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.