Mountain view on the Camino de Santiago trail; photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Cruz de Hierro

It is amazing the wonderful people I meet on the trail every day, as I hike the Camino de Santiago in fall 2014. There are new faces–all are positive, motivated pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime–and then I see my great trail friends, happy to see a familiar pilgrim, all of us in this together. The Spanish countrymen are very pleasant and helpful, too. Wherever I am on the trail, they wave and shout out “Bueno” or “Buenos dias” or “Buen Camino.”

Today I was leaving Astorga and I walked with Jorgen, a Danish man. It was dark and we both had on our head lamps. As often is the case when leaving a town, the el Camino is on the highway until it diverts onto a path and goes back into the country, woods, or mountains. This was the case today.

We were walking along the road, looking for the el Camino signs, when there was a choice: take the path or stay on the highway. Ahead of us was a couple from California. They chose the path, and in the dark, it seemed safer than being on the highway.

This was the beginning of a mistake. The four of us walked quite a few kilometers until we came to a four-way split in the trail. We could find no markers. On the left was a deserted town. I remember reading about this in my trail book.

Ahead I did not know, to the right seemed wrong, and we had just come from the other way. Jorgen and I decided it was safest to go left, and away we went, leaving the California couple with their GPS. They were sure they knew the way, but they were new on the trail.

We said goodbye and wished them well. We never saw them again.

Jorgen and I walked through this completely restored ancient town, with all up-to-day living, but the lovely stone homes were empty. The government had poured in millions of euros, hoping people would come back here to live, but it is too far from good jobs.

After a few minutes of slowly walking through the only street in town, I saw one woman standing by a car, and I asked her how to find the Camino. She said, “Derecho.” Pointing straight ahead, she continued, “Y izquierdo!”

I knew to turn left at the end of the town. After this we walked and walked. Finally I saw rooftops over the horizon, then a good omen: two deer walked in front of me. I could have almost touched them.

Then, in the distance, pilgrims were walking. Perhaps 10 or 20 in all, none in a group, simply spread out along the visible trail, the highway, and the same road we had decided not to continue on early that morning. We were relieved to be finally on the trail again. It was an exhausting extra few kilometers not knowing where we were.

Not long after we came to a town, Jorgen stopped for breakfast, but I kept walking. I met an Englishman and we walked part of the day together. It was a day of hiking uphill through several ancient towns and near the old Roman gold mines.

That night I stayed in Rabanal del Camino, the last resting place before tackling the high Cordillera Cantábrica mountains. It was cold and damp at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar albergue. This is Iberia, wolf country, and the land of the Maragatos, ancient muleteers, Spanish mountain people. It is an area also known for legends of Charlemagne and his knights.

The weather can be very rainy and it can snow any time of the year. The albergues are not heated, and some will close soon, for the winter is too severe here. Inside the cold albergue, I slept with layers of clothes and my sleeping bag. In the morning, I left the albergue, high on the mountain, in a heavy cloud cover and darkness. I knew others had gone out ahead of me, and others would soon follow, but it was still an eerie place when I set out, being able to see only a foot or two ahead of me.

I was soon joined by a 40 year old woman from Nova Scotia. She was happy to have a walking partner though this challenging area. The terrain was uneven, narrow, and steep. We took our time, checking carefully not to miss a trail marker or to lose our footing.

We stayed together until after dawn, and we reached Foncebadón, high up on the mountain pass. There were a couple of stone buildings, where animals stayed under the buildings, and the families lived above them. Several goats greeted me and waited on the steps of the homes like dogs hoping to be greeted by their master.

There was a tiny store/café: I opened the door and we went inside. It was a great feeling to come in, out of the cold, damp, and wind. We had a cup of coffee, and she wanted to rest awhile, so I went on along the narrow trail, alone. It was still uphill; two men joined me, and we continued the climb to Cruz de Hierro, one of the highlights of the el Camino.

I knew about Cruz de Hierro before I left home, and I had been looking forward to leaving two special pebbles here: one from my son Michael’s mantel, that he had collected on his worldly travels, and one from a hike in my hometown. These had been carried in my pack, in Belguim, France, and 21 days on the el Camino. I dropped them on the massive pile of stones.

This site marks the pass over Monte Irago and the border between La Maragateria and el Bierzo. It is known that Celts laid stones at these peaks and passes to calm the mountain gods and ask for a safe passage. Romans in this area followed the same tradition, calling the stones murias, after Mercury, their god of travelers. After I had taken a few photos of the tall iron cross, I walked up onto the pile and looked at some of the special stones with engraved names or scribbled writing on the stones; some had been painted. All the stones had been carried for many miles to be placed in memory of a loved one. This was a shared time with my son, Michael.

At Cruz de Hierro I met another Michael, a 25 year old man from Australia. We walked the rest of the day together to Molinaseca, and I found another albergue for the night. It had been a meaningful day. The scenery was magnificent after descending below the clouds, but my concentration was on the narrow path with sharp rocks. I was excited knowing that I was getting closer to Santiago, and I enjoyed every step along the way.

(posted April 21, 2015)

Astorga, on the Camino de Santiago trail, was known for its chocolate industry; photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Nineteen Days and Counting

My feet were feeling better after the nurse volunteer doctored them at the restored albergue in León, so I was much more excited to hike today! A ways out of León, the path split at a small town, and I decided to take the straight one, which was better marked and safer.

However, my guide book did not mention where the trails met again, so I kept walking to Villachangos del Paramo. The outskirts of the town were truck stops and places to avoid. I was getting tired, and when I get tired, I need to stop. I saw an albergue, but it was still closed, so I kept walking into town.

There was one tiny store along the route, and outside were several pilgrims, putting on their packs, ready to continue walking the trail. I asked how far to the next albergue. One said 12 kilometers, and I thought to myself, “No!” I went into the store, and the clerk said there was a hotel in town. A pleasant older man said he would show me. I decided to spend the night there and have a room to myself.

Later that evening for dinner, I was joined by a man from Ukraine, two Canadian women, a French couple, and a German couple who knew me from the trail. We were all pilgrims walking the trail. We had merasopa, a soup with clams, calamari, and whole shrimp, eyes and all. I was so hungry–I can’t believe it tasted so good. This was followed by a full meal and dessert.

The next morning, I woke at 4 am, and then went back to sleep. I woke again at what I thought was 5:30 am, but after I dressed, I realized it was 6:30. I was on the trail pronto. It was a quiet walk, with only one man I could see ahead of me. I was alone almost to Astorga and then I started to see people.

I met Timo, who became one of my trail friends. In our conversations over time I learned that Timo was from Germany, in his 20’s, and working on his PhD in advanced mathematics. We walked the last 5 kilometers into Astorga together. As we came up a steep hill to the old town, there was thunder. Later it rained, but the timing was great, as we were in the albergue and off the trail. The climate is different here from the dry meseta. I am now headed to a higher elevation through the high passes of the Cordillera Cantábrica.

Astorga is a small city, and the trail leads into the old section, to a new multi-story albergue. Timo and I both planned to stay here. When we entered, there was a line of pilgrims waiting to register. The attendant saw me at the back of the line and asked my age. This was a first for me, as age had never mattered before in registering–it had simply been first come, first served. Shortly afterward, the assistant told Timo and me to follow her and the others ahead of us.

In single file we paraded down a long hall. Timo was dropped off on that floor, the blue floor, and told to find a bed in the large room filled with bunk beds. Further on, several other women were asked to go in another large room and take a bed, while others were dropped off on the green floor. Finally only one other woman and I were left following the assistant up to the orange floor. Even the walls and stairs were painted brightly to match the floor level color. I knew which floor I was on, because I was surrounded by orange! The assistant opened a small room and the other woman hurried in. The assistant looked at her, said “No,” and pointed for her to get out. She let me in: there were two bunks and I had the room alone. This was a senior room! Life is crazy sometimes; every albergue is different.

Later, I went down to the ground floor to leave for dinner, and found Timo waiting. We went out along the street, which turned into a beautiful plaza with stores, cafes, and chocolate shops. This was a city known for the chocolate industry many years ago; you can see one of the shops in my photo at the top of this blog post. I had the best pizza in a café in the plaza. On the way back to the albergue, I had planned to go to Mass at the historic cathedral. Timo asked if he could join me. I was carrying a pizza box with leftover pizza, which I put under my pew. I don’t wonder what the locals think of the pilgrims, as the smell of the freshly baked pizza carried beyond a few pews!

At the end of the day, sitting on my bed, I reflected on the day. Today I walked through fields, up hills, and along a highway. I crossed the longest, grandest Roman bridge, and went up and over two tall, metal railroad pedestrian bridges. This is not a race, but I am moving along. People who started at the beginning of the trail are becoming more excited at the prospect of fulfilling their dreams. The Brazilian couple hugged me today when they saw me at the end of the day. It has been 19 straight days of hiking, and I am below the average time of pilgrims completing the trail. I never think about whether I will complete the trail or not; once a goal is in place, I simply set about it and complete it. It is not an option–just be prepared and do it, one step at a time. Attitude is everything. Be positive and help others along the way. After 19 days of adventure, I am still eager to continue this amazing el Camino.

(posted April 14, 2015)

Bull fighting area near León, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: León, Spain

It was a great feeling to reach León. The days of hiking across the meseta were behind me. This was the third big city I had reached since starting my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage at St. Jean Pied de Port in fall 2014. Cities are much different than walking in the country. Entering a large city by walking takes a long time.

As I walked through the industrial section, the suburbs, and the new areas of city buildings, I was not very excited by León. I did see a big bull fighting area, which you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. But as I walked to la ciudad viejo, the old city, I was impressed by the open squares and narrow streets, lined with shops and outdoor cafés, with music streaming out of the open windows and doors. I was anxious to find Monasterio Benedictino de las Hermanas Carbajalas, an ancient walled monastery now converted into an albergue–my place to stay.

I walked under an arch, into the walled entrance, past the massive, thick doors which stood open, and into a large interior patio. There were tables set up in the long, narrow entry, with seated attendants ready to register the waiting pilgrims. I dug out my el Camino passport, paid, and waited to be shown a bed in the women’s section. There were three rooms of wall-to-wall bunk beds! There was no room for boots, poles, or packs, except for a makeshift shelf over the heating registers. I settled in, cleaned up, and went out for something to eat.

I was anxious to see León: I toured the old city with the tenth-century cathedral and its famous thirteenth-century rose window, the Pantheon, and the grand squares. But I enjoyed sitting in an outside café, listening to the Spanish music, and watching the people. The people are so stylish and dressed up in their finery. The food is so elegantly prepared, and the shop windows are beautifully set up. This is what I will take back with me about León.

When I went back to the albergue I was greeted by Maxwell, the one Italian left from the group of eight formed at the beginning of the el Camino trail. He was happy to see me, but he felt terrible. The el Camino was getting the best of him. I hoped he could continue and reach Santiago. Some pilgrims wait years to be able to do the el Camino and this becomes a dream come true.

I met a young woman from the Philippines today. It has taken her 40 days to reach León. But now her time is up and she must fly home. She did not fulfill her dream of reaching Santiago. She is happy for the experience, but it is a bittersweet ending.

I sat on my bed, and a nurse volunteer came by, checking on people’s feet. She rubbed my feet and put on a soothing, healing lotion. It felt so good! In the next bunk, a young, red-headed Irish woman took off her boots and socks, and waited to have her blisters treated. Today is her first day back on the trail, on her third year to finish her journey.

In the early morning, I left the old monastery, but I will remember the pilgrims I met, the volunteer nurse, and the crowded place. I was glad to be out on the cobblestone streets, walking and looking for trail markers: brass scallop-shaped shells embedded in the cement of the streets, and yellow arrows on the walls of the buildings. It was a long walk out of the city.

As soon as I left the monastery, my pilgrimage resumed. I saw a younger man ahead of me. I followed him in the dark, with only the streetlights to guide me, until he finally disappeared in the twists and turns of the city streets. Still in the city, I continued on alone, and soon I noticed an older man having difficulty finding the trail signs. At one corner, where he had crossed the street and was heading in the opposite direction, I whistled and pointed to the sign near me. He caught up with me, passed me, and went in the wrong direction again! I whistled and pointed in the correct direction. After the third mistake where I whistled and corrected him, he decided to slow down and walk with me; by this time, we were heading out into the suburbs of León, and it was after dawn. I did not have much time to look back at this city or think about it before the thunder and lightning began.

Even in the city of León, there is adventure! As the storm approached, I noticed several Japanese, Philippines, and Koreans had stopped to put on rain gear and pack covers. A young Japanese couple stopped and offered to help me. I was okay: I put on my rain gear and covered my pack with a rain proof cover, while a Frenchman next to me did the same thing. The four of us started off together.

We had to walk under the giant power lines going into the city, while the lightning was striking ever so closely. Several times, the lightning struck the power lines, and the lights went out all over the city. There was no place to take cover. I would jump, and the Frenchman (who could not speak English) would kindly put his hand on my shoulder. The four of us walked at a good pace with our heads down in quiet. I had two metal trekking poles and the lightning was too close for comfort. We kept walking until finally it was just rain coming down.

We came to a small café: I bid the thoughtful young Japanese couple goodbye, said au revoir to the Frenchman, and went on alone. I walked on until my rain gear had dried – then I stopped and put it in my pack. In all the many days I had been walking, this was the first time it had rained. It didn’t last too long, but it was dramatic, and that was my exit from León, a grand Spanish city steeped with history and modern in activity.

(posted April 7, 2015)