Galicia countryside near Sarria, on the Camino de Santiago trail. Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Galicia

A month since I left home in fall 2014, I have walked over 400 kilometers on the el Camino. I am excited to be in Galicia, the final stage of the el Camino, as I travel to Santiago, Spain. This is ancient Celtic territory, and unlike the dry Mesta, the average rainfall is one out of three days. It is beautiful country known for great oak forests. But the wood was used for building ships during the Spanish Armada. To replace the depleted oak forests, in 1941 Franco introduced eucalyptus trees. This was a drastic mistake, as plant life, birds, and many types of nature do not do well. As I walked for a week through this area and saw the eucalyptus, I thought of what has happened here.

It was a clear lovely morning as I started walking, alone with the stars out, as usual. Now that I am out of the mountains and the clouds, the weather is good. I had several days when I left the albergues with pilgrim friends, but they are a day or two behind me now. I followed the road, walking on pavement, for two hours in the dark before dawn. Not one person and only two to three cars until dawn. An owl kept me company for quite a spell.

Finally I decided not to follow the yellow arrows going off into the woods. Instead I stuck to the highway, following the signs to Samos, as I wanted to see the famous monastery there. It was two to three kilometers out of the way, but after a short spell, I rounded a curve and the great Samos Monastery came into view. Across the road, there was a tiny bar open, and two Canadians, waiting for the monastery to open, greeted me and asked me to join them. We left our bags and poles in a corner of the bar, and I began to take in this great walled place, at one time one of the greatest. I could have stayed all day and learned so much history, but I had many miles to go so I bid the Canadians “Buen Camino.”

I went back to the bar, happy to be reunited with my pack and poles, had a coffee, and hit the trail. I soon found the yellow arrows leading out off the highway onto the trail. I hiked three hours without seeing anyone, and finally I came out near Sarria, where lots of pilgrims were on the path. You can see what the countryside looked like in my photo at the top of this blog post. I walked right through town and kept on moving to Barbadelo.

Galicia is lovely country, and the small private albergue at Barbadelo is a complex of several modern style buildings, with a pool and music. There was one computer in the corner of the dining room. The manager let me use it, as the dining room was closed. I sat a long time trying to catch up on e-mails from back home. Later, I sat on the patio watching the cows and sheep, and in the distance, on the trail I had come on, there were a few pilgrims working their way here for the night.

I watched the cook arrive by car and then walk towards me, carrying a grand empanada as big as a family size pizza. “Buenos Dias,” he said as he almost went by me. I smelled this freshly baked pie and said, “Pardón, señor.” Of course I couldn’t resist and asked if I could have a piece. He soon returned with a big slice and a smile on his face. I politely began to cut a piece with a fork and knife—to his horror! He exclaimed, “No, no señora. No tenedor o cuchillo. Señora, dedos, por favor!” I dropped my fork and knife and picked up the piece of empanada with my fingers, and he nodded his head with a look of satisfaction.

I was enjoying this delicious treat of beef, veggies, cheese, and saffron wrapped in pie crust when my friend, Timo, a young German walked in from the trail and sat down at the table with me. For me this was the end of a great day. We had been walking on and off together for more than a week. I enjoyed listening to him tell mind-boggling stories of his research with a famed mathematician and his future plans as he finishes up his doctorate. I asked him to invite me to Norway when he receives a Nobel Prize during his lifetime. This young, humble, brilliant man has that much promise. We made plans to set out before dawn on the trail together the next morning.

Later that evening, after dinner, I went to the building with several large rooms for sleeping quarters. There were 8 people sharing the room; 4 French people came by car and left their dog in the car. Two of the women hiked during the day and met up with the others at night. There were two Americans, a German woman, and me.

Everyone is tired from hiking and sleep is a very important part of the day. Everyone was thoughtful and quiet, except for the older French man: not only did he snore, he had to get up and several times turned on the overhead light. His cell phone went off three times and he couldn’t find it. He was old, slow and very noisy. The American man got so upset he went outside in the middle of the night, and I know I had a sleepless night too.

So much happens in a day. I can go from a very high high to a discouraging low. But all in all, the good outweighs any setbacks and only adds to the challenge.

(posted May 26, 2015)

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)