July 14-15, 2010 Puebla de Sanabria to Vilavella

July 14: My first day’s walk started well, had some rough patches, but ended well. I set out from the hotel, with the red dawn casting a pinkish glow on the castle above the city. After walking past the castle I search for yellow arrows and immediately was lost. I theorized that  I’d need to head down the river vally in a northwesterly direction, so I set out on roads that seemed to follow that general route. By the time I reached the main highway — the A-52 and its companion, the N-525 that would shadow this camino most all the way to Santiago — I found yellow arrows again and walked ahead with more confidence. I walked the first day through quiet farms and fields with the goal of reaching Lubián. This meant climbing the mountain to Padornelo.

The walk up toward the pass at Padornelo was one of those frustrating camino moments where a pilgrim wishes he’d used a map. The marked trail enters traverses a canyon of perhaps 2-3 km in length, but the highway and freeway bridges above cut right across the canyon, saving the long walk down and around the canyon. If I’d known enough to get on the N-525 road I could’ve walked the high bridge, gone through the tunnel after it and in 1/4 of the time made it to Padornelo on the other side of the tunnel. But all pilgrims complain about walking, even though that’s how we’ve chosen to travel. Anyway, I trudged around the canyon, climbing to an elevation above the bridges and tunnels, then came down the other side with the “town” of Padornelo there to reward me.

In reality, Padornelo is a large gas station and a hotel/restaurant. My thought had been to stay here for the night, but when I saw that it was likely empty of pilgrims and set right by a highway I instead decided to have a beer at the restaurant and keep on walking. My feet, not yet used to the abuse yet, weren’t happy about that plan. I took off my shoes, hung my socks on the chair, and put my feet up on the chair until the bartender looked askance at me. That was a good cue to move on, which I did, walking down the mountain, losing about 1000 ft in elevation over the next 6-7 kilometers.

After a couple of hours the trail turned into a narrow, one track affair and I was convinced I was still a long way from Lubián when quite suddenly I came upon an albergue right at the entry to a tiny village. There was no hospitalero in attendance, but the albergue’s 16 beds left only one vacancy — my bed for the night. I set our my things and headed out for some refreshment. Climbing into the main section of town, along the road, I came to a bar and who should I find there but my friend, Artur! Somehow my long day of walking had allowed me to catch up to him. After a shower we had a relaxing meal and continued our ongoing conversation about medieval history, theology, geopolitics, and the military.

That evening I tucked myself into my bunk, enjoying vistas out to the forest just beyond the stone walls of the albergue. I was glad to be a pilgrim again.

July 15: The following day I slept in while other pilgrims packed and headed out the door. I had mentioned to Artur my plan to walk a short day and stop at the destination spa/resort at Villavela. I enjoy modern architecture and I’d found the online photos of this hotel to be rather intriguing. That meant a short day of walking for me, and Artur held back because he wanted company along the way, though his plan was to walk farther.

We left Lubián, walking downhill toward the day’s lowest elevation, and then uphill toward the peak of another camino mountain, this one 300 meters above the valley floor. At the top, which marked the border into Galicia, we could look toward the west and see for perhaps 20 miles. We stood together next to one of the white, concrete markers with blue scallop shell that would accompany us, marking our mileage the rest of the way into Santiago.

We arrived at Vilavella after only about 12 km of walking. There we found Dick and Annika, who made a big deal out of the “ritziness” of the hotel, not knowing I was planning to stay there for the night. I had an enormous bocadillo (sandwich) with Artur, then wished him well on his way, after which I settled into my unusual, two-story room. This was certainly one of the most modern hotels in which I’d ever stayed. The fact that it was in a tiny farming community that smelled like cattle gave it an unusual charm. I bought some red swim trunks so I could enjoy the pool and I spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying my fine surroundings.

Here’s the note I wrote that night to my wife, Gail:

As I write this, I’ve walked nearly 50 km now in 2 days without any advance training and my legs are killing me. People say the 3rd day is worst…. The weather is perfect so far and I have a sunburn on the back of my neck since I´m walking mostly mornings going in a generally westerly direction.

This camino is practically deserted in comparison to the Camino Frances. And most of the pilgrims seem to be Italians. They understand Spanish very well, though. Wish my Spanish was better, though after another 2 quarters of college Spanish this year it’s definitely improving. If someone speaks slowly I can understand a fair amount. Now that we´re in Galicia all the printed material is in Gallego, but it´s pretty close to Spanish and for the most part understandable.

July 13, 2010 Puebla de Sanabria

I met Arturo today. He called my hotel at noon (I grumpily answered the phone from my deep, jet-lagged sleep) and we met for lunch at 14:00. Arturo is actually Artur and it turns out he’s not from Seville, but from Estonia where he’s a Lt Colonel in their army. He’s a scholar of medieval history and tells great jokes. As we were eating, a pilgrim couple (Dick and Annika) stopped at the table and visited. They’re from Netherlands and are on their 5th camino, each starting from their home.

Arturo gave me the scoop on this camino — he’d started in Meride and in Extramadura it’s not well marked and there are few pilgrims to follow. He’s been lost multiple times.  Also he and Dick and Annika each had confrontations with big, scary dogs. Arturo carries a big stick to ward them off after being pushed down by one a couple of weeks back.

Artur was on his way to the next town and had amicably timed his arrival in Puebla for when I would be there. I planned, though, to spend another night at the modern and comfortable Parador, resting from the long trip. So he headed down the road at about 16:00. I hoped I’d meet up with him over the next few days.

Anyway. . .  I planned to set off in the morning, most likely with Padornelo as my final destination, but possibly as far as Lubian. I planned to use my best doggy diplomacy on los perros, use my best Español on el itinerario (my iPhone camino app in Spanish that served as my only guidebook) and try to be super observant of las flechas amarillas (yellow arrows) so as not to get lost. After a tour of the historic sites of Puebla and its castle I headed back to the hotel to have my final rest before my first day’s walk.

And so, the adventure begins.

July 12, 2010 Heading Out for a Camino in the Holy Year

After 2008, even after completing my dream of walking the Camino de Santiago, I couldn’t let go of it and move on to something else. Why? The camino had hold of me. Its extremes — physical challenge and spiritual reward, camaraderie and solitude, beauty and deprivation, familiar and foreign — made an irresistible combination. I also knew that an unusual and important day was coming for the camino — the Holy Year.

In the Catholic calendar each July 25 is a day to honor Santiago (St. James, in English), one of the primary disciples of Jesus. In a year when July 25 lands on a Sunday the entire year becomes a Holy Year, and that Sunday becomes a very special celebration. I’d learned in 2008 that this infrequent event would happen in 2010, and then not again until 2021. If I could arrange to be in Santiago at that time I’d experience the grandest of grand celebrations in honor of St. James.

The challenge would be that other pilgrims would have the same idea and would crowd the pathways and albergues of the camino. In preparation for this the governments in northern Spain had been building pilgrim infrastructure to accommodate the crowds. The increased pilgrim traffic during the previous years — up to 100,000 in 2008 from mere hundreds in the 1980’s — was expected to more than double in 2010. But the last thing I wanted was to fight my way through crowds on the way to Santiago’s Holy Day.

My solutions was to walk an alternate camino to Santiago, the Via de la Plata. This route begins in Sevilla and continues 1000 kilometers to Santiago. In July the southern stretches are notoriously hot and dry, discouraging most pilgrims from attempting this route during the Holy Month of the Holy Year. But since I had only 2 weeks’ time to make this year’s pilgrimage I began to plan for a distance of only about the last 250 kilometers, and I chose the largest town at this distance — Puebla de Sanabria — as my starting point. An advantage of the Sanabres region as my beginning was that it was noted as a very beautiful area. I anticipated lots of solitude and a relatively cool walk for July. The disadvantages were that it is mountainous, with steep climbs and descents, and it is remote, making access difficult and time-consuming. Fortunately I found a flight to Madrid and a red-eye bus to Puebla de Sanabria that would work to get me to the beginning of my journey. I also posted on my favorite camino Internet Forum that I’d be walking this route and I learned a pilgrim by the nom-de-plume of Arturo would be in this area at exactly the same time. Hopefully we’d meet and I would enjoy some companionship in what might be a fairly lonely walk.

I set out from Seattle, arrived in Madrid some hours later, and then found my way to the bus station where I waited five hours for my bus to Puebla. I had managed to get a front seat, so I enjoyed the views until nightfall, then for hours watched the white and yellow highway stripes flash as they passed under the bus. At sometime after midnight — about 12 hours after I had arrived in Madrid — the bus let me off at the Puebla de Sanabria stop located about 2 km outside town.

I asked directions at the bar/cafe where the bus had let me off and was pointed to the town’s lights up the dark road and across the river. I asked for a taxi. No luck at this hour. So I set out on the shoulder of the dark highway, hoping I was going the right direction. After about 1.5 km I came to a crossroads with a sign for my hotel — the Parador de Puebla de Sanabria. I followed the sign up the hill and came finally to my rest for the night. I buzzed at the locked door for an attendant and before long was let in the hotel where I settled in for a much-needed rest. Though it was after 01:30 here in Spain I was still on US West Coast time, which put my internal clock at about 10:30 in the morning. Still, the trip had been a long one and I fell asleep quickly.