Conversations from the Edge

October 10-12, 2019

For three days we have walked along the edge of a vast highland, a dry plateau situated between the Río Esla and the Río Órbigo. Barely marked by shallow waterways which mostly go dry each summer, for hundreds of years the major crops were dry wheat and barley. When people began tapping the underground aquifers at the base of the mountains edging this area, agriculture branched out into corn, potatoes, garlic, and sugar beets. It’s been fascinating, walking through this flat, expansive landscape.

Much of the time our path has paralleled the freeway, the N-120, and we have shared our pilgrimage with pilgrim pedestrians on our gravel paths, plus whizzing autos and trucks a stone’s throw away.

Perhaps the modern traffic made me more aware of the natural beauty we passed. I couldn’t resist sharing a mosaic of fruit, nuts, and flowers.

We also met some helpful and friendly locals. One afternoon, after checking in to our hostel, we set out to find a grocery store, our stomachs, having missed lunch, growling vociferously.

We passed a bar/cafe with many tables set up in the edge of the street. Two tables were filled with men amicably playing cards, obviously old friends from the neighborhood. A sense of happiness and purpose surrounded the groups.

We followed winding streets, jigging around rows of houses, fenced gardens, plazas. At one point we found ourselves on a narrow path between two vegetable gardens. Suddenly, a little old lady appeared!

“Buenas tardes,” I quavered.

Jay, with great presence of mind, smiled at the woman and asked, “Supermercado?”

“Ah, si!” She beamed, and a string of directions spilled out. I caught the word, “derecha”, and Jay heard “abierto”. We smiled gratefully and set off in the direction she pointed, hoping for the best.

The grocery store was so large, we decided to search for sunscreen in addition to our food. After several futile passes up and down the aisle, I thought of Google Translate. A good friend in Canada had suggested that it could be useful, and my son had set up my phone so that the app worked without wifi.

With grateful thoughts to my friend and our son, I approached a busy stock boy with the words, “protector solar” on my phone. The boy nodded, smiled, and walked down the same aisle I’d been prowling, but he couldn’t find any sunscreen either! He asked for my phone and typed in, “termina verano se quita”. I didn’t really need Google to translate that phrase. With the end of summer, the store no longer carried sunscreen!

After those two successful conversations, we took our dinner to a park bench on the bank of the Río Órbigo. Beautifully quiet, with shady trees above and gurgling water at our feet, I relaxed, enjoying the moment.

As I looked at the river, its famous bridge of 20 arches just a couple blocks away, I realized, with the crossing of the Río Órbigo, we were leaving the flat highlands behind. “Hey! Maybe we’ll climb hills tomorrow!”

Our walk did include rolling hills the next day as we left the edge of the plateau and began slowly climbing. The expanse of sky remained immense, surrounding me with joyous blue and gold.

In the town of Santibañez de Valdeiglesias, an open door of the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, built in 1987, beckoned. Enchanted with beams of colored light from modern stained glass windows, I paused to enjoy another moment of beauty.

The edge of the town of San Justo de la Vega brought one more successful conversation. I had been intrigued with an unknown tree type planted in a row along the Camino here. It looked a bit like a chestnut, but the prickly round pods yielded tiny seeds.

“Surely too small to be chestnuts,” I mused.

“You could ask a local,” Jay suggested.

I turned a panic-stricken face towards him. “How?”

“Look, I bet that man knows.” Jay pointed towards an older gentleman carrying a camera. “I’ll coach you.”

Armed with Jay’s Spanish, and conscious of his supporting presence at my back, I timidly approached. “Perdón, senor,” I held out a shaking hand. “Que es esto?”

The man looked startled to be approached by a stranger clad in a bright pink top and black shorts. Then he smiled and took the prickly seed pod from me.

An intense look brought another smile and an answer. “Es una castaña, una castaña muy pequeña!”

“Oh!” I exclaimed in delight. (Oh wow, I had understood him! A chestnut after all!) “Muchas gracias!”

We smiled in mutual appreciation of the wonders of nature, and Jay and I continued.

The end of our walk this day brought laughter as I posed with a pilgrim statue. There is so very much to learn, experience, and enjoy on this ancient walk!

León, Begin Again

October 7-9, 2019

From Madrid we took a train to León, where we stopped walking last June when a looming orthodontist appointment and pet sitting commitments called us back to Seattle.

As we disembarked at León, we noticed that pilgrims toting slim backpacks far outnumbered people lugging and rolling fat suitcases.

“I guess we’re back in a trail town,” Jay remarked.

As we walked from the train station to our hotel, a man across the street waved and called, “Camino de Santiago?”

“Sí!” We nodded enthusiastically.

A look of concern crossed the man’s face, and he urgently pointed the opposite way from where we were headed. “Camino, por ahí!”

I left it to Jay to explain. Yes, we were in a trail town (er…city!) sure enough.

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We spent a good deal of our day in León walking by the river.

We found a beautiful promenade/bike path/canine recreation area following the Río Bernesga.

Sycamore trees shaded part of the promenade, while European horse chestnuts littered the path further on. One enthusiastic nut fell just a yard from my shoulder, bounding out of its prickly shell.

A pigeon entertained us as it drank from a water fountain.

The Catedral de León also shone as a wonderful part of our day. Twelve euros bought us an audio guide and allowed us to step from glaring mid-day sunlight into a world dappled with floating luminescent jewels.

I can’t express the impact of entering this Gothic architecture with nearly 1800 square feet of stained glass. My eyes feasted on glowing colors while my soul gloried in rays of luminosity.

The audio tour gave an excellent history of the cathedral, especially when we stood in the very center of the crossed ribs while a voice in our ears described the rescue and restoration of the cathedral in the 1800s, accompanied by eerie creaking and groaning sound effects!

It also told of the Virgen Blanco, carved in the 1200s by an unknown artist, and said to give her blessing to pilgrims. Jay took my picture with her as we left the cathedral.

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Our first day of actually walking on the Camino de Santiago was rather short. We enjoyed following yellow arrows, talking with pilgrims, and feeling as if we were finally making progress!

We found our hostal to be quite near the Basilica de la Virgen del Camino, which has existed in one form or another since a shepherd saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1505. The current Basilica was constructed in 1961, a very avant-garde building. Thirteen bronzed blocky statues representing the twelve apostles and Mary line the facade.

Inside, an abstract cross and net rendered in stained glass lights one end of the sanctuary, then stark bare walls lead to an incredibly ornate baroque altarpiece created in 1730. Fascinating to see such a juxtaposition of modern and ancient!

Outside, a 53 meter tall concrete bell tower dominates the grounds. From afar, I thought I was seeing an abandoned factory chimney. It was quite startling to have this landmark resolve itself into a bell tower!

The day ended as we ate after-dinner chocolate on our balcony and watched a three-quarter moon climb into a clear, clear blue sky. I felt grateful for so much beauty to share with Jay beside me and also with friends far away.

Madrid

October 6, 2019

First, an explanation. Last spring while hiking the Camino de Santiago and blogging, our experiences outran my writing.

‘I’ll finish when I get back to the United States’, I thought, confident that I could put our adventures in a few short paragraphs.

I was so wrong! Life kept moving as we returned to the USA, and, 3 months later, I still haven’t finished writing about our pilgrimage in May and June!

However, the time to return to Spain and continue walking the Camino had arrived. So, on Friday, Jay and I boarded an airplane and flew to Madrid.

Today, our first full day in Europe since last June, armed with a map and determined to thumb our noses at the nine hour time difference, we walked. My body protested vociferously, but I persevered, encouraged by sunlight slowly working to change my internal clock.

We walked from our hotel, on the Calle Atocha, to the Palacio Real and the Catedral de la Almudena. Though mass was partway over when we arrived, the sound of the organ encouraged us to go inside. Jay and I squeezed between tourists parading across the back of the sanctuary and stood by the wall to listen, taking in the soaring arches, frescoed ceilings, gilt decorations, and the atmosphere of concentration as worshipers participated in communion while the organ and a pure soprano voice gave glory to God.

Continuing on, we came across a street musician playing an accordion. When he began skillfully playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jay and I found a park bench. I closed my eyes and let the music transport me, the interwoven melodies speaking of friends, nature, and God’s love.

We continued walking, seeing many buildings and statues, including the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol, both places crammed with Spanish history.

Eventually, we came to the Puerta de Alcalà, a huge gate, built in 1778 as part of the Paredes de Felipe IV. The Calle de Alcalà had featured prominently in the Pimsleur language tapes we had practiced at home. We were bemused to find our feet treading where Spanish lessons had led us. Jay took a picture of me in front of the Puerta de Alcalà to commemorate the serendipity of the day.

In the 18th and 19th century, sheep flocks regularly crossed through the Puerta de Alcalà, but no longer.

The best part of our large exploration of Madrid was walking through the Parque de El Retiro. We enjoyed seeing the Monumento Alfonso XII next to a lake with small barcos (boats).

A short walk through beautiful trees and across green grass brought us to the Palacio de Cristal, a gorgeous building of glass.

Two young musicians played a waltz by Verdi on violin and bassoon. What fun to hear them!

After even more walking, we ate dinner at our favorite Spanish fast food restaurant, The Good Burger. I was tired but happy from all the sights we’d seen. Madrid, crammed with people, buildings, history, and beautiful parks, had given us a full day.

Burgos

June 2-5, 2019

Many people, when hiking the Camino de Santiago, are driven by their destination. Each day is an opportunity to log more miles, seeing the city of Santiago as the culmination of their journey. Early in this walk, Jay and I agreed to be mindful of the present, enjoy each day, be open to possibilities. This mindset brought us four fascinating days exploring the city of Burgos.

The Hotel Alda Entrearcos, located in the center of town, allowed us to explore in the morning, come back to our room to regroup, then head out again. A hamburger joint on the corner next to our hotel quickly became a favorite lunch spot.

The Good Burger served incredibly delicious burgers and fries.

Topping a hill near the Castillo de Burgos, the Mirador del Castillo (Castle Lookout) gave a sweeping view. A railing in bronze relief oriented tourists to the important sights in the historic town below. “How cool!” I thought as I ran my fingers across the buildings and surrounding landscape depicted in bronze. “A tactile way to get ones bearings!”

My imagination had free rein at the Castillo de Burgos. Steel catwalks linked partial ramparts with open walls. Signs obligingly identified our surroundings in both Spanish and English.

Deeper than the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, “El Pozo”, the castle well, turned my respect for medieval engineers into awe. I peered longingly through the locked grating, my inner vision tracing the spiral steps deep into the earth.

I took a picture of the sign explaining the well, as the immensity of its existence boggled my mind. I loved the diagram showing the bottom of the well reaching all the way to the water table supplying the Río Arlanzon!

Found in Wikipedia, a 1638 manuscript, Historia de Burgos, explained the staircase and well were “so artfully done that looks like work of enchantment.”

Statues, parks, and street musicians helped make Burgos a magical place for wandering.

The Catedral de Burgos easily dominates the town, and invited us to enjoy a tour. We visited this building last Saturday for Mass and the Voces del Camino concert. (Link to that blog post here.) https://sarahandjayhike.blog/2019/09/21/dawn-to-way-past-dusk/

On our second visit, we bought tickets for an audio tour.

The “Golden Staircase”, built to impress, did a great job!
An airy confluence of light and color brought life to a chapel.

We had the privilege of hearing an organist practice his craft behind a barred gate.

About the time I started feeling overwhelmed (even slightly oppressed) with impressive works, I spied an open window.

Yes! Even a labyrinth of a cathedral has openings to a beautiful day!

The Camino skirted the Sierra de Atapuerca before coming through Burgos. This small mountainous region, riddled with limestone caves, sinkholes, ridges, and fissures, has been continuously occupied by humans for the last one million years! Since excavation began in 1978, many caves have yielded a wealth of ancient human remains.

“It’s a cornucopia of human history,” Jay commented. “Those caves are like a vertical filing cabinet.”

The Museo Evolución Humana showcases the extraordinary findings from the Sierra de Atapuerca as well as offering, to quote the museum, “a holistic vision of the human presence on Earth.”

Jay and I viewed bones, tools, and life size models. From Neanderthal remains, found a few miles away, to a model of Homo habilis, found in Africa, I was swept with a vision of the many changes in this amazing world.

Reality truly hit me when I entered a room of skulls. Walking past row after row of craniums, I was suddenly stopped by an eerily familiar sight. Jagged breaks on one jaw were in the exact places x-rays showed on my broken jaw last August! Startled, I bent to read the sign which informed me that the woman’s mandible had been broken and healed, but had developed infection and probably caused a lot of pain. My own bone throbbed in sympathy as I stared at the skull of Homo heidelbergensis. A wave of gratitude for modern medicine swept over me. I had it good compared to this ancient woman.

I turned to Jay with a smile. “History is fascinating, but I’m glad we chose to live in the present!”

Dawn to (way past) Dusk

June 1, 2019

Slanting rays of light rewarded our early start this morning, walking from San Juan de Ortega to the town of Villafría de Burgos. We had hopes of beating the heat that inevitably followed the sun.

Along the way we met a fair number of pilgrims with the same strategy. One young pilgrim’s t-shirt made me smile as I read, “Walls are meant for climbing.”

Our shadows point to the small town of Agés where breakfast awaits at an as yet undiscovered lovely café with outdoor seating, a must to begin such a gorgeous day.
Continuing on after Agés, early sun picked out concentric circles of a stone prayer labyrinth in the grass beside the trail.

Near the town of Atapuerca, we passed a field with several standing stones bearing plaques explaining that these stones had been erected in the late 1990s and early 2000s using “methodicas antiguas” in order to honor the discovery of the remains of the most ancient humans found in Europe.

Standing stones commemorating the site of Atapuerca.

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Three days ago we had the privilege of walking for a short ways with some members of the singing group Voces del Camino. Tonight they were scheduled to sing in the Burgos Cathedral, just a 30 minute bus ride from our day’s destination, the small town of Villafría.

We arrived at our hotel with time to take a cooling shower and a short nap. Then, with advice from the hotel’s concierge, we easily caught the local bus (2.40 euros) to the city center of Burgos.

From the bus stop we navigated our way using the spires of the Cathedral, the map on our Guthook app, and the ubiquitous yellow arrows of the Camino.

Burgos Cathedral – we found it!

The Burgos Cathedral is an incredibly huge edifice, with only two doors open to the public. One door bore signs about buying tickets. I presumed this would be the place to ask for information concerning the Voces del Camino concert. But this door was closed and locked!

Entering the other door, an uncommunicative wrought iron fence sprawled across a huge entryway. Doors on either side were plastered with stern signs saying, “No tourists! Enter only for worship and confession!” Many confused looking tourists wandered aimlessly between firmly closed doors and mutely barred gates.

We consulted our Voces del Camino flyer. We read every sign we could see. We stood in indecision. A strange animated clock, whose face wore a grin like a court jester, struck the hour. Seven o’clock. We had 30 minutes to figure this out.

We saw a man in a suit with Voces del Camino flyers in his hand. ‘Oh, hurray!’ I thought. ‘A person of authority!’

We asked, showing our own flyer to help bridge the language barrier. The man nodded, pointed to his flyer, pointed to the closed gates, then hurried away. What should we do?

“The flyer says they’ll sing after Mass. So let’s go to Mass. It’s better than standing here aimlessly. The sign says Mass is in that chapel.” I pointed to the door on the left.

We slipped inside, sitting shyly in the back. More people followed. Three priests entered, and Mass began. I couldn’t understand a single word, but amazingly, in one of the songs sung by the cantor I recognized the tune of “Blowing in the Wind!”

At the end of the service, we left with everyone else, and followed half the congregation across the huge entryway, through a suddenly opened gate in the wrought iron fence, down a hall, and into another chapel.

As we found a seat, members of the Voces del Camino group paced up the aisle. Hurray! We had found the concert!

Approximately 40 choir members made incredible acapella music. Melodies chased one another, harmonies intertwined. Sound and beauty lofted through the air. As I listened, I felt myself lifted up, following notes and emotions far above, to the cathedral ceiling and beyond.

Voces del Camino

Regretfully, I returned to every day life as the concert came to a close at 9:30 p.m.

Jay and I walked to the bus stop, through throngs of people out for Saturday night. The schedule informed us that the next bus arrived at 10:45 p.m. Oh! I was exhausted!

We stood at the bus stop, our souls full of joy from the glorious music, but my body ready to collapse. Just then, a taxi pulled up! I asked the driver how much it would cost to get us to our hotel.

“Between 10 and 20 euros,” he told us.

I looked appealingly towards Jay. “A bird in the hand…” he muttered. “Let’s do it!”

Midnight found us safely back at our hotel for the price of 14 euros. We’d had a wonderful adventure. Soaring voices lingered in my soul as my head gratefully hit the pillow.

Invitation!

May 29-31, 2019

The further we walk on this pilgrimage, the more I see reasons to pause and treasure an awareness of the moment.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

—Rumi

Walking through beauty!

“Feistiness might be a heck of a lot more use than beauty.”

—Ali, the Mindful Gardener

One feisty flower!

“Beauty ain’t always little, cute colored flower. Beauty is anything where people be like, ‘Damn.’ ”

—Prodigy

Ruinas del Castillo de Belorado

Recapture the childlike feelings of wide-eyed excitement, spontaneous appreciation, cutting loose, and being full of awe and wonder at this magnificent universe.

—Wayne Dyer

What joy to feel the wind whistling past our ears and reach for the trees with our toes! A passing pilgrim laughed as she took our picture.

Each day we walk.

Each day brings…

new sights…

new people…

new thoughts.

Two dogs in the town of Villamayor del Río have an airy perch for watching the world pass!

Our side trip to the ruined castle of Belorado brought an awareness of the ephemeral character of human buildings and the timeless essence of nature.

From sweeping vistas of verdure to the intense focus of a bumblebee harvesting pollen, opportunities for a pause in our walk abound!

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One hot day we climbed a ridge, to be surprised with an Oasis del Peregrino. Trees cast needed shade across dusty ground, and many peregrinos (pilgrims) had used their rest time in creative ways!

A guitar playing totem pole wears a headband for relief from the heat!

Those hot, dusty ridges separated major watersheds. The Ebro River with its tributaries brought water to the Mediterranean Sea. The Tagus and Douro river systems flowed into the Atlantic Ocean. A few meters of land provided welcome shade and laughter to me while quietly directing the course of trillions of water droplets! With silliness on one hand and awesome forces on another, who can resist the invitation to enjoy life?

I end this post with ten seconds of wind in the grass and a mosaic of blooms.

Bells and Voices!

May 28, 2019

Every town along the Camino de Santiago, no matter how tiny, has a church with a spire thrusting into the sky and at least one bell dangling in its framework.

Iglesia de Santa María de Arlette

Each time we’ve tramped past a tapering belfry, I’ve looked up, wishing I could be in the steeple with the bell, ready to send music across the countryside.

‘Ah,’ I’ve mused. ‘If only I could perch beside the bell, or climb a spiral staircase, or even tug a bell rope, and feel the bronze weight swing, the clapper sending reverberations through the air!’

Iglesia de Crucifijo, Puente la Reina

Larger towns tend to have elaborate belfries, collecting even more daydreams around their spires.

Imagine my delight when we walked into the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and I saw the Torre Exenta (free standing tower) with eight bells!

Two euros bought a ticket giving permission to climb the tower, and I set off with irrepressible glee.

The first few steps were wide and straight, leading to a lower portion of the tower, filled with sunshine from windows. Soon the steps narrowed, curving invitingly. ‘Now I’m in the tower!’ I thought.

I noticed an occasional sconce attached to the wall, waiting with ageless patience to be filled with a burning torch. My imagination blossomed, feet treading the same stone stairs as generations of shadowy bell ringers, charged with marking the important events of the day, using eight bells!

I noticed an ancient round hole drilled through a stone step, covered with a modern plastic disk. What could it be? As I ascended, I saw more of these holes, and I pondered. Could it be for letting light from the torches filter upwards?

A tourist passed me, heading down, and I saw the red flash of his jacket on the turn below me, through yet another hole. Could the holes have been put there to keep people from sneaking up or down the tower steps? My imagination took fire yet again, nefarious assassins being foiled by heroic bell ringers, with the help of spy holes through the stairs!

Later I read in a pamphlet that the holes had been used to let ropes through, so the bells could be rung from below. Of course!

Fifty steps into my climb, I came upon the ticking mechanism of the tower clock.

This clock, installed in 1780, made by blacksmith Martín Pasco, is unique, in that it runs using the original mechanisms created by Pasco over 200 years ago!

I wonder if Martín Pasco dreamed that his work would still be used 239 years later!

A sign informed me that, inscribed upon the center of the clock, were the words, “Tempus fugit.” (Time flies.)

I continued upwards, pausing at an occasional arrow slit window to enjoy a view of miniaturized landscape.

The town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada below!

Just as my leg muscles were contemplating open rebellion, I looked up to see the top of the stairs, with a bell hanging above!

One can barely see the bottom of a large bell!

I emerged into sunshine with a gentle breeze quickly drying the sweat patches on my shirt. Bells surrounded me, large, small, each hanging silently from its framework.

Reverently I circumnavigated the top of the tower, peering closely at these bronze harbingers of happiness!

In front of each bell was a sign, telling its name and sometimes telling its size and/or the donor’s name. Names of bells ranged from fanciful (Aguijón – Sting) to functional (Campana Grande del Reloj – Big Clock Bell).

One sign declared its bell, named Prima, had an inscription reading:

Una y otra mui del Caso

La Campana Fiel advierte

Sí la Ora de la Muerte

Que tan en olvido paso.

My feeble Spanish overwhelmed, I asked Google to translate.

Over and over again

The Faithful Bell warns

Yes, the Prayer of Death

So in oblivion step.

I can make no claims as to the correctness of the translation, but I did like the idea that these bells transmitted customs and beliefs of everyday life, whether they rang for joy, passing time, or the passing of a life.

It was with regret that I finally descended. I wanted to stay in the top of the tower for a whole day, watching the bells mark the hours. But I knew Jay was below, and I did want to share my discoveries.

From the Torre Exenta we progressed to the Iglesia Catedral de Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Again paying a small entrance fee, we toured this cathedral, an excellent museum giving homage to its founder, Domingo García, who built the first church in 1106. We saw many statues and works of art, and learned of the many miracles attributed to Santo Domingo. A large diorama left the biggest impression upon both Jay and me, showing daily life in the time of Santo Domingo. The details of the miniatures were amazing, bringing my imagination to life once again!

After filling my imagination with the lives of 12th century people, it was a bit of a shock to prosaically continue walking towards the next town. The hours passed, and my energy flagged. Jay pulled ahead, promising to wait for me in town.

The small village of Grañon held the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. As I slowly approached, a stream of people exited the church. I stopped, wondering what I had missed. At the end of the crowd, Jay appeared, face alight with wonder and delight.

“Did you hear them?” He demanded eagerly.

“Umm, hear who? What happened?” I was lost.

“A singing group called Voces del Camino just practiced here. They’re good!” Jay’s voice was full of awe. “I’m glad I got to hear them! It’s too bad you missed it.”

(Jay took a short video of part of their practice, which is posted at the end of this blog. Their singing voices are truly beautiful!)

Fifteen minutes after leaving the town of Grañon, singers from Voces del Camino began to pass us, giving us an excellent opportunity to make new friends and learn more of this talented group.

Vocalists from all over the United Kingdom were invited to join a pilgrimage, walking parts of the Camino de Santiago and singing in churches and cathedrals.
One member gave us a flyer telling a bit about their journey.

We walked for an hour, to our final town of the day, Redecilla del Camino, enjoying the company of this group.

A woman stopped to pick a poppy and make a doll. “My grandmother used to make these for me and my sister.”

“How cool!” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of corn husk dolls made in the southern USA, where I grew up!”

Sharing a flower doll brought girlhood customs from two continents closer!

Regretfully Jay and I said goodbye to our new friends, but gratefully I collapsed onto my bed at the hostel. What an incredibly full day!

P.S. Here is Jay’s short video of Voces del Camino.