After the semi-hellish whirlpool that was the first year of MBA school, I flew to Spain. I had booked the ticket with miles earned from previous adventures in mid-November, cashing in 80K on Delta for a roundtrip MEM-ATL-MAD and back again. I left the day after finals, packing in a rush as I couldn’t wait to get out of Memphis. I needed distance—space—and time away from what had felt like never resolving chaos.
Flying into Madrid overnight and stumbling through customs, I was relieved to see the Spanish everywhere. Though it had been barely two years since my last trip to Malaga, the time in between had felt like a lifetime. After a week resting and reflecting, and spending time with friends in Mijas and Malaga, it was time to officially begin my Camino.
I took the train from Malaga to Pamplona via Madrid, and grabbed a taxi at the train station since I had no idea where I was or where I was going. It took me to the corner of my hotel, but tucked as it was in an old building, I ended up walking all the way around the block before finding it. The good news was it was clean and comfortable, and I dropped my stuff before setting off to find dinner. I decided to spoil myself a bit and ordered what I thought would be like Boeuf Bourgninon-instead it was oxtails (I guess my Spanish was not quite as strong as I thought).
The next day, I took the bus to Saint Jean Port de Pied, the traditional starting location for the Camino Santiago across northern Spain. The beauty surrounding me stole my breath—I was suddenly in the Pyrenees, in a tiny mountain town. I found my hotel, the Villa Harriet, aways up the main road, and was stunned by the beauty of my room. I had splurged intentionally on what I had anticipated being my last night before six days of Camino-ing in the albergues (hostels). My bed was giant and my bathroom lovely. I took two showers in 12 hours because I knew the next rounds would be limited.
I wandered into town where I decided to treat myself once again, enjoying a steak and fries dinner right on the river, with a Sundae for dessert. (My French was better than my Spanish, at least when it came to ordering). I meandered to the grocery store, somehow finding even more small things I thought I needed-snacks and gum, water and more.
When I set out the next day, my pack was quite heavy. I had slept in and taken my time because I was “only walking 8 kilometers” that day. What I had not anticipated is that these eight kilometers were basically straight up hill. A car drive that would’ve taken maybe 30 minutes took me over three hours, and when I finally lumbered into Refuge Orisson, I was exhausted. I questioned my wardrobe, my tenacity, and my ability to do any of what I had said I was planning to do.
But as I settled into my bunk room with a few of my fellow pilgrims, I began to relax. Yes, I was woefully out of shape, but I could send my pack ahead the next day (only 16 km that day, and only 2/3 of them uphill…). We were all in this together and while some of the fierce competition for bunks and spots at the albergues felt unnecessary and outside the spirit of the Buen Camino, the evenings sharing hopes and dreams were magical.
Those connections I made that first night in Orisson—I wish I could have done the whole Camino with them. Instead, I lost track of them en route to Zubiri.
After the hellacious orientation to the Camino the first two days, the third day was mostly downhill. I had not been able to send my pack ahead because I had no spot in Zubiri, and by the time I got there, all the albergues, hotels, and more were full. I wandered the town semi-aimlessly and on the precipice of tears, my feet aching and blistered, my legs feeling crushed under the weight of my pack and my expectations.
I ended up walking into a hostel in tears, asking the lady to call me a taxi to take me to Pamplona, where I booked a hotel room for the three days in between finishing this leg of the Camino and meeting my mom in Sarria. I knew I needed a break if I were going to walk with her, and since that half of the trip was already paid for, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of quitting before I started.
So I settled into Pamplona for three days, where I ate good food, took baths, and binged Outlander. (There is a wonderful Netflix loophole where you can access your account but with European offerings when you are in Europe-which include many premium US offerings).
I got two massages in three days, and eventually made my way back to the bus station where a week before I had departed with such high hopes and dreams. I took the bus to Logrono, where I wandered aimlessly with my giant pack for 8 hours waiting for my midnight train to Sarria.
I had booked first class for this overnight train ride, wanting to arrive as rested as possible before beginning part two of what felt like an ill-fated Camino. This was my first experience in a first class overnight train, and it was luxurious. The bed was big, there were thoughtful touches through the cabin, and I had my own bathroom. I even managed to sleep reasonably well for a few hours. They woke me up before Sarria, and I got ready to go. I found my mom at the train station-so relieved to see her and so happy to be with someone as I continued part two of the journey. I have no doubt I would’ve made amazing friends had I continued the Camino in Zubiri and not skipped ahead to Sarria. But I also learned I managed to do two of the prettier, more rewarding parts of the Camino-and that much in the middle was just flat and sunny-La Meseta.
Part 2-Week 2 coming soon…