This Time Last Year

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My DH and I were a few months away from celebrating 38 wonderful years of marriage. The children were grown and our lives had taken us to many places around the world, places I had never dreamed I would see, much less live in. We had recently moved to another country and were enjoying the adventure of getting settled. We were working on where to store Christmas items in our new apartment.

But I had other plans also and I knew they wouldn’t include him. I was going to walk the Camino Frances soon.

I didn’t know exactly when or how. I didn’t know exactly where. I especially didn’t know why.

I hadn’t made any transportation arrangements because I had no clue how to get from where I was to where I thought I might need to be. I didn’t believe in hiking poles – too dorky. I was a good (what’s good about it?) twenty pounds overweight and I’m being kind. I didn’t have hiking boots.

The only thing I had going for me was that I liked walking although I sometimes found it boring.

I had decided to walk the Camino Frances and I had broken the news to my DH just after Thanksgiving. Would he be OK with it? It would cost us money and time. Lots of time but I had no clue  how much.

Not even my children really knew what I was up to.

“Mom’s thinking about going for a long walk.” What did that mean???

You don’t choose the Camino. It chooses you. And I had been chosen. But try to explain that to people who want to know why you want to walk across the top of Spain.

The ancestry of the Camino Frances sits squarely on a pilgrimage. But I’d never been religious enough to feel drawn to religious sites. I’d never felt compelled to visit places noted for miracles. And my life was relatively happy – no need to do penance or suffer to set things straight.

I was an older woman, inactive for many, many years, suddenly possessed by an idea that no one I knew had ever done before or even heard of.

It was time to give this some serious thought.

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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.

Video? – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

Still feel like a gorilla with a computer.

I’ve been working for many days on embedding this YouTube video into this blog. I still haven’t gotten it right.

Put on headphones if you’re watching this at work.

A special shout-out to my Camino family who inspired me and helped make the final days of my Camino so enjoyable and memorable. Still have many days to go, but everything is coming together at the end.

Video nerds – I still need help. This movie was done on Picasa 3 when Microsoft Photo Gallery became too unwieldy. Any thoughts??

They Walked Together – Day 29 – Leon to Mazarife

IMGP3832I was sorry to leave Leon, in the end.

I had experienced many more mind-blowing incidents than could be covered in a reasonably lengthed blog post. I had met people from my past and my present and seen unique sights, some large and touristy, some small and personal.

I had renewed my joy of being on the Camino and excitement began to build – the next major city I would hit would be Astorga and then, Santiago.

Santiago! Had I really gotten that far following my rain-soaked guidebook?

The sky was gray as I started out in the early morning (up earlier than usual, that’s the sense of excitement kicking in). I left the money for the room on the dresser since there was no front desk. I hoped for the best in honesty and charity, that the money would get into the right hands.

The walk out of town was slightly uphill and went through a few more interesting sights. One of the most modern churches on the Camino was on the outskirts of Leon, Iglesia San Froilan, La Virgen del Camino. Do I like the contemporary architecture better than the old Gothic? Maybe, but maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. Contemporary was a refreshing change of architectural pace.

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La Virgen rises above the Apostles.

Shortly after the Church, there is a choice to be made – take the recommended or the optional path? For a change, I decided to go the recommended route. It seemed to go through more countryside and I was feeling strong and confident.

For the most part, the route was on a plateau with few places to stop for refreshments along the way. Also, few pilgrims. The wind was strong and a little chilly but the sun had come out and the only real challenge was mental, not physical. My rain jacket, which doubled as my windbreaker, came on and off several times.

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I met a woman named Gabby and we walked the rest of the day together.   She was about my age, a little younger, and was also walking the Camino for the first time. She was walking solo. We chatted for several kilometers, comparing notes and experiences, asking why each was walking.

She told me of a dream she had had the night before. She dreamt that, for the first time, her ex-husband’s wife wanted to talk to her. Why ? She had no idea.

She told me her story.

She and her husband were happily married for 30 years and had several children. When she turned 50, she decided to do something different.

She decided that she wanted to give a recital.

She was a very amateur musician (practicing music had long since taken a back seat to raising a family) yet this was something she had always yearned to do – play her cello for friends. She shared this idea with her family, who were all supportive.

She practiced diligently for the next year in preparation for her performance. She hired a hall and sent invitations. She got an accompanist and, with her teacher, selected a series of perfect pieces. She learned them well.

She gave her recital on her birthday to a hall crowded with friends and family. It was a success! The applause and congratulations, the respect and admiration of the audience of well-wishers were more than she anticipated. She felt honored and successful. She felt empowered – who wouldn’t? She was a novice who pulled off giving a successful recital. All the planning and hard work had paid off. Her children were especially proud of her.

Describing the event to me, as we walked along the Camino, brought an energy and happiness into her voice that was infectious. I realized I was smiling and my heart felt full of joy for her success. I couldn’t help but be delighted for her “chutzpah” at pulling off the event and pulling it off well.

A week after her recital, her husband told her he wanted a divorce.

I was dumb-founded and stopped in my tracks. We were walking an area known as the paramo. wide open with the horizon going off as far as you could see. The Camino was silent except for birds in the distance and the breeze in the nearby pasture blowing through flowers.

She walked on a few steps, then stopped and turned back towards me, silently urging me to continue our Camino.

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I took a moment to process this strange turn of events in her story. Then we began walking again.

She says she had had no clue and was totally taken by surprise.

He had begun an on-line relationship with an old flame from his high school days. Their correspondence had rekindled that old flame.  He decided that he needed to take that relationship to the next level. Gabby, of course, would have no place in that scenario.

She was stunned, hurt, and felt very betrayed. Her children were as taken by surprise as their mother.

He was insistent. Long story short, she was now a divorced woman after 30 years of marriage to a man she loved and a family she doted on.

She didn’t, of course, have much to do with the new wife (yes, he married soon after) but she was shy and introverted, not belligerent and one to rant. Her children stood by her all the way and she was grateful for that.

Now, she was walking the Camino. When I asked her if the divorce was the reason why she was walking, she thought about it a moment and said that she honestly didn’t think so. Five years had given her time to get her bearings and she was doing well. She had settled into her new life and was happy.

She had never spoken to the other woman. I asked if she was angry with her and maybe that was why she was dreaming about her. She said she didn’t think so, she really was at peace with the way her life was, at that point. She walked comfortably and surely along the Camino. Quietly confident but not over-bearing and strident.  Friendly and charming, capable and realistic,

And, last night, she dreamed that the new wife wanted to talk to her.

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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.

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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Tender Hospitaleros and Seven Hours Without Rain – Day 20 – Castrojeriz to Fromista

This would be one of the best days ever for me on the Camino.

I awoke gently from a very sound and comfortable sleep to the distant sound of church bells ringing. Slowly, the bells worked  their way into my consciousness.

Well, not exactly.

The volume slowly (quickly, if you are being awakened) increased, getting louder and louder until the bed shook and it felt as if I was sleeping in the belfry. I had never heard bells ring so loudly. I was definitely awake.

The ringing was soon replaced by the gentle sound of Gregorian Chant, a more peaceful and civilized way to wake pilgrims from a long rest. The hospitaleros had a reason for warning everyone not to get up earlier than 0630 – the bells and chants were their own surprise way of being everyone’s alarm clock, courtesy of loudspeakers in each room.

The hospitaleros were kind and gentle . . .

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. . . and worked hard to put a smile on everyone’s face. Although there was no kitchen for the pilgrims, the hospitaleros had a small kitchenette in which they prepared a much appreciated breakfast of coffee, bread, and butter/jelly, etc. for all the pilgrims to enjoy in preparation for the day’s journey.

The hospitaleros were sad to see me go . . .

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. . . but the knowledge that I was heading for a majorly steep hill, with the promise of lots of rain and mud, was irresistible and I was off.

The climb up to Alto de Mostelares was not as difficult as I thought it would be and the view back into the valley, with Castrojeriz now in the distance, was magnificent (although overcast).

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The path was wide and not rocky and there were many pilgrims around to talk with.

When the wetness ended, the loveliness of the meseta began again. The fields were beautifully green and lush and the flowers were all in bloom, with a delicate explosion of red poppies everywhere – is this the national flower of Spain?

For the rest of the day, the Camino was flat and easy. I walked past the ancient Ermita de San Nicolas, a popular albergue which lacks modern comforts such as electricity and phone service, but makes up for it with its  cloister-like atmosphere and communal meals.

I decided to call it a day in Boadilla del Camino and looked for a place to stay. But the albergue I had my eye on had only upper bunks available by the time I arrived, late lunch time.

I searched my soul, checked my feet, and realized that I still had kilometers left in me. So I downed a bocadillo (sandwich) and a beer at a picnic table and, although many pilgrims were ending their walks, I set off again, in spite of a sudden downpour that had everyone who was eating lunch outside racing for cover.

I found myself walking along the most peaceful stretch of Camino I had walked on. This was the charming Canal de Castilla, a 3-kilometer long straight stretch of Camino .  With no pilgrim in front of me nor behind me, I had the path to myself. The clouds began to break up and patches of baby blue gradually grew larger overhead.

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The rustle of the wind in the trees along the canal, the birds, frogs, and insects that called to each other, announcing their sexy ( I assume) presence, the lack of human voices,  and the exhilarating  realization that I was meandering, taking photos and making recordings of any quiet spot I might not want to forget, made this my best day on the Camino yet.

Just outside Fromista, the canal dipped into a series of locks. A “pilgrim” had a tent pitched next to the canal – he said he was trying to work his way back home to the Czech Republic. We talked about the Camino. I offered him a euro. He accepted.

I strolled into Fromista.

The Iglesias de San Martin in Fromista was consecrated in 1066 and stands as one of the most handsome examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain. The afternoon light gave it a glowing radiance, like a miniature Christmas house lit from inside with a candle. The calm coolness inside was a fitting end for my quiet day on the Camino.

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The gentleman who was manning the ticket booth for the church was the parish priest, covering for the real ticket taker, who was on his lunch break. The Priest told me that this church was only one of seven for which he was responsible. Busy man. He reverently blessed my rosary.

I was able to Skype and phone my family and had a great meal of “black rice.” I ran into some familiar faces from the Camino. I didn’t know it at the time, but some of these people would become my dearest Camino family in the days and weeks to come.

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