Monday, January 28, 2013


Here’s where the story gets a little sketchy for quite a while. I had purchased a guide to the Camino through Catalunya and Aragon at the book store in Lleída and, being somewhat lazy (if you can call a person who walks over 850 miles across Spain lazy) I made most of my notes in the guide book rather than my journal. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The guide had all the cities and route markings, with notes about hostels and albergues and interesting things to see along the way. I made my own notes of my thoughts and things that happened in the guide alongside the route information.

Sadly, the notes I took in my guide are now lost. As every pilgrim knows, any time you can save weight in your back pack, you do so. Sometime after Logroño, in the region of La Rioja, Castilla-Leon, I found a post office and purchased a small “caja verde,” a green box that comes in three sizes that the Spanish post office sells for easy shipment of small goods. I shipped the guide containing my notes along with a pair of light walking shoes that no longer fit due to the swelling of my feet, a small book of stunning Camino photographs by a photographer who had a show of her work in an ancient church in a town in which I stopped, and a few other things I found I did not need. I did not purchase insurance, as the things I sent were not that valuable. Sadly, neither did I ship my goods using a traceable method. When I returned to the States I found that the box had been opened and the Camino guide and book of photographs had been stolen. I contacted the Spanish Customs office to inquire whether someone might have opened the box for inspection and neglected to replace everything that was in it, hoping that I might be able to start a trace of my goods that might result in their being found. The customs office wrote back to tell me that they did not open outgoing mail, and that they had contacted the Spanish mail service about the matter. The Spanish mail service, of course, had no information about my books. Case closed. This happened with another box I sent later from Granada, before returning to the States and finding that the first box had been tampered with. The second box, however, was completely emptied and several books in Hebrew were put in, I suppose for weight, and sent on to me. Again, the contents weren't insured. I had put several pieces of gear I'd need for my next walk in that box along with a Barcelona futbol jersey I'd bought for my son. The gear I have since replaced, and will buy another jersey for my son when I return to Spain. But in that box I had also placed my Compostela, the certificate you get in Santiago after completing the Camino, and more importantly, my pilgrim credentialsthat record with unique stamps of every city and pueblo that I had passed through from Montserrat to Finisterre. I have since been able to get a copy of my Compostela from the Pilgrim Office in Santiago, but the pilgrim credentials are lost forever. I try, am trying, to be stoic about the loss of my pilgrim credentials. It's only a thing. I would have framed it and placed it on a wall to gather dust. It wouldn't have affected my life to look at it, to have it. But I'm human, and the credential was a representation of the completion of a long-held dream and a physically and emotionally demanding experience. And unlike my sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, boots (good riddance), and other outdoor gear, it does whoever has it absolutely no good. Truth is, it was probably thrown in a trash can. I suppose it's a good exercise in letting go. 

So here I am. The next entry in my journal is from Zaragoza, where I again stayed an extra day to allow my feet some R&R. As I remember my entry into this beautiful city, I seemed to have walked forever and was concerned that I had missed a turn that would take me into the city. Some kilometers from the borders of the city the Camino intersects, and becomes, a nature trail on its outskirts. Doing my best to read my Castilian (Spanish) guide, I was fairly certain I was on the right path, but things just didn't seem right. As the path was frequented by runners and cyclists I had a few opportunities to ask if I might have missed a turn and was passing Zaragoza. I was assured that I was still on the right track, but as I got closer to the city the guide seemed to be less and less help. I finally ignored it and followed trail signs into the city. I remember making a note in my guide that it was fairly useless on the entry to this city.
Once I got to the outskirts of Zaragoza I thought I might never find the center of the city where the guide said there was a hostel and of course, La Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. It seemed that I had already walked ten kilometers from the outskirts of the city and still no Plaza del Pilar and the great basilica. But I kept walking; faith and a sense of direction leading me on. I asked directions once or twice, finding I was on the right street, I just had to keep walking. I finally reached the plaza, where, true to form, I sat down at the nearest bar and had a cold beer and a sandwich, admiring the cathedral (La Catedral de la Seo, right next to the basilica), the basilica itself, the fountains, the sculpture, and the pure beauty that surrounded me, thanking God and my guardian angels that I had made it this far in good health (albeit with a few blisters—a minor inconvenience).

A wedding mass in the basilica
The next order of business was to find a hostel where I could store my pack so I could wander the plaza area and enjoy myself without being concerned about my worldly belongings. I found one nearby where I experience my first communal sleeping arrangement of the Camino. Never underestimate the importance of a good set of earplugs. Like good socks and hiking boots, good earplugs are an item without which one cannot even think of attempting the Camino.

My only regret is that, with all the sights in Zaragoza, I spent the next day resting and never ventured far from the plaza, the shops, and bars nearby. But I had my feet and my budget to think of, and for one day, I thoroughly enjoyed myself wandering around an area not greater than about four city blocks. I attended a wedding mass at the basilica (I wanted to attend mass. The fact that there was a wedding going on was just icing on the cake. All are welcome.) I toured the Catedral de la Seo (Beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, awe-inspiring... Words fail me.) and had lunch in an Irish bar where I had a very nice conversation in English—how refreshing—with the bartender.

All in all, the two days I spent in Zaragoza comprise some of my best memories of the Camino to that point. Someday I'll return. 
The plaza at dusk

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Leaving Lleída (with apologies to Larry McMurtry)

May 29, 2012

I don’t want to offend my Catalunian friends who might be reading this, but I have to be honest: Looking at my journal for May 29, I wrote, “Don’t come to Catalunya or Aragon for tapas.” I admit, I was on the Camino de Santiago; most people on that adventure are trying to live frugally so the route doesn't attract four-star restaurants. I didn't go to any nice restaurants (except for one in Burgos, which will be in a future post), but I stopped at a lot of bars for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all I could write in my journal was, “The sandwiches are nothing to write home about.” I didn't try all the restaurants, but over the course of a few weeks I ate at a number comprising a very respectable random sample. While I do prefer the average bar food in Catalunya and Aragon to the normal fare here in the States, I never came across a bar such as pictured here.
This is a bar in Bilbao, arrayed for breakfast, and I've been to many similar in Madrid, Seville, Granada, San Sebastian, and other Spanish cities. None in Catalunya though. (OK, I didn't go to any bars in Barcelona. Point taken.)

Getting back to the story, I spent an easy day in Lleída. I gave my feet a rest but I didn't pass up the opportunity for a little sight-seeing. After the book store, where I finally found a guide to the Camino in Castilian, I walked a short way to the Casco Antiguo, the ancient part of town, and toured the cathedral and palace grounds. There are many sources for information about the cathedral in Lleída with photos much better than I took, so I’m not going to spend time on that. Suffice to say that it was all very beautiful, even though the fact that the cathedral was turned into army barracks during the 18th century was a little off-putting. I was thankful, though, that the building was re-purposed rather than torn down and replaced, as it would have been in the United States. We tend to build with a sense of planned impermanence here and think nothing of tearing down a 200-year old building.
In the Cathedral of Lleida
I had an easy walk the day I left Lleída: only twenty-two kilometers. My feet were thankful. I noted in my journal that, even though it was a relatively short day, my energy expense was great. I wrote that even though I drank the complete three-liters of water that I carried in a reservoir in my back pack, and drank as much as I could at lunch and dinner, still, I didn't urinate the entire day. (That’s an easy admission for some people, but if you knew me, you’d know that I’m baring my soul here.) All liquids were completely perspired away. The temperatures in the afternoon hovered around 100 degrees and there was no shade anywhere on the trail. I remembered reading about Shirley MacLaine’s experiences on the Camino in her book. She related how one time she napped under a tree and had dreams of past lives in Spain. Being extremely hot and tired one day, I attempted a nap under a tree off the path I was walking. All I got out of it was ants. Ants all over me and all over my back pack. Not a single vision of a past life to help explain what it is about Spain that makes me feel at home there. 

But a lot of ants, if ants reincarnate, were soon dispatched to their next life.

I found shade and cold water.
What more could I want?
Most days, OK, every day, I would sleep relatively late for pilgrim standards. When I got past Logroño, I found that most people arose by 6:30, many earlier. I didn't have an alarm clock so I woke up when my body was rested. Normally I'd be on the road by 8:30 after stopping for café con leche and a croissant at whatever bar I passed on the way out of town. I guess I'm not a fast walker, even slower with my blistered feet, so I'd normally arrive pretty late in the day at whatever town I was to stop in for the night. I suppose this day I must have woken up early and the day's walk was relatively short, because I arrived at the pueblo where I was to stop for the night during siestasometime before 5:00 PM. Everything was closed. The pension where I was to spend the night was closed, the bars were closed. The streets were barren. I found a small plaza with a fountain and a couple of benches under shade trees and made myself comfortable for the time being. 

After resting for about thirty minutes and having my fill of cold water, I walked around the town and happened to find a couple of guys remodeling a house. I asked if there might be a bar nearby where I could have a beer and they directed me to the only business in town that was open during siesta. There I met and talked with some very pleasant and friendly people, and had a very cold beer or two until 5:30, at which time I went to the pension to check in. 

I got there just as the owner/manager/concierge was leaving (the place had just opened after siesta and he was leaving?), but managed to get him to hurriedly check me in and show me to a postage stamp-size roomtwenty-five Euros, dinner and wine (or water, my choicedifficult, that one) included. I showered and rested until 8:30 when dinner service began. I made my way to the dining room, and as I studied my guide, planning the next day, I enjoyed a leisurely dinner and most of the bottle of wine. Then I returned to my room for my nightly routine of blister care, and some much needed sleep. 

The window faced south and there was no air conditioning. A dog barked incessantly all night long, my feet ached, my blisters stung, and I was having the time of my life.  
Parts of the Camino are lonely and dusty. Don't miss a yellow
arrow or you might end up in Portugal.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Lleídathe largest city on my Camino since leaving Barcelona. I limped into the city, almost crawling; my feet had walked their last kilometer. Every step for the last hour or more had been one more than I thought I could possibly take. I had divorced myself from my feet, treating them as if they were foreign objects that were doing their best to keep me from going any further on the Camino. I yelled at them. I cursed them. I dared them to try to keep me from fulfilling my dream of walking the Camino after all these years of hoping, desiring, and planning. I had to treat them as if they were my enemy, punishing them, torturing them for their insolence. I suppose that's how a yogi has to treat his body in order to sit motionless, meditating in the cold of winter in a mountain-top monastery. I am not my body; it only carries me along my path. My feet are not part of me; they are my slaves to do as I wish. Their pain means nothing to me.

This was one of the worst days. No, it was the worst. No question about it. Limping on both feet to the first bar I came to, I took a seat at an outdoor table in the shade and breathed a huge sigh of relief at having made it to Lleída where I had determined to rest an extra day in a hotel with a private bath in which to soak my feet.

As I think back I'm almost incredulous that the first entry I made in my journal that afternoon, sitting there on the street corner with heat and pain oozing from my feet, was, “The music here is as bad as in the U.S.”  I found popular, techno-crap music that was played in many Spanish bars and restaurants was the same as I’d left in the States. Unfortunately, you can’t escape modern culture. And at least, if my journal is any indication, that caused me more pain than my feet.

I also noted that the country I’d walked through the last several days was mostly farmland. From one perspective it was beautiful; from another, very boring. But I noted that it gave me a lot of time for introspection. Move along, nothing to see here. Just keep thinking. Which is what I had come for and mostly what I did. 

I asked the waitress if she could refer me to a hotel that wasn't too expensive. She told me that the Hotel Ramon Berenguer IV was close and she thought the price was reasonable. She gave me the phone number of the hotel and I called to inquire about price and the availability of a room for one person for two nights. Forty-three Euros a night for a single was acceptable so I told the receptionist I'd be there directly. (At this point, one hundred Euros a night would have been acceptable as long as there was a tub to soak my feet in.) I again asked the waitress if she would mind calling a cab for me. She was very kind and helpful, maybe sensing my pain and knowing that I needed help. About ten minutes later a cab stopped in the street in front of me, the driver helped me load my pack, and took me about half a kilometer to the hotel. I pretended to be embarrassed, as if I had no idea the hotel was so close! The truth was, even if I had known the hotel was only a few blocks away, I would have taken the cab.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in a very nice roommodern, clean, and very comfortable. I made use of the bathtub, soaking my feet in cold water for maybe an hour, and then took a nice, long, hot shower, the first since I had left the states. (Forty-three Euros wasn't a lot, sure, but still, I thought it justified using some hot water.) Later that night, before bed, I soaked my feet in hot water and the following day I performed the same cold and hot soaking procedure, which, with the day of relative rest, helped immensely.

The following day I found that the hotel had a very nice breakfast and I took my time enjoying all the fresh fruit, pastries, coffee (café con leche), and eggs I could eat, then took a cab to a bookstore where I was hoping to find a guide to the Camino in Castilian. Yes, English might have been the more practical choice: my Castilian is still far from perfect, but I wanted to challenge myself and I knew I'd be able to get by for the most part using my mid-level Spanish language skills. (Remind me to tell you later how important it is to know the word, desvío.)

I was more than a little surprised at the cab ride to the book store. 

I was raised in the American Mid-west, a child of the sixties and seventies, civil rights and all that. There is racism and prejudice and bigotry everywhere, but it wasn't in my face in the culture in which I grew up, especially not in my house, and I don't remember it being part of my experience except one time visiting some relatives in the South who hadn't managed to outgrow that particular ugly side of humanity. That little experience is so memorable exactly because it was so unique in my life. At least it was until my cab ride to the book store in Lleída.  

I forget how the conversation turned to the poor economic condition of Spain, but there it was, and that's all it took for the cab driver to give me his opinion on the subject, which was mainly centered around the fact that the problems in Spain were primarily the cause of the banks, and of course the banks were primarily owned by, you guessed it, The Jews. There was a not-so-subtle tone of, if it weren't for The Jews we'd all be a lot better off. I wasn't in an argumentative mood, and even if I had been, my Spanish wasn't nearly good enough to carry on a reasoned discussion, as if that might even be possible with someone whose thinking is cast in a mold formed over a period of close to two thousand years, with the disastrous culmination being recent enough to be part of the memory of many still living. I was reminded of a book I had read about the history of Flamenco music and dance by a contemporary Spanish author, whose opinion, made abundantly clear in his text, was that the greatest year of Spanish history was 1492, not for the sailing of Columbus's ships, but for the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from the Iberian peninsula.  

As I've said before, I love Spain. But prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance are not limited to the United States. 

Down, but not out. Enjoying a cold beer and tapas in Lleída while waiting for a cab to take me to a hotel where I can rest my feet for a couple of days.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Castellnou de Seana

Looking through my journal to remind myself of what I did and felt each day, I find the next entry says, “What day is it today? I don’t know. I know it’s SaturdayI found that out talking with the receptionist at the hotel. I've stopped in Lleída an extra day to rest. My left foot isn't well–swollen with blisters. But, I’m enjoying the trip. No one said it would be easy.”

That was on May 26th. I hadn't written anything since Igualada because at the end of the previous three days my remaining energy only allowed me to get something to eat, care for my feet, and climb into bed. I didn't write anything about the day I got to Castellnou de Seana, but I can still remember, many months later, how well I was treated there. I limped into the pueblo at about 7:00 PMvery late by pilgrim standards–because I slept late that morning and walked so slowly on my battered, camino-weary feet. By that time of day, of course, the ayuntamiento was closed. I did the usual, though, asking whomever I could find where I might check in as a pilgrim and get help in finding the albergue. I could tell from my guide that there was indeed an albergue in this town, so it was just a matter of finding it and being let in.

I was instructed to go down the street to Café Modern. Someone there would be able to help me. I hobbled down the street, maybe the length of two normal U.S. city blocks but seeming like another two kilometers, and found the café on the left. Entering it, I was greeted by a woman behind the counter at the far end of what was a large café by Spanish standards.

It goes without saying that the first thing I did upon unburdening my exhausted body of my back pack was to order a large beer. By this time in my journey the weather had “warmed” substantially. I say “warmed” because there’s no such word as “hotted,” although there should be just for this occasion. Afternoon temperatures were around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit with no shade available anywhere. Before leaving the States I had looked for a hat at an expensive outdoor equipment store, finding the prices more than a little unreasonable for a simple baseball cap. No problem, I thought, I’ll get a hat in Spain. By the time I found a store where I could buy a hat on the Camino my balding head was the color of a stove coil on high and felt it, especially when I'd take a warm shower.

Anyway, back to the Café Modern. After ordering a cerveza grande I explained that someone near the office of the ayuntamiento told me that someone at this café might be able to help me check in to the albergue. The angel behind the bar said that that was indeed the case and she called the alcalde, the mayor, for me and explained to him that there was a pilgrim in town who would need the albergue for the night. When she hung up she told me that the alcalde would be at the ayuntamiento in a few minutes to register me and give me the key to the albergue. In the meantime she would make dinner for me and she asked what I would like to eat. After a long, long, long, hot, hot, hot day of walking on my painful fallen arches and feeling every old blister and each new blister as it formed on my feet I thought I’d ended up in Mayberry and Aunt Bee was there to take care of me, a cool, damp cloth in one hand and a tall glass of sweet tea in the other. (I don't think Aunt Bee would ever serve beer, her one failing.) I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I think this was the first of uncountable instances on the Camino when the graciousness of the Spanish people in each Pueblo and all the other pilgrims I met along the way, and the little miracles that seemed to just keep happening overwhelmed me. Suddenly I wasn't tired, my feet didn't hurt, the air wasn't hot, and the feeling of the grace of God descending on me was as real as the sweating glass of beer in front of me. (Comparing God and beer when you've just completed a long, very hot day on the Camino is not sacrilege.)  

A dear friend I was to meet later in Logroño gave me a card on which was a Pilgrim’s Prayer, part of which asks God to be:
  • The guide on our intersections,
  • The strengthening during fatigue,
  • The shadow in our heat,
  • The consolation during dejection,
  • And the power of our intention.

Whether it’s God, our Guardian Angels, Jesus, Mary, St. James, or their manifestations in the people we meet along the way, I don’t know. But the fact that we pilgrims have a guide, the strength, shade from the sun, the consolation and the power that we need when we’re most in need is obvious and palpable every day on the Camino, and all were given to me at the Café Modern that afternoon in Castellnou de Seana.

I walked back to the ayuntamiento and presently a man in an old Nissan pickup pulled up next to the building, introduced himself, and unlocked the door. I signed the registry, he stamped my pilgrim passport, gave me a key, and drove me to the albergue some blocks away. Yet again, I was the only pilgrim in a modern, comfortable little bunk house. I showered, changed my shirt, underwear, and socks, and doctored my feet before returning to the Café Modern, where, after a few minutes I was served a large salad and spaghetti and meatballs that I had asked for earlier. It was as though I were an honored guest. While I was eating, the owner's son joined me and we had a pleasant conversation about the pueblo, the economy, the pilgrimage, and I forget what else. He brought out a pilgrim guestbook and invited me to add a comment with my name and read other comments from pilgrims of days, weeks, months, and years passed. It seems the treatment I received wasn't at all unusual in Castellnou de Seana.

I didn't take a picture of the cafe of my gracious hosts there, but here is a link to a page in The Virtual Tourist that shows some pictures and reports the same gracious experience there that I had.

The albergue in Castellnou de Seana

Saturday, January 12, 2013


22 May, 2012

Although I was sleeping on a cold, hard, tile floor in a school room in Castellolí  with a wall of windows looking out on the main street of town, I had no trouble sleeping past 9:00 that morning. I had brought a  one-man tent just in case I had the opportunity, or might be required to sleep outside. I also had an inflatable mattress that allowed a good night’s sleep even on a hard school-room floor. I had pitched the tent in the school room to give myself some privacy as I slept. I felt as though I were on display for everyone to gawk at as they walked or drove by. However, the albergue was free and I wasn't complaining. 

I had taken time to care for my blistered feet the night before, using plenty of Neosporin, gauze, and bandages, and redressed them that morning as I prepared for another day on the Camino. It would be a long time before dressing and redressing blisters would not be a twice-daily, sometimes thrice-daily routine. In the beginning I would stop mid-day either at a bar (with outside seating, of course) or just sit by the side of the road and dress new blisters. I had brought a first aid kit with what I thought were way too many Band-Aids and gauze pads. Fool that I was! I think I made three trips to the farmácia in the first three weeks to replenish my stores. I didn't use them all myself, but because I had the supplies, I became the foot doctor to a few people along the way. I wasn't the only one with blistered feet. 

In my defense, it’s not as though I was completely unprepared for the walk. I had bought the best-fitting boots I could find; price was no object. But my feet are not shaped normally–the arches are flat and my feet are too long from arch to toe in relation to the length from arch to heel, so shoes and boots never fit well. The fallen arches cause a general pain throughout the entire sole of my foot after about four to five hours of walking, and because of the unusual proportions of heel-to-arch and arch-to-toe, shoes either fit in the heel or the toe, but not both. For normal wear I can get by with a few brands of shoes that I've found over the years that give an adequate fit. (Born and Reebok are my favorites.) But for a trip of forty-eight days of waking, averaging a little over twenty-six kilometers a day, adequate wasn't nearly good enough.  I had taken many long hikes on weekends before leaving for the Camino to prepare myself physically and break in my boots. And, for a fifty-five-year-old I'm fairly fit. But the constant, daily walking, normally covering from twenty-five to thirty-five kilometers daily, without time for my feet to recover, caused problems I didn't foresee. 

But enough about that. St. Paul had his “thorn in the side” too. We don’t know what it was, but with all the walking he did I’m inclined to believe that he had poor-fitting sandals and flat feet. And look at all the kilometers he covered without daily mid-day stops for a sandwich and a beer (or two). So no more complaining!

I finally got myself washed (in a stainless steel sink with cold and cold running water), dressed and packed, and then I headed over to the office of the ayuntamiento to turn in the key to the school, following which I went back to the bar where I had stopped for dinner the day before to have a café con leche and a croissant, which would become my standard breakfast for the foreseeable future. The woman working there, Carmen, was very friendly and even more talkative. I didn't leave until 11:30. I knew I had a very short day; Igualada, the next stop on the Camino, being not too far away, and I enjoyed the opportunity to chat and practice my Spanish. Allowing my feet a few more hours of rest seemed like a good idea too. Since I couldn't understand my Catalan guide very well, I asked Carmen how to get to Igualada, not thinking that I should have specified that I wanted to walk the Camino route to that town. Carmen gave me directions as if I were driving there and I ended up walking along a major highway all that afternoon and entering Igualada not having any adea where to find the ayuntamiento, as the guide gave directions, if I could read them, as if I were coming into town on the Camino.

But the Camino gives everyone what he needs when he needs it, including information on where the ayuntamiento is. I stopped at a restaurant for a beer and got directions. (Did I mention how nice it is to be able to eat and drink all you want and still lose weight on the Camino?) I arrived at the ayuntamiento at about 4:00, got my pilgrim passport stamped and received directions to a senior residence where I would receive the keys and further directions to the albergue. This is how it works in Catalunya in pueblos where there actually are albergues: You first find the ayuntamiento, check in there, and then you are shown or given directions to the albergue. I should mention here as a matter of information for future pilgrims who may be reading this that, while albergues are not the norm across Catalunya and Aragón, where they exist they are normally provided without charge. Even better, the town residents you meet at the ayuntamientos, albergues, and bars seem to be very appreciative of the pilgrim traffic they receive and are for the most part more welcoming than you could imagine. I finally arrived at a very nice little building on the grounds of an old tannery, let myself in, disgorged my backpack on a table in a common area and chose my bed from among all of the beds in the albergue. Yet again, I had the entire place to myself.

After the daily foot dressing I headed to the center of town to get a bite to eat.

But first, a little observation:

Prior to leaving for Spain some people would ask me if I thought this might not be a good time to go there, given the political strife caused by the poor economics. My reply was, "A short life and a merry one, I always say!" But seriously, I wasn't really concerned. I could be completely naive, but it seems to me that a person can go to all but the most war-torn locations of the world without having to be overly fearful. There might be a few protests going on in the larger cities of Spain, but those were not my destination. Even if I were going to Madrid and planning to visit the Plaza del Sol, where, if there were going to be a demonstration, that's where it would be, I'd simply rearrange my visit for another day. We're not talking the Spanish Civil War. 

All that is to say, I headed down to Igualada's Plaza Mayor for dinner and what do you think I saw? Correctamundo! A political protest. But it was a peaceful protest. There might have been two-hundred people in the square, and a few made speeches through a bull horn. Of course, I understood nothing. I asked a couple of policemen who were standing nearby what the protest was about. They told me that the people were protesting proposed cuts in social welfare benefits, currently being discussed in Parliament. Hmmm. The country is broke and people are up in arms about the politicians discussing cuts in spending. That's why I ignore politics. Makes no sense at all to me. In fact, one of my fondest memories, rather, I should say lack of memories, is the complete absence of American politics during the entire time I was in Spain. Later, when I was in Granada, in a bar where there was a television, I saw something on the news that mentioned the American presidential race and I realized that that was the first I had heard the names Obama and Romney since leaving the States in May. 

I count that as one of the greatest blessings of the Camino.

My own private albergue in Igualada

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Fast forward to June 22. No reason. I'll get back to story in the next post. 

I had left Sahagún, walking alone. By this time the route through Catalunya and Aragon had met up with the French route in Logroño. There were more people on the Camino now, and I had been walking with a few people with whom I had formed a friendship, one of whom had severe foot problems, so she and her friend took a cab to the next pueblo along the route to rest and recuperate.

I stopped in El Burgo Ranero, just West of Sahagún for lunch. I suppose something about my back pack and my clothing gave me away as a pilgrim. Go figure. A man, his name was Jesús Calve, gave me a card on which was written this poem. Receiving of gifts of every kind had become a daily occurrence  If you want to experience the absolute best that human kind has to offerkindness, the spirit of giving, of concern for one another, a feeling of unity, oneness, solidarity, a shared spiritwalk the Camino de Santiago. Walk the Camino and just try to give more than you receive. It's like trying to out-give God.

The way of Saint James is dust and mud, sun and rain
Trod by pilgrims in their thousands for more than a thousand years.

Pilgrim, whose voice is calling you?
What hidden force leads you on?
Not the stars of the Milky Way,
Nor the lure of great cathedrals.

It’s not the wild heart of Navarre,
Nor the rich Riojan wines,
Nor the shellfish of Galicia,
Nor the broad Castilian fields.

Pilgrim, whose voice is calling you?
What hidden force leads you on?
Not the people on your way,
Nor the customs of the land.

Not the history or the culture,
Not the Cock of La Calzada
Nor the palace of Gaudi,
Nor the castle of Ponferrada.

All this I see with pleasure,
And, having seen, pass by.
But for me the voice that calls
Comes, I feel, from deep inside.

The force that drives me on
I can never explain or show.
The force that draws me to it
Only the One above can know.

Eugene Garibay (translated by John Lyon)

Early morning, near Sahagún

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


21 May, 2013

The first thing I wrote in my journal on the first day on the Camino was, “What a day!” I didn't know it at the time, but I wasn't even half finished with that day's walk. I had written that when I stopped at a restaurant for lunch of fried eggs, a pork chop, fried potatoes, (we call them French fries in the States) and a couple of glasses of wine. (I was in Spain after all.) Later on as the weather turned unbearably hot I’d switch to cold beer, served at three degrees (centigrade), the tap icing over, but this day’s walk had been through a cold wind, mostly on a highway, without knowing for most of the day if I was even on the right path. My Catalan guide didn't help much and the yellow arrows of the Camino that would be so common later on were almost non-existent that first day. I can still remember distinctly, more than seven months later as I write this, the exuberant joy I felt as I saw each yellow arrow that day, when I could find one, telling me that I was not lost in Catalunya.

I left the restaurant, rested, well fed, but at this point, completely lost. No yellow arrow, no indication in the guide of which direction to go (not that I could understand, anyway) and nothing but a busy interstate highway intersection ahead of me to try to circumnavigate. I found my way to a tiny, desolate pueblo near the intersection and walked up and down the streets, hoping to find someone who could point me in the right direction. No easy task, that, but I finally happened upon a man coming out of an apartment building and did my best to explain to him that I making a pilgrimage to Santiago and couldn't figure out where to go next. He seemed very helpful, giving me directions to where I would find the Camino and I followed his directions to a T. Some hours later I figured out that this helpful gentleman must have thought I was making my way to Montserrat, whence I had come, another common pilgrim destination. (In fact, I had met a French man making that pilgrimage just a couple of hours earlier, going the opposite direction, and had a very pleasant conversation with him, receiving many helpful tips for my own journey.) The man in the little pueblo had pointed me in the wrong direction and as I tried to follow my guide in combination with his directions I made a loop of maybe six or seven kilometers over a couple of hours, ending, sadly, at the restaurant at which I had eaten lunch. Trying to look on the bright side, I had passed through a park-like area with historical markers from the war between France and Spain in the early 1800’s. Being a student of history, I have to admit that I enjoyed the little detour for that reason, although my feet, by this time, were in violent disagreement.

Much to my amazement, in the interim while I had been wandering through historical battle grounds, someone had painted a yellow arrow on the road in front of the restaurant and I was able to continue on my way, sure in the knowledge that Santiago lay ahead, somewhere, someday.

My guide said that there was an albergue in Castellolí and gave its address. I was pretty sure that I understood enough of the Catalan guide to at least read a street name and number and I was able to find the street in the tiny pueblo of Castellolí. Finally, upon reaching the numbered house, I rang the bell. A voice of an elderly woman answered on the intercom, and I announced, with exhaustion in my voice, that I was a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago looking for the albergue and asked if this was it. (OK, my Spanish was a trifle more rudimentary. I think I said, "Is this an albergue?") The voice on the other side of the intercom said, “No.” I heard a click and that was the end of the conversation.

Somewhat sad, dejected, tired, frustrated, and did I already say, tired?, I looked around for someone of whom I could ask directions. My efforts were fruitless. I continued walking to the next pueblo, another kilometer down the road. My guide mentioned its name but I had no idea in what context. I arrived there and found it was basically a wide spot in the road. No albergue, no pension, no hostel, nothing, nada. I considered breaking out the tent and sleeping in a field but I happened upon a woman who told me that that was not allowed. She also told me, with great conviction, that there was no albergue in Castellolí. Back to sad, tired, dejected, tired, frustrated and, (did I already say?), tired. I walked up the street to a restaurant, closed, naturally, but I saw someone inside and knocked on the door. Doing my best to explain my situation and showing the kind gentleman the guide I was trying to follow, he told me that there was indeed an albergue in Castellolí, and told me where to find the bar at which someone would be able to give me a key to it. (A better English translation for the establishment would be "cafe." But they're called "bars" in Spain, so that's good enough for me.)

This was my first educational experience on the Camino Catalan: There are so few pilgrims on this route that the albergues, when they exist, are locked up, only open on an as-needed basis, and the pilgrim has to go to the town hall (ayuntamiento) to register, receive a stamp in his pilgrim credentials, and get a key to the albergue, which may or may not be close by. Since the ayuntamiento was closed at this time of the day, I would find someone in the bar next door who would be able to help me. I walked the kilometer back to Castellolí, found the bar and within, a number of very friendly and helpful people. The key was with someone, thankfully reachable via telephone, whom the bar manager called. She showed up a half hour later with the key, during which time, and more, I thoroughly enjoyed a simple dinner, a beer or two, and pleasant conversation with the regulars in the bar. After dinner I was shown across the street to a room in an unused school building, where I had the entire classroom floor and student bathroom to myself. There was no shower, no hot water, and no bed, but I had completed my first day on the Camino, asking and receiving directions in Spanish, finding my way to the first way-point, uninjured (save for a few blisters on the feet), fed, housed, exhausted, and elated.
Leaving Montserrat. The sign above my head says, "Camino de Santiago" and a yellow arrow points the way.

Monday, January 7, 2013


May 20, 2012

I left the apartment where I had stayed a couple of days in Barcelona at about 9:00 AM. Leaving earlier wouldn't have been a bad idea, but I didn't have an alarm and I was still not quite adjusted to Barcelona time. I purposefully left my watch, phone, computer, Kindle, everything possible that was electronic or electric at home. I wanted no semblance of my previous life in the world of schedules and phones and obligations. I did, however, bring an MP3 player/voice recorder, not to listen to but to record any thoughts I might have while walking so I wouldn't have to stop to write. After about a month I changed my mind and began to listen to music as I walked, but that’s a topic for a later post.

I had no earthly idea how to get to Montserrat from Barcelona, but that was part of the adventure. I had a guide to the city which listed a phone number for tourist information and after walking several blocks I was finally able to find a phone booth. How much money to deposit? I couldn't find any indication of the price of a local call on the phone or its kiosk, so I began putting the smallest coins I had in the slot until I got a dial tone and dialed the number of the Tourist Office, thankfully reaching an operator who spoke English. I can understand enough Spanish to talk with someone face-to-face and eventually comprehend what’s being said after questions, clarifications, and restatements to ensure I understood the communication, but hearing and understanding through a telephone, dealing with street noise, and completely missing all visual cues from the other person offers its own sometimes insurmountable challenges. Trying to get directions to the start of my pilgrimage, this was no time to challenge myself; I just wanted to get there.

With directions and train numbers from the friendly person on the other end of the line, I found the metro stop, boarded the right subway train, and was soon at Espanya Rail Station at Plaça Espanya. I boarded and made the uneventful and completely "unscenic" trip to Monistrol. I might describe the scenery between Barcelona and Monistrol as "Early Postmodern Industrial." 

I disembarked at the train station there and asked directions to the town figuring on a short walk from Monistrol to the monastery. I obviously hadn't done my homework. Unbeknownst to me at the time, had I stayed on the train, I would have been at Montserrat in another twenty minutes, much warmer and dryer, but without the sense of the accomplishment I was to experience some hours later after a grueling climb of over ten kilometers with a vertical ascent of 2,400 feet, some of it almost hand-over-hand climbing through rock and boulder-strewn landscape, through a thunderstorm and frigid winds. (Did I say I was having fun?) Yes, I had brought a rain coat but I was as wet on the inside from perspiration as I was on the outside from the rain.

Arriving cold, wet, and sore, my first order of business was food and drink. This was the beginning of a wonderful time in my life, if for no other reason than I could eat and drink anything and everything I wanted and still lose weight. In fact, fast forward to about six weeks on the Camino and I had lost the twenty pounds I had been trying to lose unsuccessfully for many years; I was back to the same weight I had been when my son was born over twenty-five years earlier. 

There is a modern cafeteria at Montserrat with every type of food anyone could want. I went right for the quarter roasted chicken, penne pasta, and a half bottle of vino tinto de Rioja (red wine from Rioja, a region I would walk through some weeks hence). It’s the little things that make an impression on you while traveling and one of the little things I absolutely love about Spain is that I never, not once, nunca, was asked for identification when I bought alcohol. I’m 55 years old and even if I want to flatter myself and say that I'm relatively young-lookingI don’t look a day over 54it still irks me when I get carded in the States when I buy alcohol. Zero tolerance, roughly translated, means zero brains.

But I digress.

After eating as much as I could–no problem with the half bottle of Rioja and pasta, but I admit I wasted some chicken–I began searching for the pilgrim’s office where I would get my Pilgrim’s Credentials, that fold-out card on which you receive a stamp of every pueblo or city in which you stay the night on the Camino to prove you've walked (or ridden, in the case of bicyclists) the entire route. Some people have their credentials stamped at interesting sites they pass, at cathedrals, or other memorable places. It’s a personal decision, but I only had mine stamped where I stopped for the night. (Coming in a future post: How I lost, or better said, how I had my pilgrim credentials stolen.) I registered as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim, received my credentials with the first stamp from the Monastery of Montserrat, and then was shown to the free albergue provided by the monastery. (A brief note of definition: an albergue, or refugio, is a place for pilgrims to stop to spend the night. They might be described as a bunk house, some very nice, most very basic, but all very welcome after a long day of walking. As millions of pilgrims have traveled a number of common routes from various points of origin throughout Spain and Europe, these albergues have been established at just about any city or pueblo a pilgrim might pass through. However, since the route from Montserrat is relatively uncommon, the pilgrim won't find albergues in many of the pueblos along the Camino through Catalunya and Aragon. Until I reached Logroño, I stayed many nights in hostels and pensions.) As would be common for the part of the Camino between Montserrat and Logroño, I had the room to myself. Normally I’d be the only guest in the entire albergue. In this case, the albergue was divided in to several rooms with three or four bunk beds in each. There was one other pilgrim there who also had his own room. He was on bicycle so after we began the following morning I never saw him again.

After I got settled in my room, I went to the monastery book store. I had forgotten my guide to the Camino through Catalunya and, silly me, thought I’d just buy a guide at Montserrat. I wasn't so foolish to think I’d find a guide printed in English, but Spanish would be fine. No problema, I thought. There’s bound to be a Camino de Santiago guide in Spanish here. I’m in Spain right?
No, I was in Catalunya. The only guide available was in Catalan, and Catalan is NOT a dialect of what we refer to as Spanish, better described as Castilian. I looked at the Catalan guide and quickly decided it would be almost useless to me. Not wanting to spend the money on something I could barely use, I figured I’d be able to find a Castilian language guide along the way. A very kind women at the pilgrim office found a Catalan guide on the web and printed out enough pages to get me a few days down the road. I could barely understand it, but there were maps that I could read and it was better than nothing. That and those wonderful, lovely, magical yellow arrows got me to Lleída where I finally found that guide in Castilian I had been looking for.

I'm about at the end of this post, but I can't finish the recounting of my first day without a word about the Choir Boys and Monks of the Monastery at Montserrat. I embarked on the Camino de Santiago as a journey of spiritual reflection and discovery. There could have been no better way to begin than to attend Vespers at the cathedral and hear those voices. I cannot attempt to describe the music, just as I cannot and will not even attempt to describe my emotional response to that event. Maybe a combination of the struggles I had been through to get to Montserrat, to get to the Camino after all these years, the waiting, the anticipation, the frustration I felt for so long at not being able to walk the Camino, then finally being there, experiencing the fulfillment of a dream of almost a decade, all combined with the visual impact of the cathedral, the aural impact of the voices, the spiritual impact of God's and my guardian angels' presence overwhelmed me to the point that even today I cannot talk of this experience. Even writing it is difficult. If I had died that night, after attending Vespers at the Cathedral at Montserrat, I would have died completely content, happy, and fulfilled. There were experiences yet to come on the Camino, some as powerful and life-changing as being present at vespers in the Cathedral of Montserrat, listening to that music that night, but none more so. 

The next morning I set out on a little walk that was to change my life.

Inside the Cathedral of Montserrat

Saturday, January 5, 2013


to wait: (Spanish) esperar (verb, intransitive)
to hope: (Spanish) esperar (verb, intransitive)
esperando - waiting, hoping

The study of language is, for me, infinitely interesting. You can learn so much about a culture by how ideas are transmitted via sounds, utterances, words, and the grammar of the language; how subtle differences in meaning are expressed through the metaphors that are words and become our languages.

The verbs wait and hope, so different in English, are the same word, the same sound, in Spanish. This suggests people of Anglo descent, English speakers, find it possible, even normal, to wait without purpose, neither hoping, nor despairing. The Anglo can wait without hoping. Just as telling, he can hope without waiting. The two verbs need not cohabitate, they need not even be aware of the other's existence  We simply wait. The world passes by unnoticed, without anticipation, stoically, nonchalantly. We hope, or we wait. But mostly we just wait.

How does an Hispanic person wait or hope? ¿Cómo espera el hispanohablante? With hope, con esperanza, with anticipation, looking forward to something better. Con felicidad - with happiness. "Mañana" is a familiar expression to a Norte Americano, and we consider it an indication of laziness. But we misinterpret. It's not void of anticipation. Mañana is not an empty promise which one simply waits for. It's pregnant. The Hispanic person doesn't wait without hope. There is anticipation. There is hope for betterment. A new day dawns. Each day brings us closer to something wonderful. Waiting is not lonely, it never arrives without its good friend, Hope. Hoping must entertain and be infinitely patient with its constant companion and true friend, Waiting. As surely as the Hispanic waits for mañana, hope is never far away. They both exist in the same space, at the same time, with divine anticipation thoroughly embedded in the waiting.

Forty-four years.

I have had an inexplicable emotional tie to Spain for forty-four years. Or to put it more precisely, he estado esperado desde hace cuarenta y quatro años. I have been waiting and hoping since 44 years ago.

In mid-life I met and had a ten-year intense relationship with a woman of Spanish heritage. I believe now that any relationship with a Spanish woman is bound to be intense, but I didn't know that at the beginning of our relationship. She took me with her on one of her frequent trips to Spain and the scales fell from my eyes. Amid the confusion, the noise, the rigidity, bureaucracy, and downright inefficiency of the culture, I fell in love with the country. Even now, many years later and after several trips to Spain, from Andalucía to Galicia, I cannot, for the life of me, explain what it is about that country that I love and that draws me back. It's something on a purely emotional and visceral level that denies description. But as the old beer commercial asked, why ask why?

Eight years.

I waited eight years to walk the Camino de Santiago. I don't remember where or when I first heard about it but I have a memory of wanting to experience the pilgrimage that coincides with an event of eight years ago, so my pilgrimage to Santiago was at least that long in the making. I read web sites about it, read books about it, thought about it, planned it, bought supplies for iteverything but did it.

As a result of years of foolish decisions, bad luck, and just plain stupidity I had no savings. For most of my adult life, if I had lost my job I was at most two months from living on the streets. But there came a time when finally I had enough income over and above day to day living expenses that would allow me to pay off debt and put myself in a position of being able to leave my job, at least for the time required to walk the Camino. I wouldn't have any more savings than what was absolutely required to make the journey, and I still owed money on a car and a too-expensive Flamenco guitar. (Remember the "foolishness" I mentioned above?) But I had enough in the bank to make minimum payments on my debt, leave my job, and be OK for several months. If my employer had offered an extended leave without pay I might have opted for that, but they didn't, sparing me that decision. I was making a very good living and most people would have said I was foolish to leave. Well, being foolish isn't a foreign concept for me, and even today, being back in the "real world," having narrowly avoided financial disaster, I look back on the day I left my employer, seeing the office building in my rear view mirror, and vividly remember having admittedly mixed emotions: joy and happiness.

No regrets.

March 16th, 2012. I had already sold everything I could and given away almost all of the rest of my meager possessions. Some clothing, a backpack full of gear I'd need for the pilgrimage, a guitar, and a few bottles of wine (couldn't leave those; they didn't take much room anyway), and a few books I couldn't bear to part with were loaded in the car and I headed east from Seattle to spend a few weeks at my mother's house in Iowa before leaving for Spain. While there, I remodeled a room in her 130-year-old house and tried to wait patiently for my scheduled departure for Barcelona in May. I admit, I have every ounce of patience that God ever gave me because I've never used any of it. The wait was interminable, nearly impossible. I literally (and I don't use that word figuratively) counted the days to my departure.

With absolutely no idea what the next couple of months in Spain would bring, I felt like Tony in West Side Story: "something's coming, don't know what it is, but I know it is gonna be great!" Fortunately my older brother had a friend, a former painting student, in Barcelona who would let me crash at his apartment for a couple of days to catch up from jet lag before beginning my little walk across Spain. That was the only thing I could plan on. From that point forward all I knew was that I'd walk every day and figure it out, whatever "it" was, on a daily or hourly basis.  I'd studied Spanish, mostly on my own, off and on for several years so I thought I'd be able to get by in a pinch, although I was soon to find out how weak my Spanish was even after all those years of studying. A language savant I am not.

I had read enough about the Camino to know that beginning at Montserrat was not the norm, and the route across Catalunya and Aragon was going to be lonely.

That was exactly what I wanted.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I took a little walk...

Expectations? None.

Hopes? Infinite.

I began walking May 21st, 2012 at the abbey of Montserrat near Barcelona. Destination: Santiago de Compostela, and then on to Finisterre on the Atlantic Ocean. One thousand, two-hundred fifty kilometers.

I had no idea what to expect. Looking back, I wish I could have foreseen the contentment, the joy, the absolute feeling of freedom and one-ness with everything I was to experience. I have no idea how knowing that would have changed anything. Probably, it wouldn't. But something inside me, for some reason, wants that I had known that I was about to experience the happiest fifty days of my life.

It wasn't an easy journey: My flat, mis-shapen feet screamed in pain by the end of every day; my frustration at not having a sufficient command of Spanish, at not knowing the customs, of being forever a stranger in a strange land were constant thorns in my side. Being lost in the desert in Aragon, walking in heat of over one-hundred degrees with no shade the whole day and on one occasion running out of water well before reaching my destination, trying to make sense of a guide written in Catalan, having blisters on top of blisters (I didn't even know that was possible), walking ten hours when my guidebook said the day's route should take seven. Through all that, still, without a doubt in my mind I was happier during my Camino experience than I had ever been. Truth to tell, I'm afraid that I'll never be that happy again.

This blog is a record of my thoughts and memories of that pilgrimage and my thinking and planning process as I prepare for the next pilgrimage which will take me from the same starting point, Montserrat, Barcelona to St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.

On that next journey do I expect to find the same happiness and contentment I experienced on the Camino de Santiago? No.

Do I hope for it? Infinitely so.
The view from Montserrat