Friday, May 30, 2014

Getting Lost is Getting Old

Figueres to La Jonquera. I missed one turn starting out and had to walk along a highway to
Leaving Figueras. The bars are in front of a mirrored
store window.
Vilabertran, but I don’t think the distance was worth worrying about. I took the road marked for Vilabertran; I’m sure the arrow pointed to the road I took, but somehow it turned out to be the wrong one. It was later that the real adventure began. I’m trying to follow the Camino de Santiago in reverse and the system of hiking trails throughout Catalunya whenever I can so that I can stay off the highways. The problem with trying to follow the Camino de Santiago in reverse is, if someone is going toward Santiago and merges with another path – envision a Y where the pilgrim is going from one side of the V to the bottom of the Y – there will be a sign just past the crotch of the Y, indicating the pilgrim should follow the downward point of the Y. If someone is coming from the bottom of the Y, he might see the arrow pointing toward the bottom, but doesn’t know from which of the paths the Camino pilgrim was coming from. A compass may come in handy, and I use one often, but the roads twist and turn and you can never be sure which road to take.

Then, there are the other trails – the GR system all throughout Catalunya. The problem with those is that they are often times poorly marked. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been in the woods and have come to a fork in the trail and there’s no sign of which direction I should go. The trails are marked with various color pairs. I’ve normally been following red and white stripes. When I come to these forks in the trail, I look as carefully as I can, but if the marking isn’t there, it isn’t there. I’ve found many times that the paint on the trees or rocks is so old and faded it's barely visible. It’s probably the case that in many places the paint is faded completely.
I wish I could have seen this house, or estate, in its prime.
Pont de Molins
The walk from Pont de Molins to Biure was full of nice scenery as I walked up and over a mountain (actually a foot-hill) pass. As usual, I stopped at the bar at Biure for a cold one and had a sandwich. I had half of it wrapped up for later and that became my dinner. (Lunch and dinner for 3.30 Euro - not bad.) It looks like there has been a major forest fire in this region; all the trees were black and the pine trees were nothing but sticks with pine cones hanging from them. I came across several crews that were trimming the trees back to whatever still had green leaves, leaving a skeletal landscape.

From Biure to L'Estrada is where the day unraveled, due to the aforementioned poor trail marking. I ended up walking 3 or 4 kilometers in the wrong direction at one point on a day that the
The trees should be green.
trail was 32.5km as marked. I didn’t need to add 3 to 4km on top of that. But I did and finally got to La Jonquera, close to the French border and the last town in Spain that I’d be spending the night in. L’Estrada is a little town about 5.5km before La Jonquera and I was so looking forward to taking a little break there for a cold drink before continuing the last hour and a half to La Jonquera. When I got there, I found there wasn’t a single bar in town. My feet were dying and I just wanted a little rest, but it wasn’t to be. I ran into a couple of men working on a house remodel in L’Estrada who told me La Jonquera was only about 30 minutes’ walk, but I knew better. People who don’t walk a lot have a bad sense of how long it takes to walk a distance that they think nothing of driving. Early in the day when I’m starting out, I walk 5 kilometers an hour. By the end of the day, even on flat and level road I’m down to 4.5 at best. But then add hills and narrow, muddy paths, and that can drop to less than 3. I admit, I’m not a fast walker.
So, about an hour and a half later, I got to la Jonquera. The ayuntamiento (city government office) was closed and I had no idea where the tourist office was, but someone told me that someone at the police station, very near, could tell me where the albergue was.

Not only could they tell me where it was, but they told me it was free! What a great ending to a very long day. I had passed an old building much earlier that I thought would make a great place to
A shepherd's shelter in the hills of northeast Spain.
sleep for free, until 2 mules exited to see who was passing by their home. Much earlier I passed a shepherd’s shelter that also would have made a great place to camp, but it was much too early in the day to stop. Turns out, either of those places would have been roughly equivalent to the albergue I stayed in. Mind you, I’m not complaining at all. I’ll sleep in a barn if it’s free. My albergue looks like a medieval castle, and it might be: it’s on the highest point in La Jonquera, built of stone, with hardly anything resembling modern improvements, and by modern, I mean anything past the 14th century. The only improvements are a 2-level wooden platform for air or foam mattresses and 2 lights. But there’s no plumbing or heat. Outside there is a metal building with bathroom facilities and a shower – cold water only – and I’m pretty sure I saw a mouse running away when I opened the door of the bathroom side. Still, it’s free, and at this stage of my pilgrim experience, that means more to me than hot water and heat.

My private castle in La Jonquera.
So I ended the day with a cold shower and a warm sleeping bag in my little castle on the hill.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lost in the Jungles of Garrotxa

First, a big word of thanks to Father Fulgenci of Santa Maria de Corco (originally from Rwanda) who arranged a room for me a few nights ago in a house that’s used for guests of the church. The house must have been at least 400 years old and the key (I’m not making this up and I'm not exaggerating) was an iron skeleton key about 7 inches long and must have weighed half a pound. The door to the house was big enough for a horse to pass through. It was a very enjoyable experience – the kind I would like to have more of, especially because it was so inexpensive. Lodging for the night cost €10, but that included breakfast.

The next night, I believe it was in St. Esteve d’en Bas (if I don’t write these things down the day they happen the towns and days start to meld together), I was given free lodging in a utility building attached to the church. Sure, I slept on the floor, but I have an air mattress and sleeping bag so I was comfortable. There was no shower and only cold water, but after a long day of walking, that’s plenty for me.
Between St. Esteve and Santa Pau there were lots of horses.
Julia, if you're reading, this one's for you.
There were some challenges in the beginning, mostly with getting lost, but the last few days, except for a few missed trail markings and heading off in the wrong direction for a few hundred meters, that I was able to quickly recover from, I’ve been getting where I need to be.

But let me tell you about yesterday! I was walking from Santa Pau to Besalu on a hiking trail (and I
Early in the day - I was still in the mood to take a picture
 of some small waterfalls.
use that term loosely) through the hills and forests of Garrotxa, a part of Catalunya. It started out all right; after asking a few people for directions I found the trail marked GR-2. There was a light rain, but I have a poncho, so I wasn’t concerned. There was no wind and it was still a pleasant walk. About half way to Besalu, which is a 20km walk, more or less, the path started resembling more of a jungle than a hiking trail. I was going up and down steep inclines of rock, the brush was overhanging the path, thorns were tearing at my poncho, the rain was getting heavier, the wind was picking up, and the same eight measures of the same darn song was going through my head and I couldn’t get it out! I was not a happy camper. (Editor’s note: I don’t use the word literally in a figurative manner.) I literally could have used a machete for much of the day. Every once in a while I’d see a trail marking that told me that I was not lost, that this was indeed what Catalunya, or at least Garrotxa, thought was an acceptable hiking trail, but eventually I missed a marking and continued another kilometer to a clearing where I came to an hotel/restaurant under construction. Nobody was there so I made myself at home on a bench in front of the restaurant and took off my shoes and socks for a brief rest. (It had stopped raining for a while.) Not knowing at this time that I had missed a turn, I looked around for a trail marking and found exactly none. I had a topographical map and tried to figure out where I was, but to no avail. I walked down the road and took a trail off to the right but figured out pretty quickly that that was incorrect and returned to the restaurant. As usually happens, right about this time someone showed up to help me. Turns out it was the mayor of the nearby town, and I asked him if he could tell me where I was. He did, and gave me directions back to Besalu. That’s when I found I had overshot my turn through the jungle by about a kilometer. The rest of the way was on a small road with no need of a machete, so I was happy to be there.
Finally entering Besalu, where there was no place to sleep.
This is one of the few moments when it wasn't raining.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wandering to Wome

The plan is to collect the record of my thoughts and observations, my feelings and acts of God, that might be interesting to a third party, and create another book. The last one, about my experiences on the Camino de Santiago, I titled Saunteringto Santiago. The word, "sauntering" came from an essay by Emerson and I’ll leave it to you to buy the book if you want to find why I used that somewhat unusual word. In keeping with the pattern of alliteration from the first book in what I hope is a triptych of books about pilgrimages to Santiago, Rome, and Jerusalem, I’m thinking a good title for the second, a journey to Rome, would be Wandering to Wome, with a picture of Elmer Fudd on the cover with a walking stick and backpack, walking through Tuscany. What do you think? Good idea? Think I could get Warner Brothers to let me use Elmer for the cover? It seems appropriate because I haven’t had a single day of walking so far without getting lost. If I was supposed to cover 150km to this point, I bet I’ve walked close to 200. Maybe I’ll just title it Getting There Any Way I Can because I’ve had to take buses and taxis, and even hitch hike one time (so far).

Today, I was Lucky enough to ask a man in the bar in which I had breakfast how to get to the trail that would take me to Sant Esteve d’en Bas. His name was Salvador, which is Spanish for “savior.” What do you know? He was going my way and, true to his name, he led me through the straight and narrow, saving me from being lost for the first part of the day. Salvador had had a heart attack 7 months ago and he set out to heal himself with a change of diet and lifestyle—he told me he walked every day and gave up salt, red meat, and blonds. (He said he’d been married 3 times; no wonder he had a heart attack.) We walked together for a couple of hours until he took a route to the west, while I continued north. Salvador is 6 years older than I, and even though he’s recovering from a heart attack, I was having trouble keeping up with him. True, I was carrying about 30 pounds more on my back than he, but still…

A 12th C. bridge I crossed early in the day.
So, for the first couple of hours I didn’t get lost, but after that, it was a different story. It’s not because I was ill-equipped—the day before, Maria had taken me to a book store where I bought a couple of detailed topographical maps of the trails in Catalunya. And still, that wasn’t enough.

I came to a point in the trail where there was a post in the ground, and on top of it, the shell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago, which I was following in reverse to get to its starting point in northeast Spain, whence I’ll cross into France. Other than the post, there was no indication of which direction to go. Behind me was an open gate to a pasture with a cow trail leading the opposite direction from where I wanted to go (I checked my compass), to my left was where I had come from, and to my right was a gate to a pasture full of sheep. (Sheep are funny: When you approach a crowd of them they all stop eating and look up at you as if they expect you to say something pithy. I did my best—gave them my pithiest oration—but they still stared at me as if that weren’t enough. Tough crowd, those sheep.)

Thinking the cow trail behind me might turn in the right direction at some point, I followed it for a few hundred meters, dodging cow pies and sheep droppings, until it dead-ended at an electric fence. I backtracked and found an offshoot, heading through a swampy area, but found a way around the water and continued until I came to another fence. I was starting to feel like Pacman walking through a maze, but not gaining any points. I headed back to the post and looked in front of it: a tough climb
Nice view. Too bad I was lost.
through granite and basalt outcroppings, but maybe the people who marked the trail intended that the pilgrim climb to a path above. I climbed up, hoping my bad knee wouldn’t start complaining (it didn’t) and got to a pasture with a very nice view, but no trail, no markings, nada. I climbed back down and studied the situation again, leaning on the post with the Santiago shell inscribed on the top and uttering a few phrases expressing my frustration to the sheep who were still nonplussed.

I had tried every option available to me except going to the house down the road on the other side of the gate to see if I could find someone to ask directions from. I wasn't going to be teleported any time soon, so I opened the gate, careful to close it, 300 sheep staring at me, as if to say, “Boy are you going to be in trouble now,” and what do you know? I saw the yellow stripe sign that told me that this was the correct path. I got to the house and there was the owner, or someone who seemed to be in charge. I asked him if this was the trail I was looking for. He said yes, matter-of-factly, and asked me where I was from. We had a nice conversation during which I mentioned, politely, (using formal conjugations for all my verbs) that the signage on the other side of the pasture was somewhat lacking in precision. He didn’t seem interested. Such is life. I was happy to be back on track, except the man I was talking to told me that I was still 3 hours away from St. Esteve d’en Bas, my destination for the evening. (Salvador had told me that I was a couple hours away when we parted company an hour and a half ago.)

It wasn’t more than a couple hundred meters further on that I met a runner going in the opposite direction. He told me that I was only an hour away from St. Esteve. Never trust a runner in time/distance estimates.

About 3 hours later I sauntered into St. Esteve during siesta. Like all small towns in Spain between
Looking back whence I came.
This was steeper than it appears in the picture.
It seemed like I was descending for an hour.
2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, it was a ghost town. When I was on the Camino de Santiago I had guide books that instructed the pilgrim where to find the albergue in each pueblo. Here, I’m on my own. I wandered around until I saw a man on a balcony 3 stories above and asked him (yelled at him—he indicated he was hard of hearing) where the town government offices were. I figured I’d go there to get my pilgrim credentials stamped and find out where I might sleep for the night. He reminded me that this was Saturday and the ayuntamiento was closed. I asked if he could direct me to the church. He told me it was closed for the rest of the day. Final question: “Can you direct me to a bar?” No, he couldn’t. He said to head down the street and see if I could find someone else who could.

Luckily, I passed a hairdresser’s salon that was open and I asked if she knew if there might be an albergue or hostel in town. Miracle of miracles: there was a very nice albergue just down the street.
I was saved.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Do you know the way to San Jose (or anywhere, for that matter)?

I spent the better part of a year before starting out on this adventure looking at Google maps and planning a route to Montpellier, France. I looked for the smallest roads possible to walk along, both for safety’s sake and for a better walking experience overall. Montse and Maria told me about another optionmuch better, at least theoretically. There is a network of walking trails all throughout Catalunya with the designation GR-x, x being a route number. There are maps of these that allow the avid hiker to walk just about anywhere, from town to town, throughout Catalunya. This seemed like a much better way to get to France, so I took Maria’s advice to go back up to Montserrat on the funicular Monday morning and walk the GR-151 to Vic, where she would meet me with a map of these trails. I got up early, walked to the funicular station, and took the first one up the mountain. In the same car was a man who was obviously prepared for a mountain hike, so when we arrived at the monastery, I asked him where he was going. Turns out, Conrad was taking a day hike, starting out at the same place and in the same direction as I and even had a map. Strange thing, though, his trail map showed no GR-151. The only route going northeast toward the coast and France was GR-4. He recommended I go as far as that trail went, and then stop at a small, ancient monastery where I might find someone to ask directions, or at least, consult a large map of the area that was posted there.

We climbed what seemed like a thousand steps up and over the mountain, he with his 4 kilo day
Looking down on the monastery of Montserrat, half way
through the climb over the mountain,
pack, I with my 20+ kilo back pack, loaded with everything I’ll need for a 3-month walk around The Mediterranean to Rome. I don’t mind saying I was feeling my age. Every time I thought we might be at the end of the stairs, we’d turn a corner and there were more. If there weren’t a thousand steps, that’s not a large exaggeration. The picture to the left wasn’t taken from anywhere near the top. We finally got to the point where he headed west and I continued north. 

I got to the end of the trail at a highway at the site of an ancient monastery ( a different one, from the 13th century) which was being restored. I asked the workers if they could direct me to the GR trail that continued on to the next town, but they had no idea what I was talking about. It was getting toward noon and I was hungry. I asked them if there might be a place nearby to stop for a sandwich. Short answer: No. My fault here—the Camino de Santiago goes from town to town and you’re never so far from a café that you have to pack food. That’s not the case on this trip. I was in bad shape, not knowing where I was at this point, and running low on energy; I needed some carbs, and fast.

I started walking along the highway that led to Manressa, my next stop, and discovered I was on the same highway I had been on 2 years ago, starting out on the Camino de Santiago. I didn’t have a map (Again, my bad. I'd abandoned the guide I had created for myself and was now following signs.), but I knew this wasn’t right—the Camino de Santiago goes west; I wanted to go north. After walking a couple more hours I came to a T in the road, with Manressa to the right, 15 kilometers, and Marganell to the left, about 3 kilometers. I knew from my experience 2 years ago that there was a restaurant in Marganell, in the direction of Santiago, so that’s where I headed. I didn’t think I’d be able to walk 15K on an empty stomach. Pretty soon I saw a sign for the Camino de Santiago pointing the way through the woods. It said the next town was only 2K distance, so I took that. It was after about 20 minutes that I remembered that the Camino guide I had 2 years ago said that that route was very difficult. Too late to turn back, I found myself tired and hungry climbing hand over hand up rocks, carrying a 30+ lb. pack. I finally arrived at a tiny pueblo with nothing but a winery/restaurant that was closed except on weekends. But all was not lost: Just as I was passing behind the winery someone came out (I should start indexing the Coincidences on this trip) so I was able to ask him for directions to someplace I might find something to eat. With his help, I found my way to a community center in El Bruc where I was able to get a ham sandwich and rest.

I found that I had gone in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go, skirting the base of Montserrat, and decided at this point that the only thing to do was to take a bus to Manressa, regroup, re-plan, and start out tomorrow, refreshed and rested. The only problem was that the bus didn’t pass by until 7:15, which would take me to Martorell, back toward Barcelona, where I could catch a train to Manressa. It was now about 3:00, so I had 4 hours to wait. Fortunately for me, the community center wasn’t too busy so the sole employee there, Domingo, and I talked about Spanish history, Spanish current politics, art (he really likes Degas and thinks one of my brother’s paintings resembles a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers,, and other sundry things of no importance. He found out how I could get to my goal for the day, Manressa, directed me to the bus stop, made sure I knew where to get off in Martorell to make sure the bus driver didn’t take me out of my way.

Maybe it would have been better to take the highway route I’d spent months planning, but I felt it was worth trying the trail system again. One bad day, a pattern doesn’t make.

I’d heard that there was an albergue in Manressa, and, wanting to save money, that’s where I intended to spend the night. Problem was, when I exited the train station in Manressa it was already 9:30 and albergues normally close their doors at 10:00 PM. I asked the first person I came to if they might know where an albergue or hostel might be and she immediately knew where the Manressa Albergue was and directed me. Not only did she know exactly where it was, but it was close enough that I made it in time and only had to spend €18 for a very nice accommodation, as albergues go, including breakfast. I couldn’t believe my Luck. As it turned out, I was the only one that night in the twin room they put me in. A comfortable bed, solitude, a hot shower just down the hall, and a peaceful night (except for the guy who was snoring ALL NIGHT on the other side of the wall, who was so loud I could hear him (I assume it was a him) even with my ear plugs. But by that time I was so tired I only awoke a couple of times (which is how I know he snored like a bear ALL NIGHT!)).

As karmic punishment for not entering Manressa via the walking route, I had no idea where to
The Cathedral of Manressa, of which I had several views
as I circled around it.
find the trail the next day. I asked some people at the alberguesurely they would know where the Camino de Santiago entered the city. Nope. They consulted a map and it looked like the Camino entered at an ancient bridge over the river. They suggested I go there and look for the yellow arrows, and I, having no better advice, headed toward the bridge. Nothing. No signs. No wonders. No yellow arrows or shell symbols. I crossed the bridge, consulted my compass, and headed in what seemed the best direction, but after a few hundred yards (meters) and seeing no evidence of a trail marking, I turned around. I went back over the bridge and looked on the other side. I knew what town I was headed to next, so I asked a couple of people if they knew of a trail in the Catalunyan trail system, or even the Camino de Santiago, that might be near. They both directed me in the same direction, which would have been fine for a car—heading south to get to the entrance to the highway heading north. I’m pretty sure I indicated I was looking for a walking trail, but wouldn’t the backpack give them a clue that I was not driving? In my travels, I’ve found that a lot of people, the world over, just aren’t paying attention.

I circled around for 2 hours and finally ended up at the plaza where I’d started near the albergue, within view of that bridge. By this time the tourist office had opened so I asked them if they knew where the Camino exited the city to the north. A woman there tried diligently to find the answer to my question, but after half an hour of searching Google, came up with nothing.

At some point, you have to call it. I was at that point. The next pueblo a few kilometers up the trail was very small so I figured I’d have a much better chance of finding the trail there. Yet again, I hopped on a bus and headed north, figuring that the kilometers I’d walked in circles that morning were more than sufficient to say I’d paid my dues in shoe leather, or Vibram, as the case may be.

Free information: for those traveling in Spain, an “autobus” is one that travels within city limits; an “autocar” is a bus that travels inter-city—between cities or towns that are close, in the same neighborhood, so to speak. So if you want to get from one town to the next, and someone directs you to an autocar stop, that’s where you want to go. Don’t confuse this with “auto-stop,” which might mean simple hitch-hiking, but it also refers to a system where people going some distance will accept riders, normally for some small payment. There is a designated location for people looking for an auto-stop car, and for people who have a car looking for riders to share (pay) the gas/diesel cost. (Diesel cars are much more common in Spain than in the States. I can’t speak with assurance about the rest of Europe, but I believe it to be the case in the rest of Europe.) The autostop system is used in The Basque Country that I know of, and exists elsewhere also.
Unfortunately, it's voting season in Europe. Campaign posters are everywhere.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Finding Montserrat

17 May, 2014

I left my free lodging at about 6:15, feeling pretty good. I seemed to be developing a planter wart on my left heel, never a good thing, but stuff happens. I was glad that my feet were tired but not in pain, as they had been in the expensive boots I’d bought in a yuppie outfitter for Camino de Santiago. (Not that there was anything wrong with the boots, but my feet are unusually-shaped, as I’ve discussed in previous posts about that experience.) Since I’d taken the alternate route, avoiding Terrassa, I had no idea where I was, but I could usually find yellow arrows pointing the way. Strange thing, though, sometimes the arrows pointed in both directions. I still have no idea what that’s all about. After walking a couple of hours I came to Ullastrel and asked directions. As usual, I found a very helpful person who gave me directions to a point in my guide, from where I could pick up the guide again. Problem was after taking the alternate route the previous morning and walking all day, I found myself only about 4 kilometers advanced in the guide from where I left. To this date, I haven’t been able to connect to the internet to take a look at an on-line map, so I still have no idea what route I took, but
An ancient church being restored in Ca N'Amat (I think)
I’m thinking it was the scenic one. I had avoided Terrassa, but at the cost of many kilometers and hours. I reminded myself that compared with the 2,000 kilometers I was going to walk to Rome, this little detour was nothing. But I did give myself permission to hop on a bus to make up about 4 kilometers so that I could get to Montserrat in time to check in and get a space in the free (for pilgrims) albergue. I figured I had paid my dues, put in the clicks (as I’ve heard them refer to kilometers in action movies) so I didn’t feel guilty. An added benefit – I met Francesc in Vacarises where I grabbed a cold drink before continuing and had a nice chat with him for a few minutes. We discussed directions to the funicular station in Monistrol and Route 66 in the States. I don’t know how I could have ever gotten to Montserrat without his directions. I hope he makes it to Rt. 66.

I finally arrived at the funicular station, but darned if I could figure out how to buy a ticket. The only
My first view of the rocks of Montserrat (Mount Serrat)
way was through a machine with directions in Catalan. I couldn’t make heads of tails out of the 10 options on the screen and the train was leaving soon, but as happens frequently, there was someone right there right then to help. I told him what I wanted, he pushed the buttons, I inserted the money and out came a ticket that worked for a round trip, exactly as I’d hoped. At times like this, you accept the help and trust that you’re getting the right thing. We were both in a hurry to catch the next funicular and managed to get to it in time.

The funicular is a wonder, at least to me: this little train going up the mountain at an angle that would make a mountain goat proud. I wondered how the first people to ride it felt – going at an etreme angle on the very edge of the mountain. If there had been any error in building the track, the cars could have plunged thousands of feet with the result of certain death to anyone aboard. For that matter, the fact that there is a monastery at the top of the mountain is a wonder, too. I can’t imagine how the materials for even a small building got to the top of that mountain. It’s been enlarged in the 20th century, but a small monastery has been there for hundreds of years. I suppose men and burros had to take everything up the mountain piece by piece. The first time I went to Montserrat, 2 years ago to begin the Camino de Santiago, I walked up thousands of feet over 10 kilometers from the pueblo of Monistrol at the base of the mountain. I was in pretty good shape and even though I was only carrying about 25 pounds in my backpack and I thought I was gonna die by the time I got to the monastery.

There is an albergue at the monastery that offers free lodging to anyone on pilgrimage. Last time I was there, only a bicyclist and I were there to begin the Camino de Santiago. This time the place was full of pilgrims and I didn’t know until the last minute if I’d be able to sleep there. Luck, or Somebody, was with me and a place opened up when another pilgrim checked out at the last minute. I was the only one there, and the only one that the people in the monastery office had ever met, who was starting a pilgrimage to Rome. OK, I admit to feeling a little proud. I’ll ask forgiveness at the next cathedral. They signed and dated my pilgrim credentials and I was shown to my room.

The night there was uneventful except for the fact that a friend from the Camino, Montse, a Catalunyan, came to meet me and share good conversation over a glass of wine. I hadn’t seen her since leaving for Granada after the Camino 2 years prior. I wish I had words to describe how nice it was to see her again. No doubt, there’s something about renewing friendships with people who are associated with extremely good memories. But also, she’s one of those people you meet who just radiate good energy. We sat and talked until the bar closed and then she also spent the night at the monastery so we had coffee the next morning. We went back down to Monistrol where we had lunch with Maria, another very good friend from the Camino and her boyfriend, Victor. Montse helped me with reservations at a hostel in Monistrol, and then they were gone. (I couldn’t spend another night at the albergue at Montserrat—you’re only allowed night there to make sure there is room for the pilgrim traffic and others.) I was glad to be starting the next stage of the walk, but I was sad to see them go.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Finally - Walking Again

15 May, 2014

It feels good to be walking again. “Feels good” may be a strange way to put it: my knee was acting up for a while climbing 1,200 feet out of Barcelona, I was fairly winded, my feet were already tired, and to top it all off, I had a hangover. (As my voice teacher used to say, “All the fools ain’t dead yet. I’m here to prove it.) You’d think I would plan better for this auspicious beginning to a pilgrimage to the Eternal City, but you’d think wrong. Tuesday, after I got myself checked in to the hostel, I went for a walk and found a wine and beer store. The prices for decent wine here are so reasonable, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a Rioja Reserva from a very good winery for only 8 Euros, thinking I’d have a couple of glasses while writing Tuesday night and finish it on Wednesday. I only had about 1-1/2 glasses Tuesday night, meaning I had 2-1/2 glasses to finish the bottle on Wednesday. (Yes, HAD to finish it. You can’t waste a Reserva.).Two and a half glasses through the day shouldn’t have been too much, but that was in addition to having a beer at lunch, then a beer at dinner, then another beer while waiting for an appointment with Robert, my one and only friend in Barcelona who generously offered to store my suitcase and guitar during my pilgrimage. And that appointment? That was to take my things to his apartment, after which we sat and talked for hours, catching up on the last two years since I’ve been in Barcelona while having another 3 beers (small ones, but still…). Let me get my calculator–that makes 5 beers and over half a bottle of wine in one day. What was I thinking? In my defense, While you’re having a meal, writing, or sitting around waiting for something, it just seems like the natural thing to do to sit outside a restaurant in the sunny atmosphere of Spain and have a beer or a glass of wine. They pretty much just go together. I suppose the trick is to fill your schedule so you don’t have time to sit and drink a beer. I suppose there is one other solution but it involves discipline. I’m saving that for when I might really need it.

The boots are great, but it still feels good to take them off for a
rest. (Doug! Look! I'm smiling.)
Back to the walk: It really does feel good to get back to something that brings such fond memories. It’s only been one day, but I think I can safely say that the foot and boot problems are a thing of the past, thanks to my custom made foot ware. Sure, they cost a bunch, but in relation to the rest of the trip the cost was relatively minor, and the benefit of being able to walk all day and not have any problems caused by the slightest ill-fit is more than worth the price of admission. If you’re going to do any serious walking or hiking and your feet don’t conform 100% to a mass-manufacturer’s pattern, I’d recommend a pair of Alex’s boots (He’s not even paying me to say that, but here’s his URL anyway.

16 May, 2014

Here’s a strange one for you. I’m sitting in an old dusty rocking chair in an abandoned ancient Spanish casa writing this chapter. Here’s the background.

Yesterday I arrived in Sant Cugat del Vallés fairly early in the day. I stopped first for a beer (of course) and a sandwich for lunch, then went to the monastery.
I had no idea if it were still in use and I wanted to try to bum a cheap place to sleep if it was. No such luck. I was about 180 years too late. (It was closed when the monks were kicked out of Spain by royal decree. You can read more about the monastery here. ) I guess I’m a little rusty on my monastic history. I proceeded to the ayuntamiento, the city government offices where I first got my pilgrim passport stamped and dated, and then asked if they knew of a cheap place for a pilgrim to spend the night. Apparently cheap doesn’t exist in Sant Cugat. They told me it’s an expensive town, being a suburb of Barcelona. A very kind and helpful man at the office then spent about half an hour calling various people to see if they could help and finally found a pension in a neighboring town He called and was told that the rate was €33 a night, and while on the phone, asked me if that was OK. (No, that’s way more than I hoped to spend for any night, but he told me there was no place else and there was no place to camp in the vicinity that he knew of.) I told him that would be fine, made a reservation, and got directions. He told me it should only take about 45 minutes to walk there, but as with most people who don’t walk a lot, he underestimated. An hour and 15 minutes later I was at the pension and the clerk, who had been the person talking to my helpful ayuntamiento guy and had said the rate was €33, told me that it was €40. This ain’t right, I thought, but what could I do? It was now too late to go anywhere else and I was tired and hungry. So, for about $54.77 (today’s rate), I had at least a comfortable bed and hot shower. I slept well and left rested.

I’m using a walking guide from Plaza St. James (Santiago) in Barcelona to Montserrat, where I’ll turn north to France, rather than continue on the Camino de Santiago, which route this guide is part of. The guide is in Spanish (Castillian) which is OK with me. I have a theory that you learn faster and better when you have to than when you want to. With that said, while I understand almost every word of the guide, there seem to be some hidden meanings in the way things are phrased. That’s my excuse for getting lost a few times. I went a couple of kilometers out of my way in the morning, but that was OK because I got a huge and inexpensive tortilla sandwich for breakfast which also provided lunch. I found my way back to the trail, and immediately misunderstood a direction in the guide and walked another kilometer out of the way. After about the tenth reading that paragraph I saw my error, turned around, and got back on track.

Finally, a yellow arrow.
It was very shortly after that I saw my first yellow arrow, showing the way of St, James, The Camino de Santiago, and I literally shouted out “Gracias a Dios!” The Plaza St. James is supposed to be a starting point for the Camino, but until now I hadn’t seen any sign of it – no yellow arrows, no shells, both traditional markings of the Camino. From here on, I was to be more or less directed by arrows. (There are a few places I think they’re missing, but I’m still on track, even if a little confused about where I am at present.) I was now following my guide and the arrows and felt very comfortable about the route, until I came to a point in the guide that told me the yellow arrows pointed to a different route than my guide suggested. My guide said to go through Terrassa, a large city, while the arrows avoided it. After the expensive ordeal of the previous night, I figured Terrassa was going to cost me another €40 for the night and I’d have a better chance of staying within budget following the smaller towns.

Ha! This time I was right. It’s much less expensive on this route because THERE ARE NO PLACES TO SLEEP! I kept walking and walking, hoping to come to a town with a hostel, or better, an albergue for pilgrims, and nothing presented itself. I finally came to a sign that said, “Montserrat – 10 kilometers,” and I thought, what the heck! First of all, I didn’t think I’d reach Montserrat until tomorrow, but then I actually stopped a woman in a car (I was on a small dirt road and she wasn’t going too fast) and asked her if I were on the right road. (This was some time after seeing the sign and I hadn’t seen a yellow arrow for a while. I thought I might have missed a turn.) She told me I was on the right road, and the Montserrat was about 10 kilometers up the road, and that there was no place to stop between here and there. It was getting toward the latter part of the afternoon, I was hungry and too tired to think of walking another 10K.

The room where I slept (sort of).
But I kept going. I thought I might find a place to camp, but that didn’t happen. Then I came across this abandoned house (from which I’m writing at this very moment.). It’s actually a mansion by Spanish standards, 3 stories, many rooms, and sadly in need of repair. It looks like there might be an on-again-off-again restoration effort going on because a room with falling vigas has had steel supports placed to support them, and the shed roof has also been reinforced. But there’s nobody here tonight and it looks like a perfect place to sleep. It’s dusty, but I was going to camp outside, and it’s no dirtier than the ground. Even better, there are no ants or other bugs crawling around. I have a blow-up mattress which is comfortable in a pinch and a blow up pillow. My sleeping bag is supposed to be good down to 45 degrees, so I’m looking forward to a peaceful night. And, given that I spent more than double what I had budgeted for lodging last night, tonight’s free lodging will average out to just right. There was one more challenge: I hadn’t eaten since morning and my stomach was beginning to remind me of that. But I’m in Spain, and even in Northern Spain the climate is semi-tropical with palm trees and, even better, orange trees growing everywhere. I was able to have a satisfying dinner of oranges. When you’re hungry and there’s nothing else to eat, that really hits the spot.

The back yard of the house with the orange tree from which
I had a very welcome dinner of oranges.
Continuing the next day…

My 45-degree sleeping bag wasn’t quite enough for the temperatures overnight, but I also had an emergency blanket, one of those silver sheets that are supposed to reflect 95% of body heat. I unrolled that and put it over me and was able to sleep for a few hours at a time. My movements caused the emergency blanket to slip off and I’d awake shivering. I’d cover myself again and get back to sleep. I was glad to see the morning, but I was also glad I’d been able to pass the night free of charge for lodging and dinner. (I can only trust that the owner of the house would have gladly allowed me to use his house and eat his oranges.)

Spain Again

13 May, 2014
(Editor's note: I've decided to forego the post about London. This blog is about pilgrimage, and that was just a brief detour. Let's get back to the story.) 

Finally, again in Spain. Better said, in Catalunya. I set my alarm for 7:00 AM in order to make a 10:40 flight, but of course I couldn’t sleep. I went to bed after midnight and woke up a little after 6:00. Knowing I had nothing to do I tried to go back to sleep but that was a useless effort. Around a quarter to 7:00 I got up and went to the hostel common area for a cup of coffee. I was down to just a few pounds and didn’t want to use a credit card for a €4 breakfast. Lynn was there and we discussed a few ideas for script changes, then parted – she for Scotland and I for Barcelona.

There I was again, schlepping a 60-pound suitcase (weight, not money) a 30-pound backpack, a guitar, and a gym bag I use as a carry-on hanging around my neck. I walked about ten minutes to the tube station and found I didn’t have enough funds left on my prepaid bus and train card, so I had to use a credit card to put the minimum £5 on it to take the subway to the express train. They’ll refund the balance on this card, plus the £5 deposit, but in my haste and thinking only of getting to the airport and catching my flight to Spain, I completely forgot. The agent at the baggage check was the surprised recipient of my “Oyster” card. She got the £5 I had to pay for the deposit on the card as well as the £2.60 credit I had remaining.

I keep hoping that I’m building up good karma this way. When I left the States I had $6 and change in my pocket that I couldn’t change for Euros, so I left it on the on a bar in the airport and told the person sitting there to have a drink on me–I was leaving the country and didn’t plan to come back any time soon. So I hope that that and my donation of an Oyster card and more than a few other acts of generosity are beginning to weigh heavily on the karmic scales. Let’s see if my way and the way of the Universe are in agreement.

I’m still waiting for the scales to balance.

(I say that knowing that I was incredibly fortunate to find the perfect contract for the last 4 months in Iowa, and even more fortunate to be able to come to Spain and take what most people would call a foolish walk to Rome. Truth is, I’ve received my karma in spades and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to balance it with acts of generosity and good will, so please ignore my karmic comments above.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On the road again...

I had hoped to sell my car before leaving, but the car sale gods turned their faces against me and I was forced to seek the help of my brother. Fortunately for me, he was willing to help. Maybe he’ll be able to convince them of his sincerity (it works for The Great Pumpkin) and good faith and someone will show up at his door with a certified cashier’s check in hand. I can only hope at this point. My book collection has been given to the library of Mt. Vernon, Iowa and my tools have been sold (or, based on the price I got for some, given away). I’m finally down to owning no more than will fit in a suitcase, backpack, and a guitar case (which is, naturally, a flamenco guitar). And even that is too much when you’re traveling.

My mother took me to the bus station in Cedar Rapids where I cought the bus to Chicago – the first leg on the trip to Barcelona. The first thing I learned there was that my suitcase was overweight. No big problem there; I just transferred whatever appeared to be the heaviest articles into the duffle bag holding my backpack. All was right with the world again. Except it wasn’t. Turns out that the seat height adjuster on the bus we were to take was out of order and the bus driver, a height-challenged woman (being height-challenged myself, I say that with all due respect), couldn’t see over the steering wheel. For some reason she felt that that would be an unsafe situation and refused to drive the bus. The agent at the station suggested she use a phone book or two to remedy the situation. The driver was having none of it. I couldn’t blame her. The situation was finally remedied by getting a company car and, since there were only three passengers, the driver was able to take two of us to the Iowa City station and continue on to Bloomington, Indiana with the third passenger.

The bus ride from Iowa City to Chicago was uneventful, save for the religion conversation occurring beside me between a freshman college student and a man with no teeth who was enlightening her with his knowledge which, he admitted at least five times, came from his natural intelligence, although he was uneducated. (No argument from me on that point.) Then there was the tall man who was having a difficult time walking to and from the restroom in the back of the bus because his pants were buckled below his gluteus maximus and, due to the narrow aisle, he was having a difficult time keeping his legs spread wide enough to keep his pants up as he walked.

Upon arriving in Chicago, I caught a cab from the bus station to the studio of my brother, Don, and his significant other, Mary, where I spent the night. Significant other? There really should be a better term for two people who have lived together for almost 20 years, but if there is I don’t know it. Seems silly to me that we come up with a word like “selfie” virtually overnight, but the phenomenon of two people cohabitating is still without a decent, simple word to describe the relationship decades after it has become part of our quotidian culture.

The next day they both had to leave for work early, so while I waited I got in a couple hours of flamenco guitar practice – which will be my last for more than three months – and read a little. Mary had scheduled a cab for noon, so at about a quarter till I took my things down 2 flights of stairs and waited a few minutes until he arrived. The cab driver turned out to be from DR Congo and appeared to be impressed by my nomad appearance and my story of moving to Spain after a walk to Rome from Barcelona, and the fact that my entire collection of worldly possessions fit into his cab. (Could be he said he was impressed to make me feel good so I'd give him a big tip. It worked. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.)  He told me he’d call his tribe and recommend me for honorary membership. I thanked him sincerely. When you’re a hermit and nomad, you can’t afford to turn down any offer of social membership.

So, here I am again – officially homeless and with no possessions other than what is in a suitcase, a back pack, and a guitar case. I don’t mind saying, it feels great. I’m beginning my second “attempt at the summit,”—making a living in Spain. Between my temporary lodgings in Iowa and my final destination – Granada–I attended a 3-day conference for screenwriters in London and did some sightseeing in London, including, of course, a walk across Abbey Road. My screenwriting partner, Lynn Bahrych, and I found this screenwriters’ conference that was only a week prior to the planned start date of my next pilgrimage, this one from Barcelona to Rome, so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to get some much needed information and training in what we both hope will become a new career, or at least an avocation. Since we’ve finished one screenplay and are beginning its sequel, I think we qualify as somewhat more than dreamers, but still way less than professionals.

Getting as far as I have – O’Hare Airport – has been more cumbersome than the last time I left for Spain. That time all I had was my back pack for the Camino de Santiago, no knowing for sure what I was going to do afterward. This time I know: Return to Granada and set up shop as an editor and writer, along with supplementing my income with tutoring English. So, I’ve come with a suitcase and a guitar, as well as a backpack for the walk. And this time, I leave completely debt-free and with much more money in the bank. I figure if I’m extremely frugal, I can last a year without making any money from editing, writing, or tutoring. I’m not entirely sure what will happen when I try to fly from Rome to Barcelona on an expired tourist visa–it will take more than 90 days to make the pilgrimage from Barcelona to Rome–so there’s the possibility that I’ll be asked to leave the EU for a period before returning. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I wonder if taking a boat across the Mediterranean would pose the same risk.
Next – the London experience. (Hint: if you come to London, bring LOTS of money.)