Adventures beyond time

Adventures beyond time

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Camino 2011

We're Back from our third hike on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, The Way of St. James. We have now hiked all 495 miles of the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago. By luck, we finished before the Martin Sheen film about The Way is released in the US in September. It is already out in Europe and we heard that some of the scenes were filmed in a B&B where we stayed. That will be fun to see! Mostly, I am eager to see it for the scenery.

The Plan: In 2008, we walked about 100 miles in France along the LePuy route, from Figeac to Moissac and then trained ahead to St Jean and hiked over the Pyrenees to Pamplona...the beginning of the Camino Frances in Spain. In 2009, we hiked about the last 200 miles of it, from Leon to Santiago. This year, we did the middle. We started where we'd finished in Pamplona in 2008 and we repeated some parts that we had remembered as particularly beautiful between Leon and Molinaseca.

We found that our memories had tricked us more than a little about hiking downhill.

What was it like? Here is the short version of the day-by-day. We loved almost every bit of it. The weather smiled. We had only half a day of rain. That was unfortunately enough for one of us (Russ) to slip on the mud while fighting with his camera to get a great photo of me stumbling through a huge puddle, and twist his ankle miserably. Bummer! But, as I say, we loved almost every minute of it.

New Friends: This year we met even more fascinating people along the trail than in previous years, which is hard to imagine. They weren't really more fascinating...just more of them this time. A real treat. We now have about 6 new friends who may come to visit in Florida...from Germany, Canada, and Ireland. Maybe we can convince them to come for the Gathering of the American Pilgrims on the Camino in Orlando next spring and then spend time with us in Cedar Key!

Costs: We calculated our costs for this amazing trip. The airfare was $750 each. In addition, it cost us $60 a person per day. That includes everything ...lodging, food, souvenirs, trains, buses... except our two days in Madrid after we finished hiking. Seemed pretty good to us.
Other things to report on...pilgrim food, how we adapted to being 2 years older this time, alberque versus fluffy towel decisions...Here goes.

May 17: It Begins
We will leave Gainesville with the help of Pam and James, who came to help us pack, and our wonderful friend Peggy who drove us to the airport, took care of Jake, and kept the plants  and house thriving for a month.
Getting Jake ready
Jake is looking over our gear that will get us through 31 days
Us and Peggy at GNV

May 18: Back to Where We Stopped in 2008
Arrived Madrid at 6:30 AM. Took the shuttle bus from the airport to the train station. Caught the train to Pamplona. slept most of the way. Found our hotel and went for a walk! We went back to the spot that was our farthest point of journey in  2008, so we could start there again. Sweet! We had a lovely, funky little hotel for the night and it gave us both dinner and breakfast for our 73 euros.
Stopping for a beer
The bridge that was our farthest point in 2008

May 19: Listening to Our Backs and a Camino Angel
Set out with our backpacks for our first day of hiking. the weather was gorgeous and so was the scenery. We planned to go about 16 miles, over a steep hill with beautiful wind turbines, but jet lag and or packs wore us down. Russ' extant knee problem really acted up and made us worried that it might decide to create a Camino-ending experience.

So, we took a taxi the last two miles into Puente La Reina.

We started to really doubt our ability to do this hike. At dinner we met John, an Australian pilgrim. Interesting guy. He manages world tours for rock bands and has been to Gainesville 3 times! He planned to walk the whole Camino this year and hurt his foot two weeks before his start date. But instead of throwing in the backpack, he adapted. He found a service to carry his pack and to pick him up along the route if his foot could not take any more. (Money seemed to not be an issue.)

Assuming he was a Camino angel sent by Santiago to deliver a message to us, we took the name of his backpack transporter, and called. they carried Russ' pack the next day.
Pamplona Behind Us
Hills Before Us

May 20: Adapting
We hiked 14 miles to Estella, the city that Michener said was his favorite in all of Spain. The sun was warm and bright. The fields were beautiful. The trail was welcoming.  Lo and behold, Russ' knee said "Okay, that's a better plan."

On the other hand, my back said "Whoa, I am not liking carrying the extra water and day supplies. Think again." Adapt! We did.

We had a light-weight duffel bag along that we'd used to ship our walking sticks, scissors, liquids, and such as checked luggage. We put everything heavy into it. Each of us carried a very light pack with day supplies and water, and the service, henceforth carried everything else from one accommodation to the next. Camino, saved!

May 21 (Saturday): No room at the Inn, Free Wine, Shared Bathrooms
Hiked 13 miles to Los Arcos. What views! What skies! The European pilgrims thought it was hot, but we Florida hikers found it just a bit on the warm side of perfect. Put on our hats and drank in the views. This is what the Camino is about!

When you have a bag transported, of course you must know where to have it delivered. So I'd called for a reservation in Los Arcos the night before. On the weekends, local Spanish folks take to the Camino for short journeys. All the hotels were "completo." Good grief. Adapt. So I booked us into the next town and we planned to catch a taxi in Los Arcos.

We shared lunch along the trail with a German couple about our age on their second Camino...the whole thing, twice! They had no reservation, but weren't worried. Okay. We parted after our picnic but met up with them again at the bus stop (found a taxi was not needed, just take the bus) when they found that we were right...completo! We ended up sharing a bathroom with them in Viana because all the "habitaciones dobles con banos" in that town were "completo" when we arrived, but our Pension was willing to trade our room with bath for two with a shared bath. Adapt.
Water fountains along the route are clean, fresh, and welcome. But this fountain at a bodega served up free wine!

May 22: Poppies, Vineyards, Bikers, and New Freinds
On to Navarette, 13 miles. Another amazing day of sun and panoramic views. The walk took us through Logrono, a major city in the Rioja wine country. Again the weather smiled and the paths were flower-full and walkable. We dreaded traversing a city of 150,000 but on Sunday morning it was quiet. It has a lovely old-city center and a pedestrian and bike trail through a long park from the center to the far edge of town.  By the time we reached the park, many families were there too. Spanish men and boys all seem to bike, and seldom did we seem women biking with them.
We booked a small hotel in Navarette for the night. Most of the towns on the Camino are tiny medieval villages. Pilgrim hikers are their primary economic driver. The work in the towns is to provide lodging and food to the walkers. We keep the towns alive and they return the favor. Pilgrims can stay in alberques for less than 10 euros a person a night or in B & B type places or sometimes small hotels for about 40 euros for two people. Bars and small restaurants serve a pilgrim menu. The usual choices are spaghetti, salad, or soup in the first course, followed by pork, chicken, or trout (French Fries are the side dish regardless of which meat you order) in the second, and ice cream, yogurt, or coffee for dessert. Cost ranges between 8 and 12 euros a person. To drink, a bottle of water or of wine is included...your choice.
We actually had an unusually pricey pilgrim menu in Navarette. We joined a group of pilgrims we'd met over beers at the plaza during the afternoon and went to a restaurant with an 15 euro menu. The food was great. A local potato and chorizo soup was added to the usual first course choices, as well as a white asparagus choice. Yummy, both.

Our multi-language table included an American from California who'd been born in Germany and was bilingual. A young man, maybe close to 30, from Jacksonville on his second Camino. This one was clearly a religious journey for him. A German woman who speaks French, Spanish, and English too. And a French man who only spoke French. Conversations ranged from why hike the Camino, to politics, to food, to cool hiking gear. Loved it and became quite good friends with the German woman. We walked with her some and had dinner and afternoon beers several other times.

May 23: More Medieval Villages and Perfect Weather
Ten miles to Najera, which has a river through the center of town. Perfect for an afternoon of resting at a bar on its banks.

May 24: Grape Vines, Wheat Fields,Bridges, Roads, & Chickens in the Church
The 13 miles to Santo Domingo started with a climb over a rocky outcrop and flattened onto miles of grape vines and wheat fields waving in the breezy sun. Santo Domingo, for whom the town is named, was a great old commoner who wanted to be a monk but was rejected for his lack of standing. So he took on the cause of pilgrims and spent his life engineering bridges and roads to ease their medieval journey.
The famous legend about this town is that a virtuous young pilgrim was hung after being framed as a thief by a village flirt whose advances he rejected. But he didn't die because of his virtue and his parents went to the judge and asked that he be cut down. The judge claimed the boy was as dead as the chicken on his dinner table...which of course jumped up from the platter and walked away. The boy was freed and a chicken is now housed in the town's church in remembrance of the lesson that virtue pays.

May 25: Tiny village, Massage, Homemade Dinner
On to Quintanilla, 12 miles, where we stayed in a casa rural (B&B) in a tiny village, had a very welcome massage, a dinner and breakfast made by the owner's Mom, and a lovely restful afternoon in the charming old house.

May 26: Out of the Mists, Snails and Horses
The 11 mile walk into Villafranca was more mystical than sunny. A nice change in its own way. More medieval villages. More lovely fields. Amazing numbers of snails. And a horse looking in the window of a bar. Perhaps it was waiting for its pilgrim to finish her cafe con leche and bring him some sugar?

May 27: Wild and Woolly Forest, Lovingly Restored Old Casa Rural
Out of Villafranca we entered an oak forest and climbed 3 mountains. In medieval times, these were dangerous roads. For us, this 12 mile stretch was misty, cold, dramatic, and a major change from the waving fields of grain of the past week. Note the pilgrim-cow road sign. We never spotted one, not even a regular cow actually. In windy Atapuerca we stayed at a lovingly restored old stone house. It was one of our most quaint casa rurales and we made new friends here too, a German couple with whom we subsequently walked and rested several times. Stefan and Margit may even come visit us in Florida.


May 28: A  Labyrinth, Sprawl, and a Festival in Burgos
Hiked 11 miles into our next big city, Burgos, in sunshine and less wind. We passed a pilgrim cross, a labyrinth, and a farmacia that is "the pilgrim's friend" according to the sign in the window. Saw lots of sprawl and traffic, too. The city was having a festival, El Noche Blanco. We couldn't stay wake for the sound and lights show, but enjoyed the afternoon festivities and the dress rehearsal for an aerial show. And we visited the famous cathedral with alabaster arches.

May 29: Lucky for us, the Inns were Full
Hornillos, at the end of the today's 13 mile walk, is tiny and all rooms were "completo" when I called two days early for a reservation. Our guide book suggested a casa rural, El Molino, in a nearby town and promised they'd come pick us up. Perfect. It turned out to be a restored old mill with great accommodations, wonderful, "typico", non-pilgrim-menu food...although they did not serve dinner until 9:00...and a story. This is where The Way actors and director stayed while filming in this region. We also had our first major storm while here, but we were well tucked inside, staying dry and warm. The other hikers we met there...Rolph from Germany, the Spanish brothers walking Camino together with their wives, and 4 French folks... became regular afternoon beer and coffee companions for days until our differing walking paces separated us.
Never heard why the chicken statue was on top of the pilgrim water fountain in the plaza
Our host, who picked us up in his OLD Range Rover
El Molino
Pilgrim dinner with new friends. Note the poster for the movie.

May 30: Sun, Flowers, St. Anthony's Fire
The 13 miles to Castrojeriz were mostly level, topped by sunny skies, edged by wildflowers, and highlighted by the ruins of a huge "convento" where the nuns cured people and animals of St. Anthony's Fire. The cure involved the use of wooden Tau crosses made by the nuns. Tau means "Love." The entrance to Castrojeriz is dominated by the church of Our Lady of the Apple. A castle ruin looks down on it.

May 31: Seeing the Road for Miles Ahead
Fromista was a 16 mile hike. It started with a frightening looking hill. You could see the route looming ahead up, and up. When we reached the top, which wasn't quite as hard as it looked, the dramatic view back was rewarding. We went right down the other side. The route again snaking out before us as far as we could see. The path then sidled up to a canal for many miles. Of many days that breathed nature and beauty, this one stands out. The treats continued when we arrived. Fromista has an outstanding example of a romanesque church. Bus loads of tourists arrive to view it. Our evening highlight was sitting at the pilgrim dinner with a Dutch couple who were biking the Camino. They'd started in ROME!

June 1: Getting There Isn't the Point
Off to Carrion, 12 miles. It is all about the walking.
The sheep cheese in Spain is abundant.
 June 2: Meeting Sheila
On the windy, cold, 12-mile walk to Calzadilla, I had a major small world moment! My Nazareth friend, Blanche, and her husband and daughter are also hiking El Camino this summer. Blanche told me that her liturgical dance instructor was doing it too, solo...all the way from Roncesvalles to Santiago.

There she was...resting at a picnic table along the route! She offered us chocolate :) We shared apricots and figs. When she said she was from CA and I said I knew someone from there hiking with her husband and daughter...NO, it can't be...But it was. A mutual friend who had told each of us about the other. We walked together to Calzadilla. She told me about staying in an albergue with no electricity or running water. There'd been a big storm that night. The hospitelara (volunteer host of the albergue) cooked dinner over wood and sang them to sleep. I lost Sheila after Calzadilla because she walked on and we stayed there. I hope to meet up with her again, perhaps at the Gathering of American Pilgrims of the Camino in March.

The other hikers are a big part of the experience. We shared many afternoons resting and chatting together and many evening meals hearing others' stories. At dinner in Calzadilla, we heard that the alberque in Carrion was hosted by nuns who sang to the pilgrims and blessed each of them personally, giving them a colorful star to remember them by.

June 3 and 4: A Rest Day
We walked 15 miles to Sahagun and took an extra day there to rest our legs. It is a bit bigger than most of the towns, but not a major city. We went to the Saturday market and  did a lot of people watching in the Plaza Major.

June 5: The Town of Frogs,  Albergues
Next was an 11 mile day ending in El Burgo Ranero. The frogs it is named for sing all night. Nice. The buildings along this part of the Camino are adobe, actually made of mud, even the recently built ones like the albergue in the photo.
Albergues are lodgings provided by the towns, parishes, or private residents. They usually cost less than 10 euros a night. Often the beds are bunks. The toilets and showers are shared. Sometimes there is a kitchen to share, or a hospitalero will cook a meal to share. The quality of the facilities varies greatly. Many pilgrims prefer them for the comeraderie, spirit, clothes lines, afternoons of conversation, sense of doing the Camino in a more authentic way. You must bring a sleeping bag and towel if you plan to stay at alberques. A few have double rooms and take reservations. Most have many to a room and are first-come-first-served.

June 6: Flat Path, Nifty Wine Storage Buildings
The 12 miles to Mansilla de Las Mulas were flat and populated by cellar-like buildings covered with earth and sprouting chimneys. We heard that they were used to age wine, at least in the old days.

June 7: Rain and Danger
We were looking forward to walking the 12 miles into Leon. With them, we finished the whole Camino in Spain. We planned to repeat some parts after Leon because they are so lovely, but Leon completed the goal of doing "the whole thing."

It was an awful day. It rained for the first time. The peaceful, nature trail disappeared. We had to walk on the berm of a very busy, two-lane highway. At one point, we had to cross a bridge with no real sidewalk, crumbling concrete, and zooming 16-wheelers only a few feet from our right shoulders. I felt like I should duck to avoid their big mirrors hitting me. The re-bar was visible under foot where the concrete was in ruins. Needless to say, I don't have good pictures of the bridge.

When we got away from the road, it was muddy, puddle-ridden clay on which Russ slipped and twisted an ankle.  Next time, I take a bus on this segment!

Leon itself is great, especially the cathedral with its magnificent stained glass windows, and the friendship of our trekking friends like Jacinthe from Ottowa.

June 8 and 9: A Short Walk and an Albergue

We walked 5 miles the next day to test Russ' ankle. It held up ok. The following day we wanted about a 10 mile distance. Luckily there was a town in the right place. Unluckily, it only had an albergue. Luckily, the albergue had a double room and took reservations, and even more rented sheets, blankets, and towels for $3. So we had a very fun afternoon and night there. The electricity did not go on until dark...inconvenient for charging one's camera battery. We talked long into the evening with a Dutch mother and daughter walking to celebrate a 21st birthday and a Canadian couple originally from Mauritius (in the Indian Ocean.)
More wine "cellars"
Our albergue room
An albergue with bunks
An albergue, unusual because it is without bunks
June 10 and 11: The Road Gets Back to Wonderful

We walked 12 miles and 8 miles over the next two days. Much of it we'd done before although we took alternate routes where possible for the variety.

June 12: A Favorite Place
The 11 miles we covered this day to Foncebadon were blooming with heather when we were here in 2009. We were disappointed to have missed much of the color by a few weeks this time. Missing it did not spoil the beauty of this section, however, nor the quaintness of the semi-abandoned Foncebadon where we stayed in casa rural El Convento and had a medieval dinner.

June 13: Morning Glory, Cruz de Ferro, Enough of the Downhills!

The golden sun coming out of Foncebadon was awe inspiring. The road to Cruz de Ferro was uphill and challenging but we could not stop exclaiming at the vistas. At the Iron Cross, pilgrims leave a stone to symbolize unburdening their lives. Emotion fills the air. It is cathartic to place your burdens in the mound and start down from the Camino's highest point.

Alas, we'd forgotten how steep and rocky the path becomes from here. Two years after our last time on this path we found ourselves intimidated by it. We walked very cautiously, slipped and tripped a few times, wondered at the ineptitude of our memories, but made it to Molinaseca with only a few new bruises.
Happily, it was still a beautiful day because it was the end of this journey for us. We stayed in one of our most authentic and quaint medieval houses here. The living room floor was cobblestone. Wine flowed freely all afternoon, and the self-make breakfast included lots of breads and local eggs to be fried up on the spot. It was a worthy end to a wonderful Camino.

June 14: Back to Madrid and then to Gainesville