The Camino Cleanse

Packing List

No lemons, cayenne pepper or questionable bowel habits – I promise! I’ve already posted about the inevitability of a sexier post-camino ass so you’re not going to take need such drastic measures. And if you don’t know what this camino I’m going on about is, feel free to investigate here, here or here.

This cleanse is an altogether different kind of cleanse. A cleanse that one might achieve by first becoming (arguably) a little bit dirtier.

It started with the realisation that an albergue is simply no place to apply concealer: the lighting is TERRIBLE, you probably have to share the mirror with at least two other people and the all pervading smell of feet will make your efforts seem a bit, well, dirty.

I’m not going to go on an all-out war on make up on or off the camino: there is a pan-species precedent for adornment (thanks Darwin!), and personally I like wearing a bit of lipstick and mascara. But few animals have taken quite as far as the court of the sun king or it’s modern equivalent: Somerset House during London Fashion Week.

At the risk of sounding like a “feminine personal care” advert, we all need to be clean and well presented, but do other people care what we look like as much as we’re lead to beleive?

The back story (or, how I obliterated any sign of my actual face, daily)

As a very long time acne sufferer, I spent at least 20 years covering my skin in “product”.  My skin was very red, bumpy and I would have new painful “blind” spots and whiteheads almost every day. I spent, probably (I’m pretty ashamed to say) thousands of pounds over the course of around 20 years trying to clean, cover or otherwise rid myself of this broken .

I’m eternally thankful to Elaine Mummery whose dietary advice has almost completely rid me of this issue: no topical products required.

But it’s made me angry: mostly about my own naivety . Claims made by cosmetics companies via their generally beautiful and delicately complexioned staff who, (visibly not suffering from skin complaints) could reasonably peddle any advertising information they had been given as some manner of universal skin health truth.

My own profession too, seemed to play into, rather than stand to oppose expensive and medicated solutions.

A free face at last (I know, this back story is going on a bit isn’t it?)

Imperfect, but reasonably clear appearing skin has been a liberation: from the mirror (minimum half hour prep before leaving home) to the obligatory financial toll of all that snake oil from both the skincare and make up industries.

I was glad about the liberation of my own face, but I hadn’t really considered properly stripping back on, say moisturiser, masks, the odd bit of concealer here or there, nor indeed had I thought in any detail about the products which I continued to buy and my role in continuing to fund an industry which is worth more in the

But the camino forced me to pare back further: to really consider the cosmetic choices I continued to make. I left my first albergue with the decluttered wash bag: a toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, body wash, a nail brush, razor, tweezers, black mascara and red lipstick.

No Poo? Low Poo.

The observant among you will have have noted there was no shampoo or conditioner in that list. I’m not technically “no poo”: I do wash my hair once every three to four months – but I did wonder if the sweat and soil of the camino might push me over the edge. I decided to risk it, in the knowledge that shops were never too far away.

But for every one person who recoils in disgust for my “no poo” lifestyle, many more are disturbed, grossed out or squeamish about my “no deo”. I have intermittently not worn deodorant: at home, at the weekend, and the camino seemed as if it might be a bit sweaty regardless, so I dumped it for the 30 day duration as well.

The Unadorned Face

How will people react, when I speak to them, face (and indeed, hair and armpits) unadorned?

It turns out: totally fine. Although my face would best be cast in the part “scullery maid number 3 (no lines)” in a period drama, or on a bad day (and let’s face it, on the Camino there are bad days) as a stand in for Woody Allen, it turns out that other people couldn’t give two hoots.

And yet, in the UK the average spend on cosmetics and skincare alone last year was £1,759 for 19 to 24 year olds, rising to £2,238 in the 45-54 year olds. The beauty industry say women spend this money because it’s fun and empowering to experiment with your look – and I did too – what am I going to say “I spend the money because I’m ashamed of my face”?

Did I (a vegetarian and pet lover) consider animal rights too heavily when I was trying to rid myself of my suppurating skin? Nope. My face became an ethical blind spot: everything was justified in the name of promise never delivered.

The scientific evidence for the products with which we layer our skin is nigh-on non existent. The marketing budgets for all international cosmetic companies dwarf any spending on product development: their investment in really trying to improve our skin.

Still Travelling Light

The make up bag I carried on the camino continues to serve me now. I have some locally made soap in place of the body wash, and I’ll update the make up with ethical cruelty free brands (more difficult than it first appears – advice appreciated) when they run out.

My hair was rinsed many many many times (particularly after swimming in the sea) but no ‘poo was used during the walking. Although I did wash slightly prematurely at the end of the 30 day walk, and my “low poo” regime continues to this day.

As for the antiperspirant? I certainly wouldn’t bother heading back down that road. Ditch your cosmetics for a small soap and a travel face towel and really “freshen up” in the toilets.

Am I saying “ditch a cleaning ritual”, “ditch the pleasure of beautiful scents and fragrant skin”?

No. Feeling relaxed and pampered is a wonderful gift. I’m more likely now to spend money on going to a hamman or spa: paying a person for their time, and some oils or honey than a pot of high-tech empty promises on a shelf.

Although my cleanse was perhaps less spiritual than  most, removed from daily life, this journey across Europe’s north coast can become a place of experimentation: assumptions, possessions and values which we carry can be challenged, and if necessary discarded. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Must we all be beautiful? It’s very tiring and and sometimes a bit of a chore, and I’ve not seen all of series 2 of “House of Cards” yet.





Orchestral ASMR: Intense ASMR Experiences where I’d Least Expected them.


ASMR: a sensory experience so personal, private and internal that it hadn’t been documented as an experience or sensation in any language that I know of. I’m not even sure I’d ever heard it described in literature or song – even obliquely, but in 2009 when I searched “relaxing voice” I became a passive member of a community which had described a sensation and it’s triggers through the medium of short film.

It remains a private experience, on mobiles and computers, usually in bedrooms, late at night. I really thought that it was something that everyone experiences – and to some extent wonder if it could be a more widespread phenomenon, with some people having lower thresholds for triggering it than others. But, in particular among those who haven’t experienced this profound relaxation, there is scepticism. For them, ASMR viewers are enjoying (or are even titillated by) the particular attentions of beautiful women.

And I can understand their scepticism, similar to that voiced for now well investigated sensory phenomena such as synesthesia, or more concretely the sensations associated with the syndrome of “low pressure headache”, described, but controversial, l before the era of MRI revealed “physical evidence” for this.

There is nowhere less sexy than an albergue. It’s a low cost dormitory offered to walkers following the Camino de Santiago*. After walking some 20-40 kilometres (on average) peregrinos pay a minimal sum for a mattress (on the floor or a bunk bed) and retire early (usually) ready for walking early the next morning, before the midday sun.

This summer I walked just shy of 900 kilometres, on the coastal “Camino del Norte”, spending most of my nights in this kind of accommodation.

I have simply never experienced more intensive ASMR, in this most unlikely of places.

The lights in the albergue go out at around 10 or 10.30pm, but for a peak ASMR experience, I’d recommend slipping into your sleeping sack (or sheets) at around 9.30pm.

There’s a bit of visual stuff. People are carefully folding clothes and items for the next day. They move slowly and softly (the walkers are usually very respectful of those who have already gone to sleep), they smooth out their sheets.

But the audio is where the albergue really comes into it’s own. The volume until 9pm can be rowdy or chatty, with little respect for any very early sleepers, but almost like a gradual dimming of the lights in preparation for a performance, the volume drops.

This drop from normal speech amplitudes gives way to a staccato silence punctuated initially by the clicking whispers of the various nationalities on the camino. There might be a crescendo type performance from a chorus of Polish walkers with incomplete plans for the next days’ walking. One of them may break into normal speech by accident. The very fragile nature of unintentional (or as I like to call it “found” ASMR) is part of it’s beauty, and generally a hiss to suggest a return to whispering follows.

These ensembles give way to “soloists”: the late bag packer: carefully clicking, opening, closing bag buckles, the rustler: trying to minimise their plastic bag noise, the walker: low frequency muffled footsteps across a wooden or linoleum floor and the reader: still flicking though the pages of their guide, consulting the next day’s route. There can be special performances: in one albergue a girl methodically detangled her curly hair with a brush, making for a glorious background sound.

In the same way that the enjoyment of the music of an orchestra or band does not rely on the physical attractiveness of that group of people, the source of these soft sounds and movements is very much secondary to their nature.

As others search to experience exhilaration or terror on a roller coaster or go to see a comedian to laugh and be entertained, I seek out the ASMR artists and their well timed soft, tapping and clicking noises for the sensation they create. Something which seems to mainline my central nervous system, producing a profound relaxation, and a sensation which I’d hesitate to call tingling  (but I can see why others would use that word) in my back and neck.

Silence, or worse, snoring drown out the orchestra at usually 10.30-11pm. Despite “hanging on” for the tingling, I was generally asleep by that point anyway.

* Medieval pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela

A Sexier Ass in 30 days? That’s a Given, Baby – Why the Camino Bestows an Allure that Lasts all Winter.

walking uphill

My ass was in excellent condition when I finished the Camino del Norte this summer. I was leaner, with toned legs and “a bit of colour” – which is as sun-kissed as someone with decidedly northern european colouring can manage without flirting with a melanoma or suchlike.

But it’s true that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and my fleetingly toned thighs and rear have given way to flabbier, more pallid self (or “the real me” as any acquaintance might recognise).

But the Camino’s sexiness bestowing powers are more than skin deep!

So here are 5 sexiness enhancing attributes that will last you long into winter:

1. Improved fluency in other languages

Language learning can be a bit sexy, or make you an enormous arse (not of the sexy toned kind). If you are one one of the webs growing community of language learners, you might wish to flex some lingual muscle chatting to some of the many nationalities on the camino.

Walkers are still predominantly Spanish, and if you’re looking for some low cost hispanic immersion, you can definitely find it here. The Ruta del Norte still isn’t as commercial as the French Way, and 30 days of café con leche and the odd caña will certainly give you a solid “holidaymaker’s level”.

Following the publication of French intellectual, Jean Christophe Rufin’s “Immortelle randonée, Compostelle malgré moi” there are a fair number of Frenchies to be found en-route, so learners of the language of Voltaire won’t be disappointed either.

Avoid being an enormous arse by 1) not making prior assumptions about any one person’s level of any given language and 2) being courteous with those who wish to practice their English with you.

2. Amigos Internacionales

On the french route much is made of “a camino family”, a concept I find frankly claustrophobia-inducing (anybody with me on this?). The Camino del Norte offers a more gentle camaraderie on the level of a facebook friend. Return with tales of “your new family” and your mates will think you’ve joined a cult. Return with a scattering of potential European coffee dates and you will instantly seem enchantingly more mondaine.

3. An Enviable Instagram Feed

The millennials are sexy on and offline. I was born in 1980 and as such missed the party by a whisker (very much my general style), my brother, only 18 months younger, is a child of the age of IT.

What makes instagram so annoying, are of course the captions: “enjoying a coffee in Bilbao #caminodesantiago”. Forgo this level of banality. Tell people “yeah, I’m just using it as as sort of visual diary”, and post a date and the hashtag. This alone is more difficult than it sounds as both wifi and plugs can be at a premium.

The occasional, well curated yellow arrow tells a story. Don’t snap ’em all.

Alternatively do snap ’em all. Every last one of the bastards. Geotag and provide a detailed description of each one. You’ll be walking for two extra weeks (at least), but some news media outlet will take up the story of one walker’s obsession with yellow paint.

This should not need said but: DO NOT POST PICTURES OF YOUR FEET.

4. Real or Imagined Survival Skills

But predominantly imagined ones. The important thing is that you survived in the Spanish wilderness with only a flick-knife  some safety pins and your credit card. And that card was NOT accepted at all local retailers.

To your friends in an office in Luton, you might as well be Bear Ghrylls.

5. Profound Insights and Wisdom from this Mediative Experience.

Nietzche, Kant, Bear Grylls, that French one (see above), Dickens, Orwell and Ray Mears .

Many great thinkers and writers are great walkers. Thankfully, and the human brain is better at lazy association than an imagined venn diagram where you are placed within in the “walkers but not thinkers” crescent.

Step after step on the white stones on the forest floor, being buffeted in a costal crosswind or sheltering from a torrential downpour under one of those charming Galician grain shelters, it would be easy to think you were contemplating the greater matters in life, and it’s in the interests of your sexiness that you cultivate this. “I’m running out of Compeed*”, “I think I left my towel in the last albergue” or “I hope that snoring guy isn’t there tonight” don’t have the same pulling power.

My own most profound insight from the Camino was that Paulo Coelho’s the Alchemist is a reliable and powerful “screening question” at parties. “I totally love that book” should provoke a sudden, and urgent need for a trip to the toilet.

*other blister plasters are available, but none are as good.

Culinary discovery on the Camino

A walk through the Spain’s North Coast with an unlimited food budget would be a discovery indeed. The Spanish culinary Renaissance is in full swing and the Michelin guide has been complementary in it’s sprinkling of stars over this region.

For the moment, I’m better placed to review relative prices of jars of chick peas in Carrefour and Dia supermarkets.

That’s not to say that there aren’t revelations to be had. The other day I discovered that it’s possible to guzzle non-liquid foodstuffs (chocolate raisins… 2 packets) and that under the right conditions (no other food for 20k) the proteinacious brine surrounding beans can be surprisingly tasty in and of it’s self. I don’t think the palates at Michelin have anything to worry about.

I first saw this contraption at Castillo, walking from Laredo to Güemes. It seems to aerate the drink, adding, I’m told, to ‘El sabor’. Very nice it is too.

Santander and the midday sun

New strategy: the midday drawing. 

This is a bit risky because the camino del Norte is proving popular this year and albergues are filling up. Today I’ve phoned to reserve at a private albergue for the first time as otherwise there would be a 39 km hike between two public ones. I would be pushing my right at my limits with that – especially in the sun. 

La Catedral, Urban Coffee is the sort of place where you know that you’ll be overcharged for the coffee. Their cheesecake, however, is worth the hit. 

I don’t really do baked cheesecakes but I heard some other customers raving about it. The waiter concurred and promised it would be muy rico. It has a thin layer of quite tasty raspberry jam, and wasn’t too clawey. The coffee lasted considerably longer than the cake.


My constant companion on the Ruta del Norte is the Atlantic Ocean and I wanted to get some practice in with waves and the sea, to try too early away from a symbolic shorthand.

I’m getting better at fitting in some drawing in my walking day, and hope to get to some actual coastal scenes.  
 This was a quick attempt at an evening scene at Pobeña, although I didn’t implement any of my waves practice.

El camino (del norte) sin miedo or 10 pre-camino fears debunked!

Here are 10 questions I asked my Andaluz students (the initially confident salesmen turned ill-informed instigators of this travel plan), prior to embarking on the Camino del Norte.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’d prefer something more informative than “¿Yo qué sé?” or  “¿En serio, te vas?”, so the answers are now my own.

  1. ¿Como voy a saber a donde ir?

I know, I know, I know: the yellow arrows. The question how to know where to go is one of confidence. You WILL know where to go, but until you experience it for yourself, you may not believe it (certainly my own experience). You’ve got a smart phone (probably), you can say at least “¿el camino de santiago por favor?”, and you may have a guide book. You are not going to get lost. Well not very often. And not at first at any rate.

If you’re starting from Irun or San Sebastian, and you’re walking with the Atlantic on your right hand side, you are  probably going the right way, and this holds true for a good majority of the walk.

The temptation is to walk on the promenades “not to miss an arrow”, but PLEASE release your feet from their sweaty bindings. Walking in the wet sand where the sea meets the shore is considerably less taxing than pushing through dry sand, and the sea and salt will soothe and strengthen your feet: nature’s natural blister remedy –  right where you need it most! One caveat: wash and dry your feet thoroughly at the many showering stations on any beach. Time taken looking after feet on this path is a sound investment. Remaining sand and moist feet will turn your socks into sandpaper and your feet into tender meat.

2. ¿Necesito una guia?

If you’re a nervy sort, then yes: you are going to need a guidebook. It is perfectly possible to do the camino without, although I think Spanish speakers would be in a stronger position. My students told me that it would be “muy facil compar una guía en San Sebastian”. And it was, very easy to buy A GUIDE IN CASTELLANO, in my native language, or indeed my pretty strong French: NADA.

The shopkeeper in Elkar pointed me towards a very neat, smaller than A5 volume, published by Rother. And it was an excellent recommendation. I had since written to the publisher suggesting they consider a French and English version in their next update, but Rother have sadly informed me that their only update in 2016 will be the German version.

3. ¿Que llevo conmigo?

Ah. The question which launched a thousand posts. Not to mention video blogs and forum questions. The ultimate guide on what to bring on the camino, is as elusive as it is searched for. The truth: as in so much in life, no one solution fits all. These guys have an excellent stab at it:

My personal favourite: Andrew Suzuki’s “Don’t stop walking”

Also commendable are Lindsey Cowie’s heavier, but probably comfier recommendations and a retrospective run down by the couple from “See you soon mom”.

Like the rest of the internet (!) I’ll be compiling a list of what I brought and what I would take next time. The main selling point of my list is that it was ultra cheap – having, as I did, a budget of around 150€ to prepare (including rucksack purchase!).

4. ¿Como es el clima en la costa en verano?

In theory the answer to this is: “it doesn’t really matter what the weather’s like, if you’ve got the right stuff”. In practice, even the for the ultra-high-spec-gear walkers, the major enemy of the peregrinos is the damp.

In my thirty days from San Sebastian to Santiago in June, I experienced 2 days of heavy downpour and 2 days of cloudiness with occasional light showers. The temperature seldom dipped below 18 degrees during the day, and although I saw a few of late afternoons with temperatures of over 30 degrees, the temperatures for walking were mostly closer to 25 degrees.

Things get pretty sweaty inside a waterproof, and bag straps can rub on skin. This is where your high tech fabrics wicking the sweat away from your the skin surface may have an advantage. I’ve mentioned damp feet, and on one day I actually stopped to dry my feet and change my socks before continuing onwards. Aim to pick up some sheets of newspaper at a bar prior to arriving at the albergue on a wet day: stuffing your shoes will help you avoid the misery of a cold, damp boot in the morning.

5. ¿Y si no quiero dormir abajo de las estrellas, podré encontrar sitio para dormir, sí?

Claro que sí.

There are more albergues on the ruta del Norte every year, although, you may have to walk further to get one than one might expect on the Camino Francés.

Sin embargo:

There is one particular area of “patchiness” in the Camino del Norte: depending on the distances covered and route: after Aviles, until and including Ribadeo. I stayed in more guest houses and private albergues in this part of the route than in any other.

Muros de Nalon:   Casa Carmina (Private Albergue, highly recommended – 15€, but some distance from any bars or shops)

Ballota: Casa Fernando (Low price hotel, shared room with 2 other walkers, to the tune of 23€ each)

Luarca: the closest I came to homelessness – on the wettest day of my camino. This stunning fishing village is a draw for travellers of every type, so it’s best to aim to arrive early  in the day. I found out to my cost : 45€, by far my priciest accommodation at the Hotel Baltico.

Arboces (La Caridad): this was a €5 albergue, seriously basic and quite isolated from any kind of provisions (which the owner took full advantage of: offering a free lift to his own restaurant in the town…)

Ribadeo: with only 12 beds, I didn’t manage to get into the Albergue de Ribadeo either. Another €20 down and I stayed in a retro-from-the-first-time-round, impeccably clean 70’s style hotel: Hostal Orol.

6. ¿Hay muchas fuentes en el norte?

Or otherwise worded “I have a 1.5litre SIGG bottle, will there be enough public water to keep this topped up during the day, or do I need another water bottle?”

I kept an additional 500ml bottle topped up, but only ended up using it on the following days:

Deba to Markina Xemein

Markina Xemein to Gernika

Castro Urdiales to Laredo

Ribadesella – Sebrayo

Lourenzá – Gontán (a particularly “dry” stage in my opinion)

Baamonde – Sobrado Dos Monxes

7. ¿Cuanto me costera, en tu opinion?

I had 800€ to last the month.

It was enough. With about 40€ to spare.

But I’ll admit to having had a more frugal camino than most. My eating requirements are irritatingly complex, but didn’t have to be expensive.  I mainly drank (free) water, bought food in local shops and supermarkets, and stayed in municipal albergues where possible.

8. ¿Es peligroso andar sola como mujer?

When I announced my intentions to walk the camino, a concerned friend forwarded me information on Denise Thiem, at that time missing, now known to have been murdered on the Camino Francés.

It was news which unsurprisingly devastated the camino community, and has had a lasting impact on the solo peregrina. Safety is something that you should take very seriously, although I do believe that it would be a terrible shame not to undertake the walk for this reason.

On one occasion, a still drunk from the night before Spaniard tried to strike up a slightly leery conversation.

Other than that I can really say that I had no problems at all. I was glad to be walking with a stick, which did help me feel that I’d be able to whack any approaching wrongdoer. Some other walkers had whistles, and even simply to alarm anyone approaching, I think this is a great idea, and I’ll certainly be taking one on any future walks!

9. ¿Que voy a comer?

I’m vegetarian, I don’t eat gluten (secondary to bad acne breakouts). No bread on the camino is an inconvenience and an expense! It also renders a menu del día pretty inedible.

The provision of fridges in albergues is variable, and there may be a good few items stuffed into these shelves by the time you arrive. Don’t count on them, that’s what I’m saying.

I carried a small knife, a vegetable peeler, and to the amusement of many other walkers, a miniature colander clipped to the side of my bag.

What I ate on the camino:

Bananas – by the truckload. 6 bananas in one day? easy.

Other fruit and veg: paraguayos (I called them “flat peaches” translating directly from French before discovering they are more exotically named “saturn peaches” in English), plums, carrots, cucumbers, peppers (the occasional treat of an avocado or even a mango) anything not requiring cooking really.

Five hundred gram jars of chickpeas or haricot beans cost about 50 cents, and can be washed at any drinking fountain with your handy colander! I added a can of “pisto” (a Spanish relative of ratatouille), cold of course. I would say that this was a staple lunch.

I would sometimes push the boat out with a can, or packet of “espinacas con garbanzos” (spinach with chickpeas).

Cheese didn’t travel well, and was relatively expensive so unless I bought it with someone for immediate sharing, it wasn’t high on the comestibles list.

Initially, I managed to avoid chocolate and crisps, as I would usually try to keep to a healthier diet: but the calorific demands of the camino would not be satisfied by the pure veg that I had time to prepare!

My camino indulgence was an expresso with a slice of spanish tortilla. Having since found out how this is made (with A LOT more olive oil, potatoes and eggs than you’d think), it’s unsurprising that I was unable to resist it come 10 or 11am.

10. ¿Necesito estar en forme?

Not really.

The real question is how much time and how big a budget do you have? The camino del Norte involves quite a bit of “up and down” and some official stretches  can be long, but by taking it slow at the start I think that most people could work themselves up to it during the walk.

If you don’t have the time or money for that, get out walking for at least a few weekends before. For the sake of your feet if not your fitness!



Reading, investigation and preparation are all part of the camino journey, but ultimately, the questions we ask ourselves can best be answered though experience and reflection: on camino as in life 🙂


keys handed in. 

1 hour to spare, me and my rucksack (again, I think there will be a theme) and a quick sketch.

Downsizing also in ambition because I  traded my A4 book for a more manageable A5 size. The reality of sketching on the road won out!