Thanks for hanging in there and reading my Camino story, friend !
So where were we?
Micheal has said goodbye to us in Ventosa and carried on (I suspect a lady friend has piqued his interest and he is eager to keep up with her). Galina and I are continuing our walk with Janko and Reiner. I am enjoying their company greatly as they are both stand-up guys, but Galina's rudeness towards other pilgrims is becoming more burdensome than my backpack in the afternoon heat.
I'm starting to crave some alone time.
Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.
DAY 11 - AZOFRA to SANTO DOMINGO DE LA CALZADA
16 kms, 150 m elevation gain (mostly wide and dusty country roads)
Waking up before sunrise and leaving Azofra turned out to be quite easy and worth the effort. I think this is something I will do more often; it's nice to arrive at your destination before the blazing noonday sun makes the going all the more difficult.
The Meseta supposedly stretches between Burgos and Astorga, but from what I remember, the vast open plains of Spain begin sometime after Azofra. Wild red poppies grow in the bright yellow grass and farmers' fields stretch out like blankets over the hills. As far as I can see, it's pastures and more pastures.
There's a lot of cow poop to dodge here, folks.
Many pilgrims skip over the Meseta, preferring to take a bus from either end of the plateau in order to enjoy the more scenic portions of the Camino. I think this is a mistake. Not only are you shortening your Camino by about 200 kms (therefore not actually completing the whole thing), but you are missing out on unique scenery and precious opportunities for solitude. But I suppose its seclusion is precisely what scares so many people about the Meseta.
This is where a large water bladder or extra bottle come in handy. There are fewer shady rest areas and water fountains along the Meseta than anywhere else on the Camino. Pack extra snacks and a hat.
It's easy to get hypnotized by the rhythm of my feet. The cadence of both my steps and my walking poles lulls me into a kind of dull stupor - or maybe it's the heat ? Either way, this day on the Meseta is where I do some of my deepest thinking and feel most at peace. I wouldn't recommend that anyone skip out on it.
The Camino isn't short on simple charms, that's for sure. But it certainly has less appealing corners... As you approach or leave certain cities, you'll walk on asphalt along busy highways, cars whizzing a few feet next to you. Other times, the trail will lead you near an industrial area or underneath concrete overpasses for large highways. But I found this to be the exception and it certainly didn't happen often enough to be discouraging.
I do find myself enjoying my Camino routine. It's always the same: Arrive in the new village. Find an albergue (and hope they have room, since it's first-come, first-served). Pay cash and get your Pilgrim Passport stamped. Place your shoes in the designated boot room. Claim a bed in the dorm (hope for a bottom bunk) by keeping your bag on it. Have a cold, refreshing shower. Clean your wounds and dress them lightly with fresh bandages. Hand-wash your clothes in designated bins (washing clothes in the shower is generally forbidden). Hang wet clothes outside or in designated spot. Slip on clean clothes and sandals. Go out for a cold beer/vino and a spot of food. Explore the new village until the pilgrim's supper is served (usually around 8pm). Go to bed early, wake up at 4:30am. Clean and dress your wounds securely. Coffee, bread. On the road by 5:30. Repeat. Then repeat. Then repeat.
The sheer length of the Camino makes the whole thing seem unreal. It's kind of like how staring down at the ground from an airplane is less scary than staring down from a high-rise or a tower; the sheer height is less scary because it's so far away. Every day on the Camino, you inch your progress along. You take it one day at a time. You talk to yourself, you cheer yourself on, especially in the morning when your swollen feet don't want to slide into your tight shoes, yet you have no choice but to keep going. You get into a kind of walking-is-my-life rhythm every day and you get the impression you're gonna be doing it for the rest of your life.
Galina, Reiner, Janko and I arrive at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I remember our albergue is the busiest I had seen up until that point; we have to take a number before being served, and they offer bottles of water and fruit while we sit dripping sweat all over their chairs.
Despite its wide width, my left Miracle Boot is ripping my little toenail from its toe bed; it's literally hanging by a thread. I try my old trail runners on but with all the bandages I must wear, my left foot doesn't even fit into the shoe. Both pairs have to go. I leave both my Miracle Boots and trail runners at the hostel in Santo Domingo (they can be someone else's Miracle Trail Runners) and buy myself these über-comfy soft and light runners (middle), in the hopes that my painful days are now firmly behind me. I know I can expect new blisters while I break these new runners in, but it'll be better than rubbing my toe in those hard boots. (Note: I had thought of cutting out the side of my left boot to allow more space for my toe, but doctors have warned me that the dry sand and dust could easily get into the wound and that infection would surely spell the end of my Camino. So no.)
DAY 12 : SANTO DOMINGO DE LA CALZADA to BELORADO
23 kms (mostly gentle uphill, roughly 150m in elevation gain)
A big part of this day will be spent walking along a busy highway. Not the best. Thankfully, there aren't many days like this one, so you've just gotta suck it up.
Many of the fields here grow wheat or oats, but as we near the town of Grañón, we come across a lovely sunflower field and have ourselves a little bit of fun.
I've always been comfortable with silence. One thing with the Camino, you have to get used to silence. Not only for your own sake, but other people's need for silence will impose itself. I remember feeling, more than once, that breaking the sacred silence with my words would have overpowered others, and I was glad to honour that unspoken wish. Other times, people felt the need to flock in groups and chat. The takeaway? Don't be the jackass that breaks the awkward silence with a joke or a fart. Learn to read people and give them either a friendly hello, or silence with a smile, accordingly. Learn to be comfortable with the quietude.
Our hostel in Belorado is called Cuatro Cantones (Four Corners) and is absolutely delightful, with an interior swimming pool and adorable rooms. Unfortunately, I don't get to enjoy it much; as I peel off my little toe's bandage covering the blisters, my nail comes off with it, as well as the blisters that had formed just below my nail. To my complete disgust, I can see the root of my nail (the part that's usually covered over with skin). I'm completely beside myself and trying to remain calm, but I can literally see inside my toe. Barf.
Janko is thankfully staying at this hostel with me (Galina had gone elsewhere); he helps me clean out and dress the gaping wound. To his credit, he looks grossed out but is a total pro about the whole thing. All I remember is calling my mom to cry in disgust like a little girl, visiting a clinic to consult a doctor, swallowing some antibiotics and buying a nifty little silicone sock for my toe. Doctor's orders: No walking for a week. If you were smart, you 'd quit and go home. Shit.
Now, this might not be much of a plea for my intelligence, but a new plan is begrudgingly taking shape in my head. Over the past few days, it has been dawning on me that, two months prior, I hadn't calculated my time correctly. As it stood, I didn't have time to walk to Santiago de Compostela, then catch a train to Madrid in time for my flight to Greece. (Cutting that day's walk in half last week to stay in Logrono didn't help, either). This injury now represents the last nail in my schedule's coffin.
Bottom line: I will have to shave off a few days somewhere on my Camino.
But let's be clear: Quitting the Camino outright was NEVER an option for me.
Janko helps me plan a bus trip. I will travel to Burgos to sightsee a little bit and from there, take another bus to visit the city of Leon (stay overnight), then take a final bus to Astorga, from where I would continue walking. Janko is putting more emphasis than I care for on rest and recuperation, but it is a good plan. It will cut out (quite) a few days of walking, give my toe and blisters time to heal whilst still enjoying the charms of Spain, allow me to finish the Camino, and crucially, make that flight to Greece. Voilà!
DAYS 13, 14 & 15 : BURGOS - LEON - ASTORGA
As I say goodbye to Janko and Reiner the next morning, I feel a mix of emotions. I will no longer be walking with these two serene men. Janko is a calm and sensitive engineer from Austria and Reiner is a witty train conductor from Norway; they are both great companions and I appreciate their company. As they set out to walk to the next village, it is raining absolute SHEETS outside. I haven't walked in rain since Day 1 (in the French Pyrénées), so I can't help but feel a little lucky to be avoiding it, despite my injury and my unexpected change of plans.
A short bus trip takes me through the Meseta to Burgos; two days' worth of walking whiz by in 30 minutes on the highway. I want to cry.
Burgos was the headquarters of General Franco, and was named for its defensive towers (which are called burgos). Small city, big cathedral. In the hostel, I run into two women I had met earlier on the Camino, Claire from France and Karen from Australia. They had forged on when I stayed behind in Logrono, but are now taking a break thanks to toe and hip injuries. The day is spent visiting coffee shops and walking around leisurely.
Leon was pretty, although I remember the city being rather uneventful. So I spend most of my time in Leon with my nose in a book. I did catch some shots of the 13th century Leon Cathedral at sunset, though :
I've heard that the Camino brings you closer to your True Self. I don't know about that, but one thing's for sure - you definitely get to know yourself better out here. That's a lot of time spent in your own head.
Why are you walking? I personally don't ask this question to other peregrinos very often. Oh sure, it's an easy conversation starter. But it's such a loaded question. It can make a stranger start to talk, but it can also make them start to cry. So I allow people to bring it up on their own sweet time and mostly avoid the question.
The truth is, some pilgrims know why they are walking, and others don't. As I would soon come to learn, sometimes new motives float to the surface. We all walk for different reasons, and some of those reasons are unknown to us until the opportune moment arrives.
Astorga is a gorgeous little town, mostly due to the beauty and grandeur of the Bishop's Palace and the adjacent, intricately-carved church. It was an important Roman city due to its position at the junction of several major routes and had over 20 pilgrim hospitals in its heyday.
Antoni Gaudi's sensational Bishop's Palace in Astorga:
- For architecture fans Built by Antoni Gaudi between 1889 and 1913 for Bishop Grau, who apparently forgot to take his poverty vows.
- For history fans Served as headquarters for the Falange, which was Dictator Franco's fascist party (which partnered with Italy's fascist movement).
-For Friends fans Falange is a real word - Ha!
In Astorga, I find a bed in a lovely albergue. The hostel is in a beautiful old building and has charming rooms and a cool common area, with an old garden out back for hanging out and drying your clothes in the sun. But this hostel is also my first run-in with ... BED BUGS. Ugh.
Immediately upon arrival, we are asked not to bring our backpacks into our rooms, but to leave them in a portico. This is to minimize the bugs spreading from our bags to the albergue's beds. But it means that one must empty out the contents of one's backpack all over said portico, in order to find whatever one might be looking for. Not ideal when it comes to organizing one's shower, bed time or morning ritual.
Or for not getting one's shit stolen.
I also meet my first bed bug that night; lying in my bed, I feel a sharp bite on the inside of my knee and lift my blanket to find a little guy sloooooowly trying to outrun my headlamp's light. Didn't sleep so great after that. But otherwise, I really did love this little hostel tucked into a corner near the palace.
Bed bugs are common everywhere, including 5-star hotels. Like lice, they have nothing to do with cleanliness (or lack thereof), but rooms need to be fumigated and left vacant for a few days, which is expensive.
Day 16 - ASTORGA to RABANAL DEL CAMINO
21 kms (400 m elevation gain)
Today is my first day of walking in three days. I'm happy to be at it again and grateful to have let my toe and blisters get a bit of a break. I mourn the distance that I didn't cross on my own two feet; I do feel cheated, as though I'm not doing the Camino « properly ». I remind myself constantly that, even if I hadn't ripped up my little toe, my inadequate schedule would have needed altering. Disappointment gnaws at me, so I'm eager to hit the dirt and walk it off.
The road ahead is a gradual ascent towards the Cantabrian Mountains; despite the elevation gain, it is a relatively gentle climb. The mercury is reaching over 35 degrees, making it a bit of a slog. I walk alone today. My feet are heavily bandaged and I'm pleased with how much the hole in my toe has filled in, in just three days.
It's funny how some days, I keep lifting my camera to take photos, and other days - when the landscape is just as beautiful - it doesn't occur to me to take pictures. I only take these 2 photos today.
Rabanal is a tiny and very cute town with a population of 50. At Albergue Gaucelmo, there is a garden with a small orchard where they host tea time for the arriving pilgrims. They have converted an old barn into our dorm. It is all very quaint and I indulge by melting into my lounging chair after a very hot day. I do feel a bit lost, knowing that I am now far ahead of my previous companions and will likely not meet up with them again. I wonder how they are doing.
Across the street, there is an old church where Bavarian monks sing Gregorian vespers. I am intrigued and spend a bit of time listening to their hypnotic chanting.
I meet an interesting, older gentleman who is completing the Camino with his daughter. They walk at completely different paces (despite his age, he is much faster than she is), so they meet periodically in different villages. That's a cool way to do the Camino.
Tomorrow's walk to Molinaseca will be a big one; I will continue to climb up today's mountain pass to the Cruz De Ferro, the highest point in elevation of the entire Camino Frances.
Day 17 - RABANAL DEL CAMINO to MOLINASECA
26 kms (400m elevation gain over short distance, then sharp 900m elevation loss over last 10 kms)
Today the Camino leads me through the Pass of Irago and to the Cruz de Ferro, a high cross perched at the highest point of elevation of the entire Camino Frances. I have been hearing about this famous Cruz de Ferro for weeks now; tradition dictates that pilgrims bring a stone from their hometown to add to the growing base at the enormous cross. The idea is to leave our sorrows, anger and pain behind us.
I'm not particularly superstitious or sentimental, but I did bring a little stone from the Canadian Rockies to leave my little mark on the Camino.
3 photos in slider (click on arrows):
The Cruz de Ferro, rising 1, 504 m above sea level. A major symbol of the Pilgrim's Way. I deposited a stone here, as well as a few items representing things or people of whom I must let go.
The ascents and descents are steep today and I'm particularly grateful to have my walking sticks. The sharp descents on rocky terrain make many pilgrims nervous and so the main highway winding through the mountains becomes a popular alternative. I stick to the gravel path and enjoy the traffic-free trail. There is a good deal of wind up here, so the heat of the sunshine feels less oppressive; my sunburned neck tells me otherwise.
4 photos in slider (click on arrows):
Back on Day 4 , I had listened to Richard talk about his plans to walk the Camino with his wife. Just a few months prior, they had been walking around their garden, admiring their blooming flowers, when she fell dead in his arms from an aneurysm, her mug spilling coffee all over her housecoat. As he was telling me their story, it pained me to see the grief and the disbelief etched on his face. Richard was now walking the Camino alone, in the hopes that he would feel her presence again. He was in love with his beloved Jacqueline and felt as though he was walking with her on their Camino.
Every day, I meet people who are laughing, carefree and eager to talk. I also meet pilgrims who are searching so hungrily, and who are in such obvious pain, that I feel almost guilty for what I came here for: simplicity, adventure, solitude. It feels disingenuous. I had chosen the Camino because I wanted to go hiking and I wanted to see Spain again. That's it. However, two nights prior in Astorga, while messaging a friend, I had found out some hurtful information about an important relationship that had recently ended, and it hurt. What I thought was a painful but healthy breakup was instead rife with dishonesty and duplicity. I needed to work through it and I was alone, with no one to help me process it. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I have to wrap my head around a betrayal that completely rattles me.
Some use the Camino as a way of starting over on their own, of pushing the reset button. Learning to live alone after a lifetime of having learned to live with someone else. Some walk in the hopes of mulling choices over and reaching a decision before reaching Santiago. Some are learning to build a life without the one they love. Some are restarting their lives after the loss of a loved one; daughters who have passed and husbands who have wasted away.
At the Cruz de Ferro, pilgrims are crying openly, looking at photos and wiping tears. Some are tying mementos to the cross and weeping on their knees. It's a sobering scene. Two days ago, I was a carefree pilgrim. Now I, too, am mournful alongside my fellow peregrinos. I sit on the grass for a long time, staring up at the memento I've left on the Cruz de Ferro, allowing my grief, shock and confusion to slowly seep out of me. When I finally rise two hours later, my face is overcast and my head is lowered while I move ahead on the path. No one will ask me today why I chose to walk the Camino.
Just like My Miracle Boots, the Cruz de Ferro has shown up just when I need it to.
The steep decline has caused more foot issues for yours truly. All in all, today is a tough, tough day. By the time I arrive at my albergue, I'm not walking normally. I'm limping and kind of afraid of pulling my feet out of my shoes to inspect the damage. But I'm still smiling; today's walk was an absolute stunner. The mountains were so lush and green, and the fields were dotted with cows and horses. It was like walking through postcards.
4 photos in slider (click on arrows):
Major pain amidst all this beauty!
Day 18 - MOLINASECA to PIEROS
26 kms (mostly flat, one gentle downhill and one uphill)
Looking back, I don't remember much about the hostel I had stayed at in Molinaseca, but I'm willing to bet I slept like a baby. The skin of my feet, however, is in worse shape that ever. My toe is healing nicely enough, although it's still quite painful. Walking so much downhill yesterday, in my new runners, has given me several new blisters. Oh joy.
Yesterday's brutal hike (physically and mentally) should be abated by a long but relatively mellow hike today. I head out early because there is a cool day ahead of me: I will be walking through the medieval town of Ponferrada, which used to be one of the Knights Templar's strongholds.
Within an hour, the path leads directly through a bustling city and several historical detours.
Cafés, shops and castles. I allow myself to be distracted by all of it and have a lovely breakfast in a café overlooking this fantastic Knights Templar castle.
The Knights Templar was founded in 1118 and was the Roman Catholic Church's army. Its soldiers fought extensively throughout the Crusades, and it was largely responsible for protecting the massive amount of gold, silver and jewels that the Catholic Church amassed throughout its overseas campaigns. For the better part of two centuries, the Knights Templar was a military and banking powerhouse for the Catholic Church. Basically, it played a pivotal role in forming the world's first multinational corporation.
Rumours about the Knights Templar's secret ceremonies and initiations ignited suspicion and fear, and ultimately proved to be their undoing. The King of France had many members arrested, tortured and burned at the stake on Friday the 13th of 1307. Its remaining members went into hiding and the Templar became the fabled underground secret society it is known as today.
The Camino got its official origins when a Spanish King made the first documented journey in 813, and by the 12th and 13th centuries, thousands of pilgrims were walking the Camino every year. The Knights Templar's soldiers were defenders of these walking peregrinos. Since pilgrims were expected to ''pay their respects'' to the Church along the way (and ultimately get redemption in Santiago), they often carried money and valuable trinkets, making them vulnerable to mugging. The Knights Templar founded multiple churches along the road, collected tolls for rights of passage, and offered physical protection from thieves, especially along mountain passes.
Despite what I had originally thought, this is probably one of the toughest days on the Camino, physically. There is more elevation gain than expected (or maybe my feet are just more beat-up than I realize) and my time spent in Ponferrada means that I am now walking in the oppressive afternoon heat. I am popping more ibuprofen pills than usual. The route, however, is as scenic and beautiful as always.
My intended destination today was Villafranca del Bierzo, a beautiful city famed for its wine in the Bierzo region of Northern Spain. But I just can't seem to make it there. As I walk past an attractive albergue, I stop in to see if they have room for another peregrino and they welcome me warmly.
This is another of my Top 5 favourite hostels along the Camino (possible my favourite of all). With only 18 beds, it has very stable bunks (something I'm beginning to really appreciate) and it is super cozy with a small library and beautiful little garden.
Mar, the innkeeper, makes us a delicious vegetarian Moroccan tagine for supper for 10euros and a satisfying breakfast for 4euros. One of the girls who works there shows me a cool way to thread a blister with a needle and thread. I wish I had learned this earlier!
Most importantly, at this communal vegetarian dinner, I meet Julia and Meike, two German girls with whom I will spend the rest of the Camino. I don't know it yet, but they will play a pivotal role in the fantastic experience that is my Camino.
Back home in Canada, Mom and Dad have decided to match each kilometre that I walk by biking on their road bikes; they've accumulated over 200 kms so far. Very cool feeling to have this kind of support from home. How cute are they?
And so finishes part 3 of my Camino blog. The next and final part will see me through more adventures through the beautiful mountains of Galicia and on to Santiago de Compostela. Stay tuned!