“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”Miguel Cervantes
When I wrote the last post about a month ago, it was on the eve of arriving in Santiago de Compostela. A couple days ago, I sat down and read through all my posts, with a map at my side to help remember the routes and villages I visited. I went through my photos to jog my memory of the people and chapels and albergues and other places I had come across. While reminiscing, I sometimes found myself deep in thought remembering an incident along the Camino or chuckling to myself as some forgotten event was unexpectedly recalled. It is sometimes difficult to believe that I actually undertook the pilgrimage and walked across the north of Spain. Did it really happen, or was it all a dream?
Paula can vouch that I did arrive in Santiago. At 10:30 am on October 11, as Lisa and I made our final approach into the Plaza del Obradoiro, the square in front of the Cathedral, we saw Paula and John waving us in. It was quite an emotional moment as you might expect. After many hugs and kisses all around, interrupted by compliments and congratulations, we found a spot in the square directly on front of the Cathedral to sit down on the cobblestones. John popped the cork on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot as Paula arranged four flutes in a row. We toasted ourselves and watched as pilgrims filled the square. After draining the bottle, we went down to the Pilgrim’s office which Paula and John had reconnoitered the day before and Lisa and I received our Compostela, or certificate of completion of the Camino. Then we headed back to the plaza for a second celebratory bottle of champagne.
We checked into the Parador de Santiago which is located on the north side of the Plaza del Obradoiro, next to the Cathedral. The Paradores de España are a collection of about 100 state-owned hotels, established in 1910 to promote tourism. Normally, “government run hotel” is a phrase which would send most tourists running in the opposite direction. However, the paradores are considered luxury hotels, often located in old castles, monasteries or other buildings with historical significance. The Parador of Santiago, built 100 years after Columbus’ voyages of discovery, began as a hospital and refuge for weary pilgrims. In 1953, it was renovated and joined the parador network. It certainly worked for us for the two nights we spent in Santiago. That afternoon, we reconvened at the hotel bar to plan the next steps of our adventure.
For whatever reasons, we did not make it to the pilgrim’s mass the day we arrived so we made sure to go the following day, October 12, which celebrates the Virgin of the Pillar, when Mary appeared to St James as he was preaching the gospel in Spain in 40 AD. The mass was a much more elaborate ceremony than those delivered in the churches of the small villages along the Way, but the message of the pilgrim’s blessing was the same: Lord, be my companion on this journey, give me strength when I am weary, shine light where there is darkness, console me when I am dejected and guide me at the intersections. Or words to that effect. And usually the priest will ask us to remember these supplications as we return to our normal lives, our Camino of Life. This final observation took on a special urgency with the realization that this was the last blessing of my journey. In a long moment of silence, I reflected on my pilgrimage, the many wonders revealed, and on the significance of the day. I am not a particularly religious or spiritual or meditative person. But I felt a confluence of these three pillars of the soul, and acknowledged that my pilgrimage had been a good one and now was a good time to move on. Ultreia et suseia , as they say on the Way. Onward and upward!
And thus ended my Camino. But of course, the Camino never ends. It simply enters a new stage. And for Lisa, John, Paula and me, the next stage was a drive through Spain ending with a week in Madrid. What follows is a quick glimpse of that trip, which always was a part of the pilgrimage.
After Santiago, Paula and I took a bus to Porto and had a great time just being together. We wandered the streets and the riverfront, tasted port, took the metro to a coastal fishing village for a sumptuous seafood meal with a bottle of waiter-recommended vinho verde for esophageal transit assistance, met with a pilgrim couple I knew for a chicken piri piri dinner, enjoyed those tasty little cream tarts, and pretty much stayed occupied even though we had no plans. John and Lisa rented a car and drove north to Finisterre and Muxia. A couple days later, we met up again and began our driving trip across the north of Spain, reversing the direction Lisa and I had travelled.
We drove with determination to escape the rainstorms that were to batter the northwest coast for the next several weeks. We ended up that evening in Gijon, where we found another parador (although this one without much of a parking lot!), wandered down the long promenade by the sea only to find out we had passed by all the eating establishments, and returned to select – by luck – a fine place for dinner.
The next day we drove though the Picos de Europa, three limestone massifs that thrust upward within the Cantabrian mountain range, offering stunning views of rugged peaks, alpine valleys and narrow gorges cut by rivers rushing about searching for lower ground. After a fine lunch of fabada asturiana and roasted goat, John expertly drove us along the winding mountain roads back to the coast where we stayed at yet another parador in Santillana del Mar, this one with ample parking. In the morning, we found a coffee bar frequented by peregrinos – Santillana del Mar is located along the Camino del Norte.
Our next jaunt would take us to Haro, a town in the middle of Rioja Alta country and home to many fine wineries, including that of Ramon Bilbao. This Rioja wine had become our go to red wine and it seemed only right that we visit it’s birthplace and take what turned out to be a most interesting and informative tour. Don and Erin will remember Haro and the “herradura”, the horseshoe shaped street through the old town lined with bars and restaurants.
After a relatively leisurely drive back to the coast, we came to San Sebastián, whose famous pintxos we had been looking forward to eating since leaving Santiago. John’s driving skills were put to the test again as our hotel was located in the “pedestrian only” section of town. Our quest was to find the best pintxo bar in town and after checking out a half dozen or so found that the number one spot was right across from our hotel!
The following day we drove south to Madrid, checked into our Airbnb and dropped off the rental car. Paula and I always start our Madrid stays with a visit to Bodega Santa Cecilia, to try out the latest wine recommendations, and soon we were there with John and Lisa. We were quickly joined by Paula and Juan Miguel. By day, we visited museums and stadiums and took a train to Segovia to eat cochinillo and cordero, joined in this last venture by Linda Belonje, a true friend from Bangkok rugby days. By night, the six of us went to a flamenco show and a zarzuela, or light-hearted Spanish opera. On our last day, we ate heartily at Sagardi, a restaurant serving Galician fare. Appropriately, we included a chuletón of rubia gallega. And, at some point near the end of the meal, we raised our glasses and toasted each other, thankful for a wonderful visit and hopeful of returning again.
So there you have it: it was a dream after all! I want to thank all of you for the kind words of encouragement before, during and since I walked the Way of St James and I wish you Buen Camino on your journey.
Let’s start with yesterday: Lisa and I walked from Palas de Rei to Arzua, vía Melide, a town well known for its pulperías, or octopus restaurants. Pulpo Gallego is a popular dish throughout Spain. The octopus is boiled until firm but tender and then spiced with paprika and coarse salt and drizzled with olive oil. Served with a cold albariño wine, it really makes for a fine meal. I know that since Soul of an Octopus and My Octopus Teacher, some people have become very queasy about eating such an intelligent creature and prefer beef from dumb cows.
Melide is only halfway to Arzua and if we stopped to eat, pulpo or carne, it would have been a long day. And this was already going to be a 15+ mile day. So, at 2:30, we arrived hungry at the Alberge Santiago Apostal in Arzua and began a search for restaurants. We tried two recommended places, Casa Chelo and Casa Nene, but they told us it was “Impossible!” Other places were also full or closed on Sundays. However, as we went to our rooms for a shower and rest, we walked by a first class parilla, or grill, and the chef was throwing on ribs and veal steaks. Lisa and I looked at each other: “then here, said I, with a sudden cry, is our crematorium!”
Later we were feasting on churrasco, a variety of grilled meats and sausage, accompanied by our friend from Rioja, Ramon Bilbao. Pilgrims need their protein! And wine! After a not so good cafe con brandy, we figured we better make up for that with a round or two of orujo hierbas. After the long walk and the big meal and the digestifs, I did not feel the clarity of mind to write and post the days thoughts and events.
And that brings me to today. This is day 33 on the Camino. Tomorrow, Lisa and I march into Santiago. It will be a day of fulfillment, the end of a 500 mile journey over an ancient path along which have travelled the multitudes seeking revelation, repentance, release or, recently, recreation. In a very real sense, then, today is the last day on the Camino, the last time I check into a new hotel or albergue for the night; the last arrival beer and meeting up with other pilgrims to discuss the day; the last night of sleeping alone.
The Camino brought me to a lovely rural hotel for my final night. The room is comfortable with a clean bed and hot shower. Outside, I can hear traffic, but most of it is farm equipment, a bit noisy but so appropriate to the setting. And the hotel restaurant is one of those surprising finds where the food is finely prepared, proudly served, delicious to eat and with a great wine selection.
It will take a few months to assimilate this experience, but for now I reminisce: pastor Michael’s blessing in which he prayed to God to open doors for me, the long trip just to get to St. Jean Pied de Port, the beauty of the Pyrenees, the peaceful quiet of ancient stone chapels, the camaraderie of the caminantes, the dark early morning departures, Roca Rey, the solace of long lonely walks, the luthier’s workshop – and the luthier!; the sore feet – and the physiotherapist!; the alternative routes experienced by few; the Gallegos who allowed me to take their picture (and those who refused); today’s lunch; and so much more.
There are many things I wanted to talk about to give you a feel for the Camino which I either forgot or figured the day’s post was getting too long. Like how to figure where to stay or the the ins and outs of the Pilgrim’s menu. I did not play Wordle or do crossword puzzles or watch TV. I seldom checked the news (except to follow the war in Ukraine) or stock market or sports. I sang the same three songs out loud when I was walking alone. These are the topics of discussion over a beer sometime in the future. Sometime after I have walked into Santiago. Tomorrow.
Today was a very utilitarian day. I walked from Portomarin to Palas de Rei. I had a coffee here and a coffee there, none too good, but each good enough to take the time to drink. Arriving in Palas de Rei, I did my laundry. I met up with Lisa and we had a meal at Arenas.
And then an interesting thing happened. We had a discussion about what we had learned on this journey. We talked for an hour or so, with one revelation leading to another. Being a discussion between pilgrims, I cannot take it much further in this forum.
I saw someone wearing a mask today and it reminded me that I wanted to mention the issue of health, other than sore muscles or blisters. On the first day, a medevac chopper rescued a person, but there is not much information about the victim other than he or she was on another trail. There have been a few cases of Covid along the Camino. I know few of the details but I have heard of three cases. A few people I know of have caught colds or suffered allergies. There was one death of a pilgrim, apparent heart attack that I think I mentioned (Lisa witnessed the Guardia Civil managing the case). But most of us have survived and, God willing, will march into Santiago in a couple days.
I walked past the Iglesia Santa Marina as it’s bells rang out 8:00 am. Today was a very foggy and misty day, as it was meant to be. The fog did not lift until I passed the 100 kilometer marker.
You know that today was going to be different. Let me list a few things I noticed for the first time on the Camino: much bigger groups, but admittedly not as many people as I thought, including school kids and bus tours; the bars had souvenir shops attached, with plenty of shoppers; people asking for money; actual taxi cabs parked at crossroads instead of a sticker with taxi phone numbers; and what I would call sticker frenzy.
But it was still a wonderful day. I stopped for my breakfast and chatted with another pilgrim from Korea who had started a few days after me. We commented on the “newbies”, and noted they were not much different than ourselves in the early days. Another long-time peregrino from Andalucía called these new folks the turigrinos or casacompostelanos. This was number 7 for him, so he has earned the right to call the rest of us whatever he wants. He is a man of a thousand stories. He told me that no one understands how unburdened he feels when he hoists his backpack on.
By the way, I have selected my Camino anthem. It would not have been appropriate until after Sarria. I have not really listened to any music while walking. It seemed like such a distraction. But today I played my anthem and it actually brought a tear of joy to my eye!
I did not fall asleep easily last night. An unusual feeling numbed me and I could not understand what was it’s cause. Confused thoughts rambled through my mind. Had I come this far only to somehow not finish the walk? Was I in some limbo from which there was no escape? Would I never wake up if I did manage to fall asleep? Had I eaten something at dinner to befuddle my brain?
Tonight I understand what troubled me. Last night was my last night on a Camino that I had become familiar with. Today I walked into Sarria and my world has changed, as though suddenly the sky turned green and changed the color of everything.
In Sarria begins the final 100 kilometer March to Santiago. Many pilgrims start their journey in Sarria and complete their Camino in 5 or 6 days. New and strange faces have appeared. Conversations are different. I went to the pilgrim’s mass and the priest did not show up. Strange turns of events! The sky is green.
Sarria marks the start of my journey back to the “real world”. My life as a pilgrim, as short and sweet as it was, will soon be over. The pilgrim does not want to return to that world he has escaped, but has no choice. It is like birth. But it is also a rebirth: an awakening from an odyssey of self-examination with the realization that every tiny learning was a gift. And so, the trek from here onwards is just as important as any other stage of the Camino.
Let me mention the Camino family. From the first day, you begin meeting people. All kinds of people: single, pairs, flocks, young, old, men, women, people who talk too much, people who teach you, people who make you laugh and on and on. Some of these people you see over and over, in the towns, in the hostels, mostly walking the trail. Others have a quick pace and disappear into the distance; some are slower and you wonder what became of them; some drop out for various reasons. But as you reach the end, you have an idea of who your Camino family is. Some may be a day or two ahead or behind in reaching Santiago, but you have come to know them. Yet as close as your friendship may have developed, you realize that at the end, all go different ways to different lives. Yet we share a common bond.
And now I begin to yearn for my own family. The family that cheered me on in this quixotic quest. Paula leaves the States for Madrid today and I cannot wait to be with her. There is so much more to share with her, slowly, over time. And with JP and Jen, Jack and Michael. And the whole gang!
And Paula and I will be creating new shared experiences as we travel Spain with Lisa and John and visit with Paula and Juan Miguel in Madrid. But now it is time for this pilgrim to go to bed. I don’t think I will have any trouble sleeping tonight.
EPILOG from previous post: Tizona
I did not set the alarm last night and I woke at 6:30. I rolled over and slept for another hour. The previous day had taken its toll, but now I was ready to set off again.
There are three routes out of Villafranca del Bierzo. There is the main route, along the main highway, although from all accounts it is quiet, and it is the shortest. The second route goes to the right and offers a bit a scenery as it runs along the hills to the north. The third route is called the Dragonte and ascends and descends three steep mountains before ending up at Herrerias, 26 km (16m) away. It includes 1500 meters (nearly 5000’) of ascent and almost as much descent. I read that the trails were poorly marked, there were no services along the way and that less than 1% of pilgrims take the Ruta Dragonte. I was in!
The day before, as I was approaching Villafranca del Bierzo, I noticed a wooden hilt protruding from the ground. As I extricated it from the earth, drawing it out like Excalibur, I realized the Camino was offering me a gift. It fit my hand perfectly and was the perfect length for a staff. I did not realize why I needed this pole, but trusting in the Camino, I accepted it, knocked off the thorns with a rock, gave it the name Tizona and took it with me. The next morning, as I left Las Doñas, it leapt into my hand to make sure it was not left behind.
I made my descent to the next village of Moral de Valcárce (named after the valley). These were not really villages but collections of houses owned by farmers, or in such disrepair they were uninhabited. As I entered Moral, a couple of large dogs protested. I don’t mind when a dog barks or growls, but when they start baring their teeth, I get a bit worried. I thrusted at them with Tizona, not in an aggressive way but making them think twice before they made a killer lunge at my leg. They circled around behind me as a third dog appeared blocking my way. A voice shouted from somewhere and the dogs backed off a bit, long enough for me to make my escape. However, watching from a safe distance, was a smaller dog, and as I walked by him he decided to be my companion. I could not lose him. Presently a farmer in a tractor came along – my first human encounter. “There is a dog following you!” he said. “I know, I can’t get rid of him!”. We devised a plan. I struck the ground in front of the pup, breaking Tizona in half. That was not part of the plan, but I improvised and threw the broken-off limb at the dog. The farmer took over, herding the pup home. “Venga! Venga!” críed the farmer.
I found my way out of Mirkwood with its weird trees, some with ancient misshapen trunks burnt by long ago fires or hollowed out by some disease, but still supporting huge leafy branches. There were lots of chestnut trees, their spiny fruits looking like yellow-green rambutans. And on I went, making my way up to the second peak, and back down into the next valley.
I arrived in Herrería about 2:30 and still had 3.5 miles to go. I reached my destination, Albergue La Escuela. just after 4 pm. My longest day on the Camino, but it was ever so satisfying, and came at a good time, before the final run into Santiago. The views and experiences along the Ruta Dragonte were unforgettable. The last section to my alberge complemented the Ruta Dragonte: steep ascent in mostly tree lined path, but a smoother trail, thankfully.
First of all, welcome to Mark and Nina Menghini who are well into the start of the Camino. Ultreia!
I am having my breakfast in the town of Cacabelos, having gotten through Ponferrada and back into the countryside. I am in Bierzo region and Cacabelos reflects a good local economy: nice homes, prosperous shops, busy streets and nice coffee shops, like the one I am in. Usually, pilgrims will stop at the first coffee bar they come across when entering a village, as I did coming into Cacabelos. But one look at the wilted croissant, and I moved on – and found the place I am sitting in, filled mostly with locals chatting about all the local news.
Explanatory note: I am going to stop using the term “coffee shop”. I am referring to bars that happen to serve coffee and croissants, or beer or herbal orujo, or whatever you happen to want for breakfast.
The puerta above marked my arrival in Villafranca del Bierzo, the ancient capital of the region. I found my hostal on the opposite side of town. It is called Las Doñas del Portazgo and is a warm and welcoming place. Do you remember how, long after you had left home, and you went back and your Mom made you feel so good and comfortable? That’s how this place is.
I finally caught up with Lisa again. We had our “arrival beer”, then met later for dinner. We talked about our adventures and the people we had met and discussed plans for the next day.
I set off from Astorga, going past the Gaudí Episcopal church and the gothic Cathedral, which stand next to each other like an old man with his grandchild. This was day 23 on the road and the beginning of the ascent to the highest point along the Camino, marked by the Iron Cross at 1500m (just under 5000 ft). It is a gentle gradient and the aroma from the pine trees wafted through the air. The days on the meseta, the high flat ground, were over.
I reached Rabanal del Camino about 1 pm so I had an hour before I could check into the Stone Boat. Rabanal is a small town of fewer than 100 souls and it was not hard to find the one who ran the tavern. I sat outside in the warming sun and had a beer. The proprietor brought me fresh pears just picked from a wild pear tree.
Rabanal’s history pre-dates the Camino as it is located near Roman gold mines and may have existed when the Celtic tribes moved west. It was a busy stop along the early Camino where pilgrims could rest before making the final ascent that would take them to the Iron Cross. More recently, but before the advent of the train, Rabanal was a busy center of the mule trains that carried Galician products including seafood to the interior. Today, it is quiet, surviving only on the pilgrim trade.
I checked into the Stone Boat and met Kim, the owner and proprietor, an American woman from Key West. The Stone Boat is small – I think only 3 bedrooms with private bath – but very nice and inviting. Kim did everything to make my stay welcoming and comfortable, including arranging a massage with Priscilla just up the road. I am not a massage guy but I thought I should experience this treat and give my feet a soothing rub for having carried me this far. I also met Jody Lielidahl who checked in at the same time. He is a writer who grew up near Mamou Louisiana, where Paula and I witnessed a very traditional Mardi Gras many years ago. That night I went to the Benedictine monastery for vespers, chanted in Latin in the Gregorian style.
I returned to the Stone Boat to make an early night since I wanted to reach the Iron Cross at sunup. Kim was still there and wrapped a piece of zucchini cake for my breakfast the following day. Up in my room, somehow I knocked my glasses off, breaking the frame as the lens bounced off the tile bathroom floor. Would this be a good omen?
I got my early start. There was no moon out and the trees shielded any starlight from revealing the path. I focused my single eye on the path to avoid any rock or root lurking to trip me. After a while, I was well out on the trail. I looked up at the cloudless night sky and saw Orion on my left and the big bear on my right. Actually, I saw twice as many stars: one clear one and its fuzzy twin next to it. I do not use a flashlight or headlamp as many early-rising pilgrims. I figure the Camino will find me. We are so used to light in our lives that our night vision has suffered. My thoughts are very different walking in darkness as compared to during the day. I turned and noticed the sky reddening. I also saw the flicker of someone’s light and knew my nighttime reverie was about to end.
I hastened along my way, stopping for a coffee and Kim’s cake in Foncebadon before continuing on to the Iron Cross to deposit my rock which had travelled with from the Pacific Ocean near Encinitas. The day was lightening so I left my broken glasses in my pocket and went along my way.
I completed the day’s stage arriving in Molinaseca after a treacherous descent starting just after El Acebo. The town is a cute but touristy town popular among pilgrims, cyclists and roadtrippers. It was tempting to stop for a cerveza but that would not have been helpful for the steep path ahead. In Molinaseca, I bumped into Francisco, Chris, Ignacio and Rafa. Ignacio told me that in the next town of Ponferrada there was a shopping center where I could possibly get my glasses repaired or replaced. After checking in to The Way hostel, I joined them in walking to Ponferrada, then bid them farewell as I departed for the shopping mall where I was able to get a temporary fix to my spectacles.
This post is already too long, so let me finish with this: the weather on my trek between Rabanal and Molinaseca was great. The sun shone with a passion and warmed up my bones which had not had a chance to thaw out on the chilly meseta. On my return from Ponferrada with vision now in both eyes, I took a taxi and asked the driver if this warm weather was normal. He told me they often have a few days to a week of warm weather in early October which they call el veranillo de San Miguel (San Martin sometimes gets the credit). It is what in the US might be called an Indian summer if we are still allowed to call it that.
I am taking a break in Molinaseca as I wait for Lisa. I may go back to Ponferrada to visit the Knight Templars castle or I might just hang out in Molinaseca.
The wind gods took a day off today. Yesterday, the trees waved their arms at me frantically. Today, they just stared as I walked by. I could feel the quiet, so much so that at one point I sat down on a rock on the side of the path, closed my eyes and listened for the silence. Not in prayer or meditation, but deep in thought. I could hear the occasional click-clack of hiking poles as a pilgrim went by and various other sounds that drifted by from afar. I thought about my parents and their parents and my children and their children. And how Paula and I are at this intersection of life through the ages.
Today was a short day, about 4 hours including a few breaks. I actually had a late start today because rain was forecast in the morning; it never came and the sunrise was glorious and it beckoned me on my way. I did run into a bit of rain, but did not need rain gear. The change in footwear helped and I enjoyed wearing sandals. I will wear sandals again tomorrow to Rabanal, and stay at the Stone Boat, which is my sister Katita’s favorite stop on the Camino.
I ran into Francisco, he of the YouTube Camino channel and good deed and he invited me to lunch in Astorga at the Cocido Maragato restaurant. A cocido Maragato is a traditional dish of this region of Leon consisting of a broth with vermicelli noodles, garbanzo beans with boiled cabbage and potatoes and a variety of local sausages and meats, including morcilla, pork belly, chorizo, pigs ear and other tasty treats.