June 17, 2008 Molinaseca to Villafranca del Bierzo

A crisp and chilly, but sunny morning greeted me the next day and I rolled out of bed early, hoping to cover many miles today and perhaps find my pilgrim family at Villafranca del Bierzo, 30 km in the distance.

After a couple of hours I arrived at Ponferrada, with its famous Templar castle and — an ATM! With cash in hand and a croissant from the bakery adjacent to the castle I headed on past the wineries, to Cacabelos. Growing tired with the passing hours after many days of walking long distances to find my pilgrim friends, I stumbled into Villafranca and paid for a bed in the Ave Fenix Albergue, one of the more storied hostels on the camino (partly because it has burned down three times). I walked toward the plaza and there, having a late lunch, were Trevor, Danni and Tim! After a week I’d finally found them. We shared hugs and then, over beers, many stories of our pilgrim adventures.

Late that afternoon I checked my email from home and was surprised to read this message from Gail:

Hi Sweetie,

I hope you are catching up with your comrades!

I have some important news to pass on from your mother.  After her [recent car] accident, she took some time to resume activity, and has noticed her exercise tolerance was down.  She also was experiencing some pain in her chest that she thought was the bruise on her sternum.  However, after a student suggested she be checked out, she was referred for a treadmill test today, and it sounds like the treadmill test indicates that she probably has coronary artery disease.  The doctor gave her the option of getting another type of stress test (presumably a “stress thallium” …), or being referred to a cardiologist for heart catheterization.  (The doc consulted a cardiologist after her stress test).  I spent some time tonight talking with her about the pros and cons, and right now she is thinking she probably will want to go straight to the cardiologist and have a cath, with angioplasty or stent if needed.  This sounds like a reasonable decision to me.  If
she is referred, I think she will end up having the cath sometime this week or early next.

She is otherwise doing fine:  no chest pain unless she exercises, and she has medication and strict instructions if things get worse.  She is feeling completely well, and I suggested she treat herself to comfort food tonight, and practice relaxation!  She sounds like she is in a very good mood.  We should know a lot more tomorrow, and I’ll keep you posted.  Once I know when she will be scheduled, I’ll take the time off from work and be with her that day (she gave me permission!).

I’m sorry to write with what must be nerve-wracking news…”

Needless to say, I was thunderstruck. I went back out to the plaza and shared the news with my pilgrim family, asking their advice about whether I should head back to the U.S. or stay with the camino. I realized that over the next days I would be in another remote stretch of the walk as I crossed another mountain pass. I knew that ground transportation to an airport would be difficult for at least the next four days, and that Internet access would be equally uncertain. I also knew I’d spent nearly a week trying to catch up to my friends and that if I left the camino now I’d likely never see them again.

I went back to the albergue and decided I needed some time to catch a good rest and plan for my next steps. I’d seen signs for a Parador Hotel, so I grabbed my things from Ave Fenix and checked in to the modern and spacious Villafranca del Bierzo Parador.

That night I decided to proceed with my camino. After all, Gail was there for my mom, and Gail is a physician. In the morning I walked to the plaza again and began looking for yellow arrows to begin making my way up the mountain toward O Cebreiro. I came to a yellow arrow with a branch showing the option of going left or right. As I looked down at the arrow I realized I couldn’t walk onward on the camino with my mom sick. I just couldn’t do it. I asked at a bar/cafe when the next bus back to Ponferrada was and I said goodbye to the camino, perhaps forever. Though they’d already left for the day, I wished goodbye to my friends and began the long journey back home, my goal to complete the camino unmet.

Postscript to the day: The bus from Villafranca left me at the bus station in Ponferrada, and I took a taxi to the train station. Who should be there but the delightful French/Bulgarian crew I’d met at Hospital de Orbigo. And, surprise of surprises, who should be standing there with my lost poles but my Bulgarian friend. She’d found them at the cafe where I’d left them and had adopted them as her own. I assured her they were mine, but were now a gift to her, both from the camino and from me.

I took the train from there to Madrid, then caught a flight back to Seattle. My mother’s surgery was delayed until late in July. The surgery — a stent installment — was successful and she recuperated just fine. During July it was clear to Gail that I was longing to return to Spain and finish my camino. So with all the persuasion I could muster I convinced her to join me in August so we could pick up together where I’d left off. She agreed and we made plans to return to Villafranca del Bierzo in a few week to finish Camino 2008.

June 16, 2008 Rabanál del Camino to Molinaseca

I left the Rabanal albergue, once again thankful that the hospitaleros there had allowed me to stay without any payment and hoping dearly that I would find an ATM soon.

After Rabanal it is a climb, up and up to Foncebadon. This is the town remembered in Paulo Coelho‘s book, The Pilgrimage, which years ago had inspired me to plan a future camino pilgrimage. In the book the central character fights a wild dog in an abandoned house of this mountain village. It’s easy in non-fiction Foncebadon to see how the imagination could lead a person to a story like that. Though there were no wild dogs to be seen it was clear this was a spooky and deserted village.

After Focebadon I came finally to Cruce de Ferro, a mound of stones with a tall wooden pole on which was mounted an iron cross, hence the site’s name. Here at Cruce de Ferro pilgrims leave a rock or memento of their life at home or of a sin for which they ask forgiveness. I watched as a friend from England and another from Quebec left their stones and we took turns taking photos of each other at this famous camino site.

Standing at Cruce de Ferro reminded me of the pilgrims I’d missed over the last days. I realized that Danni, Trevor and Tim now were ahead of me and I was lonely and sad as I thought of their friendship. If I could walk far enough each day I had a good chance of catching them, perhaps at Molinaseca or Ponferrada. With each turn of the trail I looked ahead, trying to see if the pilgrims in the distance were perhaps my pilgrim family.

I passed Manjardin, stopped for a break at El Acebo, and then on tired feet made the final kilometers down to the beautiful, riverside town of Molinaseca. I searched the town for an ATM, to no avail, and instead used my credit card for a cash-free stay at La Posada de Muriel, a delightful inn with fine views to the south from my pleasant and sunny room. No Trevor, Danni or Tim in town, but at least a nice room and hope of an ATM at Ponferrada the next day.

June 15, 2008 Hospitál de Órbigo to Rabanál del Camino

After Hospital de Orbigo there’s another long and quiet plain that stretches out and finally ends abruptly at the overlook into Astorga. This is the end of the Meseta, clearly, as behind Astorga are the Montañas de Leon. These mountains would be the terrain for the next two days of walking.

Although Astorga was visible ahead, it seemed to take forever to get into town. A long uphill walk finally led to the heart of town which is inhabited with two beautiful and very different buildings — the ornate Spanish Gothic cathedral and the fairy-tale-like Gaudi Bishop’s Palace. The cathedral was closed, offering no quiet and cool nave for rest. I stopped for a credential stamp at the albergue, then headed out of town, looking for an ATM. I realized the upcoming towns were quite small and may not include the chance to get cash, but try as I might I was unable to find an ATM in all of Astorga. I headed up to the hills with less than 5€ to my name.

The trail that met me was not quite wilderness walking, but the villages were quite small. I stopped for a drink at Murias and then climbed up to Rabanal, realizing I now didn’t have enough to stay at the albergue. I apologized to the hospitalero, who forgave me my lack of money, and I vowed to bring him 10€ sometime soon. Fortunately there was a small restaurant/hotel across the street that took a credit card, so I had a good night’s meal after a long day of walking.

One difficulty: I left my hiking poles at a cafe somewhere between Murias and Rabanal. I hadn’t been using them that much, so I decided to leave them for some pilgrim who’d need them.

That evening it was Vespers at the tiny monastery between the hotel and the albergue. The service was in many languages and there was great spiritual comfort in this tiny community of faith. I was thankful for food and a night’s sleep for this nearly penniless pilgrim.

June 14, 2008 León to Hospital de Órbigo

Finding the bronze scallop shells that mark the camino through the old city of Leon proved to be difficult the next morning. Or perhaps it was being bleary-eyed after too much celebration the night before. The shells are embedded in the pavement stones, but after the cathedral, only at wide intervals. I walked past St Isadore and was lost. I knew I needed to go toward the river, so I headed out the old city walls and finally found yellow arrows some blocks away in the newer part of town. I learned later that the actual way out of the old city is past the Parador and across the river on the pedestrian bridge.

After about 10 kilometers of suburbs the camino opens onto a vast plain. I chose the option along the road (rather than the rural option) in order to cover the 32 km more quickly to Hospital de Orbigo. Still, I was extraordinarily tired by the time I arrived at the Hospital bridge. Arriving at the albergue, I could barely walk on the round-rock pavers. After a little rest I went to the albergue’s back yard for laundry and fell into conversation with a fun group of French, German and Bulgarian pilgrims. We decided to cook dinner together, but when it was clear there was little good food to be found at the grocery store, we opted to go out to eat. The dinner was full of great conversation and these pilgrims became beloved friends.

June 12, 2008 Mansilla de las Mulas to León

Today I learned why many people suggest taking the bus into Leon. The long walk through suburban/exurban estates sucked the life out of the spirit, but as León became more dense the city started to breathe. On entering the old city it became clear León is a gem of Spain. Its walled city contains hidden plazas and winding streets full of restaurants, pubs and, at night, party-goers. The center of it all is the cathedral, which on Saturday overflows with brides and grooms readying themselves for the wedding vows. I could tell I would love this place.

I found my hotel, the Posada Regia, and then sat at a table on the Calle Ancha, where I discovered a great vantage point for pilgrim-watching. One after another I saw pilgrim friends and acquaintances walk by and share  waves, hugs, and “buen caminos.” Stefan called to say he’d like to meet me here to tour me through the nightlife of the town, so I prepared for an extra day for rest and to gather strength for a party night with Stefan. I hung out through the day with Maria Paluselli of California and scouted out a masseuse to ease our tired muscles and relaxed next to the constant stream of pilgrims on Calle Ancha.

Next day: I visited the cathedral and the church of St. Isadore, along with many of the nooks and crannies of the old city. In the evening I met Stefan, greeting the one remnant of my original camino family with many hugs, stories and laughter. Stefan is a force of nature and one just has to try to keep one’s footing while being around him. He’s full of ideas, muscular charm, an eye for pretty girls and the South African equivalent of the gift of Blarney. We headed out for a night of great food, great conversation, and several types of the mysterious liquor absinthe, a curiosity of mine that at the time could not be sold in America. Thanks to the persistence of Stefan, who after much searching and much sampling, found this rare liquor at one tiny bar that didn’t open until after midnight.

By 1:00 a.m. I had had my quota of 4 drinks in one day, so I carefully and a little nauseously walked back to the hotel and dropped on the bed to get some sleep in advance of a long walk tomorrow to Hospital de Orbigo. It was great to see Stefan and I had a blast with him in one of the true “party nights” of my straight-laced life.

June 11, 2008 Bercianos to Mansilla de las Mulas

As Tim, Trevor, Danni and I were leaving Bercianos, Trevor announced his plan to take a bus from Mansilla de las Mulas into León. His goal was to miss the long slog through suburbs into this beautiful, but sprawling metropolis. I worried privately that my plan to walk the whole distance would mean that I would miss them after this evening.

We walked through Moratinos and the odd underground homes between there and Reliegos. At Reliegos we stopped at a bar/cafe and there met Daniel Harman, a biker whose plan was to ride from his home in Brighton, England to the tip of South Africa. He had discovered the Camino de Santiago as he’d ridden across Spain and had decided to wander along with the flow of pilgrims for at least a few days. We described albergue life to him and he purchased a credential and stayed with us for several evenings along the way.

On the outskirts of Mansilla de las Mulas another vast flock of sheep took up the road in front of us. In town I found the main albergue which has a large courtyard where pilgrims do their washing and socializing. I said goodbye to Danni, Trevor and Tim and contented myself with  laundry, food gathering, and ATM plundering. That evening I got an SMS message from Stefan of South Africa. “When will you be in León?” he asked. “Tomorrow night,” I replied. He was in Ponferrada, was wanting to spend another great Friday night in the party-city of León, and promised to meet me there to show me how to celebrate like a true pilgrim. I went to bed with the sadness of missing one set of friends, but the joy of knowing I’d see another in a little more than a day.

June 10, 2008 Terradillos to Bercianos del Camino Real

I set off that morning with Trevor, Tim, Danni and Angela. We had much conversation and enjoyed our walk through Moratinos and Sahagun.  We determined that Bercianos del Camino Real would be our stop for the night, and we arrived at its old, adobe albergue in mid afternoon after a long walk on the flat Meseta.

The albergue at Bercianos was quite primitive, with birds’ nests above the main stairway. Given the nests and constant buzzing of barn swallows above us, we determined it best to leave the big windows open to give the birds free access. The main sleeping room was cots with thin mattresses and we spread out our sleeping bags. After laundry we headed to the center of town and, at about 16:00 found the bar/cafes full of men playing dominoes. They stopped and looked as we walked it and we realized we’d come to a part of this tiny town where pilgrims seldom entered and we were watching a ritual that had gone on for decades. These farmers gathered here after a hard day’s work to enjoy the company of other farmers, which usually revolved around a drink and a table game of dominoes or perhaps cards.

We returned to the albergue to check our laundry and rest, then headed back to the same restaurant for dinner, passing more groups of elderly men playing lawn bowling in a nearby park. Grandmothers sat on wooden chairs at their porches, watching and waving as pilgrims like us walked by.

That evening we walked to the vacant lot next to the albergue and together watched the birds inhabiting the derelict church building across the field, and then the sun going down past the western horizon. It was a beautiful sunset and a gorgeous end to a lovely camino day in rural Spain.

June 9, 2008 San Zoilo to Terradillos de los Templarios

Today is the longest stretch of the camino without services, so before I left San Zoilo I made certain I had ample water as well as some food. I set out for Calzadilla de la Cueza, hoping to find my friends along the way.

After nearly four hours I came to Calzadilla and there, at a bar/cafe, were Trevor, Danni and some new friends, including Tim Brennan of Australia, Maria Paluselli of California, and Angela of Munich. This group would become my camino family over the next many days, and I enjoyed our reunion over cervesas and bocadillos.

We walked together toward our stop for the day, Terradillos de los Templarios, and arrived there at the private albergue. We set out our sleeping bags and adjourned to the bar/cafe, which seemed the only entertainment in this tiny village. Before long the men were at one table and the women at another, talking loudly with the many pilgrims who’d made this their overnight stop.

June 8, 2008 Fromista to San Zoilo

After a long day yesterday I decided to take it a little easier today, and I had read in the Brierley guidebook about an interesting monastery/hotel outside Carrion de los Condes. I left Fromista, keeping an eye out for Trevor and Danni, whom I believed were behind me.

After a couple of hours I came to Villalcazar de Sirga, home to one of the most interesting of camino churches. The reredos there date from the 12-14th centuries and the Gothic architecture is unspoiled by renovations, damaged only by the erosion of time and weather. It’s hard to imagine now how a tiny village could have created such an amazing church, but clearly the town was much larger in the 12-14th centuries when the church was constructed. Here at Villalcazar I met an interesting Canadian woman who worked at a seminary in Montreal or Toronto and was aware of some of the staff at the seminary I attended near Chicago.

As instructed by Brierley, I walked through the town of Carrion de los Condes and made my way across the river to the Hotel/Monastery of San Zoilo. On the south side one would guess this was a modern hotel. On the north side, though, is an historic entryway to the monastery. In between are two amazing cloisters and a grand chapel for the former monastery. My room was in a monk’s cell, just off the cloister, and the massive and ancient wooden doors hid a modern and comfortable room inside. This was one of the most amazing hotels of the camino and I was glad to be able to afford the premium fare after many nights in low-cost albergues. At dinner I discovered the Canadian woman I’d met earlier. She’d been intrigued by my description of the hotel earlier in the day and had also decided to stay here. She mentioned that, as she had sent home stories of her camino to her husband, he had decided it was something he needed to do. So he would be joining her in a day or two in León.

I settled in for one of my best camino nights so far, looking back with some pride to the over 350 kilometers I’d traveled. As I calculated the distances I realized that in the next couple of days I’d reach the halfway point of my camino. I felt sad that this great adventure was already nearly halfway done.

June 7, 2008 Hontanas to Fromista

Trevor proved to be much fun and very good company and he had with him Danni, a policewoman from Berlin. We set out after breakfast on a cool and windy day with rain threatening from the skies.

Soon after Hontanas is the Convento San Anton, a ruined medieval convent with portions of the apse and some buttresses all that remain. The road goes under one of the buttresses and the whole scene is one of beauty and desolation.

After a time the road straightened out as vistas of the next town, Castrojeriz, came into view. The crescent-shaped town hugs a conical mountain with a ruined castle on top and, though Castrojeriz is quite small, it is easily 2 km in distance to cross it from one tip of the crescent to the next.

After traversing the town, Danni, Trevor and I set out to climb the big hill opposite. This is considered the biggest climb of the Meseta, and perhaps one of the steepest (though not the longest) climbs of the entire camino. At the top we looked back to spectacular views of Castrojeriz and the pathway from which we’d come. On the other side of the hill we looked down to unobscured views of the remainder of the Meseta and the mountains beyond. The steep downhill was followed by more, seemingly endless, flat stretches.

Feeling good in my new boots, I left Trevor and Danni behind and headed to Fromista, 34 km from the day’s start. This was one of my longest days so far on a camino and, when the hospitalero at the albergue indicated there were no more beds I was discouraged. After walking through the plaza area and finding now hotel rooms, I was even more discouraged. I went back to the albergue, put on my sad face, and the hospitalera opened a vacant overflow room and let me take the first bed. Later that evening a group of strapping, young Italian bikers in Spandex shorts joined me and, though we had no language in common, we spent a friendly night in our bunks, with handshakes and smiles all around.

I regret missing the open hours of the Fromista church. It’s one of the treasures of the camino, with hundreds of sculptures in the outdoor soffits. It’s tiny, but clearly a Romanesque gem.