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.


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.




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?


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?


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.


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!


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.


Pilgrimage: Day Seven

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.

“Windswept” in books sounds poetic, rather romantic, and perhaps just a bit glamerous. Windswept for 8 hours on the camino is none of those things. People in the towns are wearing their winter coats, while people on the camino are wearing everything that they packed. Heads down against the unrelenting wind, each day colder than the last.

We arrived at an albergue around 3:30, and after a few hours in my sleeping bag I am finally feeling warm again. It seemed that we might be the only guests at the Albergue de Virgen de Guadalupe, run by an artist who signs his paintings “Petrus.” At first I thought we might be in a Hitchcock film, because this is a strange place. Perhaps it used to be a barn? Our host has an odd, unblinking look that was scary at first, but then we were joined by a German named Thomas at our nearly silent dinner and I thought we might now be in a Bergman film. Then four more pilgrims joined us – a jolly German named Holger, a severe-faced, tattooed Finn named Janne, a very young Brazilian, Pedro, walking his second camino back-to-back, and a German who spoke flawless English named Jaclyn. Janne, Pedro, and Jaclyn are traveling together, she on a bike and the others walking and running. It’s an odd trio, and now it seems that this might be a Fellini movie.  Different languages, slapstick comedy, non-sequitors. It was surreal, and got only more so.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503Our host offered to take us down to the village church after a dinner of lentils and barley. The churches we had come across during our days on the camino were almost always locked, so I was glad, now that we no longer appeared to be in a Hitchcock film, to take him up on his offer. Using his own key to let us in, he lit the altar candles, told our little group to hold hands and asked that we say The Lord’s Prayer in our own language. He then gave us communion from reserved sacrament. Possibly none of this would have been approved by the local priest, but it was actually very lovely. My first religious experience on the camino.


Pilgrimage: Days Five and Six

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.

Bit of a dismal day, so windy and cold – an unusual weather system is moving through apparently. My bunk bed doesn’t allow me to prop myself up to write, so I lay on my back and write holding my journal over my head.

Last night we stayed in Viana, after a day of walking a mere 19 km. My legs are/were incredibly sore and I just couldn’t do more. In Viana we stayed at a hotel-like hostel. Private room, private showers. Such luxury! On the pricey side at 40 euros, but so nice to not be in bunks, and it was very quiet. We somehow found ourselves at a pilgrim’s lunch, which then precluded a pilgrim’s dinner, and I missed the camaraderie of being with other pilgrims over dinner and a bottle of wine. Lunch was rabbit – too many bones – and chard with almonds. I can truly say that there was nothing recognizable about this food. Nothing chard-like or almond-shaped to be seen. We’ve eaten lots of Spanish oranges though, and they are amazing.

We went out around 6:00 pm to buy a little food, see the church and look around the town. Sleepy and empty, like every smaller town we’ve been through so far. Around 7:30 pm, however, I decided to go and get some more fruit and something to drink.  Well…it was a different town! Children playing everywhere, grandmothers watching babies, every store open, an art gallery revealed just across the street. Energy and life in abundance. I bought a bottle of grapefruit juice (1.95 euros) instead of the large box of sangria (1.05 euros). As we had been told, wine is plentiful and cheap.

Today, we’ve walked 23 km to Navarette. Again, my sore legs wouldn’t go any further. I think my son is tired too, so I hope I’m not too much of a drag on this enterprise. Along the way, at the top of a windy hill we saw a young man with a table on the roadside. How entrepreneurial! Flasks of tea and coffee, fruit cookies. No charge, pay what you want. I found this to be an excellent business model, since what we took was worth far less than the 2 euros I gave him. We talked for some time with him and learned that he had been in Poland, but had come back to Spain to escape the cold, only to discover it was colder here. Not many pilgrims today.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503Several times I have wanted to draw what I see. That’s not an urge I have felt before. Photos can’t capture what interests me – the expansive vistas and magnificent wildflowers in such array and abundance. The rolling hills almost appear cartoon-like in their simplicity. Photos are too small, or too literal. My drawing efforts are not worth reproducing, but I did try.