Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

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Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

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Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

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It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

Day 20: Hontanas to Fromista

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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It’s a strange thing, waking up alone after so many mornings spent in close company. I didn’t know what to do with myself that morning in Hontanas. Of course, I knew the basics – get up, get dressed, get packed, get the hell out of the albergue before they kick you out at 8am – but I was so used to the little morning intricacies that come from walking with other people. Waking up alone in Burgos hadn’t affected me quite so much as this, probably because there’s such a stark difference between waking up alone in a quiet hotel room, and waking up alone in an albergue full of people. While everyone else bustled along on their normal morning routines, I felt like I was only going through the motions of mine. It didn’t feel real. How do you leave an albergue without friends in tow? I wasn’t sure. In the end, I dragged my heels and waited around for the albergue to empty out. Even though I walked away alone, I didn’t feel quite so lonely with other pilgrims in my general area.

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Leaving Hontanas, I followed a loop in the Camino that led out into the hills, and gave a gorgeous vantage point to enjoy the morning. The day was clear, and I soaked up the tiny details – the crunch of soil under my boots, the dew that still clung to wildflowers along the way. After awhile, I could see that the track I was following ran somewhat parallel to the main road, and would eventually be joining back up with it. Many of the pilgrims from the albergue were hiking alongside the road. Even from rather far away, I could make out the German pilgrim, Jakob, at the back of the pack. I could tell from the hitch in his gait that he was experiencing some pain, either in his hip or his lower back. It was a feeling with which I was deeply accustomed, after throwing out my back a few years earlier. I’d been in almost constant pain for about five years before a mix of chiropractors, physical therapists, and a great personal trainer helped me overcome it. As I watched the German limping away in the distance, I felt a flash of annoyance at his situation, and picked up my pace to catch up with him across the field.

My behavior at that junction was completely out of character, much like plopping down at the table with strangers the night before. I don’t know exactly what happened. Even though we knew each other slightly from dinner the previous evening, I’d spent most of the meal chatting with Nestor and Dena, and only briefly engaged in any conversation with Jakob. I had no attachment to him, and could very easily have watched him limp away and have gone about my day. As I’m writing this, I keep thinking that maybe, looking across the field, I subconsciously recognized him from Burgos, and there was some sort of kinship already brewing on that account. At the time, though, there was only one basic emotion occurring – irritation. For no good reason, I was completely annoyed at this stranger for not taking better care of himself, and I felt an overwhelming need to be bossy and make him do better. Definitely not my proudest mental moment on the Camino!

I caught up with him within a kilometer or two, and didn’t bother to waste time. I merely matched his pace, quizzed him on what hurt, and asked where he was carrying most of the weight in his pack. It felt like someone had taken over my body for a moment – my normal self watched in shock as this new, pushy version of me informed Jakob he was doing it all wrong, told him what he needed to do to stop hurting himself, and promised to teach him some stretches to help keep from seriously injuring himself once we got to the next coffee break. Then I picked my pace back up and walked on, simultaneously horrified at my behavior and strangely confident that I’d done exactly the right thing. It was very weird. What’s weirder is that soon after, Jakob and I all stopped at the same cafe, where he immediately sat down to rearrange his pack weight. We had coffee, chatted politely, I showed him stretches, and he was gracious enough not to tell me off for being a know-it-all. After our break, I again walked on alone. Even though I had no reason to think that I’d forged a lasting relationship in a few moments over coffee, still I relaxed into the knowledge that I’d found a kindred spirit, and was no longer walking completely alone.

The first time this occurred to me in force was just a little up the road, at the ruins of St. Antonio de Abad, a beautiful old monastery. I had been eager to examine the building, but as I got closer, I saw that it was shuttered up tight. However, there was a van parked beside what had been the main gate to the compound, and a little old man sold crude, handcrafted wooden pendants out of the back of the vehicle. As I approached, I felt misapprehension, but the knowledge of my German friend on the road behind me gave me comfort. One or two pilgrims passed by as I examined the woodcrafter’s wares, and I eventually bought a wooden bird to take home.

The day stretched on. We had now entered Palencia. Though I chatted with other pilgrims as we walked, no one’s pace quite matched my own, and I remained mostly solo. I still had it in mind to push on and catch up with Natalie, and to do so, I tried cutting back on my usually numerous coffee breaks, stopping only when I felt it was most necessary. By the time I reached Itero de la Vega in the early afternoon, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. No coffee meant no tortilla, and no tortilla meant that I was famished! Everything in my body screamed for me to stop right here and call it a day.

There weren’t many places to stop and grab a bite, but Bar Tachu was on the main drag and seemed to still have a few people inside, so I entered. It had a rock-and-roll vibe to it, and I imagined that a Friday night at Bar Tachu had to be the experience, indeed. The first thing that I saw upon entering was Jakob, ordering a burger at the bar. I didn’t know how he and walking buddy had managed to pass me, but at some point in the day we had leapfrogged. They looked a lot better than I felt, and I felt another stab of guilt-not-guilt at being bossy that morning. They invited me to come and sit with them, and we all took off our shoes and ate bar grub at the rock-and-roll bar in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful.

While we ate, the three of us discussed how much time was left in the day, and where we each thought we could make it to before it was time to quit for the afternoon. The general consensus was that it would be prudent to aim for Castrojeriz. We ended up leaving Bar Tachu together, and walking on together until Boadilla del Camino, about 8km away. We talked and laughed most of the way. Jakob’s friend wanted to go to a particular albergue somewhere between Itero de la Vega and Boadilla del Camino, but when we got there, it turned out to already be closed for the season. By the time we reached Boadilla del Camino, it was getting on into the afternoon, and the clouds were looming overhead. The friend announced that he was definitely stopping here for the night, so we shuffled into the first cafe to take off our packs and have one last coffee together while we all made up our minds about lodging for the night.

It was around 3pm, and the sky was gray. It was raining – heavy enough to be annoying, but light enough to not put a major wrench in the day. My feet hurt, but I still had energy. More than that, I still had the drive to catch up with Natalie. The three of us sat at our table, surrounded by food, drinks, and guidebooks. What was the next step? After consulting my maps, I made the call to keep walking. If I could keep up the pace, I could easily be in Fromista by late afternoon – it was only 6 more kilometers. Jakob’s friend decided to stay the night in the municipal albergue, and had figured out how to get there from here. I expected Jakob to also stay behind in Boadilla del Camino, but had a strange moment of pleasant un-surprise when he announced that he was going to walk on to Fromista with me. That might not make sense, exactly, but if you’ve ever picked up the phone without looking at caller ID, and still known exactly who it was, you might know the feeling I’m talking about. It’s more of a feeling of having absolutely no idea something is going to happen, followed by a feeling of absolute certainty that was obviously always going to happen. Maybe I’ll be able to more accurately describe it in some later draft. At the time, I was relieved not to have to walk on alone in the waning light, and pleased that it seemed like I’d found a solid companion.

The rest of the afternoon’s walk was spent swapping stories about our respective cities – New Orleans and Munich, and how, though they were extremely different, they still had some shocking similarities. We talked about Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, and our favorite local foods, and showed each other pictures of our partners. Jakob was over-the-moon in love with his girlfriend, which made me more comfortable with him, since I also had a boyfriend back home, and wasn’t interested in any of tension and awkwardness I’d seen several times thus far on the Camino. It was becoming clear to me that some people go off on pilgrimage with their eye more on hooking up than on finding themselves, and I didn’t have the mental room for any misunderstandings with men. It was a major relief to not have to fend off advances, or explain my intentions to anyone that I met on the road.

We arrived in Fromista very late in the day, around 5pm or so. It was hours later than I’d typically walked before, and every inch of my body cried defeat. We consulted Jakob’s yellow Camino guide and my Wise Pilgrim app for a suitable albergue, and agreed on Albergue Estrella Del Camino, which turned out to be my least favorite spot to sleep on the entire Camino. It was the least hospitable albergue, by far. We had beds and showers, so that was nice, but we were the only pilgrims in the place, and largely ignored. The only nearby food option was a tiny market, where we bought a mishmash of food and wine to share, and went back to the albergue to eat in the common room.

Before bed, I called my parents to tell them about my travels, and chatted with my dad about the fact that we’d be visiting a Templar castle in a few days. That night, we were the only people in the dorm, and we chose beds like strangers choose seats on a train – leaving a few spots open in between, for privacy’s sake. If only the hospitalera had cared to have us, the experience would have felt luxurious. As it was, we were both happy to leave in the morning.

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 18 – Burgos

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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When I woke up in Burgos on the second day of my mini “vacation” from the Camino, I very nearly strapped my pack back on and left town. Even though my legs and feet were still hurting, and I wanted to take some R&R, the urge to keep moving was intense. It felt lazy to just sit around for the day, even if I wasn’t exactly going to be sitting. I laid there in bed and did some mental accounting, weighing up the pros and cons of cutting my stay short, and eventually decided to keep the pack where it was for just one more day.

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Instead, I packed up my little travel purse with a few things that I’d need for a day of exploring the city, and headed out to see what there was to see. I knew nothing at all about Burgos, so I just went where I felt on a whim. I found a t-shirt shop that had a Rolling Stones-type logo on a shirt, and texted it to my English friend Mark, with a note to hurry up and get to Burgos so I could buy him a pint for his birthday. He responded that he was taking a break, so I wouldn’t be seeing him in Burgos any time soon. I do wish I’d have gotten to see him just one more time, as he passed away in 2016. I wrote about that here.

My explorations led me to a seminary campus a little ways out of the downtown area. The front gardens were beautifully landscaped, and boasted several beautiful little rose bushes. I spent some time carefully inspecting all of the flowers still in bloom, and taking photos here and there. There was an order to the gardens of Burgos that I found highly pleasing, as well as reminiscent of the royal gardens from Alice in Wonderland.

As I was just wrapping up with taking photos of the flowers, and wondering what I should do next, a tall, handsome man strode down the sidewalk. He had bronze skin and high cheek bones, which made me wonder if he was part Native American. Though he was dressed in street clothes, his haircut and bearing made him look every inch like a military man or undercover cop. He carried nothing – no camera or bags. He wasn’t a tourist, or if he was, he had planned his route ahead of time. He made a beeline back to the city gates, and I didn’t think twice – I waited until he was about a block away, then began to follow him, trying not to look suspicious. That, children, is how I ended up pretending that I was on a secret mission with MI6, and tailed a stranger for half an hour through the streets of Burgos. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and there’s honestly not much of the story to tell, other than the fact that I kept myself amused for far longer than one would expect. I lost him about a block away from the Military Museum of Burgos; he turned a corner and was gone. I amused myself by thinking that he must have been on to me, but eventually I came to the conclusion that perhaps he was just on his way to visit the museum, and made it through the front doors before I came into view.

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Spy adventure over, I wandered around town for the rest of the afternoon. I walked over to the municipal albergue to get a new credencial, since the one I’d brought from home was already full of stamps. At the albergue, I once again struggled with being on my own here. I was acutely jealous of the incoming peregrinos, and briefly considered leaving the hotel and coming to stay at the albergue for the night. I reminded myself that the first part of my Camino was over, and it was now time to pen the second volume. It made me feel slightly better, but I still missed being nestled in with all of the other pilgrims at night. After picking up the credencial, I hiked up the hill to see the castle, but it was closed for the afternoon. I took some photos out over the town, then hiked back down. At some point in the afternoon, I also got a FB message from Terry, who was in town. Once again, I mused that it was completely pointless telling anyone goodbye on the Camino. We’d already said goodbye forever twice now, and here we were, making plans for dinner.

After heading back to the hotel room to clean up and get ready to meet up with Terry, I walked down to the cathedral square. I wanted to get a stamp in my new credencial before the cathedral museum closed, and take some pictures of this really interesting bronze statue of a naked pilgrim sitting on a park bench, just past the center of the square.

As I headed towards the cathedral, another interesting person caught my eye. This man was still somewhat far away, and wasn’t carrying a pack, but something about his gait and posture (plus the fact that he was obviously there to see the cathedral) told me that he was a pilgrim. He shuffled across the square in flip flops, khakis, and a plaid shirt. He carried something in front of him with deference – a credencial? A camera? He didn’t pick up his feet as he walked – I think that might be what first caught my eye, because his steps were awkward, like he might pitch forward at any minute, but the rest of his movements implied confidence and openness, and a body that normally had a much surer stride. It was obvious that his feet were killing him, and maybe that he wasn’t used to wearing flip flops. From a distance, I couldn’t quite make out his face, but from the preppy outfit and what I thought from a distance was graying hair, I pegged him to be older, about 40. It struck me that he had an old/young look to him, like an elf. I watched him shuffle across to a park bench, then my gaze was caught by an older couple and their toddler grandson. By the time I turned back, the man was gone. My mind fell off of him completely, and I went about getting my credencial stamped before Terry showed up. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d just caught my first glimpse of one of the most important people of my Camino, Jakob, my German shepherd. It wasn’t until I was already off of the Camino that I put two and two together, and realized who I’d seen there in the square at Burgos. I’ve been keeping it secret ever since, since he’s always bugging me to hurry up and get to the part where we meet. Surprise! (I guess it’s kind of creepy in retrospect, though…oh well.)

Maybe ten minutes later, Terry came along, and we went off in search of dinner – no easy feat at 6pm in Spain. Most places weren’t open yet, or were open and only serving drinks and tapas. After an hour of wandering around, chatting and looking in doorways, Terry eventually strode into a cafe that was open for drinks only, and pleaded a combination of age and pilgrim status to the manager. He took pity on the poor, starving peregrinas and served us a pilgrim menu with no choices. We sat, he brought us what he had, and we ate. I loved that dinner, as it was always a treat to get to spend time with Terry, and also it tickled both of us, I think, to be given pity, but only so much. Also, as I remember, the dessert was excellent.

I walked Terry back to her hotel (which, unlike mine, was both modern and cushy), and headed back home to pack. I’d sent my laundry out to be washed by the hotel that morning, taking a cue from The Way, and wanted to spend some time cleaning out my pack and repacking it a little better before it was time to hit the hay. On my way home, I stopped in at a bookstore and bought an English copy of the maps-only edition of Brierley’s Camino Frances book. It was a fantastic find, one which I wished I’d known about prior to beginning my Camino. I much preferred the advice of the Wise Pilgrim app to anything I read in the full version of Brierley’s work, but it was handy to have paper maps on hand on occasion.

I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I do remember waking up an hour early the next morning, willing time to move faster so I could get a move on, already. Eventually I gave up and started walking before sunrise. I couldn’t wait to get back on the road, even if it meant giving up my chance at having chocolate and churros for breakfast.

Click here to read about Day 19. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 17 – Burgos

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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One of my favorite interior details from The Cathedral of St. Mary of Burgos.

It was still dark the next morning when Natalie, Ruth, and I left the albergue to begin the day’s trek. We started the day with the routine pitiful breakfast that was the norm across the length of the Camino – toast, juice, coffee – and between the vague irritation from not enough protein, the biting cold morning, and being generally exhausted, starting the day’s walk was quite difficult. There was also the not-so-little issue that this would be my last day with Natalie for some time. I greedily soaked up every second of our walk together, endeavoring to regulate my pace so I could cling to her side for the few hours it took to walk from tiny hamlet of Cardenuela Riopico to the big city of Burgos.

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Breakfast. The ham and cheese in the background are from Natalie’s pack – bringing your own protein is absolutely essential if you want to fuel your body properly first thing.

No matter which way one enters any large city, you’ll still find yourself humping it through the ‘burbs for quite some time before reaching city center. In Burgos, it’s no different. The “industrial area” – office parks, some scrapyard areas, a place that felt like the disused back lot of a small airport – that you’d drive through in less than five minutes takes more than an hour to conquer on foot. It’s not pretty, it gets monotonous, but if pilgrimage is life in a microcosm, I don’t think I need to spell out for you why it might be helpful to endure the boring, ugly bits. That’s up to the individual, though – every pilgrim walks her own road. My lessons are not yours. I found a strange joy, even in the not-so-great stretches, something I think has its roots in a childhood spent playing on the railroad tracks and in abandoned houses. I’ve always loved the overgrown and forgotten, the underdog places. They suit my soul.

Two days before, at dinner with Natalie and Terry in Villafranca Montes de Oca, we had spent some time discussing the pros and cons of the route into Burgos. Terry had very strong views on the subject, having done it before. She’d found the route spiritually deflating on her last trip, and advised against walking there. That’s part of why she’d taken the bus from Villafranca. Natalie, who’d also walked this portion of the route before, had heard that there was an alternate way to get into Burgos that was much prettier, and had resolved to find it. I was happy to tag along on the search. As it turns out, the way was quite interesting, in turns ugly and beautiful. There were still industrial areas to slog through, but then the route took us through a beautiful natural area that turned into a city park, first with nature trails, then bike trails and foot paths.

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The park route into Burgos.

All morning long, we saw Ruth, then lost her, then saw her again. Finally, about 30 minutes before reaching city center, Natalie and I plopped down on a park bench to eat a snack, and Ruth came along just as we were finishing up. It was nice to join up and walk the final stretch together; I took the opportunity to ask Ruth about the many hiking badges on her backpack. She had at least 10 patches, maybe more, denoting the various places she’d hiked. I loved the idea, and still do.

Our path through the park followed a small river, and as we got further into town, there were more and more foot bridges crossing the river. We could have crossed a bridge and left the park at any time, but kept moving along, scanning the sky for the spires of Burgos Cathedral. Twice we stopped to ask directions, but both locals told us to keep walking, not to cross any bridges yet. The last gentleman we talked to was so emphatic that we HAD to stay in the park for awhile, so we were careful not to stray. At first it seemed like he’d been afraid we’d get lost, but once we got into town proper, we realized that he’d had a different purpose in mind. Though we could have followed the river on either side of the city, entering city center from the path we were currently on gave us an absolutely breathtaking view of the gates of the old town, the spires of the cathedral just beyond. We’d lucked into asking a proud local for directions, and he pointed us in the precise direction required to fall in love with the city the way he had. It was the first time, but not the last, that I’d find myself close to tears over the sheer beauty of a place. I don’t think that I could have had quite the same experience had I not walked so far to get there. It was a triumph unlike anything I’d yet felt on the Camino, thus in my life.

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Me and my banana, about to storm the front gate of Burgos. I’m not sure why I look so serious. The banana certainly looks to be having a lovely time of things.

We arrived early enough in the day for the other two ladies to get to tour the cathedral and grab food before leaving town. Since I was checking into a hotel, I offered my room for baggage storage, so everyone could change shoes and walk around Burgos without packs. The Meson del Cid is a fine, old hotel that fit my needs. It wasn’t the most modern or cushy, but I had my own room with a giant bed, no snoring neighbors, and a fabulous bathroom all to myself. Even better, the hotel is directly beside the cathedral, which is situated in the city’s main square, so I was right in the middle of all the action. When your feet and legs are screaming with every step, not having to walk too far is worth its weight in comfortable walking shoes. We all took a second to admire the generous accommodations, then headed out to take a peek at the town.

First stop was a walk around the cathedral and surrounding neighborhood, where we happened across the most adorable little cafe any of us had yet seen. It was a tea/cocktail shop that was decorated in a very feminine motif, pastels and floral patterns, with beautifully appointed china. Even the barista had a sweet smile and very welcoming demeanor, fitting the overall spirit of the place; the entire experience was enchanting. They also had one of the best slices of tortilla of my entire Camino, with a thin layer of ham baked in between a thick layer of egg/potato, and a thinner layer of egg/cheese.

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After a cafe con leche and a little snack, it was time to tackle the cathedral. There are no words to properly explain the awe I experienced, so I’ll just give you photos…

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I quickly lost the other two peregrinas, as I soaked in every tiny detail and read every available scrap of info that I could find. By the time I finished the self-guided tour through the church, Natalie and Ruth were long-finished and sitting, waiting for me near the exit. I could tell they were a little impatient to get back on the road again, but they were also both so forgiving and kind in their manner that I felt guilty and forgave myself in almost the same moment. We went in search of kebabs, as one of the two ladies had heard there was a really good kebab shop right around the cathedral. The one that we found was OK, but nothing to write home about. After lunch, it was time for them to walk on. It was already mid-afternoon, and they had a long walk to get out of the city. We went back to my room to get their bags and have an emotional goodbye. I promised to catch back up with Natalie in a day or two. Maybe I believed at the time that that was a possibility; I don’t know.

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That night after dark, I walked around the city center, exploring on my own for the first time. One thing that struck me about Burgos, and many of the smaller towns I walked through that had even a smidgen of night life at town center, was how families were out together en masse. In a U.S. city at night, you’ll see couples out together, or maybe groups of people if they’re headed out to eat or to a club. You might even see a family or two, or a single mom/dad with kid or kids. And the same was true here, of course – except that there were many children present, and kids were normally accompanied by both parents, or two grandparents, or parents AND grandparents. The kids were always dressed so nicely, and it was rare to see any little ones acting up (at least in public). The whole scene was completely alien to me, but heartwarming, too.

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The fountain in the square outside of the Meson del Cid.

I went looking for a place to eat dinner, but felt so out of my element without a friend. I wandered down a bustling strip and through a couple of squares, admiring various menus and shyly standing around, getting a feel for how fancy the establishments might be. Several restaurants had ads for chocolate and churros, which I craved to try. In the end, though, I was just too out of my element to force myself into dining alone in a foreign language. I walked around until I found a little grocery store that was still open, and bought a selection of junk food to eat in my hotel room. I took a long, luxurious bath, then curled up in bed and ate chips and a chocolate bar, letting the crumbs fall as they pleased with no one there to judge me.

It felt strange to be so solitary. For the first time in a long time, being alone, something that I enjoyed in my “real life” back at home, filled me with an acute sense of loneliness. Looking back on that memory brings to mind the old spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” I was hurting on the inside that night. I never did get to try chocolate and churros. I also didn’t sleep at a hotel again on my Camino, and even now, I tend to stay in hostels, where I can meet new people. Seventeen days in, and my way of encountering the world was changing.

Day 14: Anna’s Camino – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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If you’ve been reading along, you might remember that I had my first “Camino moment” in Zabaldika, after reading some beautiful thoughts from the nuns there. My second Camino moment happened on Day 14, in Grañón, Spain. It’s not a pretty thing, but it was a raw, emotional occurrence that changed me in some mysterious way, so I’ll tell you.

I don’t remember much about leaving Santo Domingo de la Calzada, except that we met at the same little restaurant where we’d had dinner, and had one last coffee with Australian Mark, who would be staying behind for one more day on doctor’s orders, until they could make sure that he didn’t have any lasting damage from that blow to the head. English Mark met us there, as well, and that’s the last time Natalie remembers seeing him, though I ran into him once more later in the day. We had our coffees and juice, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. Natalie was walking faster than I was that morning, and I trailed behind her, sometimes catching a glimpse on the road ahead, other times chatting with new pilgrims as we passed on the road.

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Along the way, we walked through a little hamlet and met up again for a mid-morning snack at a lovely little albergue. We met Ruth, a bubbly Anglican minister on holiday, and chatted briefly with her as she decided whether or not to call it a day and stay here in this town instead of moving on. The hospitalero was a woodcrafter, and had some beautiful simple jewelry on display. Before leaving, I bought what are still my favorite pair of earrings, little teal circles with tiny, yellow, applied wooden arrows, a reminder of the yellow arrows that mark the Camino. After a quick bathroom break, we walked on, and Natalie quickly pulled ahead again, heading towards Grañón.

I’d read about Grañón before, and had heard that it’s a magical place that pilgrims tend to love. I didn’t have the same experience, and for a long time, I thought that maybe people were wrong. Now that I know a little more about magic, especially in relation to totem animals, I’m inclined to believe with the original assessment. Just because something’s magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that it’s got to be all sunshine and lollipops while it’s happening. Anyway, as I walked into town, I encountered a small, starving dog on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as heart-breaking as that might be. Animals aren’t put on a pedestal there like they are in the U.S., and I’m not in a place to pass judgment, but I did feel heartbroken quite often over it then. This dog came up to me, and I petted her and scratched her belly for a little while, until a dour-looking old man clomped down the street, waved his cane at me, and shouted at the dog. She cowered, then scampered away, he scowled at me, and I moved on, shocked.

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A few blocks farther down the street, I spotted a bunch of pilgrim packs outside the door to a cafe, and saw that Natalie’s bag was there, as well. I stopped, heaved off my bag, and started to walk into the cafe. At the threshold, I noticed two grown cats and two sets of kittens, all sick, eyes swollen shut and noses dripping. I wondered how many of the kittens would live through this. My brain stopped, and something else happened. It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching everything unfold. I watched myself grab a kitten, clutch it to my chest, then collapse on a nearby bench, sobbing uncontrollably.

It’s hard to explain what was going on, because I didn’t exactly know, myself. I was causing a scene, crying quite loudly. The kitten squirmed, trying to get away from the crazy lady holding it in her iron embrace. Pilgrims rushed out of the cafe, and suddenly I was surrounded by kindhearted souls who thought I must be seriously injured. People were asking me “what’s wrong? what’s wrong???” and all I could manage through the sobs was, “The kittens, LOOK!” After a minute or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t hurt, and was just having a little mental breakdown, and people left me to cry. The kitten wriggled out of my arms and ran back to its brothers and sisters. A couple of fellow cat ladies patted my hand and told me that they understood, but I could see that they were as mystified as I over this ridiculous outburst. I apologized, pulled myself together, picked up my bag, and decided to move on, with or without Natalie. To me at that moment, it seemed that the town was obviously full of negative energy, and I needed to get out.

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I had walked almost to the town border when I caught a glimpse of an adorable little terrier sitting on the bench at the bus stop. This little guy was exactly everything that I’d ever want if I were to adopt a dog – he was small, sandy-colored, shaggy, smiling, and his little body just quivered with excitement as I got closer. He looked so joyful compared to everything I’d just experienced, and I was drawn to him. I dropped my bag on the bench, took a seat, and spent the next 15 minutes getting a huge dose of much-needed love from the little mystery dude. I tried to take a photo of the two of us, but every time I’d push the button, he’d give me another kiss. It was incredibly restorative, especially since he was wearing a collar and was well-fed. It renewed my faith in humanity, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I’d been sitting long enough that Natalie happened along, and the little dog was very happy to offer her some love, as well. After a few minutes, we reluctantly said goodbye to the pup and walked on. Here’s a little slideshow of our meeting…

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The rest of the day is a blur. I remember walking through Redecillo del Camino, a town famous for its elaborate baptismal font. We stopped and took a look, and had a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. At some point in the day, I also ran into English Mark for the last time, also at a cafe. Maybe this was the same one? I can’t remember, and Natalie doesn’t remember seeing him again after breakfast, but when I saw him for the last time, he called me over to the bar, almost giddy in his eagerness to tell me a story he’d just heard about a road marker we’d passed earlier in the day, called the Cross of the Brave:

In medieval times, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón were locked in a dispute about the land the lay between the two towns, particularly who had rights to the lumber there. The towns were constantly fighting, and finally someone thought it would be smarter to just pick a champion for each town, and have them fight it out. The winner would determine which town had land rights. On the day of the big fight, the champion from Santo Domingo arrived, covered in oil. The only way the champion from Grañón could best the oily bastard was to grab him by the only part that wasn’t greased up – his anus. The fighter from Santo Domingo was thus thrown out of the ring (some say off a cliff), and Grañón won rights to the land, though the winning fighter died only days after the battle. Soon after, the Cross of the Brave was erected in memory of the fight. Mark finished telling me this story with, “But which one was truly the ‘brave’ one?” followed by a deep belly laugh. I’m glad that’s my last memory of him.

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The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

Natalie and I covered another 15km, but I don’t have many photos. That night we ended up at an albergue called the Cuatro Cantones, and it turned out to be a lovely spot, run by a very nice family. Our friend Terry from Seattle was in Belorado that day, so once we got settled into our room, she came over and we all went out for a late lunch at a nearby bar. I can’t remember if I took a nap or not, but for the first time, I did no sightseeing (despite the fact that the town looked really interesting, and I sincerely regretted not being able to see more). That night, Natalie and I had dinner at the albergue restaurant, and invited the other peregrina from our small room (only three of us there – yay!) to join us. She was not a native English speaker, but between the three of us, we got along famously and had a great dinner together. After dinner, I snuck away to an empty bedroom to call my parents, then it was lights out.

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 13 – Santo Domingo de la Calzada

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

Two things happened that morning in Nájera. First, I woke up feeling like death warmed over. Second, after packing up, getting feet ready for walking, teeth brushed, etc., I walked downstairs to meet up with Natalie, looked outside, and realized that it was not only still dark out, it was cold, windy, and rainy, as well. Pilgrims left in ones or twos ahead of us, reluctantly, with a defeated air. Several caught cabs from the front door to their next destination, opting to avoid walking in these conditions, altogether. We stood for awhile just outside the door of the albergue, staring off into the dark, willing the rain to stop before we moved on. It didn’t help.

While I was planning for the Camino, I read over a lot of different information and opinion pieces on what the best equipment would be to have with me for days like this. Many people say that waterproof pants are a necessity. Gaiters are handy for wearing over your boots to keep out water (and on dry days, dirt and rocks). There are some heated opinions on whether it’s better to wear a rain jacket or a poncho, and most people have opinions on how to best waterproof your backpack and belongings. People also wear rain hats, and a lot prefer waterproof shoes or boots, as well. In the end, I chose to avoid most of these products, after reading up on what equipment most ultralight hikers deem necessary for this kind of walk, and realizing I didn’t feel like dealing with the weight of extra items that I could honestly live without, if I was willing to undergo slight discomfort from time to time. As far as rain was concerned, I had:

  • A pack cover
  • A gallon Ziploc bag for electronics and travel documents.
  • A large Ziploc travel bag for my clothes.
  • A rain jacket (which I later left behind, along with my fleece, in favor of buying a combined warm/water resistant jacket in Leon).
  • Eventually, I also bought a cheap poncho on a tempestuous day, but it only lasted a few days before I got tired of it.

My shoes were not waterproof – they dried out just fine. I made the decision to not get waterproof shoes after reading that they have a tendency to make your feet sweat, promoting blisters. I’m prone to overheating and being really cranky when my feet get too warm, so this was a very important decision for me. I also wore running leggings (which I wear most of the time at home), which stay close to your skin when they get wet, so they stay warm and don’t chafe or start to feel uncomfortable. Next time, the only change I’d make to this program is to buy a lightweight, warm, and completely waterproof jacket before leaving the U.S. That combo is worth its weight in gold.

I left Nájera wearing the rain jacket I’d purchased in St. Jean Pied de Port, which I already hated with a passion. I’ve always hated raincoats. I don’t own one. It’s the sound, mostly, that crinkle that moves with you. Ick. I took it off from time to time that morning, but every time I thought the weather was clearing, it would stop raining for a minute or two, then return a little harder. My feet got gradually more damp, and I had also started to run a fever and had to blow my nose seemingly continually, so between that, the warmth from the jacket, the cold wind and rain in my face, and my squelchy shoes, I was miserable.

At some point, I started getting pretty dizzy and spaced out. The only clear thing I remember from that morning was that I was walking at a pace that was, as my dad would say, “slower than snail shit.” Other pilgrims seemed to be sailing by, left and right. So when I saw a big, beautiful snail crossing the Camino, I stopped to watch its progress and took a photo to show my spirit animal to the folks back home.

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The rain started coming down pretty hard right before I got to the first town of the day, Azofra. I trudged into town, spotted the nearest cafe (always easily picked out by a few things: backpacks, stacks of hiking poles, hanging signs for various drink brands, and the quintessential red plastic tables and chairs for outdoor seating), and fought my way in through the crowd of pilgrims who were already there, attempting to dry off while staring glumly at maps and cell phones. It was a sad, sodden little crowd, but also weirdly cheery. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain kind of good-naturedness to being a pilgrim. Those that can’t suck it up and go with the flow can have a much more difficult time on the Camino, as the hard parts start to stack up and seem insurmountable. If you can master the art of just forging ahead, even when things seem impossible, you’ll save yourself all of the added stress. One way or the other, you are going to get to your destination. How you get there, and in what mood, is up to you.

With that in mind, I should tell you right now that I stopped walking in Azofra, and took a cab to that night’s destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The decision to take a cab certainly didn’t come lightly. I sat in that cafe for an hour and a half, looking at the map, enjoying a slice of tortilla and a café con leche, blowing my nose repeatedly, and generally feeling like a complete loser for wanting to give up on the day. Natalie was there when I arrived, so I talked it over with her first. While we were sitting there, English Mark came along and had a seat with us, so I talked it over a bit with him, too. Eventually Natalie got back on the road, and Mark started packing up to leave, and I still hadn’t made up my mind.

In my pre-Camino research, I’d joined a Facebook group for pilgrims old and new, and had read many somewhat negative comments and conversations. One of the prevailing opinions I kept running into was people who thought it was cheating to use any transportation other than horse, bike, or foot, since it wasn’t “authentic.” I didn’t disagree with this, exactly, but I was (and am) of the opinion that medieval pilgrims took whatever mode of transportation they could to get to where they were going. Yes, they still walked and took horses, but they weren’t above catching a ride on a cart if someone offered. And if the point of this pilgrimage was to teach myself the lessons I was having trouble learning in my daily life, I needed to use this as a time to stop letting my pride and overwhelming need to always follow the rules push me into stupid decisions. I was clearly ill, it was terrible weather for walking with a fever, and at this rate, there was no way I’d catch up with Natalie tonight if something didn’t change. So I asked the bartender to call me a cab. It cost me around 20 euros, but I got there in less than 20 minutes. It was the first and only day that I made it into town before noon.

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View from the doorway of my dorm room in the municipal albergue.

The municipal albergue was open when I arrived, and I was the very first one in for the day (no surprise). The hospitalero took one look at me and made a low whistle of appraisal. Evidently, I looked as crappy as I felt. He ushered me in, took my payment, then showed me up to my dorm. I’m not sure if this albergue was actually larger than that at Roncevalles, but it felt massive. There were three stories, with multiple dorm rooms, a large common room with couches and long tables for dining, and a big kitchen. The shower rooms were pretty massive, too, making a nice departure from the last few days of bathrooms (especially the tiny ones with limited hot water at our albergue in Viana). I found my bunk (I still got stuck with the top bunk, even though I was the very first person at the albergue. What a crock!) took a nice hot shower and changed into my last set of clean clothes, then gathered up all the dirty clothes and headed to the tiny laundromat across the street. I’m calling it a laundromat, but it was actually just three pay washers and dryers in a little glass storefront, no attendant or much of anything else.

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Sign in the albergue kitchen that tickled my fancy.

While my clothes were washing, I looked around for a pharmacy. I’d bought cold medicine on our way out of Pamplona, but it wasn’t cutting it. I needed something way more powerful. A few blocks away, I found a little pharmacy and went in, then got in line behind a couple of Canadians. I struck up a conversation with them for a second once I heard them speaking English, and it turned out they weren’t pilgrims, they just happened to be there on vacation. Maybe it was the cold talking, but I didn’t like them much after hearing that. Well, that’s not all. I also didn’t like them much after hearing them argue with the pharmacist in a rather petty manner.

It turned out that the Canadian guy was also looking for medicine, and he actually wanted the exact thing that I did – a cold and sinus medicine that also contained Ibuprofen. He told the pharmacist, who spoke perfect English, what he’d like. She listened carefully, looked up a few things in her computer, and told him that she didn’t have anything like that. Then he started to talk down to her, insisting that the pharmacist was wrong, saying, “In MY country, where I’M from, this exists.” It was really crappy behavior, the kind I’d expect from an American abroad, to be honest. I started wondering how close he lived to the US border. In the end, the pharmacist found a sinus product with Ibuprofen in it, and the couple went away happy. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, really, but sometimes you don’t have to try to achieve. On the bright side, they’d found me what I wanted, so on my turn at the counter, I asked the pharmacist for the product by name, and was rewarded with a sweet smile and a box of some kick-ass meds, yay!

Medicine in hand, I walked back to check on my laundry, and heard what every cat lover hates – a nearby feline’s cries of distress. It was coming from over my head, maybe a block or two away, so I followed the noise, looking up at the facades of the closely-set buildings that lined the cobbled street. About four houses down from the laundromat I spotted her – a Siamese cat stuck outside on a ledge, wailing. I talked to her from street level, and she stopped crying to look down. I saw that she couldn’t get back inside the window she’d come out of without physically backing up, and feared that if she fell off the ledge, she’d now be stuck out in small town Spain, where street cats aren’t that lucky. On the other hand, if she fell off of the ledge, she wouldn’t be stuck there for the rest of the day until her owner came home. I knocked on the large, wooden front door, which turned out to be a general door to the apartment building, and the woman who answered didn’t speak English and didn’t know whose cat that was. After standing in the street for a few more minutes, feeling helpless, a college-age, dreadlocked hippie dude strolled down the street, arms full of grocery bags. The cat yelled down off of the ledge, and he looked up and sighed. It was obviously his cat. He spoke soothingly to her, then noticed me and my look of concern, and grinned, shaking his head, a clear gesture that kitty was prone to getting stuck on the ledge. We shared a tiny moment, no language, just the universal love of animals. A minute or two after he’d walked in, the next window down opened up and the cat was able to run back inside without backing down the ledge again.

As soon as my laundry was done, I downed some medicine, then took a nice, long nap, well into the afternoon. When I woke up, the beds that had been empty all around me all had sleeping bags on them. The guy who had set up shop on the bed beneath mine looked like one of my friends from home, and he was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yay! As I got out of bed, I said hi to him, but he scowled at me and didn’t reply.  I could hear people bustling around out in the hallways, so I brushed off that short encounter and took a walk around to see if I could find anyone I knew. A man (I honestly can’t remember who it was anymore, but it was a pilgrim I knew) saw me coming out of my room and told me that he’d seen Natalie in another of the dorms, upstairs. So I walked up to find her, and ended up running into Mark in the stairwell, grinning from ear to ear, excited to be going out to find a pint.

Mark was in a great mood that day, which is so weirdly like him to be all excited about terrible things. He’d gone to the pharmacist and showed his feet, which had slowly been getting worse ever since Roncesvalles, in part because he didn’t want to adjust the routine that had gotten him to this point, and partly because once he discovered Compeed, he’d put it all over his existing blisters, and they’d gotten infected. To hear him tell it, there had been some horror on the pharmacists’ part as they gazed upon his mangled toes, but they’d hooked him up with some great medicine, and he was enthusiastic about making a full recovery. He had to lance his blisters and inject them with an antibiotic, then do some fancy bandaging. There was a girl with him in the stairwell, but I can’t remember who she was, either, though once again, it was a pilgrim I knew. She, being a truly lovely human being, was going to help him lance the blisters and get fixed up. I loved Mark’s boundless enthusiasm, tempered with a deliciously twisted sense of humor. He wasn’t a fan of churches, so I don’t think he visited the cathedral that day, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the gruesome reliquaries in the cathedral art gallery…

Natalie had already visited the town’s cathedral, but offered to go a second time with me. I was feeling good enough that I didn’t want to miss this important landmark, especially since it’s central to a particularly amusing story of a miracle that once occurred in the town. During the middle ages, the legend goes, a pilgrim family walked through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The family’s teenage son was handsome, and an innkeeper’s daughter tried to seduce him. He resisted her advances, and she, feeling insulted, hid a silver cup in his bags. When he and his family tried to leave town the next day, she reported him as a thief, and he was tried and executed at the gallows. His body was left to hang as a sign to would-be thieves, and his poor parents continued on their pilgrimage. Much later, after reaching Santiago de Compostela, receiving their blessings, and turning around to come home, they passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada again, and passed by their son’s body. Miraculously, he wasn’t dead after all, but had been hanging there, alive and unharmed, the entire time. He yelled down to his parents that he’s still alive, thanks to Santo Domingo, and they, realizing the miracle, ran to beg the mayor for clemency in light of this obvious sign of their son’s innocence. The mayor was just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken when the parents came calling, and he laughed outright at their ridiculous story, saying “Your son is as alive as these chickens I’m about to eat for dinner!” At that moment, the two chickens hopped up from their roasting pans, grew feathers and beaks, and started to dance around the table, squawking. The miracle was recognized, the boy was cut down and returned, whole, to his family, and from that point forward, the town has kept two descendants of those original chickens in a special pen in the town’s cathedral.

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The chicken coop is very bright inside, but there are two chickens in there, I promise!

The chicken coop and art museum in the cathedral are pretty cool, but weirdly, I think I got more out of the ticket office than anything else I saw that evening. You have to buy tickets to the cathedral across the street in this rather banal looking storefront. Inside, it’s very brightly lit, and set up like a regular old tourist gift shop. They’ve got all of the normal touristy things that you can buy – postcards, t-shirts, small toys, that kind of thing, but there were also all sorts of weird, cheaply-made items that were more typical of the popular dollar store-style Asian markets that you’ll find in many larger Spanish towns along the Camino. The incongruity was very pleasing, for whatever reason.

After walking through the cathedral, Natalie bustled off to meet a new friend of hers, another Mark, this one from Australia. She’d run into him earlier, and made plans to grab dinner that evening. I was invited to tag along, but first I wanted to visit the town’s bell tower, which featured a variety of bells that rang at specific intervals. I was hoping to get to catch the bells in action, and was happy that it worked out as planned (though they were very loud). Unfortunately, if I had a video of the bells chiming, I must have erased it on accident, but I did manage to get a couple of photos.

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Steps leading up to the bells.

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When I got to the restaurant, Australian Mark and Natalie were having a cocktail in the front of the cafe, waiting for dinner service to start in the dining room. They invited me to pull up a chair, and I gladly joined them. I didn’t remember this Mark, but we’d actually met days before, back at Zabaldika. He and Natalie had been sitting across from each other that night at dinner, and had gotten to know each other then and during the meditation circle that I’d skipped in favor of going to sleep early. Mark had been walking more quickly than we, but had had a brush with death the night before. He’d tripped and fallen in the shower, and busted his head open. He was bleeding and in shock, but luckily, another peregrino came to his rescue and called the hospitalero. The hospitalero happened to be a Reiki healer. He called the paramedics, but in the mean time sat with Mark and helped draw away the pain and fright using Reiki techniques.

As Mark recounted the story of the injury and his thankfulness for those who had come to his aid, I was quite taken with the sincerity and emotion of the moment. As he continued talking through dinner, it was clear that he was suffering emotionally from other issues in his life, and really needed to get some things off his chest. So I ended up crying at dinner for the second night in a row, but this time over something a little more important than a beautiful meal. Every now and then through dinner, I recall looking over at Natalie and getting the feeling that there was something more here than she’d expressed to me yet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it that night, but it would soon be pretty obvious that I was witnessing the sweet opening notes of a Camino romance.

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Delicious paella.

At dinner that night, I realized yet again that I was familiar with Rioja-style food, when I ordered paella for what I thought was the first time. The dish that was delivered to me was savory, flavorful, a little greasy and soft, and kept reminding me of something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually it hit me – my great-grandmother on my father’s side made a dish she called Spanish Rice, made of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce, with a few spices thrown in. Nothing to write home about, but one of my dad’s favorite meals, and something I grew up eating very often as a kid. I ended up hating it – had to melt slices of cheese over it to be able to force myself to eat it. Probably the only ingredient that Spanish Rice and paella had in common was rice, but somehow the paella here at this restaurant tasted like the Spanish Rice I’d grown up eating as a kid, except that now, the nostalgia (and better ingredients, most likely) made me love the dish. It was a very weird thing to realize, since now I’m wondering where in hell my great-grandmother, who grew up on the coast of NC in a very insular area, got a recipe for bastardized paella?

Back in the albergue that night, things were a little wild. The common area for pilgrims to hang out was very large, and a few groups of pilgrims had gotten together to cook big communal dinners. After the plates were cleared away, they got to singing and making music, and it got rowdy in the way that only happy pilgrims can make happen – around 30 or 40 people were playing spoons, banging pots, and singing at the top of their lungs in various languages. All amazing, but not if you’re tired and want to sleep. At 10pm on the nose, that same Reiki-healing hospitalero rolled through wearing a red clown nose and striking a miniature gong, making it clear in a kind way that everyone needed to go to bed immediately.

There were around 20 beds in my dorm room, maybe more. That night, my unfriendly bunkmate kept most of those 20 people awake with ungodly snores that physically shook our rickety bunkbed all night. I was a little better-rested than the others, since I’d had a chance to sleep most of the day AND I had some great ear plugs that blocked a portion of the noise (not all, by any means), but when the lights came on in the morning and everyone started packing up, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how many people were shooting dirty looks at the only guy in the room who’d gotten a good night’s sleep. At breakfast, I saw him meet up with his friends at one of the communal tables, and get more angry stares from other peregrinos. I wondered if his friends had discovered his snoring problem and decided to stay in another room to get more rest. I had been in that same position before the Camino with a family member with whom I’d (in retrospect, unwisely, since I knew her propensity for snoring) shared a hotel room, and how much I hated her chipper little “Good Morning!” after keeping me awake all night with her foghorn snores. I will never, ever share a room with her again, and I don’t care how much I have to pay. Sometimes, when you love someone, you need to take measures to protect your own sanity in order to save the relationship. I never ran into the unfriendly, snoring peregrino again, but often wondered what became of him.

Click here to read about Day 14.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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I’m pretty certain that Day 12 ranks as my shortest day on the Camino, right after the walk up to Orisson on Day 2 (since I’ve been counting my arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port as my Day 1). From Navarrete to Nájera is only around 7 or 8 miles, so it’s not exactly a trek. But I started to feel pretty sick this day, and the short walk still took a lot out of me.

It was misting out when we woke up in Navarrete. Nothing major, just enough to make many of that morning’s crop of pilgrims take a little longer to get out of town. It was still dark out when Natalie and I left the albergue, and the town was still locked up tight. Why go out on a morning like this if you didn’t have to? We made a beeline to the first light we saw spilling from an open doorway near the cathedral square, and lucked into a cute little café, where we had orange juice, cafés con leche, and a chocolate bar for me. The place was tiny, just two counter-height tables, a couple of standing displays of snack foods, and enough standing room for a few people to line up to order at the little window near the front of the shop. We were among the first in the shop, and we squeezed in at one of the tables to have our light breakfast and look over the map for the day’s walk.

Word spread that it was supposed to rain today, and those who weren’t already wearing rain jackets or ponchos started pulling their bags open to grab what they needed. Pack covers went on, as well as rain pants, and gaiters. There was an air of expectation and resolution, no complaints, just giving in and going with what nature had handed us for the day. It’s all you can do.

As it turned out, the mist remained a constant through much of the morning’s walk, obscuring what were supposed to be beautiful views. However, it never did turn to a full downpour, which was great for me, since my health gradually declined through the morning. I’d brought two packs of tissues with me from the U.S. in case I needed to “use the facilities” when there were none to be found, and had to resort to popping a squat on the side of the road. I only needed those tissues in that capacity three times over the entire Camino, but I was very glad of them on this day, when I needed to stop and blow my nose every few minutes, it felt like.

Side note on tissues – first off, don’t assume you can just put them in the top of your pack and stop to take them out when you need them. If your nose is running like crazy, just put them in your pocket or if you have a waist pack, that’ll do, too. It will really slow you down to have to unstrap your pack and take it off every time you start getting particularly snotty. Secondly, don’t go hog wild and use a new tissue for every nose blow. I know it’s gross to think about, but when you’re on the Camino, you’ll start to understand how wasteful that is, and how little anyone cares that you’re reusing your tissue a few times. Just make sure to wash your hands once you get to the next cafe, and don’t touch people or things too much without de-germing as much as you can. No one needs your cold, but to be honest, everyone understands that when you’re sleeping in close quarters and wearing yourself out on a daily basis, your health is bound to take a hit, and we’ll all share each other’s germs at least once. Sucks, but them’s the breaks. Lastly, do your part to keep the Camino clean for all who come after you. Never, ever leave your trash behind you. If you use a tissue, pack it away in a plastic baggie, a pocket, wherever – just take it with you and dispose of it properly the next time you encounter a trash receptacle. You’ll be surprised and dismayed to see how disgusting parts of the trail can get, where people just leave their gross trash behind on the road. It’s quite sad, and we all need to do our part to lessen the impact. If you want to be an even better human being than I am, you could forego disposable tissues and just bring a handkerchief or two. They’re useful for more than nose blowing, and can be washed and reused for years to come.

That morning was absolutely gorgeous, and ranked as one of my favorite portions of the Camino. I loved the silence in the mist. One of the strange and interesting parts of the day is that we passed through a section of the Camino that was designated as an art exhibit. From what we could understand, there were supposed to be installations all down the trail, but in reality, the only thing we saw that could be art was a weird, solitary painting that looked almost as if it had been discarded there on the side of the road.

At one point in the morning, we walked out of the mist into a tiny town that was really just a roadside cafe. It had the feel of a truck stop, just no trucks. We popped in to grab breakfast, and I ended up having two breakfasts – a Kas naranja and a chocolate bar, plus a slice of tortilla and cafe con leche.

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That day, Natalie and I stayed pretty much within eyesight of each other, and played a game of hopscotch with English Mark. He and Tom weren’t walking together anymore; Mark’s feet were really taking a toll on his ability to keep up with the athletic Tom, so they talked it over and Tom walked on. It’s something that has to happen, and something that I’d prepared myself for years before getting to Spain (benefit of reading too many Camino journals), but it’s still a really tough moment for every pilgrim to have to make that kind of call.

Mark seemed sad to not be walking with his buddy, but also had a carefree air, like a weight had been taken off. He had finally found HIS Camino, and he was enjoying it despite the pain. As he walked, he listened to the Rolling Stones and various podcasts. Later that morning, during another coffee break (Is anybody doing the math on how much coffee I consumed on the Camino?), we sat at a cafe bar together and shared podcast names. I recommended a ghost story podcast that I enjoyed back in the states; I wish I could remember what he recommended I listen to. I’d love to give it a listen now.

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Walking into Nájera

The day remained overcast and gloomy – my favorite type of weather. We made it into Nájera in the early afternoon, and headed for Albergue Puerta de Nájera, which Natalie knew of from her last Camino a couple of years before. It was a solid choice, an adorable place with some private rooms and some dorm-style rooms with 6 to 8 beds each. The bathrooms weren’t unisex, which was a lovely bonus, but the bathrooms did share a wall. As I was taking my shower that afternoon, the weirdest thing happened. Along the walk, I had two major “earworms” occur. One of them was shared with Natalie – we both got into the habit of humming “La Vie en Rose” as we walked, keeping time with our walking poles. I have no clue why she was singing it, or if I got it from her, but later in the Camino I realized that it was also used on a popular shampoo commercial that played on TV every now and then at various cafes, so one or both of us might have gotten it from TV or from the other, who knows. The other song that happened ALL THE TIME for me was The A-Team soundtrack, from that popular 80’s TV show. I hummed it to myself daily, sometimes in hour-long loops, as I walked. I whistled it. I embellished it and turned it into a jazz tune. It drove me mad, but I couldn’t get rid of it. That day, as I showered, on the other side of the shared bathroom wall, I could hear a Portuguese peregrino singing a song – the theme to The A-Team. I almost died laughing, then spent probably a little too much time wondering if all of we pilgrims had tapped into a collective consciousness while walking. Can’t remember the theme? You’re welcome:

Along the Camino, you’ll find that some albergues like to have men and women in separate dorms and bathrooms, and others just mix it up. This one had same sex bathrooms and mixed dorm rooms. By the time we got to Nájera, I don’t think anyone really cared one way or the other about either thing. Everyone was courteous, there was no creepiness to having to share spaces – we were all sharing a goal, and though I’ve read some stories about incidents here and there, nothing untoward happened in any place I stayed. One of the couples in our room were a married American couple in their early 60s, who had been walking the Camino backwards, and were headed back to St. Jean Pied de Port. I don’t remember many details about them, but they were a pleasant pair, and they were into food and wine. There was a small communal dining area and kitchen downstairs in the albergue, and I remember him proudly unpacking a bag of supplies to make them both sandwiches. He did it with such attention to detail and obvious joy that the end result struck me as a gourmet masterpiece, despite the fact they were just regular old sandwiches. She poured wine and commented on his sandwich-making skills from time to time. They were so clearly relishing every second together, and this beautiful meal was just one more layer of the loveliness of their adventure. I didn’t exactly envy them, but in them, I saw what I’m looking for in life – a partner to share my adventures, and then make them sweeter just by being himself and laughing along the way.

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Sometimes you go shopping for staples, and end up getting entranced by the candy section…

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Other times you find things to laugh about (this is a mayonnaise-based “salad” mixture made of CARP, not crap)

On groceries – As far as groceries went on the Camino, Natalie taught me pretty early on to grab supplies at night for the next morning. I tended to buy a baguette, goat cheese or soft sheep’s cheese, thinly sliced ham, chorizo, eggs, yogurt, Knorr soup packets (an obsession of mine, since they’re not readily available in the U.S.) – I preferred chicken noodle and cream of asparagus or cream of mushroom – and chocolate. I didn’t buy everything all at the same time, of course, but some days I’d decide on walking with sandwich materials, and every morning I really wanted to have boiled eggs and yogurt to start out the day. Breakfast along the Camino is pretty depressing if you’re used to something hearty – they stick with coffee of some sort, fresh juice, and thick slabs of toasted bread, so if you’re used to starting the day with a nice helping of protein, you’re going to need to prepare yourself the night before. If you’re walking with other people, it can be beneficial for your wallet and your pack weight to go grocery shopping together, and everyone buy a piece of the puzzle. This means everyone can share resources at breakfast and snack time, but no one has to carry too much extra weight.

Another thing I learned on the Camino is that Americans are pretty uptight about food spoiling. You don’t have to refrigerate yogurt in cool weather – yogurt keeps for a couple of days, boiled eggs keep for a day or two, and sausage and cheese keep for a few days, as well. There’s a reason you think of people in the “olden days” eating bread and cheese, and hunks of cured meat. We’ve gone overboard in our dependence on refrigeration. Use common sense, but also don’t freak out about having food in your pack for a day or two. If you’re really afraid that the thing you’ve bought is going to spoil, share your resources with your friends, or talk to the hospitalero and leave the food behind for other pilgrims in your albergue’s refrigerator.

After we’d gotten our things settled in, Natalie and I decided to tour the town. We walked by this shop that looked absolutely dreamy, full of beautiful painted pottery, but when we tried to walk in, the shop owner told us that they were closed for siesta. So we made a note to come back by, then walked to Santa María la Real de Nájera, a famous monastery where many early royals are buried, to take a tour. After the monastery, we tried to visit the pottery shop, which now had a few customers, but the shop owner yelled at us and told us he was still closed, so we gave up on that plan and walked some of the back streets that used to be the Jewish part of town in medieval times. I was surprised to note that the area seemed a little sketchier than anything we’d experienced before, and was glad to have company. It was one of the few occasions that I was uneasy on the Camino. We passed a group of men sitting around, drinking beers and talking, and they seemed different. They stared at us with open unfriendliness, more of a “what the hell are you doing here?” vibe than an open threat, but we got the hint and walked back towards the center of town.

I couldn’t really pinpoint why they didn’t strike me as belonging (something about manner of dress and the way they were hanging out), since I’m no expert in Spanish culture, but we were obviously encroaching, and afterwards it occurred to me that they might have been Travelers. I can’t be sure of that – maybe it was just the bad part of town, or maybe we got the wrong idea, who knows? It’s a shame, though, because we were trying to get a better view of the cliffs behind town where there were little caves carved out that used to be religious dwellings.

Back at town center, we started looking around for a place to grab dinner, and ran into Mark, posted up at a cheesy-looking sports bar, drinking his trademark huge beer. We were all happy to see each other, so Natalie and I ran in to have a drink, grab some tapas, and see if he wanted to meet up for dinner. Though I’ve recounted some things about Mark before now, I think it’s important to say that this was really the first night that I felt I was starting to understand him. He told us that it would be his birthday in a few days, and also told us more about his job, and gave us some clues about his Camino. He had been a bus driver/tour guide with a popular tour company, and had traveled quite a bit. His manner was loveably gruff, rough around the edges, that bittersweet mix of joy and sorrow that I honed in on immediately. We had some things in common, and that night over drinks he let us in on some of the things that made him a special human being. I’m so happy to have had those moments to get to know him, now that he’s gone. One of the things that he said that made both Natalie and me laugh was something to the effect of, “Everyone wants to know your life story, why you’re here on the Camino and how your suffering lead you here, blah, blah, blah. What if you just want to take a long walk?” Very gruff, very “I don’t have feelings, stop assuming things.” Then, in almost the very next breath, he went on to start thinking out loud about why he was on the Camino, sharing those feelings that he’d just insisted weren’t a thing, lol. He was a funny, sweet guy. I hope he got what he needed.

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Later that night, I was brought to tears over dinner, specifically over a dish called Patatas Riojanas (Riojan style potatoes), a dish of potatoes stewed with chorizo. It’s strange, since my home area of Eastern North Carolina doesn’t have any strong ties to Spanish culture, but one of my favorite simple NC dishes is stewed potatoes, often served as a side dish to Eastern NC BBQ. Patatas Riojanas tastes like an improved version of the stewed potatoes I grew up eating, and that night, maybe particularly because I was sick and worn out and feeling a little more sentimental than usual, I started crying with joy at the dinner table as I ate my Riojan stewed taters. Here’s a simple recipe for Patatas Riojanas if you’d like to try to recreate this magic for yourself! Note that Spanish chorizo is a hard, smoked sausage, very different from the fresh, raw Mexican chorizo that we typically see in the states. You’ll have to do a little research on where to find Spanish chorizo in your area, but it’s available online if resources are scarce in your neck of the woods.

The other big memory I have from that night is back at the albergue, right before lights out, as Natalie and I unrolled our sleeping bags and got ready for bed. We were sharing a bunk bed (I got the bottom bunk – woot!), and she and I were sitting back to back, rifling through packs. It struck me that we probably wouldn’t be walking together much longer, and I got a little teary, so I told her how lucky I felt to have gotten to meet her. Like it wasn’t just by chance. It was a lovely moment of friendship, and I still feel like if there’s such a thing as Divine Providence, it led me to run into Natalie that first day on the bus into St. Jean, then again at Orisson. I’m also glad I had such happy things happen that day in Nájera, since the next day’s walk was going to be…well, I’ll tell you about that next time.

Click here to read about Day 13.