Sarria and Portomarin (Days 35 and 36 on the Camino)

image
We have now been on our pilgrimage for five full weeks. The time has flown by and we are now only a few days away from Santiago. It is hard for us to grasp that this will all be over soon.

imageFor the past two days we have been hiking through beautiful rolling countryside and passing through a string of small farming hamlets – often right past small family farms redolent with the wafting odors you would expect from stables housing cows. We have seen many small herds being shepherded by the owners and the working dogs – usually German Shepherds – that are ubiquitous in this role. While we were warned about these country dogs, my experience has been to find them either not interested in us or actually quite friendly.

image

imageWe have also had rain for the past two days. Yesterday the rain was fairly light but it lasted almost until 2 o’clock. Today the rain let up just before noon, but it was quite heavy at times. But, with the proper rain gear, it’s not all that bad walking while wet. And, in spite of the rain and the wafting odors, the scenery continues to deliver the most delightful vistas so far on our pilgrimage.

Our destination for yesterday was the medieval city of Sarria. Since this is the last major pilgrim-oriented city before the magical 100 kilometer marker required for pilgrims to earn their Compostela certificate, many new pilgrims have joined us on the Camino and there were many more albergues available in this town. I was actually expecting many more new pilgrims than we finally saw, which is a blessing in itself. And the remaining towns should have many more available beds, designed to handle the added pilgrim traffic especially during the peak summer months.

imageSarria had beds for a couple hundred pilgrims distributed among about 10 separate albergues. We decided to pass by most of the more commercial albergues in the center of town favor of an albergue located on the far side of town which was associated with a convent – the Mosteiro de Madalena. It had 90 beds available and we felt it would not be full up (“completo”.) Well, it turns out that only 6 pilgrims (ourselves included) spent the night in this modern, beautifully outfitted albergue and we had the place to ourselves. What a treat! We also had dinner at a recommended Italian restaurant which was a nice break from the Spanish cuisine we have been eating for weeks. There is nothing wrong with the Spanish cuisine. It’s just that the 10 euro pilgrim menus that we order from all seem to have the same 4 or 5 dishes available for pilgrims and it gets a bit repetitive. This was a nice change of pace. And the house made sangria was absolutely delicious.

imageToday we continued on to the town of Portomarin. The way passed through many more small farming hamlets and followed country tracks through the woods and besides intensely green pastures. At the entrance to the town we were greeted with yet another steep set of steps (46 according to Clint’s reckoning) – a fine welcome to this wet and rainy town! We saw many of the new pilgrims but also saw the familiar faces of many of the hiking partners we have been traveling with for the past few weeks. Our cadre of friends has been anything but static. New friends sync up their hiking with us for a while while others drift away to follow their own ways, mostly due to differences in walking paces and distances walked each day. But, it has been fun to see the same people and commiserate with them since they are in the same boat we find ourselves in. For instance, at dinner last night we saw no less than five couples that have been hiking with us. And all of them came over to visit with us for a while. It is a wonderful small family. Tomorrow we continue on toward Santiago. The forecast is for clear skies and we are hoping for the best.

Standing by the magical 100 kilometer marker in the rain,

Standing by the magical 100 kilometer marker in the rain,

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Triacastela (Day 34 on the Camino)

image
imageThe lure of Santiago is growing stronger as we walk ever closer to the ultimate destination of our pilgrimage. We have been walking for almost five weeks and the approach of the end is on our minds more and more. It has been interesting that my concept of time has been changed while hiking the Camino. It is hard to imagine how long we have been at this. Days merge into each other and destinations with euphonious Spanish names become hard to remember specifically without referring to our guidebook. I can remember specific places and events, but the concept of a time line has become blurred. Time itself has become less important as we walk along. I know this will all change again once this pilgrimage is over and we return to our “normal” lives. I hope this will all become clearer and make more sense after I have had some time to ponder the entire experience after my return home.

Today we continued on to the town of Triacastela named after the three castles that once stood here but, alas, are no longer in existence. It has been a pilgrim refuge since medieval times like most of our destinations so far. Our way to Triacastela passed through a string of small villages as we descended from the heights of O’Cebreiro down to the lower plain where we are spending the night. The scenery, while reminiscent of the Pyrenees had an ethereal beauty of its own, especially in the morning before the mountain mists and clouds dissipated as the sun rose.

image

imageWe crossed over a couple of mountain peaks at altitudes as high as 1,335 meters. At one such peak (Alto San Roque) we saw the large statue of a medieval pilgrim straining against the mountainous winds and looking out over the mountain scenery. We also began hearing the sounds of cowbells again – a sound we haven’t heard since our time in the Pyrenees. This time, unlike before, the bells were actually on the necks of cows. The region is known for its artisanal cheeses and the lush green pastureland provides an ideal diet for the truly contented cows we saw dotting the landscape.

image

Tomorrow we continue on to the town of Sarria. As noted before, this is where we begin to see the larger number of new pilgrims that will be joining us as we make our way to Santiago. Our itinerary indicates that we will arrive in Santiago in one week – exactly as we had planned so many weeks ago.

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trabadelo and O’Cebreiro (Days 32 and 33 on the Camino)

image
imageYesterday we continued our pilgrimage by heading toward the town of Trabadelo, a small mountain village along the way. The hike followed very closely a highway on one side and the Pereje river on the other side. The highway used to be a major thoroughfare but, with completion of a nearby freeway, the traffic has been greatly reduced and really wasn’t too distracting at all. The scenery was lovely as we gradually ascended into the foothills of the Galician mountains. We also passed through a region of vineyards supplying grapes for the wonderful local wines that were starting to display their lovely autumn colors as the weather has cooled.

image

We stayed at a very nice albergue in town and had a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. It is still amazing to us the quality of food we receive on the “pilgrim menus.” This night we enjoyed leek and potato soup (homemade), vegetarian lasagna, two bottles of local wine, and a homemade brownie for dessert – all for only 9.50 euros! As a bonus, the owner of the restaurant brought out some of her homemade liquors. She had used a local grappa as the base, which she then infused with blackberries in one case and herbs in the other. These were wonderful. While we were enjoying this treat, she brought out a jar full of local cherries which she had macerated in grappa. It was a special treat and we counted it as another Camino grace – one of the special, unexpected gifts that make the Camino so special.

imageToday we crossed over into the province of Galicia and are no longer in Castilla y Leon. Galicia is the final province we will traverse on our pilgrimage. It contains the city of Santiago as its crown jewel. The trail today was the most demanding since our first day crossing the Pyrenees. Our destination was the town of O’Cebreiro which sits in the top edge of range of mountains known as the Galician Mountains. The hike was grueling as we saw an elevation gain of over 700 meters during the final 7-8 kilometers. It was steep and challenging. Parts of the trail were in very difficult condition and rain from the past few days made the going muddy and slippery in many areas. But, we were rewarded with stunningly beautiful scenery and were blessed with a day without rain. Plus we made it to the top and found beds still available in the local albergue, so we ended up well.

image
image

imageThe town of O’Cebreiro is yet another town that has provided support and comfort to pilgrims since the start of the last millennium. It is small in size but has many beautifully maintained stone homes and shops as well as one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Camino – the O’Cebreiro Iglesia, which dates in part to the 9th century and is the oldest extant church associated directly with the Camino de Santiago. There is an interesting miracle associated with this church. Our guidebook states that “a haughty celebrant of the mass, dismissive of a devout and humble peasant, saw the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ as he offered them to the supplicant who had risked life and limb to attend mass in a terrible snowstorm.” The chalice and paten are still displayed inside the church.

image

By the way, our guidebook indicates that the proper pronunciation of O’Cebreiro is “Oh- thay-bray-air-oh.” The “th” sound for the “C” is common in Galicia (which the locals pronounce Ga-lee-thee-ah). We also hear people thanking us by saying gra-thee-as (for gracias.) The story I heard was that this custom originated because one of the region’s kings had a lisp and the courtiers, in order to show loyalty to him, also began pronouncing words with a lisp. Later the custom was continued in order to provide a tangible difference between the language of their region and that of other competing regions. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this story, but the custom of pronouncing words this way has endured.

The view from our albergue in O'Cebreiro.  Not too shabby!

The view from our albergue in O’Cebreiro. Not too shabby!

By arriving in O’Cebreiro we have completed the last of the major ascents on the Camino and will only be dealing with level ground, descents, and a few minor ascents from here on out. We have now walked about 633 kilometers and only have about 155 kilometers to go. The biggest other change we will notice is the dramatic increase in the number of pilgrims hiking with us. To qualify for a compestela a pilgrim is only required to walk at least 100 kilometers. So, many pilgrims do just that. And, as we approach that magic distance (near the town of Sarria) we will encounter many new pilgrims hiking with us, which will perhaps make the walk less enjoyable and may make finding a bed more challenging, but we will do our best to keep in the spirit of the Camino and welcome these new pilgrims as they join us on the way.

We're getting there!

We’re getting there!

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ponferrada and Cacabelos (Days 30 and 31 on the Camino)

image
imageYesterday we continued our trek down from the mountains around Acebo and onto the plain below. At times the hike was quite treacherous with loose stones, steep trails, exposed bedrock, and slippery conditions, since it had been raining on and off during the night and into the morning. We had to deploy our rainwear again for awhile. But, although a bit awkward, the rain gear was effective and generally kept us and our equipment dry. As compensation for our wet walk were treated to some more stunning mountain scenery, but it was a welcome relief as the trail finally leveled off and we approached the town of Molinaseca.

image

imageThe delightful town on Molinaseca is entered by crossing a handsome medieval stone bridge. We stopped to rest briefly on the bridge and were approached by a group of Portuguese tourists who asked if they could be photographed with us. We happily complied and smiled while several of the tourists had their pictures taken with “real” pilgrims. I guess we looked scruffy enough to be classified as authentic pilgrims and worthy of being photographed. It gave us both a real kick to have attracted this much attention from these friendly tourists.

After leaving Molinaseca we immediately began to enter the suburbs of Ponferrada, our destination for the day. Ponferrada is another of the beautiful cities found along the Camino. It has about 60,000 citizens and all the amenities you would expect with a city of this size. The only amenity we were not able to locate was a source of WiFi. The albergue did not have it and none of the bars or restaurants we visited did either – very strange since in other towns on the Camino (even the smallest hamlet) we have generally been able to connect to the Internet fairly easily.

imagePonferrada is the capital of El Bierzo, a region in Castilla y Leon with a unique microclimate that produces fine local wines and a noted regional style of pork sausage. The city of Ponferrada gets its name from a bridge that was reinforced with iron as far back as the 11th century. The area is known for its iron and coal deposits which have been mined here for centuries. So, the Iron Bridge (Pons Ferrada) ended up supplying the city with its modern name. The highlight of the city’s large historic district is the magnificent Templar Castle which dates to the 12th century. I have traveled fairly extensively in Europe and have seen many castles, but I have to say, this was the castle-iest castle I have ever seen! This is what a castle is supposed to look like! I kept expecting Monty Python in chain mail to appear from around the corner looking for a shrubbery or some Spam! But that was not to be.

image

In the historic district were also the beautiful 16th century Basilica de la Encina and a 16th century clock tower – both worth seeing.

image
image

imageIn the morning we continued on to our destination for the day, Cacabelos – another in the string of towns along the Camino that have cared for pilgrims over the centuries. We were rained on again for much of the morning and are expecting even more rain tomorrow. Actually, with the proper rain gear, hiking in the rain is not as bad as it might seem. It adds a new dimension to the Camino that we have not experienced much up until now. And, it was well that we had rain today since the Camino this morning was physically on a country road for much of the time, leading from one sleepy, unremarkable town to the next. Not a whole lot to see. We picked our albergue today in large part because it had a true luxury for us – a clothes washer and dryer. We have been washing our clothes by hand, but with the rainy weather it hasn’t been practical for them to dry in the time available. So, today we splurged for clean clothes – a true luxury for us poor pilgrims.

We spotted an actual egg plant!

We spotted an actual egg plant!

Tomorrow we will continue on toward the town on O’Cebreiro, a couple of days away. The approach to that town will be the final brutal ascent of the Camino. We will be climbing almost 700 meters (2100 feet) over a span of about 7-8 kilometers. It will be tough, especially if we encounter more rain. But, we are promised stunning view of the valley as we make the ascent. The Camino has its way of paying us back for the sacrifices we make to reach our destinations.

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Acebo (Day 29 on the Camino)

image
imageWe visited one of the iconic landmarks on the Camino de Santiago this morning (there seem to be so many) – La Cruz de Ferro, or The Iron Cross. Getting there required a bit of exertion since this is the highest point on the Camino (1,505 meters/4,940 feet.) The climb was not too steep but the elevation change was about 400 meters from Rabanal and the condition of the trail was not always the best. It was quite chilly as we departed the albergue and the winds were fairly strong as we crossed the mountain range. It had been threatening rain, but we didn’t see more than a few isolated sprinkles. We may see more rain in coming days. But, the cool weather is conducive to hiking, so we didn’t complain too much.

image

We have also ascended into a very mountainous region and are being treated to spectacular views such as we haven’t seen since we left the Pyrenees. The trees are just starting to display their fall colors and we were treated to that as well.

Trees in the early morning light.

Trees in the early morning light.

imageThe Cruz de Ferro itself is a simple iron cross that has been mounted atop a tall (about 40 foot) post. It is surrounded by a veritable mountain of stones – which carries the most abiding significance for the landmark. Over the centuries, pilgrims have carried stones with them from their hometowns. As a pilgrim approaches the Cruz de Ferro he or she thinks about issues, concerns, or thanksgivings that are especially meaningful. Upon reaching the cross, the pilgrim tosses the stone(s) onto the pile with the intention that the specific issues or concerns will travel with the stone and be left behind at the landmark. I have been giving this a lot of thought for months and had brought two stones from the top of Cowles Mountain in San Diego (the highest point in the city) and one from our family farm up in Washington. It was a simple but moving ritual to leave these stones and their assigned meanings behind at the Cruz de Ferro. I felt emotionally lighter as we walked away.

image

imageThe trail leading away from the cross and down the other side of the range was steep and fairly treacherous with loose stones and ruts that needed constant attention to safely navigate. We were reminded that walking downhill can be as strenuous (or more so) than walking uphill. We are spending the night in an albergue in the town of Acebo, a typical mountain town that provides support and comfort to tired pilgrims such as us. Tomorrow we will continue on the the city of Ponferrada (population of 62,000.). It is amazing to me how our pilgrimage along the Camino has taken over our lives and become our sole focus as we walk relentlessly toward our goal – now only a little more than a week away.

image

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Astorga and Rabanal del Camino (Days 27 and 28 on the Camino)

image
imageOver the past few days we have slowly been gaining altitude as we approach and enter the foothills of the Mountains of Leon that sit between us and the final miles leading into Santiago. Over the next day or two we will continue to climb, peaking out at the highest point on the Camino (1505 meters in altitude.) This is the site of the famous Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) – but, more about that when we arrive there. As we have moved west, the agriculture has also been slowly changing. We are now hiking amidst fields of corn, mostly. As we ascend, the landscape is also becoming more wooded. Tomorrow we will ascend to the peak and then begin a slow descent of almost 900 meters leading into Ponferrada in a few days. This change is welcome since it provides us some variety while on the Camino.

imageOur planned destination for yesterday had been the city of Astorga (population of 12,000.) The city of Astorga turned out to be a lively and very stylish place with many fine restaurants and shops. The city is noted for its 15th century Gothic cathedral which features a magnificent portal leading to the main church doors. Also in the area are another building designed by Gaudi and the remains of a Roman era villa that have been exposed, including part of a lovely mosaic floor. Although we have become accustomed to seeing some of the finest Gothic cathedrals and churches as we have crossed Spain, we also occasionally encounter some stunning modern architecture in church buildings. One on the outskirts of Astorga was especially noteworthy for its lovely artistic design.

image
image
image

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the albergue we had chosen for the night it was closed (either just for the day or permanently – it was hard for us to tell.) So, we decided to press on to a tiny village a few kilometers beyond Astorga called Valdeviejas where we stayed in the equally tiny municipal albergue (only 10 beds.) There was nothing going on for us in this hamlet, but that had some charm of its own. It was very quiet and restful. We had a room to ourselves and found the experience, overall, to be quite pleasant.

imageSince the village was too small to have its own restaurant, the hospitaleros (albergue staff) phoned a restaurant in the next town over and, at no extra charge, they sent over a car to pick us up and take us to the restaurant – and returned us when we were done eating. This restaurant featured a local cuisine specialty known as “cocido maragato” which we decided to sample. Our meal started off with a hearty plate of roasted pork with cuts from all parts of the pig followed by a plate of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and cabbage, then with a bowl of broth with fine noodles, and finished with flan. It was delicious! There is a local population of people known as the Maragatos and this cuisine is a specialty of their culture.

imageLeading up to the city of Astorga was the Cruceiro Santo Toribo, a beautiful stone cross overlooking the city where the 5th century Bishop Toribo reportedly fell to his knees in a final farewell to the city after having been banished.

Today marked our 28th day on the Camino – four full weeks. We just shake our heads in disbelief when we look at the map and see how far we have walked to date. We are 2/3 of the way to Santiago! We have covered about 550 kilometers on foot to date. And only(!) have about 240 kilometers to go. So far, this has been a truly amazing experience and we are feeling differences not only in our bodies but in our personalities as well. It will be very interesting to think back and consider the changes after we return to our homes in a few weeks.

Tonight we are staying in the town of Rabanal del Camino – a town that has been caring for pilgrims for centuries. The Knights Templar had a presence here as early as the 12th century protecting pilgrims from danger, although we don’t think there are many more of them around today – just an order of monks who sing Gregorian chants at their services in the local church. The path leading up to Rabanal was increasingly wooded and serves as a foretaste of the hike we will encounter tomorrow as we approach the Cruz de Ferro.

image

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hospital de Orbigo (Day 26 on the Camino)

image
imageOur walk today continued alongside the same motorway we followed yesterday. It was not a particularly interesting walk, but there were a few stretches that veered away from the highway for a bit and offered us a quiet, shady path, which was nice. Our destination today was the town of Hospital de Orbigo (population of 1100) which has been a refuge point for pilgrims since medieval times.

imageThis town is justly famous for the 13th century bridge that spans the rio Orbigo leading into town. The bridge has a fascinating history and an interesting legend associated with it. The bridge is one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain and is one of the most famous landmarks along the Camino. It has witnessed many battles during its long history, but it’s legendary jousting tournament is perhaps one of the most interesting stories associated with the structure. In the year 1434, a knight from Leon (Don Suero de Quinones) was scorned by the woman he loved. As a result, he challenged any knight who dared to pass over the bridge to a jousting battle. Knights from all over Europe took up the challenge and Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until he had broken the 300 lances he had pledged to use in its defense. Thus, he retained his honor, although it doesn’t appear that the lady changed her mind. He later travelled on to Santiago to give thanks for his newly restored honor. There are indications that Cervantes may have used this story as inspiration for his character, Don Quixote.

image

Jousting Arena

Jousting Arena

Today there is a modern jousting arena beside the bridge, but we were not challenged and weren’t required to joust in order to cross the bridge. It was a much more civil affair today. Tomorrow we are planning to continue on to the town of Astorga.

With another Camino pilgrim!

With another Camino pilgrim!


image

¡Buen Camino!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment