Monday, March 31, 2014

March 30: Santiago!

My flight to Madrid wasn’t until 5:40 p.m., so I had the day free. I am so lucky. I went to the noon pilgrim Mass, and for the third time in three visits, the botafumeiro was swung. The previous two times I’ve been here, I arrived into Santiago shortly before the Mass. I was tired, dirty and had to stand the entire time. This time I was rested, clean and had a seat. Plus, the cathedral itself wasn’t bursting at the seams. So when they swung the botafumeiro, it was very easy to see and take a nice film clip (normally my photos and videos have the backs of people’s heads in them).

Afterwards, I went to visit St. James. I’d promised to give him an extra hug from an abuela I’d met in Vilavella, who called me very strong for being a sola peregrina. I was able to fulfill my promise, I'm happy to say, plus give him a big abrazo from me.

There are several cathedral tours available, and pilgrims get a 2-euro discount at all of them. I tried the Cathedral Museum tour this time (4 euros). It was pretty impressive. You got to see all sorts of excavated pieces of the original cathedral, plus artwork over the years, including some glorious tapestries. At one point you can go into an inner courtyard with tombstones, among other things, plus go out on the balcony and take in gorgeous views of Obradoiro Square. Definitely worthwhile.

All too soon it was time to leave. On the way home I watched “The Way.” Even though I’ve seen it before, it was more moving to watch it with the Camino fresh on my mind.

And so ends another Camino, my friends. I hope those of you with upcoming Caminos have as fantastic a time as I did. For those of you still contemplating it -- DO IT.

March 29: Silleda to Santiago

This is the last leg, folks. It’s always an exciting, yet sad, day. I hate the end of the Camino! But I always look forward to reaching Santiago.

Before I got started, I toured a newer albergue in town, run by the same Maril family that operates the inn. It looked fairly nice to me – clean, three floors, no more than three beds per room (and singles and doubles, too). One living room even came with a massage recliner. A Maril uncle runs the adjacent bar.

One of the family members wanted to take me to see a monastery and some waterfalls that lie 5km out of town. They said it’s a very famous spot, and very beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time. But something to plan for in the future.

So back to the actual Camino. Today was supposed to be cloudy all day. Since this entire last week has been cloudy and rainy as predicted, I trusted the forecast. Big mistake. It ended up being mostly sunny, and my sunscreen was packed in my suitcase. I ended up with very sunburned hands and ears. Oh well, it was wonderful to see the sun again.

There were some muddy/wet stretches here, but nothing too bad at all. I discovered a pasteleria in Bandeiras (right on the Camino on your left as you first enter town) and stopped for a cream puff. Have I written about that before? My daughter Maura and I discovered several really good cream puffs here. I never would have pictured that as a Spanish specialty, and maybe it’s not a specialty per se, but now it’s a favorite treat of mine here. Since it was Saturday, there was also a market in town. Wish I had had time to explore it. I did see some men cooking fresh octopus on the street.

Oh, random comment. I’ve noticed a wealth of logging activity going on (trucks hauling cut trees, and stacks of trees piled up). Plus there were some lumber mills in the Castro and A Susana areas with freshly-cut boards all stacked up. Not sure what kind of wood they’re cutting (there’s a lot of eucalyptus and pine in the area), but it was interesting because I’ve never noticed that before. I’ve hiked in March before, but I was in Andalucia and Extremadura.Is lumber a big business here?

So Santiago. There still are no markings once you’re directed into town. I’d read my own guidebook entry at the start of the day and knew the basic way to go, but I wanted to see if I could do it sans help, so I didn't look at it once I got into town. I promptly ended up passing the cathedral once again and having to backtrack. I just don’t understand this. Not only aren’t there Camino signs, but there aren’t even any regular city signs directing you to the cathedral (at least from the street you come in on from the VDLP). And this is a major city attraction!
Stopped in at the new pilgrim’s office for my Compostela. It’s in the same little courtyard as before, and is now connected right with the cathedral gift shop. I believe they said I was something like pilgrim #165 for the day, which seemed pretty good since it’s the very start of the season.

Bought a delicious smoked Gouda-type cheese at O Beiro, a shop near the cathedral, plus some wine to celebrate. 

March 28: Cea to Silleda

This morning, on the advice of my inn hostess, I stopped for breakfast at Sol Y Luna, right on the Camino in downtown Cea. What a lovely spot! The spacious café also includes a gift shop, so it’s fun to browse while your breakfast is being made. It doesn’t look like there’s much food, but they offer toast, eggs, omelets and an assortment of pastries. I ordered a café con leche and croissant. The owner asked how much espresso vs. milk that I wanted (a nice touch) and included a slice of her cake with my croissant. Everything was great. Best of all, though, were the bathrooms. I rate the ladies’ room the best on the VDLP. Not only was it clean, but it came equipped with all sorts of amenities: air freshener, hand lotion, perfume samples, etc. What a treat!

This is my third time on the Ourense-Santiago stretch. The first time I went through Oseira. The second time I stayed two days and did both routes. This time I went straight to Castro-Dozón. The walk was lovely with no surprises. Spring is really coming to Spain. I can’t tell you how many gorgeous, enormous calla lilies I’ve seen, often growing in alleys like weeds! They’re so expensive to purchase here in the U.S., and the ones you can buy are generally pretty tiny. There is also some kind of yellow weed and/or crop I’ve seen everywhere. I’ve asked a few Spaniards what it is, but no one can tell me. It reminds me of the plant that’s used to make canola oil – is it rapeseed? Laurie, you probably know if anyone does

As I was leaving Castro-Dozón, I saw that they still don’t have any signage to indicate that you should take a dirt road off to the right when you’re finishing up this gravel stretch by some industrial facility. It really doesn’t matter if you hop from the gravel to the highway, as you’ll eventually be directed off-road (on the left) when you need to leave the highway for good. The previously-mentioned dirt road is just to keep you off the highway a bit. Usually pilgrims fashion arrows from rocks to indicate where the path is. This year, there was a not-so-nice note in rocks (see photo), along with an arrow, which I’m assuming was left by one person for a specific pilgrim. I kicked away the rocks that said “bitch” so it simply read, “De Nada. VDP.”

The stretch from C-D to A Laxe was pleasant, although I always forget how hilly Galicia is. This section is no exception. Made it through A Laxe -- always a gritty bit -- and hit pay dirt when I found the chapel open. I'm blanking on the name now, but it comes after you walk over the Roman bridge and are nearing Silleda. A woman was cleaning the church, so she gave me a little tour. It's quite colorful and beautiful inside (there's one photo below). She also had a very nice sello for my credencial.

Here’s a funny little story. Shortly before you reach Silleda, after you've passed the above-mentioned church and tuck into the woods, you come upon a little enclave of homes and a small chapel. The first time I passed through, the church door was open with a big gate across it. I pressed my nose against the gate to see the altar, and when my eyes adjusted the first thing I saw was an elderly man sitting in a chair, reading the paper! I was so startled (and embarrassed), I quickly turned away. I assumed someone had purchased the former chapel and turned it into a home, and there I was, staring right into someone’s private living quarters.

So this year as I reached this section, I see a lot of construction taking place on several of the buildings, one of which is the chapel. I ask one man if that's the church that had been someone’s home, and he says no, no one ever lived in that. Long story short, from what I could piece together in my very-average Spanish, these are all privately-owned structures. In the past, an elderly man was hired to guard the chapel. He very likely moved a chair and lamp in there, and had I stared more I would have seen the church wasn’t totally refurbished into a home. I’m not sure what the new owner is renovating there, but a future Camino will surely reveal that!

Once in Silleda, I stayed at a really nice casa rural, Casa Grande de Fuentemayor. It’s a few kilometers out of the city, but the owners will pick you up wherever you end in Silleda (and drop you off the next day). There’s always special pricing for pilgrims, and the price depends on the season. It’s not the cheapest place – maybe an average pilgrim price across all seasons is 60 euros – but it’s very chic and rather posh.

Also, while I’m not a foodie per se, the food here is fantastic. If you’re going to stay here, I’d definitely ask for dinner and then breakfast in the morning. Everything is a fine-dining experience, plus there are nice touches like freshly-squeezed orange juice (the best I’ve ever tasted), homemade kiwi jelly from kiwis grown on property, etc.

The owner, Andres Maril, was trained in hospitality at the Parador in Santiago (where, he says, he once waited on both Charlton Heston and Anthony Quinn when they were filming The Road to Santiago). Maril said they opened their place in the 1990s and were pioneers in the casa rural/B&B movement, plus in growing your own foods and all that. Oh, the place also has an outdoor pool and whirlpool, which would be great in warmer weather.

Church just outside of Cea

Not-so-nice note

Roman bridge before Silleda

Friday, March 28, 2014

March 27: Ourense to Cea

Today was a short 14-mile jog to Cea. I let myself sleep in, then got ready to head out at 10:30 a.m. 

SCORE -- the staff at my hotel found a new mochila taxi service that operates from Ourense to Santiago. The rate is 20 euros/leg, no matter what length the legs are. This is especially beneficial for folks like me, who never have enough time away from home and have to log long days. So off my bags went, while I headed to the Museum Cafe.

I love this cafe. It's 1/2-block off the Camino and has fantastic, enormous pan de chocolates. One of those plus a large cafe con leche was only a little over 2 euros. That sure put me in a good mood!

It was supposed to be cloudy all day, but I had sun for the first few hours. On the miles-long climb out of Ourense, I paused at one chapel I hadn't seen before. A man was working in the fields, so I asked if it was open. It wasn't, but he proceeded to get the key, open it up and give me the whole history. It's dedicated to San Marcos, and years ago was in ruins. Just the foundation remained. Spain got some European funds and rebuilt it 14 years ago. Sadly, San Marcos' statue isn't in the chapel, since thieves had broken in and now he has to be guarded until his feast day.

I passed one of my favorite spots today, a home where someone has set out three life-size figures who hold a sign wishing us a "Bon Viaxe," or Buen Camino in Gallego. I also always enjoy going through Viduedo and stopping by its church. This year there were all sorts of floral decorations around the various outdoor statues. It was beautiful.

Got to Cea and my casa rural for the night. Peregrinos, this place is such a steal! It's called Casa Manoso and is just 20 euros/night. The place is absolutely gorgeous. If you want to hike to Castro-Dozon the next day and return here to sleep, the owner has you take a bus back to Cea, and then the next day she'll drive you to Castro-Dozon to continue on.

Had dinner at the panaderia, and it was fantastic and inexpensive. Many pilgrims don't know they serve dinner, but they do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March 26: Vilar de Barrio to Ourense

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head ...

That was one of the first 45s in our family (my older brother), and it's certainly apt. The forecast today was just for rain the first 1-2 hours of my hike, then partly sunny skies. Well, it sort of was true. 

The first few hours out of Vilar de Barrio weren't fun. There were many open spaces, and the wind was so strong and cold, coupled with a moderate rainfall, which just made things miserable. 

I forgot how beautiful the segment was from Bobadela Pinta to Xunqueira de Ambia -- gorgeous. And although I've always dreaded the walk into Ourense, I kind of enjoyed it this time. Yes, you walk a lot on paved roads. And yes, the traffic keeps increasing as you reach Ourense. But there were plenty of times the route dipped you off the highway a bit, and it was nice and distracting to pass through all of the small enclaves/suburbs between the two cities. 

Should mention that I've found the best cafe con leche deal so far during this trip. It was at Bar Millenio in Vilar de Barrio. Just ,90 euros for a nice-sized cup and a small cookie.

Just three more days and I'll be in Santiago. I can't believe it. I'll be fully rested (and clean, for once) for the Pilgrim's Mass the next day. I've made it to Santiago twice now, and both times the botafumeiro was swung. What will happen this Sunday?!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 25: Laza to Vilar de Barrio

Today was a short day -- just 12 miles. THANK GOODNESS! Today was another rainy day. Like yesterday, the rain was intermittent and not too nasty for the first two hours. I didn't make good time, though, like I did yesterday (when I ran a lot) because there's a HUGE climb up a really rocky path in part of this segment.

The rain really came down (along with terrible winds again) when I reached the top of the mountain at Albergueria. I stopped in the local bar -- a very pilgrim-focused business -- and found 2 other pilgrims and about 10 local workers taking a break from the elements. I don't normally make stops like this, but I had to get out of my wet coat and poncho and try to dry my soaking wet gloves (yes, today I had 2) in front of the electric fireplace.

I was contemplating staying longer to enjoy a cafe con leche, or even a glass of wine, when I decided I'd rather knock off the last 4.5 miles and get to my casa rural for the rest of the day.

Shortly after I left, it began to rain steadily. This leg is mostly downhill, so things got super muddy and flooded. Then it REALLY began to pour. By the time I got to town, I probably carried 5 extra pounds of water on me. 

Thinking quickly, I decided to hit the tienda to gather dinner supplies so I wouldn't have to venture out again. Got the food, then found the casa rural. It's lovely, but after cleaning up and starting to work on my app updates, I realized it was super cold in here. Indeed, the temp was only about 60.

The owners of this place live in Madrid, so it took some calling back and forth and some difficult English-Spanish conversations for me to be able to figure out how to work their heating system. (You'd think these systems would be easy and intuitive, but they're not.)

In the end, all is well. I'm warm, I figured out how to use my phone to make a hotspot so I can get online anywhere and get some work done, and I'm looking forward to a dryer (I HOPE!) day tomorrow.

March 24: Vilavella to Laza

Things are getting a bit tough out here. Definitely tougher than any other Camino trips I've made. I keep telling myself what I'm going through is nothing compared to what the "real" pilgrims of the past dealt with.

Today I had 30 miles on the docket. So of course it was supposed to rain all day. Oh, and did I say I'd be in a really mountainous stretch? And that just as I was leaving my lodging, I realized I only had one glove?

Things actually worked out fine. It started raining about 45 minutes into the day. But every time I got to the point where I was really hating it, the rain stopped. I was able to turn my headband into a glove for many miles, then used extra socks.

The taxi driver taking my bags to Laza kindly told me there was a detour marked in A Gudina that I should NOT take. It wasn't necessary, and it added 5km. Thank goodness he said that! Indeed, the construction was all off to the side, and the Camino was fine. The only difference was that there were more trucks than usual going by in one short (2-3 mile) stretch.

This segment from A Gudina to Campobecerros and then on to Laza is quite beautiful. I'm glad the last time I walked, it was a beautiful, sunny day. Not that I'm complaining. The rain held off for much of the time, although I did face some VERY strong winds on the mountaintop, and a few times the rain would really come down for 5 or 10 minutes.

Still, at one point after an intense few minutes of rain, I looked up and saw the largest, fattest rainbow I've ever seen in my life (see photo below). Wow.

Ran into Peter from the Czech Republic a few miles outside of Laza. He said he'd lost the family farm back home, so ended up here, where he was volunteering at a new albergue being built in As Eiras. He also mentioned how he'd seen a few wolves -- during the day -- since he'd gotten here. HUH?! Locals told him to use the same trick as you do with threatening dogs -- pretend to pick up a rock and throw it. Sure. O.K. (ACK!)

Got to Laza and am staying in the great Pension Blanco Conde. I'd stayed here once in the past, and the woman actually remembered me. Had dinner at Bar Picota, the spot everyone recommends. It was good, and they're happy to make pilgrims dinner at any time. No waiting until 8 or 9. Life is good.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

March 23: Puebla de Sanabria to Vilavella

Oh my. This was definitely one of those days every pilgrim needs to have at least one of. I got lost several times. I got wet. I was exhausted. I had some magical moments.

So here goes.

First, the day dawned sunny and beautiful. I finally got great views/photos of Puebla de Sanbria's famous castle. Then, I promptly got lost on the first leg. Sort of.

When I did this leg last time in the fall, I was with about 5 others. We got about halfway through the trail, which was a mix of forest and field, when a handmade arrow pointed us onto the nearby highway. A Germany guidebook said the rest of the way was very difficult to discern and follow, hence the homemade arrow. So we all walked over to the highway.

This time the area was quite flooded. I didn't even recognize it as the same trail. I was following arrows and walking where I could without getting wet, when suddenly the arrows stopped and I couldn't see the highway. I knew I wasn't lost, and that the highway was to my right somewhere (there was a river on my left the whole time, so I knew I couldn't have gotten off track). So I picked my way around and eventually found the highway. But my feet got soaked in the process.

Of course I didn't pack dry socks, and still had some 21 miles to walk, but amazingly I never got blisters. (Kudos to Smart Wool socks!) I met another peregrina on that roadside who had had the same experience getting lost and getting wet feet.

The next segment from Terroso on had been one of my favorites: beautiful, well-marked, etc. This time the markings were confusing, and it didn't look nearly as pretty. There were more flooded sections, and once I had to run back a short ways to find my sunglasses, which had fallen off when I'd jumped over some wet spots.

From Requejo on had been a beautiful, uphill climb for 7 miles. Now, due to the Ave construction, we were routed on the highway first (uphill about 4 miles), then onto a strange path with numerous oddball shortcuts onto barely-there paths marked with lots of homemade arrows and such. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but I made it.

The next leg also had a detour due to construction, and then I took the path into Lubian. No one there knew about the ancient wolf traps that are in town, according to a guidebook I'd read.

Almost finished for the day. Phew! Yet a 5.5-mile uphill climb to windmills was next. This leg starts out by a church. I got there as a priest was putzing around inside, so I got to take photos. Then, as I was filling up my backpack at an outside fountain, he left and locked it, but not before turning on this beautiful Christian music that was played over the loudspeakers into the hills. It brought a tear to my eye, and fortified me to tackle the mountain.

This path was very flooded, and at times it was hard to figure out where the Camino was. Even when there was no water, sections were deeply eroded. My dry feet got wet, and because it was so late, they got cold. But I made it, then on to Vilvella, my destination.

I had to ask locals to direct me to the town's hotel. They kept trying to tell me I wanted the albergue in another city, but I said no, I had reservations at the hotel. It's modern and quite lovely, with a spa too, no less. When i got there, another pilgrim was walking around in his spa robe and slippers! What a day.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March 22: Rionegro del Puente to Puebla de Sanabria

Maura's tendonitis was pretty painful today, so I left her to explore Puebla de Sanabria (a great city) while I went back and hiked there from Rionegro del Puente, about 26 miles away. The day was mostly sunny and fresh, although at times I was walking straight into a ferocious headwind, which was tough.

It was wonderful to explore this section of the VDLP again, and in a different season. I appreciated the fact that the mosquitoes that had "bugged" me so much in September were nowhere to be seen. While there were some flooded spots, I was generally able to hop around them on rocks and other objects. 

There is still much highway construction going on, and the signage can be confusing. One Camino marker between Mombuey and Valdemerilla had a detour sign propped up against it, but the sign was pointing to the ground. So did that mean it was left over from last season, and there was no detour, or ...? I took the original route and ended up in yet another construction zone, but was able to see Valdemerilla and so could get there. Whether I went the right way, who knows?

Leaving Entrepenas, a gazillion arrows pointed me to a detour over the bridge. But a local who lives in a house right next to the "real" Camino told me to take the original route, because it was still passable and the detour added 1 km. I did, and it was fine.

Back in Puebla de Sanabria, I got Maura off on the Avanza bus to Madrid; she'll leave for the U.S. tomorrow morning. It was sad to see her go. Oh -- she managed to find these fantastic cream puff-type pastries for us to eat before she left. We'd had one other cream puff this trip in Granja de Moreruela, purchased from the tiny tienda, not a pastry shop. Both were really fantastic. I would never have thought Spain would be the place for cream puffs. But I have to say, they rival the famous ones made at the Wisconsin State Fair. And that's saying something, seeing as we're the Dairy State.

Tonight I was able to tour the city's Giants & Big Heads Museum -- very cool. Even better, a group teaching local folk dancing uses the museum to practice, and they were practicing when I stopped in. So I got to hear/watch them, too. Like the autonomous community of Galicia just north of here, the Sanabrian part of Zamora has Celtic influences, so the music featured a bagpipe-type instrument and Celic-type of hand drum. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

March 21: Santa Croya de Tera to Rionegro del Puente

Today could have been a real coup, but sad to say it wasn't. When we got to Santa Croya de Tera last night, Ana (the owner of the popular albergue Casa Anita) told us that tomorrow and the next day or two were special. The neighboring church in Santa Marta de Tera has this religious depiction near the altar carved in stone. Twice a year (March and September), the light shines through a window in the church and illuminates this carving. 

We arranged to be dropped off at the church shortly before the prime viewing hour (8:45 a.m.). Keep in mind we've had sunshine all week. Today dawned cloudy. About 2-3 dozen people were at the church, including a lot of media. Sadly, nothing special could be seen due to the clouds. Oh well.

Because of the delay, we didn't end up starting our day's walk until 9:45 a.m. The day initially was warm and, ironically, got a bit sunny. But then it got cloudy, windy and cool. 

Thanks to Maura's presence, I was able to check out a few spots where pilgrims can take one of two routes around a town. A fellow pilgrim told us in one town that it was supposed to rain in 2-3 hours. We had about 10 miles left, and tried to hoof it.

Unfortunately, Maura's tendonitis had gotten quite painful, so we couldn't walk too fast. Luckily, we beat the rain. It's hard to believe Maura leaves tomorrow night!

March 19: Zamora to Granja de Moreruela

Today was another long day -- about 28 miles. We left Zamora and passed through one small town, then headed toward the next, Montamarta. There's an enormous amount of highway construction going on here (as it had been when I last passed 2 years ago), but this time it's quite confusing.

While on the trail, we suddenly came upon a new bridge. New as in the road bed wasn't finished. So this bridge was new, as was another road leading off to the side. No Camino markers in sight, presumably because everything was so new. So which way to go? There were all sorts of concrete blocks that looked very similar to Camino markers on the side road, except there were no arrows or shells on them. Was this a sign for pilgrims to take that path? If not, what were they for?

We took the path, and ended up on the highway. We tried to use our maps to see where to go with no luck. Using my app, I called Montamarta's ayuntamiento (town hall) and spoke with a woman who told us to take the highway into town. We were only about 2 miles away by then. We continued to walk along the highway, but it was so busy and pretty dangerous. Suddenly across a vast farm field we saw a Camino marker on a farm road, so we delicately picked our way through the crops (being careful to step on the dirt, not the plants) and got back on track. I assume we should have taken the bridge. 

After Montamarta we went through a few more towns without incident. Finally we had only about 3 miles to go to reach our lovely casa rural (akin to a B&B) when we stumbled upon more highway construction. Once again, markings were largely missing. I called the casa rural owner, but she had no idea what to do. I was able to flag down a highway worker who randomly was driving down the unfinished road and we made it into town safely. Phew!

We cleaned up in the inn and bought groceries at a small tienda (store), then had dinner at the local bar. There were 3 German pilgrims there, some of the only ones we've seen all week.