1. Sinin’s bar, La Torre, in a God forsaken village (Reliegos, León). A balm for my heart, cracking jokes while I iced my shin, charged my phone, and ate a delicious bocadillo de bonito while Duke Ellington blared on the speakers.
  2. Feeling bunches of grapes, their sensual weight, in the Rioja region.

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    Miles and miles of luscious (but green) grapes

  3. Speaking of the Rioja, crossing the Ebro River (the biggest river in Spain) on the old stone bridge.

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    Puente de Piedra, Logroño

  4. Swimming and having lunch at the refreshing public swimming pool at Zubiri.

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    The refreshing public pool in Zubiri

  5. Lunch at the Universidad de Navarra, when I had just gone in to get my stamp.

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    Universidad de Navarra, great for lunch and a stamp!!

  6. Freezing in Burgos.
  7. The Pilgrim’s Mass in Burgos.
  8. The smell of fig trees.

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    Baby figs!

  9. The chapel of Nuestra Señora de Monasterio in Rabé de la Calzada.

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    Sta. Maria de Monasterio

  10. The crystal clear, fresh water at Hontanas.
  11. Dipping my tendonitis inflamed leg in the cool, clear water in the Esla river at Mansilla de las Mulas – which, by the way, totally healed my leg!
  12. The barn turned albergue in Boadilla del Camino.
  13. Catching up to Krisztina in Villamayor de Monjardín, and again in Mansilla de las Mulas.
  14. The Pre-Romanesque chapel of San Miguel outside of Estella.

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    Ermita de San Miguel Arcángel

  15. Meeting Virgina one of my Dissertation Director’s best UVA friends in Leon, by chance!

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    Virginia is a friend of Irene, my Dissertation Director!!

  16. Meeting a baby cow in Santibañez de Valdeiglesias.20170708_112927
  17. Vespers with the nuns of St. Claire at their Convent of Carrión de los Condes.
  18. Seeing the rainbow outside of Leon.
  19. Vespers with the nuns in Sahagun.

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    Vespers in Sahagun

  20. The chapel at San Nicolas del Real Camino on the side of the Pisuerga River.
  21. The bumper cars in Nájera.
  22. Sitting on a bench the morning of my (forced) rest day reading the Book of Job in Carrión de los Condes and two gorgeous horses being walked down the street.
  23. A trailer bar set up in the middle of the parched fields a few miles before Los Arcos with the radio blasting and all sorts of refreshing goodies.

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    And in the middle of nowhere, an oasis!!

  24. An albergue in the middle of Palencia blasting Tchaikovsky, with geese in the garden, and native American tepees in the back yard.

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    You can sleep in there if you want!

  25. A fun, magical evening of love, drinks and tapas in Leon’s Barrio Húmedo and Barrio Romántico with my old colleague, Ana and her sister.

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    The fun and amazing Martinez sisters!

  26. Doing laundry every day.
  27. La Casa de los Dioses. A stop in the middle of a pine forest set up by David from Barcelona on an abandoned farm before Astorga. He had refreshing fruit, cool water from a botijo, and shade.
  28. The (free) wine fountain at Bodegas Irache.

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    The (free) wine fountain at Irache BTW there are plastic cups in the vending machine on the other side!

  29. The aperitivo before Sunday mass at Viana with Marie Helene and Krisztina.
  30. Drinks at the Drunken Duck pub in Logroño.
  31. Residencia Universitaria Miguel de Unamuno, León.
  32. Stopping for orange juice at La Morena, possibly the hippest albergue of the Camino, but definitely the best orange juice!
  33. Babia, across the street from the Burgos albergue, one of the best breakfasts on the Camino.
  34. Angel’s shop, Amari, in Larrasoaña, blaring the Blues Brothers on vinyl.

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    Amari in Larrasoaña is a great, fun, convenience store

  35. The chapel of San Esteban outside Pamplona where you can ring the bell (if you climb the bell tower).

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    San Esteban

  36. The coffee spoon at Mesón El Yugo in Valverde de la Virgen, it was s shaped so it rested vertically on the cup.
  37. Starting to walk in the pre-dawn darkness a few days.
  38. The river crabs being fished out of the Canal de Castilla near Frómista.

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    Delicious river crabs from the Canal de Castilla

  39. Putzing around Belorado for the better part of a morning: getting coffee, buying assorted supplies, visiting the pharmacy and the post office.
  40. Buying cherries in Pamplona from a rude sales guy that did not enjoy washing the cherries.
  41. Walking by Villava, birthplace and home of Miguel Indurain, my cycling hero.

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    Villava, home of the great Miguel Indurain, winner of 5 consecutive Tour de France!

  42. Translating the tour of Roncesvalles from Father Vicentín to English and French.
  43. Watching the San Fermin bull runs on TV in the mornings getting breakfast at bars along the Camino.
  44. Santa María de Eunate.

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    Sta. Maria de Eunate

  45. The massive medieval bridge at Hospital de Órbigo.
  46. Doing yoga on the lawn at Roncesvalles with James.
  47. A fire just outside the albergue in Cizur Menor.
  48. Watching the sun rise over the Pyrenees.

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    Sunrise over the Pyrenees

  49. The Romanesque cloister at the Cathedral of Estella.

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    The Romanessque cloister at the Cathedral of Estella

  50. The chickens at the Cathedral in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

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    Legend has it that a chicken on the judge’s plate came to life to prove a pilgrim innocent, since then there are chickens in the Cathedral

(There is a previous post on El Paular. This one is a bit more detailed and touches on different themes, most importantly, spirituality.)

Every trip to El Paular monastery is gift, a spiritual gift.

A few years ago, Jaime, my oldest childhood friend, took me to see what had been his first professional restoration job in the late 80s: the Monasterio de El Paular, nestled in the Guadarrama Mountains. Although many years had passed, he was still friends with the Abbot and with a few of the monks there. The drive was breathtaking; over the Navacerrada pass and down Cotos, not far from where Hemingway had based his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Brother Eulogio is getting old and frail, but his faith, his spirituality is still resolute. After working at the Vespa scooter factory in Madrid, he decided to become a monk at El Paular. He has been there for fifty odd years, since his 20s. We did not know what to expect, he had been in hospital for a stint.

The monastery has a long history dating back to medieval times. Apparently there was a hermit living there before the monastery was built by the Carthusian order in the 1300s. The placement could not be any more beautiful, between a crystalline stream and the mountains, with a huge vegetable garden and orchard. The energy flow, the calm and beauty would not have passed unaccounted for anyone, regardless of the era.

By my calculations, following the geographical clues, the Arcipreste de Hita’s Serranas section of the Libro de Buen Amor should pass by the Monastery, since he mentions Somosierra and Lozoya on his way to Segovia. There could not have been much of a place to pass other than the Monastery.

The first time I went to El Paular, the Abbot treated us to lunch with the brothers in the modern but humble, functional, refectory. The gorgeous original is only used for Christmas dinner, when they have many guests. It was then that I met brother Eulogio for the first time. I remember vividly his first question: “Do you have faith?” To which I mumbled/chuckled something to the effect of “I’m working on it”. Then he went off on a tirade on the state of modern faith, his thin, strong frame acting as an exclamation mark for his statements.

In 1779 Enlightenment writer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos stayed at the Monastery for a retreat/convalescence writing what scholars consider the seed of Spanish Romantic poetry, the Epístola del Paular, which you can find at the end of the post…

After lunch Eulogio took Jaime and I for a walk on the huge fruit and vegetable garden. It is so big that they have hired a company to run and sell their produce, but only after the monks take what they need. During the walk, Eulogio referred repeatedly to feelings I had that needed answers to, he hit the spot on the need and importance of a “higher presence” in our lives – subtly connecting this need to the beauty around us. Eulogio looks like a closet Franciscan. From that visit, and that conversation I have always wanted to return to El Paular to continue my conversations with Eulogio. So every time Jaime mentions a visit, I jump at the opportunity.

The Church in Spain had so much power that for centuries it rivaled the government in its sway of the citizens. So in the 1800s Prime Minister Mendizabal took over and sold many, if not most of the Church’s properties, El Paular was abandoned, the massive Vicente Carducho paintings lining the cloister walls were grabbed by museums and collectors looking out for Mendizábal’s garage sales.

For years Eulogio’s job at the Monastery had been to handle the weddings that took place in the church. Only a couple of hours North of Madrid, it is an idyllic setting for a romantic wedding. However, Eulogio does not fit into the “cute” monk idea popularized by Hollywood. He would question the couples on their love, their reasons for marriage, their commitment.

During the Civil War, 1936 to 1939 the abandoned monastery served as a makeshift military barracks for troops. The graffiti left there was not painted over during the restoration process as it gives further historical context to the Monastery.

Last year we also made the drive to visit Eulogio, but we did not stay for lunch, as we wanted to ride and hike to explore the mountains surrounding the Monastery.

After the Civil War, General Franco, seeking to restore the Monastery, brought in some Benedictine monks who continue to this day. In the late 70s the government built a luxury hotel next door to the Monastery, profiting from the ideal location, the tourist influx, and the weddings that were held in the beautiful church of the Monastery. After changing hands a number of times between luxury hotel operators, it now rests abandoned.

My thirst for Eulogio’s spiritual wisdom comes from my realization in 2010 of the powerful inter-connectedness of the universe, of which we are as much a part of as a blade of grass, as a distant star. But to get to that point one must let go of the ego, of that which we think we are, and simply be. Easier said than done. Richard Rohr explains it in the context of the ancient Greek word of self-emptying: “kenosis, an emptying out of the contents of awareness so that one becomes oneself an empty vessel, a broken vessel, a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life. This gift of God is revealed to be the ground and root of our very existence. It is our own true self.”

This, of course, is not a new concept, it is embraced by Buddhism and Hinduism, and by early Christianity. 18th Century philosopher Kierkegaard wrote about the Three Stages of Life: the Aesthetic when our lives are dominated by the ego necessary to gain independence from our parents and establish ourselves in the world, everything is superficial. The Ethical where we concern ourselves with what is right and what is wrong, and finally – if we are lucky – and only through a process of “breaking” does one reach the Religious Stage where one realizes that our lives are a part of a much bigger, interconnected picture. Unfortunately for many people, they do not overcome the Aesthetic stage, refusing to release the ego and embrace the universe, the oneness.

This summer, Jaime and I made our pilgrimage to El Paular only a few days after I had finished my own Pilgrimage of The Camino de Santiago (see earlier posts) so I was primed and ready for conversing with Eulogio. He did not disappoint. As soon as we arrived, the Abbot invited us to stay for lunch in the garden. We had plenty of time to walk around the monastery and the garden and talk. And talk we did, about the importance of prayer, of meditation, of being in the presence of God, of a higher power, an energy.

After mid-day prayers at the chapel we headed for the garden where a wonderful meal awaited. I sat next to Eulogio and enjoyed his wisdom, wisecracks and complaints about the food!

El Paular does host visitors that want to spend time with the monks in retreat, so I am considering spending some time with them next time I am in Spain.

 

Epístola de Jovino a Anfriso escrita desde El Paular  (Epístola desde El Paular)

(Jovellanos)

Desde el oculto y venerable asilo,

do la virtud austera y penitente

vive ignorada, y del liviano mundo

huida, en santa soledad se esconde,

Jovino triste al venturoso Anfriso

salud en versos flébiles envía.

Salud le envía a Anfriso, al que inspirado

de las mantuanas Musas, tal vez suele

al grave son de su celeste canto

precipitar del viejo Manzanares

el curso perezoso, tal süave

suele ablandar con amorosa lira

la altiva condición de sus zagalas.

¡Pluguiera a Dios, oh Anfriso, que el cuitado

a quien no dio la suerte tal ventura

pudiese huir del mundo y sus peligros!

¡Pluguiera a Dios, pues ya con su barquilla

logró arribar a puerto tan seguro,

que esconderla supiera en este abrigo,

a tanta luz y ejemplos enseñado!

Huyera así la furia tempestuosa

de los contrarios vientos, los escollos

y las fieras borrascas, tantas veces

entre sustos y lágrimas corridas.

Así también del mundanal tumulto

lejos, y en estos montes guarecido,

alguna vez gozara del reposo,

que hoy desterrado de su pecho vive.

Mas, ¡ay de aquél que hasta en el santo asilo

de la virtud arrastra la cadena,

la pesada cadena, con que el mundo

oprime a sus esclavos! ¡Ay del triste

en cuyo oído suena con espanto,

por esta oculta soledad rompiendo,

de su señor el imperioso grito!

Busco en estas moradas silenciosas

el reposo y la paz que aquí se esconden,

y sólo encuentro la inquietud funesta

que mis sentidos y razón conturba.

Busco paz y reposo, pero en vano

los busco, oh caro Anfriso, que estos dones,

herencia santa que al partir del mundo

dejó Bruno en sus hijos vinculada,

nunca en profano corazón entraron,

ni a los parciales del placer se dieron.

Conozco bien que fuera de este asilo

sólo me guarda el mundo sinrazones,

vanos deseos, duros desengaños,

susto y dolor; empero todavía

a entrar en él no puedo resolverme.

No puedo resolverme, y despechado,

sigo el impulso del fatal destino,

que a muy más dura esclavitud me guía.

Sigo su fiero impulso, y llevo siempre

por todas partes los pesados grillos,

que de la ansiada libertad me privan.

De afán y angustia el pecho traspasado,

pido a la muda soledad consuelo

y con dolientes quejas la importuno.

Salgo al ameno valle, subo al monte,

sigo del claro río las corrientes,

busco la fresca y deleitosa sombra,

corro por todas partes, y no encuentro

en parte alguna la quietud perdida.

¡Ay, Anfriso, qué escenas a mis ojos,

cansados de llorar, presenta el cielo!

Rodeado de frondosos y altos montes

se extiende un valle, que de mil delicias

con sabia mano ornó Naturaleza.

Pártele en dos mitades, despeñado

de las vecinas rocas, el Lozoya,

por su pesca famoso y dulces aguas.

Del claro río sobre el verde margen

crecen frondosos álamos, que al cielo

ya erguidos , alzan las plateadas copas,

o ya sobre las aguas encorvados,

en mil figuras miran con asombro

su forma en los cristales retratada.

De la siniestra orilla un bosque ombrío

hasta la falda del vecino monte

se extiende, tan ameno y delicioso,

que le hubiera juzgado el gentilismo

morada de algún dios, o a los misterios

de las silvanas dríadas guardado.

Aquí encamino mis inciertos pasos,

y en su recinto ombrío y silencioso,

mansión la más conforme para un triste,

entro a pensar en mi cruel destino.

La grata soledad, la dulce sombra,

el aire blando y el silencio mudo

mi desventura y mi dolor adulan .

No alcanza aquí del padre de las luces

el rayo acechador, ni su reflejo

viene a cubrir de confusión el rostro

de un infeliz en su dolor sumido.

El canto de las aves no interrumpe

aquí tampoco la quietud de un triste,

pues sólo de la viuda tortolilla

se oye tal vez el lastimero arrullo,

tal vez el melancólico trinado

de la angustiada y dulce Filomena.

Con blando impulso el céfiro süave,

las copas de los árboles moviendo,

recrea el alma con el manso ruido;

mientras al dulce soplo desprendidas

las agostadas hojas, revolando,

bajan en lentos círculos al suelo;

cúbrenle en torno, y la frondosa pompa

que al árbol adornara en primavera,

yace marchita, y muestra los rigores

del abrasado estío y seco otoño.

¡Así también de juventud lozana

pasan, oh Anfriso, las livianas dichas!

Un soplo de inconstancia, de fastidio

o de capricho femenil las tala

y lleva por el aire, cual las hojas

de los frondosos árboles caídas.

Ciegos empero y tras su vana sombra

de contino exhalados, en pos de ellas

corremos hasta hallar el precipicio,

do nuestro error y su ilusión nos guían.

Volamos en pos de ellas, como suele

volar a la dulzura del reclamo

incauto el pajarillo. Entre las hojas

el preparado visco le detiene;

lucha cautivo por huir, y en vano,

porque un traidor, que en asechanza atisba,

con mano infiel la libertad le roba

y a muerte le condena, o cárcel dura.

¡Ah, dichoso el mortal de cuyos ojos

un pronto desengaño corrió el velo

de la ciega ilusión! ¡Una y mil veces

dichoso el solitario penitente,

que, triunfando del mundo y de sí mismo,

vive en la soledad libre y contento!

Unido a Dios por medio de la santa

contemplación, le goza ya en la tierra,

y retirado en su tranquilo albergue,

observa reflexivo los milagros

de la naturaleza, sin que nunca

turben el susto ni el dolor su pecho.

Regálanle las aves con su canto

mientras la aurora sale refulgente

a cubrir de alegría y luz el mundo.

Nácele siempre el sol claro y brillante,

y nunca a él levanta conturbados

sus ojos, ora en el oriente raye,

ora del cielo a la mitad subiendo

en pompa guíe el reluciente carro,

ora con tibia luz, más perezoso,

su faz esconda en los vecinos montes.

Cuando en las claras noches cuidadoso

vuelve desde los santos ejercicios,

la plateada luna en lo más alto

del cielo mueve la luciente rueda

con augusto silencio; y recreando

con blando resplandor su humilde vista,

eleva su razón, y la dispone

a contemplar la alteza y la inefable

gloria del Padre y Criador del mundo.

Libre de los cuidados enojosos,

que en los palacios y dorados techos

nos turban de contino, y entregado

a la inefable y justa Providencia,

si al breve sueño alguna pausa pide

de sus santas tareas, obediente

viene a cerrar sus párpados el sueño

con mano amiga, y de su lado ahuyenta

el susto y las fantasmas de la noche.

¡Oh suerte venturosa, a los amigos

de la virtud guardada! ¡Oh dicha, nunca

de los tristes mundanos conocida!

¡O monte impenetrable! ¡Oh bosque ombrío!

¡Oh valle deleitoso! ¡Oh solitaria

taciturna mansión! ¡Oh quién, del alto

y proceloso mar del mundo huyendo

a vuestra eterna calma, aquí seguro

vivir pudiera siempre, y escondido!

Tales cosas revuelvo en mi memoria,

en esta triste soledad sumido.

Llega en tanto la noche y con su manto

cobija el ancho mundo. Vuelvo entonces

a los medrosos claustros. De una escasa

luz el distante y pálido reflejo

guía por ellos mis inciertos pasos;

y en medio del horror y del silencio,

¡oh fuerza del ejemplo portentosa!,

mi corazón palpita, en mi cabeza

se erizan los cabellos, se estremecen

mis carnes y discurre por mis nervios

un súbito rigor que los embarga.

Parece que oigo que del centro oscuro

sale una voz tremenda, que rompiendo

el eterno silencio, así me dice:

“Huye de aquí, profano, tú que llevas

de ideas mundanales lleno el pecho,

huye de esta morada, do se albergan

con la virtud humilde y silenciosa

sus escogidos; huye y no profanes

con tu planta sacrílega este asilo.”

De aviso tal al golpe confundido,

con paso vacilante voy cruzando

los pavorosos tránsitos, y llego

por fin a mi morada, donde ni hallo

el ansiado reposo, ni recobran

la suspirada calma mis sentidos.

Lleno de congojosos pensamientos

paso la triste y perezosa noche

en molesta vigilia , sin que llegue

a mis ojos el sueño, ni interrumpan

sus regalados bálsamos mi pena.

Vuelve por fin con la risueña aurora

la luz aborrecida, y en pos de ella

el claro día a publicar mi llanto

y dar nueva materia al dolor mío.

 

 

 

Many of my fans preparing for the Camino have asked me about my gear (ok, maybe just a couple of people). There are many Internet spots that explain what and how to pack, but here are my two cents, as Americans would say:

Walking 500 miles (give or take) in a month (give or take) carrying your backpack is an exercise in minimalism, physically, mentally and spiritually reducing clutter. By reducing stuff in your backpack, you also reduce it in your mental/spiritual backpack. I hope to soon be able to write about the emotional and mental process of the Camino. For now I will leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, and write about the material gear that goes in your backpack.

The German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260—c. 1328) preached, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] But in the capitalistic West, we think very differently. We all keep trying to climb higher up the ladder of success in any form. We’ve turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction. All we can really do is get out-of-the-way. The spiritual life is often more about unlearning than learning, letting go of illusions more than studying the Bible or the catechism.

There are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Camino: a. you are never more than a few hours away from civilization, with supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and anything else you might need. b. there are laundry facilities at all albergues, so you do not need to pack many clothes, and c. basically all you do on the Camino is walk, eat and sleep. Having said all that, this was my packing list:

Shoes are probably the first thing to think of. If you are walking in the summer you do not need hiking boots. I saw plenty of people struggling with heavy hiking boots in the hot 30+ C° weather, plenty of abandoned boots, and plenty of feet like steak tartare. Good, broken in hiking shoes are perfect. Some people wear running sneakers, they are probably fine, although maybe a bit too lightweight for you and your pack, in my opinion. I packed a pair of cheap Flip-Flops for showering and a pair of water sandals for the apres-walking evenings.

You basically only need the clothes you are wearing and the ones that are washing/drying. Of course this depends on the season, but in the summer that means T-shirt, underwear, shorts and socks. As I mentioned before, as I am a snob, I carried three changes.

Since your feet are doing basically all the work on the Camino, and account for 25% of the bones in your body, you really should pamper them with the best socks you can get. Ideally hiking specific socks in a wool blend without seams. The higher up the leg they are, the less dust and grit is going to get into your feet.

Although everybody recommends hi-tech, moisture wicking, breathing fibers, for your T-shirts, I chose old school 100% cotton long sleeve shirts. The cotton because I am a snob and don’t like the feel of synthetic fibers, and the long sleeves because I also hate sunscreen and long sleeves meant I could avoid creams (and packing them).

For a second I considered athletic underwear, but ended up going with my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. Some things just like hanging the way they always do!

I carried two cargo shorts. The side pocket was extremely handy for my guidebook/map as I used it constantly.

It was never too cold for me until the approach to Burgos. That day I wore two long sleeve shirts all day long. That evening I surrendered to the cold and bought a hooded sweatshirt at the souvenir shop, the only shop open in Burgos that day, as they were celebrating their festivities!

For my bald head I alternated bandanas (which I would tie around my neck in the morning) in different configurations depending on the sun: a la Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, or a la Tupac Shakur, and a  “crunchy” boonie, or giggle hat that I could soak at fountains to keep me cool.

Unless you are going to camp or bivouac (which I saw plenty by the side of the Camino) you are going to sleep indoors, so a summer weight sleeping bag is fine. I chose to have one of my favorite cotton sheets folded in half (lengthwise, duh) and sown to create a sleeping bag. It might have been a bit heavier than the synthetic bags, but it was oh so comfy. Most albergues have blankets, so on cool nights I pulled a blanket over my sheet/bag. I did carry a pillowcase since the albergues all have pillows, in retrospect I could have used one of my three T-shirts.

Your minimal dopp kit with your bathroom supplies. I used Marseille soap – Jabón Lagarto – in Spain as I could use it for my laundry and my body, and my bald head, hahaha!

A lot of thought was given to what to read on the Camino, something meaningful but light. The library at the albergue in Roncesvalles, the first stop, is full of donated/abandoned Bibles… I ended up choosing The Book of Job and I do not regret it. I did finish it early and donated it to the Convent of Saint Claire where I was staying at Carrión de los Condes. I also packed a notebook and writing material to keep a diary and a daily Scripture reading for inspiration.  I carried two guidebooks: The Michelin Guide for quick reference on the go, and the Anaya “El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila” for more detailed reference.

Small flashlight – critical for reading and moving around the albergue after lights out. Mine has a wrist band which means I could hang it from the boards of the bunk above me, great for reading.

For towel I used a lightweight microfiber from Decathlon, it is not the most luxurious item, but it works. I must confess I was very jealous when James pulled out this exotic, gorgeous, printed Indian sheet. It is very refreshing to see flashes of glamour on the drab, technical, weight obsessed Camino equipment.

Water bottle, and make sure you have a comfortable, handy spot to carry it, I struggled carrying mine around in different locations until I settled on a hip strap. Although you are never too far from a fountain, there are a few long (over 10 km.) stretches without water. Also, you should always be drinking anyway, so even if you do not fill it up, always carry water. It is also handy to wash fruit, hands, etc. Some people carry water “bladders” but these seem tricky to fill up mid hike and are apparently expensive.

Basic first aid kit with whatever you think you might need – hopefully you will not use anything.

Bathing suit!

Trail mix, it is nice to have s snack without having to wait for the next bar.

Phone and charger.

Bug spray – I did not use it.

Sharpie, critical for marking stuff and writing on stones at mileposts.

Safety pins in case your clothes have not dried overnight and you need to “hang” them outside your pack.

Poncho that covers your backpack. Keep it handy in case of sudden storms.

Most albergues have laundry facilities for manual laundry. The bigger ones have washer/driers. Some of them will even treat you to detergent, so I packed a few of the liquid plastic pods in a zip-lock bag.

Pilgrims swear by the hiking sticks (that look like ski poles), I carried one of my dad’s old walking sticks that an old friend had given him. It was useful on technical climbs and descents and to poke at things.

Last, but not least a pocket knife is critical. You might only use it to make bocadillos, but it is always handy to have. I found an old Swiss Army knife that I had given my little sister years ago and that for some reason was in my dad’s desk drawer.

Buen Camino!

The Camino is a totally individual experience whatever your purpose might be (sport, religious, spiritual, cultural, culinary, etc. or any combination of those), but it is also a shared experience. More importantly, the Camino is a physical space and a shared physical space. This means that it helps if certain social considerations are kept. Here are some of my observations and recommendations:

Dos

Be polite to all pilgrims and acknowledge them with a “Buen camino”. If they are sitting by the Camino, you might want to ask if they are ok or if they need a snack or some water.

Even on the “Donativo” albergues, please be generous with your donation, ie: never leave less than €5.

If you use the albergue’s kitchen, please leave it as you found it, or cleaner.

Banana peels and apple cores are totally biodegradable, so they are ok in nature, just not in the most visible part of nature. Put them out of sight.

Be polite about asking for a credencial stamp. It is quite rude to ask for a stamp at a bar / coffee shop if you do not purchase anything, regardless of how cool the place is, so go ahead, get a café con leche, or a bottle of water – you are going to need it! And don’t be pushy, the business gets nothing from stamping your credencial, so be patient.

Tipping in Spain. Hospitality workers in Spain have, by law, full contracts, which means (unlike in the US) that they make a full salary, they do not live from tips. Having said that, it is customary and always nice to leave some change on the table/counter. Those coins are weighing you down on the Camino anyway!

Hospitaliarios – the people who run the albergues are volunteers (except at the private ones, which are normally family run). So treat them nicely, they are there for you, not for a paycheck.

Pay attention to your shoes when you walk into the albergue. You might have to leave them outside – never wear them into the dorm area.

 

Don’ts

Do not ask pilgrims why they are doing the Camino. It sounds like a good ice-breaker, but while we all have our reasons, some might be more personal than others, and you really might not want to know. It is one thing for American college kids that are “finding themselves”, but not everybody is necessarily so open. If they want to, they will tell you.

Do not walk around the albergue in your underwear. No matter how sexy you or your underwear might be, nor how hippie the albergue is. Think about it, it is a downhill experience if we all went that way. (If in doubt read Immanuel Kant’s Universal Law).

Beds at the albergue are for people not backpacks. Your sweaty, dusty, muddy, wet, backpack belongs on the floor, a chair at best, but never on the bed.

If you cannot wait for the next village or the next bar to go to the bathroom, please find the most secluded spot and try to be as discreet as possible with your poop and the paper you use. A bush next to the Camino is not a good idea. And the paper flying around isn’t either. Don’t contribute to the eyesore.

Try not to make noise if you are going to bed later than most people or getting up before most people. Try to have whatever you need handy so you can access it quietly. I was deeply embarrassed one night when I had to rummage in my backpack for my earplugs.

Feel free to add or comment below!

  1. Rolf, an inquisitive young Swiss carpenter.
  2. Katrina, a German girl who booked it past Roncesvalles on her first day!
  3. Two Spanish retirees. One climbing the Pyrenees, one that led us into Burgos.
  4. James, a lovely, funny, tall young Englishman with whom I chatted about beech forests and Hemingway.
  5. Diego, a young restless Italian architect with a huge heart.
  6. Alain, an eloquent French meteorologist turned priest.
  7. Manolo, a physical therapist from Zaragoza. I met him on the descent to Roncesvalles. A veteran pilgrim who became my teacher of the Camino.
  8. Frank, a retired Warner Bros music executive from New Mexico.
  9. Tillman, a young nurse from Hamburg who broke his ankle on the first day of the Coastal Route and switched to the French Route. He was very generous with his advice on my tendonitis.
  10. Jessi, an Australian lawyer walking out of a street and into my needy arms in Villatuerta. She gave me vital girl advice and treated me (probably unknowingly) to breakfast in Estella.
  11. Lindsey, a gutsy Yale grad whose graduation present to herself was walking the Camino.
  12. Emily, a University of Virginia MBA student.
  13. A University of North Carolina Urban Planning MA student with her boyfriend. Go Heels!!
  14. Bo, a young Korean accountant with whom I co-founded the Camino Chapter of the Eddy Kim Fan Club.
  15. Bo, a Korean girl who celebrated her 22 birthday in Carrión de los Condes, I was invited to the festivities in the albergue kitchen! Follow her on Instagram at bom.in_703
  16. Two Mexican girls. I lent my soap to one of them and she forgot it on the laundry sink… good thing I saw it when I was returning from dinner.
  17. Two Mexican boys, one of whom played club tennis at University of Virginia.
  18. Marie Helene, a feisty French lady who started her Camino in the Alsace-Lorraine (where the quiche comes from). I met her my first night at St. Jean de Pied-de-Port and bumped into her my whole Camino, she became a nice friend.
  19. José Antonio, a funny lad from Gran Canaria
  20. Amy and Jess, two young teachers from Austin Texas.
  21. A stylish pilgrim from St. Louis Missouri. She wore her scarf and sun hat like a Hollywood star adding much-needed glamour to the Camino.
  22. A happy Irish boy with two friends: an Australian and a Brazilian, we had fun on the bumper cars in Nájera.
  23. A French and an Australian girl, I had dinner with them in Roncesvalles and bumped into them the first few days of the Camino.
  24. Bart from Barcelona, who was either racing down the Camino, drinking beer, or sleeping, (or getting a ride in a car from a friend to a remote village in Burgos).
  25. Christof from Berlin, some sort of wunderkind with a tech startup and feet destroyed by blisters.
  26. Katia from the Czech Republic who walked around the albergue in her leopard print knickers.
  27. Bob a hilarious Cuban-Venezuelan-German fellow.
  28. Delia from Salvador de Bahia, a bigger heart would be difficult to find.
  29. A big hunk American fellow who hiked at night and looked like Hulk Hogan.
  30. Adolfo, a retired 63-year-old bank employee from Zaragoza who ran marathons.
  31. Kika, an Italian living in Germany who falls off beds, this is a problem when you have the top bunk in the albergue
  32. Iñigo, a nice Basque environmental science teacher.
  33. Gert, a pilgrim from Hannover who only speaks German (very brief conversation).
  34. Claire, a lovely English girl with Birkenstocks, and her boyfriend.
  35. Stephanie, a super tall Dutch girl who got tendonitis just like me.
  36. Ramona, a lovely Bavarian girl with all sorts of tattoos and sexy scars.
  37. Jessica, a lady from LA on her first trip abroad. Talk about culture shock.
  38. A girl from Valencia walking with her English boyfriend? Husband? At any rate, a bit pushy.
  39. A friendly American cyclist from California living in France.
  40. Raúl, a snoring cyclist from Teruel. He did the Camino walking once, but now his holiday time does not allow him to walk.
  41. Krisztina, a generous, beautiful old soul from Budapest.
  42. Two librarians from Pamplona, one of whom used to work with my friend Maria Alecha from the University of Navarra.
  43. An American girl in Boadilla del Camino who pointed out to me that my moisturizer was in fact shaving cream.
  44. A skinny Belgian fellow that slept like a champ.
  45. An Austrian guy from Vienna who got bed bugs.
  46. Two American women, one of whom had a daughter at the Columbine shooting and now has a foundation. The other one is a Lower School Principal in Minnesota.
  47. Paul, a Brit living in San Francisco. My guess is that he is some sort of Silicon Valley tech guru.
  48. Two Polish girls camping the Camino!
  49. Tino, a retired industrial engineer who booked 40 km a day.
  50. Kevin, the Flying Dutchman. A crazy, funny fellow.

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Everything you have ever heard about the Camino is true: it is a spiritual journey, it is a life changing experience, you make deep bonds with people you meet, the hiking and the views are gorgeous, and so on. Yes, all that is true, but it is so much more, so much more.

My trip started with a quick bus ride to the Atocha station in Madrid, a train ride to Pamplona where I met up for lunch with an old colleague from UNC, and from there, a breathtaking bus ride up and down the Pyrenees to St. Jean de Pied-de-Port in France. As part of my experience I did not make any sleeping arrangements, so I really did not know what to expect. Getting out of the bus, I walked around exploring the cute little village. I wandered into the Pilgrim’s mass, which ended with a very warm Pilgrim’s blessing, then stumbled into the Pilgrim’s Office where I got my all-important “Credencial”, the passport that you get stamped along the way as proof of your pilgrimage. Then it was time to figure out where I would sleep. I asked at a couple of albergues (hostels), which were full. Third time lucky as Eric at the Chemin Vers L’Etoile generously welcomed me. We had a wonderful group dinner of couscous and sautéed pork at a long table where I met all sorts of pilgrims: a young woman who started walking from her front door in Belgium, Marie Helene who had been walking from Alsace-Lorraine – and who I would bump into for the rest of my Camino -, a young man from Taiwan, etc. The first humanizing experience of the Camino are the sleeping quarters in the albergues: a room full of bunk beds. I had not slept in a room with total strangers in 30 years, (since the summer of ’87 when I had to sleep in a youth hostel in Geneva as my apartment in a university dorm was still occupied). I say humanizing because on the Camino we are all equals, it does not matter how much money you have, what kind of car you drive, how big your house is. You have committed to walk to Santiago and that is really the only thing that matters. I was a bit surprised that everybody headed to bed after dinner. I needed a bit of a walk to settle dinner, so I explored the cute village and by the time I got to bed I was the last one in.

Not wanting to make any noise getting into bed, I did not rummage through my backpack to look for my earplugs, big mistake. In the hot summer night I could hear all the heavy breathing and snoring. Around five I heard rumblings, and when I opened my eyes everybody was getting ready to go! At ten past six, after a quick breakfast of toast and bad coffee I was walking out of the village, in time to see the sunrise over the Pyrenees. The first two hours are brutally steep. Eventually you reach a nice auberge at Orisson, it is a perfect place for a nice rest and charge up. They have fantastic orange juice, tortilla, coffee, and they will make you a sandwich to go. The climb continues at a gentler grade for hours, with brief stops at an image of the virgin (Vierge de Biakorri), a cross (La Croix Thibaut), a trailer selling snacks, and eventually a fountain, the Fountain of Roland, which marks the border of France and Spain. After some time cresting with largest remaining beech forest in Europe on either side, you start the descent into Roncesvalles. There are two options: a dangerously rocky steep path, and a bit longer but easier winding mountain path. Having heard horror stories about the first, I took the second option.

The connection to nature is one of the first things that hit any hiker, on the Camino it is a never-ending wonder. Crossing the Pyrenees you encounter basque ponies and woolly basque sheep, brown vultures, and cows, of which you will see every breed of on the Camino. You will stare in awe at the flight of the falcon and wonder if it knows how cool it is soaring the sky. In the cool mornings you must be careful not to step on the hundreds of snails. In a field in Burgos we were surrounded by butterflies, hundreds, thousands of different butterflies playing with us. I saw two deer jumping through fields of gold (as Sting would say), storks, deafening cicadas, and every type of farm animal, including geese. Special mention to the cat at a crossroads outside of Los Arcos who just sat there waiting for pilgrims to pet it, it was a smart Siamese mix, and it was nice to hang out with it for a moment.

Roncesvalles is not really a village, it is a medieval colegiata, a notch down from a monastery, which hosts the albergue and a posh hotel, a church with a nice cloister, crypt, and a chapter hall where Sancho el Fuerte, an old king of Navarre is buried. There are also a couple of inns.

After the day’s walk, one must shower away the dust incrusted dry sweat, give the old feet a loving massage, and do the day’s laundry, after which there is time off to have a siesta, roam around, eat or explore the village. Roncesvalles had a lush lawn, so I enjoyed a few minutes of yoga with young Englishman James, with whom I would make a brief bond, talking about Hemingway’s time in Pamplona. I bought some cherries from a travelling fruit seller’s van and walked around. Dinner was with James, after which we rushed to the Pilgrim’s mass and blessing. Father Vicentin offered to give us a tour of the church if someone translated, at which point somebody that had heard about my job, literally pushed me forward. So I enjoyed translating to English and French all the explanations of the church, crypt, cloister, chapter hall, and Sancho el Fuerte who was over six feet tall.

This time I took my time with my bedtime preparations, including trying out the wax ears-plugs, they are awesome, I heard nothing!

The morning ritual includes slathering your feet in Vaseline, putting on socks and shoes, and a quick breakfast before hitting the road. The Camino through Navarra is beautiful, with ever-changing views, each one more breathtaking than the previous one. I enjoyed an enlightening conversation with Manolo from Zaragoza, the fellow I had descended the Pyrenees with the day before, after a snack stop I surged forward through forests and fields, up and down hills. From the top of a hill I saw a village below – with a gorgeous and inviting public pool calling out for me. I went straight to the pool for a refreshing swim and lunch. The last couple of hours hiking in the heat to my end of stage were tough, but the swim was worth it.

Larrasoaña, is a small village, it has a nice municipal albergue and a small convenience store run by crazy Angel who plays vinyl records and treats you to a glass of local wine. The next morning after breakfast with Angel’s victuals, I enjoyed the walk into Pamplona. I shared it with a young and restless Italian architect called Diego. Stops were few, but a remarkable one was at the small church of San Esteban where they have an incredible bell that rings beautifully, for over a minute. If you are willing to climb up the bell tower they let you ring it, once. It did have a nice ring. I did not stay in Pamplona, after visiting the Cathedral I continued across town to the first village out, Cizur Menor, where I stayed at an albergue run by the medieval order of the Knights of Malta. In fact, the beautiful fortified Romanesque church still stands on the compound. As I dropped off my backpack by my bed, the woman trying to sleep a siesta on the next bed, said “Hi” to me with the sweetest, warmest, smiling eyes.

One soon develops a rhythm to the Camino, the morning ritual, the stops at villages for constant snacks of pinchos de tortilla, bocadillos, empanada, whatever you can get your hands on. Stops at interesting chapels, churches, and cathedrals or other interesting sites, like the free wine fountain at Bodegas Irache. All along you can get your Credencial stamped, I found it a bit of a game to collect all the stamps wherever I stopped, as much for fun as for a memory aid of every stop. Technically you only need one per day until Sarria, and then 2 per day until Santiago. Still, one hears stories of people hitchhiking to the next town, taking taxis, whatever, it is your Camino.

Although there are recommended daily stages, every village on the Camino has albergues so you can set your own pace. The beauty of this is that sometimes you stop at tiny – one bar – charming villages where you might be the only pilgrim for the evening. I had a couple of such experiences where you can chat with the locals, etc.

The day after Pamplona you are faced with the Monte del Perdón. The climb has a nice manageable rhythm to it, and at the top between the massive electric windmills there is a small prayer pillar, a modern sculpture dedicated to the pilgrims and a Land Rover Defender 110 with a trailer selling all sorts of snacks! The descent is much tougher than the climb, with a few fairly technical bits. Remember to buy shoes a size larger than usual so your toes do not crumple with your shoe on these descents. Of course at the village at the end of the hour-long descent there is a nice place to grab a well-deserved second breakfast.

One of the many magical things about the Camino are the chapels and tiny churches, most of them dating back to medieval times, peppered along the way. In the angle formed by the merger of the Camino Aragonés coming from the Eastern Pyrenees with the Francés (which I was on), is the unique chapel of Santa María de Eunate. The placement of these chapels might appear fairly random, but one cannot help but notice a formidable energy, a presence, an intangible metaphysicallity, a sacredness in these places. Most of these thousand year old churches are in simple, elegant, minimalist Romanesque, and even Pre-Romanesque style. The wonderful hospitalaria (albergue keeper) at Cizur Menor had explained to me that Eunate was built over two underground streams that met right under the church. Never mind how old this church is, never mind the unequal (yes, unequal) eight sided construction, the feeling inside cannot be described in a blog, in words. This experience would be repeated with different intensity at San Miguel before Estella, at Nuestra señora del Monasterio in Rabé, where both Krisztina and I cried unconsolably for minutes, at San Nicolás on the Pisuerga river right before entering into Palencia, and at the chapels I have already mentioned.

Puente la Reina is aptly named for the awesome five arched medieval bridge that crosses the local river. Although that is a recommended daily end of stage, I pressed on with Rolf, the young Swiss carpenter I had met a few days earlier. Mañeru is one of those lovely villages with only one bar. The albergue run by Mayte has massive stone walls that act as natural air conditioning and it was nice and cool inside. Ditto for the patio, where I did my laundry and read and wrote for the evening.

A curious phenom of the Camino is the ebb and flow of pilgrims. People you thought long overtaken appear at villages well ahead of where you left them and vice-versa, you catch up to people who overtook you hours or days earlier. This was the case with the young woman I had met at the albergue outside of Pamplona. I had overtaken her early in the day’s walk and yet she was well ahead of me the next time I saw her the next day. I finished that day at Los Arcos, at an albergue run by Austrian volunteers who happened to be German.

Logroño is the second big city you reach on the Camino. To enter the city proper you have to cross the Ebro river, the biggest river in Spain, that alone is an experience. The albergue is an old palazzo restored to accommodate the dusty and sweaty pilgrims. You are now in the heart of wine country and all you see for days are vineyards.

Another thing I found happened to me on the Camino is that my senses awakened. I thought my sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, and hearing worked fine, until I was a few days into the Camino and realized my senses had automatically fine-tuned. Walking in the Rioja region I could not resist every once in a while just holding bunches of green grapes in my hand, their weight, their sensual skin, was just a very rich, rewarding feeling. Same goes of hearing birds chirping, or total silence, or for the views, or for smelling every sort of plant and tree you walk by – my favorite where the fig trees – although the fruit was still far from ripe, grrr.

It was freezing in Burgos, and they were celebrating their local patron saint festivities, so everybody was out partying. The walk into the city is tedious and boring, bordering industrial estates and the airport before hitting a massive park that takes you into the city. The albergue is a really cool restored palazzo right behind and across the street from the awesome gothic cathedral where they had a pilgrim’s mass in one of the side chapels. That night Manolo was ending his Camino for the year, so he invited a group of us to a nice dinner. Leaving Burgos is much nicer than entering, as you leave by the university campus. It was drizzling that morning, but it soon stopped.

And so the kilometers and the days pass, village after village, occasionally a town, and eventually a city will meet you. The only thing you have to do every day is get up, put on your shoes and walk, and walk, and walk. This is really quite liberating, the only non-walking action that happens is in your mind, so in the pre-dawn walking I could meditate in the cool darkness, later I thought about anything and everything, or not. Sometimes in the total solitude of the Camino I sang at the top of my lungs, certain that there really was nobody for miles around. I sang mostly old Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, even The Police.

Between Burgos and Leon lies Palencia (yes, with a P, not Valencia), a flat, arid land where the walking is tedious, but not any less rewarding. The earth is very clayey so it holds on to moisture well which is perfect for the acre upon acre of cereal grown there. At Carrion de los Condes we stayed at an albergue in the Convent of Saint Claire. Evening vespers with the nuns was one of the more moving experiences I have had in memory. The walk from Carrion to the next village is 17km., one of the longest, over three hours, without any stops or fountains.

The lack of technology is one of the most freeing feelings on the Camino. Other than taking photos, you really do not need any technology. In the evening, if the albergue has WiFi you can catch up a bit on the old social networks, email, etc. Personally I did not miss the technology a single bit, although I did post a highly curated daily Instagram pic for my fans. (Follow me at tonxob)

Living out of a backpack means you have two sets of clothes, the one you are wearing and the one you washed the night before – I am a snob, so I had three t-shirts, boxer shorts and socks. This might be boring, but it is also terribly liberating, you do not have to worry about what to wear, how to match. You also do not have to worry about your things, because you have very few things on the Camino: your dopp kit, your clothes, sleeping bag, some reading and writing material, a guide, phone with charger, a pocket knife, and little else.

León follows Burgos on the big city stops, and what a place it is. It has a beautiful pedestrian downtown, an amazing cathedral, and massive free tapas with every drink you order. There is no municipal albergue in León, so we stayed in a university dorm that doubles as an albergue in the summer, when there are no students. It also had double rooms with bathrooms, which was a nice break from the albergue life for a night. In Leon I caught up with Ana, an old colleague from Milton High School in Boston, we had a great evening with her sister and Krisztina.

When was the last time you played with your own shadow? When was the last time you even noticed your own shadow? On the Camino which is a fairly straight East to West walk, you see your own shadow forming every morning when the sun comes up! It is little things like these that make the Camino a journey of self re-discovery, of renewal, it gives you time to forgive, to let go, to forget.

At Astorga, a great little town with an awesome cathedral and the Bishop’s house built by Antoni Gaudí (of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona fame) I had to finish my Camino in order to go get the country house ready for mom, sisters, brothers in law, and nieces and nephew who were on their yearly holiday in Mallorca. It was heartbreaking to say my goodbyes and wait for hours for the long and boring train ride to Madrid.

Needless to say I cannot wait to finish the last third of my Camino next summer. Stay tuned.

Notes: I walked over 520 km (325 miles) in 19 days (with one rest day for a pesky shin tendonitis).

 

 

Up until I was ten, we used to vacation in Galicia in the North West coast of Spain, the little corner above Portugal. During those holidays we would go on some excursions, and I remember when we went to Santiago de Compostela being really impressed with the Peregrinos, the pilgrims that had walked for miles to get there. It has taken me many years, but at last I am going on the Camino this summer.

Saint James (the Greater, the Great) was charged by Jesus to preach to the end of the earth. That would be the westernmost coast of Europe at that time. There is a Finisterre (Finis Terrae in Latin), where hippies from all over gather to see the sunset (just like there is a Land’s End in Cornwall). At any rate, James did his job and returned to Jerusalem, only to be beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. This is where it gets interesting: within a week James’ body and head appeared on the shore of Galicia (must have had some awesome sailing winds…) where he last preached. So the locals built a shrine and buried him. With time that shrine became too small, so he was moved further inland to current day Santiago de Compostela (was the city known in latin for compost or for stellae (stars) is another debating point – I prefer the “field of stars” campos-stellae option). At any rate the church became this massive cathedral finished in a massive, dizzying baroque explosion, but you can still kiss the remains of St. James. Word got out and people started trekking to see the Saint. Then about 800 years later in 834 (or 844, on this there are different opinions), during the Reconquista, the Christians where kicking the Moors out of Spain, and in the Battle of Clavijo (this battle really occurring, is also a bit dubious) Saint James showed up on his white horse and started slaying Moors left and right, leading the undermanned Christians to victory. After this, Santiago started showing up at battles all over Spain doing his thing and putting the Moors to his sword. So Saint James became the patron saint of Spain and thus even more people went to visit his remains at Santiago. People never stopped going to visit the Saint. Since the Middle-Ages, people from all over Europe walked to Santiago. Making the pilgrimage the third most important in Christianity after Jerusalem and Rome, but with the distinction that one must walk this pilgrimage – at least the last 100km in order to gain pardon for your sins.

With such a rich history, there are many ways to Santiago. Traditionally the pilgrimage started at your doorstep, but with time different main ways appeared: there is the Portuguese way from Lisbon, the Ruta de la Plata from Sevilla, the North Coastal way, and others, but the most famous one has become the French way, el Camino francés, which I should have started by the time you read this. From the little village in the Pyrenees of Saint Jean de Pied-de-Port, and going through towns like Pamplona (fortunately not during the running of the bulls), Burgos (home of El Cid), Leon, and many small villages.

Enough excuses, enough see sawing, one must commit, push oneself. While my family will be in my beloved Mallorca swimming in crystal clear blue waters I will be carrying a backpack through the hot, dusty plains of Castile.

My approach, as it is to most things in life, is a bit of a hybrid: part old school, I have tried not to see too many YouTube clips nor Interweb blogs, part High Tech, I did buy new shoes and a new backpack (mostly because my old one had a decomposed lining). But the intention is to just walk, trying not be dependent on the phone and its connection to the outside world. Medieval pilgrims did not have Gore Tex nor moisture wicking textiles, nor iPhones to make hostal reservations and write blogs…

A train will take me to Pamplona, and a bus will carry me over the Pyrenees to begin my next adventure, I will try to keep you posted…