September 29, 2015: Santiago de Compostela

Sunday, September 27: Palas de Rei to Ribadiso

Monday, September 28: Ribadiso to Villamaior

Tuesday, September 29: a short 10k walk into Santiago

We arrived around 10:00am with plenty of time to take the requisite arrival photo in front of the Cathedral…

and to wait in line to receive our official “Compostela” certificate. It’s pretty cool, written in Latin with my name spelled Ioannem (who would have guessed?).


Thus, we have completed what amounts to a Catholic “haj.” In the Middle Ages this would have qualified us for indulgences and time out of purgatory, concepts that can only make one raise an eyebrow today. Even this modern pilgrimage got a little weird toward the end; to receive the certificate, you need to walk only the last 100km and get your “credential” stamped twice every day. Thus, a large number of folks started just before the 100km mark; the tenor of the Camino changed over the last couple days, more people, busses, noise, less quiet walking in the countryside.

The cathedral mass at noon today was a fitting summary for our journey. A huge baroque building containing 2000 people in celebration mode. A kindly Spanish priest saying mass with six others from around the world. Singing led by an earnest nun. And the finale, a five foot tall incense burner, suspended from the highest point in the cathedral, swung like a pendulum by the acolytes to careen wildly over the heads of the congregation. It was all joyful, and a bit surreal.

Our walk to Santiago has been a great experience: The long walks through the mountains and countryside , wonderful. The Roman/Visigoth/Arabic/Spanish heritage, incredible. The tradition of the Catholic Church, comforting. The culture of the Camino de Santiago, usually communal and lovely, but sometimes a bit odd.  

When you fill out the administrative survey to receive your Compostela, the last question asks whether your goals were a) religious, b) spiritual, or c) cultural.  But can you really isolate those things into separate boxes? Personally, I would add d) physical and e) environmental into that pot of stew as well.

And who knows? Indulgences and time off from purgatory? When it comes to such things, I for one don’t have much room to take chances. It seems like a no-brainer Pascal’s Wager Lite proposition. So when it came to our turn, I gratefully accepted my certificate with a big smile and will hope for the best.

We’re not completely done yet. After a two day rest in Santiago we begin a three day walk to the Atlantic coast at Finnesterre. This will be a very Celtic-green part of Spain and should make for a beautiful walk. A Druid dessert after our Catholic stew. What the heck; if the Pascallian-wager doesn’t pan out, what a fun way to hedge the bet. 

In the Heart of Galicia

Thursday, September 24: Samos to Sarria

Friday, September 25: Sarria to Portomarin

Saturday, September 26: Portomarin to Palas de Rei

We are fully in Galicia. The land is hilly and green. We continue to walk five hours daily, but now through woods and green rolling fields. Because our walks take place in the morning, there is usually a mist over the land, and silence.

The silence is broken as we pass through small farm villages. Then we hear roosters crowing and cows bellowing loudly to be milked. The village houses and fences are made almost entirely of stone. In the poorer towns, there is little modern farm equipment. Yesterday we passed a family digging potatoes from their field by hand, a three year old child standing in a cart behind an antique tractor.  If not for the tractor, the scene might have been from 1000 years ago.  

One distinctive feature of Galician farms is the presence of “hórreos”, long narrow grain storage sheds up on stilts, usually made of stone. We’ve passed dozens that look like the one below. They are elegant and mysterious in the morning mist.

There are pictures of these in illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century. Today we passed one that used an even older design.

From here, we have only three walks left to Santiago, and three to Finnesterre, walking through countryside that has been passed by modernity.

Benvido a Galicia

Monday, September 21: Villafranca to Las Herrerías

Tuesday, September 22: Las Herrerías to Biduedo

Wednesday, September 23: Biduedo to Samos

Notice that this isn’t titled Bienvenidos a Galicia. We have now entered one of Spain’s autonomous regions that use their own language. Gallego is a mixture of Spanish and Portugese, but we’ve heard a lot of it the past couple days, and it sounds completely unintelligible. The signs are also difficult to decipher. But folks seem to be even more kind than they have been previously. 

The landscape has decidedly changed. We’ve spent the last couple days walking up and down hills through enchanted forests and along small river trails, with the sun breaking through banks of fog and mist. 

Over the past few days we’ve purposefully veered from the recommendations in our guide book, taking shorter walks, and spending nights in smaller towns. Sometimes this pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always interesting.

Today we decided to take an alternative route to Samos to a large and very old Benedectine Monestary. Around 12:30pm, we came over a rise to gain sight of our goal. 

The Benedectine Monestario de St. Julian in Samos, Galicia

Tonight, we will sleep in the Albuergue connected to the Monestary. It’s a very simple, no-frills place, run by two volunteers, and costing only whatever donation one wants to make. It consists of one large, barrel-vaulted room that contains 35 bunk beds, and a second room that contains five shower stalls, five toilet stalls, and five sinks. It’s all unisex. 

This type of arrangement can be fun, and allows meeting many nice people. But sometimes it is a level of stranger-intimacy that can stretch the comfort zone of people raised in first world affluence. This is probably good for us. But once in a while, we have elected to pay the 30-45 euros it costs for a room in a rural hotel, with more likelihood of a good night’s sleep. With seventy people sleeping in the same room, the likelihood of the presence of a large, rhoncorous Saxon gentleman is all but guaranteed. Good earplugs are the #1 accouterment on the Camino de Santiago. 

Here is our bedroom tonight


Libby and I opted for the corner bunk

At 7:30pm, we will attend Vespers and the mass in the Monestary, followed by the blessing of the Peregrinos. It promises to be a quiet night. We hope.






Castilla y León – Adios

Saturday, Sept 19; Foncebadón to Ponferrada

Sunday, Sept 20; Ponferrada to Villafranca Del Bierzo

The landscape continues to change, many faces of Spain completely different than the stereotypical picture we have of flamenco dancers in Andalusia. We woke up Saturday morning in the mountain village of Foncebadón, looking down at the fog in the valley to the east and a wonderful sunrise. 

 We spent Saturday afternoon and night in the thriving metropolis of Ponferrada, popl’n 70K. We marched onward this morning to the far west edge of the province of Castilla y León, where the walk again became hilly. We learned that this region, with its own warmer microclimate, is called Bierzo, much more green and fertile than what we’ve seen the past few days. The people here are very proud of their vineyards and wines. I was scolded by our local dinner cook when I deigned to compare the local wine with those from Rioja. “No way,” he told us in all sincerity. “Bierzo wines are much better.”

The Bierzo Region in western Castilla y León

We crossed many hills today and passed through several lovely mountain villages to land in Villafranco Del Bierzo, a town of 5000 in a small cup in the hills (picture below). Depending on our feet, we will likely walk tomorrow into the province of Galicia, where lies our ultimate destination.



Fri., Sept 18: A Changing Landscape

Wednesday, Sept. 16: León to Hospital de Órbigo

Thursday, Sept 17: Hospital de Órbigo to Astorga

Friday, Sept 19: Astorga to Foncebadón

We have continued our walk, onwards from León. Within the small town of Hospital de Órbigo there is a well preserved and very long medieval bridge. The river that it crosses (at the highest arch) is only 10 feet wide, but the flood plain they needed to span is more than a football field wide. And despite the floods, it has stood the test of 900 years. History and geography. AND legend. Reportedly, a knight errant successfully defended this bridge against more than 300 separate adversaries to prove his love for a very sweet young lady.  VERY sweet.

The long bridge of legend

Thursday we continued on into Astorga, a city with much history that sits in a river valley. Here is our Camino dropping down toward the city. Beyond Astorga you can see the Montes de León that we will cross.

Astorga was a center of Roman power from 50 BC to around 350 AD. We crossed the below Roman bridge as the Camino entered the city. It’s hard to believe you can still drive cars across it. 

These days, Astorga is a fairly modern, smallish city (popl’n 90k). One of our favorite sites was the Gaudi designed “Bishop’s Palace”, so extravagant and full of beautiful stained glass that it feels surreal, almost like the castle in Disneyland.

Entrance to Gaudi’s “Bishop’s Palace”

Small window seats in Gaudi house

We strolled through dark streets out of Astorga this morning and began the slow climb into the Montes de León that we will cross in order to reach Ponferrada. The flat plains are behind us. Our path today took us along dirt tracks through woods, ever upward. The sun shone bright with occasional pillow-like clouds, crisp mountain weather. The landscape is no longer grain-yellow, but green, spotted with patches of purple. 

Right now I’m sitting in the common room of our Albergue in a tiny village, Foncebadón, looking down the east side of the mountain where I earlier snapped a photo of Libby. There is a fire in the iron stove. Tomorrow we’ll walk down the far side of the mountain to begin our westward trek to Ponferrada.

As for me, I’m still grooving on the walk.

Happy trails!

Tuesday, Sept. 15: The Road to León


Friday, Sept 11: Carrion de Los Condes to Terradillos de Los Templarios

Saturday, Sept 12: from Terradillos to Calzadilla de Los Hermanillos

Sunday, Sept 13: Calzadilla to Mansilla de Los Mulas

 Monday, Sept 14: Mansilla to León

We’ve spent several days traversing the high plains between Burgos and León. The Camino here is laid over ancient Roman roads, roads that once brought Legions of soldiers and Roman culture to the hinterlands of Galicia, and brought Galician gold back east to Rome. 

Lost Roman Boot?

The countryside here changes little, stretching to where the sky and the earth, two parallel planes, come together in a far away line. It’s strangely disorienting – for one moment, I had the feeling that I was walking on the ceiling with my head pointing down at the firmament of the clouds.

The towns we’ve been passing through have been decidedly rural. Here’s Libby walking into Calzadilla, popl’n 200, like Marshall Dillon heading into Dodge.

We had our first day of rain walking to León. We arrived wet, tired, and a bit disheartened. But again, our hostel was welcoming (and dry), the food delicious, and our afternoon tour of the cathedral was simply fantastic, huge walls of stained glass that seem about to take flight.

We plan to head out tomorrow morning after two nights in León. We’re well past the halfway point on our journey to the end of the world (Finesterre). The landscape promises to shift again soon, up into the hills and mountains of Galicia, where we expect to find Druids and duendes (elves and fairies) who will greet us along the way to Santiago. 

An evening picnic on the albergue patio



Wednesday and Thursday; Walking On

Wed, Sept 9: Castrojeríz to Frómista

Thursday, Sept 10: Frómista to Carrión de Los Condes

We are now halfway through the trek from Burgos to León, happily resting in a convent school albergue/dormitory run by no-nonsense Vincentian nuns. There are around 15 beds in our room (70 total in this albergue), four Portlanders, two Germans, two Spaniards, and the others thus far unmet. It’s a mishmash, mostly European, many from N. and S. America (esp. Brazil), and a few from Asia and Australia. So far we’ve not run into anyone from Africa or the Middle East. Generally all are friendly and generous. Folks drop in and out of our daily walking cohort, but as the days pass,we’ve gotten to know faces, then names, and a few good stories. Communidad de caminantes. 

We wound our way out of long, skinny Castrojeríz early Wednesday morning and crossed a river basin to a steep climb on the other side. Looking backward we were treated to a brilliant sunrise. In the picture below, Castrojeríz can be seen wrapping around the right side of the hill, the castle a nub on the top, all about to be overwhelmed by sunshine.

The Camino is like a long necklace studded with jewels, both natural and formed by human hands. The villages between Burgos and León are small, rural, and isolated, but nearly all have architectureal and historical treasures that stretch the imagination of “New Worlders” like us. Here are a few of my favorites from the last couple of days.

A yellow “flecha” marking the Camino on the meseta

9th Century Baptismal Font in Boadilla Del Camino

Cattails on a trail-side canal

The Church of Santa María la Virgen Blanca in Villalcázar de Sirga (population 200)

Entrance to above church

First course of today’s lunch; fish/potato soup

The church pictured above contained a remarkable “retablo” concerning St. James, the purported reason for all these centuries of Camino walking. Take a look:

Each panel tells a piece of the story of his life, being called by Jesus (with brother John), having his head removed by Herod in 44 AD and much, much more. The stories have grown and changed with time, sometimes twisting in the stream of cultural subconscious, and probably sometimes manipulated by those hoping to gain something. It’s hard to fully believe the stories of his preaching in Spain in 40-42 AD, the story of his body being transported to NW Spain after his death, and especially his appearance on battlefields fighting Moors. The panels above are full of demons and grotesqueries that create dissonance for my 20th century eyes.  But at least the empathic look on this guy’s face seems more consistent with the message of “love thy neighbor” than do the local statues of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer).


A more martial St. James



Tues, Sept 8; Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeríz

Today was our fourteenth day of walking and the easiest so far. Not too far, cold temperatures most of the way, and nicely spaced villages with excellent cafés. The high desert sky was black with stars when we left town, but quickly took on impressionist qualities as the sun peeked over the horizon to our rear. Even more fantastic was the sky ahead, reflecting the sun’s projections behind an array of giant windmills, dozens of them, all waving their arms crazily like they were at an especially good Grateful Dead concert.

After coffee stop number two, the sun’s rays became more focused.

We will spend the night in Castrojeríz. This seems like a lovely village, barely one street wide but 2 Km long, wrapping around a hill that houses a mostly intact 9th century castle on its summit. There will be a lot to explore here.


Road Sonnet

(For Isabel)
The road is rocky, but our only choice
If we hope to reach our end one day.
A man bikes by tossing an “adios”,
His metal steed a tempting faster way.
The pebbles on the road appear quite dead,
But each a living Torquemada coal.
A slight misplace of metatarsal head
Brings searing pain that passes through one’s sole.
Even greater need for mercy for the poor
As immigrants seek rest, engendering fear
Once solved with arms by Visigoth and Moor.
We pray a more enlightened day is here.
So westward ho, into eternity,
Unless our soles give out; Finis Mundi!

Monday, Sept 7, Burgos to Hornillos del Camino

It’s Labor Day at home and our thoughts are with friends and family we hope are enjoying a well earned respite. 

Yesterday I saw this in Thoreau’s lecture Walking: “I must walk toward Oregon and not toward Europe…. We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.”

Westward ho!

We certainly enjoyed our rest in Burgos. The groaning in our calf muscles grows quieter, and the blisters on our toes are getting tamer. We didn’t mind starting out early this morning,onto the slow rise up, and up again onto the central Spanish “meseta”. We’ll be several days in this beautiful but barren landscape, around 3000 feet of altitude. It felt a lot like walking between Warm Springs and Bend in central Oregon. Today we had a brisk wind pushing us along the trail.

Other than brownish vegetation and distant birds, we saw few other living things except for the gentleman below, pushing along his flock of sheep with the assistance of a couple frisky, persuasive dogs. 

Here’s our first view of today’s destination , Hornillos del Camino, population 200, that evolved around the Camino, now also serving farmers and Burgos commuters. It will be a quiet evening.

When you begin the Camino, you’re given a passport that is rubber stamped at each albergue and at some other important stops. I’m quite proud of mine thus far, just like a 12 year old Boy Scout, gaining merit badges on my sash. Merit!

Sunday, Sept 6, Burgos; A Day of Rest

 Our stay in San Juan de Ortega (St. John of the Nettles) was a bit prickly, and indeed, quiet. It’s a small cluster of medieval buildings surrounded by, well, not much else. The buildings were lovely, especially the church, but the albuerge facilities overly rustic.  The highlight of our stay was the evening mass followed by a blessing of the Peregrinos. The priest was very earnest and the ceremony moving, creating a sense of solidarity with people from around the globe and through 1200 years of time.

Blessing of the Peregrinos. 

Before dawn we shook the stiffness out of our backs, stuffed our feet, sausage-like, back into our walking shoes, and pointed them toward Burgos. There were only a couple small villages between San Juan and Burgos. We passed the 1st century AD drinking fountain seen below that must have quenched the thirst of many legions.

Roman Drinking Well

 And a small Romanesque chapel with a beautiful doorway.

Burgos is a relatively large, cosmopolitan city.The last five km of our walk took us along a greenway park beside the Rio Arlanzón, full of bikers, joggers, and playing children. We finally crossed over the river into the heart of the city and to the cathedral, a bit like the first sight of Oz after so many miles of woods and barren mountains.

The Burgos Cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture, light and airy, full of medieval/renaissance wood and stone carvings. El Cid is buried here. There’s a bronze plaque in the sidewalk outside of an upper sidewalk door showing the layout. The square cloister is top left.

Here is the door. You can see the bronze plaque at the bottom of the photo.

Like I said, amazingly beautiful artwork; and a lot of wierdness too. Check out these two dudes carved into the capital of a column: 


One is only allowed a single night in each albergue. Because we will spend a second night here, we’ve booked a room in the Meson El Cid and will bask in the luxury of non-shared space. Communal living has its time and place, but sometimes you need to stretch out without worrying about bothering others.

The suffering of the pilgrims

The rising sun this morning brushed the top of the cathedral in a pinkish pastel color as departing Peregrinos passed by. It will be good to put our feet up for another day.