July 26-27, 2010 Santiago de Compostela

Adios, Santiago, mi amigo

July 26 — Slow day here in Galicia. Knowing I would miss Finisterre I hunted down the train station and bought my overnight ticket for 7/28 to Madrid. I then emailed my Spanish teacher back home to ask her about a Madrid museum she mentioned, then I booked a hotel near the train station and museums. My flight to SEA was set for very early Friday morning. I had a goodbye lunch in the afternoon with Artur and also Andre of Montreal following pilgrim mass. There was still a huge line for hugging the Santiago statue, so I decided to wait for that until tomorrow. I found a quiet corner in a square and sat and jotted down the completed itinerary of my camino and reviewed my emails so I wouldn’t forget details.

July 27 — Caught up on my sleep today. Slept until 07:30, then off to breakfast and a 1 hr wait to hug the apostle. Then back to the room to sleep until 11:30. Wake for lunch then visit to museum, then back by 15:30 to sleep until 20:30 an wake up in time for dinner.

The museum was definitely the highlight of thus sleepy day. As well as pilgrimage relics and cutaway models of the cathedral there was an incredible show of time-lapse photos of six camino routes, including my two. The photographer traveled the caminos over six years, taking a photo every 11 steps. Each photo is given about 0.5 secs so the result is like a movie of every foot of the caminos. They’re all 6 projected simultaneously by video projectors on large screens in a black room. The result is a presentation that gives an astounding sense of distance and time. I watched for over an hour

Tonight got ready and jumped on the train to Madrid. Farewell, Santiago, mi amigo. I shall return to see you again.

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.

August 17, 2008 Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce

With my mother’s illness behind us I had somehow managed to talk Gail into joining me in Spain for the final 188 km (115 miles). She’d been able to train only briefly, walking back and forth each day the 3 miles to and from the hospital where she works. From her hiking days years ago she had well-worn boots, so at least footwear would not be a problem.

As we made our way to Spain — to Madrid by air, to León and Ponferrada by train, to Villafranca del Bierzo by bus — I realized this last stretch would be much different than the former. Gail had already let me know she was not interested in experiencing albergue life, regardless of the cost savings. That was fine by me. I realized, too, that I was bringing my own camino family this time and wouldn’t feel as much need to reach out to any English speaking stranger I happened to find in a cafe/bar or albergue. Best of all, I’d have a partner with whom I could share the memories for many years after.

I’d made reservations at the Parador in Villafranca del Bierzo, where we arrived on Aug 16.  We headed out to dinner at the same restaurant where I’d read Gail’s email two months earlier and, coming back, we heard the sound of American English behind us. We stopped to introduce ourselves and met Carol and her son, Jake, from Virginia. They had started in León in celebration of Carol’s 60th birthday. Jake, a Northwestern University drama student, had already walked the camino years before. We didn’t realize at the time that Carol and Jake would become our new camino family.

The next morning we had a plentiful Parador breakfast, then stepped out of the hotel to begin our walk. We walked toward the plaza and came to the yellow arrow on the asphalt where I’d abandoned the camino two months earlier. I was thrilled and excited to return and thankful to have Gail with me.

Somehow we couldn’t find the right arrows to cross the river, so we walked across on the auto bridge, then walked until we picked up the arrows again. The way was obvious since the Bierzo river valley dramatically cuts through the ridges that encircle the town. Just as we left town we had a fateful choice to make — take the way along the road or take the Camino Duro, the tough road that climbs to the ridge above town and follows it much of the way toward O Cebreiro. At the turnoff for the Camino Duro the signs shouted out in Spanish, “Danger! Don’t go this way unless you’re very athletic. It is very hard!”

We stood together and talked about which way we’d walk. I was concerned that, without adequate time for training Gail would have a difficult time on the ridge route. “If I weren’t here,” she said, “which path would you walk?” I admitted I would walk the Camino Duro, so together we headed up the steep path toward the ridge.

The combination of a heavy pack and the steep, vertical climb immediately took its toll on Gail. We paused over on our way up, but she persisted. We were rewarded by spectacular views back toward Villafranca and extraordinary views up the valley toward O Cebreiro.

Once at the top the ridge road levels out and becomes much easier. At that point the views take over and the walk is pure bliss. We continued on for some miles in the bright sunshine until coming to a stand of walnut trees. At this point we realized the path headed back down a steep, gravel road to the valley floor below. We picked our way down to the town of Vega de Valcarce and located an albergue/hotel as our stop for the evening. As should be, Gail was exhausted. We found dinner and caught a good night’s sleep in our simple hotel room, halfway up the last big climb of the Camino Frances.