You Brought Rocks?!

At 4,934 feet above sea level on a windswept site stands a fifty-foot tall pole with a plain iron cross on top, the Cruz de Ferro. Tradition has it that when you travel to this iron cross, you should lay a rock at its base as a token of love or as a symbol of laying aside your burdens.

Judi and Barb at the Cruz de Ferro, stage 25 of the Camino de Santiago

The weather report last night promised rain, the first time since we’ve been on our Camino that we’ve had to brave wet weather. This morning we hauled our ponchos out of the very bottoms of our backpacks and braced ourselves for a soaking. Rather than wear boots and suffer wet feet for days, we donned wool socks and Tevas or Oboz.

A pregnant pause in our travels – Our Camino friend Pat who comes from Massachusetts

By the time we reached the Cruz de Ferro about seven miles into our sixteen-mile day, wind-driven rain had pelted us. and we’d had a headwind most of the way. Still, we took several minutes to say some silent words of prayer as we laid our stones at the base of the monument.

Stones for Cruz de Ferro

Judi had chosen three rocks:

  • a black chunk of slag (a by-product of the iron-ore process). It reminded her of going to her home in Escanaba, Michigan. She found the rock by the municipal dock in front of the House of Ludington, formerly a famous hotel and landmark.
  • a jagged red piece of rock found at the Iron Mountain Iron Mine in Michigan. It represents to her reconnecting with family and creating new memories.
  • a piece of pink granite found on Hunter’s Beach in Acadia. This one represents Judi’s and my intention to do the Camino together.

My rock was also a piece of pink granite from Hunter’s Beach. In addition to it representing our friendship, I dedicated it to my stepfather, Michael Tessman who passed away on October 2nd at the age of 96, while Judi and I were on our Camino.

One woman near me said, “So many wishes, so many wishes.”

Not long after we left the site of the Cruz de Ferro, the sun appeared and created a splendid rainbow.

A symbol of hope

Our day of hiking ended in our crossing a medieval bridge into the little town of Molinaseca. Tomorrow the countdown begins: only ten more days of walking until we reach Santiago.

Pilgrims enter the town of Molinaseca over a medieval bridge.

Along the Way to Astorga

Life is good when the cafe con leche is hot and beautifully presented.

The mornings have been fall-like and chilly, making us feel much more comfortable and energized. Most mornings we leave at six thirty while it is still dark and the stars are bright. With Orion’s belt over our left shoulders, we find the right path easily and walk a couple of hours until we can stop for some breakfast and coffee. By the time we’ve walked six or more hours, we have finished the stage of our trip for the day and check in at an albergue. The fee? Usually between five and ten Euros. We feel like authentic peregrinas.

Here are some of the highlights of the past few days.

Virgen del Camino, statues of the important figures from the Bible
Stork nests on the bell tower
The bridge at Hospital de Orbigo – originally built in Roman times, rebuilt over the centuries
At the foot of the Hospital de Orbigo bridge
I gave this busker a Euro. He asked Judi, “Do you have any American dollars for me for a souvenir?”
Statue of a peregrino drinking from a gourd
Mural on the side of building in Astorga
Iglesia de Santa Marta in Astorga

Leaving the Meseta and Leon

With less than 190 miles left of the Camino, Judi and I are feeling great and making “better-than-expected” progress. Okay, we admit it: we took a taxi into and out of Leon to avoid a total of eight miles of industrial zones and construction. We’re in the lap of luxury, we feel, sitting in a two-bed room with its own bathroom in a hostel in the little town of La Virgen del Camino.

Brierley says,”If the idea of taking transport [into and out of Leon] seems like heresy it might be useful to ask ourselves – why not?…The ego and its obsessive behavioral patterns can be just as limiting as a laissez-faire attitude and indifference.”

So, without a guilty conscience, we present scenes from the last miles of the meseta and from Leon.

Puente Villarente
This rainbow was visible for nearly half an hour as we walked toward Leon.
Cathedral on the Plaza Regla, Leon
Cathedral, 13th century, Leon
Over an entrance to the cathedral
The serene faces of a modern statue, Plaza Regla
San Froilan Festival, street fair, Leon

As we were leaving Leon

The Kindness of Strangers

What are the memories we’ll carry with us after this Camino journey is done? Yes, the early morning departures, the dome of heaven full of stars, and us finding our way in the dark. Yes, the stunning architecture of the huge cathedrals in Pamplona, Logrono, and Burgos, and the countless humble stone churches of the small villages. And, yes, the feelings of relief and exhaustion after the day’s hike of nearly seventeen miles.

For both Judi and me, however, the kindness of strangers stands out as heart-warming and unforgettable.

There was the man in Logrono during the height of the San Mateo wine festival who was obviously on his way to work at 4:30 in the morning when Judi and I were trying to find our way out of the city. Merry-making revelers still filled the streets, and the street signs were few and hard to coordinate with our guidebook city map. This kind man took considerable time (and patience) to give us accurate directions to leave the city and find the Camino.

Then there was the bicycle rider, a man about our age in the requisite high-tech spandex, on the outskirts of Burgos. Judi and I were finishing a long perimeter road around the airport, tired of tramping along the rocky road in a featureless area. He stopped next to us, hopped off his bike, and motioned for Judi to give him one of her hiking poles. In the dust of the road he drew a map and explained in rapid-fire Spanish. We caught the words “rio” and “Camino” and “fuente.” We were able the find our way past a fountain to a beautiful tree-lined path next to the river.

Our bike-riding good Samaritan, and Fernando, a retired teacher from Burgos

And Fernando in the picture above who walked with us for a couple of miles and told about teaching in a tiny town outside of Burgos. Good timing made it possible for Judi to capture a picture of both of these gentlemen on the biker’s return trip from the airport road to the city.

A long walk seems shorter when you can compare teaching experiences.

An elderly lady in Burgos walked three or four blocks out of her way to direct us to the bus station when we asked her for directions. We were so close, but the station was poorly marked and we had probably walked by it twice.

And the ticket seller at the Bilbao metro station took a special interest in whether we found the correct train. After we bought our tickets, we descended the stairs to the platform below his office. Every time a new train approached, he came out of his office to motion, “Not this one!” “Two more trains before yours!”

The openness and willingness to help us warmed our hearts.


Sadness Visits the Camino

This afternoon I received the sad news that my stepfather, Michael Tessman, passed away yesterday at the age of 96. To say that he had lived a full life would be an understatement. He served in the United States Army during some of the key battles of World War II, in northern Africa, Italy, and north into other parts of Europe as the war finally drew to a close.

After he raised his two daughters, Ginny and Sharon, he was widowed, but later met and married my mom, and enjoyed over thirty years of marriage with her. They enjoyed their years of camping, boating, cross-country skiing, and fishing until finally he sold his farm and they moved to Augusta. Lately, he has been a patient at the Maine Veterans’ Home where he received good care.

Before I left for the Camino, I considered long and hard what I would do if he passed away while I was gone. My mother and sisters said that in no way should I come back. Still, my heart is heavy, and I would have loved to support my mom, Ginny, Sharon, Ron, Dawn, and Melody, and, of course, my family in this sad time. We loved him, and I will always miss “Grandpa Michael.”

The “Sublime” Meseta

The ruins of the ancient convento de San Anton, 16th century
In the recessed alcoves of these walls, bread was left for pilgrims of old.                                                                                                                                   John Brierley, the author of A Pilgrim’s Guide to Camino de Santiago, describes the meseta as a lonely, flat stretch of the Camino, miles of agricultural land and few villages, but Judi and I found it “sublime.” The wind blew strongly as we made our way from Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz, then to Fromista, and ultimately on to Carrion de los Condes. One of fellow peregrinos said that the gusts were as strong as 40 to 50 miles per hour. Usually the wind was at our back and kept us cool and invigorated. We felt like these were easy days.
The meseta, flat and expansive

The hilltop castillo of Castrojeriz, established in the 9th century
From atop the ruins of the castillo

Canal Pisuerga

Tomorrow we will travel to Terradillos de los Templarios, another chance to  appreciate the sublime peace and quiet of the meseta.

P.S. Quick update: We have walked about 239 miles and will reach the halfway point of the Camino, Sahagun, in just a couple of days. As our fellow peregrina from Australia would say, “Good on you!”



About the Cities

After the quiet of several days of hiking in the open spaces of agricultural land, approaching a big city can be daunting. First, it’s hard not to feel out of place with our heavy packs and dusty shoes among the business men and women or the sprucely dressed weekend tourists.  Our determined looks as we go about finding the municipal albergue so we can, at last, put down those heavy packs set us apart.

But, after check-in and freshening up with a shower and clean(ish) clothes, we’re outside once more to see the sights.

Here are some of the delights from Burgos and our quick bus trip to visit our friends Ruben and Rebekah in the northern Spain.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria in Burgos, 13th century
Cathedral of Santa Maria in Burgos
Portal into the city of Burgos
Statues of some of the apostles, Cathedral of Santa Maria, Burgos
Stained glass window, the metro station in Bilbao
Part of a mural on the ceiling of a walkway in Bilbao
Riverfront in Bilbao

Of course, our favorite pictures from Bilbao were of Ruben and Rebekah and their beautiful girls, Haizeah and Alba. Rebekah grew up in Candia and married the handsome Ruben who is from Bilbao and completing his Ph.D.






About the Little Villages

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Belorado, St. Juan de Ortega, Hornillos del Camino, Castrojeriz

The little towns are so similar: a cluster of sand-colored buildings tucked into a small valley, a church bell tower and steeple jutting skyward, cobblestoned streets, outdoor cafes with tables for four, little mixed-breed dogs wandering and marking the corners of a building with a salute. Every town we enter, though, delights us. We feel transported back to the days when much earlier pilgrims passed these same buildings. They must also have been glad for some refreshment or a simple place to rest for the night.

Each town, though, has its own special delights.

In Hornillos del Camino, for example, is the Green Tree, a restaurant that specializes in fresh, delicious vegetarian food.

It is a place that attracts interesting people: a masseuse who offers her massages for a donation and has lived in ashrams and has studied yoga in India, a local woman who loves to sing the music of Edith Piaf, and an Italian girl who created poetry for the restaurant door.

The owner herself has a story. On a Camino pilgrimage through Hornillos, she fell in love with a Spanish man, and, as she says, “We made a baby.” She later relocated from her native Ireland to raise her child with her Spanish husband and open her restaurant.

After Judi and I had enjoyed vegetable curry at the Green Tree, Judi took advantage of the offer and had a long massage. The massage therapist told her, when Judi asked where she had been born, that she had been born in the universe. Judi said that the woman recited gentle, wise sayings as she performed the massage.

Judi later came back to the albergue more relaxed than she had been in days.

I also was seeking rejuvenation and went to the pilgrim service at the church adjacent to our albergue. When I entered the sanctuary, the rich baritone voice of the priest bounced off the vaulted stone ceilings as he chanted. Only one other person was there, a pilgrim deep in prayer, his head resting on his folded hands on the back of a plain wooden bench. Minutes passed, more pilgrims filed in and sat down, and the priest finished his chanting. Smiling and seeming glad to see so many of us, he motioned us to sit in the very front pews. “Tu pais?” he asked each of us….”Which country?” Australia, Korea, Germany, Canada, the United States, Spain, Italy, Denmark, we told him.

The priest, dressed in the whitest vestments, turned and scurried to find papers of translations of the pilgrim prayers and benedictions, his green-trimmed cape billowing out behind him. He called on us to read the words asking God for our safe arrival in Santiago.

To my surprise, the priest said, “Sing a song from your country,” and pointed to members of the congregation. In spite of our initial embarrassment, many of us sang familiar songs, mostly religious, the acoustics enhancing our less than stellar voices. In honor of that day being my father’s 96th birthday, I swallowed my pride and sang a verse of the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” one of my dad’s favorites. It was the perfect birthday remembrance of my father.

After the priest spoke the last benediction, he gathered us together like old family in front of the church for group pictures and then offered to stamp our pilgrim credentials and attended to each of us separately. With a broad smile, he stamped my credential, placed his large, strong hand firmly on my head, and recited a short prayer. He then drew the sign on the cross with his thumb on my forehead. What a caring, warm gesture.

A Pilgrim’s Day on the Camino

Up before daybreak (and before me), Judi drinks the coffee con leche that she wisely purchased the night before and put into a thermos. She’s the light sleeper and always the first awake; she writes in her journal and does her yoga routine. I’m up soon after. No worries about what to wear: we only have a couple of outfits anyway and no one dresses for fashion on the Camino.

The bathrooms are communal, but since we’re up early, they’re empty, and we can soon be putting on backpacks and boots and leaving the building.

It’s blessedly cool outside but dark. With flashlight and headlamp, we find the blue signs with yellow scallop shell insignia or the yellow painted arrows on road signs, highway guardrails, or the walls of buildings. The moon was full a few days ago, and that made the wayfinding easier. Not many animals to see: a few bunnies, the occasional chained dog, maybe a snail or two in the roadway. In the distance, we sometimes see the lights of other pilgrims who have left early. The nights are quiet here, with only the occasional sound of a barking dog in the distance.

By seven, the sky starts to lighten in the east. We’re hitting our stride, still full of energy and walking at a good clip. We don’t talk much, each of us lost in thought, remembering events from days before, solving the world’s problems, or thinking about our loved ones at home.

After a couple of hours more, we stop at a roadside bar/cafe in whatever small village we’ve reached. It feels great to take off the 20-pound backpacks and walk unencumbered into the cafe. We’ve each settled in to our favorite choices for breakfast. Judi usually has freshly squeezed orange juice and an omelette on part of a crusty baguette. I want cafe solo Americano and a tortilla patate with a chunk of baguette. Cafe solo is espresso with extra hot water served in a small teacup. Very strong and delicious.

Sometimes Judi jokes, “Okay. Saddle up, pilgrim. We’re leaving,” and we wrestle the backpacks on and continue on our way.

By noon, we’ve usually walked over 2/3 of the way to our destination, our pace has slowed only a little, and we’ve greeted many fellow pilgrims. The way seems harder, and we’re more careful to choose our steps along the rocky way. Our patience thins a little, but Judi’s always upbeat and finds the best in every situation.

When we finally arrive at an albergue, we join the line of people checking in for the night. By this time, we’ve walked thirteen or more miles, and the only things that make sense are taking off our shoes and backpacks, sitting down, and preparing to shower.

The host at each albergue checks and stamps our pilgrim credentials, records numbers from our U.S. passports, and assigns us to a room and bed. It varies, but most rooms have ten or more bunkbeds each. I prefer the top bunk, and Judi, the bottom bunk, so we’re usually happy with our assignments.

After a quick shower (bring your own soap, shampoo, washcloth, and towel), we usually take a walk around the village, have an early supper at 4:30 or wait to enjoy a pilgrim dinner at seven o’clock. Meals in Spain are divided into courses. El primero is a choice of ensalada mixta, pasta with red sauce, vegetable or meat stew, or a local specialty; el segundo is a choice of cod fish, trout, pork, beef, or chicken. I can find a good vegetarian dinner by choosing two primeros, usually ensalada mixta and pasta. Meals are served with red wine, water, more baguettes, and desserts. Judi’s favorite dessert so far has been the homemade rice pudding. I usually choose ice cream, even though that means a pre-packaged cone like you’d find in the frozen food section. Ice cream is always good in whatever form it comes in.

The best part of the pilgrims’ meals is conversation with people from all over the world. The other night we heard the adventures of an Australian who had climbed Mount Kilimajaro and others of the world’s highest mountains. At the same dinner was a couple from Stockholm who had traveled around the world and were currently living in southern France for a few months. The man from Brazil talked about his trips to the Amazon. Such a wide world and such a variety of adventures!

“And so to bed,” as Samuel Pepys would write in his journal centuries ago. I conk out just about as soon my head hits my blow-up pillow in spite of lights, beeping alarms, church bells, and snores, grateful for friendships, clean beds, and much-needed rest.



If Only You Were Here!

Your intrepid peregrinas have traveled far since last we updated you. We have gone 161.5 miles in all and are more than a third of the way to Santiago. We’ve experienced friendship, laughter, exhaustion, cold showers, bedbug scares, pilgrim dinners, friendly Spaniards eager to help us find our way, and more wishes of “Buen Camino” than we can count.

Longrono, Najera, Santo Domingo, Belorado, and San Juan de Ortega are behind us, and we sitting in an outdoor cafe in Burgos, using the wifi that comes free with our meal. Not even a block away is the magnificent Gothic Santa Maria Cathedral that is the pride of Burgos. Judi’s pictures will follow in a subsequent post.

Our albergue for the night is municipally run and cost us five Euros each: clean showers, bunkbeds (28 in just our room), one immaculate bathroom on each of the six floors, warm showers, and lots of limping people, most of whom had walked 16.2 miles today like we did.

Judi and I appreciate and love your comments. They’re the first thing we look for when we can capture a few minutes of wifi at our albergues. We both miss home, but are literally having the trip of our lives!