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)

Hiking the Camino de Santiago trail in fall 2014 (photo by Madelyn Given).

El Camino: An Adventure

A journey that takes a month or longer of hiking every day will have a few unexpected adventures—today was one of them, I thought, while on my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in fall 2014. The night before, I had stayed in a new albergue, in a tiny village out in the meseta. Before I went to bed, the manager of the albergue explained the directions for getting on the trail. He was very clear in telling me not to go back the way I came; instead, go out of town to a fork in the road and take a left. This is a short cut and easy to follow.

At 6 am, I was out of town on the trail, alone. I took a left at the fork and walked 3-4 kilometers, until the trail dead ended out in a field. It was dark, and I didn’t want to retrace my steps. There were no trees or stakes with trail markers, or cairns like on top of mountains; the only markers were on small rocks and they were easy to miss, day or night. I looked around, tried to use my common sense, kept my wits about me, and thought: the worst case scenario is staying here.  The only sign of life was an interstate far off in the distance. I had crossed under it, by a tunnel on my way to the albergue yesterday, and my sense of direction told me the trail was on the other side of this highway.

I decided to walk in that direction. I walked through the pucker brush, being very careful not to step in a hole or on a snake, and hoping all the time to see the trail. I worked my way to the interstate and came to a high fence that kept out animals. I followed the fence quite a ways, until I found a place that was bent down a bit. With the help of my trekking poles, I managed to get up and jump over this high fence. I crossed a gully and got up on the side of the Interstate.

I was very concerned that a patrol car would stop and I would be in trouble. I had never done this before, even in my own country. There was little traffic: just a few trailer trucks. I knew I would get off at the first exit and find help. I walked as fast as I could, far over in the breakdown lane.

I made it to the exit and local road. The first car I saw stopped and told me the village was not far, and the trail would be near there. This was exactly where my earlier instincts had told me to go. As I entered the village, the only other car I had seen stopped, and a young woman driver rolled her window down and told me to go in the direction she was pointing. She kept saying, “Buen el Camino, Buen el Camino.”  I understood.

Five minutes later… I felt relieved, but at that moment, I wanted to quit! Nevertheless, I was walking the el Camino in my son Michael’s memory, and I felt he was with me all the way. However, the mistake had taken a lot out of me, and I walked slowly for the rest of the day.

After my adventure, I got to the next town, which was quite a distance, and by then it was late morning. As I was walking through the little town, I saw a few hikers, several walking alone, but they all seemed so tired just from the heat and walking that I didn’t stop to tell them my story.

But in this little town a car pulled up in front of me and parked. A man got out and ran towards me. It was the manager of the albergue where I had stayed last night. He had been worried about me, as I had left early and not stayed and had coffee with him this morning. He gave me a hug and was relieved that I was O.K. I didn’t dare tell him I lost the trail this morning! As part of the el Camino family, he genuinely cared.

Despite all the ups and downs, you always feel supported along the trail. The locals are friendly and helpful, and the trekkers go out of their way to make the pilgrimage a rewarding and successful experience. Even so, today was an adventure I didn’t plan to repeat.

(posted March 24, 2015)

View of the ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: Helpful Friends on the Meseta

Another day on the Meseta, a desolate, flat region of Spain: my walk took me through fields and open country, where I could choose from a variety of trails while following the Camino de Santiago route, which I was hiking in fall 2014. I started at 6 am with Sylvia, a tall young woman from Hungry, and I ended the trek with her at 4:30 pm.

During the day, I met Barenger and Elise, who were from Paris. We spent quite a while together. Barenger is a tall young man, and a fast hiker, but he preferred to walk slow and steady and practice his English with me. Elise is quiet and thoughtful. As a couple, they prefer to hike alone and meet up at the end of the day. When Barenger learned that I had hiked the Appalachian Trail, a dream of his, we had plenty to talk about.

For a while, I focused on watching a few birds. Then I saw two black mice, as black as ebony, and later I practically stepped on a brown mouse! The mouse froze, terrified and shaking, as three French people stopped and pointed it out. Soon it was scurrying off!

The ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

The ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, photographed by Madelyn Given on the Camino de Santiago trail.

I took a little detour to see the ancient church Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, which you can see in the photo at the top of this blog post (close-up view at left). The Roman bridge, the Roman road, and the stone floor of the church made it worth going the extra distance, a little out of the way.

Then I continued on my way along the Río Ucieza: I passed several villages and came to Villalcazar, another area for the Knights of Templar. The historic Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca is in the center of this town.

Next I came to Carrión de los Condes, a sizable medieval town. Barenger, Elise, and I sat in a tiny town square, under a tree, and Barenger helped me bandage a blister. We found a café and took a quick lunch break. I couldn’t decide whether to go on or not.

We all went on. The afternoon was a hot, tiresome walk of 17.5 kilometers, with no place to stop for water, food, or help if we needed it. There was no shade. The meseta is quite a place to walk. It is forever attacking your body and mind, and at day’s end, you feel like you have been in some sort of wreck or battle.

Eventually, our little group of pilgrims arrived in the little village of Calzadilla de la Cueza, and found beds in the albergue. Barenger and Elise were sleeping out on the meseta and invited me to join them. Reluctantly, I opted to enjoy the indoor comforts of the albergue, but I knew I would miss the one-time opportunity to sleep on the meseta. We did have dinner and spent the evening together.

The next day was another long, hot day of hiking on the meseta. At the end of the day, most of the hikers stopped in Sahagún, a larger town, and at one time a powerful, wealthy center. The Benedictine monastery here was at one time the most powerful in Spain.

I decided to walk 4 and ½ kilometers to Calzada del Coto to end the day. I came into the little village, baking in the sun, and missed the albergue. I headed out of town and saw only one sign of life, a single car.

I flagged the driver down, and he offered to take me to the bar, because the albergue was closed at that time of day. On the short ride he told me he was the mayor. We went into the bar, and the only people there were the manager of the albergue and the senora, the owner of the bar.

I thanked the mayor and he left; the albergue manager walked back to the albergue, and I sat down and had a bottle of coke. In a few minutes I had paid, and was about to walk to the albergue, when the owner took off her apron and came with me, graciously showing me right to the door of the albergue.

There was no one in the bar, no one on the street, and no cars. Unlike busy Sahagún, this was a quiet place—I was the only pilgrim in town when I arrived in the early afternoon. I knocked and the manager let me in. It was a new building, opened only a few months ago. The manager showed me around and I chose a bed. It was spotlessly clean. The manager offered to wash my clothes in a machine for a little charge, and while he was doing this, I lay on the bed and enjoyed the quietness of the place…before I knew it, I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, he had hung my clothes out to dry. I was surprised and pleased at the thoughtfulness of the manager. We sat at a kitchen table and talked; he said this was a new job for him, and he drove here from quite a distance each day. This was a job in his retirement.

At 5 pm a tiny store opened, and I picked up enough groceries for dinner and something for tomorrow. In the early evening, four more pilgrims arrived. It was the quietest albergue, in the quietest village, since I began hiking several weeks ago. It was 4.5 kilometers down the trail, and a little out of the way—and it would lead me to an adventure the next morning.

(posted March 17, 2015)