Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Santiago de Compostela

What to say? That’s me, standing on the scallop shell in the center of the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral, a whisker shy of 500 miles from the French border outside Roncevalles, where we stayed on October 1 and started serious walking the next day. While the Camino has extinguished the sins of pride and compulsiveness in me, as well as working other wondrous changes in my personality that will soon be apparent to all, I can’t resist adding that I walked every inch. And we beat Martin Sheen and his film crew here by a day or so. (You remember Martin and his Camino movie, which we first encountered when starting our walk in Rouncevalles, but who has been a day or so off our schedule ever since).
Sheen will be filming here November 5. Popular thinking is that he will surely attend the noon pilgrim’s mass, and that for him the church fathers will surely swing the Botafumeiro (“smoke belcher”), the largest incensario in the Catholic world. (Otherwise, the Botafumeiro is broken out and swung only on holy days and, reportedly, when someone pays 250 euros – and if there is more than one person who offers to pay, persons two, three and etc. are not told someone else has already paid; each is allowed to contribute his or her 250 euros.)
But I will be in Paris on November 5. So I am now zero for two in my attempts to see the spectacle of the Botafumeiro swinging majestically – and, yes, dangerously, for once the chain broke and it fell onto the pilgrims below – across the cathedral.
Not reason enough to walk the Camino again, just for another chance, but who knows?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Magic Mushrooms

November is wild mushroom month in northern Spain. Our guide in Leon was also a bigwig in the local mycological society, and proudly told us he had designed the large poster plastered widely around town advertising special wild mushroom feasts at participating restaurantes, complete with photographs of more types of wild mushroom than I had known existed. (Too bad we’re not still in Leon, since the mushroom feasts were scheduled for November 2 to November 7.)
Ever since, I’ve been taking pictures of the more exotic mushrooms seen along our way, none of which I’ve ever seen in the United States (but then again, I haven’t walked several hundred miles along country paths and lanes in the United States recently). In general, our guide told us, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it is to be poisonous. By that standard, the mushrooms I photographed today must be lethal. I should have put something in to show the scale, but the larger was about eight inches across. Truly formidable mushrooms.
Apart from magic mushrooms, it was a good walking day. Much, much better weather than Sunday, and sunny most of the day. The second picture was taken as we climbed a hill out of Arzúa, just as the sun began to melt the morning clouds.
Our destination for the day, barely more than 12 miles away (virtually a holiday stroll) was Arca, also known as Pedrouzo on different maps. Both were once adjoining Spanish hamlets that grew together into a small Spanish town. Apparently the residents have been spatting ever since as to which hamlet’s name should have pride of place. But since there were no hotels in either hamlet/town, we stayed 10 miles off the Camino in a 17th Century manor estate, renovated now with every modern convenience except heat in the bedrooms. Actually, there are hot-water radiators, but they initially weren’t turned on, and after a few hours of heat, the boiler blew up and ended all heat for the night. Luckily, the boiler explosion had no effect on the kitchen, which was excellent..

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Lesser Joys of the Camino

Today began with the discovery at 3 am that I was covered with bites, presumably from the bedding in the Hotel Casa Benilde in Palas de Rei. Loyal readers will remember this happened before. The pattern seems to be being booked into a tiny single room at a price significantly reduced from a double. Most hotels just don’t have these 8 x 9 rooms, and put a single into a regular-size room, with or without a modest discount for booking a single. But, runs my inductive surmise, when a hotel does have a limited number of much smaller and substantially cheaper single rooms, they are radically more likely to be booked by on-the-cheap pilgrims moving up from albergues for one night with a private bath and a good clean-up in a hotel – and what pilgrims are more in need of that than those who have encountered the frequent bedbug problems in their latest albergue(s)? And who’s most likely to bring a few (or many) critters with them?
Regardless of whether my theory holds, there I was, covered with red, itching welts. I packed as hastily as one can (1) in an 8 x 9 room where you don’t want to put anything on the bed, and (2) where the hallway makes a poor staging area because the light turns off automatically 20 seconds after you push the switch 20 feet away. Went downstairs, where the fellow on duty said, in response to my pointing to a few visible welts, “No bugs. Window open.” The defense seemed to be that a squadron of mosquitoes had somehow escaped the October frosts and flown in my window to strafe my stomach while I was sleeping on it.
Sensing that this was going to be an unproductive dialog even if I woke up a translator, I simply set off for today’s destination in Arzúa, 20 miles away, along the N-547 since it was too dark for the Camino, which wove back and forth along the same route. I discovered several things hiking through the Spanish night. First, and most interesting, the plaza in Melide, my halfway point, had substantially more life at 6 a.m. than I’ve seen anywhere else in Spain at 9 p.m. Indeed, the throngs were thicker than Reykjavik in June at the same hour, supposedly the all-night partying capital of the world. And substantially more sober and better behaved. Not just groups of guys, but lots of couples. (Melide is the octopus capital of Spain for reasons I don’t understand – being 100 miles inland – and I’d wanted hugely to have octopus Galician style at a pulpería for lunch, the only real casualty of my pre-dawn travels.)
Second, the barking of large, deep-throated dogs is substantially more threatening in the dark than when you can see they’re safely behind high fences. Finally, there is a lot more traffic than you’d expect on a secondary Spanish road at 4 a.m., and it all seems to go 80+ miles an hour, rain or no rain (I guess hydroplaning hasn’t reached Spain).
I’m now settled in double room in a hotel for low-rent Spanish road warriors on the N-547, half a mile plus off the Camino, having refined my room selection model somewhat. Having washed everything that could conceivably have come in contact with the Casa Benilde and taking three showers using up all the soap and shampoo in the tray – a determined effort to leave the bedbugs in Spain – I feel much better after sloshing into town (it’s been raining seriously through all this) for an excellent lunch of caldo gallego and hake Galician style.
Alas, no pictures today. I reflexively took a dozen or so shots of the most spectacular red welts on the front side of my torso, but I wouldn’t inflict those on anyone right now.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Monasterio de San Salvador

Today was saved by a short excursion off the Camino to visit the Monasterio de San Salvador at Vilar das Donas, a hamlet a mile and a half north. The Camino itself lost its mojo rather badly. Ancient paths through canopied forests turned into drab trails along side new highways, with villages that were no better.
But the monastery was everything even the most medieval-mad romantic peregrino could ask for. Dating to the 10th Century, when it probably began as a “family monastery” belonging to a wealth Galician, who gave it to the Order of Santiago in 1184, the present structure was built in the 13th Century. Its post-Romanesque architecture is impressive enough, and other grace notes abound, such as large antique wrought-iron hinges on the doors. The monastery is best known for its burial effigies of early knights, however, and its 15th century frescoes, which are astonishingly well preserved.
I’d visited the monastery on my prior Camino trip, but found it closed. The outside is interesting, but a barred set of doors is always disappointing, however great the wrought-iron hinges and Romanesque doorway. Today the monastery was observing its posted opening hours, however, and I was able to peer at its frescoes, sculptures and architecture to my heart’s content and still leave a half-hour before its two o’clock lunchtime closing (nothing in northern Spain stays open all day). That allowed me, on my way back to the Camino, to tell a German couple who, like me, had walked up from the Camino that the monastery was open and would be for almost another half hour. They were so surprised and delighted that I thought they would literally dance up the hill over the brow of which the monastery looked out at the next valley.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Saddest Story (with apologies to Ford Madox Ford)

Today we finished by walking across the new bridge to the new Portomarin, from which we could look down at the old Roman bridge and the ruins of old Portomarin, which have re-emerged after the reservoir which flooded the old town when the rio Miño was dammed in 1962 was allowed to drain.
The new town was built to include the old Romanesque church, every stone of which was moved block-by-block to its new location. That poses the metaphysical question whether a 12th Century church that has been moved a mile or so is still an old church, or merely a replica (I have much less trouble with the block-by-block reconstruction of a church in the same place where it collapsed, such as the Frauenkirche in Dresden).
But the more important problem is the new town was otherwise built with a monolithic architecture for its stores and bar-restaurantes, and a tract-housing style for its residential streets. Overall, the esthetic is high-end prison camp.
If I lived here, the only sadder thing I could imagine than living in this soulless town would be seeing my old town re-emerge from the water and mud so that I could look down every day and say, “There, those foundations on the riverbank fourth from the bridge are where I used to live.”
Apart from the downer presented by Portomarin, this was another day of walking ancient paths and quiet roads. The man in the picture owned a small herd of cows that walked down the Camino toward us this morning. A friend who had not yet amassed her quota of cows-coming-down-the-Camino pictures, took out her camera. The man gestured emphatically that it was more important for us to take a picture of him and his faithful shepherd dog. So we all did.
The old-trees-on-the-Camino pictures are, I know, hackneyed. But walking here is so timeless. I’m powerless to resist these photographic clichés.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hi, I'm a foot!

The graffiti artist captures how we all feel in his drawing on the tunnel leading the Camino under the highway and into Samos. To wit, after 400-odd miles this month already, what better sums up our operative existence than a foot with a head, and nothing else. But note, it’s a smiling, happy foot.
Today I walked four miles longer than necessary to avoid the highway route and instead take the “alternative” Camino that leads to the Samos Monastery and then on to Sarria. The 5th Century Benedictine monastery burned in 1965, but has been rebuilt and still has its cloistered monks. Unfortunately, it was closed at 11:30 this morning, although the sign on the stout, locked oaken door said it was open from 10:30 to 12:30. But the monastery is more attractive from the outside, where the old walls still exist for the most part, than in the reconstructed interior (visited previously) which is notable chiefly for some of the worst murals ever painted.
The real point of the roundabout route, however, was to walk on the remote, ancient paths along the rio Ouribio, much diminished at this time of year but still contributing its share of burbling small rapids and waterfalls. The paths themselves are worn several feet deep into the ground, and bordered by either old chestnut trees or stone walls that look centuries old. It was an altogether humbling walk, thinking of the centuries of pilgrims and farmers and just plain walkers (and probably more than a brigand or two) who have gone the same way before.
There is, of course, the predictable unproductive debate as to which route is the “real” (that is, the medieval) Camino. Usually I’m willing to side with the highway route, as the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B for pilgrims as well as today’s travelers. But I have trouble with the notion that medieval pilgrims skipped a huge, safe-haven monastery just to follow the most uninteresting straight line path. So on this one, I’m siding with my route.
Sarria is an uninspiring mid-sized city where I’m spending the night in a noxious chain business hotel (room smells like an ashtray, air-conditioning turned off by management although it’s almost 80, and they charge for using “their” internet). It marks the official beginning of the 100-kilometer count-down to Santiago de Compestela. That’s the minimum distance necessary for a pilgrim to earn a partial forgiveness of sins (except in years when St. James’ birthday falls on Sunday, such as 2010, when the slate is wiped clean). For those of us who have walked all the way from the French border, 100-kilometers seems like an absurdly short “pilgrimage.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Climbing to the Sky

We started the morning at the valley floor, with the A-6 flyover far up in the sky above us. In the first 5 miles the Camino climbed 2,000 feet. The ascent began with a steep climb through a chestnut and oak forest up a trail that long, long ago was a cobblestoned lane between stone walls. With the exception of a few stretches where the paving was still nearly intact, the trail had gone back to a path incredibly full of rough, almost randomly arrayed rocks. But once upon a time, someone had made a road here, and trundled farm carts up and down it for who knows how long. The Camino does give one a sense of the transience of everything we do.
After a few miles of clambering up this path, we reached La Faba, one of those tiny Spanish villages that seem incredible simply because they still have people, doing what for a living can only be imagined. After that, the trail was more open and more gradual. A handful of pilgrims, and coming the other way, first a mongrel dog trotting smartly along, followed shortly by a Spanish woman with a leash and obviously asking (some things don’t need translation), “Have you seen my dog, M__something?” I told her yes, he went thataway (signed, more accurately). I learned later from a Spanish-speaking pilgrim who spoke with the woman a few minutes later that the dog used to belong to a man in La Faba, and he runs back to his old home at every chance he gets, and she has to follow behind the several kilometers to La Faba to reclaim him.
At the top we reached O’Cebreiro, not the highest point on the Camino in absolute terms, but the highest point perceptually – the land falls away dramatically on either side, giving the walk from O’Cebreiro to the next town, at approximately the same height, a top of the world feeling. Looking down on the A-6 autopista flyovers from that height makes them seem like play pieces in a children’s construction-block game. Quite a different perception than being under them.It was overall a splendid day. Beautiful going up, beautiful walking along the ridgeline, beautiful walking down to Tricastela, where I’m staying tonight in a casa rurale that played out its real life role several centuries ago, seemingly as a sort of fortified farmhouse protected by very thick stone walls with the smallest of windows looking out, with a courtyard inside surrounded by stables for the animals and living quarters for the owners. Having a half dozen sort of elegant rooms with private baths now seems incongruously chi-chi, but excellent lodging for a night nevertheless.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Highways in the Sky

The day dawned dry in Villafranca del Bierzo. Dry as in the hotel staff (Maria) overslept and therefore didn’t turn on the water. This also impacted breakfast. In not all that much time, the water returned and breakfast appeared, at least to the extent breakfast ever appears in small Spanish hotels.
And so off up the valley toward O’Cebreiro, tomorrow’s pass through the low mountains separating Leon from Galicia. Today we made it only as far as Herrerias before stopping short of the steep climbs. Since all roads leave to the same gap in the mountains, it was a day of crossing and re-crossing the A-6 autopista.
In the beginning there was the rio Valcarce, a small tumbling stream that has entirely more twists and doublings back upon itself than would same to make sense for a small stream seeking lower ground. Then the N-VI national highway was built (circa 1980’s?), which struggled for a slightly more direct path down the valley, while essentially following the river. Man’s real ability to abstract from nature’s blueprint began to emerge with the N-VI v.2.0, which carved away more hillsides and ventured the occasional bridge over needless dips in the terrain.
The A-6 autopista finally arrived (in the last ten years or so?). It’s soaring flyovers and tunnels bored through hillsides result in a laserlike passage through the countryside with minimal regard for nature.
The final result of all this is a layering of highways, with the old N-VI more or less along the rio Valcarce, the new N-VI passing above the old road and river, and the A-6 autopista somewhere in the sky when it doesn’t disappear into a hillside. The Camino follows the river and the old road for the most part, with occasional unfortunate stretches along the new N-VI where the old highway has either disappeared or goes roundabout in a ways not even a pilgrim can tolerate. Lamentably for their diminishing inhabitants, the old town are for the most part bypassed by both the new N-VI highway and the A-6 autopista, resulting in a ghost town quality and general feeling of emptiness. The hike through the open countryside and these small villages was pleasant on a brisk fall day, but the experience of walking long a country road where, in many places, not one but two layers of highway float across the sky above seemed time-warped.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fog and Flamboyance

Today started out in deep fog and ended with bright sunshine on the flamboyant colors of the Spanish fall. Both are frustratingly difficult to convey in a photograph, at least a photograph edited on a laptop and posted for a computer webpage. Or maybe it’s just that the reproduction never captures the sensory richness of being there.
Walking out of Ponferrada this morning in the fog, my eye was caught by what at first seemed a bouquet of gauzy white flowers beside the road. The flowers were cobwebs, small bowl-shaped cobwebs catching the light coming through the fog with a luminance that seemed to glow. The photograph? Well, you had to be there.
Similarly a few miles later when a church looking out on what had been allowed to become a wild field cast a spectral presence in the fog. The photograph? Not the same.
While taking pictures of the church, I saw a fist-sized purple thistle, maybe an aspiring artichoke, in the foreground field. The sin of my photograph of that is that there is nothing to convey the
aggressive size of the thistle. It could be a so-what thimble-sized thistle.
While the fog lifted, the Camino wound its way from the suburbs of Ponferrada to the vineyards covering the rolling hills leading to Villafranca del Bierzo. The Spanish fall has a surprising richness of colors. The poplar trees are limited to a blazing yellow, but the vineyards contribute, in addition to more yellows, a surprising range of reds. Not in a league with a New England maple after a hard frost, but not to be sneezed at. So let’s take a photograph for the folks back home. Alas, more garish than gorgeous, even with a rigorous self-discipline to stay away from the saturation adjustment.The moral of this tale is, again, that you have to walk the Camino to see the Camino.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

And God Created Goretex

It was a day to remember the 1967 Yale-Princeton football game. Same weather, only fewer drunks, and the walk was better than the game, which I don’t remember at all, just the sea of black umbrellas in the Yale Bowl. Setting off in a downpour today was not a challenge, thanks to the wonders of head-to-toe Goretex. But not even Goretex can solve the challenge of a flooded Camino.
That is a small lake in the picture. My effort to follow an alternative path around the water started by earlier pilgrims came to the same end for me as they encountered. The underbrush just became impenetrable after ten wet yards, so I backtracked to the Camino through the brambles, and forded the lake as best I could.
The rain went on for hours, but the fog gave way to more interesting clouds as we descended from the highest point on the Camino (1,504 meters). And eventually the rain stopped as we slipped and slid down steep muddy trails, and before we reached our destination in Ponferrada cracks of blue even came through the clouds.
I would only wonder as we walked how our young kiwi friends were doing. After inhaling dinner at our hotel last night, they set off to pitch their tent in a nearby grassy field. That must have been wet enough. But one of them has been walking for at least the past several days in a pair of tennis shoes where the right sole has separated from the top well over halfway back to the heel. This has forced him to develop a unique stride. With each step forward with his right foot, he has to give his toe an upward flick to prevent the sole from folding back under the heel, and then plant the foot before the sole flops back down. It’s not clear whether he hasn’t replace the shoes because he needs a size 12 or because he has no money. We contributed a roll of duct tape, but even with that today’s hike must have been on the far, far side of challenging.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Away from the Autopista

Walking out of Astorga this morning across the bridge over the autopista, the cars rushing under me with their occupants cocooned in their steel capsules made me think about how different the world is at 3 mph. The series of pictures following the autopista snapshot illustrate just one day’s worth of slow travel.
In the next little town, I rejected the Camino signs urging me to veer to the left side of Murias de Rechivaldo (apparently a routing resulting from some successful massaging of whatever bureaucracy defines the Camino currently), and instead stayed on the road through the center of this small village, which continued on to Castrillo de Polvzares, a highly gentrified reconstruction of a once abandoned Maragato village.
The Maragato are – or rather were, given how few remain – an ethnic enigma living west of Astorga. They kept much to themselves, and given the poorness of their soil, depended on work in transport, for many centuries as carters and muleteers, more recently as truck drivers. No one has identified the origin of these hill people. Theories and speculations have them as survivors of Goths who invaded the peninsula, or related to the Moors who remained in Northern Spain after the reconquest, or as descendants of the ancient Astures who lived in the area before the Roman conquest, etc., etc.
But, before they withered and became assimilated, the Maragato built fine dry-wall stone houses and fences. So restoration by people seeking second homes has become a major pastime, and perhaps the Camino has contributed somewhat to a restored prosperity also.
Walking along the local road to Castrillo, my eye was caught by an incongruous Tex-Mex style hotel and restaurante traveling under the name Meson Casa Flop. It struck me as an odd name until I got it. Some people take this Camino business less seriously than others.
Castrillo itself was wonderfully restored, indeed too much so. The perfect stonework of the streets and every house gave it something of the feel of a Maragato Williamsburg. The feeling of ancient stones was muddied by the weekenders’ insistence of parking their BMW’s in front of their perfect houses on their perfect cobblestone street. But still a more than worthwhile detour.
I took the path at the far end of town toward the next town, Santa Catalina de Somoza, with mild hesitation since my guidebook warned it was poorly marked. Unmarked proved more accurate, but no path passing a paddock of white horses can be all bad. The path was really a narrow dirt road in any event, and I reasoned, where else would it go but Santa Catalina. True enough, but when I came to a Y-intersection, the question posed was which road went to Santa Catalina. I opted for the conservative left fork (which, if it didn’t go where I wanted, was at least headed back toward the paved road). Some of my friends made the opposite decision later in the day, spunkily aiming for the next town beyond, El Ganso, and came to regret it. Sometimes being a wimp works out well.
Santa Catalina was a good Camino town (it had two coffee bars) with an appealing dirt road leading into town toward the inevitable church belfry (although this one had only one stork nest). El Ganso, next along, was less engaging, but did have lots of Maragato stonework in varying states of decline and restoration (gentrification is apparently proceeding westward from Castrillo).
The long rise west of El Ganso – we picked up 1,600 feet over a few kilometers – offered wonderful views back over the flatness of the meseta which has bored everyone for a good part of the last week. And in terms of unexpected pleasant surprises, I turned a twist in the path toward the top of the hill, and came across a Spanish peregrino posed in an improbable swing while her girlfriend took her picture. I asked if I could take a picture of my own, and declined their invitation to take one of me on the swing.
My walk for the day ended in Foncebadon, a few kilometers from the high point of the Camino, where I’d made arrangements for a ride six kilometers back to Rabanal (in order to shorten an otherwise long walk tomorrow). Foncebadon is at the treeline – it would make a good finish for one of the lesser climbing days in the Tour de France. While sitting on a stone wall waiting for my pickup, one of the town cows snarfed grass closer and closer (the picture was taken with a wide-angle lens, not a telephoto) until I adjourned across the road to take a picture of the donkey with his friend the goat. Not much else going on in Foncebadon.
Back in Rabanal, I took a swing around town in search of a “wee-fee” network. No luck there, but I did find ample quality stonework, more than a little rundown, to make me sure this will be as gentrified as Castrillo in another five or ten years.Now, wasn’t that better than a day on the autopista?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Night in the Plaza Mayor

Huddled in my airshaft-view hotel room until nine o’clock, just to seem a native (?!) when I went next door for a pizza. Fine pizza, relatively speaking, even if I had to watch a Eurosport TV broadcast of an American bowling championship (?!) while eating it. But the real fun began when I walked outside about ten. On a not very warm late October night, the local pre-teens were in full throat in the Plaza Mayor. Soccer games, cartwheel practice, giggling girls taking evasive action to avoid preteen boys who really didn’t want to catch them. Not a parent in sight – they were all, if anywhere nearby, in the tapas bar at stage right of the plaza. Granted it wasn’t a school night, but this was most un-American (at least un-Big-City-American) and thoroughly engaging. I have to get around to my research project (i.e., five minutes on Google) to see if the stress-free Spanish lifestyle offsets the extraordinarily high rate of chain-smoking in the life expectancy derby.

Buen Camino

There’s nothing like a short day under friendly skies to a pleasant town. Walking out of Hospital de Órbigo this morning past Villares de Órbigo, looking back at the morning sun reaching out across the trees made you wonder why everyone doesn’t want to walk the Camino.
After passing Santibañez de Valdeiglesia, we started across a stretch of the path Susan and I had walked on our driving/walking trip along the Camino 18 months ago. The same strange fellow was still camped beside the Camino in an open-air lean-to. Random rocks for a kilometer before and after his station were still daubed with yellow paint (presumably by him), and this year he has added a slightly larger than life-size cutout of a pilgrim standing beside his lean-to. Unlike the last visit, however, he didn’t follow silently behind us off to the side of the Camino clearing, at the edge of the tree line. He did that for almost a kilometer last year, which was more than slightly disconcerting. Today, he settle for a simple greeting when I said, “Hola!”
The path itself was a joy after several days trudging alongside the N-120 national highway (although the provincial government was still posting signs even today saying that the real camino was the rocky path it has installed beside the highway). Hopefully, as we leave Leon Province and climb into Galicia this notion that walking beside a busy highway is really better will disappear permanently.
While we were having lunch in the plaza in Astorga, the older (i.e., my age) Australian fellow who’s been walking for several days with a young Dutch girl came over when they got up to shoulder their packs and I asked how far they were going. He said they were planning to reach Rabanal, a 25 mile hike from our mutual starting point in Hospital, even though they hadn’t gotten an early start “because she was texting her boyfriend, and he kept texting back, and on and on.” He continued, “But she speaks English, and so few people on the Camino do” (true enough).I wondered whether this careful mention that she had a boyfriend (not him) and he was walking with her because of her language skills (not because she was a young hottie) was to disabuse me of any notion that he was up to more than English small talk. Not unreasonable. I suppose in the same situation I’d think that the eyes’ of everyone my age were burning into me with a mixture of suspicion and derision.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Surprises Along the Camino

Pilgrim trekking is a pastime with more room for unpleasant surprises than the opposite. Such as waking up this morning covered with bites from bedbugs in the prestigious Hotel Paris. I guess it's hard to control the little beasts when many peregrinos stay in albergues – notorious for such infestations – for several nights, then rent a hotel room to wash laundry and themselves.
But then things got unexpectedly better. The weather, from several sources, was supposed to start out poorly and deteriorate to a cold rain. It was instead a bright sunny day, at least while walking. Second, the hotel for the night in Hospital de Órbigo decided it was closed for the season, but promised to honor our reservations by leaving a key with a neighbor. That boded badly for heat and hot water, which tend not to be turned on until eight o’clock even in “open” hotels. But the rooms in the Hotel Don Suero de Quiñones turned out to be not only warm but wildly more spacious than the slope-ceiling broom closet where I suffered last night in Leon.
The picture, taken from my hotel room, shows the 13th Century Puente de Órbigo, over the river of the same name, and the edge of the jousting field where the namesake of the hotel broke 300 lances in an extended, take-on-all-comers jousting match in 1434. The story is (what else is new?) confused, but it seems that Don Suero, scorned by a Lady (initial caps indicate chivalric terms of art), undertook to wear an iron collar to show he was nevertheless bound to her. When that failed to change her mind, and the collar proved a pain, he sought to be rid of it. But having taken a Vow, he couldn’t just change his mind, but needed a Dispensation. So Don Suero undertook to take on all Knights crossing the puente. This he did until he had broken the 300 lances required for his dispensation, whereupon he removed the collar and rode off to Santiago, where he deposited a golden bracelet at the cathedral as token of his release from the prison of love.
The final pleasant surprise of the day was walking uncertainly into an unpromising restaurante in search of lunch to find a large, skylighted courtyard with art noveau wood-carved windows and a number of locals getting the weekend off to an early start. Great meal. The lesson there is that, as in all of Spain, don’t judge by the street façade. The most barren outside may be an oasis inside.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Out and About in Leon

Leon has so many attractions that we’re spending two nights here. So just a five-mile stroll this morning, to take the edge off what would otherwise be a longish day tomorrow. Walking through the western suburbs of Leon to La Virgen del Camino, the mueblo (furniture) capital of Leon if not all of Spain, didn’t offer many photo opportunities, particularly on an overcast and misty morning.
The best I could manage was another river-valley-in-the-mist picture, this time from the 16th-Century Puente de rio Bernesga footbridge leaving downtown Leon. I promise, no more river pictures.
From there the Camino bobbed and weaved its yellow-arrowed way along the N-120 highway, with occasional obscurely signaled turns to keep otherwise bored peregrinos alert. Aside from more opportunities to buy overstuffed sectional sofas than anyone could reasonably require, La Virgen del Camino’s leading (well, sole) attraction is the Sanctuary of the Virgin, “the most modern church of artistic significance on the Road.” Fronted by bronze doors and sculptures of the apostles installed in 1961, the Sanctuary seems lonely amidst all the furniture stores. St. James is presented with a body composed essentially of scallop shells, which arguably overdoes the Camino thing (in the picture, the figure to the right of James is John, with Mary Ascending on the far right).
Back in Leon before noon, I canvassed the town for my latest fixation: an antique map of Northern Spain to remind me of this enterprise. Not on. Leon, when all is done, is not the cultural capital it aspires to be. Once past the Cathedral and San Isidor (and a few stray buildings such as an early Gaudi building lamentably taken over as the regional headquarters of Caja Espana), the tourist area is tacky and the modern downtown is medium-size-city-Spain. Nothing wrong with that, but not a place for quality antique print and map stores. The resident calligrapher at the closest miss I found, a medieval manuscript store near San Isidor, told me he had seen such maps “during my studies,” but they were in libraries and he didn’t think I’d find any for sale in Leon.Late in the afternoon, after the promised rain arrived – it’s supposed to be truly vile tomorrow – I took a tour of the Cathedral and St. Isidor. They wouldn’t let me take pictures of my favorite thing in Leon, the 11th Century frescoes in the Pantheon Real attached to St. Isidor, still astonishingly brilliant after 800 years and despite Napoleon’s use of the room for a stable. A wonderful window to the medieval mind, so like ours in some ways and so distant in others.
So I had to settle for a shot of the Cathedral Cloister with rain glistening on the marble floor.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rain in Spain

The hike into Leon, like any approach to a relatively big city, never promised to make any highlights list. Today dawned dark and stormy, as Snoopy would say, and never improved. At least not before I straggled into the Hotel Paris (!?) a few blocks from the soaring 13th Century Leon Cathedral. The good news was a balmy warmth, which actually made walking in the rain pleasant. Especially since I’m a sucker for mist and fog.
The wetness brought out all the moisture-loving critters. I thought this snail’s epic climb to the top of a four-foot dried-out plant deserved to be immortalized (alas, only by my iPhone camera, since every other camera was layers-deep in plastic bags, backpack rain covers, etc.) For all I know, snails climb to such epic heights every night. But I’d never seen one that high before. I resisted the temptation to take a similar picture of any of the zillions of slugs accompanying me on the Camino.
The second picture was taken as I was nervously crossing the 20-arch medieval bridge over the rio Porma in Vilarente. “Nervously” because the medieval builders didn’t have huge trucking rigs in mind when they built the puente. So as matters worked out, I had a concrete curb about 20-inches wide, with the rest of the bridge width occupied by 18-wheel rigs hurtling through the rain and fog. What could I do but turn my back on this and take a picture of the peaceful banks of the rio Porma?By a little past noon – after an extraordinarily confusing, unmarked crossing of four thundering express lanes in Valdelafuente over an unfinished pedestrian overpass that dumped me in the mud beside the expressway for a 300-yard slip-and-slide until I reached dry land, and walking several miles from there with an Englishman who goes awalking six or seven times a year, and who provided me both a list of his best walking paths in England and a company who will book overnights and provide baggage transfer – I had reached the relative heaven of a hotel with both internet access and CNN. Hard to bring myself to leave, but I did go out for a good lunch.

Slogging Across the Meseta to Mansilla

(October 19, 2009 – posted October 20, 2009) The flatlands west of Sahagun earn no mention in the early medieval histories. In the Seventeenth Century, the diarist Domenico Laffi reported of this area only, “We came across a dead pilgrim. Two wolves had begun to eat his body, so we chased them off and continued towards El Burgo Ranero.”
No wolves today, but otherwise things seem not much better. The village church in El Burgo Ranero is guarded by a dead tree with its limbs hacked off. That’s the high point of the town, and the following countryside.
Perhaps that’s why signs for bus and taxi service into Leon – the next oasis, of culture and food and internet access – increase in size and urgency as one approaches Mansillas de las Mulas (so named for its famed mule market). Even John Brierley, otherwise an enthusiast for the pilgrim way of life in his guide to the Camino, urges consideration of hopping an express bus to cover this stretch: “If this suggestion seems like heresy it might be useful to ask yourself – why not? . . . The ego and its obsessive behavioral patterns cam just as limiting as a laissez faire attitude and indifference. As in all things we endeavor to bring mindfulness to our actions.”
I’m as committed to mindfulness and tranquilidad as the next pilgrim, but despite these siren calls, I’m still committed to “ebi” (every blessed inch, as the better class of pilgrim refers to this program).

Mid-Camino Malaise: Sunday in Sahagun

(October 18, 2009 – posted October 20, 2009) Sahagun prides itself as the center point of the Camino, or “Centro del Camino.” There are a pair of metal foot molds on the ground before the pictured plaque, presumably indicating that a peregrine who plants his boots there is halfway to Santiago from France. Roughly accurate, at least – various maps and guidebooks vary quite substantially in measuring both the total length of the Camino and stages along the way.
Perhaps because the adrenaline of starting out has worn off, and the adrenaline of approaching the end has not yet kicked in, it’s easy to feel a little flat in Sahagun. Then again, it might be because no hotel, albergue or restaurante-bar in town can be bothered to make the internet accessible, or because in a town filled with excellent medieval churches, all are locked up tight.
A churlish sort might be tempted to focus upon the evidence of decline in Sahagun, such as the pictured building in collapse. Indeed, it is hard to imagine why a young person would stay in Sahagun, and little evidence that any do.
But it is better to emphasize Sahagun’s Camino heritage. Such as the pictured Puente de Canto spanning the rio Cea. Alfonso VI commissioned the bridge in 1085, for which he has the gratitude of 900+ years of peregrinos, who before then had to ford the river on foot.
Immediately past the puente, the Camino is flanked on both sides by a row of trees (aspens?) called Charlemagne’s Lances. The leading early history of the Camino and Northern Spain states that the night before a battle with the Moors, “some Christians . . . stuck their lances into the ground . . . At dawn the next day, those men who in the coming battle were to receive the palms of martyrdom . . . found that their lances had grown bark and were covered with leafy branches.” Not an altogether auspicious indicator of how the coming battle would go. The same source reports that 40,000 Christians died in the next day’s losing battle. Not clear whether the message is not to put your lance in the ground at night, or to head rapidly the other way if you wake to find it’s turned into a tree.

Sahagun Straightaway

(October 17, 2009 – Posted October 20, 2009) The stretch leading through Sahagun is by wide acclaim the most boring on the Camino. So I walked the 26 miles from Carrión de los Condes to Sahagun today to put it all behind me in one day. Straight it certainly is (see first two pictures, early morning and almost there). Partly because much of it follows the old Roman road, partly because there’s not much reason for curves and turns on the meseta. There are also no towns at all for the first 12 miles, and nothing much after that. I managed one cup of café cortado at Calzadilla de la Cueza (milepost 12), and a beer at San Nicholás del Real Camino (milepost 22), and I didn’t turn down any opportunities for something more substantial.
But the “most boring” award is at least in small part a bad rap. There are enough trees for picnics, and the countryside is not entirely empty. After a few hundred miles on the Camino, a shepherd with his flock is not blow-your-mind exciting, but it still has its charm. (see last two pictures)
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the Ermita de la Virgen del Puente, a highly recommended chapel two miles outside Sahagun on the rio Valderaduey. The careless pilgrim may, like me, assume that the eponymous “Puente” crosses the rio Valderaduey. It probably did when the Romans built it. Unfortunately, the river (we’d call it a “creek”) seems to have shifted course sometime over the last two thousand years. So now there is no bridge crossing the river, and the Puente crosses a pasture. I did not discover this until I’d walked half a kilometer in from the main road along the riverbank across from the chapel, so I then had to backtrack in order to walk down the right side of the creek (mistakes and excursions like this – there were a couple of others over the course of the day – not counted in mileage). The second problem was the large sign in McDonald’s red and yellow between the Puente and the Ermita telling us that the sorely-needed restoration planned for some time in the future will cost € 289,310.89 to be provided by someone. So much for photo opportunities. The third problem, so universal on the Camino that it’s barely worth noting, was that the Ermita was locked up tight.
But now I’m in the Puerta de Sahagun Hotel, a large establishment catering to business meetings but, interestingly for that business model, without “wee-fee” anywhere (so says the woman at the reception desk; my wi-fi finder shows a network but can’t log on).In the absence of the internet, tonight I’ll eat at a Spanish-fashionable 9:30 (i.e., if I start then, there will be someone else in the restaurant by the time I finish) so that I can have grilled leeks. Sahagun is the leek capital of the world, or Spain at least.

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Camino Routing Wars

A short walk today from Fromista to Carrión de los Condes. Entirely along the provincial P980 Camino if the Province of Palencia’s Camino-designators were to be respected. I did not. This is a Camino-rewrite from the former Camino, which ran along the banks of the rio Ucieza. One author calls this a prime example of senda (“soulless errors of national development agencies”). What’s going on, he says, is a desire to further popularize the Camino by making it more accessible for large bus tour groups and wheelchair bound pilgrims. Plausible goals (at least the latter), but it’s hard to see the reasoning for making the highway-paralleling path the Camino and crossing the old Camino off the map. The pictures, taken from the same spot, show the new highway path (shown by white markers and a few lonely pilgrims) and the former route (the woman was a local walking her dog, not a returning pilgrim).
To complicate matters a tad, of course, the highway-paralleling path is almost certainly closer to the original, way-back-when Camino, since the Romans, medieval pilgrims and modern roadbuilders all favored the same routes. We’re fighting here for the integrity of the circa 1980 Camino recreation.
Luckily, the old (1980ish) Camino markers can still be found, and the path along the river is still there, although it’s slowly going back to grass – most pleasantly right now. I had a modest amount of company until reaching a point opposite the highway hamlet of Villarmentero, roughly halfway along, where an enterprising bar owner had painted yellow arrows routing riverside pilgrims back to the highway, and painted over the old yellow markers pointing along the river. Pretty crafty (other words also come to mind), but he tipped off what was going on by adding “Bar→” beneath his new highway-pointing arrows. So I continued happily along the river, where I could take pictures of reeds and floating leaves. Very relaxing.
In Carrion de los Condes I am staying in a hotel posing as a renovated monastery. The monastery with which it shares a wall is quite medieval, and my room looks out on the second-best cloister, but the room is very 2003. Still, the Hotel Monasterio de San Zoilo is the best thing in town. At least the best thing that’s open. There are some good churches, but they’re closed up tight, as is seemingly everything else. Luckily, I found an open supermercado to buy some bread and ham and yoghurt, because it’s entirely too cold to want to walk into the center of town trying to beat the odds and find a restaurante that’s open.