Madelyn Given took this photo at the outdoor cafe in Najerilla, on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: A Municipal Albergue

Albergues are a safe haven for the pilgrims on the trail. Although they close during the day to encourage pilgrims to move on, they open in the afternoon for guests to stay one night. An el Camino passport is needed when registering each day, and hikers don’t want to miss the necessary daily passport stamp. Pilgrims carry their own sleeping bags to use on the beds; the albergues are sparse but clean. These lodgings are spaced along the trail in certain towns or villages, and their beds fill up in the afternoon almost as soon as they open. I was concerned that I would get to an albergue, find it full, and have no other place to sleep for many more kilometers. This was one reason that I started early in the morning.

This morning I heard people moving about in the albergue when I got up and quietly went outside; I was on the trail by 5:30 am. It is the beginning of September 2014 and still very warm. Today I hiked steadily, walking through fields and vineyards without stopping for a break until noon. It was hot!

I walked into Najerilla, crossed the Rio Najerilla, and walked along the street parallel to the river until I came to the municipal albergue, which had not yet opened. There were a few other pilgrims already waiting there, all sitting on the pavement or a couple of the stone benches by the entrance. Only one hiker did I recognize: Miguel, the lone Spanish man from Barcelona. When I looked at the pilgrims, they were the typical picture of hikers after an exhausting walk: hot, tired, and very quiet.

Directly across the square was the municipal police station, and behind that the rest of the town set nestled into the side of steep pink cliffs. There are small caves in these cliffs where wine and wild mushrooms are stored.

Also built into the cliffs is the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real, which surrounds a small cave. Here in 1004, the king Garcia III was hunting birds. He sent his hawk after a bird and it went into the cave. Garcia went inside and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary, with the hawk and partridge sitting peacefully nearby. Garcia III took this as a blessing and decided to build a church here, using part of the treasure from capturing the Moors.

Inside the church, this statue has a place of honor. The original crown that was on her head had many jewels and is no longer here; the jewels were divided up and one, the Black Prince Ruby, is the stone on the front of the English Coronation Crown.

Next to the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real is the Pantheon Real, where the tombs hold the remains of the kings from 10th to the 12th centuries. On the other side of the Municipal albergue is the Rio Najerilla. In the late afternoon I sat on the grass, under the shade of several large deciduous trees, and wrote in my journal, watching the water fowl swimming against the gentle current and the rays of sunshine gleaming on the water.

At one o’clock the manager opened the door and the pilgrims filed in. We waited in line to register and be assigned to one of the 90 beds available in this single story rectangular building; in little more than an hour, all the beds were taken. We were packed in like sardines!

I sat down on the bottom bunk, in the corner against the wall, and took it all in: the pilgrims hurrying to take a shower, going through their packs, dumping their bags, and leaving to get something to eat or drink. A man opened the screenless window near me and I hoped for a little breeze, as there was no air conditioning in any of the albergues.

I was relieved that I was feeling good after 9 straight days of hiking and my feet were holding up well since my treatment a few days ago with the woman at the tiny hotel spa. I cleaned up and was about to go outside when the manager singled me out—we sat down and had a pleasant chat. He works for two weeks, goes home to France, and then returns; he has friends in Quebec and has visited Maine.

It was so hot in the albergue that I left and went outside. Later six of us went to dinner: Marilyn from Estonia, the four Italians, Miguel from Spain, and me. There is so much activity in town in the evenings and it is enjoyable to sit in the outdoor cafes. People are so pleasant and I always felt safe. At the top of this blog post, you can see the friendly atmosphere in the photo I took that day.

I did not relish the idea of going back to the hot and crowded municipal albergue, but it was my destination that night. Around 9:30 pm, as I lay on my bed reading, I could hear a man singing outside—it was a voice that was melodious beyond belief. Soon the pilgrims began to go outside, sitting down on the pavement and forming an audience for this elderly local man, who sat on the concrete bench and performed for us. He had undivided attention and commanded an audience of young hikers from around the world as he hit every note to perfection. Without any fanfare, after about forty minutes he finished his last solo and got up, and everybody clapped and cheered. He bowed and departed. Something unexpected and pleasant brightened each day, making life in the albergues quite an experience.

Vineyard grapes along the El Camino trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Keep Hiking Despite Distractions

I really do enjoy hiking and el Camino de Santiago is a great trail for me. It is so well laid out, well maintained, historic, and scenic, and it is a world-renowned trail. It is the first week of September 2014 and I begin hiking in the early morning darkness with the beauty of the stars and moon. It is cool but not cold and so far no rain. I have been hiking for a week now, averaging 6 to 8 hours daily.

Today I hiked all morning with a woman from New Zealand. She planned to stop in Viana and I hiked on alone through this 13th-century town with its high walls and mansions decorated with ancient family crests. I followed the yellow arrows through the town, out through the fields, beside houses, and over criss-crossed roads to Logroño, the largest town in the province of La Rioja and the center of the wine industry. The photo of grapes, at the top of this blog post, was taken that day in the vineyards I passed.

I walked past ancient medieval ruins, new factories, and a section of ram shackle houses where an old woman was offering sellos (stamps for the El Camino passport book, which had to be stamped every day on the trail) and selling cold sodas. I walked alone, not seeing any pilgrims, down the sidewalks to the Iglesia de Santiago, where this church stands on the site of a 9th century church. On the ground in front of the church is a large painted mosaic, the Juego de la Oca. It is like today’s board game of snakes and ladders, represented in mosaic form, where the squares are different places along the way and the passing pilgrims move from square to square. This was a fun distraction for a few minutes; then I headed on to the albergue and signed in.

I left my poles and back pack in the room and went to look for a place to buy a SIM card for my cell phone. In a modern shopping area of the city, I found a phone store, where I walked in, saw a long line, and began waiting. There was only one clerk and one technician. Despite the long line in front of the clerk, the technician sat at a desk doing nothing the entire time. The young clerk was frustrated and later explained that two clerks were out that day and she had been there with no help in this big modern store.

Although I had not stopped to eat yet today and it was now afternoon, I wanted to get my SIM card and re-activate my phone. I was concerned that the store would close for the daily two-hour siesta between 2 and 4 pm, yet what could I do but wait? During my long waiting time I struck up a conversation with a local woman ahead of me. She and her teenage son were world travelers and she could speak English; talking with her helped to pass the time.

We all continued to wait and finally it was 2 pm. The technician got up and left. And the door locked. Everyone stayed in that line. As we waited longer, the clerk told the people behind me they had to leave as it was after 2 pm. They said no, they had been there in line long before 2 pm, and they made no attempt to leave. Everyone stayed and the clerk continued to work during her break time.

I was so tired of standing, and I felt a bit faint, but I was determined to get that SIM card as I had not been able to call home for several days. Finally it was the turn of the woman in front of me. She leaned over the high counter with the clerk on the other side, and before she began her business, she tried to help me by asking the clerk if they carried SIM cards for international calls. The clerk said no, she couldn’t help me—and after I had waited all this time!

The lovely woman asked where I would find a SIM card. The clerk explained that a small place quite a ways from here might have one. The helpful lady asked her teenage son to go with me. She gave him exact directions and promised to meet us there once she had finished her business.

The teenager and I set off together to find this store down a few blocks from the downtown metropolitan section on a side street. Finally he walked into this tiny store just large enough to go in single file and I followed him. I asked the man behind the counter in Spanish if he had a SIM card. Yes he did. I began to smile then laugh and soon the teenager was laughing, too, as he knew how long we had waited in the other store. I purchased the card and the store owner graciously set it up and tested it for me. The lovely woman arrived just as I was finishing my transaction. By then we were all cheering including the store owner. I was so happy I thanked them over and over, gave them a big hug, and then said good-bye.

I found a grand mercado and bought food for lunch, dinner, breakfast, and snacks. I slowly walked back to the albergue, cleaned up, had something to eat, and called home. How good it was to hear my husband’s voice again!

The SIM card was a distraction. But I had conquered that obstacle! I was happy to have my needs met and be back on track, ready to hike again.

Madelyn Given took this photo in Los Arcos, Spain, on her el Camino pilgrimage.

El Camino: Making New Friends

You never know who you will meet when you are hiking. The hikers are very pleasant, helpful, and fun. In early September 2014, I had gotten to know a few of them and they were all so different. Albert is a man from Adelaide, Australia. My first impression of him was a grumpy old man, but after three days I began to understand his personality, and a trail friendship began when I saw him doing several acts of kindness. He was on the trail early in the morning like me and usually ended his hiking day in the same albergue.

Peter from Belgium biked the el Camino last year and came back to walk it this year. He is helpful and friendly to all the hikers and he likes to cook his own meal in the albergues. The dinner he cooked for us one night gave him his new trail name: Chef. A Dutch couple and a Swedish couple I meet each day. Now we compare notes as we walk the same distance each day and have formed a hiking friendship. An Irishman often joined a small group of us for dinner but he is now behind us. He is a jolly jokester.

I have met five priests walking the trail, one in his seventies, one just out of school, others in between, and all five from different countries. I have met several pilgrims from the USA but two have already quit. Another American woman had fallen and was quite bruised but after a medical checkup and some medications decided to go on. I met another woman from back in the states. It was her first day of walking alone, as her walking partner sadly had to quit on doctor’s orders and was flying home that day. A lot happens on the trail.

The group of eight Italians is very friendly and fun. Yesterday in the late afternoon, I was resting my legs and studying my guide book when three of them came to my albergue and asked for me. That night they were going to hike to the castle above the town for a view and also in hopes of seeing the castle ghost. One of them, a priest, had borrowed a key from a local municipal official to get inside the castle. I debated about going but it was a steep climb in the dark and my feet were very tender so I declined. Today the Italians passed me about mid-day and I asked how their adventure went last night. It was not a clear sky when they reached the top, there was not much to see, and no ghost appeared. They said I made a good choice of not going as they were now tired from the midnight hike; they said it wasn’t that exciting.

Today I crossed vineyards and fields all day. By 11 am, I had arrived at Los Arcos, where I took the photo at the top of this blog post. It was hot, but I headed straight to a bank. Although small villages often didn’t have banks and coming off the trail at odd hours made chores like banking difficult, most of the albergues, small bars, and restaurants along the trail only accepted cash, so as I left town I breathed a sigh of relief that the ATM machine had worked and I was on my way. I walked past the church, through the archway, across the Río Odrón, and out of town.

I also had made sure that I had enough water as it was 10 kilometers with no shade and no water stops until the old town of Sansol, which was in my sights the whole way from Los Arcos—all uphill. Then I continued on a gradual downhill over a red dirt track for a few more kilometers to Torres del Río. It is strategically tucked into a steep valley and survived many attacks throughout ancient history. The Iglesia Del Santo Sepulco church dates back many centuries to the days of the Knights of Templar.

Although the history was wonderful, I was glad to stay in a modern small hotel and start catching up on all that I needed: something to eat, a shower, and clean clothes. I borrowed a pair of scissors from the desk clerk, went to my room, and started cutting off extra straps and stripping my pack; it was not an act of craziness but a conscious attempt to lighten the load on my back. There was a very tiny spa with one attendant. She took pity on me and began working on my blistered feet: cleaning, disinfecting, and bandaging. After the foot treatment, a decent dinner, and a good night’s sleep, I felt like a new person. The hotel staff had gone out of their way to be kind and helpful, and I looked forward to seeing my trail friends as I set off again.

 (posted January 13, 2015)