June 8, 2011 Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

Left giant Ponferrada albergue to very cold but dry weather and headed on long sidewalk along street with closed shops for several kilometers. Some streets with vacation-looking homes and many cars to avoid, then more long sidewalks to Cacabelos.

Met Joy and Karl who told said that Rocky was in Ponferrada last night. She is now doing camino by car apparently and perhaps will hang out with Joan of Vancouver BC for remainder of camino.

Stopped for tastes of wine at a winery along the road outside Cacabelos. The guidebooks say that if you’re nice the wine and tapas are free, but none of our group apparently qualified. The wine was tasty, though, and this was a welcome stop in the hot sun.

Finished walk to Villafranca and got lost getting to restaurant plaza. Am writing this note in the blowing and cold plaza so may soon move inside. Andreas and Alex are planning to cook at the municipal albergue. Sebastian and Catia at the albergue across the river. I’m at the Parador where Gail and I stayed in 2008.

Sebastian and Catia later join me for dinner, along with Nikki (who ordered a large burger, first we’d seen on a menu). Then joined by Hannes and Pieter of Germany and Austria and enjoyed shots together of arujo. Back to the comfy Parador and an old Paul Newman movie and room service of bocadillo before bed at 23:00.

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.

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 3, 2008 Santo Domingo to Tosantos

Back on the camino now I was ready to reintegrate myself into pilgrim life and was determined to make friends along the way toward Santiago. After an overnight at the Santo Domingo Parador I headed out to walk the path to Burgos that I’d seen from a taxi window over the previous days.

After Santo Domingo the camino rises up from the vast fields of grain toward the Montes de Oca. I walked along the path and took photos of the steeple at Grañon that rises just above a ridge, seeming to sprout from the earth like the grain itself. After Grañon I came to Belorado and considered stopping there at the albergue with a swimming pool. Instead I trudged farther, to Tosantos, and there had one of my most delightful albergue experiences.

As I walked into this three-story, parochial albergue in the quaint and tiny village of Tosantos I was introduced to Tomás, the hospitalero. He began to lecture me about the history of the region and about the camino. My college Spanish skills allowed me to catch about 1/4 of the words, but the general impression was that he was very excited about the camino and proud of his albergue. He instructed me to leave my boots on the main floor and choose a sleeping pad in the main sleeping room on the second floor, then told me all pilgrims were asked to help cook the evening meal and were invited before dinner to tour the cave above the town that held its statue of the Virgin Mary.

I finished my laundry out on the albergue’s grassy lawn, hung it up to dry, then joined other pilgrims in peeling potatoes and cutting up carrots for our dinner. At about 18:00 we headed across the highway to the parish church where a kind woman walked us up the hill to the cave chapel. The interior was quite chilly, and we pilgrims shivered as she gave us a lengthy explanation of how the Virgin is carried into town in the spring and returned to the cave in the winter (or vice versa). We were all happy to excuse ourselves and return to the sunshine outside and the warm stew awaiting us at the albergue dining room.

When we arrived we sat down to a delicious and plentiful meal of stew and salad, followed by cups of yogurt, all accompanied by loud conversation and the sounds of Taizé music played on the boom box on a shelf near the table. I learned from this experience that it is a great joy to share in cooking and eating a meal together with other pilgrims, and I appreciated the care and pride with which Tomás carried out his role as hospitalero.

May 30 – June 2, 2008 Santo Domingo to Copenhagen and back

May 30: I left Santo Domingo at dawn in a white taxi and watched out the window as future camino miles whizzed past. I saw several pilgrims braving the wind and light rain of this day, and once again I was amazed at the colors of the springtime grain fields.

I arrived at Burgos in plenty of time for my train and waited at a cafe as one of the oddest sights of the camino unfolded before my eyes. A group of young Spaniards escorted one of their friends into the train station. He was blindfolded and wearing a bright wig and ballet tutu. He had some kind of sock around his male appendage and it became clear he was getting married this weekend and his friends were giving him a pre-nuptial hazing. He took it “like a man” and the whole episode evinced chuckles from the assembled train goers.

I boarded the train to Burgos, looking ahead to a five-hour journey and enjoyed every moment of this trip to Bilbao. Through fields and forests and across rivers — this was an introduction to the beauty of Northern Spain and I was glad for the opportunity to see this beautiful region. I arrived at the train station in Bilbao and spotted the gorgeous stained glass window above the train gates. Then I caught a taxi for Bilbao’s airport and my flight to Copenhagen.

My wife, Gail, an anesthesiologist and professor of bio-medical ethics, was to speak to the European Society of Anesthesiologists that weekend. It was a big event and her first European speech. When I arrived in Denmark I soon realized there were two Sheraton Hotels and I wasn’t certain at which one Gail was staying. I guessed which one and when I arrived at the lobby I asked the desk to call her room. Gail answered the phone and asked the odd question, “Where are you?” I told her, “I’m down in the lobby,” and she was ecstatic. Her friend, Pam, had joined her for her Copenhagen visit and for a couple of weeks of sightseeing between there and Rome, so the three of us spent the next days enjoying this amazing city and listening as Gail shared his outstanding speech with the European Society.

Since Gail is a doctor I asked if she’d be willing to take a look at the blisters on my feet. “No!” she said, “They’d be too gross!” Even without the support of My Own Private Physician the days away from the camino brought healing to my feet and by the time of my return to Spain I felt much better. My only regret was that I’d left my favorite baseball cap back at the hotel in Santo Domingo and I expected I’d never see it again.

June 2: After a great weekend in Copenhagen I said goodbye to Gail and Pam and headed back via plane to Bilbao. My friend Stefan had suggested that I needed a cell phone so he could send me SMS texts, so I obliged and purchased a cheap cell phone and some minutes as I waited at the Bilbao train station. I boarded the train back to Burgos and caught a taxi to Santo Domingo. As I checked in at the Parador I asked about my hat and, sure enough, they’d kept it safe for me. From then on I’d have a fondness for this hotel and the great Parador chain.

May 29, 2008 Nájera to Santo Domingo

It was clear to me now that Santo Domingo de la Calzada would be as far as I would get before leaving for the weekend’s trip to see Gail in Copenhagen. I set out from Nájera at first light, walking up the pathway through the red cliffs of this lovely, relaxed town.

After Nájera the terrain begins to stretch out into vast fields of grain. In the spring these fields are vibrant in their hues of green and as I walked I soaked in the breathtaking beauty of this amazing region. After Cirueña, one particular stretch captured my imagination. It is a  small valley in which the camino follows a farm road down a hill, then turns to the right and gradually goes up the opposite hill. This gives one of the few vistas on the Camino Frances of perhaps a full mile of the camino itself. On this particular sunny, spring day the colors were amazing and I was thankful for the opportunity to walk in this picturesque land.

Over the last few days I’d come to know a Frenchman named Luc. He spoke only French and was patient with my attempts to communicate with him using my high school Français. I walked some distance with him over the previous days, and when I arrived at the big church at Santo Domingo de la Calzada I was surprised to see Luc with bandages on his face holding out his hat, hoping for donations from visitors to the cathedral. He told me he’d fallen at a nearby creek and hurt himself and in the confusion had lost all his money. I gave him some Euros and wished him the best, knowing the Camino and other pilgrims would also help.

I checked in at the Parador Hotel just across from the church and enjoyed this stay at what would be one of my favorite camino hotels. I arranged with the desk to get a taxi to Burgos early the next morning for my long trip to Copenhagen. For dinner I walked out to the new section of town along the main road, got some cash at an ATM, and began to look ahead to the many miles I’d cover off the camino in the next few days.