On the road to the end of the world

Holidays are for resting, right? Or maybe not…

 

There are some holidays that are for resting the body or the mind and there are others that are, well, not. I’m just back from a walking holiday with daughter two. We are not what I would call natural walking holiday material, but this was different. We were on the Camino – the ancient pilgrimage that runs from France through Spain and to Portugal. I opted for a short chunk of it – do-able in less than a week – and the bit from Santiago de Compostela to Fisterra – the end of the world [medieval pilgrims thought they had actually come to the world’s end] appealed with its beautiful views, its name and its history. It is the place where the souls ascend to the heavens on Spain’s Costa de Muerte [the Coast of Death]. It seemed appropriate as we were doing the walk for daughter one, although she is possibly one of the least likely people to choose a walking holiday [unless it is at night].

I confess that I didn’t really look too closely at the map. Four days of walking solidly. How hard can that be, I thought. Ha! Firstly, daughter two and I are not the best at directions and couldn’t find the start, despite having located it the night before, adding at least 1-2 kms to the walk [and kms count when you have to do 89 of them]. We set off in the bright sunshine, kitted out in walking boots [I borrowed my mum’s]. Daughter two looked very professional. She found a stick to walk with and greeted everyone with a ‘buen camino’. It has to be said that the first part was mainly downhill or flat through a beautiful forest by a river. As we started going uphill, a half naked man in his 60s or more ran past us uphill. He came jogging back later when we were not much further forward, making us feel slightly inadequate.

A difficult top

On the map it looked as if there were several villages to stop at if we needed to. Except…they were basically two houses and a security system. No cafes or handy corner shops. No problem. We hiked on. The countryside was beautiful and we chatted away. We came to a cafe about three hours in and had a drink, thinking we could get lunch at the next one. Only there wasn’t a next one. Instead the road went down, down, down and then, as with all things that go down, down, down, it went up, up, up. It was possibly the hottest part of the day. The map spoke about ‘a difficult top’. We paced ourselves, stopping many times as we headed up. Two French women passed us on the way down and made hand gestures suggesting there was a long way to go. “Courage”, they said. It didn’t sound promising. Still, the map looked as if there was a village at the top and we could stop there and admire the view. In fact there was nothing to mark the difficult top. Nevertheless, daughter two found a fountain and started doing a K-pop dance to celebrate. Fortunately, we had some fruit and nuts from the breakfast stowed in our backpack and an oat bar.

The road down was great, past all the houses with horreos [little huts on stilts with crosses on them where people used to store vegetables and grain to keep it dry] through a few more villages. It was not until the next day that we discovered that downhill is actually more problematic than uphill.

Several kms later we were flagging, but momentarily buoyed by a beautiful bridge and the site of a few frogs and an otter. We almost crawled into the small town where we were staying, but no-one seemed to know where the place was. It is safe to say that we were nearly at the point of collapse at this juncture. Daughter two decided to try Google maps which she is not totally confident in using [mainly because we all rely on daughter three for Google maps]. We went round in  circles for a bit, but eventually found the hotel in a cul-de-sac at the end of a long road. We fell onto the beds and had baguette and hummus for lunch and dinner [daughter two is a committed vegan, not recommended in small country villages] while I tried to get the teens at home to pick up, a challenging task even though I know they are absolutely welded to their phones 24/7. I rang my partner instead, who was holding the fort, which was slightly more of a job than anticipated, given the carpenter was coming to attach a door and a shelf and hit a major electricity wire in the process, the sink was blocked, the toilet wasn’t working and the electricity and water had gone off the night before we left. He sounded remarkably upbeat.

Cows and lentils

The next day we could barely walk – even hobbling to the toilet was painful. This did not bode well as officially we had 31kms ahead of us. It had said in the guide that you could cut out the first 10kms of the next day [all uphill] and get a taxi. If it was in the guide, we figured, it wasn’t exactly cheating. We got a cab. The taxi driver said many pilgrims got cabs so we felt slightly better, even though we had been lapped several times the day before, mainly by pilgrims in their 60s or 70s. Day two was fairly painful, especially the downhill bits. We went past a lot of cows. Daughter two was impressed to find a BTS sign in a disused farmhouse up a remote hillside. The road after the farms was like the yellow brick road, but longer and it didn’t go to the Emerald City. We’d bought lentils in a can and other provisions. The low point of the day came when the ring pull for the lentils can broke. Daughter two nearly cried. We fantasised about Costa Coffee or even a Tesco Express and castigated ourselves for being out and out capitalists.

We eventually arrived at the hostel where we were staying which was full of 15 year olds on a field trip. Daughter two had some chips – the only thing on the menu she could eat. The bedroom was up some stairs. It felt like we were climbing Everest, very, very, very slowly.

Vakner

Day three began really well. Our legs had improved overnight. I had googled effective techniques for leg pain and slept with my legs on a pillow to elevate them as recommended. We spotted an icy water hole and daughter two went in for about 30 seconds. Shortly after it began to rain. Daughter two had brought a rain coat without a hood. I swapped with her and wore a cap. We passed lots of pensioners in full length cagoules with walking sticks who looked at us sympathetically. A rather terrifying tourism poster announced we were in the territory of Vakner, a mythical beast. Daughter two proclaimed it the worst day ever – she wanted to be eaten by Vakner, she said.  I speculated about calling the emergency number in the guide. Perhaps Miguel, our emergency contact, could helicopter in and rescue us? I told daughter two that if she does become a famous actress she should definitely not volunteer for a Bear Grylls type programme.

Then the sun came out, Vakner didn’t attack us and we found a bowl of fruit someone had left en route with a jar for donations. Up to that point daughter two had eaten only lentils [this time in a jar and apparently even less tasty] and some nuts. We headed down a steep descent into a coastal village. We passed a supermarket on the other side of the road, but were too tired to cross it. Then the hotel loomed and it had the words ‘pizzeria’ under the flag. Was it a mirage? I checked with daughter two. No. It definitely said pizzeria. The room also had a bath and, praise the Lord, a bidet. We cried, had a bath and then a pizza. Things were looking up.

Vegan cafe

The next day, amid forecasts of storms, we headed out and overtook an elderly German couple. We scaled the hill behind the hotel with no pain. We were becoming professional walkers. The last day was full of beautiful views of the coast and rocky beaches. It didn’t rain either. We reached the end of the world and it was full of hippies and lo, at the top of the hill, there was a vegan cafe. Daughter two had a massive burger. We went to the beach and she went in up to her knees. By evening it had started to rain, but we were in the hotel by then. The next day we jumped up to get the bus back to Santiago, to have a last look at the view and to dedicate our walk to daughter one with all our love.

It was a hugely emotional adventure which we will remember always and daughter two is already talking about doing it again [with more oat bars]. The only problem is no-one else seems to want to come – daughter three can’t come due to A Levels; only son refuses point blank due to the lack of wifi which for me was a bonus and my partner said he would only come if he could sit in a cafe in Santiago de Compostela until we got back. All our stories and maps don’t seem to be convincing anyone. You really just had to be there.



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