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. 😀

Camino de Santiago: A Lesson in Self-Care

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took stock of where I was on my camino journey.  I had walked about 500km by then – an astonishing amount. Roughly speaking, the city of León had opened up the final third of the journey so it felt like a good time to reflect on what I was learning along the way.

My journal is full of conflicts about how I wanted to walk. It was one thing to put “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” but I was concerned too about the state of my heart. Was I feeling impatient or compassionate? Was I being judgemental or open-minded? How had I been for the 500km already walked and how did I want to be for the remaining 300km ahead?

There was lots to reflect on.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I met a pilgrim who referred to her tendonitis as a disability (I kid you not), and planned to take buses for the remainder of the journey.

I felt a knot of conflict in my chest.

Personally, I don’t think swollen tendons are a disability.

Is the condition painful? Sure.

It it as life-changing as a disability and as significant as all that the term entails? Hmmm…no.

So, I thought this woman was a bit dramatic and self-absorbed.

And then I felt guilty for judging her because really, what right did I have to pass comment?

And *then* I felt conflicted about whether I should, like her, “take care of myself” and take a bus and give my body a break? Should I take ibuprofen every day like so many of the other pilgrims around me? Should I rest more, go to a doctor, and find a massage therapist?

My answer to all of those things was an emphatic No.

I didn’t think my pain was serious enough to merit intervention of any kind. I knew that once I got home, had a bit of sleep, and stopped walking 25-30km every day with a heavy bag on my back, I’d be fine. So my plan was to “get through” my discomfort until then. I didn’t think much of alleviating that discomfort or, perish the thought, omitting it entirely! That decision was a conflict for me throughout my camino. I felt rather purist in my intention to walk every step but there was no denying that other pilgrims seemed to be in less pain or seemed to be having a lot more fun.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be some good in taking pain relief and/or buses: I just couldn’t bring myself to avail of that goodness.

On reflection, that mindset permeated my camino journey: my emphasis was on enduring it rather than enjoying it.

I was somewhat aware of it at the time and regretted it, but also didn’t know how to change it.

I met countless pilgrims from around the world who had spent years preparing, researching, and anticipating their camino journey. Compared to me, they seemed to lap up every sunrise and every cup of coffee with a sort of marvelous wonder. I was ashamed of my attitude and at the same time, felt immense pressure to keep going. Handsome Husband had made plans to meet me in Santiago and somehow, I needed to arrive there by a certain date. I didn’t want to take a bus. I didn’t want to take a train. If I was going to walk it, then I wanted to walk it well.

That all sounded fine and dandy but I just couldn’t figure out my definition of “well” and what it meant for my walking journey.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took the time to rest and reflect. I took the time to figure out what I needed for the remainder of my walk. I had pushed hard for three and a half weeks already and I had often felt over-exposed and emotional. For the remainder of my journey, I wanted to feel more centred and calm. I wanted to feel more generous of heart. I wanted to walk well and I wanted to arrive well, too. And that last point, right there, is a whole other philosophy for life. Camino, like life, isn’t just about the destination: the journey itself (and how you live it) is key.

So, Handsome Husband and I cancelled our plans to meet in Santiago. I couldn’t sustain walking 30km every day for the following 10 days: I needed another rest day somewhere along the route. I needed to take better care of myself. I needed to go a bit more gently. What a liberation to say all of this aloud and feel heard! Handsome Husband took the news with a gracious heart and assured me there was no pressure: he only wanted for me to be well. He’s a good man, that one! ;-D

And so, unexpectedly, my two nights in “Hospital” were a chance to rest and recover in all sorts of ways. I left with renewed strength and optimism, and some lessons for the rest of my life.

My point in all of this?

If you’re like me, you might not know how to get what you need. Heck, maybe you’re so busy “enduring” life that you don’t even know what you need sometimes. And maybe you feel the twinge of conflict when you see someone else getting (or indeed, taking) what they need. Those twinges are uncomfortable but also informative. Those twinges can help identify what you value, what’s lacking, and what you want to do differently.

Don’t ignore the twinges of conflict: investigate them and learn. Take the time to rest and reflect. Allow yourself to discover what you need in your life to take it. You might just find, like me, that your life involves a little less pain and a lot more fun!

 

 

Camino de Santiago and 2 Nights in Hospital (de Órbigo)

Distance walked: 28.5km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 303.4km

img_1051.jpg

When I got to León, I thought the city marked the end of the Meseta region in northern Spain. After a week or so of walking through wheat and corn fields, I thought the landscape would turn into something more leafy, just like the first 300km of my walking journey. I thought the wheat and corn fields were a thing of the past.

I was wrong!

When I left La Virgen del Camino, a suburb of León, the streets were quiet. The wave of pilgrims leaving León hadn’t yet arrived that morning and the quiet created a bit of a reprieve. I felt I was “ahead”, somehow.

Later, I used my phone to record videos for Handsome Husband at home. He and I had kept in touch every day while I walked, but just as I was starting to feel that I had been a nomad for months already, so too for him. He cheered me on from afar but was looking forward to my return. So, I recorded some videos from the trail that day: corn fields on the left and corn fields on the right…and a video of a farm irrigation canal just to break up the boredom! Brierley’s book says, “…once you leave Virgen del Camino, on the recommended route, there are few facilitates along this relatively isolated stretch.”

He wasn’t lying!

IMG_1054

Sometimes you have to look *really* closely for signage!

IMG_1053

I’d set my sights on Hospital de Órbigo, which has one of the “longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge.” My map showed plenty of accommodation options and I figured my chances were pretty good of securing a bed for the night.

IMG_1056

In retrospect, I would have done well to stop a bit earlier that day. Or maybe I would have done well to stop in León the previous day and rest a bit extra. I hadn’t quite recovered from my folly of carrying four litres of water, days earlier. My body was still tired and sore, and by the time I arrived in Hospital de Órbigo that afternoon, I was feeling a bit burnt out. I arrived during siesta, when all the town’s shutters were down and the streets were quiet. I was thrilled to secure a bottom bunk bed in Albergue Karl Leisner, the parish hostel in a historic building that had been renovated by a German Confraternity. I washed my clothes and hung them to dry on a sunny clothes line. I sat and brushed my feet against the newly-cut, short, sharp grass. Pilgrims played guitars, cats lazed in the sun, and white clouds raced through the sky overhead.

I liked the hostel but I felt out of place in the town. As with a lot of restaurants along the way, dinner wasn’t served until 8pm and by then, after I had finished attending a pilgrim mass, I was very nearly too tired to eat. I wandered the streets looking for somewhere wholesome and lively but struggled to find anywhere. I met only a handful of pilgrims on the streets and they were faces I didn’t recognise. I’d fallen out of step with the people I knew, so eating alone in town that evening was rather lonesome. I didn’t know where everyone was but it sure felt like they weren’t eating out like I was that evening.

In the end, I settled for a café offering “homemade pizza” but when they produced a not-quite-defrosted pizza base cooked with ketchup on top, well, I cut my losses and left early. The TV screen in the corner blared with football and the old men at the counter didn’t notice that I left. I quietly paid and went on my way: that was probably my most dismal dinner experience on camino and I was glad to go back to the hostel, to bed.

It only occurred to me when I returned home that while I walked camino, I didn’t do a very good job of building in rest days along the way. If, like me, you work Monday-Friday, then your weekly pattern looks something like this:

Work for five days…

Rest (or do other things!) for two days…

Week in, week out, there is a rhythm there, allowing the body and mind a chance to rest, regroup.

On camino, I kind of walked and walked and walked and only took a “rest” when I was in a lot of pain or extremely exhausted. I didn’t have a rhythm and I didn’t really recover as I walked from one place to the next. In Hospital de Órbigo, I took some time to rest and recover. I didn’t feel actively “sick” but I didn’t have the heart to walk on, so I asked to stay a second night. Ordinarily, this isn’t the norm: the arrangement is to stay one night and then move on before 8am the next day. Pilgrims don’t tend to hang around any longer unless they are injured or sick in some way.

The volunteer behind the desk very kindly ushered me into a “private room” where I could sleep in peace…and I did. That saint of a woman even made me some green tea with honey, and assured me that she was nearby if I needed anything at all. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness that I bawled my eyes out crying…and then fell quickly to sleep! 😀

Private room…not exactly private but certainly quieter than the dorms

Looking back, I needed the rest and was thrilled to have it. But you know, I am sorry I didn’t keep in closer contact with my friends along the way. Even though I needed to walk camino on my own, I later learned that Kevin and Liz were in town at the same time as I. Had I known, we might have had dinner together. Kevin had a great skill for finding the most delicious tapas and gourmet feasts along the way: I might have enjoyed chat and laughter, and actual food, instead of sitting alone in a loud, flourescent-lit café bar, trying to eat frozen pizza. Of course, they might have had other plans and might not have wanted me tagging along, but I didn’t reach out to them so we’ll never know!

So, let that be a reminder to us all: keep in touch with the good people in your life, they add the colour and heart that we all need. 🙂

Religion on Camino

When I came home from walking 500 miles across Spain, I was surprised by how many people asked me about religion on the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to ask for all sorts of reasons:

Some wanted to test whether I’d gone walking because of religion…

Others wanted to know if I’d come home “born again”…

And there were others who knew the camino had a religious history and wanted to know whether this influenced my daily walking in any way.

Sometimes, I felt the questions were inquisitive and open-ended. Other times, I felt there was a snide judgment ready and waiting. I tried to be open-minded about everything on camino, so I wasn’t happy with being labelled one thing or the other. Separately, I felt protective towards the various friends I’d met along the way and I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to pass fun at their beliefs. Whatever we might think about matters of faith, I’m not okay with sneering at someone else’s belief system.

Me? I happened to be reared a Catholic but I use the term with a certain affection and humour. I grew up attending weekly mass but was always at least 10 minutes late and never had a seat to sit on. In truth, going to Sunday mass was a good opportunity to stock up on the Sunday newspapers and chocolate. And attending mass was also a good way to see people (or be seen by them) and keep in touch with the local community. Altogether, none of these things are signs of devotion, are they?!

And yet, I learned some (perhaps simplistic) version of Catholicism – the bit that assured me I don’t need to be in a church to say prayers, and the bit that says what’s happening in my heart is more important than whether I arrive to mass on time.

Do I know when to sit, stand, kneel, and shake hands? Sure. Do I know all the prayers, Bible stories, and feast days? Not a chance.

Am I devoted Catholic?

I don’t really think so.

As an adult, I’m a bit uneasy with the “G” word and there’s a lot of the official doctrine I don’t agree with. I also know that a lot of indefensible things have been done in the name of religions, so I can’t defend (any) organized faith. At best, I’m an À-la-carte Catholic. I have a system that works quite well for me and I find the divine in all sorts of places – both church-y and not. All things considered, I don’t think I count myself as “devoted”.

But am I going to scoff at someone who *is*?

No.

I tried to keep an open mind with all things religious while I walked camino.

I didn’t choose to walk because of religious devotion. True, I had some rather divinely inspired reasons for walking, but were they exclusively Catholic or even Christian? I don’t think so.

I walked because some deep-rooted part of my heart/spirit called me to action. And truth told, I felt more akin to the (pagan) pilgrims who walked this ancient route long before the Catholic church took it over. I don’t know enough about *their* story but I’m intrigued by the force that propelled them to walk from all over Europe and travel to the end of the world, as they knew it.

That strikes me as a rather primal compulsion and I resonate with it more strongly than anything church-y.

But I knew that the camino had, and has, a lot of Catholic significance and that thousands of people treat it as a religious pilgrimage – just like they would treat a trip to Lourdes or Rome. I didn’t feel I was exactly one of them but I didn’t think it fair to want to avoid them either. Anyway, there are good people and bad people in life – irrespective of religion. When it came to camino, I decided I’d hang out with the people I liked and avoid the ones I didn’t – regardless of faith.

I made no plans to attend mass or avoid mass – I figured I would decide as I went along. I also felt amenable to having conversations about faith, spirituality, and religion if they came up. I reasoned that the odds were pretty high but I was neither seeking nor avoiding the topic. Plus, the camino route goes past dozens, if not hundreds of churches, all across northern Spain. It purposefully snakes through small towns and villages to make sure it goes by the door of the church – presumably so pilgrims can avail of /will avail of its services. Separate to religion, many of the churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, so they’re elaborate and ornate buildings – solid, stoic, and architecturally impressive.

IMG_0846

Some of them were as small as my living room, with wild flowers humbly gracing the altar. Some of them were spectacular cathedrals with lines of tourists waiting for a look at their famous stained glass.

IMG_0931

And some of them, when you least expect it, looked non-descript on the outside but reveal something like this inside:

IMG_0893

IMG_0794

So, whatever your feelings on Catholicism (in particular) there is no getting away from the church on camino.

Over the course of my 6 weeks, I met people who quoted scripture in my presence (and they knew it off by heart). In honesty, it felt a bit intense to me at the time because that’s not how I roll. But to be fair, they weren’t trying to ram it down my neck. They were saying grace at a dinner table in the way that felt most fitting for them. I’d be an ass to take offense to it.

And yet, I met people who did take offense when I told them about the quoting of scripture. For them, that was a leap waaaay too far and even though they hadn’t witnessed it in person, they were irate and argumentative about anyone having the gall to openly quote scripture. Clearly, it was a touchy subject.

I’m not sure it’s practical to get offended about religion on Camino because then you’re likely to get offended by accommodation like this:

IMG_1064

This was my hostel room in the town of Hospital de Órbigo and incidentally, I didn’t stay in a monastery but there’s no getting away from the big crucifix on the wall. I was so thrilled to have a quiet room and a non bunk-bed that I barely even noticed the crucifix!

I met people who planned their walking schedule and accommodation so they could avail of pilgrim masses in as many towns and villages as possible.

I met people who openly wore crucifixes on their person – and some of those crosses were the size of a coffee cup so there was no missing them!

I met people who had left churches, joined other churches, and knew about theology. I don’t know many people like that in my life and the bookish nerd in me was delighted to learn new information.

I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.

Conversely, I met people who weren’t Catholic at all but attended mass and received Holy Communion in their hands all the same.

I met two vicars, neither of whom wore collars, but both of whom shared very human experiences of their daily work at home.

I met people who’d done missionary work in developing countries and others who had an ongoing despair about their dwindling faith.

I met people who didn’t mention religion or faith from one end of the day to the other – and we talked about a million other things instead.

Religion didn’t dominate my camino but it played a big part nonetheless.

I attended some of the pilgrim masses along the way and in general, I managed to be late almost every time 🙂 I liked the sentiment of the pilgrim blessings and I came away from every one of them feeling fortified in my hopes to carry on.

There was one day, I happened to arrive into a tiny country village just as the bells were ringing out for Sunday morning mass. To the surprise of the locals (who expected me to go straight to the café bar) I went to the church, me covered in dust and sweat, and sat in the quiet darkness. I lit candles for loved ones at home. I said a few prayers of thanks. And even though I was the only pilgrim in the village that day, I didn’t stay for Mass and the pilgrim blessing I surely would have received. Somehow, the vibe wasn’t quite right for me that day and I felt like hitting the trail instead and finding my version of mass out there – so that’s what I did. As I descended the church steps, I met the locals on their way in, dressed in their Sunday best (literally) and ready for action. My departure might have been offensive to them at the time but I don’t believe in attending church just because of what the neighbours think! I felt no guilt or hesitation in my decision, and celebrated a great day of walking instead.

Surprisingly, by the end of my camino I was wearing a scauplar around my neck, neatly tucked in behind my sporty t-shirt. It came as a gift from Liz in a moment of spontaneity and I accepted it with gladness. I had an important decision to make and she felt an impulse to give it to me. She took it from around her own neck and she placed it gently around mine. I hadn’t even seen such a thing since I was a child and barely knew what it was called, but it felt right to accept the gift in that moment. I wore it as a sort of talisman for the remainder of my trip and I happily have it to this day.

Like I say, I tried to be open-minded about all things religious on camino.

My speciality was to wander in and out of churches as, and when, the mood struck me. I started it on my first evening in St. Jean Pied de Port, in France. It was bright out and the town was full of window boxes in full bloom, reds and yellows in the evening sunlight. I took a stroll around before dinner and came upon a church, and decided to pop in for a look. As it happened, there was a mass on (and wouldn’t you know it, I had arrived 10 minutes late!) so I sat down the back and admired the raw stonework and foot-long candles burning in front of the alter. And I couldn’t follow most of it because it was held in French and my high school French is long forgotten!

IMG_0736

That evening, a couple were blessed in honour of their 50th wedding anniversary and later on the church steps, they invited everyone to join them for champagne and pizza. They even invited us pilgrims – knowing well we’d be gone the next day and they’d never see us again but our faces would appear in their photographs. I was too shy to join them but watched their delight as they splashed champagne into plastic cups and handed out slices of hot, cheesy pizza in the evening sun.

I loved their warm welcome and their playful abandon. I loved the sincerity of their kindness. I loved that the church space allowed them to be casual and convivial, instead of formal and stuffy. The tone was good.

All along the way, I was a bit of a pyromaniac and I lit candles as often as I could. I lit them for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of people. Living such a transient life on the trail, there was very little I could do for anyone in the world but somehow, lighting a candle felt like something I *could* do – so that’s what I did.

IMG_1075

I enjoyed the churches because they were cool and shady, and I relished the break from the sweltering sun.

I also enjoyed the churches because they were often the quietest places where I could take some time out. Sure, it may be a religious pilgrimage but the churches are quieter than the hostels, the café bars, and the restaurants. Think about that for a minute – it says a lot.

Towards the end of my journey, I walked for 2-3 days with a woman I’d just met. In the green countryside of Galicia, I gestured that I wanted to stop off in a small country church and light some candles.

“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.

I sensed that she was uncomfortable with the church thing and that she mistakenly took me for being somehow devout. It didn’t matter what she thought but I made a point of explaining my reasons for visiting the churches. I liked the shade. I liked the quiet time. I liked lighting candles. I even liked looking at how they were decorated and arranged.

She nodded in understanding but stayed outside the front door, patiently waiting for me to arrive out so we could resume our conversation about something entirely different.

We lost track of each other for a couple of days and when we reunited again on the trail she surprised me by saying:

“I’ve taken a leaf out of your book and I’ve started going into the churches!”

For years, I ran hard and fast away from all things church-y. The irony that I had influenced anyone to step foot in a church was….well…hilarious to me!

When people asked me about religion on Camino, it was hard to know what to say. Yes, if you want to have a formal religious experience, the framework is there and ready to go. There are monasteries, convents, priests, and nuns. There are blessings and masses, confessions, communions, and hymn-singing gatherings. There’s a rich history and it’s all there for the taking.

Equally, if you want to have an informal religious experience, as I suppose I did, it’s all there for the taking or ignoring. I dipped in and out of services, conversations, and religious accommodations. I accepted some of it, rejected some of it, and followed my own hearty impulses as best I could. Rightly or wrongly, that was my exploration of faith on camino.

And equally, I think it’s quite possible to walk camino and avoid the religion thing almost entirely. I met plenty of atheists who enjoyed the history, the cuisine, the countryside, and companionship, and bypassed the religious elements quite comfortably. They didn’t have anyone force religious agendas down their neck.

I tried to answer the “religion on camino” questions with delicacy and tact but really, the topic was multi-faceted and huge.

How would you answer such questions?