October 4 – 6: Rabanal del Camino to Villafranca del Bierzo

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San Nicholas Real Monastery

October 4: Rabanal del Camino- 13 miles, 5 hours

I prayed, practiced positive thinking and E.F.T. (the psychological form of acupuncture) and even had a long talk with my right knee, but she was stubborn. She had no intention of healing until she was ready. And, in 10 days as quickly as it happened, my knee miraculously healed.

I am so happy today that I think even the scruffy brush we are walking through is beautiful. In the quiet of the morning, I find myself  hypnotized by the mosaic patterns on the hard ground made by the grids of the many boot soles that have passed here before me (over 300,000 completed the Camino in 2017). I look up to notice that the earth is such a beautiful copper color it looks as if it’s been painted. It’s a fairly flat path today, so I amuse myself by wondering what is behind the ancient stone buildings (some thousands of years old), with majestic wooden doors. Are the homes beautiful and modern inside? Or, does the outside reflect the inside?

Hotel Rural Casa Indie’s front door opens to a courtyard and all the rooms encircle it. The room’s French doors and beamed ceilings give the rustic feel we expected, but the old wooden floor planks are so uneven that a trip to the bathroom in the dark will be an adventure.

Before dinner, we head to the church for Vespers led by the Benedictine monks in Latin. It is beautiful in its simplicity. The original stone on the barrel vaulted ceilings and the walls peeks out from ancient paint. When the lights are turned off, the crucifix on the wall behind the altar, lit from above, has an even more dramatic presence. One of the monks walk around the pews and blesses us all with holy water. Afterwards, we greet one of the monks who speaks English and he is so pleased to hear that we enjoyed the experience.

October 5: Molinaseca: 16 miles, 8 hours

What a lovely way to start the day; first watching the sun rise as we are walking, then being serenaded by a young pilgrim, who has carried his guitar with him every step of the way.

We’re on dirt roads most of the day, which narrow and widen as we walk. My favorite are the narrowest parts, when only one person can barely fit and the trees envelop you.

The closer we get to Alto Altar, the highest point of our entire journey (4550 feet) and Cruz de Farro, the more emotional I become. The plain metal cross stands on a mountain of stones like a beacon to pilgrims. Two days ago, I could barely walk from my bed to the bathroom and now I am almost there, ready to fulfill one of the highlights of our journey. We’ve brought two rocks from home and wrote the names of two special people who are very dear to us. We find just the right spot, wipe our tears off them, say a prayer, then nestle them in amoung the many other rocks. The ancient legend is that by leaving the stones behind, you are turning over your burdens to God.

The steep inclines and descents seem as if they will never end. Between the loose rock and shale, horse and cow manure and chestnuts in shells that resemble Nerf balls (except that these are covered in needles), you have no choice but to stay focused. I while away the time by thinking of the salad I am hoping to find for lunch. We turn the corner and come upon the cafe where we had the best salad of our 2016 trip. The husband and wife owners are so pleased we have returned and tell us we have made their day.

We quickly settle in at Hostal el Palacio so we can sit outside and have a glass of wine with a view of the river, the bridge and the mountains. The lovely old stone building houses rooms that are a combination of old world and modern.

We take a walk around town and agree that the town looks like a movie set; the old stone buildings and street lights are all from a time gone by. Four teenage girls sitting on a bench with their iPhones and the Mercedes that cruises by look totally out of place.

Villafranca del Bierzo: 19 miles, 8 hours

It’s better that I didn’t realize beforehand that this would be our longest walk of the Camino. Luckily, it’s in the 70’s (great walking weather) and the path starts out fairly flat. A walk through a neighborhood of mansions is particularly entertaining.

It seems as if we are walking up and down through vineyards for miles and miles. All of a sudden, dark clouds sweep over us, the wind picks up and it starts to rain. We already have our rain gear on, so there’s nothing else to do but take turns singing Broadway show tunes to pass the time on this unending path.

Villafranca del Bierzo (population 3500) traces its origins back to the year 791. The village flourished during the Middle Ages as an important resting spot before the mountains of Galicia for pilgrims on the Camino and still provides that same service all these years later.

Of all the days, we need to walk through the entire town to get to where we are staying tonight: the San Nicholas Real Monastery. The sheer magnitude of the building is overwhelming. Built in the 17th century in the Baroque style, the courtyard and cloisters would be lovely to visit on a nicer day. Our room is small and all white with some basic wooden furniture, but it’s clean and the window shutters open to reveal a view of the town.

As we head up to our room, we are surprised to see our friend from Arizona. We catch up and promise to keep in touch, hoping we can plan to meet up again.

After such a long day, we agree that we will stay put tonight. We are the only ones in the dining room and admire the frescoes on the wall and the vaulted ceilings. Enjoying dinner in our private dining room to the sound of a Gregorian chant playing softly in the background, this may not be the best menu del dia we’ve ever had, but tonight it sure seems like it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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October 1- 3: Astorga

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Bishop’s Palace, Astorga

October 1

We’re on the bus headed to Astorga. My face is pressed against the glass, as I watch the pilgrims walking by on a narrow strip of dirt so close to the road. I wish I were there, walking with them.

We arrive at Hotel Ciudad de Astorga. If we were walking, we probably would not be staying at such a modern hotel, but since I’m spending more time than usual in the room, it seems a good choice.

On the Camino, you have your choice of accommodations: donativos (a straw mat on the floor for a donation), albergues ( pilgrim hostels: bunk beds, dormitory style or private rooms), casa rurales (similiar to a bed and breakfast) and hotels (two stars and up). Some pilgrims like to reserve ahead and some like to walk into a town and be spontaneous.

Astorga is a lively town (population 12,000) full of historic buildings. In medieval times, because of it’s convergence to so many of the pilgrim routes, it boasted twenty pilgrim hospitals.

October 2

Last time we were here, we missed seeing the Bishop’s Palace (Palacio Episcopal), so we head there first. After a fire in the early 1900’s, the bishop asked his friend, Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, to redesign what would be his home. Unfortunately, the neo-gothic palace complete with turrets caused such an uproar that the bishop never had the opportunity to live there.

I never get tired of the watching the two figures strike the bell every hour on baroque facade of the government building in the Plaza Mayor. It’s a great place to people watch, so we head there to have a leisurely late lunch. We enjoy a three course menu del dial complete with water, bread and a bottle of wine for 12 euros each ($14.40). The pilgrims all start arriving and sharing stories of their day. We are so glad to run into our friend from Arizona. He seems like a different person today; he met an older woman from France who he was walking with and seemed so happy for the company. I feel like the little girl in the class that is the only one not invited to the birthday party. Hoping I can walk again soon.

October 3

Do we get back on the Camino tomorrow or do we bus somewhere else? I’m eager to walk, but all morning my knee has been throbbing. Just as we sit down to talk, I could swear that I hear a voice whisper in my ear to go ahead and walk and that I will be just fine. We make our plans to start waking again and I sleep so well, with no apprehension as to what tomorrow will bring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 28 – 30: Leòn

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September 28

We walk into town together and our Arizona pilgrim friend bids us farewell as he heads to his albergue.

We stayed at Hostal Aldo Cosco Antiqua in 2016 and I remember the wooden beams on the room’s ceiling, the windows that open to overlook a cobblestone street and the lower level’s glass topped flooring with a view to the old city’s stone beginnings.

Before we can decide where to dine, we receive a text from a pilgrim couple from Delaware that we had met early on. They’ve also just arrived and we plan to meet for dinner.

Tonight the city’s cobblestone streets are packed with young and old revelers. A line snakes down the block to get into the cathedral for a free organ concert, a band plays electric violin and bagpipe music from a stage and there is a feeling of such gaiety in the air.

September 29

My sister, a nurse, and JC*, who we all thought should have gone to medical school, agree with the manager of our Burgos hotel who took one look at me and had diagnosed me as having tendinitis. A few minutes later, Google has provided me with a definition and YouTube has taught me some Pilates movements especially for knee issues; fingers crossed that this is the key.

Today, the city is celebrating La Leyenda de los Cien Doncellas (The Legend of the 100 Maidens), which explains the procession of women dressed in beautiful medieval garb. The Arab dancing, sword battle re-enactment and medieval music complete with bagpipes helps to recount the story of the time when Spain was under Muslim rule. A despot seized control of Spain and in exchange for less tyranny, demanded that 100 women be added to his harem. The women revolted and with the help of the army led by the apostle Santiago, Spain was freed.

In the midst of the vibrant music and the throngs of jubilant merrymakers, the Arizona pilgrim we met on arrival comes to mind. I sensed a sadness about him. Is he all alone tonight? I call out his name under my breath and scour the streets, hoping that if he is out there and could use a friend that we will somehow run into him.

September 30

The celebration continues with the Fiesta de San Froilàn  (St. Froilàn). Colorful banners line the plaza, as donkeys lead colorfully decorated carts down the square. Every street is crowded, either with shoppers eyeing the merchandise for sale under the many tents or with the customers overflowing out of every bar and cafe into the street.

It appears that no one has stayed home today. The sight  of generations of family members enjoying each other’s company is heartwarming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page

 

 

September 25 – 28: Burgos

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Cathedral de Santa Maria XIII

September 25

We bus here in two hours and settle into Hotel Monjes Magnos. It’s clean, simple, all white and we have a private room. I send Mr. Wiz* out to explore and see where we’ll dine tonight and I take a rest.

Speaking of food, this seems to be the major past time of Spaniards. Breakfast is light; a cafe con leche (espresso with hot milk) and bread or a sweet roll. During late morning, there may be time for another cafe and a sweet roll. Many towns and businesses still close in the afternoon for a siesta and a big meal is enjoyed. Then, everyone is back on the streets again and you may need either another cafe and a sweet or a wine and tapas to hold you until dinner, which begins after eight in the evening.

Burgos is a big city, sometimes referrred to as the Gothic capital of Spain. Thank goodness I’ve been here before and have seen all the sights, especially the Catedral de Santa Maria XIII, one of the most beautiful and largest of Spain’s many cathedrals. Mr. Wiz revisits all his favorite architectural spots, sends me photos all afternoon and I feel as if I am there with him.

September 26

It’s really something when you notice the abuelas (grandmothers) are all out walking you, but I find my way to a bench and enjoy the beautiful weather, while Mr.Wiz is out and about.

I’m in ear shot of three pilgrims; the woman is from England and men are from Sweden and Korea, but they are speaking English. They seem to be delighting in each other’s company, as they share some wine, tapas and their life stories. As they walk away, I can still hear them talking and laughing. They stop to take a photo together and then, spontaneously, continue their walk with their arms around each other. I fumble for my phone, but the photo op has passed. No matter; I don’t think I will ever forget that image. It personifies what the Camino is all about.

September 27

The first thing I see this morning when I wake up is Mr. Wiz’s backpack on the chair, packed up and all ready to go. Our plan was to walk to Estella today, but my knee is still acting up, so it looks as if we’ll be here another night. He can sense that I am upset and reminds me that what matters is that we are together and we are on our own Camino.

It’s been five days and I’ve taken all the medication from the clinic. We stop at a pharmacy and I’m told that, not only can I continue taking the meds, I can also increase the dosage and take it in the afternoon. This is quite encouraging.

We’ve been staying close to the hotel each evening, but tonight I’m feeeling a bit better, so we decide to venture slowly into old town. We are so surprised to come across our pilgrim friends from Switzerland, Russia and Taiwan. They were our laundry buddies and we joke that dirty laundry will always remind us of each other.

We stop for some wine, then continue on to dinner, this time making sure to swap contact information before we say goodbye again. It’s our last evening with our Russian friend. We hug as if we’d known each other for years, as she whispers in my ear “…If we lived closer, I think we would be good friends…”

September 28

We can’t stop apologizing to each other today. Mr. Wiz is sorry that he did not think to buy the bus tickets to Leòn ahead of time and I’m sorry that I forgot to remind him. The 10:30am bus is sold out (completo) so we have no choice but to wait until 5:20pm to leave.

With Mr. Wiz carrying both backpacks and me hobbling beside him, there’s not much for us to do. Fortunately, it’s another beautiful day, so we find a bench in the park near the cathedral and headquarter there. I have time to reflect and remember an article I once read that said when you experience conflict, you need to face it, head straight towards it and flow with it, rather than against it. I decide to try that tactic. The time seems to go by quickly, as we plan out our day: share an apple at 1pm and have a beer at 4pm.

At the bus station, we meet a pilgrim from Arizona, who also missed out on a ticket for the earlier bus. He had been experiencing ankle issues and said that when he had taken a few days off, he felt lonely and a bit depressed. I feel grateful that I have a partner to share my ups and downs with.

 

* Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters”on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 22 – 24: Logroño

2FFEFDAB-A579-4261-97F5-801BF7650B2DSeptember 22: Logroño – 17 miles, 7 hours

Today we try to outsmart the sun and leave early and by 7:15am we are on our way. We’re on a wide path which starts out sloping gently. The sound of my boots crunching on the pebbles underfoot and my hiking poles hitting the ground, as I take each step, lulls me into a meditative state. I hear a pilgrim singing in Spanish as he passes and I am surprised that an hour has already gone by.

The path continues into the Rioja wine region, becomes steeper and continues on and on. I think of the sandwich that we made to eat today and look forward to enjoying it with a Coke. Funny to think that at home, I am neither a sandwich eater nor a soda drinker.

Logroño is celebrating their wine festival this weekend. It was hard to find a place to stay and we are “forced” to stay in a lovely hotel. The Marqués de Vallejo has an edgy vibe and a great location.

The city is in party mode. People of all ages are gathered at every taverna, in, out and overflowing onto the streets.  Children play with their toys against the buildings. Parents rock baby carriages with one foot, as they handle a glass of wine in one hand, tapas in the other and don’t miss a beat of the conversation. Young and old fill the small streets that look like alleyways. There is such a feeling of joy and happiness in the air. Bands appear from nowhere and impromptu play, as we all clap and dance, following them down the street like the pied piper.

September 23: Logroño- Rest Day

I can hardly walk today. My right knee is in pain. Truth is, yesterday I felt a twinge, then an ache as I walked. There was nothing to do, but keep going or be air lifted out. I felt sad, angry and frustrated as I forced myself to continue on. I am the one that worked out hard five or six days a week in preparation, including adding 50 deep knee bends to my regimen. I always warm up each morning and am so cautious of the terrain. Why me?

The hotel recommends a clinic and we taxi there after breakfast. It’s quiet, with only a few well-dressed people there, none that look ill. The doctor’s diagnosis translates as having knee pain due to over effort. I am told to rest, take an anti-inflammatory drug for five days and should be fine by then. Surprisingly, they are willing to bill my insurance company directly. In less than an hour we are back at our hotel, scratching our heads and wondering what to do now.

I force Mr. Wiz* to go exploring and leave me to write, read and sleep. He surprises me with a compression sleeve for my knee and by seeking out our favorite restaurant when we visited here in 2016. I hobble to Pasion Por Ti, hanging on to him, and we enjoy a wonderful three course meal with a bottle of wine, water and bread for 18 euro each ($21.50), forgetting for a while that many decisions still need to be made.

September 24: Logroño- Still here

We decide to stay one more night to give us time to plan. How lucky that we are in a hotel, rather than an albergue, which does not allow multiple night stays, And, we are also glad to find out that since the wine festival is over, the nightly rate has gone down by 40%.

I’m feeling a bit better, but not great. We breakfasts close by, then sit in a beautiful park and watch the world go by. We head back to the hotel and go into hyper mode, trying to figure out our next move.

We both have a strong feeling that we should stay on the Camino route. I suggest that Mr Wiz walk each day and I meet him by bus. He is adamant that he will not leave my side, so we agree that we’ll head to Burgos tomorrow for a couple of days and take it from there, This is not the Camino we had planned, but we have no choice now but to watch it unfold.

 

* Who’s who? See “Cast of  Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

September 18 – 21: Pamplona to Los Arcos

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Entering Puente de la Reina

September 18: Pamplona- 13 miles, 6 hours

It’s so hot! The path is narrow and we walk single file through all sorts of rocky terrain. Bamboo trees that seem 10 feet tall line the route for a while, then a forest. I feel as if I am melting and getting grumpy, but soon I find myself listening to the interesting stories that some pilgrims share with me; how a cowgirl from Nebraska met and married a Latin man from Texas while vacationing in Mexico, the woman from the California who spoke fluent French and lived in France for two years, working as a nanny and interpreter for a wealthy Lebanese family and  the woman who just retired from the army, after living all over the world.

We enter the old city over the historic drawbridge and head to our albergue, Plaza Catedral. Our cubicle has two bunk beds and a view of the garden. We meet our bunk mates from Denmark and Rumania and settle in. After we check out the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real, some pilgrims wave us over to join them at an outdoor cafe across the street. The merry group from Switzerland, Sweden, Taiwan, Denmark and the U.S. continue on to dinner together and make room for our Danish bunk mate that was dining alone.

September 19: Puenta de la Reina- 14 miles, 7-1/2 hours

Another hot day! We start out through the city, but soon the path turns to loose rock and boulders. It takes all my concentration to navigate my steps and I feel as if I’m also cleaning out all the cobwebs in my brain. We climb to the top of Alta de Perdón in the midst of all the wind turbines.

We all take turns taking photos of each other at the famous iron sculpture of medieval pilgrims and stand on line to get a handmade wax passport stamp. A young, enterprising couple provide the stamp for free in exchange for our email, in order to send us information about their upcoming Camino documentary.

September 20: Estella- 14 miles, 6 hours

The bad news: Spain shouldn’t be this hot in September, but the good news is that today there is less loose rock. We walk through gently rolling farmlands and pass three hilltop villages. The fields carry with them an artistic quality; the perfect rows of plantings high up in the hills, the squared off sections of beiges and browns that look like suede in the sunlight and even the tractor’s treads leave behind their own ornamental quality.

We are very excited to have a private room tonight at Hosteria de Curtidores. We are warmly greeted with a sample of local beer and our backpacks are carried up to our room. We learn that this area by the river was once the tannery center. The original stone walls of the city can still be viewed behind glass in the basement. First things first; we grab a washing machine and alert our friends to hurry and bring their laundry down and laugh that washing our underwear together is bringing us closer.

Rather than join a big group tonight, we opt for an inside taverna where it’s cool and quiet. We are dining alone when a young woman pilgrim asks for help with the menu. She is delighted when we ask her to join us. Since her husband is now stationed in Afghanistan, it seemed like a good time for her to walk the Camino. She did not want to walk by herself, so asked a friend to join her, never expecting that the friend would get hurt on day one, stay behind and she would be on this journey alone. By the end of dinner, she realizes that she is only alone if she wants to be.

September 21: Los Arcos- 14 miles, 6 hours

There is a big group already gathered at Fuente del Vino, drinking the free wine offered to pilgrims at the famous wine fountain spigot. It’s only 8:30am, so we decide on a water toast instead, a photo and we’re on our way. Though the climbs are a bit more gentle today, there is no shade and the Powerade is refreshing in the relentless heat.

It’s hard to find a place to stay because of the car races this weekend. Even though it’s not our first (or second) choice, we are grateful to find a private room on the outskirts of town. Hostel Ezequiel does not have much personality and the WIFI is not working, but the room is clean. Apologetic about the WIFI, the receptionist says she will do our laundry

and we hang it on the line outside to dry, laughing that we might just be one of the few pilgrims that have monogrammed clothespins, having put our initials on each one with marker.

Los Arcos is a bit of a lackluster town (the population is 1200 and decreasing), but the astonishing beauty of its church, the Inglesia de Santa Maria, makes up for it. The sumptuous interior from the 16th century, the bell tower and the cloisters were enough to actually make me gasp.

We find our friends from the U.S., Switzerland, Russia and Taiwan sitting outside the cathedral. The wonderful conversation continues through wine and then dinner, as we swap stories about our lives and our families. I fall asleep tonight thinking how I could feel so close to people that I’ve just only met.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 14 – 17: St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Zubieri, Spain

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Main street – St. Jean Pied de Port, France

September 14: St. Jean Pied de Port, France

This ancient capital of the Basque region nestled in the Pyrenees is a welcoming place to start, The storybook village is crowded with pilgrims from all over the world, excited to begin their adventure.

We stay at the Beilari, one of the many albergues in town, except that this one comes with a recommendation. Albergues are hostels run exclusively for pilgrims, who show their pilgrim passport and receive a stamp (a lovely souvenir by the end of the trip).

All 22 guests are greeted warmly, settle in and later we all congregate around the long, wood dining tables. Our host serves us a glass of port and asks us to introduce ourselves, say where we live and why we are doing the Camino. We are from the U.S., France, Malta, Brazil and Australia and we immediately feel a deep connection to each other.

We set the table together as our host tells us that for this night only, we are a family and will share a home cooked meal together. Impressively, he repeats this all in English, French and Spanish and tells us that he plans to learn German during the off season.

We are told not to set alarms and the next morning awaken to the sounds of a Gregorian chant. After sharing breakfast, we head out together on our first day.

September 15: Orisson, France- 7 miles, 3 hours

It’s a strenous, uphill walk, so we plan to stop in the albergue in Orisson before continuing through the Pyrenees tomorrow.

We sit outside all afternoon, delighting in the travel stories from our newfound friends from the U.S., Switzerland and Australia, even though traveling through India on a motorcycle and hiking in Nepal are not on our bucket list.

Before dinner we are asked to, once again, introduce ourselves, which seems to give you as much insight into others as it does to yourself. I fall asleep wishing I could have given all 38 new members of my new one night family a group hug.

September 16:  Roncesvalles, Spain- 9 miles, 5 hours

This is so much better than our 2016 experience; it’s not raining, the trail is better and the rooms at the monestery have been renovated.

It’s a long, uphill climb, but the scenery is breathtaking and the only sound you can hear is the occasional cow bell. I have a sudden urge to run through the hills, twirling around and singing the words to “The Sound of Music”, but suddenly remember the Camino golden rule: never take an extra step that is not necessary.

There are two bunk beds to a cubicle and we are sharing it with a French couple that speak no English. My French friend and I soon find something we have in common; we both keep hitting our heads on the top bunk, laugh and high five each other.

We enjoy another home cooked dinner, then a big group of us gather to toast a U.S. couple celebrating their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary.

September 17: Zubieri- 14 miles, 6 hours

Of course, things could always be worse. Last time it rained, but today it’s hot and the shale, tree roots and loose rock make the path unrelentingly difficult as we trudge uphill and then descent, over and over again.

At our albergue Palo de Avellano, we meet an older couple who left from their front door in Germany and are now heading home.

Two Tylenol and one power nap later, I am ready for a glass of wine. At the bar, we are invited to join a woman from Holland sitting alone and then run into a couple from Texas.

At dinner, we’re seated next to five men from Denmark who met when they were six years old and travel together once a year. We laugh and talk, almost forgetting that it’s lights out at 10 pm.