Two years ago: My arrival in Santiago de Compostela

Two years ago, I arrived at the plaza in Santiago de Compostela after 32 days of walking roughly 800 km. It was a journey that began at the Pyrenees on the edge of France and passed through scenic mountains and picturesque valleys, modern cities and modest farming villages. I had woken up at 3:30 am that morning to walk the last stretch of 20 km with a group who I became friends with throughout the past month, in the hopes of getting into the city before the onslaught of pilgrims and tourists.

I know I post periodically about my experiences on the Camino de Santiago, but I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to write any collection of words that would do my experiences and emotions justice. It was a true journey of the spirit, an ongoing expression of limitless faith, hope, and love. It was a supreme test of perseverance, waking up early every morning (sometimes earlier than desired, ahem, those nuns playing new age music at 5:45 am in Carrion), walking across all sorts of terrain through the pouring rain, blistering cold, numbing wind, pulsating sun. From the outset, there were difficulties: I got lost on the very first day, mistakenly climbing a winding mountain road that ended up adding at least 4 km to the day. Realistically, I should’ve taken a break after just the third day when I limped into the city of Pamplona, searching for a pharmacy to treat weak knees and sore heels. I would also catch a lingering cold and get an allergic reaction to a spider bite later on.

But after all of those challenges and many more, I made it to Santiago de Compostela. I actually made it. Me. I remember feeling weightless walking through the streets of the city, taking the last steps to the centre of the plaza. There was no more walking. I leaned against both my walking sticks, bowed my head, and, overwhelmed at finally reaching my destination, I wept. “I’m here,” I thought. “I’ve arrived.”

A warm embrace to everyone I met along the Camino. It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since our paths first crossed. I’m grateful to have shared part of the journey with you 🙂

Route over 32 days from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela
0001. Camino (2)

Me!
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One step at a time

One step at a time. A simple phrase, but one which takes on greater meaning when you’re somewhere on an 800-km trek from the Pyrenees to Galicia, Spain. One step at a time. That’s the only way you can accomplish such a challenging journey, to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what weather conditions you face and whatever physical or emotional baggage is weighing you down. One step at a time. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned.

between Hontanas to Boadilla del Caminoon the Camino de Santiago

between Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino

One year ago today, I began this pilgrimage from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. I take a look back and memories flash through my mind, some like blinding lightning, others like a slow-motion replay of a sports highlight. Many memories will forever remain vivid, while I guiltily acknowledge that some are already fading, and might disappear with the passage of more time…

But I will remember to take life one step at a time. And with each step, attempt to recognize what makes life so mysterious yet gratifying, be appreciative of every breath, every foot forward, every person that shares my journey, and every person that almost inexplicably appears with an almost inexplicable precision when I need a reprieve from my solitude.

The Camino also taught me that the path – my camino – that I walk must be my own. I must walk at my own pace, not be afraid to take alternate routes, and always listen to my body, mind, and soul. I can’t live for the wishes and expectations of others and place their dreams in front of mine, no matter how good-intentioned they may be. I know it sounds incredibly selfish, but that path won’t create happiness and ultimately the person who ends up hurt is myself.

I believe I am still on a pilgrimage and that I continue to walk my camino. In fact, it’s an often arduous journey and the road looks like it never ends. But I can say that if there’s a destination, I’m closer to getting there today because of my experiences last year.

3 months of travel, almost 3 left

Today marks 3 months of travel for me – 92 days away from home! I left my life as I knew it in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada on the 1st of May, and am currently the only living being in the “common room” in the only hostel in the city of Jajce, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, celebrating the 3-month milestone of my travels by enjoying a Nikšićko beer. Perhaps not optimal, but I think three months around Europe deserves at least a beer, no?

During the past three months, I’ve been to Spain, France, Spain again, Portugal, Morocco, Spain again, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia. And just to remind you (as much as myself) where I’ll be headed to the next few months, I plan on touching ground in Serbia, England, Germany, Belgium, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Serbia again, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Highlights?

When I meet people and tell them how long I’m travelling and how long I’ve been travelling, they naturally ask about my favourite moments and experiences. And I’m unable to provide answers. Seriously? Yes! How am I to narrow down and select from the many blessings over the past three months? Every day is amazing, every time I set foot in a place that I haven’t been before is amazing, every time I’ve had the fortune of revisiting a place for the xth time is amazing, every time I’m among natural beauty is amazing, every time I meet a fellow human being in this world who contributes something to my way of thinking is amazing…

Case in point: Today, I took a day trip to the town of Travnik, about an hour and a half from Jajce by bus. After leisurely visiting the hilltop fortress, I met a souvenir vendor who made conversation with me. We ended up talking for half an hour, about where I was from, my life in Canada, what I studied in university, where I was travelling, my last job, his previous job, the War in the 1990s, the political situation in Bosnia (presently and historically), religion in Bosnia, and why ćevapi in Travnik is unique and the most delicious ćevapi in Bosnia…

Before this encounter, this man was just another human among the 7 billion that inhabit this Earth. Now, although in all likelihood I’ll likely never see him again, he’s someone who shared a sincere conversation with me, whose face I’ll remember, who’ll be a highlight of my day on 31 July 2013…

But here are some highlights…

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Travel updates

Looks like I haven’t posted anything in two and a half months!  It’s not for lack of anything to write, that’s for sure.  Initially, I wanted to take some time out while on the Camino de Santiago, and then I didn’t know where to begin blogging again once I had finished my pilgrimage.  And from there, it was just one place after another, with me overwhelmed about doing my experiences justice by putting into words everything that I lived and sensed and immersed myself in.  This post is a humble attempt to summarize where I’ve been the past few months and where I’m going the next few.

The past that has passed

My trip through France was leading me from the centre of the country down to the southwest to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances, Way of St. James).  It was a great ten days exploring different cities in a country that I’d wanted to visit for so long, especially learning French throughout school.

The Camino de Santiago was an intense, unrelenting, unforgettable journey of the spirit that took my body from the Pyrenees all across northern Spain, walking on average between 20-30 kilometers a day with a rucksack on my back through rain, shine, and wind over all sorts of terrain.  I very much hope to write more about this experience because I believe that it has been the most significant thing that I have done with my life, and these mere words right now cannot possibly explain everything that my body, mind, and soul encountered during this blessed time.

I spent a few days in Santiago de Compostela, afforded with the luxury of sleeping in the same bed for more than one night and walking the same streets daily, even having a cafe that I frequented.  After moving around every day for the past month, it was a welcome change!  Then, I headed into northern Portugal for six days.  Portugal is a country that will always be on my list of places I want to return because of the friendliness and sincerity of the people.  Of course, there’s also the food, the port, the cities, the landscape, the Mediterranean way of life…

From Portugal, I flew to Morocco where I spent thirteen days.  Morocco is an explosion for the senses where everything hits you unapologetically and makes you feel more alive!  Everything from the exquisite food, the calls of the vendors in the souqs and its related hustle and bustle, the oppressive desert heat – it’s overwhelming and intoxicating, but somehow leaves you wanting more… DSC00669

After Morocco, it was back to Europe where I relaxed for a couple days in Madrid, then a few hours exploring Zurich and a few days in Budapest, Hungary where I did a few things that I hadn’t done during previous visits, like ride a railway line run by kids!  The conductor, of course, was an adult, but the selling and validating of the tickets were undertaken by kids 10-14 years old…

From Budapest, I took a train to Vienna where I didn’t do nearly as much as I would’ve liked due to an illness that unfortunately had me staying at hostels more often than seeing the city.  After moving on to Salzburg, however, I got my groove back and did plenty of hiking, including a 1400-metre ascent up the Untersberg mountain (part of the Alps), the accomplishment of which highly lifted my spirits!DSC01957

And now, I write this post on a couch in the common room of a hostel in Bled, Slovenia, where I have spent the past four nights.  Bled and the surrounding area is a haven for nature and adventure enthusiasts, and I’ve thorougly enjoyed the past few days strolling around Lakes Bled and Bohinj, taking a dip in pristine waters, appreciating a lazy boat ride, and of course, hiking – to waterfalls, through gorges, through quaint, picturesque towns…

Foreseeable future

There’s just under three months left of travel for me, and I do have at least a rough idea of where I’m going.  I’ll be heading to Ljubljana in a couple days, then southeast to Bosnia and Herzegovina (possibly with a short stop in Croatia), down to Montenegro and the wonderful
Adriatic Sea, then up to Serbia where I’ll catch a flight in Belgrade to London.

I’ll spend a few days in England with family and friends, then fly into Dusseldorf where I’ll meet up with a friend for a couple days before going to Brussels to meet up with another friend.  From there, I’ll fly to Tbilisi, Georgia – the beginning of a one month itinerary in the Caucasus which will also include visits to Armenia, and hopefully Azerbaijan, if I can secure a visa.

After this month, I’ll fly back to Belgrade from Tbilisi, and from there, round out the Balkans with forays into Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria before heading into Turkey where I’ll spend my last week or two before heading home!

Anyone care to join me?

One of those “Wow!” moments

Bonjour tout le monde! It’s been about a week since I’ve been travelling and so far, I’ve made my way through Madrid in Spain, and Lyon, Avignon, and Arles in France. Today, I had the greatest “Wow!” moment yet of my trip – you know, a moment where you’re just totally overwhelmed with the unique surroundings around you that you just literally have to stop in your tracks and say that word “wow” or something similar to it, thinking “how did I get here?” (and maybe spin slowly around in a circle once or twice with wide eyes and a dumbfounded expression, if you’re so inclined)…

view from the Tour Philippe le Bel, with the Fort Saint-André in the background

view from the Tour Philippe le Bel, with the Fort Saint-André in the background

Without getting very detailed, I made my way from the city centre of Avignon to a quaint little town called Villeneuve-lès-Avignon of winding lanes and faded red rooftops surrounded by verdant countryside. It’s just a 20-minute walk crossing the Rhône River, and not a minute passes by between marvelling at picturesque landscapes. Part of what’s so great about this town is that it’s largely devoid of tourists who flock en masse to the more renowned Avignon, and as such you largely have the town to yourself. You do have to share with the locals, though 😉 Feel free to climb the Tour Philippe le Bel, admire the incredible views from all directions from Fort Saint-André, walk the narrow streets without taking a look at your map, and quite simply marvel at the beauty of the environment around you!

beautiful, lush countryside of Provence - and it's only May!

beautiful, lush countryside of Provence – and it’s only May!

view of Villeneuve-les-Avignon from atop one of the towers of Fort Saint-André

view of Villeneuve-les-Avignon from atop one of the towers of Fort Saint-André

These “wow” moments can consist of anything – interactions with locals; seemingly coincidental encounters; finding yourself amidst a spectacular landscape; getting lost and not knowing the slightest idea on how to find your way back somewhere; being so far removed from what you’re familiar with and what you’re used to; an emotion that you rarely feel that has arisen from within you because of any of the above…Maybe, if the day arrives when I’m unable to have these type of “wow” moments when travelling, I’ll stop. But this traveller hopes that day will never arrive …

cool angle taken when walking away from the fort

cool angle taken when walking away from the fort