A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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Rambling onwards to Rabanal del Camino

Distance walked: 21.4km (23.4km when adjusted for the climb of 400m)

Remaining distance to Santiago: 242.7km

Walking from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, I noticed a sharp change in the landscape and the weather. Purple rain clouds replaced the endless blue skies. The yellow sandy trail turned darker, too. The expansive landscape closed in on itself a bit: there were more trees, more walls, and more interruptions to the eye. The Meseta was well and truly behind me but what lay ahead?

Well, cold and rainy mountains, as it happens. I wrapped up in a mid layer of fleece and put on my ridiculous orange poncho in an effort to keep warm and dry. I had bought another fleece in Astorga (thanks for the tip, Kevin!) but I didn’t want to put it on unless absolutely necessary. I couldn’t risk getting all of my clothes wet: I needed to keep a few warm and dry pieces for later that evening.

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Rambling to Rabanal

All around me, new pilgrims were walking westwards towards Santiago. A fresh influx of people had joined at Astorga, so I spent the day in animated chatter with pilgrims who were upbeat in both their walking and in their mood. Initially, the incline was gentle and the weather still dry. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up, the rain clouds gathered (and emptied!), and the gradient got steeper. I felt a different sort of ache in my body: not just the ache of sore feet or shoulders, but the early presence of a cold. Nothing to panic about, but I *really* wanted to get a bed in the parish hostel in Rabanal. I didn’t want to walk on further: I just wanted to get well for the next day and for climbing to Cruz de Ferro – the highest point on my 800km journey (1505m). I spent the last kilometers daydreaming of a hot shower, a hot meal, a hot coffee, a warm bed…notice the theme?!

Rabanal, for me, was a surprise delight on my camino. I already felt I was on the final third of my walking pilgrimage and the changes in the landscape reinforced that feeling. The mountains were cooler and a bit more strenuous, and Rabanal was a gentle tonic on both my body and my spirit. By the time I arrived I was cold and wet, and I needed to stop walking for the day. The parish hostel, thankfully, had a bed, and I was especially thrilled to get a lower bunk and some wool blankets for the night. In a restaurant across the road, I ordered lunch, consisting of a bowl of “vegetarian soup”, which clearly had a very meaty stock and my God it was delicious! The portion of green beans could have easily served four, and dripped with chorizo oil and salt: AM-A-ZING!

That evening, the pilgrim mass was particularly moving. The plaster work crumbled from the walls inside the stone church, as the seats filled with pilgrims from all around the world. We sat in a sort of reverent hush. By now, everyone had heard of the Gregorian chants that made this particular mass different to all the rest. We waited in silence while candles gently flickered and burned beside us. Not a word, just gentle shuffling as more pilgrims arrived and we each moved a little to make space.

Waiting.

Quietly waiting.

And then: monks in dark robes, lowly singing. Deep, resonant, manly voices in enchanting harmonies. And Latin! Of course! And yet, such a surprise.

Each verse slowly vibrated through the small church, like a spool of thread slowly coming undone. It felt like the walls themselves could sing if only because they’d held so much song already in the years past. A few smart phones lit up as people took photos but then, they quickly disappeared again, tucked away in pockets and purses. They were too intrusive. The gentle chanting needed to be seen and breathed – not recorded.

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I imagine that the mass was no shorter or longer than any other pilgrim mass I attended along the way…but it felt timeless. The Gregorian chanting transported all of us into another time and heart space, and the experience was strangely healing. I didn’t know what needed healing (except, maybe, my head cold and my sore feet) but I came away feeling lighter and deeply calm.

I didn’t note the time when it finished: instead, I lit candles for loved ones and I quietly absorbed the stillness. The hostel would be loud and busy and I was in no rush to join the mayhem. Instead, I sat and gave thanks. I enjoyed the time out. And I recorded it all to heart. There are few places on Camino Francés that I would consider returning to, but Rabanal is one of them.

 

 

Camino Francés: Onwards to Astorga

Distance walked: 15.8km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 264.1km

Link: https://www.pinterest.com/san265/gaudi/

Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Between the towns of Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga, the camino path divides in two. One path follows the N-120 national highway for 10km or so: the other meanders through countryside and small villages. The highway route is shorter but less scenic. The countryside route is longer but has cafés and hostels along the way.

Which path would *you* choose?

Just like my approach to Burgos, I accidentally took the less-scenic path. To be honest, I wasn’t even fully aware of a “non-scenic” version because I left my guide book in my backpack and just followed the signs I saw along the way.  It was only when I was somewhere on that very long and very loud stretch of highway did I wonder:

Where *is* everyone?

I could see the outline of only 3-4 pilgrims in the far distance ahead of me and behind me. Usually, I’d see dozens of people but that morning there was almost no one around. Very strange.

It was only later in the morning when I stopped for coffee and happily bumped into Kevin and Liz that I realized what had happened. We caught up on everything that had happened since our chance encounter in León, days earlier. They excitedly asked:

Did you stop at Dave’s place?

Huh?

You know, Dave’s hut with all the fruit and juices and organic food? Their smiles were broad and inviting. They were eager to compare notes and swooning for this mystery man, Dave.

Hmmmmmm….huh? I asked again, feeling utterly lost.

Only then did we realize that I had taken the highway route while everyone else took the countryside route.

Ahhhhhh….so that’s where everyone was!

Turns out, I missed out on famous Dave’s Casa de los Dioses, just outside San Justo de la Vegawhich was a refuge for countless pilgrims on the move. The story goes that Dave walked the camino years earlier and was so transformed by the experience that he decided to set up a quirky café, in service to other pilgrims. With hundreds of other coffee stops along the 800km route, you might be inclined to think his motives were purely financial. Apparently not. I’m told he was full of smiles, warm hugs, and spirited conversation. His hut provided an abundance of fresh fruit and juices, made with laughter and love. His pit stop wasn’t just for the weary body: it was a tonic for the weary soul, too. Everyone that stopped there not only loved the place but they loved Dave himself, too. So, when Kevin and Liz realized that I had missed out on this colorful experience, their faces dropped in disappointment.

Oh, you would have *loved* it! they gushed.

I was so enchanted by their enthusiasm that I very nearly thought about turning back to go find him. I didn’t do it though. Instead, I walked on to Astorga, passing a busker on the descent into the town and delighted in the surprise of live music. The musician played in time to my pace and then jauntily danced alongside me for a moment, like a medieval minstrel!

In Astorga, the rain clouds gathered and I spent much of the afternoon with Kevin and Liz, drinking hot chocolate, viewing Gaudi’s palace, and later that evening, feasting on delicious pizza in a traditional Italian restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I say the evening was a tonic for my soul. Even though I loved walking by myself each day, I loved sharing good company in the evenings. Walking solo meant that I didn’t always have someone to eat my evening meal with and while I was often okay with that, I sometimes felt an emptiness. The previous evenings in Hospital de Órbigo I had dined alone (if you could even call it that!), and I hadn’t enjoyed it. Here in Astorga, I felt buoyed by the great company and the sense of community that had begun in Orisson when I first met the couple. Sharing dinner with them felt like catching up with old friends – a surprise sensation when I knew them only a month or so. For all my introversion and desire to walk alone, I couldn’t deny that sharing the journey with good people made everything sweeter.

Just as it is in camino, so it is in life, too. 😀