El Camino de Santiago – A Love Affair

The Journey begins on El Camino de Santiago
The Journey Begins

What is El Camino de Santiago?

El Camino de Santiago or El Camino for short, is The Way of Saint James.

El Camino is a L-O-N-G walk. Not a hike in the true sense of hiking as most of it is quite flat and non-technical. It is a journey. A journey for your feet, your mind, and your heart. I know that is a bit sappy, but like a lot of sappy things, also true. Your feet and your body will  transform and build new muscle memory as you embark on a new physical regimen. At first you will be aware of your steps, miles/kilometers, blisters, sweat, and weight on your back. After only a short period the muscle memory of the previous days kicks into auto-pilot and you no longer find yourself thinking of those things.

St James statue along El Camino de Santiago
St James

The bulk of my long walk was in my mind. In the beginning I worried about things at home, if this was really going to be the “walk of a lifetime” I had built up in my head, would we find food and shelter when we needed it, etc.

El Camino has a lovely way of encasing you in mindfulness 24/7. For example, at home I have to practice and remember to be mindful during my day. That mindfulness usually lasts for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, and I revert to the daily thoughts about doing my job, grocery lists, chore lists, engagements and obligations that must be met, and so forth. When you are on El Camino, you quickly embrace the fact that you don’t know where you will sleep, you have never been here before and are not familiar with your surroundings, you don’t know who you will meet, we didn’t know how far we would travel or what we would eat…. And the beautiful transformation is that that worry transforms into curiosity and wonder.  At least it did for me.

Free offerings for traveling Pilgrims
Free offerings for traveling Pilgrims

The journey of the heart. For me, this was half on the journey itself and half the memories I carry with me. El Camino will open your heart, if you let it.  You will meet new people that have very different home lives than you, yet here we were together. You will share food, stories, band-aids and cell phones with others. You will experience sunshine, rain, good food, lousy food, nice people, crabby people, shade trees, beautiful panoramas, stray dogs and cats, busy roadsides and serene forests –  and this gave me profound peace and warmth in my heart. Also when I look back at photos or remember an occurrence that took place on El Camino my heart always feels full and content. 

El Camino is not one specific route, but a network of trails all ending up at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. You can choose the route based on timeframe, length, or popularity.

the trail at El Camino de Santiago
The Trail at El Camino

The trail is a pilgrimage, and has been walked since the early ninth century. It continues to be a pilgrimage, but not necessarily with the same sentiment or reason that it had historically. Of course, to some, it does still contain the original definition.

What are Pilgrim Passports/credenciales and Certificates of Completion/Compostelas?

When we started our journey we made sure we had our Pilgrim Passports, called credencial de peregrino. Your pilgrim passport will provide proof that you have walked at least the minimum 62 miles in order to receive your Compostela, which is an official certificate of completion. 

We Made It!

Your Pilgrim Passport is not a government document, but it is the crucial document necessary to prove your pilgrimage and to receive your Compostela or official Certificate of Completion.   Businesses, post offices, and albergues (lodging) can stamp your passport each day. The stamps are unique and so much fun to collect.

Check out these 2 websites for a wealth of information – The Pilgrim’s Reception Office & American Pilgrims on the Camino: Home

What’s the significance of the scalloped shell?

We can’t know for sure exactly how the scalloped shell became so intimately connected to the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santigao as there are many stories and legends. Many say the scallops in the shell represent the many routes one can take to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. 

Another use of the shell, to be taken with caution, is that the longest line of the shell points towards Santiago. This is not used the same way on all routes, so take the scalloped shell symbols as markers letting you know you are on the right path. The yellow arrow accompanying the shell symbols will point you towards Santiago or Cape Finisterre – The End Of The World, if you are going to continue on after reaching Santiago de Compostela. You will quickly get the hang of it and there are sure to be other prergrinos in case you have any doubts. 

Shell symbols at El Camino de Santiago
more shell symbols at El Camino de Santiago

Another historical use of the shell boils down to practicality and function. On many routes these shells were readily available vessels. The pilgrims of the past could use them to act as a small bowl or drinking glass. Pilgrims of the past also depended on the mercy of the church and of the citizens of Spain to provide their daily rations, and a shell scoopful was the measurement provided. 

Today the scalloped shell is a souvenir and endearing momento of your journey. You will find it on everything from path markers to mugs, T-shirts, and magnets. The T-shirts can be worn and the magnets are light-weight. Seeing those shells will make you smile and feel confident you are “on the right path.”

What Should I Pack for El Camino de Santiago?

There are many sites to provide lists of items to pack, but here is a quick list of items we took with us that proved valuable.

  • Large safety pins / clothes pins – safety pins do poke holes in your clothes, but they provide a more secure grasp. Also, you can trust your socks safety pinned to your backpack but I would not trust clothes pins to hold my most important clothing item securely. Surely you do not want to lose your socks!
  • Clothes line & universal plug
El Camino de Santiago clothesline
  • Sleeping bag, sleeping sheet bag, blow up pillow – before we left I made 3 “sleeping bags” made out of sheets. These came in very handy for the albergues that do not furnish sheets. It also made me feel better about bedbugs, which was never an issue. Thank goodness! The blow up pillow is up to you. Some people just bring a small pillowcase and wad the clothes they are not wearing up in it and use it for a pillow. We did not take sleeping bags and did not regret leaving them at home.
  • Laundry/body soap – We used a Castile soap and used it for everything. 
  • Zip top bags We used these for everything. We made “kits” in different bags. A bag for cords and adaptors, a bag for wet clothes, a bag for toiletries, etc.
  • Toilet paper – I suggest the camping biodegradable type. There are rolls that do not have any center cardboard roll, saving you room and tiny bit of weight.
  • Dried out wet wipes – Didn’t use these as much as I thought, but something to consider
  • Water bottle, thermos, hydration system- get as fancy or as basic as you think you need. I like tea, so I liked having a thermos type, my companions did not drink much in the way of hot beverages and just opted for a good water bottle
  • Hat – Gross, I know, but I was so sweaty that I could not keep sunscreen on my face or neck to save my life. My lightweight baseball style hat helped protect my face most of the time. 
  • Money belts or travel pouches for under your clothes – I chose to keep my money and passport in a travel pouch under my clothes. This made me much less afraid of someone getting into my backpack. It was inconvenient at times, but thoroughly gave me greater peace of mind. PS. I slept with it, which you could not do with your backpack. PPS As a general statement, El Camino de Santiago is very safe.
  • Camera lenses, SD cards, and extra battery. This is a tough one. How much you will use a camera over a cell phone camera probably shows my age, but it was important to me and worthwhile
  • Chargers, adaptors, and cords – charging it always at a premium
  • Camping towel – I recommend a quick drying, low bulk camping towel. The last thing you want is a damp, heavy towel weighing down your pack!
  • Shower friendly shoes – I personally do not care for flip flops, but many people do. Keep in mind, you may not want anything between your toes if you run into blisters
  • Flashlight / headlamp – most people reading this will opt to use the light on your cell phone for flashlight needs. We fully anticipated needing headlamps for early morning starts, but we fell into the “little bit later” crowd. 
  • Socks – well worth investing in wool hiking socks! Wool keeps your feet dry. Do the research, spend the extra money if your budget allows it. I took thick and thins. 
  • Bandanas ** This was my secret weapon. Lightweight, cotton bandanas can be used for many things and dry quickly pulled through a loop on your backpack or on the line in the evening. Bandanas can be used for wiping your face and neck, as a napkin, for first aid purposes, to lay over a questionable pillow, blowing your nose, washing your spork and many other uses. I took 3 and used them every day. 
  • Long sleeved shirt or layering shirt – pick something that wicks and be easily removed.
  • Zip off pants – I personally did not find them all that wonderful. I didn’t like the hassle of reattaching the zipped off lower portion or keeping track of them in my backpack. I personally preferred to be cold for a little while over dealing with the lower leg tubes. I would recommend a good pair of hiking shorts that wick, dry quickly, and are full of pockets. 
  • Rain poncho / construction grade garbage bags – I found the construction grade garbage bags to work the best in protecting us/ our backpacks from rain. The rain ponchos were a fight, didn’t perform as expected, and did not fold up compactly. 
  • First aid and Toiletries – sunscreen, deodorant, band-aids in assorted shapes and sizes. The band-aids that are especially for blisters were fabulous and well worth the extra money. Tweezers, needle, matches, first aid cream, pain reliever, nail clipper, alcohol swabs, mole skin, medical tape, gauze bandages, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, etc
  • Swiss Army Type Knife – We only needed this a few times to cut clothesline and some tough packaging. Remember this will have to be checked – it cannot go in carry on. We ended up donating it to a fellow pilgrim who was doing the trail in a much more primitive fashion than we were and who would be out there for a few months. 
  • Fleece shoulder strap protectors *** secret weapon number 2! I was carrying a backpack substantially heavier than the recommended weight for my stature and my beginner level of hiking so I gave myself a little safeguard. Before we left I sewed 2 sets of fleece rectangles that I used as padding below the strap of the backpack. This provided extra padding on the stress points where the backpack straps met my shoulders and collarbones. I DID almost lose them on several occasions as they would fall to the ground upon removing my backpack and almost went without notice. They were a bit hot and cumbersome, but indispensable to the well being of my body!
  • Walking Stick or Poles – In my opinion, if you are under 40, are in relatively good shape, and do not have knee problems you can leave your walking stick home. It will probably be more hassle than it is worth. Having said that, I was very happy to have my 3 section, screw apart stick with me. We even named her Sticky on El Camino. She almost got left behind a time or two after resting and having lunch, but in the end she made the whole journey. I chose this stick because it came apart into 3 sections that would fully fit in my backpack and it did not have a sharp point. Pointed ones that do not fit well within your backpack can poke holes in your backpack and also be a possibly security issue at the airport. Most of the terrain is also not conducive to pointed sticks. Sticky was a bit heavy, but she made up for it when I was dragging butt. 

Why hike El Camino De Santiago?

For me, it was a long walk. It was a long walk to reflect on my values and think about my life up until that point. It was a little piece of regret proofing my life. It was a bonding experience with my two daughters. It was a time of letting go and filling up.

During our daily lives at home we worry about bills, think about all the work that has to be done, and tend to get very caught up in our day to day tasks. As I reflected, I realized that at home, I didn’t worry about where I was going to sleep that night, how I would feed myself that day, or if I could avoid debilitating blisters on my feet. I worried about “complex” things that usually took me out of the moment. I usually worried about things from the past or future that I could not control. On El Camino de Santiago my concerns generally only stretched out for a few hours or perhaps a little into the next day. El camino was a huge lesson on mindfulness. Many hours of the day you found yourself in awe of your surroundings, in tune with your body, and challenged to be in the present moment with your thoughts and meeting new people. The auto-pilot routines of home were not applicable. On el camino we winged it much more readily and listened to our bodies and intuition.

Before the trip I decided that we would experience the pilgrimage with as much openness and original intention as we could muster. For me, this meant that there would be no maps, no reservations, no apps, no luggage service, and no predetermined stopping places. The original pilgrims or peregrinos/peregrinas had to rely on the mercy of others. We had to have faith that it would all turn out OK and fall into place. That was a huge mind shift and leap of faith for me.

This has been such a long tradition, and now very popular with tourists, there is really not much reason to worry. Each day we started off we didn’t know where we would eat or sleep. We didn’t know how many miles we would walk, and we didn’t know if there would be lodging once we got tired. It was all thrown to the wind.

Life lessons that El Camino teaches you over and over

  • Listen to your body – rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry, take care of your feet and back.
  • Be kind to others, we are on this path together, but our journeys are our own. Give compassion on this pilgrimage as it has been practiced for so many years and been given so freely to us.
  • We are part of something so much greater than ourselves.
  • Nature’s beauty knows no end. Drink it up. Soak it up.
  • Progress, not perfection is the key. 

Buen Camino! 

The end of the world from the post El Camino de Santiago

Be sure to check out our YouTube video on El Camino! – 

Rila Lakes in Bulgaria

A Photo Journey of Rila Lakes in Bulgaria

Recently, Lisa and I found ourselves in Rila Lakes in Bulgaria. It was some of the most amazing scenery! Instead of wrecking the experience with a bunch of words, we’ll just share this here…. We hope you enjoy it!

It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience. We learned much about the reverence the people of this country have for this area and tried our best to show the same respect.

Rila Lakes, A Photo Journey

You can read more about how our trip to Bulgaria began here….

After spending so much time in Bulgaria, we headed to Santorini for a couple of days…. That story is here….

flower from Rila Lakes in Bulgaria
Flowers in Rila Lakes

Two and a Half Days in Santorini

Bulgaria, for the first two weeks, was chaotic and eventful all the time. Bulgaria, after two days on Santorini, seemed like a peaceful, quiet, sublime place to relax for the rest of the week.

Lisa and I had been in Bulgaria for a week and a half, or so, before we took a short vacation from our vacation. We headed down to Greece to spend two and a half days in Santorini. We had planned this before going to Europe. Our trip to Santorini was really just a by-product of being near it. On our budget, it was much more feasible to spend some time there if we were already nearby.

Our Trip to Santorini, Getting There

Our plane was leaving at 6:45 am. We were only traveling about 700 kilometers from Sofia to Santorini. I don’t know how many miles that is. But, it’s not many. Still, we didn’t know if this qualified as international travel. We certainly didn’t know what to expect from security. We left the bulk of our bags at the hotel in Sofia and headed to the airport a few hours early with just carry-on luggage.

Turns out, it was no problem. Yay! We hung out in Athens for a couple hours to make a connecting flight and arrived on the island at about noon.

Earlier, when we booked the Airbnb for our stay, they said they would send a driver for us. We thought that was a cool benefit of staying at this place. We soon found out that it was not as cool as we thought. It was not free. We brought 200 Euros with us for our two day stay. We spent 50 of it 15 minutes after we landed.

Our Trip to Santorini, Accommodations

Our accommodations for the next two days were wonderful! Irene, the owner, greeted us when we got there. Glaros Beach was the name of what she called an Airbnb. Really, it was more of a tiny motel. We unpacked and took a nap.

Glaros Beach house on our trip to Santorini
Glaros Beach guest house

Our Trip to Santorini, Day ½

another view of Glaros Beach House
Glaros Beach guest house
Glaros Beach house flowers
Glaros Beach guest house

After resting for a bit, we took a stroll around our new neighborhood. The place we were staying was very charming. White stucco with Santorini’s signature blue trim, with plants and flowers everywhere! As I mentioned earlier, we were on a pretty tight budget. So, this place we rented was not on the more popular, caldera side of the island. We were all the way over on the eastern shore, about 300 feet from a beautiful, and uncrowded, black sand beach. We walked all afternoon visiting a bunch of tiny little beach-front shops. We didn’t understand how good we had it on this side of the island!

Our Trip to Santorini, Day One

Lisa booked us on an 8-hour Notos bus tour of the island on our first full day. We had a limited budget, and a short time to visit. We thought this would be a good way to see most of the attractions that we wanted to. The plan was to rent an ATV, but it seemed unnecessary when we got there. We walked a few blocks and met the Notos travel bus at a nearby Euromarket.

The tour

The tour was awesome! We saw the Akrotiri Excavations first. This is an archaeological site that is open to the public. It has excavations of ruins that date back to 4000 BC!

The rest of the tour was simply amazing! At the end of the tour was a special treat. They would leave us and the bus in the Village of Oia to watch the famed Santorini Sunset. First, though, Lisa and I had to go up to see the famous blue-domed white church that appears in every picture of Santorini, ever.

other view of Oia
….On the other side of the road from the blue domes
Oia on our trip to Santorini
Obligatory Santorini Blue Domes Photo

Oia

The crowds were unbearable! Thousands of people were jammed into this little tiny town. I was quickly losing interest in staying in Oia much longer. We fought through crowds up and down tiny alley ways. Finally, Lisa noted, “The crowd is bad. What’s worse is that when the sun does go down, all of these people are going to be in a mad rush to get out of here.” Neither one of us liked the thought of trying to find our bus through this mass of humanity.

As we walked around trying to decide about how to get out of here, a man with a taxi stopped us. He said we looked like we needed a ride. (-: We agreed.

We did the right thing and went back to the bus driver to let him know that we were going to take a taxi back to our hotel.

Our new driver seemed like a good guy. I’m sure he is. We asked him if he would be available after tomorrow for a very early morning ride to the airport. “No problem,” he said. More about him later…..

Sunset…. I mean, moonrise

We were sad to leave before the sunset. We got back to Irene’s place just as dusk set in and decided to go down to our little, and completely EMPTY beach. It was wonderful to be out of the crowds.

A small light shined way off in the distance over the water. Two minutes later we realized that it was the full moon starting to rise.

On a cloudless night, on an empty beach, somewhere in paradise, we got to see a full moon rising above the Aegean Sea! We sat there for hours talking about how lucky we were and loving that we had left the crowds behind.

The moonrise at Perivolos Beach
Moonrise over Agean Sea

Our Trip to Santorini, Day Two

After staying up way past our bedtime, we were tired the next day. No time for that though. We were booked to go on a catamaran tour of the caldera with Spiridakos Travel. We got on board the boat and sat in the prime spot next to the Captain. He seemed young but said he already had been a captain for over 10 years.

The tour was a blast! We sailed through the caldera of Santorini, stopping at several cool places. I got to jump off the boat and swim to an underwater thermal vent with several of the other passengers.

We stopped at one point to do a little snorkeling with the fish that the crew was feeding.

Swimming to the underwater thermal vent on our trip to Santorini
Thermal Vent swimming

For lunch, our cook made delicious grilled chicken. After which, we spent another half-hour swimming with more fish!

When our boat trip was over, we went back to our hotel and napped again. A little bit of shopping, dinner, and a walk on the beach later, we retired to the patio to talk and laugh about our time in Santorini for the rest of the evening.

walking Perivolos Beach on our trip to Santorini
Perivolos black sand Beach

The Taxi Driver… Almost Day Three

A day earlier, our new friend, the taxi driver, had said, “No problem,” when we asked him to pick us up at 4:30 this morning. At 4:25 we grabbed our stuff and walked out to the road to wait for him.

Remember the taxi driver?

At 4:45 he still hadn’t arrived. I started making phone calls. There was no answer and no voice mail at the number he had given us.

I started calling as many taxi services as Google would tell me about. Not one answered the phone. I left a few messages in hopes of someone waking up and learning of our distress. Our plane is leaving at 6:25 am. It’s now 5 am. We are, as they say in Greece, and elsewhere I’m sure, fucked.

Lisa and I walked to the Euromarket which was on what seemed like a busy street. We were hoping that anybody was awake and out and about yet, who could help us. It was completely deserted.

Disheartened, we went back to the hotel and sat down outside. We had already left our room key behind the now locked door. Irene wouldn’t be awake for at least a few more hours. We had 50 Euros left. We needed a plan. A very cheap plan. It would be next to impossible to catch our flight now.

At 5:35 my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the tired voice on the other end. It was a taxi service. I went into a tirade about how the lousy prick who said he’d pick us up didn’t show.

The voice said, “That’s me.” “I slept too late.”

No shit, dude.

He said he would be there in twenty minutes.

Good enough. We figured, at least we’ll be at the airport and can figure out how to get back to Bulgaria from there.

At 5:55 the driver comes racing up the street and slammed on the brakes. “Get in! Let’s go!” We did.

The speed limit on most roads in Santorini is something like 40 kmh. My hands still hurt from gripping the underside of my seat that morning. Our driver friend wasn’t much for being on time, but he was determined to try to make up for it with his driving speed! Santorini is a really small island with really skinny roads when you’re cruising along at 120 kilometer per hour!

Nobody talked the for the entire 17 minutes.

We skidded into the airport lot at 6:12. I threw him our last 50 Euros and didn’t wait for change. The ticket agent said, “That flight is boarding!” and rushed us through security.

We were the last passengers on the plane. We made it. Our taxi driver kept his word. “No problem.”

Back to peaceful Bulgaria

Bulgaria, for the first two weeks, was chaotic and eventful all the time. Bulgaria, after two days on Santorini, seemed like a peaceful, quiet, sublime place to relax for the rest of the week.

Remember to leave us a comment and tell us your travel adventures!