My Princess Feet, The Shoes, and My Biggest Camino Mistake

“What would you do differently?”

I get this question a lot when I talk about my Camino walk. And I have a quick answer.

The shoes.

I don’t know how it happened. I spent months (literally) researching just the right merino wool shirts, the right lightweight hiking pants, even the quick-dry underwear. I carefully considered the weight of my SOCKS. I had a travel watch with an alarm, and a bag of safety pins, and plenty of water.

But when it came to shoes—arguably THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF EQUIPMENT a person can have when they’re about to walk a THOUSAND MILES, I choked.

I read all of the debates and opinions, which basically came down to two competing opinions:

Argument A: This is a long-distance backpacking trip, and so (duh) you need to have sturdy, waterproof hiking boots to trek over mountains and through mud.

Argument B: The Camino is a well-groomed trail that doesn’t require heavy boots, which will just cause hundreds of painful blisters. For the heat and dust you need lightweight, breathable sneakers/running shoes.

The latter seemed to be the more common suggestion among American pilgrims, and I read a fair number of stories about pilgrims who ended up chucking their shoes altogether and walking the Camino in sandals.

I was swayed by the counter-intuitive idea. After all, I run in zero-drop, fairly minimal shoes. I wear sandals as often as I can. And let’s be honest: thinking of the Camino as a stroll I could do in the same shoes I wear to walk across town made it far less intimidating.

The salesperson at REI backed me up. When I went in to talk about the Camino, he jumped right in and handed me Merrell’s Bare Access trail runner. “This is what people who are walking the Pacific Crest Trail are wearing,” he assured me.

They were (slightly) more substantial than what I was used to. So without even trying anything else on, I bought the shoes.

My Merrells at the end of a muddy week. Great trail running shoes. Terrible (for me) backpacking choice.

In the REI guy’s defense, there were a few things I didn’t tell him:

  • I have extremely high arches.
  • Those arches (and a bunch of other bad feet habits) leave me prone to plantar fascitis and shin splints.
  • I’m not really a long-distance girl. Running the occasional 5k is not the same as being on my feet for 10 or 20 miles.
  • I had absolutely ZERO backpacking experience.

And, oh yeah, there was also the tendon injury in my foot that had me in physical therapy and basically grounded until two weeks before we left. So while other pilgrims were doing these training hikes, or at least walking around, I was on my butt. The first time I put on my loaded pack was on the way to the airport.

So I flew to France tender footed and out of shape, with nothing but a pair of minimalist trail runners between me and the French countryside.

I didn’t even have arch support inserts.

It was a disaster.

I was generally okay for the first couple of hours every day, but after that my feet would SCREAM in pain. Every step felt like I was putting all my weight on a giant bruise. Every pebble, every angle in the road was agony.

We started calling my feet The Princesses. And The Princesses could not handle the peas.

At first I figured I just needed a few days to toughen up. But I watched everyone else work out their kinks, build up their callouses, and get stronger. I never did.

Every morning I would wake up thinking that things would get better. Every afternoon I would limp and stumble into town, beyond miserable. We kept cutting back our daily distances, because anything more than 25km left me in tears. Even then, when we arrived I would practically crawl to my assigned bunk and have to lie there for half an hour before I could stand long enough to take a shower. I could rarely explore a town, or take a scenic route. Every step had to be carefully considered.

Finally Eric—who was mostly tolerant of my whining and wimping out—suggested that it was time to acknowledge that this problem wasn’t going to fix itself. We were three weeks, and maybe 300 miles, in. There was still a long way to go. And those Merrells and I weren’t going to make it over the Pyrenees.

Of course, in rural France, deciding to chuck your shoes and start over is easier said than done. We were in a region of particularly small towns and smaller stores. The Via Podiensis, while the most walked of the four French Camino routes, has only a fraction of the pilgrims as Spain, and so also has only a fraction of the pilgrim-serving tourist economy–which I really appreciated when I wanted to experience a place. It wasn’t so wonderful when I wanted to find shoes.

In one town, we went to the Office of Tourism and asked where we could buy hiking shoes. They gave us directions to a store across town, and even circled it on a map for us. I limped and gimped over, only to stand, somewhat baffled, outside a garden supply store. Determined or desperate, I went in, wandered past mulch and trowels, and at the back I found one sad rack of gardening shoes and a few pairs of men’s boots.

We walked on.

Finally, after four or five days of picturesque villages that were barely big enough to have a market, we reached Aire Sur L’Adour. Once again, we went to the Tourism Office (pilgrim tip: if you’re traveling through France, and English is your first—and mostly only—language, the Office of Tourism will save you time after time. That is, if it’s open). This time, they directed us to a sporting goods store…three kilometers out of town, by the highway, and of course in the wrong direction.

Which is how I ended up in a modern strip mall, with a taxi waiting outside, trying to buy new shoes in European sizes, from a man who spoke only a handful of English words, and I spoke only a handful of French.

I actually don’t know specifically what shoes I wore for most the Camino. I know they were Salomons. And that they had twice the amount of structure and padding that my old shoes did. And when I put in the fancy insoles that were almost as expensive as the shoes, my feet practically sighed in happiness.

seriously. these horses do not care.
The horses’ feet were definitely tougher than mine. But by this point, my Salomons had solved the worst of the problems.

I could tell a difference within a day.

I still had Princess feet, but they were now supported. Cushioned. And safe.

I walked the rest of the way across France, over the Pyrenees, and across Spain in those shoes. They weren’t perfect, and they had holes by the end, and they smelled atrocious. I threw them away in a Paris trash can the night before we left. But they saved my Camino.

When I go back, hopefully next year, I’ll take the same pants, and the same pack, and the same sleeping bag. But next time, I’m going to also get some good boots to protect the Princesses.
Caveat: These are my experiences, and they won’t be yours. Eric walked the whole way from Le Puy to Finisterre in minimal Altra Superior 2s that made my Merrells look enormous, and he was fine. I met lots of people who were walking in Merrells, and in sandals, and they were happy. The lesson here is NOT “don’t go minimal.” It’s “know yourself and what works for you.”

The Wine, the Devil, and the Bridge: Camino Surprises

On the nights in France when we cooked for ourselves (maybe once a week, once we figured out how to convert pounds to grams), we would buy a bottle of local wine along with our standard pasta, pesto, mushrooms, and chicken. More often than not, it was a Cahors region Malbec, a vintage with a history going back to the Romans.

Ever since we got home I’ve been scouring the liquor store shelves, looking for a familiar label, but with no luck. The French wine that makes it to the U.S. is almost all Bordeaux.

And then, on New Years Day of all days, I found it–in a small town, in a small grocery store, where the selection is maybe a third of what I can find in the city.


It was the bridge on the label, even more than the name. that caught my attention.

Because a Via Podiensis pilgrim doesn’t just drink Cahors wine. You also pass through the city of Cahors itself. The Camino crosses that bridge, considered one of the most remarkable bridges in the south of France. But it’s more than just a pretty bridge. The Pont Valentre has a unique story, and a memorable legend about the time a man wagered his soul with the devil…and the devil lost.

Built at the beginning of the 14th century across the Lot River, the defensive structure required towers, gates, a series of Gothic arches, and plenty of places where loyal troops could attack whatever enemy of the decade was approaching the strategic curve in the river.

The Pont Valentre, Cahors

Construction was not easy. Started in 1308, it took seventy years to complete. Legend has it that the master builder, challenged by the design and delays in construction, made a deal with the devil: if the devil would help in every way the builder needed to complete the bridge on time, in return the builder would give him his soul. As completion neared, the man re-considered his eternal prospects and came up with a way to break the contract. For the last bit of work, he told the devil to bring water to make the mortar, and handed him a sieve to carry it in. Not even the devil could transport water in a sieve, and so the final stone in the central tower was never laid, and the master builder kept his soul.

When the bridge was restored in 1879, the supervising architect placed a small sculpture of the devil at the summit of the northwest the towers, where the stone was still missing.

The Devil of the Cahors Bridge guards lingers where the final stone was never laid.

It is now the path pilgrims take to leave the city, just before a steep climb up a limestone cliff that the organizers charmingly call “the sportif route.” But that’s another story for another day…

Today is for opening a new bottle of good wine, because of course when I found that Malbec I bought every bottle on the shelf. 🙂


Happy (Camino Playlist)

Last week I got an email from Eugene in Adelaide, Australia. Eric and I met Eugene at the end of our second day of walking the Camino, and I was over the moon to meet another native English speaker. (Although to an outside ear, Australian English and American English sound very different; a French pilgrim who was listening to us chatter away actually asked me “Americans and Australians understand each other?” and in several instances, we found ourselves “translating” our Australian friend’s English for our French friends, who could keep up with us but watched him like he was speaking another language.)

We walked for several days with Eugene, so I’m sure I’ll have more stories about him as time goes on, but for today, I want to jump in and share a video that he suggested adding to the slowly-expanding Camino Playlist. It’s been making me smile all day, and it’s perfect for pilgrims — both in tempo and in optics.

So clap along and enjoy the view of this Camino-inspired rendition of Pharrell’s Happy. 

For all of my recent stories of rain and hardships, this is what so much of the Camino is like.


Camino Beds (A Photo Tour)

If the first question that people ask is generally about the paths we walked, the second is usually about the places we slept. In the 84 days it took us to walk from Le Puy to Finesterre,we slept in 81 different beds. Most of them were hostels specifically for pilgrims — called gites d’etape in France and albergues or refugios in Spain.

We slept on plenty of bunk beds, but not as often as I expected. We had private or semi-private rooms fairly often in France, where the gites were usually smaller and family-run. In Spain, it was more often a question of how many people would be in the room, and how closely the beds would be packed.

In hindsight, I wish I’d taken more pictures of where we slept. These become a huge part of my Camino memories, and I can still picture the places that aren’t here: the curtained, cubicle-like spaces in Le Puy and the private room in the 500 year-old Larreule farmhouse; the stifling attic with more than fifty people crowded above a restaurant just outside Leon and the laughably terrible, moldy “triple” room in Najera that was three twin beds packed wall-to-wall (and touching each other). We never knew if we would sleep within arms’ reach of a dozen snoring neighbors, or in a huge, airy, four hundred-year old convent room with a private bath. The dreariest towns often gave us the biggest surprises.

The only consistent thing was that no two days would be alike. If one night we found ourselves in a private room in a converted rectory, complete with sheets (the ultimate luxury) and antique furniture, then the next we would pay the same amount for rickety metal cots in the town hall gymnasium. We rarely planned our accommodations more than a day in advance, and often picked a place at random from the guide book as we were walking into town.

Here are just a few examples of our Camino accommodations. (Click the photo to see the slide show with captions.)

Mulled Wine and Hailstorms

The 3am crack of thunder woke everyone in the room. Not that anyone said anything, of course. But I could hear the change in breath, the awareness as ten pilgrims listened to the rain outside the two single-pane windows and thought about the coming day.

We were in Astorga, a city of moderate size tucked neatly between the flat, sunny plains of central Spain and the green Galician mountains. The weather had been clear and warm for weeks. But we’d watched the clouds roll in earlier that afternoon, and they meant business.

Despite the rain, the alarms still went off at 5:00, and the other pilgrims in our room banged around in the dark, rustling bags and ponchos and bouncing flashlight beams around. I kept my head on my pillow and my eyes stubbornly closed. There’s an odd pressure, especially in the public albergues, to get up before dawn and to be the first ones out the door, regardless of how far the day’s walk would be. Or how dreadful the weather outside is.

Our Seattle friend Emily was in Spain and walking with us for a week, getting a taste of the Camino. (You know that you’ve been traveling for a long time when your friends from home come to visit you on your vacation.) We all rolled out of our bunks at 6:30, and while the steady rain beat the windows, we packed anything paper or electronic into Ziploc bags, and then tucked those deep inside our trash bag-lined packs. (There’s a reason why I don’t have photos of the worst of the rainy days; protecting the camera seemed more important than capturing the moment.) We covered the packs with rain covers, covered ourselves with jackets and hats, and took stock of the situation.

The rain was a steady, cool drizzle that felt familiar.

“This isn’t so bad,” Eric said as we followed rain-slick yellow arrows around corners and down the narrow city streets. “It’s just like Seattle.”

The Spanish rain gods didn’t appreciate the comparison. He’d barely finished the words when the sky opened, and the drizzle became a biblical-proportion deluge. Pilgrims scampered through sheets of water toward whatever shelter they could find. They huddled in coffee shops and bus stops. We ducked back under the roof of a nearby shop.

But it was hopeless. My shoes were already full of water, and my saturated pants stuck to me.

There was no way to beat this rain. And there was really nowhere for a pilgrim to hide indoors at 7:30 in the morning. So we walked another block.

The rain dripped down the sleeves of my jacket and soaked through my socks and underwear. My hair dripped into my eyes. I was sure I couldn’t possibly get wetter.

“At least it can’t get worse,” Eric announced.

The Spanish rain gods sent hail a few seconds later.

We made Eric stop talking about the weather.


The hail passed fairly quickly, and the lightning trailed off, but it continued to rain for most of the morning as we slogged over a highway, past the end of the pavement, and up a long, straight dirt road that ran through remote, unprotected countryside. I don’t remember much of the scenery, probably because my eyes were on the ground, looking out for the next puddle. I slogged forward in an attitude that could be generously called resigned. Emily and Eric, on the other hand, had a splashing good time.

We passed through a few small villages, where the bars and cafes were doing brisk business. We stopped once, but the room was full of steaming, dripping pilgrims, and the process of getting out of the cold, wet rain gear (and then back into it) was worse than just staying outside and moving forward. So we kept walking, up into the hills, squishing forward.

It’s just 20 kilometers from Astorga to Rabanal, a relatively easy walk. Since we weren’t lingering over coffee or stopping to admire the scenery, we arrived early, a little after noon. I was footsore, cranky, and tired, not used to such a relentless pace.

But it’s hard to stay miserable when you walk into a fairy tale.

Until that point, Spanish towns had seemed, well, Spanish. Smooth bricks, white walls, red roofs, wide streets, and open spaces. Rabanal was something entirely different. The town was shrouded in fog and set onto a steep hillside, the buildings long and low, built from the local grey stone of the mountainside. Monks in long black robes walked purposefully along winding streets. The whole place felt ancient and sleepy, and I had a glimpse of the Celtic roots of Galicia.

It was exactly the kind of place you wanted to be on a cold, wet afternoon.

The first order of business, as always, was to find a place to stay. We hunted down Refugio Guacelmo recommended in the guidebook, run by British volunteers and open only to “bona fide” pilgrims who arrive on foot and carrying their own bags. No baggage service deliveries here.

I was sold.

We found the building in an old parish house, next door to the monastery bookstore. The gate was still closed, the opening still an hour away, and there were just two bags sitting in line ahead of us. Many pilgrims, it seemed, were not going to make the full walk to Rabanal in weather like this.

We pondered the downside of spending another hour in wet, chilly clothes. But we could see a courtyard and a garden through the gate, and I loved the atmosphere. A few more people trickled in to line up behind us. Eventually, a very British woman came to the gate and allowed us to move inside where it was dry. We stayed in line, and the volunteers checked us in with lots of kindness and not much efficiency. The building had been a rectory, and was now a maze of stairs and open balconies and low doorways designed for concussions. There was a serviceable, practical dormitory for about twenty pilgrims, and a yard that the volunteers told us was lovely for sunning. I couldn’t imagine this town in bright daylight.

Somehow, this is my only picture of Rabanal, taken from the balcony of Refugio Gaucelmo.

Afternoon tea, they informed us, was at 4:00. The monks would sing vespers at 7 just across the street.

I wasn’t just sold. I was in love.

The entire day had turned around.

I wanted to explore. I wanted to eat. Instead, we did what Eric called “the things.” We unpacked, showered, dried the things that were wet and washed the things that needed washing. And then, finally, it was time for soup.

I’d done a bit of exploring (okay, bathroom-hunting) while we waited for the Guacelmo to open, and had stumbled into The Bar. Thick stone walls, low-beamed ceilings, a huge fireplace, and SOUP — thick, hearty, hot seafood and vegetable chowders. The three of us settled on stools at a heavy wooden table with a bottle of local wine, a loaf of crusty white bread, and the best soup I can ever remember eating. We watched two older women, locals in long wool dresses and sensible shoes, climb up onto bar stools and gossip over glasses of beer. We watched new waves of pilgrims, still dripping and squishing, arrive. We felt delightfully at home.

The previous late nights, the interrupted sleep, and the hours of cold caught up with me, and when we were done I went off to take a nap. So I didn’t actually witness what happened next, although so many people told me about it that I can imagine.

The rain had finally stopped, and Eric and Emily went exploring. The air was still chilly, and so when they happened into a tiny village store, that just happened to have cheap wine, oranges, and cinnamon sticks, Eric’s plan was born.

Back in the communal refugio kitchen, they found more spices and a saucepan, and they set about making hot mulled wine.

The smell drifted through those twisted hallways and low-ceilinged staircases. Pilgrims, young and old, started to drift toward the kitchen. I imagine them like the cartoon characters, floating along the waves of delicious scents, led by their noses.

Eric and Emily, true to their natures and the spirit of the Camino, hosted quite the party in that Rabanal kitchen, going out twice more to buy more wine and oranges.

By the time I woke up, the whole building had become friends. The wine was the talk of the town, and the story traveled with us for days.

“Mulled wine is a winter drink, a holiday drink,” someone said. “But it was as cold as winter that day, and they made it feel like a holiday.”

We mulled wine again, a few days later, in La Faba. It was another tiny hillside town and we found ourselves in a steamy kitchen, waiting out another rainstorm. This time I got to see the magnet effect, the curiosity and happy memories brought by the smell of mulling spices.

The way the whole day could be turned around.
Last week, on Christmas Eve, when I’d been running around for days and was feeling overwhelmed, Eric pulled out a saucepan and filled our space with the smell of spices and warmth.

And the whole day turned around.


PS. What goes into stovetop mulled wine? Eric’s version is not an exact science by any stretch, but here’s what he suggests:

  • red wine
  • slices of orange
  • some OJ or cider
  • if available, some brandy
  • cinnamon sticks
  • allspice
  • cloves
  • anise
  • sugar

Let it simmer on the stove for a while, to mix the flavors.

Eating Our Way Across Spain

If eating along the Via Podiensis (the Camino path from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port) was all about big, family-style dinners and outdoor picnics, eating along the Camino Frances (the Camino path in Spain from SJPP to Santiago) was all about the mid-day cafes and coffee breaks along the way.

The Camino path through Spain passes through a lot of villages, which are usually only 5-10 kilometers apart. Every village, no matter how small, has at least one—and usually several—bars and cafes that exist for the thousands of pilgrims that pass through. So you’re never far from food.

You’re never far from food on the Camino Frances

This was our daily rhythm in Spain: we’d leave the albergue (which rarely served breakfast) at dawn—about 7am in June—and walk to the next town for desayuno. Then we’d walk another 10 kilometers or so to another town and stop for desaydos. (I don’t think we ever had a day that required a desaytres, but the opportunity was there.)

The options in every town were about the same:

  • Cafe con leche: espresso and whole milk. Energy and comfort in a cup. (For the lactose intolerant there’s cafe solo.)
  • Cerveza: at any hour; you’ll see pilgrims and locals alike kicking back with frosty mugs of beer at 9am. We generally refrained from dipping into the wine or sangria until at least noon.
  • Tortilla de patata/tortilla espanola: a pan-baked egg and potato dish. Tortillas sometimes are also available as just egg, or with vegetables, or with chorizo. Never, ironically, are they served with what most Americans would consider a tortilla.
  • Bocadillo: When you take a tortilla espanola and put it on thick, crusty baguettes, the result is the ubiquitous bocadillo of the Camino. Many places would also offer sandwiches with chorizo and/or cheese (queso)
  • Empanada: Unlike the bite-sized empanadas I knew from home, Spanish cafes bake empanadas the size of a full pie, typically filled with tuna, and sell them by the slice.
Tortilla patata

Once we arrived at our daily destination and got settled, we’d usually scout out the options for dinner. Unlike France, albergues rarely offer their guests a meal (to be fair, Spanish albergues were often housing 50-100 people, which is a hard crowd to fit around the family table), and I found that there was more of “every person for yourself” attitude among pilgrims.

The options were varied—in the big cities like Pamplona or Burgos there were restaurants everywhere. In tiny towns, there was often only one bar. Most places served a fixed-price pilgrim menu dinner starting at 6 or 7pm—hours before the locals would eat, but pilgrim life is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise experience.

Like in France, dinner was typically three courses, but unlike France, where the menus were different every day and seemed to be completely left to our host’s creativity, almost every Spanish kitchen for 800 kilometers seemed to be working off the same menu del dia:

  • first course: salad (usually with hardboiled egg and tuna), or pasta (usually spaghetti in red sauce), or maybe soup.
  • second course: chicken or fish or sometimes pork. Always, always, ALWAYS with patatas fritas (fries) on the side.
  • dessert: flan, helado (ice cream), sweetened yogurt. In Galicia we discovered tarta de Santiago—a dense almond cake with powdered sugar.

Usually the meal was served with wine or water (you choose, but don’t expect both).

The salads were good, as long as you like tuna.

The type of food available to pilgrims in Spain was predictable to the point of being redundant. And yet the quality and experience of the food swung wildly.

In a shabby bar in Najera, I ordered the 10-Euro pilgrim menu. I got a wilted salad drenched in salty dressing, a piece of frozen fish (still cold in the middle) covered in some sickly-sweet pepper sauce that was utterly inedible, and a tiny carafe of cheap wine. The only redeeming feature was the pre-packaged ice cream cup (because there was no way for them to mess it up). The man who served it was abrupt and impatient.

A few days later, in Castrojeriz—a town that was smaller, less affluent, and more remote—I walked into a bar and ordered the 10-Euro pilgrim menu. My expectations were not high. But this time I was offered a huge bowl of perfectly-seasoned soup made from fresh vegetables; a crispy, whole grilled trout (head to tail, scales intact) with herb-covered, oven-roasted potatoes; a whole bottle of good red wine; and a giant slice of homemade cake for dessert. The man who brought the food was warm and funny. It was quite possibly the best dinner I had in all of Spain.

It’s those surprises that most stand out to me now—the moments when what could have been predictable suddenly became extraordinary, like that dinner in Castrojeriz….Or the day we walked into Rabanal in the pouring rain, and the tiny stone bar across the street had a seafood stew that warmed my grumpy, damp spirits…Or the night in Leon when we splurged on pulpo — and the waiter brought out an ENTIRE OCTOPUS on a plate…Or the one night that our albergue did serve a communal dinner, and Eric and I somehow ended up trying to explain ObamaCare to an older French couple who didn’t speak any English. (I still don’t know if they were horrified by something I inadvertently said or that Americans have to pay to see a doctor.)

And then Finnesterre, the end of the world, where we sat in outdoor cafes just across the plaza from the fish market and ate seafood stews and calamari until we could burst.

So if you’re thinking about walking the Camino Frances, don’t expect a culinary smorgasbord. But if you think you know what to expect, be prepared to be surprised.

Sunny Days (Camino Playlist)

Seattle has been soggy and wet for the past few weeks, with record rainfalls (and for Seattle, that’s saying a lot). As I sit inside, safe and dry, and watch the puddles spread across the whole street, and the grass turn into swamps, I’m thinking a lot about how life as a pilgrim meant being outside no matter what.

I only had two really wet, miserable days on the Camino—you know, the days when the rain is so hard, and so steady, that it soaks through everything you’re wearing and just keeps coming, and you’re pretty sure that you’ll never again be dry, or able to sit down, again, and things can’t get worse.

And the the rain turns into hail, and the lightning flashes, and you realize that you shouldn’t dare Mother Nature.

But anyway.

There were plenty of days when we walked through brief showers, or fog, or general dampness. The skies would cloud up, and a few big drops would fall. We’d all stop, dig out the rain jackets and pack covers, sheath ourselves in Gore-Tex, and realize that it wasn’t raining anymore.

I’m okay with that kind of rain. After all, I live in Seattle.

But as we plodded through mile after mile (ah, sorry, kilometer after kilometer) of mud, I’d circle back to a cheery song with a good beat and a hopeful message.

Sunny days keepin’ the clouds away
I think we’re coming to a clearing and a brighter day

So here, for the latest addition to the Camino Playlist, is Jars of Clay’s Sunny Days.

As an added bonus, all those lyrics about distance helped on the days when the end was just too far away to see.

So far away. Still I think they say
The wait will make the heart grow stronger or fonder
I can’t quite remember anyway


Fellow pilgrims, what was YOUR walk-in-the-rain Camino song?


The Story of Rio Salado

“In a place called Lorca, towards the east, runs a river called Rio Salado. Beware from drinking its waters or from watering your horse in its stream, for this river is deadly. While we were proceeding towards Santiago, we found two Navarrese seated on its banks and sharpening their knives; they make a habit of skinning the mounts of the pilgrims that drink from the river and die. To our questions they answered with a lie, saying that the water was indeed healthy and drinkable. Accordingly, we watered our horses in the stream, and had no sooner done so, than two of them died: these the men skinned on the spot.”

Codex Calixtinus, Chapter VI

There’s some disagreement about whether this twelfth-century story, recorded in the very first pilgrim guidebook, is actually a firsthand account, or whether it was a rumor passed from pilgrim to pilgrim (a tradition that continues today; Eric and I called it Radio Camino), reflecting the general dangers of the road and also the common xenophobic suspicions that plagued the time (and, sadly, our own).

Either way, the story stuck, and the medieval bridge stands today. Just past Puente La Reina in Spain, the modern Camino winds several kilometers out of its way, under a busy highway and across some less-than-lovely territory, to get to this “river” that’s more like a stream.

Bridge over the Rio Salado

We stopped for a picnic snack, chatted with other pilgrims, and rested our feet. I remember that we had oranges that day, and that the ants were huge and aggressive (well fed from thousands of pilgrims who pause here, I’m sure). There was a young pilgrim walking across Spain with his dog. Most of the people weren’t aware of the bloody history of the place where we sat.

Thankfully, no one drank from the stream, and no one tried to kill our horses.

My Camino Packing List

What does one carry on a pilgrimage across Europe?


According to a scale of questionable accuracy in Aubrac, my pack, with water, weighed about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds. That’s way more than what most ultralight backpackers would recommend, but it was never so much that I couldn’t carry it. My luxuries were small and carefully considered.

I started researching and collecting things for the trip at least 6 months before we left, and discovered that minimal living can get expensive fast. I relied on thrift stores and Amazon clearance sales as much as REI, and there were definitely compromises made when it came to cost vs. weight. For instance, I lusted after the 13-ounce Sea to Summit Traveler bag, but the 2-pound REI Travel Sack was $140 less. Was a pound really worth $140? I decided not.

Here’s what I ended up bringing:


  • Backpack: Gregory Jade 38L. Great fit for my narrow shoulders, more than enough room for everything I carried.
  • Sleeping Bag: REI Travel Sack, rated for 50 degrees. We started walking in April, when the air was still chilly at night and I appreciated a sleeping bag. By June we would have been okay with just lightweight sheet sacks.
  • ThermaRest travel pillow, explained elsewhere
  • Quick-dry travel towel, 24×48”
  • 1 Nalgene-style water bottle, .75 liters (Eric carried two, so we had two liters of water between us, which was always more than enough.)

Guidebooks: (all reviewed here)


  • Merrell trail running sneakers, traded in mid-trip for Salomon hiking sneakers and high-arch inserts. Since I threw all of these shoes away, I don’t remember the specific styles.
  • Teva Terra Fi Lite sandals. (I splurged on the thicker soles and better support, with the idea that these would be both shower shoes and backup hiking shoes. Instead, I discovered that my dry and quick-to-crack feet don’t walk well in sandals for long distance. Next time I’d still bring Tevas—comfortable, versatile, waterproof—but I’d pick the lightest-weight ones possible.)
  • SmartWool long-sleeved zip jacket (the warmest single layer I had)
  • SmartWool vest (a last-minute addition and the most versatile thing I brought. I love vests.)
  • Long-sleeved merino blend half-zip shirt (became my hiking shirt every day)
  • Long-sleeved BugsAway mesh shirt for sun/bug protection (I used this a few times, but could have done without it.)
  • 1 sleeveless sport shirt (good for a base layer and hiking shirt)
  • 1 short-sleeved merino wool T-shirt (loved this; should have had two of these)
  • 1 long tank top (intended to be another base layer; became my nod toward modesty when sleeping in rooms full of people)
  • 2 pair of hiking pants (a sturdier pair from Kuhl, which also had more pockets, became the “hiking” pair, day after day after day; a thinner pair of Columbia pants became the “after-walking” pants for afternoons and evenings)
  • 1 pair merino wool leggings (for long underwear and sleepwear)
  • 1 lightweight travel skirt (I never felt like I needed to “dress up,” but this was nice for hot summer afternoons)
  • 2 pair thin SmartWool socks (one sock had serious holes by the end of the trip)
  • 2 pair thick hiking SmartWool socks (I lost one pair about two weeks into the trip)
  • 3 pair of underwear
  • 2 lightweight, quick-dry sports bras
  • Patagonia rain shell
  • Nylon hat for sun and rain protection
  • 1 Buff merino scarf
  • 1 Buff headband
  • 1 Buff thin scarf (I don’t remember why I packed this, since I already had a scarf and a headband. But it ended up fitting nicely in a waist pocket of my pack and served as a much-needed handkerchief when hiking in the cold made my nose run. So if you’re using this post to craft your ow packing list, bring a handkerchief.)
  • Sunglasses (plus case)
  • Digital watch with alarm
  • 3 mesh laundry-style bags for organizing clothes (Benefits: you can see through them to know what’s inside, and there’s no crinkly noises to bother other pilgrims; I had one bag for dirty laundry, one bag with my “after shower” clothes packed and ready to take to the bathroom, and one bag for everything else.)
  • Bought along the way: 1 straw sun hat

Cosmetic/Supply Bag:

  • REI shower case (the built-in hook was an important benefit in most shower stalls, which rarely had sufficient—or any—ways to hang clothes or supplies).
  • Soap in a quick-dry mesh bag (standard Dove, which we used for cleaning bodies and clothes; the mesh bag helped with scrubbing)
  • Travel-sized folding toothbrush
  • Travel-sized toothpaste (had to replace this before the end of the trip)
  • 3 cheap, disposable razors (one for each month; needless to say, I wasn’t shaving my legs often)
  • Travel-size hairbrush
  • Deodorant (3 oz. travel size)
  • Conditioner (3 oz. travel size; I used bar soap to wash my hair, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with the crazy frizz that would happen if I didn’t put some kind of product into my short curls. Don’t judge.)
  • Hair styling lotion (3 oz. travel size. See above about judging. I used these sparingly, and they lasted the whole three months, with some to spare.)
  • Q-Tips (I didn’t count how many, but it was a limited number that we used occasionally as a luxury.)
  • Safety pins. (These are NOT a luxury. We used safety pins for everything: clothespins on outside lines, ways to attach still-wet clothes or other gear to our packs, ways to fix damaged clothes, etc.)
  • A few spare hair elastics
  • Eyeliner pencil (A luxury, but really, does this even weigh enough to matter?)
  • Nail file
  • Toenail clippers
  • Bottle of Ibuprofen tablets (Needed to replace this several times over the course of the trip, and then we discovered the wonders of Ibuprofen GEL, but that’s another post for another day.)
  • Tampons
  • Bought along the way: trekking poles (bought in France; lost them three weeks later in Spain, but I was glad to have them in the windy Pyrenees); super-concentrated lotion for cracked feet


  • Passport
  • Camino credentials (the first one issued by American Pilgrims of the Camino, which I filled in France, and a second issued by the pilgrim office in in St. Jean Pied de Port)
  • Small billfold to carry cash, debit card
  • Small nylon cross-body purse to keep cash/passport/credentials, offering some rain/water protection. I mostly left this in my backpack, but it was easy to pull out when we stopped in cafes/churches/places where we left the packs outside.
  • Camera (Canon PowerShot Elph, which fit in a pocket and took stunning pics)
  • 1 set titanium travel silverware (which we used maybe once)
  • Cell phone (which was almost never on in Europe, but the Kindle app came in handy for reading)
  • Journal and pen
  • 3 paperback books: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Fifth Column, and Paul Harding’s Tinkers. (I’d finished them all within 3 weeks)
  • MP3 player (I only ended up using this on airplanes and trains, and could have lived without it)
  • Chargers and European outlet adapters
  • Headlamp
  • Variety of Zip-Loc style plastic bags (for storing food, keeping books and electronics dry)
  • Tall kitchen trash bags (to use as liners inside the backpack on rainy days. Between this and the rain cover on the outside of my pack, everything stayed dry even in the worst downpours.)

Eric’s packing list was similar to mine, except without all of the luxuries. That man has figured minimalism out: two pair of pants (that easily rolled up when the weather warmed), 3 T-shirts, 1 sweater, 1 rain jacket, some socks and underwear. One Buff scarf. Sunglasses. Minimal walking shoes that horrified the French, who were convinced he couldn’t go so far without better footwear. Minimal sandals. A bar of soap and a toothbrush. One book. I think that’s it.

He carried most of our food, and some of our shared supplies:

  • First aid kit: Band-Aids (which we never used), moleskin bandages (which we did), antibiotic ointment, tweezers, needles and thread (for blisters), disposable lighter (for sterilizing needles; in hindsight, alcohol wipes would have been better), athletic tape
  • Parachute cord to use as a spare laundry line (we only used this once, and could have left it at home)
  • GPS Spot  and extra batteries, to appease the people at home
  • Bought along the way (since the airlines won’t let us carry them): Pocket knife (actually, he went through 3 pocket knives on the trip until he found the right one (an Opinel); small scissors

I may be missing something. If you have questions, or your own recommendations, please share in the Comments!

Eating Our Way Across France

This week is Thanksgiving in the U.S.—a day of family and gratitude and food.

Lots and lots of food.

So let’s talk about food on the Camino—and specifically this time, how we ate in France. (Our experiences in France and Spain were distinctly different. That’s cultural, somewhat, but mostly it stemmed from how many pilgrims there were on the better-known Spanish route, compared to our smaller and more personal walk across France. I’ll come back and talk about our Spanish experiences next week.)

Between Le Puy and the French border, we walked through areas that were often remote, with small villages where the markets that were almost always fermé. We learned quickly to carry food and picnic our way through through the day. We would pause every few hours for baguettes of fresh bread, local cheese, hearty sausage, and fruit. Sometimes we carried jars of pork or duck pate (when in France…) Sometimes there were nuts.

At night, we stayed in gites, usually privately owned. There weren’t many restaurants, so the standard option was demi pension—that is, our gite hosts would not only provide our bed for the night, but also dinner and breakfast, usually served family style to a group of pilgrims.

Gathering for dinner in Finneroyls, in the heart of L’Aubrac

The meal varied according to the whims and talents of our hosts, and some were less inspired than others, but I don’t think we ever had a bad dinner. Meals were almost always four courses:

  • A vegetable-based soup, usually lentils, and/or salad with lots of bread
  • A meat dish, often chicken, with vegetables and lots of bread
  • A cheese plate, with lots of bread
  • Dessert

Dinner almost always included unlimited bottles of local red wine.

From simple curries to elaborate casseroles made with of confit canard, the French really know how to do food. But there are a few memories that stand out.

  • Aligot. Oh, aligot, which is all good French things in a dish. A magical blend of mashed potatoes, regional uncured cheese, heavy cream, and garlic. It stretched like dough and had to be cut with a fork. I have every intention of trying to make it some day. 
  • Chunks of wild boar in gravy, served over pasta by a boisterous, flirtatious gite owner who bragged that he shot the animal himself.
  • Mediterranean couscous and chicken thighs. After a long, miserable, very wet day of slogging through mud and rain, we stumbled into Figeac and into the first gite we saw, a small two-story rowhouse owned by a young Moroccan couple. Their dinner, loaded with vegetables and spices, felt like warmth and sunshine.
  • Farm food. Two days before we reached the border, when our pod of pilgrim friends was well established and feeling the weight of the impending end (only a few of us continued over the Pyrenees to Spain), we found ourselves on “The Farm,” practically a resort for pilgrims in the middle of nowhere, with comfortable rooms, plenty of hot water, and the most amazing dinner that I don’t remember. I know there was hearty soup, huge plates of meat and vegetables, cake that we smelled the family baking that afternoon, and a cheese plate with EIGHT kinds of cheese. Eight. I wanted that night to last forever.

The thing is, it wasn’t about how good the food was. We spent every day trekking up and down hills and navigating muddy paths. ANYTHING was going to taste good. But the French Camino was all about a community of people around a table. We weren’t just pointed to bunk beds and left to fend for ourselves. Our hosts often ate with us. Other pilgrims lingered over the cheese plate and shared stories, even when we didn’t share languages. (I had no idea how much we could communicate with some charades and a few elementary-level words.)

Serving the aligot

And sure, occasionally we would stay in a gite that didn’t serve food. Usually it was a facility run by the city, which had a limited staff and a vested interest in getting pilgrims into the local bars and restaurants. Eric and I took the opportunity a couple of times to indulge in pizza (not surprisingly, French pizza is really good). The municipal gites almost always had a kitchen, as well, and we could either go out or cook for ourselves. It took us a few weeks to feel brave enough to walk up to a meat counter and order chicken—not only in French, but also in grams. But eventually, I actually missed cooking enough to try. We mastered a basic meal of pasta, chicken, mushrooms, and jarred pesto. And those 2 euro bottles of wine.

But seriously. Cheese and wine every day.

Is it any wonder that we loved France?

This year, I’ll be adding a cheese plate to our Thanksgiving dinner. And perhaps an extra bottle of good French wine. It’s time to linger over the table again and tell some stories.

Now that's a cheese plate
Now that’s a cheese plate