THE CAMINO TURNS BROKENNESS INTO BEAUTY

If you wanted to walk this year but couldn’t your prayers arrived in Santiago today…

Johnnie and Stephen ended their journey by laying your Thoughts, Intentions, Hopes and Prayers at the Tomb of Saint James. Here are their final reflections on this very special Camino…

Hello everyone. This is Stephen and John speaking to you from Santiago. Today we reached Monte de Gozo, the Hill of Joy. It was called this because it was here the pilgrims of the middle ages got the first sight of the spires of the Cathedral of Santiago. Their destination. Our excitement was no less than theirs. We have come to the end of our very long Camino. Our journey has taken us over the Pyrenees in France and across Spain to reach Santiago today. There were many adventures and we’ve had many encounters. We’ve made new friends from a lot of different countries. Now the journey ends for us… when we go to the Plaza Obradoiro and the tomb of Saint James we want that moment to be yours all of you who couldn’t walk this year, when you see the shell with your prayers we’ve carried for 33 days imagine yourself standing in front of the Cathedral and please enjoy the moment.

In addition to the many, many well wishes, 383 people sent prayers to be carried to Santiago. It has been our privilege to read them, reflect on them, pray for them and carry them every step of the way. Let’s pause for a moment, please, to remember the last prayer we received from the family of Catalin Ristea, a pilgrim who died in Burgos just one month ago. May he rest in peace.

And we remember all of those who have died, you wrote to us about. Along the way, as you know, people have laid memorials remembering their loved ones. High in the hills of Spain we prayed for all of our dead at our own memorial. 

Your prayers have been with us every step of this Camino in our rucksack and in our hearts. You sent us prayers about illness and death, concern for parents and for children, worries about the future, jobs and security but no matter the focus of your prayers a huge number of pilgrims also asked us to pray for this broken world, for the environment, for healing, for peace.

As pilgrims we walk the land, we see the cattle grazing in the field and the gossamer webs shimmering in the dawn light. We see the vast beauty of creation. It is no wonder we long for it to be better cherished for it is beautiful. 

As pilgrims our motto is to give what we can and take only what we need. We share our experiences and our food with each other willingly and we form many friendships – this is beautiful. 

And we walk the Holy Road to Santiago to achieve and maintain peace in our hearts and therefore in the world because above all peace is beautiful. 

We want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to carry your prayers, many of which are about our broken world. As we lay them before the tomb of Saint James we pray that together…

we can make beauty from brokenness.

FROM ARZÚA WITH LOVE

O Cebreiro – Triacastela – Sarria – Portomarín – Palas de Rei – Arzúa

This has been a wonderful pilgrimage. All the more so because it had the purpose of walking on behalf of those who couldn’t this year. The prayers, hopes, wishes and intentions which have been emailed to us have provided much food for thought on what has proven to be a quiet and serene journey from Saint Jean Pied de Port. There have been many days on this journey where we met no other pilgrims for hours. That was to change as we entered Galicia. 

I mentioned last time that during the walk up the hill to O Cebreiro we had met more and more people; pilgrims on foot and on horseback, plenty of day walkers, and a farmer casually riding uphill on a horse with no saddle, as if it was a comfortable armchair. He was happy to pose for a photograph. 

The route has been so quiet we weren’t used to this many people, and it got busier in Cebreiro which had many visitors that Sunday afternoon. We went along to the Pilgrim Mass and there were about 20 other pilgrims there. Stephen was invited to give the blessing in English at the end. 

Next morning we were out early and we thoroughly enjoyed the walk to Triacastela. At times all around there were vistas of Galicia. More pilgrims started their Camino in Cebreiro and that night there were maybe a dozen pilgrims in the excellent Complejo Xacobeo hostel and albergue. We met up with a Dutchman we had encountered limping with bad blisters way back in Calzadilla de la Cueza. He had gone to hospital, had them dressed and after resting got the train to León. 

Next morning we set off on the route via the magnificent monastery at Samos. This proved to be the lesser walked path as it is longer than the other option. Soon the monastery loomed into view, then it was onwards through forest paths beside bubbling streams. This route may be longer but it is much more beautiful. At the point at which the two routes come together before Sarria I encountered the Dutchman marching along to the rhythm of his walking sticks. His pack was enormous and his boots fit for an Arctic expedition. Blisters were inevitable I’m afraid. 

“Dinner is not served” in Sarria

The last time I was in Sarria I felt lost in a sea of pilgrims who filled the city. This time as I entered I walked past “cerrado”, “closed” signs in the windows of albergue after albergue. I checked into my hostel to find I was the only guest that night. Next morning on the way I estimated that there were maybe 100 pilgrims walking. That’s my estimate but we’ll find out on Monday how many register at the Pilgrim Office! 

Nacho and Danny

I have mixed feelings about this Camino coming to an end and each day I’ve been dawdling, resting more and chatting with others more that I would normally – now there are more people to chat to. The routine now is that Stephen Quixote often reaches the destination long before little Sancho arrives.  What strikes me each day is the speed at which some people walk – especially those starting in Sarria. Since León each day two Spanish lads, Nacho and Danny, have passed me with a “Buen Camino”. I call them the saunterers, they carry their packs with ease and seem to stroll along, as Joyce Rupp would say, “in a relaxed manner.” 

Not so the pilgrims leaving Sarria. Mostly in their 20s and 30s they set out in pristine hiking gear, some with enormous rucksacks and all with determination. I’ve watched it time and again. Yesterday leaving Portomarín, on that long 8 km haul up to Gonzar, a lassie in a fluorescent pink jacket led the charge. I could see her away at the top of the hill, when I was still at the bottom, but up I went following the bright training shoes, the day glo socks in all colours, and those with rucksacks and the majority without. I imply no criticism. We are all pilgrims, and before the end of the second day all of these new people are starting to greet each other as they pass, to find out where each other come from and to practice their English on me. But rushing through each day has consequences. 

I remember in the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago seeing pilgrim after pilgrim arrive crippled with tendinitis and blisters, walking in flip flops because their swollen feet wouldn’t fit in walking shoes. “I’ve only walked from Sarria,” they would say, to which I always replied, “there is no “only” about it”. With the crowd over these last days I’ve been trying not to be the know-all, but to gently suggest that everyone slow down, enjoy the scenery, have a rest and a coffee. This year there is no race for beds. Angeles, a new friend from the birthplace of Cervantes, is fully signed up to the take your time model.

Of everything that has been the biggest blessing of this pilgrimage – taking our time, even with two or three long days, not seeing each other for miles, chatting to locals, lingering to take in a landscape, sometimes just lingering. 

I’ve been asked: Are the pilgrims different in this time of the pandemic? Are they more serious minded? My answer is that I don’t think so but I wonder if there being many fewer than normal we have all been able to see each other more clearly. 

With only 40 kms to go I have mixed feelings. After sleeping in 31 different beds I’m dying to lay my head on my own pillows… But not quite yet, this is too good. Just a wee bit more. I’ll see you all on Sunday in Santiago! 

With love from Arzúa, 
John 

LIFE IN SLOW MOTION ON THE CAMINO FRANCÉS

León – Villavante (by walkers’ Route ) – Hospital de Órbigo – Villares de Órbigo – Astorga – Rabanal del Camino – Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – O Cebreiro

Dear Amigos, the three most important pieces of advice I’d give to anyone thinking about walking the Camino are:

  • Travel light 
  • Go slowly 
  • Learn some Spanish 

Do this and wonderful things can happen. 

I am writing this to you from O Cebreiro on day 26 of this pilgrimage. We’ve walked just over 150 kms since I last wrote but,if you’ve seen the little video, you’ll know we’ve been busy.

The farther along the Camino Francés we’ve come, the more people we’ve met, the more I’ve sauntered and had roadside conversations, the more I’ve wanted to linger in interesting places. 

These stages we’ve just walked are packed with beautiful scenery and charming little villages and towns but I have to say that it is the people we meet along the Way which makes the pilgrimage to Santiago special.  I’d like to tell you about some encounters. 

León is a beautiful city and I very much enjoyed being back there. However the walk out the following morning seems to go on forever. Two options are waymarked – the route by road or the “Walkers’ Route”, which is four kms longer. We chose the longer and within a few minutes of branching away from the road were in the countryside. Stephen magically produced an apple to feed to a tethered horse, whilst I tried to persuade it to give me a lift. It point blank refused. 

Leticia

A little farther along this stage we saw a bright red shape in the distance. Growing closer we saw what we thought was a worker cutting the grass around a way mark with garden scissors. Nearer still, and we saw it was a young woman with a bicycle and trailer adorned in an unmissable scarlet uniform. This was Leticia “I’m here to assist pilgrims”. She had been employed by the local authority to cycle around, chat to the pilgrims and offer assistance, as well as carry out minor maintenance. The upside of our Camino is that there have been few other pilgrims. The downside for Leticia is that she’s had no pilgrims to assist, or talk to. In the blink of an eye we were captured. In a gush Leticia explained the history of the Camino, the way it passes through her region, what accommodation is available etc etc. She snatched a breath and was about to proceed to describe the historic churches in the area when I spotted another pilgrim approaching. We rudely interrupted her and pointed to the other potential victim. She almost jumped with glee. The lad answered her first barrage of questions and we learned he was Spanish, and had started his Camino that morning in León. This was almost too much for Leticia. She drew a deep breath and at the mention of the words “Codex Calixtinus” we departed.
She hardly noticed. The road was clear ahead and after five minutes we looked back. Still talking. After 10 minutes, still talking. Soon we were out of sight. We never saw either of them again. 

Merche, Maxi and their beautifully restored mill

I had heard about a very beautiful country hostal in a converted former mill and I wanted to see it. The owner had been reluctant to take the booking, because this has been such a strange year, but all seemed well when we arrived. The reports I’d heard were true. The place was stunning. The old mill had been purchased 15 years before by Merche and her husband Maxi. They wanted to move from Madrid back to the area because both of their parents lived nearby. As they lovingly restored the mill and built the hostal business they also looked after their parents. As the years passed so did their parents and they decided to sell to go back to Madrid where their children, now with grandchildren, awaited. An American couple walking the Camino came to stay, fell in love with the place and the purchase was agreed. They also agreed to have a “handover season” this summer, so the new owners could learn the ropes and the language. “Because of the virus, life is on hold” said Merche, “the Americans can’t come, we can’t go and there are no pilgrims. But”, she said, “here we are in paradise.” 

Paco’ing his tomatoes into Stephen’s rucksack

Next morning Merche made us a hearty cooked breakfast and we bade them farewell. It was cool but already the sun was rising. All around the corn grew tall. As we followed the path round a bend the corn parted and a small man with a weather beaten face and steel grey hair appeared on the road. Had we been in Ireland he could have been a leprechaun. “Hola pilgrims,” he said, “would you like some tomatoes?” We answered, “no thanks” but when he looked crestfallen we said, “well, maybe a few, please.” Delighted he disappeared through the corn and returned a few minutes later with a bucket. In a jiffy Stephen had a rucksack full of tomatoes! We asked if we could take his picture and he proudly agreed, standing to attention. He said his name was Paco, “aged 82”. When we asked how life was in the village, he said, “usually after a couple of hours in the field I go to the bar for coffee and to play cards for a few hours, but since the virus the bar has closed.” I tried to persuade him to come walking with us to Santiago and he laughed out loud. “Buen Camino” he said and he and his bucket promptly disappeared again. 

Walking on we realised the importance of what he had said. The bar is the centre of village life in most places, and without it there is no meeting place, no heart of the local community. 

Lee in the Albergue Villares de Órbigo

Next in Villares de Órbigo we called in at the albergue owned by our friend Lee Tolman. She’s a lovely person and her new albergue is equally lovely. Lee is a Vegan so we happily left our cargo of tomatoes with her. Lee achieved her dream when she completed the purchase of the albergue. However, just after completing the contract, the State of Emergency was declared and the Camino closed. This year Lee has very few pilgrims staying. Like all of us she’s waiting for better times. 

Pilgrims Memorial Garden near the Ecce Homo Chapel

We spent a grand evening in Astorga where we met Internet acquaintances Ron and Anne. Ron walked out a few kilometres next morning to show us the work being done to the Pilgrims Memorial Garden near the Ecce Homo Chapel. Here plaques will be hung commemorating the life of pilgrims who died on the Camino. It’s beautiful and fitting and we remembered our friend and colleague, Fr Gerard, who died three years ago. 

The CSJ Refugio at Rabanal del Camino

We had a lovely walk to Rabanal del Camino where the Confraternity of Saint James has operated an albergue for over thirty years. Next to the albergue there is a Benedictine monastery where we had a meeting arranged with the Prior, Fr Javier, about a possible project. Its turns our Father Javier has a secret, and so does the monastery. It has a grand piano. A seriously good grand piano. It turns out Prior Javier is a concert standard pianist and this was the piano he studied on as a young man. As we discovered he also likes a stiff gin and tonic. Musicians are such a disreputable lot. 

Those of you who know Rabanal del Camino will know it’s a wee Camino village. Really just one street. At breakfast in the local hotel Andrés the helpful waiter said, “have you seen our grand piano?” This was almost too much. Two grand pianos in one little village. It was Andrés’s turn to be surprised when the pilgrim sat and played. Not to be outdone he said, “that piano accompanied Frank Sinatra in Madrid.” Gin drinking Priors, two grand pianos and Frank Sinatra. What next? 

Next morning we set off to do our duty at the Cruz de Ferro and then onwards on this most beautiful of etapas over the mountain to Ponferrada. It is not to be taken lightly. On the way the route passes famous Camino places such as Foncebadón, El Acebo and Molinaseca and, of course, the very well known albergue at Manjarín run by Tomás Martínez de Paz. Tomás styles himself as a Knight Templar and is utterly genuine in his desire to provide a welcome and basic shelter for pilgrims. Over years he’s put together a ramshackle albergue with no running water or electricity and the beds are mattresses on the floor. Many, many pilgrims have found the experience of staying there memorable. For others it’s just too basic. 

Tomás

Sauntering down the road a while before Manjarín I spotted a figure in the adjacent field. “Tomás?” I shouted. It was the man himself. Having been very ill last year, he’s now restored to full health, but when I asked how things were he raged and ranted. “The virus has closed the albergue and they are bringing the full panoply of powers against me to keep me closed. The Planning people from the town hall are sent by the devil himself.” 

Manjarin

As I walked passed the place I could understand why the growing number of neighbours and the Planning Department might be concerned. Is it time up for Tomás and his albergue? Not if he has anything to do with it! 

We met up with lovely friends in Ponferrada who presented me with a hip flask full of malt whisky. Just to make sure I made it to Santiago! The last time I walked from this town to Santiago was in the last week of December 2009. It was certainly warmer this time, and the following day we made our way to Villafranca de Bierzo. Turning a corner we were greeted by a shout, “Goodbye Johnnie Walker,” this was Raj from Delhi and María from Madrid. Our paths have crossed several times, and we will meet in Santiago. 

I think Villafranca del Bierzo is a lovely place with a lively and attractive square. It is known as “the little Compostela” because the church of Santiago has a Holy Door which opens in the year when the Feast of Saint James falls on a Sunday. It was here that pilgrims in the middle ages who were too sick to complete the journey to Santiago could receive the Plenary Indulgence. This time for me the place took on a special significance when by chance we met a lady with two very lively children who spoke to us in perfect English, despite being obviously Spanish. The story emerged that they were two of six children left through tragedy to be adopted. The six, however, are being kept in touch with each other, still a family, ‘though separate. The goodness of the adoptive parents was very striking. 

These stages of the route have a very rural character. We passed a working cheese maker and cows being taken for milking, marshalled by a dog at the front and a man on a mule at the back. 

The last time we two intrepid pilgrims ascended to O Cebreiro we were knee deep and thigh deep in snow in places. We could see nothing. In Herrerías we passed the Christmas tree I’d photographed 10 years earlier. Now like us, bigger and stouter! This time instead of mist and snow the beauty of the scenery was revealed in all of its magnificence.

Whereas much of our time on this Camino has been spent alone, because there were no other pilgrims, the ascent to O Cebreiro was like walking on a busy road. Pilgrim after pilgrim passed me as I went slowly up. Then came the horses carrying pilgrims to the top. In the church there was an intimate Pilgrim Mass followed by dinner with a friend who had driven to see us. Then to bed. All is well. 

We are now in Galicia. We’ll arrive in Santiago in only 7 days. The end is near… But not too near. There are more adventures ahead.

THE CAMINO IS ALIVE, FROM THE RISING OF THE SUN TO ITS SETTING

Calzadilla de la Cueza – Sahagún – El Burgo Ranero – Mansilla de las Mulas – León

Dawn leaving Calzadilla de la Cueza

César – Hostal Camino Real

As soon as we arrived at the Albergue/Hostal Camino Real in Calzadilla de la Cueza it was obvious from the shrieking from the swimming pool that there were other pilgrims around, although as usual we hadn’t met many during the day. César the owner, and leading light in the Camino world in Spain, welcomed us enthusiastically. “You seem to have brought other pilgrims Johnnie,” he joked. “These last days we’ve had four or five but they’ve been arriving all day today, and we have 37 between the Albergue and the Hostal.”

Indeed pilgrims littered the place. Sprawled on loungers, splashing about in the pool; some making notes, others planning tomorrow. In a Camino empty of pilgrims it was like old times. Dinner had to be phased in a number of sittings to maintain social distancing. I looked around and thought, “this is the Camino we know and love”. Martíne and Nicole waved from their corner table. Next to them was James from California, now living in Seville. I may not be the oldest in the room! Two French cyclists stared into their soup exhausted and totally silent. It was a different story at the next table, where Mark from Holland was receiving instructions on blister management in broken English from Michael from Berlin. In the other corner was a group of six German pilgrims walking as a group. Behind them, tucked away, were two young pilgrims. The girl was English and the boy spoke English with a heavy Spanish accent – not that I was eavesdropping! They were totally engrossed in each other. Whether they had met on the Camino or not we’ll never know, but let’s just say it was clear they were having difficulty maintaining social distancing!

The pilgrims, the piping hot soup and chicken casserole, the Camino chatter and the canoodling couple was the most reassuring scene that, despite everything, our Camino is alive and intends to remain so. 

The Procession of Pilgrims

Sleep that night was long and deep. We left at dawn because the days are still hot. As the sun rose the moon still hung in the sky, winking down at the small procession of pilgrims weaving along the path. 

Philip Wren in memoriam

On the way to Sahagún we stopped to pay our respects at the tree and memorial for Philip Wren, an Internet friend, who died on the Camino some years ago. Shortly after this we were in Moratinos meeting another old friend, Patrick O’Gara who, with Rebekah Scott, provides a warm welcome to pilgrims in the Peaceable Kingdom – their house in the village.

The half way point stone marker in Sahagún and the “La Peregrina” statue in the church where the half way certificate was issued on behalf of We Walk For You 2020

The day passed quickly with all this chatting and soon we were in Sahagún, the town which marks the fact that we had walked half of our journey to Santiago. Although I’m not a great fan of the proliferation of certificates, we thought it appropriate to get one for all of the pilgrims not walking this year. We had a convivial dinner with Rebekah and Paddy in downtown Sahagún before another deep sleep. We were out sharp next morning and left passing the sculpture which notes Sahagún as the centre of the Camino. Half way! 

Long roads and beautiful Meseta scenes

I don’t think that that there has been a day when we haven’t remarked on the gorgeous scenery which proves a distraction to the long, long straight paths on the way to León. 

First we had to reach El Burgo Ranero. We were venturing not just farther along the meseta, but into the heart of Castilla León. This region of Spain was formed in the middle ages by the unification of the two separate historical kingdoms of Castille and León. You would think after 1,000 years of marriage any problems would have been ironed out. Not so. The old rivalries are still very much in evidence, with graffiti proclaiming “León alone” and Camino signs where Castilla has been erased… then added back in. I’m told that these views are not held strongly by the majority of people. Rather, it’s more a friendly rivalry, most of the time. 

El Burgo Ranero

A more serious insight into the tensions in modern Spain are exemplified in the parish of El Burgo Ranero, where the parish priest is chaplain to the movement which supported Franco the dictator, and still advances his ideology. There are many stories of local conflicts with the priest, including the raising of a petition with 54,000 signatures seeking his removal. When the State of Emergency was declared in Spain on the 14th of March this year all churches were ordered to close. The priest announced that he would not close the church, that he would still ring the bell, mass would be held as usual and a large procession which had been planned would go ahead. 
This time the local Bishop took action and issued a decree that the church would be closed and there would be no procession. A victory for good sense. Another good decision was for us not to visit his church! Rather we lodged in the splendid Albergue La Laguna. 

There weren’t many pilgrims and Victor, the hospitalero, made us very welcome and comfortable. We asked about dinner. “That’s in my father’s restaurant across the street.” Isn’t Spain wonderful! 

Next morning Víctor bade us farewell and handed us two packed lunches. These were gifts for the pilgrims. Food for the journey. Inside was a little card with two handwritten words, “Buen Camino”.

The air was cool as we left along another long, long path. We sauntered along, chatting to the occasional local out for their morning exercise, and soon we were in Reliegos where we had been invited to call in on Gail Todd, a friend from Facebook. “We live in the house opposite the Albergue”, said Gail. What she didn’t say was that this was a 300 year old adobe house which she and her husband, Mark, are renovating. I loved seeing what they are doing. They are living their dream. We went for a coffee with them and Gail told me that the following day we should stop at a particular cafe, beside a butcher shop, on the way. 

Gail and Mark in Reliegos

To be honest next day on the long drag into León I had forgotten about this when Stephen said, “there’s Gail and Mark outside that café”. They’d come to meet us and make sure we found this splendid patisserie which gives free pastries with every coffee. 

León Cathedral

This evening I’ll mosey around León and we’ll attend Mass in the splendid and quite extravagant Cathedral – but even the size and beauty of this magnificent building will not overshadow the lasting memories of these few days. 

The kindness and warmth of Gail and Mark, the gift of a simple packed lunch, the school children who shouted, “Buen Camino” and the drivers whose horns tooted their encouragement on blistering hot afternoons. 

The magic of the Camino is here. Perhaps more alive, more concentrated because there are fewer pilgrims. The warmth of the welcome we’ve received everywhere seemed to be embodied in the awesome sight of the sunset from El Burgo Ranero.

All is well. 

Sunset O Burgo Ranero

PILGRIM PRAYERS – YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE

Over 300 pilgrims have entrusted us with their prayers, hopes and thoughts for others. This precious cargo is the reason we walk – as well as to tell you about our Camino. 

Pilgrims walk and pilgrims pray. It’s what we do. We invite those who don’t pray to reflect on the prayers of others and to think on them with kindness. 
When we walk the Camino we find our way by following the yellow arrows. Many of the prayers we have recieved are from those looking for a new direction or new meaning in their lives. These include:

  • Those who have lost their jobs as a result of the global pandemic, who face a very uncertain future
  • Students who got caught up in this summer’s exams results confusion, who don’t know which course (literally!) to take 
  • Adults who are at a crossroads in their lives – mostly in terms of relationships or career choices 
  • People who are moving home – sometimes even to another country 
  • Pilgrims who are not sure if, or when, they can walk a Camino again 
  • Along with prayers of thanksgiving for situations, events and choices that have turned out well… and many kind prayers of “God speed” and “Stay safe” for us, as we walk this very special Camino

We’ve stopped at several points to reflect on these prayers. Here are two. 

We also give you our own musical prayer that none of us ever walk alone. 

Nunca caminarás solo

THE CAMINO SPEAKS

Castrojeriz – Frómista – Carrion de los Condes – Calzadilla de la Cueza

Endless Roads

Farewell dinner

We all had dinner together in Castrojeriz. The two Spaniards were there with the English couple who live in New York, the lass from Canada and the young man from Germany. And the two auld Scots. This was to be our last evening together because those with younger legs want to forge ahead and do longer stages to get to Santiago and leave enough time to go to Finisterre. “We’ll catch up along the Way”, they said. With our more experienced heads we know we won’t, at least not until Santiago, perhaps. They were up and out early. I admire their spirit. If the distances they plan are too much their bodies will tell them.

Leaving Castrojeriz

It was with a slight feeling of having lost new friends we set off in companionable silence for Frómista. We would be in the meseta proper and the long path that rose to the top of the hill was full of promise. It was cool but, as we climbed, so did the temperature. We stopped several times to enjoy the silence and the views. In the distance a long row of water spouts punched the air as the daily irrigation routine started. A tractor pulling an improbably high load of hay bales chuntered down a track kicking up a trail of dust. It was so far away we couldn’t hear a thing. Rounding a bend I was aware that Stephen was now in the distance, taking up our usual formation as I ambled behind. 

The view from the top of the hill is the most iconic of the meseta. The path seems to stretch forever into a vast and beautiful landscape.  

Views from the hill leaving Castrojeriz

I was suddenly aware of the changes that have taken place in my world since I last stood in that very spot all of 13 years ago. The people who have passed, and the time passing in my own life. The changes in the world, where our very sense of personal security has been stolen by a virus that came in the night. I strained to look and caught sight of Stephen becoming an ever diminishing single dot below where, before, there would have been many dotted pilgrims. As I pondered the fragility of it all I was aware I was lingering too long, and as I started to walk down the hill towards the distant horizon I got the message as if the Camino was saying, “no matter what happens, I’ll still be here.” 

Big thoughts and no thoughts. The effect of walking the meseta. I kept my own company and enjoyed the views and the refreshing sight of the canal leading to Frómista. With few pilgrims the shuttle boat stands silent. Waiting. 

Jeanne (France)

Along this stretch I found Stephen waiting for me and whilst we caught up the figure of a single pilgrim sashayed along. She was walking with the casual ease of the long distance walker. This was Jeanne from France who has walked from Le Puy en Vélez. I tried my schoolboy French but I’m afraid it has too many cobwebs. We settled for Spanish. 

The Camino was silent again the next morning as we left Frómista. Although there are some 40 pilgrims walking in the same stage at the same time, we are well spread out over the distance. We opted for the alternative route from the town and we were rewarded by a day of long paths stretching ahead and absolute stillness in the countryside. Literally, you can close your eyes and hear nothing. 

Martíne and Nicole – “when the Camino speaks to us, we stop and have a break”

I saw Stephen had stopped ahead and after a while I caught up. There at the side of the path were two pilgrims having a picnic. This was Martíne and Nicole who are walking to Astorga. They’ll come back next year. They like to take the whole day to walk, no matter the distance, and “when the Camino speaks to us, we stop and have a break.”

The Singing Nuns of Carrion

The last time I was in Carrion de los Condes I went to the Pilgrim Mass there and met the singing nuns who staff the parish albergue. We’d made music together in Santiago Cathedral. That Pilgrim Mass was packed and ended with a pilgrim blessing in many languages and a personal gift of a little yellow arrow for everyone there. This time the church was silent, no mass, no nuns, albergue closed.  In the darkness of the empty church where pilgrims have gathered for centuries we remembered all those whose intentions we carry because this year they cannot walk themselves. 

Prayers in an empty church – Carrion

Almost halfway through our Camino we decided to have a very easy 17km day next to Calzadilla de la Ceuca. There’s an albergue and hostal with a swimming pool. It may be hard to imagine (for those of you who have walked this route) but on the 4 hour walk here we met no other walking pilgrims.  

It was a relief to get out of the sun and even before we checked in we sat down to rehydrate with cool drinks. Suddenly the man in charge appeared saying “help” and handed Stephen a phone. It was someone speaking English and he couldn’t understand. “Hello? Hello?” Stephen said, then listened intently. All I heard next was, “Daniel, this is Stephen, I’ll find out.” What a coincidence, it was only one of the young team who had gone ahead! They had walked 38 kms from Frómista to stay here last night. They are now 33 kms farther on. A bag had gone astray. Daniel spoke to Stephen, Stephen to the owner, the owner to the transport company, the bag was found and will be delivered. 

The Camino speaks when you least expect it, in languages you don’t expect and in coincidences which are astonishing. What next! 

Vast countryside

JOHNNIE GETS LOST ON THE CAMINO FRANCÉS

Belorado – Atapuerca – Burgos – Hornillos – Castrojeriz 

Dear amigos, greetings from Castrojeriz. Do you ever get lost when walking a Camino? This is the question every new person on the Camino asks. My answer is always the same, “Yes, if I’m very fortunate.” 
Let me explain. It is almost impossible to get physically lost on the Camino Francés. The signage is excellent and in normal times so many pilgrims are walking all you need to do is follow the pilgrims in front of you. Becoming lost in other ways is a different matter, and I’m aware that this year I needed that to happen more than any other.

I’ll be honest, like many people, I’ve found coping with the pandemic difficult, very difficult at times. Here in Spain the “lockdown” was very strict. For two months we were only allowed to leave our homes to do a little shopping, no more. Things have eased of course, but there’s still a tension as everyone gets on with a life of no handshakes or hugs, where we now use handgel 50 times a day and face masks outside of our houses. The hardest thing we’ve all had to cope with is the feeling of powerlessness and our inability to know the future. Being stuck at home I swung from laziness to feverish activity, from being lighthearted to raging at the news on television. There were sentimental moments when I reached out to friends I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time. Sometimes I slept well. Often I didn’t. All along I had a growing feeling that I needed to walk again…just to get lost. 

We set out from Saint Jean Pied de Port 14 days ago. The first few days coping with the physical aches and pains focuses the mind. Of course the scenery was captivating but it is only after a few days you begin to notice the small things – like the wild fruits growing by the side of the Camino Path and the ripening grapes on the vine. Sure signs that no matter what, nature will keep renewing. 

Within days the routine is established of: wake, eat, walk, wash, eat, sleep, wake etc. No decisions are needed on the trail. Just follow the arrows. My sense of time goes first as I concentrate on getting my old frame up another hill. Whatever day it is seems increasingly unimportant. 

There’s a bond between pilgrims as we share the same history and the same path. Casual nods on the first day graduate to conversations discovering each other at a coffee stop, then having dinner in the evening.

Don Quijote, Sancho Panza y amigos

All of these things come together as the things that help us get lost. We were sitting having coffee on the way to Burgos when one of the young people we’d seen three days before arrived. “Sancho is here” he shouted to his friends. They all arrived – and it was all I could do to stop them hugging me. They explained that they regularly see Stephen Longlegs striding ahead, like Don Quijote looking for windmills, with the smaller figure of Sancho trailing behind. A happier bunch you couldn’t find. We’ve met up each day at some point but I think they will forge ahead soon to walk much longer days.

The route is beautiful but the weather also plays a major part. The way from Belorado to Atapuerca is a long stage. Thankfully the temperature had reduced by 10 degrees. Rain was forecast but it remained dry until we were walking down that lovely long stretch to begin the ascent to Montes de Oca. The heavens opened and we were caught in a shortlived but spectacular downpour. Light drizzle followed but this was nothing compared to the pilgrims already in Burgos who messaged, “did you have hailstones?” It’s the end of August! 

The cross above Atapuerca

Next morning the day started with some decent cardiovascular exercise as we climbed out of Atapuerca to the Cross erected at the summit, before slowly descending to Burgos. As we were panting up the hill we heard a shout from behind, “hello Scottish” and soon a Spanish couple we’d met who are walking for a few days sped past. Just after this we met the young people who seem to have adopted “Sancho”. We all agreed we would walk the alternative “river route” into Burgos. It was lovely. The right decision. 

Burgos Cathedral

In Burgos we went to Mass in the Cathedral and saw several other pilgrims. This was followed by the dinner to say farewell to Billy, who was returning to Amsterdam. What a dinner … with a vast portion of morcilla – but still not quite as good as Scottish Black Pudding!

Morcilla (black pudding)

That evening we sent a message to Alexis who was also departing back to England. Poor Alexis had been suffering from blisters and was prone to vent her anger at them in the most colourful language. A repeated phrase over these days was Alexis shouting, “pebbles and rocks, why are we walking on these @🤬🤬🤬🤬🤬@ things?
We walk on them because they are on the Way. They are part of the Way. I’m sure every pilgrim knows the feeling of walking on pebbles and rocks, at the end of a hard day, when your feet are throbbing and toes are aching to be released from their captivity in hot boots. When coping with sore feet and pebbles it isn’t possible to think about anything else!

I’ve come to realise that this is part of getting lost. Meeting new friends, climbing challenging hills, gazing at amazing views, seeing nature renew itself. These things come together to form a potent brew which makes me forget myself, helps me to leave the cares of the world behind. It gives me peace. And then there’s just the sheer fun of it. Seeing Don Quijote himself on the swings in a park. Meeting Louise from Holland and Nania, also from Holland, but now living in Madrid. They’ve hooted with laughter whenever we’ve met them. They didn’t know each other before arriving at Saint Jean Pied de Port, they’ll be together until Santiago and friends for life thereafter. No prizes for guessing what Louise did next to her friend with the ice cream! 

Approaching San Antón

We walked along that straight road lined with trees towards Castrojeriz. There were no other pilgrims. The iconic abergue in the ruins of the Monasterio of San Antón is closed, but the ruins stand proud as a reminder of the millions of pilgrims who have passed under its glorious arch over the years. Castrojeriz looked majestic this afternoon as we approached. The castle on the hill was bathed in golden light. 

Monastery of San Antón

A single figure outside the church reminded us that when in towns and villages we must respect the rules.

A new look for respectful Pilgrims

I’m certainly more lost than I was leaving Saint Jean 14 days ago, and as we continue on the long path of the meseta before us, I hope to get completely lost. 

Approaching Hontanas