Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We Enter the Home Stretch of the Camino and Savor Galicia

Some of the women of our group pose for a photo at O Cebreiro, overlooking
 the mountains and valleys we traversed over the last few days.
From left: Dawn, Elissa, Alison, Greta, Erin Elaine, and Jackie.
With so much walking behind us now -- nearly 650 kilometers -- we recognize we're true peregrinos (pilgrims) of Santiago. Many of us discovered muscles we'd never known existed before. 

In our 2,100 foot climb from Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro we heard barely a peep of complaining. The only signs of the effort were beads of perspiration, caused as much by the sunny day as the exertion. We are now camino tough. Tested, tried, and admittedly a little tired. We are strong walkers who can take on any pilgrimage the ancient traditions of the church could throw at us. Who knows, perhaps next year we'll try the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or perhaps the greatest of all medieval pilgrimages: the Via Jerusalem from Rome to the Holy City in Israel/Palestine! Well, we can dream.

We left Villafranca del Bierzo early in the morning a few days ago and walked up the old highway, taking the advice of the sign at the foot of the mountain trail option to avoid the steeper climb unless you are an Olympic athlete. The old highway is little used anymore, thanks to the beautiful new A6 freeway that quietly snakes above us on slender concrete piers. After awhile it was back to the path which was actually rather steep with loose gravel for several kilometers. We stopped for photos at the "Welcome to Galicia" monument, a painted and graffitied slab that marks Kilometer 0 of our walk through the semi-autonomous region of Galicia, of which Santiago de Compostela is capital. 

At the summit town of O Cebreiro we came to understand why this little village is known throughout Spain. It's a living museum that depicts life the Galician way, with round stone huts and thatched roofs. We could imagine medieval Gallegos wandering through the village, tending their chickens and flocks, scratching out a meager subsistence on this windswept mountain. 

Our evening at O Cebreiro was a celebration. We gathered as a group in a delightful pub and shared our first plate of true pulpo gallego, along with our first bowls of genuine caldo gallego, the hearty Galician soup. We started to strategize for our reunion meal back in Seattle. We'd certainly have paella, which Sandy agreed to prepare. We'd also definitely want the two Galician dishes we were just then enjoying. We'd also have to have someone bring Spanish tortilla (perhaps best described as a crustless potato/egg/cheese quiche -- nothing like a Mexican tortilla). Someone would need to bring ample quantities of Riojan wine. And someone would need to make some plates of ensalada mixta, the omnipresent Spanish salad. Surely we could also hunt down some true Spanish jamon and chorizo in Seattle. As we enjoyed planning our feast we realized that one of the joys of the Camino is the cuisine of Spain. 

After O Cebreiro we walked on to the tiny and picturesque village of Triacastela. Tonight we took it easy and walked only 10 kms through forests and between small farms to the Monastery of Samos. We realized how important monasteries were to medieval Spain and remembered how throughout Europe they were looted and destroyed because of their power and accumulated wealth. The 14 monks of Samos go about their quiet business in a building that could house hundreds. We joined them at Vespers and were transported to centuries past as they chanted their Latin service.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Bierzo is a Welcome Respite for Weary Pilgrims

Relaxing in Molinaseca following the long walk down
from Cruce de Ferro.
After unburdening our souls and our packs of sin-laden rocks at Cruce de Ferro we headed down the long incline to the little town of Molinaseca, a welcome reward after a two-day mountain hike. Here an ancient Roman bridge crosses the Meruelo River and following a Tall Cool One and an ice cream bar many of our group splashed our feet in the cold, shallow water. The river revived our energy and prepared us for yet another menu del peregrino at one of Molinaseca's several tiny pilgrim restaurants.


As we came down the mountain it was clear we'd entered another region of Spain. Although we are still in the semi-autonomous province of Castille y León we had entered the Bierzo Comarca (county). The most obvious difference we noticed is that roofs are now made of black slate, rather than the red tile of much of northern Spain. The other difference is the preponderance of vineyards, something we hadn't seen since the La Rioja province a few weeks ago. 
Ponferrada's Knight's Templar castle,
scene of the RAM ceremony in
Coelho's The Pilgrimage


Molinaseca has two Main Streets, one for cars and the other for pilgrims. So we enjoyed the tranquility of our car-free pilgrim alley and imagined what life might have been like for pilgrims who walked the narrow streets of this town many centuries ago. Soon it was off to Ponferrada where we scrambled over a 12th century castle built by the Knights Templar as their regional headquarters and restored just a few years ago into its original crenellated splendor.


We tore ourselves away from the treasures of Ponferrada with the goal of Villafranca del Bierzo by nightfall. This little town at the end of a valley filled with vineyards is where your humble pilgrimage guide heard the news in 2008 that his mother was having heart trouble. He left the Camino here and headed back to Seattle to be with her for her treatment, then returned to the exact spot with wife, Gail, to pick up the trail once again. 


We overnighted at the Albergue Ave Fenix, a jumble of aged stone buildings joined by a grass courtyard with laundry flapping on clotheslines in the breeze. We walked past the medieval fortress and down into the heart of the city to find the many restaurants clustered on the main square and enjoyed a glass of local Bierzo wine as we watched our pilgrim friends dribble into town, ready to relax with a cool drink and perhaps a slice of pizza in the afternoon sun. That night we fell asleep under the rough rafters of Ave Felix with the familiar sound of pilgrim snores and the family albergue smells of boots and shampoo. The next morning would bring our ascent of the mountain up to O Cebreiro, our final climbing challenge of our Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Lay Down Our Burdens at the Foot of the Cruce de Ferro

After a good sleep at Hospital de Orbigo our pilgrim band was ready to climb up the Montañas de Leon for our penultimate big climb of the Camino. Before the big ascent, though, we walked a short day to Astorga and enjoyed the delights of this ancient city.

Astorga, known in Roman times as Asturica Augusta, dates back to Celtic times. The Roman town was founded in the first century A.D. and, indeed, as we walked toward the cathedral of this delightful city we walked past a Roman floor mosaic, recently discovered and now sheltered by a tent. The age of the city was apparent even in the albergue -- certainly the most delightfully antique place we'd so far stayed in our pilgrimage. The jewel of the town, though, is not the mosaic, the albergue, or the cathedral. The jewel is the "Bishop's Palace" built by Antonio Gaudi, famous architect of Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona.
Astorga palace by Gaudi (or was it Disney?)

The palace seems to have been lifted right out of a Disney movie with its tower and turrets and fancy archways. Gaudi, a son of this region of Spain, cut his teeth on architecture like this. His Sagrada Familia is his most famous work and is certainly one of the great cathedrals of the world. 

After a pleasant night in the medieval albergue it was time to begin our ascent. We walked through small farms, gradually climbing to the tiny village of Rabanal del Camino with its tiny 3-monk monastery. The British volunteers at the local albergue were kind and hospitable and told us about the 7:00 nightly service at the monastery. We enjoyed a quiet time of prayers int he ancient, derelict and tiny chapel, then adjourned to the local pub for a fine menu del peregrino.

The next morning it was time for our entry to the nearly-deserted village of Foncebadon. Here Alison told us the story of Paolo Coelho's epic (and fictional) battle with a rabid dog, which chased him through the deserted houses of this decaying place. The dog, Alison, said, is symbolic of all kinds of bad things -- the devil, Coelho's inner demons, his lack of humlity, etc., etc., etc. Although the story is fictional we all kept a wary eye out for our canine brothers who might want to test us as the Black Dog of Foncebadon tested Coelho.
Our pilgrims gather at the foot of the cross
atop the enormous pile of stones left by
pilgrims over the years at Cruce de Ferro.

After a bite-free visit to Foncebadon we headed to Cruce de Ferro and left our rocks at the foot of the cross. Rocks? Well yes, you remember how Rev. Sandy instructed us each to bring a rock from home to leave at the foot of the cross, right? Each of us had a quiet time of prayer at the enormous pile of stones at the foot of the Cross of Iron -- each stone symbolizing a sin to be forgiven or a hope to be fulfilled -- and then we headed down the mountain to the pilgrim town of Molinaseca. 

It was a great few days in the mountains, with grand vistas of the surrounding countryside. We're all admiring each others' well-developed lower leg muscles now. Blisters have been healed, cramped muscles are now strong. We're real walkers now, ready to take on most anything a Camino day can throw at us, which is good since in a couple of days we'll be making the climb to O Cebreiro, our hardest climb since the first day out of St. Jean. 


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Report: The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho

[Alison writing]

Shoelace breakage has been a big problem for us here on the Camino de Santiago, so much so that I gave away half of my yarn supply to serve as emergency laces! I only had enough yarn left to knit one sock, and a couple of weeks ago I finished that sock. "Great" I thought. "Now what am I going to do for a relaxing evening activity?" Jackie suggested I could un-knit the sock, then knit it back up again, but Gwynne and Dawn both thought that was ridiculous. That's when I remembered the book I'd been carrying with me all the way from Seattle - The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho. I thought I'd better get to reading it!
Alison describes how RAM means
more than computer storage.

The Pilgrimage tells the story of the author's journey along the same road we're traveling now - the road to Santiago. Paolo never really wanted to walk this road. At home in Brazil, he had been a student of a tradition called RAM (rigor, adoration, mercy). Paolo was fully expecting to be promoted to the highest rank of the RAM tradition. He was to receive an indestrucable sword in a special ceremony. However, at the very last minute, the RAM Master decided Paolo was not worthy to receive his sword. You see, Paolo had failed to demonstrate the saintly virtue of humility. The Master sent Paolo to France to seek his sword and to learn some lessons by walking the Road to Santiago.

At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Paolo met his guide, Petrus, and they started down the road together. They encountered many hazards along he way, all on purpose! Petrus was a tough guide. He required Paolo to do things like climb waterfalls and wrestle with rabid dogs. By comparison, our guide has really been taking it easy on us so far. Who are we to complain about a few blisters?

At several points along the road, Petrus assigned Paolo to do certain spritual exercises. I've been teaching a few of these exercises to my fellow Cyberpilgrims.

First came the Seed Exercise. You can read about that here:



We decided to do the Seed Exercise first thing in the morning. It was very energizing! After the screaming part, we were ready to hit the trail. Well, most of us were ready. Elissa and Bart were still balancing on one foot each in perfect tree poses. Their yoga instructors should be very pleased with them.

Then there was the Water Exercise, for the Arousal of Intuition:

Make a puddle of water on a smooth, nonabsorbent surface. Look into the puddle for a while. Then, begin to play with it, without any particular commitment or objective. Make designs that mean absolutely nothing.

After this one, Sandy and Jackie started making plans for a new sanctuary banner composed entirely of suspended water droplets. So much for a lack of objective! We are all looking forward to seeing the finished banner. It will be an inspiring backdrop for our worship services back in Seattle, and it's sure to earn Jackie an A+ in her applied calculus class.

For the Blue Sphere exercise, I tried to think of a song from childhood that we could all sing together. A song from childhood... hmmm... well, there was "Walk Whenever You're In the Hall." That was a big hit at West Carlisle Elementary School, but I'm not sure it enjoyed the same popularity in other districts. My dad was always playing his Neil Diamond records on the stereo when I was a kid. Perhaps we could do Sweet Caroline? Nah, too much like karaoke. Other than that, I just knew a bunch of Sunday School songs. Aha! Sunday School songs! That gave me an idea. 

I checked with Sandy first and he said it would be okay for us to sing this one, even though it was almost Lent, because any time is a good time to praise the Lord. He even borrowed a guitar from a local Flamenco musician in order to accompany us. We sang:

Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia
Praise Ye the Lord! (x2)

Praise Ye the Lord!
Alleluia! (x3)

Praise Ye the Lord!

and we sounded really good, thanks to the Holy Spirit and the many choir members among us! The second time around, Dana and Greta got out their recorders and played along. Then, much to everyone's amazement, Jeanne reached into her small backpack and pulled out an autoharp! She strummed and plucked away just like a professional autoharpist.

We sang and sang until the intense blue light of agape filled the room. We kept singing, and the light spilled out into the Spanish countryside, over the Atlantic Ocean and across the Americas. Our friends in Seattle saw it, including those who are sick and those in prison. The light also went south to Africa, where it covered Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and the Sudan. Eventually that light circled the whole world, spreading energy and peace wherever it went. It was a beautiful thing!
Blue light encircles our room, then the continent, then the
world, and has last been spotted encircling the
Pleiades in outer space.

I don't want to give away the end of the story, so if you want to find out if Paolo found his sword, you will have to read The Pilgrimage for yourself. You can find a copy at the Camino Branch of the Seattle Public Library:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tales of Knights and Damsels and Roman Bridges

The bridge at Hospital de Orbigo that dates from Roman
times, where medieval knights strutted their stuff.
It felt like we left León with a hangover, but in reality it was two things: a) the dismal suburbs west of the city that resulted in a half day of slogging along on bleak sidewalks, and b) our sadness at having to leave such a wonderful town. León definitely was a high point of the Camino with its combination of rich history, great architecture, rich nightlife, and pilgrim subculture. Sitting at a cafe on Calle Atoche one can watch the Camino march right by as pilgrims from all over the world funnel into the old city to soothe their blisters and whet their appetites.


It's now clear that our ragtag group of walkers consists of two pilgrims styles. We'll call them the "walkers" and the "runners."* Some of our group enjoy a leisurely stroll through the countryside, noticing flowers and stopping for photos of mountains and buying an extra ice cream bar at an alimentación. Others of us sprint ahead and quick rack up the miles. The runners include Bart, Jackie, Elissa, and yours truly. The rest are walkers, with the exception of Susan and Gwynne who stick to a slower pace, but relentlessly accumulate miles under their feet.
At Hospital de Orbigo. Front frow from left: Elissa and
Dana. Rear, from left: Bart, Erin Elaine, Alison, Sandy,
and Susan. 


The first day out of León we managed a good, long day of walking, surprising ourselves with a 37 km journey that landed us at Hospital de Orbigo. The town is named for a pilgrim hospital from the Middle Ages and the Camino crosses the River Orbigo on a long bridge here, surprisingly long for the tiny river below. In Roman times, when the bridge was built, the river followed a broad, shallow track at this point. Now its channel is narrow and deep. Over the centuries the bridge has accumulated a hefty amount of folklore. Here's a description of some of its history from a Camino cultural guide:



A strategic point on the Roman route connecting the Roman city of Astorga and the silver mines of the Bierzo region with France, the town has witnessed many battles in its long history. The Suevi and the Visigoths met in battle here in the fifth century, and four centuries later Alfonso III defeated the Moors and recaptured the city for the kingdom of León.
However, it was not any of these military engagements that made the town´s name famous for all time, but a contest of a more romantic nature that took place in the mid-15th century. That was when a Leonese knight named Suero de Quiñones issued a challenge to the best lances in all of Europe, vowing to meet them in battle for 30 days on the stone bridge that spans the river in order to prove his devotion for an unnamed noble lady who had rejected his declaration of love. Some 300 jousts and one month later, having proved his love for his lady and considering himself released from what he regarded as his "prison of love", the victorious knight removed the iron collar he had worn around his neck as a symbol of his enslavement of love and took to the Camino de Santiago as a pilgrim. Upon arrival at the cathedral, he deposited a jewel-encrusted golden bracelet as a symbol of his release from the prison in which love had kept him prisoner. The bracelet can still be seen around the neck of a bust of St. James the Lesser in the cathedral museum in Santiago.

The albergue at Hospital de Orbigo was a delight, with artfully painted walls and handcrafted stone floors. To be honest, the uneven floors were a little painful for our tender feet, but nothing could stop us from enjoying the great pilgrim company of new international friends and the nice tastes of a nearby Italian (!) restaurant. Tomorrow, Astorga!
And whose knight in shining armor
might this be?


*Our exercise miles continue to accumulate. Elissa, Jackie, Bart, and Sandy are training for a marathon and half-marathon on April 16, so their miles are accumulating rapidly. As of Week 5 the individual totals are: Bart, 115; Jackie, 102.8; Sandy, 94.6; Susan 94, Gwynne, 93.3; Elissa, 81.9; Alison, 59.3; John 58.9; Erin Elaine, 49; Dana, 24; Greta, 19.5; Jeanne, 4; Dawn, 4; Lisa,3. Team Charles has pulled out to a commanding lead with 433.3 miles, while Team John is pulling up the rear with 376.5. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

We Say Good Bye to León, Our Favorite Camino City

In front of the León Cathedral, from left: Sandy (thin from
miles of walking), Bart, Mr. Steves, John. Bottom: Jackie.
It's hard to think of an America city to compare with León, Spain. For one thing, very few Americans cities have an old city center like European cities, that medieval core that often was encircled by high, stone walls for protection from roving armies and bandits. The old walls shelter old buildings, separated by narrow streets with cozy shops. But for another thing, few American cities have anything like the European paseo, the leisurely evening stroll designed for light shopping and people-watching. Add to that the Spanish custom of eating a very late (9:00 p.m. to midnight) supper and you can see why León is such a fun town: it buzzes with people in the evening.


Mid-13th century Cathedral de Santa Maria de León,
one of Europe's finest examples of High Gothic
On our first night in León we needed rest, which was a fine thing since our albergue, run by the local Catholic nuns, had a curfew of 9:30 p.m. That meant we were fed, watered and prayed over before bed, but it also meant we missed what was going on outside the convent's walls. The next night we stayed at the Posada Regia which opened up León's amazing night life.


The night started at 9:00 with tapas at a series of bars just below the amazing cathedral (more on that later). The streets were already filling with families, grandparents, and small groupings of young people. After a relaxing couple of hours snacking on tapas, we began to worry about whether anything would be open for dinner. We decided to head to head to the Plaza Mayor and discovered that the restaurants were only just now opening. We enjoyed an even more relaxed dinner of menu del peregrino, and by midnight were surprised to discover that the streets were becoming even more crowded! Doors in some of the narrowest alleys now were opening, to expose bar after bar, club after club, disco after disco. The age group in the streets now consisted mostly of people in their 20's and 30's and clearly we were in party central


There was no curfew at our hotel and, since your pilgrimage guide was of course the first one back to his room, he has no idea when the others made it in. Except that Alison, Jackie, Jeanne, and John had a pretty tough time getting up the next day for our tours of local churches!


11th century Basilica of San Isidoro, whose frescoes are
one of Spain's medieval treasures
After a stiff cafe con leche or two the next morning we were ready for sightseeing. Our first stop was the beautiful Cathedral de León, one of the most elegant cathedrals in all of Europe. We witnessed a wedding inside one of the side chapels, with the bride in a beautiful and flowing white dress and the handsome, dark-haired Spanish men in black tuxedos. Afterward it was off to the Basilica de San Isidoro, whose frescoes are some of the best examples of Romanesque art in all of Europe. We opted for a lunch of luxury at the Parador de León, a medieval pilgrim hostel that has been made over into a hotel of the government-owned chain of Paradors.


After lunch we sat at a cafe near the cathedral and began to plot the next stages of our journey. After León we recognize that we were set for about 8 kms of walking through bleak suburbs to get back into the countryside. We agreed that our goal is to walk the whole Camino, so no buses or cabs for us. We'd brave the entire walk no matter how grim. We looked ahead in our guidebooks to the next big city -- Astorga, and identified this as our next likely overnight. At Astorga we would begin the climb over our final mountain range, the Montañas de Leon.
(Congrats to our walkers, whose totals now have allowed us another 120 kilometers, meaning this week we'll be just short of Galicia, the semi-autonomous jurisdiction of which Santiago de Compostela is capitol. Team Charles is leading the way with a total of 348 miles with Team John pulling up the rear with 314).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cyber Pilgrims Run Into Rick Steves in Leon

It's been a few days since our last post, mostly because we have enjoyed Leon so much that we couldn't bear to chain ourselves to the Internet to put a post together. While members of our group of cyber pilgrims were out scouting for the 6 brands of absinthe Rev. Sandy hinted were available in Leon who should they meet but Rick Steves, travel author from nearby Edmonds! The group called the others (who were engaged in prayer and fasting, led by Rev. Sandy) back at the hotel  to share a few beers and some pulpo and conversation about what Rick had discovered about pilgrimage. We promised him we'd catch his travelogue about the Camino that's set to air on PBS in Feb 2011. Wait, here it is!


More tomorrow from the cyber pilgrims who must, unfortunately, leave Leon and its delights and head for the Montañas de Leon for one more climb over the mountains that separate the group from its destination at Santiago.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Long Meseta Days End Up Being Best of Cyber Pilgrimage So Far

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Few would guess that the Meseta would end up being our favorite stretch of the Camino so far. The vast swaths of flat countryside gave us easy (though long) walking and opportunities to walk side-by-side on the wider-than-usual gravel paths.

Though the gravel paths are blessedly wide, we've come to see the physical challenge of walking on gravel all day. The bottoms of our feet, though accustomed to long walks, become tender by afternoon and every oddly shaped piece of gravel can be felt even through the thick soles of our boots. Larger chunks of gravel turn the ankles just a bit, eventually making them ache. As we walk we begin to pay close attention to where we plant our individual steps, avoiding larger rocks or uneven ground to skip the annoying and constant tenderness that are part of every day's walk. Our big choices in the day are whether to walk in the ruts at the left or right side of the road or to walk in the middle which sometimes offers more even footing. Mundane thoughts like these are what occupy pilgrims' minds through the day.

At one point our plus-50 walkers held a song competition with the under-50 walkers based on who could think up song lyrics faster. When one group sang one line of a song the other group had to the count of "5" to come up with a pop song of their own that included one word from the previous song. Our competition lasted nearly all morning before the plus-50's won with the '70's song, "Muskrat Love" of Captain and Tennille. "Love" had been used long ago, but no could figure out anything that related to "Muskrat," so that did it. That meant that the plus-50's were each treated to a San Miguel by the younger crowd. One of the few benefits of being older. Cheers.


Ruins of Convento San Anton and the Camino
which passes through. 
After our evening in Hontanas we walked in admiration and amazement through the ruins of the Convento de San Anton, who buttresses straddled our narrow road. Afterward our now bronzed and thickly-muscled cyber pilgrim legs carried us easily to Fromista via the delightful town of Castrojeriz. This moon-shaped village is wrapped around a castle-topped hill which is a landmark for many miles. After Castrojeriz is the one large hill of the Meseta, an easily-climbed rise that once would've given us pause but now pales in comparison to the Pyrenees after St. Jean or the Alto del Perdon after Pamplona. Before settling into the albergue at Fromista we marveled at the 11th century Iglesia de San Martin and its amazing tiny sculptures at the eaves outside and its intricate columnar capitals inside.

Carrion de los Condes was our next stop. Here we faced a tough decision about whether to stay at the albergue or spend the extra cyber-dollars and stay at the plush Real Monasterio de San Zoilo. Since this is a cyber pilgrimage and our cyber pilgrimage credit card bills need never be paid we decided to opt for grandeur and our group enjoyed the cloisters and crannies of this restored medieval monastery, once one of the larger monasteries in Spain.

We next set our sights on Terradillos de los Templarios, a city whose name and history attach it to the Knights Templar of the Middle Ages. Now the town has only distant echoes of knights and swords. Instead it is a nearly deserted village, baked in the sun and quiet but for stray dogs and a few grandmothers on old chairs in shady doorsteps.


Tiny town of Templarillos, long removed from its
past with the Knights Templar.
After a comfortable stay in the family-owned albergue, complete with teenage kids and mom cooking our dinner, we headed through Sahagun (one of the Meseta's larger towns and the halfway point of our Camino) for an overnight at Bercianos del Camino Real.

Meseta days began to blend into each other as the names of towns grow confused in our minds, but after Bercianos our last night on the Meseta-proper was in Mansilla de las Mulas. Some say the Meseta actually ends in Astorga, but Mansilla is the last little town before Leon and it would be our final opportunity to enjoy the life of a tiny Meseta village on this Camino.

What is tiny village life like on the Meseta? I'm glad you asked. When we pilgrims arrive in a village at about 3:00 and settle into the albergue, we shower, wash our clothes, and then head "out" to see what the town offers. In a town like Mansilla there are two bars and not much else. So we walk along the street, passing adobe-style buildings on either side until we arrive at the bar. At this time of day the bar is filled with grizzled-looking elderly men playing either dominoes or cards and smoking cigarettes. As though of a single mind when we walk in all the men immediately stop what they're doing to gawk at the strangers (us). In an instant they realize we're just another bunch of pilgrims and they go back to their noisy games. After a beer or two (just one for our temperate pastor) we head back to the albergue to check on our laundry. Dinnertime is not until after 8:00 (sometimes much later in Spain) and as we walk to the bar (which is also a restaurant) we see grandmothers on chairs watching the pilgrim parade go by, waving at us shyly from their wooden door-front perches. We pass a dozen men who are bowling on the lawn. No one in this town is under 60 years old. All of them are having a grand time in community games and outdoor activities that are likely how they've spent the evening together since they were children. As we watch these economically-poor Spaniards enjoying life outdoors in this ancient town we realize how impoverished we rich Americans are. We have houses or apartments that would be the envy of any of these people, but they have a sense of community that does not exist in our TV-anesthetized culture. 


The bird-filled albergue at Mansilla de las Mulas
Our Mansilla albergue has a "bird problem," meaning that a couple of bird pairs are nesting inside the albergue among the pilgrims. As a result we can't close the windows since that'd separate the birds from their nests, so we leave the windows open through the night, duck down when we feel the rush of wings over our heads, and step carefully around the small bird exhaust piles that gather up between cleanings by the hospitaleros. 

Before bed that night we walk out to a dirt pile just below the ruins of a church where hundreds of birds have made their nests and we watch the sun go down over the next day's destination: the beautiful city of Leon, one of Spain's true treasures. The Meseta and its long, hot, flat walks is now behind us. Soon Leon will pamper us with its comforts and throw us out onto its steep mountain climbs, the last major mountains in our cyber pilgrimage.

Monday, February 14, 2011

After Fiesta Night Pilgrims Face Spiritual Challenge of the Meseta

Last night we American pilgrims showed pilgrims from Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Brazil, Korea, Finland, and South Africa how to party American Methodist Style! Our international pilgrim friends were astounded that we could have so much fun while practicing the Virtue of Temperance. Still, it was a late night, so the 7:00 mandatory wake-up at the albergue caught us fast asleep in our bunks.
Burgos Cathedral, one of Spain's finest,
as seen from the upper cathedral square.

We sleepily walked to the lower cathedral square and slowly awoke over chocolate croissants and cafe con leche. By 9:00 the Cathedral Museum was open and we stood in line to get our credentiales stamped and learn more about one of Spain's most amazing cathedrals

Then it was time to tour the cathedral and the city itself. We set our sights on the two major monasteries, the medieval city walls, and the statues of heroes like El Cid. Too many sights and sounds to describe here, but suffice to say that we deserved a good rest at our second hotel (only one night is allowed per albergue), the El Cid which overlooks the cathedral. Tonight was about resting, not partying, and we washed our clothes, luxuriated in our rooms, and then sampled the cuisine of this fine city.

The next morning it was time to face the spiritual challenge of the Meseta, the second major stretch of the Camino Frances route. The Meseta is a vast, remote plateau, known among pilgrims for its long, desolate walks. Although the terrain is blessedly flat, there are few towns, with those being quite small and sometimes nearly deserted. Fortunately our Camino is not in the summer, because once the vast green fields are harvested the reddish brown earth radiates the sun back at pilgrims and the long days' marches are oven-hot and dry.
Our pilgrim fellowship begins to spread out as we
walk gravel pathways in the early stages of the Meseta

As we left Burgos the sky opened before us like on the American Great Plains. We could barely make out mountains far away toward the west -- the Montes de Leon -- which we'd climb in about a week. The terrain around us, though, was nearly as flat as Nebraska. An occasional river valley meant a small drop and then gain in elevation, but each hour brought more of the same -- boot on gravel, boot on gravel.

With nothing much to see we came to understand the spiritual challenge of the Meseta. We've now told each other most all our stories about ourselves. We now know each other's oddities and delights. Now we have just the terrain to entertain us, and our own thoughts. The terrain holds few mysteries -- like an open, blank book -- so our thoughts begin to absorb us. Our minds turn to grand and petty grievances, to big and small dreams, to hungers and hopes, to losses and failures. The distance stretches out between us pilgrims and we begin to walk almost alone. The solitude becomes a test of character. This is the Meseta.
The town of Hontanas, tucked into a river gorge.
We welcomed the tiny, mostly-deserted town of Hontanas, tucked into a river gorge and almost invisible until we had practically stumbled into it. The town has many ramshackle buildings, populated mostly by pigeons and stray cats. Its business is mostly pilgrim traffic and we settled into the rambling albergue feeling like we might be among the last generations to experience this fading ghost of a town. As we settled in, we realized the albergue included an unusual feature: a few double beds in private rooms! Our group took a vote and decided the double beds should go to couples in our group, so we singles said our good nights to them with a little smile and slept in the comfort of slightly smelly and somewhat noisy friends and strangers from all over the world. 

View Cyber Pilgrimage in a larger map


(This completes this week's mileage. Congrats for Team Charles which has now pulled out into the lead. Pilgrims please remember to get your new exercise totals to Greta so that we can conquer the spiritual challenge of the Meseta and enjoy the fleshpots of Leon)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pilgrims Stop in Burgos to Celebrate Pilgrim Grammy Night

It's Pilgrim Grammy Night in Burgos. We took our boots off and
put our party on in our first Big City stopover. See if you can identify
Lady Gaga, Eminem, Justin Bieber, and ????
Some may be wondering why we haven't seen many posts on the Cyber Pilgrim Blog lately (thank you, Jackie, for yours). First, let me assure you it is not because of sloth. In fact, when we came through Najera, our first night after Logroño, we stopped at the Monasterio de Santa Maria del Real there and heard a delightful sermon on "The Virtue of Diligence." Although he preached in Spanish, this priest clearly was eloquent and convincing about the case for keeping our pilgrim noses to the grindstone. I especially found his words about the average amount of time Spaniards watch television (which is actually much less than Americans due to the low quality of Spanish TV) to be inspirational. I immediately determined I would no longer watch "Millionaire Matchmaker" reruns from this point on -- I will wait only for the first-run episodes. I'm debating whether to cross "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" off my list, too, but am anxious not to appear extreme based on a inspirational sermon.



Crosses in the fence outside Logrono. Why are they
protecting the cars from us
No, it definitely was not because of sloth that we haven't posted. To be honest it was . . . .well . . . . lack of WiFi. We learned after we left Logroño's highways that we had momentarily left Western Civilization behind us. We made crosses out of sticks and wove them through the chain link fences that protected the roaring traffic from contact with pilgrims. The crosses, though, were almost like a "good bye," because once we left the side of the road we entered into miles of farmland -- vineyards -- that made us feel that we'd stepped back in time. We walked the gradual climb up to Navarette, then the long, steady climb to Najera. Here we found a small town of 7,000 that is closely connected to the pilgrims of this time and times past.

The Monasterio of Santa Maria del Real (where we heard the sermon) is a fabulous medieval edifice, built on the site where the son of King Sancho the Great followed his hunting falcon into a cave and there discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary. The cave is now part of the church, and as we walked through the building after the service we noted pilgrim motifs -- scallop shells and gourds -- carved into the centuries-old choir pews. We remembered that our walk follows the trail of millions over centuries who sought to find the spirit on the road to Santiago.


Monasterio de Santa Maria del Real -- not the first
sermon on the Virtue of Diligence we'd ever heard.
After Najera it was more walking on remote roads, with an entire day's walk punctuated by only one little town (Azofra) prior to our overnight at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Your humble author was happy to see this little town, and only partly because he convinced us to bag the albergue bunks and instead to stay in one of his favorite Camino hotels, the Hotel Parador in Santo Domingo. In Sandy's first Camino he left his walk here in order to meet his wife, Gail, who was giving a talk in Copenhagen. He took a bus to Burgos, then a train to Bilbao, then a plane to Copenhagen so that he could surprise Gail at her hotel. Sure enough, she was shocked! As he arrived in Copenhagen he realized, though, that he had left his favorite hat at the Parador in Santo Domingo. When he returned after a couple of days of watching Gail give lectures in Copenhagen the hotel had nicely kept his hat wrapped in a plastic bag at the desk awaiting his return. Since then he's always had a soft spot for this place. Besides, it is right across the square from the church which has such an interesting story.

The church's story goes like this: About 1000 years ago a family was walking to Santiago and they stopped at Santo Domingo. A village girl immediately fell in love with the family's eldest son and, when he spurned her advances she ran to her parents and accused him of indecencies. His parents flew into a rage, had him arrested, and later that day the young man was hung (to death, presumably). His family continued on to Santiago (we all know about pilgrim timelines) and, upon their return, were surprised to see their son hanging from the rope -- alive! They ran to the bishop to ask him to cut down their son. The bishop, who was just about to dig into a dinner of two beautiful roasted chickens, said, "Your son is as dead as these chickens on my plate," at which point the birds jumped up and ran out the door. The bishop was startled and immediately had the son cut down from the gallows. Ever since that day two (live) chickens are always kept inside the church. It's said that if they cluck while you are in the building you will have a fabulous Camino. It's said if they don't cluck, you will still have a fabulous Camino.
Vast fields of green just outside Santo Domingo

I have done my duty and told you one of the Mandatory Camino Stories. As you can see, not all stories of the Camino are completely plausible, but they are always, well, weird.

Off we went the next day to Tosantos, a worthy distance goal of 28 kms. Here we came to understand the unbelievable beauty of the Spanish countryside. The vast distance of plains, with waving green fields of grain, was breathtaking. After a good, long day of walking with a brief stop at Grañon (a beloved pilgrim stopover because its albergue is housed in a church) we arrived at the tiny village of Tosantos to find a black-haired hospitalero who invited us to cook dinner with him after we'd finished our laundry. We cooked a dinner of beef stew, with various members of our group cutting meat or vegetables, and after a time our hospitalero friend had whipped it up into a sumptuous feast. Before we could eat, though, he asked if we would follow a member of the local church up to the grotto above the town where the statue of the Virgin Mary was kept. We headed up the hill on the other side of town and sat in the cold cave as we were told, in Spanish, about the miracles caused by the Virgin through the statue.

We returned to the albergue and dined on beef stew over pilgrim chatter to a boom box CD of Taize music. After dinner we were invited to the uppermost room at the albergue and there we read aloud the written prayers of pilgrims who had stopped here three weeks prior. As our hospitalero explained, these people had now made it to Santiago and by saying their prayers we would be praying with them. We were surprised at the stories included in the prayers -- stories of sins committed or sins suffered, stories of addictions or endings -- and after our prayers we wrote down our own prayers with the same openness and vulnerability, knowing that pilgrims who followed us three weeks hence would read our prayers and make them their own.


Our next night's hideout after the plush digs of the
Santo Domingo Parador Hotel
The next morning we left Tosantos behind, headed to the nearby town of Villafranca del Montes de Oca, which is the gateway to another mountain pass. Here your humble author reminded our group of what one pilgrim encountered along this road about 800 years ago. As he walked the lonely path through the woods he happened upon a pack of wolves tearing away at the flesh of a dead pilgrim. With one voice the entire group told your humble author to keep his mouth shut now for the rest of the day, but whenever there was a rustle in the woods our groups eyes all quickly darted in the direction of the sounds.

As we came down from Montes de Oca free of wolf bites we arrived at the town of Atapuerca, a tiny village with two bars, three albergues and one world-famous museum. After the busloads of schoolchildren left in the afternoon we stopped by the museum to discover that Atapuerca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the place where some of the most ancient hominid bones in Europe were unearthed by anthropologists. Delightfully, the museum's video about these early human-like beings was all in English (produced by the BBC, no less). We stood in awe as we watched and realized that these valleys and mountains were home to "people" for thousands of years before us.

After a night at the albergue in Atapuerca it was time to make our assault on Burgos. There's little to say about walking through the industrial suburbs of one of the Camino's major cities. This town, birthplace of Francisco Franco and the city where Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus on one of his voyages, is one of two large metropolises we'll visit on the Camino. What does that mean? Pilgrim fiesta!

Given the Grammy Awards happening this very night back in the US of A we decided to hold a Grammy-themed event at a local karaoke bar just off the cathedral square. Everyone unpacked their gowns and tuxedos from their packs and spiffed up for a night of singing and reminiscing about American Pop Culture. Yes, the city of Burgos has one of Spain's finest Gothic cathedrals. Yes, it was the home of El Cid. Yes, we were surrounded by culture. But tonight, it's pilgrim fiesta night and we're taking off our hiking boots and putting our party on!

Pilgrimage Euchre, Anyone?

Jackie's fantastic Euchre hand, on miniature cards.

(Jackie Speaking): Some may have wondered what has happened to our little band of pilgrims since we haven't been heard from in a few days. After we lost our two pilgrims in the torrential downpour in Viana Wednesday evening (don't worry, as mentioned in the earlier post, they were airlifted to safety and then decided to go home) and after a short walk to Logrono, we decided to take it easy and just hang out with each other in this fabulous city. After all, our lesson on diligence was not scheduled until next week. (For our lesson this week on Charity, Susan led us in providing some of our pilgrimage currency to pilgrims we met along our way so that they too could visit the home of Feliza.) The walk through La Rioja was fantastic, there's nothing quite like the smell of vineyards in the open air, and we experienced this for much of our walk.

That next day still in Logrono, we decided to visit Con-Catedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda in addition to Iglesia de Santiago that we had visited the previous day. This Cathedral was built over a former 12th century Romanesque temple. Many additions and restorations have been made to this Cathedral over the centuries. The significant twin towers on the exterior were not added until the 18th century while the side doors were added at the beginning of the 18th Century, the Gospel side dedicated to San Martin. A vault in the church houses a Michelangelo painting of the Crucifixion of Christ, forgotten for many years and not found again until later in the 20th Century.

We then decided to stop by Calle Portales near the Plaza del Mercado where we ate previously and at the foot of the Con-Catedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda, to examine this main street of the old town of Logrono. From there, we headed over to Calle Mayor, a popular weeknight hangout, for some good food and drink. As we were sipping our world-class Rioja wine, I pulled out my miniature deck of playing cards so that we can hold a good old fashioned Midwest Euchre tournament. The cards were miniature of course, since I had to limit the weight of my pilgrimage backpack. Our evening of fun went well into the night and as Alison and I battled Bart and Rockstar for the top Euchre win spot (I won't state who won because we wouldn't want to brag), I heard that Dana tried, successfully I might add, to shoot the moon in Hearts. We heard much laughter from Jeanne, Elissa, Gwynne, and Dawn during their bridge game and the tensions were high amongst Lisa, Greta, Erin Elaine, John and Susan as they were nearing the 18th hole of their game of golf (the card game of course). Don't worry, we'll get back on our feet with all those blisters soon and head off to the next city. Team John, especially, has some catching up to do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Search and Rescue Helicopter Lifts Lost Pilgrims to Safety

Catherine, thankful for a rescue from the swollen
Rio Valdearas, decides to end her pilgrimage
on a high note.
By the time we realized Catherine and Connie were gone it was late into the evening. We sent a delegation to the Viana police to report them missing, but had little hope they'd turn up that night. As we heard other pilgrims describe the cloudburst we realized the downpour had been bigger than we'd thought. Apparently several pilgrims had been swept away in the rivers of rain and hail that filled the streets of Viana.

The next morning we packed up to head toward Logroño and, at the banks of the Rio Valdearas we watched as Connie, then Catherine were airlifted from an island in the swollen river. They both appeared happy, serene even. We shouted and waved to get their attention, but the noise of the helicopter was too loud and soon they were whisked off, over the horizon, to a local hospital.

We learned later that the fast waters coming off the hill in Viana had caught them, forcing them downhill and ultimately into the river. They'd spent the night on the island along with three French pilgrims who knew little English, but they shared French PowerBars for sustenance and, when they were spotted in the morning, a British pilgrim named Covey called for Search and Rescue. Later that night we had an e-mail from Connie, apologizing for a change of plans for the two, who had decided at the hospital that the walking, blisters, bunk beds, and occasional helicopter rescue didn't fit their idea of a vacation. Bye, Connie! Bye-bye, Catherine!
Lovely Logroño, capital of Spanish wine country
and our overnight after the heroic rescue.

We remaining pilgrims decided to walk a short day, with plans to challenge ourselves only with the 8 kms to Logroño, one of the great pilgrim towns of the Camino. As we crossed the Rio Valdearas we entered the autonomous region of La Rioja, Spain's internationally-famous wine country. We'd seen vineyards for many miles, but we realized now we had entered the heart of it all. We walked past the ruins of prehistoric city of Cantabria, then walked on asphalt path and back alleys to a beloved pilgrim rest stop -- the home of Feliza. For many years Feliza's aunt, also called Feliza, has welcomed pilgrims into her home and offered the hospitality of toast, jam, cafe, and fruit for an offering of a few coins each. We shared in her hospitality, had our credentiales stamped, then headed across the new bridge into the vibrant city of Logroño.


The original Feliza, shown here in 2008. Thanks, Cariña,
for your care of 1000s of pilgrims over the years.
This city of 130,000 is like a classy, Spanish version of Bellingham, Washington. The university brings a youthful vibe, the historic architecture brings a medieval feeling, and the Iglesia de Santiago marks it as a portion of Camino history. We noticed the statue of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-slayer) at Iglesia Santiago, reminding us of the story of Santiago's heroic and miraculous rout of the Moors in a nearby battle some 1,000 years after his death. 

We caught dinner at the Plaza Mercado and then retired for the night at the municipal albergue -- after prayers of thanksgiving for the rescue of our friends, of course.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Great Camino Video Thanks to Huffington Post

My thanks to George Derk and Huffington Post for sharing this great Camino Video. Enjoy!




Torrential Hailstorm Strands Pilgrims in Viana Overnight

Just a few kilometers out of Torres del Rio we came to a lookout that allowed a vista over the coming two towns: Viana and Logroño. As we looked over these mid-sized cities of Navarre and La Rioja we saw on the western horizon a vast strip of black storm clouds. At this point it wasn't clear they were heading toward us, but their presence gave us a sense of foreboding -- with no place in the vineyards and low bushes between here and Viana we would be vulnerable to whatever Mother Nature might throw at us.


With grim determination we walked briskly toward Rio Cornova, barely noticing the ancient ruins there. Just over an hour later we arrived in Viana, with the sky turning dark and the wind picking up. Here we faced a choice: press ahead to Logroño to cover additional ground during daylight, wait here until the storm passed, or stay overnight here in Viana to take advantage of the warm and dry albergue, staying off wet and muddy pathways. After a brief discussion the answer was clear: wait it out and see if the weather allowed more walking after the storm passed overhead.


Interior of Iglesia de Santa Maria, our refuge from
the hailstorm outside.
We staked out a rendezvous at the the 13th century Iglesia de Santa Maria and sent Connie and Catherine to find a good cafe/bar to hang out at and Alison and Jackie to the main albergue to see if it was a place we'd want to stay. The rest of us ventured into the gorgeous church. 


The splendor of the church is a clear indication of the prominence of the city in the Middle Ages. The gilded altar, the beautiful stone work, and the height of the ceiling are all indications of the care and expense that went into its construction. The church is also burial place to the infamous Italian, Cesare Borgia -- churchman, politician, military strategist and scoundrel who was praised as being an example of what Machiavelli meant in The Prince.


As we gazed at the church's statue of Santiago, one of the oldest on the Camino, we heard a loud crash coming from outside, followed by the sounds of a torrential rain storm pounding on the roof of the church. We headed to the door to witness the violent downpour and stood in amazement at the almost twelve inches of water that had already begun washing down the stone pavers of the medieval street. Soon the rain was replaced by hail and just as we were about to close the doors of the church we saw Alison and Jackie splashing down the street toward us, their hands over their heads for protection from the pelting of the hail.


Entrance to the Viana Albergue -- the morning after the
big storm when we discovered the fate of two of our group.
After the two arrived we waited another ten minutes, hoping for the storm to let up. At Jackie and Alison's urging we decided to head to the main albergue, just a block or so from the church it turned out, in order to assure ourselves beds for the night. We gathered up our packs and covered them with their waterproof covers, then headed out into the deluge for the albergue.


Although we were only about 50 steps away we were drenched by the time we reached the foyer of the albergue. We signed in, had our credentiales stamped, found our beds (triple-decker bunk beds in this crowded albergue) and got into dry clothes. By this time the storm had mellowed into a heavy rain and we all agreed it was time for a good dinner, so we headed to a nice restaurant just across the street and had a beautiful menu del peregrino. As dessert arrived, I think it was Elissa who asked the question, "Where are Connie and Catherine?"


We sat there in stunned silence. The last we'd seen them was before the storm.


This week's mileage totals are: Team John: 65.9; Team Charles: 95.7. Congrats to Team Charles for taking the lead. We regret that Connie and Catherine have dropped out of our cyber pilgrimage. Visit the blog tomorrow to find out what calamity has happened to them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Travelogue of Sandy's 2010 Camino to Santiago

(While we're awaiting results of last week's miles, here's a travelogue of Sandy's camino from last year, when he walked the last 166 miles of the Camino Via de la Plata to Santiago de Compostela, beginning at Puebla de Sanabria in order to arrive at Santiago on the Feast Day of St. James in the Holy Year, July 25, 2011. While we're relaxing in the comforts of home on our Cyber Pilgrimage, Rev. Sandy thought it'd be good to hear what a real pilgrimage sounds like in real time. Notes are taken from his e-mails to Gail sent via iPhone each night.)
View Via de la Plata in a larger map


Day One - Puebla de Sanabria to Lubian (18 miles)
This first day I crossed a mountain pass and went much farther than planned-- from Puebla Sanabria to Lubian. Theoretically 30 kms, but I took a longer way and suspect it was at least 35 kms. I'm exhausted, though at least no blisters. Met Artur, a man of Estonia, with whom I walked much of this camino. Am sleeping tonight with 11 other people in a room smaller than our bedroom at home. A 20-something couple across from me is making kissing noises while people talk loudly downstairs. I'm tired enough, though, that I don't expect any trouble sleeping.


Day Two - Lubian to Vilavella (7.5 miles)

Puebla de Sanabria, starting point for this 166 mile camino
to Santiago for Holy Year festivities
Not much happening here except endless walking. The albergue last night was a challenge. Only one bathroom for all the pilgrims and no place to wash clothes. A Spanish kid must've spent an hour in the bathroom first showering then washing his clothes. Then he wanted to brush his teeth too so I just went in, disrobed, and started taking my shower. I slept ok, but at about 06:00 people started stirring which meant nobody could sleep. I left with Arthur at about 07:00.

No open store or bar in the town so no breakfast. Next town was a three hour walk, but at least it was nice weather. We walked up a single track path in an elevation gain of about 1000 feet in perhaps 3 kms through forest with occasional vistas looking out over a deep valley with a freeway near the valley floor. We crossed the ridge at the border between Zamora province in Castille y Leon and  province in Galicia. Immediately the familiar Galician camino mile markers appeared, each with distance remaining to Santiago. This first one showed 244 kms.

Arthur and I talked most of the day about Catholic theology and I learned he's quite the conservative Catholic. He's thrilled with Pope Benedict and not a fan of modern attempts to reform the church.


We had a steep descent, missing the town of Portela O Canda. Here my legs started to wear out and I was glad to know Vilavella would be a short distance away. Sure enough it appeared and the only bar/cafe in town is at my hotel. Arthur and I met Dick and Annika of Netherlands there, then sat for lunch with a Spaniard, an Italian and a Dutch woman now living in Australia. Soon Arthur was done with his lunch and I relaxed into the hotel. Dinner in the restaurant of cod and salad. Bed at 23:30.




Day Three - Vilavella to As Eiras (25.5 miles)
This very challenging and frustrating day began with a nice breakfast at the Vilavella Hotel. Along with ordering a few croissants I had the waitress make a bocadillo to go. She made an enormous one of turkey, cheese and tomatoes. This would come in very handy later.
Vast uninhabited stretches, here above a reservoir after
A Gudina and before Campobecerros.

I left the hotel at 07:30, walked downhill through town and caught the camino at the base of the village. The next 14 kms were a delight as I passed farm after farm, nestled between creeks, with ancient stone walls separating them and huge, light brown cows watching my every move until I passed by. After 14 kms the path veered out of the verdant area and joined the highway.

In about a km the town of A Gudina came into view. Since it was only 11:00 I was torn as to whether I'd continue on or stay in A Gudina as planned. I sat on the sidewalk and considered my options as I ate half my bocadillo. The next village with services would be Campobecerros, 23 kms away. It would take me 5-6 hours to walk and I'd be gambling that the town's one hotel would have a room available. Still, it was only 11:00. Finally I decided to go for it, and I entered the town to get extra food and water. By noon I was on the road with fruit, more water, and two nice looking chocolate croissants.

After leaving A Gudina the camino joined a secondary road following a high ridge at 1000 meters +/- elevation. It would follow this road for about the next 12 kms, crossing tiny hamlets one by one. A gravel road then cut across a ridge and soon began a quick descent on loose shale to Campobecerros where I arrived at 18:00. Exhausted, I stopped for a beer at a tiny bar, then found the hotel. I asked for a room and was told to sit and wait for a few minutes. Twenty minutes later, still no room. I asked what was going on and was told they had no rooms. By this time - 18:45 - I was getting concerned. I knew it was 14 kms to the next town with services, Laza. That would take over 3 hours to walk, and I knew it would be too dark to walk by 22:00. I asked if they could call a taxi to take me to Laza, and they agreed. No answer from the taxi driver. Just wait a few more minutes they said. Got hold of the driver. He'll be here in maybe 20 minutes. By now it was 19:15 and, frustrated, I decided to hit the road and use what little outdoor camping gear I had with me if I couldn't get to Laza before nightfall.

I made it 8 kms before my body just could not go farther. At the nearly deserted town of As Eiras, 44.6 kms and 14 hrs after I began I found a camino rest area with three covered picnic tables. I'm sleeping tonight on the westernmost table with the sun's last glow on the horizon and a crescent moon in the southwestern sky, typing this note in my sleeping bag atop my sleeping pad at 22:36 in the evening. Beautiful pine forest is around me here, with the tiny village seemingly deserted, at least from the vantage point of this tiny picnic area on the outskirts of town. Next village, Laza, is 6kms away. Too far tonight for this tired body.



Day Four -- As Eiras to Vilar do Barrio (26 miles)
Bad planning meant sleeping the night outside at this
picnic shelter in As Eiras after a 25 mile walk. 
Norwegian friends, lovely people but had to disagree
on sexuality issues.
 Rather than being eaten by wild dogs In As Eiras last night I slept soundly through the evening and woke up first at 4:45, then at 6:30. It seemed incredibly cold and I dressed in extra layers, then headed down the hill at 07:00 toward Lasa, the place I'd hoped to reach last night. The 6.5 kms were all on pavement and I made it there by a little after 09:00.

Lots of teenaged pilgrims with tiny backpacks were leaving town at this cushy hour. I realized then it was Saturday, one week before Santiago Day and I was seeing the first of the fiesta crowds.

After a cafe con leche I began looking for bottled water and food for the day's journey. A lesson from the Via de la Plata: stock up the night before because when you wake up everything will be closed. Sure enough the tienda was closed (no water or actual food), but the panaderia was open. They gave me tap water and sold me two chocolate covered, cream filled croissants. These would be my provisions for the 423 meter/8 km climb the morning had in store -- the climb the guidebook says is hardest of the VDLP.

I walked through two tiny towns, covering 6.7 kms of fairly flat ground, then began the ascent at Tamicelas. Of course neither town had stores of any kind.

Immediately I felt the effects of yesterday's 41 kms. Every step was a slog, with my feet tired and sore and the morning mist having been replaced by a blazing sun. The climb was relentless and sweaty and the morning's croissant was a brick in my stomach. I arrived at the town of Albergueria, famous on the VDLP for its pilgrim bar and my best hope for a real lunch today, only to find it closed. A nice man assured me in Gallego that the owner would be back in a half hour. And hour and a half later still no owner. Fortunately, though, the grocery truck (tienda on wheels) arrived, allowing me a lunch of nectarines and cheese. One of the bar's customs is to hang a scallop shell from the ceiling with the name of each pilgrim who stops there. I was also hoping for a sello for my credentiale with the bar's name. No luck. Armed with carbs and protein but no memorial shell or sello I set off at 14:30 for the day's final walk -- 7.3 kms downhill to Vilar do Barrio.The wait at the bar had given me a chance to rest my feet and even catch a short snooze on the bench across the street. The rest allowed me to push through this challenging phase without a pause, and I arrived at Vilar do Barrio at 17:00. My first stop was the albergue, which I was told was full because of the arrival of a busload of young pilgrims with small backpacks. The kind hospitalera set me up in a casa rural for 40E that offers all the comforts of home.. Manuel, son of the owner, did my laundry (no charge), which was very smelly and wet with sweat. No answer from Manuel or his mom yet on a bar of soap, but I did get a restaurant suggestion and I'll head there at the traditional Spanish dinner hour of 21:00.







Day Five -- Vila do Barrio to Xunqueira de Ambia (15.6 miles)I'm at the albergue in the little farm town of Xunquiera de Ambia. Not many services here, but at least there are some bars and restaurants on this cute little town.

Before dinner last night I stocked up on fruit, water, and cheese for today's walk. On the recommendation of Manuel, son of the owner at the casa rural where I stayed, I ate at a tiny restaurant without even a sign outside. The owner/cook/waitress was a 70ish year old woman who made a very nice enselada mixta and a big bowl of caldo gallego, my first time trying this Galician classic. It's made simply of potatoes, greens from a peculiar Galician plant, and various spices. Simple but tasty. She was disappointed I didn't eat the entire bowl, but I was just too full. For that plus bread and wine she wanted to charge me 8E, but I insisted on 10.

After a good sleep at the casa rural that night I packed and headed out the door for a short day's walk. I had debated pressing on to Ourense, but given it is Sunday I decided a shorter day and potential church mass would be best.

The day alternated between sunny farm roads and shady pathways, punctuated by sleepy towns. Sheep in the meadows talked loudly to each other while their shepherd looked on. Cows, dogs and cats walked the roads, the dogs and cats being nice enough to use private toilets.

Just after I set out I was passed by a group of seven Spanish boys of 18-25ish with small backpacks. After a bit I passed them while they stopped to talk, rest, and smoke. After a time they passed me again, and I caught up again during their break. We all arrived at the Xunqueira albergue at the same time, 11:00 -- they the hare and I the ancient sea turtle.

Although the albergue was not supposed to open until 12:30 the hospitalera of this modern albergue allowed me to leave my backpack and head to the 12th c. church for mass.

The church is a gem of Romanesque architecture, dark but simple and beautiful. Filling the walls are several ornately carved reredos, including two with mi hermano Santiago. There's also a balcony organ that, according to the secretary who gave me my sello, is 300 years old.

I enjoyed the service, but also had one of those church moments that will certainly make it into a sermon. I sat down in a pew, thirty minutes early for the mass, one of six people among the 40-odd pews. A thirty- something woman comes in and, among all the available seats chooses to sit in my pew, about three feet to my left. In a few minutes another much older woman comes in and sits to my right, then another woman joins our merry group between me and the woman on my left. I count perhaps 20 people in church now, with 20% of us in one pew and ten minutes left until the service begins. Clearly I had sat in "their" pew, but rather than get up and move to another pew I decided to become one of "them." we worshiped, shared the sacrament, and mumbled our ancient prayers together (in two languages). I smelled their perfume, my first in a week.   I halfway expected a lunch invitation, but suspect they had caught a whiff of Eau de Pelerin (no shower yet after 14kms in the hot sun) and left in dismay.

Met a québécois gentleman name Andre on the return from church. He's walked all the French camino routes over the years and once all the way to Santiago. Like most long distance pilgrims on the VDLP he's now slowing down to time his arrival for July 24 in Santiago.

Shower followed by update writing. Laundry later. Cervesa very soon. Hot day outside. Windows closed to keep out the hot air. The kissy young couple from Seville are taking their siestas on (blessedly) two bunks on the other side of the room. At 14:45 time to explore the town and prep for tomorrow's walk into Ourense.



Day Six -- Xunqueira de Ambia to Ourense (18 miles)
Ancient pipe organ at the beautiful monastery church at
Xunqueira de Ambia.
I had dinner last night with Andre of Montreal and we had a tender discussion about angels and saints. He told me about his family and divorce and the 1000s of kms he's walked on caminos. Afterwards it was off to the albergue for a good sleep.

As usual in albergue people start to stir and head out at the ridiculous hour of 05:00. It's not light here until 07:00, so clearly their reason is to get a jump on albergue beds in the next town.

At 06:30 I gave up trying to sleep and was next to last out of the albergue. Today's walk to Ourense, largest town in my camino, had three main stages -- a) tiny bedroom villages, b) industrial zones, c) dense urban areas leading to the old city.

I walked through the tiny bedroom villages with Kjell and Oddbjorge of Norway. Kjell's English is quite good and he told me the story of how his 1998 camino changed his life. After the camino he came home, simplified his lifestyle, and retired so he'd have more time to volunteer at church. Then he complained bitterly about the Norwegian government forcing the Norwegian Lutheran church to accept homosexual clergy.

Kjell and Oddbjorg walked slowly, so I walked mostly alone through the industrial zone. Here I nearly flipped my first bird (yes, nearly) when a driver missed me by inches from behind as he passed a truck on a narrow road. I jumped as his car whizzed by.

As I started into the urban section I caught up with the kissy Spaniards and their friend, who's hobbling now with an injury. I tried to help them find the albergue, but I wasn't that committed given I had my heart set on a cheap hotel somewhere in the center city.

In the urban areas the yellow arrows always seem to disappear, so I had to ask directions several times to get to the Plaza Meyor. I finally found it then was about to sit down for the day's first beer when I was stopped by a camera crew. A man in a rainbow tank top asked me if I'd be interviewed. I told him I didn't speak Spanish that well, so he did the first part of the interview in English. He asked me how I liked Ourense (me lo gusta) and where I was from. I told him and also volunteered that I'd just walked 22kms and was very tired and was looking for a hotel. He asked me how many stars, one, two, or three? I told him 2-3 and, off camera now, he sent me to a hotel about a block off the Plaza Meyor.

Which is where I'm typing from right now. I checked in, went across the street for a great enselada mixta, then sat to type this note and strategize about laundry (do it now) and dinner (do it after the blazing sun goes down).



From left: Polish Margarita, Italian Francesco, Portugese
Francisco, French Pascal, and Italian Corrado at Oseiras.
Day Seven - Ourense to Cea (14 miles)
Interior of monastery church at Oseiras.
Day Seven began by asking directions at the hotel's front desk about how to get out of Ourense. The answer was fairly easy -- left, then right, then left until the Roman bridge -- the follow through was much more difficult. After the bridge and the endless suburbs there was a steep vertical climb up a cobblestone drive for 1000 ft elevation gain. The uphill climb was very tough, mostly because whenever it seemed to be ending it was in reality just taking a break before another steep slope. The first 7.5 kms took over twohours, much slower than normal. Worse, the result was a feeling of exhaustion all daylong.

The climb led to a long stretch of vacation chalets, each sitting, it seemed, on 5-10 acre parcels. These are large house, built of 6'x18"x6" slabs of rough hewn granite. While the materials should make these houses blend into their context of ancient stone buildings, just the opposite is true. Unlike the ancient homes, these stand out because they are nearly identical, symmetrical, but most of all, they are separated from their neighbors. All of the ancient houses are clustered together-- sometimes walls touching while surrounded by miles of farms -- for community and protection. Each of the homes has a barking German Shepherd tied in the yard for protection and a satellite dish attached to the house for community. The result was not an unpleasant feeling, just a disconnected one.

After a time the vacation chalets melted into the normal Galician pattern of scattered villages. At one of these villages I took a lunch of cheese omelette in baguette. The TV was on and I found myself entranced by the Spanish-dubbed version of Minority Report with Tom Cruise. After days of tranquility I was easily lured into the fast pace of this American movie and I had a hard time dragging myself away.

Within a half hour the heavy lunch required a break from walking. So in a grassy spot with shade I laid down for 20 mins with my shoes off to rest. This gave me a chance to watch the trickle of pilgrims who were behind me. In 20 mins only three -- a single Spanish woman was walking with the cigar-smoking older Spanish man. The solo Spaniard with the soccer flag still by himself. Each shared a buen camino as they passed.

After an hour I met Ramon from Madrid, a man who carries the party with him wherever he goes. His personality blends the jocular and the pushy. He was clearly frustrated with my Spanish, but clearly still wanted to communicate. At one point he asked me, "do you know what color was Santiago's white horse?" I knew he was playing with me and I told him it was the same color as George Washington's white horse. He also told me about some of the people he'd been walking with from A Gudina. A Polish woman who lives in Madrid. A Polish woman who is walking from Lourdes to Fatima to Santiago.

This was all with only 3 kms to go before the albergue in Cea. Once we arrived there after our 22km walk we found our beds, took our showers, washed our clothes, and at Ramon's suggestion headed straight to dinner -- with Magdalena, the Polish Spaniard.

It was a lively and delicious dinner, with Ramon the life of the fiesta. Rumor has it that the town's free pool is open. Several pilgrims plan to swim, and I may join them.

Otherwise it was a quiet day here on the Via de la Plata, unless you include the fact that there are now at least 5 times the number of pilgrims as before.  But only one Americano.



Day Eight -- Cea to Oseira to A Laxe (25.5 miles)
Medieval bridge before Ponte Ulla
Doing fine here, but had one of the toughest days yet. The day started at the delightful little town of Cea. I'd had dinner last night with Ramon and Magdalena. Then an English speaking Spaniard wanted to have a beer. So I got back in around 10:30 and settled down in my top bunk.

I slept fine, but as usual too short because of the mass exodus from the albergue at 05:30. I finally dragged myself out of bed at 06:30 and hit the road 1/2 hour later.

I soon caught up with Kristina, an older Polish woman, and Francisco from Portugal. Although they don't share a common language somehow they're stuck together like glue. Fracisco has what the Bible would call a "withered arm" which means he can't carry a backpack. Instead he has a suitcase on wheels - which must be an enormous challenge in these very rough paths. I also soon met Pascal and the two Italians. We arrived together at the incredible monastery of Oseira. I attended 10:30 prayer office with the monks. If I were a multimillionaire I would buy them a new pipe organ to replace their cheap electronic. The service was a half hour in length and afterward Brother Thomas gave me a tiny painting of the face of Jesus.

Kristina, Francisco and I soon took off for the day's destination, Castro do Dozon, about 10 kms beyond the 9km we'd already walked. I soon left behind the two of them and got in my walking groove, with this stretch pretty deserted since it's a longer option to go via the monastery from Cea.

After a bit I saw the two Germans ahead. They were clearly struggling on the rough path with their baby, Jacob, and his stroller. I helped them through the worst of it but left thinking they'd made a huge mistake to try this with the baby.

Given the extra time for the monastery I arrived fairly late at the day's goal, only to learn that the albergue was full. Next albergue: 19 kms away in A Laxe. So I set out at 15:00 to walk the extra miles for what I believed to be a total of 37kms.

As the distance dragged on I was clearly flirting with my endurance boundary. Every step was painful and the goal seemed only slowly to get closer. I stopped to rest every hour, then every half hour. As I approached the albergue a van full of kids pulled up - the same kids from Lasa with the small backpacks. I couldn't believe it. They were going to beat me to the last bed at the albergue. Sure enough, I headed to the door and a sign was already posted, "Completo." I was stunned. I asked the hospitalera if she had any beds at all. She said no, though there were beds another five kms away.  But as we were talking the kids and their leaders from the van were listening. They invited me to stay with them in a backroom with mats on the floor. I enthusiastically said yes and they showed me the room, laid out my mat, and put the sheet on for me. Some of the kids tried out their English a little on me to be friendly. End result, they get Saint of the Day in my book.

Since it was already 8:30 and the doors lock at 22:00 I set down my stuff and walked the .5 km to the restaurant. As I was finishing, who should appear but Artur of Estonia. We briefly chatted before I headed to the Albergue for bed. The hospitalera insists that my mileage today was actually 42 kms, and I believe her.

Tomorrow Artur and I will head out at a reasonable hour to Ponte Ulla, an 18 km walk. I'm two day's ahead of plan so I need to cool my jets in order not to arrive early in Santiago.



Day Nine -- A Laxe to Ponte Ulla (17.8 miles)
Arrival at Santiago cathedral with Artur.
After my super long day yesterday I was certain today would be a total drag. I woke up with the kids from the van saying "good morning" to me in order to practice their English. I thanked one of their leaders once again for helping make a place for me at the albergue and he told me, in Spanish, that he could tell I really needed one. I asked him how he could tell and he pointed to his eyes and drew his fingers down his cheeks then pointed at me. I hadn't realized I'd looked so desperate, or that my tears had been obvious. Yes, I'd shed some tears, mostly after my place at the albergue was assured. I've learned about myself that after 25-26 miles of walking I tend to get weepy. Oh well.

Soon Artur hunted me down and after some vending machine coffee we set out. We would walk together all 26 kms to our evening destination of Ponte Ulla.

The walk was through farmlands as well as one small city -- Silleda. Not much to say about the walk except that we met about 40 Spanish kids who're walking together, and Artur
Told me his battle story.

Artur is a Lt Colonel in the Estonian army and is the most decorated soldier from Estonia during his army's participation in the War in Iraq. His medals include the American bronze star, which was awarded to him for valor in combat. Because of his medals he was asked to speak to a huge government meeting that included the Pres and PM.of his country.

I learned a few day's ago that if I could find the right question I could get Artur talking for hours as we walked. So we(he) talked about women priests, American, CS Lewis, great military campaigns, transubstantiation, etc. And before I knew it we were in Ponte Ulla, our goal for the night.

Here with us in a simple pensione are an English/ Turkish father and daughter and Kjell and Oddbjorg of Norway. We had a cervesa together then dinner separately. Then off to bed for the remaining 20 kms to Santiago. I'm arriving 2 day's ahead of schedule after a great Via de la Plata.

Can't believe this stage is just about over. I'll see how I feel Sunday before making a decision about walking to Finisterre starting. I'm already feeling a good sense of accomplishment and am  not sure I want to fight the inevitable crowds going to Finisterre. But we'll see.



Day Ten -- Ponte Ulla to Santiago de Compostela (12.5 miles)
Gigantes at Santiago during Holy Year festivities. An
inspiration for gigantes at First Church on Epiphany.
July 23, and here I am in Santiago de Compostela. The weather is perfect, the streets are crowded with pilgrims, and my legs are tired and sore from walking 266 kms.

I overslept this morning and knocked on Artur's door at 8:00 -- an hour after our planned departure from Ponte Ulla. The nice restaurant owner made us toast, then we donned our mochilas and were off for a 22 km final stage to Santiago.

The day was perfectly uneventful. We dutifully followed the yellow arrows as they snaked us up and down farmland and forest hills, then finally through the suburbs of Santiago. The Via de la Plata brings pilgrims into Santiago from the south, and sure enough our first vista of the cathedral was its southern face. As we wound through the city, though, somehow we ended up approaching the cathedral from its northwest side.

Because he immediately wanted his compostela I showed Artur to the pilgrim office then left him there to check into my hotel, arranged at the last minute (since I wasn't certain the day of my arrival) by our friends at the Altair. Once I realized my room hadtwo twin beds I returned to the pilgrim office (after lunch) and waited for Artur so I could offer him to stay in my room.  Since he had no room arranged he was happy to accept, so we dumped his stuff in my room, headed to the pilgrim mass, then had a nice dinner at one of the restaurants you and I ate at in 2008. Afterward we walked the city and enjoyed taking photos of street minstrels and magicians who seem to be in most every plaza.

As always, the mass was emotional for me. I thought about and prayed for the various pilgrims I'd met and celebrated with gratitude and relief that I'd safely completed this long and challenging endeavor.

Some statistics:



  • Days walked: 10
  • Kilometers walked: 266
  • Avg kms per day: 26.6
  • Miles walked: 166.25
  • Avg miles per day: 16.6
At this point I'm not sure about walking to Finisterre. I expect it will be very crowded, and I'll know very few pilgrims. If I do I will leave most likely on Monday, but a Sunday start is also possible. I'll think and plan more over the next days.

Meantime, tomorrow is festival day and thanks to you I have a room here! The festival organizers have mounted a huge framework for lights, fireworks and lasers on the cathedral facade. If I can I'll get a seat in the main plaza. If not, apparently there are also goods seats at a few nearby parks.

Santiago de Compostela - FestivalOn Day Eleven (July 24) I had a nice breakfast with Artur then packed and went to the hotel. It was a nice suite in a hotel with a big atrium and only about 3/4 mile from central Santiago.

After checking in I wandered the streets, watching the various street characters, including giants, fire breathing dragons and grotesques. There also marching bands and many street musicians. I took a break in a cafe, plotted my week's strategy over a late lunch, then headed to Plaza Obradoiro to wait for the Fuego (fireworks).

Lucky I did. I got there at about 19:00 for the 23:30 show, and at about 20:00 they closed the square. There were perhaps 10,000 people in the square and I lucked into a group from Seville sitting next to a Uruguayan mother-daughter pair who live in Vigo. The leader of the Sevillians is an Internist named Javier. The Uruguayan daughter just graduated med school.

Then the fireworks started. I have never ever seen anything like these. The entire facade of the cathedral had been planted with lasers and rockets and strobe lights. At times I worried for the cathedral building itself, which sometimes seemed to be exploding. My seat was spectacular-- too close possibly-- and we were showered many times by falling ash and debris. Truly an overwhelming experience.



After all 10,000 of us pushed our way through the narrow streets I headed to the hotel for a few hours' sleep in advance of an early assault on the pilgrims' office for my compostele. I got to the office at 07:00 on Day Twelve (July 25) to find 75 people already there. By the 09:00 opening I would estimate there were at least 500 pilgrims in a line stretching more than 3 blocks. Still, the cathedral was well organized, with many stations. I had my Holy Year/Holy Day compostele by 09:30.

I checked my festival schedule just then and realized that the grand procession to the solemn cathedral mass would begin at 10:00. I headed back to the plaza and stood in a group of thousands to enjoy a procession of soldiers, clergy, nobility, governmental leaders, and finally the King and Queen of Spain. People around me shouted "Vive el Rey!"

Knowing the cathedral was already packed (the line was even longer than for the pilgrim office) I pushed through the crowd once again, got breakfast, got my backpack, and headed to my home for the next three nights, the Altair.

People seemed to be enthralled by my film of the fireworks, so I'm going to put together a YouTube video of them today. Should be fun.

On the way to the Altair I saw Magdalena of Poland and the Italian from Modena who walked with Corrado and Pascal. He said they've both now gone home. Our thin stream of Via de la Plata pilgrims is quickly emptying into the ocean.
I'm now laying low at the Altair and will venture out when the crowded streets have emptied. Beautiful, clear day, slight breeze, probably 20c degrees.