Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I've got a couple of PSAs for ya today.

The first one is that while this might look like a lovely place to sit and relax:

Looks can be deceiving. This can also lead to your fifth concussion, a trip to the doctor, a possible "slow leak" in your brain (way to make it sound horrible doctor!), a CT scan and (so far) 6 days worth of migraines.

So, be careful.

Or, rather, just don't be epically clumsy like me. (Seriously, who even knew you could flip a porch swing?!)

(And don't worry. I got my CT results this afternoon--no leak!)

The second is that I am utilizing some of my spare time (long live the pre-tirment!) for another project.

You are hearing it here first: I started another blog! (Yeah, yeah, one just wasn't enough.) It's another blog because it's different from this one (aka me just rambling)--it's called Strange Pilgrims and it's about immigration (woowoo!).

Intrigued? You should be.

You can find it here: Strange Pilgrims. There's a welcome post and two regular ones.

And if you aren't intrigued, well, that's ok too. But, still, you should be careful on those porch swings.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Camino De Santiago: Day 24--Villafranca del Bierzo to La Faba

We woke to another cool, rainy morning and, after putting on clothes that were still damp, managed to be the very last ones to leave the hostel yet again. We finished our coffees and bananas on the porch and headed down into Villafranca to begin the day.

When we passed the pilgrims statue on the bridge we ran into our Korean friend Bonnie (who took this picture). She had spent some time in Scotland and, in an effort to remember her name, I associated her with the song "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean." This was great for remembering her name...but left me with the song in my head ALL DAY LONG every time I saw her!

As we walked out of the town we came by a church with bells ringing. We poked inside to find nuns in their morning service. We took it in for a while and then were on our way. 

The region was getting greener and greener each day.  

Victoria and I passed the time telling stories. Probably spurred on by the morning service with the nuns Victoria nonchalantly mentioned that she grew up in a convent. What? Just when you think you know someone! : )
These stories, plus the ones about her secret agent uncle, aristocratic blood and family history resisting the Nazis in Germany made the kilometers fly by. 

We passed yet another old chapel and, after popping in, had a rest. I distinctly remember taking the tape off my feet at this moment and being amazed at the state my feet were in. I'd gotten used to the pain of it, but they were a sight to behold. (Don't worry, I'm sparing you the pictures!)

As we rounded out some of the hills we somehow got onto the topic of the song I'm Gonna Be (you know, the I-would-walk-500-miles song). We were walking through the mountains by ourselves singing along when it dawned on us--we did the math and realized that we were actually walking 500 miles. Which was fun. 

Unfortunately that song is unbelievably catchy (...and I only know the chorus...). It haunted me the rest of the Camino, but I had a good smile every time it circled through my head. 

At about this point in the Camino we came to the freeway and the tiny town of Las HerrerĂ­as. I had tentatively decided to stay there for the night (to rest up for the steep hike the next day). Victoria was well behind schedule after sticking with me for several days (she had a tight schedule--every day she planned on walking further than me...but was enticed to stop when I did!). Since we were at a juncture with the freeway (complete with a bench) she decided to see if she could catch a ride to hit fast forward a bit. Luckily a car came by in no time headed for O'Cebreiro. A big hug later, she was off!

After a strong coffee in Las HerrerĂ­as, and after the rain stopped, I decided that the pilgrims ending the day by hiking the first 4 km of the hill to the next town tuvieron razon (had a point)--It would be good to go ahead and get a portion of the hill conquered so I wouldn't have to climb the entire thing the next day (it would be the steepest climb of the Camino).   

As I climbed my way up I decided to give my best friend (my walking stick) a companero (a friend). Using two walking sticks to practically pull myself up the hill, I plugged away. 

Although tired, I was glad I decided to go ahead and start the climb--not only for the effort it would save me the next day--but because just after the rain the green tunnels we climbed through were spectacular. 

As I was scraping the bottom of my energy pool I looked up and saw casi (Spanish for almost) written on one of the rocks. Only a little more!

We stayed in a cozy German volunteer run hostel that had its own little chapel. 
The town was beautifully located, but tiny (even if I did get lost trying to find the only shop...!). After another tasty Galician meal (best pasta of the Camino! And trust me, there was lots of pasta along the Camino to compare it too) and a stroll through town to nod at the farmers and their pungent cows, we headed back to the Albergue for the evening. 

We mostly rested up for our climb, but the evening also included a little extra fun. Some impromptu flamenco, some story telling and some postcard writing--which, in my book, are all great ways to end the day!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Camino De Santiago: Day 23-Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

On day 23 we finally escaped the grips of the Knights Templar, but we quickly found another crisis. As you move into the smaller towns near Galicia, ATM's become harder to find. Most guidebooks recommend stocking up on cash. Before we left Ponferrada Victoria needed to get some Euros. We found an ATM on the way out of town and thought we had the problem solved. Until...the machine wouldn't take her card. Nor would the next machine. And the next machine that accepted her card? Its screen was broken, making it impossible to complete the transaction. We asked for more banks. We walked off the Camino to find them. After I think 7 bank ATMs Victoria started to panic. I wasn't too terribly worried because I knew I had enough cash to cover us both but that didn't really ease her fears. 


We found a machine that would work! Yay for money!

It was a lot of street-side walking to get out of town, but once outside of Ponferrada it was lovely (even if a bit rainy). 

Less than 200 km to Santiago!!! (Although, you realize very quickly that everyone calculates distances different along the Camino)

We happened on a festival in one of the towns along the way (Cacabelos?). What kind of festival you ask?

Pulpo! (Octopus!)

Once in Villafranco we settled into the first albergue we came to. It was a steep climb into town from there, and when I ran into town to hit up the post office I got caught in a downpour. Rather than hike back up in the rain I just settled into a cafe for an early dinner. 

Villafranco is an important stop on the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims who were sick could stop here, go to the church, and get the same indulgence as those who went all the way to Santiago. There are lots of historical buildings and churches in town. After a leisurely dinner, with it still raining, I popped up the hood of my rain coat and, after hiking 24 km during the day, spent the rest of the evening popping into churches, wandering tiny streets and letting how far I had come sink in. 

Ceiling in one of the churches

I had an interesting experience in this church...I walked in the door, past a woman on her cell phone. As I passed her I caught a couple words of her conversation in Spanish--breaking thingshe is dangerous. Once I got inside I understood what she was talking about. She was calling the cops because there was a mentally deranged man inside smashing the altarpieces, breaking candles, and scattering papers. 

I booked it out of there as fast as I could.

(And also thought, Thanks for warning me, lady!)

The town's castle

The 12th Century church of Santiago

The church's cemetery 

Here sick pilgrims could pass through the "door of forgiveness" much like in Santiago. I stood by myself for a long time in the west-facing doorway, watching the clouds roll in and out, thinking things over. 

A "Mayfest" type of festival had just finished upon our arrival

Houses with old family crests

Another good place to watch the clouds move in and out...

And sort yourself out. 

I finally made it back up to the hostel feeling a bit like I'd had a breakthrough. It's funny, because in the beginning you feel like you will be walking forever. You don't feel like you are making any progress. Santiago feels years away. On day 23, though,  I realized how close I was getting to Santiago and figured I'd better get to the business sorting myself out. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Camino De Santiago: Day 22-El Acebo to Ponferrada

I know, it's been a while. I've been busy moving, and the new house doesn't have internet. But, after a walk, I'm missing the Camino today and figured I better get after these!

I can't believe I left you hanging after the last Camino post. Remember Evil Knight Templar Miguel? Yeah, well when I woke up the next morning, I was still upset. We had all come to the conclusion that he was crazy, but I was still ready to show him who was boss. We got all ready upstairs, came down to the entrance hall where he was sitting at the table next to the donations box (he had added a new sign with a arrow pointing to the box) presumably waiting for me--waiting to win either by a) proving that he knew I wasn't going to leave a donation or b) proving that he could treat pilgrims however he wanted and they would hand him money anyway.

Ol' Miguel had another thing coming.

We put on our boots and right before we were ready to make a break for the door (no way were we going to eat his breakfast), I walked over to the box, pulled out my borrowed one cent coin, and with the tiniest imaginable plink sound, claimed victory (seriously, those coins are almost plastic).

Pilgrim buddy Victoria and I went straight out the door, feeling vindicated. Take that Miguel!

Four steps later I realized I left my walking stick inside.

Of course I did.

For the splitest of seconds I thought about leaving the stick behind (But it was my best friend?! I couldnt do that) or asking Victoria to go back and get it for me.

In the end though, I knew I had it coming. (Seriously, these are the kinds of things that happen to me.) I swallowed my pride and walked back.

(As it so happened when I peaked in the door Miguel was busy digging in a cabinet across the room. I made a beeline for the bucket of sticks, retrieved mine and (I think) made it out the door before he even saw me.)

All that. Even before 8:00 am.

(And don't worry, I left a bigger donation at another hostel to make up for this!)

Anyway, once we were on the trail the scenery soon wiped away all the bad vibes:

I returned to my habit of saying It's so beautiful! every five (two?) minutes. 

We found Juanma and Maica! She found that hat in our hostel in Rabanal. Someone knitted a bunch of warm hats and then sent them to the hostel to give away to pilgrims (nights in the mountains in Galicia can get cold). We laughed about the hats (they were mostly crazy colors), but she took one anyway. In the end she was super distraught when she accidentally lost it!

The Camino for most of the day was entirely paved with bushes of these white flowers. Taking over my habit of mentioning things every couple of minutes, Victoria couldn't get over how wonderful everything smelled. I, on the other hand...couldn't smell a thing. (Spending my days hiking in the forests wasn't good for the springtime allergies!)

We picked a few of them to bring along

We were having such a good time smelling the roses, taking in the vistas and telling stories that we didn't realize what had happened until it was too late. 

We were lost. 

Thankfully though, we were not alone. 

Also, thankfully we were not the ones who had to go all the way down a steep hill only to figure out it was a dead end. We met a couple of pilgrims on the way back up and we all looked around stumped. True, we hadn't seen any arrows for a while, but where did we go wrong? 

Someone called out, Everyone get out your guidebooks! We pulled together all our various German, English and Spanish guidebooks to figure it out. We hiked back about 1.5 km, waving off pilgrims and scrambling up the false stone arrows as we went until we found the problem: The path split in two and the Camino followed the small branch--unfortunately the stone arrow marking the path had been run over by cyclists and looked more like a barrier than a way marker. 

Finally back on the right path, the beauty continued in fields of wild lavender...

small villages...

and shepherds. 

We made it to Ponferrada as it began to rain. The local pilgrim hostel had great facilities...but odd requirements. Mainly, that you had to give the volunteers a hug to get in. Yes, even if you didn't want to give them a hug. I tried to casually sneak past the hugging, but I was caught. And hugged. 

Turns out these crazy people were "Knights Templar" (just like Crazy Miguel). 
Turns out Ponferrada is the capital of Knights Templar country. 
It also turns out that calling yourself a member of the Knights Templar today is on the same level as calling yourself a member of Star Trek.  (Or so I was enlightened by fellow pilgrim Denise. While I felt foolish for not knowing this, the last couple of days started to make more sense.) 

Ponferrada had a nice castle to explore

But the entrance price and all the Knights Templar-ness of it all turned us away. 

The river in Ponferadda

Finally, after we all cooked dinner, we did what we did every night and looked over our maps for the next day. Mark and Denise, from Australia, had a big map--which felt much more satisfying (by that point we had walked almost two feet on the map!)

Overall it was a scenic day, full of ups and downs, which led me to one lasting conclusion: Never trust a Knight Templar.