May 6, 2016
Tomorrow morning, Tim and I will arrive in Santiago de Compostela. It’s been 37 days of walking, hostels (albergues), backpacks and rain. Waaaay too much rain. I’m tired and have occasionally taken a bus or taxi ride in our 450+ mile trek, but only 2 full days off.
This hasn’t been what I expected. I tried not to have expectations for the trip, but, being a flawed human being, I find that I did.
I wasn’t expecting a huge spiritual experience. I’m simply not a religious person, though I do have a spiritual side. But, I guess I expected a sense of accomplishment, of completion. So far, I don’t have any of that. Of course, I’m still a handful of kilometers away. I still have my Compostela to get and I can still walk through the church door and have all my sins forgiven (plenary indulgence, AS IF!). It’s just that I don’t think any of those things will make any difference.
I’ve loved so many moments: Tim is an incredibly positive person and I’m humbled he’s agreed to hike with me, since I know he could out walk me any day of the week–as I was reminded of this week when he did 25k while suffering from a virus. We’ve had some great discussions, laughed and quizzed each other on Spanish vocabulary. We’ve also seen amazing views. I love the exceptionally clean farms and watching farm wives work in compost and plant new spring gardens. The constant rain has meant rich, green pastures with woodland blossoms. I’ve watched Spring come to rural Spain from eye level. So many flowers, green leaves, fast moving rivers. I’ve photographed the snow covered mountains (that we thankfully didn’t have to cross) and the long views from the top of hills. These are the most beautiful, fat chickens I’ve ever seen. I’ve met folks from all over the world and laughed with them, occasionally at them. I’ve seen rocks that reminded me of Pennsylvania and clay mud that looked like my childhood farm in spring. I’ve watched shepards and dogs herding sheep, and cows walking through town on their way to milking or new pastures. There was rain and hail, wind and the coldest, wettest spring in the memory of every farmer we talked to. There was also glorious sun that I never saw enough to take for granted. I’ve walked between eucalyptus forests, sat under 500 year old chestnut trees and hiked beside ancient stone walls with no mortar holding the rocks together. I drank from countless fuentes (fountains), some put there for medieval pilgrims who were guarded by the Knights Templar. I’ve crossed rivers on stone bridges built by Romans and sat in churches built in the 10th century. I’ve been blessed by a priest and hosted by a nun, both of whom wished me a “buen Camino.” I’ve eaten fresh seafood, amazing acorn and chestnut fed pork and drank a river of vino tinto and cafe con leche. My Spanish has improved–I can order a simple meal without resorting to English. If the albergue owner doesn’t speak my language, I can ask about accommodations, laundry and meals. I’m not quite functional, but so much better than a month ago. It’s been rich, joyous, amazing, surprising, exhausting, painful and humbling. It’s also been a reminder that no one walks their path alone, whether on The Way of Saint James or everyday life.
But there is also the loss of a friendship. Travel is stressful; backpacking is doubly so–stressing even the experienced hiker. It’s not for everyone. Sometimes you try things with the very best of intentions and things simply don’t work out. I don’t care what your guidebook says, this is not a walk in the park. I’ve learned before that, in general, traveling alone is easiest. Unfortunately, I’ve learned it again on this trip. The hard way. My feeling of loss can’t really be shared.
I’m not sorry I came, but it hasn’t all been positive. With every adventure is also pain
Day 29, Hospital to A Balsa, 17k
April 29, 2016
It was a good albergue last night and I slept well, but somehow just couldn’t get organized. A difficult morning. Everyone had to wait for me when I went back for a pair of sunglasses I left by my bed. And I clearly left my Leatherman tool as well. It’s a small, multipurpose tool I’ve carried for years and I have found it indispensable. I hope I can find another. The good news is that the break riding a horse yesterday through the most difficult section seems to have revived me. My stomach was good this morning and no diarrhea. Anne was feeling strong too. We had agreed that we’d get a taxi if we didn’t feel well.
The walk was mostly downhill today. Occasionally steep, the path was often gravel or dirt. The views were fantastic. Frequently we walked a hillside or ridge line and could see farms stretching for miles. We walked through a small community every 3k or so and could stop for coffee or a beer. The farmers were spreading manure on their gardens, so it was often smelly.
Flowers are in bloom here as you’d expect in early spring–daffodils (especially tiny ones), tulips, primrose, garden phlox and iris. It is cooler here in Galicia. According to my guide, “The mountains of Galicia are the first object in 5,000km that the westerly winds coming across the Atlantic hit, so you can expect an immediate change in weather…and thick mountain fog all feeding a maze of mountain streams and deep river valleys. The countryside is reminiscent of other Celtic lands with its small, intimate fields and lush pastures grazed by cattle…..Thick hot soups, caldo gallego, …provide inner warmth from the damp.” We’ve already tried some local fresh cheeses, like thick cream cheese, served with quince paste (membrillo). Another popular dessert is the tarta de Santiago, an almond cake. Soon we will be near the sea and I can’t wait to try octopus (pulpo) and the white wine, Albariño, served icy cold.
The landscape and particularly the villages seem like the set of a fairytale. So many of the buildings in the small towns we’ve past are old stone, but here they seem even older. Many buildings and all the stone walls are mortar-less with moss and sedums growing from between the rocks. Homes are often two story with a barn at ground level and living quarters above. The roofs are slate, laid like a black, patchwork quilt. The oldest are covered in vegetation. Fat, colorful chickens strut through the narrow streets, some leading newly hatched chicks. Brown, horned cows are led through the streets for milking or new pastures. A brook often meanders through town. Some of the bridges are built on foundations laid by Roman builders. It all feels very old.
Anne found a friend she met at the beginning of the hike, Michelle, from Australia and Brazil. She joined us in Filloval. We stopped for a beer in Triacastela and got reservations in a vegetarian albergue 2k down the road in a tiny town, barely on the map. Anne and Michelle were in the rear and missed the sign for El Beso (the kiss). They walked all the way to San Xil (pronounced San Jeel) and had to come back! It probably added 5-6k to their day. Anne’s feet have really bothered her, so she didn’t need the additional mileage. Her cough is worse as well. We are all worried about her.
The vegetarian dinner was wonderful tonight. It started with nettle soup! Then steamed vegetables, cheese, hummus and the only brown rice I’ve seen in Spain. It finished with a very moist apple cake. Yum! Just wish there had been more of it with little to no fat, it won’t stay with me long
Backpacking is all about managing expectations. You learn where your limits are, too. You really find what you’re made of at the end of the day when you think you see your final destination at the bottom of a gentle hill, just to have the path abruptly turn and take you up another hill. Or when the guidebooks profile map says it’s a gentle downhill today and you keep climbing. While I greatly disagree with the preparation recommendations in my guidebook, I’ve appreciated the maps. Or I did, until the last two stages when my map was 10k different from the one Tim had. I don’t think either was correct. Also, my guidebooks says I still have +150k to walk to Santiago. The signs (which are new and very well marked in Galicia), indicate about 130k. I’m a “more information” person, not a “oh, let’s just see what happens” type. Mixed messages, badly rendered topo maps and unexpected changes are very uncomfortable. While on the outside I may look calm, on the inside I’m throwing a tantrum to make a 2 year old proud. I don’t like everything I’ve learned about myself.
Germans are amazing hikers. As Bob Peoples says, if there were a hiking trail to Hell, the Germans could walk it. And back. But staying in hostels with them is ….an experience. Let’s just say that they don’t seem to have body issues. Or modesty. It is not at all unusual for a German, man or woman, to change clothes–ALL their clothes–in a crowded bunk room. Almost all strip to their underwear to sleep and nudity is not uncommon. Plus, the underwear is tiny. Most men wear small panties that remind me of speedos. I spend a lot of time averting my eyes.
A note from my dear friend Julia: “This whole Camino walk sounds incredibly painful. Martin Sheen’s character (in the film The Way) walked like a madman and NO ONE had feet issues. It was very misleading.” Truth.
Day 30, A Balsa to Vilei/Barbadelo, 29k (2k backtrack, 25k taxi, 4k hike)
April 30, 2016
The albergue, El Beso, really seemed nice. The food was good. It was clean and not over crowded. The people who ran the place were very nice. But before dinner we told them we were cold and needed heat in the damp basement room. The temperature was falling quickly and we knew it was forecast to be just above freezing overnight. They brought a heater down, but only allowed it to be on for a couple hours. I woke at midnight shivering. I have a down sleeping bag and had covered it with a wool blanket. I was fully clothed, including two shirts and socks. I pulled my down jacket on plus my buff over my head, but I just couldn’t get warm. It was damp enough that shirts that had not quite dried in the sun after hand washing, got wetter after they were brought in overnight. I might have dealt with this better, except for a case of mild diarrhea (a common symptom I get under stress or over exertion). I had to get up twice and had a hard time getting warm enough to fall back asleep. It was not my best night ever.
In the morning, it was clear that I was not the only one who’d had a bad night. All the women and most of the men were short on sleep. Anne’s cough was scary bad. When we told the caretakers at breakfast about the cold, they didn’t really believe us. Breakfast was also disappointing. A tiny bowl of dry oatmeal on top of half a cup of yogurt and a cup of instant coffee with no refill. Not worth the 3€ we’d paid. There was lots of grumbling as we’d walked a couple kilometers extra to get to the albergue and would have to backtrack the same distance in the morning.
I tried to push off the bad night. I was doing a fair job when suddenly I vomited up breakfast in a half dozen, violent stomach lurches that blinded my eyes with tears and made me buckle at the knees. This was just not going to be my day. My body had spoken and it had said, “STOP!”
The problem with being sick or injured when hiking is that typically you still have to walk yourself out of your location. Anne and I quickly agreed to take a taxi (25€) forward to Sarria, a large city where she could get some medications she needed to treat her cough. Linken and Tim would hike on to Samos, then catch up to us the next day. But Anne and I still had to backtrack 2k to the previous town just to get to where a taxi could pick us up. Sarria is also (roughly) the 100k mark–the minimum distance you must walk to get a Compostela in Santiago. Lots of people begin their hike here. It’s a busy city where the hiking pilgrim population suddenly triples or even quadruples, along with an increase in prices. The price of an albergue might jump from 5 to 10€, not a huge difference for me. But Anne felt with her cough and desperate need for uninterrupted sleep in a warm room, she needed a private room. Those cost much more in Sarria. We agreed to walk another 4k to the next town where prices for a small private room were 29€. So even on a day when we weren’t really hiking, we had to walk 6k (about 4miles) with backpacks.
But there was one miracle overnight–my Leatherman tool materialized this morning. It was sitting on the toe of my hiking shoes. How does that happen? However it occurred, I’m grateful to still have it.
Anne checked into a small pension, but I stayed in Casa Barbadelo Albergue (9€). The rooms have 8 beds (4 bunks) with two showers and one toilet. There are 6 of us so far, me and 5 mature men. NONE of the men seem to be able to close doors. The door to the room keeps swigging open and letting in the cold air. Twice I had to get up and close the door the shower room so I didn’t have to watch someone soaping up their “altogether.” Once I closed the door to the toilet as a man sat performing his bodily functions. After, I had to go into the toilet, FLUSH and turn the light off for the man. He didn’t seem to even notice me. How DO some people function in this world?
But, hey, at least it’s warm and dry.
Camino Week 5
Day 31, Vilei/Barbadelo, 0k
May 1, 2016
It was not a good night. My room contained 4 world record holders in snoring. This included the king of the sport, Mr. “I can’t shut the door while I’m on the toilet” guy. At 2am with walls reverberating, snoring seems a justified Olympic sport. Also a justified defense for homicide. All 8 beds were full, so the morning was chaos. Everyone was vying for the one toilet and enough floor space to dress, pack and organize. I tried to just lie in bed and let the others leave, but at one point a German couple were crawling around on the floor, under my bed, moving my possessions, wearing headlamps. They had lost something. After I was blinded by the headlamp, I got up and started packing, just so they could better search for their lost item.
I met Anne for breakfast and she hiked on. It’s Sunday and she can make Santiago by Friday’s special pilgrims service.
The hostel will let me stay another night without checking out, so I plan to shower (I was too tired yesterday) and sleep. Tim will stay in Sarria tonight and meet me for a second breakfast in the morning.
This Camino guest blog is from Tim, my hiking partner
April 30: Triacastela to Samos
We left the Albergue Ecológico El Beso near Triacastela around 8 o’clock, backtracking a kilometer or so to the main town. A slow drizzle and foggy upper 30s morning gave way to another sunny, but still cool day in the mid 50s.
The albergue is in the basement of an old house, owned by a Dutch family, and staffed by an Australian and a Canadian volunteer. It is in a nice hillside location overlooking the town, with hammocks, swing chairs, and an outside picnic area. The hosts were friendly and the views were fantastic.
Organic and sustainable were the themes, and a vegetarian supper included nettle soup. It went down easy, despite its reputation. Everyone seemed to appreciate a good dose of vegetables after plenty of pig-based choices on most menus. Everything was good, including the carob cake. I could’ve eaten about two more servings of everything before getting close to full though.
The basement bunkroom started out a few degrees above the outside temperature, and stayed there until morning; not everyone slept well because of the room’s dampness and temperature, but the hosts were apologetic for the weather not being better after several pointed out how cold it was. It seems like a small electric heater and a few Euros of electricity would’ve provided enough heat to solve the problem. I imagine everyone in the bunkroom had the same thought as we could see our breath while loading backpacks. After a breakfast of granola and yogurt, we hiked on.
Back in Triacastela, we planned the day at a usual stopping point – the first bar in town. Every town with more than a few people has one, and they all have an espresso machine and WiFi. Licken and I decided to walk the longer route through Samos to see the monastery, while Beth and Anne chose to continue on directly to Sarria, taking the day off there to rest and recuperate.
The trail to Samos started out along the highway, on or near the shoulder, but after a few kilometers veered off through some small towns on a nice footpath. Road walking isn’t my favorite, especially when inside a guardrail watching trucks round a corner. I mentally practice jumping up high enough to clear the top of the railing when I hear a big truck coming. But, the reality is that there’s just not that much traffic on most of the roads along the Camino, and a large percentage of trucks move over as far as they can as they pass by. Some drivers even wave; Spain has been a friendly country. Anyway, a little gravel and dirt feels like walking on clouds after a short stretch of asphalt.
I would make a guess that less than a quarter of peregrinos took this route versus the shorter route directly to Sarria judging by the number of people we saw while walking against the flow this morning to get back to town and to the branch for the Samos route. I saw only two other hikers during the nine kilometer hike into Samos. The path followed a clear, quick-flowing stream, with occasional waterfalls, most of the way, through a couple of small villages, and over several medium-sized hills. The weather was just about perfect. Trees are in full bloom.
We stopped at the first bar/restaurant in town, right across from the monastery. I’ve enjoyed ordering custom bocadillos along the route. Food and drink have been the primary motivation behind attempts to improve my Spanish. Today’s goal was a bacon, egg, cheese, and tomato bocadillo; it’s always an adventure, and from past orders, I was ready for just about any reaction, to both my Spanish and the off-menu request. Most bocadillos are exactly as advertised on the menu: a cheese one contains cheese, nothing else, a chorizo, chorizo, nothing else, no condiments, just it and bread. Today, the lady taking down my custom order was cheerful and fun to talk with. Her daughter worked with her. Of course after delivering the order to the kitchen, the cook came out and said something about this being too weird, why don’t you just order something else that I didn’t understand completely. I said, “That sounds great”. I said that because nine times out of ten when I say “that sounds fine”, it usually is. I’m not really picky despite my crazy sandwiches with tomatoes on them.
When the food arrived it was an open-faced bacon and egg bocadillo with a whole sliced tomato on the side and was the best one I had ever had. Another successful order – they always seem to work out. Licken received the exact same thing. I’m not sure what she ordered, but I’m glad she liked tomatoes.
We thought about staying in the monastery in their bunk room but after looking inside and seeing how many and how closely the bunks were spaced, decided to each get private rooms across the street. Every few days I like to splurge on a single room. Most of the bunk rooms haven’t been so bad though – it’s at about ten people in a room that it becomes chaotic and noisy and a little stuffy sometimes. At €5 to €10 though, it’s hard to complain. The private room was fantastic. It had its own electric radiant heater.
After checking in, we went to the supermarket, and I bought some corn-and-peanut trail mix, a box of lemon cookies, and a chocolate wafer candybar; I immediately ate everything to make up for the previous day’s nutritious supper.
The monastery tour took a little over an hour and was well worth the €3 admission charge. It has survived since the sixth century, being rebuilt after each of two devastating fires. Only six monks still live there. The monk leading the tour spoke only in Spanish, so I didn’t catch a lot of what was said, but he was enthusiastic and animated and drew lots of laughter from the mostly Spanish speaking group. It was interesting to see how much larger the building seemed from the inside, with palm trees and fountains in the courtyard.
Tomorrow’s destination is Sarria, a starting point for many pilgrims since it’s located just over 100km from Santiago – the minimum Camino walking distance required to receive the Compostela (certificate of completion).
I’ve enjoyed this hike more than I ever imagined. Thanks to Beth for letting me write a guest blog and inviting me along on this adventure.
Day 28, la Portela de Valcarce to Hospital, 22k (10k on horseback)
April 28, 2016
This morning we were up early and out before 8am because we had an appointment about 7k down the road. We allowed enough time to stop for a quick breakfast (for those, unlike me, who can eat in the morning). We walked to Herrerias to meet Victor Echevarria at Al Paso stables. That’s right. Our preferred way of climbing O’Cebreio is on horseback! We were the envy of the Camino as we sat and let the horses climb the 3,000 feet into Galicia, our last Province. (35 Euros for the horse, 5 Euro for a taxi to take the backpack up).
The 2 hour climb would have taken me 5 or 6 on foot with a pack. Or more. We first followed an asphalt road, but quickly turned off onto an old Roman road, lined with chestnut trees, giant fern and wild primrose. Victor said the trees were planted by the Romans to help feed the slaves in a nearby gold mine. Victor and one of his helpers walked the entire way and rode the horses down. They do this twice most days!
After lunch at the top, we added another 5k to an albergue in Hospital.
Warning. WTMI (Way Too Much Information) I know I go on a variety of “adventures” but what most people don’t realize is the tole it takes on my body. This is not a walk in the park and though I enjoy backpacking, my body simply doesn’t. It’s showing the signs of rebellion. First was the morning retching. That started over a week ago. Then actual vomiting in the mornings, so that I can’t eat breakfast unless I want to see and taste it a second time. I can’t consume anything for breakfast except coffee and usually only have whole grain crackers before lunch. Next is mild diarrhea. That hit today. While I can take something for it, what I need to do is listen to my body and rest. Odds are, I’ll be able to jump ahead by bus tomorrow and take a day off while the group catches up.
Day 26, Ponferrada to Pieros, 18k
April 26, 2016
Last night was one of the nicest group of hostel volunteers. Anne (from Ohio) joined us yesterday and we three shared a room.
I’m really showing signs of wearing down–too tired to eat dinner last night. I’ve gotten some chalky anti-acid tablets (Euro Tums) and using them to settle my stomach in the mornings. I also have a blister on the second toe on my right foot. I don’t know what was rubbing and didn’t even know it was there until I too off my sock. It looks like my toe is trying to grow another toe!
Linkin (from Denmark) joined us for this leg of the journey. We met her at an earlier hostel. We all four stayed at El Serbal y la Luna, and excellent albergue with very good vegetarian food. Since there was no wifi, I showered, hand washed a few items and took a two hour nap before dinner. Everyone seemed surprised, but I had no trouble falling asleep again after dinner.
Day 27, Pieros to la Portela de Valcarce, 21k
April 27, 2016
A tough day–mostly flat, but almost entirely road/sidewalk walking. Those hard surfaces really took it out on all off us and after our showers we are all flat on our backs. Anne got a private room. She is a light sleeper and suffering from a bad nighttime cough.
The first 7k this morning were especially beautiful with many vineyards. The grapevines are in perfect rows and the severely pruned plants are just beginning to show some green leaves. This is the Bierzo area, a micro-climate with excellent wines. The next 7 were completely along the highway, but had the advantage of being relatively flat, following a river that had cut a path between substantial hills. One of the alternative routes would have taken us straight up those hills. Not me! Did I mention that my original trail name was Flatlander? The last 5k began the assent of what will be out last major hill, O’Cebreiro, which we face tomorrow. It’s about a 1,000 meter climb (3,000feet) and I’m not looking forward to it!
On the plus side, we’ve dropped below the 200k mark–a bit over 100miles left to do. Since I don’t have to be in Madrid until the week of May 15, that gives me plenty of time to get to Santiago and take a bus to see Finisterra.
Day 25, Acebo to Ponferrada, 20k
April 25, 2016
The albergue we stayed in last night was part of a very new hotel complex. Probably on the the most comfortable so far Casa de Peregrino, 10 Euros). The pilgrims meal and breakfast (10 & 4 Euros) were also good choices. Or at least they were until I threw up breakfast less than 4K into today’s walk. This was a constant issue on the AT and it happened 2-3 days a week. I’ve felt sudden nausea the last few mornings, but this is the first morning on this hike where I saw my breakfast in reverse. I hope this will not be an issue every morning.
The walk was mostly downhill for the first half of the day, with sunny skies. I even got a small sunburn on my wrist where I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen!
Ponferrada is a larger town of about 68,000 people. They have an old Knights Templar castle, but since it’s Monday, it’s closed! Hate to miss it.
The donativo albergue is very nice and the two women who are volunteering here are extra funny and nice. We got here early enough to wash out a few items which are drying in the sun.
Day 24, El Ganso to Asebo, 23.5k
April 24, 2016
The Italians were loud. It’s hard to imagine there could be so much to talk about. They were also opening hostile to us AND ate my yogurt. I hope we never see that group again!
We hiked to the highest point on the Camino today and the views were fantastic. From all sides we saw snow covered mountains. Today was basically 17k of (mostly) gradual assent of 500meters (1500 feet) some flat sections and about 3k of a (not at all gradual) 500meter decent. Very steep. I’m one tired hiker. The path today reminded me of the AT, and not in a good way. Despite sunshine, there was mud, washed out sections, rocks and often a stream running in what should have been trail. There were enough rocks that I wondered if I was back in Pennsylvania! But the weather made the hike a possibility. In fact, today is the first day that the weather has been what I expected for spring in Spain. All the locals say it’s the wettest, coldest spring on record. Still, I don’t think I could do this exposed hike in high summer!