Spain: Walking from La Rioja to Castilla y León

Crossing from the La Rioja region into Castilla y León….

I love that the Camino signage changes from region to region….

IMG_0905

And I love that the water fountains along the way are so ornately rustic:

IMG_0906

IMG_0907

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that “Castilla y León is the largest autonomous region in Spain with an area… 11 times the size of the region of Madrid but with a population of only 2.5 million (less than half that of Madrid).

You will spend over 50% of your time travelling through 3 of its 9 separate provinces Burgos, Palencia and León. It contains the incomparable Meseta the predominately flat table or plateau region that makes up a third of the Iberian peninsular…

Cereal crops cerales hold sway here, mainly wheat but with oats on the poorer land and some sheep and goats grazing on the hillier parts. It is a sparsely populated arid region, primarily flat with gently rolling hills. However, the seemingly endless horizons are broken up with delightful villages seemingly unaffected by the speed of modern life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago Continues: Grañón to Villambistia

Distance walked: 22.5km IMG_0904

After a night sleeping on the floor, I left Grañón’s donation-based hostel and made my way into the early morning light.

Did I have breakfast before I left?

I honestly can’t recall, but I have a feeling that the hostel offered coffee, baguette, and jam, and that we gladly availed of the sustenance. Most of the hostels I stayed in didn’t offer breakfast of any kind, and I had to walk to the next town or village to get my morning coffee. Walking camino, you never quite know where the next coffee will present itself. You could plan to eat in a certain village miles up the road, only to find their café closed when you get there. Sundays, in particular, are a quiet day for business in Spain. You get into a pattern of gladly availing of whatever food and drink is available, when available – however modest it may be.

That morning, I passed through acres of sunflowers that gently rose their heads to the rising sun.

I walked for a while with Barb and Dave, who had also spent the previous night in Grañón. Pity that my photos came out blurry…perhaps I needed more coffee to feel fully awake, but they were all smiles, as usual! We initially met when I stayed in Orisson, back on our fist day of walking. The next morning, they saved my socks from blowing away on the side of the Pyrenees, and had since treated me to breakfasts and lunches along the way. Over the course of the 800km, our paths crossed over and back, and they generously watched out for me at every turn. IMG_0899

When I look back on my photos now, I notice that they’re there in the very first ones I took in St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking. I don’t want to spoil the ending but Barb and Dave were there on my last day, too. And they were there countless days in between, with unending support and friendship. IMG_0900

My walk from Grañón happened on a morning of brilliant sunshine and cloud-free skies. I walked most of it alone, enjoying the quiet time for idle reflection.

By then, I’d walked some 250km of my intended 800km, and I felt the effects of it.

The initial adrenalin had worn off, along with the strength and rest I had brought from home. I slept well every night on Camino but I felt quietly exhausted. Even though I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then, my body was still adjusting to walking for hours every day, in 30-something degree heat, with all my belongings on my back. (Although I have to admit, how often do we say in life, “I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then”….no wonder I was tired!)

My body wasn’t getting the recovery time that it needed.

Some days were shorter than others, which definitely helped. And yes, ever since I swapped my hiking sandals for hiking shoes, my feet hurt a lot less. That freed up a lot of energy, right there.

I was able to cover more ground every day and I was glad. I also learned how to stagger my walking so I was out of step with the people following Brierley’s book. He directs people to start at Point A and finish at Point B every day, and many pilgrims followed his suggestions to the letter. It’s an efficient plan if you want to walk 800km in 33 days. But the surging crowd created a race for beds, and I found it stressful to get wrapped up in the frenzy. Instead of following his directions, I stopped at intermediary towns and villages. In doing so, I gladly avoided the shortage of beds I’d experienced in Zubiri and Los Arcos. If I did nothing else in my first 2 weeks of walking, that small shift made a huge difference to my emotional experience.

IMG_0909

Church of Santa María in Belorado (with storks nesting at the top)

But still, the trail and the hostels felt busy and noisy. When I combined the crowds with my physical fatigue, my nerves began to fray.

I assumed that:

the trails felt busy,

the hostels felt crowded,

and

the bathrooms felt noisy,

because I’m an introvert.

I like people but I need lots of quiet space away from people, too. Otherwise, my batteries deplete rather quickly.

Despite my best efforts to spend my walking hours alone, I felt overwhelmed and overstretched.

Every day, I met both new and familiar faces in cafés, dinner spots, hostels, at water fountains, and out on the trail. Sometimes we’d exchange just a few words of hello. Other times, we’d walk together and chat for hours.

People were kind and receptive, and I was glad of the blossoming friendships. But despite the fact that I made connections and friends easily, I felt rather anonymous and alone. I didn’t know any of these people well enough, or long enough, to express my full experience. None of them could replace the connection I felt with Generous Husband, or my close friends from home. I’d chosen to walk camino alone. When I felt emotional and overstretched, I didn’t know who to confide in.

I didn’t want to whinge.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had to put on a certain amount of “brave face” and keep going.

At the same time, I badly needed some downtime to rest and regroup. I needed to recharge.

But every night I stayed in communal dorms, where we queued for the showers, competed for sunny space on the clothes line, and listened to each other snoring. Everywhere I went, there was chatter and noise. It started before 6am and didn’t stop until after 10pm each day. Some days I felt able to handle it but other days I felt a bit too sensitive and tired, and wondered if it was all in my head.

That is, until I heard that 2 weeks earlier, the authorities had recorded the highest ever number of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles.

That was around the same time I passed through the town, after the steep descent from the Pyrenees.

The highest number ever recorded…..wow.

The trail and the hostels felt busy then and you’ll remember, I found myself stuck for somewhere to sleep.

Even though I changed my own behaviour in the meantime, the trail still felt busy and crowded to me. I

assumed it was because I was slower than others.

I assumed the lack of training had caught up with me.

I assumed that I lacked competitive spirit, even though I never expected competition on a pilgrimage route.

But the statistics confirmed what I also knew: The Camino was exceptionally busy for that time of year.

I was relieved to know I hadn’t imagined the crowds or their impact. I was relieved to know that it wasn’t all in my head or indicative of an over-sensitive heart.

That day, I felt a bit over-wrought and I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos in the late morning or early afternoon. Brierley’s guide-book listed a donation-based parish hostel with mattresses on the floor for 30 people and I liked the idea of a quiet, low-key evening. I hoped for an afternoon nap and a night of restorative sleep.

But it wasn’t to be: it seemed life had other plans for me.

Camino Kindness

IMG_0889

Just look at those smiles! Wouldn’t these two chaps lighten anyone’s day?

When I bumped into Fred and Dennis in Grañón, we happily sat out in the sunny grass in front of the hostel, catching up with mutual friends. Our day’s walking was done so all that was left to do was rest, chat, and enjoy the time. Looking at the photo now, I feel a warm softness for the rustic simplicity of camino life and the sunny blue sky. It may be tough walking but it is an everyday charm, too. Looking at the photo tempts me to go back for more.

By the time we met in Grañón, Dennis (on the right) was suffering several nasty blisters which covered the soles of his feet, but you’d never guess it by the grin on his face! I still don’t know how he managed to walk so many miles while feeling such pain, and have such fun along the way. I guess the occasional cervezas helped 🙂

Fred (on the left) saved me from a wardrobe malfunction by kindly gifting me with new t-shirt when I was stuck. That small kindness probably meant nothing to him but it resonated through the remainder of my camino. I wore his t-shirt for the remaining 600km or so, and was thrilled to have it. Anyone who says chivalry is dead just hasn’t met Fred!

On camino, I was blessed with generous kindness and care every single day, from fellow-pilgrims, business people, and locals on the street. They offered their support with open hearts and tremendous goodness. They made it all bearable. They made it all sing!

So here’s a toast to Fred and Dennis, for bringing warmth and generous laughter to my days on the trail.

And a toast to all the rest – most of whom I don’t even know by name – who made it a journey of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Times in Grañón

** Updated this post a little **

IMG_0895

Grañón, Spain

I was delighted to stay a night in the donation-based hostel in Granon. At very least it meant my day’s walking was done after 22.4km. On a deeper level, it meant I was in a good place for the evening – both literally and figuratively.

The donation-based hostels tend to attract a certain crowd – either the pilgrims who are holding very tight to their purse strings, or the pilgrims who want to connect in some deeper way. It’s easy to get caught up into the frenzy of clocking distances and times on Camino. God knows, there are enough people treating it like a race. Staying in donation-based and church-based hostels is a nice way to side-step that madness, and spend time with like-minded people.

We ate dinner together as a group that evening in the hostel. The intimate setting created an opportunity to make new friends and spend time with familiar ones. It also encouraged/allowed pilgrims to be of service and help out with the logistics of preparing and serving a meal to 40+ people.

When you eat in privately owned restaurants you don’t have to, or get to, assist in the logistics. Instead, you simply arrive in the door, have your meal served to you, and pay when you’re finished. You get to walk away without thinking about the washing-up!

I’m not alone in saying the Camino has become more popular in recent years. I was, and am, part of that popularity by virtue of the fact that I was there in 2013. That’s not a million years ago, so I am sensitive about commenting on the politics. But, it’s attracting some people who treat it as a cheap walking holiday instead of a revered pilgrimage route. I’m not even referring to the Catholic pilgrimage specifically because the route pre-dates Christian tradition.

So, it’s more than 2,000 years old.

I think that deserves a bit of credit and a bit of respect.

And I think the volunteers and staff deserve credit and respect, too. They peel all those potatoes, they chop all those onions. They clean beds and bathrooms after us. They sweep floors and converse with us in half a dozen languages because many of us (myself included) don’t have enough Spanish. They do everything to make the process easier and kinder.

When you’re consumed by blisters and sore feet, it’s far too easy to overlook the people who keep the show on the road. We shouldn’t be so consumed by our own drama that we overlook the people around us. We shouldn’t be so fixated on what we can get out of a situation that we forget to ask what we can contribute to a situation, too.

Rightly or wrongly, an increasing number of people treat Camino as a cheap walking holiday and sometimes assume an air of entitlement as a result. I saw it in Navarette when four women argued over the assignment of beds. Their attitude was more prevalent than I ever expected.

Of course, not all the people walking Camino are on pilgrimage – religious or otherwise.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cheap walking holiday, and even the people who avail of its low-cost location can be decent and generous.

I’m not trying to imply that unless you walk 800km or more (in your bare feet and wearing a thorny, woollen vest on your back!) that you’re an egotistical brat.

It wouldn’t be fair or right for me to say that.

But Camino isn’t like a cheap package holiday or regular walking holiday. The influx of people expecting (and demanding) particular treatment can be difficult to manage.

I can’t blame the pilgrims (or holiday-goers) entirely for this break-down in attitude because more and more, Camino is marketed as a cheap walking holiday. I’ve seen it in my own national press recently – a series of articles and videos giving people advice.

Need a New Year’s resolution? Maybe walk the Camino in Spain. Buy tomorrow’s edition for all the tips and tricks!

I get it: Camino is big business and everyone wants a bit of the action. It’s become a profitable topic, something to be consumed, and a bandwagon to jump on. And that, in turn, changes the energy dynamic on the ground.

The reason I’m harping on about all of this here is because in Grañón, we were expected to help out with serving dinner. We rearranged tables so they all joined together. We laid out the plates and cutlery, and served each other food. We were active participants instead of passive consumers.

IMG_0898

Inside my hostel…

That evening, I met a French man who walked Camino for the 10th year (and I think it was his 10th time), and his entire attitude was one of service and support. He did more work in the preparation than most of us, combined. On top of that, he was a sort of emotional temperature check for the whole building. I observed him in action and he was the kind of guy who sensed when someone was about to cry, laugh, or collapse from pain. Even in the middle of carrying pots of food and finding extra chairs, he was giving hugs of consolation and congratulations to those on the edge. He observed everyone, and gently rearranged the mood in a subtle and beautiful way.

He was our “Maître d” that evening, though most didn’t quite realise that.

The same man also organised a surprise treat for a Danish woman, who celebrated her birthday that very day. He happened to hear about it only minutes beforehand but by the time she sat down beside me for dinner, he had it all organised. When our meal was finished, he gently signalled for someone to turn down the lights, and a volunteer brought out a small baked pastry with a candle on top. The woman had just turned 19 and we sang Happy Birthday to her in a chorus of languages and laughter, while she made a wish and blew out the candle.  She even got two servings of rice pudding desert for the day that was in it. 🙂

He made that happen.

Later, I happily solved a sartorial dilemma. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but let me explain:

Days earlier in Villatuerta, I accidentally destroyed one of my 3 t-shirts. It’s a long story but the end result was that my once white, quick-drying, wick-away garment looked like it was covered in

grease,

baby sick,

or both.

The stains wouldn’t come out and I was too embarrassed to wear the shirt afterwards. I was down to using 1 t-shirt by day as I walked, and a 2nd t-shirt by night while I slept. The 2nd one needed to be washed but the 1st one was always either dirty from wear, or drying on a clothes line somewhere. My options were limited:

I needed a 3rd t-shirt, at least temporarily, while I laundered the 2nd shirt.

Otherwise, I’d have to go topless.

And whatever I may say about the changing attitudes on Camino, it’s (thankfully) not a place for topless pilgrims!

The hostel had a chest full of donated clothes, all left behind by other pilgrims. I rooted around in the wooden trunk till I found a t-shirt that fit me – a baby pink, Tommy Hilfiger tshirt with sequens along the front! It was the most unlikely garment anyone would wear on Camino but I was delighted to have it. Finally, I could wash my clothes in peace, without having to hide behind a bush while waiting for them to dry!

Hours later, my American friend, Fred, approached me with something in his hands. He had listened to my tale about accidentally destroying one of my precious t-shirts and wanted to offer me one of his. (Between you and me, I might have hammed up my tale a bit for entertainment, implying that the loss was far more serious than it really was. So, I felt bad for unintentionally provoking his offer.)

He said to me:

I’ve got 3 of them but I wear only one: would you like to take this spare one?

I was delighted with his offer as I knew it would get me out of my predicament. On top of that, the t-shirt was a wick-away one, which would be perfect for walking long days in the 30-something degree heat, where I worked up *quite* the daily sweat. I was happy to accept it either way, but its wick-away qualities were an extra bonus. And this t-shirt had no sparkling sequens on it, either!

Fred’s friend beside him cheekily offered:

I don’t suppose you want any socks, do ya? I brought 6 pairs with me but I don’t wear half of them. I want to get rid of them and lighten my pack: wanna take some?

I gently declined on the socks but gladly accepted the t-shirt, and hugged them both for their generosity. I had walked for days needing a new t-shirt and in Grañón, I received two! 🙂

Good Night Grañón

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

IMG_0886

Crossing the main road to follow the trail to Santiago

I left Santo Domingo after finishing my cheesy, bread-y lunch, and walked on 6.2km to the small village of Grañón. You can see by the photos below that the day was another stellar, sunny, scorching hot day – I miss those!

I hoped to secure a place in the parish hostel adjoining the Church of St. John the Baptist, where they had room for 40 pilgrims between 2 rooms. I wanted to stay there because the hostel ran on donations (“donativo”). I learned, from staying with the nuns at Zabaldika, that the hostels financed by donations tend to have a different atmosphere and ethos to other types of accommodation on Camino. Thanks to the nuns, I’d enjoyed a communal meal with my fellow pilgrims and made new friends. I even enjoyed the hymn singing (although I cried my eyes out all the way through!). I appreciated their kindness and support, and their donation-based hostel gave me some much-needed tender care. Experience had taught me that donation-based hostels felt nurturing and kind. I wanted to stay in as many as I could, so I prayed for a space in Grañón.

IMG_0887

Only 560km to go!

When I arrived, I was thrilled to learn that there was free space for me!

And I was even more thrilled to bump into American Fred and his friends, sitting out on the grassy lawn out front. We first met in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. He stood out because of his John Deere hat, but they were each smiling, friendly, mischievious men. I enjoyed getting to know them. We’d lost track of each other in the intervening days, but bumped into each other the previous evening in Azofra. I happily joined them for dinner and drinks there, but once we left the hostel the next morning I never knew if, or when, I would see them again. Life on Camino is like that.

So it was a real delight to find them again in Granon, and to have some time to sit in the sun, chatting, laughing, and to catch up on our walking. A few days on Camino can feel like a few months or even years in “real life”, and there is always so much to catch up on.

I was thrilled to see them, and thrilled to have a free space in the hostel.

There was only one small snag with the hostel. I knew it in advance but the thing was:

They didn’t provide beds.

They didn’t have beds of any sort.

Instead, they offered mats on the floor, with woollen blankets and cushions too. The blankets and cushions weren’t exactly clean but I took them anyway to provide a little extra padding beneath me.

What’s it like to sleep on a mat on the floor? Something like this:

IMG_0888

You’ll see that the mats are tightly packed in there, with only 2-3 inches between them. Sometimes, there’s no space between them at all, so you can find yourself sleeping very close to someone you’ve never met before! As a woman travelling alone, this could have been weird in a thousand and one ways. Honestly, it wasn’t weird at all. I’d never met the guy sleeping right beside me but we exchanged hellos and then politely avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening. When you sleep that close to a stranger, you need to create boundaries any way you can, and that’s what we did to create ours.

But that afternoon, I sat out on the grassy front lawn with Fred and friends, chatting, giggling, and enjoying their company. That evening, I went to mass in the church next door. In keeping with a long-held family tradition, I was very, very late. To my credit, I was on a call to Handsome Husband so I figured I had the very best of reasons for being late, right?

But I was so late that I arrived in towards the end of the mass, during Holy Communion, and just about in time to receive a pilgrim blessing at the very end. In the photo below you’ll see that the priest gathered all the pilgrims together in front of the alter, before saying the blessing in Spanish. I wrote a little bit about the blessings in an earlier post, which you can read here: Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago.

You’ll also notice from the angle with which the picture was taken, that I was outside the group. I had arrived in so late that I didn’t want to stomp my way up to the front *just for the blessing* – that would have made me quite the “à la carte Catholic”! Instead, I snapped this brief photo from behind, said “Amen” when necessary, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. It might have worked except for the fact that when mass ended, some older Spanish women stopped to chat with me at the front door of the church. They looked like women who attended mass every day, at least once a day, and maybe twice on a Sunday. I very obviously stood out as a pilgrim in my quick-drying outdoor gear, but one of them tried to engage me in conversation nonetheless.

I hadn’t a clue what she said to me, but I tried to explain that I was very sorry but I didn’t speak Spanish.

She kind of laughed, as if to say:

Ah of course you speak Spanish! Don’t be pulling my leg!

I insisted:

No, really I don’t speak Spanish. I am very sorry. But I hope you have a lovely evening.

Again she looked at me with merriment in her sparkling eyes, as though I were playing the world’s biggest practical joke – and she were in on it! And again, I insisted that even though I spoke just enough Spanish to explain that I didn’t, in fact, speak any Spanish…I knew how to say very little else!

She didn’t believe a word.

We went back and forth like this for about 5 minutes. By that time, her friends had joined her and they all circled around me at the doors of the church. I had no idea why they’d earmarked me, when there were dozens of other pilgrims walking right past them. I wanted to get back to the hostel to avail of the communal meal there, but I didn’t want to be rude and break away from the ladies either. And anyway, they seemed so sweet and warm – they reminded me of all the nice grandmothers I’d ever known! With their long, knitted cardigans, their mid-length polyester blend skirts, and their sturdy shoes, they reminded me of women I knew in my childhood and I felt a natural affinity with them. I felt they might even have sweets in their pockets, or have a stash of knitting wool hidden somewhere behind a statue!

She looked at me with a warm gaze and quickly spoke to her 5-6 friends standing beside her. I, of course, have no idea what she really said, but her tone and clucking noises made me feel she was saying something like this:

Doesn’t she look just like Manuel’s daughter, Isabella? Look at that hair, and she has the very same eyes! I’d swear it was her!

With all her friends saying:

Ooooh yes, you’re right! She looks just like her. And you know who else she looks like?

Who?

Carlos’s neice….the one that moved to Madrid….what’s her name again?

Maria.

Yes! Maria. She looks like her too. But they’re related anyhow, so that would make sense. Their mothers are second cousins.

Ah yes, I’d forgotten that. And their related to José in the shop, too. You’d swear she was one of them.

Pity she doesn’t speak any Spanish though.

And she’s a bit pale…

Poor thing has no sense of fashion…

But she looks just like that side of the family!

I stood on, like a village idiot, smiling without understanding what they really said. But they were endlessly kind and welcoming to me, and I glowed with the warmth of it all.

If I had any grasp of the language I would have stayed to chat because she was a warm, mischievous gem of a woman. I know she and I would have laughed together. Instead, I gave her my arm as I escorted her down the steps of the church, to the safety of the level footpath below. I had an albergue to return to, and a dinner to eat. And hopefully she had a family and feast of her own to return to too, that evening.

IMG_0893

Look at all that gold! With Dave and Barb in the blue and pink, to the left.

Adiós Azofra (and on towards Grañón)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

IMG_0879

Walking from the golf club house in Cirueña towards the small village of Grañón, I passed through golden corn fields in the early morning sunshine – gorgeous! I also passed through Santo Domingo de Calzada. The town gets its name from Saint Dominic of the Road, so-called because he dedicated his life to improving the physical route for pilgrims by building bridges and roads. The town is now famous for its church and more specifically, because the church houses two live fowl – a cock and a hen.

Hmmmm….what?

Yep, you read that right. There are chickens living in the church. You couldn’t make it up!

I’m pulling this next bit from Brierley’s guidebook so you have a correct version of the story. It goes like this….

“Legend has it that a pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn here on their way to Santiago. The pretty innkeeper’s daughter had her eye on the handsome lad, but the devout young fellow thwarted her advances. Incensed by his refusal she hid a silver goblet in his backpack and reported him for stealing it. The innocent lad was caught and condemned to hang. Some accounts suggest the parents continued on their way, oblivious to the fate of their son and on their return from Santiago they found him still hanging on the gallows but miraculously still alive thanks to the intervention of Santo Domingo.

They rushed to the sheriff’s house and found him just about to tuck into dinner. Upon hearing the news, he retorted that their son was no more alive than the cock he was about to eat, whereupon the fowl stood up on the dish and crowed loudly. The miracle was not lost on the sheriff who rushed back to the gallows and cut down the poor lad, who was given a full pardon…..”

So, a live cock and hen are kept in the church to this day and it seems live there, permanently.

Over the previous days, the trail hummed with pilgrims talking about the cock and the hen. People asked me if I wanted to go see them, planned to go see them, would go see them. Those are three separate questions but either way my answer was roughly the same…

Hmmmm….I don’t think so.

My new shoes were working out pretty well and I expected to walk on further that day. If I were staying in the town overnight and needed something touristy to do, I might have considered a sightseeing trip to the church. But I would only pass through the town on my way west and I wasn’t that interested – however famous the cock and hen may be.

I’d heard mixed reports, too. Some people said we had to pay a fee to see the fowl, while others said that the place smelled really bad because of the poop. Others again said that there’s no guarantee of actually seeing or hearing the cock crow. They thought there wasn’t much point in making a trip of it if the creatures weren’t performing their showcase number.

I have no idea if any of these things are true.

All the chatter was entertaining but I had only one plan:

I’ll see when I get there.

By the time I arrived, I didn’t have any genuine interest in seeing the church or the famous cock and hen. The day was sunny and hot (a lovely daily occurrence) and I was more interested in finding a shady spot in which to eat my lunch. But first, I wanted to find a post office.

Ever since I purchased my new shoes in Viana, I carried my hiking sandals in my backpack. I was on my third day of carrying them and they were too heavy to keep. I decided to mail them home.

I also wanted to send some sweet treats to Handsome Husband, who was holding the fort in my absence. We spoke over the phone earlier that morning while I stopped for coffee in Cirueña, and he was on my mind. I missed him and wanted to send a small care package to let him know I was thinking of him. Oh yeah, and send some used hiking sandals too – what a lucky guy! 😉

IMG_0883

The Chicken-Friendly Church (and look at how blue that sky is!)

I walked the winding streets of the town, trying to find chocolate for H.H. I passed dozens of restaurants, café bars, and gift shops, all aimed at Camino tourists like myself, but I struggled to find any chocolate. I found dozens of bakeries, pastry shops (the Spaniards loved their baked goods), and ice-cream shops, but no chocolate.

I delighted at finding a supermarket but the smallest bars of chocolate they sold were in slabs of 1kg – rather heavy for mailing home, and really bad for Handsome Husband’s teeth. But that was all they had. Otherwise, I’d have to send him baked pastries and they wouldn’t survive the trip. Eventually, I found a chocolate delicatessen and in my rudimentary Spanish, ordered a few small treats for Husband. There wasn’t much but it was the best I could do.

Back at the post office, I waited in line to buy a cardboard box for the sandals and the goodies. The sandals weighed a hefty 1kg and it cost about €25 to mail them. Many people would have thought that an outrageous price for postage, and would rather leave the shoes in a hostel for someone else to use. You would be surprised at just how many people change their footwear while walking camino, and leave the old pair behind in a hostel or even on the side of the trail. It’s a practical and symbolic gesture:

Letting go that which you no longer need

Letting go of material possessions

Letting go of the weighty baggage

Giving to someone else

Sharing your resources with the people around you, or the people who will come along after you

So, I could have left my sandals somewhere instead of carrying the unnecessary 1kg in my pack for 3 days. Lord knows, my shoulders would have been in better shape if I had a lighter pack!

I considered it, but I loved those Chaco sandals and still had a few years left in them. For me, it was cheaper to pay the €25 postage than to buy a new pair later in life, so I paid the money and watched them take the box from my hands.

The woman behind the counter had difficulty understanding my intended destination for the package. I guess she was used to seeing pilgrims come in and post their unwanted belongings on to Santiago, rather than sending them home. I’d heard this was possible – that if, for example, you had too much clothing in your pack, you could mail it to the main post office in Santiago for a nominal fee, and then collect it when you arrive in the city weeks later. It’s a smart idea – it allows pilgrims to lighten the load in their backpacks without having to throw away belongings that they wanted to keep.

I’d heard of the service but didn’t know how it worked or how much it cost. I also didn’t have enough Spanish to really find out. And either way, I knew I was done with the sandals and wanted to send them home. I wouldn’t need them in Santiago so I put Husband’s address on the front. The woman behind the counter challenged me on this and wanted to clarify why I wasn’t sending things to Santiago.

She spoke to me in Spanish and I understood maybe 10% of the words, but 100% of her gesturing.

You’re sending this to Santiago?

No, thank you.

You’re sure?

Yes, I’m sure thanks.

But where are you sending it then? What is this address? You know this isn’t a Santiago address, right?

Yes, I know, that address is my home.

Your home?

Yes, my home. My casa, sí.

Your casa?

Yes, my casa.

This is where you live?

Yes, thank you.

So you’re sending this to your home and not to Santiago?

Yes, exactly!

Oh…but that’s going to cost a lot of money!

Ah…that’s okay thank you.

It would be much cheaper to send it to Santiago, you know.

Ah thank you, but no.

You’re a pilgrim, right?

Yes, I am.

Are you sure you want to mail this package?

Yes please.

Okay, so you’re sending this package and it’s quite heavy and expensive. Are you sure you don’t want to send it to Santiago?

🙂

We went round in circles like this for 5-10 minutes and in the end, she accepted my decision. She shook her head at the madness but followed my request to send the box home, and filled out the forms and paperwork.

I didn’t have any return address to put on it, of course. I was a transient pilgrim and didn’t know where I’d sleep from one day to the next. I certainly wasn’t going back to any of the hostels I’d already stayed in. So I didn’t have a return address to give her.

She wrote the word “Peregrina” (pilgrim) all over the box. In other words:

If this package cannot be delivered, return it to this specific post office because the woman mailing it is effectively homeless right now. And if  you have to return it, we might track her down even though she’ll probably be finished walking by then and be on a plane home. The pilgrim is crazy anyway because she’s sending this box home instead of sending it to Santiago (even though I tried telling her but she wouldn’t listen!). So if she’s crazy enough to spend €25 on postage and the package comes back to us, she might be crazy enough to forget all about it. Let’s hope this casa address is real and that you don’t have to return this box. But if you do have to return it, return it to here.

I walked out of the post office feeling lighter in my backpack and hopeful that the box would arrive at its destination. I gave the chicken-friendly church a miss, and sat in the shade eating my lunch of baguette and cheese. Only another 6.2km to the hostel in Grañón, and hopefully a free space in which to sleep.

IMG_0882

Adiós Azofra (and a Coffee in Cirueña)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

Just now, I looked at Brierley’s map for this day’s walking and was appalled to realise that I couldn’t remember anything about the first 9km of it.

I mean, not a single thing.

That really bothered me.

I know it’s going to happen for parts of my 800km journey but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.

Sure, I was tired when I left my hostel in Azofra. My roomie’s snoring from the previous night meant I had less sleep than normal. But still, I was disappointed that I couldn’t remember anything other than chatting to my new Korean friend, who was ill and had decided to stay in the hostel another day. I hugged her goodbye and walked off into the countryside…apparently.

I looked at the map and thought to myself:

I probably stopped in Cirueña for a coffee and breakfast…

But I couldn’t remember any of it.

That is, until I Googled the name of the village and found these images, and then it all came flooding back.

Aaaahhhh yes….I remember this place!

For those who haven’t walked Camino yet, I know that all of these place names and references to coffee seem a bit arbitrary. They may even strike you as meaningless and you might find your eyes skimming over some of my words.

I was the same when I read other peoples’ accounts of Camino. All the place names sort of blurred together and I didn’t really understand why so many people thought coffee stops were so noteworthy.

I thought: Yeah whatever, hurry up and tell me more about the walking instead of ranting about café con leche!

So, I get it.

But when I walked Camino, my perspective changed.

The thing is, all these towns, villages, and side-of-the-road vans selling coffee can break up a day. Starting out from a hostel every morning, the prospect of walking however many kilometres can be a bit of a mental and physical drag. You need to know that you can take a break somewhere when you get tired, thirsty, or need to pee. You need to know that you can hit the “Pause” button for a short while and air out your sweaty feet.

On a practical level, small café bars offer breakfast when most of the hostels do not. So, stopping off is part of the morning routine.

They offer a chance to sit and take a break from the physical exertion of walking for hours every day. They give pilgrims a chance to step in out of the weather – whatever it may be. Cafés and bars provide food, drink, and bathroom services – all of which are in heavy demand. And of course, the cafés offer a chance to be social. I enjoyed surprise reunions and bumped into friends I thought I’d never see again, like the time I was reunited with the “Champagne Camino” women in a café in Lorca. That was fun.

So you get the idea – coffee stops are really relevant. They can make a day.

Forgetting 9km of trail after Azofra was disheartening until I remembered that this was the morning I passed through the ghost estate of Cirueña, where every house was newly constructed and almost all of them had a “For Sale” sign out the front. This was like no other town or village I’d passed through. It felt contrived and soulless, and was clearly a financial failure. I walked past dozens of houses, all silent, with pristine gardens and chicken wire fences. There were no signs of life and the place felt plain odd.

But by then, I’d happily bumped into Barb and Dave, and we rounded a corner to see a golf course club house – complete with plastic tables and chairs out front.

Hurrah…a chance for coffee…and breakfast!

They kindly treated me to my coffee and pastry and the three of us sat out front, enjoying the sunny morning. I used the free wi-fi to make a call to Handsome Husband, who was having a hard time at work that morning. This is the man who generously supported me when I resigned from my job, and wholeheartedly encouraged me to go walk Camino. This is the man who offered unconditional support, and was home alone while I spent my days rambling across Spain. I wanted to reach out and help him feel supported, too.

But I came away from the call feeling conflicted.

I wanted to stay on the call with him and give him more time, but I couldn’t spend all day at the club house. I had to keep walking but to do so meant losing the wi-fi and my chance to call him. It would be hours before I’d have a chance to call him again. It could even be days, if there was no wi-fi at my next stop. I felt guilty about being so far away from him when I wanted to help. I wanted to be a “Good Wifey” but was limited by geography.

I shared my conflict with Barb and Dave, who replied:

“We have a list of people we pray for while we’re walking. We pray for someone different every day but today, we don’t have anyone to pray for. We’ll pray for Handsome Husband, if you like.”

😀

I heard that prayers said on Camino are more potent. If this is true, then a whole day full of prayer would surely help Husband’s tricky work situation. And how nice for him to know that two people he’d never even met were rooting for him, thinking of him, and supporting him from afar.

I shared the news with him before we departed the club house. The next town was only 5.9km away and it looked like a fairly big one: I hoped to find wi-fi there and call him again. In the meantime, two generous Canadians were keeping him in their thoughts – as was I – as we strapped on our backpacks and headed west.