Finding Our Way

May 26-27, 2019

“Hola!” I called cheerfully to a woman on her balcony. Jay and I were crossing a plaza in the town of Nájera, ready to begin another day of walking the Camino de Santiago.

The woman leaned over her railing and gestured urgently. “Seguir la flecha amarilla en la piedra!”

What did she say?’ I stared blankly upwards.

The woman repeated, slightly louder. “Seguir la flecha amarilla en la piedra!”

The only word I had caught was “piedra”. Thanks to teaching a fourth grade unit on rocks and minerals two decades ago, I knew “piedra” meant stone. But which stone? What did the woman on the balcony want me to know?

As Jay and I looked, the woman’s arms waved, her face full of earnest purpose. She repeated her phrase again and again, the volume of her voice rising, as if understanding were linked in direct proportion to the amount of sound being issued.

I looked around desperately. What was she trying so assiduously to communicate?

Suddenly, my eye alighted upon a boulder behind us. A large yellow arrow, painted across its side, pointed left. Understanding dawned.

“Follow the yellow arrow on the stone!” The lady above was showing the way out of town!

Laughing, I waved and nodded, pointing to the arrow.

“Gracias!” Jay called, as we turned.

The lady on the balcony smiled, “Buen Camino!” Once again, she had put wandering pilgrims upon the straight and narrow.

So, how does one follow a 1,000 year old trail? The Camino de Santiago is well marked.

A simple yellow arrow is always a welcome sight.
A yellow scallop shell tile, set into the sidewalk, gives direction.
An arrow can be paired with words.
Arrows, shells, words – this junction has it all!
One can know the trail from the people sharing the path!
Older markings are often not painted, though still plain to see.
Sometimes a sign has an unofficial addition.
No fear of misunderstanding the way here!
Bored or artistic pilgrims occasionally add their own arrows.

Not content to rely solely upon shells and arrows, we bought the guidebook by John Brierley, which has excellent maps and tells a little of the places we pass.

Halfway through our trip, the well used guidebook already looks a bit battered!

Because we’ve hiked (and been lost) often in our lives, we also bought the Guthook app for the Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances SJPP (St Jean Pied-du-Port). This app, on my phone, showed the Camino route with a blue dot signifying our location. It worked even in airplane mode with no wifi. Jay and I found it most helpful in the large cities, where old, winding streets sometimes made me wonder if my feet were headed the same direction as my face.

Finding our way has been only part of the pilgrimage. “Buen Camino,” the standard greeting between pilgrims, would become an empty phrase without a slight understanding of the sights we see. Jay has carried the following ebook.

It’s one thing to know where you are. It’s another thing entirely to know what you’re seeing. This book fills in blank spots regarding historical context and common daily life.

Oftentimes, the sights which attract my notice and imagination aren’t listed in any guidebook or map. And so I close this post with a few of the unique and beautiful sights we’ve encountered these two days.

Just past the town of Navarrete, a field of red poppies enchants.
The garden of Iglesia de San Saturnino in Ventosa invites a time of peaceful reflection.
A truly ancient olive tree graces the courtyard of Bodegas Alvia, a winery beside the Camino path.
At a park near the town of Cirueña, who can resist a lounge chair made entirely of stone?

Buen Camino!

Pilgrim Perspective

May 25, 2019

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.”

-Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Dawn opened one eye, a crack of light barely visible across the horizon, while everyone in our bunkroom, except me, stirred industriously. Yesterday we had checked into a large hostel. Ten euros apiece had bought each of us a bed in a bunkroom with six other pilgrims.

I heard Jay’s voice, asking others if he could turn on the light, but all our roommates spoke only French. He received no answer.

“What’s ‘light’ in French?” Jay’s head appeared at the edge of my top bunk.

I actually knew that, thanks to Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast‘! “Lumíere,” I whispered.

“Great!” Jay smiled. “How do you say turn on?”

I blinked sleep-fogged eyes. “I have no idea!”

“Well, how do you say okay?” I could tell Jay’s problem-solving brain was wide awake.

“D’accord,” my answer materialized from the mists of long ago French lessons.

Jay’s head disappeared from sight, and I heard his voice below me. “Lumíere, d’accord?”

“Ah, oui, oui!” Immediately came the enthusiastic response.

Suddenly, light flared above, shining into my eyes with undiminished cheerfulness. I knew it was time to get up.

Breakfast, in the large shared dining room, was a social affair. We met a lovely family from New Mexico – father, mother, two girls ages ten and eleven. The family, now living in Devon, England, chose to hike part of the Camino during their two week spring vacation.

Later that morning, we met the family again as we left the town of Viana behind.

I had the fun of chatting with the girls while walking along a tree shaded path.

They had spent a few of their young years in France, and entertained me with amazing French idioms, such as “Je donne ma langue au chat.” (“I give my tongue to the cat.”) Giggling, the girls told me that meant, “I give up” in a guessing game! Who would have guessed I’d be learning French idioms about cats, in Spain, from two engaging, intelligent young pilgrims?

As Jay and I hiked with this charming family, we saw a white stork on a nest. Jay informed us that most white storks migrate between Africa and Europe. They are monogamous, and often return to the same nest each year. We’ve seen many far above on church towers, but this pair had built upon a slightly closer electric pylon. Enthralled, I stopped to take a picture.

Further along, our hiking pace slowed, and we said a cheerful good-bye to our morning’s companions.

The Camino led us around the Embalse de la Grajera. Swans slid smoothly across a sheltered nook of this reservoir.

An audacious squirrel ran down his tree, sure that I would have a snack for him. He stopped short of my feet, posed, then flicked his tail in disgust when no food was forthcoming.

In late afternoon, we entered the town of Navarrete, passing the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Noticing the church door standing ajar, we stopped, answering the implicit invitation.

Of the cathedrals and churches we have visited, many felt like museums – holding places for ages of treasures. Often sightseeing tourists filled the sanctuaries, loud talk creating the atmosphere of appreciating a show.

The strains of Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria” on discreet speakers greeted us as we paused on this door step. Encouraged, we entered quietly, slowly walking the perimeter inside, amazed at the 17th century Baroque altar piece.

For me, the soft music stirred a response deep in my soul. I slipped into a pew, closing my eyes, entering deeply into the meditation this music offered.

Over the last year, I’ve wrestled with questions about my life, seeking direction, wondering what, exactly, I should be doing. As I sat on the bench, tired body gratefully melting into the boards, brain sinking into the melodic line of notes, I was suddenly swept with an awareness of the many gifts I’ve received, and the conviction that I needed to use those gifts. I opened my eyes, turned to smile at Jay, and together we slipped outside.

On our way to our hostel, Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne’s quotation popped into my head. I reflected upon all the times today that I was in a place poetry or hums could find me, beginning with a whispered morning conversation, through the enchantment of talking with two fun-loving and knowledgeable girls, being greeted with nature and animals, and finally opening to the messages of music, quietness, and reflection. Truly, life is amazing!

Reality or Movie Set?

May 23 – May 24, 2019

Places and situations along the Camino de Santiago are so very different from my regular life, I often wonder if perhaps I’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood movie set.

The Iglesia San Miguel presides over a weekly market in the town of Estrella. This morning, we deviated from the marked route of the Camino de Santiago, hoping to encounter a tradition carried from the 12th century when the church first began to be built. Amazingly, Jay found it!

I wandered between canvas covered stalls, admiring piles of produce. It staggered my brain, thinking of the centuries of people shopping in this plaza!

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An hour later, we came around a corner of the Camino, to find ourselves presented with another sample of centuries of tradition.

Bodegas Irache supplies a free wine fountain for pilgrims in the tradition of Benedictine monks.

With a sense of dislocation, I immediately recognized this wine fountain from Camino movies, books, and blogs. To actually be here seemed impossible!

Jay bravely shouldered his way through the crowd of laughing, talking pilgrims and returned with a small sample from the fountain.

Sure enough, the liquid from the spigot tasted like wine!

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Nearing Villamayor de Monjardín, we spied the ruined Castillo de Monjardín on a hilltop. Originally built by the Romans, the commanding position was employed in battles between Moors and Christians in the 900s and used by King Sancho Garces of Navarre in the 12th century. Looking up, I felt transported into the pages of a novel, with looming castle above!

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That evening, we walked into the small town of Los Arcos. The Iglesia de Santa María beckoned with an open door. We entered, only to once again be stunned speechless.

Another door beckoned us into a courtyard filled with roses.

Once again, I felt as if I was walking through a land of enchantment.

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The next morning, from the edge of the village of Sansol, we looked across the Río Linares to an almost identical village, Torres del Río. I marveled at the need for defense which caused these two towns to be separated by a moat-like river and stoutly fortified walls.

Later that day, walking through the town of Viana, Jay suddenly remarked, “We’re on the old wall of this town!” I looked down, to see ancient stones under my feet, continuing several stories below us. Ahead, slides and seesaws invited children to play. Now, here was something not even Hollywood could have dreamed! A playground in place of battlements and ramparts!

I laughed, cheered to see something to which I could relate. I thought of the many sights from the last two days. Though I had often felt out of place, each day had also brought miles of natural beauty – plants and animals proclaiming glory. And so, once again, I leave you with pictures of nature – the earth in which we all live.

Bridges

May 21-22, 2019

Walking dry shod over a river or stream is not something to be taken for granted. I’ve waded many a water course in our hikes on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Each time we come to a bridge on the Camino, and I have the pleasure of walking high above the flowing water, I feel a wave of thankfulness. Some of these bridges were created by those master engineers, the Romans. I think of pilgrims walking across 1000 years ago on stones set hundreds of years before them!

Here are bridges we encountered these two days.

Built by order of Queen Muniadona or Queen Estefanía, in the 11th century, the six arches of the Puente la Reina (Bridge of the Queen) cross the Río Arga.
A small Roman bridge crosses the Regacho de Dorrondoa, past the town of Cirauqui.
The Río Salada, about one mile before the town of Lorca, requires a slightly larger bridge!
Río Irantzu looks sleepy in the sunshine, but I’m nevertheless grateful for the bridge!

As I crossed these bridges, a bit of philosophy hit me. After all, bridges are more than a way to keep feet dry. They connect people, communities, ecological areas. Walking across a bridge is akin to walking through a door. Whether crossing above a river or through a wall, one can feel the excitement of entering a new place.

Who can resist crossing a fortified wall in the town of Obanos?
Another fortified wall guards the Puente de Reina, a.k.a the Puente de los Peregrinos.
Sometimes an arched way shouts “Welcome!”, such as here in Cirauqui.
This tunnel leads pilgrims safely under a freeway near the town of Lorca. It’s an upside down bridge!

Bridges can be made from things besides stone and iron. Jay and I often paused, while hiking, to let our eyes cross an open space, follow a line of flowers or trees, and appreciate soul lifting beauty.

Late Wednesday afternoon, as we entered the town of Estrella, I found myself a bit dazed with the hubbub of busy streets and bustling people. Spanish language battered at my uncomprehending ears. Narrow, curving streets and tall thin buildings impeded my horizon. Though we had only hiked about six miles, I was exhausted.

‘How can I keep going?’ I wondered. ‘If six miles saps my stamina this much, what am I doing, thinking I can hike for weeks and complete even part of the Camino?’

As I dodged people and fought doubts, a small white haired woman stopped me with a sweet smile. She spoke several sentences of Spanish, in a beautiful voice. I stared, wishing I knew what she was saying.

She looked at my uncomprehending face, laughed, and said pityingly, “No entiendes!” (“You don’t understand!”) Then she took my face in her hands and kissed me twice on each cheek. “Buen Camino!” She squeezed my hands, then disappeared into the crowd.

As we continued to our hostel, I mused on the nature of bridges. Sometimes, a bridge could be simply a hand and a smile from a stranger, encouraging one upon the way.

Sunshine!

May 20, 2019

Bird melodies, sung loudly and enthusiastically, issued from nearly every bush and tree throughout the day. It was Spring, and time to mark territory! Perhaps the sunshine also influenced the celebrations of our feathered companions.

Since I did not recognize any of the numerous songs today, I reckoned the birds were making merry with Spanish birdsong!

I had expected Pamplona, as a big city, to be full of pavement and cars. Instead, Jay and I followed the Camino de Santiago markings through charming green vistas, kilometers of parks!

The tourist map helped clarify the enchanting scenery as we skirted one park, the Citadel. It explained that the 16th century fortifications, moats, and bastions had become a ‘green lung’ for the city, used for sports and cultural events. I wished each city of the world would provide itself with a massive ‘green lung’!

A couple of hours walking brought us to the Iglesia San Andrés in Zariquiegui. We stopped to see this beautiful place.

It was noon, so we had the pleasure of hearing a church bell chime the hour.
Built in the 13th century.
There’s something about a spiral staircase which makes ascent akin to adventure!

Back on the Camino, we climbed steadily until suddenly coming upon a fountain, with stone benches and a beautiful design of sunshine rays painstakingly made from small river rocks. Jay read the Legend of Fuente Reniega from his guidebook. According to legend, a pilgrim, after resisting the temptations of the devil, was rewarded with a vision of Santiago himself, who led the pilgrim to this fountain and gave him water using his own scallop shell!

It’s amazing, the eye for detail that went into what could have been a simple concrete slab!

More walking (and climbing!) brought us to the top of a ridge, identified with a sign as part of the El Perdón mountain range. In 1996, after many windmills were installed along the ridge top, a pilgrim sculpture was created, showing 14 life-sized figures crossing the ridge.

This place is known as “where the way of the wind crosses the way of the stars”. Such an imaginative name! A great many beautiful places could be described with this phrase.

After pausing to read signs, take pictures, and enjoy the view, we headed down the other side of the ridge. We walked through the small town of Uterga, then along gravel roads past fields of wheat. Pausing to look back, I could see the windmills on top of the ridge, bringing light and warmth to nearby Pamplona.

Our day ended at a beautiful hostel, El Jardine de Muruzábal.

However, I can’t leave you without sharing some of the beautiful flowers and trees we saw today.

The Rain in Spain…

May 18-19, 2019

An aria from joyous birds greeted us as we stepped out the door! Though rain had poured much of the night, morning brought clouds and sun playing an enthusiastic game of tag.

We hiked as a threesome – Jay, me, and a new friend from Slovenia, Alenka. When the owner of Pensión El-La had called ahead to Larrasoaña to make reservations, she had only found one available room, which had three beds. Alenka had been listening, and suggested that we share the room. We delightedly agreed.

I assumed that Alenka would hike her own pace and meet us in the afternoon at the Pensión Peregrino in Larrasoaña. After all, no one hikes as slowly as I do! Alenka assumed that we would hike the day together since we would be spending the night in the same room.

“We hike very slowly,” Jay warned her. “Once we were passed by a worm!”

Alenka laughed. “It will be good for me to slow down. I am trying to learn to take time for noticing things.” And so, the three of us happily dawdled along, noticing many scenes of beauty, especially flowers!

Fortunately for us, Alenka’s English was very good. Slovenian is an amazingly inscrutable language!

Alenka tried to teach me the Slovenian word for rose: vrtnica. I practiced for two days, and still mangled the pronunciation!

I’m wondering if Shakespeare also struggled with the Slovenian word before he penned his immortal quote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Fortunately, we could enjoy the flowers whether we knew the names or not!

From domesticated rose to wild rose, the flowers shouted their glory!

We saw a good deal of Friday’s rain on Saturday and Sunday, in the form of glowering clouds, dripping branches across the trail, and rushing, roaring, rising run-off!

Around noon on Saturday, a Gothic bridge brought us across the Rio Arga and into the town of Zubiri. Our guidebook informed us that “Zubiri” is from the Basque word meaning “town of the bridge”.

Much to our delight, we were just in time to see a group in cultural costume parading down the street, making incredible rhythmic music with huge clanging bells tied to their waists!

Jay took a short video.

When I later described the costumes to the host of Pensión Peregrino, he showed me a large map of Navarre. “Those clothes are from the extreme northern part of Navarre,” he explained. “I have no idea why they were parading in Zubiri today!”

Sunday brought even more flooding as the Camino followed the course of the Río Arga. Once, the river spilled over its banks, requiring us to wade up to our knees in a quiet muddy backwater.

Crossing the Río Ulzama near Villava gave us a great appreciation of medieval bridges resisting rushing water, and providing protection to passing pedestrians. Jay took a video to show the water’s fierce force!

Coming into Pamplona, we passed a park near the Río Arga. Jay laughed, “Today the tables are for turtles!”

The medieval walls of Pamplona gave us a sense of walking through time.

A chill ran up my spine as I walked through the Portal de Francia. Who knew how many footsteps were mingling with mine!

It was a relief to reach our hostel Sunday night and hang up wet socks. The weather report promised sun for Monday. I looked forward to another day of adventure!

Vocabulary Lesson and Decisions

May 16-17, 2019

I woke with a sore throat, running sinuses, and a headache. A night of little sleep at the largest municipal albergue on the Camino made me wonder about our plans to save money and live the “real pilgrim experience”.

‘I will feel better once I begin walking,’ I optimistically comforted myself. A third beautiful sunshiny day gave me no choice but to enjoy our hike to the utmost.

Each kilometer brought unusual sights to enjoy. Here are a few from the day.

Church of San Nicolás de Bari in Burgette. Notice the trees, whose limbs are harvested each spring!

Watering trough in Espinal.

Wildflowers!

Concrete “stepping stones” led us across a tributary of the Erro River.

Much as I enjoyed our walk, by early afternoon I couldn’t ignore my tired body’s demand for rest. We entered the small town of Viscarret and began looking for a place to stay. With no municipal albergue available in this village, we were glad to see signs telling us to ask at the bar (cafe) for a pensión (privately run hostel).

When we wistfully asked the owner of Pensión El-La if she had any private rooms, she smiled. “You are in luck. I have one room with bed for two people.” She then led us up three flights of stairs to a charming chamber tucked under the eaves, with a lovely bucolic view.

View from the third story.

Once we had showered and rested, it was time for me to find the grocery store (supermercado).

At the opposite end of town, I bashfully opened the door and peered inside. An older woman sat at the counter beside the cash register.

“Hola,” I essayed.

“Abrir! Abrir!” Unsmiling, she gestured crypticly to me.

Startled, I stepped inside and closed the door.

“No! Abrir! Abrir!” Her hand gestures became larger and a bit frantic.

I stared, my hand on the door handle, wondering what to do!

The woman became more agitated, and the volume of her voice rose as she repeated, “Abrir! Abrir!” over and over. Finally she gave up, put her head in her hands and muttered “Aie! Peregrinos!” (Pilgrims!)

Just then a younger woman came from the back of the store. The older woman launched into a torrent of Spanish. The young woman smiled at me and gestured to the door handle, which I gripped in a nervous chokehold. Reassured by her smile, but still confused, I timidly opened the door. At that instant, a man with incredibly dirty hands mounted the steps and walked through the opened door. Comprehension dawned in my poor muddled brain! Not the easiest way to learn a new vocabulary word, but now I know that ‘Abrir!’ means ‘Open!’

Back at the Pensión El-La, Jay and I enjoyed visiting with other pilgrims in the common room while we ate groceries from the supermercado.

Comfortable chairs welcome pilgrims.

A storm, predicted for the next day, gave me and Jay food for thought.

“Pensión El-La is so comfortable. Maybe we should just stay here a day,” Jay suggested.

“I don’t know. We’ve only hiked three days so far. Still, maybe this sore throat would ease with an extra day of sleep.” I could feel myself giving into the idea of luxury.

“It looks like the rain will be the worst tomorrow, then perhaps ease off the following days. It makes sense to take a little time now, instead of pushing too hard and paying for it later.” Jay put a practical spin on our thoughts of delay.

“This is our first time in Europe together. You’ve said we shouldn’t rush. It’s important to be flexible and open to other ideas. But is it ok if we delay so much we don’t even make it to Santiago?” I wanted to be sure we were thinking the same about this adventure.

“Yes! We will not be destination driven! Let’s live in the present.” Jay confirmed my thoughts. We might not make it to Santiago before my next orthodontic appointment in Seattle, but we would enjoy each day.

The next day dawned to serious rain drumming on the roof, running off the eaves, soaking into the ground. I was delighted to have a day in the warm, dry hostel, nursing my sore throat and packed sinuses. In the late morning, the owner of the hostel kindly took me to a ‘farmacia’ (pharmacy) in a larger town. She also came inside to help me find a decongestant. Her help with translation was invaluable!

Back at the hostel, we happily watched the rain, falling in straight sheets of water. The owner also helped us make reservations for the next night, in the small town of Larrasoaña, just nine miles away. With the decongestant clearing my sinuses, I felt very hopeful about enjoying a wet hike tomorrow.