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.

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.

 

Fifty great memories from The Camino

  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

Granada

Olive trees in Antequera

Olive trees in Antequera

With Catherine

With Catherine

Snails

Snails

Backlit snails

Backlit snails

Cathedral

Cathedral

Santa Ana

Santa Ana

Casa San Juan de Dios

Casa San Juan de Dios

Santa Ana y Alhambra

Santa Ana y Alhambra

Old Granada

Old Granada

Walnut Hill 2010 Spain Trip reunion

Walnut Hill 2010 Spain Trip reunion

Sierra Nevada in the back

Sierra Nevada in the back

The last time I jumped on a train in Spain for some alone time was in 2010. A lot has happened since and I needed some time to be alone and enjoy this beautiful country. So I booked train tickets and I set off to Granada, the enchanted Moorish city of the South, home of Federico García Lorca, final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabel, inspiration for Washington Irving´s Tales of the Alhambra, and home to Europe´s Southernmost ski station, Sierra Nevada.

Some of the more noticeable changes in Spain in the last twenty years have been in infrastructure: Highways and railroads. Long gone are those creaky, smelly, shaking, trains, replaced by smooth, clean, and fast ones. The award winning Talgo technology – whereby the train “swings” in the turns allowing for a speedier, smoother ride now run on the high speed train rails. While not technically high speed, they do run quite fast. Making the Madrid to Granada trip in four hours where before eight would have been normal!

I love trains. I love enjoying the view while reading, listening to music or enjoying a nice cup of coffee. I love seeing the changes in the countryside as we speed along: now vines, now olive trees, now hills and rocky ridges. Tired and lazy I jumped into a cab for the five minute ride to the hotel. Right downtown, next to the beautiful Renaissance cathedral and the old Moorish town. The hotel, a 1920’s tile covered building has an old indoor patio.

I met up for dinner with Catherine Keller, a dear old student from my Walnut Hill days who is spending her summer in Granada with her Fordham University program. We went to the classic old Café Sevilla where we enjoyed great tapas and raciones – sharing plates. Including salmorejo (a concentrated type of gazpacho), and caracoles – snails!

Saturday morning, after a fabulous breakfast at the hotel, I hit the used book stores in the old part of town, and… Bingo! I found a trove of books that I needed for my reading list for my Ph.D. exam next Spring. The morning flew by while my bag grew heavier with books. Lunch was – as it should be – a leisurely affair, including, after coffee, a nice cigar and a Tanqueray Tonic while I continued reading my dear Fray Gerundioˡ. After a siesta it was time for vespers, as I knew I would not have time for mass on Sunday. I showed up at the beautiful Santa Ana church a while before mass, only to find that a wedding was finishing. It was all very beautiful, they had hired a four horse carriage, and the flowers in the church were delightful.

For dinner I met up with Catherine and Jenny – who I had seen in Madrid a few weeks ago, but was visiting Granada with her Mount Holyoke program from Valencia. So we had a mini Walnut Hill, 2010 Spain trip reunion with a lot of laughs.

Sunday morning, refreshed from my visit to old Granada, and with my bag a few pounds heavier, I jumped on the train back to Madrid.