The Dordogne, Barcelona and Home

Well it’s been an unreasonably long time since the last post, and I apologize for that. We are safely home at this point as you must surely have surmised by now (or feared we were lost along the way). I was thinking that I would just leave it at that since I hadn’t  wrapped up the writing I’d started about this portion of the trip which was more like a regular vacation rather than an interesting trek. But several people have asked how things ended up and so for completeness, and to indulge myself in one last bout of writing about it, the tale below winds up our adventure.

It was a truly fabulous experience, everything we hoped it would be and more. We learned a lot about the world and the people in it….and a surprising amount about ourselves as well.  It’s a bit amazing what you can do…and what you can do without. Thanks so much for following.  It was such a pleasure to be able to share this with you and feel the genuine interest in all of your wonderfully positive comments.

Steve and Jackie

St Cyprian October 12 to 17

What an absolutely wonderful week this was in the Dordogne. This area of France could not be any more picturesque and it turned out to be the perfect spot for both some nice R&R as well as lots of great sightseeing. The only thing I could wish for are some wider roads. My god would it kill these people to throw down an extra 3 meters of asphalt. We probably spent at least 3 hrs of each day driving around the area with about 20% of it comfortable, 75% of it at a medium to high pucker factor, and 5% in shear terror. Mike and Robin think of that 18 wheel trailer coming down that blind curve in Mt Zion up in Utah. Seems to happen about twice a day around here. Jackie and I even started to let out little short yips and squeaks of fear in pretty good harmony as our car was either inches from a stone wall on one side, a speeding oncoming truck, bus or RV on the other and often both. But even with that the sights and experiences made it all worth while. Castles, caves and canard everywhere you turn and the beautiful Dordogne river running right down the middle of it all. The 100 years war took place in these hills and valleys and they say that over 1000 castles were built during that time. I can well believe it. Our little village is just the right size for us and the 12th century church sitting right nearby tells us the time all day and night with it’s lovely soft bells. We feel very comfortable here. Jackie says that after a week I’m even starting to drive with the fearlessness or better yet the craziness of a Frenchman.

Our hostess Julie and Jackie

Our hostess Julie and Jackie

Sunday – At the Market

It’s market day in St Cyprian so we take the opportunity to roll down the hill and complete our grocery shopping after we have our home cooked breakfast of soft boiled eggs Yummm. The Market is surprisingly extensive given how small the town is and there’s

The market in St Cyprian

The market in St Cyprian

quite a crowd by the time we arrive. It covers the whole street that we went the wrong way on yesterday and more. Lots of fresh fruits and veggies, bread, nuts, pastries and many prepared foods plus lots of durable goods fill the street in colorful stalls. We’re almost overwhelmed by the choices. It’s a very pleasant time and we fill the two bags we brought with goodies and lug them back up the hill to our cottage. The weather is warm and sunny and we settle in for a lazy afternoon of reading and relaxing. Lunch is a prepared paella from the market and it’s delicious.

Paella Lunch

Paella for Lunch

Jackie overhears someone talking about a choir singing at the church that night so we stop by at the appointed time and it’s very beautiful and quite moving. A dozen or so woman singing religious hymns, many that we recognize despite being sung in a foreign language, fill the large centuries old stone building completely with their voices. What a great sound as it reverberates from the stone walls and high arched ceiling and it ends much too soon. As we look at the people I can see my French Canadian heritage in their faces and body shapes. Looks like I’m back in Chicopee, my home town. Jackie swears she sees my aunt Alice and aunt Pat sitting in the front pew. We wonder if there are any Heberts still here.

Monday – Canoeing on the Dordogne

After only a day of hanging around we are up for some adventure. The Rick Steves guide book, our travel bible, says there’s canoeing available on the Dordogne river so we set out to find it wondering if it’s maybe too late in the season for it now. We find a spot with canoeing advertised but its awfully quiet and it looks like they may have closed up. But as we wander on the river bank someone shows up and says we are good to go. They get us into a canoe, send us downstream westward toward the Atlantic and in broken English tell us that in about two hours when we pass under the third bridge that we come to we should pull over to the south bank, give them a call and they will come get us. Or at least that’s what we think they say. So with blind faith we head out and have a really great time

Chateau by the river

A Chateau by the river

paddling down a gorgeous river that we have all to ourselves and float past a multitude of beautiful towns and villages on the river banks several of which have a serious castle as their main feature. The weather is terrific with a warm sun beaming down and It’s like being in a Renoir painting. Wholly crap we are punting down a river in France, I feel like I should be wearing one of those yellow boater hats that you see in those old pictures.

On the Dordogne

Floating on the Dordogne

We go quite a ways and see no bridges and start to question our understanding of the directions but sure enough, and all too soon, we pass under all of them as advertised.  After the third bridge the pull out point is obvious as it’s filled with snack bars and other small shacks set up for the summer tourists but all are closed now. Hard to believe its mid October it feels so warm. We are the only souls here. We call the number stenciled on all of our gear and in 15 mins a young man shows up with a trailer to cart us and the canoe back to the starting point. He tells us that in high season in mid summer they usually launch

Heading for Beynac

Heading for Beynac, see the castle way way in the distance

over 5000 canoes a day down this section of the river. Today we are just the second boat he’s put in. What a lovely experience, priceless!

We find our pull out point

We find our pull out point after the third bridge

Above us when we return to the boat launch area in Cezac we see a town siting way up high on a ridge. It looks like a great place to eat our picnic lunch. It’s called Domme and is famous for its view so again we wind up ever narrower streets and find our way to the top where the view is as advertised. It’s a cute tourist town and we find a garden overlooking the valley below and can clearly follow the path that we so recently traced down the river in our canoe. From here the navigating looks pretty easy.

The view of Dordogne from Domme

A view of the Dordogne looking down from Domme

We spy a couple of boats floating lazily downriver and relish our recent experience. We enjoy a nice lunch and I open the can of duck fois gras pate that I bought at the market yesterday. Yummm if you like that kind of thing which I dearly do. And I don’t have to share any with Jackie either, she’s not a fan.  My little can lasts the whole week.m

On the way back to St Cyprian we decide to visit one of those impressive castles that we had so recently passed on the river. So in the town of Beynac we follow the signs for one of the bigger chateaus, (as they call the castles here), that we saw sitting high up from the river.

Chateau Beynac

Chateau Beynac

Up and up we drive through more narrow streets until we are at the top of the ridge above the town that the castle commands. It’s the real thing and was once owned by Richard the Lion Hearted (sometimes it’s just weird to be hit with the realization that these, to us, fairytale people actually existed).

Up on top of Beynac

Up on top of Beynac

This was a main fortress commanded by the English during the 100 years war and way down across the river we can clearly see their French counterpart, the Chateau Castelnaud,

Dordogne from up on Beynac

The Dordogne from up on Beynac

enhanced during the war to oppose them. Chateau Beynac is big, heavy and pretty austere, but impressive nonetheless. We wander through it pretty much on our own with several other tourists and try to imagine life here.

On the ramparts of Beynac

On the ramparts of Beynac

We return to St Cyprian to savor our adventure over a home cooked meal Jackie prepares in our humble but functional kitchen. Nice to have some home cooking after all these restaurant meals. It’s was a really great day and we are so happy that we chose this area to spend this part of our trip.

Tuesday – Cave Paintings

This part of France is filled with a numerous caves that were populated by ancient peoples who covered the walls with their now famous artwork over 15 millennia ago. This is a must see on Jackie’s list and we set out to visit a couple of them. First to Les Eyzies to see Le Font de Gaume in the morning and to Montignac for le Grotte de Lascaux II in the afternoon. More driving through crazy narrow country roads. Average speed out here is about 60 Kms per hour, that’s just 36 MPH, and it seems to take quite a while to get anywhere, but the country views are beautiful and it’s covered with small farms. I’m again seriously reminded of the hills above North Hampton where my sister lives.

The paintings in the first cave are more rustic let us say then the second cave we will view, somewhat faded and difficult to see, but once you realize what you are looking at it’s pretty awesome. We go back into the side of a hill maybe 40 or 50 meters. It’s dark, cold and wondrous. What I didn’t anticipate is that the ancient artists would use the three dimensions of the rock surface on the cave walls to help define the outlines of the bison, horses and deer that they painted. When our guide moved the light around simulating the torch flames that the painters would have employed they almost came to life and you could get a bit mystical about it. They only had 3 colors, red, black and brown, available to them and it was pretty damned impressive how they were able to use shading to give the animals accurate muscular definition. Much more sophisticated than I had expected. We exit the cave pretty damned awed.

We go back to the town of Les Eyzies and find a nice restaurant that our hostess Julie had recommended and as we choose our seats we see a young Asian couple who where also on our cave tour.  We invite them to join us and they speak excellent English both having attended grad school at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He works for Coke and the are here for a conference in Bordeaux and are taking several extra days to tour the area. They found the restaurant on a Trip Adviser recommendation so we expect it will be good. We ended up having a long, luxurious two hour lunch engaged in wonderful conversation with these young folks. It was a delight and we parted like old friends with invitations each way to visit Washington DC and China.

Our second cave called Lascaux II is in the town of Montignac. What we get to see is actually an exact duplicate created back in the mid 80’s after the original cave was closed due to deterioration in the late 60’s. As we found out in the first cave the painters used the shape of the walls as part of the depicted animal’s physical definition so the duplicate cave had to be replicated in all three dimensions. They claim to be accurate to within one centimeter. It’s a fairly extensive region to view so that’s a pretty impressive claim and I can’t imagine how they did it. In this cave the paintings are much more clearly defined and the colors much brighter and intense. It looks like it was done yesterday but they claim it’s accurate to what can be seen in the original. If so it’s damned impressive. Our tour is in French as it’s late in the day and no English tours are available, but we can follow along pretty well although I’m sure we miss some detail that would have enhanced the experience. We enjoy our ride back home and pass by several duck farms along the way, foie gras on the hoof you might say. Sorry Carrie but I do love that stuff. Another home cooked meal by Jackie caps off the night.

Wednesday – Surlat les Caneda

We decide to visit Surlat les Caneda today only about 20 Kms away. It’s the local area’s largest town and it has a well regarded market that is open on Wednesdays. Luckily someone we ran into gave us a local city map because it’s seriously larger than the small villages we’ve been in up to now. Even with the map we have difficulty navigating and get fairly lost before we finally locate the medieval old town section where the market is held. It’s quite impressive in the old town area where no cars are allowed and with the market going full bore you can almost feel transported back to ancient times if you squint a little. And of course you would need to ignore Jimmy’s Restaurant with its Route 66 decor

Jimmy's Route 66 cafe. See the Indian in the widow?

Jimmy’s Route 66 cafe. See the Indian in the widow?

chock full of 1950’s Americana including an old Indian motorcycle. It’s actually quite a hoot and we have a coffee here overlooking the ancient square. Across from us is an old decommissioned church that’s been converted into an enclosed market chock full of bread and wine shops. Michael Black, I know you got pretty tired of Jackie dragging you through all those cathedrals back on our travels,

Bread and wine in this church

Bread and wine in this church.  Check out the doors!!

but this would be the church you’d want to attend. It actually seemed a bit sacrilegious at first but hey, bread and wine seem to be a central tenant so on reflection it seems appropriate.

A shot for Carrie's collection

Our Daughter Carrie would like this shop

We tour the area for a while but we like the smaller towns and countryside better so we decide to make our escape and head way down south to a city called Cahors. We hear they make Malbec wine down there so off we go. It’s a pretty good way and it takes a while but we get there in the early afternoon. We find a nice wine shop where we can do some tasting and pick up three bottles of the local wine. It’s actually pretty good and I like it more than the St Emilion we bought earlier. (Sorry Jean-Louie).

The bridge at Cahors

The bridge at Cahors

We find a gorgeous old 13th century bridge where the city was once successfully defended from an invasion by the British and have a nice picnic lunch along the riverbank. As we walk the bridge we see a brass Camino shell imbedded in the road. Turns out this was an ancient Camino route at one time so we continue as pilgrims even over here. Amazing.

We return home in the late afternoon somewhat exhausted from the much too exciting driving. We have gotten into watching a movie each night, streaming it on my iPad since there is no TV in the apartment. It’s a nice way to relax and we get to hear it in English. We stumble on an old movie about the Knights Templer and the 12th century crusades which fits perfect with the area we’ve been exploring. All the views in the film look just like what we are living in, except of course for the parts in Jerusalem.

Thursday – Another Cave and Rocamadour

Entrance to Padirac

Entrance to Padirac

We set out today to visit a cave, le Gouffe Padirac, famous not for any paintings but for its extensive underground caverns. It was discovered in the very late 1880’s and has been a public attraction since about 1898. It’s quite impressive with three separate elevator rides down to about 130 meters underground.

That's a big hole

That’s a big deep hole

Watery entrance

Watery entrance

We start the tour in a boat and travel about 400 meters through extensive caverns where sections are quite dramatically light up and the ceiling in places is about 120 meters high with only 10 meters of dirt over our heads. Our guide says that someday it will likely cave in…..maybe even today… mmmm cave humor I guess. The water is crystal clear and ice cold ranging in depth from a few to 15 meters deep. Our guide rocks the boat asking if we can swim…. more cave humor. Enormous and multicolored stalactites hang down from the ceiling….someday they will fall….the humor seems as dark as the caves down here. The water portion of the trip ends and we get out and walk and climb through several extensive and absolutely beautiful caverns decorated with that bizarre underground

Underwater lake

Underwater dam

architecture created by many millennia of dripping water laden with the various minerals that lend their magnificent hues once that other very rare commodity, light, is added. It’s impossible not to wonder what it must have been like to be the original explorers finding their way through these watery warrens with ropes and gas lamps slowly discovering what a magnificent find they had crawled into. It must have been scary and treacherous and with their limited light I’m sure it took a good while before they could fully determine the breathtakingly beautiful scene they where in. Our personal exploration of this great cave ends much too soon and thankful for the elevators we return to the more mundane surface where we exit through, off course, the gift shop.

Grotto walls

Grotto walls

A picnic lunch once again and this time we sit just outside that huge yawning hole in the ground that defines the entrance and then we set off for the town of Rocamadour whose main attraction is that it’s built into the side of a huge cliff. It’s not far and as we approach

Rocamadour village on a cliff

Rocamadour the village on a cliff

on another narrow road from across a narrow deep valley it is a quite an amazing sight. Why build a town into the side of a cliff I wonder? I don’t know, but it’s quite amazing to sees. We unknowingly chose the poorer route into town going down into the narrow valley though even more treacherous roads, again two way with one way widths including a short blind curved tunnel. Crossing our fingers we encounter no traffic on the way down and thank god for that. (I’m starting to figure out why they have so many churches around here, praying for no opposing traffic). We park along a stream and have bit of a tough climb up steep stairs to the bottom level of the town with the now standard medieval old town section full of shops that we explore.

On the walls of Rocamadour

On the walls of Rocamadour

Next an elevator ride up, at 6 euro for two, and we are at a small cathedral and more shops lined with wondrous carved stone walls.

Looking down from Rocamadour

Looking down from Rocamadour

The view out over the valley is quite impressive. We find a funicular that brings you up to a third level where there is a famous chateau. The place to pay is unmanned with a sign saying to pay at the top. So we ride it up and find out the charge for this one minute ride is 8 euro for the two of us. OK now I think I’ve discovered why they built this town into a cliff; maximum tourist euro extraction. Smart Frenchmen. For another 2 euro we get to walk on the walls of the chateau which gives another great view, but we aren’t allowed inside. Dumb tourists. Up here is a huge parking lot and we wonder what in the hell are we doing parked way down at the bottom of that narrow road? How did they get up here? We return to the bottom level, luckily our tickets were two way, and it starts to rain lightly. Do we run down stairs for the car while we can or duck into that nice looking crepe shop over there for a late second lunch? Duhhh! As we wait to order It starts to really pour down and we wonder did we make a bad decision and miss our opportunity to get to the car? We share a chicken and mushroom crepe covered in a brie sauce. OMG. Yes we made the right decision. Then a grilled pear desert crepe filled with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, called Chantilly in these parts, along with the optional scoop of ice cream and we know it was the right decision, even if it never stops raining. But as we finish so does the rain so it all works out great. We make our way down the stairs to our car to start the journey back up that harrowing road white knuckles and all, and just as we start to exit that narrow tunnel with the blind turn in the middle a bus starting to enter barely comes to a screeching halt right in front of us!!!! An fffing tour bus are you kidding me? If we had been further back in that tunnel we would have been just a pretty red smear on the wall. What the hell? As it is we both have to stop and let the bus creep by at the very entrance while Jackie and I cringe and expect to hear the sound of tearing metal at any instant. We open our eyes and the bus is thankfully past, whew! As we take the road that will bring us back to St Cyprian we drive by the parking lot we saw located at the top of the town. We never had to drive down into that valley in the first place and we wonder why no sign for the better way? Ahh yes, I remember now, the charge for those elevator rides. Back to St Cyprian with no more than the normal yips and squeaks as we pass many more trucks and close walls.

Friday – Castelnaud

It’s our last day for touring the Dordogne because tomorrow we must head down to Barcelona. We don’t want to leave as this area has been the perfect retreat. We decide to visit one more castle and choose Chateau Castelnaud since it is not too far away and we need to spend some time packing up this afternoon. Over the week our gear has become strewn everywhere as we enjoyed not having to pack each night. We navigate our way to a bridge to get us over the Dordogne river as this is the sister castle that faces across the river from Chateau Beynac the castle we visited on Monday. We also saw it’s great walls on our canoe trip. Of course it’s at the top of a hill, scary narrow roads blah blah blah you’ve heard it all.

Castelnaud protecting it's village

Chateau Castelnaud protecting it’s village

As we leave the parking lot and go down a slope we are presented with a magnificent view of a classic medieval castle with a sweet little town snuggled up to its walls for protection. Truly truly fairy tail stuff. The castle is loaded with medieval armaments; it’s basically a museum for them.

Trebuchets

Trebuchets, Medieval Artillery

They also have several large siege engines, called trebuchets, that can throw huge stones great distances to pound down castle walls. They have actually demonstrated them here but unfortunately not today. The tour is self guided and we wander all over the place on our own as usual. Except for a school tour it’s practically empty this late in the season.

Castle view

Castle view

The castle seems more sophisticated than it’s counterpart across the river; more complex somehow. It has likely been added to over a longer period of time to make it, relatively speaking of course, more modern.

Castelnaud

Castelnaud’s main tower

We spend several hours here and have a great lunch in one of the local restaurants, a duck confit and a gourmet burger and an absolutely A1 rated chocolate mousse. I didn’t know such a thing existed. We take a leisurely ride back to St Cyprian through some back roads that we find as we try to stretch our remaking time before we have to return. We come across another chateau once owned by Josephine Baker an exotic pre WWII dancer very famous in her day back in Paris. Its quite beautiful from the outside, but we don’t take the time or spend the money to tour it.

All too soon we are back in our little town climbing that winding steep hill for the last time. Who knew I’d come to love it so much scary as that hill was. This has been such a truly perfect setting.

Shop in our village of St Cyprian

A shop in our little village of St Cyprian

We get our packing done and clean the place up then we go upstairs where our hostess, Julie, has invited us for dinner. It’s a very pleasant night and we spend the whole evening chatting about our various travels. Julie and a friend will do the last 100 K of the Camino next year and we share our experiences and recommendations for places to stay. She is extensively traveled and tells us fascinating stories about all the places she has been literally all over the world, both biking and trekking. We wish we were her….. Maybe we will be. She is closing down her place here for the season once we leave and is hoping to spend part of this winter working on a big cat preserve in Namibia as a volunteer if her application is accepted. We end the night with hugs and kisses, one more great friend acquired on our journey. We will miss St Cyprian and this whole area very very much.

Barcelona. October 18 to 20 – Then home to Herndon VA on October 21

These last three days couldn’t have been any more different from our quiet idyllic week in the Dordogne countryside. We are in the big city of Barcelona in an apartment just off las Rambles the absolute craziest and most bustling street of anywhere we’ve ever been. Barcelona is a major city and a tourist destination with many travelers in evidence and it’s designed to accommodate them. Lots and lots of restaurants, bars and shops plus a major beach right at the bottom of town. Its hustle and bustle personified.

Saturday. St Cyprian to Barcelona
We get up early to, oh so sadly, depart our lovely village of St Cyprian. This has been just a perfect week but it’s time to move on. Today is basically used up just getting to Barcelona, it’s about a 300 mile drive with the first several hours on small country roads where we can’t make much time. About an hour above Toulouse we pick up the superhighway system that we can follow all the way to our destination and we can really fly. But it’s at a cost cause we pay about 60 euros in tolls before we get there. The trip takes over 7 hours. We have to find our way to the rental car return at Barcelona airport which worries me a bit. Our GPS wakes back up when we cross the boarder and she finds the airport without an incident but she won’t actually speak to us anymore no mater what we try. As a mater of fact she hasn’t spoken to us since we totally ignored her back when she went nuts in Bilbao. Guess we hurt her feelings. Anyway luckily there are signs in English to the rental return and we complete the transaction with the return of the car in mostly one piece. Surprising given our recent excursions, just a minor scrape on one wheel and a tiny scrape on the edge of the trunk. We feel we got off pretty lucky. I have to call the girl who owns the apartment to let her know we are within striking distance so she can meet us there. Minor problem, I have the French SIM card in my phone and need to put in the Spanish one, but I have no tool to open the tiny drawer where it’s housed. I dig out my handy Swiss knife and give the corkscrew tool a try and to my surprise I am able to pop out the drawer with it. Thanks again Henry. We complete arraignments to meet at the apartment and find a bus to get us downtown. It lets us off at the top of Las Rambles and the street is wall to wall with people. This is barcelona’s party street and it’s Saturday afternoon. We have a long 10 -15 minute walk through the crowd with backpacks and luggage but we can use the exercise after all this goofing off. The apartment is having the shower enclosure rebuilt when we get there, seems the previous tenants were a bit rambunctious. But we get checked in and dump our bags while they complete the work. The place is ok, acceptable, but nowhere as nice as our French apartment. It will do however and we run out to explore the street life on Las Rambles. It’s even more crowded with people and as Jackie and I enjoy a well earned drink at a sidewalk cafe we remark that this has to be the absolute worst dressed bad looking crowd we’ve ever seen. Don’t know why and in other parts of the city that’s not the case, but here it’s one ugly group no matter what the nationality. We enjoy some good laughs at their expense and we recognize we’re probably not doing much to improve the scenery. We find an unsatisfactory dinner in a touristy section and wander the area for a while to get a sense of the place. We’re not too sure about it and go to bed wondering if we are going to like it here. We enjoy looking out over our terrace and hearing the crowd down on the streets below us though.  well have to see.

Sunday, – Touring Barcelona 

We want to see some of he Gaudi architecture that the city is so famous for and other sights as well so decide that the double deck hop on hop off bus will be a good way to get acclimated, see the city and find our way to several of the Gaudi buildings. The bus runs by the beach area first before heading up town and we are amazed at how extensive and modern this area is. Seems that back when Barcelona hosted the Olympics (1992?) this entire area was rebuilt from a slummy industrial area and apparently they did a fabulous job. We will have to get back down here at some point. Our first hop off is at the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s famed Cathedral.

Gaudi's  Sagrada Familia

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia

As seems to be the case on many of our European visits the building is covered in scaffolding and even has some cranes on it while being refurbished. You may have noticed in the photos that Santiago’s famed cathedral was also under reconstruction when we arrived and it’s happened to us previously in Italy at Florence’s renowned Dumo and at Sienna’s colorful church as well. Some bad luck and bad

Surreal

Surreal

timing. But still the utter bizarreness off the design is very evident; like something from another planet. This is almost a Dali painting brought to physical realization. There is a huge line to enter that looks hours long so we pass on the opportunity thinking that we may return earlier tomorrow (which never happens). Along the street nearby there is a Sunday market set up covering several blocks. We go through that and pick out some snacks to have a picnic in the park overshadowed by Gaud’s strange but amazing construction. On the street there are various troops of acrobat like performers constructing these very tall human pyramids. It seems to be a competition of some kind. They get up to eight or nine layers of people high and it’s quite amazing. Seems we run into strange stuff wherever we go.

Acrobats on the street

Acrobats on the street

We Hop back on the bus and it’s off to Park Guell designed by Gaudi as both a public space and an enclosed private urban housing district. We spend several hours here, it’s quite high on a hill and you get a spectacular view of Barcelona all the way down to the sea.

Par Guell view.

Park Guell view.

The park is magnificent and is filled with such strange structures that you start to think you may have entered Whoville and we keep a wary eye out for the Grinch.

Park Guell architecture

Park Guell architecture

Looking like Whoville

Looking like Whoville

The urban housing part of the park never came to full fruition, and it’s understandable given how odd the architecture was. I can’t imagine many people wanting to take the risk of buying into something so strange, especially back in the early 1900’s when this was constructed. We get fairly lost wandering through the extensive grounds and we finally find our way out and back to our bus stop feeling pretty tired from all the touring. It’s a fairly long ride back to our starting point and we’ve had all the Gaudi we can take for one day so we just relax and enjoy the guided tour of the city. We decide to depart the bus at a cathedral about 10 blocks from our apartment and blunder into a huge block party where they have set up a temporary market selling all kinds of wine and tapas to a large Sunday afternoon crowd. Who can say no to something like this so we join in and have a

Tapas and wine time

Tapas and wine time

blast perusing all the available treats. What a pleasant surprise and we turn it into dinner.

Jackie finds a party

Jackie finds a party

It’s late in the day as we head back to our apartment and as we cross the big plaza behind our place we spot people lined up for what turns out to be a small club where they have flamenco dancing. Ok we’re in, and we return later after a bit of a rest for the last show at 10:pm and have a great time.

Flamenco club

Flamenco club

Wandering back to our place we get some slices of pizza from a shop located almost right under our apartment. Starting to love this city lifestyle. We eat them on our terrace washing it down with some of our French wine and stare down at the crazy scene going on below us.

View from our terrace at night.

View from our terrace at night.

Barcelona goes to bed much later than we do and we fall asleep to the sounds of the continuous party that seems to define this city’s nightscape.

Monday – More Gaudi and the Beach

It’s our last full day on this incredible trip. Hard to believe it’s almost over after all this time, but there is still time for a little more adventure. We walk all the way back up Las Rambles to The Plaza de Catalunya, one of the cities main plazas. They are recovering from yesterday’s large gathering of local citizens making their bid for Catalonian independence from Spain. It was quite a major demonstration with the multitudes all dressed in their local colors of bright yellow and red. When we passed it by yesterday we thought it might be a soccer crowd rooting for some visiting team but soon came to understand its purpose was to show the area’s solidarity behind the independence movement. These people are very serious about it. In light of our recent travels in the Basque country and the failed close Scottish succession vote in the UK it seems to be a curiously common sentiment over here. Well maybe I shouldn’t be too Eurocentric about this condition, I do remember Texas expressing some similar feelings back home not too long ago.

We continue walking on up to a stop we passed by yesterday on our bus, Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, a private residence he refurbished for a wealthy middle class family back at the turn of the 20th century.

Gaudi design.

Gaudi design.

Again it was amazing to see such surrealistic conceptions being brought to physical reality in what was to start with a basic 5 story townhouse. The owners lived on the noble floor, the first above ground level, and the rest of the floors contained apartments.

Just so strange

Just so strange

It’s hard to believe that someone would agree to so outlandish a design for their main residence, but there it is. It must have taken some courage and I wonder what the people of that time made of it. I’m sure there were lots of opinions either way and can only imagine the twitterverse comments if that medium had existed back then. Gaudi’s refurb would have moved Renee Zelwigger’s rework off the front page. We toured the building mesmerized by it’s strange beauty and came to appreciate the well thought out design concepts and engineering principles that were applied in its implementation. I think I may have been moved from being skeptical to becoming a fan.

Looking down the skylight shaft

Looking down the skylight shaft

Back out into the street we walk back down to our apartment to unload our purchases, ….. damn those craftily located museum gift shop exits! With half a day left we decide to rent some bikes and cruise the beaches. We find a rental shop just doors away from the apartment and soon enough after scaring the hell out of some unwary pedestrians we find our way to the bottom of las Rambles and are pedaling along the beaches. It’s a blast. The temperature has unexpectedly soared into the low 90s F. It’s like a great summer day and we decide to wear our goofy Tilley hiking hats to provide some eye shade. After cruising along the beach scene for a while we lock up the bikes hike across the sand to put our feet into the Mediterranean.

On the beach

On the beach

It’s damn cold BTW and, I at least, enjoy the local scenery, much of which is damn hot. Going topless seems to be an option here and a small but surprising number of young ladies chose to do so. Actually this can turn a bit awkward as I’m not really sure where in hell to let my eyes rest; don’t want to appear to be too unsophisticated here, but hey we don’t experience this at home too often. Ahh travel is just so broadening.

Tagging the Med and keeping my eyes to myself.

Tagging the Med and keeping my eyes to myself.

The beach is loaded with great looking bars as well and we pick one. I have a “gintonic” as it’s called here. Say “gin and tonic” and they have no idea what you are talking about. It’s a giant bowled glass filled with gin and lots of ice where they give you a small bottle of tonic and you mix it yourself. Europe is just so damned civilized. Jackie has a Compari and soda and we sit back feeling pretty damned cool about ourselves just hanging at the beach in Barcelona.

Hanging at the beach

Hanging at the beach

It’s a nice way to while away our last afternoon soaking up the ambiance along with the heat and sunshine.

Toasting our trip

Toasting our trip

We reflect on what a truly amazing trip it’s been and the incredible variation of things we’ve seen and done and all the great people we’ve met over the last almost two months. We’re feeling pretty proud that we managed to negotiate our way through it all. I can remember my first blog post where I was pretty nervous about our ability to handle what was coming our way. It all turned out pretty damned well though.

Tuesday – Home sweet Home
We leave early the next day and the return trip home is the best kind, totally uneventful. It’s a long ride with a long layover in Miami and after almost 24 hrs awake we are back in our own house. Weirdly, the place feels only vaguely familiar, kind of like someone else’s home that you have visited on a regular but occasional basis. When I walk into our bathroom I actually can’t remember where the light switch is located ….. Ok…. from now on that’s going to be my baseline for the definition of a great trip. What a blast!

Advertisements

Santiago to St Cyprian and points in between

First of all I’d like to thank all of you for the really supportive and generous comments you’ve made about our trip and my writing. It meant a lot to get such positive feedback, especially on some of those days when the going was tough and it was such an effort to find the time to write and edit/upload the pictures. But your glowing responses made it all so worth it. Jackie accused me of getting up early in the morning after I posted so I could check my “fan mail” as she called it while we still had access to wifi. She was right. So thanks again. I’ve tried to find time to get out at least one response to everyone, if I missed anyone I’m sorry but know that I’ve read and enjoyed them all. I loved the humor and the thoughtfulness. And I can’t deny the several accurate accusations that all this walking was just a wine tour in disguise, haha. We can tell you this for sure, don’t go to Galicia for the wine, yechhhh, but Bierzos and Riojas most definitely yes. However the countryside in Galicia more than made up for the weak sour wine. Even Jackie agreed, (although a bit reluctantly).

Our adventure has continued in a different form. We’ve been driving for several days taking ourselves back east towards the apartment we booked in St Cyprian France. But with four free days before we could take ownership we just headed that way and stopped wherever we fancied. Our trek through Spain has given us the confidence to know that we can find our way and a place to stay without having a fixed itinerary and reservations in advance. We are now just vagabonds in a cute little red Renault. Our feet are resting while this poor little undersized car is now lugging us over the hills. We were quick to become used to covering in 20 minutes what previously took a whole day. And of course the comfort of a nice hotel each night as opposed to an upper bunk and shared bathrooms took very little effort to become accustomed to. But oddly we miss the walking, that close connection to the distance we cover and the sense of accomplishment at reaching a tough goal each day. And in some ways we are more tired at the end of the day from the tenseness and dreariness of the driving as well as the difficulty of navigating. We found ourselveslooking forward to getting to our apartment and having 7 whole days of staying in the same place for a change.

Tuesday. Santiago to St Vincente de le Barquera
We wake up to a steady rain, glad we’re not walking today. We have to get to the airport to get our rental car and it turns out there’s a bus leaving from right next door to the hotel. With great timing we catch it just as it is about to leave. On the ride out of town to the airport, which we passed while walking in just two days ago, we see today’s long string of pilgrims slogging their way into town through the steady light rain. They look pretty miserable, poor sods and we feel for them. Lots of backpacks are on this bus and many of the other passengers stare out with the same sympathy. At SixT, our rental company, we get installed into our little bright red Renault and after a few minutes getting familiar with the controls we attempt to program the GPS Nav system and off we go. I immediately misread the gps and turn down this little narrow road and there we are amongst a string of pilgrims at a spot we clearly recognize from two days ago. We’re stuck on this little road for a bit and we dodge the pilgrims trudging with their heads down dripping water. We cheer Buen Camino out the window, but they pay us annoying road hogs little attention. Arguing all the way over how to read the Nav system and trying not to dent the rental car in the first half hour we are in it, we finally find our way to a real road. We’ve decided not to go to Finesterra on the west coast because the weather is so poor so we program the city of Bilboa into the gps since that’s on the north coast and to the east where we want to head. We get plugged into the highway system, Spain has a superb road system BTW, and we are soon chugging along at the outrageous speed of 120 KPH. Since it’s afternoon by the time we hit this stage It’s too late to make Bilboa and have time to see the famous Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry, the one thing on our must see list for this leg of the trip. So we roll along and pick out a beach town area somewhat short of Bilboa as our destination. As we are heading along the highway we notice that every once in a while our GPS with her sweet British accent slips into phucauwee mode and has no idea where she is and starts giving us crazy instructions. The first time this happened we attempted to follow them and wandered around off the highway for about 20 minutes before we realized she had lost her mind. We got back on the highway and did what made sense to us, lucky we had brought both Spanish and French road maps with us. It happens several more times but we now recognize the symptoms and just ignore her when it occurs. We just wait for her to recover her senses which she eventually does and with out any acknowledgement of her temporary insanity. As we near the area where we want to find a place to stay we get off the high speed motorway onto more secondary roads that run along the beach. We are in the area of Spain called the Picos de Europa. There are magnificent high mountain peaks to our right and to our left a gorgeous sea coast with the occasional beach, lots of rocks and heavy seas. The views make it hard to actually watch the road. We come to a likely looking town to stop, St Vincente de le Barquera, very picturesque. We find a room overlooking the bay, get some dinner at a tapas bar and go to bed looking forward to the view in the morning.

Wednesday. St Vincente de le Barquera Spain to St Jean de Luz, France
We wake early so we can catch the sunrise over the little bay and beach that we can see out of our hotel room terrace. We are rewarded for both our effort and our excellent hotel site selection with a beautiful sunrise right off our balcony. The rain clouds from yesterday are breaking up, but providing a canvas for the morning sun to spray with the full spectrum of colors. From our room we overlook a small bay full of working and pleasure boats, but just off in the distance is a large beach covered in mist from the crashing waves. Along the beach is a campground filled with RVs both modern and very old, including those old VW van type campers with the pop up roofs. As we watch the sky get lighter and the colors begin to display we suddenly see myriad little dots crossing the beach like ants coming out of a disturbed colony. It’s the surfers who are now up and running to get into the waves while the sky is alive with fire. It’s a fabulous sight. My handy camera with the 30 to 1 optical zoom comes into it’s own because I can bring those little dots into view as people for some great shots. (Did I mention that I love this pocket camera that I bought for this trip; it’s just the right size, easy to use while loaded with features and has built in wifi that let’s it transfer photos to my iPad to upload to the blog. Another great tip from Henry as he had bought last year’s model of this camera for his Camino.)

The view we wake up To in St Vincente.  Those dots on the beach shore are surfers.

The view we wake up To in St Vincente. Those dots on the beach shore are surfers.

My zoom reaches out to find that surfer.

My zoom reaches out to find that surfer.

Beautiful sight

Beautiful sight

The town from across the little bay.

The town from across the little bay.

The Picos de Europa behind.

The Picos de Europa behind.

After the sunrise is over we check out of the hotel grab some breakfast and stay on the small coastal roads for a while to enjoy the view. We head over to the beach where we saw the surfers and are rewarded with another great view of the town with boats in front and those great peaks in the rear. A fabulous sight. After a nice drive we reluctantly leave the coast for the motorway so we can head into Bilboa and our date with the museum. Bilboa is a very large city, biggest we’ve been to in quite a while. We head downtown trusting our GPS with the museum address and as we are in the heart of town it becomes clear she’s not up to the task. She tries to send us down one way streets the wrong way, and even into an area where there are no streets where she wants us to go. We have to get on a road that takes us back to the highway and as we come in from a different direction she finds her way just as we spot the distinctive building ourselves. The museum has a pretty decent collection but the best piece of art there is the building itself, a marvel both inside and out. We spend a couple of pleasant hours, have a nice lunch in the museum dining room and head back out. As we enter the area where our gps originally lost it she looses it again. She obviously does not know this section of town, but we do by now. We find the right highway out and continue east.

In front of the Guggenheim. What was Gehry smoking and how did they engineer this crazy dream?

In front of the Guggenheim. What was Gehry smoking and how did they engineer this crazy dream?

In back of the Guggenheim

In back of the Guggenheim

Sculpture

Sculpture

Lady in scullpture

Lady in scullpture

We take the chance to run into San Sebastian a fancy large seaside beach town. It’s nice but way to big and busy for us so we head back to the highway and head over the French border looking for a town that might be more like last night. So we plug St Jean de Luz into our Gps and can’t find it. Of course, we figure, we need to change the country from Spain to France. Whoops. I had asked the girl at the rental counter if the GPS covered France and she shrugged yes, but didn’t look too certain. Well the answer is no so we are on our own. We have maps for Italy, Vatican City and Greece no less, but not France. My phone is currently equipped with a Spain SIM card so no 3G to navigate with and no yellow arrows to guide us either. Using a fairly large scale map we find our way into St Jean, a very busy medium sized beach town, somewhat bigger than Rehobeth. It’s quite nice and still very filled with vacationers. As we look for food and a room we are in sticker shock. We certainly aren’t in Spain anymore Toto. We find a nice place just a short ways off the beach and scare the crap out of ourselves getting the car parked near it. These streets make Ireland roads look wide. We have an overly expensive dinner, it’s French prices and a resort town, no better than what we’ve eaten for 1/4 the price, but we enjoy the ambiance. Hey we’re in France. It’s raining again lightly, but we wander the streets and enjoy looking into lots of great shops. Then to bed where we plan our next day. Let’s go hit Some real wine country, St Emilion. Without a Gps we don’t want to try going into a large city like Bordeaux so we will stick to the country. Jackie finds a Little BnB on line and we book a room.

Dinner in St Jean de luz.

Dinner in St Jean de luz.

It's not Spanish food yaaaaay.  Not Spanish prices either boooo!

It’s not Spanish food yaaaaay. Not Spanish prices either boooo!

Our room in St jean de Luz

Our room in St jean de Luz

Thursday Friday St Emilion.
We are a bit tired of the road and decide that if we like the BnB in St Emilion we will book a second night and spend two days exploring. Just using our map and the directions from the lady at the BnB Jackie does a superb bit of navigating and by early afternoon we find our way to this small house sitting in the middle of rows of grape vines surrounded by vineyards. It’s very cute, the room works very well and the owners are really nice so we book the place for a second night. It will be nice to say still for a bit. We head up into the little village of St Emilion and it looks like something out of a story book; almost Disneyish. It’s definitely a tourist destination and it feels almost fake. This is major league wine country, every shop in the place is pushing wine and every 200 meters along the surrounding roads you’ll find another vineyard with its own Chateau. It’s full bore wine to the point that it’s all you can smell in the air. Jackie is thinking ok this may be what heaven is like. We wander the town for a bit to get a feel and take a tour of a cave where one vineyard stores it’s wine. We return to our BnB and walk next through the vineyards to a place about 300 meters away where we have dinner reservations. It’s an old house with a beautiful terrace and we wish it was warm enough to sit outside. Inside it’s also very charming with a very modern decor juxtopposed with a very old house. It’s a fine dining establishment with a Michelin rating but no stars. The whole thing has the feel of a restaurant in the movie the hundred foot journey. The chef tries very hard but unfortunately the food is not particularly memorable. Nor so far is any of the wine we’ve tried. We walk through the grape vines back to our room in the dark with a near full moon lighting the way. It’s a bit surreal. We taste a few grapes on the way.

St Emilion from above. Hey casting, send me a French village.

St Emilion from above. Hey casting, send me a French village.

More of St Emilion

More of St Emilion

St Emilion street view.

St Emilion street view.

We lazily sleep in a bit and have breakfast with two Australian couples staying at the inn. It feels like back on the Way as we chat up new friends. It’s back to town where we tour a couple of vineyards, one has a great lunch of three wines paired with various cheeses, and this is a real treat. We are all alone in the chateau and we pretend we are The Lord and lady while our staff waits upon us. It’s all very Downton Abby. In the heart of the town we tour an underground 11th century church carved out of the solid limestone that the village is built upon. You see the tower above it in the pictures. We also learn about St Emilion himself, an 8th century monk who supposedly performed many miracles and lived in a nearby cave for 17 years. He founded the original town and while never formally canonized he’s acquired the appellation of saint anyway and is definitely the local hero. The whole limestone hill under the town has been quarried extensively to build both the local buildings and half of Bordeaux. It’s hollowed out to the point that the town was in danger of collapse and in the mid 1800’s further quarrying was forbidden. The wineries now use the vast empty spaces to store their wine while it’s aging as they make excellent wines cellars and on our other wine tour today we get a tour of these very extensive underground warrens. I could see the city fathers’ concern about collapse. I’m reminded of the movie Paint Your Wagon with lee Marvin drunkenly singing along as the boom town falls into the tunnels they dug to recapture the gold dust falling through the saloon floors. (OK I’ve obviously watched way to many movies). On both the wine cavern tour and the church tour we run into the same couple Teresa and Vic from New Jersey outside of Manhattan and have some fun conversations; more new friends. At the end of it all, tired of eating out, we buy a couple of salads to go, a tomato cheese tart, and a few bottles of Grand Cru and retire to our inn where we eat and map out tomorrow’s route to St Cyprian.

Ahh the source

Ahh the source

Helping herself

Helping herself

Ok who spilled the grapes

Ok who spilled the grapes

Jackie finds the underground stash.

Jackie finds the underground stash.

Pick your size.

Pick your size.

Making wine. It's happening right now in there.

Making wine. It’s happening right now in there.

These caves go on for miles under the town

These caves go on for miles under the town

The entrance to the underground church.

The entrance to the underground church.

Pan of underground church. It goes back underground for over 100 ft.

Pan of underground church. It goes back underground for over 100 ft.

The vines behind our BnB

The vines behind our BnB

Saturday St Cyprian.
We can’t get into our apartment until mid afternoon and it’s only about 100 Kms away so we linger over breakfast. We head out with our plan mapped from last night working just fine until about halfway when just outside of Bergerac the road comes to a halt. It’s closed with a sign saying if you want to get to Lalinde, the next town on our route, votre SOL. No instructions on how to make a detour, or deviation as they call it here. Keep in mind we have this map of all of France on front and back so the scale where we are doesn’t show much detail. I call our Hostess, Julie Bacon, to let her know we may be a bit late and describe the situation. She’s not too concerned and says don’t worry you’ll find your way. And she’s right. We backtrack a bit find a road with a bridge to get south of the Dordogne River, that’s also the name of the region we are in, and continue heading east. We wander from town to town sometimes seeing them on our map, but often not. We finally stumble onto a road that’s in the route list we made last night and make our way to St. Cyprian. It was a beautiful ride with great views and classic little French villages looking to be from another century. I haven’t let myself get my hopes up that this town will be the perfect little French village but damned if it’s not. It’s fantastic and very real in every way that St Emilion was not. There is definitely a here here. We know that our apartment is at the top of the hill to the back of the town and following Julie’s directions we head up steep narrow roads and I end up going down basically the village’s main street, which is one way, the wrong way. Ahhhhhh. It’s about three blocks long with no way out until the end. I make it all the way just as someone tries to enter and with great French graciousness (need some kind of major sarcasm punctuation marks here) they back out and let me escape. We go up steeper and narrower roads to just above the top of the village and park where the map indicates. The last road I come up is no wider than my car, contains two blind turns and is,holy crap, a two way street!! I meet someone coming the other way and luckily there is a bit of space for them to sneak into while I slip by. I will have to navigate this road every time we go somewhere, yikes!

We park the car at the top of the hill. Our house is just below to the right.

We park the car at the top of the hill. Our house is just below to the right.

The front of the apartment..

The front of the apartment..

We meet Julie who is very interesting having lived, hiked and biked all over the planet. An amazing and very friendly lady. The little apartment, or gite as it’s called is just perfect. It’s under Julie’s place and everything is made of stone and it’s centuries old. The Walls must be two feet thick. This is going to be a great home for the next week. We walk to get some dinner at a small bistro back down the steep hill on the street where I went the wrong way. The walk back up is quite an effort, but we’ve had good training. We go past a church located near us built in the 12th century, a fact which nobody takes much notice of around here. It’s definitely a different world. We drive back to the edge of town to a modern grocery store and lay in supplies for the week, keeping in mind that tomorrow, Sunday, there is a big market on that Main Street so we hold off on fresh produce and other items likely to be available then. But I’m sooo looking forward to home cooked eggs for breakfast tomorrow.

Our little kitchen.

Our little kitchen.

The rest of our apartment. Small but really nice and comfortable.

The rest of our apartment. Small but really nice and comfortable.

Day 32 October 5, 2014. – SANTIAGO –

SANTIAGOOOOOO!!!!!

Been having too much fun the last two days so haven’t had time to load up any pictures. I’ll have to add those later. But this is the critical one.

image

Sunday. Well we made it. We got an earlyish start after a quick breakfast of water, yogurt and the last of our cookies. We continue to walk with our friend Mike. We chat about people we’ve met, places we’ve seen and things we’ve learned along the way, it’s very pleasant. There’s a decent crowd out here heading on in and we wave to many familiar faces and even strike up conversations with new ones. There’s a sense of excitement in the air. The walk goes by fairly quickly for the first 15 Km with only one short stop for a bit of coffee and we split a toasted ham and cheese on white. And some Zuma, which is fresh squeezed orange juice. Mike and Robin you will be amused that we’ve become addicted to orange juice in the AM on this trip. Typically we never drink it. They fresh squeeze it right on the spot for you out here. I think it’s the chilled feel as it goes down and the hit of sugar that goes so well after 5 Km of walking first thing in the morning. Anyway Mike takes his leave of us in San Marco to spend one last night in an Albergue up on a hill overlooking Santiago. He will hike down first thing tomorrow for the last 5k and be in time for the pilgrim’s mass which occurs in the Cathedral every day at noon. It’s too late for us to make that today. But we have a nice fancy hotel waiting for us in Santiago so we hug Mike goodbye and hope to see him at the mass tomorrow.

We continue on our way and true to form the last 5k feels like 10 and there’s always one more damn hill to climb. My pack feels heavy today and damn if I haven’t thrown a blister on this last day of walking. The Camino ain’t ever no walk in the park. Jackie, on the other hand, is feeling pretty good, her tummy and feet both in fine fettle. I even lag behind a bit and call out as that sidekick Poncho, “Hey Cisco, wait for meeee!” (Ok you have to be pretty damn old and probably a guy to get that reference from the old 50’s tv show The Cisco Kid.). She’s actually dancing, dang her. We wade through the suburbs and slowly climb into the city and after anticipating it around every corner we finally get a glimpse of the top of the cathedral, our destination, poking up above some buildings. The way is actually marked somewhat poorly here, surprisingly since we’ve done nothing but successfully follow yellow arrows for over 400 miles, and as the cathedral gets obscured we have a bit of trouble navigating. So close and yet so far it seems. As we hit the edge of old town Santiago the street name in front of us is Porto Camino Santiago so it’s obvious now. 10 steps in and we run into a woman Shirley who we last saw back in Logrono many weeks ago. We had kept in touch by email for awhile and then lost her as it turned out her phone died. So big reunion, the first of what turns onto very many over these two days. We continue on through this gorgeous medieval town following the sound of bagpipes around the corner to the plaza in front of the cathedral. We stop and stare at it with this great anticlimactic sense of …. well here we are; we can stop walking now. We’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves….we’re just here. No huge sense of joy or relief, just…..done. We enlist a fellow pilgrim to take our picture and return the favor to someone who looks as bewildered as we are. We go up into the cathedral for a look around, up a boat load of steps of course, yep, we’re here, now what? As we come out we run into our friend Michelle who was a day ahead of us. She directs us to the officina de perrigrinos, we would never have found it on our own, and the line is pretty short. We queue up to show them our pilgrim’s credential which we have had stamped all along the way to prove we have walked the Camino. They provide us with our prized Compestella, the award to prove to one and all that we are gentlemen and ladies of great resource and have indeed completed the walk. To be honest I don’t really need this piece of paper, my aching feet are proof enough for me. But of course we collect it anyway to show it to friends and then be put away along with the old high school diploma and senior yearbook. The trip is burned into our souls, a piece of paper can’t make it any more real or pertinent. Yet, like high school graduates, we congratulate each other on the milestone of achievement shaking hands and patting backs of our new old friends, familiar faces and strangers alike. We see several good friends and hug and cheer each other saying goodbye for likely the very last time. Hmmm it does seem more like high school grad the more I think of it.

That milestone completed we head for our nice modern Hotel, get checked into a wonderful room and get out of our packs and boots for the oh so thankfully last time. Again what luxury after our recent stays in the country Albergues . We find a nice tapas restaurant for a late lunch, wander the beautiful medieval streets and do a little shopping for souvenirs. We meet Michelle, Donna and Anita for a nice dinner and say goodbye to them as they leave tomorrow. We snuggle into our nice room and plan to sleep late. Mission accomplished, we are in Santiago at last.

Monday. We do sleep late and then wander down to a nice buffet breakfast. Today we retrieve our luggage from the guy we shipped it to back in what seems a lifetime ago. It’s raining so we get into our boots one more time and find our way to his location just a few hundred meters away, fingers crossed that this has worked out. And it has woohoo. We hurry back to our room and open the bag to get out our civvies. I’m thrilled to note that the pants are much looser than when I packed them. So all that eating didn’t prevent some weight loss. Of course a week in France may take care of that. Our shoes feel funny, light and kind of loose. They are not boots, but not flip flops, our alternate footwear when not hiking, either. They are weird feeling things on our feet. We head for the 12:00 pilgrim mass and it’s very nice even if all in Spanish. They don’t do the special thing with the giant flying incense burner today (really, this is a real thing, kind of the highlight of the service) but it’s not always done. However we enjoy the choir singing and the organ playing in the wonderful old cathedral the sound echoing a bit off the walls. I can get how this could be quite a magical thing back in the olden days when this would be the only source of real music the masses would ever hear. The Church service would be a very special and powerful kind of thing in this setting; quite moving. After the service we get to visit the relic of St James himself. We actually give the container a hug. Hello good buddy nice to finally meet you. Weirdly cool. We meet up with our friend Mike at the service, return the favor forward by showing him where the pilgrim office is and make plans to meet for lunch. We get some more shopping in and look for a place for a drink. The whole time we wander the streets we are constantly running into people we know. It’s like those days back in Leon, except now we share congratulations and say our last goodbyes; very bittersweet. While we are having our drink, Sarah comes into our cafe. She is the last of that fun group of young kids still left in Santiago and we spend a great hour getting to know her better. She has worked on the hill in the past and knows DC well so we hope to meet up again whenever she may get back into town. She was planning on walking to Finisterre but has heard some bad tales of things happening to girls alone on that trail so we offer her a ride. She will let us know tomorrow if she’s interested. We meet up with Mike and have a nice tapas lunch and say our goodbyes to him. One more friend gone. We hear from Jenny and the Gills (you have to say this like bbbb Benny and the Jets) they have made it into town this afternoon so we meet them for dinner. It’s a grand reunion, big hugs all around. Amy, Jenny’s sister, is there; she joined Jenny on the Camino about 8 days ago. Also joining in was a really nice young couple from the UK, Megan and Jackson, that the girls had hooked up with along the way. We settle into a nice corner of what has now become our favorite tapas bar, we feel like regulars here at this point, and have quite a party. Jenny puts her wonderful Spanish to work and all sorts of treats start to arrive and keep on coming. We consume what has to be 7 or 8 jugs of sangria and it’s Fiesta time. The conversation goes round as we recount old shared experiences, fill each other in on new ones, and laugh over the foibles of some of our more offbeat Camino acquaintances. Interestingly, they had the same kind of empty feeling at the finish as we did when they arrived. Anyway it’s an absolutely fabulous way to end our Camino with some of the dearest friends we’ve made on the trip, plus two new ones whose company we quite enjoyed. Young Jackson and I have great conversations about fantasy novels we’ve read and he’s a big Game of Thrones fan so we get along famously despite 40 years of age difference. It’s just a great dinner party. Amy, in a nice and grand gesture picks up the tab, a very sweet thing to do, cause it was not insignificant. hats off to you Amy. We much appreciated it. We wander the streets together for a short while in the dark and end up in front of the Cathedral. For us it’s our last sight of it, the others will do Mass tomorrow. We hug our last goodbyes there in the plaza, promise to meet again somewhere somewhen. With Jenny it’s likely since she lives in Maryland. We sure hope to see the Gills again, we promise to hike together, maybe along Hadrian’s wall on some future trip to the UK. We’d like that and Gill promises no hills on that walk; straight and level coast to coast.

Speaking of future hikes, Jackie makes the statement that this is definitely our first, last and only Camino. I’m instructed to make a public note so that we don’t forget how damned hard this was, get all romantic about it and sometime in the future, stupidly decide to do it again. I have to say that this was quite a challenge. I think back on that first day coming up that hill out of Pamplona and I remember thinking what in the hell have I gotten myself into? I honestly, standing on that hill gaping for breath, sweat pouring off me, feet aching like hell, knees all wobbly and feeling every pound I didn’t manage to loose like I promised I would, could not see how there was any realistic possibility that I might actually make it the 30 something more days it will take to get my sorry ass to Santiago. Really, I just couldn’t conceive that it would be possible.

How embarrassing was this going to be? And all you readers out there watching too? Holy crap! But you take the next step and then the next and slowly you get up that hill. And then the you get up the next one and then the next one. You just keep on going. You meet great people and it gets maybe not easier, but the shared fellowship and pleasant companionship makes it tolerable and slowly you get it done. Kinda like the song about the ant and that damned rubber tree plant. He had high hopes. Life lesson learned!

Of course it also really helps if you have managed to win the spouse lottery like I did and she decides to come along on the trip. I couldn’t have done this without Jackie’s support. Not no way! Thank you so much dear, I love you. And also I couldn’t let Henry down. I needed to get his Camino patch to Santiago one more time like I promised. Of course on many a tough hill I knew that gentle push over the top must be his hand. Thanks buddy, much appreciated.

Camino de Santiago; check, done!

Days 29, 30, 31 Legonde – Melide – Azura – Arca

The last three days seem to have gone by quickly as we look back on them. They have been nice but not particularly eventful except for the great circus last night . Tonight as I write this we sit in a very small town called Arca waiting to cover our final stage to Santiago tomorrow. It’s hard to believe we are finally at this point after so much over so long. We are holed up in a small unassuming Albergue, it’s cool and raining lightly and a little group of us snuggle in quietly in a small room waiting for the evening to go by so we can get up and start on our last leg. I kind of feel like we are a group of climbers huddled around our small stove in a tent high up at camp 4 poised on the edge of Everest waiting to make our final attempt at the summit…… Ok that may be a bit dramatic but our gear and feet are ready to go, the blisters are gone, we have some fruit to get through the day and plenty of Euros in my wallet. Nothing can stop us now!

As I read Jackie this last line she says it reminds her of that great Blues Brothers quote:

Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.

Thursday. Today is one of our longer walks, 24Km to Malide. It’s basically more of the same countryside, some nice wooded walks and some trails alongside the highway with rolling ups and downs. We start out in the dark since we have a long way to go and it’s very foggy so the flashlight just fills the area with this diffuse glow and we can’t hardly see the road. Daylight slowly arrives and we can barely see 50 feet around us. It’s not as cold as it has been and as we warm up we are quickly covered in sweat since there’s no way it will evaporate in this humidity. The trees who were our dear friends back on those relentless hot days now weep relentlessly on us almost like it’s raining. Fat cold wet drops annoyingly hit our heads and drop drown our backs until we dully realize we have hats and they can be used for other things besides shade. Duh!! It’s basically a very long walk through much that we’ve seen before. We surprisingly come across our group of young friends we re-met yesterday at a cafe. We did not expect to see them again since we stopped so short yesterday and they were going on in an attempt to make Santiago on the 4th. They have made slow progress because Kelsey is pretty sick, maybe food poisoning or a virus; who knows. They planed on covering 25 Km themselves today but have only have covered 5 to our 10 so far and as slow as we walk that’s not good news. They leave as we arrive but we catch up several Kms down the road. They will have to stop short today at our destination, no way they can make theirs. They will be a day late to Santiago, but it’s very pleasing to see them rally around their new Camino friend and not leave her behind. We see them later in Malide and Kelsey is already in bed. It’s a long trek into town with the clasic last 5 Km feeling like 10 and we spend an extra 20 mins trying to find our little pension hotel once we do arrive. It’s not great, but good enough since it has a door and a our own bathroom with an actual bathtub. As we look for dinner Jackie starts to feel unwell herself. One of her blisters has also recurred so she’s not too happy. She opts to skip dinner and take a nap. I have a burger and work on my previous blog post. I awaken her at 8:00 and get her some Yogurt and biscuits at the local supermarcado which she eats but she is not doing too well. We turn in early and will sleep in late. Tomorrow is a short 12 Km day and we don’t need an early start.

Foggy start to the day

Foggy start to the day

Santiago is thata way

Santiago is thata way

Not sure what it is but it looks like a baby alien from War of the Worlds

Not sure what it is but it looks like a baby alien from War of the Worlds

What are these things?

What are these things?

Another laundromat

Another laundromat

Really what in the hell are these things

Really what in the hell are these things

Jackie and I on the Camino in 2030 haha

Jackie and I on the Camino in 2030 haha

Friday. Jackie has been up sick several times during the night, but is feeling a bit better by the morning. We dress her blister, have a light breakfast at the hotel and hit the road at at a bit past 9:00, the latest start we’ve had so far. It’s only 12km to Arzua but it seems to go on interminably, lots of steep ups and downs, not always real high, but just lots and lots of them. With Jackie not feeling too strong we make slow progress even for us. This turns out to be a surprisingly tough walk, good thing it’s so short. We have seen very few people out here lately, and nobody we we know besides our young kid friends for the last two days. We’re is everybody?? Really it’s like a ghost town out here. The towns are empty of pilgrims compared to a week ago. Weird. We have become used to walking alone and while we enjoy the solitude the time goes by more slowly. As we are finally staggering up what is thankfully our very last hill into Azura we see a billboard; the circus is in town and they open tonight. Hot Damn we’re in!! We find a nice Albergue, the Don Quixote, where Jackie takes a nap. She’s hanging in but would love to feel better. The damn blister is hanging in too so we treat that and she’s off to sleep. I take care of laundry with their lovely washing machines. We haven’t had much chance to wash clothes lately and yesterday we each had to rinse a pair of undies in the sink at our hotel and hang them out on our terrace to dry so we would have something clean today and our shirts are definitely none too fresh after a second day of sweating in them. Hey we are definitely roughing it. With that done and a nice shower we have probably one of our best Pilgrims dinners. Jackie gets egg rolls of all things for the first course which are really great. They are home made and lightly fried and covered in a delicious duck sauce. Yummm a flavor we haven’t had in a very long time. Desert is chocolate crepes and espresso. Yummm again, we eat well tonight. Little things like this can make you feel so good. Then it’s off to the circus which is right next door to our Albergue . This is a small town of about 7000 so it’s a pretty small circus. One ring and a total of about 13 to 14 people doing the whole show. As the locals come down to the little big top the young kids are just besides themselves with excitement. This is a big deal for them. One other pilgrim joins us but she leaves at intermission so Jackie and I basically represent the Camino crowd once again. This is pretty small time stuff maybe 60 or 70 people are there and the place is about 35% full. But the show is great, a tiger tamer (turns out we sat next to him at dinner) several pretty good arial acts, some dancing ponies, jugglers, and a great clown show at the end. Everybody who performed also worked as stage hands, sold tickets or manned the concession booth. We bought front row seats, the only people who did besides a mom and her boy and all the others were behind us up in the bleachers. But slowly during the show the kids snuck down to join us and before the end our seating area was full of youngsters whose faces were just light up with total joy looking like they were having the time of their lives. And so weren’t we!! I have to say that we got a total kick out of this, had an absolutely great time and it was worth every penny. We felt like we were in some small town middle America back in the thirties or even earlier. You really can’t go out and buy this kind of experience, you just have to just be in the right place at the right time and fall into it. We even chatted with the ringmaster/clown/juggler/popcorn seller after the show who spoke pretty good English. His dad was a performer for the Ringling Brothers back in the USA in the fifties; in the center ring back when they had 5 of them. He was pretty proud of that. It was Just a perfectly delightful time. Chalk up another Camino gift after an unexpectedly hard day.

Our young friends Matuche, Kelsey, Sarah and Susie

Our young friends Matuche, Kelsey, Sarah and Susie

We had to use up some of our magic points to pass

We had to use up some of our magic points to pass

Hey how about a ride up that thar hill Bessy?

Hey how about a ride up that thar hill Bessy?

Always one last rio and then up up into town

Always one last rio and then up up into town

Long way up

Long way up

Jackie catches a nap while I do laundry

Jackie catches a nap while I do laundry

Undies out to dry  yesterday

Undies out to dry yesterday

Tickets for the show

Tickets for the show

First popcorn I've had in 5 weeks is why I'm smiling!!

First popcorn I’ve had in 5 weeks is why I’m smiling!!

El Tigres.  This guy was also the funniest clown

El Tigres. This guy was also the funniest clown

image

Death defying

Death defying

Even more death defying

Even more death defying

Funny men

Funny men

The light in their faces and in their eyes was priceless

The light in their faces and in their eyes was priceless

Saturday. Jackie is feeling much better, good thing cause we have 22Km to cover today. We get out a bit early in the dark after only eating some yogurt we bought the night before. It’s warmer so no fleeces today. The Way is all of a sudden very crowded today. Where have all these people been? Wherever in the woodwork they’ve been hiding they are now out out in droves passing us left and right, it’s like old times. As we are heading up a mild hill we hear a familiar voice and it’s a big guy named Mike from Oregon who we haven’t seen since before Leon. He walks at our slow pace and we chat away as loudly as those Spanish girls I complained about earlier, happy to have some company. We make good progress, Jackie is feeling fine and the blister seems finally conquered so we are in good form today. We stop for lunch at a kitschy cafe-bar were the ceiling is completely covered in tee shirts donated by pilgrims only over the last two years. We sit outside listening to the great guitar sound of Dire Straits; they play a whole album. It’s weirdly both incongruous and comforting hearing this classic sound out here on a trail in the middle of nowhere in Spain. The proprietress enjoys that we enjoy her place so much and throws in a round of that Grappa like drink that I described in an earlier post served ice cold (like Black Haus). It’s not as strong as grappa and goes down real good. We see a lot of eucalyptus forest today and lots of chestnuts cover the ground. Many flowers are still in bloom even so late in the year so It’s a very pretty walk. Enjoying Mike’s company the time and distance goes by so quickly we almost pass our destination. How is 20 Km so easy today compared to yesterday’s 12? It rains lightly the last 45 mins of the walk but it’s not an issue; we are old hands at this. One time I tried to explain something obvious to Jackie and she quipped “hey, do you think I just started walking the Camino yesterday?” We choose an Albergue that looks decent with some lower bunks left unoccupied, get our showers in, and find an early dinner in a small local cafe. We have gin and tonics along with some pizza and celebrate our last night ever to be spent in an Albergue. We have two nights booked in a nice hotel in Santiago, we are ready for some luxury!! Tomorrow we finish our walk. I’m curious about how we will feel as we enter Santiago at last.

We meet up with Mike on a deep path

We meet up with Mike on a deep path

Another fine fellowship

Another fine fellowship

The elusive 99 bottles of beer on the wall are finally located

The elusive 99 bottles of beer on the wall are finally located

Tee shirt bedecked ceiling of a great bar.

Tee shirt bedecked ceiling of a great bar.

Almost there

Almost there

My next sports car

My next sports car

Entering the eucalyptus forest.

Entering the eucalyptus forest.

One road to rule them all,  one road to bind them. One road to bring them all and in foot pain bind them.

One road to rule them all, one road to bind them. One road to bring them all and in foot pain bind them.

The inquisition gets Mike

The inquisition gets Mike

Toasting our last Albergue night with gin and tonic

Toasting our last Albergue night with gin and tonic

Days 27 – 28 Sarria – Portomarin – Legonde

So the nature of our walk has changed yet again. As I stated Previously Sarria is the traditional starting point for people doing the minimum route to get their Compostela in Santiago. So we have picked up a new kind of crowd to walk amongst. There are people doing it the traditional way, like us, hauling their pack and staying in Albergues maybe with the occasional hotel, but doing a shorter route. They are just “green”. And then there are the “day trippers” who get dropped off by a bus at some trail head where they walk with a light day pack while their luggage is trucked to the next hotel and they are then picked up by the bus outside of town to meet up with their luggage. While we tolerate and actually enjoy meeting some of the “newbies” we can’t help but feel a smug contempt for the day trippers no matter how charitable we try to be. The day trippers are obvious, travel in large packs, and are usually very loud while the newbies can be spotted by their pristine gear, many with coordinated outfits and often overloaded with Camino trinkets and other nonessential gear hanging from their packs. In comparison we veterans are a scruffy lot, our cloths are stained and socks that didn’t dry last night are what are pinned to our packs which have been leaned out from any unnecessary weight many weeks of walking ago.

You can spot the vet by his socks

You can spot the vet by his socks

Actually I feel kind of like those grizzled WWII Vets who, having fought together across France, are now interacting with new replacements. They are a clean, with new gear and no useful experience and even more important there is no shared bond with these strangers who haven’t suffered the pain or experienced the joy with us. We don’t know them and they haven’t proved their mettle so it’s easy to discount them. While I was intellectually aware of this phenomenon during the war, I truly understand it now at a very fundamental level.

Monday. The cost of our hotel included the shipping of our packs, our mochilas, so we reserved beds at our planned Albergue in Portomarin and had them shipped ahead. It’s 22.5 Km with lots of hills so why not. I’m a little concerned we will be mistaken for dreaded day trippers, haha, but it’s so nice to have a day without that extra weight. The walk is very nice into similar woodlands through which we’ve already passed. The one MAJOR annoyance is a gaggle of about seven local Spanish female newbies who are making just an incredible racket as they loudly shout on amongst themselves. It’s made even worse by the fact that since we don’t understand a word it’s just this godawful noise. And they go on and on and on and on with no respite. Our Wa is being seriously disrupted. We stop so they will pass us by. Minutes later as we come up they are stopped themselves shooting pictures, sending them on their phones and then apparently calling their friends to have them look at the pictures. Ok let’s get ahead of them. We walk as fast as we can, practically running for us, and get a little out of ear shot. But they slowly catch up, so we hurry again but we just can’t shake them. No matter how far ahead we get they slowly catch up. A couple of kilometers of this and I feel like Butch Cassidy and Sundance trying to shake those damn Pinkertons who are relentlessly trailing them. “Who are those guys?” they ask. Unfortunately we find no river to jump into to escape. We finally pass a cafe where they stop for a smoke and we finally make our getaway from their incessant racket. The rest of the walk is very nice meeting old friends and making new ones. About what feels like lunchtime we hear music coming from an enclosed courtyard and peak in. We see a familiar group of young girls and guys we haven’t encountered in quite a while. We yell a big hello and ask where in the hell are we. They cheer to see us and yell in unison “You’re in heaven, the soup is fabulous and it comes with free beer”. Sounds like heaven to us so we get some some great lentil and vegetable soup with hardy bread and free beer and join the party. It’s a most pleasant little reacquaintance. Whew think theses kids are so cute. They started as individuals from many countries and have formed a close nit pack along the Way. Fortified with food and renewed friendship we set back out and shortly along the path we pass the 100 Km to Santiago marker; a major milestone so we queue up for pictures. Finally we make the steep steep decent into Portomarin. We are passed by a little old French Canadian guy (Jackie says she’s reminded of my dad) who we have seen many times along the way. Weirdly it’s almost always when he passes us about 2Km outside of a destination town. As we are heading steeply down the asphalt surface he yells out goodby and starts a slalom type run down the slope weaving back and forth across the road like a skier and is out of sight in seconds. It’s vey effective and Jackie gives it a try and it weirdly helps take the weight off her recurring blistered feet. I try it and my knees immediately say NON NON NON so I walk. We roll into town across a vey high bridge and you can clearly see what turns out to be Roman ruins of an old bridge and what looks like sea walls. Apparently long ago the area was flooded by a damn and the town was moved up onto a hill top stone by stone to where it is now. So after crossing the bridge it’s up up up again to our Albergue where we find our packs waiting for us. I always worry about them actually making it to where we end up. Sadly we lose Jackie’s trusty fly swatter in the process and we miss it it badly as we sit here tonight writing the blog. It’s a pretty cute town and we meet an interesting youngish Irish couple, newbies Ivan and Liz, and have a great conversation about Irish history. We spend some time treating Jackie’s blisters and this time we try the Camino trick of piercing them with thread, two stiches in an X right through the blister, to keep it draining. It worked for me early on in our trek after screwing with one for three days.

Early morning bridge

Early morning bridge

Foggy walkway

Foggy walkway

We find the fairies

We find the fairies

We meet an Ent.

We meet an Ent.

An army of Ents emerges from the gloom

An army of Ents emerges from the gloom

Just another beautiful path.

Just another beautiful path.

The kids Susie, Kelsie, Sarah, Peter and Matuche.  A great bunch invite us for soup.

The kids Susie, Kelsie, Sarah, Peter and Matuche.
A great bunch invite us for soup.

Heavenly soup and beer

Heavenly soup and beer

62.1 miles to Santiago. A major milestone in Kilometers.

62.1 miles to Santiago. A major milestone in Kilometers.

Bridge into Portomarin

Bridge into Portomarin

Roman ruins of an ancient waterline

Roman ruins of an ancient waterline

The Church in Portomarin

The Church in Portomarin

Tuesday. It’s straight up hill out of town with about 400 meters of elevation gain and we have our packs back on so we plan a short 16 Km day to a small village called Ligonde. It’s too far to the next real town at 25 Km so our planned stop is in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We do the hills pretty well actually, we’re in pretty good shape by now. The walk is less pretty than it has been and often along the roadway. We take a breather at the top of one hill and who comes screaming over the top but that damn group of Spanish women still going at it at the top of their lungs. We actually hear them before we see them. We go slow and they stop to screw with their packs, we speed up and they grow wings. Aghhhhhhh!!! It’s not just us, but everyone is trying to escape them in their oblivious bubble of noise. We actually walk back down the trail to get some separation and that works as they and their cacophony finally drift ahead of us. We stop for lunch and meet our new Irish friends again and have a long fun conversation. They are heading all the way to the next big town so we are unlikely to catch up again and will miss them. As we complete our walk we find our Albergue, a small building just short of a place almost too small to even call a village. It’s already mid afternoon even though we only walked 16 Km. As we come out after our shower to find a place for dinner in the lonely group of buildings trying to look like a village a herd of cows come past our porch heading home for the night. We are truly out in the middle of nowhere. But it’s clean, we get some eats and call it an early night. Jackie’s blisters have not recurred today; leaving thread in the blisters to keep them drained appears to have worked once again so she declares victory with fingers crossed for tomorrow where we have a long walk planned. We start to see the end to our journey as Santiago is only about 73 Kms away. Many of the newbies we strike up conversations with are amazed to hear we are now starting our fifth week while they are bragging that it’s been two whole days and so far no blisters. We enjoy the look of respect in their eyes and our resulting sense of accomplishment.

Starting out in early morning gloom

Starting out in early morning gloom

A ancient Celtic swirl symbol cast in stones

A ancient Celtic swirl symbol cast in stones

Liz and Ivan a mad and a crazy Irish person. You choose.

Liz and Ivan a mad and a crazy Irish person. You choose which is which.

Our little Albergue in nowhereville

Our little Albergue in nowhereville

Bovine traffic jam in front of our albergue

Bovine traffic jam in front of our albergue

Biggest sight in Legronde. But like George Washington, Charlemagne is reputed to have slept here.

Biggest sight in Legronde. But like George Washington, Charlemagne is reputed to have slept here.

Been thinking of my brother-in-law Henry a lot these last few days. The realization has hit that until we had walked this path ourselves we could not truly understand and share with him the experience that he had. Now we have been there and we’ve seen the elephant as that old phrase goes, but sadly he is no longer here to know that we now know what he knew we would find out…..and it hurts.

Days 25, 26 O’Cebreiro – Triacastle -Sarria

I hate to say it gets better cause I’m afraid that it just sounds like I’m piling it on…..but it does!! The last two days we’ve hiked through the hills of Galicia and the countryside is absolutely beautiful. It reminds me strongly of the Berkshires back home and as we hike through the woodlands we see wondrous vistas or we are deep in a path surrounded by ancient trees stepping on acorns and chestnuts. We also wander through many small villages and working farms. I feel so at home here; at any moment I expect to come out of the state forest and see my Dad’s old house in Hawley MA or come down a hill and drop into Ashfield for lunch with my sister and her family and friends at the Lake House. This place pulls at strings in my heart that I didn’t know I had. Gene Blank if you’re following you would feel so at home here you’d want your air fair back cause it wouldn’t feel like you’d left. This area is a hikers paradise.

Sunday. We allow a little extra time in the morning so we have some daylight when we leave. We want to see the path which may be challenging to negotiate up on our O’Cebreiro mountaintop. Our little stone and thatch village is shrouded in a diffuse early morning mist giving it an even more ethereal feel. I truly expect to see fairies peaking out at any moment. We head out across the mountain climbing up small peaks and down into dark vales going up and down through lush green woodlands thickly adorned with ferns. It’s dripping wet with mist but the ground is firm. This rich green land reminds us strongly of Ireland and we can sense its Celtic nature. These mountains are the first thing the winds encounter after their long trip across the Atlantic and the rainfall is plentiful so the resemblance is no surprise. I wonder what it is about the Celts that attracted them to these lush but harsh environments. It’s a tough living up here. Our height gives us amazing views across wide valleys filled with fat wet clouds and then up other peaks blue in the distance. The pictures can’t possibly do it justice. We try to fix it in our minds.

Misty morning looking for fairies.

Misty morning looking for fairies.

Looking out from our mountain top

Looking out from our mountain top

What a view

What a view

Heading out

Heading out

It’s a challenging day even though we start out high there is still lots of up to the hike and I feel that even though we skipped yesterday’s climb we have in part earned our way up here. One stretch pushes me hard and at the top we find a cafe and gorge on jamon and queso omelets. Then it’s down, down, down over 600 meters in a couple of kilometers as we come off the mountain and hit the real working farms. For the longest time we see much evidence of livestock spread across our path but we don’t see a single cow. We manage to avoid the larger pies but the road is covered in a muddy layer of dung that we just get used to walking in. I’m starting to wonder if the last batch of pilgrims had a bad meal. But by late afternoon the farmers bring their cattle out onto the paths for their afternoon stroll and we actually walk amongst them. Jackie also has plenty of encounters with dogs and chickens and those of you who know Jackie well can imagine how thrilled she is with this, but she handles it like a trooper. I’m thinking there’s some kind of Karma thing going on here. It’s not a long walk only about 20 Kms, But it takes us over 6.5 hours. Jackie has thrown her first blisters one on the heal of each foot so we are even slower than usual as she carefully works her way down the steep rocky paths. With me going slow up and her going slow down our velocity hardly merits the word. We also experience a decent bit of rain in the afternoon, but it’s just part of the experience and we roll with it. We pull into Triacastela in the late mid afternoon passed by just about every other pilgrim on the road and take the first Albergue that has room for us. We get the last two beds open, top bunks across the room from each other. With our run of coincidences I find myself above the one friendly face, a woman named Michelle, that we know in this town. Since jumping ahead we are outside our normal crowd and feel a bit amongst strangers the last two days. However you can’t stay strangers long out here as we strike up new acquaintanceships with our fellow travelers on this leg. On the way back from dinner we hear some music and jump into a small cafe where a guy is wailing along on a bagpipe accompanied by both base and snare drummers and a tambourine. Betty St. J you would have just loved it. This puts a topper on a wonderful day.

Lovely path

Lovely path

Coming up

Coming up

Don't fall off the edge

Don’t fall off the edge

Jackie Staring down a chicken

Jackie Staring down a chicken

None of that is mud. Yuch!!

None of that is mud. Yuch!!

Looking back

Looking back

Hey these things are descended from T-Rex ya know

Hey these things are descended from T-Rex ya know

Looks like New England

Looks like New England

Bringing out the cows.

Bringing out the cows.

Local Galician Band

Local Galician Band

Monday. We strike out early and almost take a wrong turn right out of town that would have put us on an alternate Camino route that is 6 Km longer than the 18.5 Km to today’s destination, Sarria. Jackie’s keen eye spots my mistake and saves us some distance we don’t need to cover. Our walk is basically a repeat of yesterday’s with a good size hill in the middle to challenge us. Up hills, down dales, right through working farms and by countless small villages all with what looks like the same exact church. They either had one builder out here or they all chipped in on the same set of plans. The path is covered in some areas with batches of acorns (let’s add some ball bearings to an already slick downhill surface) and other nuts, yet we don’t spot a single squirrel nor for that mater any deer. Wonder if they’ve been hunted out. Again the roads are covered in livestock muck; my pant bottoms and boots will never be the same. At one point the local farmer brings out this large herd of cows onto our narrow road right at us and we find ourselves pressed against a wall of briars as they pass five wide pushing up against us. We literally feel like we are on the streets of Pamplona in the midst of the bulls. I have to push them away to keep us from getting stepped on. What starts off as a funny photo op of Jackie and some cows actually gets a bit scary. I think the farmer is amused by the encounter of the city slicker pilgrims and his bovine friends.

Early morning pose

Early morning pose

Running the gauntlet of chickens and dogs. What a trooper

Running the gauntlet of chickens and dogs. What a trooper

More low clouds

More low clouds

The cookie cutter church

The cookie cutter church

Resting while  going up some more

Resting while going up some more

Still going up... Dammit.

Still going up… Dammit.

Coke is just everywhere out here. Amazing

Coke is just everywhere out here. Amazing

Going down together

Going down together

And down

And down

A lone pilgrim in the mist

A lone pilgrim in the mist

Jamon on the hoof.

Jamon on the hoof.

Photo op. Jackie and cows. Looks like fun

Photo op. Jackie and cows. Looks like fun

Yikes this ain't fun anymore

Yikes this ain’t fun anymore

Holy crap here they come. No where to go.

Holy crap here they come. No where to go.

Feel like we are in the running of the bulls.

Feel like we are in the running of the bulls.

Cow paparazzi  haha must be city boys

Cow paparazzi haha must be city boys

Again like yesterday we take it slow, Jackie’s blisters recur, but we have a reservation at a cheap pension in Sarria so we are in no hurry. Actually I can’t stop grinning I’m loving this so much. We run into a woman named Nancy who we met many towns ago. She’s writes in a genre called urban fantasy, I mentioned it in some post a ways back, and I’ve since bought and read her book. Zombies, werewolves, and shape shifters, not exactly my cup of tea, but it’s fun to have a chance to talk to her about it. She’s on a pretty fast track as she wants to be in Santiago in three days to our five so we fall behind at the next climb. We finally make our way into Sarria and find our lodgings. They aren’t great but it’s a private room. The observant reader will note that we are doing this more often now as the Albergue scene is getting old. Sarria is an important point on the modern Camino. To get your Copostella, the official document award for completing the Camino, you must have continuously walked the last 100 Km. Sarria is a largish town about 115 clicks away so it’s a natural starting point for people making the minimum trip. We expected it to be much busier than it is but it’s fairly empty and we would have had our choice of places to stay. We have dinner at an interesting restaurant, another good pizza, and accompanied by great music; lots of modern jazz mixed in with Motown and various pop. So cool hearing Richie Havens and classics like the temptations doing “My Girl” out here in the middle of nowhereville Spain. We strike up a conversation with a couple from Chicago who are just starting out. They are meeting their daughter for dinner who has been making this whole trip. We share our experiences and tell them what a great time we are having and what fun we’ve had meeting all these interesting young people doing the walk. When in walks their daughter and it’s Rachel the young girl who was giving those yoga lessons I showed many posts ago and the one who almost took off with my boots by mistake. To her parents’ amazement we leap up and hug their daughter, exchanging reminisces of our previous shared experiences and laughing at another classic Camino chance encounter. They crack up to find out that they’ve been chatting with the guy in the boot mixup story Rachel just told them about the previous night. We tell them to get used to these kinds of happening as that’s life on the Camino. It makes our night! We finish the evening watching an old Charlton Heston western movie in Spanish on the TV in our room. There is a Paramount channel on the cable out here and we’ve watched a handful of old classic films in dubbed Spanish and weirdly you can actually get into it and follow the story even though you don’t understand a word. We even watched “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” once. Liz Taylor in a spitfire Spanish voice is even hotter, haha.

Untended old castle tower

Untended old castle tower

View from our room.  We came from way back in those hills today. Whew!

View from our room.
We came from way back in those hills today. Whew!

Days 22-23-24 Villares – Astorga -Ponferrada-Villafranca/O’Cebreiro

The last 3 days continue to be gorgeous both in weather and in scenery. We are getting pretty used to the walking now and we don’t go to bed thinking “oh crap I’ve got to get up tomorrow, put those damn boots on and start marching.” Kinda like thinking you have to get up and face another day of work. Instead we just take it in stride anticipating the next adventure ahead. I have to say that there are times out here that we feel we just need to pinch ourselves. Are we really doing this? The realization keeps hitting that here we are walking across god knows where, just following the yellow arrows to wherever they lead us, through cities, villages, and wild countryside, buried in the local culture while surrounded by a community of friends from all over the world who are bonded by this shared experience. Holy crap what fun!!

BTW thanks for all your comments and feedback. I really enjoy hearing from you all a lot and it’s nice to know people are following.

Thursday. This is our second short day of about 16 Km. We have an easy stroll filled with beautiful views, it’s still fairly flat most of the way but the scenery continues to improve. It’s only about 3C when we set out That’s about 37.5F. Cold on any scale, but it warms up reasonably as the day goes on. Even though we leave a bit late we roll into our destination, Astorga, around 12:30 and check into a nice Albergue that is run by very friendly volunteers located right on the entry into town and we set out to see the area and have some lunch. Astorga historically sits astride several important trade routes and as a result grew quite prosperous and important in it’s day. In the main plaza, usually referred to as Plaza Mayor, we run into Alfonso and Sandra who we’ve bumped into on several occasions now. They are in their 70’s and on their 6th Camino (they do other vacations as well so it’s not all Camino, but still 6?). They escaped from Cuba back in the 60’s and now live in Atlanta. Very interesting people as you would imagine. We share a nice lunch and then they move on since they are staying in the next town down the road. We cruise the old town area that sits up on a hilltop as is most often the case. We tour the local Cathedral and a Palace designed by Gaudi which is quite amazing both in its architecture and its contents. We end up in a beautiful park high up on the town walls overlooking the valley and take an afternoon nap snuggled up on a park bench basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Later we find a Pilgrim gear shop and Jackie buys some gloves to help fight off the morning cold.

Another oasis at the top of a hill out in nowhere

Another oasis at the top of a hill out in nowhere

Still following the arrows

Still following the arrows

Jackie dancing into town

Jackie dancing into town

Coming into Astorga

Coming into Astorga

The palace by Gaudi

The palace by Gaudi

Inside the palace

Inside the palace

Astorga cathedral

Astorga cathedral

Our plan is to bus to Ponfarrada tomorrow, a little more than two stages forward, both to catch up a bit since we’ve done more shorter days than our schedule will support and to skip over some tough climbs (lazy me). We are moving into the hills now, hence the improved views. We locate the bus station and I manage to broker an exchange in stilted semi hemi demi Spanish with a non English speaker that yes indeed tomorrow there is a bus at 8:50 for Ponfarrada, this is indeed where we catch it and we can wait until mananna to buy the tickets. Inordinently proud of the minor accomplishment we look for dinner and find an Italian place where we get some good lasagne and pizza. A few other pilgrims show up also looking for “not” the pilgrim’s dinner and we share the joke. Then bed.

Friday. We sleep in a bit and after our Caffeine and Carbs we head to the bus station, buy our tickets and hop on the bus when it arrives on schedule. A mere 70 mins later we are more than a two day march down the road in a beautiful town called Ponferrada where a fabulous real castle overlooks the oldtown. It originated in the late 11th century as a Knights Templar fortress, but they were forced out by the Church (who feared their power and esoteric practices)in the early 13th century and the castle continued to evolve into a Classic medieval style fortress that any Disney princess would be proud to call home. This weekend Ponferrada is hosting an international cycle race and the place is all abuzz and arrayed with all kinds of barriers to control the crowd and define the course of the bike’s route. Think Tour de France style racing here. There’s quite a crowd and it’s a real festive atmosphere. We dump our bags at the Albergue that is not formally open yet. Lucky that we are pilgrims because the Albergue is the only place in town where you could get a bed without having made a reservation months ago for over 60 Kms around. Some teams are bussing in support staff all the way back from Leon. The parking area in front of our Albergue is filled with RVs for the race and we look them over enviously. We tour the castle and the town and watch some cycles periodically come by to the roar of the crowd. What gives you a real sense of their speed is not the cycles whizzing by themselves but the following support cars, topped with spare bikes, and motor cycles both police escorts and those equipped with TV cameras to catch the action. They go roaring by on the narrow street at what seems 35 or 40 MPH. Amazing. This goes on all morning and afternoon, we have no real idea what is going on, but we cheer with the crowd as the cyclists furiously peddle by. Later waiting to formally check into the Albergue once it opens we sit under a resplendent grape arbor ripe with fruit. A guy comes out with a ladder as we begin to queue up and he picks a huge bucketful of rich green grapes and places them out for our pleasure. They are cool, sweat, juicy and a real treat. Bed assignments, then shower, clothes washing and back into town for a bit more fun. While wondering the streets we run into a guy with a Richmond VA insignia on his shirt and we find out from him that Richmond will host this race next year and he is here coordinating the 2015 campaign; so cool and what a nice job. I’d consider going back to work for this gig. We then run into a gaggle of wild and drunk Norwegians fully decked out in their country colors celebrating that their team took first, third and fifth in today’s race. Look out USA these crazy guys are coming to Richmond next year. Jackie checks on line with Trip Advisor for a good place to eat and the recommended number one restaurant while real close to the Albergue looks like a little hole in the wall. To our surprise we have the best meal of the trip. We let the waitress choose our food and three wonderful courses later accompanied by a decanter of wine followed by ice cream filled crepes we are quite satisfied. Price is 37 Euros; what a country! Then Albergue and bed.

Ponferrada castle

Ponferrada castle

On the castle walls

On the castle walls

Cycles rolling by

Cycles rolling by

Ready for more cycles to come by

Ready for more cycles to come by

More bikes

More bikes

Camino philosophy

Camino philosophy

Our favorite hippy style cafe

Our favorite hippy style cafe

So guess which team  finished 1, 3 and 5.

So guess which team finished 1, 3 and 5.

Saturday. We head for Villafranca 25 Kms away. We spend much of it walking right through one vineyard after another while they are busy harvesting the grapes. We are in a new wine producing area that I’ve never heard of called the Bierzo region. Jackie is in heaven. We even stop for a pee break in what turns out to be a wine tasting room and the toilets are back where the vats of grapes are being fermented. Jackie looks like a fox loose in a chicken coop as we wonder alone through the room. We have an early lunch in a beautiful wine tasting restaurant where Jackie has an empanada that is like a meat pie that is fabulous along with a great local white wine. We cruise into Villafranca about 2:00 pm hardly out of breath and our plan is to grab the 4:05 ALSA bus up 1200 meters accrued ascent and 30 Km away to O’Cebreiro. Sorry I’m not climbing no 1200 meters. Looking for the bus stop we enter a nearby random hotel to ask the way and run into another couple we always keep bumping into, Hans and Sebina, a German couple who now live in Phoenix. They accuse us of stalking them as what are the odds and invite us to join them for coffee while we kill some time for the bus. Our master plan goes astray as it turns out there is no bus today for O’Cebreiro so plan B is a cab which costs almost as much as that reasonable meal that we had last night. The Camino both givith and takith away haha.

Some frost on the pumpkin

Some frost on the pumpkin

Still heading west

Still heading west

Jackie loose in the wine making room

Jackie loose in the wine making room

Harvested grapes

Harvested grapes

Loading the trucks

Loading the trucks

A river runs through it

A river runs through it

Shadows waving back

Shadows waving back

It’s a beautiful ride through mountains and valleys and I wish I had the stamina to walk it. I feel tired just being driven way up here. We end up in a very tiny village on top of a mountain peak and it’s like something out of time; stone buildings with thatched roofs, just picture postcard amazing. And the view is stupendous. We have a nice little room that we booked yesterday thanks to my amazing Mastery of Spanglish and after a great meal of Galician style food we snuggle into bed. BTW the people in Galacia are of Celtic origin and we listen to music that is very similar to Irish folk mixed with some Scottish bagpipe sounds. We just love it. No more fixed plans for buses (or cabs) from here on. Unless something changes it’s feet all the way to Santiago, now only seven days away if we can stay on schedule.

The village on top of the mountain in O'Cebreiro

The village on top of the mountain in O’Cebreiro

Shopping area

Shopping area

Looks like another world

Looks like another world

Pano

Pano

Just unreal looking.  Where is Frodo

Just unreal looking. Where is Frodo

I'm feeling pretty tall here

I’m feeling pretty tall here

Days 21, 22. Leon – Villadangos- Villares de Órbigo

Well two days couldn’t be more different than these last two have been. The first was dull, grey, boring, tedious and ultimately very unsatisfying. The second was glorious and left us feeling alive and pleased that we are still on this journey. Amazing what a little sunshine, nice scenery and a pleasant place to stay can do for ones outlook. Seems we shouldn’t let external forces affect our demeanor so much, but I haven’t yet mastered that skill.

Tuesday. We leave Leon, our little two day haven, and resume our hike. We pass the now unlighted Cathedral just as dawn brings weak light and we say goodbye. After clearing the city proper we walk through dreary industrial suburbs alongside busy local roads and highways. It’s not pretty! Our guidebook suggested a bus to the first small town about 8 Kms out but we don’t see one leaving until noon so we walk. Once we hit the country it doesn’t get any prettier. We walk the whole way alongside a two lane blacktop with cars whizzing by; it’s noisy and ugly, with cold grey skies dropping occasional rain. Glad we have our warmer tops. It’s not worth much more in the way of commentary so I’ll spare you any more. We get to our Albergue in Villadangos, a dreary little town, after about a 23 Km walk. It sucks! Worst place yet. And that’s before we find out there’s no hot water so no shower or washing clothes. We do continue to meet nice folks all during the day and in our crapburge, so the Camino does provide that. The one highlight is when a guy walks in with a plastic stool tied to his backpack. I’m all WTF is that about when it turns out to be our cinematographer friend Rodrigo. I laugh and tease him about it. He bought it so he could stand up high and see through his viewfinder when he extends his tripod to max height. He also demonstrated that it made a good backpack stand as he stood there in an industrial grade luminous neon yellow jacket that he had also acquired along with a pair of welder’s grade sunglasses. This guy’s personality and demeanor is a dead ringer for an old dear departed friend of mine (Think Peter Hennessy for those of you who know who I’m talking about) and I feel a real affection for him. He’s accompanied by his sister who is also lots of fun so our evening at least is saved. He decides that because today’s walk is just so uninspiring he will take a bus tomorrow to a town further down the road. That may have been a mistake as tomorrow turns out glorious.

One more Church

One more
Church

Still another church

Still another church


As we came across this I flashed to my old MCI DAYS when I worked on microwave towers like this.

As we came across this I flashed to my old MCI DAYS when I worked on microwave towers like this.

Rodrigo demonstrating his backpack stool

Rodrigo demonstrating his backpack stool

The night's lite fare  dinner.  We had a big lunch.

The night’s lite fare dinner.
We had a big lunch.

Wednesday. It’s cold; 9C. That’s about 48F. We’re very glad we have some warmer duds and we add all our layers. We have our normal Spanish breakfast of caffine and carbs. I’d about kill for some scrambled eggs with strawberries on the side by now. Dawn brings a clear sky and glorious sunshine. The path veers away from the road just far enough to feel like we are in the woods and ahhhhh it just feels soooo good to be alive today. We stroll along real working farms and who thought cow dung could smell so much better than car exhaust. We have planned two short 15 Km hikes to break up a 30 K run that we don’t want to walk all in one go so we have a short easy day today. We have made a reservation at an Albergue recommended via email by our two Gill’s who are a couple of days ahead of us so we just stroll along in a lazy fashion without a care in the world and just enjoy our walk and the casual conversations and pretty views along the way. This area has lots of irrigation canals bringing water down from the looming mountains and we hear it pleasantly gurgling wherever we go. Just a few clicks short of our planed stop in Villares de Órbigo we come to the lovely town of Hospital de Órbigo. Here there is a fabulous multi arched bridge built in the 13th century and it’s required only minor refurbishment ever since. It’s famous for a story in the mid 1400’s when some renowned knight, his romantic advances having been spurned, decides to take over the bridge and throw down the gauntlet to all comers to joust him for command of the bridge. He goes undefeated against the cream of European knighthood for over a month and breaks over 300 of their lances. Wherein he retires to Santiago to offer thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love and his restored honor. Quite a story and the bridge looks like you really could have jousted on it. Alongside the bridge is a field all set up for a jousting tournament and I’m sure they must hold re-enactments here. That would surely be something to see. I can imagine the sound of the trumpets and the cheering of the crowd.

Lovely canals on the side of the road

Lovely canals on the side of the road

Beautiful 13th century bridge with 21 arches. Amazing and almost in original condition.

Beautiful 13th century bridge with 21 arches. Amazing and almost in original condition.

Local jousting field along side the bridge. .... Really!

Local jousting field along side the bridge. …. Really!

Made it across

Made it across

Inside a lovely Albergue we pass along the way

Inside a lovely Albergue we pass along the way

The locals walk this road too to get between towns.

The locals walk this road too to get between towns.

Artsy cart.

Artsy cart.

Small town statue

Small town statue

Old time laundromat. Back in the day the town woman did the washing here.

Old time laundromat. Back in the day the town woman did the washing here.

Another church she can't get into. Lots of them are closed

Another church she can’t get into. Lots of them are closed

Peekaboo pilgrim

Peekaboo pilgrim

We carry on through town to our own little village and find that the Albergue is every bit as delightful as reported by our two Gill’s. (If you’re reading this ladies Muchas Gracias for the tip and Christine says hello.) we have a wonderful hot shower, get our clothes washed in a machine and out on the line to dry in the waning afternoon sun. It’s warmed up quite a bit by the way and all our extra layers have come off. We laze around in a beautiful courtyard soaking up the last of the day’s heat. The night is topped off with a communal dinner prepared for us by our host. She has just taken over ownership of this Albergue ten days ago, being a fellow pilgrim from Belgium, and she’s doing a wonderful job. We love it here.

Ahh this is home for the night. Looks inviting.

Ahh this is home for the night. Looks inviting.

Our Albergue courtyard from the second story balcony.

Our Albergue courtyard from the second story balcony.

Our Albergue courtyard.

Our Albergue courtyard.

A private room but shared bath. Still it's a luxury.

A private room but shared bath. Still it’s a luxury.

Camino worn feet.  Thank goodness these are not ours

Camino worn feet. Thank goodness these are not ours

A tender scene. One pilgrim ministering to another.  Those are her feet in the other picture

A tender scene. One pilgrim ministering to another. Those are her feet in the other picture

Days 18, 19, 20 El Burgos Ranero – Mansilla -Leon

We had decided that after we reached Mansilla we would take a bus into Leon the next day. Our guide book recommended this approach because the entry into Leon was through a fairly industrial area and along fairly well traveled roads. We would then hold up for a couple of days rest and do some sight seeing. All worked out ok but we made did make a couple of tactical mistakes.

Saturday. We get a somewhat later start than usual and head out on a fairly flat path. Our walk is not too long just 18 Kms and we keep a fairly steady pace. There’s not much of interest to see and we just march on with the intent of getting to the end. We walk through what should have been a good place to stop for a light snack and get some rest intent on just finishing since there’s only 6 Km to go. About 1 Km later we realize that was a bad idea as we both just kind of run out of gas. So we stop by a small park and eat what little provisions we have, a small pack of peanuts and a not too fresh apple. We must remember to give ourselves a break in the future. We resume somewhat refreshed and make it to our destination Mansilla by noon. There was no need to have rushed…. Lesson learned. We check into a private Albergue that looks pretty nice, it’s right above a pretty good restaurant, shower and get our wash in a machine for an exorbitant 9 euro. But we didn’t wash yesterday and it’s pretty cloudy today so we pay the price. As we begin to wander the town we run into Our friend Felicity who has arrived early herself and is waiting for the bus to Leon which doesn’t leave until 4. Our guide book said buses every half hour, but that was only during the week. Even worse news for us was that the bus tomorrow which we were planning to take in the morning only runs at 5:50 PM because it’s Sunday. Given we got in so early today we should have just bussed in tonight. Looks like a cab in our future tomorrow AM. We wander the town a bit but it’s pretty dull so it feels a bit like a wasted day.

Should have rested here.  Heard that the Elvis bar was quite the crazy place

Should have rested here. Heard that the Elvis bar was quite the crazy place

Quiet way

Quiet way

Dull Mansilla

Dull Mansilla

Sunday. We arrange for a cab to pick us up at 8:30. Alex, a big strapping German lad, as one of the girls we travelled with described him, has asked to share the ride so we save a few Euros. Alex is a bit of a character and seems to have a girlfriend in every town. He slept in the bunk above me last night and rolled in about half an hour after lights out somewhat drunk along with a couple girls to much attendant giggling. While annoying it was also amusing. You kind of have to know Alex. We arrive in Leon in about 20 mins, probably a 4.5 hour walk otherwise. We pull up in front of the magnificent cathedral and as we get out of the cab some girl comes walking up yelling hey Alex!!!! We just crack up. Leon appears to be a wonderful town. It’s of Roman origin and the vaunted VIII Legion was stationed here. Apparently the name Leon is derived from Legion. We have booked a hotel, the Q H, which turns out to be right behind the Cathedral and we have a view of it through both windows in our room. It’s a very nice setup and we are happy. So we wonder the old town area surrounding the Cathedral, lots of shops, restaurants and tapas bars. It’s quite vibrant and we enjoy being tourists. It turns out that everywhere we go we run into people we know. Here we are in Leon Spain and we may as well be wondering the streets of Herndon. Actually I don’t think we would meet this many familiar people even there. It’s absolutely bizarre, as we feel we are in some small town surrounded by friends and acquaintances. You can’t get this experience taking a bus tour.

Jackie has a quest, in Leon, to see the Holy grail. A museum at the St Isidoro church has a chalice dated from the first century encrusted with gold and jewels added in the 11th century. Recent scholars have been making some claims, based on what I do not know, that this could be the chalice used by Jesus at the last super. We take the tour, and while the Chalice is an interesting thing to see and have a bit of a chuckle about, it’s a fabulous little museum and something I would not want to have missed. We see lots of treasures and a library that holds over 2000 books dating from the 10th century on with a bible written in 960. An amazing room to be in. We finish in a multi vaulted space with 11 century frescos of the birth of Christ, the last supper, and the crucifixion amongst many other depictions. A truly fantastic space. I sneak a photo of this room since no cameras were allowed. Wish I could have gotten a shot of the library. This tour alone was worth the trip into Leon. The other highlight of the day is a tour of the Cathedral. While not as extensive with all the fancy chapels as the one in Burgos, it has magnificent stained glass over quite an extensive area. You’re left wondering how this huge structure is held together with such open spaces in the walls. I’m always awestruck by the engineering of these structures as well as their beauty. We find an Italian restaurant and have a fabulous pizza for dinner. Oh and before that we hit this amazing chocolate shop for amazing hot chocolate Sundays. What a town.

Arriving at the Leon. Cathedral in the early AM

Arriving at the Leon. Cathedral in the early AM


Jackie and our strapping German friend Alex

Jackie and our strapping German friend Alex

Resting on old Roman Ruins

Resting on old Roman Ruins

Which way?

Which way?

Our hotel, the room is the corner by the clock

Our hotel, the room is the corner by the clock

Nice

Nice

Leon Cathedral midday.

Leon Cathedral midday.

Beautiful stained glass

Beautiful stained glass

Fabulous frescos in the pantheon

Fabulous frescos in the pantheon

The purported Holy Grail is under that gold!!!

The purported Holy Grail is under that gold!!!

Cathedral by night.

Cathedral by night.

View out our window

View out our window

Monday. We get out of bed at the most luxurious hour of 9:00 AM. Shopping today. We need at least one warmer layer, something with long sleeves. It’s cold today to make the point so we go wondering in search of a sporting goods store within walking distance. We find several and after going through the lot we end up back at the first to make our final choice. Always seems the way. While food is fairly cheep here clothing is expensive so we pay a premium over what we could have spent at home, but I’m convinced we will be glad to have it once we hit higher elevations. We get a mild days exercise walking about and reward ourselves with the best burger I’ve found in Spain so far. Both Jackie and I make a meal out of it and they also throw in some complementary tapas. We continue to run into many familiar folks and have small chats on the way. We return to our room stuffed and take a nice nap. We spend the early evening planning the next 10 days to be able to get to Santiago by Oct 5 a Sunday. They have a special mass for Pilgrims on Sunday and that’s our goal. We tour the tapas bars for dinner buying good wine and getting free sandwiches. Kind of like snacking your way through Costco on the free trial handouts.

Best burger in Spain so far

Best burger in Spain so far

You have to walk 20 Kms to eat one of these

You have to walk 20 Kms to eat one of these

Resting in the Paladour Hotel. Swanky!!!

Resting in the Parador Hotel. Swanky!!!

Cruising the tapas bars

Cruising the tapas bars

We have liked Leon a lot. It seems to be a great spot for pilgrims to take a break from the hard life on the trail. Regroup, repair and refresh before resuming the task of getting on to Santiago. Tomorrow we put our packs back on and start walking.

Days 16-17 Calzadilla – Sahagún – El Burgos Ranero

The temps continue to get cooler as we and the days march through September. We are having to keep our fleeces on longer during the day to stay warm. Over the last couple of days it continues to threaten rain and while it produces a little it’s not enough to be a problem. We continue to get stronger with our walking and can knock off > 20 Km without feeling too warn out at the end. Our feet, knees and hips which have been problematic at various times are holding up pretty well.

Hey you guys at EIT. I’ve had comments from John Hare and Sharon Atkison. If anyone else is following don’t be shy and let us know.

Thursday. We leave Calzadilla after a quick breakfast at the bar. One of the best Tortillas I’ve had so far. Most of the rest of the crew opts for the nice big breakfast buffet so they are tied up a bit and we decide to head out on our own expecting that they will catch up shortly. We run into one of the other ladies traveling in this group, Felicity, a bit later who had left out ahead of us. Seems she took a wrong turn and lost 20 mins getting things back on track. She usually walks faster than we do but hangs back to chat with us for the whole leg. We stop for a short snack early along the way and then set out at a pretty good clip that we hold all the way to our destination, Sahagún. It’s nice to have someone new to talk to, the time quickly glides by, and with hardly a rest stop or any lunch break we complete the 24 Km in a nice long stretch of steady walking. We are feeling pretty good. Sahagún is fairly large, pop > 170,000 and kind of warn, not really that inviting at all. We check into our Albergue which is an old church. Charlemagne spent some time here in what was surely it’s better days. As the rest of our friends roll in we have completed our housekeeping and are setting out for food. Tired of the standard pilgrims dinner I search for a hamburger but Jackie is ravenous and getting quite testy about it so we opt for some pizza when we come across that first. It’s pretty good actually and we spend some time with a guy named Craig, in easy conversation. We wonder the town but it’s mid afternoon and very quiet, it’s shopworn empty look giving it an almost creepy feel. There are some interesting old church ruins but we’re not that interested in sightseeing and we wander aimlessly by. We hook up with the rest of the group and find out that for various reasons we will be parting ways as most of them opt for the bus or train to Leon which is still several days walk away. We meet for a final dinner that night, trade stories for probably the last time, and swap e-mail addresses so we can keep in touch along the way. This has been a very pleasant group to walk with, we’ve made some nice friends. They are staying in a convent tonight and have an early 9:30 curfew and mustn’t test the nuns, so it’s hugs all around on the sidewalk outside the cafe and Jackie and I are again on our own as we head back to our old church to catch our own night’s rest.

I still love this shot

I still love this shot

Still lots of drying sunflowers

Still lots of drying sunflowers

Those caves out there are wine cellars

Those caves out there are wine cellars

Cellar locked or we'd have a B & E going on here.

Cellar locked or we’d have a B & E going on here.

Needs no explanation but WTF?

Needs no explanation but WTF?

Friday. We start out and find the way through town a bit complicated. We seem to be the only ones out in the dark, not another pilgrim in sight; unusual. The morning light is taking longer to arrive each day as we set out. We fear we have taken a wrong turn, but after some uncertain steps in what seems to be the right direction we finally come across the familiar markers that point our way to Santiago…. relief. We have a short stage today, it’s too far to go to the next major town, about 31 Km, in one go so we will split it up by taking an alternative route with a small town in the middle and have two 18 Km walks ahead of us. We see a few but not a lot of pilgrims as we go, some familiar faces and some new ones. Jackie and I walk alone and talk about the scenery that we pass. It’s raining very lightly on and off so we have our rain gear on and it’s also quite cool so we don’t overheat in it. I’m thinking that we may have to do some shopping in Leon for warmer tops once we get there as the weather is cooling rapidly. We tire a bit today, even though it’s a short leg and are pleased to see our destination, El Burgos Ranero, come slowly towards us. It’s a small village of 250 or so; definitely a one house town but we are glad to arrive. Our Albergue is an old converted house and we, as early arrivers, end up with our own private bedroom for the standard bed cost of 10 euro each. Shared bath of course but the unexpected privacy is nice. We have a very pleasant lunch, a few beers, two plates of gratis tapas and a couple of bags of chips, 6.70 euro total. A nice treat. The wifi is good at our cafe so we have some skype time with Jackie’s sister Dianna and we take the time to plan our arrival in the big city of Leon where we will spend two nights in a hotel and do some sightseeing. Jackie is determined to complete her quest to see the Holy Grail which has recently been purported to have been found to reside in this town. We’ll see… You know how these quests go. Better have the holy hand grenade ready in case the killer rabbit shows up :-). We return to our room, get behind our precious door, snuggle up to get warm and take a very pleasant nap. A delicious simple afternoon.

Sleeping in an old church

Sleeping in an old church

Out through the north gate in the dark

Out through the north gate in the dark

No idea why this thing is out here

No idea why this thing is out here

So I’m thinking it’s been a couple of hard days walking; where’s my Camino treat? Guess I can’t expect one all the time. As we are thinking of going out to dinner we hear some music coming from below, a ukulele. So we wonder down into the house’s kitchen where we find a French guy playing and singing American folk songs, pop and show tunes in great English with a wonderful French accent. He has an iPad showing him the music and lyrics. He does a great Louie Armstrong. So out of nowhere appears a hootenanny and we jump right in start singing and swaying along and spend a most pleasant interlude with a small group in the country kitchen. A woman we met in the grocery stores shares her 0.95 cent box of wine and by god it doesn’t even come close to sucking like it should. Thank you again Camino!!

Poster girl for .95 cent box wine.   "It doesn't suck!"

Poster girl for .95 cent box wine.
“It doesn’t suck!”

Our surprise sing along.

Our surprise sing along.

Days 14 – 15 Boadilla del Camino – Villalcazar de Sirga – Calzadilla dela Cueza

Whew a tough two days where we cover 21k and 23k. It’s very flat so I have no hills to complain about. But with the hills, as Jackie reminds me, come those beautiful views. We also wear our packs for these legs. Here it’s been a good bit monotonous. Long stretches of the same basic view and we plod… plod… plod… plod… plod… plod ………. on. We’ve been traveling with the same basic group for several days. I’m the only guy and all the woman can kick my ass making time on the trail. It’s humbling. But they are a great crew and we’ve had some fun conversations over the last several days and nights.

Artistic Albergue

Artistic Albergue

Flan for desert

Flan for desert

Coming or going

Coming or going

Tuesday. We start out in the dark as usual after a pretty decent breakfast at the albergue. We make our way out of the small town and end up walking along a canal. The area turns out to be mosquito infested and everyone is getting bit to hell. We have no choice but to continue on. Jackie ends up covered in big lumps but they don’t seem to itch so ok there. One of the other woman Jill, we have two Jill’s in the crew, reacts quite badly and even though she has something to put on it she just can’t stop scratching. It’s a bit maddening for her. But as we walk along the canal nature rewards us with a magnificent sunrise explosion of color that just stops us in our tracks.

Canal sunrise

Canal sunrise

Seems it’s always a trade off. So it’s camera out in one hand while the other futility tries to fend off the little blood suckers. We carry on and finally come to a small town where we can get a bite to eat and do mosquito bite maintenance. After that it’s pretty dull going for quite a while one foot next foot on and on …… We finally come into our destination tired but not wasted. The days stay cool so it’s more a trial of the spirit rather than the body. The Albergue is as unremarkable as the trail but there is a nice cafe where we spend some time drinking and snacking. The drink these last few days has been wine mixed with 7up and a slice of orange and ice. A poor man’s sangria which works surprisingly well. The town was a commandery of the knight’s templet back in the 12th century and for its size it sports a rather impressive small cathedral. Of course Jackie has to tour it and it turns out to be quite worth the walk over to it. Dinner is another pilgrims three course dinner which is getting rather monotonous… like the trail. We turn in early and sleep well.

The girls on the road.

The girls on the road.

We meet Rodrigo our cinematographer friend on the trail

We meet Rodrigo our cinematographer friend on the trail

Pilgrim statue

Pilgrim statue

Hanging with the pilgrim

Hanging with the pilgrim

Awesome view in templer's cathedral.

Awesome view in templer’s cathedral.

Baptism pool

Baptism pool

Looks like Templer HQ

Looks like Templer HQ

Wednesday. It rains during the night but is clear or seems so as we arise and gather our gear. No food at this inn but the next town, Carrion, is only 6k out so off we go. Not 5 mins out and it starts to rain so we stop in the dark to dig out our rain gear, which we rather dumbly didn’t arrange on top. Once we get it all on and work up a sweat, the rain stops. Wait awhile and take off the gear, rain starts. Put it back on and rain stops argggh!! Nature is having a laugh at our expense. So we plod along with gear on stewing in our own juices and the sun rises over the small ridge behind us and lights up a magnificent all the way rainbow. With the edges of a double shyly making an appearance. The rainbow ends right over the first town we are heading for showing us the way to breakfast. So we take the rain in stride, thankful for the attendant light show that makes our morning. This path keeps on giving in its own way, but it seems we must always earn our way. So we continue to learn to be receptive to the gifts we so unexpectedly find.

Rainbow all the wayyyyy

Rainbow all the wayyyyy

We reach Carrion and find the cafe that the rest of our group has already reached, we have a nice and quick breakfast and buy an extra sandwich to eat along the way. The next 18km has no towns to stop in. Nothing but empty road awaits. We also pick up some fruit and cheese and make sure we are topped up with water. We get out ahead of our group expecting to have them pass us by. We run into only one of them later and find out the others have decided to grab a cab and skip this boring leg as they have a few injuries to attend to. And boring it is. The road is straight as an arrow for what seems like forever. Plod plod plod plod…. And now we have a steady 20 knt wind right in our faces making it even harder. We run out of anything to say, or at lest Jackie claims that I do. We start to sing songs but quickly find out we seldom know more than 10 words of anything and then we have to start humming. After what seems like many days we find a place to have our lunch. There are people along the way that we’ve previously met and we chat a bit, but they move faster than our pace so we are mostly alone. Weeks go by, plod plod plod…. Wind still blows. I never check the time, I don’t want to estimate the distance and no landmark indicates any identifiable progress towards a destination some unknown number of Kms out there ahead of us. We even cheer a small hill as it’s the only change in perspective we’ve come across for hours. We see a small church in the distance but it’s all by itself and I squash any hope that this is the end since it is obviously just a single building. Looks like a lonely monastery with an old barn next to it. As we approach the road begins to slope downward and suddenly rooftops rise slowly above the very near horizon followed by the rest of the buildings and a small town grows out of the ground right before our eyes. Handle’s hallelujah chorus from the Messiah plays in my head and Jackie actually produces a little jig and waves back at the pilgrims behind us to let them know that salvation is near. It’s actually a weird feeling to have today’s end appear so abruptly. We are proud of the distance we’ve covered today. Our group had reserved some beds, but we expected that since they cabbed they have probably gone on to the next town 6k ahead since it’s much larger. But no they are here all rested and hanging out at the local cafe. We check into the Albergue and find that they have tagged two lower bunks with our names in reserve for we who have walked. They even left us some packets of foot cream and a fly swatter for Jackie. I’ve failed to mention that flys for the last few days have been miserable. The girls bought some fly swatters as a bit of a laugh and picked one up for Jackie. We are extremely touched and cheered by their thoughtfulness and decide to forgive them for abandoning us to this stretch of lonely road. And again the Camino pays a return on our investment in the walk. It’s Downright spooky.

Rain gear on off on off on off. Yeesh!

Rain gear on off on off on off. Yeesh!

No idea what happened here

No idea what happened here

The gang

The gang

A pleasant gift.  Lower bunks, foot cream and fly killing gear.

A pleasant gift. Lower bunks, foot cream and fly killing gear.

Day 7 Ventosa to Azofra

More grapes

More grapes

Getting ready for dinner

Getting ready for dinner

Cooling our toes again

Cooling our toes again

Jackie and Jenny

Jackie and Jenny

 

 

 

Sitting here by a wonderful small fountain in the courtyard of our Albergue in Azofra. It was a wonderful 16.5 K walk with medium hills and dales along the way and no big climb.

Ahh ain't we cute

Ahh ain’t we cute

 

 

We have lost touch many of our earlier acquaintances but some remain and we make new ones as we go. We have hooked up with a middle aged woman named jenny from Silver Spring on this morning’s walk. She is the first person we’ve come across who matches our slow pace so we may be hanging together for a bit. Our walk takes us through many more fields of grapes, wonderful vistas and the town of Najera a good size place where we have a late breakfast snack. The full moon was just setting as we left out and it was a cool and easy to walk today. We reach our destination at noon feeling pretty good instead of gassed out. We are ahead of the heat which isn’t too bad anyway. So overall probably our best hiking day with more pleasure than pain. I wish we could do 16-17 K as our normal distance, but 20 + is what it will take.

 

We actually arrive at the front of the line for a change and we watch the other hikers come rolling in as we soak our feet in the fountain. Rooms are two bed, not bunks, cubes with a door so it’s quite pleasant. Jackie doctors Jenny’s blisters (she’s had some experience with one that I had) and I get the Laundry done. It’s all so domestic. We buy some food in the tiny town to make lunch and more supplies for dinner. The wine is made right here in Azofra. We will join several other folks for a communal pasta meal. Jackie is raring to demonstrate some cooking skills. Looking forward to that later.

House keeping in our courtyard

House keeping in our courtyard

 

Dinner turned out great. We made so much we drove many of our friends crazy trying to give the left overs away.

 

 

Day 6 Logrono to Ventosa.

Ok first of all let me express how amazed I am at the human individual’s ability to forget pain. We were planning another short day today, but we covered the 13Km to Navarrtte, our planed stop, with “””relative””” ease. It was a nice cool morning and we made it up the hill at the end without feeling too gassed so we decided to push on another 8k to the next town, Ventosa, with just one small hill to conquer before entering.

Early morning by the lake

Early morning by the lake

We were feeling pretty good about ourselves and it was only 11:30 so why not. Well the day warms up as it always does and our fuel gage runs down as those last few Kms slowllly click by. That 8k takes us almost 2.5 hours as we start to stop every hundred meters or so and catch our breath in the lone bit of shade. The walk though is generally very pretty through lots of the riojas grape vinyards and around a small lake. There are grapes all around us much of the time and Jackie takes in deeeep breaths of wine country air, just loving life.

Dinner in Logrono

Sneaking some grapes. They seem pretty much ready for harvest to me. 

Harvesters checking grape readiness

Harvesters checking grape readiness

She’s enjoying it here. I’m not smelling much just mouth breathing sucking in as much O2 as I can. That comes in handy as we also pass some horse pastures with the attendant not so nice smells haha. Ventosa is a very small town, pop 3500 or so, and we find that the one Albergue in town is fully booked once we come up the last hill. It’s 10 Km to the next town and there’s no way we can make

that.

Finding the rare piece of shade to rest

Finding the rare piece of shade to rest

Our living room where I write this post. Ahh sooo good

Our shared living room where I write this post. Ahh sooo good

Luckily there’s one small hotel in town and we knock on the door feeling like Joseph and Mary, we will take anything at this point. Well anything turns out to be a 65 euro room. We are shocked, just shocked, cause we’ve been paying basically 3 to 10 euros each night at the Albergues and splurged 30 euro yesterday for the pension in Logrono in the big city. But standing in the doorway dripping sweat and road dust we look into this wonderful, cool, well appointed hacienda and say, “you take credit cards right?” The matron leads us up one, just one, flight of stairs after requesting that we remove our dirty boots which we gladly do and shows us into an exquisite room with an amazing shower space and cool granite tiled floors.

Our oh so nice bedroom

Our wonderful cool bedroom

We give it 5 stars without a thought. She also volunteers to wash our clothes for another 5 euros and we practically throw them at her. “Just put it on the card” we call out, surely not the first to do so. So a shower, a rest in an even nicer bed than yesterday with foot massages all around and a little late lunch and cold drinks in a small street side bar and we sit here feeling absolutely on top of the world. Just a few hours ago we were dragging our asses through the heat up a hill we thought would never end looking for any shade to stop for a breath and now it’s like it never happened. How can that possibly work? I guess the ability to forget pain is a built in survival trait because why would any woman have another child after going through that once 🙂

 

Just a short note about last night in Logrono. After diner we wondered through some back streets on our way to our little Pension and we were amazed at how the city had come back to life after siesta. The streets were packed with people eating tapas and drinking all kinds of good stuff, it was just one big happy party for the complete age spectrum, children through grandmas. This went on until after 11:00 and keep in mind this is Sunday night. I don’t think anyone watches much TV here.

Tapas time for the family

Tapas time for the family in Logrono

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Party time in Logronos

Party time in Logrono