After finishing the Camino, we headed down to the south of Spain for some much needed rest and relaxation.
Our first weekend in Moraira was spent with Cat’s British family where we enjoyed frequent sunny days on the beach and even a few dips in the pool. It was wonderful to be surrounded by family, especially Cat’s youngest cousins: Jessica, Alex and Aidan who range in age from 4 (and three quarters, in case you were keeping score) down to 20 months old. We celebrated a birthday, ate paella, and even had a proper Sunday lunch, British style.
After a lively long weekend, some of the gang returned home to London. With a smaller crew, we settled in and resolved to spend the rest of our time here enjoying a low key lifestyle for a bit: indulging in long siestas, embracing days spent lounging with a book, and – of course – eating well.
Where we were staying, the Costa Blanca, has a large population of British and German nationals and, lucky for us, that meant a lot of restuarant options, which we were (probably unsurprisingly) excited about. Along with the delicious seafood paella that the south of Spain is known for, we ate German schnitzel, British style fish and chips, and even Chinese food.
It was wonderful to stay in one place for two weeks, be with family and wind down but we are excited to hit the road again!
Special thanks to Aunty Carol and Uncle Paul for being such generous hosts and making our time in Moraira so special. We truly felt so at home there and hope to visit again soon (don’t worry Uncle Paul, it won’t be too soon). A shoutout to Mama Jane who brought us reserve supplies from the U.S. And we can’t forget to thank Nanny Audrey who brought us crumpets all the way from Buckingham (they’re John’s favorite) and for making us homemade Yorkshire puddings (for those of you from the States who don’t know what these are, trust us you’re missing out).
We spent the next three days in Santiago exploring the sights, trying the many tapas and seafood on offer, and meandering the streets of the old city. Although a part of us missed the Camino, we thoroughly enjoyed being tourists for a few days.
The highlight of Santiago, for us, was experiencing the Pilgrim’s Mass on Sunday. The Cathedral of Santiago was full with a standing room only crowd packed in along the sides of the densely populated pews, with people displaying a range of emotions: some were feverishly chatting with friends from the trip, others were sitting quiet in prayer, while still others were overcome with emotion from arriving in the Cathedral after whatever it was that brought them to it in the first place. The mass was rich with tradition and thoroughly international with readings in a several different languages. Most spectacular, however, was the end of the service. Despite the facades, chapels and architecture, the Cathedral is perhaps best known for the Botafumeiro, the largest censer in the world that is swung high into the church’s ceiling vaults to disperse incense over the crowd below. Operating the Botafumerio takes eight men, called tiraboleiros, to pull the ropes to get the massive urn in motion and ultimately reaching speeds of up to 80 km/hr as it soars over the crowd. The censer is only used during holy years and on important religious holidays but we were lucky that it was in use for our Mass that afternoon. The sight was truly awe inspiring and left the crowd silent, many with mouths agape. We were grateful to have this experience at our mass – a rare treat.
As Catherine already knew well, John was rarely right twice in a row and day thirty-two proved that it can, in fact, rain very hard for a lot longer than twenty minutes – this time it lasted for about eight hours. We didn’t take many pictures, but if you google “torrential downpour” you can get an idea of what we were walking through. We thought about waiting for the ark to arrive but decided against it given Cat’s propensity for sea sickness and John’s animal allergies. It poured for the entire day without ever letting up. We were soaked through – right down to our unmentionables – but as we have said before along the Camino, no matter the what the day throws at a pilgrim, there is only one thing he or she can do: keep walking. We arrived in Palas de Rei with wet gear and soaked boots but with smiles on our faces and spent the evening bonding with other pilgrims as we stuffed our shoes with newspaper and unsuccessfully tried to dry our clothes.
The next few days were spent walking through Galicia. It is the rainiest region of Spain but is also said to be one of the most beautiful along the Camino. As we entered this region, we both thoroughly enjoyed the green scenery and beautiful views, not to mention the occasional Señora helping her son herd cows across the Camino path!
After walking over 50 kilometers during days twenty-six and twenty seven, we finally arrived in O Cebriero on day twenty-eight – a picturesque town on the top of a mountain. Although it is far from any major city, it is visited by many tourists due to the role it has played in the history of the Camino. In fact, in the eighties, the Parish Priest from O Cebreiro is credited with the resurgence of the camino as he first painted the yellow arrows that we have been following since we left Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. His goal was to make the Camino “accessible to all” and by beginning the tradition of painting yellow arrows on rocks, highways and stop-signs his legacy ensures that every pilgrim (even directionally challenged ones like Cat) can find their way to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compestela today.
Although today is said to be one of the hardest days of the Camino – as you summit the highest mountain – it was one of the days we were both looking forward to the most.
Right before reaching the top of the mountain, pilgrims come to a cross, the Cruz de Ferro. Legend has it that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute by bringing a stone. This tradition continues today with pilgrims placing a stone brought from home at the foot of the cross – the act symbolizing the leaving behind of spiritual burdens carried by him or her to this point. Pilgrims have been doing this for years and we were extremely excited to take part in this tradition.
After leaving the cross, we continued down the mountain to the town of Molinaseca, where we decided to reward ourselves by going out for dinner in town – a rare treat. We had a wonderful meal of local favorites, but when we went to pay we found out that the restaurant didn’t accept credit cards. Of course, this time we left our cash back at the albergue which was a little over 1km outside of the town. It was decided that Cat would wait at the restaurant (all the while hoping she wouldn’t have to start doing dishes), while John headed back to the albergue. But, in a quick turn of events, our waitress came running out right as John started walking yelling, “bici, bici!” John looked over his shoulder and saw her holding a bike and motioning for him to get on. Glad to not have to walk any further that day and excited to be on a bike for the first time in probably a decade, John raced back to the albergue, wind in his hair, and was back within minutes. The kindness of our Spanish hosts continued to be a hallmark of our trip that day and made for yet another fond memory.
Today we walked from Astorga to Rabanal and we finally felt like we were back in the swing of the Camino after our day off in Leon. To make the day even better, we stayed at a donativo run by the Brits. Unlike the Italians, there wasn’t a communal dinner where seconds and thirds were encouraged, but instead, tea and biscuits were served promptly at 4pm by a roaring fire. Later in the evening, our host broke out the guitar and played late into the evening (or at least until lights out). Although it was nothing like being with Cat’s family in England, it was a lovely treat and will tide us over until we have English tea again soon. Hopefully we will also have some smuggled in crumpets for tea time next month!
Our final morning in Leon started with a decadent breakfast at our hotel. Generally, a bowl of bread from the last night’s dinner, a few jars of jam, and a cup of coffee passes for a fantastic breakfast at the albergues we have been staying at and our hotel’s breakfast of eggs, meat, cheese, fresh coffee and, of course, Spanish pastries left us overjoyed – and a bit overstuffed. After breakfast, we took a tour through the hotel grounds to see some of the historic sights within the building, including the choir loft at the monastery’s church, one of the most beautiful of it’s kind in all of Spain.
After our large breakfast and a lovely tour, we wanted to climb back into bed to sleep off the last helpings of sausage and cakes – but it was time to check out and that meant (slowly) setting off again to cover the 20 km to the small town of Villafranca.
The next morning, we awoke early and headed to Astorga. With a stunning Cathedral and a palace built by Gaudi, it quickly became one of our favorite small towns along the Camino. As if a rich architectural history wasn’t enough to get us excited, Astorga is known throughout Spain for its history of chocolate production. Even though the chocolate museum was closed for renovation, we were sure to be thorough in our cultural exploration and tried a sampling of the town’s best. Once John was able to tear Cat away from the many chocolate shops, we managed to check out the town’s gothic cathedral and museum and head back to the albergue to cook dinner before lights out at 10 pm.
Although we enjoyed the days spent walking through the fields of the Meseta, we were excited to enter the bustling city of Leon. We arrived early that morning and dropped our backpacks off at the albergue where we would be staying the first night in town before heading into the historic center for lunch. John nicknamed the place the “Roach Motel” due to the bars on the windows and moderately creepy fluorescent lights. (Note to our moms: don’t worry, the place was clean – just sketchy around the edges). Our timing was perfect – it was the first day of the city’s largest festival so we spent the afternoon walking through the medieval stalls set up for the celebration. After a visit to the Pantheon and a pit stop to try yet another style of morcilla, the blood sausage typical of Leon, we ended our day at an outdoor concert in the main plaza.
We decided that Leon – full of history, culture and beautiful sights – was the perfect spot to spend an extra day exploring. So, the next morning, rather than continue walking, we started our day at a panaderia, where we ordered a variety of pastries (to ensure a balanced breakfast), before swinging by the Leon history museum.
Our next tourist destination – the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Leon. Along The Way, we were told how beautiful this Cathedral was and we were not disappointed. With almost 1,800 square meters of stained glass windows, the lighting within the church was breathtaking and unlike anything we had ever seen before. For those who know John, it will come as no surprise that we opted for the audio-guide, and after the tour was over, we headed to our final stop for the day, the Hostal de San Marcos, where we would be checking in for our second evening in town. It was a beautiful place and worlds away from the night prior’s accomodations. The hotel is housed in the Convent de San Marcos, a beautiful and historic building that has been meticulously restored with a keen eye toward revering the buildings rich past. Besides being itself a work of art, the site has been housing pilgrims since the twelfth century and has been a major stopping point along the Camino for nearly its entire history. We spent hours walking the halls, observing the art and antiques, and touring the cloisters. Although we didn’t officially walk the Camino that day, being tourists was rather exhausting and after our busy day of site-seeing we headed back to our room for hot baths and a good night’s rest.
At this point in the Camino, we entered the heart of the Meseta, a high central plateau that makes up forty percent of Spain’s geography. The start of the Meseta was beautiful – large, open landscapes full of rich earth tones and the smell of freshly overturned farm land. With big blue sky, lots of hay and the occasional tractor, Cat felt quite at home. The walking was generally flat but the heat and lack of sun cover posed new challenges for all the fearless pilgrims passing through.
After sixteen days of walking, we were excited to begin what is commonly viewed as one of the more reflective portions of the Camino – with the flat terrain and little on the horizon to hold your focus, this is a time to be deep in thought for several hours a day. As always, Cat still had a lot to talk about but managed to embrace the monotony of the Meseta. We thoroughly enjoyed the meditative nature of the walking and we often walked alone for long stretches at a time, meeting back up in the next town a few kilometers ahead. At points, if we found a patch of trees or a large flat stone, we would sit on the side of the path and meditate. We also found that repeatedly singing the Kenny and the Scots song, “I would walk 500 miles” was an effective way to keep spirits high and ward off any brewing arguments – it always put a smile on even the grumpiest face (cough… John).
One night during this stage, we stayed at an albergue where we enjoyed a lovingly prepared communal dinner. We sat with a group of French pilgrims and traded a few stories – with poorly spoken Spanish being our common language. In a charming turn of events, a friend from Barcelona we hadn’t seen since our night at the monastery at San Anton was also staying at the same place and, as it was her twenty fourth birthday that day, we celebrated with homemade cake and rounds of Happy Birthday in five different languages.
As the Meseta drew to a close and we neared the city of Leon, we felt a sense of accomplishment and connectedness for having spent the last several days walking, thinking and listening to the quiet that surrounded us.
We left Burgos and headed to the small town of Hornillos, where we spent a quiet night cooking dinner and doing laundry using the albergue’s washing machine (another small luxury on the Camino). In the morning, we began the trek to San Anton. Historically, San Anton was home to a convent and pilgrim’s hospital and was a major stopping point for pilgrims looking for a hot meal, a place the rest and respite from the thieves and dangerous elements that abounded in the area. All that remains of the sprawling 14th century complex are a few walls and a stone arch that spans the Camino road. An ad hoc albergue has been set up in the ruins to give pilgrims a taste of what life there may have once been like. The albergue has no electricity nor hot water – just a large room with 12 beds, a sink, a stove and a large table where the pilgrims eat a communal dinner by candlelight. It may have been a bit rougher than usual but the stars, candles and good company made for an excellent evening.
Coming off a great experience at the monastery, we walked the next day to the Ermitage de San Nicolas de Bari, a small donativo run by an Italian confraternity. This albergue is well-known for its welcoming spirit and also for its traditional ritual of washing the feet of the pilgrims, which made our stay even more special. Lucky for us, even though the main building didn’t have electricity, a small solar panel powered the outdoor bathroom providing hot water and enough electricity to charge our phones.
The night prior, our French hospitalero, while friendly, was lacking in culinary acumen and John was tasked with cooking dinner for the group. With Italian hosts, we were confident that we would not only have a wonderful time but also eat very well – we were not disappointed. Our dinner of risotto by candlelight was delicious and one of our fellow pilgrims, a man from Germany, played songs on the guitar late into the evening. After a good meal, German music, and many laughs, we all headed outside to watch the stars. It was a crystal clear night and the stars were spectacular! We were very lucky to be able to enjoy such a wonderful night with such a kind group of people.
The twelfth day of the Camino had us entering the town of Burgos, the largest city we had encountered since starting the Camino. We got into town early to explore the city, the sights, and of course, the local food. With a lot to see and do in Burgos, we decided to spend an extra night in town, and – after two weeks of sharing large dormitory rooms with our often snoring and always smelly fellow pilgrims – we thought it was time to reward ourselves and get a hotel room. After weeks of sleeping in bunk beds and showering in flip-flops we were overjoyed to have our own space, fresh sheets, and even a bath tub! We were excited to settle into our room, but before we could get too cozy we were off wandering around the city. Burgos is home to one of Spain’s most beautiful gothic cathedrals and the most special part of our visit was seeing the beautiful star ceilings inside that are designed to offer the observer a view into the heavens. The intricacy of the multi-leveled ceiling was beyond description and our photos hardly do it justice.
After leaving the Cathedral, we headed out to the plaza to try some of the amazing food of Burgos – most famous of the many tapas we tried were morcilla de Burgos, a local variety of blood sausage, and queso de Burgos, a soft, white cheese. Full of sausage, cheese and other regional fare, we headed back to the hotel for a long, hot bath and a good night of rest.
The next morning we decided to sleep in – a rare luxury on the Camino (most albergues require you to be out the door by 8am and our own schedules often had us on the road much earlier) – but before long, we were back in the swing of things. We checked out of our hotel and into the albergue in which we would spend our second night in town.
After a leisurely morning, we were standing in one of the many city plazas, struggling to find our intended lunch destination on a map we had snagged from our hotel a day earlier. We must have looked particularly lost (or hopeless) because a kind, British ex-pat walked up to us to offer us some help. While he didn’t know where the restaurant we were looking for was located, he did us one better and invited us to join him for lunch at a spot nearby. Also along for lunch was Ben’s mother Lari, who was visiting from London, and his wife Marion. We had an extended lunch with amazing food and great conversation and most importantly, tried what seemed like every dish on the restaurant’s extensive menu. After our food tour of Burgos was complete, we spent the rest of the afternoon touring the town with our new friend and expert guide and his lovely mum.
All in all – it was a day we will certainly remember and the best part: we will be meeting Ben and Marion in Madrid next month to attend a concert before we ship off to India!
After a light breakfast of coffee and bread before leaving Granon, we were hoping to stop halfway through our day’s walk in Tosantos, a town with a population of 40, for lunch. However, when we arrived, the church was not yet open and the only cafe in town was closed for the week – according to the sign on the door the family that runs it had gone on vacation.
Naturally, Cat was starving and with the next town 8 km away, she didn’t know how she would make it. John – already aware of the consequences of a ‘hangry’ girlfriend – knew that they would have to find a solution quickly. They say it is darkest before the dawn and just as the duo believed all hope was lost, the good Lord did two pilgrims a favor. At first, we heard an odd ringing noise – somewhere between the sound of an ice cream truck and an ambulance. And with that noise, a truck pulled up with a loaf of bread painted on the side. Cat lunged forward, the idea of waving the truck down for a loaf of bread to good not to try. And then, before Catherine could even lay down in the road to force the truck to stop, a Spanish man came strolling down the road, coin purse in hand and suddenly the door of the truck swung open to reveal an entire bakery on wheels. As we soon learned, many of these small Camino towns – too small to support an entire bread shop – are supplied fresh bread by a bakery a few towns away. Cat was able to buy not only bread but a bag of cookies too. John, knowing better than to take Cat on a long trip without a snack handy, had a can of pâté in his bag and after a tasty sandwich and a few cookies the pair was back on the road to the next town.
That night we slept in the town of Villafranca and, after a good night of rest, we awoke to start our walk into the beautiful city of Burgos, the place where we will be taking our first rest day and most importantly – sleeping in!
With nine days (and nine different albergues) behind us, we have begun to really appreciate the little moments where we get to connect with the Camino’s history, traditions and the strong sense of camaraderie among our fellow pilgrims. One place where these facets of the experience really come together is at the Albergue Parroquials, which are staffed by volunteers and typically located at the town’s main church. They are also known as ‘donativos’ as there is no set price for the stay and pilgrims are invited to spend the night, enjoy a large, communal dinner prepared by the hosts and enjoy breakfast with fellow pilgrims in the morning before departing. Lucky for us, Granon, the last town in the region of Rioja was home to a highly recommended donativo. This church stay was much larger than the last one we had visited and we were excited to see what the evening would bring.
After helping the two extremely energetic hospitaleros prepare dinner, we headed downstairs to attend the evening mass. Once mass was complete, the parish priest led our small group to a room in the back of the church to see some of the small parish’s most cherished artifacts: a series of books, each hundreds of years old and hand-written on leather pages that tell the history of the Camino. Cat, never one to pass up an opportunity to be friendly, had been chatting with our hosts in Spanish much of the evening and, apparently, her Spanish was so good that she was asked to translate the priest’s history lesson into English for the rest of the group – hilarity quickly ensued but with only a few hand gestures and funny looks we were able to get the main points of the lesson communicated. After our tour, we had a delicious meal with the 38 other pilgrims staying with us and ended the evening in the candlelit choir loft with prayers, hugs and wishes of “buen camino.”
On day seven, we set a personal record, leaving the alburgue at 6:15am. Due to a festival celebrating the first grape pressing of the year, the alburgues and hostels were much busier than usual so we wanted to get a jump on the day. Unfortunately we weren’t the first pilgrims on the trail, but we are working on it! John still likes the snooze button but Catherine runs a tight ship and she is prevailing (no surprise to anyone, but don’t tell John).
We arrived in the small town of Viana at around 10am, early enough to get the first spot in line to stay at the “alburgue parochial” – a donation based alburgue run by the church. With only 15 beds, an abundance of charm and both a family-style dinner and breakfast with your fellow pilgrims, we knew it would be a popular destination. Lucky for us, our friends from Pamplona and a couple we’d made close friends with from Northern Spain got in line as well so it became quite a party while we were waiting for the doors to open. The albergue opened on time and we settled in, showered up and washed our clothes (by hand, in the sink of course).
While church stays are a wonderful experience – rich with charm, history and community – there is one catch: you sleep on thin pads placed on the floor, one pilgrim next to the other.
After attending Mass at the church next door with our pilgrim compatriots, we were called up to the altar for a special blessing for the pilgrims. After mass, we all rushed back up the the albergue where we had a wonderful meal waiting for us – lovingly prepared by our generous hospitalera. Even the priest joined us for the meal. After a delicious dinner and lively (and heavily accented) conversation, we headed back over to the church for a candle-lit prayer service led by Father Jose Marie. It was one of our most cherished experiences thus far and we feel immensely lucky to be part of such a rich tradition.
The next three days were lovely, if slightly less eventful. We entered the region of La Rioja – famous for it’s wine – and spent our days walking through the lush vineyards on either side of the way. The grapes were fat and getting ready for harvest, but – surprisingly to two New Yorkers – were not behind barbed wire or high fences. Rather, the vines were out in the open but completely safe. It seemed as if there was an unspoken agreement between the pilgrims and the farmers to respect each other.
We ran into several “old” friends along the way and made many new ones and were privileged to see some very beautiful countryside in the process.
Today started with a little revelry as we passed the Fuente de Vino (Fountain of Wine). The inscription on the fountain reads:
“Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”
Although it was not yet 8 in the morning, pilgrims lined up to take a swig of wine to fortify themselves for the walk ahead. We passed some beautiful scenery on our walk and made it into town without incident – nearly a week in and we are starting to find our rhythm.
We checked into a great albergue at the edge of town and made some new friends while relaxing on the patio and finishing our peppers and chorizo from the day before. After a light snack, we ventured off to see the local church: home to the Black Madonna with Light Blue Eyes. The church and town was lovely and after making ourselves a modest dinner of spaghetti, tomato sauce and chicken, we climbed into bed to get ready for tomorrow’s early start.
Today was supposed to be a relatively easy day of walking- only 24 kilometers! That being said, at this point in our adventure, our bodies and, most importantly, our feet are still getting accustomed to waking up, putting all of our belongings on our backs and walking. It was a tough day and even though we arrived in the early afternoon, we were exhausted. Luckily, we are making a lot of friends along the way.
As we entered Estella, our stop for the evening, we ran into new friends – a young couple from the north of Spain completing the camino together – who suggested we join them and stay at Albergue ANFAS. ANFAS is the association for the mentally and developmentally disabled in Navarre and the albergue they run is unique in that the proceeds go to benefit the foundation and the albergue provides jobs for people with disabilities. After walking into town and complaining about the long walk and sore feet, being reminded of how lucky we were to be here and to be able to take this trip hit us pretty hard. Many people have to overcome tremendous challenges on a daily basis and we are so blessed to have our health and this incredible opportunity – things we easily take for granted. At this point John got some dust in his eye, well both eyes actually.
After a much needed nap, we went for a walk around the town and explored the sites: this little town was home to three incredible churches. We also stopped by the market to pick up some chicken and potatoes to cook for our dinner. After a hearty meal and a lot of laughs, we hopped into our bunk beds at 10, already excited for the day to come.
On our fourth day, we crossed the Sierra del Perdon (Perdon means pardon in English). Since the 11th century, when a pilgrim’s hospital was built at the top of the mountain, legend has it that after a pilgrim crosses this peak, the soul of that pilgrim will be saved even if he or she dies during the remainder of the journey before reaching Santiago de Compostela. This bit of knowledge came in handy later in the day when John was stung by a bee – it was only a flesh wound but it was nice to know we were safe just in case the bee had gotten the better of him.