Steep and wet around O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: O Cebreiro

Last night I stayed high on the Cordillera Cantabrica Mountains, in a private albergue above a bar/café. It was just 2 kilometers from O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, which I was hiking in fall 2014. This place, Laguna de Castilla, is in the clouds most of the time, any time of the year. There were no windows in the sleeping quarters with six beds and a single bunk, but I could hear the wind whipping against the stone building and the rain beating down on the slate roof during the night.

In the early morning, Jack (from Quebec, Canada) and I quietly left the sleeping quarters, trying not to disturb five Portuguese tourists still sleeping. We walked from 5:50 am, in the dark, cold, wind, rain, and heavy fog up to O Cebreiro. There at the big albergue, many of the pilgrims were just waking up. We walked right by and didn’t stop: we had a long way to go today, and most it was up and down, high on this mountainous plateau. I felt glad to have a walking partner in that heavy fog and darkness. After we passed several hamlets, it became light; you can get a feel for this landscape from my photo at the top of this blog post. We stopped for coffee in a tiny café. It was already packed with six or seven hikers—all the place could hold. Jack and I left, and he moved on at a faster clip.

As I was high on O Cebreiro, I took in some of the history. It is most famous for Iglesia de Santa María. It was believed that the Holy Grail which Christ drank from at the Last Supper was hidden here on this high mountain hamlet in the Middle Ages. There is also a story that occurred in the same church in the 14th century. A local farmer braved a bad snow storm to attend Mass. The priest told the man it was silly to have come so far in such a bad storm for a bit of bread and wine. At that moment the bread turned into flesh and the wine in the Holy Grail turned into blood. The church had a statue of the Virgin Mary and at the same time it is said the head tilted to get a better look at the miracle. The remains of the flesh and blood are held in a silver reliquary donated by Queen Isabella and are still in this church.

Later in history at O Cebreiro, Sir John Moore had a terrible time with his army. In a blizzard, hundreds of solders froze to death, his army mutinied, and in protest, the men threw a chest of gold over a cliff. Sir John Moore never made it back to England; he was shot by the French as he was embarking for England. The stories, sights, and history along the el Camino keep me motivated as I walk each day.

I walked all morning through passes high above the valleys. The path often went though barnyards and along stone walls and open spaces. I walked up and down on the high mountain to Fonfriá. It was a steady downhill the rest of my walk. I descended to the tiny hamlet of Biduela, then to Filloval, and down to Pasentes. Here I finally had to drop my pack and rest a few minutes from exhaustion. I continued on to the albergue, which was in the middle of a field as I entered Triacastela.

I came in by myself and was pleasantly surprised that they had help to do our laundry. I went to the laundry room in the basement, gave one of the attendants seven euros, and she told me to return in a couple of hours. When I returned my clothes were clean, folded, and neatly placed in a basket waiting for pick-up. Daily hiking saps so much energy that to have my laundry done was an enormous boost to my moral. Especially a day like today, as I was cold and every part of my body ached. The last several days have been quite an adventure. As I was high on the mountain, just before O Cebreiro, I passed another border: now I am in Galicia, the last leg to Santiago, and there will be no more high mountains.

(posted May 19, 2015)

Sometimes the trail was steep and narrow on the Camino de Santiago. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Time to Wake Up!

I was awakened at Albergue Leo by a metal bunk bed ladder that was knocked to the floor by a sleeping man at 4 am and again at 5 am. The first time, I jumped right out of bed! It was so loud and shocking, as it was right next to me. The ladder is free standing and hooks on to the bed. The man accidently hit it with his foot. Of course, it was dark, to add to my fright. The second time I was more aware of what was happening, but another man was getting up and knocked it over as he got out of bed.

Then it was time to hit the trail. While I was getting ready that morning, I thought of other ways I had morning wake up calls on this Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in fall 2014. In the pre dawn in the country villages and countryside, there was a local rooster that acted like the town crier and did a great job. In the hot, stuffy albergues I tried to find a bed near a window, and left it open if possible. The cock-a-doo-doodle-do was loud and clear. This occurred many times on the el Camino, and I don’t know how the farmer and the farm animals felt, but it was a bright start to my day.

Another wakeup call that happened frequently was an alarm system for all the villages—but for me it was a scary, be careful alarm. There were big (to be feared) guard dogs chained outside a building, or fenced in, just as the path entered the village. I would be walking in the dark before dawn, and one, then usually several, guard dogs would sound their alarm in great earnest. They hear you long before you ever approach them, and the barking goes on continuously until you pass them. I am very concerned one will be loose, so I stay very alert.

After my wake up call, I progress along the el Camino, and each day is different. After the ladder fell, Greg, Jorgen, and I made good time from Villafranca del Bierzo, an ancient town settled by the Franks, once wiped out by the Plague and later by floods. The two men stopped several times before 8:30 am, but I kept going, as I hoped to reach Vega del Valcarce in good shape and head up the mountain. I walked nonstop except to put on my rain jacket and pack cover in one of the villages. I went uphill all day! It got steeper and steeper, and then it began to rain, and finally the weather turned to dense fog.

I walked along the side of a road for a long distance, then the two-way road turned into a narrower road and became smaller still, until I was on the path, which was also a transport horse trail. It became very steep, and by the time I reached Laguna de Costilla, it was a muddy mess mixed with cow manure. I was in alpine country. I caught up to two young women ahead of me, who stopped every few minutes to catch their breath—and also check up on me—I suppose I was huffing and puffing, and for sure, I was dripping wet, like a drowned rat! It was a very strenuous walk.

I came to a private albergue just two kilometers from my destination, O Cebreiro, and stopped, too exhausted to go any further. What a day! I could hardly see more than a couple of feet ahead of me. I walked to the bar, asked for a bed, and signed in. Now I had cooled down enough to be chilled, and I went up the stairs, on the side of the stone building, to the sleeping quarters upstairs. After laying down for a few minutes, I felt more rested, and I got up and greeted another traveler sitting nearby.

Jack was a man from Quebec who had been on the el Camino since St Jean Pied de Port. Soon he was telling me how he had lost his guide book today. That can happen when you open your backpack to take out a rain jacket, or whatever, and you are in a hurry, and you don’t see or hear something drop. Poor Jack felt out of sorts. I let him borrow my guidebook, and I ripped out another page from my journal book and gave it to him. He took notes of distances and names of places to stay for the next day or two.

After talking with Jack, I went down to find a bite to eat. It was an old fashioned mountain bar with an adjoining dining room. The owner and his wife had their hands full, as they were taking care of their toddler at the same time. The wife would pass the young child to the husband while she waited on a table or took a message on her cell phone. He would sit the baby on the counter and talk to a customer, then pass the toddler back to the wife while he tended the cash register or poured a beer from the tap for someone. Then the proud grandfather came in and took over with the little boy. He sat in one corner of the dining room, playing soccer with his grandson. The toddler would kick it back and grandpa would laugh, smile, and give him praise. I was well entertained as I relaxed and enjoyed a hearty Spanish meal.

It was a rainy, windy night, high on the mountain, and I wondered if a rooster would wake me in the pre dawn in this foggy, rainy weather. I was hoping not to wake up to snow, which is very common here even in summer, and it was now mid-September, so anything could happen!

(posted May 12, 2015)

A stone marker for the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Little Scraps of Paper

After I had been on the el Camino for a couple of weeks in fall 2014, I had gone through so many Spanish villages that I began to get confused with the names. I also would lose track of the kilometers I walked from place to place. I would stop and dig out my guide book, but this became a significant effort, especially in bad weather. By the time I had walked 35 kilometers or more, I would never remember even the name of the albergue I was headed for that night!

Lately, I developed an evening routine of studying my guide book, which helped me the next day. I would rip out a small strip of a blank page from my journal, then write down all the towns I would pass through the next day, the distance between them, and where my destination would be at the end of the day. I would stick this paper in my pants pocket, then take it out and look at it when I entered each town. My little piece of paper would be crinkled, faded, and ripped by the end of the day, but it would help me through the mileage each day. When I passed a Camino trail marker, such as the one in my photo at the top of this blog post, I knew how many kilometers I had walked, and my piece of paper spared me from taking out my guidebook each time—or just not bothering at all after a while.

Sometimes my pilgrim friends would be walking with me along the way and ask me where I was headed for the night. I would dig out the strip of paper and show them the name of the village. We would all laugh in understanding of what we were going through together. Smart phones could not be depended upon in places where there were no towers, and when walking, it is best to go light, carrying as little as possible.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

Keeping track of where I was going was motivating, especially when I would take out my shred of paper and knock off another village or hamlet: Barbadelo, Rente, Mercado, Peruscallo, Cortiñas, Morgade, Ferreiros, 9 km; Mirallos, Rozas, Moimentos, Cotareio, Portomarin, 9 more kilometers, or 18 kilometers total now walked, and here was an albergue with 160 beds (in case of an emergency, you see, I could stop here, but on that paper I had more names); on to Gonzar, where there were 20 beds but no food, for another 7.5 km more that I had walked, or 23.5 kilometers total; Castromaior, Hospital de la Cruz, 29 kilometers total, to my resting place with 22 beds. I also tried to remember what I had read the night before, so I could prepare for making a long walk with no place to stop for water, ascending up high climbs, and going through a forest. The strips of paper kept my mind straight, motivating me each time I knocked off another village, and the kilometers added up.

Everyone I knew had a treasured guide book on the el Camino. One night, after I had spent the day climbing up the steep O Cebreiro, in the rain, on a muddy trail, I stayed in the small safe haven of a private albergue. I came in, wet and tired, and met Mark, a man from Quebec. Like the rest of us, he was tired, too. But on top of everything else, he had lost his guidebook somewhere that day. Things like this happen—perhaps it could have fallen out when he opened his pack to take something out, such as a rain jacket. I let him borrow my guidebook and ripped out a blank page from my journal. He sat and wrote down notes to get him through the next couple of days.

There are some things that are important on long pilgrimages or hiking trails. For me, a trail book and these little scraps of paper were convenient methods to use while walking. This was a reminder of my long, four-month hike on the Appalachian Trail; without my trail book, I would not have survived a day. On the el Camino, a trail book is a necessity for places to stay, distances, elevation, and information on each section of the trail. You know, for memory’s sake, I still have those little scraps of paper tucked in between the pages of my journal.

(posted May 5, 2015)