The Penultimate Day

The day started off with a doozy when I was forced to climb over the entry gate in order to get out of the hostel.  I don’t really see the point of locking the gate to your compound if you’re going to have 30 strangers sleeping there every night.  I suppose I ought to just be thankful that we’re being kept safe from the ficticious banditos savaging peregrinos along the Camino.

The day was fairly normal except that I’m close enough that each mile takes on more significance.  I’ve hit that bittersweet feeling where part of me is happy to be done and part of me is sad that it’s almost over.   Each action is the last one – the last time I’ll hit a new town, the last time I’ll pull out my credenciale for a stamp, the last time I’ll share a room with strangers.

I’m seeing no one on the trail that I started with or walked with for a while.  Yesterday, I still spent a little time with two women – a Romanian and an Italian – who I’d been bumping into the past two weeks.  By the way, if it sounds like I’ve been talking to a lot of women it’s because about 70% of the people out here are women and, let’s face it, the fairer sex is more interesting than a dude.  Don’t worry, Jen, no albergue sex was had – they can’t hold a candle to you.

While I’m on the subject, I do need to thank my wife for holding down the fort while I went gallavanting around for 6 weeks.  I’m extremely fortunate and happy to have had this opportunity and I’m not sure how many spouses would put up with me.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you next week.

I ran into another large group of very religious Americans today.  We shared our respective views on faith and my lack thereof and was told that they had witnessed a miracle on the trail.  That intrigued me.  Apparently there was a gentleman named Jose of unspecified foreign origin who didn’t speak good English but who’s foot was swollen and injured.  When they met him again two days later (he had taken a bus) and inquired about his foot, Jose indicated it was still hurting.  They formed a circle around him and prayed.  Fervently, I presume, because after their prayer Jose indicated his foot felt better.  They saw him walking on it the next day!  Now they were pretty convinced this was divine intervention and the power of prayer in action, so I didn’t have the heart to tell them that overuse injuries do heal if you stay off the injured extremity.  Plus I would probably say the same thing Jose did out of courtesy if I had a bunch of strangers circled around me and chanting.  I’m not trying to make fun of the story – the Americans are clear believers and have every right to that view – I think I’m just too cynical to credit things that have a scientific rationale as divine intervention.  I have yet to witness anything resembling a miracle personally.  The Americans told me it was because I was not open to it.  Maybe they’re right.

As I walked on, a phrase describing the situation occured to me: “One man’s faith is another man’s delusion”.  Alas it’s not an original thought because Google credits it as a quote to a guy named Anthony Storr.  Nonetheless it feels like there’s some truth to it.

Tomorrow I have a mere 17 miles to walk to get to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the official end of The Way.  I’ll be there by mid-day but that still leaves plenty of time for some more thinking.  Stefan, Lauchlin, Maria and Philipp will be rolling into town on Sunday and I’m really looking forward to seeing them again.  It’s nice to live a life where you always have something to look forward to.

July 21, 2017

Casa Domingo to A Salceda – 22 miles

Galicia


A German Cafe in Spain but I don’t see a single beer

  

An Uneventful Day

Pretty quiet day today.  Not from a people standpoint but from a “happenings” standpoint.  I walked.  I talked to a few people.  I ate.  I walked some more.

I was the first one out of the hostel this morning (the Spaniards we’ve added pushed the mean departure time later) despite having trouble getting to sleep.  For some unkown reason, there were two Germans in the bunk above me.  They both sounded female and I’m not sure if it was mother/daughter, lesbians or just friends.  But the end result was that I was subjected to double the amount of creaking I was expecting.

The albergue was actually really nice.  Only 16 bunks and it was above a cervezeria, my prime reason for picking it.  The beds were comfortable – probably the softest mattress I’ve had on a trip where the beds are uniformly closer to wood slabs than traditional American mattresses.  In a town overrun daily by pilgrims I got lucky and the cervezeria seemed to be where the locals hung out.  Here they are huddled around what appeared to be a sports betting machine. 

I had a decent dinner and got to try out some new beers, including a chestnut beer (passable but not something I’d order regularly).  There are three major beer brands I’ve regularly run across on my trip:  San Miguel, Mahou and Estrella Galicia.  Of the three, San Miguel is the most watery and resembling an American beer, while Estrella Galicia is the tastiest.  Estrella also makes a couple of specialty beers – a Belgian style lager called 1906 and red ale version – but the basic lager is my favorite.  A 12 oz tap beer usually costs around $1.80 while a half liter (~16 oz) goes for $2.50.  In the grocery store it’s about 1/3 to 1/2 that price while a decent bottle of wine can be had for $3 (in restaurants wine is usually included as part of the fixed menu price).  It’s cheap to get drunk in Spain.

The trail has gotten pretty loud since Sarria.  There are so many groups walking and talking that the only time you really have quiet is while going up hills.  If you step off the trail, you can get quiet as well.  Today, the trail passed within 30 yards of some ruins dating back to the 5th century BC.  I took a break on top of the old wall and saw hundreds of people pass by in the 20 minutes I was there.  Not a single soul stopped to look.

There are a few guidebooks and they all seem to break the Sarria to Santiago stretch into 5 stages with recommendations to stop at certain towns (including Portomarin yesterday).  As soon as I passed through the stated end town, the trail was deserted.

Tonight I’m staying at a lovely farm out in the countryside.  There are a few heads of cattle and a nice stream, part of which runs under the stone house where I’m sleeping.  It’s very idyllic and much more appealing than the city.  Tonight I’ll fall asleep to the sound of the stream rushing by outside as opposed to the bed creaking from the Germans above me.

July 20, 2017

Portomarin to Casa Domingo – 18 miles

Grain storage building – still in use

I’m in the stone house in the back

Solitude No More

I got a muuuch better night’s sleep last night.  Last night I was contemplating laying in an easy day, sleeping late and checking out the monastery.  Somehow I just can’t do it, though.  I woke up at 5:45, briefly considered sticking to the plan but got up and dressed instead.

The legs weren’t overly happy about the situation at first but they loosened up after a few miles.  Whatever was up with my foot seems to have gone away as well.  My hospitaliero gave me some Spanish cream yesterday, maybe that did the trick.  My recovery time seems to be lengthening the older I get – I’m not particularly happy about what that portends.  I’m also partially blaming the morning soreness on a lack of protein powder.  I brought some from the States but that was used up a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t been able to replace it.  No idea if Spaniards don’t need it or haven’t heard of it. 
I had a fantastic dinner last night.  The kitchen didn’t open until 8:30 but I’m glad I waited.  I have no idea what I ordered is called, but it ended up being two giant pieces of beef from around the ribs – cut across the rib and not lengthwise.  It had a slightly smoky flavor, was very tender, somewhat fatty and I think it was some form of churrascaria – the waiter referred to it as BBQ.  It was served with 4 different sauces and apparently the meat comes from the cows I’ve been passing the last few days.  As a general rule, Europe can’t do beef but this was a notable exception.

Today I passed through Sarria, the last major town en route to Santiago and a major pilgrim starting point.  I have nothing to report on the town itself since I went through before 9 and, as we’ve established, Spain doesn’t open before 9.  However, the number of pilgrims streaming out of the place was astounding.  Pilgrims of all shapes and sizes, young and old.  Huge tour groups with matching backpacks.  Lots and lots and lots of Italians.  Literally hundreds of pilgrims.  I have no idea where they’re all going to sleep, but it’s going to be fun watching people hobble along tomorrow.

Sarria has the distinction of being 110 kilometers from Santiago and per the rules, you only need to walk the last 100 to get a compostela.  I haven’t seen this many people since the first day out of St. Jean, but I doubt it will thin out like it did then.

The landscape remains fairly similar to what I’ve described the last couple of days so I won’t belabor that.  Suffice it to say that from a scenery standpoint this is my favorite stretch of trail hands down.  The one thing that’s changed is that I’m now seeing souvenier shops in every town and some aggressive panhandlers.  Maybe pilgrims are an easy mark.  I’ve been stingy although I did throw a little change to this guy:

They’re still playing up the Celtic angle here.  It’s definitely feeling like a tourist destination at this point and I think it’s time to finish this thing out and move on.

Lately I haven’t reported much on the people I’ve been talking to, not because I haven’t been talking to anyone but because most of it hasn’t been that memorable.  However there is one thing that happened a few days ago that I think bears relating.

Ever since around Burgos I’ve been seeing the same group of Americans every few days.  They looked like a large family traveling with a priest (incidentally the only priest I’ve seen on the trail).  They were at Manuel’s that night of the paella and what I figured was the father got up to say a few words, indicating that some of them were traveling the Camino for religious reasons and some for penance.  That struck me as an odd formulation, almost like some of the kids were bad and Dad was taking them on the Camino to atone.  

I saw them off and on after that but never had a chance to approach them.  I saw one of the young women walking by themselves one day and tried to talk to her.  I say tried because I only got her name – Sarah (very biblical and unusal for a 20 something) and that she was from Houston before she peppered me with questions.  That’s a technique I use myself when I don’t want to answer questions.  We only talked a couple of minutes before she hit her stopping point for the day but I got a distinct cult vibe from her.  So I filed it away but figured there was a story there.

It took a few days, but I finally got that story up in O Cebreiro.  I went to stand in line for the hostel and it just so happened that 4 of the group were right in front of me, including the priest.  My opening gambit was to offer some gummi bears – I’ve yet to see someone respond negatively to gummi bears (even diabetic Maria) – and it proved successful yet again.

We started chatting and it turns out they’re neither a family nor a cult.  The “father” was the priest’s brother, the priest teaches in a Catholic boarding school and the younger people were assorted family members or students at the school.  That said, the priest belongs to a group called the Society of St. Pius X.  I had no idea what that was but later I started googling and ended up down the proverbial rabbit hole.

The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) was formed in the 1970’s out of displeasure with the results of Vatican II.  Vatican II, among other things, modernized the Catholic Mass and liberalized much of the Church doctrine.  SSPX is effectively a fundamentalist group that believes mass should be said in Latin, hold to the pre-Vatican II structure and appears to take a fairly literal view of the Bible.  SSPX has a contentious history with Rome – ex-communication of priests was on the table at one point, there was debate whether sacraments (marriage, baptism) performed by member priests were valid.  The relationship seems to have improved under the current pope but depending on how you want to characterize it, the priest I talked to was either a strong fundamentalist or a rebel.

 I asked about the penance comment at Manuel’s and this group’s basic view is that man is by nature sinful.  In order to atone for sin, cut down on time in purgatory and get to heaven quicker, we need to do penance.  Penance equating to suffering or doing good deeds.

I was flabbergasted.  I’m not going to be argumentative with a priest, so I focused more on understanding the arguments than poking at the logical fallacies, although I did press as to the nature of suffering on the Camino.  At the end, though, that was the argument in a  nutshell and I’m left shaking my head.

It’s been a few days but I’m still astounded that there are grown adults out there that think spending thousands of dollars on a month long vacation in Spain amounts to atonement for doing crappy things.  And let’s be honest – that’s what this is.  There’s no suffering here aside from a few blisters and some sore muscles.  Especially when you’re taking a cab to the top of the mountain (which they had done), skipping sections of the trail (which they had done) and staying in hotels most of the way (only 3 of the group of 10 were staying in the hostel from hell, although by their logic that was probably worth 3 murders). 

I try not to be judgmental and I honestly think people should live their lives as they see fit but I’m peeved that there’s a school out there in New York somewhere that teaches this instead of critical thinking skills.  That’s something that leaves us as a society worse off and we all lose from that.

That’s my rant on what I thought was a cult but is only entitled fundamentalist Christian Americans.  I’m glad I got that off my chest.  Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

July 19, 2017

Samos to Portomarin – 21 miles 

Portomarin

I’m not sure if defacing signs is necessarily something Jesus would approve of.

This I approve of

Bonus geese

Not, tonight honey.  I’m not in the mood.

Last night was another brutal night.  That’s the last time I willingly stay in a 100 person dorm.  From now on I’m going to go to the small 20 bed private albergues first.  The guy with whom I was effectively sharing a bed with left at 3:30!  Where do you even go?  Maybe he’d had enough, too.

To top it off, I’ve got some sort of sharp pain in the top of my left foot by my big toe.  Every now and then, with no apparent pattern, it feels like something is jerking a nerve.  It’s making me walk tentatively and with a limp, which is putting stress on my right leg and the other muscles in my foot.  Argh.  Nothing’s ever easy.

I’m in a foul mood, which is unfortunate because this is the prettiest stretch of trail since the Pyrenees. Every few miles I’m passing through a collection of houses (calling it a village would be aggressive) with an albergue or bar.  These are old stone houses that have been lived in for centuries.  Many of them are built on hillsides with barns housing cattle below and the living quarters above.  Yes, it stinks and yes, the streets are covered in cow puckies.  But in contrast to the villages on the meseta, which look like time has passed them by, these seem to exist in a vacuum where time has no meaning.  I see old men carrying sickles, young men herding cows, women emptying water pails in the street.  There are no engines to be heard.  The locals appear reserved or indifferent, but a “Buenos Dias” is met with something friendly in a dialect I can’t understand.  They probably have so many people wandering through their fields that pilgrims have long ceased to be a novelty.

The pseudo-villages are connected by dirt paths that meander intermittently through dense old growth forests and pastures.  The former providing shade and the latter really nice views.  The forests are a mix of chestnuts, vines and ferns – it’s clear we’ve passed to the windward side of the mountains and that the climate here is much wetter than the side I climbed up.  It’s easy to imagine robed pilgrims leaning on a staff as they walk along these same paths.  You can even hear the drumming of horse hoofs from the other end of the valley.Tonight I’m staying in a private room at an albergue in Samos for the princely sum of $30.  I am extremely tired and I need some sleep.  Samos is the site of the oldest, largest monastery in Europe.  I stopped here because I wanted to tour the place, but I’m just too tired.  I’m going to take a nap instead.


July 18, 2017

O Cebreiro to Samos – 20 miles

Even 60 year old graves have fresh flowers

Dog picking up litter

800 year old tree

Reminds me of home

Samos monastery

The Last Climb

I hit the trail before sunrise today.  The first 6 miles or so were projected to be alongside a road and I figured since the Spaniard generally doesn’t get in his car before 8, I could put the stretch behind me.  Road walks when cars are whizzing by at 70 miles an hour can be a little unnerving.

I was walking along the left shoulder when I noticed what appeared to be red splotches on the guard rail in the pre-dawn light.  Awesome I thought to myself – the remains of previous pilgrims that started walking this stretch in the dark.  Yeah, it turned out to be just rust when the sun came up but it was still unnerving and gave me the motivation to walk that little bit faster.

We’ve traded crop fields for animal husbandry and although every town smells like manure, I still prefer sheep and cattle to the endless wheat fields of 10 days ago.  It ended up being road walking for most of the day, but at least it was along gurgling brooks and through shady forests with villages and rural albergues every few kilometers for rest and sustenance.  One albergue even featured smoked trout and a fish pond.

Today marked the last meaningful climb before Santiago.  It starts out moderate but gets steeper towards the middle before easing again.  For some reason, my legs were pretty tired today and the climb dragged a little.  Judging by the number of taxis that passed me, I wasn’t the only one.  All told it was about 3,000 feet of climb with some phenomenal views once I got above treeline.

I entered my last Spanish state, Galicia, today.  And greeting me at the top of the climb was the first Galician town – O Cebreiro.  O Cebreiro’s claim to fame is it’s 9th century romanesque church, home to a miracle around 1300 (coincidentally around the time that pilgrimages to Santiago became popular).  Local legend holds that a peasant braved a snowstorm to attend the Eucharist.  The priest, not expecting anyone to attend the service, scoffed at him.  When he turned back to the sacrament, the host and wine had turned into the literal body and blood of Christ, staining the altar cloth as proof.



The cloth remains stored in the church in a gold reliquary and, in a stroke of marketing genius, the cup is on display as the “Holy Grail”, even though it has nothing to do with the cup Jesus allegedly used at the Last Supper. When you’re on top of a mountain, you need to do something to bring pilgrims your way. The village has been fully restored by the Galician government and features a number of pallozas – stone houses with thatch roofs that have been in use since Celtic tribes lived there ~500 BC.  The whole thing feels a little Disneylandish with bagpipe music broadcast from from the restaurants and kitsch stores. 

Not really my thing, but I was tired so I headed over to the municipal albergue.  Big mistake.  The place has over 100 beds and I ended up waiting over an hour in line to get in.  Thats the first time I’ve had to wait since Roncesvalles on Day 1.  Only 6 euros but the bunks are obscenely close together – 4 bunk beds abutting at the corner.  Plus I drew a top bunk.  The showers are also wide open, offering no privacy whatsoever.  Ugh. At least it’s only one night.

Since I’m in Galicia, I had to try one of the local dishes – pulpa, which is seasoned octopus with potatoes.  I know it’s a little early, I should wait until I get closer to the coast.  But it was still pretty good and I’ll order it again in a few days.  You’d love it, Jane.

I’ve got less than 100 miles to get to Santiago.  I’m thinking I’ll probably get there on Saturday.  Still no decision on what to do after that but I definitely feel like I need some rest.

July 17, 2017

Villafranca to O Cebreiro – 19 miles

I bet this little lamb chop is delicious

The highway passed this town by

Found the hippie place

Spain has a graffiti problem

Soy Americano

The past few days I’ve had a lot of interactions with Americans.  They are well represented on the trail and by my rough survey seem to outnumber most nationalities with the exception of Spaniards and Italians.

When not identifiable by speaking louder than anyone else at a cafe or restaurant, you can recognize them by the way they say “Buen Camino”.  Americans tend to use a rounder, drawn out “o” like in know, while native Spanish speakers and others use a higher, shorter “o”.

One couple from New York state that I talked to was disillusioned with their trip so far, saying it wasn’t what they expected.  They also started in St. Jean and were sticking to a fairly rigid schedule in order to make it to Santiago in time for St. James Day (7/25).  It was clear they were tired from the many miles but it wasn’t the physical aspect that bothered them.  They are out here for religious reasons and seemed a little taken aback by the large number of people walking for other reasons.  It sounded like they were expecting access to daily church services,blessings and more clergy interaction than what exists 

I would say the majority (60-70%?) of people I’ve met and talked about reasons for walking the Camino with have given a reason other than spiritual/religious.  There are quite a few in between life stages or trying to figure something out but not a pilgrimage in the strict sense of the word.  Notably, there are very few young people walking for religious reasons.  

Of the young people that consider themselves Catholic/Christian believers, they are almost overhwelmingly American.  I’ve also found that a sizable majority of the overall American contingent is walking for religious reasons.  I’m not sure what to make of that, but I found it an interesting observation.

Yesterday evening I had my own American moment.  All day I had been rushing – rushing to get to Ponferrada, rushing to get cleaned, rushing to visit the castle.  I proceeded to rush to dinner as well, leaving the hotel at 7 pm but knowing that I was early by Spanish standards.  If there’s such a thing as fast food in Spain, I haven’t found it yet.  I’ve seen one Burger King and a littered McDonald’s cup, so they must have one of those somewhere too.  I just wanted to eat and get back to the room so I could write the blog and take care of a few planning related items.  

Knowing that pizza is pretty quick, I stopped by the local pizza joint and asked if they were serving yet.  A friendly waiter told me the kitchen doesn’t open until 7:30.  So I went and sat on a bench in front of the church and made a few phone calls.  Incidentally, while I was sitting there, a wedding party came out of the church, so that was pretty cool.

At 7:30 on the nose, I went back to the pizzeria, told the waiter I was hungry, can I please have something.  He showed me to a table but in a way that suggested I was breaking protocol.  I didn’t care.  I wanted to eat and go.  The pizza came out quickly, I wolfed it down and immediately paid the bill ($9.50 for pizza and a large beer).  I left a tip even though you don’t tip in Spain.  
I wasn’t quite full yet, so I popped into the ice cream store/cafe (lecheria) across the street.  I’m never sure what to do in Spanish cafes and bars.  Do you go in and order or do you sit down at a table and wait to be served?  It seems like every place is different.  This was an ice cream counter.  I just wanted a cone to go – I’m in a hurry – so I stood in front of the ice cream display and made eye contact with the servers scooping it out.  Nothing.  No acknowledgement.  No other customers there.  

Frick, I think to myself.  I gotta sit down outside and be served there.  So I grab a table and watch the same waiter that was behind the counter go bring some drinks to these old ladies.

Now if you know old ladies, you know that they only pay with coins.  So here I am, fingers impatiently tapping on the table while each one of these ladies counts out their 5 and 10 cent coins to pay their individual tab.
Finally the waiter comes over to me and takes my order – two scoops of lemon sorbet.  I wasn’t going to get a drink, but hey, I have to sit here anyway so I’ll take an orange Fanta too.  As I’m waiting for my ice cream, I take a look around me and I see everyone sitting there, happily talking, on their phone, reading a paper, and it hits me – I’m banging my head against a wall.  I’m in Spain, trying to apply an American lifestyle.  The country doesn’t operate that way.  I’m trying to pack too much in and that’s not the right strategy.

It’s not malicious.  It’s not wrong – I’m the one that’s wrong.  Grabbing food to go is anathema here.  It’s not done.  Rushing through a meal isn’t done.  Apparently ordering ice cream at the counter so you can rush to the next thing isn’t done either.  And by reverting to my American habits and expectations, I’m swimming against the stream; it’s the opposite of going with the flow.  I would be happier, more relaxed and accomplish more by accepting the way things work and operating within that.

After eating my sorbet, I forced myself to sit there for ten minutes and do what one does in a cafe – watch the other patrons and watch the world walk by.  I won’t say I wasn’t antsy, but I was content.

 July 16, 2017

Ponferrada to Villafranca – 16 miles

A ceiling painting of the Last Supper at a random church along the way

Back in wine country

When you order a drink, you often get little bites to eat.  These were some sort of cheese and they were delicious.

Ponferrada and the Knights Templar

I’ve been pushing the last few days because I’ve been eager to get to Ponferrada, which is the last city before Santiago.  I’m down to about 130 miles to go, which I should be able to finish in a week or so.

I really, really, really love the mountains.  We now have forests, wildflowers, cute little mountain towns and a few ruins here and there that give variety and motivation when slogging through the miles.

Today, I reached the Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross) and the highest point on the Camino. Tradition says you’re supposed to bring a rock from home and toss it on the pile at the base of the cross.  The rock represents your former life and all the baggage you bring with you.  The rest of the journey can then focus on the changes you want to make.  I picked out a nice lava rock from Hanakapiai beach a few months back, but having been born an imbecile, I forgot to pack it.  As a replacement, I’ve been carrying a small stone from St. Jean.  I’m not sure I have a lot of baggage to dispose of, but I dropped the stone and snapped a picture.After the Cruz de Ferro, the trail has some short ups and downs before dropping ~3,000 feet into Ponferrada.  I love steep, rocky descents – the goat is my spirit animal – and I had a blast blowing past all the irritated pilgrims complaining about their knees.

Ponferrada did not impress.  I think part of it was due to the heat (today was a beastly hot afternon) and part due to fatigue, but I just didn’t see anything that merited my attention.  The city is ringed with high rise apartment buildings, blocking any view of the old town or the Templar castle I was looking forward to touring.  And when I finally got to the old town, parts of it was literally falling down.

The economy here must be pretty good judging by the number of people and the newness of the much of the construction.  The topography is somewhat unusual with the old town actually in a valley and separated from the new part by a ridgeline and a river.  This leaves old city center feeling dead and isolated.  Not worth a visit, in my opinion.

Part of my enthusiasm for Ponferrada was because it is the site of one of the few Templar castles in Spain.  If you don’t know the history of the Knights Templar, it’s pretty fascinating.

They were founded in the 12th century following the first Crusade.  A group of nobles got together and decided it would be a good idea to found a religious order who’s mission it would be to protect pilgrims traveling to the newly “liberated” Jerusalem.  It was unique in that it was the first western incarnation of the warrior monk.  Men of the cloth didn’t carry weapons in those days and a number of liberal interpretations of theological viewoints had to be made to justify monks wearing armor and carrying swords.

The group received support from several influential people of the day, notably Bernard of Clairvaux (St. Bernard – also a fascinating figure) and Pope Innocent II, who issued a papal decree that the Templars could cross any border freely, owed no taxes and were under the Pope’s jurisdiction  Those were huge advantages in the Middle Ages and the order grew quickly.  To be a Templar, you had to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as well as donate all your material possessions to the Order, so they really were monks for all intents and purposes.

The Templars were also responsible for the first Western system of banking.  Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land could hand over their possessions to the Templars in their home city, receive a piece of paper which they could then exchange for an equal monetary amount (less a fee) when they reached Jerusalem.  They also made loans, although they didn’t call them that since collecting interest was considered usurous and hence illegal.  Instead, they creatively developed mortgages in which they would take title of a nobleman’s land and he would make “rent” payments to the Templars.

Over the subsequent 200 years, the Templars grew very wealthy and consequently influential, although individual members were still bound by their vows.  They financed and fought in wars, including lending large sums of money to King Philip of France, which ultimately resulted in their downfall.

King Philip, deeply in debt and on the losing end of several costly wars, decided maybe it was better to kill the banker than pay him back.  On the night of Friday, October 13, 1407, he sent his men to round up all the Templars in France and execute them for heresy.  Ever wonder why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky?  There’s your reason.

Philip then had asked all his monarch buddies to do the same and thus the Templar experiment ended rather abruptly.

Alas my visit to the Templar castle (built as a base to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago) didn’t provide much new enlightenment.  The castle was built in the late 14th century, so only got about 20 years of use before the Templars were eradicated.  It was subsequently expanded but only shortly before the advent of gunpowder, rendering it useless pretty quickly.

Most of the exhibits were in Spanish and much of the castle could use additional restoration.  Much of what you can see is actually not original since throughout the centuries, people repurposed the stone from the walls to build houses.  But at least you get an idea of the castle layout and you can let your imagination wander.  Unfortunately I was tired and am an imbecile so this is what most of my pictures look like.

But here’s one from the internet.

July 15, 2017

Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada – 22 miles

In a Dan Brown book, he would hide some secret scroll behind this symbol that can only be opened on the 13th day of the 13th month (But there is no 13th month.  Wait, the Templars used the Rastafarian calendar which has 15 months.  So, let’s see, the 13th day of the 13th month would be… today!  Wow, how lucky for us.)  I friggin hate Dan Brown.  Hack writer.

You whisk the flies off my face and I’ll whisk them off yours

Bonus wildflowers

Decision Paralysis

First things first.  To put everyone’s mind at ease, the nun remains true to her vows and I remain frustrated.  Jen comes in two weeks – get those legs limber, honey.  (I hope to God you’re not reading this to your kids, Susan)

When I got up to the room last night after writing my blog entry, my roommate was sleeping.  However, while I was gone, she had spent time consulting Google and written me a very nice note.  There are some people in this world that are just filled with nothing but good, while for me consideration of others seems to be a herculean task.  I admire them and it gives me something to work towards.

I know it sounds stupid, but I cherish this note.  I tucked it into the bag next to my credenciale so it doesn’t get damaged and will carry it home.  

I got what I thought was an early start this morning, but when I went downstairs at 6 there were only 3 pairs of shoes left by the door.  It was short jaunt to the next major town – Astorga, which is an old Roman settlement.  Astorga is kinda cute and if I were in the area again, I would make sure to take some time to explore it more closely.  Of note, there is an active Roman ruin excavation, another cathedral (closed for services when I rolled through) and a former Episcopal palace designed by Antoni Gaudi that now houses a pilgrim a museum (closed due to Spain).

Roman mosaic

Episcopal palace

Cathedral

This town would make a good base to explore this region of Spain.  I always like to take mid-sized towns as a base when I travel someplace new because they’re easier to navigate and it’s easier to learn the local customs.  It has all the services you need and usually the people are friendlier than in the big cities.  In this case, Astorga seems to check all the boxes and I place it as my #2 favorite trail town behind Logrono.

We’re finally starting to ascend into the mountains (hills, really) and I love it.  The air is crisper, animals are back and there’s a sense of anticipation of what lies beyond with each summit you cross.  I love mountains.

Today I started thinking about the next week and what comes beyond.  I left the group yesterday and I believe my path forward lies alone.  My new favorite is saying is “Go with the flow” and right now the flow says to continue walking alone.  It’s a tough decision because I really enjoyed Stefan, Maria and Philipp’s company.  Locky is apparently back with them now too.

Groups are funny.  They provide ample benefits (emotional and physical) but at the cost of freedom.  In this case, I’m giving up what are truly a great group of people that provide companionship, encouragement, new ideas and assistance should I need it.   I sincerely hope our paths will cross again, and, since trails like this are funny, it’s not improbable that they will.

With that decision made, I am left with another.  If I want, I can make Santiago in a week from here.  I meet Jen on July 27.  That leaves some time to fill.  Options are:

  1. Walk slowly to Santiago
  2. Walk all the way to Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast (an extra ~50 miles)
  3. Make it to Santiago in time for the Festival of St. James – huge party and fireworks on the 24th/25th.  Then ????
  4. Hoof it to Santiago and then go somewhere for a few days until meeting Jen in Paris.  Options include, but are not limited to Grenada or Seville (Moorish architecture/Alhambra), Madrid (awesome museums), Morocco (never been to Africa), Mont St. Michele in Normandy (kitschy but I want to see it).  All are on my list of things to see.  Or somewhere completely different.

Right now, there are too many options and I simply can’t decide.  I know there’s a technical name for it, but I can’t remember it.  Hopefully the flow lets me know soon.

July 14, 2017

Hospital de Obrigo to Rabanal del Camino – 21 miles

Chocolate break – Astorga has a number of chocolates

Modern church for a change

First horseback rider I’ve seen

Future hamburguesa. The white cattle are supposed to be delicious

The Bridges of Meseta County

Well, that was a torturous night.  Seems that those Benedictines are masochists.  The mattresses were very thin and so worn they provided no support to my hips and back.  I woke up more sore from the bed than from the previous day’s walk.

Today I felt like walking alone so I left the Stefan, Philipp and Maria at the hostel and began my hike solo.  I love walking through city’s in the early morning before they wake up.  Although it was a weekday, it looked like much fun was had the night before.  The streets were littered with garbage with only a lonely streetsweeper to set things right.  All the chairs and tables that crowded the street the night before now blocked the restaurant entrances.  Today the cycle will begin anew.

I’ve taken to timing my breakfast for 8 o’clock to watch the bull running.  I believe today is the last day and it kinda showed.  No one seemed to want to get trampled so there was a big peopleless bubble around the bulls.  Yesterday was awesome – lots of action – maulings, tramplings, even a couple of gorings.  I like it when the bulls win.  To be honest, I consider the whole thing animal cruelty.  The bulls are clearly scared out of their minds and I can’t imagine they would willingly participate.  For some reason, I can’t look away though, hence my morning breaks.

The landscape remains extremely flat, although it’s turned more scruffy.  Reminds me of parts of Florida.  I’m still looking forward to the mountains, so I decided to pack in some extra miles.  Unfortunately that meant leaving the rest of the group behind.  I did make plans to see them again in a few days though.

The past few hundred miles, I’ve been seeing an odd thing.  Every now and then there will be a bridge in the middle of the prairie.  No road leads to it, nor does any road or railroad track run under it.  Just a bridge.  By itself.  I’m guessing that Spain got some EU money specifically for bridges and this is part of some future infrastructure plan.  Sure looks like a boondoggle though.

I ended up walking over 20 miles again and find myself in the town of Hospital de Orbigo.  It’s a lively little town and I imagine it serves as an outer suburb of Leon.  I like towns with character – it’s a welcome change from the ghost towns of the past week and even earlier in the day.

Tonight I’m staying in a 4 bed room.  The bunkhouse was full, but this was only $10, a $3 surcharge.  Quite the deal.  The hospitaliero is an immigrant from Venezuela.  He purchased the place two years ago and has put a tremendous amount of effort into updating it.  It feels cozy and has all the amenities a pilgrim could want – laundry, showers, communal kitchen.  There’s even an area with paints and canvases for those looking for a creative outlet.

So far I only have one roommate – a Korean woman of indeterminate age.  I peg her at 40 +/- 20 years.  She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Korean, so we didn’t get much further than where are you from.

I ran into her at dinner again.  Apparently the hospitaliero sends everyone to the same restaurant.  I was seated at the table next to her, smiled a greeting and wondered what the protocol is.  Should I ask to join her at her table?  She saved me from my predicament by pulling out her smartphone and using google translate.  Brilliant!  I sat at my table, she at hers and we talked using our phones.

Turns out she’s a nun.  It’s a small order with only one convent in Korea.  She’s here with two of her sisters but injuries/speeds separated them.  It’s tough to have a deep conversation about faith and spirituality over google translate but for the basics it worked extremely well.  Kind of a nice experience.  And, you could say I will be sleeping with a nun tonight.  (Don’t worry, Mike Niau – I’m a faithful man)

July 13, 2017

Leon to Hospital de Orbigo – 23 miles

American culture is everywhere

Pilgrim statues are everywhere

First head shop I’ve seen

Bicyclists taking a cab to the top of the hill

 

Leonathon

It’s 9:30 on a Wednesday evening and I’m sitting at a child’s school desk, flanked by bunks, and looking through a wire mesh covered window at the square outside my hostel.  It’s warm but occasionally a cool breeze wafts through the window providing relief.  Despite the late hour there’s ample light to see by and I’m watching the patrons of the neighboring cafe converse.  You can hear people speaking but not what they’re saying, except when a shrill voice in English exclaims how much she loves Spanish cafes.  A balding man is feeding the pigeons leftovers, the waiter rushes out to clear a table when it vacates all while a young man is serendading the diners on a Spanish guitar hooked up to a small amplifier.  I imagine this is what it looks like every night.

Tonight I’m at the Benedictine monastery/convent in Leon, having walked over a full marathon.  Putting in an 11 hour day and now watching the cafe, I understand why the Spaniard schedules his day as he does.  I don’t quite understand it, but the sun is at it’s highest at 3 in the afternoon (hence siesta from 2-4) and the sun doesn’t go behind the buildings, much less set, before 8 (hence the late dinners).  If I were a pharmacist and started my evening at 9, I wouldn’t open the store until 10 the next day either.

Leon is a mid-sized city in northwestern Spain and, like Burgos, sports a large gothic cathedral.  This one is based on the one in Rheims, France and, because most of it is one big room, you can fully see the soaring ceilings.  Standing in there, you can begin to understand why these things were built.  This would be the grandest place a medieval peasant would ever see (I’d point to the gold altars I’ve posted previously) and what better way to convince them that God exists here than to build a ceiling so high that you can picture heaven just beyond?


The cathedral is known for it’s stained glass windows – and they are special.




I will say after more than a full day’s walk, I probably wasn’t in the best position to fully appreciate the cathedral and I was slightly miffed by the 6 euro entry fee (no pilgrim discount).  Taken as a whole, it certainly isn’t as impressive as the Burgos cathedral and if I could only visit one, I would pick Burgos.  This one is nice, but you can see just as nice or nicer in France, Belgium and Germany with no entry fee.

The reason for today’s walk can be chalked up to an unhealthy combination of stupidity and cockiness.  The first 15 kilometers went pretty easy, so we decided to stretch an originally planned 25 to 32.  Still feeling good around noon, we decided, what the hell, let’s go all the way to Leon.  Maria, who sat out two days so far, decided to catch a bus and meet us in Leon.  Rather than make her wait, we figured we’d walk 1 1/2 days mileage and just meet her today.  Since I actually like seeing things along the way, I decided to tack on the cathedral as well.  (This is Spain and the cathedral won’t open until 9:30 tomorrow, by which time I’ll be moving on)

Astute readers will notice that I’ve been behind in my posts by a day.  Since absolutely nothing of interest happened yesterday, I’ve decided to combine the two days into one post and just focus on today.  Tomorrow will be a short day, but hopefully more full of experiences than what I’ve had recently.

I decided to break off from dinner early so I could attend to some personal business and I’m glad I did because after my shower, a nun came through the dorm rounding up people for the evening prayer and pilgrim blessing.  I’ve yet to attend mass on my trip but a blessing seems palatable.

The whole affair was in Spanish but we were given little booklets that explained the prayers in our native tongues.  There was singing, recitation of psalms, prayers and a heartfelt offering of safety, contemplation and accomplishment at the pilgrimage’s end by the roughly 15 nuns in attendance.  Once again I’m struck by how there are people along the Camino who’s only purpose is to serve the pilgrims that come along.  The nuns that operate this place charge a measly 6 euros per bunk.  There’s no way their costs are covered, not to mention the extras like taking time each and every day to deliver a special blessing.

The Camino’s origins are spiritual (Catholic, specifically) and I want to take the last few weeks and explore that aspect a little bit.  For now, I’m beat and am headed to bed.  Good night.

July 11, 2017

Ledigos to Berciano del Real Camino – 16 miles

July 12, 2017

Berciano del Real Camino to Leon – 27 miles

Leon city wall


I loved this show as a kid