Day 35 – Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria

Since Juan Carlos, Andres and I had spent the night in our own house, we slept as late as we wanted and were out on the road when we felt like it – 0830.

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We hung around the village to return the landlady’s house key and thank her for a great stay in a nice home. As we lingered over breakfast, who should wander up but Christine, our Camino family member who had decided to stay someplace else the night before (missed out on those Spanish movie musicals, tsk, tsk).

Then, we were off. Up, up and away.

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The walk to O’Cebreiro was challenging but not impossible. The weather was great – I began to wonder if I had seen the last of my wet Camino and should consider zipping the bottoms off my pants. But I also knew we were entering one of the wettest regions of Spain, so, no.

Juan Carlos kept me laughing as he continually underestimated the distance we had to walk – two kilometers when it was actually four, four kilometers when it was ten!!

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Welcome to Galicia.

The countryside reminded me of weeks earlier when I had been a novice pilgrim, making my way through the rolling hills of Navarra.  Alone, alert to the yellow arrows  along the way, I remembered the vineyards I walked through and the mud.

I remembered looking through rain dripping off the brim of the baseball cap I wore under my rain jacket hood as I tried to keep my glasses dry and fog free.

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I remembered the determination as pilgrims, strangers to each other, encouraged each other to the top of the hill which we promised was just around the bend up ahead, and which never was.

Now I was dry and following the arrows was second nature.

I no longer noticed my backpack anymore than you, dear reader, notice the shirt you are wearing right now.

These strangers whom I was walking with could crack the right jokes to make me laugh out loud. I knew I would be missing them all too soon.

We crossed into Galicia and found the stone markers that would lead us the final kilometers to Santiago. Was it possible? Were there really only that many kilometers to go?? Had I really walked all that distance? I still felt so good!

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O’Cebreiro was beautiful, an unexpectedly active village on the top of a mountain, full of pilgrims and souvenir shops.

I was told that the church, Santa Maria la Real, was said to have held a relic of the original Crucifix. I prayed accordingly, wondering if my Saints had traveled with me all this distance so they could get to this place. I told them I was grateful for all the help they had given me on this journey.

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About 15 minutes later I learned that, um, no, there weren’t any cross relics here.

Wrong legend.

It was the resting place for Don Elias Valina Sampedro, (1929 – 1989). He was the parish priest who gave birth to the modern Camino, as a way to help his tiny little parish.

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He knew his village was on the route of the ancient Camino and wanted to try to bring people back to, or at least through, the village. He brought his idea to the local leaders and they said OK, but you’re on your own. So, he went to the public works guys who were working on the roads and got their leftover paint.

That ubiquitous yellow paint.

With permission, of course, he painted arrows along the way to help pilgrims find their way from one end  of the village to the other. Slowly, the arrows extended to the other towns along the way and, well, here we are today, more than  200,000 pilgrims this year alone.

I was ready to call it a day at O’Cebreiro but the family insisted that we continue so on we went.

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I hadn’t expected Alto de Poio to be the highest point on the Camino Frances – I had thought that was O’Cebreiro. But it is, with 1,330 meters compared to O’Cebreiro puny 1,300 meters. Done on the same day at O’C, it is just as challenging.

We stopped for drinks but all we could find were sodas from vending machines. But where was Juan Carlos? We couldn’t find him anywhere. Christine and I waited outside, cooling off, while Andres went to find his wayward brother. Finally, he found him and ushered us inside the local pilgrim office.

There was Juan Carlos, happily surrounded by dozens of old ledgers. He had looked through many, many of them to find one particular one. Years earlier, on another Camino, he had signed his name in the books kept by many places, and this was one of the few places where he could find that book again if he was lucky. He was, and we gazed at his signature and notes from way back then, his past self giving a note of encouragement to this, his future self.

We found the new book and added our names and notes. Maybe one day our future selves will climb this mountain again and remember this moment in time.

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That day, we didn’t arrive at the albergue until after 7 p.m. We each fended for ourselves for dinner and I ate something at the albergue’s  bar while I blogged.

Our big break, however, was in our accommodations.

Because we had gotten there so late and there were four of us, the bunk beds in the main bunk-bed room were taken. The hospitaleros generously opened the overflow room for us and gave us the pick of the beds. But these were not ordinary beds.

Now, class, if you open you IKEA catalogs to the teenagers’ rooms section, you will see those lovely bunk beds that are double beds on the bottom and twin beds up top. Since the four of us were expected to be  among the last to arrive, we were invited to each have a bottom, double bed, to ourselves!

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My bed is last on the left row, closest to the back wall. Christine has the bed across from me, the boys closer to the camera. One purple mat is in front of the shower, the other in front of the bathroom.

We had our own bathroom and shower in the room. This was lucky because I had gone to the crowded bunk-bed room to take a shower and went to the men’s shower room by mistake. You may use your imagination to figure out how I realized it was the men’s shower room (not by the tiny little man stick figure sign practically hidden away not in the center of the door).

The community room had comfortable chairs and a fireplace. Pilgrims shared a few bottles of wine. There were books about the Camino and about Spain. There were books about Galicia. The boys showed me a coffee table book of  Santander, their home city.

Night fell. I fell asleep in the security of friends and strangers. But sad.

I was so close to Santiago. Was the adventure ending??

Not by a long shot.

I Get a Camino Family – Day 24 – Sahagun to El Burgo Ranero

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I had cancelled my reservation for the community dinner at the convent the evening before so I could go to the bullfight. In return, I made a reservation for breakfast in the morning.

I arrived with the last wave for breakfast and enjoyed the food and conversation.  When the last hospitalero (I’m not sure if she was a nun or not) came into the breakfast room and saw that I didn’t have breakfast in front of me (it had already been cleared away), she insisted upon getting me breakfast. No amount of Spanish on my part could convince her – I knew she understood what I was saying  – that I had already eaten.

In case you’re wondering, breakfast consisted of cafe con leche, some cellophaned croissants, butter, jam, a juice box, and a sandwich to take on the road. If this sounds spartan, please don’t think so. The breakfast was fine and I was grateful for anything offered with a glad heart. All I really ate in the mornings was coffee and maybe a croissant anyway, so this was more than I usually had before getting on the road.

Understand my predicament, then, when the woman in the convent made me sit and have a second breakfast. Coffee, I would drink, no problem. juice, OK, I’m always thirsty. But I already had the first sandwich tucked into my backpack, knowing in my heart that I would not eat it.

And yet, refusing food, in a convent, would probably upset the mojo of the Camino big time.

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Breakfast number two just for me.

So I ate another croissant, drank more coffee and juice, and tucked sandwich number two next to its brother in my pack and set out.

I soon had to decide which path to take.

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Why all the graffiti?

The guidebook listed two choices on this relentlessly hot day. Option one, recommended,  would take me along the ancient Roman road. Historic, yes, but flat, shadeless, and with only one water stop. The other, the Real Camino Frances (that is, Real as in “Royal,” not as in “not fake”) would follow a road.

I decided that I had had enough of ancient roads, historic bridges, and centuries-old churches for a while. The path along the road, which is called a senda, looked straight and well maintained. I decided to take the way that offered a stop (and a bathroom) about halfway.

I took the not-recommended route.

Dear reader, you expect this to turn out badly, but it turned out well in every way. The road had very few cars. The senda was tree-lined and brush free, making it comfortable to walk.

I walked under a little metal archway, an art installation by the local government. It made me think of all the people whom I had not met and would never meet, but who had thought about me, walking the Camino in their town, and who wanted to show that they were aware of my travel. They wanted to give me a sign that I was not forgotten and was well thought of. They wanted to give me a work of art. I cherished that little archway as I passed under it and said thanks to the artist and the people who approved it.

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IMGP3779 At the halfway point, Bercianos del Real Camino, I ran into a home of one of my saints who I have not mentioned in a while. St. Roque (“row-KAY” in Spanish, “Rocky” to his friends) had an inauspicious little “ermitage” next to the bar where I  stopped for a drink. This bar was one of only two places on the Camino where I thirstily downed two sodas in the middle of the morning.

I was very surprised to find Rocky in this most unexpected place. Once again, this ermitage (hermitage) was not on the map.  St. Christopher was apparently guiding my steps. IMGP3780

The ermitage was locked so I couldn’t go in. It probably would not have been much to see anyway.

No great altar, no gold statues, no ceiling up to heaven. Just a simple hermitage, a place of solitude, introspection, and local devotion. It would be meaningful for me only because these weird encounters with my saints  kept happening.

When I settled in at the municipal albergue in El Burgo Ranero at the end of the day, I met Otto, who was Austrian and ran a ski resort and hotel. I also ran into  M.L, whom you may remember had called the albergue at San Juan de Ortega a “hell hole” and was complaining about the conditions in this town now. I had walked part of that day with a woman named Deana, who was English but lived in Germany. And I was happy to meet up again with  Dave and Rena, the newly weds from my first day on the Camino – we had been passing each other for weeks.

But I was happiest to catch up with my two Spanish friends, Andres and Juan Carlos. Our language skills were terrible – my Spanish, their English – but they were funny, they were sweet and they were helpful.  We were similar ages, and similarly enjoyed being among the last to fall asleep and the last to get out in the morning.  They had both been on the Camino before and were enjoying themselves immensely, each for wildly different reasons. Our conversations struck a chord and we became Camino family members.

I, who had decided to travel solo, discovered that just knowing that friends were up ahead or just behind added pleasure to my journey. I liked knowing that there could be familiar faces at the end of the day to share stories with.

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Carlos, me and Andres at Bercianos del Real Camino.

Consequences of Sharing a Room with a Stranger – Day 22 – Carrion de los Condes to Terradillos

The meseta. Ah, the meseta.

Long, straight, flat.

Boring.

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Can any good come from walking this long, unwavering line?

My friends, the Camino is full of surprises. Expect the unexpected and be open to unanticipated consequences.

It took a good seven hours to get to the next town. It was sunny, hot and dry.

Leave it to St. Philip, the “humorous” saint, to put me in a situation in which I WANTED a bit of water from the sky. Ha, ha, if you’ve been following my tale from the soggy beginning.

I arrived at the albergue late in the day but was not happy to find that there was no more room in the bunk bed (cheap) side of the building. If I wanted to stay at this albergue, I would have to stay in the hotel side in either a double (I was solo) or in a single.

As I dug through my meager assortment of euros, I sadly faced the fact that this night was going to blow my budget big time. I considered the idea of walking to the next albergue, although chances that there would be room were slipping away with every minute of hesitation. Plus, I would face at least three and a half more kilometers of walking in the heat.

I must have looked pretty distressed because the hospitalero decided to give me a break on the price of the single and I decided to take it.

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I had my own bathroom and took a leisurely shower. I dried myself with their towels! Yay for me!!  I hand washed my clothes in the horse-trough looking tub they had out back and hung them up – they would be dry within an hour. My sleeping bag would stay in my pack tonight – I was going to sleep on clean, white sheets tonight, baby!!

I ambled over to the dining room/bar in the front of the albergue, bought a glass of cold white wine,  sat at a table on the grass, and took off my sandals. I could begin to write in my journal. The sun would set in a few hours and I officially considered this day over.

My friends, Carlos and Andres, came up the Camino hoping for a room. I told them I thought the albergue was full but told them to give it a try. Sadly, they had to move on to the next town before they would be able to stop for the night.

Sipping, writing, I met a New York Puerto Rican, Damian.  A fellow pilgrim, we instantly became friends.

I’m Puerto Rican. Rather, New Yor-Rican. Second generation, my Spanish language skills were basically non-existent at the start of my trip but my Spanish cultural skills are pretty good.  And, although I’ve lived in many, many countries, I think New York City is the Capital of the World (sorry, rest of the world). I hope you can see why Damian and I would get along.

Damian and I sat outside in the sun and talked. He translated when a fellow pilgrim had a really nasty blister crisis and needed to get to a hospital. We talked about why we were each on the Camino. We had another wine, then went inside and had a forgettable Pilgrim menu dinner.

Ah, Camino, you work in mysterious ways.

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Damian had done a good thing. He had shown up at the albergue shortly after me. Remember that there was only a single and a double available when I arrived? I took the single. He could take the double or keep on walking. He had taken the double.

Along came a pilgrim, looking for a bed. Sadly, the albergue was full.

But Damian did what any pilgrim would have done. He offered the pilgrim, whose name was “C,” the other bed in his double, if she wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a stranger and splitting the cost.

Sharing a room with a stranger is not as unusual as you may think, dear reader. Every night on the Camino has been spent sharing a room with strangers, men and women, young and old, snoring, scratching, farting, laughing, coughing, packing, in various stages of dress and undress. Nothing means anything anymore. It’s all about helping each other, being considerate of each other, and getting a good night’s sleep.

So Damian and C shared a room that night. The room next door to mine, in fact. And those walls were gossamer thin.

They talked well into the night.

About what, you are indelicately wondering? Strangers, brought together by the Camino? A charming, good-looking, single man from New York and an exhilarating, likeable, single woman from Germany? Both having been through the good and bad of life and now walking the Camino looking for . . . what?

What could they talk about until falling asleep?

Blisters, my friend. Blisters.

Who has how many where. What caused them. What remedies they’ve heard of. What worked. What didn’t. What they might try. What they hadn’t tried yet. Socks. How many layers of socks. Shoes. Boots. Sandals. Powders. Creams. Wraps.

I fell asleep to the sound of them discussing their blisters.

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They left early the next morning.

Although I never saw either of them again, I have it on very good authority that they walked the rest of the Camino together.

And that, my dear reader, is the endearingly sweet and mysterious way in which the Camino occasionally brings people together and brings them what they didn’t know they were looking for.

The (Half-Naked) View from My Office – Day 21 – Fromista to Carrion de los Condes

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I sat with my microwaved lasagna, my bottle of wine, a pack of cherry tomatoes and a peach.  I was in the courtyard of a convent, preparing to catch up on my blogging and journal writing. This would be my “office” for today.

And what a view!

Not rivers and mountaintops, woods and cathedral towers. Not lakes and meandering trails, sunsets and blue skies.

My view was of nuns and half-naked bicycle riders.

Cha-chiiiing!!!

That morning  had been overcast and chilly. The walk along the other side of the canal that I had followed into Fromista had been just as pretty as it had been the previous day. However, there were more pilgrims walking  this morning.

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I walked with Bouwolf from the Netherlands for several kilometers to the town of Villalcazar de Sirga where we stopped for morning cafe. He kept on but I stopped to see the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca on the advice of Carlos and Andres, two of my friends from Fromista .

The outside of the church was not much to look at. In fact, part of it had collapsed years ago in a landslide and had apparently be repaired with just a wall.

But the inside! Ah!

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The church was exquisite and,again, surprising in its golden “over-the-top”-ness.

The shadowed altar was the highlight of the church. A sign stated “No Flash.” I don’t  use a flash (my camera takes pretty good photos without) but another visitor, in the front of the church, did, There was a subtle click and a split second flash of light.  Instantly, the sleeping ticket taker at the entrance of the church woke and let out a loud “NO FLASH!” in English, then went back to sleep!

I donated the one euro to light up the altar so the villanous flasher and I could see what we were missing, and the sparkle was worth the euro.

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An amazing thirteenth century altar shone in dazzling glory, one of the most brilliant I had seen yet.

I eventually continued down the road and reached the town of Carrion de los Condes. Unfortunately, I arrived at the albergue just after the last two spots were taken (by two friends from the Camino, so there were no hard feelings). The hospitalero, however, sent me to another albergue where, he assured me, there would be room.

That’s how I ended up in this courtyard/office, with my wine, my journal, and my view.

The Espiritu Santo convent is a place of great peace and energy. The nuns expertly and efficiently register tired pilgrims, a system developed over centuries of daily service (although now assisted by cell phones, Apple and Google). I picked out a bed nearest the window and lay down, finally seeing one of the famous storks nesting on the top of the chapel.

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In town, I met Michelle from Arizona, and, as we shared stories and cafe, an old local man sat with us. He was quite taken with Michelle and asked her many . . . um . . . interesting questions about her situation. Why was she traveling alone? How could she have children and not be married (divorced, which he didn’t seem to understand)? Did she smoke?

I was in on all of this because my Spanish had gotten good enough to be the translator. I laughed at his inquisitiveness and her answers. Michelle was diplomatic – friendly, trying to not offend yet not encourage –  and she and I spent the rest of the afternoon giggling.

Later, I found a place to buy food AND a place to get my broken glasses repaired (they had fallen apart again two days earlier).

That evening, after showering and shampooing, after hand washing and hanging up clothes to dry, I settled in at a table outside and prepared to work.

I saw friends from the Camino and chatted but mainly I blogged, trying to get photos and stories synced and out to cyberspace. The sun had come out at the end of the day and the wind had died down. A Pilgrim Mass would be starting soon and I hadn’t missed a one since the start of my Camino.

I looked up and saw a nun, dressed in pure white, manipulating the water hose in order to drench the flowers which had missed some of the earlier rain. Her habit was clean and was a sharp contrast from the clothes pilgrims were wearing, including myself.

Behind her was one of the bicyclers, just finished washing his bike for the day, now chatting on a cell phone. Casually dressed for getting wet, he simply wore basketball shorts. As I looked up from my blogging, and sipped some wine, I thought of what a juxtaposition I saw from my “office” window.

The nun and the bare-chested cycler, each unobtrusively working in their own world, connected to each other by the Camino, and neither getting in the other’s way. Neither seeming the least bit out-of-place.

What a trip.

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