It was a humbling day - I got a terrific lesson about the danger of arrogance. It was also a beautiful day, exactly the kind I fondly remember during the gray Czech autumns.
This story took place years ago when I spent several weeks wandering the Camino del Norte, one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. I fancied straying from the Camino path one day. It turned out to be an interesting day.
Put yourself in the following situation: having started on beautiful forest paths in the hills of the Basque Country, I’ve now been trudging through the flat Cantabria for a week or so. The problem is that the route in Cantabria is mostly on the road, and walking on the tarmac has a devastating effect on my feet.
When you walk on a forest path, even a rocky one, each step is slightly different and each stresses the foot a bit differently - the small tendons in the leg alternate and help each other, and you can walk day after day for a few weeks without problems.
But when you walk on asphalt, every step is the same, every impact stresses the same tendons, and after a few days the weakest ones can’t handle it anymore and start to hurt, sharply and incessantly. At first, I thought I had flat feet or bad shoes, but when I asked other pilgrims, I found out that many of them hated walking on asphalt too.
Yesterday was terrible. I wasn’t paying attention to the beautiful surroundings; all I could think about was how painful each step was. The stretches on dirt roads brought immediate relief, but there were desperately few of them - just enough to make me realize how wonderful it would be if I didn’t have to walk on the tarmac all the time. I arrived at the hostel in El Pontarrón physically and mentally exhausted, went to bed around eight in the evening, and immediately fell asleep like the dead.
This morning, encouraged by coffee, I am looking at the map for today’s route. Look with me - the Camino del Norte route is marked in blue:
The first section goes along a first-class road. So with the pain, I’ll also “enjoy” the dangerous traffic. The next section looks more promising, but a closer look reveals that it’s mostly on the road too. So I’m in for a similar misery today as yesterday. This really ruined my mood.
As I stare desperately at the map, I notice the red route along the coast. That looks like a beautiful coastal path with sea views. Christ, why didn’t they take the Camino that way? Do they think anyone enjoys dragging themselves along the road all day? Morons!
Should I follow the official Camino route or take a shortcut along the coast? I’m not here to follow the prescribed route to the letter. After all, I was drawn here by the desire to roam freely. Feeling liberated, I’m leaving the real Camino and heading towards the sea.
It’s early, the sun has just risen and is starting to illuminate the mountaintops, it’s still shadowy and cold in the valley. I walk quickly to warm up - my feet are surprisingly fine, considering how wrecked I was yesterday.
I emerge from the valley onto the beach. No one around - am I the only one who decided to escape the road? Are all the others besides me such sticklers?
It looks like a sunny day. After yesterday’s crisis, my fighting spirit is back up - I’m suddenly looking forward to today. I like it here.
Why didn’t they take the Camino this way? It’s still on my mind. Does anyone really prefer walking along the road? The path here is sometimes overgrown and you have to push through the ferns, but it’s still better than struggling along the roadside and watching out for passing cars.
I reach a cove with a small beach. I rest for a while and think about one strange thing I’ve noticed about myself in the past. I feel very good in places where there are no people. I consider myself quite a sociable person, but it happens to me again and again - when I happen to be in a place where you can see for miles around and there’s no one, I suddenly feel so free…
After a while of staring at the sea and pondering, I get up. The path starts to climb uphill, it looks like I’ll have to work a bit. In the following photo, you can see how hard it is to photograph a slope so that its steepness is visible - you point the camera up and the path in the photo looks flat, but at this moment it was a solid climb.
Half an hour later, I’m sweating profusely. The sun is blazing. I stop and admire the view. A photographic frenzy takes hold of me - I am trying to capture this beauty, but most of the photos are overexposed. I’m not very good at photography and don’t have a good camera, just a phone, which can’t handle this excess of sunlight. Fortunately, a few photos turned out all right.
I circle around a huge bend of the mountain. I’ve been climbing its slope for about an hour and the further along the coast I get, the steeper the slope becomes. At times it’s so steep that I start to realize how easy it would be to stumble here and tumble uncontrollably down to the rocks in the sea. I start to look carefully under my feet.
I am getting suspiciously close to the inaccessible-looking cliffs under the peak. I get that tingling feeling in my stomach, like when you lean over the railing of a lookout tower, the fear begins to reverberate, but you act as if nothing’s wrong because you know it’s completely safe and you don’t want to embarrass yourself.
Now, however, it’s getting harder to convince myself that it’s still “completely safe”. I don’t do well with heights. My imagination is too vivid.
I get under those cliffs that I admired from below, and I can’t believe my eyes - the path doesn’t continue under them, as I expected, but upwards into them! There’s no getting around it; further along the coast, what started as a very gentle slope an hour ago turns into a completely unforgiving cliff. The only way to continue is straight up. Suddenly it is quite clear to me why they led the Camino along the road and not this way.
Under the hardest passage, I wonder for a moment if I’d better go back. The path claws its way skyward between the rocks with a two-hundred-meter drop behind my back. Reason tells me that it is as safe as the “Grandma’s Quarry”, a popular hiking path near Brno suitable even for lively pensioners, but I carefully hold on to the outcroppings in the rock and dare not look behind me.
I get over the edge of the cliff and am surprised to find that I am not at the top of the mountain yet - the climb continues, thankfully not so steeply. I stand on the edge of the cliff for a while - or, to be precise, about a meter from the edge, as I’m a little dizzy - and look around in amazement. This place was worth the effort. I breathe deeply and let the wind cool me. Then I look for the way forward - the path is overgrown with tall grass, barely visible.
Just briefly I enjoy the comfortable walk almost on the flat, soon the slope rises again. I reach places that are difficult to walk through - it’s terribly rocky here. I have to watch where I step; I forget to take photos and enjoy the views. Sometimes I have to climb over more than a meter high stone steps. It is hard work.
It’s scorching hot. In the last three-quarters of an hour, I’ve covered about five hundred meters. I often have to go back and look for a more passable way. Occasionally I scramble up a particularly steep section, and when I look up to see which way to go, I squint directly into the sun. Sweat runs into my eyes and stings - sometimes I have to stop, lean forward, and let my eyes tear up for a moment before I can see again.
I expect that any minute now it will start to be more passable, but instead, it’s getting worse and worse. Suddenly I’m in the middle of a steep slope full of large boulders - I carefully step on them, feeling them creak and wobble under me, and I shudder at the thought of them starting a stone avalanche that could crush me easily.
I realize that something’s not right. I haven’t seen even a hint of a path on the stones for a long time - I just continue wherever it seems at least somewhat passable and thoughtlessly assume that it must be the right way. Now I realize how stupid this approach is. I finally remember that I have Mapy.cz on my phone - why didn’t I think of that earlier?
I pull out my phone, but my hands are so sweaty that the touchscreen doesn’t work properly and I can’t open the app. I wipe myself off and wait for the GPS to load my position. Then I finally see on the map where I am… and my stomach tightens. I’m completely off the red route.
For a second or two, I feel a wave of panic. Until now, I’ve been reassuring myself that it surely can’t be as dangerous as it looks, otherwise, they wouldn’t have a marked trail here. The danger is just in my head, I thought. Now I realize that I’ve foolishly gotten myself somewhere I really shouldn’t have climbed.
I’d like to kick myself in the butt. Why on earth did I think the Camino route was chosen by morons who just didn’t think of the brilliant idea of using the beautiful coastal path instead of the road? Why didn’t it occur to me that maybe they knew what they were doing and had a good reason to avoid the coastal path? I assumed I was smarter than them, and now I’m stuck on a cliff above the sea.
I swear out loud. As usual, curse words bring relief. I remember my friend David and the saying he lives by - “dude, calm down”. That’s exactly what I need now, to calm down. The main thing is not to start panicking. I sit down on a rock that looks stable, slowly sip water, and think.
The best thing seems to be to go back the same way to the place where I was still on the right track. I don’t want to do it at all because it seemed pretty tricky going up, and going down will be even worse. But it’s still probably better than trying to find some other way - who knows where else I would end up.
There’s nothing to wait for - I want to be out of here as soon as possible. I slowly start to descend. I try to concentrate and not make a mistake. Clumsily, I climb down from stone to stone like from enormous stairs - the fronts of my thighs are so overloaded that they start to shake. On big boulders, I sit on my butt and grope beneath me with my foot until I manage to find some support and slide down.
Finally, I’m back on the trail - it follows the contour line under the slope I tried to climb. I don’t understand how I could have made such a stupid mistake… but on the other hand, now that I’m writing this, I also feel a bit of pride. Friends, you know how I can sometimes stress myself out over the most trivial things. This time it was really tough - and I managed to focus and get out of it.
In the next moments, I intensely perceive the beauty of the surroundings. The sun, the sea, the wind… I feel exhilarated. So when I encounter the last trap of this mountain, it’s a bit of a shock. A comfortable path through a grassy meadow turns around a rocky outcrop right above a cliff dropping steeply about 200 meters into the sea.
It’s a beautiful path, there’s even a rope stretched along the rock for support, but the view down, the idea of falling into the depths, just slipping on the wet grass or momentarily succumbing to vertigo and losing my balance… suddenly I feel like it’s a bit too much for me today.
I sit down heavily and try to gather myself. I even think about returning all the way to El Pontarrrón - however, I am discouraged by the idea of having to climb down those rocks from the plateau, which I previously climbed up with my butt clenched. The path in front of me is actually quite safe. It’s just a mental thing. I gather courage for only a minute or two.
I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side - if there are more traps, I’m really curious how I’ll get down.
I regret that I didn’t take a photo right above the cliff, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. I didn’t look around much - I wasn’t in the mood for enjoying the view, I was just eager to get to that rope. It was only when I had a firm grip on it that I looked down and saw several eagles circling below me. I tell you, when you see eagles from above, you feel high enough.
Holding the rope with both hands, I carefully walk around the rock pillar. When I get past it, the tension falls off me and is replaced by absolute euphoria. The view is breathtaking.
Perhaps it’s the adrenaline that I’ve pumped into my blood over the past few hours, but I feel excited and full of energy. The air smells wonderful, the colors are brighter than usual - now I feel really alive. I walk slowly, stopping every now and then to soak it all in.
The bay beneath me looks like it’s within arm’s reach, but it takes me more than an hour to get down. On the rocky passages, the path is not visible, but I’m careful now and occasionally check my position on the phone.
At the foot of the mountain, I come across a hut, whose owner I envy for this place. My shortcut off the Camino ends here, I return to the official route here.
Even down here, it’s surprisingly empty. From above, I saw some villages, but the path bypasses them. I walk past the ruins of an abandoned old house. I’m not in a hurry - I’d love to wander around here until night, except I’ve run out of water and I’m starting to get thirsty. There’s nothing left to do, I have to continue to a village.
Another pilgrim suddenly appears behind me, a German named Tilman. I’ve bumped into him a few times in the past week, but we’ve never talked. Now I immediately ask him if he also went over the mountain - I’m so full of impressions that I need to share it with someone who experienced it too. But Tilman came here from the road.
We walk past the remnants of something that was probably some kind of winch for pulling things out of the sea. Tilman goes to inspect it up close, while I prefer to sit for a while. I’m starting to get quite tired. After a long time, I look at the clock and can’t believe it when I find out it’s barely noon - I thought it was at least four in the afternoon.
We walk along the coast and after a while arrive in a town. We pass a church. I’m not a believer but I have a soft spot for beautiful Spanish churches, so I go to look at it. Tilman continues on, he wants to cover a good distance today.
A little further, I come across another church, even nicer than the first one. In a nearby shop, I buy a can of beer, sit down on a shady step, and rest.
I don’t know if it’s the beer or the endorphins from fatigue, but a strange mood takes over me. Physically, I’m destroyed - my legs hurt, and I’m sunburned because I forgot to apply sunscreen up there. But mentally, I feel as light and happy as I haven’t in a long time.
I perceive everything more intensely than usual. The sheer bliss of sipping cool beer, the peace of sitting on the beach for a while, taking off my shoes and looking at the sea, the pleasure of eating a crunchy baguette and cheese.
I need to get across the bay to the town of Santoña, where there’s a hostel. The boat ride across the bay is beautiful. Everything seems so gorgeous and sunlit that I want to squeal with excitement like a little kid.
I find a hostel, take an incredibly pleasurable cold shower, and head out. I can barely drag my feet, but I want to take an evening walk along the waterfront. I buy dinner - another baguette, this time jamón instead of cheese, and half a kilo of tomatoes. I enjoy it on a bench and several passers-by smile at me and wish me buen provecho - I gratefully nod and laugh at them with my mouth full.
It gets dark and a fiesta starts in the town. For a while, I listen to a band in the square. Of course, it’s something really loud and peppy, with the audience shouting and clapping to the rhythm. But I can barely stand on my feet. I’d really like to stay outside and soak up the atmosphere, but I can’t physically endure it. I’m done for today, I have to go to sleep.
As I lie in bed, tired and sunburnt, I keep going back to the moment when I, scared and dizzy, walked around that rocky outcrop and emerged high above the bay. Today was one of the best days I’ve ever had.