Winter Camino – Day 20

Upwards and Onwards… or at least that what the map says.

The downside of these full window blinds in Spain is that they block out every ounce of light. To be fair, that is what they are designed to do but… when you sleep in because it’s pitch black in your room, that’s a drag. I listen to the Church bells ring eight times. Oops, time to get up. I pack quickly as I really don’t want to miss the sunrise.

Out the door and just a few feet later I am in front of Gaudi’s Palace with a gorgeous sky behind. I am thankful for a Church bell alarm as I would have been sad to miss this sight.

Right next door the beautiful Church, hardly a consolation prize.

Today the Camino moves uphill pretty much all day. There are a few small villages to enjoy spaced evenly for breaks throughout the day. I stop in the first for my daily habit of cafe con leche. This never gets old. The sun is still out as I leave but the wind has picked up and there is a definite bite in the air today accentuated by the head on direction it is coming.

As I am a kilometre from Santa Catalina I see a bitter sweet rainbow in the sky. Sweet because it is a full rainbow and beautiful by any standard but bitter because where there are rainbows you must find rain.

The next town features an open bar and since it is close to noon I opt for a lengthy break, enjoying some Zuma de naranja with an Aquarius chaser. Don’t try this at home unless you are an experienced Peregrino! On the move again the next two towns are fully cerrado, not a soul to be seen. I wonder if the places are even occupied or if they are all just summer homes for city folk? I do, however, have a great appreciation of their use of vibrant colours.

One thing I have learned is that regardless of how old or decrepit, the Spanish are verrry reluctant to ever tear anything down. This stone fence is unlikely to hold a cow or sheep in but it does make for an interesting photo.

Leaving El Ganso I see that the last couple of hours of my day will be trying. Heavy, dark clouds are headed my way so I find a nice rock on the side of the trail and change into my rain clothes and tuck my camera away.

By some small miracle though, the clouds split and half go to my left and half go to my right. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Not a drop of rain hits me although the wind has increased to a gale force now.

The last stretch of the day to Rabanal del Camino is nice, a trail meandering beside the road lined with gnarly, stunted trees not dissimilar to a particular variety of Oak tree where I am from. These misshapen trees have stubbornly hung on to the leaves through wind, rain and snow proving they are a good match for this hard country.

A few hundred metres up the final hill and I am there, Rabanal del Camino. I find a small tienda and buy some food to cook for dinner, washed down with a Galician beer. Well deserved I think. Tonight I will have a wonderful opportunity to hear the Monks at the local Church performing their Gregorian chanting. What an amazing life I have been given…

Distance walked today: 20.2 kms

Total distance walked: 443.2 kms

Today’s map:

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Winter Camino – Day 19

It’s baaaack… Winter has returned to the Winter Camino!

Our wonderful Hospitalera has put out a great breakfast spread for the three of us at the Albergue and we dive right in. We all know that today has the potential to be a long day after watching snow start to fall last night. As day breaks today we see that indeed it is a Winter Camino again. Not too much but at least an inch of fresh snow covers everything outside. I feel like it’s Christmas all over again! I lace up my boots and say farewell to my fellow Peregrinos and Hospitalera and head out. It is a brisk but sunny day. Perfect for walking.

Walking through town I can see I was right about the brisk. The temperature is -3.5C this morning, a new record for this year’s walk.

Leaving San Martin del Camino and heading along the road for a while doesn’t seem nearly as unenjoyable as yesterday with this new white blanket around us.

It doesn’t take long to reach Hospital de Orbigo and I am ready for a cafe con leche. I see a bar open just before the Bridge of Honour but am to eager to photograph the bridge to stop. I would regret this later when I find out every other bar after the bridge is closed. Grrr…

An interesting informational board sits on the bridge telling the story of a Knight whose marriage proposal was turned down setting him to a bit of a hissy fit, challenge any other Knight in jousting duel for the period of one month. After vanquishing all challengers and his honour returned, he got on with his life and moved on. The end. Maybe those weren’t the exact words but you get the gist. This year, much to my dismay, all jousts seem to have been postponed due to snow…

Steadily I make my way through the next couple of villages until I see someone who wants her nose rubbed. It is no Harry Dog but how can I say no to a face like that?

From here I will head up the hill towards something of an icon of this alternative route. I’m not sure who is bringing the clothes but each time I have passed here there is a new sense of fashion. Seems someone still likes playing dress up! Clothes aside, this is one heck of a view.

Over the hill and a few kilometres later I approach one of my favourite spots for a snack and quick rest. The place is called the “Casa de Los Dioses” and was founded by a kind man named David who just wanted to do nice things for Pilgrims. It is the first time I have stopped here to find David is not here. I suppose it was bound to happen. I still enjoy a glass of juice and a fresh orange while giving my feet a nice rest.

It is less than two kilometers until I can finally see my destination for the day – Astorga. It is still an hour away but it seems that once you see the finish line the rest of the day goes easier.

A final push and I enter the old Roman city. It only takes a few minutes to track down my accommodation for the night, stopping to pick up a salad at the Supermercado along the way. A hot shower and a bit of writing and I can already feel my eyelids starting to droop. That must be a sign…

Distance walked today: 25.5 kms

Total distance walked: 423.0 kms

Today’s map:

Winter Camino – Day 18

If you make friends with yourself you will never be alone ~ Maxwell Maltz.

It is dark when my alarms starts at 6:30am. Although I am mostly packed, I am well rested and have decided a final soak in this heaven sent bath and a leisurely breakfast down in the dining room before I leave will be a nice way to end my rest period. It is a moderately long day ahead and starting it with a rushed feeling just won’t do.

When daylight has come I head out. A nice conversation with the lady at the front desk, she is also a Pilgrim having recently completed the Camino San Salvador. Out into the street, I head back to the Cathedral to pick up the Camino. I have learned that if you want to photograph a famous place in Spain do it early! This morning the well known sign of León plus a couple more of the Cathedral now that a few clouds have decided to make an appearance.

Right. Off we go! It is only 10-15 minutes before I am at the Parador de León. I’ve stayed here before and will be interested to see how it looks after its two-year remodel. This year however, all that there is for me to do is sit with an old friend for a few minutes and enjoy the quiet before crossing the bridge and leaving León behind.

The walk out through the suburbs of León goes by quickly and I find myself smiling when I see the little Bodegas. My first time walking past here someone had had a bit of fun and hung a sign saying “Terra Media” (Middle Earth), I’m guessing as an homage to the Lord of the Rings.

Before I know it I am in La Virgin del Camino. Since I am here so quickly I decide it is the perfect opportunity to explore the modern Church housing the sculpture so often talked about. I enter the unique looking Church and the Priest notices me and comes over. We establish quickly that I speak very elementary Spanish and he no English. But he is a kind man who is very proud of this Church and her contents and takes his time to give me a full tour and explain the history. He speaks slowly, using words a child would understand and I find myself able to follow along. It is fascinating and the sculptures and art beautiful. Standing before the altar I ask if it would be alright if I took a photo. He smiles but asks me to wait a moment and goes into a back room and turns on all the lights so I may take a better photo. I am grateful and honoured he would do this for me. This has been a wonderful experience for me.

The land has certainly become more arid again and we have now reached a new type of agricultural land. If we were to play a game and try to name a perfume that best suits the area I believe my best before would be “Eau du Bovine”. The essence of cow ‘fertilizer’ is almost overwhelming for a few minutes. Although I am the Grandson of a farmer it has been a while since that perfume has filled my nose.

It is only a few more kilometres to my destination and although the day has been a long one, it has been relatively easy. I walk alone again today but knowing my previous companions are a full day ahead has made this day feel different. Knowing that there is no one expecting me or waiting for me has allowed me to embrace the solitude of a winter Camino at a deeper level. I realize I am very comfortable with my own company and find that thought comforting and satisfying.

Tonight I am staying at a wonderful Albergue with an exceptional Hospitalera. The meal they prepare for us is tasty as it is filling. I share it with another Pilgrim whose name came up last night while I visited two other Pilgrims in León. Funny how small our community is. He is quiet but we have a very enjoyable conversation. Some homemade liquor to finish the meal and it time for sleep. Tomorrow promises to be a big day as we watch small snowflakes falling past the window.

Distance walked today: 25.9 kms

Total distance walked: 397.5 kms

Today’s map:

Winter Camino – Rest Day (León)

What a great day…!

The Bed, Bath and Blood Moon have come together to create a brilliant rest day here in León. Most of the Day has been about rest and rejuvenation but since there is a lunar event that has not been seen for the last 150 years I threw on the boots and took my camera up to the Cathedral.

It was also an opportunity to enjoy a drink with an Australian Peregrina I had met my first night in Roncesvalles. It is always enjoyable to catch up and hear interesting stories, compare notes and, in general, be with other Pilgrims. She and another American Pilgrim she has been walking with will rest in León tomorrow but who knows, perhaps the Camino will conspire to bring us all together again.

We all enjoyed the sunset and then watched the Super Blue Blood moon rise up beside the Cathedral. In person it was stunning. On my camera with a wide angle lens, not so much. Still, the memory will come home with me and the Cathedral at night was stunning as usual.

My clothes are all freshly laundered and my bag is packed. Tomorrow it will be exciting to be walking towards Santiago de Compostela again.

Winter Camino – Day 17

Parting is a sweet sorrow but part of the life on the Camino.

Last night we were fortunate for a Pilgrim sharing our room to come in at 9:45pm and turn the lights on and get settled for the night. From the instant transformation of our room from a Pilgrim Albergue to one that more resembled a distillery, I could hazard a guess where this person had spent their evening. This surely saved all of us from getting too much rest for the upcoming day. But the kindness didn’t stop there, no, it was the gift that kept on giving because in the morning he started making phone calls at 6:30am in the bedroom rather than out in the common room. Well done, Sir. It is a good thing I have cocooned my bunk so at least the bright lights aren’t much of a bother.

Today, thankfully, is a short day, some 18kms into León. Having started the day on the wrong foot, it’s time to right the ship. Last night I found a nice Tortilla de Patata for €0.59 at the local Dia Supermercado so I was happy to share that for a communal breakfast. Others pitched in fresh oranges, bread and Aquarius (it’s not just for hot afternoons!) and before you knew it happiness had returned to the land. The only missing item was taken care of at the first bar – Cafe con leche and just because I was feeling saucy, a Napolitano (chocolate filled pastry).

It is -2C according to the sign outside the Pharmacia, frost again covering everything. Across the bridge out of town and there are some good kilometres of trail to enjoy the cool, sunny morning. Again there is not a cloud to be found. I note that the agricultural area has changed again and now instead of sprawling Meseta we seem to be into a more arid area, dominated by smaller family farms with irrigation systems harkening back to the Days of Roman occupation.

It is January and although cold there is still an abundance of life here.

Entering Puente de Villarente I find myself standing in front of a magnificent 16-arch Bridge. Oddly, the first arch spans a small river and the other 15 Arches seem to be ‘just in case’ as they stand over what looks to be an old flood plain. That is a lot of work for a ‘just in case’… Nonetheless, I am well impressed.

A quick cafe con leche at a bar on the way out of town and my internal clock tells me it is approaching lunch time. Entering the small town of Arcahueja there is a very nice Pilgrim rest area complete with seats and tables sitting out in the early afternoon sun. Perfect. I untie my baguette from the back of my pack and cut off a healthy portion, fill it with meat and cheese and proceed to have a most enjoyable feast.

I have decided to take a day of rest in León and this means I will fall behind my Camino Family. It is common for this to happen as we all must walk our own way at our own speed. I smile thinking about them, knowing I will miss their companionship in the evenings but happy they carry on with their journey. It is a bitter sweet element of the camino experience.

León is a short distance off and as such the inevitable industrial sprawl has begun. However, it is a relatively small price to pay for my upcoming reward… two nights at a comfortable hotel in a room with a king-size bed and a jacuzzi bathtub. This in mind, the industrial sprawl does not phase me in the least!

I arrive in León a little too early to check-in so wander up Callé Rua, the main Pilgrim route through the city.

Then on to the Cathedral de León. Another great benefit to a winter Camino is that you needn’t wait for a break in the hordes to grab a nice photo. Today there are a few teenagers loitering but other than that it seems I have the city to myself.

I check into my hotel finally and it is time to rest… and try that jacuzzi bath out!

All is right in the world again.

Distance walked today: 19.7 kms

Total distance walked: 371.6 kms

Today’s map:

Winter Camino – Day 16

Today is January 29th and I am grateful that I have shorts to wear… Wait, What???

I woke up really refreshed today. Perhaps it is because I’ve had a few shorter days or maybe the temperature in the Albergue was just right or…? Whatever it was, I feel supercharged today. Packing my bag in the morning has become ultra efficient, everything with its own place now. I head over to the common room for a quick cafe con leche, zuma de naranja natural (freshly squeezed orange juice) and tostadas. Perfect. I’m out the door and headed out of town before the sun has peaked over the horizon.

I don’t often take this photo but today my shadow just seems so much longer than usual I make an exception.

I also note something of interest. For the nautically inclined I notice some imposing snow-capped mountains off my starboard beam (to my right for everyone else). They seem quite a way away but still, there is an awe full lot of snow on those mountains [insert ominous foreshadowing music here]. Still, they are a long way off [insert knowing glance between two observers who know famous last words when they hear them]…

This mountain range running from east to west also give rise to an interesting observation. Today it would be exceedingly hard to get lost on the Camino. To my right the mountains guide me, behind me the sun treats my shadow in the direction I must follow, the wind in my ears whisper stories of Santiago having recently come from that direction and overhead the last remnants of last nights stars point the way I must surely go. With all these guides at my disposal do I even need the ever present yellow arrows?

I see another monument to a fallen Pilgrim. As happy as I am, I know I must consciously remember to be grateful for this day for I know that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

The Meseta is warming up fast today. The ice on the puddles tells me it was freezing last night but today by 10:00am I have removed my light gloves, wool hat and jacket. The warm glow I have become used to is back again telling me today will be hot.

I pull into a small town for a bite of Tortilla de Patata (Spanish omelette with potato and cheese) and a cafe con leche for good measure. On the way out of town I see something that always makes me smile; a small town Spanish gym. You see these in many towns and like the children’s playgrounds, I have yet to see anyone using these pieces of equipment.

It’s close to 11:00am now and it dawns on my that there is not a single cloud in the blue sky today. And it also occurs to me that I am getting too hot. It is January and I am firmly in the camp of global warming being a truth. I’m just not quite as certain at this moment if I think it’s a bad thing! At the next bench along the trail I do the unthinkable, I convert my pants into shorts. It’s ok, they have a zipper for that, it’s not like I pulled out my pocket knife or anything! But here I am, walking a winter Camino in January in shorts, a shirt with sleeves rolled up and sunglasses. Talk about a hard Camino to pack the right clothes for!

It’s about here that I notice my first pre-planned forest of this Camino. As the son of a Logger (and having dabbled in the business growing up) this just seems so wrong to me. It is opposite every forest I’ve walked through on the west coast of Canada. However… insofar as my OCD is concerned, I LOVE THIS FOREST!

I’ve reached the last town before my nightly stop, a small town called Religios. I’m sure there must be numerous fascinating bits of history here but the only thing of note you will read in your guidebooks is that this is the home of the famous ‘Bar Elvis’, where they speak ‘Englis‘ but they evidently don’t spell it so well. It is closed so I cannot go in but I’m guessing it would have been a tad anticlimactic anyway.

I reach Mansilla de las Mulas and I am done for the day. It has been the longest walk of this year’s Camino and the dogs are barkin’. An easy dinner, a glass of wine and dreams of León tomorrow beckon. It has been a good day.

Distance walked today: 26.7 kms

Total distance walked: 351.9 kms

Today’s map:

Winter Camino – Day 15

Miracles really do happen on the Camino de Santiago!

It was still dark outside when I heard our host stoking the fire in the common room. I give that wood a few minutes to get warm and then up I got. Patrick quickly offered some coffee as I entered, the consummate host. We chat about Camino topics and life in Moratinos, a small village with only 20 people living there. I have a challenge getting my mind around that. After a hearty breakfast of toasted seed bread and two delicious eggs from his own coop I grabbed my camera and snuck away to try and grab a few more sunrise photos. While not as dramatic as the previous day, I am pleased with the colour in the sky.

I finished packing, loaded my water bottle and said my good-byes. This is a special place and I am grateful to have been their guest. The sun is bright in the sky and a warm glow stretches out and encompasses everything in its path. I can already tell today will be stellar. Heading out of Moratinos I see a familiar sight, a small playground with children’s swings and such. It is sad the the rural life of Spain seems to be well into its decline, young people opting to move to the big cities in pursuit of work. I’ve walked by dozens of these playgrounds and I have yet to see a single child playing in one.

Today will be a little longer than the previous two, some 20kms to Bercianos Real del Camino. It has become a great point of interest that my pace has steadily increased. Don’t misunderstand, I am still the slowest person on the way each day but from a low point of about 3.5 kms/hour during the Infamous Foot Fiasco of Navarre to today’s high point of 4.6 kms/hour, it has me wondering. My Doctor has assured me the arthritis in my knee is not curable, that my end game is a knee replacement. I wonder how it is that my knee is swelling less than earlier in the trip and the pain is at a very low level? It is amazing the things you ponder when your mind is free to wander for hours on end every day!

I have also notice my geography is changing everyday now. While still an agricultural area of note, these are not the wineyards of La Rioja nor are they the prime wheat fields found earlier on the Meseta. We’ve graduated into the ochre coloured clay that supports different plantings such as Canola. I will be sad to see the Meseta end. It is a stretch that deserves far better than it gets.

As I stop to remove my jacket, I see a familiar Pilgrim, grinning as she approaches. Andrea and I first met walking into Nájera some days back. A Hungarian who lived five years in Spain and now 7 years in London, her accent had me greatly puzzled until she explained. Now we share another few moments heading into Sahagun. She is a runner, however, so we say our good-byes again hoping to crosses paths again down the Camino. Within minutes I’ve lost sight of her. That is until I have cross the quaint foot bridge marking the half-way point of the Camino Frances leading into Sahagun. She has met our Swiss Miss and they are in a rapid-fire conversation. I am dumbstruck the two ladies can both expel so many words per minute while simultaneously listening to the other. I can’t manage to follow either conversation so I give up and snap a few photos.

We all walk together into Sahagun before Andrea takes her leave, 34 kms today and 37kms tomorrow so can’t throttle back for very long. It is literally moments after that that we hear “Buenas Dias” from behind. Turning we are pleasantly shocked to see our Latvian Crown Prince grinning at us! Wow!! It has been nine days since we saw him last. We hadn’t expected to see him until tonight so this is cause for celebration. We three find a dimly lit bar off Plaza Mayor and enjoy some light bites while we catch up. It really is like a mini family reunion. I manage to sneak in a few photos before we depart the city and we all head out at our own pace towards Bercianos.

I am just a few hundred meters along when I see a photo opportunity that doesn’t come along every day. Just 50 meters ahead, they are approaching. I pick my spot and hunker down, waiting for them to come to me. In a few moments I am surrounded and have a front row seat for a unique photo. How fun!

Now for my Camino miracle. I’ve shared numerous times that I am the slowest Peregrino east of Santiago de Compostela. I have accepted this and moved on with my life, ego bandaged and bruised but moved on nonetheless. Well today it finally happened… I passed someone on the Camino! On a long straight stretch I found myself gaining ground on an elderly Spanish man. Adrenalin surging in as I found another gear. As I came alongside we greeted each other. My Spanish is very elementary but I managed to glean that he was 94 and recently had a quadruple bypass operation. Further, he had been running a fever of some 104 degrees for the past couple of days. All I heard were excuses… well, I think they were excuses because truth be told, what he was saying to me was really anyone’s guess… “Never mind all that”, I told myself, “You’re passing someone”!! I dropped the hammer, held the checkered flag out my window and did a mental victory lap as I said farewell, tossing an ‘Ultreia’ (Ever Onwards) to him over my shoulder with a friendly wave.

It is just after 2:00pm when I am approaching Bercianos and it feels like I have barely started my day. With a touch of difficulty I track down my Albergue and join my crew. We happily catch up more now and over dinner. We even practice the choreography of our new hit Camino song, “Slice the Avocado“. Time will tell if this will go viral. It is a fun way to end a nice day.

Distance walked today: 21.2 kms

Total distance walked: 325.2 kms

Today’s map: