Day 43, 44, and 45: Santiago de Compostela

We waited until Monday to go to the Cathedral. It simply would have been too much to try to experience it late on Sunday. As we were headed there, we ran into Marie and Klaus who had just gotten their Compostelas. We all congratulated one another and they waved goodbye as they left to plan their return to Germany. We arrived at the Cathedral about 10:00am and approached it from Praza do Obradoiro, which sits at the West Front (the main side). The plaza is a grand square surrounded by public buildings (the 5-star Parador hotel, which was built in 1492 as a pilgrim hospice; the town hall, Pazo de Raxoi; and the Colegio de S. Jeronimo, which is part of the University). Since Cathedrals are generally built so that the rising sun shines through the window(s) behind the altar, i.e., the top of the nave points east, that means the West Front was in the shade at 10 in the morning (so pictures had to wait until the afternoon, but see the shot with a smiling Ted that Charlie took later in the day). Of course we’d seen countless pictures of the Cathedral, but in real life it was nonetheless breathtaking. The iconic tall medieval towers (76 meters), which were added as an external Baroque facade between 1738 and 1750, so clearly define this as the home of St. James. A statue of his father, Zebedee, stands atop the left tower and his mother, Maria Salome, graces the right tower. And statues of St. James the Great and his disciples shown as pilgrims are prominent on the center of the facade. However, notwithstanding the overwhelming beauty of the exterior of the Cathedral, I could not help but be disappointed in the fact that it was in dire need of a serious facelift. The stone was deeply stained by acid rain; moss, lichen, and other unwanted plants grew from places that never saw the sun; and windows were in need of major cleaning. A “grande” power wash would make a huge difference. (We later saw that some other facades had indeed been cleaned, so I guess the West Facade must have been waiting its turn).

When we entered the Cathedral we encountered Master Mateo’s masterpiece, the Portico de Gloria (Door of Glory). Unfortunately, it was shrouded by scaffolding and netting as it was undergoing major restoration. This Romanesque inner portico was carved by Mateo and his understudies between 1166 and 1188. It includes the Tree of Jesse, which is the central column depicting St. James sitting as an intercessor between Jesus Christ and the pilgrims. It is this column that has been hugged by pilgrims for centuries, to the point where finger holes are now present in the solid marble. And on the back of the column (facing the altar) is a kneeling statue of Master Mateo himself, where millions of pilgrims have knelt and touched their brow on his head to receive some of his wisdom. Unfortunately, all this was behind barriers for us, so we couldn’t hug the column or knock heads with Mateo.

The original part of the Cathedral is near the main altar and the right transept. Construction of the Romanesque structure began in 1075 and the Cathedral was consecrated in 1128. Today the basically Romanesque Cathedral demonstrates significant Baroque and Gothic architectural elements that were added as modifications through the centuries. The main altar has an ambulatory passage that enables pilgrims to walk behind and above the altar, and a passage under the altar where the remains of St. James are interred. Charlie and I climbed the stone steps worn deeply by the passage of millions of pilgrims to place our arms around the bejeweled silver statue of St. James that sits above the tabernacle on the main altar. I cannot clearly describe the mix of feelings that overcame me as I knelt with my arms around the Saint’s silver shoulders and looked out over those shoulders down the main nave of the Cathedral that was filled with pilgrims trying to digest what they were experiencing. I think I finally felt that I was no longer just another person making this pilgrimage, but that I was finally a pilgrim myself.

After we climbed down the stairs behind the altar, we walked along the ambulatory to the entrance to the crypt. Then we squeezed down a narrow staircase to a vault under the altar where a silver casket held the remains of the great Saint and two of his disciples. We knelt in a very small chapel, just the two of us with the casket in front of us, and said our own private prayer to the Saint who has inspired this journey for so many people for so many years. It was surreal.

Each day there is a pilgrim mass at noon. We found seats near the front of the main nave (good seats), since we were there early. As noon approached, the church continued to fill to the point of standing room only (seating was expanded in the festival year 2010 to 1,000 so there were over a thousand pilgrims for Monday’s noon mass). We didn’t really know what to expect, but when noon arrived, the organs above our heads began to play and a procession of clergy in their vestments and lay people dressed in ivory tunics emblazoned with the Tau (or Pilgrim’s) Cross marched down the main aisle and into the main altar area. The mass was going to be conducted by six priests, two of whom were Monsignors and one a Bishop. So much for your average weekday mass!

The mass was conducted in a variety of languages (I heard Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English). It was closer to a High Mass in form, but it really had its own structure. The homily was delivered in Spanish and was specifically targeted to us as pilgrims. With such a large crowd, communion was given by the six priests plus some assistants who deployed around the Cathedral. The offering was collected in good size leather sacks hand carried by a group of capable looking Spanish men. Besides communion, the highlight of the mass was the swinging of the Botafumeiro, the giant incense burner that was originally used to counter the odors emitted by the horde of sweaty (and possibly disease-ridden) pilgrims. The Botafumeiro today is a silver censer (reputedly the largest in the world) that is suspended by a heavy rope (about 2 inches in diameter tied in a knot that Charlie described as a “rolling magnus”) that is connected (through a series of pulleys installed at the highest point at the intersection of the main nave and the transept) to a rope that is pulled by a team of people who are trained in the art of Botafumeiro swinging. The censer is lit (it holds 40kg of charcoal) and the ropes are pulled so that the Botafumeiro begins to swing along the plane of the transept — back and forth — until it climbs to reach the highest point of the Cathedral’s ceiling. For a former altar boy, this was really, really cool (and I have it on my iPad video)!

The Cathedral emptied quickly once Mass was over and most of the pilgrims scattered. Charlie and I loitered in the gift shop and then exited into the Praza da Quintana (east facade), which was bright and sunny. We were debating where to go for lunch and had begun to walk when a woman called my name — it was Margot from South Africa — a woman whom we had met at our very first stop on the way up the Pyrenees on our very first day on the trail! Charlie had befriended her at that stop, as she had been robbed on her way through Pamplona and was really very bummed. We saw her briefly again in Estella, just after Father Javier had taken me for blister treatment, when we directed her to the same clinic for treatment of her blisters. That was 37 days ago and here we were in Santiago at the same time. We sat down and she introduced us to her son and his girlfriend, who had both come down from England to meet her. She insisted on buying us beers.

As our beers arrived, up walked our friend Kit who was looking for Carina. So we introduced Kit to Margot and her family, and the circle grew. After a bit I grabbed Kit to go find Carina. We walked up the plaza and around the Cathedral and there sat Carina and her friend Nadine, who was also from Germany. The four of us then headed back to where Charlie, Margot and family were sitting.

As we were crossing the plaza, I heard Doug Foreman’s deep voice calling my name; I turned, and there sat he and Jannice, about three tables away from Charlie, Margot and company. We’d lost them about a week ago; we knew we were on about the same timeline to Santiago; but we didn’t know how well Jannice would be able to fare; or where they might be. We introduced everybody to everybody. And, bingo, we now had a crowd!

Doug and Jannice were sitting with a friend, so we made plans to meet to have dinner, and we got the rest of the crowd to all go to lunch. Margot’s son recommended a tapas bar and we headed there, where we had a great lunch and an even better time. When it was done we said goodbye to Kit, Carina and Nadine as they were headed out of Santiago, and Margot agreed to join us for dinner with Doug and Jannice.

Doug had done his homework and selected a nice restaurant not too far from the Cathedral that had a good menu at reasonable prices. Doug, Jannice, Charlie, Margot and I were joined by two German guys who walked a lot with Doug and two women, one from Germany and one from New Zealand, who were somehow connected to the German guys (the Camino walkers are a loosely coupled, but tightly bound, collection of people who share this one common experience). Later, Margot’s son and his girlfriend joined us. We had a great dinner together and you’d have thought we’d all known each other forever.

On Tuesday morning Charlie and I met Leslie Yun for coffee. She is a young woman from Canada with whom we’d walked a lot during the first week. We’d lost track of each other when we were sidetracked in Estella, and she had contacted us thru the blog to say she’d be in Santiago on Tuesday (she’d completed her Camino with Angela from Portugal/Paris/London on June 8). It was great to see her. We’d spent some quality time together in the early days and it felt really good to close the loop with her. She’ll be attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins and I hope we get to see her again sometime in the US. Charlie and I spent the rest of Tuesday sightseeing and doing some shopping in Santiago, and we had dinner at a delightful Italian restaurant that featured home made pasta. Bene, Bene, Multo Bene!

Until the 15th century or so, the end of the world was thought to be the west coast of the Iberian peninsula, and the westernmost city was Finisterre (Latin for “end of the world”). Some pilgrims choose to walk to Finisterre to complete their journey (it’s another 3 days of walking); some just ignore it as a marketing ploy to get the pilgrims to spend more time in Spain; and some take the bus and back. We chose to spend Wednesday on option three. Doug and Jannice had gone to spend a few days at Finisterre on Tuesday and we agreed to meet them on Wednesday. Margot joined us and we took the 9:00am bus from Santiago for the 2 – 3 hour ride to the coast. I brought both pairs of shorts that I’d worn on the trail to burn them at Finisterre, a pilgrim custom to signify a final end (Charlie felt that his stuff still had enough life in it, so he declined to bring anything to burn).

We met Doug and Jannice about 12:30 and they introduced us to Marvin and Cecilia from Maylasia, who were friends they had made on the walk whom they bumped into that morning. We all went to lunch and had a wonderful feast of Spanish seafood. Marvin and Cecilia went their own way after lunch, and the rest of us set out to walk about 3km to the lighthouse at the end of the world. We did so; I got to place my shorts on a pile to be burned later in the day; we took lots of “end of the world” pictures; we had celebratory drinks; and we walked back to Finisterre full of good feelings for the whole journey. We said goodbye to Doug and Jannice and took the 7:00pm bus back to Santiago. We had a tapas dinner with Margot and said our goodbyes to her. She had a 15-hour travel day back to Capetown in the morning. It was a fitting way for Charlie and I to spend our last full day together. I head to Madrid tomorrow, and Charlie heads to Vigo to meet Eileen. It’s been a great adventure, one that neither of us will ever forget, and one that we would encourage others to seriously consider. I hope you enjoy the pictures that follow.

Ted at West Facade
West Facade
Marie and Klaus
Charlie and Margot
Kit, Carina and Nadine
Doug and Jannice
Ted and Leslie
Charlie and Margot, Finisterre
Charlie and Ted, Finisterre
Doug and Jannice, Finisterre
Pilgrim on road to Finisterre with lighthouse in background
Doug, Charlie, Ted and Pilgrim
The final 0.0 distance marker at Finisterre

Buen Camino.

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Day 42: Rúa to Santiago de Compostela

I’ll get right to the punch line — we’re here, we have our Compostelas, and we’re done walking!

We didn’t have a wifi connection yesterday so I couldn’t upload yesterday’s post until we arrived today. That’s why the byline on Day 41 is dated today.

We awoke about six this morning and the sun was shining. It was a good sign. We had breakfast at Casa O’Acivro before we left and said goodbye to all the folks from yesterday’s end of day gathering. We departed about 7:30, with a good 6 hour walk head of us. As we hit the trail headed west, the sun was low behind us and I got a great picture of our shadows walking down the road (unfortunately that picture was NOT taken with my iPad so you’ll have to wait a while to see it).

There were some natural trails today, but we mostly walked on pavement (ugh — both aesthetically and on our feet). We stopped for a drink after the first 7.5km and we ran into Carina. She and Kit were traveling together but Kit was about ten minutes ahead, so we didn’t see her. They plan to stop short of Santiago today (and stay in a 500-person municipal Albergue!) and get into town in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon on Monday. We agreed to look for each other. The rest of the trip was through Santiago suburbs and then across the City of Santiago itself. Because it was on pavement, because it was “citified”, because it started to drizzle at noon, and because we were close, it seemed to take forever. We entered the city limits about 1:00pm, with 4km to walk through the city. I was hungry and wanted to stop for lunch but we were “so close” that we kept walking to get even “closer”. Finally, we spied the towers of the Cathedral, which spurred us on even more. By 2:00 we were “in the neighborhood” of the Cathedral and the Pilgrim Office where we would go to get our Compostela. We agreed to stop for lunch if we saw a good place, but we arrived at the Pilgrim Office first and, before we knew what was happening, we were standing in line. It was about 2:30 and I really needed to eat, but here I was standing in line for something that I could have gotten any time over the next three days. It didn’t make any rational sense, but we seemed to need to get that Compostela to put a punctuation point on this adventure! Thankfully, the line moved quickly; we got our Compostelas (see pictures); and we went to lunch. It was now pouring rain. I can’t believe how we managed to duck so much bad weather during the periods when we walked. Guess it’s just another case of better lucky than good!

Since it was raining we decided to look for our hotel and get checked in before we did anything else. We’ve found that our guidebook is not very accurate when it comes to the detailed street maps inside a city, and the map for Santiago was no different. Thus we have to rely on our “street Spanish” to ask strangers if they know where a street or the hotel is. We’re usually pretty good asking the question, which means they fire back in speedy Spanish, and all we can do is stare. You can guess that it usually takes several tries before we finally home in on our desired location. Today followed that model and we located our hotel after about three false starts. About par for our game.

The hotel is nice and reasonably priced for one that is close to the Cathedral and the old city. I think we’ll be comfortable here for the next few days. Tomorrow we plan to tour the Cathedral, go to Mass, do some sightseeing, and chill. Tuesday we are meeting our friend Leslie from Canada in the morning, with more sightseeing and chilling in the afternoon. Wednesday we plan to bus to Finisterre and back, which is a day long adventure. And Thursday I travel to Madrid to fly home on Friday, and Charlie heads to Viga to meet Eileen, who will join him for a week in Spain.

I plan to update the blog for the balance of my travel, though it may get less interesting. To the extent that Charlie and/or I develop any “profound” thoughts on this adventure, I’ll try to pass them on. Meanwhile, thanks for all the feedback and encouragement. You can hopefully tell we’ve enjoyed this a great deal and we both hope that you’ve had a good time following us.

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Day 41: Arzúa to Rúa

Last night we had a great meal. It was pouring rain and there was no good place to eat near our hostel, so we donned our ponchos and headed into the city looking for a place that served hot soup before 7:00pm. (We probably looked like a couple of dorks, but we were dry and warm)! The criteria that we use to choose our eateries is heavily influenced by their operating hours and by their inclination to deviate from the now “standard” pilgrim menu. We finally found a hostel that offered “home cooking”, so we took a look. There were 4 Spanish guys (pilgrims themselves) hunched over bowls of really good looking soup, and a grandmotherly looking woman emerged from the kitchen wearing a classic “home cooked” apron, and we were sold. We had homemade (no lies) noodle/vegetable soup that was to die for, and a platter full of pot roast and potatoes that would have made any chef proud. The food was accompanied by a bottle of local Tinto, that was filled from a cask by the “chef’s” husband and we nearly floated back to our quarters. Bueno, bueno, bueno!

So Charlie and I made a couple of big decisions today (no, we haven’t yet chosen our next walking destination, so there’s still time to offer your ideas). First, we’re tired of walking just a piece of the way to Santiago every day — today was the last straw — tomorrow we are going to walk the whole way to Santiago. Enough of this 12-15 miles per day strategy, we’re going to eat the whole enchilada and Santiago will be ours! Second, on the subject of a Plenary Indulgence (non-Catholics, Google it), if the church is still granting one for completing the pilgrimage (as it reportedly once did), we want each of ours put in the Bank, so we can enjoy a few more pleasures in life before we cash them in. Good decisions, no doubt.

Yesterday, while using the time in the laundry room productively, I met Mike Hardy from Buffalo, NY. Mike works for Calspan, a company I’ve known for years and he knew of SRA. We chatted a bit, then he went his way and I returned to laundry duty. Today, at our first pit stop at the bar, Casa Calzada, in A Calzada, we saw our friends Klaus and Marie, and Kit and Carina as well. We had a high time greeting each other (Kit and Carina loved having their pictures in the blog), and I overheard a table of 3 women talking “american english” to one another. When our friends had left, I walked over and asked where they were from — Buffalo, NY! Cheryl, Ethelyn and their niece Miriam had begun their Camino in Sarria and were excited about getting to Santiago tomorrow (see photo). I told them I’d met a guy the day before from Buffalo, and one of the women (Cheryl) worked with one of Mike’s daughters. Talk about a Camino coincidence. Well, it gets even better …

We wound up our pit stop and headed on down the road, and guess who we ran in to — Mike! I introduced Mike to Charlie and told him about the women we’d just met and he was flabbergasted. He started to go back to the bar to meet them, but decided they’d run into each other somewhere
down the road. We then walked together until we reached our destination for the day.

Mike has five daughters, and three of them are with him on the pilgrimage. One of them began in Pamplona, and Mike and the other two joined her in Sarria. Mike and I walked together for awhile and talked about our industry and the pilgrimage. It’s the first time on this trip that I’ve met anyone who knows anything about the business I was in, so it was quite different. Charlie and Mike also walked together for a while and talked about large families, grandchildren and the pilgrimage. I think we all enjoyed each other’s company and the time went fast.

The trip was about 17km and again was mostly on natural paths, but there was also a fair amount of local roads. We left in a drizzle that hung on from the rain that fell all yesterday afternoon and last night. It was muddy and slippery and we feared a long slog. But, in about an hour the skies cleared and the day turned out to be overcast at first but eventually sunny. So we made good time and got to Rua, which is a small country village, a little after noon.

We’re staying at Casa O’Acivro in Rúa, which is located right next to the 19km distance marker from Santiago. It’s a delightful place with a large outside area that includes a pool and several seating areas. This was a first for us. The room has twin beds and a nice bathroom and looks to be very comfortable. We did our laundry, showered and sat outside to think and write. And for the first time on the trip, a group began to gather at the seating areas. I don’t know if it was the setting, the sunny weather, or the fact that it was Santiago minus 1 for everyone, but a very congenial group formed to share stories, laughs, woes and suggested remedies for ongoing ailments. The group included Americans, Irish, Australians, and various Europeans; some, like us, had started at St-Jean; some at intermediate cities; and some at Sarria. There was a “former” biker, who was now a walker as a result of a broken arm, and a good mix of males and females. We had a great time.

We ate dinner early so we could get to bed in preparation for tomorrow. We plan to wake on our own schedule and get on the road as we do every day. Most people seem intent on rising early so they can get to Santiago for the noon Pilgrim’s Mass. We figure it will be a mob rushing to the city, so we’re planning on going to the Mass on Monday. Guess we’re showing our age, but we’ve been at this for 6 weeks and we’re not going to break any Laws of Physics to get to Santiago before noon. But, if we should happen to wake up real early and can’t get back to sleep — who knows? Stay tuned.

The photos show the girls from Buffalo, the main street in Rua with the delightful grape arbor that adorns the houses, our Casa, Charlie journaling, and the distance remaining.

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Day 40: Melide to Arzúa

Forty days and forty nights — there’s something pleasing about the length of this adventure. I know it will take 42, but spending 40 days or so on this seems right.

I’m sitting in the laundry room of our lodging for this evening, Pension Don Quixote, waiting for the dryer. Our washing has been done for an hour but two women have commandeered both dryers. They used them for an hour and determined they needed them for another hour. So they simply kept both of them, while everyone else waits. Why does this not seem to be in the spirit of a pilgrimage to me?

Today we spent much of the time walking through a Eucalyptus forest. I hadn’t encountered these trees since he early 1970s in southern California. They grow so straight and so tall and they have a wonderful aroma, though it wasn’t as prominent as I’d remembered from 40 years ago. Wonder if it’s the Spanish Eucalyptus or my memory? In any case, they are plentiful here (we’d heard that Franco caused them to be planted) and are valued for their pulpwood. I understand the tallest one in Spain is 67 meters (about 220 feet)!

Our trip today was about 17km, so we are now about 34km from Santiago. The terrain has continued to be mostly natural paths, but the soil is much less rocky and the stone fences and stone walls so common only days ago are now gone. The day actually started out sunny (so we were thinking, TAN) but it soon turned cloudy and the drizzle came so the ponchos were on (and of course, off, then on, ….). Again, we never had a hard rain, but once we got to Arzúa, it poured and has rained steady ever since. We certainly have had good fortune with the weather on this trip.

We saw Marie and Klaus early this morning, but passed them. They arrived in Arzua about 45 minutes after we did, and we think they are staying somewhere here in town. We caught up to Kit, who was walking with Carina from Dusseldorf, Germany and we walked with them for the balance of the morning. Carina began her Camino in Sahagún and has evidently walked with Kit before. She works for a large retailer in Germany (over 300 stores) and analyzes purchasing trends and customer satisfaction to identify products that are doing well. She is longing to get home so her boyfriend can serve her favorite potato soup. (She freely shared the contents of the soup with Charlie and I so we can try to make it). See the pictures of Kit, Carina and Charlie.

Arzúa (pop. 7,000) is the last city of any size before Santiago. The city itself is not very memorable but is known for its cheese. We’ll try to find some “Arzúan cheese” to report on its properties, but no luck so far. Our lodging has a great name, but it’s really pretty pedestrian in its appearance. It could be a typical apartment building in almost any humdrum city. At least it was a whole lot easier to find than last night’s digs.

We heard from our friend Leslie from Canada today. She and Angela got to Santiago on June 8. We had lost them when we detoured in Estella to make our police report and it was great to learn how they fared. Leslie will be back in Santiago on the 19th and we are going to try to arrange a tally-ho.

If you follow the comments on this blog, you’ve noted that some followers are suggesting next trips for Charlie and I. Be sure to weigh in if you have good suggestions.

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Day 39: Eirexe to Melide

OK, so I need to return to the topic of food. First, I forget to say yesterday that the bread here (except the “Wonder bread” stuff) is wonderful. It is baked fresh daily and we have learned to love the sound of the truck from the Panderia beeping it’s horn in front of bars, cafes, and other eateries to signify that the fresh bread has arrived. Second — go figure — we had spicy food for lunch today! We are staying in Melide, a city of 8,000 people that is known for its regional specialty — octopus. We arrived late (about 2:30) as the walk from Eirexe was about 22km. We checked into our hotel (another story) and went to the recommended specialty restaurant, Pulperia Exequiel, and ordered the Pulpos (octopus). The restaurant was a Spanish version of Durgin Park in Boston (apologies to those of you who don’t know Durgin Park — Google it), complete with long, wooden picnic-style tables and pushy wait staff. The Pulpos was served on an 8-inch round wooden disk, piping hot, soaked with olive oil, and generously sprinkled with sea salt and very spicy paprika. It was fabulous! The Pulpos itself consisted of octopus tentacles that had been steamed and then cut with scissors into bite size pieces — with thick wood toothpicks provided for eating it. The portion was huge. We ordered a bottle of local red wine to accompany, and the wine “glasses” were small clay bowls that we filled with wine and drank lustily. Fresh baked bread accompanied, and we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Guess the Spanish food critics must have read yesterday’s blog post.

Our walk today was a little longer than we’ve been doing recently, but the terrain was OK (the now familiar rolling Galician hills), and so was the weather (coolish temps with the threat of rain all day, but only a couple of sprinkles that forced us into ponchos). It took a little over 6 hours, but then we spent a good 30 minutes searching for our hotel. We had the name (Pension Berenguela), but no address, so we asked around — strangers on the street, shopkeepers, other pilgrims — but no one had heard of it. Finally, we saw a small temporary sign on a sidewalk that had the name of the hotel (but no address) and an arrow pointing the way. We searched and searched — but without any luck. So we decided to go back to the sign and start over. When we arrived, the arrow looked to be pointing down an alley. We looked down the alley but didn’t see any sign of a “Pension”, so we went into a bar that was on the corner of the alley and asked. The woman motioned for us to follow and took us out the side door of the bar and down the alley. She yelled the name of a woman and a voice came from an open, but unmarked, door. It was the lobby of our Pension! We checked in and were taken up to a lovely, newly-decorated room with two beds and a nice bath. We still haven’t figured out what the deal is, but no one affiliated with the hostel speaks any English at all, so we will likely forever be in the dark on this one.

We walked this morning for a while with Kit from Hong Kong. She is a math teacher in primary grades and has traveled extensively. She says that Hong Kong is simply too crowded and stressful, and that everyone leaves when they have time off. She loves to walk and suggested to Charlie and I that our next walking trip should be to Jeju Island in Korea to walk the more than 19 trails that she says are set up very much like the Camino. We told her we’d do some homework and think about it. As a math major myself, I was interested in the math program in Hong Kong public schools. Suffice to say, they teach calculus in middle school, so the program is way beyond anything we see in the US. Her school is publicly-funded, but privately-governed, which she feels is a great model (it sounded somewhat like the Charter school model in the US).

We are 51km from Santiago, and tomorrow we travel about 17km to Arzua. The cumulative “tiredness” is very real, and we both feel it, but we are ready to go each day. Three more to go — but who’s counting?

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Day 38: Portomarin to Eirexe

Stealing (and modifying slightly) the titles from two OK movies, today was “Under the Galician Sun” and “March of the Pilgrims”.

It was the first day in Galicia when the sun really shone and it got warm enough to get down to a T-shirt. It didn’t get much above 60, but the sun felt good nonetheless. We walked 17.1km to a delightful little village with a private Albergue, Pension Eirexe, where we have a room with two 3/4 size beds and our own bath that includes one of those foot soaking devices that I will enjoy this evening. The walk was mostly uphill (but not steeply), and was a mix of wooded paths (very nice), and trails along the side of a county-like highway (not early as nice). When we got here, an elderly man was building a fire in a stone fireplace at the end of the building. We weren’t sure what the fire was for, but there was a tell-tale long handled wooden spatula-like implement leaning against the wall that suggested — maybe pizza! Well, we were close; within a half hour the elderly man had been replaced by an elderly woman with a big box full of bread dough. She was baking bread! And when we went to lunch across the path, we had thick slices of homemade bread with our bocadillos, instead of the customary sub-like roll. It was delicious. So much for the “Galician Sun.”

Charlie and I went to dinner about 7:00pm yesterday, and when we walked out into the main plaza there was a throng of Peregrinos (pilgrims) milling about. They were packed into the outdoor tables at cafes, they were standing around in groups talking, they were taking pictures, and they were in general gawking at one another and their surroundings. Most of them were newcomers to the Camino in Sarria so Portomarin was the first city that they had walked to, and this was their first night on the road. Charlie and I didn’t have their energy our first night on the road — but we had walked across the Pyrenees for 11 1/2 hours, so that might explain why. In any case, it signaled a real change in the tempo for the rest of our journey.

This morning confirmed that change as we found ourselves marching in a long line of pilgrims leaving Portomarin. And that line was present all day long. Either we were passing people or they were passing us; if we stopped at a bar/cafe for drink/snack, there was a line; if we needed a restroom, there was a line or the servicios had already been overwhelmed by the earlier crowd. An unfortunate by-product of the larger number of pilgrims is that even though the percentage of “jerks” is small, a constant percentage yields a larger number. Thus there is more trash along the path, there are more inconsiderate louts in every line, and there are more fools whining about something at every stop. We’d been warned that things would be different inside 100km, and they sure are. But, on balance, we’re still having a great time, and we get more excited every day. We are now 73km (about 45 miles) from Santiago and, notwithstanding ALL our new fellow Peregrinos, we feel privileged to be part of this march.

Yesterday at lunch we met Kit, a young woman from Hong Kong, who has been walking since May 7, when she left Roncesvalles. We saw her again this afternoon as she is staying at the municipal Albergue next to our Pension, and she sat with us for a while at lunch. She is a primary school teacher in Hong Kong, who has taken a year off. She is walking the Camino alone and will return to Hong Kong in early July. Like all others whom we’ve come to know during this great adventure, she is a delightful person with her own reasons for making this pilgrimage. It still amazes me how many women undertake this pilgrimage on a solo basis.

This morning we heard from our friend Anna (she let us know that her name is spelled Anne, even though it is pronounced “Anna”, so I will spell it correctly from now on). Anne is in Sarria and has been told by medics to rest for three days to enable her leg to mend. She is sad to miss the members of her “cohort” when they arrive in Santiago (as we will be too), but she understands that her destiny is to take a bit more time. I hope we can all be so understanding in such situations. Buen Camino Anne — we will be thinking of you!

And now for a word or two about eating and food during this adventure. First, I think most Americans think of Spanish food as spicy (hot). There couldn’t be anything further from the truth in our experience. Not only has NOTHING been spicy, but we haven’t even been able to find spices to make anything taste the least bit hot (or really even flavorful). Salt and pepper are not commonly served, and it’s been impossible to get any kind of hot pepper or spicy sauce. Condiments (mustard, ketchup, even mayo) are never in sight, even on sandwiches and bocadillos. We haven’t even been able to find hot peppers in the grocery. Breakfast consists of coffee or tea and, usually, toast with butter and jelly/preserves. Sometimes the toast is replaced by pastry, but when done, the pastry is often some commercial yuck. Bacon, ham, eggs etc. for breakfast is very uncommon. Looking for lunch is difficult as the Spanish take their mid-day meal after 2:00pm, when siesta commences, and it’s then a multi-course affair. Many bars and cafes offer lunch-type fare at all hours including: bocadillos (freshly made sub-like sandwiches usually of meat and cheese, without any oil or condiments); some also offer “sandwiches”, which are similar to bocadillos, except they are served on “Wonder Bread”-like bread products; and some offer salads and pizzas (usually made from a frozen commercial product). Dinner is also problematic in that he customary starting time is usually after 7:00pm, and pilgrims are looking to eat earlier. I’ve written previously about the Pilgrim Menu, and nothing has changed. Salads have even consistently outstanding. All vegetables are very fresh and every salad is individually prepared. There are some good soups, both noodle soups and vegetable soups (particularly, Caldo Gallega, a hearty soup that features cabbage, potatoes and white beans), but they are not consistently spiced, even with salt. Potatoes are served often, particularly with the Pilgrim Menu, and with any “Menu del Dia” — but most often they are served as “French fries”, that are undercooked for most American palates (and they appear to be made from a pre-frozen product). And while eggs are not often seen at breakfast, they are very common in mid-day and dinner dishes.
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My friend Rich Polcaro noted that I had not said anything in the blog about weight loss. I’m sure we have both lost some weight, but I doubt as much as one would think (though we don’t really know because we haven’t seen a scale since we arrived in Spain). Most meals are high in carbohydrates, and we burn those carbs, but on balance the carb intake is high enough that it retards significant weight loss. Sure, we could eat those excellent salads all the time, but I’m not sure we’d complete our daily walking requirements. We’ll try to find a scale in Santiago and report real numbers!

The sun continues to shine and it has been a glorious weather day. Here’s hoping this portends good weather for the rest of the week. The photos today include one of our Pension, with Charlie posting to his daily journal; one of the “bread oven”; and one of an “hórreo” at the Pension. These structures have been seen at almost every property since we entered Galicia. The form shown in the photo is typical of the size of these structures (though they can be bigger — “double wides”, if you will). This one is of relatively new construction, as it is made largely of cored brick. All of them have a door, usually in the middle of the long side opposite that shown in the photo. We’ve seen them with the sides made of wood, stone and brick. Always the sides have openings, as the “holes” in the brick provide. And always they have a base of stone that extends beyond the perimeter of the “building” portion. We’ve seen very orate decoration and very plain. Some, like this one, have a religious cross as part of the decoration. We’ve most commonly seen the structure supported by legs of some sort, as opposed to the concrete block in the photo. Some have been very, very old; others new, which says they’ve been in use for some time. Can you guess what they are used for? Charlie and I studied them for several days and could never convince ourselves of what they were. Finally, when I had wifi access, I punted and searched to learn what they were? Do you have your guess ready? OK, they have been used for over a thousand years to keep corn and grain products safe from rodents until those products can be ground up. There are improved methods available today but the hórreos “work well” so many still use them. The key is the stone base, and the way it is configured to keep the rodents at bay. Now you know! (BTW, Charlie and I had a working hypothesis that it was a columbarium, but we never could figure why it needed to breathe, so we never fixed on that as an answer).

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Day 37: Morgade to Portomarin

Portomarin (pop. 2000) is a city that sits on a reservoir, Embalse de Belesar, that was created in 1962 when the river Mino was dammed up. The original medieval bridge was replaced by a modern bridge (see photo) and a number of historical buildings and monuments (including the 12th century Romanesque church, San Nicolas) were dismantled and moved to high ground from their original sites, which are now submerged under the reservoir. It’s very hard to look at the city today, 50 years later, and imagine what it was like — even when looking at pictures prior to the relocation.

San Nicolas is also known as San Juan (or San Xuan) as it is a temple-fortress of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. It has architectural characteristics of both a church and a castle (see photo). As a church it has one barrel-vaulted nave, a semi-circular apse, and Romanesque rose windows. As a castle it has four defensive towers, one of which holds a stork’s nest!

Today was designed to be a “half-day”. We walked only a little more than 10km, arriving before 11:00am. The terrain was easy to walk and easy on the eyes, much like yesterday. The weather was cool and dry, so the trip went quickly. We did errands, had lunch and checked in early to Pension El Caminante, the private Albergue where we are staying (see photo). We have a nice private room with our own bath and they have both a washer and dryer for pilgrim use, which means all dirty clothes will be taken care of. The rest of the day is down time, as we have walked every day since Leon, almost two weeks ago.

We saw friends Maria and Klaus, who are also staying in Portomarin today, but we haven’t yet seen Anna or Doug and Jannice Foreman, who should be in this vicinity. We talked to JC by phone, and he and Claude did indeed arrive in Santiago today. And we received a very nice note from Trace and Ro from Australia, who made it to Santiago yesterday. Congratulations — Way to go Trace and Ro!

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Day 36: Pintin to Morgade

We can’t believe we’re losing our suntans! After weeks in the Spanish sun, carefully applying 50 and 70 SPF to develop a beautiful golden tan, the Galician weather is daily eroding the effects of all that hard work. We’re bummed ;-(

Seriously, I think we’ve finally figured out the Galician pattern — ponchos on, ponchos off, ponchos on again, ponchos off — and so on. Today fit the pattern to a T, but it may have been the prettiest day of walking yet. We went from one tiny hamlet to an even tinier one, mostly by following picturesque paths that wind their way through the lush rolling hills of this countryside. The bright red poppies have been replaced by our new favorite plant — foxglove — which has a stem that holds a great number of small violet trumpets, each of which has an intricately woven center. They are beautiful, and they grow everywhere — in sun and in shade, in the road and in the cracks in the stacked stone walls, in the ruins of ancient crumbling buildings and in gardens. We’ve admired them for days, photographing them in many situations — but today we were told they are poisonous. We haven’t yet verified that warning, but I guess we won’t be surprised if it’s true.

Putting the flowers aside, this countryside could be any one of a number of places. It is surely reminiscent of Ireland, but it also looks like Quebec, parts of Maine, and even parts of the Fells Reservation in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. However, no one could say it looks anything like the Lowcountry of South Carolina! We did pass through a good size city early this morning, Sarria (pop. 13,000), but we didn’t stop except to make a brief visit to Iglesias Santa Marina at the center of the city.

Sarria is the biggest city that is just a little more than 100km from Santiago. Thus, it is where countless new pilgrims are joining the pilgrimage. (Remember, all it takes is walking 100km to qualify for a Compostela). We were in the city just before 9:00am, so most of the new walkers had already left to begin their Camino, but we did encounter a couple of “tour groups”. These are groups of people who have signed up with a tour service to “walk the Camino”. They can start anywhere but the majority begin in Sarria. We encountered a German group and an American group. The groups seem to be about 20 people in size. They walk with a “day pack”, as their real “luggage” is carried around by a tour van. The van follows along the roads that intersect the walking route, and if somebody gets tired they might ride for a while. The van carries food (and we even saw one that had a laundry operation) and a guide accompanies the walkers. The tour company arranges overnight reservations (which can clog up some of the places we might want to stay), and generally attends to the needs of the tour group. Today, we even saw a Guardia Civil police vehicle show up at a busy highway crossing and the tour guide told Charlie they were there to ensure the group could cross without any problem! I guess all this sounds like a typical tour group, but I have to admit that I don’t think these folks are getting the full “Camino experience” — but that’s their loss, not ours.

Because the Camino will be crowded from here to Santiago, we have arranged (thanks to the kindness of our good friend JC) lodging reservations for the remaining nights on the Camino. Tonight we are in a private Albergue. There are 6 beds (twin size, no bunks — hooray!) in our “room”, and we share a bathroom with our fellow roomies. Charlie and I got here first, so we nailed the choice “corner beds”. I’ve enclosed pictures of the place (the street side as well as he “back yard”). It’s not bad looking, and is quite nice inside but, besides a couple of farm buildings, it’s the only one in this “hamlet”. I’m convinced the government (either of Spain or the Junta, Galicia in this case) has subsidized the renovation of many of these facilities because it just doesn’t seem possible that private individuals could have made the size investment that it would have taken to create these facilities. While the Camino may be a “pilgrimage” for most of the pilgrims — it is nevertheless tourism for the governments, and such investments may have been rationalized on that basis. I think it would be very hard, however, to “make the numbers work” for as many newly renovated facilities in such small towns as we have encountered.

We passed the marker today that denotes 100km to Santiago and stopped to take pictures. You’ll note the unfortunate graffiti that defiles so many places here in Europe (I know we have it in the USA too, but it seems much more prevalent here). And I got a great shot of a Tau cross that is painted on a wall here in Morgade.

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Day 35: Viduedo to Pintin

This time next Sunday we will be in Santiago de Compostela. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is so. Our early friends are arriving there now and others will arrive every day this week. I spoke to JC today and he and Claude are in Arzua, so they will get there Tuesday. Ben wrote us and he was in Portomarin yesterday so he will probably get there Wednesday, and we had breakfast with Bob and Kay who told us they will arrive on Friday. We’ve lost track of Anna, and Doug and Jannice, but they are all on a “next week” schedule. I have to admit it’s getting exciting.

Charlie ended up sleeping from yesterday afternoon until this morning. He felt better but suspected he was coming down with something that was settling in his chest. Fortunately, he was able to score some meds from Bob at breakfast that should help. It’s amazing how everyone bonds thru this experience and wants to help each other in any way they can. The four of us dawdled at breakfast because the weather looked lousy, and no one was anxious to get underway. But eventually we did.

Our track today was set for 19km, with 6.8 downhill to Triacastela and 12.2 up and down another mountain to Pintin. We passed Bob and Kay on the way to Triacastela, and never saw them again. There were two options at Triacastela, the one we took and a second that did not have a mountain to cross but which was 6.4km longer. We failed to ask Bob and Kay which route they were taking, but we did know they were planing to go to Sarria, about 6.5km further than us. So we may not see them again before they reach Santiago on Friday. The weather started out drizzling, but the temperature was warmer (in the 50s) and I took my poncho off in Triacastela, where we stopped for a drink. It was still threatening to rain so Charlie continued to wear his for most of the day. He wanted to stay warmer (and the poncho does trap some body heat), given his emerging cold (or whatever).

The terrain here in Galica is very different from that which we’ve seen the past few weeks. The more moist climate has everything looking very green, and the land is much more oriented to small proprietor (or family) farming than large scale commercial grain fields and vineyards. The high level of poverty here has drawn many of the men away to work elsewhere, so it is not uncommon to see women tending the fields, driving the machinery, and herding the livestock. Yes — livestock! They actually have lots of cows, chickens, sheep, some goats, and even some horses. We didn’t see much livestock at all in other parts of Spain, but now we are sharing the paths with these beasts. And we are routinely serenaded by ever present roosters. Indeed, we no longer have to simply look for rocks to avoid stepping on, we now have to avoid cow pies too! Almost every day, the path of the Camino will wind through somebody’s stockyard, or next to a barn where a grizzled old woman with a big stick is yelling in Spanish at some really big cows to get the hell out of the barn, onto the path, and into the field. And she invariably looks at us like we’re not even there, so we need to look out for ourselves. It really is quite a change from the droll nature of the man-made senda and paved paths of the other regions.

We took the mountain path today for the promise of the views. It was really overcast for quite a while, and we were beginning to doubt the wisdom of our choice on the steep uphill climb, but we were rewarded when the sun finally shone through just before noon. We could see across several valleys, out beyond Sarria (which we will travel through tomorrow), and back down from whence we came. It was breathtaking.

We are staying in Pintin, which our travel guide refers to as a “hamlet”. It’s really small — but it does have cell service and Internet coverage (though no wifi). We are staying in a “pension” run by a family (see photo). It has rooms for rent, a bar with food, and we have a nice room with our own bath and access to a rooftop laundry tub and drying rack. Ah, how the Camino does make one appreciate the simple things in life!

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Day 34: O’Cebreiro to Vidueda (pronounced Bid-oo-ay-do)

Today was the first when our clothes were not soaked from perspiration at the conclusion of our trek. It was cold on top of the mountain when we rose, and it never really warmed up. I walk in shorts every day (I have no long pants), and the prospect was daunting. I put on a tee shirt and my two long-sleeve shirts (I have no jacket except my rain poncho; it went home weeks ago along with my long pants, leggings, wool cap, and gloves). I pulled my wool socks up to nearly reach my knees, and I stretched a pair of socks over my hands to use as gloves (and looked like a real dork). Charlie put on long johns, long pants, two long-sleeve tops and a jacket and we set out. Fortunately, it was to be a short, relatively flat, day of walking.

We had a cup of coffee/tea and a piece of toast, and it was barely 40 degrees when we left O’Cebreiro. We walked quickly to Linares (about 3.1km) and had another drink. We stopped to take a picture at a monument to all pilgrims near Alto San Roque, and again walked the next 6km very fast as it wasn’t getting any warmer. And then, just before Alto do Polo, it began to rain — not hard, but hard enough to force everyone into rain gear. It was really quite comical, as about 25 pilgrims rushed underneath a canvas awning (that leaked) at the bar at Santa Maria do Polo, to fetch rain covers and ponchos from their packs, and then try to put those things on in close proximity to one another. Picture this — a poncho goes OVER one’s pack, so it has to be donned in a real “Zorro-like” swoosh of the poncho in order for it to cover everything before you can insert your arms and zip it. Add to the normal difficulty of this maneuver the fact that it is Saturday and we have “weekend walkers”, who are not nearly as expert as those of us who are out here everyday, and it made for a real circus. Wish I could have caught it on video.

You can’t imagine the variety of things that people employ as a poncho. Charlie and I have Camino-tested ponchos made by the Spanish sports outfitter, Altus. They work in every way that a poncho is supposed to work — they cover everything (with a custom “bump-out” to accommodate the backpack while still hanging full-length), they are waterproof, they don’t “fly around” in the wind, they have real sleeves, they breathe (sort of), and they pack down to fit in a lightweight stuff sack. In short, they are nearly perfect. Well, shortly after the rain commenced, the wind began to howl, and the parade of poncho-clad pilgrims was quite a sight, with all the “far less than perfect” solutions — trash bags, lightweight plastic sheets, vinyl table covers, etc. — providing all sorts of woes for their owners. Having the “right tool” is always the way to go.

The temps never got much above 50, and the clouds were closing in when we reached Viduedo a little after noon. We were really happy that we had planned a short day; we checked into our hostel at Meson Betularia (the only one in the village) and discovered we had a delightful little room. We had a nice hot bowl of soup and a freshly-made bocadillo. Charlie was feeling a little under the weather so he jumped under the covers and said he’d see me in the morning. I took a nap, had a shower, and watched poncho-clad pilgrims continue to walk by as I read and wrote. I was very happy that our schedule didn’t require that we push on for several more hours.

We didn’t see any “regulars” today until dinner tonight, when Bob and Kay came in just as I sat down (Charlie did indeed stay in bed). They’d had a long day, having walked all the way from Herrerias (about 23km, though adjusted for the climb to O’Cebreiro it was more like 30). They were not happy with their travel agent who had scheduled such a long leg. Charlie and I had slept a little later this morning than usual because we knew we had an easy day, so we missed many of the “regulars” as they had left earlier. Tomorrow we will trek to Pintin, another very small village that is “in between” the major stops that are laid out in the guidebooks. This is our plan, of course, and it is working well, but it may have the side-effect that we are simply now out-of-cycle with our regular contingent. If so, I hope we get to see them in Santiago de Compostela. About 85 miles to go.

With the rain, I couldn’t take my iPad out to take any pictures on the trail today, but I got a few here in Viduedo. You’ll see the clouds closing in on the dirt path that we followed into Viduedo; our hostel at Meson Betularia with the official greeter; our greeter “up close and personal” (miss my Kia and Riley!); the abandoned local church; and the “distance marker” to Santiago (136.5km). There is no phone, wifi, or internet service here in Viduedo, so this will all get posted when possible.

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