Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…

Camino de Santiago #3 The North Route

Repeat pilgrims of the Camino number their Caminos by sorties, not by completed Caminos. That means that I have done two Caminos although I have only completed one, since I did it in two parts. So for veteran pilgrims, I am no preparing to embark on my third Camino!

Also I must apologize for my recent silence, I have been immersed in a project you will soon learn about. But now back to the Camino…

Being a freelancer nowadays means that I can take the whole month of June for my walkabout. After much consideration: De la plata (from Seville), Portugués (yeap, from Lisbon), Aragonés (from the Pyrenees), I settled on the Norte: all along the breathtaking North Shore of Spain, starting in Hendaye in France.

Over the last three years people have asked me why I do the Camino. The answer is multi faceted, but the main one is being far from the madding crowd (thanks Mr. Hardy), alone, in silence, in a state of almost constant meditation, meeting people from all over the world and sharing the walk and meals (and yes, the bathrooms and bunk beds) with them, getting to know this wonderful country more and more intimately, taking part in something much bigger and far older! than oneself. Finally it is the physical bit, the sport, the personal challenge of walking every day for days. As I have said before in this blog, the Camino is what the world should be like. So much so, I think I might be addicted to the Camino!! I will keep you posted on my adventures.

Source: Club Renfe magazine

Source: Club Renfe magazine

A (much needed) silence and meditation retreat.

The last few months have been a bit challenging, so when the opportunity came to spend a few days in the Monasterio de El Paular in a retreat of silence and meditation, I jumped.

I have written before about El Paular, it’s magic and the wonderful monks since I have visited every summer for a few years,  But I had never spent more than a couple of hours there. Since I returned to Spain in the Fall, I called the monk in charge of retreats, the Guest Master, but could never find the right timing. Finally I chose a weekend with no other people staying over, and headed for the mountains…

Although the monastery is less than two hours away from Madrid, it feels a world away, as one has to go up the Guadarrama mountains (that would be where Hemingway based his For Whom the Bell Tolls) and down the other side. When I went, the mountains were all snowed, fortunately the road was clear, so I did enjoy a good drive up and down.

Once you enter the Monastery you notice your blood pressure drops and your serenity reaches levels you did not know were possible. You get a simple cell with a bed, a desk, a proper bathroom and amazing views of the mountains. I was free until vísperas (vespers) at 8pm so I went for a walk. My first steps of that walk where a rush, a tsunami of peace. In fact, it took a while to accept the silence as a companion.

As I mentioned in my posts about the Camino de Santiago, Medieval folk had a real spiritual affinity for choosing where to put churches, chapels or monasteries. This one is flanked by a gorgeous river and many streams which were running full during my visit. It is also at the base of the mountain, making it a very secure location. According to Feng Shui, if you were to draw a dragon using the available landscape, the best – and safest – place to build would be where the dragon’s genitals would be, that is where El Paular sits.

As advised by the Guest Master, I arrived early for Vísperas prayer. All 5 (6 when there is mass) daily prayers take place in a very cozy square chapel off of the cloister. The prayer breaks down into singing and speaking and into Latin and Spanish, but that really does not matter, as what matters is the repetition of the prayers that make the event magical.

Dinner comes right after vespers and happens in silence. A monk serves you and you eat while another monk reads a religious text. After special meals, the Abbot rings a little bell and you are allowed to speak, but not to get up from the table!

The final prayer, Completas (Compline) is a at ten, and you must keep silence until after Maitines (Maitins) at 6:30am the next day. You pray Laudes at 8am and have breakfast right after. Then the monks might have communal work. When I was there we had to clean up the monk’s tombs in the cloister and plant pansies that would withstand the cold. It was nippy out in the cloister, but the sun was shining and soon warmed us up. The work was rewarding as Abbot Miguel regaled us with stories of the dead monks and other folks buried there: an American fellow who was very fond of the monastery, or a child who drowned nearby, all very touching. After our work we snuck into to kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and madeleines made by the monks. I still had time for a walk in the forest before Sexta (Sext) and lunch.

And so the hours and the days pass: meditating, walking, eating in silence and praying. The weekend I was there the monks were celebrating Saint Scholastica, the sister of the founder of the Benedictine order. I had never heard of her, but her motto is very moving, something like whoever loves more has more power (más puede quien más ama) which became one of the cornerstones of my meditation while at the monastery. Once it got dark I would walk around and around the magnificent cloister which is surrounded by massive Vicente Carducho paintings (I think I will devote a blog post just for that bit…).

It is difficult to explain the monastic experience. The concept of time is totally different from that in the outside world, actually, outside might be the key word there as in the monastery it is all about inside you, your inner beauty, your inner holiness, your inner time, your inner everything!

On my last day I had a nice chat in the library with one of the senior monks. His advice to me? Empty yourself, a process the ancient Greeks called kenosis and something I have been working on since it was also recommended by Richard Rohr in his daily meditations.

Leaving the monks and the monastery was very sad, entering back into the crazy world we have created was tough, but I know I will be back to spend some of that special time with the monks at El Paular.

 

In vino veritas, a good glass (or bottle) of wine

 

Not to be too much of a hedonist here, but in the world we live in, sometimes it is better to enjoy a nice wine than to try to change people who do not want to change. So let us talk about wine.

My dad enjoyed a good glass of wine. He knew many growers and vintners, so growing up I was spoiled by trying wonderful wines. Having said that, they were mostly solid, serious, dry, old school Riojas and the occasional Ribera del Duero, ok and a glass of bone dry sherry before lunch, oh, and nice Champagne at celebrations!

So I come by my hobby honestly. I started enjoying a glass, ok, or a bottle, seriously in college. I learnt a lot from my french classmates and other budding enthusiasts, but, like most, could not enjoy a solid bottle for pecuniary reasons. That is until I got my first job after university and then things got serious. My palate was used to those heavy, dry Riojas, so when one of my summers in university I went on an internship to Bordeaux I was baffled by the awesome flavor of those much lighter wines – that is why Bordeaux used to be called Claret (for clear). Through time I slowly discovered more and more wine regions and could, never mind identify, but more importantly, enjoy different wines.

As I got older I fell in love with different regions, producers, even specific bottles. Here are some of my faves:

Any “old school” Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva: Marques de Caceres, Ygay, Muga, CUNE, Marques de Riscal… It is a long list, but if I had to pick a couple, they might be Remirez de Ganuza and LAN.

With the Ribera del Duero I am a bit more picky. Real Riberas have very high tannins and only the older, aged, wines have “tamed” those tannins. So my favorites there are Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera Reserva – this was a long love of mine. (It’s little brother Condado de Haza is pretty good as well).

I have been lucky to meet and visit a few growers myself, and that makes all the difference, as you get a much better understanding of the wine making process, the land – terroir, the whole shebang!

One such visit was to the Marques de Griñon in Toledo. He is a lovely fellow and clearly loves each and every single grape he grows! While there I tasted his Syrah (Shiraz, you say potato…) and it was love, sorry, taste at first sight! While I have enjoyed many great Syrahs over the years, that one was a spectacular moment.

Another love story might be with Pinot Noir, but not just any Pinot. You see I was never really impressed with this grape, until one good day not too long ago I had a California Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and it changed my life: light, but packing a whole lot of deliciousness. These are normally tricky (and expensive) to find, as the region is quite small, so good luck!

This summer while doing the Camino de Santiago I crossed the Bierzo region, which until recently was only known in Spain. Well, some of those wines really blew my mind!!

But my fave non-Spanish wine region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, yes I know I am not very original, but I love the full bodied goodness of these guys!!

Given a choice I drink red, but if I have to pick a white, it usually is an Albariño, followed by a Verdejo, after that I’m not all that interested.

There you have it, a short but sweet list of my favorite wines, without getting all pedantic with technical bits, but still making myself a wine snob/nerd.

More lessons from The Camino

Last year I wrote some notes and advice for pilgrims. Here are some more picked up from round II:

Take care of your whole body, not just your feet. Last year I was hyper focused on my feet, to the point where I disregarded the rest of my body. This year I paid much more attention:

  1. Yoga: I tried to do yoga most evenings. I looked for a patch of grass and then free styled or used the Down Dog app on my phone. In Herrerias I even found a yoga class taught by Esther, a wonderful Dutch girl. It was in a clearing in some trees with a stream running by. It was by far the best yoga lesson I have ever had!! The stretching is wonderful and resets the body.
  2. Ice baths or equivalent: I was lucky to find ice-cold rivers and streams to dip in after my walks. This is critical to bring down whole body inflammation after all day hiking. I found this deeply restorative as well as refreshing. In worse case, a cold shower will also help bring down any possible inflammation.
  3. Liquids, liquids, liquids (preferably not alcoholic). I did not do a bad job on this last year, but this year I made sure to crank it up! Make sure that you keep a solid supply of water, especially if doing the Camino in the summer. I had a stretch one afternoon where I could not find an albergue, it was very hot and I was tempted to not fill my bottle. I’m glad I did, as it took a while to get to the next water source.

Besides your body, listen to your soul. The early morning hours are usually quiet and mostly without people. This is a perfect time to meditate. I use an old rosary to help me match my breath with my pace and a mantra. One morning I managed a solid 45 minutes, a record of conscious meditation for me. It was one of the most cleansing and spiritual experiences I have ever had.

But the best lesson to share is to start walking.

The Camino Part II

Since I ended my Camino last year I was itching to get back to my pilgrimage. It did not disappoint. Exactly a year to the day, I boarded a bus to Astorga, the city where I finished last year. Four hours later, I arrived. I did not want to spend the night in a place that only had sad memories and heartbreak for me. So I walked to Murias, the first village out. It was a gorgeous evening walk on one of the longest days of the year. I passed by the obligatory tiny chapel and yellow arrows. The small Albergue was a repurposed, old, one classroom schoolhouse. Just about everyone inside was already dozing. But I walked to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner with a glass of wine. Then crawled into bed after a quick shower.

My Camino proper started, like last year, on my Dad’s birthday. It is a tiny, silly way for me to honor him and to celebrate with him, walking with his old walking stick. Right out of Murias there is a small detour to one of the prettiest villages in Spain: Castrillo de los Polvazares. An ancient, untouched stone village. Stone homes, stone streets, stone church, stone everything. I made the detour because I remember driving there with my father in his massive Mercedes and being so awestruck by the beauty of the village. My morning walk is always my favorite. The dew on my legs, the silence, loneliness, the cool.

The path was a slow but steady climb to the second highest peak of the route, past Rabanal del Camino, where I stopped to chat with a Benedictine Monk in his monastery, and Foncebadon, to Cruz de Fierro, the site of an ancient Roman temple. It is a tiny iron cross on a massive wooden post. Pilgrims are supposed to drop off a stone picked up at the base, but with the accumulation of stones, they are now suggesting leaving flowers. I had a pebble I had been carrying since Navarra.

After cresting for five odd km. the descent is very technical, putting a lot of pressure on feet, shins, and knees. I was out of the Maragateria area and into El Bierzo, a previously forgotten region of Spain that is now on the map since their wines became noticed some years ago. I eventually stopped at Acebo a lovely village of stone homes with slate roofs.

There are three basic types of albergues a pilgrim can stay in. The municipal or public ones, the parochial or church affiliated ones and private ones. I normally chose my albergues in this order. In Acebo the options were parochial or private, I stayed at the parochial, run by a wonderful American couple that had left the US because of President Trump (they can hardly be blamed).

My walk the next morning led me by a wonderful 18th C. altar in one of the tiny chapels along the way. I always stop and chat with the attendant, while I get my official stamp to prove my visit, which I will need in Santiago. Breakfast was at the gorgeous village of Molinaseca. And the walk continues past fields and vineyards to Cacabelos. The Albergue at Cacabelos is paradise for me. It is set up along the inside wall of an 18th C. neoclassical church, right up my alley! The next day I end up at Herrerias, the base of the third highest climb of the route. There is only a couple of private albergues and the one I choose is super cute. The bedroom only has 8 beds so it is very quiet. There is a neo-Hippy project next door called Project Brigid where they do music workshops, and they lend you their kitchen. I signed up for their yoga class in a small clearing, surrounded by high trees, next to a lovely stream. It was by far the best yoga session of my life.

The climb to Cebreiro is the third highest in the Camino, but in the early morning, it is a breeze. A stop at the great bar El Arbol in La Faba provides great fuel to keep climbing. The view of the hills of Galicia from the top is awesome and the town of Cebreiro is really cute, with a fantastic, intimate church where I spend some time. I keep walking downhill to Triacastelas. The albergue is in rooms of four. I room with a Mexican girl, a South African fellow and Go from Japan, who will become my new friend.

I walk to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos in one gorgeous chestnut tree forest crisscrossing  gurgling streams. At Sarria I enjoy a wonderful empanada, the local pie, stuffed with tuna. The Camino now is a bit more crowded with busses full of “pilgrims” who only walk the last 100 km. in order to earn the coveted Compostela, the traditional forgiveness of sins for doing the Camino. These mostly Spanish folks can afford to do the walk with only a day pack – or just some water – as their bus will carry their kit from village to village. I must confess it does distract from the purity of the Camino, but they must be equally accepted as they are also pilgrims, even if all they are wearing is a bikini and a water bottle, as I saw one girl doing.

Galicia is a magical region of Spain, it’s ancient hills covered with chestnut and eucalyptus forests, streams and tiny agricultural plots. The food is delicious and the people are wonderful. My last two days’ walk is in the company of awesome Aussie Bec and our Japanese friend Go. After a good night’s sleep at a gorgeous little hotel, the walk into Santiago is an easy 9 km, just in time for the Pilgrim’s mass with the fabled Botafumeiro incense burner that somehow uncorks all my emotions as it swings across the naves of the cathedral. I only have time to get my Compostela before jumping on a train home, I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

The Camino is what the world should be like

Three months have passed since I finished my Camino for the year. I have had time to think and process my pilgrimage. In the meantime, a student from UNC interviewed me about my experience on The Camino, which helped me to vocalize my feelings about the experience.

My conclusion is that The Camino is what the world should be like. Pilgrims are generous,  considerate, and kind, we are all fairly equal, united in the task of walking to Santiago. Add to this the human and humane pace of walking, allowing you to talk to others, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, there are no unwanted interruptions, there is no need for technology. There are no hidden interests, we are all just walking and that is pretty much all there is to it. You can walk faster or slower, you can stop wherever you want. It really is a parallel world that is as much of a real world utopia as you can find.

I recently read this passage from Thomas Merton, a real modern-day mystic, and I immediately connected it to my Camino experience:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.

Unfortunately The Camino ends, and one returns to the world we have created. We return to noise and pollution, but even worse: to rude and aggressive people, to rushing, to everything we have constructed that separates us from peace, and beauty, and truth.