Camino 1 - 2004

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First Camino or 800 k with a Stuffed Moose

September 27, 2004


Today I began my Camino, a hike alone across northern Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Fulfilling a dream held since university days, now at 65 I was setting out alone. This pilgrimage route to the catholic cathedral and burial place of St James, Christ’s Apostle, has been in existence for over 1000 years. Over the centuries multitudes of pilgrims had followed the trail known in Spanish as the Camino or path. I, too, wanted to experience what so many had done across time and to see what had been built along the way.

Bill, my husband, was off to the US for a month so we closed our French Bed & Breakfast to follow our separate journeys. Good-byes were said in the Gare Montparnasse as I awaited the TGV train going southwest to Bayonne. Sad at our parting, yet so excited to be going at long last I boarded the train. Packed, my knapsack weighed about 10 kilos or 22 pounds. In it were a sleeping bag, poncho, thin waterproof jacket and pants, muffler, woolly hat, gloves, and lightweight polar jacket. A walking stick, change of hiking clothes, underwear, basic toiletries, towel, notes, diary, tiny flashlight, camera, food bag, water bottle, utensils and cup made up the rest, plus Mo. (Mo is a toy stuffed moose, which I long ago gave to my father for his 90th birthday. After my father’s death Mo came back to me. Now he was traveling in his own blue sack within the knapsack disguised as my ‘pillow’, but in truth my silent confidante.)

Travel time on the TGV passed quickly. At Bayonne I changed to a slower local train going east to the Basque town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, named such because it is the foot of a pass crossing the Pyrenees. It is also one of the two main entrance points on the French border to the Camino; the other is further east at Somport.

At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I hoisted the pack, walked uphill and through the old fortress walls to the office of the welcoming Amis du Chemin de St Jacques to apply for my pilgrim pass and find a bunk for the night.

During the Middle Ages the Camino had been the third most important pilgrimage route in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome. Thus throughout the centuries lodgings were built to house the hoards of pilgrims. Some were in monasteries, others in hospitals. The tradition still continues. Today towns along the route provide simple shelters for pilgrims. These Albergues de Peregrinos are generally priced at 6 or 7 euros a night for a bunk bed in a mixed dorm. In order to use them you need a pilgrim pass or Credencial del Peregrino. Stamped each night it provides proof of your trip when you arrive at Santiago. More than 70,000 Credencials were issued during 2003! To obtain the pass you must state your intention as either a religious pilgrimage or a spiritual journey and not just tourism. Since the hagiography of St James recounts that his dead body miraculously washed ashore in Spain, scallop shells from the sea are his symbol. Hence, from time immemorial pilgrims have worn scallop shells (in French, coquille St Jacques). Along with the necessary Credencial I obtained my shell.

Nearby a restaurant served the basic menu de peregrino, a simple three course set meal for pilgrims for about 7 euros including wine. Most restaurants along the route would provide such meals. My bunk was in the refuge run by the Amis. Sleeping in one of eight beds in a mixed dorm, I spent my first night with 7 men. Six had hiked down for two weeks from Puy in central France and would continue their pilgrimages in future years; the other from Holland had just arrived on the train. He and I nervously discussed potential stamina for the route that lay ahead. All would snore loudly during the night. After rolling out my sleeping bag and patting my ‘pillow’ I fell asleep wondering about the route and days to come.


September 28, 2004


Pilgrims must vacate each albergue by 8 am! Nearly everyone wakes around 6:30. After waiting in a few cold lines to use the toilet facilities I quickly learned to rise by 6:15 and beat the rush! The Amis provided a simple free breakfast of bread, butter, jam and tea or coffee, plus welcome conversation; all these volunteers had walked the Camino. Although they welcome so many thousands of pilgrims every year the Amis were attentive, caring hosts who took a personal interest in each guest. They asked and remembered names and offered a multitude of tips. Standing at the exit door they shook each hand and wished “Bon Camino” as we pilgrims left.

The Camino is well marked with yellow arrows and stylized shells. Spotting the first shell marker my excitement was intense as I began to walk westward into the woods towards Valcarlos, Spain, through morning fog.

Several tiring hours, one false turn and 10 k later I arrived. The town’s name means Charles’ valley after Charlemagne. It is said to be the place where during the 8th century he and his army rested following their nearby defeat. Although the Amis had mentioned that Valcarlos had an albergue I saw no sign! I asked in French at the drugstore. The druggist took me to the mayor’s office where they handed me a key. Unmarked and between two public lavatories at the back of the municipal playground, the space was small and clean. Mo and I were alone. Next morning when I tried to pay the mayor’s secretary said it was a ‘donativo’; one donated what one wished. Many other places along the Camino would use the same system.


September 29, 2004


Hiking 20 k up the 1060 meter Ibaneta pass to the monastery at Roncesvalles was one of the most difficult days on the Camino and certainly the most physically exhausting day of my adult life to date. I was pooped! Although I had hiked throughout the summer in preparation for the trip, nothing had prepared me for such an effort. Beneath a deep blue sky and brilliant sun I gasped and ached while my pack weighed like bricks. After hiking about 5 hours I finally staggered over the pass into a picnic area filled with a munching mob; they had arrived by bus and cars! Never will I forget the look that one très correct French woman drinking champagne from a crystal flute, no plastic for her, gave me as I trudged past exhausted! ET would have been better received. A kindly couple from Scotland offered me the best ever cup of tea from their thermos. Refreshed I continued on to the monastery, happy that the path was now slightly downhill.

Roncesvalles monastery is documented from 1127 as a pilgrims’ hospice; it still is in use as such. Earlier in time the picturesque site had been the battle scene for the defeat of Charlemagne’s army, immortalized in the medieval poem the Chanson de Roland. Today the many medieval structures are highly visited both by pilgrims and ordinary tourists. After attending evening mass and participating in the traditional pilgrims’ blessing I went to eat. Other diners at my table were 8 extremely well dressed and coiffed Italian men and one young fellow from Brazil. We shared the pilgrims’ menu and talked in French about our plans.

All of us stayed in the one room 80 bunk albergue. Recently installed in a buttressed Gothic barn without windows, it boasted a new ventilation system and superb tiled hot-water showers and toilets in the newly excavated basement – a great example of architectural adaptive reuse! To my surprise the Italians who were bedded near me all went to shower wearing thick terry robes. It was hard to imagine these carried in any knapsack since they would be bulky and heavy. Next morning all were awakened at 6:30 to pack in the flickering light of 80 flashlights. Outside I discovered the Italians’ secret. At a luggage van parked nearby they stowed their night packs and picked up others for the day! Although I never again saw these Italians, as time went on I learned that “real” pilgrims always carry their own packs and feel mighty superior to those who don’t.


September 30, 2004


Descending from Roncevalles into the Spanish region of Navarre beneath a black sky lit by morning stars was beautiful. As day broke the rolling landscape was covered in fog. Since the monastery had not offered an early breakfast, it was with great pleasure that after hiking an hour or so I arrived at Buegete which has an open café. It was filled with other hungry pilgrims.

The rest of the day was 20 k of relatively easy walking across farmland and several medieval stone bridges, but my legs and back ached from the day before. In one woods I met a German fellow who was truly thrilled to be doing the Camino. He had been a political prisoner in the old East Germany and this was his first ‘voyage out’. Night was spent in a tiny, very crowded private albergue in Zubiri. The town name is Basque for village of the bridge. After a picnic supper I talked with an older French pilgrim from Pau who was afraid that he was getting tendonitis. It sounded painful. Little did I suspect….


October 1, 2004

Trinidad de Arre

It was a hot day, but walking was easier. Crisscrossing the river Arga on medieval bridges it was surprising to see Coke machines often installed by the bridges to service contemporary pilgrims! After 13 k came Arre and the small monastery La Trinidad. Scenically located on riverbank, it also had been an important pilgrim refuge throughout the ages. Accommodations were in a refitted barn within a tiny simple monastery garden. Sitting outside writing my diary all seemed timeless. Happily, I was starting to feel at ease and at one with the trail. Fellow pilgrims included a group of very athletic Spanish men; suffering from huge blisters on their feet, they were in agony. For dinner nearby I joined two Frenchmen taking time out to walk.


October 2, 2004

Cizur Menor

Next morning after entering its fortifications via the Portal de Francia I walked through the city of Pamplona. Like most cities and towns along the trail its urban development is closely associated with the history of the Camino. During the Middle Ages ‘burgos de francos’ or independent neighborhoods had been settled by former pilgrims. The cathedral interior and Gothic cloister are magnificent. Here, as in most major religious buildings in Spain filled with priceless treasures, one pays an entrance fee. Pilgrims showing their Credencial pay less.

The weather turned hot and humid so I stopped at the well-known private refuge owned by the Roncal family in Cizur Menor, western suburb. At their doorway from a chain hung a welcoming scallop shell.


October 3, 2004

Puente la Reina

This day almost did me in. It was a hard steep 20 k to Puente la Reina, crossing the Sierra del Perdon. However those hills pardon no one. The landscape was beige beneath gray clouds; the air turned chilly. Near the top of the pass my knees throbbed dreadfully and my nose bled. Using lots of tissues I rested on the side of the trail with my eyes closed. Perhaps I fell asleep. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder; “Are you all right?” asked a very British voice. I opened my eyes and saw a young man with long hair, wearing a gray kimono, black obi sash and wooden clogs leaning over me! Was this a vision? Was I hallucinating? I answered that I was ok. He went on and soon I did also.

At the top were many giant windmills whirling to produce electricity. Nearby was a huge, handsome contemporary sculpture in rusted steel silhouetting the cut out shapes of pilgrims and their packs. Unfortunately I was too exhausted to appreciate the view. Going down was pure hell across steep slopes of tiny stones.

Close to town I met an extremely energetic American woman out for Sunday walk, but by the time I hobbled into Puente la Reina I could barely move.

At the entrance to the town is a life size statue of a pilgrim with wide hat, cape, staff and shell. He marks the junction of the Somport and St Jean Pied de Port routes; from here west there is only one Camino. I stopped for the night at the refuge of the Padres Reparadores. Here I met again and queried the kimono-clad hiker. He wears it because he “likes it” and walks the trail continually because he “can’t go home”. To each his own.


October 4, 2004

Puente la Reina

During the night my knees ached so much that I decided to spend an extra day in Puente la Reina. Since pilgrims can only spend one night at each albergue, come morning I dragged myself across the famous Romanesque bridge after which the town is named, checked into a new private refuge and was back asleep by 9 am! Bliss. In the afternoon I laughed reading actress Shirley MacClaine’s account of her trek found in the common room and practiced walking while leaning heavily on my stick. Unwilling to be grounded at the end of only the first week and unable to imagine mounting up into a train to return to Paris, I gritted my teeth determined to persevere.


October 5, 2004


Unfortunately the next day was mostly 17 k of ups and downs through the mud and dirt of road improvements to Villatuerta. Part, however, was lovely following antique Roman paving and across a Roman bridge. Using my stick for balance was vital. This private albergue has only two other pilgrims. Both are middle-aged men; one Spanish, one German. Our common language is pantomime. The paunchy German is on a special diet of milk, protein powder and one daily fruit! Silently I wonder whether he will make it to Santiago. When buying picnic dinner supplies the kindly lady shopkeeper pressed into my hand a present of small candies “for strength on the Camino”.


October 6, 2004


Early the next day I walked to nearby Estella, a beautiful sandstone town dating from the Middle Ages. Its many churches and small conical hills along the river Ega were reminiscent of Italy. Located on the Camino, which runs straight through the town, the city hall is a rare example of Romanesque civil architecture. Today it houses varied services including tourism.

Since my knees still hurt and it was too early to check into the municipal albergue, I spent much time in the tourist bureau. The extremely helpful guy who staffed it spoke several languages. He, too, had lived in Manhattan for a while and we compared memories of favorite haunts. The nearby café he suggested for breakfast might have been in Soho! It was so pleasant that I returned for lunch in the patio with other pilgrims. In the afternoon I slowly sight saw while trying to ease my aching knees.


October 7, 2004

Villamayor de Monjardin

This day would prove to be both aesthetically and socially perfect. 5 k west of Estella I watched as dawn lit the isolated monumental abbey of Irache. After circumscribing the exterior 12th century buildings I entered the Romanesque church. It was superb; Cistercian and unadorned, the stone walls and imposing pillars were illuminated by a few slender alabaster windows. Peace reigned. It was a privilege to experience such a special place.

Continuing on the next 7 k of route climbed through vineyards to Villamayor de Monjardin. Tired I stopped at a storefront shelter for a welcome drink. Upon discovering that this was an albergue run by the parish church I stayed. It was so tiny that the roadside was the dining ‘room’. The vivacious Spanish housefather hung his wash in the churchyard. As the afternoon passed other pilgrims staggered in. The housefather cooked a simple meal for all; we shared it outside sitting together in the dark. There were a few Spanish boys, a young couple from Venezuela, one Spanish woman and a Norwegian. This darling blond Norwegian woman turned out to be a Lutheran priest! Great human mix and vibes !


October 8, 2004

Los Arcos

Sad at moving on I slowly walked 12 k to Los Arcos across seemingly endless fields. The albergue, which was run by Belgians, seemed over crowded with noisy kids. However, it was nice to meet again the Venezuelans from the previous night. We three lamented the drastic change of mood. Surprisingly a masseuse was available so I had my legs rubbed and was told to drink more water and to relax.


October 9, 2004

Torres del Rio

After 10 k through more vineyards, but beneath a deep blue sky, came Torres del Rio. Here is found a small octagonal Romanesque church, Santo Sepulcro. Some historians link it to the Knights Templar who protected the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; others link it to the nearby monastery at Irache. Whatever, it is a small gem. Looking up into the ceiling of the central cupola crossed by ribbed vaults which form eight-sided stars was mesmerizing. I stayed in a pleasant private albergue built around an open patio. Using the sanitary facilities entailed going down two flights of stairs and crossing the patio; it was chilly and cumbersome in the night.


October 10, 2004


Since the next section of Camino crossed a deep ravine described on maps as mataburros or the mule-killer and not wanting to add to my physical woes, I decided to follow the road and avoid the trail. One Frenchman who was doing the same described such a trail as only for “les tres sportifs”. I stopped at Viana, a small town of handsome mansions decorated with family crests. The municipal albergue was very crowded with bunks in triple tiers! Luckily I found one on the bottom level. Two nice retired French women from the Sologne and I decided to continue together for the next few days.


October 11, 2004


Now the Camino entered the region of Rioja, renown for wine. After 10 k came Logrono, a prosperous city on the river Ebro. The municipal albergue was well designed. It had a pleasant exterior patio for sitting or washing clothes. Contemporary sculpture decorated the airy public spaces. Its 80 bunks were grouped in small nooks with 2 double tiers in each. It felt comfortable and not claustrophobic. Near the albergue stands the church of Santiago. The Baroque doorway depicts St James in the two different guises associated with his legend. One is as a gentle pilgrim wearing a broad brimmed hat and cape, holding a staff and shell. In this image, which is the more common, he has become his own pilgrim. The other depiction is as Matamoros or Moor slayer. As a valiant warrior he rides a spirited white horse beneath which lie slain Moors. The Matamoros is associated with a nearby battle site at Clavijo. Here in the 9th century the Spanish king while fighting the Moors saw in the sky an apparition of St James on horseback. The Spanish were victorious and, thus, began their Reconquest of Spain. Of course, in today’s ecumenical and/or politically correct world this depiction is dynamite.


October 12, 2004


On Spanish National Day, a public holiday, I walked 12 k. The landscape was brown earth, some grapevines and ominous gray clouds; eventually it began to drizzle. Putting on a poncho and lowering it over the knapsack was an impossible feat alone. By the time I reached Navarette it was pouring and I was soaked. Quite miserable I stopped at the municipal albergue. The French women from the Sologne also were there. In the evening the houseparents, an Italian couple, hosted a common feast of pasta for all the pilgrims in celebration of the holiday. I’d now been hiking the Camino for two weeks; tired and sore but determined to cope I could not imagine deciding to quit. What an adventure it was! As long as my body endured I would continue. As the pilgrims said in the Middle Ages “Ultreia!” or Further!


October 13, 2004


Just west of town stood the Romanesque doorway of the old pilgrims’ hostel, now the cemetery entrance. Nearby a plaque commemorates a Belgian pilgrim recently killed here en route to Santiago. The rain had stopped so the 16 k hike was pleasant, but muddy, crossing through vineyards beneath a deep blue sky. Najera had a remarkable site along the river Najerilla at the base of high red sandstone cliffs. The Arabic name means place between the rocks. The town’s major monument is the medieval monastery of Santa Maria where the French women and I had planned to meet and stay. Unfortunately it was closed for renovation.

While wondering where my friends might have gone a kind Spanish workman led me by the hand to the new municipal albergue a few blocks away. Made from prefabricated, one story units it held 98 pilgrims. Outside on a bench sat my friends. We celebrated our brief reunion with dinner; they would return to France the next day planning to continue at some future time.


October 14, 2004

Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Since the Camino climbed over the imposing cliffs, I decided to follow the road. Walking on the verges of highway 120 was pure hell in the early morning light. Huge trucks roared past. I shook from their passage and my nerves. After 6 dangerous kilometers I went back to the safety of the trail. Not well signaled it meandered across farmland, new housing developments and a golf course. Finally after another 20 k appeared the town Santo Domingo de la Calzada. St Dominic had been a monk who devoted his life to pilgrims in the Middle Ages. He also laid and paved roads. Calzada means roadway. The town typifies the city-street plan in which the Camino serves as the central spine of the city; neighborhoods grew on either side of the trail.

At the Cistercian monastery when I asked for a lower bunk the guardian smiled and handed me a number. My ‘draw’ was a tiny nook opening off the crowded dorm. Furnished with a single bed and a pile of plastic chairs, it was practically private. What a treat! Mo loved it! The nearby cathedral where St Dominic is buried is also famous for a Gothic chicken coop! In this colorful cage within the sanctuary a live cock and hen are kept in memory of a local legend involving a pilgrim and an innkeeper’s daughter. The birds are changed periodically; hearing them crow is said to bring pilgrims good luck.


October 15, 2004


Trudging across an ocher landscape of cut wheat beneath a heavy sky and against a biting wind I walked only 6 k to Granon. I’m so glad that I stopped! The municipal albergue, in the belfry of the church of San Juan Bautista, was special. Open all day its sign read “Welcome pilgrim make this your home”. The handsome common room had a fireplace and comfortable furnishing. Above on a continuous platform were mats for sleeping bags. Kitchen and toilets were new and well equipped. One could really relax. What a surprise to discover that the gracious houseparents were volunteers from California! In the early evening we all attended mass downstairs. The magnificent wall size 16th century retable behind the altar shone with gilt. Later the gregarious priest joined us pilgrims upstairs for dinner. Townspeople brought in extra food. Authenticity, honesty and true ‘caritas’ made Granon unique.


October 16, 2004


West of Granon I stopped briefly at Redecilla to see the handsome Romanesque baptismal font which is carved in a circular pattern depicting towers and windows.

The trail now entered the region of Castille and Leon. Relentless wind and cold air necessitated gloves, muffler and a woolly cap to cover my ears. Walking seemed easier; my knees no longer hurt. One pilgrim passed wearing a shirt that read ‘slow, but dependable’; that could be my motto! Later while catching my breath two Spanish men wearing suits came over to chat. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Camino seemed an odd place for them to proselytize. After 12 more k I stopped at the brand new municipal albergue in Belorado. It was spotless, but lacked atmosphere. What a difference from the night before! Unfortunately the spring hinges of the toilet doors had been installed backwards; all night long pilgrims bruised their fingers. I, too, acquired a souvenir black and blue fingernail.


October 17, 2004

Villafranca Montes de Oca

The wind had ceased so the 12 k to Villafranca Montes de Oca across farm fields felt easier. The designation Villafranca refers to French pilgrims who settled here during the Middle Ages. As I was slowly plodding into town a mixed group of athletic, chic Spaniards without packs but prepared with umbrellas went dashing past. In comparison I felt and looked like an ancient relic.

Installed in an old school the municipal albergue was extremely basic, but crowded. At the local restaurant, a truck stop, the dining room was closed. Luckily the bar was open. After my pleas the bartender eventually produced fried eggs with mountain ham, bread and red wine. Delicious!


October 18, 2004

San Juan de Ortega

Next came the dense forest of Montes de Oca. During the medieval past this was infamous for bandits who robbed and murdered pilgrims. A more recent monument to ‘los Caidos’ commemorates those who were executed in this bleak place during the Spanish Civil War.

Nearby where a dirt road crossed the Camino a small white van was parked; a few folding chairs and a small table with wild flowers in a tiny vase placed outside. A tall, slim young bearded man wearing a blue track suit asked in English “would you like to rest and have a tea?” Slightly dubious, but glad to sit, I did. We introduced ourselves and talked about the weather, the Camino, and, more philosophically, purpose in life. His was helping pilgrims. “Are you and your tea always accepted?” “Generally”, he answered, “but the French rarely stop!” Right on cue a French couple came into our view. When he offered I commented “c’est très bon!” They stopped.

After a laugh and another cup of tea I continued to the monastery of San Juan de Ortega. Ortega refers to nettles. This St John was a helper of St Dominic and like him built hospices and roads for pilgrims. Within the handsome Romanesque church is his sumptuous freestanding Gothic mausoleum. The saint is depicted recumbent beneath an ornate baldachino or canopy. Evening mass was beautiful; large bunches of fresh greens and shells decorated the main altar and side aisles. At the close of service the elderly priest invited all into the adjacent refectory where cups of tasty garlic soup were served.

Pilgrim lodgings were in the monastery and austere. Very cold I skipped a shower snuggling deep into my sleeping bag recalling the day’s kindness.


October 19, 2004


In chill rain I slowly walked west out of the forest across the Sierra de Atapuerca. About ten years ago prehistoric human remains were found there; Atapuerca Man may be the oldest example of homo sapiens in Europe. Close to the excavation site I stopped at a surprisingly chic restaurant for a hearty breakfast.

Once back en route as far as the distant horizon the rolling greenery was broken only by the giant curve of the trail. It was a perfect image; not an imagined vision, but a memorable vista, ‘my’ Camino.

After passing a picturesque Roman spring eventually I arrived at Cardenuela. This hamlet boasted a warm, welcoming bar which served a delicious pilgrims’ menu. The barkeeper gave me the key to the new municipal albergue. Very clean, it had 10 bunks and hot water. Bliss! No one else arrived until late in the evening. It was the jubilant mayor who walked in, formally shook my hand, wished “Buen Camino!” and left. Mo and I were alone for the night. I had been walking for three weeks.


October 20, 2004


Early next morning I met a woman feeding her pigs. She smiled, motioned for me to wait and quickly reappeared with many chestnuts in her extended hand. “For strength” she said smiling. Later pouring rain and huge trucks roaring along the highway made the 11 k into Burgos exhausting. On arrival at the pilgrims’ information office I felt ready to collapse. Luckily a new private albergue was in the next block. Spotless, with 20 bunks, hot showers, free email plus soothing Celtic music, it was perfect!

After a welcome overhaul and siesta I set out to visit the magnificent Gothic cathedral. Although the rich interior decoration was superlative, I, alas, was almost too tired to absorb it. For courage I remembered one of the timeless adages associated with the Camino, if a pilgrim makes it to the city of Burgos, he can make it to Santiago. In my case it was so far so good. Ultreia!

Within the cathedral museum are various images of St James in the two guises generally associated with his legend. One is small sculpture about 30 cm high, in gold. Here he is a gentle soul wearing a broad brimmed hat and cape, holding a staff and shell. In this depiction which is the more common representation, St James has become his own pilgrim.

Nearby is his alter image where he is represented as Matamoros or the Moor slayer. as a valiant warrior with billowing cape he rides a spirited horse beneath which lie slain Moors.


October 21, 2004


Leaving Burgos I stopped at the Hospital de Rey; originally the city’s most important medieval pilgrim hospice, today it houses the university law faculty. Old buildings are most successfully blended with contemporary. The same materials are used, window shapes repeated and roof levels kept. Parked nearby was the white van! I stopped for another tea and chat. Continuing westward was muddy and wet. Passing a large prison in the rain after 10 k I stopped at the cozy municipal albergue in Tardajos. The Spanish houseparents were most welcoming and took a ‘family photo’ of all ‘their’ pilgrims.


October 22, 2004


Worried that I was progressing too slowly I walked 20 k in drizzle over ochre colored hills. Characterized by huge piles of cleared stones this bleak landscape, the immense Castillan plateau, is known as the ‘Meseta’. Treeless, it must be hot as hell in summer. I ate and slept at the municipal albergue in Hontanas. Ordinary plywood had been used imaginatively for sleeping platforms, divisions and doors within the dorm. A big fireplace warmed the ground floor dining room. Eighteen pilgrims including a fellow from Tokyo sat around one central table. Supper was soup, rice, fried eggs, salad and yogurt plus red wine. Simple but very tasty!


October 23, 2004

Itero de la Vega

Gaining physical stamina and greater confidence I resolved to try to hike at least 20 k each day from now on. Brilliant autumn sunshine also helped my determination. Passing beneath the arched portal of the abandoned San Anton monastery the picturesque route continued to Casterojerez.

Distant on a hill were the remains of a 13th century castle; this was ‘postcard’ Spain. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary the exhibit in the Santo Maria del Manzano museum was a pleasure. Both the installation and the artifacts were first rate. It took nearly half an hour to traverse the town, which has one long main street, the Camino.

On the west after a medieval bridge the trail suddenly climbed steeply up the Mostelares plateau. Plodding alone was a young English man; we shared our water supply and walked on chatting. Last year he had walked all the Camino except for a few kilometers, which he was presently completing. After slowly crossing an immense dry plain eventually we arrived at Itero de la Vega. A stork and its shaggy nest were perched on top of the church tower. Next door was the municipal albergue; it had 18 single beds, not bunks. Parked in front was the white van! A Quebec woman pilgrim, the English fellow, and I shared conversation, salad and pasta offered that night by our gracious ‘guardian angel’.


October 24, 2004


The van was gone in the morning; I never saw it again. Philosophizing about the magic of ephemeral encounters the English pilgrim and I trudged out across the empty plain. The trail had become a wide gravel path.

At Boadilla del Camino was a Rollo or tall stone cross with shells. During the Middle Ages trials and executions would have taken place at such a marker.

The 18th century locks along the cut of the Canal de Castilla were impressive; nearby was Fromista, with a most perfect, small church, San Martin. On the exterior several hundred carved figures decorate the eave corbels below the roof. Tourists and pilgrims filled the de-consecrated interior. Directly opposite was the crowded albergue. After cheese and wine the Englishman said good-bye and caught a bus since his ‘empty link’ was now filled.


October 25, 2004

Carrion de los Condes

Next day the Quebecoise and I covered 20 k. The Camino, flat and broad, paralleled the provincial road; low concrete posts or bollards decorated with ceramic shells marked the way. Mid morning we drank a welcome cup of tea at an outdoor café that had been set up in someone’s shed to service pilgrims. Non-traditional ad hoc structures such as this would occur more frequently along the trail from now on. If only one in every ten passing pilgrims bought something, the potential profit was still substantial. We stopped at Villalcazar de Sirga to visit the fortress-church, Santa Maria la Blanca. Massive and austere it had been built in the 13th century by the Knights Templar.

At Carrion de los Condes we stayed in the monastery of Santa Clara sharing a twin bedded room with clean sheets. What luxury! St Francis of Assisi during his pilgrimage to Santiago in the early 13th century is supposed to have stopped in the same monastery. The medieval city had been an important commercial and political center with more than seven pilgrim hospices.


October 26, 2004

Calzadilla de la Cueza

Next morning we visited the handsome Monastery of San Zoilo on the western edge of town across the river Carrion. This monumental complex today is in part a luxury hotel, where we treated ourselves to an elegant coffee; another part houses the Centro de Etudios del Camino de Santiago, a research center and library. The monastery chapel and splendid 16th century cloister have been preserved. The Quebecoise said a hasty “au revoir” and caught a bus to Leon. She would cover in an hour and half bus ride what would take me a week to walk! I continued alone along the trail.

Following an old Roman road, the Via Trajana, this perfectly straight section of Camino was paved. There was nothing but fields of grain and me. Lonesome I waved to a tractor across the distant fields. After 16 k which seemed endless I reached the tiny hamlet of Calzadilla de la Cueza. I stopped at the pleasant, private albergue. Nearby was the only restaurant. A man eating at the table next to mine smiled. “Oh it’s you!” he said. He then explained to his wife that he had seen me earlier while riding his tractor. Small world, indeed!


October 27, 204


Early in the morning I rejoiced that after 4 weeks on the Camino the mid way point in kilometrage to Santiago was passed. Only 387 more to go! Envisioning an imaginary trail map divided in two I was starting on the second half. Under gray skies and increasing rain the path became slippery brown mud across brown fields. Cold, wet and slightly depressed at Moratinos I stopped for coffee and stayed for lunch. This humble hamlet had one café and one street, the Camino or Calle de la Francesa. The simple brick church was closed. Brick construction is typical of the Mudejar period, named for the Moors who remained in Spain after the Reconquest in the Middle Ages.

Eventually I arrived at Sahagun. It was hard to realize that this sprawling provincial town for centuries had held the most powerful Benedictine monastery in Spain, equivalent to Cluny in France. ‘Facundo’, the name of a local martyr, became ‘Sanctum Facundum’, the name of the monastery, which evolved into ‘Safagun’ and later ‘Sahagun’. Most of the huge complex was destroyed in a 19th century fire.

A clever contemporary steel sculpture of St James dressed as a pilgram (his head was a garden spade) marked the entrance to the municipal albergue. It was a friendly place in a unused church building. There were several other women pilgrims; one Swiss, Mirta, and I decided to hike together.


October 28, 2004

El Burgo Ranero

The 18 k to El Burgo Ranero were cold, windy, wet and rather boring. At least it was flat along the new, wide path built by the regional government. One contemporary monument along the route commemorates the life of Millan Brovo Lozano, the priest and scholar whose guidebook, A Practical Guide for Pilgrims, I used. Meeting again the young Spanish woman who had stayed at Villamayor de Monjardin was a pleasant surprise; now she was the housemother in the municipal albergue. Most of the buildings in the town were adobe.


October 29, 2004

Mansilla de las Mulas

Crossing a vast monotonous plateau dotted with arroyos or gullies after 18 k Mirta and I entered the medieval city walls of Mansilla de las Mulas. These massive walls, in some place three meters thick, were built in the 12th century using enormous stones from the river Elsa. The etymology of the town’s name is mano en silla , hand on saddle of the mules. There is a rich tradition of livestock fairs and horse sales; many vernacular buildings are adobe. Built around a central open patio the municipal albergue cum tourist office had several small dorms and no hot water. A new water heater was being installed and tested. Past midnight all were awakened by several loud bangs. It failed the test!


October 30, 2004


It was cold and dangerous hiking 17 k into the city of Leon; several times the Camino crossed a busy highway. Along the way Mirta and I met an older Englishman who walked with us. We all stayed in the Benedictine convent, Santa Maria de la Carbajalas; it had large separate dorms for men and women pilgrims, but no heat. Nearby was the massive Gothic cathedral; magnificent stained glass illuminated the interior. On the main western façade is a sculpture of St James. Another important religious building was the Basilica de San Isidoro. Dating from the 11th century the walls and low ceiling are covered with Romanesque frescoes in muted tones; the biblical figures are weighty and outlined in a nervous black line. Memorable.


October 31, 2004

Villadangos del Paramo

Early next morning Mirta and I crossed Leon by following the bronze shells set in the sidewalk to mark the Camino. They were not so easy to find since they lay beneath our feet. On the western side of the city is the magnificent Monastery of San Marcos. Dating from the 16th century it is sumptuous with Santiago Matamoros over the doorway and a multitude of shells carved on the façade. Originally a pilgrims’ hospice today it is a luxury national hotel or parador. Sitting on a bench facing it is a wonderful contemporary sculpture representing St James as a tired pilgrim!

Seven k out of the city is the village La Virgen del Camino. The town is named for a famous 15th century figure of the Virgin holding the dead body of Christ. Today the figure is in a splendid contemporary church designed in the 1960s by a Dominican monk. Basically a glass box, giant stylized metal sculptures of the Apostles cover the west façade. It, too, is a gem. After a further 14 k over a barren plain, but under glorious sunshine and a deep blue sky, Mirta and I arrived at the municipal albergue in Villadangos del Paramo. It had been a tiring day.


November 1,2004

Hospital de Orbigo

In the mirror the next morning my face appeared tanned and slimmer; I briefly thought ‘not too bad, considering’. Unfortunately pride goeth before a fall…

After 10 k on the Camino and crossing the long medieval bridge over the river Orbigo we entered the town of Hospital de Orbigo. Attempting to photograph the parish church I lost my footing and fell head first onto the irregular pavement! My pack crashed into my right shoulder. I was flat on the ground; my forehead and shoulder hurt like hell! Gently Mirta and a Mexican pilgrim helped me up. An egg was quickly swelling on my forehead (by day’s end I resembled Cyclopes). Out of nowhere a kind Spanish couple appeared and the man said “Don’t worry, madam, I am a Chevalier de Santiago and will help”. Examined at the regional hospital, I was told to rest, and see a doctor again the following day.

The Spanish couple graciously invited the Mexican, Mirta and me to lunch at their house. We met their grown sons and had a trilingual conversation. Our host explained that the Chevaliers de Santiago are a group of Catholic men, who have been nominated to become members and who pledge to foster the Camino and help all pilgrims. In the Spanish custom lunch lasted at least four hours! With my left hand I alternated holding ice to my head and trying to eat since my right shoulder and arm were extremely painful. Nevertheless, how, lucky I was to be able to move and to have found another ‘guardian angel’. That night Mirta and I spent in a pleasant new private albergue.


November 2, 2004

Hospital de Orbigo

Next morning while I was still on my bunk the Chevalier and the local priest walked into the dorm to see how I was doing! Next the Chevalier and his wife took me to the local doctor whose office was adjacent to the church. When all three of us entered the examination room, the Chevalier said to the doctor “Another one has fallen!” It seems that in recent months others had also fallen on the same new paving where I stumbled. The doctor checked my eyes, gave me simple pain killers and wished me good luck. Later Mirta and I ate again with the Chevalier and his family. Never will I forget their kindnesses and spontaneous gracious hospitality. It was heartfelt ‘caritas’.


November 3, 2004

Murias de Rechivaldo

Putting my right arm into the knapsack strap and hoisting it up hurt like hell, but the Camino called. Stiff, sore and looking like a bruised raccoon I continued in the cold and fog. Only 273 k to go! Mirta and I walked through the city of Astorga, stopping briefly at the cathedral. The Palacio Episcopal was a wonderful late19th century building by Gaudi. Its conical twists and spikey wrought iron were typical of his version of Art Nouveau style. Behind were the Roman city walls.

Further west the landscape began to change; mountains appeared on the distant horizon and the earth was more orange in color. We stopped at a handsome new private albergue in the small hamlet of Murias de Rechivaldo. Encircling a central patio were several small low structures. Most were dorms (ours had a necessary iron stove); others included a common kitchen and a dining room. Walls were the color of terra cotta, with natural wood or dark green trim. Small details had been well designed; for example in front of each shower stall were two pairs of swinging doors. In the space between the two you undressed and left your clothes, then moved through the second set to the shower stall. Your clothes stayed protected and dry.


November 4, 2004

Rabanal del Camino

Mirta and I continued through the area known as the Maragateria; geographically resembling the American far west for centuries it had provided mules and muleteers. After a picnic snack perched on an age-old ledge in front of the tiny wayside church in the hamlet of El Ganso, our trail slowly started to climb. Eventually we stopped at Rabanal del Camino where the refuge Gaucelmo was another special place. Named after a local hermit it had been comfortably renovated by the Confraternity of St James. The fire burning in the library was most welcome. The Confraternity, an English group of pilgrims, had also published the useful, terse guidebook, The Camino Francés, which I used.

At sunset I took an evening stroll. A small Benedictine monastery was next door, opposite was the parish church; the colors of the sky were splendid in the crystalline air and I was very happy to just be.


November 5, 2004

El Acebo

Leaving Rabanal we passed a memorial to a Swiss pilgrim who had died on the Camino. The trail continued to climb; we were really in the mountains. It was cold, the sky pale gray-blue as we crossed oak forest, broom and heather. At Cruz de Ferro, altitude 1504 meters, there is a small iron cross atop a tall wooden pole rising from a huge stone cairn. By tradition pilgrims have placed a stone carried from home on the giant pile as they pass; I added mine from our garden in France. Unfortunately the area was rather dirty and depressing with plastic streamers tied to the base of the pole à la Tibet. Mirta and I continued to El Acebo. There was one single street, the Camino, in this picturesque mountain village. We stayed in a private refuge above a restaurant. The pilgrims’ menu was tasty and the vernacular architecture interesting with continuous balconies on the second stories, but the unheated refuge was frigid! It was so cold that it was hard to sleep.


November 6, 2004


On the way out the next morning there was a memorial to a German pilgrim killed while cycling. Now the Camino started descending steeply. After 7 k we finally found a place for breakfast in Molinaseca, another pretty town on the Meruelo river. It was most welcome; hiking is difficult on an empty stomach!
After a further 8 k we arrived at Ponferrada. In the 12th century the Knights Templar had built the magnificent castle with crenellated towers and turrets overlooking the river Sil. Somehow we had lost the trail and it was not easy to find the municipal albergue. An itinerant musician, Mirta and I ate a late lunch in a nearby workers club. Although recommended by the housefather, the atmosphere was rather gloomy. Lots of retired men (probably younger than I) were sitting about playing cards in the smoke filled rooms. Feeling very tired I went to bed early.


November 7,2004

Villafranca del Bierzo

The next day we walked through Columbrianos, a strange circa 1930 company town with rows of duplex housing in concrete. Slowly the trail began to climb higher and higher through orchards and vineyards.

Suddenly near Pierros a field was filled with large 20th century classical sculpture in concrete; it was a shock to discover so much ‘art brut’.

Mirta and I trudged on to Villafranca del Bierzo. Since the municipal albergue was closed we stayed in an atmospheric private one. Several crowded dorms were grouped about a courtyard. Nearby was the tiny 12th century Santiago chapel. Stopping here medieval pilgrims too sick to continue were given the same indulgences as in Compostella. We had hiked 24 k and I was totally exhausted. During the night I was very ill suffering several bouts of intense diarrhea. Cold night air and the fact that the coed toilets were down a flight of slippery stairs and in the courtyard didn’t help! Back and forth I raced.


November 8, 2004

O Cebreiro

Weakened, but resolute, I was determined to continue. Mirta shared her supply of Imodium medicine, the housefather sent our packs to the next stop, and we set out. Unfortunately after walking 10 k to Trabedelo I was ill again. Luckily there was an open café; the waiter/owner called a friend and we were ‘taxied’ up to O Cebreiro. Mirta went to the municipal albergue and I found a room above a bar. Heated with private facilities, it was bliss. I thought I might stay forever. After a bath and long nap we met again for soup and a brief look about ‘town’.

The hamlet is very picturesque composed of a pre-Romanesque church and a handful of granite buildings. Some structures, pallozas, have straw roofs.

The weather was cold, but glorious with blue sky, bright sun and from the 1300 meters altitude wide views west across the next region, Galicia.


November 9, 2004


Vowing to return someday to hike what had been missed, Mirta and I set out next morning. Winter had arrived; it was cold with thick fog. Finding the path was very difficult. Slowly we started descending through a few clusters of buildings. After a while suddenly the trail steeply climbed the Alto de Poio, altitude 1337 meters. Exhausted I staggered into the tiny wayside bar. Nervous that my weak condition was holding back Mirta, I suggested that we continue alone. After a final communal tea and toast, we wished each other “Bon Camino”. She would follow the trail and I the local road. Later in the afternoon I reached Triacastela; 21 k were enough for one day. Feeling much better yet still worried about my guts, I decided to find a private room in a small pension; I would continue to do this for the rest of my journey. After an early dinner I climbed into bed realizing that I had been hiking for 6 weeks.


November 10, 2004


Feeling more energetic I hiked down the trail through the woods and along a stream to the giant monastery of Samos. En route the frame of my glasses broke, but was patched with a band-aid! Parts of the Benedictine monastery complex are as early as the 9th century, but the majority was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Much, however, had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1951. Only sections can be visited. New murals along the interior corridors were impressive, combining biblical and historical figures in a Social Realist style. After finding a room I went to eat. The dining room was suddenly mobbed when the time was right. The copious pilgrim menu was delicious. I felt better!


November 11, 2004


Next morning I walked along the river Ourbigo down through green woods to Sarria, a pleasant hillside provincial town where I bought a tiny pin and a ceramic tile; both were decorated with the Camino shell. The route became more and more picturesque; low, stonewalls crisscrossed the agricultural fields. I continued on to the hamlet of Barbadelo. The simple church dedicated to Santiago had one square tower; human and animal motifs adorned the doorway capitals. Over the door was carved a crude human figure. During the Middle Ages this had been part of a monastery, but no other structures remained. The weather had turned chill and rainy with billowing fog. Since I had covered 21 k I stopped at a farmhouse casa rural; it provided meals with bed and breakfast. Their Galician soup, chicken broth with potato, cabbage and sausage, was hearty and delicious; a tasty cake made with ground almonds, tortas de Santiago, served for desert. Unfortunately there was no heat in the rooms; it was necessary to put my sleeping bag inside the bed covers to get warm!


November 12, 2004


The Camino continued gently through fields, oak woods and tiny hamlets. One place was called Xisto, the Galician word for slate. At Ferreiros in the Middle Ages blacksmiths and ironmongers serviced the pilgrims’ horses. Nearby was Loyo where in the 12th century the Chevaliers of Santiago, the great Spanish order of chivalry, had been established. When passing this signpost I remembered fondly ‘my’ kind Chevalier at Hospital de Orbigo.

I spent the night in the new town of Portomarin. It replaced an important medieval site, which had been flooded in the 1960s during the construction of the nearby reservoir on the river Mino. Although one small church had been moved stone by stone from the lower old site and rebuilt up on the new, the general atmosphere of the new town center was stiff and unappealing. Searching for an inexpensive room after eating I inquired at the bar. A room was possible, the price perfect, the barman’s wife would show it to me. Not upstairs, but a block away, it was in a very new totally empty hotel! During this day an important imaginary line had been crossed, only 100 k remained before Santiago! Within 5 days I should arrive!


November 13, 2004

Palas de Rei

Suddenly in a hurry I began to aim further and walk faster beneath a cobalt blue sky across the attractive undulating countryside thick with low walls, oak, pine and gorse. From time to time horreos were visible; these stone corncribs were raised off the ground on high plinths in the farmyards. Meeting again by chance two Czech young women who had been in the Sahagun albergue was a happy coincidence. Together we visited the 12th century church of El Salvador in Vilar de Donas, tucked away off the Camino. Presently undergoing restoration, it had been the official burial place of the Chevaliers de Santiago. The handsome main doorway had a splayed arch with geometric and vegetative carvings. On the interior were delicate 15th century frescos and several tombs topped with recumbent effigies of the knights. It was, indeed, a very special place. By late afternoon the weather turned cold and gray. We continued to Palas de Rei. My friends stopped at the albergue and I in a small hotel; by the end of the day another 24 k. had been covered.


November 14, 2004


On this stretch the Camino crossed several rivers and many villages. Eventually the low, stonewalls disappeared while fern and tall fragrant eucalyptus appeared. Near Coto I ate a delicious second breakfast in the patio of a chic, but friendly, casa rural. To my surprise a small van of tourists stopped and a few ‘Sunday pilgrims’ with walking sticks, but no packs, exited to walk for only an hour or two in order to sample the trail! Spotting my pack and shell they asked “How long have you been walking?” “Forty-eight days!” I answered. They were most impressed.

Near Leboreiro the Camino, part of the old Roman route linking Lugo to Astorga, was paved with big flat stones. Melide had a busy open market in the town center. Since the Atlantic coast was close pulpo or octopus was for sale everywhere, a Galician specialty. Jumping across stones to forge the river near Boente de Baixo was a bit difficult. However, a single-arched medieval bridge crossed the river at Ribadiso do Baixo. Nearby was the apparently closed, but handsomely restored, old pilgrim hospital, now an albergue. Tired I trudged on to Arzua, a town famous for cheese shaped in cones. I found a small warm pension and ate in a bar across the street. Arriving at the end of lunch, about 6 pm, and exhausted, I was lucky to be served. Only 38 k to go!


November 15, 2004

A Rua

Through glorious sunshine and more eucalyptus I walked 18 k. The Camino wound up and down through many villages often crisscrossing the busy provincial highway and quite dangerous. At Salceda a memorial to a pilgrim, aged 69, who had died just one day’s walk from Santiago replicated his walking boots. How lucky I was to have made it! I ate and stayed in a pleasant small hotel in A Rua. As late afternoon changed into the black of night, my last night on the Camino, I felt more and more nostalgic that my journey was ending.


November 16, 2004

Santiago de Compostela

Up before dawn for this conclusive day I hoisted my pack and excitedly set off to cover the final 18 k. The Camino led through the woods and on country lanes. Villages appeared more frequently and grew larger. At Lavacolla the pilgrims’ world and the contemporary collided. Named for the act of washing one’s bottom, during the Middle Ages this riverside was the last cleansing place, before entry into the great city. The obligatory stop was a pilgrim rite, both physical and spiritual. Today the trail still passes the river, but both abut one runway of the international airport! Culture shock!

At Vilamaior two teenagers tended an information bureau. Noticing my bruised forehead and broken glasses they asked “how long have you been walking?” “Seven weeks exactly” I replied. Delighted, they smiled broadly, clapped hands and said “Oh, happy, happy day! You are almost there! Buen Camino!” I climbed the last hill, Monte del Gozo or Mount Joy. Across the centuries pilgrims arriving here with great happiness saw at last the cathedral towers on the horizon. Sadly what had been a verdant hillside is now a giant complex with 3000 beds for pilgrims. Quickly rushing past in search of my first view of the city I was chagrined to realize that today this eastern approach is filled with post war construction, hardly the legendary ‘city on the hill’.

The Camino followed the calle de los Concheiros (after conca or shell), rua de San Pedro and finally entered the medieval city through the Puerta del Camino. My heart beat faster as I hurried along the narrow pedestrian lanes, rua Casas Reales, rua das Animas and plaza Azabacheria (after jet jewelry craftsmen).

And there it was! The cathedral! Here I was at last! Oh happy, happy day!

Overcome with emotion I put my hand on the stone. Suddenly the giant bells began to ring; the sound was majestic. I did not enter then, but searched for the office of the Dean of the Cathedral. The assistant reviewed my Credencial with all its varied stamps representing each day’s stop on my journey, marked it with one final stamp, and issued the treasured Compostela which stated in Latin that I had devotedly completed the pilgrimage. Again I cried.

Hungry, tired and slightly overwhelmed I ate lunch and found a tiny hotel nearby. From my attic room I could see the rooftops. After a siesta I entered the cathedral through the great western portal. Slowly I walked down the dim barrel-vaulted nave towards the altar. In the central niche was the Romanesque stature of Santiago dressed as a pilgrim, gilded and inlaid with precious gems. Above this he is depicted as Matamoras, the Moor-slayer. Beneath the altar in the crypt his relics are enshrined in a splendid silver coffer.

Turning I saw the congregation assembling for evening mass. Other pilgrims whom I had met along the Camino were present; we nodded, silently smiled and gestured a euphoric thumbs up, not wanting to break the sacred silence. After mass I sat in the cathedral for a long time.


November 17, 2004

leaving Santiago de Compostela

I awakened hearing the ringing bells. Although the city is a bustling university town my morning’s sightseeing concentrated on the cathedral. The first church was begun in the 9th century; the present in the 11th. Seen from the plaza de Obradoiro, the main western facade is 18th century; it has two soaring towers and a double ramp staircase. Hidden behind this is the old Romanesque façade, known as the Portico de Gloria. Now inside the cathedral this has three arched openings and many sculpted figures. The center column is carved with a Tree of Jesse above which sits Santiago. Pilgrims traditionally touched this column in thanksgiving; now the stone is worn away.

On the opposite side of the cathedral, the eastern façade is viewed from the plaza de la Quintana. Here is the 17th century Puerta Santa or holy door. It is opened only during a Holy Year, when St James’ day, the 25th of July, occurs on a Sunday. 2004 was a Holy Year and the doorway was open.

The bells tolled for the main pilgrims’ mass at noon. The cathedral was densely crowded; the service most impressive. It concluded in a great cloud of fragrant smoke from the botafumeiro, a giant silver censer. Eight churchmen swung it in front of the altar; on a long rope sailing back and forth across the transept it nearly touched the ceiling!


Later after boarding the train that would carry me back across Spain to France and home, I slowly began to realize that my dream was fulfilled. The real world was returning. My Camino had become a memory, but a memory I shall treasure forever.



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