Santiago Train Tragedy

My friends and followers who have walked the Camino understand the extent of the sadness associated with this great tragedy. However, for many of you, my wonderful readers, this blog may be your first close introduction to Spain. We haven’t arrived in Santiago yet, but it is the goal, the focus, the end point of our travels.

The Camino de Santiago de Campostella is a pilgrimage to one of the three holiest sites of the western world, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem. The tomb of Saint James is in the Cathedral of Santiago and his feast day is . . . wait for it . . .  July 25.

If you haven’t been to Spain, the news of this tragedy may skim over your consciousness. We get news of many tragedies, numbingly common. But I hope that, by following this blog, you have a slight inkling of where Santiago is, of who travels to it, of how they feel when they arrive.

I hope Santiago de Campostella is no longer a place you have never heard of, but a place you can start to imagine. I hope you will feel more compassion for those people – families, students (Santiago is a major university city), and probably many pilgrims – who were on the train, traveling to Santiago, for the Feast Day and celebration.

The internet is a powerful tool. I hope my blog helps in some tiny way to improve understanding and interest among people who speak different languages, eat different foods, listen to different music, yet feel the same moments of happiness and sorrow as all human beings around the world.

Our compassion and care for each other binds us and shapes us. The Camino is one place where this coming together of  people, this sharing of our strengths and weaknesses, of what we have and what we need, reminds us that we are all traveling together.


A pilgrim prays in front of the Cathedral in Santiago de Campostella



Another Close Encounter and Another Poll – Day 18 – Burgos to Hornillos Del Camino

I left Burgos in good spirits, deciding not to take the coward’s way out and spend an extra day in that lovely city, but to drive on according to plan. It didn’t hurt that, as I had tried to go back to sleep that morning, I could hear another pilgrim in the hotel preparing for that day’s journey. My initial reaction was “God gives you a place to rest, why hurry out the door? Why? Why?” Yet, another voice started to make its way into my consciousness – “Let’s go. Let’s go.”

I turned on the tv to find out what the weather would be that day. Once again, rain (although I haven’t mentioned it in a while, it has rained every day). A nice breakfast awaited me in the dining room of the hotel and my clothes were fresh, clean and dry.


I made my way through Burgos,  going through the festival the city was holding that day.


Because of the tents and stalls set up for the fest, I couldn’t make my way to the few sights I still wanted to see before I left town. Oh, well, maybe next time.

Mary Helen and Carolyn were new pilgrims from the US, just starting from Burgos. They asked questions about the Camino, questions I myself would have asked weeks ago of someone who had been on the Camino as long as I had. Why are you walking? Is it hard to find the way? What are the albergues like? Answering their questions made me feel like an old hand at this Camino thing, yet each question also made me realize how much I didn’t know, as each answer went along the lines of  “you kind of do whatever you want, there’s no one right way.”

The rain started pouring when I stopped in Tardajos to get a tortilla and beer but I prepared every day for heavy rain, with my rain cover on my pack and wearing my rain jacket. I had originally planned to stop in the town of Rabe de las Calzados, about 13 kilometers from Burgos,  for the night, but I was feeling good about walking and decided to continue all the way to Hornillos, 20 kilometers and the start of the Meseta.

The rain stopped but darker storm clouds gathered in new, threatening fury. I was walking alone and suddenly there were dark, black-grey clouds to the front, back, and either side.


I had entered the Meseta, the place most prized by some pilgrims, dreaded by others. The Meseta is the flat part of the Camino Frances, providing thousands of acres of farmland for the breadbox of  the country.

For many, the flatness is a welcome relief from the ups and down of the previous kilometers of the Camino. For others, it is a very long, boring walk.

And, in a thunderstorm, you are the tallest thing around. You and your metal hiking poles.

“. . . though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . ”

The blisters which had started to disappear so nicely during my short stay in Burgos began to once again sneak in as my socks and boots got wetter and muddier. So much for the clean pants I had delighted in earlier in the day. I hoped that Mary Helen and Carolyn were prepared for this part of their opening-day Camino experience.

As the clouds grew darker, I glimpsed another pilgrim, a woman, just around the slight bend in the trail in front of me. Ponchos have a tendency to flap madly in the wind and her’s was no exception. Her dark green poncho fluttered violently around her in the coming storm like a giant dark gown, yet her dogged march forward inspired me as I kept going. I said a prayer, acknowledging that everything would be in good hands, put my head down, and continued on, knowing I would catch up with her soon because of my quick pace.

The rumble of thunder came from over my left shoulder. Yet, the rains never came. All around me, I could see the rain falling in sheets over the acres of flat meseta, as  portions of horizon were obliterated by the storms. It was windy and cold and I kept my poles tucked close to my body (just in case). The Camino was muddy from the rain that had fallen just in front of me.

Yet, I stayed dry.

I looked ahead to see how the woman in front was doing.

She was gone.

But there was no road, no path leading off the Camino here, no clumps of trees to seek temporary shelter. It was a straight stretch as far as one could see.


Where had she gone? And I knew I was walking faster than she was (Ask anyone – I have a good pace).

Rain began, but not storm rain, just normal rain. I was no longer in danger of being electrocuted on the Camino. I continued to the soggy town of Hornillos, another story. I never did find that woman with the poncho.

Saints? Big Tess at it again?

I am not making this up.

The Saints Sneak Up On Me – Burgos

I did sleep until 0900, maybe later.

I awoke, quietly, on my own terms. No hustle of people getting up, dressing, packing, hoping to be first out the door. I awoke slowly, peacefully, without an ache or pain in my body. Fully rested.

I went to breakfast and drank a pitcher of orange juice in 3 minutes, then asked for another. Delicious. I ate some of everything being offered.


Yet, there were so many things I wanted to do that day. I forced myself to start moving.

Leaving the hotel with a bag of everything fabric I had, I found the laundry in town that would wash, dry, fold, and deliver my laundry to the hotel. I found a Vodaphone store and put minutes on my phone, finally.

I wanted to see all the great sights. I wanted to see the world-famous Cathedral.

I also wanted to see the Monasterio de Las Huelgas Reales. This monastery was founded in 1187 by royalty, many of whom were crowned and later buried there. But the big draw is that the monastery has a statue of Santiago, St. James, with a moving arm. This arm was used to bestow knighthoods on lucky recipients.  The draw of classic cloister architecture, a statue with a moving arm,  and the beauty of a bright, dry day was an irresistible combination and I was off.

As I followed my map, I ran into several friends from the Camino and I spent time with them. I admired the many statues of El Cid, a favorite son of the city.


The gardens along the river were lovely and the new Museum of Human Evolution was very enticing.


Should I visit? Do I have time? Money? Each new sight drew me away from my goal of finding the monastery as I wandered happily around Burgos.

I finally decided to get back on track and find that monastery. I eventually saw what I was looking for across the river –  an old building, small, unassuming, faced by trees and, what else, a parking lot.


I approached, read the plaque on the wall, and came to a shocking halt, unable to believe what my eyes were telling me.

I had not found the monastery founded by Alfonso VIII and his peers, with a statue that could bestow knighthoods.

I had, instead, stumbled upon a convent founded by my traveling companion, Saint Theresa. In fact, the last convent founded by Saint Theresa before her death in 1582.  My companion, Big Tess, who had been guiding my steps from day one of my Camino, had led me through the city, admiring the sights, and taken  me straight to her house.

I checked my map, and sure enough, this convent wasn’t listed. In other words, if I had been looking for it, I would not have been able to find it.

I realized that I had been so caught up in myself, my journey, my well-being and comfort, that I had forgotten to say “thank you” to my true traveling companions, my Saints – Big Tess, who had given me the gumption to walk away from people who made me feel bad about myself, St. Julian who had led me  to the great hotel room, St. Christopher, who put me on the right bus, St Roque, who kept my feet in great shape, and St. Philip N, who saw that I always had a reason for a smile on my face.

I spent quite a bit of time sitting  in the parking lot, resting and thinking. I watched as a young woman carrying a suitcase walked up and rang the bell of the convent. A woman opened the door and gave a warm, “Ah, we’ve been expecting you! Welcome!” to the new arrival. I felt happy for all parties involved.

I gave up my plans to look for the famous monastery with the statue with the moving arm. I had found a more important sight.



Sacred Ground or Hell Hole? – Day 15 – Belorado to San Juan de Ortega

Who insults a Saint to their face?

I met a delightful Canadian named Greg who was a great companion. Funny, slightly limping, he was just what I needed for the day. We stopped at a truck stop and had the best bocadillo of the Camino, huge tuna and tomato on ciabatta style bread. Delicious beyond words.

We looked back from the top of a challenging climb and saw the snow-capped mountains we had been walking around. It was sobering to see how far we had walked and note that, although it was hot where we were, the snow still had a stronghold in the heights we had passed.

Tiring of limping, Greg invented the latest thing for pilgrim comfort – one piece socks and sandals.

I know socks and sandals are the plague of beaches everywhere, where fat old men insist that they must wear socks with their sandals and shorts on beaches and boardwalks around the world.

On the Camino, socks and sandals are the height of fashion and blister relief.

How low can your fashion sense go? Roll up your pants, hang your sweat-filled socks off your backpack, and  balance a hiking boot off each of your hiking poles. 

This was how we happily trudged into San Juan de Ortega. We even did a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” while climbing up one pathway.

We were in great spirits as we made our way in the tiny town of San Juan de Ortega. The entire town consisted of the Church, the albergue, and the cafe. Nothing more.

Stone and wood, a typical albergue, I made the final climb to the second floor, found a bottom bunk and dropped my stuff. I washed my clothes and put them to dry on the stone wall, using solar energy once again to speed up the drying process.

Greg and I were enjoying the warming rays of the sun as another companion came up and asked what I thought of this “hell hole.”

I was surprised. 

My standards had, admittedly, sunk quite low. But I hadn’t found this albergue to be much worse than other places I had enjoyed, so I had been pretty comfortable.

And the Church at the end of the plaza contained the actual remains of the Saint, San Juan de Ortega.

The are many legends and stories along the Camino and each town has its own special story of the Saint whom their Church is lovingly named after. A relic, a miracle, the stories are part of the fabric of the community.

But here there was no legend. It was fact.

San Juan de Ortega was a disciple of Santo Domingo and, in this very isolated and difficult setting, brought comfort and safety to peregrinos making their way to Santiago. He was the driving force behind the building of bridges, roads, and buildings for pilgrims on this part of the Camino. Many pilgrims would not have been able to make their way to the end without his dedication to them.

His remains are in the Church in a simple stone sepulchre, tended gracefully by the local parish priest, who gave a moving blessing to the pilgrims who gathered for the pilgrim Mass.

Yes, the albergue was run down and could use many improvements. The bathrooms needed an overhaul. There was no store (there is no town) so all had to eat in the small cafe next to the albergue, a cafe which only held about 20 at a time and many pilgrims had to wait to be fed. The rooms were crowded and dark, the bunk beds rusty metal.

Yet, the mattress was soft and clean, a blanket available to those who needed. The floor was swept and we all made due with the limited space of an albergue. The price of bed and shelter from the elements was ridiculously low.

I suggested to this person that her assessment was a little harsh but she told me that she was going to brush her teeth outside with bottled water because her friend told her the bathroom was so dirty.

Greg and I looked at each other and shrugged, found dinner companions, and had a good evening.

But I continued to feel bad because this person had, in a way, insulted the hospitality of the Saint, a saint who was resting right across the plaza in the Church and who had made it his mission to provide for pilgrims.

He was dead. It wasn’t his fault time had not been kind to his life’s work.
“Hell hole” was harsh.

Where is the pilgrim confraternity which will take up this cross?