Entrance to the city of Burgos (photo taken by Madelyn Given on her El Camino pilgrimage).

El Camino: Headed to Burgos

For over one thousand years, the el Camino has attracted spiritual and adventure seeking pilgrims. It has historic sites of world renown, and today, in September 2014, I am headed to one of them. It will be a culture shock for sure, going from the timeless nature trail to a big city. I feel blessed to be walking here, and I am in good spirits as I start my usual day before dawn, headed to the big city of Burgos, one of three big cities on the trail. I will hike 27.5 kilometers to get there, and I plan to check in early enough to get a bed at an albergue.

It is cool and refreshing in the early morning. I feel safe, free, and alive on this quiet trail of natural beauty. There are walkers all along the trail, but not many, as I can go for long periods of time alone, only seeing others in the distance. The Brazilian couple followed me part of the morning, as well as a young Italian couple I passed. I met up with Manual and his dog, Curio. All are wonderful, friendly pilgrims, part of the el Camino family that forms a bond after many days of hiking this long trail.

From San Juan de Otego, through a forest on to Atapuerca, along a highway to Orbuneja, I hiked by myself, and then I met up with the only Italian still hiking at my pace. The other seven, who met and started together the first day, are several days behind us now. This tall, thin Italian and I hiked quite a few kilometers together.

We met up with a woman from British Columbia, at a place where the trail intersects with the city. She was deciding whether to take the scenic trail or the direct trail, which takes the industrial route through the city. The Italian had planned to take a city bus, and the Canadian woman was concerned about going with this Irish vagabond who was trying to convince us that the scenic route was best.

He was a strange-looking character. He had a homemade cart with bicycle tires, and a harness he had made to pull it. On this cart were a bunch of backpacks. Not one, but at least eight packs, all stuffed full. I decided to go the scenic route, the Italian agreed to come, and the Canadian woman seemed happier that we were all going together. We followed the Irish vagabond, silently thinking that we were safer in numbers.

We got lost twice: each time, the Irish vagabond assured us he knew the way to the city center. We went along the Río Arlanzón, in a lovely city park, for what seemed like many kilometers. When the Italian stopped at a fruit stand, I knew he wanted to depart from the Irish vagabond, and I agreed.

We walked the rest of the way together into the old walled city of Burgos; you can see the impressive city entrance in my photo at the top of this blog post. I found an ATM, but it didn’t work; I wasn’t concerned, but I was tired and wanted to check in for the night. I headed straight for the albergue and got in line. It had 150 beds and was five stories: a modern, clean place with an elevator. There was a friendly staff, and once signed in, we were directed to the tall boot drawers to leave our boots. Then I was escorted to my cubby.

I had just sat down on my bed when I heard a familiar voice. I knew it was Peter, my trail friend from Belgium, who I had never expected to see again. I was pleased and surprised that the Brazilian couple was in the same cubby of four bunks. Peter took me to find a different ATM, and showed me how to get out of the city in the morning. We found an outside café and caught up on what had happened in the last few days.

Burgos is a beautiful ancient city, and the cathedral is a UNICEF World Heritage Site. There are 28 chapels, besides the magnificent cathedral center, with its elegant carved gold pieces, star-vaulted dome, and carved marble tomb. From my window, I could practically touch the cathedral—it was that close.

It was Saturday, and outside of the Cathedral, families were gathered, waiting for weddings or baptisms. The people were beautifully dressed and full of excitement. It was a pleasure to see these happy Spanish citizens, celebrating with their families on joyous occasions, and looking so beautiful and fit.

The music and sounds of the city are quite a change from the trail I have been on, and yet this is part of the trail, right through the oldest part of the city, and onward through the country again. Today I walked from a tiny village, through a forest, into modern suburbs, through a large city park, to one of the grandest old Christian sites in the world.

It is a culture shock, with the night life until dawn, sophisticated restaurants, and upscale shopping districts. As I head out the next morning to start my day, I met up with all the young folks leaving the bars and heading home to bed. It was another great day on the el Camino.

(posted February 24, 2015)

Madelyn Given stayed at the yellow albergue building pictured here, on her Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (photo by Madelyn Given).

El Camino: A Dream

After almost two weeks of hiking every day, and a nice evening meal, I was ready for a good night’s sleep. It was September 2014, and I was enjoying my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago trail.

The albergue where I was staying was a small, two-story yellow building, which you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. The ground floor had a reception area and a small communal kitchen, and the second floor had two rooms, with five bunks in each room. There were only two showers and two tiny bathrooms, and all the beds were full.

Everyone was scurrying around: brushing their teeth, recharging cell phones and iPods, laying out their things, and preparing their packs for the next day. I lay on my bed, recounting the highs and lows of the day, writing in my journal, and studying my trail book for tomorrow and the days ahead. Someone asked if it was okay to switch off the overhead light, and we said our good nights. I was thinking about this great adventure—I could not imagine what tomorrow would bring—and I soon fell asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night I had a dream: There was a roaring sound from World War II planes putting on an air show. An old prep school classmate who was known for bullying people asked me to learn to fly one of the old planes; she would hire me to participate in air shows around the country…

I woke up abruptly from the dream and a whirling sound was really under my bed! Next to the head of my bunk was a Japanese man sleeping. I checked and the other eight people were sleeping as well. The room was dark except for the racket under my bed and the sound of people sleeping.

My first thought was to turn on the light and take care of the racket, but I thought the sound was the man’s breathing defibrilator for a sleep disorder. I also knew that if I turned the light on, I would have some very upset people on my hands. I lay there for the longest time, unable to sleep, and yet so tired!

Early in the morning, people began to stir, and I jumped up and turned on the light. A young German girl jumped down from the top bunk over me, crawled under my bed, and pulled out an electric toothbrush. Oh, oh, I was thinking. To tell you the truth I was upset. No one said anything, but I gave her a strange look. She didn’t say anything about disturbing anyone, just, “It doesn’t work so I don’t use it.”

I walked downstairs and put on my hiking boots, slid my pack over my shoulder, and took my trekking poles from the rack by the door. Several hikers were standing by the locked door, waiting to depart. The attendant was very adamant the night before to say that no one leaves before 6 am. A man behind me went to the door, unlocked it, and went out. The line of hikers followed out the door, onto the one-lane street, and soon out into the darkness of the country.

I walked quite a while that morning thinking about what caused my dream. Six of the hikers hiked at a very good clip, as they were bent on coffee; I hiked at the same pace. As we entered the first town, Castildelgado, nothing was open, and the loosely-formed group hiked on in the dark to the second town, Viloria de Rioja. There was nothing open there either, so we went on to the next village, Villamayor. The group had split up by then, and only two were ahead of me; they stopped and I went on—by now it was daylight.

I stayed focused and kept a steady pace, knowing I had walked 12 kilometers so far when I reached Belorado. Then I went on, along the highway and across the fields, to Tosantos and Villambristia. Now on to Espinosa del Camino and Villafranca Montes de Oca—that was 24 kilometers I had walked. I found a café, bought an ice cream bar, then found a bank.

I headed out of town and tackled another 12 kilometers that climbed steeply, all uphill. For quite a ways I hiked alone, then I met up with the couple from Brazil, then later, a young couple from Paris, France, and for the last 4-5 kilometers we walked together, until they went to find a place to camp. I finished the last 2 kilometers with two young sisters who were very sweet.

I stopped at a rural hotel. It was closed, so I went right to the albergue. I had hiked 36 kilometers that day, and I was headed to the next mountain range. The people I met were upbeat and friendly, and although the weather was hot and sunny, the scenery in the country and the activity in the villages were lovely. I was now beginning to chuckle to myself about the toothbrush dream. It was another beautiful day.

(posted February 17, 2015)



Madelyn Given enjoyed a great dinner with fellow hikers on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: A Special Dinner

I hiked steadily from Nájera to Redecilla del Camino, 32 kilometers in the terrible heat, except for a pleasant stop in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. That afternoon in September 2014, I was the second person to check in at the albergue. I found out from the other pilgrims staying at the albergue that I had hiked the farthest of all of them that day!

I was another step closer to Santiago when I crossed the border of the La Rioja province and entered Castilla y Leon. It was a good feeling to see progress on this long journey. Just before Grañón, I walked past a hill; later I learned that Celtic burials were performed there. It didn’t look any different than any other hill in the countryside, but so much history is buried.

I was so tired and hot that I almost finished my day in Grañón. I saw a small albergue with 3 – 4 people sitting outside by the door, waiting for it to open. There was not much going on: pilgrims were either back in Santo Domingo, or had gone on ahead. It was with effort and determination that I walked on alone to reach the one albergue in Redecilla del Camino, a one-street village with one store, one church, and one café.

I followed my daily routine: shower, hand wash clothes, and then get something to eat. At the little restaurant next door to the albergue, I sat down for a quick snack. I asked the manager what time dinner would be. She politely told me there was one seating at 7 pm—unless there was a group.

There were three Canadian women sitting at another table, and they said they would join me as part of a group so we could eat earlier. I went back to the albergue, where a Brazilian couple and three other people asked to join the group. A young biking couple saw me, and they said they would be happy to join us as well. I now had a group; I went back and notified the manager, who scheduled our dinner an hour earlier than normal.

Before dinner, I walked across the narrow street and into the church. Behind protective bars was an ancient, massive baptismal font—one of the most impressive on the el Camino. It was Roman, with a design of a city on it (probably Jerusalem).

Every day, there was something impressive to see along the trail; nature was at its best, too. Since leaving Belgium over three weeks earlier, I had not encountered any rain while hiking.

At 6 pm, our group sat down for a wonderful Spanish feast, in the little restaurant next to our albergue. The chef had fixed paella, the number-one native dish of Spain. It was a meal in itself. The chef had worked all afternoon to prepare this special dish for our group, and he proudly carried it out, steaming hot, and set it down in the middle of the table. This colorful paella was served on an enormous platter filled with chunks of tender chicken, shrimp, rice, vegetables, and spices.

As you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post, it was a fun time dining together; the hospitality was grand, and especially appreciated by the hikers from around the world. The manager was from France, but was living and working here while her son was going to school. She and the chef went out of their way to make our meal an event to remember.

Our group walked back to the albergue, a place built on the site of an eleventh-century pilgrim hospice. After hiking and a wonderful meal, I was ready for a good night’s rest.

(posted February 10, 2015)