Camino Epilogue: Santiago to Brussels

If you give yourself 15 minutes to do something, it usually takes all day. But if you give yourself all day, well then, a lot of times it only takes fifteen minutes. This was a quote from a video that Stephanie, my girlfriend, was showing me inside our luxurious hotel room in Santiago de Compostela. Luxurious, mind you, because of its comparison to sleeping in albergues with up to 40 people  – 10 percent of which are always heavy snorers – for the last 32 days. The video was about training horses, but not in the traditional way of training them which involves aggressiveness and “breaking them”. This was the famous and ever so soft “horse whisperer”, not unlike the character played by Robert Redford with the same name. He was talking about going slow, not forcing the horse to develop trust, but providing the framework conducive to that state. This especially rang true for me on the Camino. I have constantly wanted things “now”, the impulse only being diluted by fulfillment. I thought about slowing down on the airplane ride home to Brussels as well. I used to love boarding an airplane, where you could check not only your physical luggage, but your work and social baggage as well. The heyday of flying, if you ask me, was when you couldn’t be reached by anyone in the world that wasn’t on the same plane as you. But we are hungry for outside stimulation; we slop to it like a pig through mud to his trough. Now, even planes are equipped with Wifi and our worries can easily reach up...

31st Day: Azura to Santiago de Compostela

If you expect a brass band to be playing when you arrive in Santiago exulting your most excellent achievement, you will be sadly disappointed. I didn’t necessarily expect that, but I expected some knowing looks from people as I passed them on the street, or maybe a head nod of respect from a shopkeeper as a I made the final walk through the side-walked outskirts of Santiago. I guess it’s a case of my hubris again, but I was a bit miffed that I didn’t at least get a solid Buen Camino during the last 3k. Most likely it has something to do with the fact that 200 thousand pilgrims receive a compostela every year, so giving out nods left and right might get a little cumbersome after a while. Originally I hadn’t planned on making it to Santiago yesterday evening. When I left in the morning, I planned on stopping in O Pedrouzo, about 20 kilometers away from my starting point of Azura and then walking into Santiago the next day. I was determined to take my time. I had spent the last two days clicking my poles on the ground at a hurried pace to outrun the other pilgrims to the Alberuges (hostels) by the end of the day. They say that the real Camino starts when you get home; meaning all the lessons you have learned along the way need to actually be implemented. I would be damned to forget to slow down before I even got to Santiago. Matt, Sven and I arrived in O Pedrouzo around 2 pm for a late lunch, or right...

30th Day: Palas del Rei to Arzua

The Camino is winding down. Santiago is only 43 kilometers away. Many people are looking back on their experience, trying to put all the pieces together from the last 30 days. Most people, including myself, use the Camino primarily for a self serving purpose – to get away, to enjoy being outside of a hectic life and to be, to some degree, inward looking. The Camino is a great place for those purposes. As I passed by all the crosses and graves behind an old church in the hamlet of San Xulian do Camino, I remembered what Dag said yesterday – that cemeteries remind us that we won’t live forever. Matt knows that better than most. I caught up with him today a bit outside of Melide, which by the way, is known for the best Pulpo in Spain (Pulperia Exequiel is excellent!). It wasn’t the first time we had met each other. For the last five days we have ended up in the same village at the end of the day, often having dinner or a pint together. He’s a natural leader, (he owns five businesses) and at dinner time, you can often find an international crowd around Matt’s table. A while back, Matt’s mom had lung cancer. It metastasized into brain cancer. She pulled through, amazingly, perhaps partly due to Macmillan Cancer Support. They provide nurses, mostly in a hospice role, that help care for cancer patients. Matt shared a statistic with me today, right before reaching Azura, the last big town of the Camino – 80 percent of their patients die. Matt was struck by the...

29th Day: Portomarin to Paris de Rei

They hobble into the Albergues with a limp and a cane, sometimes even two canes, or more hiply referred to as walking sticks. Slowly, the newcomers are worming their way into my heart. Even after two days, they are feeling the aches and pains of the Camino. In some ways, the Albergues are almost like geriatric assisted living facilities. Everyone, even the newcomers, complains about knees and hips. We eat dinner and go to sleep 3 hours earlier than the rest of society – in Spain, its normal to eat dinner at 10 pm, but Peregrinos munch their Menu del Dias starting around 7pm. We talk about what medication we are taking and even take naps in the afternoon. And with our earplugs in to drown out the snoring, we are hard of hearing. I had the opportunity to discuss the topic of TourDeGrinos with Dag today at length. He sees the whole thing from a bit different perspective. For one, what the newcomers are doing may be even harder for them than for a lot of the people doing the whole Camino. Some are way out of shape and some are really quite young or old. Walking 100 kilometers is still not easy. And secondly, can it really be a bad thing that so many people are doing the Camino? Isn’t that a positive? Thinking of the many other alternatives, I didn’t really have a good counter argument. And was I so naive to think that everyone could take 33 days off to do the Camino in one go? Somewhere between Ligonde and Eirexe, Dag told a parable....

28th Day: Sarria to Portomarin

The Camino has reached its maximum capacity today. Portomarin, my end destination, sits past the 100 kilometer mark to Santiago, so any pilgrim that would join the route tomorrow, would not be eligible for a compostela. That being said, after reaching the end of the village of Sarria, where I started my walk this morning, I came upon a hoard of walkers. I thought perhaps this was “rush hour” – it was 8 am and most people have to be out of the Albergue at that time to start their hikes. Then I thought maybe if I took a lot of pictures in Sarria, the crowd would lessen, so I set off to find interesting subjects to photograph. First place I went to take photos, I sort of broke into. Well not sort of, I did. The Castle of Sarria is surrounded by walls on all sides. As I circumnavigated the perimeter, I found no gates or doors that would let tourists inside to see the castle in full glory (from outside the wall you get glimpses of the structure, but not the entire thing). Full glory might be an overstatement, as it’s just a ruin of its former self, with stairs leading up to a lonely lookout tower. If there was a back to the walled area, I found it, and there, behind a smattering of rapeseed and thorny bushes, the wall had crumbled in on itself. I hiked up and peered over the top. It must not be open to the public, because sheep were grazing on the other side. I hopped over, snapped a couple of...

27th Day: Triacastela to Sarria

It’s the little things and he had reached his breaking point. He must have, to have woken every other person up in the 8 bed dormitory. The snoring must have been driving him crazy. He curled his body over the his bed to peer into the bottom bunk below and then extended his arm that held the bright screen of his mobile phone. He jabbed it in the face of the pilgrim in the bottom bunk. “Turn around! Turn around! You are snoring. Turn around!” the man said with a Germanic accent. He meant to say lay on your side, but the words didn’t come to him then. That was the first time, at 2 am. He repeated the process two hours later, at least I think he did, either that or I dreamed it. When I awoke in the morning at 6:30 am, top bunk man was telling an American woman that he had never heard such a terrible noise and that bottom bunk man should go to the doctor. It was his first day on this Camino (he had completed three other mini 7 day Caminos starting from St. Jean Pied de Port, splitting one Camino into four). I thought that he better invest in a pair of earplugs, otherwise he would have a terrible time of it for the next 6 days. The snoring conversation got me out of the gates early this morning. After a tostada, orange juice and coffee, I made my mind up to take the original Camino route through the forrest instead of trekking an extra 5k to see a Monestary in...

26th Day: O’Cebreiro to Triacastela

They came in droves to O’Cebreiro with their button down shirts, blue jeans and ubiquitous scallop shells. Most were not alone. Most had come in groups of 3, 4, 7, some even in groups of 20. Their feet have yet to feel the stickiness of compeed, their ears to hear the chainsaws of snores and their moods have not been tainted by the weariness of walking. They are fresh meat for the Camino. They have come to gain their Compostela, or certification that a pilgrim has walked a minimum of 100 kilometers on the Camino. Some do not carry a bag, only a fanny pack. Some will stay at the same hotel and be shuttled every day to their previous ending point, making sure to get two stamps on the Pilgrim’s passport at local restaurants or bars to prove they were on the camino that day. They are often called TourDeGrinos, instead of Peregrinos (pilgrim). Many TourDeGrinos started their Camino yesterday. O’cebreiro at 160 kilometers from Santiago is a popular starting point for them and the Albergue in town is the second busiest behind Roncesvalles on the Camino, which is one of the reasons I decided to stay in a hotel last night (40 to 50 people sleeping in one room). I started my day quite late, around 9 am this morning. I walked around O’Cebreiro, a village of 50 people, that is aware of its charm. The thatched triangular roofs of hotels and restaurants, which have been recently renovated, sprawl out from the oldest cathedral on the Camino, dating from the 9th century. And the mist. Oh that...

25th Day: Villafranca del Bierzo to Cebreiro

The facilities of the Albergue Ave Fenix were less than noteworthy, however the breakfast, that cost only three euros, included a sunny side up egg on tostada bread. This was the first time I had such a luxurious breakfast and it almost made me forget that the toilet seats at the Albergue didn’t exist – one was better off squatting than sitting down on the shallow rim of inner porcelain. Near the old town of Villafranca, there is a serene garden that allows views of two different cathedrals with lime greens and purples sitting in the foreground as the sun comes above the mountains in the east. I spent a bit of time taking photos there and then pushed on along the side of a highway, the heat of the day already starting to creep towards 20, towards Peree, where I met Ivo from Latvia for a coffee. We then quickened our pace. Ivo has an app that records speed and altitude. We were hitting our stride early in the morning, making 5.1k per hour by the time we reached Trabadelo. There we met Dag, from Norway. He had already done the Camino Norte and his wife had also done 2 Caminos herself. They are in a bit of healthy competition. Perhaps they will do their next Camino together, but if they do, they will make sure to give each space. One will move ahead a couple of towns, while the other hangs back and then meet up and then separate again. We left Dag at Vega de Calcarce after walking with him to La Portela de Calcarce and...

24th Day: Molinaseca to Villafranca del Bierzo

I decided that the communal life isn’t for me (see Day 23). I started walking without breakfast and quickly left the busy and cheerful little town of Molinaseca behind me. When I arrived in Monlinaseca yesterday at 6:30 pm, there were a group of teenagers sunbathing on the banks of Rio Maruelo. Behind them, a restaurant along the river was brimming with patrons, both Peregrinos and locals. Some towns, especially in the meseta, were eerily silent when I arrived. Sometimes I felt like the towns were there just to house Pilgrims along the way. Perhaps those sleepy towns were hit more by the crisis; prices have seemed to increase the more west I go. I arrived 6k later in Ponferrada, the capital of the province of Leon and home to 63,000 people, where I had the first bit of bad luck since losing my SD card adapter 10 days ago. After having to trek an unplanned 2k that didn’t get me any closer to Santiago to find an ATM (there was a miscommunication with the restaurant owner on whether they take credit cards – miscommunications happen often when you don’t speak the language), I stripped off my jacket in the plaza of Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Encina and inadvertently flung my phone five feet high. I could see it swirling in the air. Instinctually my right foot extended to try to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, I was too slow. After getting over a case of rain herpes last week, my phone is now in need of major facial reconstructive surgery. The front glass is shattered. I headed...

23rd Day: Rabanal to Molinaseca

“We need more Peregrinos, but not TourDeGrinos”, said the Hospitalero. Her hair, which she pulled back into a ponytail, was starting to gray. She didn’t hide it. Her face, which was untouched by make-up, showed that she couldn’t have been more than 35. Even her loose fitting pants that looked more like pajamas seemed to show that she had shed social convention. And in fact she had. She told me that she had left her life as an accountant, and as a wife, in Bulgaria to come live in Foncebadon in a communal living refugio after completing her Camino. Originally, she hadn’t planned on staying, but the Camino changed her – she said she could no longer listen to her head and ignore her heart. She said this as she patted her chest. “There are only five of us here. We need at least six. From now on, 40 to 45 pilgrims will come every day. We need someone else to help out.” Foncebadon is only 4.5k from Rabanal, but all up hill. A French-Canadian teacher stewarding a group of seventeen seventeen year olds told me yesterday that the town is ugly, but the Refugio, which he called a bit “hippy”, is great. He likes that type of atmosphere. I passed through Foncebadon around 9:30, stopping for a fresh pressed orange juice, coffee that came out of a thermos and a chat with a Bulgarian, and then continued on to Cruz de Ferro, where a 10 meter cross stands on top of a pile of rocks. The origins of Cruz de Ferro are pre-roman celtic. The Celts marked the...

22nd Day: Astorga to Rabanal

Everybody has a story. For a German pilgrim, who I had met earlier on the Meseta (not named for privacy), his story involves his wife and a wedding ring. As we sat enjoying our 9 euro Menu del Dia at a restautant in Plaza Mayor in Astorga last night, he explained that his wife had had cancer. It took three years before she passed away. They had talked about doing the Camino together, but circumstances, namely cancer, prevented the successful fruition of their common goal. He produced a wedding ring from underneath his technical shirt, that was attached to a chain around his neck. He is planning to bring the wedding ring to Santiago to leave it there. Where exactly he did not specify. I am not sure if he yet knows. Last night the German pilgrim had bought two bottles of Rioja wine that wouldn’t give us a “big head tomorrow”, his hands growing from the sides of each ear as he said it. He was right. I think if it had given me a big head, the gospel version of REM’s “Losing my Religion” which was blasting from a boom box of Albergue Servias de Maria in Astorga at 6:45 am would have made it explode. I walked much of the day by myself. First to Murias de Rechivaldo, then passed Iglesia de Santa Maria, a church which houses a relic of San Blas the patron saint of the village of Santa Catalina de Somoza, then by the thatched roofs of abandon clay buildings in El Ganso, finally arriving in my destination of Rabanal del Camino which...

21st Day: Villar de Mizarife to Astorga

David kept referring to himself as David, as in, he liked to use the third person from of speech. Granted he was a little strange, but maybe that comes with the territory of living outside “the system” (as he called it) for the last five years. He now lives in an abandoned farmhouse six kilometers from Astorga as a hermit caring for pilgrims and living in nature. He tore the roof off in February so he could “see the mountains better”. David used to have a family and a business, or maybe a family business. I couldn’t tell what he meant when he said “I used to live in Barcelona. I had a family (slight pause) business.” His shelter and the stand which he provided aid to pilgrims, for a donation if you wanted, of plums, bananas, greenish apples, water and, what was that, peanut butter (an American woman had made a suggestion for peanut butter earlier that year, before he had decided to rip the roof off his house) was 25 kilometers from Villar de Mizarife along the Camino. We, Christian and I, had made our way that morning slowly through the end of the Meseta, which extended one and half days beyond the clutches of Leon. We first hit Villavante and then Puente de Orbigo, known for hosting an annual jousting match in early June to commemorate Suero de Quinones, a knight who had challenged 68 other armored clad men to a fight with a long stick in order to prove his love for a woman (p.s. he won). After making it to the village of San...

20th Day: Leon to Villar de Mizarife

The click-clack of scallop shells provided a bit of background noise to the first 12 kilometers of the Camino. Andrea, from Italy, who had invited me for a San Miguel last night and a espresso this morning at the bar across from the Real Basilica San Isidoro, carried a a staff with two scallop shells that were threaded with a leather lace through a hole at the top of it. The shells always announce his presence before you actually see him. The Camino seems to be a small world some times, as I have met Andrea on the first Day in St. Jean Pied de Port, the 14th day in Burgos, and now the 20th day in Leon. After he bought me the espresso, we stopped inside the cathedral, constructed on top of a demolished church dating from the 10th century, for a quick 20 minute perusal. They say if you walk through the front door of San Isidoro, or the Door of Pardon, the church will will grant you the same absolution as walking all the way to Santiago, but only if you are sick or injured. Thankfully, I was neither, unfortunately, Caetano was not as luck as me. He had come down with some serious stomach problems, and according to an email from Lea, they would have to end their Camino today in Leon and head back to Germany. I thought of them as I read about the Door of Pardon. After passing through the door of Pardon twice, Andrea and I traveled on to Trabajo del Camino and then further on to La Virgin del Camino,...

19th Day: Mansilla de Las Mulas to Leon

“You just have to put your hands over your ears. Actually you should close your eyes too. And while your at it, plug your nose.” Said Joseph, an older man from Germany, as we walked parallel to the noisy freeway along the rocky camino path. Leon signals the end of the Meseta (plataeu). The Meseta is not particularly pretty, but actually, the treks on the Meseta where easier than the up and down of Basque Country I had experience earlier at the beginning of the Camino. They (as in other Pilgrims) say, if you can make it to Leon, you will make it to Santiago. It’s more than halfway, and by that time, the novelty of the Camino has worn off, you have endured the rather boring 150 kilometers of flatlands between Burgos and Leon and you have learned to cope with the aches and pains that come along with walking 400k. I had heard stories of pilgrims quitting their Camino 35 kilometers before Leon. Rumor has it that two days ago, two French women that had already walked 365k from St. Jean Pied de Port had called a taxi, jumped in, hightailed it to Leon and took a train back to France. They had simply turned to a pair of Dutchmen and said goodbye and told them they were done and going home. That was it. No blowup. No argument. No pleading from other pilgrims to stay. Although it wasn’t the prettiest, as I passed by Arcajuega, the last village before the inner city of Leon, I thought today’s trek was definitely better than the flat walk into...

18th Day: Bercianos to Mansilla de Las Mulas

The Camino ignites something in some pilgrims. For Antonio Ramariez, its the wish to give back. Every year he sections off two weeks to help run the Municipal Albergue in Bercianos del Real Camino (Antonio Ramariez is not to be confused with the current pilgrim Antonio from Barcelona). Upon arriving yesterday after my third 34 plus kilometer day, he gently wraps his 65 year old arm around my shoulder and asks “muy cansado?” I don’t lie, “Sie”. The Albegue in Bercianos del Real Camino has a few traditions, each of which the current volunteer needs to attend to – in this case Antonio. After pulling his chair around the table and across the centuries-old, stone encrusted floor for me to sit on, he points down to a list of house rules: It is tradition for the pilgrims and the attendants to make dinner together It is tradition for everyone to watch the sunset together after dinner It is tradition to have a prayer together after the sunset Please do not put your Rucksack on the bed….. It goes on from there to list several more housekeeping rules to abide by. The Refugio can hold 45 pilgrims, but today there is only 8 of us – 4 French, 2 Germans, 1 Italian and 1 US American. I place my bag upstairs, take a shower in the gender non-descript bathroom and write my post for the evening at a bar in town with Wifi. Afterwards, I make my way 450 meters from the bar back to the refugio just in time to watch Pereluigi finish preparing the pasta dish made with...

17th Day: Calzadilla de la Cueza to Bercianos del Real Camino

Culture is a funny thing sometimes. It’s not always easy for me to understand where culture ends and morals starts. For example, Ivano, who is about 15 kilometers behind us, called Pierre-Luigi to tell him of an interesting restaurant experience he had last night. He, Caetono, Leah and Taymon where enjoying the Menu del Dia, normally a three course meal of soup or Russian salad, beef or seafood, a desert, wine and water, with the added background noise of a three year old running around the restaurant and causing a lot of noise. The grandmother of the child, who was also the owner of the bar, grabbed the child and gave him a couple of slaps on the behind. After living in Germany for 6 years, I know that Germans don’t play around when it comes to hitting your children. Leah and also Taymon (Australian) were upset with the situation and it evolved into a a bit of an argument with Ivano, an Italian, who saw it differently. In Germany, people would call the police for something like that. I have heard all of this third hand, so it’s hard for me to side with any party. It’s just interesting to think about where cultural values of “spanking” end and where absolute morals start. In Germany, its completely taboo, but not as much here in Spain, especially in rural areas (in the US you can probably find people on both sides of the fence). We were already 3 kilometers down the Camino when Ivano called Pierre-Luigi with the story. We walked another 7 kilometers on a path speckled with...

16th Day: Fromista to Calzadilla de la Cueza

As I walked out of the albegue in Fromista, I tasted the remnants of the sweet roll I had eaten 15 minutes earlier on my two week old beard. It’s not a great beard, but I am beginning to become proud of it, patches and all. I hit the streets of Fromista at 8am, about a half hour after daybreak, and started snapping photos. I’m glad I did, because after the 5 kilometer trek to the Hamlet of Poblicion de Campos, it started raining and didn’t stop. I continued on by myself first to Villarmentero then to Villalcazar de Sigria and then to Carrion de las Condes, my last stop before a 17 kilometer flat stretch of Meseta (plateau). Up until Carrion, there were towns every 5 k, which broke up the monotony. However, during the flat 17 k strech to Calzadilla, I was left to my own devices, which was only my brain since my cell phone battery was dead. I know it sounds a little weird, but after the first 8 kilometers, I started singing. I started with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and slowly made my way to Warren G’s regulators. I don’t think I know the lyrics to one complete song, so most of the times I made up lyrics or just switched to another one after singing the chorus. After exhausting my limited supply of song lyrics, I was left with little other recourse but to actually think. For the last two hours of the hike I let my mind drift. Normally when I’m by myself, I check Facebook, turn on the t.v. or read. It...

15th Day: Hontanas to Fromista

The morning passed by quickly, even though last night didn’t. After going swiftly to sleep, I found myself awoken 45 minutes later by a bit of a commotion. An unlucky pilgrim had a bit too much to drink and had lost his dinner all over the backpack of a Norwegian man while attempting to make it to the small window at the end of the 14 bed dormitory. At first I didn’t know what was going on, but when the smell of partially digested San Miguel wafted up to my bed and I heard the women from Slovenia say “its all over your clothes and boots. You need to put it in the wash” I put two and two together. These things happen (I have been there before… maybe not exactly in that situation) and none of the pilgrims complained, most just gave a chuckle and some even helped mop up the mess. Before starting off this morning, I had a short five minute chat with a man from Denmark, who for the life of me, I can’t remember his name. He worked at a shipping company and had spent time stationed over seas in Bermuda and Malaysia before retiring in 2007. He had started his Camino only 12 days earlier and was faster than me due to completing 50k by bus. His reason for doing the Camino was simple enough – he had run out of things on his bucket list to do. After he did skydiving and Kilimanjaro last year, he began a search for similar trips and finally happened upon the camino. After the initial five...

14th Day: Burgos to Hontanas

Most of my early morning walk was spent with Andrea from Italy. I met him the very first day in St. Jean Pied de Port (although it was his 31st day, as he had started his Camino in Paris). For the past 3 days, I have been walking with a group of 9 other pilgrims. That group was reduced to 7 as two ended their Camino yesterday. The remaining group members wanted to make an early start today. I preferred to sleep in and so did Andrea, thus we found ourselves walking partners for the first 8 km of the day. We walked from the outskirts of Burgos, passing by a prison with two water towers. We then followed a highway to Tardajos where we stopped for coffee, orange juice and a tortilla pincho. Andrea’s break lasted a bit longer than mine and I started the trek out of town by myself. Quickly I found myself to the left of a church and in front of me, was another familiar face – Antonio from Barcelona, who also started his Camino in St. Jean Pied de Port at the same time as me. We chatted briefly about the last couple of days. I knew he had lost his walking stick about 4 days into the Camino, so I asked him where he bought his new one. He told me “No, I didn’t buy it. Another pilgrim gave it to me. She was going to leave it at the Refugio, but I say I will take it.” This is Antonio’s second Camino and he further explained that he feels like the...

12th and 13th Day: Ages to Burgos and Rest Day

Yesterday, the group of ten of us who have been walking together for the last three days made our way 25 kilometers from Ages to Burgos. The beginning of the walk was interesting. We crossed over a small mountain, where sheep cluttered the rocky path to the top. After reaching the other side, the city of a Burgos was already in sight. But our eyes deceived us. What seemed like five km from our high vantage point, was actually still four and a half hours away. Eventually, we arrived on the outskirts of the city. The old city of Burgos is full of tiny streets, alleyways and stone buildings that surround a sprawling, three domed cathedral in the center. The outskirts of the city – broad streets, stop lights and industrial complexes – sit in stark contrast to the centers old world charm. The seven kilometers through the smog and smell of sulphur of the cities peripherals was the least enjoying stretch of the Camino for me so far. After 288 kilometers of walking, most people in the group wanted to stop in Burgos to recuperate for an extra day. I want to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on the 18th of April, in order to meet Stephanie, my girlfriend, who is flying in from Brussels on the 19th. With a rest day, I will have to to make up an extra day’s hike spanned out over the next 19 days. The rest has done wonders for my swollen ankle and the cathedral of Burgos is the most beautiful I have seen on the Camino so far. Although I...