It was my second to last day of walking in Spain when everything changed. I’m not sure what happened; I think it was the moment I decided what the Camino experience was going to be like for me, when I said: “It’s just a really solo walk. Not about connection and families and friendship, it’s about me.” That’s when the Camino showed up and responded with, “What have I tried to tell you, time and time again, Nadine? You’ll never walk alone.”
I suppose I helped determine my own path a bit, in addition to whatever Camino magic was happening in those last days. On the morning of my 8th day of walking, when I left Baamonde, I stopped in the bar just around the corner from my albergue for a cafe con leche and a croissant. As I got ready to leave, I saw a girl sitting alone at a table near the door; I’d noticed her the night before, as well, sitting alone on a couch and reading.
When I passed her I paused, and then stopped and introduced myself. Her name was Natalie, and she was from Belgium. We chatted for a minute, talking about where we were going that day, and when I moved towards the door to leave she said, “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you soon.”
She was right. I walked alone for the first 7km of the day and then stopped in a bar for a second breakfast. It was the first place you could stop on that day’s walk so there were lots of other pilgrims there, as well, and the place was actually like a little pilgrim haven: it was attached to a new, private albergue and was filled with pilgrim paraphernalia. The owners were friendly and welcoming and I was immediately comfortable. Natalie walked in about 15 minutes after me and we shared a table- she chatted with some other pilgrims she knew and introduced me, and suddenly, I didn’t feel different or isolated, not like I had the night before. Here, I was a pilgrim like everyone else, and suddenly- for one of the first times since I’d been on the Camino this year- it seemed easy to talk with people, easy to fit in. I felt part of something and not separate, like I was doing this on my own.
Natalie left the bar a bit before me but once I started walking I caught up to her, and then we walked together. At first I hesitated; this was the first time I had walked with anyone on my trip, and initially I was resistant to it. But it was a short day- only 15 km to Miraz and the albergue I’d heard so many good things about- and already the day was half done. Natalie was planning on staying in the same albergue as me, and so we walked the rest of the way together.
And it was great. It still surprises me when I can meet someone who I almost instantly feel comfortable around, someone similar to me even though they’re from a different part of the world. We discovered that we had near identical beliefs about how we wanted to walk our Caminos: connecting with others when it felt right, but always going our own way and following our instincts, which often meant walking alone and not sticking with a group.
Because the day’s walk was so short, it, almost strangely, felt like a rest day to me. I had been walking really long days (and the shorter days I walked when I was sick felt like they would never end), so it was a treat to be feeling good and only walking 15km. Natalie and I both didn’t want to rush to Miraz to ensure we got a bed in the albergue we wanted to stay in; I’d decided days ago that I wasn’t going to stress about where I would sleep, and I liked that Natalie had the same view. So we took our time, or maybe the Camino encouraged us to take our time.
Our first stop happened when we passed by a house with intricate carvings in the stone wall out front. We heard music blaring from the lawn and a bright yellow arrow pointed the way through an open gate.
“Should we go in?” Natalie asked.
I looked at her and nodded. “I think we have to at least check it out.”
It was the home of Francisco Chacon, a stone sculptor with a studio in a garage attached to the side of his house. He was working when we wandered in, but put his tools down and came over to talk. Natalie could speak some Spanish so mostly I just listened to their conversation, doing my best to try to understand what I could and communicating my appreciation for his work.
Examples of it were everywhere: in the stones under our feet, covering the walls of his house, designs carved into columns, small figures lined up on table tops. He took us inside his home to show us more, and then back outside to give us stamps for our credentials- hot orange wax dripped onto our pilgrim passports and stamped with his seal.
We walked away, grinning and chattering about how happy we were that we’d made the decision to poke our heads inside. We kept walking, but it seemed as though every 10 minutes we stopped. First a man flagged us down, just wanting to say hi and ask how we were doing, then an older woman who heard Natalie’s French accent and wanted to tell us all about the 4 years she lived in France when she was in her 20’s.
Then we saw a deer bound across the road, then we passed a few pilgrims that Natalie knew. Before we knew it we had arrived in Miraz- it was noon, and the albergue didn’t open until 3:00. We joined a few other pilgrims who were seated outside the entrance, and I was pleased to recognize them all. Two Spanish boys I’d met in the kitchen the night before, Michael, the Swiss lawyer who I’d had coffee with several days before (it turns out that he had been in the hospital for a day with stomach issues!), and Silvia, an Italian girl about my age who I’d first seen in the albergue in Gontan, and again the night before in Baamonde.
Since we were so early, Natalie, Michael, Silvia and I decided to walk to the next village to have lunch, so we left our bags propped up against the albergue wall and sauntered out of the village. Our lunch was wonderful- caldo gallego (a white bean soup that’s a specialty of Galicia), roasted chicken and rice, ice cream and wine and bread. We took our time eating and made it back about 30 minutes before the albergue opened.
And once the albergue did open, I realized why it had been recommended to me. It’s a simple place- there’s nothing fancy about it- but instantly I was comfortable. It’s run by the Confraternity of Saint James, which is a UK-based charity that helps promote the Camino, and the hospitaleros were warm and kind and soon as we walked in. The albergue is donativo and they provide breakfast in the morning, and tea or coffee any time we liked. The kitchen was large, clean and well stocked, and the bunkrooms were also clean and spacious.
After showering and washing my clothes I made myself a cup of tea and settled in with my journal at one of the long tables in the kitchen area. But no sooner than I sat down did I hear someone say, “The fruit and vegetable truck is here!” It was like I was back at La Muse, waiting for the honk of the weekly bread truck so I could run outside and make my purchases.
A group of us ventured outside and when we saw that the truck offered more than just fruit and vegetables, we decided to buy ingredients for a big pasta dinner that we could enjoy together. We walked back to the albergue with plastic bags full of round, heavy tomatoes, onions and garlic, olive oil, two packages of penne.
Silvia was tasked with making the pasta because, well, she was Italian. She set to work immediately, even though it was barely 5pm. “I have to let the sauce simmer for as long as possible,” she explained.
At 7:00 we went over to the village church where the hospitalero gave a small talk explaining some of the history of the village and the church we were in, and we were invited to sit quietly and pray, or just reflect on our pilgrimage. I sat for a few moments but then I walked outside, where I had to zip up my fleece against the cold air and the chill of the wind. I walked in a long, slow circle around the church, and thought about the day. How was it possible that I’d found myself in the middle of such a kind, welcoming group of people when just the night before I had felt alone? When, in fact, I’d felt alone for so much of my time in Spain? Suddenly it was as if the Camino was back, and back in full force.
The rest of the evening was beautiful. We all sat around a large table and feasted on the pasta that Silvia made. Matthias, a German man with light blond hair and ruddy red cheeks had procured a few bottles of wine at the neighboring bar, and the rest of us pulled out bits of bread and cheese and crackers that we’d been carrying in our packs. Michael invited the hospitaleros to join our meal, I included the two Spanish boys who, with only two potatoes between them, looked hungry.
We talked and laughed and toasted and when I went to bed that night, I felt full. I come back to Spain, time and time again, because I love walking through the country. I like that I can spend all day outside and not have to worry much about where I’m going to sleep at night, that I can have my cafe con leches and my vino tintos and that it’s an incredibly affordable way to spend weeks in Europe. But I also come to Spain and come back to the Camino for the spirit, for the like-minded people, for the community. It took awhile this time, but finally I’d found it, my own group of solo-walkers, people who were doing this Camino on their own and in their own way. Somehow, we’d all found each other that night, and just like that, and even for just a very short time, we became a little group. A family. I fell asleep feeling full, and happy.