed, whose contents I’d weighed and re-weighed, repacked over and over again went on its way with what was inside, I found very little lacking but also a few extra “stow-away” items (tequila horn for example) that I’d basically forgotten were placed near the bag.  But I left the island not entirely sure what was in the only thing on my back for the next few weeks. I was also so confused to not be lugging around my usual computer bag, purse, suitcase.  On the way to the ferry I ran into my friend Amy Zielinski just driving past B-ACK Yard BBQ likely on another mission but for me I felt like she was there to keep my anxiety in check.  On the ferry it was William from the talent show who gave me a warm high five and Suzanne Keating from whom I’ve taken astrology classes who gave my her homeopathic Arnica just in case of bruising.  Bith also gave me hugs and he reassurance that I’d be ok.  As Suzanne said, “Don’t freak out!”, because she could see I was!  Tears were basically streaming down my face the entire morning.  Off the ferry it was so easy to hit the road with only a pack, no waiting on luggage.  I ran into Sean who I work with at the whaling museum returning from the transportation center to catch the ferry.  Got a hug and noted his TSA had busted his backpack on his return from Iceland. The jaunt to the bus at the transportation center was so easy with just the pack and then I was on the way to Logan.

Checking in since I wasn’t checking any luggage was a breeze and I didn’t even need to  remove the liquids from all the corners of my bag.  I grabbed a crab cake at Legal Sea Food and some beers at Stephanie’s and then at the gate we were treated to blue and green frosted cupcakes.  Turns out the reason this flight was so cheap ($159 one way direct Boston to Barcelona) was because it was the inaugural flight of Iberia’s Level airline.  On board it was super bare bones.  No luggage allowed other than carry on (or else you get a hefty fee) and not even a water (be sure to bring your own water and snacks!). Luckily I was exhausted.  They did have free movies so I saw about 5 minutes of Wonder before I was out.  I slept about two hours the night before.  I didn’t think the kid looked that different anyway.  

Upon arrival my seat mate told me about the easy train transfer into the Barcelona and I was able to navigate the Metro system, just one transfer to make it to the Sagrada Familia. There I met my walking partner Suzy who had already been touring Barcelona for a few days.  Her sister Elizabeth had the foresight and generosity to book us on a guided tour of the magnificent church.  We were lucky since my seat mate on the plane had said it was sold out, it is Easter week aka Semana Santa, a huge holiday in Spain. We were outfitted with headsets not for translation but because there are so many people around and so many tours concurrently. 

Work still continues on this incredible building today based on sketches left by architect and visionary Gaudi.  They hope to have the remaining third facade done in the next 9 years.  The front facade where you enter depicts Jesus’ birth.  The natural life is featured and the entire facade is divided into three by two columns held up by stone turtles… a sea turtle on the side towards the Mediterranean and a land tortoise on the side towards the mountain. The detail is incredible. 

Upon entering the church you’re immediately struck by the incredible height and lift of the room.  Silvery and reflecting natural light the ceiling soars, an ethereal canopy supported by grand columns that narrow at the top and burst into branches at their apex.  Our guide explained that the columns are made of varying materials based on the load each bore. Sandstone for the smaller ones, then granite and finally porphyr for the four huge main columns that support the entire structure.  One you can pull yourself away from the ceiling you realize that you are bathed in the glow of a rainbow of stained glass infused light.  As you get deeper into the church you’ll also see the two main sides of the stained glass are distinct.  The side that receives the morning sun is all gradations of cool blues and greens while the opposite sunset side evokes the warmer yellow, orange and red warm hues. Rather than depict the saints visually their names are written within the panes.  Above two balconies are perched on both sides to hold 800 choir members so that their voices lift from the upper areas of the church.  The spires being created are planned to produce music that can be heard from around the cathedral.  The shapes and designs within the building seem whimsical yet evoke the intricate geometry and mathematical patterns found in nature, then each unique design element is linked to the story of Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection.  It was not lost on me how special it was to visit on Holy Week.  

We exited from the side opposite the entrance to see the side depicting Christ’s death.  Thematically and appropriately it’s distinctly somber with almost garish brutally edged figures depicting his betrayal, torture and crucifixion.  The juxtaposition is striking. 
We also visited the museum beneath and saw how Gaudi used small bags of weights and mirrors to model his architectural plans and a lab where today 3D printers print state of the art building models that accelerated greatly the speed of the project.  To think he was able to create a structure so incredible without the benefit of present day technology that uses forms found in nature in a revolutionary way speaks to the incredible vision Gaudi had.  Considering his dedication to the project towards the end of his life suggests he must have had the inspiration of the spirit to be able to relay the story of the Sagrada Famiglia in this medium.  

For a fascinating read go to
I honestly could have spent many more hours exploring after the tour, but I had my pack on and I was starving so Suzy and I walked a few blocks and found a cute cafe where a salad or first course plus a main and a drink or dessert was 7 euros.  And by drink, beer was an option!  I had a chickpea tomato tuna salad and a breaded hamburger with cheese and bacon.  Totally solid.  We went back to the apartment Suzy’s sister had gotten to clean up and relax then headed to a Carrefour supermarket to grab some premise salads, lomo and jamon Iberico and we had a “picnic” with wine and Moroccan olives and olive oil Suzy had brought from home.  Off to bed early that night. 

Early in the morning a cab zipped us to the train station where I grabbed a coffee and juice and soon we were onboard a very clean and comfortable train to Pamplona the bathroom was nicer than any airplane bathroom I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t normally even consider a train bathroom! In Pamplona we grabbed another  cab to the bus terminal and then a long wait with a few beers for the bus to the starting point in France, St. Jean Pied de Port.  

The ride was not too long and the scenery was stunning.  Steep switchbacks up the mountain range and the sight of snow in little shady valleys near the peaks made my heart flutter a bit faster as we continued to climb, because the first part of our journey crosses these mountains, the Pyrenees, back through Pamplona.  

St. Jean Pied de Port is a charming town and luckily a little less observant of today’s Good Friday holiday.  While everything in Pamplona was shuttered, SJPP was bustling with tourists and pilgrims alike.  We went through a medieval arch and towards the left up a steep cobbled road to the Pilgrim office where we were greeted and our name and origin were logged.  For 2 Euros donation we received our pilgrim passports that we get stamped along the way.  Suzy waited midway because she had an enormous bag that happened to be filled with our provision (olives and snacks), wine and even a guitar.  She’s on a longer journey than I am, eight months of travel from home.  We arranged for a service that will take her pack in the morning to our next destination, Valcarlos. Meanwhile my pack, despite all the obsessive weighing and logging is about 21 lbs, but yesterday was sunny and warm and I wasn’t wearing the heavier items.  

We checked into our hotel, La Villa Esponda, a very nice, clean private 2 bedroom, we wanted to ease into our pilgrim lifestyle with some creature comforts being that this entire thing is somewhat out of our wheelhouse.  After a regroup it was off to explore and find me some poles, it’s been super wet and rain is in the forecast so with my heavy pack it seemed a good plan, but most of the stores were already closed. I figured I could find some sticks.  We grabbed some sanglier (wild boar) saucisson and some spiced sardines and a local cows milk cheese for another in room pilgrim “picnic” and took a jaunt up the ramparts of the town to the top Citadel.  

Surrounded by a moat it has stunning views of the countryside but as we discovered you’re not meant to enter the courtyard which is now a college (we were scolded).  As the sun started to wane we saw some clouds building and a breeze starting and headed back through the town where we noticed a store we’d walked right past upon arrival!  And there they were the poles I wanted.  I splurged for the ones that can fold to fit in my pack and are very light weight.  They help propel you forward and take a lot of strain off your body.  The shopkeeper gave me a demo and added on the mud attachments and I was set.  This store by the way is the REI of SJPP, the have a ton of great equipment that I already had and they’re open 6am to 8pm!  

As we walked through town I was slightly jealous as I saw a group of pilgrims gathering for wine and a meal in an auberge setting, they looked super comfortable with thoughtful details like old hiking boots filled with flowers hanging over the window.  Just two doors down there was a very different display, two mannequins dressed as old style pilgrims atop green AstroTurf with blinking Christmas lights.  There’s really a unique experience available no matter what you’re looking for…

We grabbed a beer and a cider at a cafe down the way from our hotel where the barkeep was also bussing and waiting tables like a champ.  It seemed busy and it’s just the start of the season, I cannot imagine the mayhem in August!  Despite being deep in the weeds, he was handling it in stride and with poise and happened  to speak many many languages.  You find that signs here are both in French and Basque and of course Spain is not far away at all, add all the tourists and it’s a cacophony of languages in this town. We bought a bottle of Irouleguy rouge since it’s from the area, only 10 minutes away!

Our in room picnic was delicious and satisfying and we laid out our clothes on expectation of a cold (40F) rainy day.  We opted to take an extra day on this leg since the weather is still unpredictable and many people tend to overdo it in the early stages.  It’s only 6.8 miles but the elevation gain is 3248 feet. The main pass to Roncevalles is closed, snow predicted today, it is prohibited so pilgrims who walk it do so at their own risk.  Seems the municipalities can no longer afford expensive pilgrim rescues from that route.  I started this blog after a luxurious hot shower and then slept a bit only to wake dying to finish it.  It’s like Christmas Eve.  I am so excited to open up the gifts I know are waiting for me.  Wish me luck, soon I’ll be officially on my Camino as I take my first steps out the gate of this town and on my Way.