Let us not be overwhelmed by the distress of the present time. Let us instead open our hearts and minds to the great challenges lying before us – respect for human rights in all situations, with special concern for the most vulnerable: children, women and refugees. Pope John Paul II
… and seniors I might add. Pope JPII is a personal hero of mine – I can’t get enough of him. Back to our Camino story now. The photo above was taken coming down about 350 m elevation from Riego to Ponferrada. We were glad we had poles and boots! It was a rigorous decline so we only planned walk about 13 km today. It was getting hot!
We arrived in beautiful Ponferrada pop. 62,000 in the early afternoon. We found the pharmacia for some new bandages for Marie and throat losenges for Dave. Then we explored. We have friends whose son and daughter-in-law live here. What a pleasure it must be living in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After touring the castle and a bustling street market to pick up some supplies, we decided to bus it 25 km ahead to Villafranca del Bierzo. Dave’s sore throat was getting worse. We checked into the hippie like 76 bed Ave Fenix private refugio. No social distancing possible here.
After freshening up we went out for a nice pilgrim del dia dinner with wine and then looked around town a bit. It was very peaceful. We called it an early evening since we had a big day coming up tomorrow.
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of humankind as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all. Helen Keller
This life lesson from Helen Keller seems all the truer today as we face our own vulnerability during the 2020 global Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
Today we would climb some 300 m in elevation and descend 900 m on our way to Riego de Ambros 20 km from Rabanal. The views would be gorgeous. One of the major highlights – La Cruz de Ferro – was on our route today. Again we were blessed with good weather.
We reached the highest elevation of the entire Camino pilgrimage at La Cruz de Ferro, 1505 m. We walked up a twisty highway to get to the Iron Cross. It consists of a wooden pole with an iron cross at its top. At its base is a mound that has been forming for years. The tradition is to throw a small stone or other object you brought from your home at the base of the cross, either in honour of someone or to let go of something – let go, let God.
We spent about 30 minutes there reflecting and resting. One of the characters we had met along the way was there with his wife too. I remember he was from Cognac, FR. That may be him pacing in the background above. He had all kinds of equipment that he was fiddling with – an alcohol heater of sorts, a small camping stove, pots and pans, thermoses, etc. He was telling his wife everything. She rolled her eyes a few times and we chuckled. He reminded us of Mr. Bean. Our laugh of the day!
Coming down the views were golden. Actually though, walking downhill is harder in some respects than uphill. Your toes tend to crunch forward painfully in your boots and your legs soon get tired from resisting the pull of gravity. Usually we would walk zig zag as this style was easier on your toes and legs.
At a small hamlet called Manjarin, pop. 1, we came upon a medieval scene. A man named Tomas who claims he is the last of the Knights Templar, operates a coffee shop and animal pen turned refugio for pilgrims. We were taken aback when he rang a bell and led a small ceremony while we watched increduosly. Another living mystery on the Camino.
We continued on our way to the municipal Alburgue in Riego de Ambros for the night. Most people kept going another 5 km to Molinaseca. It was clean and quiet. We ate in a restaurant with Eric and Joyce from South Africa. It was a gorgeous little town. Only problem was Dave started coughing a bit and had a sore throat by the end of the evening. It will probably go away tomorrow we thought.
Today would be a slow climbing day – shown as only 100m vertical on the map above but 250m according to Brierley. It was uphill – 24 km to Rabanal. But first we walked through historic Astorga.
The Romans built the first settlement called Asturica Augusta here in 14 B.C.. During the middle ages it became an important way station for pilgrims on the Camino. By the 15th century its growing significance inspired the rebuilding of the Catedral de Santa Maria de Astorga pictured above, as well as its 3rd century town walls. We enjoyed passing through and wished we had more time to sightsee.
It was slow steady walking all day. We stopped every hour and chatted with a few people. It was sunny, quiet and peaceful. Marie’s feet were healing.
When we got to Rabanal about 2:30 PM we decided to upgrade and checked into La Posada de Gaspar, a guesthouse with private room, bar and restaurant. We had our first bath tub and the maid did our laundry! We hung our sleeping bags out to air. Wow, a lovely restful evening followed.
We had a nice dinner and then had time to look around Rabanal. Rabanal has a long history as an important stop on the Camino and prominent town in Leon. It was revitalized with the help of the Confraternity of St. James in London, a Camino pilgrim support organization. We have several of their excellent publications and accessories.
We much enjoyed our stay there and so were as ready as we could be for more climbing the next day.
The message above says it all. On the Camino everyone walks at their own unique speed. I’m OK, you’re OK. This is fine when you are walking alone but when you walk with someone else, there has to be some compromise. Early on, Marie and I agreed that we would walk about 20 km each day. I tended to want to race ahead and go farther but in the end was content with our goal. Some others, particularly solo men would walk 40 km or more a day. Their first question at the end of the day was “How far did you walk today?” For them it was a competitive race.
Usually each day there was a choice of destinations with accommodations 15 to 30 km away. Today was a little different. Hospital de Orbigo was about 12 km out. Santibanez was 18 km but at the top of a hill you could bypass on an alternate flatter route. Astorga pop. 12,000 was about 29 km away. I convinced Marie that we should make Astorga our goal. So off we went.
We stopped for lunch in Hospital de Orbigo. In the middle ages there was a church here dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the 16th century the Knights Hospitaller built a pilgrim hospital here. It was a hot sunny day and we enjoyed our coke zero stop too.
The farms here surround each town. Farmers live in town and go out to their farmland each day. They do not usually live on their land like in Canada. I suppose this is because small towns are so frequent here, it has always made sense to organize life this way since feudal times. We continued hiking in the hot sun. Suddenly we came on a nice surprise – David – the refreshment stand operator. It was a welcome relief to take a break. All he asked for was a donation.
We continued walking in the hot sun. About 4 PM we were going through a hamlet called San Justo de la Vega. It was another 3 km to Astorga. A man named Manuel comes out in the road and invites us to stay in his small refugio in his house. We said yes, we’ve had enough for the day although Dave still wanted to see Astorga. We did our laundry and hung it out to dry on a clothes line. I had 2 pairs of Oceania Cruise slippers that I washed and hung up. I remember the line was hanging pretty low and there was a couple friendly dogs in the yard.
We freshened up and Sean and Ruth from Montreal checked in too. It was comfortable and he only wanted 12 Euro for the two of us. We decided to walk a few more km to have dinner in Astorga which you can see in the background above. We had heard of a famous local meal called Cocito Maragato – a Castilian stew. Well we found a great restaurant that served this dish thanks to the recommendation of a couple from Madrid we had met today. It was a huge meal! It was hard to get thru it all but Dave enjoyed the culinary experience with Marie’s help.
When we finally made it back to the refugio, overfed and exhausted, Manuel said that unfortunately, one of the dogs had jumped up and ate one of your slippers lol!! He felt bad and said we could stay the night for free. In the morning we gave him 6 Euro as he was so hospitable and apologetic.
In bleak and difficult times you must always keep something beautiful in your heart. -Pascal
As we prepared to leave Leon, we had a look at the map. We had come 425 km from Pamplona. We were about 60% of the way to Santiago in 17 days. We had 12 days more and 325 km to go. Up and at it, we started walking out of Leon at 9 after a great breakfast in the cafeteria..
We walked through the Plaza Isidoro and by the San Isidoro church. Beautiful. We kept walking and walking and walking and still we were immersed in the city with its noises and busy streets. We felt conspicuous in our grubby clothes but the city goers must have been used to seeing such pilgrims on a daily basis and paid us no attention.
Regarding our reception by the locals, there are 2 stories I would like to relate. The first one, would take place tonight. We arrived in the alburgue by 3 PM and were napping in the dorm at about 4, as was our habit. A loud group of Spanish speaking younger men arrive and proceed to make a loud racket joking and talking so that I and everyone else napping were suddenly awoken. Impulsive me yells out “Hey quiet, can’t you see that we are sleeping.” One guy responded angrily that they had every right to make all the noise they want at 4 PM or something like that. The very next day Marie and I were hiking along and suddenly I see the loud man stopped on the path in front of us. I think oh, oh I am going to get punched out now. I pause, he looks at me, says no offence and then gives me a hug. Hey I said, “I am sorry I yelled at you yesterday.” We then went on our separate ways in peace and forgiveness.
Another time, Marie and I were making our way through a busy city. There were a couple of tough looking guys we had to pass within a foot of on the narrow sidewalk. Here we go, we are going to be mugged I thought. As we pass he looks in my eyes and says in English “Welcome to my country.” with a smile. Wow I thought! How receptive would people in Canada be to hundreds of vagabond people trapesing through their city everyday. Such is the beauty of Spain – social traditions, acceptance and respect run deep here.
Finally we made it out of Leon. It took 2 hours. When we got back to the country side, we sighed in relief. For perhaps the first time in my life, I realized that I did not like big cities as much anymore. They can be impersonal, polluted, noisy, confusing, overwhelming, dangerous. Both I and I think Marie realized that we could be happy living in the country side or at least in a much smaller town someday. Camino lesson, rant over.
We continued for about 21 km today walking beside a busy highway as it was shorter than the inland route. One advantage was we scored some delicious Spanish chorizo sausage for lunch with fresh baguette. Yum!
We spent the night at the 85 bed municipal alburgue in Villadangos del Paramo, with the aforementioned nap disruption. We were halfway from Leon to Astorga.
We awoke at 7 AM in the Alburgue La Laguna in El Burgo Ranero to the soft sounds of classical music playing, I think it was Bach. Well today was Dave’s birthday. He thought it was a secret. However Marie must have informed Carmin and Rosa. After breakfast, out of the kitchen comes a huge upside down pineapple cake with a candle. The gang gathered around and sang happy birthday Dave. He was very touched and grateful. What a great place to celebrate a 60th birthday and one he will never forget. Thanks to Marie for spilling the beans!
Carmin and Rosa the volunteer hosts from Quebec made it all happen. Their joy and fun loving spirit was the hospitality highlight of our pilgrimage. Reluctantly we said goodbye to everyone with lots of hugs. We would never see them again. Dave did connect with Sarah and Rafael for years on Facebook until they left the platform. Sadly, we could never find a communications link to Denis and Aline. At Christmas, Rosa emailed Marie a wonderful video of her year at La Laguna but alas, that has gone astray.
We took the train some 38 km to Leon to celebrate Dave’s birthday in style. This brought us forward 2 complete days and hence we would be walking with meeting a whole new group of pilgrims who were up ahead. We met Henny and Randi from Denmark on the train. Today we would not be walking far so we could start celebrating right away!
We arrived in Leon, pop. 130,000 and were making our way to our boutique hotel when who do we run into but Dick, who we hadn’t seen since day 3. Dick was a very interesting man. He was a Protestant Minister in a community church in Arkansas on sabatacle to hike the Camino. But he did not tell many people his story. Rather, he enjoyed asking each person he met what their story was i.e., why are you walking the Camino? He enjoyed listening to their response and should the opportunity present itself, discuss Christian faith matters with them. We became great friends to this day.
Our hotel was easy to find and near the Cathedral which looks so great when lit up at night. After freshening up we walked around town to sightsee. Later we found the marketplace, had tapas and vino for dinner and met a nice young couple from Montreal on pilgrimage too.
We spent a somewhat restful night in our hotel room with private bath, however it was noisy on the street, the window would not close nor the TV work. We were grateful for another great Camino experience and still eager for more. Thanks for the great birthday celebration Marie!
“Walking induces a trancelike state that allows the mind freedom and eases and encourages explorations of odd possibilities and improbable connections. I walk every day for the mind, as well as the body.”
Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx, c. 2012
We set our sights on Calzada de Coto a small town 19 km away. It would be flat terrain, some remote bush country and an earthen track. We felt good!
It was a beautiful day and Marie and I were walking along not far out of Terradillos. We came up upon Aline and Denis and we saw that they were walking slower and praying the Rosary. We asked if we might join them. Denis reached in his pocket and handed me a wooden rosary from the Holy Land. I still have it. I gave him a Canadian pin. It was a magic moment. We prayed the Rosary together and continued chatting for quite awhile before separating again.
We passed through Sahagun, a larger town filled with pilgrim art work. We stopped for lunch and a rest. We were still feeling strong. We continued on for another 6 km to Calzada. It was about 1 PM. We looked into the municipal alburgue – it was dirty and deserted. So we decided to keep walking another 7 or 8 km. It was at this point that Marie’s blistered feet became too painful to walk on.
What to do? I decided that I would walk ahead about another 5 km to El Burgo Ranero (middle of the map above), get help (a car) and come back to get Marie. I asked her to stay where she was. So off I went arriving breathlessly at the private Alburgue La Laguna in El Burgo Ranero. I was greeted by Rosa, a volunteer hostess from Quebec. When I explained the situation, she immediately offered to drive me back in her car to find Marie. We drove back and looked and looked everywhere but no Marie.
So reluctantly I returned to the refugio with Rosa. As we walked in the door there was Marie. She had made her own way painfully the rest of the distance – over 30 km in total today!! Rosa greeted her with a hug and gave her a face cloth to wipe her brow. We went upstairs to our beds. I had a brief nap and went back down stairs while Marie showered. We noticed Frank Sinatra music was playing. This was going to be a fun place. Marie came down refreshed and had a snack with our smiling hosts.
Then the fun really began. Carmin asked for volunteers to help prepare dinner. Marie volunteered and I said that I would help with the dishes. When I next looked into the kitchen there was a dance party going on!!!
The rest of the evening was a riot. We had a wonderful group dinner. Guys were dancing with brooms. It was a birthday of one young woman. There were speeches and a special chocolate cake. It was the best spontaneous party! Kirsch and Judith from Holland were there too. Tout le band!
So we had had a wonderful spiritual connection, reflective walk time, some pain, bodily renewal, communal meal and finally a joyful music filled dance party, all in one day.
There was even a Spanish priest present and before we went to bed, he led us in multi-language vespers. This was our best day on the Camino!
Last night in Carrion we had dinner with Kirch and Judith from Holland. She had a lot of trouble with blisters and we’d seen them several times before. She would hobble around the alburgue on Kirsch’s arm in the evenings. We would pass them in the day. He was so patient and caring with her. She admired Marie’s crocks and bought a pink pair. An amazing couple. We also chatted with Peter from Denmark and met Sarah from Hamburg – a waitress who was walking the Camino to decide what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
Just a short note today. We were on Step 17 of our journey and decided to go the full distance – 27 km. It was flat and somewhat featureless and there were very few services. Some of our day was walking on the Via Trajana – the old Roman road that connected Spain and France.
By now it was heating up and we had discovered Coke Zero. So everyday we would stop and treat ourselves to a cold icy Coke Zero. We stopped in a place called Caldadilla for our daily highlight. We then decided to take a cab for the last 10 km to Terradillos de los Templarios, a town of 100 residents.
The Knights Templar (Los Templiaros) (or Knights of the temple of Solomon) was a Catholic military order founded in 1118 by French knights who fought in the 1st Crusade. Their purpose then became to protect the lives of pilgrims on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, following its conquest. They also went to Spain to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago – from robbers and murderers. There was a pilgrim hospital near Terradillos in the XII century under the protection of the Knights Templar. This is also where, the legend goes, they buried the famous hen that laid the golden egg.
We had a wonderful stay at this refugio. They had a great restaurant and good clean accommodations. We were in a room with 8 bunks and a shared washroom. The sheep and dogs out the back were a joy to see too. At dinner we met a lovely couple from Montpelier, France. Denis was a health lawyer and Aline was a pediatrician.
We climbed about 130 m in elevation on leaving Castrojerez. The rain was gone. We caught a view of the Meseta ahead. The Meseta is the name given to the extensive flat plains in central Spain that we had been walking on since leaving Burgos on Day 11. We quite liked them although there were some sections where you would walk and walk and nothing changed. Some found this discouraging. We liked them because they were generally flat and so easy to walk!
So what does it cost to hike the Camino? In 2010 our budget was roughly 25 Euro/day each. Typically our refugio cost 8 Euro, dinner and wine 10 Euro, lunch, breakfast, water and snacks, 7 Euro. This was the average. Some days were less and some were more. You could do it cheaper if you stayed in religious group run refugios that asked only for a donation. Some spent more and stayed in private room accommodations. We liked staying in the refugios because you met up with the many people that you had seen on the trail that day. ATM machines dispensing Euros were available in the cities and larger towns. A credit card was not useable along the way except in the city.
Well something happened on this day. I was raring to go. Marie was still suffering from blisters and needed a break. So in the afternoon, I walked ahead and said I would wait for her at the Canal de Castilla crossing just before Fromista. I enjoyed my solo walk and crossed over the beautiful canal. I waited about 30 min thinking Marie would be right behind me. She wasn’t. I remember asking a man if she had seen her and he answered “Be patient man, she is coming.” I was getting worried as we had come almost 25 km. I was about to walk back, when there she appeared, all smiles.
She normally carries her crocks dangling from her pack at the back. Someone informed her that there was only 1 crock hanging and had seen one beside the road, so she had gone back to find it to no avail. The mystery of the missing crock! All was well again but Marie’s feet were still in pain. We checked into the 56 bed municipal Estrella del Camino in Fromista. After the usual shower, nap and laundry I explored the town of 1000 residents a bit.
The next day we set our sights on Carrion de los Condes a town of 2400 some 20 km away. It was sunny and flat. Marie needed to take the bus to let her blisters heal. It was a complicated triangular route. She would have to take one bus to Palencia and then another to Carrion. I remember seeing her get on the bus and worrying that we would never see each other again since she spoke no Spanish.
Carrion was home to the beautiful Santa Maria Church. I realize we have not talked yet about the faith aspect of pilgrimage. Since the middle ages millions of pilgrims made their way to Santiago de Compostella where the Apostle St. James reputedly visited after the Resurrection of Jesus. Back then these were usually for moralistic or monastic reasons or as penance for sin. Many died along the way without the pilgrim services of today. Gradually the importance of place – e.g., the shrines of saints – to express devotion, receive forgiveness or to collect badges and relics became the reason. That was a primary motivator for us.
There are many churches along the Way of St. James that offer pilgrim Masses and a quiet place to reflect. We took advantage of these often stopping to enter a church and say a prayer. Too, we did not linger as the perceived “rush for beds” was on every day. Nevertheless, a good part of our day was reflecting on our faith individually and pausing at the many religious statues to read the inscription. We felt God was leading us to a new way of living. We could see the face of God in other pilgrims’ eyes.
I checked in at the refugio and asked when and where the bus would arrive from Palencia. At the appointed time I went and sat on the bench by the stop. Within 5 minutes a bus pulls up and there is Marie again, all smiles. After that that we visited the church to give thanks. We then spent a very peaceful night in the 54 bed parochial Santo Espiratu Albergue run by nuns.
Well we finally ran into some rain. We had had a few sprinkles before but on this day it rained heavily in the morning. We were prepared. Marie had a waterproof suit she had acquired in Banff, AB and I had my rain jacket and waterproof rain pants. In addition we had waterproof covers for our backpacks. So we made the best of it and stayed pretty dry. Rain gear is indispensable on the Camino. We were blessed that we did not have much rain the whole time.
It was a long walk to get out of busy Burgos – it took an hour. When we got back into the country side it felt really good – like being home again, even in the rain. We were walking 21 km today to Hornillos del Camino, pop. 100. The rain did not last long and we were walking in the sun with clouds before long. Marie’s new pack was lighter and she was pleased with it.
We staid in the 32 bed albergue pictured above. It certainly was easy to find. We washed our clothes and put them out to dry but it started raining again. We brought them in next to the fire place. Some refugios had a laundry sink but many did not. So daily we washed our clothes usually by placing them on the shower floor and stomping on them while showering with soap suds falling on them. It works!
This refugio had a canteen where we bought baguette, sardines, peanuts for the next day’s lunch. They had a café too where we had a pilgrims del dia meal. Very convenient and rustic. We met Rafael from Brazil for the first time here – a good looking and popular young man. He was from San Paulo. Also Eva from Germany and many other Germans were here.
The next morning we set our sights on Castrojerez, pop. 1000 some 21km away. It was raining a bit again. We ran into a muddy trail and it went on for a few km! We kept laughing thru it all though and found a nice place to stop for café con leche. The rain stopped or at least let up for awhile.
We made it to Castrojerez, a lovely little town but had some trouble finding the Alguergue San Esteban, as it wasn’t well marked. We did spend a restful night there and felt rejuvenated in the morning. Thanks be to God.