Getting in the Groove | Days 27 to 33

After hitting the halfway mark, the real trial is continuing day after day after day. Yup another medieval bridge, another church dedicated to St. James, more scallop shells than you can shake a stick at . . . but we’re getting there. We are feeling stronger each day and find that we are now passing people or catching back up to folks we saw pass us while taking a break.

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September 21 | Day 27

Mansilla de las Mulas to León

Stats | Hiked: 18.6 kilometers;  Weather: warm and clear;  People Met: 1;  Time on Trail: 6h/30m

Route: Leaving Mansilla de las Mulas, we passed by the ancient hill fortress of Lancia (where the indigenous Asturians met their demise at the hands of the Roman legions) on the hill across from us, barely visible at sunrise and stopped a few minutes later at the Casa Blanca albergue for breakfast. We ran into Tammy and she joined us for breakfast regaling us with the comical evening she had at the albergue the night before. After eating we left Villamoros de Mansilla and opting not to cross the Puente Ingente (Giant’s Bridge) with its 20-arch span we followed an older trail and climbed the hill near the radio tower.

We met Matthew (Jackson, MI) while we climbed and chatted with him as we followed the trail into Villarente. He’s from a large family and we compared stories of life with a large family, it was interesting to get the sibling perspective.

We passed through Villarente without stopping and headed towards Arcahueja where we planned to stop for another coffee or espresso. The morning was foggy and cool enough to need a jacket but the fog eventually lifted and we warmed considerably by the time we reached Arcahueja. Just before the town (which was small and rural) we found an interesting Camino graffiti mural that may have been on the side of an old bar, but was obscured by vines. The tree frog mural wished a “Buen Camino” and said “Croak” as well. It amused us, and Tammy as well who was hiking along side of us. We chatted with Tammy about the wealth of good wishes offered by locals who live along the Camino de Santiago. You get the idea that it is a privilege and not a bother for those whose homes border the Camino. So much of the time their homes are decorated with scallop shells or a ‘Buen Camino’ or some form of pilgrim art, though there are the occasional signs stating “No Camping” on the lawns, but even those are a rarity.

Having found an open café for our mid-morning espresso, Alan went inside to order while Tracy found an empty table outside. While waiting for Alan to return, Tracy was befriended by a pup left tied to a cement block. He was so intent on getting over to the table to meet her that he hauled the cement block across the dirt until he was within petting distance! Leaving Arcahueja, we followed the trail to Valdelafuente where we caught up with the N-601 headed to León. We ran into Enzo and Elena and chatted with them (via our own version of sign language) for a few minutes before crossing the busy highway, Tammy had kept hiking.

As we neared the Puente Castro district we caught back up to Tammy, our stride was stronger and we often found ourselves passing other pilgrims at this point. Just as we hit the rise where we would get our first glimpse of León we noticed a hot air balloon above us. While talking to Tammy about Reno’s Hot Air Balloon Races, we noticed four para-gliders circling the balloon. Enjoying this rare treat, we lost track of one of the gliders. He found us and buzzed over our heads a couple of times waving excitedly. We yelled hellos and waved back. He buzzed us one last time and yelled, “Buen Camino!” It was a totally cool experience.

Making our way over the Rio Torio and along the N-601, we left Tammy in the shade of a café where she stopped to wait awhile and catch her breath. We continued on and crossed the overpass bridge, which brought us to the outskirts of León, though it would be another hour before we reached the historic district. León is a very big city.

Upon reaching actual sidewalks, we spotted yellow glass markers set into the sidewalk and took a photo of the first one we noticed – which turned out to be a good idea as the remaining markers were broken and cracked. While walking along, we met a very nice elderly gentleman, dressed in suit and tie, who was passing us in the opposite direction, but stopped to wish us both a “Buen Camino.” We stopped and thanked him and though we didn’t expect a response, he chatted with us for another 15 minutes or so in English, impeccable English. He asked us what we thought of his beautiful town and we told him we were anxiously awaiting our exploration of the historic district. He told us to enjoy his city, as it was one of the prettiest in Spain. He mentioned that he had done the Camino as a younger man, and was always happy to see people come to his city from all over the world. We walked away wondering if he was a retired college professor of English. What a lovely man and a lovelier welcome to “his city.”

León is a beautiful city, even the suburbs are beautiful, but the historic district is Disney-esque with its amazing buildings, churches, cobbled streets, bistros, cafes, bars and shops, a truly beautiful place.

We found our destination, the Santa María de Carajal, a Benedictine Abbey adjacent to the tranquil Plaza de Santa María del Camino y Grano.

While waiting in line to check in, we ran into Doug and Stephanie who had already gotten settled in. Stephanie mentioned that the nuns separate all men and women regardless of marital status – we were surprised, but not offended and after checking in headed to our separate dorms. We ran into a small problem while trying to shower as all our personal hygiene stuff was in Alan’s pack as shampoo and such was shared between us. Not realizing this until too late, Tracy had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful courtyard while waiting for Alan to finish and leave the men’s dorm. Elena joined her after a while, also waiting for Enzo to realize that he had the shower supplies.

While awaiting the men, Tracy was witness to an embarrassing interaction between a woman and an 80-year-old Benedictine nun. The woman was asking where her luggage was (she was a taxi-grino – a pilgrim who doesn’t carry their gear but sends it ahead in a taxi each day). Part of the problem was that the nun didn’t speak English and the woman didn’t speak Spanish. Then the woman started yelling at the little old nun that her luggage was supposed to be there and why the hell didn’t anyone know where her stuff had been left by the taxi service (Jaco-Transport). Just as Tracy was getting up to tell the woman to calm down and stop yelling at the little nun another nun came and explained that Jaco-Transport didn’t deliver any baggage and that she should check with the other albergues nearby. It is almost humiliating to admit that the woman was an American.

After we had both showered Tracy got in line to deposit our laundry for the nuns, they’ll do your laundry for you for 6 euro. Stephanie came up and asked if she could put her stuff with ours and split the cost since we didn’t have a full load. We happily agreed.

After paying for our laundry service we headed out to get a bite to eat and explore the historic district. We found a Burger King and dined there, such a delight to have a good old-fashion cheeseburger and fries! Beer was also available on tap in the restaurant, Estrella, I believe it was.

Exploring the Barri Humedo (wet quarter, so called because of all the bars and cafes), we found a place that offered free wifi on the sign in the window. So we sat down and ordered a drink. When the server returned with our drinks we asked for the wifi password only to be told that they didn’t have wifi – what a disappointment!

Finishing our drinks we headed out to find the cathedral and while looking ran into a very sweet elderly lady who spoke no English, but kept pointing at the brass footprint imbedded in the cement and gesturing wildly to the end of the street. Realizing that we had no idea what she was saying she took Tracy’s arm and lead us to the end of the street and starting pointing to the right. Not understanding a single word she said, we told her thank you and headed off in the direction she suggested. We found the cathedral, but still have no idea if that’s what she was pointing out to us!

We visited the Cathedral de Santa Maria, 13th century Gothic, and spent about 45 minutes wandering through the interior. 125 stained glass windows make you feel as if you’re walking inside of a rainbow. Though the cathedral is Gothic, the interior feels light and airy, due mostly to the amazing windows and the extremely high barrel vault brick ceiling. We had the opportunity to witness the chiming of the clock, a 15th century installation that still works! It is not a pretty work of art, but is interesting to witness something that old operating as it has for centuries.

After wandering through the various chapels, checking out the main altar and organ pipes, we toured the outside of the cathedral, appreciating the amazing architecture.

From the cathedral we walked back along the Disney-esque market district, window-shopping along the way. We found an ice cream store and each ordered a double cone. As we continued meandering along, we saw a woman taking her leashed pet rabbit for a walk and a parade with a large band. Apparently some local children spotted the pet rabbit on a leash as well, we heard them giggling quietly as they passed us.

We heard music playing and wandered towards the sound finding ourselves in Plaza San Marcelo where a live band was performing. While listening, we noticed a building in the background that had a definite Gaudi feel to it and wandered over to investigate. We were correct, it was a Gaudi design, complete with a bronze sculpture of the architect seated on a park bench holding a sketch of the building, Casa de Botines, a beautiful Neo-Gothic design with tall thin spires adding a castle feel to the overall look. We took photos of each other posing with the statue and one of St. George the dragon slayer, whose stone carving was above the door – the ‘dragon’ looks more like an alligator, but we liked it anyway.

We wandered the streets, enjoying the sights and sounds of this amazing large town, and eventually found a café/bar with free wifi and ordered espresso and updated our family and Facebook friends. Getting back to the monastery, we gathered up our now clean laundry and headed to bed, separately.

Sites: Cathedral de Santa Maria, 13th century Gothic; Casa de Botines, Neo-Gothic, designed by Antonio Gaudi

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September 22 | Day 28

León to Villadangos del Paramos

Stats | Hiked: 21.3 kilometers;  Weather: hot and clear;  People Met: 0;  Time on Trail: 6h/35m

Route: As we were leaving the historic district, the Camino directed us past the Cathedral de Santa Maria in Plaza Regia which was beautiful in the early morning moonlight, then to Plaza Isidoro and the fountain built to commemorate the VIIth Roman Legion; the 11th century Basilica Church which was built on Roman foundations and part of the city wall; and the Pantheon which contains the burial vaults of 11 kings, 12 queens, and 23 princes. The Pantheon is a Romanesque masterpiece that houses 800-year-old frescos that are still vividly beautiful.

Next we passed through Plaza San Marcos and the Parador, a former 12th century pilgrim hostel that is now a five star hotel. The façade of the Parador is practically a storybook with the myriad of pilgrim motifs, including the Sword of St. James intertwined with Lion of San Marcos. A little further out we crossed the Rio Bernesga on a 16th century stone bridge and had a wonderful early morning view of the Palencia Bridge in the distance. Heading into the suburbs we came across another Pilgrim monument near the railway overpass, further along we passed an interesting wild-animal themed bar but unfortunately it wasn’t open for breakfast.

We entered Trobajo del Camino, a tiny suburb of León with many links to the original Camino, including a small chapel dedicated to St. James, Ermita Santiago. Just as we were leaving we saw the bodegas, hobbity-looking small portals into the hillside (which are actually wine cellars), and just had to take a few photos. Continuing through the suburbs we eventually followed the trail to La Virgen del Camino and stopped at a delightful pilgrim café that had a large crowd of pilgrims hanging out having breakfast. We found a table and ordered, visiting with those already seated. After breakfast, we passed by a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary with huge bronze statues of all 12 apostles. St. James is looking toward Santiago. The 1960s church is built on top of 16th century shrine erected at the spot where after a shepherd saw a vision of the Virgin who told him to throw a stone and build a church on the spot where it landed. The spot was a pilgrimage in its own right as word of the miracles performed there spread.

Leaving the cubist bronze statues we continued along the trail and taking the option for the Senda towards Villadangos, reaching Valverde de la Virgen about 45 minutes later. We stopped for a cold drink and met Barbara and Mark (Orange County, California) who had missed the earlier turn off and were having lunch while deciding whether or not to taxi back or walk back to the turn off to take the scenic route over the mountain. Their reservations were on the other route. We chatted with them while they awaited the taxi the bartender had called for them.

Heading back across the N-120 we picked up the trail again and made it into San Miguel del Camino about 30 minutes later, stopping to lunch in the square in front of the church with enormous bird nests in the bell tower. Our destination was Villadangos del Paramo, but we didn’t quite reach it. Stopping early at a truck stop with a hostel, we decided it was close enough to call it a day and get out of the heat. The hostel, Avenida III, had a restaurant/bar, free wifi and private baths – it was perfect. We ate dinner in the restaurant and went to bed early hoping to make up the additional 2 kilometers by leaving earlier than normal. The days were starting to get shorter and we noticed that to leave at sunrise we were having to wait a little longer each day to hit the trail, but we had scouted ahead a bit and the trail was wide and flat and we felt that with the moonlight we would be able to accommodate an earlier start time.

Sites: Cathedral de Santa Maria, 13th century, Gothic; Roman Fountain, built to commemorate the VIIth Roman Legion; Basilica Church, 11th century, built on Roman foundations and part of the city wall; Pantheon, Romanesque, containing the burial vaults of 11 kings, 12 queens, and 23 princes and houses 800-year-old frescos that are still vividly beautiful; Parador, a former 12th century pilgrim hostel

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September 23 | Day 29

Villadangos del Paramos to Astorga

Stats | Hiked: 29.3 kilometers;  Weather: hot and clear;  People Met: 6;  Time on Trail: 9h/0m

Route: We left the hostel early and headed toward Villadangos. The moonlight was not quite as sufficient as we had hoped due to the large trees lining the trail, but Alan had a small flashlight and it worked well in spotting Camino markers so we didn’t end up getting lost in the dark. We made it to Villadangos just as the early start pilgrims were leaving the albergue and chatting with a couple from Canada (never did get their names) we found that stopping early had been the better option. They told us that the accommodations were sub-par and that they were leaving earlier than normal just to leave the place. Cold water, fear of bedbugs, large cold dormitories – we definitely made the right choice.

Over the last week we had developed a system of stopping every two to three hours for a break of 15 to 20 minutes. Initially it was to allow Tracy to rest a while as she was still dealing with a head cold, but we found that these frequent breaks kept us feeling refreshed throughout the day. Leg and foot cramps had been keeping us up at night and we found that the breaks reduced these considerably so that we were well rested the next morning.

Keeping to our break schedule we made it to San Martin del Camino just as we were ready for breakfast and a rest break. We came across the Albergue del Camino and Alan went in to order breakfast and Tracy took the gear to one of the large picnic tables she spotted. While waiting for our meal, Tracy was befriended by a very large cat. He was enormous, and hungry! Tracy shared some of her croissant, the cat helped itself to a sip of coffee and when she finished her breakfast, the big fluffy guy who had been occupying her lap, got up and decided Alan could now share his breakfast as well! He was a very friendly kitty and we hadn’t spotted all that many cats, and fewer still that were friendly enough to demand to sit in your lap.

We left San Martin del Camino and continued along the Senda, stopping an hour later to readjust Tracy’s pack. The straps needed readjustment occasionally to keep from rubbing. While Tracy was correcting the strap issue, we met Sue and Bernadette (Edmunton, Canada). We were a bit surprised to learn that they were traveling without benefit of a guidebook as their friends back home said it wasn’t necessary to carry one. We thought that was odd, but kept silent about it.

Leaving our constant companion the N-120 freeway, we headed through some farmland toward Hospital de Orbigo. This small town is home to the Puente de Orbigo, the longest and most well preserved medieval bridge in Spain. It dates from the 13th century, but was built over an older Roman bridge, which was one of the great historical landmarks of the Camino. The lists appear on the left next to the river as you cross the bridge. We saw posters that noted a large number of events held here during the summer, including a jousting tournment!

[The bridge carries you across the Rio Orbigo via the passage of honor “Paso Honrosa” so called because of the famous jousting tournament that took place here in the Holy Year 1434. A noble knight from Leon, Don Suero de Quinones*, scorned by a beautiful lady, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge (and presumably his honor) against all comers. Knights from all over Europe took up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken. Together with his trusted comrades he then proceeded to Santiago to offer thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love and for his honor, now restored. ~ excerpt from John Brierley’s “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago”  

*Some believe that Don Suero may have been an inspiration for Cervantes’ Don Quixote. ]

Just as we were leaving town, we had to decide to take the green route (more climbing) or to stay along the Senda of the N-120. We took a look at the kilometers and found the Senda to be nearly three kilometers shorter and decided that we’d rather have a 29 kilometer day rather than a 32 kilometer day. So staying along the Senda, which appeared to be the popular choice as we ran into many people we knew, Tammy, Karen and Susan, Sue and Bernadette, Doug and Stephanie, Enzo and Elena just to name a few. We took a break about midway through this section of the trail after finding ourselves on an old section of freeway that was no longer in use. There was a small ravine off on the right and on the other side of the ravine was a huge clay bank that was full of nesting swallows, they looked like the photos of a Welcome Swallow, but it is difficult to tell since our good cameras were left at home. While we snacked on apples and chorizo, we met a fellow Nevadan also hiking the Camino. Ellis (Elko, Nevada) stopped and visited with us for a while, he was the only person we met from our home State during our entire trip. He was wearing a Wolf Pack t-shirt which was the conversation starter!

The Senda route rejoined the regular route about 10 kilometers later. We started climbing again, now very used to the small hills, which thankfully didn’t offer too much of a challenge any longer. At the top of the small hill we reached Cruceiro Santo Toribio, Astorga’s own Monte Gozo (Hill of Joy). From here we could see Astorga and Montes de Leon, the large mountain we would be climbing for the next few days. It is the highest point of the Camino.

Leaving the monument, we headed downhill into San Justo de la Vega, a small town four kilometers from Astorga. We had started a week earlier planning two different destinations each day, the closer of the two would be the place we would make the decision to either call it a day or continue to the second choice destination. Today San Justo was the initial destination, but after we sat down and had a beer and visited with Ed and Gail (Australia) – they were both Francophiles who had tons of ideas for places to visit in France – we decided that since we were both feeling strong today to continue on to Astorga.

Approaching the city of Astorga, we found ourselves having to cross the train tracks through a maze of an overpass. It was all ramps, but had like six turns before crossing the tracks, then another six or seven turns on the way town on the opposite side of the tracks, it was the largest pedestrian overpass we have ever seen.

Astorga, like so many cities that we had passed through was on a hill. The last hill of the day nearly wiped us out, it was by far the steepest street we have ever seen, which considering some of the streets in San Francisco is really saying something!

At the top of the hill we found the municipal albergue and got in line to check in. There was a little bit of confusion at the registration desk as the folks behind us kept trying to jump ahead and register for a large group of people. Finally, the hospitaliero asked the gentleman who was creating the problem, to please step back while he got everyone checked in. We don’t know if he allowed the guy to check in for himself and his 12 friends, since the municipal albergues don’t do reservations, but when Tracy saw him later, he looked angry, so we guessed he wasn’t allowed to check in for everyone.

Our bunks were on the third floor and thankfully the showers were free, otherwise we would have had to climb another flight of stairs just to shower. However, the laundry facilities were in the basement, two stories down from the ground floor. Five flights of stairs in each direction! Tracy took care of fetching the laundry basket, gathering the clothes and handing them to the hospitaliero who would wash and dry them, then Tracy could go back to the laundry room later in the evening to pick them up. Alan’s ankle was giving him some trouble and we didn’t think it was necessary for him to deal with an additional 10 flights of stairs!

After the laundry was squared away, we headed out to the plaza just in front of our albergue. Plaza San Francisco had a beautiful view of the Montes de Leon and overlooked the Jardin de la Sinagoga. We ran into Julie (Germany) and chatted with her for a little bit, she had done 40 kilometers that day!

Across the plaza was the Convento de San Francisco (Church of St. Francis of Assisi) – St. Francis himself is believed to have been in Astorga while on his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1212. Next to the church, under glass, are some beautifully preserved Roman foundations.

Further up the street we found Plaza San Bartolome with the beautiful Iglesia San Bartolome and the Ergastula, a Roman construction that was used over the centuries as an access tunnel, a slave enclave, a jail and now is a museum.

Across the plaza from the church and museum was a lovely watering hole and we stopped to have our post-hike beer. Like so many of the smaller towns, we sat at tables that were set up in the street. The historic district was closed to traffic except in the early mornings for deliveries and for market days when vendors set up their shops on the plazas lining the main street.

While finishing our daily journals and updating friends and family via Facebook, we chatted with one of the hospitalieros from our albergue. Arnold (Germany) was telling us about his Camino experiences – and there were many! He had hiked the Camino de Santiago seven times, each time taking a different trail through Spain and Portugal. He had never hiked the Camino Frances, saying that he will attempt it when he is retired since it takes so much longer than the others to complete.

Leaving the café/bar we headed towards Plaza Mayor where Arnold suggested we could find several restaurants open early to accommodate pilgrims – dinner in Spain is served much later in the day, usually around 9 pm. While checking out the available options for dinner we ran into Sue and Bernadette. They told us that the pizza restaurant did not have good food – which they had found out first-hand – and asked if they could take a photo of the next days information in our guidebook. Having determined earlier in the day that without a guidebook, they have no idea where the albergues are or how far it is to the next one, they said that the advice they had gotten back home was not good advice at all so they were taking photos of other peoples guidebooks since the books were only available in Spanish at the local shops.

We had the great luck while we chatted to be standing in front of the Ayuntamiento, 17th century with Baroque façade, as we chatted with our Canadian friends. This beautiful building houses one of the original flags from the Battle of Clavijo, and has an amazing clock built into the façade. While we were standing there visiting the clock started to chime. Two mechanical figures – a man and a woman dressed in Maragato costumes – circle around to strike the bell.

We didn’t realize at the time the number of Roman ruins around the city, but read later in the guidebook that there were Roman Baths, parts of the original Roman walls that are set up as an open-air museum, Porta Romana – the original Roman Gate and the ruins of a Roman Temple. But Astorga, while rich in its Roman history, is best known as the main center for the production of chocolate. There is even a chocolate museum!

After dinner we headed back to our albergue talking about how much we would both love to come back to Astorga for a much longer visit. For a smaller town, there are so many interesting things to see and do that we would definitely need to come back in the future.

Sites: Puente de Orbigo, 13th century with Roman origins, the longest and most well preserved medieval bridge in Spain; Convento de San Francisco (Church of St. Francis of Assisi) and the beautifully preserved Roman foundations; Ayuntamiento, 17th century, Baroque façade with clock

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September 24 | Day 30

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

Stats | Hiked: 21.4 kilometers;  Weather: warm and overcast;  People Met: 2;  Time on Trail: 7h/0m

Route: Early morning in Plaza San Francisco was beautiful if a bit chilly. Passing by the ruins of an old Roman building and following the markers past the Puerta de Rey, King’s Gate, in Plaza Santocildes, Palacio Episcopal, or Bishop’s Palace – a Neo-Gothic design by Gaudi with extremely tall turrets, and the Iglesia de Santa Marta, the 15th century Gothic Cathedral we finally hit the outer edge of the city and headed west to follow the trail.

After 45 minutes of hiking we arrived in Murias de Rechivaldo and stopped at a lovely little outside café for breakfast – croissant and café con leche – before heading back out on the trail. We had been enjoying stopping every few hours to rest and get something to drink and found that many of our fellow pilgrims were doing the same and we would have conversations throughout the day in 10 to 15 minute increments.

Arriving in Santa Catalina de Somoza we laughed at the tiny hobbity doors that Alan would have had to crawl through on his hands and knees to get inside. Though it had only been an hour or so we stopped for a cold drink. Tracy was dealing with a fever and sore throat so cold drinks throughout the day were a welcome relief.

We stopped at a couple of sites in Santa Catalina for photos and left when the day was starting to warm up considerably, hoping to get to the next stop before it warmed up too much.

El Ganzo was a very small town and though like many of the small Camino towns that have survived in this region for centuries – El Ganzo was a thriving stop on the Camino in the 12th century – this place in particular seemed to have a decayed feeling to it. We stopped at the Cowboy Bar for lunch. The cats there were very friendly and were more than happy to share some of our meal.

Barbara and Mark stopped in as our food arrived and we shared a few laughs with them. Barbara was telling us about a trip she and her brother-in-law had taken together. Her brother-in-law is a priest and because they were booked together they ended up with a double bed one night. The others on the tour found out that he was a priest and she was married and hilarity ensued for the remainder of the trip with some odd looks and whispered comments!

The guidebook told us that El Ganzo was the first of several nearly abandoned Maragato villages in the mountains through this part of Spain and that the Cowboy Bar is part of a reawakening in some of these nearly abandoned places . . . and that one shouldn’t pass on the chance to visit with the locals – they are quite colorful indeed.

Our original destination was Rabanal del Camino though we were about a kilometer shy of that. We stopped for the night at the La Senda albergue. Tracy was feeling quite ill and it was remarkable she got in a 20+ kilometer day. The La Senda had a restaurant, laundry facilities (handwash/linedry) and bunks for the two of us, so it was perfect.

After laundry was done and dinner eaten, Tracy went to bed early and Alan headed into Rabanal to visit the 12th century Iglesia de la Santa Maria. This Romanesque parish church offers pilgrims the opportunity to watch the chanting by the Gregorian monks who live there and has links back to the Knights Templar who once patrolled this area ensuring safe passage for travelers through these remote mountains. Alan really enjoyed the evening and Tracy was sorry to have missed it but the extra sleep was a good idea as we had big mountains to climb the following day.

Sites: Puerta de Rey, King’s Gate, in Plaza Santocildes; Palacio Episcopal, or Bishop’s Palace, a Neo-Gothic design by Gaudi with extremely tall turrets; Iglesia de Santa Marta, 15th century Gothic Cathedral; Iglesia de la Santa Maria, 12th century Romanesque with links to the Knights Templar; Chanting of the Gregorian Monks and religious service at Iglesia de la Santa Maria

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September 25 | Day 31

Rabanal del Camino to El Acebo

Stats | Hiked: 17 kilometers;  Weather: warm and overcast;  People Met: 5;  Time on Trail: 6h/0m

Route: Our spirits were very high leaving the albergue this morning. The part of the journey we had most looked forward to (after arrival in Santiago, of course) was today. Cruz de Ferro, or Iron Cross, is the high point of the Camino height-wise at 1505 meters or 4,937 feet. Thankfully, though it is the highest point it isn’t the biggest climb. Starting in Rabanal del Camino at 1,200 meters would mean only a climb of 305 meters (1,000 feet). The climb on Day 2 from Valcarlos to Roncesvalles was 550 meters (1,804 feet) not quite double the climb we had today. But it was still a workout!

Leaving Rabanal del Camino we immediately started climbing and made it to Foncebadon in about 90 minutes. Earlier in our adventure that same climb would have taken twice as long, but we were getting into pretty good shape with 30 days of hiking and even though Tracy was ill we still made excellent time. We stopped in Foncebadon for a cold drink and found a lovely little café with a quiet back patio to stop for a moment. The café was playing music, classical. “Ode to Joy” was the only thing that Tracy recognized, but Alan knew most of the others. Where we sat we had a nice view of an ancient barn with a slate roof and watched as the swallows danced in the air to the music. Tracy was commenting on how they seemed to be moving in time to the music when Judith (Ottowa, Canada) joined us on the patio and immediately agreed saying that it was breathtakingly beautiful to watch them. Judith was an experienced hiker and we enjoyed listening to her list all of the places that she had hiked.

While we enjoyed our cold drinks and chatted with Judith two more pilgrims found their way onto the small back patio and joined our conversation, Bill and Jan (Seattle, Washington). Bill and Jan were an older, retired couple who had decided to do the Camino now that they had the time to travel and were enjoying not having to rush through each section of the hike. We ended up staying longer than we originally planned, but it was one of those idyllic moments on the Camino when you remind yourself that it’s the journey not the destination.

Saying our goodbyes, we headed out to climb the last two kilometers to Cruz de Ferro, double-checking that we had our stones easily accessible for our arrival.

[One of traditions of the Camino is to carry a small stone from your starting point or hometown as a reminder of the burdens that we all carry. Upon arrival at Cruz de Ferro it is a tradition to climb to the base of the Iron Cross, up and over all of the stones and other mementos that have been left by others to place your stone and leave your burdens there as well. The guidebook states that this simple iron cross has become one of the abiding symbols of the Camino and that adding your stone to the great pile that bears witness to our collective journeying.]

Just a couple hundred feet from the summit, along the fine sandy path we turned the corner in anticipation of our first unblocked view of this majestic spot and were confronted with two huge black cows blocking the path – so much for the grandeur of the moment. As we sidestepped around the larger of the two cows in the middle of the path and the cow poo she left on the path. We laughed at the thought of eager pilgrims later in the day who would be looking upward at the monument and would pass this area without the presence of the cow herself to warn of the dangers underfoot.

For us Cruz de Ferro was a bittersweet destination. The only downside to our whole experience on the Camino was how much we were missing our wee angel, Kiara. Weeks before her death on one of our training hikes, we came across a tiny round stone about the size of Kiara’s paw that was perfectly flat and had picked it up as her “stone of burden” to be carried in her pack with her. When we received her cremated remains from the veterinarian, inside the box was a small heart shaped card. It was handmade paper with wildflower seeds imbedded so that the receiver could plant it in honor of their loved one. Tracy had taken Kiara’s stone and glued it to the card and added a small pawprint on the stone the actual size of her tiny paw. Though Tracy had her cremated remains in her backpack, unwilling to leave our tiny girl in Carcassonne all alone, it was still a heart-rending moment to face giving up that small stone with the tiny pawprint. Tracy climbed over the thousands of stones and mementos up to the base of the humble monument and let the tears pour down her cheeks as she left Kiara’s stone on top of hers. The largest burden for her was in letting go of the guilt that perhaps there was something more she could have done and the heartache of not having been the one to hold her as she took her last breath.

Drying her tears and heading down carefully from the top of the pile of loose rocks, Tracy took over camera duty while Alan had his moment to carefully climb up and place his rock with the others. Though her hands were shaking, Tracy managed to get a photo or two of Alan before she gave it up all together and just started hoping that he’d make to the bottom without breaking himself, realizing too late that he should have taken one of his hiking poles for balance!

One of the most depressing sites that we have witnessed in our journey on the Camino happened at Cruz de Ferro. Tourists. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Santiago each year starting from places all over Europe. The majority of pilgrims travel on foot or by bike and carry, pull or taxi their gear. In recent years there has been an increase in Camino tourism. We both found it difficult to wrap our minds around the idea of pilgrimage via tour bus yet at this place that is so awe-inspiring that most people do not speak above a whisper, the meadow on the opposite site of the road was filled with tour buses.

For us it was a depressing site. An overdressed horde of tourists with their loafers, mini backpack purses, picnic baskets, overly floral perfumes flocking from the air conditioned buses felt like an insult to those of us who had been struggling for the last 4 hours to climb the hill. Alan suggested that perhaps we needed to take a more “pilgrim-like” attitude and started pointing them out one by one . . . “Heart Transplant” . . . “Cancer Survivor” . . . “Hip Replacement.” That worked for a while, but as we left Cruz de Ferro passing the buses and heading down the trail it became harder and harder to keep a positive attitude. As we reached a small rise that was the actual summit before the descent into Manjarin, Tracy realized that she was not going to be able to keep a kind thought in mind about some of the tourists. The diva in front of her, “Princess Packless” destroyed every good intention Tracy had. She walked like she was on a Haute Couture runway, swinging her hiking stick like a baton in one hand while her camera dangled like an oversized charm bracelet via the wrist strap on the other, and she stopped every few steps to take a dainty drink of her bottled water. Suffice it to say that Tracy’s mind was not in a pilgrimy place. Thankfully at the top of the next rise Princess Packless got winded from the harsh demands of walking outside and had to sit down for a minute giving us the opportunity to get in front of her where she could no longer destroy Tracy’s pilgrimy attitude. Once we got away from the Princess the path leveled out for a moment and began the moderate descent into Manjarin.

Manjarin, population 1, was a cross between Nightmare on Elm Street and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a little bit of Saw III thrown in for flavor. Thankfully, after having made the mistake of stopping at the only occupied building we took a quick look around and left, leaving the chainsaw wielding artist and his friends behind. A few days later we would bunk with a few people who had stayed at the “albergue” in Manjarin with its basic (read rustic) facilities. It was a windowless, single room building with mattresses on the floor, an outhouse, and a well for drinking water. The caretaker locked the door that night and the few occupants spent a very nervous evening getting little sleep and unanimously opting for an early start the following morning.

We left Manjarin thankful not to have had to fight off people wanting to kill us and wear our skin and headed to the next summit of 1,504 meters. Arriving at the next high point, not truly a summit – that was a bit higher up the mountain than our trail went – we saw a pretty building that looked rather oriental in design at the foot of the radio tower, but kept going as we still had a treacherous descent before we could stop for the day.

The next 5 kilometers would be a very steep descent at more than a 20% grade, some places were so violently steep that you literally had to lean backwards to balance the weight of your backpack. Though we had originally decided to head to Molinaseca we knew after the first kilometer that we would be stopping in El Acebo, if we didn’t fall off the mountain first.

We made El Acebo before too long, but not before the last shreds of our civility had completely snapped. The very steep descent coupled with the horde of tourists that were “hiking the Camino” with their dangling wrist accessories like hiking poles, water bottles, purses and cameras, wearing sandals and sun dresses and with perfect updo’s and full makeup laughing and talking about how they were so excited to share with their friends their “Camino Experience” had definitely taken the last shreds of civility and tossed them to the winds. It was practically an insult that these tourist-grinos carried the largest scallop shells of anyone on the Camino, marking themselves as “pilgrims.” Thankful to reach El Acebo and find an albergue with an attached restaurant and bar we were more than happy to call it a day.

The evening definitely improved as we visited with Tammy and her friend Mary Kate, and Barbara and Mark who were all staying there as well. We met Pieter (Germany) who generously gave Tracy the lower bunk when he noticed that she was struggling to get up into the top bunk, a torn bicep wasn’t much of a problem most of the time, except for climbing up into a bunk since her right arm was useless for pulling. Pieter was a reminder of how many people we had met who embodied the pilgrim spirit on the Camino, a nice reminder after a day full of tourists. A delicious dinner, Pieter joined us, and great evening with friends helped keep the day from being a total flop. We went to bed thankful that the steepest part of the descent was over and for the signs that our good humor was returning.

Sites: Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), the highest point of the Camino at 1505 meters (4,937 feet); Manjarin, creepy town with one full-time resident and former 12th century stronghold of the Knights Templar

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September 26 | Day 32

El Acebo to Ponferrada

Stats | Hiked: 17 kilometers;  Weather: warm 81°;  People Met: 2;  Time on Trail: 5h/30m

Route: Warm chocolate croissant, toast, orange juice and café con leche – there isn’t a more pleasant way to start the day. Our hospitalieros in El Acebo made every effort at sending each of us out the door in high spirits – chocolate and coffee always works! We headed out at sunrise, not wanting to risk injury in the dark while still descending the mountain, passing an interesting pedal-grino sculpture by the small cemetery on the way out of town.

Nearly an hour later we arrived in Riego de Ambros, a small town that has found renewed interest by those wishing to own a home due to its proximity to Ponferrada. We passed by a LOT of construction! Leaving the quaint town and taking a path headed toward Molinaseca (downhill, of course) we laughed over the changing terrain. It seemed that every 5 to 15 feet there was a different surface under our feet, rock, sand, mud, roots – Tracy started to take photos as it was becoming quite a joke.

We met Selene (Italy) and her mom, Francais, while stopped for a terrain change photo. We had been seeing Selene off and on for days but hadn’t actually had the opportunity to introduce ourselves. Selene is about 22 years old and has a warm and friendly smile that you cannot help but to like her. She gets it from her mother! What a lovely family, Selene did most of the translating as her mother only spoke Italian and we were limited to “Good Morning” and “Thank You” for conversational Italian without resorting to pantomime.

We reached Molinaseca’s Puente de Peregrinos, a beautiful medieval bridge, about an hour later and stopped at a restaurant with a lovely view. While we ordered something to drink the owner of the café/bar brought out a plate of appetizers, which we found out from another pilgrim was due to the man’s mother having just dropped off fresh vegetables from her garden that were going to waste. The other pilgrim was an older gentleman who had done the Camino more than once, he was from Holland but we couldn’t remember his name. He had some delightful stories about his previous Caminos and we enjoyed visiting with him while we rested our sore and shaky legs. The last part of the descent off the mountain was complete, but it was a trying hike and left us both tired and sore with more than 9 kilometers left in the day.

As the day progressed, it started warming up and with it our spirits as well. We were past the worst of the days hike and having reached the bottom of the valley had started to climb again. We were anxious to get to Ponferrada where we would be stopping for the day. At 32 days, we had learned to appreciate larger towns for the variety in dining options as well as the sights and had learned to take advantage of the offerings whenever possible – and did find a lovely 50s themed diner that served delicious burgers! It was with high spirits that we arrived in Ponferrada. We found Enzo and Elena at our albergue as well as the comedy duo Karen and her sister, Susan. We had heard from our friend Jeffrey and were so excited to find out that he and Michelle had made Sarria that day – 100 kilometers from Santiago.

Sites: Puente de Peregrinos, medieval bridge in Molinaseca

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September 27 | Day 33

Ponferrada to Cacabelos

Stats | Hiked: 17.3 kilometers;  Weather: rain;  People Met: 1;  Time on Trail: 6h/30m

Route: We may have been in high spirits when we arrived, but can assure you that we didn’t leave that way. Tracy’s iPhone was stolen from the room through a grated window during the night. We tried to explain to the hospitaliero what had happened and what we should do about it, but were told that it happens EVERY night and that is why they tell each person staying not to keep anything by the window – except no one had said that to us or we would have listened to them. We were told that filing a police report was useless and that it was for the best to just let it go.

We left early and in such a rush that Alan forgot to pick up two pairs of his socks that were drying on the bunk, but we needed to get to a café with wifi to change passwords for accounts that were accessible via Tracy’s iPhone and the albergue didn’t have wifi so it had already been several hours. Tracy changed any critical data passwords and we sat and had breakfast while she finished. The loss of the phone wasn’t that big a problem, phones are easy to replace but the most recent photos of Kiara before her death were only on the phone as Tracy’s computer had died in July and we were waiting for our return to get it fixed. Those last four weeks of photos, which included several selfies of Tracy and Kiara were a huge loss and were weighing heavily on Tracy’s spirits as we headed out of Ponferrada.

We passed the beautiful Castillo de los Templarios (Templar Castle) on our way out of town, a sight not to be missed if you’re visiting. The medieval architecture with the turrets and drawbridge bring to mind fair maidens and knights in armor on horseback just with the first few glances. It was too early in the morning to get inside and look around, but worth coming back to investigate in the future.

Leaving the medieval castle behind we worked our way through the city eventually crossing the Pons Ferrada (Iron Bridge) that the town is named after. The bridge here has been reinforced with iron as far back as the 11th century.

Leaving the city we followed the tree-lined road into the nearby suburb of Compostilla where we stopped at a lovely little church, Iglesia de Santa Maria, which had a few beautiful sculptures of the Madonna and Child. A few blocks further and we found a nice little place to stop for coffee and a break. We would end up stopping in just about every town as Tracy was still reeling from the experience of being robbed in the middle of the night which kept her on edge most of the day. Frequent breaks and hugs from the hubby were needed to chase away that creepy feeling you get after something awful happens.

We hiked the 2.2 kilometers to Columbrianos through ever widening tracks of housing watching the space between houses grow the further away from the city we got. Amid the weeded fields every so often we would see private vegetable gardens behind barred gateways and tall cinder-block walls. It seemed odd after having spent so much time in the agricultural areas to see walls around these so-called “market gardens,” but without a house next door to it, we supposed there needed to be some type of security. Though small animals could still get in under the barred gates, larger animals could be kept out.

Columbrianos had a small outdoor café that faced the pretty, if small, pilgrim mural on the side of the Ermita San Blas y San Rogue, a tiny church that sits in the exact location of the original pilgrim hospice. We stopped for a bite to eat and met Michael (Chicago) who goes by his middle name Seamus, “Because I’m as Irish as they get!” A budding author with one of those huge personalities that just draws you and makes you like him from the very start. We chatted with Seamus, eventually introducing him to Doug and Stephanie, who decided to stop when they noticed us sitting there. Doug and Stephanie were doing great, feeling really strong and Stephanie’s feet were hardly bothering her at all.

Leaving Columbrianos we continued watching the spread of housing plots grow larger on one side of the street while on the other the odd little “market gardens” kept appearing here and there. We passed through   Fuente Nuevas and Camponaraya taking the odd photo here and there, but the day was getting cloudier and by the time we made it to Camponaraya it was raining, not a heavy downpour, but enough that we got out our rain jackets and put covers on our packs to keep them dry.

We left the asphalt streets and headed back into a natural green area passing the Wine Co-op as we left Camponaraya. Now that we were getting wet, the idea of hiking another few hours didn’t seem too fun, so we decided that Cacabelos would be a great place to stop and since the hotel had so nicely put up huge signs with their rates and location we decided that a room with locking windows and doors was just what we needed after our night in Ponferrada. We saw Doug and Stephanie draped with their ponchos as we were approaching Cacabelos and later brought up the merits of jackets vs ponchos. The ponchos do seem very popular and keep you and all your gear dry, but neither of us cared for the plastic sheeting blowing in the breeze and decided that we had made the right call for us by bringing the rain jackets.

The Hotel Cacabelos was a few blocks off the Camino trail, but we found it easily – although the rain was causing some wiring to spark badly and an officer escorted us through the last street so that we didn’t get hurt. We had both had a really long day and after checking in and showering, we were so happy to find that the hotel had a laundry service that would wash everything and return it by 6 am the following morning. We tried to find a place to eat, but after about 12 blocks we were not having any luck and after a full day on cement and asphalt our feet were achy and tired. We found a grocery store and went in and grabbed stuff for a “carpet picnic” and headed back to the hotel where we dined on our mercato goodies and feel asleep with the television on.

Sites: Castillo de los Templarios, 12th century Templar Castle, national monument of Spain; Pons Ferrada (Iron Bridge), iron and coal have been mined here since medieval times and the bridge has been reinforced with iron as far back as the 11th century

 

See a complete list of our day-to-day Camino experiences.

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