The following narrative of our September 2012 Camino Frances was written in 2014 as I prepared to walk the Portuguese Camino from Lisbon to Santiago de Compstela. Melanie and I had kept 20th century notes of our earlier walk in journals using something called “pens” (Google that if you don’t know what they are) but we figured that committing them to eternity on the internet may possibly be entertaining to someone one day. Enjoy.
28 August 2012 – We depart Singapore late at night on Singapore Airlines. Melanie & I get a very pleasant surprise when our seats are upgraded to business class with seats that lay flat for sleeping. Wow. Someone is looking out for us. Needless to say, it was a great start to our Camino.
29 August – After arrival in Charles de Gaulle Airport, we find the train to Montparnasse Train Station (9.25€). It was fairly easy to find but a little knowledge of French helped. We probably should have stuck our head out of the underground station to look at the Paris skyline but we were too busy getting train tickets to Bayonne (88€). That trip was surprisingly boring for some reason, maybe too high expectations. We loved Bayonne though. It was a lovely little town and we stayed in an old pensionne, Hotel San Miguel. It was basic but nice and easy walking distance from the train station. Melanie made friends with the first fellow pilgrim that we ran into, Gary (Gargaray) from Hungary. Gary worked in Europe as a busboy and gave Melanie one of his scallop shells which he stole from the restaurant where he worked. Scallop shells are the symbols that identify pilgrims to each other so Melanie proudly hung hers from her backpack. As the train to St. Jean Pied de Port was to leave early the next morning, we bought tickets that evening (9.40€). While we were sitting around the train station, a lot of pilgrims gathered around to take a bus to SJPdP. We stuck by our original plan and took the train the next morning. That night, we walked over the river to the Cathedral and the old part of town. I’m not used to towns this old but I will be by the end of the Camino. For the fun of it, we had Lebanese food for dinner and called it a night.
30 August – Bayonne > St. Jean Pied de Port > Orisson (8km walking)
The train trip to St. Jean Pied de Port took only about an hour and a half. In some ways, I wish it took longer. The views out the window were nicer than the day before. There were several other pilgrims on board but they seemed to know each other well already. They sounded Canadian but were as loud as the reputations for Americans. We kept to ourselves partially to enjoy the view but also I was a bit nervous. 800kms?!?!? What were we about to do?
Once we arrived in St. Jean, I got my bearings and headed towards the old part of town to the Pilgrims’ Office. We had to register and get our credencials (pilgrim passport) before finding a place to stay for the night. Most fellow pilgrims seemed to help keep each other heading in the right direction and I hope that’s a good sign of what our next month will be like. At the Pilgrim Office, the woman who is the English speaker is busy so I told the amigo speaking French that I will be able to understand him. Much to my amazement, I actually can remember enough from high school classes. He told us that we are starting a little late to go to Roncevalles and asks us if we want to stop in Orisson. Huh? We were not planning to walk at all today but what and where is Orisson? Roncevalles is the Spanish town 27kms on the other side of the Pyrenees and I wasn’t about to walk there today. He explained that Orisson is the site of the first real refuge, only 8km up the mountain (630m up though). We could stop there and get a head start for the next day to Roncevalles. When fate calls, we listen. The amigo called the refuge for us as we need reservations. There are only two spaces left but they are in tents. Fate seems to have hung up on us but we decided to give it a try anyway. We’re on our way! Sort of. About 100 meters down the road, Melanie turns to me and asks, “why are we doing this again?”
It’s a steep 8km but we have made headway. We passed a woman from Kentucky and another from Indiana. We briefly chat but keep going. It starts to rain as a young woman catches up to us. While we get wet trying to get our rain gear on, this woman casually tosses a poncho on herself without missing a step. I’m impressed. By the time we get to Orisson, we’re tired but not drained – at least until it hits us that we have just completed only 1% of the whole Camino! We were told by the hospitalero that he may have beds for us, rather than a tent, if we want to wait to see if others with reservations arrive. That sounds good as I am not sure staying in a cold, wet tent is a great idea anymore. While waiting, we had lunch. We also met a Japanese man who is cycling from Paris but is now resting before going on to Roncevalles. We had a fun chat in broken English but we’re amazed that he is doing this – in his 70’s! We also met the young lady with the poncho that passed us earlier. She looks shattered both physically and emotionally. Melanie tries to comfort her but it turns out that she is from Brazil and speaks only Portuguese and German. Through sign language and a few words in a variety of languages, we learn she still has 19km more to go to Roncevalles. It is going to be a long slog for her as most people walking that far left long ago. It’s cold and wet outside, the kind of weather that chills you to the bone. She looked thoroughly dejected and I briefly consider giving her my bed and letting Melanie catch up the next day. The thought of abandoning Melanie on this first day in a country where she does not speak any of the language makes me think twice though so we see the woman off with our best wishes and encouragement. For the balance of her story, you have to fast forward to Santiago where we meet again. Like her, the Japanese biker, “Kentucky” and “Indiana”, as well as all the 30+ people who stayed at Orisson, we often think of these people along the next 790km. Initially these are our Camino family although we walk at different speeds and not all plan or are able to go the whole way to Santiago de Compostela. Before I forget, I should tell you that not only did we get dry accommodations that night but we were assigned to one of the only two private rooms in the refuge. Also, while at lunch, a few young girls got into an argument with the hospitalero. They “demanded” rooms as they were tired and they didn’t have reservations. Apparently, he is known to have a short fuse and eventually kicked them out the door with one of my favorite quotes: “Go to Spain!” We had a communal dinner that was fun and everyone had to stand, and introduce themselves. Most people said their names, where they were from and why they were walking. I, being the smartass, said “My name is Michael and I am an alcoholic.” After a few seconds of silence while everyone translated what I said into their native tongue and figured out that I was not serious, they finally had a great laugh. I asked “What, is this the wrong meeting?” Always the joker. Our clothes dripped on us all night long from the makeshift clothesline in our room but we were luckier that the other folks in the communal rooms. All in all, a good first day.
31 August – Orisson > Roncevalles (19km)
We walk today in the clouds. It’s cool but I hated wearing long pants yesterday and I’m happy with the shorts today. We get occasional showers but it’s okay. We haven’t packed our raingear at the bottom of the backpack this time. Along the walk, I’m thinking of the movie “The Way”. There are many places I could imagine that someone would take a wrong turn and fall off the side of a pass. It really is beautiful here though and we see many Basque shepherds. We’re climbing another 625m and also stop at a food cart, the last stamp for our credencials in France. Fruit, hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese and coffee are a welcome site. We also see quite a number of pilgrims spread out in a line both forward and backward to the horizon. We’re passing through the route that Napoleon and other armies back to Roman times used to invade Spain. We can sense the history as we walk. We can also sense our legs, feet and shoulders aching too. We pass Roland’s fountain and get a little lost but all the pilgrims around have a conference. We decide unanimously that we are lost and we head into two different directions. Eventually, we find trail markings again and we head 470m down the other side, through the tree line. Eventually, we reach the ancient village of Roncevalles. The albergue is awesome. The building is several hundred years old with 4 person Ikea “rooms” inside. After a shower and arranging washing of our clothes, we head out for a late lunch and a gentle stroll around the other five buildings in town, including Roland’s stables. After a rest, we have dinner in the same restaurant, this time sharing a meal family style with many other pilgrims. I recommend the soup to the Norwegian woman sitting next to me, explaining that I had it for lunch. She looked at me with complete incredulity and asked “You eat twicea day?!?!” I guess I should not say anything about breakfast, huh? We also attend a mass service in the chapel and receive a lovely pilgrims’ blessing. It was all in Spanish but lovely none the less. Sleep was tough that night with the communal snoring, commode flushing and the strange bed but eventually I got rest…. Until, of course, the alarms start going off at 5:00am. Huh? Soon people were up, making a racket and heading out the door. Oh my.
1 September – Roncevalles > Burguete > Zubiri > Larrasoana (27km, 7 hours)
Even with our 7:00am departure, we are walking in the dark at the beginning but we were among the last to leave the albergue. We find out later that it isn’t a bad idea to leave early. Not only do we do less walking in the heat of the day but we can get a bed at a town about 25km further down the trail. We are still mainly heading down hill but it is still in the mountains and we walk through dark forests. After we reach Zubiri, it’s too hot and sunny so we stop for some lunch. By 3:00pm, we rolled into Larrasoana and the main albergue was full. We found space in the old 28 bed / 6€ albergue across the road which is now used for overflow. Everyone is comparing their blisters. We soon get into what turns out to be a daily ritual of showering, washing our clothes, heading out for food (if we haven’t had it already) and resting again before dinner. We chat with some of the Aussies we met at dinner in Orisson and they warn me against going near a bar due to my alcoholism. They are too funny. I also sit outside the only store in town with a bunch of other pilgrims to buy some fruit and clothes pins. Apparently, it only opens at 5:00pm on Saturdays. By 6:00pm, most of us give up waiting and head back to the albergues. Dinner is at the only bar in town and we meet Jose from Barcelona for the first time. Also with us is Hillary from Brisbane and her friend Ann, a tough Irish lass who took intensive Spanish lessons and works incredibly well as our translator. Lots of food and wine for only 11€. I could get used to this…. except, of course, for the aches all over my body.
2 September – Larrasoana > Villava > Pamplona > Cizur Menor > Galar! > Zariquiegui (26km, 10 hours)
This was a day of high highs and low lows. We left at 6:45am and had a beautiful walk into Pamplona through the parks of the suburbs. Walking up to the massive walls of the old Roman city is breathtaking. As we head up through the old French Gate that pilgrims have passed for a millennia, I am speechless. It’s not often I am in a 2,000 year old fortified town. Just steps before the gate, we are stopped by an old man who asks us if we are pilgrims. When we say we are, he asks if he can bless us. I nearly have tears in my eyes. After a brief invocation, Melanie thanked the padre and he lightly smacked her on her butt. I guess he wasn’t a priest after all but we laughed… eventually. Many friends including Ann and Hillary stopped in Pamplona but we continued through, walking with Jose. He’s done parts or all of the Camino several times before, once in 24 days. He walks at a blistering pace and only eats while walking so we say goodbye to have some lunch. Not much is open on a Sunday on the other side of the old town but a nice deli is found. Back on the trail, we pass through the University of Navarra which I have renamed University of Nirvana. The female students are absolutely gorgeous! After Cizur Menor, we see a sign that says today’s destination of Zariquiegui is 2km away. That should not take long but it does. I swear that we missed it and we double back to a village on the hill near to path. We get there during siesta time and have to wait for someone to wake up. By the time a woman does and comes outside, it’s getting late. Sadly, she tells us that we are in Galar and then points to the next hill on the horizon and we’re off again. Luckily we make it to the small crowded albergue by 5:00pm and meet up with the smiling Jose. He introduces us to other Spanish speakers and the in-house dinner is awesome. The distance noted above that we “officially” walked today should be about 5km more if you included my error.
3 September – Zariquiegui > Obanos > Puenta la Reina > Maneru (17.6km, 7 hours)
I was a bit disappointed with the distance we walked today but we both have blisters and Melanie’s are worse. Mine came up the day I tried to use the Under Armour socks instead of the tried and tested liners with woolen hiking socks. Dummy. I have also lost sensation in my big toe which is what happened after climbing Mount Kinabalu. That worries me much more as it took several weeks to recover from that. Today we climbed the hill to Alto del Perdon. Along the ridge there were many wind turbines but also the famous sheet metal pilgrims on the hill that separates north and south Europe. As promised, the plants look different just over the hill. Puenta la Reina looks like a beautiful old small town with tiny streets that make the tall ancient buildings lining them look like canyon walls. We crossed Rio Arga on the old bridge that gave the city its name and made our way the last 4km to Maneru. We pass a fence along the highway and notice many crosses made of sticks that pilgrims have placed in the links. We add our own. We thought about going the extra 3km to Ciraqui but we were beat. We found the small albergue just past the village square but the hospitalero is hard to find. Apparently it’s a local holiday and “everyone” is up at the bar behind the church. Eventually he returns to tell us where to get a bunk and we go into the daily ritual. He adds though that there will be no restaurants open that day because everyone is at the festivities. Great. We drink our lunch but he buys the ten pilgrims staying there some eggs, potatoes and chorizo and tells us to make our own. We can communicate well and we each do our own thing. Sort of. We end up eating very late and there seems to be heaps of potatoes left after one person could only eat two of the ten he cooked for himself. Disheartened, we clean up and head off to bed. Sadly, in the middle of the night, there is an almighty crash. The next morning, we discover that somehow, all the plates and glasses fell off the counter where they were drying. A few pilgrims sneak out but a few of us also stay back to clean up. The hospitalero was not happy. Melanie & I gave him a few euros but it was just a gesture. We never found out what happened but my guess was rats or someone looking for water; either that or a drunk hospitalero returning after the party. We also had the unpleasant task of telling some pilgrims who arrived too late, after we were full, that they had to go to the next town. They begged us to let them sleep on the floor but we had no authority for that. Sad; they looked so desperate.
4 September – Maneru > Cirauqui > Lorca > Estella > Ayegui > Irache > Villamayor de Monjardin (27km)
This was a tough walk for me but a tougher one for Melanie. I’m not sure if it was because of the aches, blisters and distance or the excessive wine at Irache. Yes, you heard me right. There is a bodega at Irache that is famous for not only providing a fountain for water but another for wine. Pilgrims are encouraged to partake to gain sustenance for our Camino. We didn’t need to be asked twice. We got a tad sloshed but we had a lot of fun for the next 5km. This was also the start of my Facebook Blog as a photo of us at the fountain generated 84 “likes” and 22 comments, the most I had ever seen to date. As we approached Villamayor de Monjardin, we were impressed by the stunning castle on the hill that overlooks not only the town but the entire plain for kilometers in every direction.
When we arrived at the municipal albergue at Villamayor, the Dutch woman who ran the place apologized and said that they were full. We would be allowed to shower but we would have had to sleep outside on the covered sports court. She did tells us of a B&B a few hundred meters down the road and said they may have space. As best we could, we nearly ran and were relieved to find that they still had two of three bedrooms available. There is no way Melanie was going to walk another 10km to the next town and neither of us were keen to sleep outside in these cold nights. For 45€ we would get pure comfort in an ancient home for the night. Best of all, there is no snoring. We decided that night that once per week on the Camino, we needed a night of sanity like this. We had dinner at the bar next to the albergue so that we could feel more like our friends. The pilgrim meal filled us to our content but we skipped the wine this evening.
A mother and daughter from Poland we had met previously stopped in the B&B after they had filled the last of the bedroom. They begged the hospitalero to be allowed to sleep on the floor but he won’t allow it. Again, I wonder if I should give up my space but decide against it. It turns out that they spend the night outside. They had to wear every piece of clothing they had to stay warm. They were across the square from the church that happily ordered its bell to toll every 15 minutes all night long. During the more silent intervals, our friends just had to worry if the things crawling over them were rats or the village cats.
5 September – Villamayor de Montjardin > Los Arcos > Torres del Rio > Vianna (30km)
Another long, hard day with little shade or stopping points between the towns. The sun in the afternoon was burning and we paid for starting a little late in the morning. Walking in the dark isn’t great but it’s cool. Walking in the heat of noontime with the sun within touching distance is brutal. Vianna was a lovely town despite the fact that no store sells cold drinks. It’s obvious that they are preparing the town for their “running of the bulls” festival but we would have to stay three more days to watch. Since I can barely walk without a few hours of limbering up, I doubt I could run with the bulls and there is no option to limp with the cows. We miss the albergue and have to double back a bit but only a few hundred meters. We get assigned to a room with three sets of triple decker bunk beds. I settle into the clouds. We make friends with Kadhi who is with her new found boyfriend, giggling like kids down below. There are also a humorous Kiwi couple and their British friend who are cracking us up about the sleeping arrangements. After spending a few hours in the queue to wash our clothes and hang them in the bicycle storeroom, I meet a bunch of Koreans in the kitchen. We chat for a while using all five phrases I know in Korean and I find out that one of them worked in Saudi Arabia (Yanbu & Jeddah) the same time I was there. Paella & wings for dinner was not really a pilgrim menu but we treated ourselves.
6 September – Vianna > Logrono > Navarrete (22.4km, 5 hours)
We set of at 7:00am today but only walk until noon. Logrono is a pretty large city and we feel quite strange in an urban setting with so many people walking around. The arrows are hard to find and follow once we cross the river into the town. The bridges and older buildings are beautiful but the modern building look so out of place for us. Did we just time travel into the 21s century? Navarette is an old village built on a round mound sticking up from the plain. Our short walking day meant that we are the first to check into the municipal albergue. It’s nice but otherwise forgettable. There also is no wi-fi in town. I now have small blisters on both feet but that is not stopping me. It’s just painful. Sadly, I also feel nauseous and I’m not sure why. A nap helps me but I’m not too thrilled that every other place in town closes for siesta. I guess if it’s good enough for me, it should be okay for others. For whatever reason, the walk today got me thinking of the trailside memorials that we have seen to pilgrims who have passed away while walking. There are quite a few of them and they make you think of your own mortality. It also makes me think of my Dad – “If I slow down, I’ll stop”.
7 September – Navarrete > Najera > Azorfa (23km, 5 ½ hours)
With a 6:30am start, we decide again to stop at noon. It was hot and dusty after 8:30am but before that, absolutely lovely walking weather. We are still passing vineyards and I am still sticking with my principles of not tasting any grapes. I want to but it’s a religious penance thing or, I guess more like a “fight the devil’s whisper in my ear”. I mistakenly filled my water bottle today with spring water, rather than potable water but I survived. In fact, I feel better than yesterday.
The 7€ albergue in Azorfa is not to be missed. We all have double rooms (ours is #0, next to the front desk), no bunks, free laundry, a very large kitchen with lots of seating, a small foot pool and lots of drying area. I am also hit on by a cute young Swedish girl who seems to be willing to trade “friendship” for Camino sponsorship. As soon as I said the magic words “my wife and I…” She turned on her heels and hit on the next guy coming through the door. I watched her try a few more and she eventually did find someone. I hope he had good negotiations skills. Melanie met Kim, a young boy from Vietnam, by way of Germany who was having trouble with his bar of laundry / body / hair soap. Melanie gave him some laundry soap and he was very appreciative. For a day, he would be thrilled to smell different from his clothing. I tried to help a poor Korean woman whose shoulders were rubbed raw by her backpack. It was not an appropriate one for hiking as the waist strap was only there to keep the bag in place. It could not put any weight on the hips. Sadly I was probably unable to do much for her other than tell her to get another bag. Lunch at the bar on the main road was more memorable for the local Four (tipsy) Tenors singing than the food.
As much as I wanted to cry yesterday, today I am happy. Melanie is also doing significantly better and she out-walked me much of the day. I think she is using nectarines as a drug. The corn on her small toe and other blisters are tough on her but she is a trooper.
Finally. there was a festival in town yesterday which was fun to watch but it also meant listening to the Macarena at 3:30am and fireworks at 5:15am. Happy Harvest Festival everyone! I guess we’ll head off to Redecilla a bit earlier than planned.
8 September – Azorfa > Ciruena > Santo Domingo de la Calzada > Granon > Redecilla del Camino (25.3km, 7 hours)
It wasn’t easy finding our way out of Azorfa today but eventually we were on our way. Ciruena is our first look at what went wrong in the Spanish real estate market. Many completely new towns with ultramodern town homes were built out in the middle of nowhere. They look abandoned or houses owned by people in Madrid who use them for a week in summer as a getaway. Santo Domingo is the patron saint of civil engineers so I stopped at the cathedral there to say a prayer for all my civil (and uncivil) engineer friends. The prayer was from outside the church though, because of the 2.50€ entrance fee! It turns out that we should have stocked up on supplies instead of praying. When we get to Redecilla, we find out that there are no stores and tomorrow is Sunday. Snacks and our fruit breakfast will be hard to find. Oops. At least not a soul snores tonight but we still wake up at 5:30am. I must have been freaked out by the silence.
9 September – Redecilla del Camino > Belorado > Villafranca Montes de Oca (24.6km, 5 ½ hours)
We walk through many small towns today, happily along a minor road, rather than along some of the bigger highways from yesterday. It was a great day for walking as it was a little overcast. Every now and then it began to drizzle but never enough to break out the rain gear. We were scared but thankful. We stopped for breakfast at a small bakery and we met the first people that really got under my skin on the Camino. Three Spanish men had been walking, talking loudly, blocking the trail for photos, then rushing past again. At a bakery for breakfast, we politely queue up but they push to the front and shout out their orders like they were regulars in a New York Deli. Bastardos. With the early start and finish today, we got to the albergue by 11:30am. It wasn’t opened yet so we sat on the steps out front and started a queue. A few others joined us before the noon opening. We all waited patiently for the hospitalero but then the three loud amigos show up. They just push past, claim some beds and jump in the showers. Others are angry but slowly, several other people follow them – “when in Spain….” I’m pissed and end up in the same room with the jerks who have taken three lower bunks. They all snored loudly through their siesta. At 9:30pm, they each grabbed their gear and head out to another room. Who knows why but I have a bad taste in my mouth. The bad taste wasn’t from lunch though. That was in the very good restaurant / bar El Pajero. We had to eat there since I drove their car in Saudi Arabia. I also had a lovely, ice cold beer that soon becomes my custom. I also had a strange experience when I helped take in other’s people laundry when it started to rain. I managed to move several pilgrim’s clothes to the covered clothes line but one guy came out to complain. He tells me that he doesn’t want “people like me touching his things”. Huh? What’s wrong with old, fat, bald guys? You can’t please everyone.
10 September – Villafranca Montes de Oca > San Juan de Ortega > Ages > Atapuerca > Cardenuella Riopico (24.6km, 6 ¼ hours)
We did not sleep well last night and Melanie, in particular, is suffering. Immediately out of town, we have a steep climb of about 230m over 3km then we walk a trail in the thick pine forest on the ridge for about 12km. We stopped – for too long – for breakfast in the tiny town of San Juan de Ortega. I reckon our leg muscles didn’t like the break and our outside seat gave me a view of all the pilgrims walking past. I need a mantra – “it’s not a race, it’s not a race, it’s not a race….” The Spanish (again!) were all getting served first and there was only one toilet in the place. We were surprised to see our old friend, Jose, from Larrasoana. He must have slowed down somewhere but we found the secret of his pace. For breakfast he has a very large beer! Eventually we get out of there and pass through tiny Ages and Atapuerca. While it is nice to see Jose again, we also said goodbye today to Hillary, a friend that we met the same dinner as Jose. We have shared many discussions with her so far but she had news from home that her son was suddenly moving to the US from Australia so she wanted to hurry to Santiago then back home to see him and the grand children before they left. Hillary has had significant problems along the trail with blisters but she is a trooper. She ended up using sandals and walking crazy distances before having to take a bus in order to catch the plane.
After breakfast, we were to climb a famous Camino rocky hill, Montes de Oca, known for the bandits that regularly hung out on during the Middle Ages. Pilgrims had to form groups to climb it for safety but many were penniless by the other side. I’m walking a bit in front of Melanie and climb the hill, watching for 600 year old bandits. At the top, there is a large cross and a lot of rock art on the plateau. I walk around for a while, waiting for Melanie. Eventually, I walk back to the edge and look for her. Uh oh, she wasn’t that far behind. I climb back down and still don’t see her. I check the arrows and they are plain to follow so I set out back towards Atapuerca. It was only a few hundred meters before I find Melanie struggling badly. An old man had given her a candy which seem to stop her in her steps. We climb the thieves den (again for me), this time at half pace. I promise Melanie to stop in the next town which turns out to be a truly tiny village. The good news is that the private albergue in an old house lives up to its name – it’s private! We are in a room with only a queen sized bed and a private bathroom. We’re in heaven!! Surprisingly, the other guests in this little place turn out to be my Swedish girlfriend from Azorfa with her new boyfriend ATM. Also there is our friend, Jose. The hospitalero made us a lovely dinner with assistance from Jose and his friend. The only bad thing about the place is that we see our first bedbug. Our gear all gets hung where possible and we carefully pack the next day.
11 September – Cardenuella Riopico > Burgos > Tardajos > Rabe del la Calzada (24.8km, 7 hours)
The big story of today should be about Burgos. There is an incredibly boring walk around the airport and through an industrial area this large city. There is a stunning cathedral and old town. There are shops to get everything you need. There are people and tall buildings everywhere. There is a nice walk out of town through the suburbs. But nothing they have compares to the hospitalera in our albergue in tiny Rabe del la Calzada. She is crazier than a loon and scares the hell out of me. Shortly after we walk into this quaint little village, we arrive at the town square (actually, it’s a triangle and I should have taken this as a bad omen and run as quickly as possible to another place). On one side of the square is the municipal albergue. I’ve heard good things about it and pilgrims seem to be streaming there. Just opposite is a beautiful home with a banner proudly proclaiming that they have been giving comfort and lodging to pilgrims for the past 800 years. How could we pass up a private albergue with that experience? (If you know the answer to that question, where the hell were you a few hours ago?). We go to the door which is covered by the strings of beads that this area of Spain uses to keep flies outside. There is a sign that says we should ring the bell but we can’t find one. We push aside the beads and call in several times with no reply so we enter the front vestibule. Again we call out but only a pilgrim emerges from the nearby room. We seem to have woken her but she suggests we take off our shoes and aim for the kitchen. While doing just that, from the depths of the darkness of the inner sanctum emerges a woman with a scowl so frightening that I start to tremble. She demands to know why we were inside her house so I stutter a reply and apology as best I could. That doesn’t seem to work, so I ask if we should go outside again and try to find the doorbell. She crosses her arms and stares daggers. I stand with one shoe on and limp to the doorway. She stops me only as I reach the beads. She orders us to finish taking off our shoes and report to her office post-haste with only our credencials and passport. I consider stripping naked but think better of it. Her office is a two story covered courtyard in the middle of the house and the walls are covered with Camino paraphernalia. She examines our papers as if we are Iranians at Israeli immigration. She reads us the riot act about many things including the mandatory dinner, the ban on importing bedbugs and the fact that she provides for everything a pilgrim needs and nothing that they don’t. An example of the latter is electricity for charging phones or cameras. They didn’t have those in the 13thcentury so we sure don’t need them now she insists. In fact, every electrical outlet is taped over except one in the bathroom that has a sign above it warning about misuse. There are many more signs in several languages posted around the pilgrim’s room warning about the evils of drink and punishments for disturbing the peace, ie., “we would immediately denounced to the police and our credencials would be retired”. We are also led into the bedroom where everything we are not using that night is enclosed in a plastic trash bag so the bedbugs cannot escape. Nothing is allowed to be placed on the bed except our liner and, under the covers, our body. We shower and escape to the bar for lunch a.s.a.p., taking June, our fellow pilgrim, with us. We meet Joe and Oliver, Kim’s friends, there and tell them our story. They suggest we arm ourselves that night. We stay at the bar as long as possible and make plans for taking turns that night to stand guard at the bedroom door. None of us want to be killed in this place. Eventually we are kicked out of the pub at siesta time. Worried about returning to the albergue, we check to see if there is anything else open. Sadly there is not so we sneak back to the square and quietly sit on the bench outside. Jose then turned up with his friend and we warned him as best as possible but it was to no avail. He wanted to stay with us rather than at the municipal albergue. I beg him to come to his senses but he tries to push past through the beaded door. I warn him of her craziness, “She’s Loco!”, but he proceeds anyway so I frantically struggle to hold him back while I search for the doorbell so at least he won’t be scolded. “My God!” I cry, “I can’t find the bell”! Suddenly a wrinkled hand appears through the beads from inside the house, pointing up and to my left towards the doorbell. She’s heard every word! Run, Michael Run!!!! We survive dinner but I make sure the hospitalera and her husband taste the food before I do. We weren’t poisoned. To her credit, the food was outstanding and plentiful. She also gave us a lovely blessing and speech about how we were entering phase two of our Camino. Tomorrow our walk will take us to the meseta, the high, flat as a pancake, plains. The landlady insists on leaving us breakfast since we say we will head off before she gets up (we’re planning on a 1:00am escape :p ). I am sure she was angry to find out that we didn’t take the food with us but I wasn’t sure we could find a cat to taste it for us. Just in case of trouble, we run the first few hundred meters of the next day’s walk. It’s nice to be alive.
Other than that, in the bar we also ran into Monoe, a Japanese pilgrim we have seen several times. Her visiting husband made us origami cranes to carry with us. Our friends were surprised that we didn’t stay in Burgos but I have an aversion to the big cities here. The smaller towns are so lovely and full of, ummmm, characters. Finally, I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not but that was the last we saw of our friend, Jose. I hope the end was peaceful for him. By the way, Jose was the man that taught us to carry small wrapped hard candy with us and hand them out to fellow pilgrims. It helps us make friends.
12 September – Rabe del la Calzada > Hornillos del Camino > Hortanas > San Anton > Castrojeriz (28km)
Today’s walk is almost exclusively along the side of a small road, surrounded by fields recently harvested of their grains. We had a good pace until Hornillos but there was no coffee there so Melanie was soon slowed down. That’s her fuel and I should do what I can to keep her topped up. Sadly, our guide paper tells us that Sambol is only 4kms after Hornillos but we never see it. The village seems to have disappeared. It was a further 11km (a total of 19km!) before Melanie got her morning coffee. Oh my. Our walk also goes past the 15th century ruins of the convent of San Anton. Now, in Spain like much of Europe, when you see something called “St. Anthony’s Convent”, you can be sure that St. Anthony really set it up himself.
I had some foot problems today. It seems like the pad of my right foot was going to be covered in blisters but I think it may have just been a loose sock of something simple like that. It was a scare for me though. I still could use a foot massage.
The municipal albergue is a large room with 40 or so beds. There are people sleeping on mattresses on the floor but we get a bunk bed in the far corner. Two things to note here is the old guy happily walking around in his bikini briefs. Also, Paco, our hospitalero, is a hippie in the 10th degree. His office is a tribute to a fellow pilgrim and friend who he travelled through India with. He’s a nice and chilled out guy and I am a little surprised that he doesn’t offer us any weed. It’s our first donativo albergue so we give a little more than the average we had been paying. We should have given more though as this was the best sleep I’ve had yet. We have nice pinchos for lunch and an excellent dinner inside a proper restaurant. As pilgrims, we are hidden in one of the inside rooms but it’s all good. The food was worth it. There is also a real backpacker shop in town and I regret not buying a new pair of socks. There is also the ruins of the castle on the hill above the city. Call me silly but I don’t climb it for the view although some other pilgrims do. Joe, Oliver & Kim stay in a private albergue as they need to cook their own dinner due to budget constraints. We enjoy walking with those guys but we miss them in the evenings. My favorite thing in town though is the post office. There is a sign on the door that takes me a moment to translate. It turns out that it is open every single weekday, other than holidays, all the way from 9:30am to 10:00am. Wow. I bet the postmaster is also the mayor, undertaker and petrol station attendant.
13 September – Castrojeriz > Puente Fitero > Itero de la Vega > Boadillo del Camino > Fromista (25.5km, 5 ¾ hours)
Today’s walk included an early walk up the escarpment at dawn. The sign said there was a 12% grade but I measured a 150m climb over 1km. That’s 15% in my books. Please note though that we walked with our three young amigos but there was only one king of the hill. I beat Melanie to the top by seconds but the boys could only laugh between puffs at my “Rocky at the top of the stairs” dance. I enjoyed the view from the top, looking back east with some stars still visible in the sky. It would be our last hill to climb for another 140km. Before Itero de la Vega we crossed an ancient bridge with a stunning view of the autumn trees in full color. Before Fromista we followed along the Castilla Canal, passing the locks just before the city. The canal was built in the 1880’s, just in the nick of time to be superseded by the new railroads. There were shrimpers along the way and cat-tails reminiscent of near the stream back at my childhood home in Baltimore. We stay at a private albergue and the rules are starting to get to me. It is a nice place though, quite modern with rooms of only eight bunk beds and enough toilets. We do get a nice sleep here. After washing ourselves and our clothes, and napping, we head out to eat. We have, without a doubt, the worst pilgrim’s meal of the journey. Spaghetti with watery ketchup sauce and a tough pork chop is not worth the money. We should have avoided this fancy looking place but it was close by. For lunch we had tins of sardines while sitting on the bench down the street from the albergue and I liked it better than dinner. On our way to dinner, we ran into Olaf, one of our Scandinavian friends from Orisson. We’re surprised that he has come so far in the same time as we have but he has paid a great price. He looks like crap and he’s stopping his Camino. He needed to be hospitalized for the blisters on his feet and his lips are covered with fever blisters. He can barely walk and he looks broken. I really feel for him. He says he may try to rest and start up again but he doesn’t think it will happen. I am greatly saddened. There but for the grace of God go I. Let’s not push it too hard.
14 September – Fromista > Poblacion de Campos > Revenga de Campos > Villalcazar de Sirga > Carrion de los Condes (20.9km, 4 ½ hours)
We took it easy today. I think the site of Olaf threw me off. It was a true meseta walk today over flat farmland. We’re always heading west and we try to stop walking by noon so we are becoming intimately aware of our shadows. Off in the distance, well beyond the fields of dead sunflowers to the north, we see the Cantabrian Mountain range that separates the meseta from the Atlantic coast. Many pilgrims used to walk parallel to our current path but north of those mountains so as to avoid the Moors. The church and Spanish kings thought this was defeating the purpose of Camino (i.e., to overwhelm the Muslims with Christians during the reconquest of Spain) so they built better roads, bridges, churches, accommodations, etc. for pilgrims down here. It worked.
Today’s story is that we love Carrion! There is a real camping store here and Melanie & I both splurge on some Altus raincoats. We’ve been worried but lucky since crossing the Pyrenees and this is our first chance to get better rain protection. Also, we stayed in a decent hostel (Hostel Santiago) in a beautiful old mansion because we can’t find the albergue Espirito Santo. We don’t mind as the 40€ room is awesome. The hospitalero washed our clothes for free but I didn’t understand the drying procedures. We waited and waited for the clothes to be returned and after dinner we finally inquired. We were then told that they left the wet clothes in a basket out back of the house. We rushed out to hang them up before the smell returned. We also hung out near the church where a special concert was being performed. It was there that we ran into Kadhi, the sweet girl from Vianna. We ask her where her new boyfriend is and she sheepishly informs us that the bastard snuck out of the albergue in Vianna early the next morning and she hasn’t seen him since. What an ass. Kadhi is such a doll.
15 September – Carrion de los Condes > Calzadilla de la Cueza > Ledigos > Terradillos de los Templarios (26.6km, 6 ½ hours)
We walk today on the longest, straightest, flattest, gravel track on earth. Nothing could top this. We walked for several hours and I swear every time we lifted our heads, the scenery looked exactly the same. I thought I was on some kind of horror treadmill. Still, today we passed the halfway mark on our trek; 402km done, 379km to go. Give or take. Signage and distances are a little bit flexible on the Camino. The bottom of my feet are killing me. The morning was not as cold as normal and after the sun shortened our shadow, it was hotter than normal. This is the new normal, I fear, until at least Galicia.
We stayed in a private albergue for 20€ The albergue was perfect other than the fact that they also rented rooms to some clowns that walked out in their heavy boots at 4:00am. Buggers.
We never did find out anything of the history of the town. With the Templars being famous protectors of the pilgrims, there must be some connection. Pasta salad and trout was the order of the day and it hit the spot after pinchos and beer in the afternoon.
16 September – Terradillos de los Templarios > Moratinos > San Nicolas del Real Camino > Sahagun > Bercianos del Real Camino (23.8km, 5 ½ hours)
Today’s walk was challenging but not physically. There was much confusion as we left town and we seemed to walk into a dead end. If it was just Melanie and me, we would deal with it but some pilgrims were following us. One of the men bitched to me about my orientation abilities and eyesight. Another woman found arrows so I called for everyone. Sadly that was another dead end. I think a lot of extra arrows are leading people to now closed, different bars around town. Once on the trail, we really enjoy following our long shadows of the early morning. Even the small stones along the path have shadows. Oops, there were more fighting flechas in Calzada del Coto too. We finally get off and have a comfortable walk although we came across another memorial just before we stop walking, this time to a German pilgrim who passed away on his Camino. It’s a sobering moment every time we pass these memorials and it usually stops us from chatting, unless, of course, we were chatting with Him. It’s Sunday and as we enter Bercianos, the faithful are just leaving church… and heading straight across the street to the bar. Convenient, no?
By the time we get to the main albergue on the other end of this little town around noon there are dozens of people sitting in the sun, waiting for the place to open…. at 1:00pm. Some have stripped down and washed their clothes at a hose. We foresee a rush for the door and possibly no beds so we head back to the bar / private albergue (Hostal Rivero) at the entrance of the town. We end up with a private room and bath at the end of the hall on the second floor. There is a great place for drying clothes on the patio so we take advantage of that. We also take full advantage of the bar downstairs that has football on the television. Much to our surprise, after we had washed up and completed lunch, several pilgrims show up for an extended meal, then get up to leave. “Where are you heading today?” we ask.
17 September – Bercianos del Real Camino > El Burgo Ranero > Reliegos > Mansilla de las Mulas (26.3km, 6 hours)
Both Melanie and I have pretty sore feet. Our backs, legs and mind are quite strong though. It’s amazing how used to carrying 13kg backpacks and walking 25km you can get. I don’t even bother taking off the backpack to eat breakfast. We did walk a bit extra today though in a desperate search for coffee. Cafe Americano isn’t always available in the first town we reach. The walk today took us into the watershed of a small river system. You could tell the difference in the greenery and the more rolling hills. We will very soon be out of the meseta. Mansilla has a modern look to it but you soon realize just how ancient it is as you enter the old town through gates that have stood for 900 years. It was the first town reached for pilgrims in the old kingdom of Leon. Another cool view as we enter town is the huge nest on top of the church steeple. We’ve seen a few of these so far and we reckon they must be nest for pterodactyls.
Along the trail today we also met two pilgrims walking in reverse along the route back towards St. Jean Pied de Port. The look shattered but they at least have a beautiful donkey carrying their gear. Melanie hits on the grand idea that we should get a donkey too but I insist that it would have to sleep on her side of the bed. That’s the end I hear of that idea.
In town, we met a French Canadian pilgrim who is taking his Camino too seriously. He’s been told by doctors that he has a dislocated hip and needs to stay off his feet for a few weeks. He ignored the advice and is still walking. Oh my! We make our first withdrawal from an ATM here. The 300€ limit may not last long. The albergue is crowded with 24 beds per room, arranged head to toe. We managed to get some space in the second room, against the window so we won’t have to smell feet tonight. Our clothes never dried though so we’ll being a walking clothesline tomorrow.
18 September – Mansilla de las Mullas > Puente de Villarente > Arcahueja > Leon > La Virgen del Camino (27.7km, 6 1/2 hours)
Today was the best walk yet, physically. We are both strong but Melanie was hot over the last three kilometers and she developed a blister or bunion. I was feeling so good that I completely forgot about stopping for lunch. Melanie was there to bring me to my senses though. Leon was very cool with its huge old section, magnificent buildings and we offered prayers outside their beautiful old cathedral. Again, the entrance fee was what our beds cost tonight so we’ll have to see the inside when we come back as really old tourists.
The albergue we are in is awesome. It has a huge common space, great bathrooms, washers & dryers and lots of space. It’s a modern, one story building, just a few blocks from the heart of the town but in an industrial area. Sadly there is a night light or exit light that shines in on my bed. It’s too bright but I’ll be getting to sleep without too much difficulty. We were surprised to run into June here. She was our partner in crime back in Rabe del la Calzada in El Loco’s 800 year old albergue. She told us that the crazy lady noticed that Melanie didn’t take her breakfast. It was good to see June survived though. She even managed to walk all the way from Leon today? Huh? You mean that last town, 7km back? June has been taking liberal use of Louis’ taxi service. Some other people seem to be doing the same. I am not supposed to care as this isn’t a race but I can’t help but think that they are missing the point of the Camino, or at the least certainly missing out on a lot that the Camino has to offer. Kim and Jacob also showed up but they have walked all the way from Reliegos. Another friend who arrived late was Suzanna, also known as Draggin’ Woman. We have seen her often along the trail, dragging a Y shaped branch behind her with her bag strapped to it. She’s German and has confided in Melanie that she has had great problems with her legs. Most people think she’s a bit touched but she is truly a lovely person. It is great how she has improved her “wagon” along the way with friendly Spaniards adding better and better wheels to the branch in a few towns. We’re glad to see our friends but there is also a fat, lazy lady that is getting on my nerves big time at the moment. Please lady, get off your butt and close that door you just opened – again, please!
19 September – Virgen del Camino > Valverde de la Virgen > Villadangos del Paramo > San Martin del Camino > Hospital de Orbigo (23.7km)
Today was an easy although a bit boring walk along the N120. Again there was some confusion getting out of town with arrows that seem to contradict themselves or disappear where you need one. The highlight was an old Roman road although it was only about 5 meters long! This was in a 200 meter long section through a lovely, albeit too short, forest just past San Martin. Despite the brevity, I do enjoy walking on portions that I know pilgrims have walked on for a thousand years. It makes me feel a kindred spirit.
Outside of Orbigo, we see the mountains in the background, a foreboding message of what is ahead. We are truly near the end of the meseta. We also start to see pigeon towers too which, I assume, is a more Galician thing. Entering Hospital de Orbigo is fun as we cross the mighty Orbigo River. Actually, it’s now more of a stream but the 13th century bridge (that was built to replace the “old” Roman bridge) is 300 meters long and the stream is about 10 meters wide. It looks odd but it’s meant to cover the whole flood plain, I guess. Along side of the bridge is also the old Templar jousting grounds. Cool, huh?
We had lunch with a nice Scottish couple but we also saw Jacob who said he was walking through all the way to Astoga, another 15km! He’s keen.
The private albergue San Miguel we are staying in is unique. The hospitalero provides canvases and paints for pilgrim to express their artistic side. The walls are covered by some impressive works. The owner is a very nice guy and provides one of the best breakfasts that we’ve had so far. Dinner was awesome too but the supermarket was a waste of time. Finally, the snorefest was in full voice all night.
20 September – Hospital de Orbigo > Astorga > Valdeviejas > Murias de Rechivaldo > Santa Catalina de Somoza > El Ganso (28.7km, 7 ¼ hours)
The walk was long and hard today, through the freezing pre-dawn and blazing hot, unforgiving sun. It may have been tough because much of it was along the road or a long straight gravel path. Approaching Astorga is beautiful though with the town in a valley and the Galician mountains in the background. We arrive at a large cross on the hills before Astorga in the early dawn and it’s a gorgeous view. Then we look up and see the mountains in the distance behind the city again and realize we will cross the whole valley today. Wow. In Astorga, we stop in the beautiful 15th century cathedral and see the Gaudi Palace. Very cool but I wonder what the poor pilgrims of the middle ages think as they see these huge temples of wealth.
We take occasional stops along the way every day but Melanie is more of a fan of them than I am. I am happy to stop for a few minutes for breakfast but I watch passing pilgrims with trepidation. I know it’s not a race but I have a very competitive streak so it’s tough to stop. Other than the single stop for breakfast, and lunch on the longer days, I’d rather not stop. Restarting is tough after my muscles get tight. It takes another 1 or 2 km before I can walk right again.
After starting the climb on the other side of the valley, we stopped at a small albergue (Gabino) run by a cute young family with their parents help. The entrance is through the old house and courtyard but a more modern building is behind. We manage to get a “private suite” somehow, a bunk bed in a nook on the second floor with most people on the first floor. There isn’t much else in this tiny town but – to our amusement – there is a real country western bar at the entrance to the village. We dine at a restaurant that takes three whole hours for dinner. Our fellow diners include Siobhan, Alan and a snobby biker that I enjoy taking pot shots at.
21 September – El Ganso > Rabanal > Forcebadon > Cruz de Ferro > Manjarin > El Acebo de San Miguel > Riego de Ambros (27.4km, 7 ¾ hours)
The walk today is now definitely back in the mountains. Outside El Ganso there is another fence where people have woven sticks in the wire mesh to form crosses. There are more people around today including a pair of holy rollers from the US whole are very loudly saying the rosary. At dinner, later that night, I see the same two “saints” getting wasted with wine and loudly cursing. I am saying quiet Hail Marys and Our Fathers the whole way from Rabanal to the Cruz de Ferro, using my stones (one from Singapore and two added from Bayonne) as a makeshift rosary. Today is a personal day with my thoughts on what I see as one of the iconic Camino sites and traditions, as well as my three stones which represent three burdens for which I am asking for forgiveness.
Despite the climbs, I am walking like a mountain goat, easily clambering past the newest pilgrims. Walking through Forcebadon, the arrows are a bit hard to find and I have to ask twice for directions. Melanie was a fair bit behind me but I was concentrating on the Cruz de Ferro which turned out to be a mistake. By the time I arrived at the top, placed my stones on the mountains of other left before me, and said my prayers, I am in tears. Around me are some bikers proudly posing and for photos and laughing loudly. There are also several pilgrims sitting on the ground or standing in quiet contemplation but there are also a few sobbing silently too. We’ve walked a long way, faced rather extreme physical and mental challenges but this is a point that many pilgrims have been thinking about since the day they thought of walking the Camino. As I stood to walk down from the Cruz, I noticed my phone ringing. That’s odd. By the time I answered it, the caller has hung up but I see that it was from Melanie. I tried to call back several times but she didn’t answer. What was happening? Was she lost or hurt? Maybe just worried that she hasn’t seen me for a while? I am not sure but I am waiting in a spot that is absolutely impossible for her to pass me. After a short while, we managed to speak by phone and I got an earful. Melanie also got confused by the lack of arrows in Forcebadon and was worried that she had passed me and the Cruz de Ferro. I assured her that was impossible and we soon reunite. This turned out to be the only time in the month of walking that either of us have a serious issue about being lost and Melanie wasn’t even lost. She didn’t get any help from the passing bicyclists though which would have helped greatly.
The rest of the walk included a descent of 600m over 7km, passing through several small, old but formerly abandoned towns that are now being re-inhabited because of the Camino industry. That’s a positive as Spain is certainly showing signs of a deep recession. Because of the Father Ambros brothers in Singapore, we have to make it to Riego de Ambros for our night’s rest. It’s a unique place. The albergue is an ancient building on the outside but the sleeping area has been remodeled in nouveau Ikea. We rung the doorbell then entered through the massive wooden doors. The hospitalero did not seem to be around but there is a single German pilgrim already making himself at home. He told us that Pedro, the owner, is over at the restaurant (owned by his mother on the other side of town and the only other business in the village) and should return shortly. He suggested that we leave our shoes at the closet behind us, come in, chose a bed and get a shower. We agreed that this was a good plan but then Melanie & I looked at each other and laughed. Everything that the other pilgrim said was in German but we understood it all. We are picking up words and accents but the plan also fits into an expected routine. It gives us a chuckle anyway. Finally, it won’t surprise you to learn that we have lunch and dinner at the same restaurant. Mom cooks well. We met Anna and Andrew at lunch, two lovely older Polish Canadians. We spent the twilight hours sitting in the garden with others, watching our socks dry.
22 September – Riego de Ambros > Molinaseca > Ponferrada > Camponaraya > Cacabelos (27.7km++, 7 ¾ hours)
Today’s walk does not start well. After crossing through town again, we head down a mountain path in the dark as we left at 6:30am. The path is very rocky, wet and slippery. Fortunately, after 1km. the path crosses the road so we bail out. That could have been a good idea because we were later told that the path on the other side of the road was worse but the “shortcut” on the road added about 1.5km to the official distance noted above. Molinaseca and Ponferrada are both beautiful towns. We descended another 300m to Molinaseca and crossed an ancient bridge into town. I know I keep using that adjective but the age of these places do impress me greatly. That bridge was built by the Romans! The streets are just wide enough for two horses to pass. The Templar castle, church in Ponferrada and the 1,000 year old bridge that gave the city its name were also impressive but, again, Ponferrada is a bit too big a city for me outside of the old town.
In Cacabos, we decide to stay in a hotel. The municipal albergue where friends are staying is rather basic in makeshift rooms built along the courtyard wall of an old church. I’m told that the shower is something little more than an outside hose. We bought a bottle of laundry soap after dinner, transferred a bit into our small bottles and then wandered the albergue, across the bridge, giving away the balance to people we know including one lovebird couple from El Ganso. Dinner was our second paella but not terribly impressive. The hotel was a budget one but it still felt fancy to us and I think the first place we paid more than 40€ a night for. It did, however, include a buffet breakfast that we feasted on.
23 September – Cacabelos > Villafranco del Bierzo > Valtuille de Arriba > Trabadelo> Vega de Valcarce (24km++, 6 ½ hours)
>The rain has returned today but we were fortunate to walk all the way from the Pyrenees with optimal weather. It’s funny how I think freezing nights and early morning walks and blistering hot sun is ideal but the lack of rain really was a blessing – until today, that is. It was more of an alternating pouring and drizzling today. It was not torrential but enough to make us keep our rain gear on all day and we were dripping wet with sweat underneath. Go figure. As we enter Villafranco the clouds let up for a short time to allow us to see a beautiful rainbow over the valley in front of us. God is telling us that He is still with us. It stays visible and dry just for a few minutes though before the rain starts again. I guess that God is telling us that the farmers need His help too. The trail was often along long stretches of a major road but occasionally also bounced around through old abandoned villages too.
Somehow lots of people seem to be finding shortcuts because we pass them several times without ever being passed ourselves. They must have the Brierley guidebook. We had seen lots of people reading this along the trail or in the albergues. We borrowed it once to see if it was useful. It looked pretty cool but we decided to stick with the two papers we received from the St. Jean Pied de Port pilgrim office. One paper shows a list of many of the albergues, their sizes and distances to each one. The other paper shows distances between towns, elevation of the trail and a suggested daily itinerary. Along with the yellow arrows, these papers seem to be enough and I’m happy they don’t show shortcuts. That said, I thought it odd today that the trail went from Cacabelos to Villafranco del Bierzo via Valtuille de Arriba. It seemed to be an out of the way detour of at least 1km. Maybe it was the original route taken by pilgrims, which is fine with me, or maybe it was a way to get money-spending pilgrims to stop in stores in that village. Who knows?
The municipal albergue was nicely situated up a very steep slope, nestled under a very high highway viaduct which bypasses this town in the valley. It was unmanned until evening time so everyone just organized themselves. Washing clothes in the very brief period between showers was tough enough but trying to dry things on the single clothes line was harder. Everything will hang from the backs of the backpacks again tomorrow. We’re in a small room with several smelly pilgrims and bikers. I am not sure which is worse. The large Taiwanese crowd have taken over the small covered balcony and have hung their soaking wet clothes over the eating tables there so the floor is flooded. It’s a challenge to get along but we survive. Lunch was in a real live bore hunting lodge and dinner at the bar took forever, but who cares? We’re not going anywhere, right? Actually, we are a tad worried about tomorrow. There is a 660m climb again over about 8km then it up and down on the ridge for the rest of the day.
24 September – Vega de Valcarce > Rutelan > Las Herrerias > La Faba > Laguna de Castilla > O Cebreiro > Hospital de Condesa > Alto do Poio > Fromfria (25.8km, 6 ½ hours)
The weather played a part in today’s walk again. We climbed 660m then walked along the peaks and ridges for the rest of the way to Fromfria. Our original plan was to continue another 9km to Triacastela but it was very cold all day, the clouds were low on the mountains and showers surrounded us in most directions. The heavens opened with incredible ferocity above us just as we reached the lovely albergue in Fromfria and, as Mom used to say, we were treated with serendipity. It was a beautiful place with a great restaurant and our new friends, namely the automatic washer and dryers. We got sick of hand washing and worrying about drying so we spend the few euros each day, if possible. I know some look at us with scorn but tough.
I tripped several times today and each time I did, I realized that I was thinking about the short-cutters, day trippers, taxi girls, biker pests or some other negative thought. I kept my footing much better while just concentrating on the mountain views, the rains or anything else. We passed up the chance to stay on top of the mountain at O Cebreiro’s albergue which dates from the 9th century. I hope they have changed the sheets. There is Galician bagpipe music being played in this town that would have looked old to Christopher Columbus if he was a pilgrim. The church is rumored to hold a Holy Grail. We were wise to decide to share the communal pilgrim’s dinner cooked by the lovely hospitalera and her family. There was great conversation and singing until late. There was a humorous (as in “easy to laugh at”, not “with”) young Englishman. He was desperately trying to get everyone to learn to sing a French song he composed and hoped to make the official anthem of the Camino. He seems a bit touched and he also is overhead trying to convince his Camino family to step up the pace and do 50km days with him as he wants to get to Santiago as soon as possible. Good luck with that. It’s less than 150km away but mountainous and hard work.
25 September – Fromfria > Tricastela > Samos > Sarria (35km, 8 ¼ hours)
That may be a short list of towns visited but check out the mileage! We actually did pass through several more small towns but our heads were down and we took no notice. The walk was through pouring cold rain and mostly along boring roads. When we started walking at 7:00am, most other pilgrims were still in bed or looking worryingly out the windows into the dark storm. We were the only two to brave it but it proved impossible to follow any arrows in the sloppy mud and dark. After only about 200m, we decide to move to plan B and we follow the road down the mountain. We walked to Samos, our original target but after lunch in a small neighborhood bar in town, we decide to keep going. It was Melanie’s idea too!
We decide to stay in a nicer private albergue and it’s in a huge, beautifully restored old home near the river on the closer side of town. It’s a bit crowded but all our boots and fellow pilgrims are cooking themselves dry by the wood stove next to the window. What a smell! For some reason we suspect bedbugs even though we don’t see them. We know there are pests around though as a few Spanish bikers have kicked an older woman out of her lower bunk. They argued loudly in Spanish and I think their point was that she hadn’t put her sleeping bag on the bed to show it was taken. She seems to be saying that all her clothes were on the bed and that was enough. They are jerks. We went out to look for dinner and I must have looked silly in the freezing wet conditions and wearing just flip flops. I just could not even stand putting on the Keen sandals tonight. We finally find a nice pizzeria down by the riverside road which is run by an Italian man and his Spanish wife. We chatted with him for a long time and they treated us to some Sambuca. It’s a good day and we take back the balance of the huge pizza to some grateful pilgrims on the third floor of the albergue.
26 September – Sarria > Barbadelo > Ferrerios > Portomarin (21.5km, 5 ½ hours)
Today we passed the “100km to Santiago” stone. We also started walking with the Camino-lite pilgrims who are just doing enough to earn a Compostella for completion of the walk. It’s okay that they chose just to do the last 100km. It’s no skin off my nose but I just wish that they would have a modicum of respect or would consider looking to those who have walked 700km before them for a little guidance on how to walk the Camino. There are many who pass us jabbering loudly, without so much as a “buen Camino”. We see some running down the hills while still in town and later in the rural area, they are waiting at the bottom of a hill for their bus to take them to the next town. Oh my. I am not sure if it was the sudden appearance of these new pilgrims or the lack of sleep I had last night but every infraction from the bikers’ rudeness to the loud Spanish in the restaurant, etc has me seething.
It was supposed to be raining today so we slept in a bit. Once up though, it was clear at the start but it then drizzled off and on until about an hour before Portomarin. Then the rain became harder – the rain that we could have avoided if we left at a normal time. We walked through some old trails, flanked by ancient stone fences. These are the trails I love where I am pretty certain pilgrims have walked on for over 1,000 years. Melanie wasn’t well and needed to find a restroom desperately so we decided to stop in this old town after a short day. In fact, we decided to stop in the very first place we came to in Pontmarin, just across the bridge, which was fortunately an albergue. We managed to get assigned to a room with only two other people, Chris & Muriel. The room was fairly big for four compared to some of the other rooms I peeked into. We lucked out. We also had a very nice lunch and dinner in the restaurant above the albergue so we never had to go out into the rain again. Chris and Muriel were late risers but when we saw them later, they swore they slept through our 6:45am departure.
27 September – Pontmarin > Gonzar > Hospital de la Cruz > Vertas de Naron > Ligonde > Airexe > Palas de Rei (24.0km, 6 ½ hours)
In the eerie mystic of a fog in the darkness before morn, we set off, following more the cockerels’ call that any blaze or arrow. The stupid buggers got us lost. Poetic, right? Actually we did have great trouble finding the trail out of town. Normally we recce a bit the night before but we were enjoying the dry warmth of the albergue too much. We walked up and down the main street in town and circled the cathedral but we couldn’t find any arrows. After several pilgrims joined in the search, we eventually found some that seemed to lead down to the old bridge. Actually, to be more precise, I should say they led to the former old bridge which was washed away years ago. Eventually we see people leaving town over what I think is the same bridge that we came in on. That’s a unique option for us but it seems to work and we are off again. We walked well but it did feel like I was getting blisters between my toes. Fortunately I could find no evidence of them later. Getting moving after a night’s sleep, a stop for breakfast or even a stop to check for blisters is harder and harder to do every day. Once started and stretched out though, we look like pros.
Walking into Palas de Rei, we head for a large modern albergue that has a café / laundry rooms below and several sleeping rooms above with about 16 beds in each. We ended up with only about ten in our room so in a rare occurrence, I got a lower bunk. Whenever Melanie & I check in, we always get assigned one up, one down or I feel obliged to take an upper if it is not assigned. If we checked in separately, our ages would almost always get both of us lower bunks. Anyway, it’s a nice place with private baths but…. About 300 school children (it sounds like that many but is probably on 30) are in the other two rooms. Their school trip for the year is a walk along the last 100km. They are really, really loud well into the night. We had pulpo for dinner, a specialty of the region. Yummy!
28 September – Palas de Rei > San Xulian > Ponte Campana > Casanova > Mato > Melide > Rivadiso > Arzua (28.7km, 8hours)
It was a nice easy walk today through Camino miles. Unfortunately, most of the nice part of the walk in forests was in the dark and after the sun came up, there was no shade. We met Andy from New Zealand and Megan from the US in Melide who were window shopping at a jewelry store. A random comment as we passed them got them to walk with us the rest of the day. We had a lovely conversation with them and made me wonder if I should have walked more with others along the way. This young couple lived on a boat and had a pretty interesting life. We actually walked past our intended stop in Rivadiso because we enjoyed chatting with them so much.
We have two more days of walking after today and my emotions are all over the place. I’m proud of what we have done but also sorry that it’s almost over. The entire walk, we have been thinking of our Camino family that we met that first day as well as all the nice people we met along the way. We hope that they are doing well and have made their dreams come true or, like us, are just about to. Physically, yes, we are beat but strong at the same time. The legs have been sore without exception for the whole month. They are so sore that sleep is never that easy. Blisters were certainly not as bad as many others had but they were also a constant bother and worry. Then again, I have lost about 10kg despite eating so much and I bet that I’ve lost at least half my body fat. Mentally, I have pushed through limits and that now tells me that I can do anything I want. Walk 25-30km a day with a 13kg backpack? That’s nothing anymore. Sharing living facilities with so many people in a hostel, that’s normal. The walk has changed me. I can still get irritated by people who don’t play by the rules, who don’t meet my expectations or who are not nice themselves but I’m working on that.
We stopped today in another modern albergue (Via Lactea) with three “rooms” with about eight sets of bunk beds in each. The walls only come up to just above the upper bunk so we got to hear everyone’s snoring. It’s a nice place though and we’re happy. It’s close to the old section, restaurants and the Camino trail. We helped one woman at the albergue with translations, comfort and advice. She had left her credit card at her last stop and was beside herself with worry. She managed to track it down and arrange for a taxi to bring it to her. I had a special hamburger for lunch but a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant. That’s a rarity but it is our church wedding anniversary so we wanted to celebrate.
29 September – Azura > St. Irene > Arco do Pino > Lavacolla > Vilamaior (30.4km, 8 ½ hours)
We set off early today and as we turned the very first corner down the narrow cobblestoned street we were welcomed with the huge setting full moon just in front of us. It’s a good omen but for what, I do not know because we have trouble following and finding arrows. We walked with quite a few others this morning and our hashing experience came in handy. We found most of the markings and called everyone back onto the trail. There was a long boring walk around the Santiago airport but it was certainly loud too. Music was blasting from some nearby loudspeakers for some reason. We had decided along the walk to stop in a nicer guest house today as close to Santiago as possible. We want an easy walk tomorrow to get into town fresh in time for mass. We found a nice little place (Casa de Amancio) to stop in the tiniest of towns. It’s certainly upmarket but there is no way we’re continuing on to the massive albergue at Monte de Gozo after the small climb we just did from Lavacolla. I’m glad, however, that we did that today rather than tomorrow.
Now, remember that I said the small hotel was nice? I really mean that the facilities are nice because the host, a Spaniard with an English accent is the dourest, sourest guy I met along the Camino. Why he is in the service industry, I don’t know. Despite that, after doing our laundry and resting, we headed for dinner in the hotel’s dining room. After an hour or so, we were waited on. I can’t say it was because of the crowds. When we got there, we were the only people in the place. The host is also the waiter and, I assume, cook. We share dinner with a lovely “couple”, an 83 year old German gentleman and his young, cute girlfriend from Switzerland. They actually just walked the last bit together, she at a slow stroll, he at a brisk walk. He is completing his fourth stage from France the next day. She is just enjoying the wine. Also at dinner was a CIA agent with terrible information on the best seating for mass and the swinging of the botafumeiro.
30 September – Vilamaior > Monte do Gozo > San Lazarus > Santiago (8.5km, 1 ¾ hours)
It’s an easy stroll today and I even climb Monte de Gozo to Pope John Paul’s monument to try to get a view of the cathedral in the valley below. I now share the same joy with the many millions of pilgrims who came before me, sort of. I see lots of spires but I am not sure if any of them are the cathedral’s. We practically skip the way into town through the modern outskirts and into the ancient old town. It’s a walk back in history. When we eventually reach the side of the cathedral on our left, we are slightly confused for a moment as to which of these glorious edifices is in fact the cathedral. We keep following the crowds though, into the Plaza de Obradoiro and then we see the most beautiful building we have ever seen. There he are many tourists but more pilgrims, hugging, posing, crying, laughing, and smiling from ear to ear, everything. There are some pilgrims for whom this is not the end. They plan to walk to Finisterra or Muxia on the coast. That’s not the same for Melanie and me. I would love to be walking tomorrow too but this was always our goal and we are here. We enjoy just hanging out near the cathedral meeting up with all the people we have seen along the trail. We arrived at the cathedral just in time to sneak in at the end of an earlier mass and see the botafumeiro swing. It was a tremendously emotional experience but no tears, which surprises me. Later we see the indentation on the entrance column, made by the grateful hands of millions of pilgrims who proceeded us. Again, tremendously emotional but no tears. After a late breakfast and the noon pilgrims’ mass we visited St. James relics and hugged his statue behind the altar. All of this touched me in my very soul. It moved me, but just not to tears which surprised me. I am an emotional person. I do cry but it takes a lot to get me to that level. I would have thought I reached it, but no. In the evening, we went to get our compostella (certificate of completion) from the Pilgrims’ Office. When the amigo asks where we started our walk, I proudly say “St. Jean Pied de Port in France”. He further asks if I walked the whole way and that finally hits the button. I burst into tears and reply through the sobs, “every step of the Way”. I guess I found the straw that broke this camel’s back.
As I said earlier, every day of the walk, you have a LOT of time to think. So many things go through your mind but one thing was constant. Every day I would spend at least some time thinking about all the wonderful people we have met along the way, particularly those from the first day at Orrison. Melanie & I walked our own Camino so that meant we were faster than some people and slower than others. Some people took rest days and some took the busses to skip stages. Some people want to stay in the bigger or more famous cities while we were happier to stop in smaller villages. All of that meant that we only occasionally met the same pilgrims we walked with before. And this, in turn, meant we wondered how our friends were doing. In Santiago, we got to find out. In the cathedral or plaza outside, we ran into those who came before us and in the following days, those behind us. Kim greeted when we arrived. Others we ran into that first day include the English / Scottish couple from Hospital de Orbiga, the Yank with the fancy clothes and our 83 year old German friend from the night before.
On the second day in Santiago, we met up with several people we have seen along the way and we congratulate each other. While we were having lunch though, sitting at a sidewalk cafe, we saw a familiar figure from behind. We recognized her from the gait and hat. It was the young Brazilian lady we met that first day in Orisson. She made it! We ran to her and she embraced us like old friends. Her English improved enough to tell us that she was also thinking of us every day as Melanie was so kind to her in Orrison. A chance 30 minute encounter in France and she is keeping us in mind at the same time we are always thinking of her. A month after meeting this woman, we finally know her name is Iole, and we stop referring to her as “the Brazillian in the green hat”. As she was just arriving and needed to find a bed, we just exchanged e-mail addresses. During that time, Melanie explained that her maiden name was Rodrigues and tears started to well in Iole’s eyes. She fingered a large wedding band she had on a chain around her neck and told us her husband’s name is Rodrigues. It’s a huge coincidence but I feel for Iole. She must miss her husband so much, I think, being away from him for more than a month. I think it is so sweet that she brought his ring as a reminder though. Yes, it takes me another few weeks to see how dumb I am. We became friends on Facebook and I enjoyed looking back through her lovely photographs of her Camino. I had to translate the captions from Portuguese but following her photos was like walking the walk all over again. I worked backwards through the photos and by the time I got back to Iole’s first day, I wondered if she mentioned her stop in Orisson. Using the translation program, we find that the caption to her photos hits us right in the heart. She mentions that the day we met her back in Orisson was an agonizing day to start the Camino for her, not because of the rain, the climb, the late start nor the need to walk all the way over the mountain. Apparently, that first day she had begun her duty to spread the ashes of her husband who had passed away three years earlier. Iole and her husband were great travelers and the Camino was one of their dreams to complete. Cancer stopped the young man first. God bless this woman. And I thought my Camino was tough.