Pilgrimage – Days Fifteen-Sixteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

We stopped for a real breakfast at the Arroyo Vineyard on our way out of town. Everything is so much fresher here. Eggs with golden orange yolks, and bacon that has never known nitrates, freshly squeezed orange juice. We spent most of the day walking along the Rio Valcarce, and are staying in an albergue in Vega de Valcarce.

An easy, comfortable day of walking was followed the next day by an intensive day of entirely uphill walking.  We traveled perhaps 24 km, and every step was hard-earned. Early in the day we passed a small stable where three horses were being groomed. One of the cowboys, surely the original Marlboro Man, asked in Spanish, then in English, if we wanted a ride to Cebreiro. I laughed, wanting to say yes, but landing on no. After hours of climbing I realized that I would have been feeling very sorry for any horse that carried me up those steep, rocky, muddy paths (but six years later, I still regret not accepting a horseback ride next to an impossibly handsome vaquero!  I’m sure my husband understands).

This is the day that we finally enter into Galicia, a distinctive region with its own dialect and a strong Celtic influence.  I am eager to hear the local form of bagpipes. [A memorable Galician bagpiper is featured prominently in YoYo Ma’s film Music of Strangers. If you haven’t seen this, please find it and fall in love with the joy of music all over again.] As promised, the hilltop town of Cebreiro was heavily fogged in. The views may have been incredible, but we were not to find out. We stopped for an early lunch at a charmingly rustic and very old place – an old barn turned restaurant? A much-needed fire was burning in the grate and two women were cooking  large amount of pork. We asked for soup and were served the traditional Galician soup of white beans, greens, and potatoes….but it was awful. Grimacingly awful. I don’t know what they did to the soup (made it with dirty dishwater?), but it became clear they had little use for the IMG_0062.JPGperegrinos – at least the American ones. We were grossly over-charged, but enjoyed an hour of escape from the cold fog and some rest, before continuing the climb.

Lunch was forgotten when we settled into the albergue in Fonfria. A comfortable sitting room for reading, and for many, a chance to watch the French Open finals. Nidal in three straight sets, so not a particularly exciting match, but a happy experience for my son and the other pilgrims who joined in watching with him.

Lots of Canadians, and more Americans then we’ve met anywhere else, including someone from Potomac, Maryland – so close to home. We met a talkative young Slovenian man who was happy to tell us about his country when asked. He is a welder, traveling the world to work on large oil tankers and cruise ships, but I think he should have been working for his country’s embassy because his love for Slovenia was so very evident.

There were perhaps thirty of us at the long dinner table tonight.  Galician soup again, but much, much better this time. [I’ve linked the recipe if you’re interested.] Lively conversation all round. We are strangers, but we know something about each other that only other peregrinos can know.

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Pilgrimage – Days Fifteen-Sixteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

The cold and rain has returned, but the wind has not, so it was bearable today, and we had a plan for where to stay tonight, so the day had a clearer ending point than usual…except our destination turned out to be a refugio without running water. Very primitive in every way. Having walked 27 km by 1:30, we arrived to find it wasn’t open yet, but a taxi lingered nearby, as if the driver knew no one would actually want to stay there.  Perhaps he expected this weary pilgrim to plead with him to take us to the nearest albergue at any price.  And I was tempted, I admit, but my son was not swayed by this version of the devil, and we walked away, knowing that the next town was 8 km away. I knew I would be slow and told him to go ahead without me.  This turned out to be the longest and loneliest two hours of my life on a difficult, stony path, which steeply descended for the last several kilometers. As I shuffled – and there is no other word to describe my gait – into town, the first face I saw was that of my son, and he had found us a place to stay – with running water! It was a very nice albergue in fact, and one that only took donations. The name has “Apostolic” in it, so I am wondering if we’ll have to sit through a prayer meeting tonight, after dinner at 8:00.

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There was no prayer meeting. Out little group of five around a dinner of salad and lentil soup was comprised of a sweet, young Hungarian couple, a Filipino living in London, a Polish-Canadian, and us. Again, we seem to be eluding the Americans, though everyone tells us that there are many of them on the camino.

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The next day, we stopped at Cacobelos Municipal Albergue which is built around a church in a rather unusual design, with little individual cubicles, and a large shared yard where people were hand-washing their clothes in tubs. Dinner involved a van ride to a local vineyard called Spanish Steps-Bierzo-Arroyo Family Vineyard. The driver turned out to be part of this enterprise, coming in to play guitar and sing for us. Ah, and the wine, as it is throughout this country of vineyards, is more than drinkable! Our table of Canadians and us was quiet, but appreciative. This was a 30 km day and my legs and feet are aching, but the walking and views today were beautiful.

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This place is a gardener’s dream. The cool, damp climate supports a variety of vegetation that we can only dream about in D.C. Masses of poppies, lavender, and daisies grow as wildflowers. Wild roses on the edge of the woods and massive cultivated roses in nearly every yard. In one garden I saw blooming irises, roses, and azaleas – which would never bloom at the same time in my garden. Petunias, pansies, geraniums…but flowers are really the least of these gardens. Everyone grows vegetables and fruit trees – in their front yards, in a narrow strip next to their homes, in a huge community garden next to the village. Gardening is in their bones. Fig trees and peach trees, nut trees, a small fruit I don’t recognize (quince?), and buckets of cherries. Those are ripe now and sold everywhere, and so yummy. We’ve bought them at every chance from little stands, knowing that they were picked earlier in the day, one euro for a 1/2 pound or so.

People are growing potatoes and onions, beans, artichokes, leafy greens, a large cruciferous-looking thing I can’t identify, which has something like beans hanging off the plant. And grape vines.  Everywhere. There is such a wonderful sense of abundance.

Of course, as the reader may have noticed, it’s rainy, cloudy and cool much of the time, so we’re not talking about paradise exactly. And sometimes abundance is defined as too many empty and decaying homes. It is clear that the economy is currently as terrible as the news tells us, but there is no poverty of the spirit as far as I can tell. We’ve met a couple of beggars, but they seemed to be camino opportunists. Is that too cynical of me?

I’ve asked, whenever I have the chance, why someone is walking the camino. Sometimes it feels intrusive to ask, but I do anyway, and some of the reasons I’ve heard so far:

  1. I don’t know.  (I like this answer.  I have a feeling a true answer becomes clearer with time)
  2. As an act of thanksgiving (for blessings, for healing, for help)
  3. I’ve read or heard about it and have always wanted to do this
  4. The film “The Way” (which many Spaniards think is the reason most Americans are here)
  5. Walking is the best way to really see a country.

I especially agree with this last one. How many times have I walked in my own city and seen things I had passed by for years and never noticed from the car?

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Pilgrimage: Day Fourteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

The Albergue Encina was clearly a new enterprise, and the owners, just as clearly, were not graduates of any kind of business or hotel management program. A very inefficient, but well-meaning operation, with their main employee a young woman who was more determined than I’ve ever seen to make sure we didn’t understand a single word she said. It had been a long day, and when I asked her, looking at their fully stocked bar, if I could have sangria, her look suggested that I had actually asked her to clean dog poop off of my shoes. She then proceeded to put one part red wine and five parts limonada together. And that was fine with me.

Today we walked on the suggested alternative path out of Hospital de Orbiga and made our way through gorgeous farmland, with snow-capped mountains always in sight. For the first couple of hours we moved with a pack of pilgrims, but gradually the herd thinned. After a long climb we came upon what looked like it might be a fruit stand, but which turned out to be a one-man paradise to which all pilgrims were welcome and where, as our tattooed and well-bronzed host assured us many times, “all things are possible.” He offered juices and snacks, all for any donation we cared to make. It was a crazy little oasis.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

We picnicked on food from the supermercado in the middle of Astorga on one of the town’s beautiful plazas. What a really lovely town. How enjoyable to sit for an hour, munching on chorizo sandwiches and cherries.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

On the way out of town we passed an early Gaudi creation, the Palacio Episcopal. Quite tame compared to his Sagrada Familia, but there are a few fanciful indications of where he was headed.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

We didn’t walk very far today, only about 22 km I’m told. We are spending the night at an albergue in Murias de Rechivaldo, the Albergue Las Aguedas.

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Pilgrimage: Days Eleven-Thirteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

The albergue in San Juan de Ortegais is an old monastery, and at 5 euros the cheapest place we have stayed. Everyone was kicked out at 8:00 am and we began the trek to Burgos. Cloudy and cold yet again, we went through some really desolate forest, encountered a young man begging for bread money, stopped at the most charming little store for breakfast in Ages, were accosted by a Gypsy, insisting we sign her petition and give her money for a center for the deaf. We resisted.  Eventually we reached the ugly, industrial, and interminable outskirts of Burgos by 1:00 pm. We had decided to take a popular alternative of riding a bus from Burgos to Leon, and with a little help found our way to the bus station and bought tickets for the 5:20 bus.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503With a few hours to spare we sat outside and enjoyed the sun that had appeared in Burgos (and not before!), eating lunch on a lovely promenade near the main archway into the plaza. Afterwards we took refuge from the wind in the Cathedral, only to discover that it was much colder inside than out. But we had bought our peregrino tickets at 3.50 euros and took our shivering selves through one of the most spectacular cathedrals I have ever seen. Its colorful and overly emotional piety is not for me, but architecturally it is truly stunning and a Gothic masterpiece.

The bus to Leon was easy and comfortable and saved us days of travel through a desert that some pilgrims love, but many more avoid. A Canadian we had met earlier was also on the bus and knew his way from the station to Leon’s Cathedral plaza where we have enjoyed a Spanish evening of people watching and a late dinner outside. Finally, at 10:30 pm it is dark.

The next day was unfortunate. The walk out of Leon was more than an hour through dusty, car-filled narrow streets. The city seemed to go on and on, and the early moments of medieval interest soon turned into grimy streets and shuttered shop after shop. But the unfortunate part lay ahead – we found ourselves on the original camino route, having missed a turn-off for the suggested alternative route. The first stayed along a major two-lane highway, the second went through several small, welcoming villages (so the book said).  The first kept us in the sun all day, the second surely offered some shade. This day turned out to be the hottest so far, naturally. By the time we realized our mistake it was too late. We had stopped at a forsaken truck stop and finally looked at the maps. What to do except make the day entirely miserable and walk 32 km to Hospital de Orbiga, where the two paths met up again.

A few things saved the day, however: 1. a couple of challenging games of Botticelli  2. my son’s good humor  3. seeing several “neighborhoods” of underground houses, some still inhabited. They are built into the sides of hills, with doorways cut into the hillsides, and little chimneys sticking out. An early attempt at eco-friendly housing? A hippie commune? An experiment of some kind?  4. coming to Hospital de Orbiga on a long road through farmland, getting caught behind, and then among, a flock of sheep being herded from one field to another by two sheepdogs and a farmer SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A5035. crossing the very long and quite beautiful bridge – new, but medieval in appearance – that Hospital is famous for  6. stopping at the very first albergue across the bridge and finding it very clean and rather inexpensive. Misfortune redeemed.

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Pilgrimage: Day Ten

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

After an hour or so zipped into my sleeping bag I am finally warm, and have finished the book I had grabbed off of my towering bedside stack of “Books to Read Someday” before leaving for Spain. I had brought The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch with me because it fit the bill – very thick, but very light. I had not read anything by Murdoch before, and shortly into the book I knew I had found a new author for me. Her descriptive writing doesn’t mask her great sense of story. I don’t know if this is typical of her books, but there are many moments with the nearly slapstick sense of a whodunnit. And then, rather suddenly – on page 465 in fact – it became apparent that this was the perfect book to bring on the camino. The central character, Charles, is writing a diary, doing a lot of self-reflection and ultimately shedding many old thoughts and concerns. A character appears now and then throughout, but in fact hovers over the whole story, and that character is named James.  We’re on the Way of St. James, remember.  At the end, lots of words about love and trying to do a little good in the world, and then, the final sentence. An Asian casket, said to hold a demon, which had hung in the apartment where James lived has fallen and broken. The story’s narrator, Charles, finishes by saying: “Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of life, what next I wonder?”

You cannot make this stuff up.

The girl in the next bunk has the book now. Though Kate is from Germany she tells me that she enjoys reading in English. I’ve included a note on the endpaper with my email address, asking anyone who comes upon the book while walking the camino to contact me if they also find this book to be a perfect companion on their way. (in fact, one person did email me months later though we didn’t get into an extended online book discussion and it wasn’t clear if he made the same connections between book and experience that I did).

This day ends with dinner at the restaurant next to the albergue. We are seated next to the most delightful couple imaginable – Paul and Roisin from Dublin. He works for an Irish MP and had a lot of questions about American politics. (This was 2013 fortunately, so those questions were a lot easier to answer). Paul tried very hard to understand American attitudes towards gun control, but I wasn’t able to illuminate that topic for him much. A really enjoyable and lively conversation. If we all approached life as though we were constantly on pilgrimage maybe we would meet strangers with more sense of inquiry and camaraderie and have many such conversations.

Misty forest walking the Camino de Santiago Villafranca Montes de Oca to Atapuerca on eatlivetravelwrite.com

What next I wonder?

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Pilgrimage: Day Nine

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Something I forgot to write about a few days ago – from the day of walking that was worse than childbirth. We had not seen anyone else walking that day, and so, besides the cold wind and fatigue, there was also a loneliness around us. My son suggested we play games of GHOST and Botticelli to keep our minds off the cold, but really he was just trying to help me stay focused. I think he may rightfully have been worried that I wouldn’t make it. When we approached the town of Cruces I told him to go ahead and find an albergue and get warm. He did walk ahead, because he couldn’t have possibly matched my snail’s pace, but at turns on the camino he would wait until he saw me so that he could point the way and I wouldn’t get lost. We were in a maze of ugly new apartment buildings at this point, but were led eventually into a very small, nearly extinct village. I was so cold, truly chilled to my bones (I might remind you, this is May!), head down against the wind, and sometimes I would look up and see what would turn out to be a large recycling bin, instead of what I had thought was my son in his blue rain poncho. I think I might have been close to hallucinating, but we were led to Pedro and Virgen de Guadalupe and all was well. Or was that a hallucination too?

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This morning Sibyl and Basil – okay, you know these weren’t really their names – fed us a typically worthless Spanish breakfast before bidding us buen camino. The day was not too long – 24 km – but so strange. Lots of climbing – we must be quite high, now in San Juan de Ortega. Along the way a memorial to some of the victims of the Spanish Civil War in the middle of a long, desolate walk through mud, pine forests and moss-covered deciduous trees that had not leafed out yet only added to our unease. It felt and looked like late winter, and the memorial was as stark as the landscape.

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Pilgrimage: Day Eight

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

In the night I realized our host reminded me of “Doc” in the Back to the Future movies. He awoke us at 6:00 am or so, and had “breakfast” on the table for the pilgrims at 6:30. HUGE cups of cafe con lecheat least three times the size of a normal coffee mug. The cups were from a matching set of mugs with Disney, Looney Tunes, and Warner Brothers characters on them.  You cannot make this stuff up.  (As a friend commented after last week’s post, thank goodness I wasn’t imagining us in a Tarantino film).

We walked seven and a half hours today, nearly 30 km to Belgado. Today’s walking was difficult…but not worse than childbirth! Warmer temperatures helped. We walked that distance, however, on very little food. Spanish breakfasts of coffee and toast are not enough to walk seven hours on. We wanted to stop on the way for fruit and a sandwich, but somehow never managed to be in any of the small, blink-and-you-miss them towns during the 45 minutes a day that stores seemed to ever be open. There was no food to be found, and a Cliff Bar discovered in the bottom of my backpack around 2:00 pm was the most delectable treat imaginable, divided between us and savored .

We decided to shuffle our weary bodies past the first albergue in town, since it looked like something from Gatlinburg, Tennessee with hillbilly peregrine cut-outs pointing to the entrance (have I mentioned that you cannot make this stuff up?).  Too cheesy even for our bone-tiredness. We got into the town proper and saw another albergue next to a church, but an elderly Korean couple outside didn’t give it a ringing endorsement, so we dragged ourselves another block further and discovered an albergue run by the couple from Fawlty Towers, known here as Albergue Caminante – Basil obsequiously showing us to our (private!) room, and his wife Sibyl at the desk in a mail-order medieval dress. I know it was mail-order because I have one very similar. Neither speaks English, but they are funny and charming and I’m so glad we found our way here.

The pilgrims’ dinner was cooked for us by a Romanian woman and served by our hosts. Paella, meat, and vegetables. And lots of wine of course. We shared a table with a couple from Innsbruck who set out last year to walk from Austria to Santiago, but didn’t make it and so are finishing the trip this year, a woman from Romania who works at her country’s embassy in Holland, and a man from Ireland who looked like a jockey. A silent group, which forced me into the role of social butterfly. I don’t love it, but I’m not bad at it either. In retrospect, though, maybe everyone was just tired and enjoying their food and silently hoped I would be quiet!

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Every sort and condition is found on the camino. From baby Olivia to young school children on holiday with their parents, hippie wannabes in their 20’s, and couples of every age. Some met while walking the camino, some have walked from their homes in France or Holland or Germany, some have grown old together and walk in a way that suggest they truly are two parts of a whole. People of many nationalities, but not many colors. People of all shapes and sizes too, from the long S-shaped bodies of the bicyclists, to paunchy and frumpy middle-agers, to wiry old-timers. Many would surprise you as potential pilgrims, and those hobbling on sore feet aren’t always the ones you might expect.

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