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Walkin’ down a country road…

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I left Treacastela about 9:00am after grabbing some “breakfast” at the only open café. (Coffee, juice and…toast! Yay, toast!) The weather was perfect for walking.

The Camino splits in Treacastela and I had already determined that I would take the “high” (and shorter) road.

I was walking very slowly (even for me) with frequent rest stops. Lots of uphill on this route. But no reason to hurry! And the scenery was magical.

I passed a number of tiny villages – most just a few houses and usually a little church.

One church had some interesting history and a beautiful interior. Alas, I neglected to take a picture of the informational sign outside but it is right on the French Way and has apparently been a stopping place for Pilgrims for several hundred years.

Further up the way was a fountain with the Camino scallop shell. Also, cows.

Such a different landscape than when I was walking the first week!

Oh, and I found an Ent. He was very calm.

So far there had been no services and I was getting a bit light-headed. When I got to the little village of Montàn, there was a vending machine where I bought some juice and a candy bar…and then, just a few hundred feet later, a wonderful donativo snack stand with fresh fruit, cookies, nuts, tea and…hard boiled eggs! A feast!

I sat down on a stone walk a little ways down the path and suddenly, the man who had been running the snack stand came and pulled some branches across the road. It seems that it was time for the sheep to be directed out into the field. They came in a clump, baa-ing and looking confused, as sheep tend to do.

I continued on the road, glad that I was taking my time so I could really appreciate everything. (Not that I had a choice! My stamina was pretty low after a week “off” being sick!)

After a while, I saw the sign for Fintín and was walking down a stone road. And there was my lovely hotel, waiting for me!

I plan to keep with the slow pace and lower mileage. And I’ll continue to have my pack transported – it makes a huge difference. Tomorrow I’ll go a bit past Sarria (a big city and very crowded) and stay a few kilometers down the road in Vilei. Slow and steady!

¡Hola, Galicia!

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After 4 days, it was time to leave my little nest in Valtuille.

I was originally going to try to take a train to Sarria and continue from there, but train times and schedules have been cut back since the pandemic. Susan and Rocío suggested that they drive me to Treacastela, a town about 12 miles before Sarria. They also insisted on taking a detour to Ó Cerbreio, a town at the very top of a mountain. It would have been quite a climb! I was happy not to have to make the ascent but very glad to see the town.

O Cebreiro has grown from a small and ancient village of dairy farmers into a small and ancient village of large scale tourism. 😁

Even in the fog, the views were stunning.

The parish church is the setting for a miracle. According to legend, The Holy Grail was hidden there and in the 14th century produced a miracle that was certified by Pope Innocent VIII. A peasant from a local village braved the hike up to O Cebreiro during a dangerous snowstorm to hear mass. The priest chastised him for endangering his life for a bit of bread and wine. At that the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood, cementing the reputation of this small hamlet.

We carried on to Treacastela. For the next few days, I’m planning to stay in private rooms and walk only 6 – 8 miles per day. My pensión is right on the Camino and has a restaurant attached. And my room has a balcony! (Rocío approved – she had already informed me that if it didn’t look right, they were taking me back!)

The view from my balcony!

My latest COVID test was decidedly negative. Tomorrow I will (slowly) head toward Pintin, where I have a reservation at another pensión. And the weather is supposed to improve.

“La Biznaga” – an unexpected gift

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If you visit Malaga, you’ll notice the little bunches of white flowers that are sold in the streets. They are biznagas and they are a symbol of the city. Biznagas are handmade, using jasmine and the stalk of a nerdo, a kind of thistle that is collected in late spring. The jasmine flowers are inserted onto the umbels of the nerdo when they are still closed. In the evening, the flowers open up, releasing their characteristic fragrance. The word biznaga comes from the Arabic and means “a gift of God”.

I have spent the past three days at “La Biznaga” – an albergue in the tiny village of Valtuille – owned by Susan and Rocío, who were truly gifts from God to me.

Susan and Rocío have dreams of creating a sanctuary here for pilgrims passing through on the Camino, which runs right past their door. They purchased the property about a year ago and have redone the bathroom and kitchen (where Rocío cooks amazing meals.)

Right now, they have two bedrooms for pilgrims, but there are plans. Big plans!

The large building attached to the main house, which once was used for hanging and drying tobacco, will become a comfortable dormitory with bunk beds, two bathrooms, showers and a warm heating unit in the center.

Against the back wall will be a big window, looking out over their gardens and towards the mountains.

And they imagine a pool of clear, cold water under a tree, for weary travelers to soak their tired feet.

They have been the most gracious and generous hosts imaginable. I’ve been fed delicious meals, kept warm and dry and been able to rest as much as I like. Tomorrow they have offered to drive me to Treacastela, so that I may continue my Camino (slowly.) I am feeling much better and have hopes that I may yet reach Santiago this trip.

And at some point, I’d like to come back to La Biznaga. ❤️

The kindness of strangers…

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After I posted about my COVID situation on a Camino Facebook group, lots of people wrote with encouraging words and thoughts. I was fully prepared to stay for several more days in the hotel, although it was an expense and kind of sterile.

Then, out of the blue, I got a PM that said: Hello Julie, we’re very sorry about your situation. We are an Albergue de Donativo with two bedrooms. If you want we give you one of those while you recover from Covid and stay with us all the time you need. We can pick you up in Astorga as well. Albergue La Biznaga is our place in Valtuille de Arriba just before Villafranca del Bierzo. Well this is the help we can give you if you want it, tell us something please. Rocío y Susan

After a little thought, I accepted. We had a brief video chat and this morning, they drove all the way to Astorga to get me…over an hour each way! Two lovely women in their mid-fifties who went out of their way to help a total stranger.

I am now comfortably ensconced in one of the bedrooms, with a cup of mint tea. Rocío is going to cook for me later and Susan has been very clear that I should feel like this is my home for the next few days. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and grace.

No plans for now…just rest. One day at a time. It’s beautiful here in the little village. The saying “The Camino provides” has turned out to be true, after all.

COVID on the Camino

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After a few days of fighting what I thought was a cold, I had been feeling much better. Walked 10 miles with my pack, had a good appetite (some decent paella) and a good nights sleep. So I didn’t think much of it when I felt kinda tired this morning starting out from Hospital de Óbrigo. The weather was a bit damp and chilly and I had my poncho on.

The morning light was lovely, as usual. After about 2 miles I came to Villares de Óbrigo. Nothing was open yet, but I did pass a little place where a man was giving out water and snacks.

I continued through the town and as I came to the beginning of the dirt path, I suddenly was hit with an absolute wave of weakness, far more than normal tiredness. It was like I simply could not keep walking. I turned around and went back to ask that man if I could get a taxi to Astorga. He drove me himself and let me out right near the Cathedral. (I gave him €20 for gas.)

I contacted my reserved Albergue and asked if I could come early. When I got there, I explained that I had suddenly become ill. The proprietor (who was very kind) wisely advised me to get a COVID test before checking in.

So I did. And it was positive. Damn.

So now…I am holed up in a private the Gaudi Hotel, a fairly posh place. The room is comfortable with real towels and an actual bathtub. There’s a restaurant on site with decent food. I have TV, internet and there are even a few English novels in one of the lounges.

The guy at the desk has been very nice and told me not to worry because “COVID right now is very mild.” I hope he’s right.

So far, I have very mild symptoms, like a cold but with extra tiredness. I’ll sleep, drink fluids, watch bad TV and see how I feel in a few days. I’m booked here through Sunday. Nothing I can do but wait it out. And at least this is right across the street:

As I walk on, my thoughts keep a-tumblin’…

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Todays walk was 10 miles of flat, mostly paved road with very little to break up the view. Farms and fields, with the occasional tractor rumbling by.

So, as I walked, I mused about various topics. One of them was the human need for ritual, and how we express that both through religious customs/beliefs and in our daily lives.

The entire Holy Week experience is based on ritualized reenactment of what we imagine Jesus’ last days to have been. In both Protestant and Catholic traditions, certain very specific words are said and certain very specific actions are performed. It’s always the same, and there is comfort in that sameness. The entire Catholic Mass itself is a ritual, it’s format set and exact, no matter where in the world you are. So, theoretically, a practicing Catholic would feel at home attending Mass in Spain, or in Boston, or in Zambia. The ritual would remain the same.

Those of us brought up in the Protestant branch may find this peculiar, although all Protestant sects have some of the same liturgy and sacraments. For Protestants, church is more interactive and fluid. (And we sing hymns.)

(Quakers, of course, dispensed with all of it and spend an hour “waiting upon the Lord.” In silence, unless someone is moved to speak. But even then, there is the ritual of the closing of Meeting for Worship and the fellowship that comes after.)

I imagine all religions have their own rituals. There are more than 10,000 distinct religions in the world and each one has specific practices that adherents follow and cling to. And those who follow no religion? They create their own rituals and customs, whether or not they identify as a member of any organized group.

(If you doubt this, think about “making a wish and blowing out the birthday candles.”)

We all desire some kind of order and certainty in a chaotic and disorganized world. And we all find it in different ways and different places. We tend to hold tightly to our beliefs and often push back, sometimes quite hard, against anything that questions or challenges us. And yet…I believe it is that by questioning we may come to a new understanding of ourselves, of others and of this crazy world.

As I got closer to my destination, some cows greeted me.

I also saw these huge birds (cranes? storks?) and a nest a pair had built high in the electrical tower.

After about 6 miles, I came to a town and a albergue that had a cafe…and they made me eggs and toast! Eggs!

Finally, after the Camino took me behind some factories and along an industrial section, I arrived at Hospital de Òbrigo and my albergue. It’s lovely, with a garden and a “painting station” for Pilgrims to create artwork that is the hung on the walls.

And now…time to find some food! Tomorrow it’s on to Astorga (and a hilly section, so I’ll be using the pack transport service!)

City sidewalks…

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Little shrines along the Way

I left Leon around 9:30am on Saturday. I was hoping to attend a 9:00am mass so I could see the inside of the cathedral, but the place was shut tight. However, I did see them packing up the statues from the processions. They are really elaborate works of art. They must have an entire warehouse in which to store them during the year.

I had a short day planned; only 5 miles and a stop at La Virgen del Camino, a town right outside of Leon. It was just as well, as I was feeling a bit under the weather. The path out of the city took me through the Plaza San Marcos and across the Bernesga River.

The walk was not difficult, but it was decidedly unlovely. Still, the signs for the Camino were evident.

I came across some hobbit-holes. I’m not sure what they actually were!

And, even in the midst of what was basically a suburban town, there were remnants of older times.

Shortly outside of La Virgen del Camino was a most welcome stop.

It was donation only and he had a map for pilgrims to pinpoint their place of origin.

I arrived at my pensión soon after. After getting settled, I had a beer and a (complimentary) dish of the most delicious olives I have ever tasted.

I visited the basilica just down the street. Very modern and different than the cathedrals I’d been seeing.

By now I was hungry for some real food. But it was 5:30pm! What a silly time to want food! I went to a little place near the basilica and the guy said he’d try to find me something…and he did. A left-over portion of ham & cheese omelet with (of course) some bread. And wine. And that was supper.

By now I was sure I was developing a classic head cold. I dosed myself with various aids I had bought at the pharmacy, arranged for my bag to be picked up in morning and crashed.

Easter Sunday, I had hoped there might be a sunrise service. But that doesn’t seem to be a thing here. So I set out towards my next stop, Villar de Mazarife.

This is on the “Camino Alternitivio” which is a little longer, but doesn’t run bang up next to the highway. A much more pleasant walk.

Nothing was open when I left. When I got to the first little town the one cafe was closed. In the second, there was one cafe open and it advertised “desayuno especial.” I was so excited…but apparently that is only during the week. “What DO you have?” I asked. “Tostada,” he responded. So I had toast for breakfast. They love toast in Spain, it seems.

Arriving in Chozos de Abazo, there were many hand-painted signs advertising a bar (which in Spain, is more like a cafe.). This guy had even gone to the trouble of painting Camino-like arrows pointing towards his establishment. The rest of the town seemed absolutely deserted. But I was optimistic. Sure enough, it was open and there was food. Sort of. I had chicken wings, fried potatoes and bread. The chicken was dry, the potatoes were oily and the bread was stale. But – when you’re the only game in town, who cares. It was nourishment. And the orange juice was fresh squeezed at least.

For the last 3 miles, I was walking on the road. Very few cars and only a couple of other pilgrims.

I was happy to see the sign for Villar de Mazarife. My Albergue was right off the Camino and my bag had arrived yay.

They have a bar with beer on tap and a Pilgrims meal later. It’s not crowded and I’m sitting in the garden and thinking about having a second beer. Tomorrow I’ll press on to Hospital de Órbigo.

Lunacy in Leon

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When I booked two nights in Leon, I didn’t quite realize that 1) Holy Thursday is kind of like a bacchanal here and 2) the hostel I booked was NOT a typical pilgrims hostel.

I had a nice train ride into the city and walked the mile to my hostel. The streets were full and there was already evidence of a party atmosphere.

I had to backtrack several times, as Google was getting confused with all the narrow streets and alleys. People were everywhere, most holding a glass of wine or beer.

I made my way through the crowd and finally found my place. It seemed nice and the girl at the desk showed me the dorm where I’d be staying. “Just choose any empty bed,” she told me. So I took one in the corner, got my stuff organized and went out to get something to eat and see what was happening. The streets seemed twice as crowded as they had been a hour before.

I found what seemed like a decent restaurant and asked the waitress what she recommended off the menu. “Well,” she said, “if you really want to try something different and from the region, have the manos de cerdo.

I checked the translation; looked like pork with shrimp. Decided to try it. Big mistake. It looked like a stew. Sort of. The flavor was good but it was slimy and slurpy and oily in texture. (I’m still not quite sure what it was…). However, the bread was fresh, the wine was local and the dessert recommended was excellent. (Most expensive meal I’ve had so far. Go figure.)

There was a procession just starting and people were lining the narrow way. Everyone had wine or beer and tapas were being passed around. Soon the drums and brass music began. The floats were pretty impressive. They were physically carried by at least 100 people, all dressed in the traditional costume of the penitent.

Now it was almost 11pm and I made my way back to the hostel. I knew most of the people in my dorm would likely be out very late, but I had my bunk all ready and hung a sheet in front for an illusion of privacy. I was set for the night. Not.

Suffice it to say that the “choose any empty bed” lady was talking out her…ear. I had to move once, two other people had to move as well, I was awakened twice because someone thought I was their friend in that bed, a very drunk and very confused Dutch guy had to be talked into taking a different bed and everyone got annoyed and frustrated.

By 5:00am, I had had enough. I decided “a la mierda esta mierda” (fuck this shit!) grabbed my phone and booked a proper hotel for the next night. I was up and out of the room by 7:00am. I had a word with the guy at the front desk, who profusely apologized and refunded me for a night.

I knew I couldn’t check in so early but I wanted to get out of there, so I figured I’d start walking towards the hotel. And there was an incredible morning procession happening in the main plaza. With 12 different floats, all depicting a scene from the Good Friday story. I didn’t capture them all, and my vantage point wasn’t the best, but they were fantastic.

Behold the man!
Carrying the cross to Cavalry
Jesus taking “the cup” in the Garden of Gethsemane

I made my way to the Cathedral where I sat in view of the procession and had a coffee and croissant. In order to get to my hotel, I had to basically follow Jesus down a narrow street until I got to the door!

And now…finally! I’m in my REAL hotel room with no confused drunk Dutchman looking for his bed. There’s a terrace and real towels. I’ll nap, shower and then have a stroll around the city.

Bus to Burgos…

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The next portion of the Camino was going to be the “meseta”. The meseta is the name given to the large and expansive flat plains of central Spain. Beginning just after Burgos, and ending in Astorga, the Camino Frances travels through the northern point of the meseta for approximately 220km. It is renowned for it’s long stages, empty landscapes, and big skies, while often being very hot and dry in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.

I decided to skip it and bump ahead, first by bus to Burgos and then a train to Leon. This would give me time to explore two really interesting cities, and perhaps allow me to reach Santiago by mid-May.

The bus from Belorado got me there by 10:00am. Since my albergue didn’t open until 1:00, I used the time to get some breakfast and sit in the square. My poor shoes were absolutely caked with dried mud and I took the opportunity to clean them. I have a little credit-card sized tool I used to dig out the crevices. The shoe on the left is done, the one on the right is not! And so, I left some of the Camino in the main square.

The sun had come out and the square was bustling. I was in the Plaza Santa Maria, where the extraordinary 800-year old Cathedral stood.

After I got into my albergue, I got a proper lunch (wine included of course) and then a nap. There was only one other person in my dorm room – a girl from Belgium who was just finishing up 2 weeks on the Camino.

I wandered around the city for a while.

Statue of El Cid
Weird trees I saw all over the area
Topiaries
Carousel in Plaza Mayor

My feet were really tired, so I stepped inside the cathedral. The main part was closed but there was a little chapel off to the side that said (in Spanish) “No tours. For worship and prayer only.” I walked in and was astonished to see the most ornately decorated chapel. Cherubs popping out everywhere and symbolic depictions of various saints. And at the very top of the altarpiece was Jesus on a horse, wearing a turban, wielding a sword and crushing some unfortunate Moors.

It turned out they were just starting a Pilgrim’s Mass. So I stayed…and spent much of the time just taking in the intricate detail of the place.

Later that night two processions were scheduled. I saw one…a very solemn affair with brass bands, people dressed in the traditional costumes of the penitent (which look disturbingly like KKK robes but predate them by hundreds of years) and a depiction of the crucified Christ.

It was now 10:00pm, the latest I’d been up since I arrived in Spain! The Plaza was all lit up and the place was still bustling with activity.

I really wanted to see inside the main part of the Cathedral, so the next morning I attended an “Oficio de Lecturas y Laudes” – a service of lessons and songs. This time there was a booklet so I could follow along. It was very ritualized, as are most Catholic services. There were 10 officiants and none looked a day under 60 years old. A greying clergy. The inside of the main cathedral was stunning. (Note: I took these pictures after the service had concluded.)

I was determined to see the famous medieval castle, so after a little breakfast, I schlepped myself up the steep pathway. The origin of the castle dates to the Visigoths, and its oldest parts, to the Romans. Apparently it was last used by Napoleon. Some history here.

Amazing views from the top. The whole thing was very Lord of the Rings.

There was a little cafe there and I stopped for an Amstel with lemon. Weirdly, there was an old caboose. I asked the bartender ¿Por qué hay un vagón de ferrocarril aquí? (Why is there a railroad car here?). He shrugged. Best I could tell, his answer was something like “Nobody was using it anymore, so they put it here.”

I made my way down the hill and found a place serving lunch…the biggest hamburger I have ever encountered. Seriously, the thing was on a piece of focaccia about 6 inches square. I saved half for later haha.

And now, I go to find my train to Leon!

The sky is gray and white and cloudy…

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The forecast was for rain, so I had my poncho at the ready and put my pack cover on. It was misty and overcast when I took back to the road at about 8:30am.

It’s hard to describe the morning light here and the pictures don’t do it justice. There’s a soft glow over everything.

It was windy, but it never rained. I had planned a fairly short stage today – about 6 miles to Belorado. The first little town soon appeared.

The one and only cafe was just opening and there were Katrina and Amy! They had walked from Redecilla del Camino and were continuing on to Belorado where they planned to take a bus to Burgos.

I had coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a scrumptious omelette sandwich. No set price…donation only.

Apparently the village had recently celebrated its 1000th birthday!

The road now bordered the highway. The Camino was actually once the main road, so it kind of makes sense. I imagined pilgrims from 100s of years ago, making their way along this same path.

The next village, Villamayor del Rio, appeared. Katrina and Amy were here, and cavorting on the swing set in the square! I sat and had some peanuts and chocolate. There was supposed to be a cafe, but I didn’t see one.

About 3 more miles and I came to the edge of Belorado…and my albergue! I had reserved a room with twin beds, rather than bunks. (Many albergues don’t have this option…and this place even had sheets and blankets!)

I had a beer and snack. Wine would come later. And the “Pilgrim’s meal.”

Then…surprise! There was a swimming pool. Filled with clear, cold water. Too cold to actually swim, but my feet were very happy.

My Pilgrims credential is filling up. This being Holy Week, I’d like to see some of the festivities! I plan to take the bus to Burgos tomorrow and then the train to Leon the next day. I’ll celebrate Easter Sunday in a tiny little town called La Virgen del Camino. After that…I’ll see what the Camino says.