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?


They do WHAT to a Chicken??? – Day 13 – Najera to Santo Domingo

The legend goes something like this:

A father, mother, and son were making a pilgrimage to Santiago. One night, they stopped in Santo Domingo for rest. The innkeeper had a daughter who took a fancy to the son, who was handsome and devout. He, being devout, rejected the advances of the daughter, who was not happy at being spurned.

She put some gold or jewels or something in the young man’s baggage and, the next morning, accused him of stealing. 

The local magistrate found the lad guilty and he was hung.

The father and mother, heart-broken, continued on their pilgrimage to Santiago, praying for their son. On their return trip, they walked near the same town. To their surprise, their son was hanging but still alive! They rushed to the local magistrate’s house, who was in the middle of dinner, and begged him to cut their son down, for he was still alive! The magistrate laughed at their request, saying that their son could no more be alive than the chicken which was on his plate for dinner.

At that moment, the chicken stood up and cackled. Amazed and recognizing a miracle, the magistrate ordered the young man cut down and the family lived happily ever after.

Since then, the church at Santo Domingo has been famous for the legend of the chicken. It is said to keep a live chicken because of this legend.

How do legends get out of hand?

A wet day made the trip to Santo Domingo boring and tiresome. Imagine my surprise to hear a marching band playing as I approached. My fellow pilgrim wondered what the music was about but excitedly remembered that she heard today was a special day at the church in Santo Domingo – they were going to do “something” with the chicken at Mass that night.

As a Catholic, I was curious as to what a priest would do with a chicken during Mass. I knew there were Masses where animals were blessed, but that was all I could think of. 

Sacrifice a chicken? Wasn’t that a voodoo thing? We don’t do that in the Roman Catholic Church, at least I had never heard of it, and I was pretty sure I would have heard if there was some kind of ritual where a chicken was killed during Mass.

No, no, no, something wasn’t right. But I was having a hard time convincing my companion of this.

The town was celebrating Corpus Christi, a major Catholic feast day. The whole town processed after a band and a colorful float, through the narrow street to the church. They walked over lovely murals made of grass and flowers which had been made on the pavement. After the band, float, and townspeople walked over the displays, children played with the grass and flowers and the street took on the colors of a lovely ticker tape parade.

The Mass at 8 p.m. was peaceful and serene, with not a cluck to be heard or a feather to be seen.

As Mass ended, I looked around at the beautiful interior. 

There, overhead, where a choir might be in another church, was a tiny lit apartment, bars in front. Did I see movement? Yes! I found the chicken!

It  turns out that the chicken is kept (probably more for the benefit of tourists than anything else) in the church in a sound proof room so as not to disturb Mass. In fact, the chickens (there are several, very pretty) take turns and live in the church for only a week, then are free to roam around, carefully attended to both in and out of the Church.

I realized that the chickens had better living conditions than I had in most of the albergues I had stayed in on the Camino.

My friend was not disappointed that there had been no slaughter.

Another misinterpretation of Catholic ritual was “laid” to rest.

I Get Crepes and Sleep with Seven Men – Day 11 – Viana to Navarette

The rain had pushed everyone apart from each other. Everyone was walking their own Camino. One foot in front of the other.

I walked past an old hospital for pelegrinos. 

The word “hospital” takes on a different meaning here. It relates to the word “hospitality,” rather than to the place we think of as the place for sick people. The medieval hospital was the place where the pilgrims would be welcomed, given a place to rest and have injuries attended to. it was a place of healing, for sure, but in a larger sense. 

Today’s local volunteers who staff the municipal albergues, the places where we pilgrims rest, wash, eat, sleep, are called “hospitaleros” as a fine tribute to their ancient origins.

As I walk past that old hospital, now just a ruin, I think of that medieval pilgrim, as wet and tired as I, and understand the relief and gladness he felt as he walked over the final crest of that hill and saw the old stone hospital. I flew back in time a thousand years and understood his experience.

When I arrived at Navarette, Marcel, French volunteer hospitalero at the municipal albergue, greeted me as if he had been waiting for me. Would I like an upper bunk or would I like the attic? 

The attic sounded good, so I and the gentleman who had also just checked in made our way up the final flight of steps to the attic.

Clean, bright, and no bunk beds, it was a nice quiet place to rest, especially when compared to the relative crowd and noise of the lower floors.

Marcel prepared crepes for all the pilgrims. This was his gift to all. Free and delicious, it was the first time I’d been treated by the volunteers. The aroma floated through the albergue and soon the dining room was full of hungry and grateful pilgrims anxious to enjoy a treat.

That night, I made my way up to the attic. I found that there were now seven men in the room with me. 

I felt like Snow White.

We were all tired and preparing for the next day and soon most were asleep.

Then, the fun began.

The gentleman who had come upstairs with me at first was a slight, quiet, unassuming man who spent most of his time reading on his cot while most were downstairs talking. 

At bedtime, he told me that he snored and he was going to move to a bed on the other side of the attic, which I thought was very thoughtful of him. 

I settled in for a good night’s sleep.

If you have ever heard of the UK version of “American Idol,” then you may have heard of Susan Boyle. She was the mousey looking, unassuming woman whose voice suddenly took the musical world by storm. What an amazing sound from such a timid looking person!

It turns out that the mousey looking man who kept to himself and moved to the other side of the attic because he snored was the Susan Boyle of the snoring world.

When he fell asleep, this amazing sound came from his mouth. Loud, deep, a full-throated basso profundo, he was the Maestro of snorers. The other six men unconsciously followed his lead in snoring but were certainly his supporting orchestra members. It was his sonata.

 It was the first time I tried earplugs, which did not work. From the other side of the attic, the closets and windows seemed to suck in and out and rattle, like in a cartoon, as he began his night music.

Literally hours later, he stopped snoring. Was he dead? I didn’t care. I would get a bit of sleep before the ambulance came, I thought to myself, and finally fell asleep.

I’m an Angel Because I Have Duct Tape – Day 10 – Los Arcos to Viana

Usually, the rain has the decency to wait until I have been on the road a few minutes before starting the daily downpour but today it begins before I wake up. 


Trudging through the mud, I wonder for a few moments if my legs are getting stronger because the load on my pack seems normal and my strides are more certain. But the wind starts blowing against me and I begin the daily struggle to make progress on the muddy track.

The Camino never goes around a mountain it can go over. Up and down, sliding down rocky hills, always wet. Repeat, repeat.

Then, up ahead, I see a young man on the side of the road sitting on a rock. As I get closer, I see he is wrapping thin athletic tape around his hiking pole. 

Are you OK? Do you need something? 

Usually the answer is that there is no problem, someone is just adjusting their poncho or tying their shoelaces.

This time, the young man looks at me and says yes, he is having a problem. His hiking pole has stopped telescoping and he can’t use it anymore.

Since you, dear reader, have probably never used a hiking pole, let me give you a short course on the virtues of hiking poles.

They saved my Camino more times than I can count in the first week alone. In Germany, you see them  used  mainly by old people, striding confidently along in a public park. Or on a public trail. occasionally on the sidewalk. But the important phrase here is, “old people.”

Therefore, most young people tend to shy away from these simple sticks (or high-speed high-tech sticks).

They soon learn that not using hiking poles can be a big mistake.

Maximilian, a strapping young man ready to enter the Academy, found out that using poles would reduce the intense pain in his knees caused by going down the endless and slippery paths on the Camino. He was lucky – his knees were recovering because he bought poles shortly after feeling the never-ending ache in his knees.

Now, one of his poles had died on him, too early, and he was trying desperately to give it some new life until he could replace it in the next town.

In the last minute preparation for my Camino, DH had wrapped a length of duct tape around a golf pencil and we had added it to my pack. Now, like my Voltaren, it would be called to serve.

Using my most used accessory, the little baby fingernail scissors, we carefully wrap and cut a length of duct tape which repairs his hiking pole.

He calls me his Camino Angel.

Thank you, DH.

I Find the Fountain of Wine  – Day 9 – Estella to Los Arcos

Since I am in a hotel, I do not have to be out the door by 0800. I can stay late. 

But a voice woke me up.

” Get up! Let’s go! I have something wonderful for you!”

My clock said it was 0615 and my alarm was set for 0715.

Nope. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

“No! Get up! The sun is out. It is dry now. Let’s go.”

When the Voice calls you, it will not be quieted. So I got up, got packed, and had coffee at the same cafe one last time. The clouds were very threatening and the wind was cold and strong. 

The wine fountain would be very welcoming.

The region of Irache is very proud of its wine and offers a special treat for peregrinos – the wine fountain! 

There are two spigots – one wine, one water – coming from the wall of the bodega, which is the wine cellar. Since this was the main wine cooperative for the region, the wine cellar was huge.  If you want water, go for it, but for true indulgence, the wine fountain is for you. On the side of the city wine center, right on the Camino, pilgrims may pour themselves a glass of wine to quench their thirst.

And, of course, pose in all kind of silly poses. 

Was the wine good? Who knows! It was 0845! But it was free, it was flowing, and everyone there suddenly became in a party mood. 

I dumped my water from my bottle, tried a sample, then filled the bottle with a bit of wine and alot of water. I packed and continued on the Camino. 

A Lovely, Dry, Day – Day 8 – Estella

Everything about this day in the little town of Estella was nice. 

I woke at about 8 a.m. and found the hospitaleria sending people on their way and talking to her friend, who was taking her child to school. I asked where the washing machine was and her friend excitedly began to talk to me. She ran a laundry and would be happy to do my laundry for me. I thought about the pile of muddy, dirty clothes on the floor and realized that if she charged me $100, it would still be worth it, and soon had one less thing to worry about.

I found the post office and mailed some items home which I found were not needed – rain pants, a plate, a hiking skirt, some cord.

I found a place to get a SIM card for my phone. I found a cash machine. 

I returned to yesterday’s cafe and had a morning cup of coffee and a croissant.

I am noticing subtle (and not so subtle) differences between my North American life and this wonderful European lifestyle. Even the tiniest, medieval, cobblestoned town has a public library with wi-fi for the students. The library in Estrella is quiet, tranquil, and well planned.

On the way to the library, I had to go through a narrow street where an ambulance was blocking traffic because someone needed help. I stood and watched for a while, observing how the local services handled an emergency (quite well, by the way).

After a few minutes, I observed something more.

The street was narrow, as I said before, and people were shopping, pushing strollers, moving to work, etc. Many simply walked around the ambulance and the EMT’s allowed people to move as needed. They did not block the sidewalk or try to keep people out of their way. 

Of course, people did keep out of their way. People understood and felt sympathy. Many pedestrians did stand around and watch the scene. But those who were watching were talking to each other. 

No one pulled out a cell phone and took pictures.

This struck me as different. I think people in the U.S. would transport their friends to the scene through the magic of technology. And they probably would not talk to other observers. 

Here, no one was taking photos or videos. But all who were talking were talking to their neighbor. 

I popped into a free art exhibit in the old castle. My laundry was returned clean, fresh, and folded (sadly, this condition would last exactly one day). 

I had a “pilgrim menu” of green vegetables which had had the h*ll cooked out of them until they resembled soup more than fresh vegs, a delicious half of a roasted chicken, french fries (standard for pilgrim menus), some dessert, and an entire bottle of wine for myself. I asked the waiter if I could take the rest of the bottle back to my hotel and, with a bit of reluctance but then giving in, he said O.K.

It had been a good day. I only hoped I could figure out how to manage my blisters because I was sure the next day would be another rainy one.

Fred and Ethel Make Me Stop – Day 7 – Estella

The rain in Maneru reminded me of the Panama during the rainy season.

Maneru is a little town on the side of the hill between Puenta de la Reina and Estella. Truly on the side of a hill. The roads into and through the town go steeply up and down.

It was noon and I was trapped in town. The rain racing down the street was rushing swiftly past me. Items that had been left outside were gone in a flash, to be found a kilometer down the hill in the mud. I had taken refuge under an old stone arch leading out of town but the water was rising in the narrow v-shaped street as the rain increased.

I edged closer and closer to the wall of the arch, hoping the rain would diminish before it reached my boots. My boots were already covered in mud.

My left foot is Fred. My right, Ethel. They are not happy.

They are tired and wet and blistered. They want a massage.

I decided there and then that Estella, the next town, would be a two day stop. I needed to dry out. I needed dry clothes. I needed a good night’s sleep.

I had 18 kilometers to go and painfully made my way on the Camino as soon as the rain slowed. 

Finally, I made my way through the cars and buildings to the plaza of the town

I asked a resident where the tourist office was.

“The is no tourist office here. You have to go into Estella, about 5 kilometers from here,” she said.

My face did not betray my feeling as I faced the reality that this charming town was not Estella. I still had 5 kilometers to go.

I did get to Estella, a very pretty town, in time to find the tourist office closed for siesta for the next two hours.  After a long, slow, cafe con leche, I returned to the tourist office and they found a perfect pension for me.

The owner saw my bedraggled appearance, handed me some keys, and told me to go upstairs and go to sleep. No register? No signing anything? Nope, she told me to go to bed. She made a point to tell me that I could take the elevator up the flight of stairs to my room. I did.

I had a double for the price of a single, with my own bathroom. I took a shower, my dirty clothes piled in a nasty heap on the floor. It was 5 p.m. and I threw some lovely warm blankets over myself and took a nap.

I woke six hours later at 2 a.m. I turned off the lights and fell back into a deep sleep.