The Long Way Home

Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha train station, the original part.

It’s been a bit of a crash-landing. I hadn’t expected to be this dismayed to be back in the States and I miss Spain already.

By Buen Retiró Park, Madrid

In the last 24 hours since leaving Spain, I’ve been on various forms of transport listening to what seem like strikingly self-inflated people bang on endlessly as if they thought everyone in earshot needed to hear them (and as I bang on about my trip, should you decide to exit out, I promise to be sympathetic. Blogging and reading blogs are voluntary activities, after all, unlike being stuck on planes, trains and subways).

I think I’ll go home to my nice little house in my nice little town and shut the door for awhile.

Calle Atocha entrance to Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The trip from Santiago to Madrid started with a 12 block walk in the dark down Rua do Hórreo at 04:00. The station finally opened at 04:30 to a small hoard of us early-birds outside and cold. I was lucky enough to sit next to a Canadian schoolteacher from Toronto who had just done the Sarria to Santiago 112 km, and the time passed quickly.

At the Prado, Madrid

Madrid’s Museo Prado (Velasquez, Goya, Titian, etc) is divided into time periods by floor (the 20th century art is at the nearby Museo Reina Sofia, which was closed on Tuesdays). Goya’s work was spread out on three floors and I scoured all of them looking for “Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (AKA that cool tattoo on Liz’s upper right arm)………ending up Googling and realizing that it’s at the Met in New York, for Pete’s sake (who is Pete, anyway?). They had a room of Goya’s works from his strange “black period”.

Far Home Atocha is about 10 blocks from Puerta de Atocha and on your way to the Plaza Mayor. It’s a pleasant, affordable hostal with an inexplicable science theme. The very nice young Spaniard working there spoke great English because he’d studied in Utah. I asked him if he were a Mormon because I wanted to see him smile. I was halfway through a shower by the time I realized that the minuscule 2-compartment shower room had no door lock and was not a female-only shower. The WC was shared as well. Ah, Europe. Everyone knows the behavioral expectations, and it all works out fine.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

It seems I’m doing a tour of the gyms of Scotland and Spain this summer. Madrid’s possibility was under two blocks from the hostal (the very orange “Basic-Fit Atocha”). They’re friendly, helpful, and don’t clean everything off there either. And nobody died that I heard about.

Basic-Fit Atocha
Madrid’s Royal Palace

Madrid’s Al Ándalus Hammam was a pleasant way of passing the hours before going out to the airport. I’ve been to hammams in Germany and France also and always enjoy them, although it’s usually confusing to understand how they want you to proceed through the series of rooms and treatments without good language proficiency. It all manages to get sorted. For 40 Euro you get 90 minutes of different water features, a steam room, an excellent massage, a bathing suit loaner, a towel, shower facilities and lockers. A real treat. And they let you leave your clothes on at this one…….

Puerta de Atocha has an old section that is lovely. They’ve made it into a green space and it’s quite a counterbalance to the crowded, busy Cercanias, Renfe medium and long-distance trains, and metro in the newer part.

At the Norwegian check-in at Madrid Barajas, the usual airlines ground employees circulated in the line making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, asking the baggage security questions, checking passports and, most importantly, engaging you seemingly to spot those who might become problems on their flights, which is very smart and appreciated. The young lady who approached me for the check had good English and asked how long I’d been in Spain and what I’d been doing, while she was clearly evaluating me. She asked questions about the Caminos I’d done and concluded by saying she hoped I’d met enough people on the trail to come back and do the next Camino with others, completely ignoring poor Gregory as if he didn’t count………

Gazpacho, Breakfast of Champions

Here’s something that was said to me that no airline employee has ever said to me: “Please don’t hug me” (for the record, it hadn’t occurred to me to hug him, but he HAD made my night a better one). When I checked in for my cheap, arranged-from-the-trail, one-way Norwegian flight, all was in order. The check-in desk told me it was ok to take Gregory on board with me – despite that he has grown even more rotund. So we went to the security/TSA line together, forgetting until getting flagged that he was carrying the pepper spray. Uncharacteristically, I kept my mouth shut and it turned out that what was of concern was only my hiking pole and some food for the flight…….

At boarding time, I was flagged again with a red flashing light on scanning my ticket. But to my surprise, I’d been flagged for a kiss and not a slap. They’d “overbooked” and I’d been moved to Premium (and hence “Please don’t hug me”), so now I know what an 8.5 hour flight is like NOT in cattle class (SO much better…..). I’ve flown with them quite a few times now, and once it’s understood how they do things, they’re a great airline to use.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Spanish language edition

Upon landing, there was the usual JFK mess. At passport control, there was the usual jammed hoard in the hall who had already been waiting for a long time, and an announcement saying that there was “no more room for US citizens” in reference to the processing rooms being filled beyond capacity. Which seemed a statement of more truth than was intended.

My home gym had left a voicemail while I was on Airplane Mode – they’d noticed that I hadn’t been around for a month and said they missed me and wondered where I was.  When I went in today, there was a card with very sweet messages from the staff and a Planet Fitness mug they’d decorated and put my name on.  I missed them too and would have taken them with me if I could have.

My gratitude to family and friends who left kind emails and texts and to all those who helped in so many ways. I met such fantastic people – Mick, Tatiana (who just finished her Costa de la Morta hike solo), Paco Que Tenga Un Buen Dia, the Toronto schoolteacher, Kristina, the Italians (every one of them except maybe a few cyclists who needed their tires flattened), all the fellow-hikers who kept up such a friendly and positive camaraderie, all the lodging and eatery staff, and even the 30-something guy passing by in Madrid who smiled, whistled, smiled again and kept on walking. It was a really good trip.

Even so, I may have had enough of traveling for awhile. Which I’ll say to Tom at the train station on arrival home. To which he’ll smile and wait, just like he always does. It usually takes about two weeks…..

Happiest Place on Earth – Boho Day and an Octopus Empañada

Today I spent the day roaming twisty streets in an 800 year old city with an interesting history. One of the best ways to spend a day, in my opinion. And just because it’s a shame to waste an opportunity to try something very different, I bought a pulpo (octopus) empañada. Galicia is known for its pulpo. I guess I’m going to have to actually EAT it later on….

After a failed attempt to go to the gym (I didn’t see that little sign above the Horarios that said – of course – that they were closed on Sundays in July and August), I gave up on getting a real workout. Too bad, because I ate a humongous portion of “Rosca” from Colmado overnight. At Colmado they say they are the exclusive makers of this version. It’s bread stuffed with savory ingredients – sometimes ham and green olives and sometimes, like last night’s, steak in a sweet sauce. They use fresh fennel in both, and enough to make a delicious difference in what otherwise might taste ordinary. There’s a spice shop nearby that sells all kinds of fresh spices from barrels. Passing by (or better yet, going in) either shop is a pleasure.

Here are some images of Casa Douro, which I would recommend highly for a pleasant, reasonably-priced habitación with shared bathroom in a well-set up and friendly hostal. I met some people here from Ottowa and Lebanon this morning while in the common rooms using the WiFi and had a pleasant conversation with them. A relief to speak comfortable English.

The image below is from the Capilla de Animas in Santiago, which I’d thought meant chapel of the soul. The image appears to be 9 people burning in flames. I looked up “animas” to be sure I understood the word correctly, but Google says that “animas” means “cheer” or “to cheer up”. How are 9 people suffering the flames of Hell going to be cheered up? Clearly I’m missing something…..

Because I live in a small town in the foothills of the Alleghenies now, and buy very few new clothes, when in a place like Santiago de Compostela I make use of the surprisingly affordable boutique shops. At least that’s the rationale I use for buying some pretty things that I don’t especially need. This morning, I went out in my new boho skirt with leggings, hoodie, hiking shoes and daypack. Because I like that homeless bag lady look.

Although the internet says that there are pilgrims’ masses at 12:00 and 19:30, the entire interior of the cathedral is scaffolded and draped at the moment. There are no pews at all in there right now, and none of the side-chapels are uncovered, so mass wasn’t possible this time. But I saw the botafumiero swing last time, and to me, the idea of attending is to sit somewhere in peace where a deeper sense of beauty and reverence and respect is facilitated by all that conspires there to bring it about. That can be done in other ways.

I passed a nun in a quiet passageway. I smiled first and received a beautiful one in return.

Here’s a banner that I like very much that hangs near Praza do Cervantes where yesterday there was a guitar and violin duo playing very moving versions of favorites.

And a street performer who’s here every year amazing those on Praza Obradoiro.

Last night I went to Bierzo Enxebre for the yearly bowl of their gazpacho. SOMEBODY forgot to put on the drizzle of balsamic reduction. How’s THAT for a first-world problem?

And today Damajuana was serving at noon, so again I was able to have their fantastic grilled goats cheese, grilled vegetable and roasted nut salad served with rustic bread and a light balsamic vinaigrette.

I managed to get a few more cafe con leches in during periods of heavy rain. And made my way back to this little hostal through the arcades, mostly avoiding the deluge. Good thing Gregory stayed back at the hostal, or he would have been whining about THAT.

Taking an evening walk around to “say goodbye” for this year and work off some calories, the locals were out en promenade in Alameda Park. Passing a sidewalk cafe table, I saw a man cue his female companion to look as I passed. I’ve seen what this may have been before. A woman alone with hiking gear is something that other women who would have liked to have done this alone are interested in. Their partners – who may have been dragged along – sometimes point me out, but they usually include me. This young woman tried hard to pretend she wasn’t going to look, but she did. But perhaps it was because I was dressed like a bag lady. I’ll never know.

Alameda Park
Gazebo, Alameda Park
Scallop Shell, symbol of the Caminos to Santiago de Compostela because hundreds of years ago, a pilgrim would bring a shell back to attest to his (usually only his) having made the journey. Of course, then they had to walk back home……

For the record, it’s not always a good idea to make use of opportunities to try something new. The pulpo empañada was squarely inedible and had to be pitched. It tasted as if it had been sitting in that shop window in the sun for a year (and probably had been because who in their right mind would order THAT???). If I don’t develop food poisoning in a few hours, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

It’s still cold here, as it always seems to be. But Madrid will be 85F tomorrow. I just have to get up at 03:25 to catch the train….

Sarria to Santiago: No, You Can’t Wash Your Clothes in a Bidet…..

Santiago de Compostela

Unless you would wash your clothes in a toilet. Then, by all means, do it.

You know what they’re for. It just seems like they should have a more useful purpose for all the space they take up in the bathrooms of Europe. Sometimes young people use them to ice down bottles of wine… a champagne bucket, right? Which sounds not far from drinking out of the toilet to me, but my cat does it all the time and he’s really healthy…..

The stationmaster was there at the station in Sarria when I got there at 8 a.m. and he responded that I’d understood the platform and direction of the train correctly. At the last minute, the platform number was changed, but he came out and told the 3 of us waiting where to move to. There were two guys with huge musical instruments in cases who promptly jumped down onto the tracks and back up onto the next platform – the shortcut – but when I started to do the same, the station master directed me to a distant walkway to cross. The Chica crossing, evidently. Or maybe he didn’t know that the hiking skirt I had on has shorts underneath. But I’m glad that he came out and helped us, because NOT making it to Santiago today was not an option. My cheap hotel for the 10th and the 11th isn’t available for the 9th, so I’ve booked at a central historic hotel for far less than I’d pay for a night at a Hampton Inn in the States. But it’s a really chi-chi place. And it’s my birthday.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Interesting history, a good museum with access to the roof for closeup looks at the different towers, artifacts, and eye-popping interior with many side-chapels

When I got to Santiago, everything became easy again. I know my way around well, and even found a gym with day passes for 5 Euro/day. There was a manager who spoke great English, and in under two minutes I was in the locker room ready to go. No fancy security doors. No lengthy, complicated computer registration. Just a friendly guy pointing out where things were and saying “don’t worry about paying now. You can just drop it off on your way out”. Then a very sweet, very large, very muscled out, very tatted up guy brought me a mat when he saw I was doing without one (something unlikely to happen anywhere at a gym where I live……). But it’s not that easy to work out in flip flops. And like in Scotland, nobody wipes down anything. And no one seems the worse for it.

The bad news is that at this age, not going to the gym for 20 days takes a real toll. Even if you’re hiking 20-28 km/day with a 20 pound backpack. Hopefully correctable.

At the Grocery Store

I hit a grocery and a Panaderia so tonight won’t have to sit in a cafe. It’s blasted cold here while in Madrid it’s in the mid- eighties.

Sometimes, like in the movies, a journey ends as it began. In this case, just like at the start of this in Leon, there was a huge windstorm and then torrential rains this afternoon. But Santiago is especially beautiful in the rain.

A shoe store more like a confectionary

The TV has a documentary channel in English, but there was a problem with an error saying “no signal” (sin señal). Desperate to listen to a channel in English, I went down to the desk at this lovely hotel to ask how to fix it and found ….. a BRIT. A Brit who actually had very specific instructions for fixing the problem in about 5 steps…..that actually worked.

Favorite Panaderia on Rua Preguntoiro

So I did an initial sweep of the twisty streets and went into the beautiful church on Praza da Universidade that always has interesting art exhibits. This time photography. The streets are teeming with happy people. Here are some pictures from this year’s visit.

Street Performer, Praza do Platerías (silversmiths)
Photography Exhibit
Excellent Museum about the world history of pilgrimage as a transformative experience

San Paio de Antealtares, 13 year old saint martyred by beheading. Spain has some rather graphic religious art….

The huge Praza Obradoiro, or workshop plaza where stonecarvers and other tradesmen worked for centuries in front of the expanding cathedral. Where all the Pilgrimage routes to Santiago end. Sometimes over a thousand complete in a day and go to the Pilgrim’s office with their credentials as proof of where they’ve been walking….to get their Compostela, a certificate written in Latin attesting to the completion of the journey.

I’m considering trying out the bidet to do something novel on my birthday. I’ll let you know how it goes. (No I won’t…..).

RED ALERT: The CROATIANS are Coming…..!!! 7-8, August 2019

The first whisper about them came from Kristina, who I first met not far out of Foncebadon. Upon running into her again in La Faba, where we had bowls of yogurt as she waited for the German Confraternity Albergue to open, she tried to tell me that there was a group of 50 of them (FIFTY, she said with some incredulousness) nearby on the Camino Frances. “Have you seen them?”, she asked. She has a thick German accent and isn’t fluent in English (but a far cry better than I am in German!), and I thought she’d said that there are 50 Christians nearby on the Camino……Groups often spread out while hiking, I wasn’t sure that 50 Christians would look any different than anyone else, and, after all, the pilgrimage/Crusades routes DO have a significant link to Christianity. I said no, I hadn’t seen them.

Alto de San Roque

I couldn’t get a litera/bunk at the albergue in La Laguna de Castilla that night, and was sorry to hear that they were completo because had stayed there years ago and really liked it. When I passed through (La Laguna is really just a lone stone albergue with a couple of stone outbuildings on the side of a mountain) on the climb to O Cebreiro, there were people spilling out of the bar and all over the patio enjoying draft beers and the mountain views. Must be The Christians, I thought.

Then shortly after leaving O Cebreiro at sunrise, there they were at the water fountain in Linares with their massive tour bus running as they filled their bottles for the day. The bus said something about Croatia on its side, so at that point I realized that there was a translation problem, and that they had all actually loaded onto a bus and ridden from Croatia to walk this part of the Camino Frances. I’d find being squeezed onto a bus with 50 others all the way to and from Croatia to and from Western Spain a lot more difficult than hiking a few measly hundred kilometers, yet there they were. Edit: A few days later, Mick sent a link and as it turns out, many were Slovenian, and they’d actually WALKED, with bus support, 3,500 km from home, which probably means they came through some of the European Peace Walk route, crossed Italy and maybe came across on the Arles route or the Le Puy via Geneva through France. Impressive.

Modern Crusading…….

The day between O Cebreiro and Triacastela has some panoramic views. I remember the sense of freedom. Last time through I’d had coffee with a woman from New Zealand whose hiking partner had developed an injury. We had such a good conversation that I missed her this time. Whereas several years ago there were numerous people from English-speaking countries, I haven’t seen any at all since Pola de Lena on the San Salvador. What happened?

At Padornelo, be sure to ring the bell. Just for fun. It’s on a chain down the side of a stone chapel and sounds much like and only slightly louder than the surrounding cowbells.

In Fillobal at Aira do Camino, a very fresh, trendy-design cafe, you can get a great bowl of gazpacho and have fun talking to the delightful and funny woman who runs it (most of the small businesses in Spain seem to be run by one or two staff). She asked me in Spanish if I knew that gazpacho is sopa fría, perhaps because it’s not known that gazpacho is everywhere. I’m not sure there ARE any other buildings in what’s on the map as Fillobal, which is typical in Galicia. A name is on the map, but where you’re expecting at least a tiny village, often it’s just a turn in the road between a few stone buildings housing cows (this part of Galicia is dairy farming country), who leave behind an enormous amount of cowshit that you, as a hiker, will be (hopefully) navigating around through much of this stage. The aroma will accompany you through much of rural Galicia. Once, passing by a barn right on the trail whose window was open, I stuck my head in and said Bonjour to a thick crowd of cows in there – a man who was underneath milking a cow popped up to say “buenos días”. Americans…..were not the most sophisticated travelers……

There at Aira do Camino, I was sitting next to a young Asian girl and several others at the bar having lunch when two bicigrinos (some of them bici-terrorists to caminantes) came in and loudly announced in English that “THE CROATIANS ARE COMING”. Several of us English speakers were alarmed at the idea that 50 were about to descend on this place with only one or two staff. I asked if he meant all 50 of them HERE, as felt sorry for the friendly young woman behind the counter. He assured me that yes, they would all be descending shortly. The young woman behind the counter didn’t have much English, but someone translated and she took it with a surprising amount of grace. I wished her Buena suerte on the way out, and she laughed. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. It’s sometimes a lot of fun.

Last night was a stay at Complexo Xacobea, a few trendy buildings that house a busy Albergue, habitaciones, and a few meters up the road, a good affiliated cafe/restaurant, La Paradilla, which I understand to mean The Parachute. I registered around 2 pm and the young man at the desk noticed that it would be my birthday in 2 days. For those here by the tag and considering a first Camino, you will be asked for your passport at registration. My understanding is that it’s a law and that the identity information on visitors passing through is submitted to the local police as a way of knowing who’s in town. I’m all for it if it keeps hikers safer. When the young man showed me to my room and I oohed and ahhh’d at how nice it was, he said in broken English that it was his best room, seemingly related to my upcoming birthday.

Another good thing about this place: they have lavadoras y secadoras, washers and dryers. Since I started noticing the typical welts on one side with several puncture marks in a row (on the side that I often sleep on, and under areas covered by clothes during the hiking day), I realized that I’d been bitten by bedbugs. I hadn’t been using my Permethrined bag liner unless in dorms/albergues. In truth, these things can be anywhere. If you want more information about detecting and preventing them, Cornell has a good teaching post online. So, I spent most of the late afternoon hot-washing and hot-drying everything fabric and blow-drying the hell out of everything that wasn’t, including Gregory, who was none too happy about it.

We had a little rain yesterday and today. As I helped Gregory on with his raincoat – which has his name on it like a kindergartener who might lose his/her belongings – it occurred to me that all this time on the Frances Route, I could have sent him ahead with a van service which transports other hiking companions who have become burdensome. He might have liked being among those of his own kind, but I would have missed him (I frequently feel attached to him). And one of the few times I sent his predecessor ahead (a much-loved 50 liter Asoló Elle with an additional 5 liter brain – now held together with safety pins), she was lost for hours by the service well into the evening, leaving me without the important things she was carrying. I was really worried about her and only got her back with the help of the kind proprietress of the Albergue turistique in Salceda.

On the way out of Triacastela today and on the way up to Alto de Poio, I passed a very large, very loud, overly-energetic guy in avid conversation with two young females. He seemed to be one of the Croatians. One of them who had stopped taking his anti-manic meds, I’d suspect. He loudly greeted me as I passed with “HOLA, SENORITA!!!”. I am clearly an older woman……Usually the Spanish teenagers call me “La Senora” on these hikes in Spain, and the restaurant and hotel staff usually refer to me as “La Chica”, which I like (There are a number of females hiking alone in this cohort, and the men have been wonderful. I’ve had none of the problems – so far – that I had on the first two of 7 or so Caminos). So, as we’re almost at the peak, this young, overly-energetic man starts loudly singing Sting’s “I’ll Be Watching You”… what sounds like an Eastern-European language. By the time we got to the top, people were videotaping him as he bounded past other walkers up the hill – others who joined in singing along with him in Croatian. The cafe at the summit had a crowd waiting to order 5 deep across the whole bar. Once the 50 Croatians were added to the rest of the hikers. I continued to Fonfria.

Scallop shell design in metalwork of river walk. The symbol of the way to Santiago, explained elsewhere in this blog. Sarria.

In Fonfria, I google-translated with the woman behind the bar that I’d stayed with them years ago. She said in Galician with pantomime that she’d thought I’d looked familiar when I came in. Again, the same warm hand-clasping greeting. A Reboleira is, at the moment, plagued with road reconstruction, and the road crew stood around talking the entire time I was eating a “second breakfast” patata frittata. I felt bad because this was one of the best places to stay on the Camino Frances and the construction seems to be ruining business. They have an original Galician palloza in back where they serve dinner for all the hikers, in addition to the cafe and courtyard that are open all day. Stay with them if you can.

Yesterday I seem to have been following Jesus. He was at A Reboleira all alone drinking a beer at 10:45 a.m. A very thin young man of perhaps 22 years with long hair and beads and necklaces around his neck, wearing robes and sandals. Others tried to be nice to him, but he didn’t seem much interested in them. He walked listening to music on his iPhone.

I took the San Xil route today, as visited the monastery at Samos on the other option the last time through this particular route. The San Xil route is hilly, but fewer km to Sarria, and I liked it well enough. I’m in a 30 Euro pension close to both bus and train stations. With a window that looks out on the cavity of the elevator shaft. Sarria really has everything needed.

The last sighting of the Croatians was when they were amassing on the outskirts of Sarria at a meeting point in a little park. Several had Croatian flags attached to their daypacks. I don’t know where Sting went, but it was suspiciously quiet.

Im ready to be done hiking. Until I’ve been home for a few weeks, anyway. It took an hour of effort on Renfe’s internet site to get the first of the needed tickets for tomorrow’s train rides to Ourense and then on to Santiago de Compostela. The train station here had schedules set up, but the station was closed, and the ticket office posted that it didn’t open for ticket sales until 09:00. My train leaves at 09:02. The Monbus was the other option, but their taquilla was also closed, as they often are in Spain if there no buses departing soon or if the bus is already Completo. Their Transbordos/transfers required for the morning train toward Santiago were also ambiguous. All clear as mud and maddening for those of us who have to rely on them. I eventually downloaded the app and booked through Omio for the second leg on the train. It was much more straightforward than booking through Renfe’s circularly impossible system to get through.

Panaderia, Sarria. Dino with a baguette in mouth, seemingly made out of pieces of corncob.

The truth is (mine anyway) that we Americans are used to everything being relatively standard. We don’t have to figure everything out on the fly because things are generally done in the same clear way from place to place. The Europeans just seem more flexible than we’re used to having to be. Maybe that’s not fair, I don’t know.

I won’t miss the ambiguity about whether to go order food at the bar vs just sitting down, when to order what (the Spanish business model is said to be that the customer adjusts him or herself to however the business operates, not the other way around), or what may or may not be open between 2pm and 5 pm, or whether anything at all will be open from Saturday at 2 pm until Monday at 10 a.m. at all. I won’t miss the endless variety of bathroom fixtures and locks or the ambiguity about whether toilet paper is inside bathroom stalls or somewhere out in the anterooms. Or the “energy-saving” toilets that won’t actually flush anything, or the uneven steps, or the language difficulties. I won’t miss waving my arms in hallways, on stairs, and in toilet stalls to get the motion sensor to turn light back on. I won’t miss worrying and checking, checking, checking to make sure I have the essentials to avoid getting stuck and (almost) helpless in a foreign country like I did once, thanks to a small-town bank who, despite all the usual preparation and verification, had an IT department that blocked all of Spain unbeknownst to the bank manager, making getting cash during a 35 day hike in rural Spain impossible. I won’t miss worrying if my valuables are secured well enough to not be slammed into and pickpocketed like I was in Melide once. Or worse. I won’t miss the lack of overflow lodging for hikers or the lack of the old way of Hospitaleros helping by calling ahead to the next town to see if there is a bed available for you. I won’t miss the vagaries of the non-ALSA buses or the confusing way each train station does things.

“You will enjoy your travels in foreign cultures to about the extent that you can tolerate uncertainty”. This was one of the most helpful things I read when I first started traveling many years ago.

But I AM looking forward to being in the Happiest Place on Earth tomorrow, my birthday. See you in Santiago.

The (Old) Hiker Chick Hall of Fame

Husband Tom came up with this idea of having been inducted into the Hiker Chick Hall of Fame when last year I’d texted him from Berducedo on the Primitivo Route that had made it over the tough Hospitales stage. Because he is diplomatic, he didn’t add the Old part.

Reception, San Nicolás, 17th century monastery, Villafranca del Bierzo

Today was another Hall of Famer day on the dread climb between Las Herrerías and O Cebreiro, and to add to things, the day started in Villafranco Del Bierzo, 28.1km before. The plan was to get to La Faba, part-way up the mountain, but since once at La Faba it seemed far too early to stop, I called La Escuela in La Laguna de Castillo, the only lodging before the summit in O Cebreiro. Completo. I decided to take a risk that once in O Cebreiro there would be someplace to stay, even if it were at the albergue, which Kristina re-warned me about when I ran into her. Although it was a little concerning that the first three places in O Cebreiro were completo as well, the unreserved rooms fill up from the hiker entrance end first, so more toward the end of town, Casa Venta Celta had a room. Cash only, at least for the price she gave me (40E for a double room). And it’s in an attic with ancient rough-hewn beams and the way the building is constructed, the rooms are – through the open eaves – not exactly soundproof. The “stairs” to the second floor attic rooms are a bit atypical – somewhere between staggered steps and a ladder. The floors creak loudly. The locks are very old and everyone seems to be struggling to get them to work. The room WiFi won’t hold a connection. Others speaking sound like they’re in the same room. There is one fire extinguisher by the downstairs door, but none upstairs, and there is no smoke detector anywhere and no sprinkler system. The shower is too small to bend over in at all, and the shower curtain is hanging on a fairly useless makeshift support. It’s overtly musty. It all has an old boardinghouse feel. But I have a dry room to stay in, in an atmospheric stone village that is usually enshrouded in fog. It’s a tourism-town with an interesting history.

It got really cold this afternoon up here on the peak, and began to rain. I’m lucky to have made it here before the rain came. I asked Gregory if he thought it was cold too, but as usual, I got the silent treatment. Sometimes I have no idea what’s in his brain. Oh wait, yes I do.

The last time I did this route, I’d run into foot/shoe trouble and quickly used that as an excuse to road-walk this said-to-be-very strenuous day. The N-6 is very easy to walk up, and looking left up that mountain, it seemed impossible that anyone could climb it. For others who might need to do the roadwalk – the fact that it can be done isn’t in guides or apps – just don’t make the left toward Las Herrerías after Ruitalan and walk up to the next town, making a left over and above the A-6 superhighway and into Pedrafita do Cebreiro. From Pedrafita, you can walk the road (LU-633) to O Cebreiro or stop at the tienda and choose a cab service from those listed on the door. If need be, the LU-633 continues from O Cebreiro to Linares.

This is where Castilla y Leon stops and Galicia, with its originally Celtic culture begins. There is bagpipe music playing some places, and the traditional music has a Celtic sound.

I was 5 years younger the last time, but not in as good shape as I am now, and this time found the climb to be very doable, even though the hours of climbing were at the end of the hiking day. I haven’t used my hiking pole since a steep descent on the San Salvador for stability. Gregory carried the pole the whole time on the West Highland Way this year except for the really bad rocky-terrain day – again for stability and not for getting up hills. I stayed at the albergue at La Laguna that last time, and it was a very good albergue, as albergues go, so if it works out to end your hiking day there, you’ll have a good place to stay. Just reserve ahead, as it’s a private albergue and fills up fast.

Most of the day until Las Herrerías was roadwalking, but not too problematic, and some of it along the Valcarce River.

There were some women that I’d run across here and there that I had had friendly interactions with when passing. At a stop today as we exchanged greetings, I asked the friendliest one what language she spoke (French), since mostly people just smile and wave and say Hola or Buenos Dias. She initially guessed that I was German (Allemagne), and when I told her I was American, there was an overt expression of negative sentiment. Next time it will be “je suis Canadienne”, and I won’t feel bad for lying. There has been quite a bit of overt anti-American sentiment detectable, but that’s not new here in Europe. Fortunately there are so many friendly people that some people’s more openly judgemental attitudes don’t color the overall experience.

Message tree, Las Herrerias. Someone said this practice is Shinto in origin.

I’d been seeing a few couples holding hands walking these stages. One couple in particular ALWAYS seemed to be holding hands and walking a bit slowly. When at a chapel on the trail known as a place to get sellos, this couple came in and the husband dropped her hand briefly. Since she was facing me but looking off into space, I smiled at her and said Hola, but in that moment could see that she was impaired in some way. I ran into them two days later passing a rural cafe where they were both on their phones, but she silently tapping away and looking in another direction than her phone and seeming to listen to voice commands. Quite possibly blind. Yet she was brought along and loved and watched over by this man who was leading her and holding her hand the entire way. Very touching.

I stopped in to the Panaderia in Vega de Valcarce for a break and texted the woman who was working that I’d stayed with them years ago and really enjoyed it. To my surprise, she came out from behind the counter and warmly hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then on leaving, I said “hasta la próxima vez”, until the next time, and she hugged me and kissed me again. Forest Gump was right. You never know what you’re going to get. These warm exchanges always help dispel the beginnings of a sense of isolation, as does sharing a laugh with strangers who speak other languages about something funny that’s immediately happening.

The scallop shell of the Camino Sant Iago In concrete over the tunnel entrance

There was a tall young woman with three others chatting away in a non-English language while walking along ahead, and several of us were about to overtake her group when she inexplicably burst into song. I walked past laughing and when she realized that others not in her group were behind and heard her, she was really embarrassed. I told her that she sounded happy, to which she said “yes, HAPPY. Not CRAZY”. A good laugh was had by all.

Coming into Trabadelo. A very good cafe stop

A kitten was stuck in a tree in touristy, often fog-enveloped, ancient stone mountaintop village of O Cebreiro – and meowing about it, so I went into the nearest souvenir shop and google-translated that the kitten was stuck in a tree to the guy behind the counter. He started talking and a Spaniard present who spoke fair English translated that the store guy had said that the kitten belonged to a woman who lived around the corner and that since her cats had all but ruined his roof climbing on it, he would prefer to poison the kitten instead of try to get someone to get it down out of the tree. Sometimes these unexpected and very honest interactions strike me as very funny, and Spanish men seem to enjoy making someone laugh.

Bronze – O Cebreiro

There is a guy on YouTube who has an interesting personal history and is a memory specialist. He noted that people can be thermometers or thermostats. The thermometers are monitoring/guaging the temperature of their environment only, while the thermostats sense the temperature of their environment, but also actively contribute warmth (or coolness) as suits the environment. I’m trying to be more of a thermostat.

Extremely good hot Caldo Gallego on a cold night (Galician kale, potato and onion soup)

The staff here at Casa Venta Celta seems to be looking out for me in a very kind way in this busy place. Feels nice and is appreciated.

I’ve started to think about how it will be going back home. There comes a point where all the cultural unfamiliarity and language problems become wearing when you’re struggling with them alone and the familiarity of being home sounds better. I’m not quite there yet, but soon.

Ponferrada to Villafranca Del Bierzo: Vineyards and a Big Old Monastery

It will be a slacker-blogger day. WordPress wore me out trying to get answers for why nothing would upload. But it’s all right now. They’d hosted me free of charge for years and they thought it was time that I got an upgraded subscription. Done.

Exiting Ponferrada is made much less tedious by different routing. The first time I did it following the old printed guides – that exit leads through the rest of the city sprawl. The newer app routed the same way, but a public works guy pointed me to the river walk park – when just over the second bridge (exiting the old part of town you’ve just walked through and about 10-15 minutes after the Templar Castle), make a right on the sidewalk to stay alongside the river. It’s marked as if this is what was intended by the city, and it’s a more peaceful, green way out and onward.

Sculpture Garden … the best thing about the road route between Pieros and Villafranca Del Bierzo

The little cafe in Columbrianos not far out of Ponferrada was open. Many in the cohort from yesterday were already there having “second breakfast”. I’d had tostada with tomate aceite and coffee at the Hostal (Hostal Riod Selmo). The hostel seemed to be 6 rooms, private baths within a private apartment building. It was quiet and inexpensive and I’d stay there again.

Fuentes Nuevas has an especially beautiful church interior, and if the ladies are outside stamping sellos, you can get a credencial there also for 2 Euro if you need another one.

Then were the vineyards leading to Cacabelos where today there was a trailer with shade tarp set up in a small wooded area. They were serving expensive-but-very good food like gazpacho (which I can never seem to get enough of) and grilled sandwiches with goats’ cheese and a sweet marmalade of roasted red bell pepper. There were hammocks, good music, couches/seating areas like a living room in the woods. There were several of us solo female hikers and other women in twos on the trail today, and many stopped here at this pleasant place. And Gregory made himself at home, seemingly to the amusement of other hikers.

Then Cacabelos, which seemed and still does seem like something out of the American Wild West: a very long street lined with a particular type of Spanish architecture. I had a better impression of it this time than last time when there was a festival going on.

After Cacabelos, a suggestion. Take the longer route through Valtuille de Arriba instead of taking the road directly to Villafranca Del Bierzo. That longer route might add 45 minutes, but you’ll be in vineyards instead of dodging cars on a fast, sometimes shoulderless road. I’ve gone both ways and the longer vineyard route is much more scenic and less hazardous.

It seemed to take a long time to get to Villafranca Del Bierzo. The town’s plazas were in full lunch mode around 2 pm when I rolled into town. When I found the place I’d booked (Hospederia San Nicolas – there’s an albergue option there as well as habitaciones) through, I felt as though I’d just hit the lodging jackpot. It’s not a basic pension. It’s a vast historic monastery, my favorite kind of lodging. I have a large, plain room with private bath (likely monks’ cells) for 30 Euro and couldn’t be happier. The building is beautiful inside and out, and they have a bar, restaurant, and straightforward 11 Euro meal choices. I tipped the waiter and he tried to buy me a beer with it.

There was a large group in a separate back dining hall singing. Badly (malamente). The waiter told me they were breaking his ears, which was very funny in pantomime.

I’m not sure what more could be hoped for in a day.

Gregory seems to have developed a liking for Spanish TV. I had to go out and run errands without him because I couldn’t pull him away from watching The Love Boat en Espagnol. What a goof.

Goat Day (or, Squats Pay Off Again): Foncebadon to Ponferrada

The day started out well with a cafe con leche at El Trasgu (in case you missed yesterday’s post, a Trasgu is a gnome in Asturian lore) and a conversation about music with a very beautiful and gracious woman running the place this morning. She couldn’t have been more kind.

Cruz de Ferro – iron cross where people put down stones they’ve carried on the trail to symbolize a burden that they’ve carried in life. Although a fan of symbolic gestures, I pass by giving thanks to all those who made doing this possible and to all who I am grateful to in life.

Just as I was thinking “this isn’t as much rock path as I remember”, it started. The part of today’s decent that was probably solid rock creek bed at one time. All the way down to Molinaseca…..and yet again there were insane young males on mountain bikes careening down these nightmare rock paths barely missing the walkers.

The French family was on the trail and doing well. They’d started in Rabanal and were likely on the trail at sunrise.

One of many memorials along these trails marking where some caminantes died doing their Caminos. I like the message of this one.

Ran across two Germans and when the subject of our nationalities came up, I told them the truth, but that I was telling people I am Canadian, which got a good laugh and the comment “probably a good strategy”. Although I do my best to behave against stereotypes of Americans, the truth of the matter is that I’m impossibly American. There’s just no getting around it. Kristina, the female of the two, had only been walking with the younger German guy for a short while, and with taking pictures for each other, we struck up a rapport and walked together to El Acebo and had early lunch of zucchini and pepper frittata. Around the same age, we found we had much in common. She lives just outside Cologne. Then we walked the rock path down to Molinaseca where I decided to stop for a rest and have pimientos de padrón (Padron being a very nice town south of Santiago on the Portuguese route) while Kristina kept on. I sat in an outdoor cafe and watched the Spanish families and maybe a few peregrinos out for a Sunday afternoon of having lunch together and swimming in the river under the Roman bridge that hikers cross into town on.

Román Bridge, Molinaseca

Early in the day, there were two adorable Spanish girls encountered who – as teenage girls seem prone to doing – were walking along singing Justin Timberlake’s “I want it that way” in English. As I passed, I told them I liked that song too and they giggled and said “Buen Camino”……and continued singing with such abandon that I could still hear them a half-kilometer ahead.

In El Acebo, a little one-lane village at a peak after many hours since the last possible place to stop at Manjarin, there are two main eateries in competition with each other at the start of the town. I chose the one on the left because had gone to the one on the right last time. It’s probably not easy to welcome a ton of hikers from all over the world day in and day out all season. The place on the left is called La Rosa del Agua, and a guy whose English was completely fluent and sounded American intercepted us. He lived 20 years in Houston, come to Spain to teach ESL and never left. He told us all about his business model and said we looked like “Camino veterans”, which was the truth about Kristina as well. He hikes the Caminos once/year himself, was working very hard and I hope his business does well. It was nice to have a real conversation with a fluent English-speaker (Gregory is more the silent type, and if he actually starts talking, I’m going to the nearest mental health clinic with Google translate). For those who might want to stay in El Acebo, in addition to the usual lodging, there’s a nice-looking, brand new albergue on the left at the exit from the town.

After the pimientos de Padrón in busy Sunday Molinaseca, I decided to keep walking to Ponferrada and made a hotel reservation via on the fly. After getting cleaned up, I tried to find someplace open and serving food before 8 pm and finally found someplace down an alley in the old town that was associated with the hotel next door (Los Templarios). If there were ANY stores open at all on Sunday in Ponferrada, I would have bought empanadas again, but instead had some horrid meat, a small, flat omelette, some canned red peppers and tepid frites. Ugh. Sundays traveling in Spain can be really inconvenient.

Here are some pictures of Ponferrada (named so because there was a bridge here with some ironwork decorating it – Pont = bridge and Ferrada = a way of saying iron. The bridge no longer exists), including the 12th century Templar Castle. I visited it last time and, like others, found it lacking in information, detail and artifacts, and not all that interesting. And the old town adjacent is very small. The Iglesia is very impressive, though. Basically, I just don’t think I like Ponferrada very much.

Templar Castle, 12th Century

Tomorrow will be a series of little suburbs getting out of Ponferrada. I made a reservation for overnight in Villafranca del Bierzo. There may or may not be places open for food or other needs along the way. Many closed stores have signs on them saying “on vacation”. Like France, many take their considerable vacation time….like an entire month….in July and August, and some are not open Sunday OR Monday anyway. We’re not on the American plan of convenience, that’s for sure.

Old Town Ponferrada

I could eat a horse. And may well have for dinner tonight….

Ponferrada’s Cathedral, Templar Cross