A mystical experience on the Camino

The only good thing about the A Pociña de Muñíz albergue when I stopped for breakfast was that while they ripped me off with a 2 Euro filtered coffee when their real coffee machine sat idle right there, was that they recommended that I take the Soutomeride variant that goes through an ancient forest and by an equally ancient church instead of by the “main” Camino.

So there I was, still fairly early in the morning, walking and meditating as I entered this age-old forest with 350-year-old chestnuts, among long ago ruined buildings covered with every plant imaginable that I arrived at the back of the aforementioned church of San Salvador de Soutomerille. I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of four pre-Romanesque horseshoe windows. Never had I seen such beautiful, old windows on a building, in what appeared a semi abandoned church in the middle of an enchanted forest.

But wait. At that moment as I approached the church taking a picture of the window, I heard an angelical voice coming from inside.

What is going on? How can this old church that probably does not even have electricity, in the middle of a forest have music? Do they have some sort of record player? Spotify? And the voice, it is angelical, and the music, sounds like Hildegard von Bingen. I am mystified, baffled, confused, and ecstatic all at the same time. The singing stops and I slowly walk around the tiny church. There, by the door is Ingrid, a German pilgrim and amateur singer who was singing through a broken panel on the door to check out the acoustics. A very human and perfectly reasonable occurrence, but for me it was a mystical experience.

You do not believe my story? Turn up the volume and watch the video below…

BTW if Ingrid or anybody that knows German pilgrim, amateur singer Ingrid reads this please leave a comment below!

Camino de Santiago #3, the Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo is not only the original Camino, but also the most intense. Yes, it is half the distance of the other “main” Caminos, The Francés and the Norte, but what it lacks in length, it makes up plenty in beauty, ruggedness, physicality, and authenticity.

As you know I had been planning this Camino since I finished the North route last year. It did not disappoint. Here is the story:

Around the year 800, a hermit in Galicia called Paio (or Pelagius) was guided by lights and angels to St. James’ tomb. After telling his local bishop, king Alfonso II “El casto” went to check out what the fuss was about, thereby creating the first pilgrimage. As the Reconquista developed, new routes were established leading to the North and eventually the Francés route, which is today the most popular.

So, I took a train to Oviedo, the ancient capital of Spain during the Moorish occupation. It is a high-speed train only halfway, as the mountains that separate the plateau from the shore has not been breached by the high-speed line yet, making it is a five-hour journey. I arrived in Oviedo just in time to run to the albergue -an old seminary- before it closed!

I shared room with Vicente, a retiree from Valencia whom I would continue to bump into well into the Camino.

Downtown Oviedo is lovely, clean, and full of sculptures! It is so cool! The walk out of town was pleasant enough, and soon you are in the middle of the countryside in total pilgrim mode. The first day is an easy 24Km to Grado, where I had been years ago with my Land Rover. A dip in the frigid river quickly got rid of the day’s hiking inflammation. The albergue is an old horse brokerage house, and there is a cute town square with restaurants and a working church where the priest is happy to give me a pilgrim’s blessing.

The second day brings the first important climbs of the pilgrimage. With hot temperatures and sun, the last climb took a toll, but fortunately I would not have to tackle it first thing next morning.

The next five days are a thing of beauty. I chose the Hospitales variant which takes you up over the tree line for a day of ridging 1000 mts over sea level. Amazing, you do not even miss the cafés! The following three or four days are just as impressive: natural, rugged, and fairly uncivilized. although without the altitude,

About halfway through you cross the grassy paths of Asturias to the dense forests of Galicia. After the city of Lugo with its amazing Roman walls, you have a day of a lot of asphalt, although the views are lovely, your feet pay the price. Then you have a final day of hillside living, before merging into the popular Camino Francés with all the “tourists” doing just the last 100 km (62 miles) to say they have done the Camino. So, the last three days are crowded and rainy on top of that.

But nothing compares to arriving at the plaza del Obradoiro and standing in front of the Cathedral. For me it was 310 km (200 miles) in 11 days.

The Cathedral has been totally renovated and I could finally go down to the crypt to see the tomb of St. James third time is the charm –it had been closed for restoration all my previous times. Lunch was at the amazing Santiago market, where I had the best hake I have ever tasted. With no train spots available that day, a flight to Madrid that afternoon ended my adventure.

How does it compare to the other Caminos? Well, the obvious facts are that while shorter, it is indeed more intense, beautiful, natural, and rugged. I loved every step of it, even the hard climbs and descents.

Get out in nature and walk

Boynton Beach is a bit of no man’s land, there is not much here. If you go South, you have the more interesting Delray Beach and Boca Raton, and if you go North, you are in the Palm Beaches. East is -as the name implies- the Ocean, and if you go West, you fortunately will hit the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a massive swamp.

Unfortunately, there is no forest in which to do a “shinrin-yoku” forest bath, which is just as well, because forest in Florida means jungle. Fortunately, there is a man-made trail that goes all around the swamp, it is very boring, but at least you get to walk in, or rather, along nature!

Last Saturday I went on a nice two hour walk on the trail. Since it is quite monotonous, it is easy to get into a rhythm and have a walking meditation. In winter, it is too cold for most of the Florida wildlife, so I only saw birds, plenty of interesting birds.

As I was starting my walk, I bumped into a group of my students! The seminarians from Raleigh had also decided to go on a walk! So we took the photo here before they went exploring.

Back in civilization, as soon as you exit the park there is a wonderful farm shop called Bedners. They have great produce, most of it their own – they have a huge agricultural plot behind the shop- as well as great homemade soups! So I stopped to get some groceries and soup.

If you have access to nature, any nature, go for a walk, you are welcome.

Forest bathing – Shinrin-yoku

As we are confined to our homes during this Coronavirus crisis. One thing we can do is think of the future, of trips and adventures. Something I cannot wait to do is to enjoy a forest bath.

Last Summer walking a stretch of the Camino de Santiago with Satomi, a wonderful Japanese pilgrim, I learnt about Forest Baths. It means pretty much that, walking through a forest enjoying it and taking it all in. Use all your senses to touch trees, smell the air, listen to the sounds, see the trees, and the forest. It is a full body experience if you open yourself up to it.

The ever surprising Japanese culture came up with this concept of forest bathing in the 80’s and called it literally shinrin-yoku, forest bath. As rural areas emptied and urban areas grew. What began as a bit of marketing is now a wellness trend which has never stopped being there.

My discovery is not some obscure practice, even Time magazine has written about it, saying this in their May 2018 issue:

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

I have been lucky to enjoy many forest baths, even when I did not realize I was forest bathing. My last one being during my meditation retreat to El Paular Monastery (see previous posts). I am planning on forest baths as soon as this nightmare is over.

So there you have it. Get out and take a forest bath. You are welcome!

(For the more visually inclined here is a nice clip on forest bathing from CBS, enjoy)