Villafranca del Bierzo

Sunday, May 18


Today was simple but hot. I spent a good chunk of the walk talking with Larissa about all that’s swimming in her mind on the Camino, and it’s quite a bit. She’s hard on herself, I think. But who am I to talk?

We took a break from the heat at a tiny bar along the highway, where Brazilian music played as we entered. The barkeep told us there were only three kilometers to go, which was welcome news.

But as the road stretched on seemingly without end Larissa didn’t feel very well. A truck approached from behind — Protección Civil. They offered her a ride to the municipal albergue in Villafranca del Bierzo, where I am now.

It’s a beautiful building, like a cheaper version of a casa rural, with a view of the long pueblo stretching out ahead, dominated by huge church on a hill. After showering and washing my clothes I went down towards the pueblo and came across the others at a bar. We had the menú del día and were joined by a girl named Virginia from Granada, along with two dogs who wanted nothing more from life than food and belly rubs.


The iglesia that sits atop Villafranca del Bierzo

After lunch I went down into the town to use the ATM, and on the way back met Jonathan. He described parting with Sarah this morning and we talked a bit before I moved on.

Tomorrow I make the climb to O Cebreiro, in the rain and wind and cold.



Foncebadon, Cruz de Ferro, Ponferrada

Saturday, May 17

I arrived at the Cruz de Ferro before the first glint of sunlight reached it. Sarah and Jonathan walked together behind me. I set my pack down against a fence and took some photos in the pale morning glow, and from the other side to see the burnt orange and pale blue as sunlight started to bend our way. In my cargo pocket I could feel the two rocks I had brought with me, one from Astorga and the other from Rabanal del Camino.


I’d passed through Rabanal alone the day before on the way to Foncebadon, the ruined pueblo that is now experiencing a small rebirth as the Camino grows in popularity. My traveling companions, the two Brazilians and one Spaniard, had stopped for a rest earlier on and I’d decided to continue alone before the sun was too high and hot in the sky.

There were two ponies at the entrance of Rabanal. I’ve heard rumors of a pilgrim doing the trail on a pony, and I wonder if those were his or hers. I probably won’t ever know. I stroked the muzzle of one before moving on, passing the pilgrims stopped for lunch or ending their day there. It’s a pretty town with one long main street running from beginning to end uphill, flanked on both sides by tiendas, albergues, and bars. And one strange lean-to with the word “Voluntad” and a table full of little odds and ends you could take, leaving a donation in the box nearby.


I saw a rock there with something written on it I hadn’t expected, and I took it and put some money in the box. As I walked on I heard a voice call “Gracias” from the park to my right, and I could barely make out the figure of a man behind the vines growing on the fence between us. I thanked him and left.

The flat lands were behind me now, and along my left the horizon was blocked by snow-capped peaks. The path was rocky and passed sometimes through dense foliage with flowers in white and purple and yellow, waving in the wind.

Eventually I arrived in the Foncebadon and saw that it was truly a ruin, abandoned except for those who worked there doing business on the Camino. I saw familiar faces and realized the albergues were filling fast, so I hurried to get my bed, hoping my friends weren’t too far behind.


Sarah and Jonathan arrived and found all albergues full, and we sat for a while drinking beers while the hospitalero of one tried to phone ahead to the small encampment beyond the Cruz de Ferro. No answer. He offered them his own bed and said he’d sleep on the couch.

My troupe arrived from the opposite direction I’d expected — I had missed them when they entered the town, and now they were checked in at the parochial albergue up the street, where they would have the communal dinner and breakfast. I booked my dinner with Sarah and Jonathan at their albergue, and we talked about rising early to reach the Cruz de Ferro before sunrise.

Now I was there, having left while there were still stars in the sky. I walked carefully up the mound of rocks, careful not to step on anyone else’s dreams and wishes and dedications, placed my simple rock from Astorga in no particular spot, and left the other (the one from Rabanal) closer to the great wooden post that supports the cross.


I put some distance between me and the cross, and sat in the grass facing the rising sun. I whispered the Shema, and then the only prayer I allow myself to say. I sat quietly for a few moments before standing again.

I continued taking photos of the cross as the light changed, and taking photos for others with their cell phones. Sarah and Jonathan huddled nearby in the cold. After a while she walked up to me in silence and gave me a hug, and handed me a postcard with a note on the back. I read it and tucked it away in my guide book. eventually they gathered their things and asked me if I wanted to walk on, but I chose to wait for the others.


Not long after, they came towards the cross. The sunlight behind them made them difficult to recognize. They placed their rocks, we all took photos, and we carried on to Ponferrada.

First we passed through the tiny refugio Manjarin, isolated and very hippie-inspired. People who stay there overnight go without electricity or plumbing, but they can see the stars.


The other side of the mountains may as well have been Los Angeles. The ground was the same dirt and rock of the Santa Monica mountains, surrounded by scrub brush with the city in the distance, ringed beyond by more mountains (though these were snowcapped). For the first time I found myself feeling homesick.


We stopped for lunch at no place in particular, and Sarah and Jonathan caught up again. We said we’d meet again on the trail or in Ponferrada, but as it turned out we wouldn’t.

In Ponferrada we stayed at the municipal albergue, and didn’t venture out into the city. The albergue has a beautiful courtyard, though the rest is very minimal. But it’s donativo, so you can only be grateful. We ate dinner with some Italians who whipped up pasta in tomato sauce while Alejandro cooked a tortilla that ended up as scrambled eggs and potatos, though still very tasty.

Tomorrow, Villafranca del Bierzo.


Astorga and the Man in White

Thursday, May 15

We arrived in Astorga today, after a peaceful walk through the foothills of the mountains that we’ll begin to climb tomorrow.  We passed through a small pueblo where music was being broadcast on loudspeakers from atop the church. Songs of prayer and also songs about the Camino. “Soy peregrino, soy vagabundo…”  And as we began our descent from a hill into Astorga, a man with a guitar sang a simple but oddly catchy tune about pilgrims. When he learned I was from California he added a verse for me, and also asked me if I had any souvenirs from California on me that I might give him. But I have none, so I could only offer euros.

After checking in at the municipal albergue and eating lunch, Larissa, Miguel, and I lost sight of Alejandro. We walked towards the Cathedral expecting that we might find him there.


But we never made it that far. We were stopped on the street by an old man, dressed all in white with a white hat and white beard. He wore enormous metal rings on his fingers. When he saw us his eyes lit up and he called out, “Peregrinos!” There is a supermarket nearby, he told us hurriedly, where the floor is glass and you can see down into Roman ruins — Astorga is built on an ancient Roman city.

Like any sensible pilgrim would, we followed the strange man quickly through the streets to the supermarket. Farther and farther back into the store, where I was very sure we’d find a meat locker full of other pilgrims. But no, instead we came to a portion of the market where the floor is glass, and below it lies an ancient Roman rain-catching system now in ruin.

The tour wasn’t done yet. He whisked us around the city. He pointed out the distant mountains where there had been gold mines. He brought us to a convent where there was a statue of a pregnant Mary, and a unique sculpture of a woman on the cross. He showed us a ruined Roman amphitheater and gave us rocks he claims are from the construction 2000 years ago. Here, a house where a poet lived. There, a building were Dalí and other artists and poets stayed together. An ancient church, the Cathedral, and a palace designed by Gaudí. A private albergue that was once a jail for women. A plant which grows there and has iodine-rich sap, good for blisters. Often he’d stop every few feet, whirl around to face us, finger outstretched towards small lights embedded in the sidewalk. “Luces! Para peregrinos!”


He rattled off so much information in so little time that our heads were ready to burst and our feet ready to surrender from the endless walking. I asked him his name — he said his name is Amador. He who loves. Everyone we passed knew him and called to him.

We offered to pay him for his time and he declined, but he accepted our invitation to join us for a beer. He’s lived here all his life, being born just outside of the city near a pueblo we passed. He works in art and antiquities, when he’s not escorting pilgrims around town out of the goodness of his heart and his love of his city. We drank together and he told perhaps a thousand Spanish jokes, many of which went right over my head. Finally we said goodbye, and the most surreal experience of the Camino to date came to an end.


What were the chances? How fortunate that we should be there, on that corner, at that moment. Any later and he would’ve been long gone, and we would’ve been none the wiser. Perhaps other pilgrims would’ve been less trusting of the strange man in white, and missed the entire experience.

The Camino is full of such bizarre serendipity.

Pilgrims reading this — if you’re wandering in Astorga and a strange man in white calls to you to follow him, consider saying yes.

Tomorrow we aim for Foncebadon.


Calzadilla, León, Hospital de Órbigo. The accidental 37 kilometers.

Wednesday, May 14

The road out of Calzadilla was quiet. I walked for a time with Lawrence and Pamel, but eventually at my pace we separated. It was a long way, little but wheat and dirt and canals for 24 kilometers, when I came to Mansilla de las Mulas. It was still early, so after a quick bocadillo and a little cerveza I left the town. I intended to stop at Puente Villarente, but the way the busy highway passed noisily through the town didn’t appeal to me. As I was walking I met again with Matthieu, an eminently fashionable Frenchman never seen without scarf and beret, and his new friend Tamie from Brazil. They also intended to continue past the town, but stayed a while by the river to rest.



Five kilometers later I came to Acahueja, a sleepy pueblo like most with just one albergue. Since the center of León was more than 10 kilometers away, I was happy to stop there. A 34km day in total seemed like plenty. When Matthieu and Tamie arrived, I sat on the patio with them and with Nina from Slovenia. We enjoyed a basic pilgrim’s dinner during which Matthieu often remarked half-jokingly about the superiority of French wines over all others, and listened to the stories of two British men who have been doing the Camino in chunks together.

Night time was a chorus of snoring, and morning came at 4:45 when most of the room’s inhabitants decided to wake up and put on a light show with their headlamps and flashlights. I set out in the cold air and dim light knowing that León would be my stop for the day, only a little more than 10km away.

The town was buzzing even in the morning in the plaza in front of the Gaudí house. An important political figure, I think the regional president of the province, had been killed the day before. The details are a bit lost on me but it seems like it was done by an angry former employee.

I walked towards the Cathedral and came across Tamie and Matthieu, who would not be stopping in León that day. We had breakfast together — for me, café con leche and chocolate con churros, apparently a specialty in the city. I took their photos and we said our goodbyes. They walked away hand in hand. Ahh, Camino romance.


Unfortunately I know almost nothing about Tamie, other than that she is a vegetarian. I only met her briefly and she’s very quiet. Matthieu lives in Paris and formerly worked for a company that manages how advertisements are targeted online. So that when you go searching for shoes online and then later visit your favorite news aggregator, you see advertisements in the sidebar for shoes.

This fails to explain why Facebook is so very sure that I should sign up for Christian singles websites.

I booked a bed at the albergue San Fernando de Asís, where I found that my roommate was a Texan father I’d met earlier on the trail. He took a bus ahead of his family to rest his feet, which were in a lot of pain.

I thought I’d go see the cathedral interior, so I began walking there, but I was stopped by Alejandro, a Spaniard who lives in Barcelona but isn’t himself Catalan. We’d first me in Teradillo de Templarios. He’s on his way to the end of the route, having begun along the Camino del Norte before swinging down to join the Francés.

He was having breakfast with a Brazilian girl named Larissa, a Brazilian guy named Miguel, and a Korean I’d met before named John.


John is always bubbling with emotion, usually happy but sometimes sentimental. After dealing with an illness he quit his work and began traveling. He studied martial arts and meditation. He’s attended a lecture by the Dalai Lama in Nepal. He’s lived in India, and a host of countries in southeast Asia. Here on the Camino he has many names — Juanito to the Spanish and Brazilians, Giovanni to the Italians, John to English speakers, Jong-gu to Koreans. He speaks to everyone, knows everyone, and delights everyone. We joke that he’s a legend. La Leyenda de Juanito, Alegría del Camino.


When I told the group I intended to stay in León for a day of rest, all but Alejandro decided to stay as well. I showed them to the albergue I’d found. After some laundry we went out for lunch with the intention of continuing to see the cathedral interior. But the funeral services for the fallen politician were beginning. After speaking with a group of Frenchmen for a time, we went down to a different plaza to meet with Sarah, Jonathan, Antonio, and Kristie.

Sarah and Jonathan have been traveling together for a few days, and the night before they had woken and left their albergue at 2am to walk at night and see the stars. We spoke for a bit before my friends and I left to find the worst dinner we’ve had on the Camino. There’s a restaurant with a sign that says Cafeteria over it near the Cathedral — I can’t recommend it.

We left early the next morning to reunite with Alejandro in the next down. The camino had a fork today, as it has once or twice before, with a choice between walking along the highway or out through the fields. I always choose the fields. We walked the 22km to Mazarife, but it was still early. We walked 10km more to Villavante, and the albergue was full. I tended to two blisters I’d gained through a sloppy taping job on one toe, and we walked another 5km to Hospital de Órbigo. To clarify, that’s the name of the city. I’m not actually in a hospital. And so we accidentally walked 37km today. Oops.

This morning as we walked Larissa described to me why she’s here on the Camino. She’d been working in a office job, like so many of us, and decided she had enough. She felt it wasn’t achieving anything that was important to her, and she wants some time to reconsider what it is she’d like to do. She seems to feel that she doesn’t know what her particular gift or calling is. I think perhaps she hopes to find it here on the Camino.


Once Miguel learned about my former job and that I’d worked on Life of Pi, he spoke to me for a while about how to interpret the story. Was it a boy in a boat with a tiger? Or is the boy the tiger? I explained the interpretations I’d come to know and shared what seems to me to be the moral of the tale — when in doubt about the truth and in either case the core of it all remains the same, choose the better story. The one you prefer.

Alejandro overheard and we talked also for a time about a book he’s reading, about a wealthy businessman who, after a heart attack, decides to sell everything and learn from monks. It’s a story about the importance of willpower and controlling your mind rather than having it control you and paralyze you. I tried to will away the blisters I could feel forming on my toe, but I think that’s probably a bit literal.

So tonight we’re in Hospital de Órbigo. In León, Sarah said that the shortness of her remaining time on the Camino was becoming something clear and imminent for her. She seems to want me to reunite with her and Jonathan one more time as they travel to the Cruz de Ferro. All that is honestly a bit surreal after the events of last week.

Very hungry, and very much looking forward to a proper pilgrim’s menu tonight.


Villafranca Montes de Oca and Burgos

Two nights ago. I still owe you photos. We’ve been traveling larger than usual distances each day and that’s left me a bit too drained for photo transfer, selection, and editing.

Dinner in Grañon was as great as I expected. We all worked together to set out tables and dishes and chairs, and enjoyed a raucous meal in a many languages. Then we formed assembly lines to clean the dishes and clear the room.

Afterwards we went into the choir of the church for a prayer. We all sat in the wooden seats against the walls, tea candles on each arm rest. One of the hospitaleras lit a candle and explained that we should think or say a prayer or wish or whatever comes to our minds. She encouraged us to say it aloud but it wasn’t a requirement.

When the candle reached me I stared at it for what seemed like forever until finally I spoke. I confessed aloud for the first time that since the winter I’ve only allowed myself a single prayer, which is for the safety my niece and her family, excepting myself. It’s hardly rational, but I guess I have a notion that if I don’t allow myself any other pleas, this one becomes more powerful. (My scientific mind scoffs and my heart tells it to shush.)

I also expressed thanks for the company I’ve had on the trip, meeting eyes with the Italians as I did so.

After this a woman told me she would pray for my niece and sister too. I got a bit teary, I admit.

In the morning Danilo left early. We hugged and said we’d see each other again. I packed my things and said my goodbyes to Michele, Lidia, and Chiara. Fierce hugs and watery eyes. I told them “Ci vediamo,” and set out.

As I left town the church bell chimed seven. The sun was barely beginning to light the sky. I made my way out into the hills, alone for the first time. As the sun rose the ground was orange and my shadow in front of me long and blue.

I passed Viloria, where Sarah had stayed the night before. Assuming she’d left by now I continued to Tosantos. She caught up with me shortly after, announcing herself with a playful surprise pounce. Having walked alone for the morning I was very happy to see her. We traveled together to Villafranca Montes de Oca, a tiny hamlet with no apparent place for anyone to actually live. Just a market, church, the municipal albergue, and a grand looking hotel/albergue up on a hill that sported a well-manicured lawn.

We went there at first, surprised a bit when a peacock met us at the door. She was just leaving as we came in. Disculpe.

Discovering that the albergue had no real kitchen, we went to the municipal instead. Sarah had been carrying lentils for somewhere around 100 years and was eager to finally cook them. First we had tea out back and then grabbed some beers and went to the hotel’s big fancy lawn to enjoy the sun and talk.

We described our homes to each other, in New Zealand for her and LA/Florida for me. And we talked about places we’d gone and what we’d seen. And why we are here on this Camino. For her, the Camino is one etapa as a part of her stay in Spain, learning the language and working at an NGO and meeting with friends all being other etapas in that collection.

For me… well, I mostly discussed with her the same things I wrote in my previous blog entry. Adventure yes but also happiness and ambition and contributing something of meaning and value to the world. All the thoughts swirling in my head these past two or three days.

Dinner was awesome. She’s a great cook. We shared a bottle of rioja and received consejos from and older Spaniard we often see walking and talk to. He and she actually found themselves in a lengthy and deep conversation to do with suffering and choice. She’s well beyond competent with Spanish so I had to focus carefully to follow.

This morning we took off early for Burgos, 37ish kilometers away. We passed over the hills easily and decided we could do it. After a break for breakfast I gave her a head start — from time to time she likes to walk alone at her own pace, which can be break-neck or meandering, depending.

I walked with Sue, who I had not seen for many days. We talked about her family and the Camino and stopped for Coke in Atapuerca, where Sarah passed us. Sue didn’t want to end the day but she was a bit anxious about crossing over the hills when she’d already walked a bit. She asked me to walk with her to distract her, which I was very happy to do. She’s a joy. On the other side we said goodbye near her albergue, and I continued on.

Muscles, joints, ligaments, all quite happy. But lo and behold, chafing. For the first time on the whole trip, and it had to happen on the longest day. I passed through village after village and found them devoid of markets and pharmacies, so I plodded on very uncomfortably and painfully. After an eternity of highway and sidewalk I reached the outskirts of Burgos and found a market to buy some relief. Then I carried on into Burgos and arrived at Albergue Emaus, a parochial albergue where we’d enjoy some quiet compared to the municipal, along with a lovely mass and communal dinner. Our hospitalera, Marie Noëlle, is a wonderfully kind woman who has taken great care of us tonight. Sarah is quite lucky to be enjoying a private room, because the only other woman here tonight is married and has a room with her husband. I’m sharing a room with two Italians and a German, all quite friendly.

Earlier Sarah and I enjoyed beers and olives in the plaza where the Cathedral lies, after first touring it. All in all, Burgos has been lovely once I got passed the outskirts of town.

And now I lay me down to sleep.


Roncesvalles to Zubiri — Rest for the Weary

Written a day ago, with photos added tonight in Pamplona:

We woke early to the lights of the albergue in Roncesvalles and the singing of a guitarist as he walked up and down the halls. Dressed and packed, Lidia, Chiara, and I walked out into the cold morning and the light rain, through muddy paths.


We passed through forests and farms, past horses and rams and cows and found ourselves in Burguete, a tiny medieval town where we stopped for coffee and a croissant. The streets were lined with a drainage ditch than ran like a tiny stream, though not one I’d be keen on drinking from. Leaving Burguete we passed through a farm where the bulls walked up to the fence and drank the waterfall from the roof’s rain gutters. I tried to get very close, but they frighten easily.


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