Category Archives: Walking the Camino Frances

Southern Sun

I’ve spent the last two weeks relaxing on the Costa del Sol. The first few days were spent in Marbella, a generic beach resort. Then I made a loop through Malaga, Sevilla, and Cordoba. Malaga is my favorite city in this area, with a big port, nice beaches, and a compact but interesting city center. There are Roman ruins, the Alcazaba – a Moorish castle, and it is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.

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Sevilla is a large flat city that I did not find particularly interesting. Every university in the U.S. must have a study abroad program in Sevilla as there are thousands of American students there. It’s the only place in Spain I’ve seen Starbucks, and there are 3 within a few blocks near the university.

Cordoba has one thing I wanted to see – its Roman bridge.

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It was built in the first century B.C., and is one of six bridges in Cordoba. But for over 2000 years, until a second bridge was built in 1952, it was the only bridge in Cordoba. And it is still in use today. When they say they don’t build them like they used to, this is what they must mean.

Astorga to Santiago

After leaving Astorga it was about a 27 km walk to the summit of Cruz de Ferro (1500m).

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I continued another 9 km down to the village of Acebo where I stopped for the night.

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The next morning the Camino continued to descend to the village of Molinaseca where I had breakfast, then continued on to Ponferrada. Ponferrada is a beautiful city.

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I wish I had stopped there for a day, but I wanted to get over the final mountain of the walk before it began to rain. I completed 40 km of walking for the day in Villafranca del Bierzo. It is in the center of the Bierzo wine region, known for Mencia wines that are aged for as little as two months. I did learn that there are 3 reasons the Mencia grape is grown exclusively in this region, but my Spanish gave out on me before I learned what the 3 reasons are.

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The next day was a 30 km climb to the summit of O Cebreiro (1330 m).

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Friday night was very stormy with fierce winds and heavy rain, but by morning there were just occasional showers. I walked 43 km through thick mud to Sarria, just over 100 km from Santiago.

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The quality of the food had plummeted after Astorga, and Saturday night I got food poisoning. Sunday my whole body ached and I struggled to drag myself 21 km to the next village, Portomarin. The number of pilgrims also increased drastically after Sarria – I saw more pilgrims on Sunday than I had seen previously in the entire month. In order to get the Compostela, the certificate that one has walked to Santiago, one must walk 100 km. Therefore many people start walking in Sarria because it is 100 km away.

I had 7-Up and ice cream for lunch on Sunday, then slept for 16 hours. I felt much better Monday morning, and after a breakfast of bananas I did an easy 22 km. to Palas de Rei. Tuesday I took it easy again and walked 25 km to Arzua through occasional rain showers.

Tuesday night there was heavy rain, but once again by morning there were just light showers. I thought I was going to walk into Santiago having never been rained on. But after about an hour it began to pour, and it poured on and off all day. In places the mud and water was calf deep, and since my shoes were only ankle high they were soon filled with mud and water. Wednesday turned into a 39 km slog into Santiago – I didn’t want to stop because I didn’t want to have to put on wet and muddy shoes the next day.

I was planning to leave today (Friday) for Finisterre, but my shoes are still wet, so I’ll leave in the morning. It is 90 km to Finisterre, and when I reach there I will have walked to what was the end of the earth for most of European history.

Astorga

I’ve stopped in Astorga for a couple of days because of a forecast of heavy rain which hasn’t materialized. Astorga has turned out to be a great great place to be stuck in the rain. There is the Gaudi Palace, designed to be the bishop’s residence, which is now a museum. I usually refuse to pay admission to anything owned by the catholic church on moral grounds, but in this case I made an exception and it was worth it.

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The last photo is the basement, which gives you an idea of the attention to detail throughout the building.

Astorga was an important Roman city in northern Spain, and there are many Roman ruins including a bridge that is still in use and several thermal baths. There are several spas in town because of the natural hot springs in the area. And best of all, Astorga is Spain’s ‘City of Chocolate’. There are more chocolate and pastry shops per capita than I’ve seen anywhere.

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Most of the people I know from the first few days of walking are several days behind me. Almost everyone has had terrible blisters or injuries that have slowed them down. I’ve been fortunate not to have had any problems so far, and there are several other people who are moving along at a steady clip that I run into almost daily.

This morning while I was having breakfast Marco from Liguria walked into town. His wife has to run their hotel alone while he is walking, so he walks 30 km per day so he can finish on schedule. His feet are in such bad condition that he can’t put shoes on, so he swathes his feet in gauze and walks in sandals. When he gets home his wife is going on a beach holiday to the Philippines. She’s much more sensible than he is.

Next through town was Christophe, a Frenchman who started walking from Geneva two months ago. He doesn’t speak much English so I don’t know much about him, but he leaves late and walks fast like me so I see him more often than anyone else.

There were also two French ladies I saw often, Natasha and Camille, who went home from Leon and will return next year to walk the rest of the way. Neither of them speaks much English but they still manage to be hilarious. They can’t understand how the Spanish, even the Basques who live near France and therefore should know better, can be so uncivilized as to drink red wine chilled. They are almost as bad as the Americans, although certainly not as barbaric as the Germans who drink beer and eat sausage even when they visit France. Sometimes they would make me laugh so hard I was afraid chilled red wine would come out of my nose.

There are many interesting people you meet once and never see again. There was a guy from Brussels I met the day before walking into Burgos with whom I spent hours talking about Graham Greene, the reconquest of Spain, and the many used of the word ‘log’, among other things. A history professor from Oxford who told me all about the history of the Romans in Spain, then showed me her tattoos of some American pop band I’ve never heard of. And Paco (short for Francisco) a retired engineer from Madrid who spent the day showing me around Leon. He explained what all the different types of cured meats are (unfortunately the very tasty ‘ham’ I’ve had for breakfast a couple of times is horse meat), told me about the regional wines, and ordered me some regional delicacies for lunch. He belongs to a club that helps to maintain the Camino, and walks it often so he can practice his English now that he is retired.

Most of the people walking aren’t doing it for religious reasons. The exceptions include the conventional – I think Marco is religious, there is a priest I met the first week – and unconventional – a guy from Chile who is walking barefoot.

There are also a number of people who are at an inflection point in their lives and are walking in order to contemplate what comes next. Alene from Geneva was fired by the company where she has worked since graduating from school at 14 and she has problems with her family. She started walking from Le Puy, France about 6 weeks ago. The last time I saw her a few days ago she sampling at a snails pace – I think she doesn’t know what to do after reaching Santiago so she is trying to prolong the journey.

Some people continually walk the Camino, either because they didn’t find what they were searching for when they reached Santiago, or for economic reasons.

Of course, what we all want to see but no one has spotted yet is a pilgrim with a donkey. Walking the Camino and not seeing a pilgrim with a donkey is like going to Australia and not seeing a kangaroo.

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Leon

I left Castrojeriz at 9:30 in the morning but still got stuck in rush hour traffic.

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The next 3 days were spent crossing the meseta, one of the two large plateaus in Spain. It is about 75 miles wide and almost perfectly flat.

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There are buildings that are very similar in construction to the California missions, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in Europe.

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These underground houses are a common sight and made me glad I wasn’t walking here in the summer – it must be very hot.

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It is interesting that in Spain there are no buildings outside of the villages. All of the farmers live in the villages and even their barns and equipment sheds are in the villages, so one can walk for miles between villages without seeing a building. It is also rare to see a tractor in Spain that isn’t a John Deere.

This morning I arrived in Leon, the last major city until Santiago. It is about 2/3 of the way across. It has a massive Gothic cathedral that was built when Leon had only 5000 residents. It is hard to believe that a town with the population of Durham could build something so impressive. Like many buildings in Europe it incorporates materials from Roman buildings that were on the site previously. If you look closely at some of the columns I’m pretty sure you can see depictions of the Pagan gods Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite.

Wheat

Today I once again walked all day through rolling hills covered in wheat.

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I did see some sheep dogs that reminded me of Hannah.

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And I stopped to eat a few times.

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I noticed that while in Berkeley they will make anything over 5 years old an historic monument, in Europe they have more ruins than they know what to do with – in this case they put the road right through one.

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I have been walking without a guide or map – I’ve just been following the yellow arrows that mark the Camino de Santiago. Because of a couple of mishaps (couldn’t find food or water one afternoon, and ended up in the middle of nowhere late on another afternoon) I finally broke down and bought a book of maps of the Camino Frances. Consequently, I know that I walked exactly 40.5 kilometers (just over 25 miles) today from Burgos to Castrojeriz. I left Burgos just after 9:30 and arrived in Castrojeriz just after 6. Deducting the time I was stopped, I walked for a bit under 7 hours, so about 3.5 miles per hour or just under 6 km per hour. It is 444 km from here to Santiago, so it will take about 80 more hours of walking.

On to Burgos

Logrono was a wonderful city and I decided to stay there an extra night. The Ebro River runs Ali.g the edge of the city and there is a very nice park along the river.

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The old part of the city is closed to traffic and has cafes and restaurants along the streets and in the squares where people stroll in the evenings. There is an area called Calle Laurel that is a series of alleys filled with tapas bars. It is nice Togo from place to place trying the variety of food and wine.

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I left Logrono on Friday an walked about 25 miles through vineyards to the town of Azofra.

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Saturday the vineyards ended and I walked about 25 miles through rolling hills of wheat fields to Belorado. Sunday I climbed through the pine forests of the Montes de Oca, then climbed the steep Matogrande and made it about another 25 miles to Cardenuela Riopoco, just outside of Burgos.

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This morning I had a short 9 mile walk to Burgos. Burgos has one of the great cathedrals of Europe.

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The cathedral dominates the old part of the city, and the newer part is very industrial. I plan to leave tomorrow.

The Heart of Rioja

Today I walked about 12 miles to Logrono. I saw my first almond orchard (not a very good looking one).

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According to a French couple from Bordeaux, these are old growth Tempranillo vines.

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But as the Spanish say, the French think they know everything, but they don’t know (anything) – it may or may not be true. All of the old vines look like miniature trees with the grapes hanging from the branches. Only the young vines have trellises.

The olive orchards are also a lot different than in California. The trees are very old, but they are only about 6 feet tall so you can pick the olives without a ladder.

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Lorca and Torres del Rio

Yesterday I left Pamplona and walked about 20 miles to Lorca.

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Today I walked about 25 miles to Torres del Rio. This morning I passed one of the most famous landmarks on the Camino Frances – the Fountain of Wine.

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The tap on the right is water and the tap on the left is red wine. Since Pamplona the wine has been cheaper than water – 1 euro for a glass of wine and 1.50 euros for a bottle of water – so the free water is actually a better deal than the free wine.

There are now vineyards and olive orchards all along the Camino – the Rioja region is just ahead.

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There are almond trees alongside the Camino and in gardens along the way, but I haven’t seen an almond orchard yet.

The food is excellent and inexpensive. One tapas and a glass of wine is usually 2 euros. I’ve been eating 2 breakfasts, a 3 course lunch, and a 3 course dinner for the last few days. I have a chocolate croissant, espresso, and fresh squeezed orange juice after walking for about an hour. An hour or 2 after that I have a Spanish omelette and orange juice. By 3 I’m starving and have lunch, then dinner at 7. It’s a very simple schedule.