Final Photos and Facts About Camino del Norte 2012

Wrap-up from Santiago — Yesterday as we collected our compostela pilgrimage completion certificates from the cathedral office I felt tears welling up in my eyes. This has been an amazing adventure, a month of walking and exploring that brought reunions with old friends, warm bonds with new friends, and rich experiences of the colors and beauty

Twenty-eight days in Northern Spain from Bilbao (right) to Santiago (left). Click to see detailed Google Map.

of northern Spain that have filled my heart with joy.
My three heroes during the walk are Sebastian, Martin and Jacqueline, dear friends from last year’s camino who made time to join me for this year’s walk. Even though we were separated by thousands of miles for nearly a year we quickly picked up where we left off and renewed and strengthened our friendships. New friends also enriched these days of walking, and in my upcoming two days here in Santiago I know I will share many greetings and good byes with these fellow pilgrims.

My eyes tear up even as I write these words, and I have to stop and dry them before I can continue. Santiago is always an emotional experience for me. Four times now I have sat in the cathedral a few blocks from here and one by one thanked God for the blessing of each individual camino friend. I know that people walk the Camino de Santiago for mystical reasons or for exercise or to enjoy Spanish culture. It’s clear to me that I walk the camino to enjoy the pilgrims themselves. In well over 100 days of walking since the start of my first camino in 2008 it is the faces and memories of pilgrims that stand out most in my mind. The close ties of friendship and affection that form with camino friends are, to me, the very presence of God.I have appreciated the thoughts and prayers of past pilgrim friends, friends and family from home and also of other pilgrims and soon-to-be pilgrims whom I’ve never met but who’ve communicated their support on this site and elsewhere.

Many have asked how I’ve held up. Other than being a little weepy, which is expected in the last days of a pilgrimage, I’m fine. My feet and legs are still sore from yesterday’s 40 km walk. I have a head cold that I’ll try to keep from moving to my chest. I’ve lost 14 pounds (6.5 kilos) and my face is pinkish brown from sun and wind. My arms and legs are deeply tanned, my skin is a little too dry, my hair is begging to be trimmed, and I have a smile on my face.

Some details of the walk, in no particular order: By the numbers, I walked 677 km in twenty-seven days of actual walking. I took two actual rest days.

I stayed in albergues, mostly, but also in a couple of pensiones and a couple of 4-star hotels in some of the big cities.

I did take the train once, for a three minute ride across a river that otherwise would have added 11 km to my total. The three minute ride, due to my own mistake, ended up adding about two hours to my day — roughly the time it would’ve taken to walk the 11km. I took boats twice, also to cross rivers, and loved every second on the water.

I met pilgrims from at least these nations: Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, UK, Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, Canada and the USA.

I posted every single day on my blog, for which AT&T reaped a rich ransom through its International Data Plan, and since I began the walk my blog has received over 10,000 hits. Blogging this camino was an exercise in self-discipline that became a welcome time of daily reflection. I hope it will be a helpful resource for future pilgrims considering the Camino del Norte. All blog posts and all photographs were created on my iPhone 4Gs and posted through the WordPress iPhone app (thanks, Sophia).

Though my Spanish is still rudimentary I am getting better at listening and understanding, as well as expressing myself. I need to go back to my college textbooks and bone up on verb tenses and vocabulary. After that, with more practice, I could become a decent Spanish speaker.

My actual itinerary was:

  • May 28 Arrived Bilbao, met by Sebastian, overnight at hotel
  • May 29 Portugalete (walked with Sebastian, stayed at pension)
  • May 30 (Pobena) Castro Urdiales
  • May 31 Laredo (beach town albergue with 2 English kids)
  • June 1 Guemes (Don Ernesto’s albergue)
  • June 2 (Galizano, Loredo, Somo) Santander
  • June 3 Boo (goodbye to Sebastian; Santander overnight)
  • June 4 (Mogro, Mar) Santillana del Mar
  • June 5 Comillas (argue with hospitalero boss)
  • June 6 Colombres (Mad Men motel)
  • June 7 Llanes (TV tower, pink hotel)
  • June 8 Ribadesella (goodbye to Spanish 5)
  • June 9 Sebrayo (remote albergue with food truck)
  • June 10 Deba (Gijon – albergue in campground with swimming pool)
  • June 11 Gijon (rest day)
  • June 12 Gijon (rest day, Martin arrives)
  • June 13 Aviles (factories)
  • June 14 Cordillero (left Martin)
  • June 15 Cadavedo (met Michael, Stefan; hotel with Julian)
  • June 16 Luarca (Martin awaits)
  • June 17 La Caridad (explosives, ritzy hotel with antiques; chicken/fries dinner)
  • June 18 (Tapia, German, giant bridge) Ribadeo
  • June 19 Lourenza (big church, with Julian for dinner)
  • June 20 Gontan (albergue, Methodists)
  • June 21 Vilalba (tall, black albergue by fire station)
  • June 22 (Baamonde) Deva (vegetarian albergue)
  • June 23 Deva to Sebrado dos Monxes (met up with Martin and Jacqueline)
  • June 24 Sebrado to Arzua (walked with Martin, Jacqueline and Carina)
  • June 25 Arzua to Santiago (40 km in blazing sun)

I’ve now walked approximately 2,700 kilometers (1,687 miles) on four camino paths (Camino Frances, Via de la Plata, Camino Finisterre, Camino del Norte) since 2008, and yes, I’m brainstorming now with pilgrim friends about the when and where of the next walk.

My only real regret about this year’s walk is that I did not throw off my pack and most of my clothes when I had the chance and swim at one of the many beautiful beaches I passed along the way. The other regret I have is always the same on every camino: I deeply miss Gail, my family, my home, my church and my friends. As much as I love the camino, I’m ready to return to summer in Seattle.

Thanks for faithfully reading along as I’ve described and reflected on this adventure. Thanks for your support and encouragement which helped motivate me to write. These reflections were composed in albergue bunks, on tables in outdoor cafes and bars, sometimes outside on cold steps or benches, but nearly always between ten and midnight after other pilgrims were fast asleep. I’m sure some thought it odd that I often had my nose in my cellphone until late into the night, but your encouragement meant that writing was never a burden, always a blessing.

Here are a few photos from the trip that I haven’t yet posted but are of sights I enjoyed:

20120626-103931.jpgSantiago (St. James) a dear friend and fellow pilgrim. In Bilbao at the start of the walk and with me each step of the way.

20120626-104200.jpgThis is my first photo of Jon of Calgary (in red), seen at the Castro Urdiales albergue, showing he was there almost from my start. I’ll meet him for lunch here in Santiago in about an hour.

20120626-105011.jpgTwo burros whose photo I share to represent all the livestock and other animals I passed along the way — burros, horses, cows, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, hawks, fish, snakes, lizards, an eel, and one road kill badger.

20120626-105303.jpgThis sign says “turn left.”

20120626-105640.jpgThis sign also says “turn left” but only because it’s in Galicia, not Asturias.

20120626-105903.jpgLocal kids at Luarca partying with way too much beer. They laughed hard that a tourist/pilgrim would take a photo of them.

20120626-110510.jpgKitchen of the Aviles albergue. No, I’m not kidding.

20120626-111009.jpgProud Elena of Cafe Roxica with her homemade cheese.

20120626-111104.jpgAnd to all dogs of all caminos, doing their work of keeping their packs safe.

How Do Some People Do This in Two Hours?

Day Twenty-seven: Arzua to Santiago — At dinner last night in Arzua we calculated that today’s walk of 40.5 kilometers (26 miles) would be almost precisely the distance of a marathon. Sometime during our long hours of walking today Martin asked, “how long does it take to run a marathon?” I remembered an approximate record time almost exactly, since it was nearly 1/3 the time it took me to run my own marathon in 2011.

“Two hours, three minutes was the winning time of the Boston Marathon in 2011.”

“How is it humanly possible that anyone could cover this distance in that time?” Martin said.

We shared only the distance in common with a true marathon, since our “marathon” took eleven hours and thirty minutes. The temperature reached 82F degrees (25C) so as well as the distance, the sun was a challenge during a very long and tiring day.

But we are here. In Santiago! After 700 kilometers (437 miles) walking from Bilbao to Santiago on the Camino del Norte over 27 days, this pilgrimage is complete.

Tomorrow I will write a full wrap up, but already we have seen John of Calgary, Florian of Amsterdam, and heard from Julian of Honolulu. There is sharing and storytelling and eating to do with these pilgrim friends. The night is young, but short. Let the celebrations begin!

20120625-201643.jpgMartin, Sandy, Jacqueline in front of Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, June 25, 2012.

First Breakfast, Second Breakfast, First Dessert ….

Day Twenty-six: Sobrado to Arzua — As Jacqueline and I waited for Martin to get ready this morning I mentioned to Jacqueline how much I’d like to have seen the old church of the monastery. The building, given its size and decrepitude, is unsuitable for the monks’ use, but I was intrigued by its exterior and when Jacqueline told me she knew how to get in, I jumped at the chance. We left Martin to his steady work of arranging his things and cleaning up, and Jacqueline took me through the cloisters to the church’s side entrance.

As we walked into the vast building I was immediately enthralled. Yes, plants were pushing their way between stones into the church interior, and yes, sparrows flew from perch to nest inside the empty place. But the church retained the majesty of its original design, and its mouldering condition had a tragic grandeur that pushed me into a momentary fantasy: I could offer the monks my skills at church building maintenance! I could conquer my acrophobia and pull weeds from the towers. I could offer my painting skills to bring the wooden windows of the cloister back to like-new condition. I could even offer my organ tuning skills to fix the sour notes of the monks’ pipe organ to better support their singing.

This vacation thing must be getting carried away if now I have energy enough to imagine fixing other people’s churches when I have a church of my own back home that needs my care.

Jacqueline and I returned to the albergue portion of the monastery to see if Martin was now ready to go. After learning the answer we two headed to a cafe across the square to have first breakfast while Martin completed his preparations.

First breakfast on this camino has meant the early morning caffeine and calorie injection that helps propel us onto the camino. First breakfast is a little iffy sometimes because you can never be sure if a town will have a cafe that opens before 8:00. Second breakfast takes place mid morning at the closest cafe at the stroke of 10:00. It’s another coffee/calorie break designed to propel a pilgrim ahead for the next few hours. By noon, one is ready for first lunch which may involve trying to convince a Spanish barkeeper that non-Spaniards get hungry at noon and that a sandwich is needed to help us march onward. Second lunch unfortunately coincides with Spanish siesta, so any hope of real food in mid afternoon requires extra kindness from a Spanish chef who otherwise would be resting. First dinner happens at early evening when most of the civilized world eats dinner but when Spanish restaurants are closed, while second dinner coincides with Spanish dinner, which happens at the pilgrim bedtime of 9:00 pm. At any time during the day a pilgrim may enjoy first, second or third dessert which occurs whenever one is near a cafe or shop that sells ice cream bars.

Finally, Martin joined us for a first-breakfast-in-progress of coffee and croissants, and given the day’s short distance goal of 22.5 km (14 miles), we made it a relaxed meal. Detlef of Germany and his wife, Diana of Mexico joined us, and before long Karina of Austria was also part of our group. After some time we headed out, the six of us, for the next-to-last day of walking in this year’s camino.

Detlef and Diana set a slower pace from the start, so Karina, Jacqueline, Martin and I stayed together for an easy day on quiet, asphalt roads under sunny skies on undulating terrain.

Second breakfast was taken 9 km later at Carredoiras, and we lingered over a first lunch of empanadas at the town of Boimorto, a scant 2.5 km later.

When we came to the town of Sendelle we noticed a makeshift pilgrim aid stand at the roadside. Martin took the opportunity to enjoy an ice cream bar as first dessert. As we talked with our hostess we learned that just across the road is a 12th century chapel with recently discovered paintings from the sixteenth century. She offered to unlock the door and allow us inside for photos of the simple, but eloquent art.

We continued on from Sendelle, sensing that Arzua was always just around the next corner. Anxious for a cool spot in the shade we were delighted suddenly to find ourselves in the outskirts of the town. Martin, Jacqueline and I dropped off Karina at a bar while we searched for lodging, then we returned for a second lunch of bocadillos. Karina is heading on to Salceda in an attempt to break up tomorrow’s 40 km into a longer walk today and a shorter walk tomorrow.

Our hostal includes a washer/dryer, so we were thrilled to have the possibility of clean clothes for tomorrow’s last, long walk of 40 km into Santiago. After laundry and 8:00 pm Mass at the local Catholic church we will head to second dinner (oops, we missed the first one), while enjoying the English vs. Italian “Europe Cup” match on Spanish TV at Martin’s request.

Tomorrow we will rise early and walk long, arriving in the very late afternoon at the end of our pilgrim road. We expect reunions with many pilgrims from the past weeks, and have already heard from Michael, Stefan, Amelia, Lauren and others that our arrivals will converge. In the coming days we will request our completion certificates from the cathedral office, share in a pilgrim mass and then hug the apostle in joyful gratitude for a beautiful and safe walk over many miles in the company of beloved new and old friends.

20120624-172549.jpgVerdant monastery towers at Sobrado.

20120624-172651.jpgCeiling of the main, though empty, monastery church.

20120624-172747.jpgNave of the monastery church.

20120624-172829.jpgPilgrim Jacqueline silhouetted under cloister arches.

20120624-172928.jpgFirst sign of Santiago. From left: Martin, Karina and Jacqueline.

20120624-173010.jpgSixteenth century paintings in twelfth century apse of church at Sendelle.

20120624-173214.jpgGreen countryside before Arzua.

Meat, Maiz and Monks

Day Twenty-five: Deva to Sobrado — Last night at the Deva Natural Albergue turned out to be pretty special. Daniel, the Aragorn lookalike, whipped up a killer vegetarian dinner, including a starter of lentils and rice, main course of whole wheat spaghetti and Bolognese sauce, then dessert of homemade yogurt with chunks of honey. After dinner he sat with me and told me in rapid fire Spanish about how Spaniards don’t understand natural, vegetarian food, about how he makes his Greek-style yogurt from local cows’ milk, and about his two partners who support the albergue with their jobs as a carpenter and fashion designer. Then he topped it off by sharing with me a glass of his personal strawberry/herb liqueur. I’ve found paradise and its name is Deva.

In spite of finding paradise it was time to move on toward Santiago. I awoke at 7:00 after a good sleep and warmed up the coffee and milk Daniel had set out for me the night before. By 7:45 I was out the door for the long 35 km (20 mile) walk to the monastery albergue at Sobrado dos Monxes.

The sky was clear and the temp was just cool enough to require my fleece jacket. A couple of kilometers past Deva I saw two deer — a buck and a doe — who quickly scurried away when they realized my presence during their morning graze. I walked past many pastures, some with black and white cows, other with yellow/brown cows. As I walked I looked at the tags in their ears, realizing each is property of someone, and many of the young and male are headed to the butchery and table.

Since 1987 I’ve sworn off red meat, so the Spanish diet of meat, sausage, and more meat makes restaurants a little bit of a challenge for this pilgrim. Most all are willing to fry me a couple of eggs, so I generally can get the protein I need, though the diet is a little bland. This is one reason the Deva albergue was such a treat. Its menu was the
perfect blend of grains, legumes and nuts that combine the correct amino acids to create a complete protein without the need to slay an animal. As I walked through the pastures I felt the vegetarian’s sadness for our animal friends’ fate.

The first town of any size today was Miraz, a tiny village of an albergue, a church, and a bar. The church, from the 12th century, caught my attention. A kind lady was locking it up as I came by, and I asked her of I might have a peek inside. I took a couple of photos, then realized she was probably there to put flowers at the grave of a loved one in the nearby cemetery. I asked her if she had family members there, which she did, and we both teared up a little as I took her photo in front of a grave belonging to her kin.

As we left the cemetery I asked her about the Galician practice of building horreos, grain storage buildings that accompany each Galician farm home. She described their use as for maíz (corn). The buildings are designed to frustrate bugs and rodents while allowing corn and a few other foods safely to dry. On the walk around Miraz I saw some of the most colorful horreos I’d ever seen.

After Miraz I enjoyed visiting a few camino handiwork stands set up along the road. One was the stand of Puri, who cautioned me about wolves in the mountains, and another was in the garage of a sculptor who carves camino memorabilia all day from his workbench.

After that it was nonstop through isolated terrain, over a low mountain pass, near a quarry and through a forest that had partly been burned in a fire earlier this year.

When I’d finally made it through the forest I began to worry about my provisions for the day. I’d brought nuts and oranges, but had run through those hours ago. I came to the tiny hamlet of Roxica, which consists of one farm, and was pleased to see a sign for Cafe Roxica. I turned off the road to discover a woman standing on the porch of a farmhouse. She invited me in and I realized Cafe Roxica was her kitchen. Her table was spread with bread, cheese and sausages, and I asked her if she could whip me up some fried eggs. She agreed, and then we talked about the food on her table. She had a homemade cheese loaf along with one that was store bought, plus homemade sausages and homemade bread. The bread used flour from the store, but the eggs she served me were from her own chickens. I was thrilled to stumble on a place where local food meant local food. My stomach full, I headed back on the road for the remaining kilometers to Sobrano.

Although the region was very remote, much of the path was on small asphalt roads which, as the day got warmer, proceeded to warm up too. Sobrado seemed always to be just over the next hill, but it wasn’t until 4:30 that I finally rounded the corner into the Plaza Mayor of Sobrado dos Monxes. It was a joy to find Martin there, along with Jacqueline, another alum of last year’s Camino Frances. We shared a beer and nuts as Julian of Honolulu stopped by, as well as Karina, the Austrian from Deba. Here also are Jose of Madrid, Franz of Holland, Matteo of Italy, and many more increasingly familiar pilgrims.

Jacqueline, Martin and I had all looked forward to Sobrado dos Monxes because of, well the monks. Sobrado is an ancient monastery which for the last forty years or so has been home to a group of about 25 Trappist monks. Before dinner we three headed to Vespers with the monks and enjoyed their heartfelt singing and prayerful spirit.

Afterwards it was off to a restaurant for dinner then back to the monastery albergue for rest. Spain just finished beating France in the Europe soccer cup, so many of the Spanish pilgrims have come back from the bars rather loud and relaxed.

Tomorrow is the end of the Camino del Norte, as it spills into the Camino Frances at Arzua. There we join a crowded stream of pilgrims making their way to our common goal of Santiago de Compostela.

20120623-225004.jpgone of the more flamboyant horreos.

20120623-225053.jpgA more typical horreo.

20120623-225130.jpgMy favorite horreo of the day.

20120623-225216.jpgSculptor and his wares.

20120623-225255.jpgCafe Roxica and homemade everything.

20120623-225354.jpgPilgrim reunion — Martin, me, Jacqueline.

20120623-225444.jpgSobrado monastery.

20120623-225512.jpgVespers with the monks.

20120623-230005.jpgLady at the grave in Miraz.

Amor Es Una Perra (Love is a Female Dog)

Day Twenty-four: Vilalba to Deva — Now, before any Spanish speakers get the wrong idea about the title of this post, I want them to know I am not making a play on words with the English translation for female dog (“perra”). However, they will have to wait to the end of this post to find out what I mean.

I decided to be ambitious today and make it out of the Vilalba albergue before 7:00. With 27 km (17 miles) to walk today I didn’t want to dally, but also I’ve become a little antsy to wrap up this camino and get back home. That’s probably a good sign — I’m rested and renewed and ready to face our move at home, as well as whatever new challenges might await me at work. Also, after nearly a month of being a Caminoist I miss my real life. So at 6:45 I was the first one of today’s 15 or so pilgrims out the door.

First thing I did was stop and put on my fleece jacket. Though the sky was clear, the air was brisk and there was just enough breeze to make me consider getting out my gloves, too. The Vilalba albergue is about 1.5 km short of Vilalba, so the first sights and sounds were of Vilalba, stirring to life. I noted an open cafe on my left, but passed it by since I’d just downed a few cookies and a couple of nectarines I’d purchased at the supermercado on my scouting adventure last night. As well as stopping to pick up food yesterday evening I had stopped at a Farmacia to weigh myself (most Pharmacies here have coin-op scales for patrons) and after discovering I’d lost 13 pounds in the last four weeks I’d celebrated with a big chicken sandwich and a plate of French fries.

I followed the markings past the Parador, located in and around a 15th century tower built by local nobility. Paradors are fancy hotels owned by the Spanish government that often inhabit old, restored buildings. Past the Parador the track left town and entered the long series of farm roads and muddy tractor trails of which the camino mostly consisted this morning. The wind stayed steady and cool, and though the clouds increased through the day the sun did come out a few times and cause me to pull off my fleece jacket. I passed within a few dozen meters of a few towns, but didn’t stop for coffee until a little before 11:00.

Just before my coffee I saw a man ahead of me with a young German shepherd on a leash. The man was carrying a rake, too, and the dog was obviously afraid of the rake handle, cowering as it swung toward him with the man’s stride. As they rounded a corner out of my sight I heard a harsh word from the man and a yelp from the dog and I started to construct Spanish sentences that would express my anger that the man had hit the dog. However, when I passed by, the dog was peacefully tethered to a gate post and the man was raking some tall grass into piles. I said “Buenos Dias” and received a smile and greeting in return.

If there’s one thing I would change about Spain it would be how people in this country treat their dogs. Many pilgrims come to Spain and worry they’ll be attacked by angry dogs as described in some camino travelogues from the 80’s and 90’s. In truth, most Spanish dogs are chained in the yard and are no threat to pilgrims. But watching dog after sad dog chained up and alone, I have to feel that Spaniards aren’t keeping their end of the human/dog pact.

Dogs are pack animals and don’t do well alone. They bark to defend their pack, hence their value as guards, but in return they should get the comfort and attention of their pack. I’ve looked into the vacant eyes of too many chained Spanish dogs that have been driven mad by exposure to the elements, too little care, and no attention or affection. Today’s walk included the usual quota of chained dogs barking fiercely, sometimes lunging madly at their chains, circling ferociously behind fences mostly, I believe, out of fear and loneliness. I was relieved that today’s walk also included a few untied dogs who relaxed in the sunshine on their front porches and seldom moved a muscle as I walked by. They were at ease with the steady stream of pilgrims who walk by their homes and know their place comfortably within their pack. They receive comfort and attention and probably work, too, to occupy their minds.

By noon I’d made it to Baamonde, the typical end of the stage for most pilgrims. I passed by the albergue, noting it would open in an hour, and I stopped at a corner cafe and ordered a tortilla Frances (an omelette) as lunch. I’d planned to breeze through Baamonde and try out the “natural albergue” 8km later at Deva. This private albergue had flyers at the last two public albergues that described its 18€ fee that includes breakfast, as well as their vegetarian restaurant and optional massages. I can gain a day by combining tomorrow’s partly completed stage with the 26.5 km of the following day’s stage into one 35 km (22 mile) walk. The day after that will be 22.5 km to Arzua and then my last walking day will be a 40 km whopper into Santiago. Martin, who walked today from Baamonde to Miraz, will meet me tomorrow at the monastery in Sobrado and hopefully will be up to walking the rest of the way to Santiago.

After Baamonde the camino takes the N-VI highway for a couple of kilometers, then crosses to the left, over the train tracks, for a tranquil walk on a gravel path through pine and oak forests.

After a couple of peaceful hours in these woods I arrived at the albergue and was oriented by the host — a man in the spitting image of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies — then I settled in. The first sign that this is a natural albergue is that all clothes washing is, of course …. done by hand. Another sign is that hot water for the shower must be turned on and takes an hour to warm up. But the albergue inhabits a beautiful, old, rambling home in a very quiet hamlet and has enough modern touches to make it a delight. Dessert after tonight’s dinner will be homemade yogurt and honey.

After clothes washing and almost-warm-water showering I set myself on the sunny patio to write this post. There I met Sua, a sweet yellow dog who is obviously well loved by her “natural albergue” family. She leaned into my leg as I scratched her back, then rested her head on my leg and closed her eyes as I scratched her forehead and nose. I caressed her like I’d wanted to caress all those lonely, barking, Spanish dogs along the way, and like I would caress my own dog at home, too, right now if I could. When I was done she contentedly walked over to the planter, curled up, and after a few minutes could be heard snoring loudly.

20120622-144848.jpgThe Vilalba Parador, where I didn’t stay, but was intrigued by the historic tower.

20120622-145113.jpgMorning mist outside Vilalba.

20120622-145249.jpgCemetery near A Estrada.

20120622-152455.jpgOne of many tumbledown houses along the way today.

20120622-152602.jpgSadly, a few km parallel to the road after Baamonde.

20120622-152650.jpgStep into quiet at Capilla San Alberte, across the stone bridge and up the gravel road from the RR tracks and highway.

20120622-152858.jpgSunny patio at Deva, the natural albergue.

20120622-183816.jpgSua, my favorite dog in Spain.

Ten Minutes of the Camino in Pictures

Day Twenty-three: Gontan to Vilalba – Yesterday afternoon as Julian and I poked our heads into the Gontan albergue the hospitalero (host) told us there were already two Americans who had signed in. We found them in back, washing their clothes, and introduced ourselves to Pete and his friend, Pete, of Michigan, USA.

After Julian left and I was blogging yesterday’s post I listened closely to their voices and watched their mannerisms as they cooked their dinner, in order to guess the kind of work they do. I kept coming up with the same hypothesis: they must be either teachers or pastors.

When I returned from the supermercado (supermarket) with my dinner ingredients they were still at the dining table, and as we talked I learned Pete is a political science prof, and Pete is a ….. United Methodist pastor. I could barely contain my surprise that a) my guesses were spot on, and b) in faraway Spain I was having dinner with another United Methodist pastor. About 5 minutes later they got around to asking me what I do, at which point I revealed my membership in the guild of United Methodist clergy. Now they were astounded too, and we enjoyed an evening of church and seminary tales together.

Sometime in the evening I lost track of Julian, so at 7:45 this morning I headed out alone under drizzly skies, first to neighboring Abadin, and then on a detour path along the highway, to Castromaior. In this blessedly flat stretch of camino the biggest challenge of the day was figuring out whether to have my rain jacket on or off. The early drizzle was soon replaced by a cold, dry wind, which was soon replaced by sun, followed by more cold, dry wind. I eventually settled on jacket-in-pack, choosing to shiver in the shady or open areas rather than sweat in the sunny spots.

I stopped for coffee off the camino at Martinan, where I caught up on emails from Gail. While I’ve been gone, gallivanting through Spain, she’s been handling our old home sale and new home purchase back in Seattle. Gail is more than capable of managing this, but she’s always busy at work, so I’m amazed she’s been able to keep it all together. Today the last part of the deal closed, so from here on out it should be much easier for her.

Caffeine enhanced, I continued on past the lovely 17th century bridge of Martinan and then decided to try an experiment: take consecutive photos of the camino track at specific intervals and share them in sequence. The goal would be to give blog readers an idea of what a random section of real camino actually looks like. You can see the results below. The two people you can vaguely make out ahead are Pete and Pete of Michigan and Michigan.

By 1:20 I reported to the front desk of the albergue here at Vilalba and signed in for my 5€ bed. I’m with the same crowd of pilgrims from yesterday, which includes youngish Spaniards, Italians, a Dane, a Pole, and Pete x2 of Michigan. There’s a fine kitchen here in the albergue, but unfortunately there is no hint of a pot, pan, knife, fork, spoon, or plate. But there’s a restaurant just across the parking lot and there are rumors of a supermarket in the town proper which is about 1.5 km away.

I’m planning my stages ahead now, and have decided to walk the remaining 124 km (74 miles) to Santiago in 4 days rather than the usual six. I’ve made a reservation for tomorrow night at Deba, a “natural” albergue with a vegetarian restaurant and will meet Martin anew at Sabrado dos Monxes. I’ll then go to Arzua, which is on the Camino Frances, and do a whopper of a 40 km day (like last year) from Arzua to Santiago. This gets me to Santiago a day early which allows an extra day to enjoy one of my favorite hotels and more time to rest before heading home on June 28.

I calculate my distance so far as 554 km (346 miles) over 23 days’ walking, which comes down to a 24 km/day (15 mile/day) average. I’ll average 31 km/day over the next 4 days, which shouldn’t be an issue.

I’m getting excited about seeing Martin again, and Jacqueline, another Camino Frances 2011 alum, as well as my dear Santiago de Compostela and best of all, Gail and home.

20120621-141759.jpgProfessor Pete of Michigan.

20120621-141918.jpgRev. Pete of Michigan.

20120621-142044.jpgMartinan main street.

20120621-142144.jpgMartinan’s cool medieval bridge.

20120621-142352.jpgOK, your ten minutes start now. Meter 0

20120621-142431.jpgMeter 50.

20120621-142504.jpgMeter 100.

20120621-142725.jpgMeter 150.

20120621-142806.jpgMeter 200.

20120621-142858.jpgMeter 250.

20120621-142943.jpgMeter 300.

20120621-143023.jpgMeter 350.

20120621-143126.jpgMeter 400.

20120621-143253.jpgMeter 450.

20120621-143334.jpgMeter 500.

20120621-143421.jpgMeter 550.

20120621-143514.jpgMeter 600.

20120621-143604.jpgMeter 650.

20120621-143648.jpgMeter 700.

20120621-143806.jpgMeter 750.

20120621-143908.jpgMeter 800. Took me ten minutes, how about you? (Squint and you can see the two Petes).

20120621-144029.jpgCemetery at Goiriz.

20120621-144127.jpgChapel at Goiriz.

Not Bad for 5€

Day Twenty-two: Lourenza to Gontan — As I came into town last night I looked briefly for a pension or hotel for the night, but the one pension I saw looked a little dicey, so I opted for the albergue. It was a modern building with about twenty beds in three rooms and it worked out to be perfectly comfortable for the evening. It didn’t bother me to share the two man shower with a skinny Italian fellow whose name I didn’t get.

Albergue (al-BEAR-gae) living takes some getting used to. There are often many languages spoken as clothes are washed by hand in the outdoor washing sinks, showers taken, and meals cooked in the kitchen, which usually serves as the hub of activity in the evenings. Galician albergues are usually quite nice, as though a government contract was let out to young architects and they were challenged to design something that would be useable and, hopefully even, attractive. The albergue of Lourenza is perhaps 25 years old now, but it has “good bones.” Timber rafters and wood paneling, stone faced walls, and other subtle traces make an observant pilgrim thankful that someone, somewhere cared about footsore and weary walkers slowly meandering through their land.

I ate at a bar/cafe last night so I missed some of the communal life of the albergue, but I slept very well and felt full of energy as I met Julian this morning in the Plaza Mayor at 7:00. We stopped for a quick coffee, then headed onto the camino and up the steep climb behind the albergue for a view to Lourenza below.

Today would be a day of climbing as the topography changes from coastal hills to a higher, flatter region beyond. In between is a ridge of 1500 meters in height, our last big climb of this camino.

About 8 km from Lourenza the mid-sized town of Mondonedo appeared and we scheduled our mid-morning coffee break for a cafe as near the cathedral as possible. Both Lourenza and Mondonedo sport impressive church buildings and as we had coffee — accompanied by a delicious chocolate croissant for me — I strategized about how to get inside Mondonedo’s impressive main church. Julian and I scouted around all the doors we could find, then just as we were about to give up we noticed a priest unlocking the main door off the plaza. Score!

I introduced myself as a Protestant priest (it seems easier for Spaniards to understand than “pastor” which still literally means “shepherd” in Spain) and he graciously invited us in, showed us the cloister and described the reredo. The only thing that could have made me happier would have been to have a go at the vintage organ hanging from the nave walls at the clerestory level, but that was a lot to ask this kind priest and I suspected the organ has not been played for many decades.

Having now inspected and approved the church it was time to head up the hill for today’s big climb. Julian was perfect walking company and we chatted almost nonstop on the asphalt then gravel road until we reached the summit, about 11 km after Mondonedo.

With the difficult work of the day now done it became purely a matter of finding lunch and a place to spend the night. We walked along the new freeway construction for a bit and then, about 90 minutes or so after hitting the summit of our climb we were in Gontan, our goal for the day.

After a quick beer and omelette at the first bar/cafe, we found the Gontan albergue, an even more modern affair than its Lourenza cousin. With a nice kitchen, dining room, showers and living room it’s a pilgrim gem. Albeit there are 28 beds in the single dormitory, but this is as luxurious as an albergue gets. Julian is a light sleeper, so even the nicest albergue doesn’t work that well for him. He chose a room above a nearby restaurant instead while I registered at the albergue, met a couple of Michigonians (Midwestern American sounds oh, so much like home) and threw my pack on a bunk.

I washed my clothes, showered (by chance with the same skinny Italian guy from last night’s shower and whose name happens to be Matteo) and settled in for an evening as comfortable as you can find in Europe for 5€ (about $6).

20120620-161912.jpgRoad above Lourenza. Blessedly no rain today.

20120620-162003.jpgMondonedo Cathedral exterior.

20120620-162052.jpgMondonedo rose window. Note organ in two halves.

20120620-162157.jpgGreen hills of Ireland, whoops, Spain.

20120620-162251.jpgHow green is their valley.

20120620-162333.jpgA freeway bulkhead on the A8 now under construction. Includes scallop shell designs. Julian is a real photographer as you can tell.

20120620-162533.jpgGontan albergue dining room. Hey, that same Italian.

20120620-162634.jpgCan’t get over this cool albergue stairway with the glass wall.

20120620-162816.jpgFive Euro bed in the Gontan albergue. OK, I choose the top bunk because I don’t like someone sleeping over me (but don’t mind sleeping above someone else).

20120620-165133.jpgAlbergue stairway from outside.

20120620-165247.jpgGontan albergue from front. OK, that’s the last albergue photo.

Into the Clouds

Day Twenty-one: Ribadeo to Lourenza — A new word should be invented for weather that is somewhere between heavy fog and drizzle. “Frizzle,” maybe? “Drog”? Whatever it might be called, that’s what it was doing all day today, making it a wet, cold and dreary 26 km (16 mile) stage.

I said goodbye to Martin this morning knowing full well that this could be the last time I see him. With his knee acting up again he needs rest, and one of his options is simply to go home. If he does go, today’s goodbye could be the last. I chatted with him, hugged him and wished him the best, then headed out for a very late start at 9:00.

His last words to me as I walked out the door were, “You’re a better man than I to go out in this weather.” Indeed, a cold wind was blowing at about 10 knots from the ocean, and a low mist made everything instantly wet. Less than 20 meters from the albergue I put on my jacket and pack cover, hoping that the farther I walked away from the ocean the warmer it would get.

I walked through Ribadeo, losing the way markers twice, but getting helpful directions from bartenders before I got too lost. My focus was on finding my way, but as I look back on the day I realize I should have picked up some food before I left Ribadeo. At least a few calories would keep my stomach from rumbling, but as it turned out there were no bars or restaurants open for almost the entire extremely rural stage.

Soon after Ribadeo, which is at sea level, the camino climbs on a combination of paved and gravel roads to an elevation of 320 meters (1040 feet). The track wanders through eucalyptus forests, tiny hamlets and green pastures of sheep, goats, cows, horses, and donkeys. Today, any scenic vistas were obscured by thick and wet clouds. Gains in elevation included gains in the thickness of the fog that kept my clothes and me quite wet.

Knowing I’d started late I walked quickly, using energy from last night’s late supper. By 10:00 I was already hungry. Surely there’ll be a bar/cafe at Vilar, I thought to myself. Nope. Well if not there than certainly San Vicente. Uh-uh. Probably San Martin Pequeno then? Zip. San Martin Grande? Zilch. Gondan? Nada, unless you count the soda pop vending machine at the shuttered albergue. Finally, at 3:00, I walked into a restaurant at San Xusto and wolfed down a Caldo Gallego and some huevos fritos (soup and fried eggs). Then it was up the hill for another big climb, and finally down into the comforts of Lourenza, a town with bars and restaurants enough to satisfy any pilgrim.

As I arrived at the albergue I recognized I was within a couple of hours of being too cold, too wet, and too hungry for my own safety. My pants, jacket, hat, socks, and boots are all wet, and before even thinking about more food I needed a nap and warm shower in order to feel human again.

As I walked out of the albergue to find some food I met Julian of Hawaii who’s caught up now. He was cheerful and looking for company, so we agreed to meet tomorrow at the Plaza Mayor and walk together to Gontan-Abadin.

Tomorrow I will certainly carry food with me — at least some cookies — to provide calories for an even bigger climb of 440 meters (1400 feet). The weather report says more frizzle/drog tomorrow, so it’s time to figure out how to make this chilly, wet walk through remote Galician countryside be safe and fun.

20120619-190856.jpgRailroad bridge on outskirts of Ribadeo.

20120619-190939.jpgGalician way marker, complete with km remaining plaque.

20120619-191044.jpgMany walks through woods like these today.

20120619-191134.jpgMisty day.

20120619-191210.jpgThe welcome is sincere, if worn.


20120619-191359.jpgOK, bye.

20120619-191249.jpgChapel at San Martin Pequeno

20120619-191517.jpgAbove Lourenza.

20120619-191545.jpgLourenza albergue exterior.

20120619-191633.jpgGreat to see Julian of Honolulu.

20120619-191712.jpgAmazing interior of Lourenza church.

Goodbye to the Sea

Day Twenty: La Caridad to Ribadeo — As Martin and I crossed the highway bridge above the Rio de Ribadeo into Galicia this afternoon I had mixed feelings. I knew the next town, Ribadeo, would be the last coastal town we’d visit on this walk and that the crossing meant a goodbye to the sea and its many beautiful beaches and vistas. I thought back to the states of Cantabria and Asturias I’d crossed, and the Basque Country where I’d begun with Sebastian and felt sad that this crossing also meant the beginning of the end to this journey. Santiago is now just eight days away and most of this month of walking and adventure, like the sea, is now behind me.

This morning I lingered over breakfast at La Caridad out of enjoyment over the nice hotel, the Casa Xusta, I’d stumbled into the night before. My gear was mostly dry after yesterday’s downpour and I was physically ready to push myself out the door, but the hotel’s breakfast of cereal, yogurt, toast, jam, fresh orange and coffee — with linen napkins — was too luxurious to rush. I trusted that Martin wouldn’t mind much if I were a few minutes late to the train station in Tapia where I was to meet him at 10:45.

At 9:00 I set out from the hotel wearing my rain jacket which before long was back in my pack. There was a very light drizzle falling, but the temperature was moderate and the high clouds to the west suggested the rest of the day would likely be dry. I began walking briskly as I realized the distance involved and my relaxed pace at breakfast would mean I’d now be quite late for Martin.

I skipped the camino trail and walked the N634 out of town for the sake of time, then at Porcia I opted for the camino trail as it headed toward the coast in order to see if I could catch some vistas of the ocean. I stayed on the trail through El Franco where it turned to asphalt and appeared to make a straight line to Tapia.

About 4 km before Tapia I saw a man on a bicycle approach. He slowed down and asked me where I was going today. I mentioned Tapia then Ribadeo and he gave me detailed directions about how to get there. I asked him where the train station was in Tapia and he frowned, “it’s 5 kilometers away. Why?” I explained that I was to meet my friend there. “No, he should just take the train on to Ribadeo where the station is right in the city.” He then rode off and I began to puzzle about how I would meet Martin if his train were leaving him 5 km (3 miles) away from the city.

Soon the man returned from the opposite direction and told me he’d show me the way into town and get me a cup of coffee while I waited for Martin. As we approached the town he walked me through the open air market, where everyone seemed to know him. Then he walked me down to a nice cafe overlooking the harbor.

As we talked over coffee (in his excellent and my broken Spanish) I learned that is name is German (pronounced Herr-MON) and that he is a local merchant seaman who’s been unemployed the last four years. Then as we waited for Martin I explained about my blog. The cafe owner opened his laptop and I walked them through the last several days’ postings and photos, including the church fireworks from yesterday, which he identified as San Antonio Day. He explained that fireworks are just part of how Spaniards celebrate and it’s no big deal.

Soon Martin called, so German and I headed up to the Plaza Mayor to find him. Once there, we headed back to the cafe for empanadas de atun, coffee, and photos. Before we left, German excused himself and returned after a bit with a backpack and two colorful bandanas from his hiking club, one for Martin and one for me. With him was the president of the Grupo de Montanas. We were now honorary members of his august fraternity!

Since German also had his backpack we realized he was also planning to escort us out of town, perhaps all the way to Galicia!

He walked us along the cliffside promenade to show us his town’s lively beaches, then said a cheerful goodbye as the trail turned away from the beach. We were thankful for his friendly welcome to Tapia and the bandanas we knew would impress our friends.

After a few km Martin and I shared the cherries and nectarine I’d purchased at the market and then a few km later we heard the sound of a motor scooter approaching. Who should it be but German, this time bearing more gifts of stickers and his email address so we could contact him once we arrived in Santiago. He said his final goodbye from a chapel in a park high above the Rio Ribadeo from which we could see the towers of Ribadeo, our goal for the night.

The highway bridge crossing into Galicia was just a few minutes away now, and German’s friendliness was a reminder of how kind and helpful all the local Asturians had been all throughout the walk. They frequently volunteered directions and always offered a hearty “buenos dias” or “buen camino” or “buen viaje” as we passed them on the street.

After crossing the high bridge (an act of courage for Martin) we settled into our first Galician albergue, found a cafe, and planned our dinner for later in the evening.

Martin’s knee is still hurting him, so he’ll likely take a bus a few days ahead, once again to give it time to heal. I’ll keep walking — away from rather than along the sea — to see my beloved Santiago soon, then my loved ones and home.

20120618-185913.jpgWet, cold road out of La Caridad.

20120618-190027.jpgInlet before Tapia.

20120618-190136.jpgTapia harbor.

20120618-190231.jpgFrom left: Martin, me, German.

20120618-190339.jpgGerman and Martin leaving Tapia on cliff side promenade.

20120618-190532.jpgView of Ribadeo and Galicia from high bridge over town.

20120618-190637.jpgMartin, conquering vertigo.

20120618-190745.jpgRibadeo skyline.

Why Don’t “Our” Catholics Have Explosives?

Day Nineteen: Luarca to La Caridad — Over pizza last night, when I wasn’t talking to Gail back home by phone, I made myself useful by updating Martin on new developments in the English language. Since most English speakers are in the USA it’s high time that Brits like Martin caught on to current usage of our common tongue. Truthfully, it was good fun to share conversation with an articulate Englishman like Martin. Occasionally he did have to stop for a moment and define some exotic English word. We both knew, of course, that his use of the King’s English is far superior to my West Coasty slang and he can get me giggling by saying something completely silly in his tweedy lilt.

Since Martin wanted one more day to rest his knee he decided to stay in Luarca another night and meet me midday tomorrow in Tapia de Casariego, or “Tapioca” as we’ve come to call it. That will give him another day of rest followed by only a couple hours walking on his first day back. So I awoke at 7:15 and bid adieu to Martin just before 8:00.

Outside it seemed just perfect for a 30 km (19 mile) day — clear, blue sky and moderate temperature. I found a panaderia (one of the few Spanish stores open on Sunday) and bought a pastry to help me get moving. The tasty little treat was finished well before I reached the top of the hill above town.

The camino was very clearly marked out of town and I had no problem making it up to the N634, which the camino would more or less follow again all day. Occasional crossings of this highway were interspersed with quiet strolls through dairy farms and fields of newly sprouted corn.

In a couple of hours I was in Pinera, where a kind barkeeper offered to make me a racion (snack sandwich) of pollo a la parrilla (grilled chicken). It was delicious, and I washed it down with a small glass of beer.

About 100 meters past the bar I heard the sound of church bells from the ancient little church just down the road. I’d been hoping to have the opportunity to go to church today, and the sound of church bells calling from the distance has always evoked in me thoughts of what medieval life must have been like.

Two men standing by the church noted that I’d turned into the church yard rather than onto the camino and they pointed me back to the trail. But I asked them if Mass was soon, which they said it was, and they waved me into the church.

I was about 30 minutes early for the service, so I had time to study the little, stone building. It was much wider than it was long and had a central dome over the worshipers. The main altar was in front of an elaborate, gilded reredo and the side altar had a more modest reredo of carved wood. Opposite the side altar was a Santiago Matamoros scene — my beloved St. James slaying a Muslim.

Although the scene is 1000% politically incorrect, I always feel a little embarrassed affection for Santiago Matamoros. He was seen on a white horse, slaying Moors in a dramatic battle of the Reconquista 1000 years after his death, but today we shake our heads at the inevitable remaining statues that depict the scene. Still, he’s a part of Spanish history, a part it would be dishonest to deny.

A nice altar boy noted my presence and kindly offered to stamp my pilgrim credential. A few minutes later the little church began filling with people. At precisely noon the 100 or so present fell silent, a woman coughed, and the priest appeared from a back room. The worship began and I realized immediately I’d set myself in the middle of the choir. All the women around me erupted into exuberant singing.

Rural Spanish churches seem to share a common concept of “choir.” About a dozen women of all ages sit at the front of the church and sing the worship songs in loud, unison voices. Their husbands sit quietly and respectfully in the back pews. The priest and the women seem sometimes to be in musical dialogue as the service progresses.

The Mass proceeded as normal, with the exception of the sweaty pilgrim sitting in the choir pew. I’m sad to say, though, that my quick sandwich and beer made it hard for me to stay awake during the sermon. I was awake enough to notice that the sermon text very oddly was from Holy Week and was about the Last Supper.

But the oddest part of the service came when the priest announced the Hocus Corpus (“This is my body”) which as always was followed by the ringing of a small bell. Today, however, the bell was followed by something like this:

Riiiiiiiiiiiiip BOOM!

A baby started crying, and then the priest said, “This is my blood shed for you.” Ring, ring. And then:

Riiiiiiiiiiiiip BOOM!

I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like there was a small cache of explosives just outside the door and they were being set off precisely at the most dramatic moments of the Mass.

After everyone received their wafer (no wine today) the remaining host (the blessed bread) was put by the priest into the clear center of a sun-shaped silver and gold vessel. Six men came forward and picked up poles that support a silken canopy and another picked up a pole with a red flag. The rear doors of the church were opened, bathing the priest and altar in sunlight, and then he, the men, the host, and everyone else got up and walked out of the building.

As they walked out there was the sound of:

Riiiiiiiiiip BOOM! ….

…. a sound which rang out at least another dozen times, to the accompaniment of bells ringing and babies all crying anew at each explosion as priest, congregation and host paraded once around the building. It turned out that a dark-haired man was setting off fireworks from his car as part of the religious festival. He’d light the fuse, it’d rocket into the air (Riiiiiiiip) and then explode in a BOOM! that echoed through the whole valley.

When it was over the priest and host were escorted safely back into the church. The first question that came to my mind was, “did everyone count their fingers and toes so we can be certain no one was injured?”

The second question was, “why don’t our Catholics back home have cool fireworks like this?”

Party over, it was time to get back to walking. After another 7 km I made it to the riverside town of Navia, where I had a salad for lunch. Then I headed on to Jarrio, where I met a nice Hungarian man named Carman, and where, unfortunately, it started to rain.

By the time I got to La Caridad I was dripping wet. I found the lux rural hotel, Casa Xustes, and am comfortably ensconced in a room full of antiques, my clothes drip drying onto towels in the bathroom floor. Apparently there’s an Italian restaurant 150 meters away, so between rainstorms I’ll head there for pasta.

Just 10 days left of this camino — I can’t quite believe it. Today, though solitary, was a good day of reflection and meditation. I’m adjusting to the balance here between solitude and fellowship. I’m also missing home, family, pets, and church friends. But I’m thankful for this adventure and am enjoying how each day contains a surprising, new delight.

20120617-182808.jpgMartin on the pier after pizza. Note church and lighthouse above.

20120617-182924.jpgLuarca sleeping in on Sunday morning.

20120617-183710.jpgLandscape near Otur.

20120617-183748.jpgPersonal park for pilgrims. Thank you!

20120617-183844.jpgSweet yellow dog walked 1 km with me.

20120617-183936.jpgPinero church bells called me to mass.

20120617-184054.jpgChurch’s Santiago, slaying the demon Moor.

20120617-184148.jpgProcession pauses outside church for explosives.

20120617-184232.jpgPriest and posse make it safely back inside.

20120617-184324.jpgWatch your step, pilgrim.

20120617-184412.jpgNavia bridge.

20120617-184452.jpgHungarian Carman at a Santiago fuente.

20120617-190948.jpgNot sure you can make out the heavy rain coming down outside my comfy hotel room.