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)

Scallop shell marker embedded in a city street on the Camino de Santiago trail; photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: A Quiet Walk

After my adventure the other morning, when I missed a trail marker, today I was hoping for a quiet, uneventful day of walking as I continued on my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in fall 2014. The landscape on the meseta is scrubland and grass, chopped low by grazing herds of sheep. In the middle ages, there were herds of 30 to 40 thousand sheep in this area. Today I stopped and let a shepherd, his dogs, and a herd of about 400 sheep pass me.

On my way to Reliegos, I passed benches along the trail. Since even one bench on the trail is unusual, to have one every kilometer for over 20 milometers kept me entertained. I did not stop to sit on any, nor were any other pilgrims sitting, and I didn’t see one pilgrim during that time.

Two bikers passed me on a road that ran parallel to the trail. As they passed me, I heard one of them shout out my name! It was Ruth from New England. I had not seen her for days. We had first met walking on the trail going into Pamplona. Although she had fallen badly earlier on the trail, resulting in a cracked rib, a goose egg on her arm, bloodied knees, and quite a few bruises, she had gotten fixed up and was walking again when I met her. Now, she was biking with a guide. Later, I saw her again at an albergue, and she was planning to ride a horse to the end of the trail. She was determined to finish, and she was quite sporting about it.

In the very beginning, I had met two other solo women hikers from my home state, but they quit after a few days on the trail. The experience was more than they had envisioned. I met up with a lone Canadian woman one morning. She had been walking with a friend who had developed a leg problem and had to quit. This woman had to adjust to going it alone, while her friend flew home without her. There are many different situations for the pilgrims walking here.

I have been hearing lizards rustling in the underbrush, all along the trail, but today I saw several. Nature keeps me alert and interested in walking.

I spent the night in Reliegos and had my own room. It was a quiet change and a chance to recharge my batteries. I didn’t have dinner last night, and today I stopped at a mercado and got a coke, a bocadilla, and something for later.

My goal now is to head straight to León: 24.5 kilometers. There are several towns and lots of countryside before this big city. The first town after Reliegos is Mansilla de las Mulas. There, I saw a large group of pilgrims waiting to catch a bus to León. This was very upsetting for me, a hiker, to see pilgrims getting on a bus! I was glad I didn’t know any of them.

I walked on through this beautiful medieval town with massive walls (three meters thick in some places), lovely plazas, and colorful window boxes on the homes. I took a few photos and continued on to Villamoros de Mansilla. It was cool, pleasant walk in the morning.

I went past the ruins of Lancia, on a hill near the trail. Lancia was the site of an ancient Celtic town, the last holdout of the Celtic Asturians, before it was captured by the Romans in 26 BC.

I crossed the Río Porma on a Roman bridge with 20 arches. Then on through Puente Villarente, Arcahueja, Valdelafuente, Puente Castro, and the suburbs of León.

I followed the yellow arrows and brass scallop shells embedded into the sidewalks, until I reached the center of León. You can see one of the scallop shells in my photo at the top of this blog post; these markers were very common in the big cities on the trail. Now that I had arrived in León, I headed to the albergue that was once the medieval Monasterio Benedictino de las Hermanas Carbajalas.

I had now walked from St. Jean de Pied de Port, to Pamplona, Burgos, and León. I had hiked through the Pyrenees and the infamous Meseta. All of this was behind me. I am excited to continue to a different climate and region, with different scenery, people, and customs.

(posted March 31, 2015)