Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.

Sigüenza

A bit over an hour north-east of Madrid lies the town of Sigüenza. I remember going there for an excursion for lunch once with my father when I was a teenager, and again with my family in my twenties, but I had not gone back since. In early January I went with my girlfriend. What a great town it is for a quick week-end getaway!

There are two main highlights to the town but many interesting bits to fill in between those two bookends. And bookends they are as they are situated on each side of town: The castle sits at the top of the hill, and the cathedral at the bottom. They are connected by the medieval wall. Within those walls are a handful of old churches, from Romanesque like Santiago and San Vicente to 19th C Santa Maria. There is a Renaissance town square, monasteries and convents, and like any good Spanish town a bunch of bars and restaurants!

The medieval castle, where queen Blanca de Borbón was kept prisoner for a few years since her dad King Jean II le Bon did not pay the dowry, became the bishops’ palace and eventually was turned into a gorgeous Parador hotel in the 70s. Imagine staying in a medieval castle but with awesome water pressure, great food and Wi-Fi!! We got a great deal, so we stayed there!

The town is perfect for walking around. Although we went in early January and it was freezing, there are plenty of places to check out and warm up!

The highlight is the Cathedral, originally Romanesque and then modified in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and eventually Neo-Classic styles. The main attraction in the cathedral is the tomb of “El doncel”. This fellow, Martín Vázquez de Arce was a local nobleman who was killed fighting for Ferdinand and Isabelle against the Moors in Granada in 1482. What is extraordinary is his tomb: he is not lying down like every other bishop and nobleman in every other cathedral… he is reclining, reading a book in his suit of armour, waiting for his eternal rest. The detail in the carving of the alabaster is exquisite to the point of whimsical: his page carefully holding his foot, his eyes open, etc. it is a gorgeous sculpture –funerary art at its best!

The rest of the cathedral is no slouch: a Greco painting, an outstanding collection of tapestries, amazing architecture, two pulpits: a Romanesque and a Renaissance one, etc., etc.

The Clarisas convent just happens to have an ancient burying ground outside their doors which is simply covered with a glass for you to appreciate the architecture and human bones! The nuns make the best chocolate truffles you can imagine. Since these nuns do not allow you to see them you have to buy the sweets via a rotating door. As a certified chocaholic, I can attest to the quality of the truffles! I did not bother tasting anything else.

As in any good Spanish town, food is the soul of the place. Sigüenza lies pretty much along the dividing line between Old and New Castille  – so called as Castille progressed on the expulsion of the aforementioned Moors… So you get both cuisines, North and South.

The surrounding villages are obviously much smaller than Sigüenza,but are very rich in history and culture. Make sure you check out Atienza and Medinacelli.

Mind, body and soul, exercise, yoga and meditation

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other staring at a sunset. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My first, basically subconscious moves were to exercise, to work with a therapist (the amazing Dr. Nemser), I went to church on Sunday – and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure), and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, I tried to find inspiring readings, revisiting Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Illich, Milton, Jalics, etc. With time I started meditating, then I started yoga, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago…

Little by little I started realizing in my body, mind and spirit that all these things were connected, that working with one affected the other two. Yoga, even weightlifting quieted my mind, meditating relaxed my body and spirit. Breathing helped me stretch during yoga. I realized that while we are made up of many different things, we are in fact one totality of being with a single energy.

I started yoga lessons in North Carolina about six years ago. It was the perfect thing for saturdays after friday night soccer games. And just like that I was hooked. I normally find a gym or a studio that has lessons, but in a pinch I use an app called Down Dog which is very scalable!

For meditation, I usually wait until the end of the day so I have nothing left to do that day. Or I parcel out a time to mediate. I sit and breathe, focussing on my breathing for twenty minutes. I use a great app called Insight timer where I can time myself, take courses, dial into guided meditations – and it keeps track of your progress!

Then I started using these techniques with my athletes when I coached, most recently and successfully the tennis players at the Hun School. Yoga on days in between games, a bit of meditation before games, it all translated to happier, less injured, more understanding players.

Volunteering has been a key factor in my recent growth and maturity. First at Community Servings in Boston cooking for sick, homebound families. In Chapel Hill I volunteered every monday night for four years at the Ronald McDonald House. In Naples I helped out the St. Vincent de Paul charities. Now in Madrid I’m helping at the Ronald McDonald Family Room at the La Paz Hospital in Madrid, for families with premature babies.

My second pilgrimage to Santiago I really focused on walking, meditating, stopping at churches for contemplation, doing yoga after the day’s walk. It really was magical, and I noticed a holistic improvement!

Healing is a long process that there is no way to rush. Acceptance, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion, perspective, humility, understanding, generosity, none of these knock on your door overnight. One must consciously work at healing, it is slowly working for me, give it a try!

 

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.

 

The Camino, at last (Prologue)

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…