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Unexpected Encounters

October 26, 2019

Much of the Camino de Santiago leads a peregrino (pilgrim) on country byways, walking past scenes of bucolic tranquility. Cows graze in green pastures, sheep nibble on hummocks of grass, chickens scratch near vegetable gardens, and apple trees often line the lanes.

Unlike me, these cows were not impressed with the view!

This morning, as we walked beside a huge field occupied by a small herd of cows, we were astonished to see one bull acting downright frisky! He leaped and pranced and bucked and charged across the grass. He ran up to other cows and pushed against them, sometimes poking at them with his horns. I was reminded of a puppy, trying to engage older dogs in play. And, much like a puppy with aged companions, this bull only met frustration. The other cows moved slowly along, heads down to the important business of grazing, often obliquely managing to get a tree between themselves and their playful mate.

Jay and I stopped walking, watching the far off cows in fascination. Suddenly, the bull raised his head and looked across the field. “He’s noticed us,” Jay observed.

The bull lowered his head, pawed the ground, then charged towards us, running flat out down the hill!

I quickly checked the fence, made of only a single strand of wire, certainly not enough to stop a bull, bolting at top speed! To my relief, I also noticed a long row of round hay bales lining the fence, each about five feet in diameter.

“He can’t jump the bales, can he?” I asked nervously. Just to be on the safe side, I edged myself behind a stout oak on the edge of the road.

The bull continued his charge, looming larger and scarier with each heart beat. He no longer resembled a frisky puppy to my mind! Jay and I watched, frozen in the moment, as a ton of muscle, bone, and horns streaked across the field toward us. Just a few feet from the protecting hay bales, he skidded to a stop, hind feet slewing around as his forefeet braked mightily.

For a long moment, none of the three of us said anything. Jay, recovering first, joked, “I wonder if it was my red coat?” But the bull had given his all in his long dash, and merely snorted, then ambled slowly away, looking like any other grazing bovine.

A farmer walked towards us, checking the fence with a wooden club. He looked out at the bull and muttered something that sounded like, “Toro tonto!” (Silly bull!)

I couldn’t resist asking what the bull had been doing. I’m afraid my mangled Spanish wasn’t at all grammatically correct as I stammered, “Hola! ¿Que hace, el toro?”

The farmer good-naturedly let out a stream of Spanish, of which I only caught the words “quiere” (wants) and “corre” (run). I figured maybe the farmer was telling me that the bull was just in the mood for running!

Another pilgrim, a couple of hundred meters down the road, came up to us, his face alive with wonder. “Wow, I wonder what set him off? Was he charging right at you?”

“Well, it certainly felt like it. I’m glad I’m not a matador,” Jay laughed.

“Yes, and I’m glad of the tree!” I added, heaving a sigh of relief. One never knows what will happen on the Camino!

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We reached our hostel at the small town of Castromaior with enough of the afternoon left to go adventuring. Half a mile uphill lay El Castro de Castromaior (the hill fort). This archeological site of a Celtic town/fort showed habitation for 500 years, from 400 B.C. to 100 A.D.

A sign gave an aerial view of Castro de Castromaior, with a large grassy enclosed space, a corner given over to dwellings, and several surrounding trenches which could have provided boundaries for livestock (according to Wikipedia).

I entered the dwellings through the single opening, tall walls which might have sported a wooden gate long ago.

Jay chose to walk atop the large inner wall first, circling around to look down into the rock homes. This picture, taken from the “gate”, showing Jay as a tiny figure on the skyline, delineated the huge area of this castro.

Enchanted, I threaded my way through the maze of rock walls. My imagination once again leapt into action, picturing thatched roofs, clucking chickens, children calling to one another from rock doorways!

Jay, too, enjoyed contemplating the ruins up close.

I was intrigued to see that each circular room had its own fireplace. This room had two!

We wandered for well over an hour, the only two people on this vast hilltop. I looked into each room, peered between walls, circumnavigated the outer edge, and climbed stairs to the tops of walls. Near the end of my explorations, Jay patiently waited for me on stone benches designed as part of the walls. Amazing to think that he could sit where inhabitants might have carded wool or shucked peas over 2,000 years ago!

From being frozen in the moment by a charging bull to sharing a seat across two millennia, one can never predict what the Camino will bring.

Pilgrim Philosophy

October 21-26, 2019

The sun played peek-a-boo behind clouds this morning as we climbed 2,000 feet towards the town of O Cebreiro.

Andre, an Austrian in his twenties, fell into step beside us, remarking cheerfully on the beautiful weather. “All days are beautiful,” he declared. “There are no guarantees in this life. One must seize the moment.”

I looked thoughtfully at this young man, wondering what experiences had taught him this piece of wisdom. It didn’t seem polite to ask, though, and our conversation continued with much laughter and good cheer.

Almost before we realized it, our light hearted chatter brought us to O Cebreiro, a town full of tour buses and many, many people! Much to my delight, we were able to observe some men repairing a thatched roof.

First we watched them toss the bales of thatch up to the roof. When all had been thrown and caught, I couldn’t help but break into a cheer, clapping and calling, “Bravo!” The man on the roof looked startled, then grinned at me bashfully.

The man then carefully inserted the new thatch, using a wooden paddle to hammer and smooth the roof surface. Jay took two short videos of the process.

First, thatch was thrown.

Second, thatch was placed and smoothed.

After watching the thatcher, we walked inside the Iglesia Santa Maria de Real. A Gregorian chant played softly over hidden speakers, creating a meditative atmosphere that was rather disrupted by the sheer numbers of tourists walking through the sanctuary. Since I was one of the tourists, I couldn’t complain. Instead, I slowly walked the perimeter, contemplating a display of Bibles in numerous languages, a poem by a Franciscan brother, and a whole corner of votive candles. In this glowing corner, I found a bit of the peace the music was striving to create.

Peace, and a good bit of joy, often called us to stop and contemplate as we left O Cebreiro. Flowers, trees, mushrooms, they all echoed Andre’s message – “Live in the moment!”

Or, to quote an English pilgrim who passed us, “It’s a cracker of a day!”

I reflected how each person on the Camino brought his or her own life experiences and beliefs to be tested and refined. Listening to others and sharing our thoughts has become part of the joy of traveling near so many people. Conversation with a pilgrim, Isabel, sprang to mind. We had been discussing philosophy as seen on the trail.

“I agree it’s important to live in the moment and focus on being,” she told me. “But I’m much happier doing.”

I smiled at my new acquaintance. “What do you find yourself wishing you could do?”

Isabel looked at me wryly, and gave an impish, yet lovely, answer. “My soul longs to create art. I just need to find the medium that will allow it to design the beauty seen.”

Each day I am stopped in my tracks at the beauty there is to be seen. Purple blooms scattered along the roadside puzzled and charmed me. Didn’t crocus blooms announce Spring?

A passing pilgrim from Switzerland solved the mystery as she commented, “Isn’t the saffron pretty at this time of year?”

“Saffron?” I blurted. “Wait, these are the flowers that cost an arm and a leg to buy as a spice? Just growing by the roadside?”

“Yes,” the woman stooped to pick a blossom. “The spice is made from the stamen. It is harvested and dried.”

Another man stopped to see at what we were peering so intently. “Ah, saffron!” He smiled and nodded, moving on down the road.

That evening, a bit of research in Wikipedia confirmed that we were probably hiking past wild saffron, not the commercially grown blooms. Even so, these flowers had been used for four millennia! Truly, we live in a wondrous world!

Each day part of the Camino uses country lanes hidden beneath towering forests of oak, chestnut, pine, and recently, eucalyptus. Often Jay and I are alone on these paths.

One day, we met two women from California, amazingly walking our slow pace. The four of us began talking, and quickly discovered we were, perhaps, kindred spirits. Chris and Janet had recently lived through separate traumatic events, just as Jay and I had. Through the months, we had come to some conclusions which were strikingly similar. Janet summed it up for all of us when she said, “I now know the importance of seeking moments of joy every day.”

Indeed, joy jumped at us in many guises that day! From a deep russet carpet of pine needles to a silly fish shaped door handle, not to mention crossing a tiny stream, admiring a passion flower, and taking time for a hug – the day provided many memorable events.

Near the town of Samos, one antique display which brought a sense of wonder to Chris, Janet, me, and Jay showed headgear for oxen, made of dangling rabbit skins and fringes, worn to keep flies out of their eyes.

One evening, having dinner in the small town of Castromaior, we began talking to the two other patrons in the restaurant.

Juan, from Brazil, had broken his hike of the Camino into five stages, pausing often to savor his experiences. “The Camino has things to teach. It is important to take time to learn those lessons,” he explained.

I couldn’t help but think wryly of my own adventures. When it comes to life lessons, learning slowly means life just keeps giving me the same assignment, again and again!

Baxter, from South Carolina, had a different plan of action. He was hiking the Camino in thirty-three days, about two times faster than me and Jay. “The Camino is magical. It’s like no other place,” he told us. “I deeply value the time I’ve had to hold my friends and family in my mind, to think of the love that’s out there.”

Room for contemplation …
… and magic … and love.

After all, as one man from Houston told us over a pilgrim breakfast, “When I get home, I won’t remember the money spent, but I will remember the experiences from the Camino!”

Castillo de Sarracín

October 20, 2019

A short mileage day encouraged us to take a side trip to the ruins of Castillo de Sarracín outside the town of Vega de Valcarce. This castle, first built in the 9th century, with extensive rebuilding through the 14th and 15th centuries, looked over a vast amount of the Bierzo region. Jay’s guidebook, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago, informed us that at one point the Sarracín lords owned 35 of the nearby villages.

The path to the castle, pitched at an incredibly steep gradient, gave my legs a workout. As I labored, I reflected upon the vast amount of political power once stored in the stone walls above.

Then my thoughts turned more practical. ‘How did they get water from the river below up such an outrageously precipitous road? Perhaps there was a well?’

A sigh of relief and quivering leg muscles accompanied my first sight of the castle ruins.

The arched doorway, a gate swinging invitingly ajar, beckoned with promises of adventure.

A designated pathway guided us between roofless rooms, with signs warning of dangerous sections.

Peering into rooms and climbing to the top of the castle wall provided a good bit of exploratory entertainment.

This collage shows Jay’s progress up the stone stairs. Please note, there are no handrails!

The views from the top made negotiating the stairs worthwhile!

Hugging the wall tightly while descending introduced my face to intimate details of fall foliage within the nooks and crannies of thick stone blocks. Nothing like ivy and moss tickling ones nose while feet gingerly feel for the edge of the next step!

Most of the morning, clouds had played chase with very watery sunlight. Moisture-filled air kept water droplets beading on my glasses. While we explored the castle, the clouds quit playing tag with the sun, and began sending raindrops large enough to be affected by gravity.

Leaving the castle and coming downhill, I had energy to enjoy the amazing numbers of chestnut trees planted along the castle road.

Many of the trees had been pollarded – cut off as tall stumps, the branches encouraged to regrow. This is a way to use the chestnut wood through hundreds of years. One old stump had survived a fire. I couldn’t resist climbing inside!

That evening, the hostel gave us a beautiful view of the Río Valcarce, a meadow with deer and cows, and a steeply wooded hillside. I enjoyed looking at all that beauty, while my mind’s eye stayed busy with scenes of ancient stone habitation atop acres of woodland.

The Route Less Traveled

October 19, 2019

Today we took an alternate route on the Camino, leaving the busy highway and most of the pilgrims far below as we climbed high into the hills.

Leaving the town of Villafranca del Bierzo, dimly seen below.

Rain was our constant companion. Not the soft, misty, soaking rain that makes plants glad to be alive. Nor was it the hard pelting arrows of rain, drumming through our skulls. Rather, this was a slow, methodical soaking rain with big, steady drops of water filling the air, turning the ground into a sponge, and determinedly working its way through my rain gear, dripping off my nose, down my neck, running in rivulets through my shirt and down my legs.

Zero wind meant the rain fell vertically, far nicer than horizontal or diagonal streams of water. With temperatures in the high 40s, we could stay warm even in dripping wet clothes as long as we stayed moving.

This high route promised a walk through oaks and pines and chestnuts with gorgeous long views from ridge top to ridge top.

Trees, yes. View? Umm, well … no!

Later in the afternoon, a slight lessening of the downpour did give us a glimpse of our neighbor ridge framed in ragged white clouds.

As we came off the ridge, nearing the town of La Portela de Valcarce, we passed between hundreds of chestnut trees. We saw an older woman, carrying an umbrella and wearing a rain cape over her skirt, putting chestnuts into a split wood hand woven basket. I felt as if we’d stepped back in time, seeing this woman working alone under the trees in the rain.

Even closer to the town, we ducked under the clouds and were able to see a bit of the countryside around us.

The cows didn’t seem too affected by our water-filled day.

Water dripped busily off our clothes and gear as we entered the hostel. The woman at the counter took one look at us, grabbed a room key, and led us straight to our room, joking, “Hoy es todo agua, por dentro y por fuera.” (Today is all water, inside and outside.)

It was such a relief to peel off wet clothes, wring them out over the sink, and hang them up, then relax in a hot shower! I close this post with a picture of our gear, strung over one end of our room. As we snuggled into warm beds amid drying clothes, misty memories of peaceful beauty replayed in our heads.

El Bierzo

October 16-18, 2019

The upper basin of the Sil River created a region called Bierzo, a bowl shaped valley, well guarded by mountains on all sides. The unique economy and flora of this historically isolated place filled our walk with fascination.

Wines, apples, pigs, peppers, and pears have unique flavors and characteristics here. As we walked, we passed many private gardens and a few orchards growing the Reineta apple, the Conference pear, and beautiful red peppers. My mouth watered at the thought, but so far there had been no opportunity to taste these specialties.

Bacon and pork were served in every café. However, finding whether we were eating locally produced meat or not was beyond my feeble Spanish.

Vineyards stretched up and down hills, across the whole valley. Jay and I had the privilege of eating a few luscious grapes from some escaped vines. The fall colors of the leaves were almost as intoxicating as a glass of wine would have been!

Late blackberries also gave us a small sweet snack one foggy morning.

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In the small town of Molinaseca, we passed the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de Las Angustias. This church had beautifully sheltered porticos on either side of a front door plated with black metal. The sign explained how generations of pilgrims and Galician harvesters, as they passed, would take a splinter from the door, while offering a salute to the Virgin with their scythes or staffs. Over the ages, the door’s surface slowly disappeared, until it was finally protected with metal plating.

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Inhabited from before the 11th century to the 18th century, the Castillo de Los Templarios in Ponferrada, with 8,000 square meters of space, dominated the town.

Signs in three languages helped tourists to understand the economics of such a structure. My imagination soared with scenes of constant construction over five centuries, workers hauling rocks from the quarry, shaping walls and fortifications, expanding this center of power. Then, of course, there would be the noise of cows, sheep, goats, chickens – all the food needed for this medieval stronghold. I pictured the daily parade of workers heading out to the gardens, orchards, and vineyards. As political priorities changed over the centuries, who knew how many times the average citizens found themselves with new masters and rules?

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During these three days, we walked on gravel roads and paved roads. Occasionally we were observed by a local inhabitant, sometimes from the top of a slate roof. Always we felt surrounded by natural beauty and fascinating history.

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In the town of Cacabelos, a giant wine press made us pause in wonder.

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From Pieros, we took a side trip to the Castro de la Ventosa, site of an ancient fortified town high on the flat top of a hill. Possibly inhabited as early as 800 B.C., this hilltop had a commanding view.

Jay met a local couple who told him that the best way to see this archeological site was to walk 2 kilometers around its circumference, seeing the ancient walls and enjoying the expansive scenery.

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It’s the side trips that remind me why I identify so well with a snail. We progress on this pilgrimage “poco a poco”. I had to laugh the day we stopped at a café, La Ermita, and saw my mascot immortalized as a pilgrim on a sugar packet.

Blustery Days

October 13-15, 2019

Sunday morning, huge darkly grey clouds gave excitement to our skyscape while a cold wind brought shivers and runny noses.

We were glad to reach Astorga, a crossroad of cultures since before Roman times. Our path led us past an archeological dig of a private Roman house complete with thermal baths. According to the explanatory signs, the reception room, with a mosaic of a bear and birds, tells a myth of Orpheus.

We also took an audio tour of the Astorga Cathedral.

Treasures from across the centuries were described in our ear as our eyes became dazzled. One treasure that most fascinated me was a giant book of ancient music. My imagination went into overdrive, picturing a monk bent over each page, painstakingly drawing beauty into the parchment.

This is a land of oak trees and pines, slowly rising altitude, and small birds such as chickadees and warblers. A sign informed us that crossbills were also a bird species sometimes spotted here.

The small town of Santa Catalina de Somoza brought an end to our windy walk on Sunday.

What a delight, stepping out of the wind, into the courtyard of the Hotel Rural Via Avis, a 500 year old house.

Breakfast in this ancient house was a treat – quite a change from our usual simple picnics.

The delicious food and warmth of our surroundings stayed with us as we set off into a blustery Monday.

The day passed quickly as we walked through beautiful scenery. Looming clouds kept promising rain, but hesitating, just tossing a few spattering drops our way. Finally, that afternoon, as we looked out the second story window of our hostel, rain suddenly POURED from the sky, accompanied by thunder and wildly gusting wind! I was deeply grateful to be in shelter for that short tempest.

Tuesday dawned with fresh snow on the nearby mountains!

We happily climbed towards the clouds, conscious of ice-cooled breezes urging us to pick up our pace.

The Cruz de Fierro, a well known landmark, greeted us at the highest point of today’s climb. This pole, topped with an iron cross, has marked the pass since before Roman times. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have carried a stone from their homeland and put it at the foot of this cross, leaving their metaphorical burdens with the stone.

I left a sea worn rock trapped inside a shell from the Pacific Ocean as my contribution.

We stayed at the higher altitude, enjoying scenery while keeping warmly wrapped against the icy breeze.

Clouds, however, kept getting lower, until the tops of the grasses scraped bits of fog from the sky.

I admit to being relieved when the path began losing altitude, bringing us safely to La Rosa del Agua in the small town of El Acebo de San Miguel, where we were welcomed warmly by the owner and his staff. (Hot tea and coffee were offered before we had even checked in! Now that’s hospitality to a high degree.)

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!