Part 15: El Camino de Santiago


Camino – Day 15

Buenos Dias Los Amigos,

Today’s stage took us from the beautiful town of Astorga to the one-street backwater of Rabanal Del Camino.

Today started with an even better, or worse if you happened to be here, demonstration of just why the Germans are so universally hated abroad. Normally they are bad, getting up at the crack of dawn and banging around like demented Turkeys the day before Christmas, but today they were just insufferably over the top!

Imagine if you will, waking up to be greeted by what looks like a whole lot of foreign miners rushing about in all directions without a care in the world as to who they are pissing off in the process. "Late rising" and "quiet" are simply 2 words that do not enter the German vocabulary on the Camino, Sunday being no exception! I say they look like miners, because this years fashion amongst our German pilgrim brethren, is the head mounted torch. Every bloody one of them I have met has got one and they don’t seem to understand the concept that if you shine it around at the crack of dawn it will wake people up, and the fact that they are being kind, in their opinion, to be using these rather than putting on the lights just doesn’t cut the mustard!

It was with this rather inauspicious start to the day that I headed out, once more on my own, to conquer the Camino. I thought, foolishly, that if I cracked on a little pace, Larry and Donal wouldn’t catch me until midmorning and I would be spared the indignity of eating their dust before sun up. As usual, this was pretty fanciful, and I was staring at Larry’s skinny ass and Donal’s remarkable Irish attire from behind long before 9.00 am.

The route today basically took us up through the foothills of the mountain range we will tackle over the next 3 days and, as such, was basically straight and uphill all morning. The scenery was beautiful and such a marked contrast to the brown and dull parts of the northern Camino we had left behind north of Burgos. After 10 kms, I stopped at a little bar for a coffee and croissant with Christina, another German girl, who I am sure is a Lesbian but have not yet had the balls to ask, and then headed off on the additional 10 kms to Rabanal del Camino.

About 2 kms after breakfast, I met a Camino Urban Legend. I say Urban Legend, but that was only because everyone talked about this man and nobody I had met had ever actually seen him before today. At Hospital Orbigo, Martin, an English cabby who seemed to be about as directionally challenged on the Camino as I imagine he must be in London, told us of a man walking with a dog. A fellow pilgrim had pointed out to the man that it was unfair that he had shoes and his dog didn’t. Apparently, without a word, the man had taken off his shoes, thrown them off the bridge they happened to be walking on at the time, and proceeded bare foot, dog in tow.

Now, here in front of me, in the flesh, was the man, walking along a horrendously stone-strewn pathway, dog in tow and no shoes to be seen. I must admit that at first I was gob-smacked and just stood there – the only question I wanted to ask was that if he hadn’t been on a bridge at the time he threw away his shoes, would he have gone and gotten them back later when no-one was looking? Once I had recovered, I took a few photos for evidence, gave the dog a pat on the back and the man a "listen buddy, nice gesture, but do you think the dog really cares" kind of look and moved along. From the look I got back, I suspect people have been giving him the same look for the past 4 weeks but pride or belief will no doubt get him to Santiago intact.

About 5 kms from the finish, I had probably my most moving experience on the Camino to date, and I think it was largely because it was so unexpected given my reasons for being on the Camino in the first place. I was walking up a small hill when suddenly I noticed hundreds, probably thousands, of crosses made from bits of tree bark and twigs, woven into the metal fence alongside the route. Pilgrims for decades must have used this place as a kind of unofficial memorial to friends, relatives or any other important aspect of their lives needing to be remembered. I stopped, found some twigs and made my own cross which I added to all the others.

I don’t know why, I am not the most overtly religious of people, but I found myself praying for people I had lost over the years. My grandmother, who I had not thought of for some time, a kid from school who had recently been murdered, a friend from my childhood who had taken her own life and 2 other friends from another time who had been killed in a terrible car accident. Here, in the middle of Spain, it seemed fitting to remember these people and to plant a mark for them as so many other pilgrims had done for their own loved ones.

When I eventually got to the refugio, I was actually hoping to go on further as I was feeling "Strong like a Bull!" and we had only covered 20 kms. Unfortunately, my 2 traveling companions had run themselves into the ground by covering the 20 kms in 3 hours and had collapsed in the dormitory. I was forced to hang up my stuff and contemplate an evening in Hicksville whilst they slept like babies after a long day out. On the Camino, the old adage of the tortoise and the hare really does apply and, tomorrow, if they burn themselves out again, I will go on alone – I want to make sure I am out of the mountains and only 100 kms from Santiago when my father arrives. The one good thing about staying here is the fact that I saw my first "burro" on the trail. Burro is donkey in Spanish and a French couple had been conned into purchasing a very shaggy and uncooperative specimen in Leon 2 days before.

As I sat nursing another coffee, they appeared round the corner, red faced and exhausted, followed by Spain’s most mangy beast! For sheer comedy value, it was priceless to see these 2 middle-aged Parisians trying to drive this obstinate animal up the pathway. The problem, as it transpired, was that the donkey refused to walk through shadows – a bit of a dilemma when you are walking in the middle of the day on tree-lined pathways. My suspicion is that the novelty of el burro is fast wearing off for these 2 intrepid travelers, and the aforementioned beast will probably be found munching its way through some Spanish senoras vegetable garden, abandoned, before another week is through!


Tomorrow we hit the mountains for real, and I am going to get an early night in order to be ready. It is sad because tomorrow we will leave behind most of the people we have been traveling with since Leon, some of whom started with us in Roncesvalles. We need to put in some big days in order to cover the distance to Santiago in time and it is only now that I feel fit enough to turn up the distance covered on a regular basis. The rest of our group will be left behind in the wake of 4 x 30 km days on the trot! If you do not hear from me over the next couple of days it will be because the internet revolution has not made it to the mountain passes, I have fallen down a crevasse never to be seen again, or am just too bloody tired to lift a finger to write. If you do hear from me then things are going better than I expected!

Until I resurface…..

Adios Los Amigos and Buen Camino



From Astorga to Foncebadon it was 25K and the next day we would be in the mountains.  James´ father, Graham, was due to meet us in Sarria and would go on to Santiago with us from there.  Buen Camino.

The day, according to a topographical map, would be mostly uphill with more elevation gain than we’d seen since leaving Leon. Donal had done the Camino before and during our walks we’d discuss the trail ahead.  We’d been able to see the mountains in the distance growing closer and bigger, since Hospital de Orbigo. 

Outside of Rabanal we sat on a stone wall and looked at our information sheets.  The distance to Rabanal showed to be 20K from Astorga.  Our original objective had been Foncebadon but after a closer look, and finding out the Foncedabon alberque was a parrosial, probably old, stone and moldy and if we found it not to our liking and had to continue on to Manjarin, we would have 30K for the day, all uphill.  We decided it was at least worth taking a look at the alberque in Rabanal.  We didn’t know how James was feeling but did know our past experiences with church alberques.  While we were sitting there I told Donal a little story.

Once there were two bulls standing on top of a hill overlooking the pastures below.  One was a young bull, the other much older.  The pastures were full of beautiful heifers and the young bull, turning to the older one said, “Let’s run down there and make love to one of them.”  the older bull looked slowly around and said, “Let’s walk down and make love to them all.” 

With a time schedule for meeting Graham in Sarria and not wanting to waste it all in one day, we decided that if the alberque at Rabanal was acceptable, we’d make it a short day because of the long days ahead.  Our topo map showed not just one set of mountains but two.  Over the top at Majarin, down to Ponferada and then over the next, and bigger climb to O Cebreiro, then down and up and down again before reaching Sarria, and Sarria was still 135K away.  

We’d left Astorga at 8:00 and arrived in Rabanal at 11:30, early for calling it a day.  When we walked into town the man from the alberque met us in the middle of the street.  He was almost too eager to show us around.  At first we were a little suspicious, like maybe there was a problem and no one wanted to stay because of it.  As it turned out the man was a nervous type and he was just being helpful.  The alberque was clean, well maintained and not too big. 

Fonedabon was 5K and the next, privately owned, was 4K further at Manjarin.  Even though it was early, we decided to sit in the sun on a bench in front of the alberque and wait for James before making a final decision.  We’d caught and passed everyone who’d left early and James showed up ahead of most of them.  James wanted to go to the next stop until he sat down for a little while and we looked at all the information.

The day’s walk had been rolling hills and rocky trails but most of the time we were away from heavily traveled roads and noise.  Since leaving Leon the old buildings and and their architecture showed more Roman and less Moorish, influence.  More of the villages and smaller towns had cobblestone streets, at least in town.  I found cobblestones hard on the ankles and not to my liking for walking on.  The surfaces were slightly unequal in height and difficult to get an even stride on because of their size differences.  If they were damp or wet they were slippery.  Vehicles made a lot of noise when driven on them with cars or trucks sounding like jet planes when they passed.
The 3 of us looked at our information sources and they told us the next day would be lots of uphill with nothing down until beyond Majarin and then downhill all the way to Ponferada, a total of 33K.  We decided to stay the night in Rabanal.

Once we checked in we went looking for food and drink.  There was a restaurant/bar right next door so we went in and sat down.  The man looked like he might have gotten out of prison the day before, James’ words, but he and the lady in the kitchen turned out to be more than hospitable.  After a beer we ordered dinner.  James wanted chips, we call them French fries, and eggs.  Apparently, that was something that no one had ordered before. 

The lady who was cooking came out and kind of gruffly asked James, who speaks no Spanish, if that was really what he wanted.  I think she thought the man waiting tables had given her the wrong information.  After I told James what she said, James said he did want chips and eggs, 3 eggs and lots of chips.  In his flamboyant way he explained it all to her with lots of hand and arm waving, patting her on the arm and shoulder, and she loved it.  She was smiling from ear to ear when she went back in the kitchen and whipped us all up a dinner to remember.  I think she fell in love with James, right there, on the spot, at the table.

The man and woman were smiling, eager to help and friendly.  We’d customized the menu and ate well, drank well and slept well in the small alberque.

I had intentionally taken a bed in the corner away from the door and that, unfortunately, included being away from the window.  Most people sleep with all their windows closed.  Maybe they live in the city and are afraid to leave the windows open.  The door from the hallway into the room was also closed.  By 2:00 in the morning it was real stuffy.  I got up, turned off the light in the hallway, opened the window, went to the bathroom, left the door open (no lights in anyone’s eyes with the hallway light off) and went back to bed, in comfort, for another 4-1/2 hours, without the headache I’d had before letting some fresh air in.

At dinner the night before I’d asked the man waiting tables if it would be possible to make substitutions at breakfast.  He told me a different couple would be manning the restaurant and I’d have to ask them.

In the morning I went to the restaurant next door.  We wanted to get an earlier than usual start and I was one of the first to get there.  I looked at the menu and asked the man if it would be possible to substitute a salad for the ham that was on the menu, as ham and eggs.  He went in to talk to the lady who was cooking.  She came out and said they didn’t have any salad, only tomatoes.  I said that was OK.  I told her I didn’t eat pork including ham.  It appeared, by the look on her face, she thought all of it was a little strange.  Somewhat reluctantly, she said she would make it and went back in the kitchen. 

Donal came in, a few others came in and then James came in.  When my breakfast was served everyone in the place looked at what I had. People I didn’t know came over and  asked how I got my order, it wasn’t on the menu.  I told them I just asked.  Those who hadn’t already ordered, ordered what I had.  I think the man and woman working the cafe, were dumbfounded.  No one had ever ordered that before and now 75% of the people in the room were eating eggs and tomatoes.  Like the night before, we’d customized their menu and everyone was smiling when we left.   

There are a few places along the Camino that stand out in my mind as excellent, Rabanal del Camino, a small town, was one of those memorable places.  The alberque had been comfortable and full.  The man showed us where to hang our clothes so we would get the maximum amount of sunlight and drying time. The people in the restaurant were friendly the night we checked in and the next morning.

Some people with a donkey showed up and the man from the alberque took them to a field where they could put the donkey inside a makeshift fence.  Later, James bought a couple of apples at the cafe and, after sitting in the sun where we talked about the days walk, he went over and fed the apples to the donkey.

At Rabanal we met a girl from Colorado who had been on the Camino for some time and had made lots of side trips to visit and see things that weren’t even in the guide books.  She had teamed up with an older Spanish couple who apparently had lots of inside information.  She told us about an old church, in considerable disrepair, where they had gone on a side journey.  The people there were glad to see them, the man rode his bike to town, got food, brought it back and they all had a feast in the old church.  She planned to go to some caves with the Spanish couple the next day and other places after that.  Her stay in Spain would be as long as it took to see everything she could possibly take in.     

Most of those who came in at Leon with plans to do lots of miles had begun to lose their drive, now that we were in the foothills.  Tomorrow, according to the topo map, would sort out those that could from those that thought they could.

It does the spirit good to know that we could walk as far and as fast as we did.  At 65 I was consistently the oldest person in the sign-in books who walked every day.  Quite a few walked one day and took a bus or taxi the next, lots shipped their backpacks ahead and walked a day or two then took a bus.  Whatever worked for them was what they needed to do and by staying in touch with their bodies and how they felt, they could accomplish what they’d come for.

Walking with Donal was a real treat.  Ever since James and I had met in Canada, I’d had a difficult time understanding him when he talked.  Even though Donal had a heavy accent, that wasn’t a problem after the first day.  Also, Donal walked the same speed as I did and he didn’t have a cell phone stuck in his ear the whole time. 

Looking back on my notes, I find the Camino can cause relationship problems.  When we’re thrust into lifestyle choices, or we go outside our comfort zone, we begin to see the blemishes that weren’t obvious before.