Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Over the last weeks we have settled down to a good travel pace, with time visiting friends and time by ourselves to absorb what we’ve learned and of course to keep up our Spanish practice.  When I drive long distances, we usually have a Spanish lesson for Laura and Conor. Giving Spanish lessons while driving is particularly useful  for me to take my mind off the inevitable anxiety I feel driving narrow mountain roads. They are learning the tenses and vocabulary pretty quickly, and our verb book is our constant companion. I’m really pleased at how interested they are to learn Spanish and understand what our hosts are saying. They remember a phrase they didn’t understand and ask me hours later. I wish I had a memory like that!
We spent last week in Barcelona with our friends Nuria and Pep and their three children. Though they speak Catalan at home, they were kind enough to limit themselves to Castilian Spanish with us so that we were not totally at sea. They had a long weekend off work and were able to take time to tour around with us. Last weekend Spain celebrated the “Fiesta de la Hispanidad”, or celebration of Hispanic unity, pretty interesting to celebrate in Catalunya with its strong regional culture.  Though the celebration is marked by military parades in other parts of Spain, there was very little of that in Catalunya. We did see some motorcyclists waving an oversized Spanish flag at one intersection. Other than that it was a typical long weekend for Barcelonans, with tapas, strolling on the Ramblas, and hanging out at museums. At least that’s what we did. The MNAC, Catalunyan National Art Museum, has the most incredible collection of Romanesque frescoes anywhere in the world. They have been removed from various churches throughout the province in order to protect them. There must be 40 different church naves in the museum, and they are gorgeous.
Although delving into the art of 12th century churches was fascinating, the most interesting aspect of Barcelona for me was the Gaudí architecture. His work seems so modern and outlandish that it’s hard to fit it into 19th century European notions. It came out of the Catalan Modernisme movement, related to Art Nouveau, but it seems so much more colorful and playful than most Art Nouveau I have seen.  It looks like Matisse gone 3D, with his Mediterranean colors and fantastical shapes.  There are 20-foot lizards and rooflines that drip as if they are melting.
One of my favorite Gaudí works was the Park Guell, where he designed an entire neighborhood. It was never finished, but was to include parks, housing and community spaces. What was built was a residence (a pink house complete with steeple) and a large park which overlooks Barcelona. It has wonderful curving benches, decorated with pieces of ceramic tiles and old bottles. People flock to the Park Guell, not just tourists but Barcelona residents. It is quirky, fun, and Mediterranean.
Gaudí ‘s piece de resistance is the design of a new modern cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. In the last decade of his life, he applied his gift for modern interpretation of traditional spaces (apartment buildings, parks etc.) to a huge cathedral, complete with many huge spires, statues with Biblical stories, and a tremendous nave. Though he died in 1926, the work on the project continues today, with cranes and construction workshops throughout the church. Barcelonans are helping to pay for the construction of this huge community project. Though I found the oversized Biblical figures a bit gaudy, the idea of building a new cathedral for modern times is a very striking one.

La Alhambra, Granada

This week we switched gears – many times, actually – and drove down to Granada where we saw the Alhambra. It is the greatest Moorish palace in existence, built in the 1300s before Isabel and Ferdinand (dubbed by the Pope the “Catholic Monarchs”) drove out the Moors from southern Spain. 1492 was the big year, the year that the Moorish regime was expelled from Granada, its last redoubt in Spain. In fact, the Hall of the Ambassadors at the Alhambra was the location where Columbus met with the Catholic Monarchs and got his traveling papers, as well as where Boabdil, the last Moorish king (Abu Abdullah in Arabic) agreed to leave this exquisite palace and head south.
I expected to be impressed by the Alhambra, but it really knocked our socks off.  Despite a good deal of ham-handed renovation over the centuries, it is clear that the original designers of the palace were extremely gifted in mathematics, hydraulics, and in creating very beautiful spaces to glorify Allah. The walls are decorated with three-dimensional tessalations, or repeating geometric shapes. They inspired MC Escher in his drawings that use positive and negative spaces in ways that create optical illusions. Fountains, pools and flowing streams are everywhere.
Recent study has shown that the dimensions of the various spaces were designed using the Pythagorean theorem which lends to the sense of natural order and harmony. I’m not sure I understand this, but it seems they used the ratio of the base to the hypotenuse of triangles as a geometric base on which to plan the various architectural elements.
I loved the Fountain of the Lions. Twelve stone lions stand in a circle and support a round pool of water, and through an elaborate mechanism (which was broken at the time of the conquest and hasn’t worked since), the water was to have poured out of their mouths according to the hour of the day. Can you imagine hearing the sound of one lion, two, or twelve, to indicate the time? The lions are undergoing cleaning and restoration now, so the fountain had been disassembled. In their temporary exhibit, we could actually see them much better than had the fountain been assembled. The lions were cut out of marble so that the lines of the marble outline the flanks of each. The work is remarkable.
Spain was a Moslem country for 700 years, and so much of our “western” culture came from this Moorish influence.  The Spanish language retains a lot of Moslem words. European mathematicians learned algebra and the concept of zero from the Moors. In architecture, there was much borrowing back and forth between the cultures.  The horseshoe-shaped Visigoth (6th century!) arch and the 11th century Romanesque arch were used by the builders of the Alhambra, and the design of Catholic cloisters was based on Moslem palaces and villas. Next week, we’ll be heading across the strait of Gibraltar to see the Moslem culture as it has evolved in current-day Morocco.


Valencia seems to suffer from a public relations problem. It is not highlighted on the tourist circuit. In fact, Rick Steves, our generally accurate guide to Spain, didn’t bother to visit it and left Valencia out of his book.  However, it is a completely gorgeous jewel of a city, very walkable, with surprises around every corner in the shape of well-restored 17th century apartment buildings, Roman and Visigoth ruins, an exciting free modern art museum, and a beautiful Mercado Central (central market). Even the traffic works, due to recent road design work.
By the way, it also has the Holy Grail. Yup. It does. Remember that chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper, which everyone has been looking for, from Monty Python to Dan Brown? Well we can stop looking. It’s in the Cathedral in Valencia. Sitting in a little side chapel, in a glass case, all by itself. Completely intact, too. (Good thing no one broke it, or we would have tiny shards of the Holy Grail in churches all over Europe.) It has been in the private possession of various royals until XX, when Alphonsus the Nice Guy (not his real name, but something similar) gave it to the City of Valencia.
So I decided that I should take a job working for the Valencian Chamber of Commerce or equivalent, writing guides to Valencia and letting people know that they have the Holy Grail!
My German friend Iris, whom I got to know way back when she was doing her medical training at the Boston VA and living in Jamaica Plain, met us in Valencia for a few days. We all stayed in a little apartment down on the beach, 20 minutes south of the city. (This was a house exchange through the Intervac exchange program.) The water and air temps were lovely, both about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. But Valencians have decided that this is wintertime and so they are done with going to the beach. It felt like Martha’s Vineyard in September: golden days, warm water, and a sort of melancholy after everyone has left for the season.
In the city, she and I wandered around the streets, exploring all the little squares and side streets. With the kids, we visited the new Aquarium, which must be one of the best in the world. It has about 8 separate buildings, each dedicated to a different part of the world from the Red Sea to the Arctic. Sharks, sea horses, and even a Baby Beluga up close and personal!
I’m putting Valencia on my list of top places in the world.

Lot Valley in France

When we were in the Toulouse area, our new (Quaker) friend Rebecca gave us an amazing gift: an itinerary to follow to visit the Lot Valley and Toulouse area. She grew up in New York State and married Bernard, a Toulousian. (Is that a word?) After 15 years of living in the area, she is an expert on where to go and what to see. She told us the best places to visit prehistoric cave paintings, and the best castles that are not on the tourist circuit.
Her itinerary?
Les Grottes du Pech Merle: A wonderful place to see cave paintings. They are so artful, with rocks chosen to match the contours of the animals represented. Little blue spots over the animal’s backs, definitely done for artistic reasons. The love of art is truly there, 40,000 years ago. At Pech Merle you can see the real thing, not a mockup.
Chateau de Cenevière: a castle privately owned but open to the general public. How would a castle look if it had history going back to Charlemagne, and no one had ever really cleaned house? Commodes dating back to 14th century, letters from the king signed “S**t to the people! Your friend, Henry”. An entire frieze on the walls of the living room portraying the glorious sites in the East, visions brought back from the Crusades. Istanbul, the Haggia Sophia, etc.
Saint Cirq La Poppie: a precious little village on the very top of a rocky precipice, with tiny gardens, artist studios and restaurants. It is lovely. Did I say precious?
On Rebecca’s suggestion, we also visited with her Quaker friends Karina and Gen Spencer-Knight who live in a small village in the Lot Valley. Their only neighbors in the village were the local winery (vendange, the grape harvest, was going on while we were there: grapes are dumped into the masher in the neighbor’s barn), an academic recluse from Paris who lived in an impregnable castle behind Karina’s back garden, and the church. A lazy river nearby, and fields of grapes on all sides. We had a beautiful few days visiting with Karina and hiking around the area, visiting dolmens (think miniature Stonehenge, on the hillsides) and stone villages. What an exquisite area.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Computer problems persist in Spain

What a drag! I have several blog items ready to upload but my computer has given up on me, going to sleep with all the data inside. No pictures or blog items. Hopefully the computer gods will smile on me and those pesky technical difficulties will resolve themselves soon...

And She Dreams of Crazy - Laura

And She Dreams of Crazy

Those mountains!
If I was a crazy painter,
                I’d pull over to the side of the road and paint for them.
If I was a crazy poet
                I’d cut off traffic and drench my page in words for them.
If I was a crazy musician,
                I’d play to the core of the world –
                No – through the core of the world and back out the other side just for them.

For you,
You with your heartbreaking orange sunset rocks
And deep sea shadows.
You who make me think I could jump
Just jump
Off one of your jagged edges
 And end up flying.

And maybe I could
(For a moment or two)
If I was a crazy painter
Or musician.
Too bad I’m not crazy
Or a musician, poet, painter, either.
Too bad.
But it wouldn’t matter anyways.
I’m not driving.

Alhambra - poem of Conor's


The line of tourists sneaks around the building,
Drifting in and out of the sun.
Words of all different languages floating around,
With no place to go,
And all of a warm sunny day in Southern Spain to get there.
He stands with his family in the line,
Two or three groups from the entrance to the Palacio Nazaries.
His mother reads from a guide book,
Telling about the stories in the 700 year old palace.
The last refuge of the Moors, Columbus, and Isabel and Ferdinand.
The family enters, and immediately is awash
With stucco art, tessalations, and intelligent architecture,
That seem they were created before it’s time.
People walk on tiles that existed before the Americas did,
Someone’s laughter breaks the fleeting peace,
Voices on a cell phone drowning out the
Voices from the past.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A short story by Conor

            This is a fictitious diary entry from the point of view of a monk at the castle Queribus, in France. The castle is at the top of a mountain, and was the refuge of a dissident group of the Catholic Church. I was amazed at the position of the castle, and I also enjoyed the view over the Lot Valley.

Queribus Castle 2010

December 8th, 1342

The harsh wind woke me up this morning, along with the steeple bell, just as dawn was beginning to break. I would have frozen to death had it not been for the fire smoldering in the corner, which licked at the wall as I went to sleep last night. I got off my small hard bed, and walked to the well, full of water from yesterday’s rain. I made my way into the dining hall, and sat down on the long bench. There were bowls of steaming hearty soup on the table, next to tough bread.  Other monks filed in behind me, and sat down on the bench. We ate in silence, as Brother Martin read us passages from the Holy Book. I enjoyed every warming drop of that soup, and prepared myself to make the trek down the mountain, into the town below. We were out of vegetables, and we couldn’t grow them in our monastery because of the harsh weather most of the year. Once I finished, I got my cloak, and left the castle.

The wind rustled the trees and bushes, and it sounded like whispers. The sun was up, although it wasn’t warming me at all. I wrapped my cloak around tighter, and enjoyed the brief feeling of warmth that brought. At the bottom of the hill, I looked at the distance I had just descended, and realized I needed to go back up, burdened by my purchases. On the way to the market, I walked along the cobblestone street and glanced at all the small houses with hay roofs. Their doors were shut tight to ward away the biting chill that had a way of sneaking through cracks. I arrived at the center square just in time, it was sheltered from the wind by the towering church. The market was open, although the only stands were shivering in the corner. I walked over, and looked over the measly leftovers of the harvest. I picked out all the vegetables that weren’t noticeably infested with bugs, which amounted to just enough. I walked back up the mountain, and brought the vegetables into the kitchen. I sat down to work on copying scripts, and they day melted fast, as it usually does when I become enchanted in my work. Dinner was more soup, which I enjoyed, tasting the vegetables that were the result of my labors. I fell asleep next to the fire, absorbing its caring warmth.

cars rule!

I think that cars will never lose their appeal. Since I was last in Europe in 2004 there are more and larger cars, even in the narrow old medieval streets. Many station wagons, vans etc. and few hybrid vehicles despite the price of gasoline ($6 per gallon). How can we ever replace the convenience and independence provided by cars? I think the only solution is an alternative, sustainable fuel. (Martha)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A poem from the Camino by Laura

Soft rolling words
Remind me of Spanish hills -
How they rise slowly
Then fall,
Sending you tumbling
Over bumpy “r” ‘s
And smooth, double “l” ‘s.

In this garden,
We let our voices drop,
Like we’re in a cathedral.
Maybe there is something sacred
In the silence
And the way the evening sun
Floats through the fruit trees and paints shadows on the grass.

Notes from the Camino from Conor

Camino Writing                                                                                                 
The phone rang on three lines at the same time, and his Bluetooth became a constant drone of noise. He swiveled from computer to computer working on anything and everything. He could barely hear the beep of the email saying he had new messages because the computers were working just as hard as he was and putting out a lot of sound. Though this wasn’t a bad financial year, he found himself working harder than he had used to, without seeing any change in the mountains of work that appeared everywhere he looked. Time was moving too fast, the deadlines running full speed instead of creeping closer. He couldn’t seem to find enough time in his workdays, so he always brought work home. He missed countless family events, his daughter’s amusement park birthday, his son’s championship game, his wife’s art show.  His family was falling apart while all he thought about was the fiscal reports for next year.
Bleep! Another email.  For the last two weeks since his wife signed him up for a couple health forums, he has received spam mail nonstop. He usually just glances at them, and then puts them in the trash folder, but this one caught his eye at its sheer ridiculousness. The Camino de Santiago was a path across most of Spain, starting at different spots in Europe, and converging to make one path in France at the Pyrenees. It ended in Santiago, where the bones of Saint James are buried. People just dropped everything and walked the 700 kilometers, living simply and healthily. “What a crazy idea!” he thought. He’d liked hiking as a kid, but as he got older and more mature he lost interest in wandering around on trails. He just knew his wife would hound him about doing this, she would say how good it would be to get back to his childhood, and nonsense like that.
He learned about it and reluctantly prepared to go. He had decided, or rather his wife had decided, that he would go, and start in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. At first he was vehemently opposed to the idea, but he gradually changed his mind. He thought of what kind of a father he’d been, always working. He thought of his 60-hour work week, most of it self-imposed, and made up his mind. He bought all new hiking stuff, quick dry shirts and lightweight sleeping bags. He flew into France, and spent a night in a hotel before starting.
The next day, he got up early, and started walking. The sun wasn’t up yet, so he used his ultra-Brite LiteTek headlamp. The light reflected off his state of the art hiking boots, brand new, with aeration spots and gel pad cushions, “engineered for a premium walking experience”. He didn’t want to exhaust himself on the first day, but he had to get over the Pyrenees to keep up with his schedule. His first day went by rather uneventfully, and he thought to spend the night in a small town, halfway down on his descent. He had planned to sleep in hotels or hostals for their privacy, instead of sleeping in a large room full of bunk beds, with a number of strangers as happens in an albergue, or inn.
He got to the town and realized that it only had an albergue, and no other places to sleep. He wanted to press on to find a more comfortable bed, but he was starting to get blisters, and knew that blisters can make everything extremely unpleasant. He settled on a private room in the albergue. He checked in, dropped his backpack in the room, and left for dinner.
He had forgotten to lock the door, and realized this half way through his meal, in a restaurant on the other side of the village. As he ate, he thought of all the “thieves” he had seen coming in, and how expensive his things were. He hurried to finish his meal, and left without leaving a tip. He got back to the albergue, saw the door to his room open, and he moved more quickly towards his room. He flung open the door, seeing his pack wasn’t on the bed where he had left it. As he surveyed his room, he noticed there was a man sitting next to his backpack, seeming perfectly peaceful and in place. Giving him a quizzical look, the man replied, “There were two teenagers rummaging through your stuff, but I scared them away, and made sure no one took anything.” He tried to offer him money for his act of kindness, but the man said “No, I won’t take your money, just think of this as a favor to pass on to someone else, and you’ll truly experience the Camino de Santiago”. 

Notes from the Camino - from Martha

Starting out in Leon - the scallop shell marker

For just over two weeks, we walked the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain. The path has been used since the Middle Ages for pilgrimages to Santiago, the final resting place of the Apostle James. Long prior to that, it was a Roman road walked by soldiers maintaining their westernmost outposts. Soldiers left their stone-carved graffiti on the trail, literally reading: “Seventh Roman legion was here”. The road has been walked by Visigoth conquerors and other more recent troops from France. The Chanson de Roland was written about a battle between the French and the Spanish on the Camino. The knight who was the inspiration for Don Quijote de la Mancha fought off 150 knights on a Roman bridge here in the fourteenth century. The sense of living in a history book is phenomenal.
This “French way” is one of several Caminos, or walking routes, all of which lead to Santiago de Compostela, in the far northwestern corner of Spain. Traces of the various Camino routes can be found throughout Europe, as a network of country paths. People walk the Camino for spiritual, religious, athletic and other reasons. We walked it as a family to start off our sabbatical year, as an intentional spiritual walk, and to reflect on our year to come and where we are in our lives. Following are some of my reflections from our time on the Camino.
A few practical notes: The Camino travels through small villages and big cities, with extremely well marked paths. The scallop shell (or in French, Coquille St. Jacques – named after Saint James!)  is the sign for the Camino de Santiago, and we were able to follow it easily through cities and down country paths. It was a joy never to have to worry about whether we were on the correct path (unlike hiking in New England!).
There are various options for lodgings on or near the Camino, including hotels, hostels or pensiones, or albergues. The albergues are bunk room establishments set up by the government, church or private organizations to serve the pilgrims, that is, walkers on the Camino. We typically stayed in albergues when we could, as it was the most traditional (often going back centuries!) and economical option. Also, that way we got to know fellow pilgrims, who came from all over the world. Getting to know some fellow travelers was one of the best parts of the Camino for me. Meals were sometimes provided in the albergues for a fee, and when not provided there was usually a simple kitchen where meals could be cooked. We found the albergues to be generally clean and very safe, comparing favorably with the AMC (Appalacian Mountain Club) huts at home. In particular, the presence of hot and cold water showers led to a much better-smelling environment than I have found when sleeping near a through-hiker on the Appalacian Trail!
Dawn on the road
We usually got up well before dawn, but this was not a masochistic custom on our part. Given that Spain shares a time zone with most of Europe, it is actually very dark in the mornings this time of year. Sunrise is 8:15, with the result that almost everyone must get up in the dark. In fact, pilgrims are required to leave the albergues by 8:00, so as a result, headlamps are universal headgear. We generally walked with breaks for meals until 3 or 4 pm, sometimes later if we had visited tourism sites along the way. One day we visited Ponferrada, the castle built by the Knights Templar. Thick walls and a portcullis house a museum but also present-day conference rooms and a soccer field!

León: The start of our walk, 300 kilometers from our intended finish at Santiago. We started walking before dawn, and decided to step into the cathedral as the rosy rays of the sun were just lighting up its towers. In a side chapel, mass was underway and we joined the few faithful souls who were present at that early hour. The priest soon noticed the presence of a family with backpacks and asked us to come up front, where he gave us the Pilgrim’s blessing, a lovely prayer similar to the familiar Irish blessing. The parishioners welcomed us with smiles of encouragement. An apt beginning to this walk of cultural understanding.

Laundry at Santibañes

Santibañes de Valdiglesias: A small unassuming church-owned albergue turned out to be a morsel of heaven. Our Italian host, Hercules, provided us a meal of risotto, roast chicken and salad at a long table (all 20 of us) in the orchard behind the house. The green leaves above, our festive laundry hanging off to the side, and a friendly hedgehog wandering around below completed the scene. Talk ranged from Spanish to French to German to English and from international travel to political affairs. A Korean friend said she had come on the walk in search of diamonds. I suppose we all are.
Hospital de Orbigo: We came around the corner and a man was putting out a huge basket of fresh plums on the ground, with a note: For the pilgrims – take what you would like along with you. He had grown them in his garden outside town. He was eager that we should take a sackful along with us, and they sustained us the rest of that day.
A few miles earlier, after hours of walking along a quiet plateau with no villages of any sort, we came on an old barn with a man sitting outside, reading a book of spiritual inspiration. In front of him, like a mirage in the desert, was a stand with all sorts of refreshments. Tea and coffee, cool juice, nuts and fruits, all laid out with love and care. There was a sign offering us to help ourselves and to make a donation if we wished. The free offering made me wonder how often I am able to make a gift without expecting anything in return?  A random act of generosity. This man lives in the barn year-round, offering these gifts as his life’s work. It’s true. I believe that he receives some funding for supplies, but that is all. On the wall he had painted a sign saying: “La vida es la obra de sus pensamientos” – “One’s life is the result of one’s thoughts”. Much to think about, indeed.
Cruz de Ferro: The iron cross at the top of the mountain at the highest point of the Camino, where travelers have placed a stone of remembrance or intention. The pile of stones is many meters high. I left a stone in honor of my father and wrote a note, “for all our ancestors” with a Lakota song in my heart. My father would have liked it here.
Rabanal del Camino: The absolute silence of the trail is astonishing. No motors anywhere. We walk in silence for at least an hour each day, with the space between one and the next often stretching to over a kilometer. Quiet country lanes with high hedgerows, streams, yellow fields just harvested and green trees overarching the path. My thoughts slow down to a meditative speed; the rhythm of my walking is soothing. How natural is this rhythm! For so many years people have walked wherever they were going, thinking their thoughts or observing nature without the interruption of electronics or with iPods masking their observations.
These electronics have their purpose, but what a wonderful thing it is to set them aside intentionally for a time! We chose not to bring any electronics nor to use our telephone on the Camino except when absolutely necessary. However, many others did not leave their electronics behind. It seemed so anachronistic to be walking along looking at the same view as a medieval peasant, only to hear a tinny cellphone ring in a fellow pilgrim’s pocket. One woman made me laugh as she was carrying on a long business conversation on the road, while her husband waited impatiently for her to finish. I thought she might say: “Excuse me, but I’ll finish answering that question after I finish walking across Spain.”
 Somewhat like the slow food experience, this is the slow travel experience. I taste the sweetness of each blackberry, see the texture of each flower and notice the single poppy rising up from a field of recently harvested grain. I taste ripe grapes from a vineyard that remind me that the Romans brought the custom of wine-growing here. We all agree that we have never tasted a better grape.  Also, l note the precise shape of each sharp stone under my foot, the smell of the cow droppings, and the roar of the trucks when the path takes us close to the modern roads.
Walking starts to feel like a natural pace. Hurrying seems abnormal. I can hardly relate to my memories of home, where I could never imagine walking three miles to the grocery store to pick up my groceries. I know I will revert to my old ways, but how healthy and natural this way seems for body and mind. No multi-tasking or overwork, a simple movement that exercises my body instead of sitting all day. The kids fall into the same rhythm easily as well, with no complaints.
It is astonishing how wild the Camino feels, how unspoiled the landscape. Occasionally we traverse areas blighted by modern civilization, but this is much more seldom than I anticipated. It seems that the planners have taken into account the path of the Camino over the centuries, so that it is generally separated from the roads, and only occasionally do we walk along breathing engine fumes.
I am aware of the people who have walked this road before me, the incredible depth of the known history of this path. My own cultural heritage comes to me, with the sight of the magpies ever-present in the fields. I think of the English song by the group Magpie, about the bird whose calls were thought to tell the future:
“One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl and four for a boy;
Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret never told.
Devil, devil, I defy thee; devil, devil, I defy thee.”

Thank you, Fernando, the hospidalero (host) at the albergue in Rabanal, who patiently treated Laura’s blisters. When we started out on our way the next morning, the stars above the garden were so bright and beautiful.

Cacabelas: loosely translated as “the place of many bedbugs”. Generally our careful detective work prior to settling in helped us to avoid the bedbugs (checking under each mattress was a must). This time they caught us unawares, despite our bed-checks. It was not until bedtime, almost eleven at night,  that Conor found several live ones under his bed, and a more careful search led to the conclusion that we had to move on immediately to avoid having our clothes and packs infested with the pests. We packed up and headed out on foot to find a hotel for the night. At that point John’s back seized up, leaving him temporarily unable to carry a pack or even to walk. The next hour was sheer anguish for all as we finally found a place to sleep that was not infested. We decided that the albergue in the Iglesia de las Angustias was true to its name.

Trabadela: Long skirts, bells, rosaries, crosses and underarm odor come to me as thought-memories of years gone by along the trail. (I tried omitting deodorant for historical authenticity but my family protested.) Robbers often accosted pilgrims, and Knights Templar protected them. The line of credit was created by the Knights Templar, who accepted letters attesting to pilgrims’ assets at home as a guarantee of payment. They were known as honest and trustworthy (though not non-violent).

We pass farmers in Galicia harvesting potatoes with two-pronged wooden pitchforks and wooden plows. There is a fine line between quaintness and grinding poverty – no line at all for those living that life, I imagine. Many homes in the area are abandoned. Though some are coming back from the brink, some entire villages are given up entirely. The present economic downturn surely does not help matters.

O’Cebreiro:  A 900 meter climb to the top of the ridge where this little town sits, the gateway to Galicia. We decided that the long hike is useful for pilgrims, because it takes that long to learn to pronounce the town’s name! All 5 syllables, with the “th” for the “C” as is proper in Castellano, the Spanish of much of Spain. (Though the language in the area is actually Gallego, the Castillian soft “C” is still used here.) We finally got it pretty much straight, in just enough time to feel the cold fog at the top and sit down to a wonderful meal of ”caldo gallego”, vegetable soup. My vegetable-starved body is in heaven. Two weeks of dry cheese and ham on white bread is getting old.

The story I liked best in O’Cebreiro: the parishioner travels in the cold snow to the church, where the grumbling parish priest has to open up the church to offer mass to the traveler. The wine turns to Christ’s blood, a miracle honoring the steadfastness of the traveler’s faith. When I went into that quiet ancient church and felt the prayers of so many generations, I could sense a bit of that faith that could perform miracles.

Fonfría: Village of the cold fountain.  Its water may be cold but its heart is warm. The albergue is run by Pedro, a Cuban expatriate, who operates a beautiful hostel along a cool mountain ridge. A communal meal  of hot stew, board games, and a stay in a renovated palloza, an ancient round hut used by the Galicians. Clean as a whistle and lots of fun, with dancing and Cuban music warming the cockles of our hearts.

Sárria: The town which is 100 kilometers from the end of the Camino. Travelers must start from here on foot in order to receive the Compostela, the certificate of completion that guarantees a pilgrim a spot in heaven. (But the catch is, you must not sin again. Lucky are the few, honored by roadside signs, who expire upon arriving at Santiago….)

As a result of this status, Sárria is crowded. We were lucky to find rooms in a hostal, where we shared dinner with three retired Frenchmen who had walked together since Limoges, France. They were celebrating their 60th day on the Camino. One of them said: “When you arrive in Santiago, you will feel no pain at all! Any blisters or soreness will disappear immediately when you hug the statue of Saint James!”

I decided that our Camino should be called the “sendero de las moras”, or blackberry trail. The blackberries have ripened along with our elevation gain, as the days go on and as we have traveled to the higher and cooler areas of Galicia. We seem to reach each region just as its blackberries reach their peak of ripeness, all purple and juicy. All the hedgerows are full of berries, providing a tasty snack as we go along.

Porto-Marín: The Camino is a scouring-out of the body and mind. The albergue at Port-Marin is not a lovely place, rather institutional, and huge, as the crowds are growing. However we take it in course. We are getting stronger and have no more blisters. Though the prospect of walking 7 hours a day starting before dawn seemed daunting at first, now it seems like the natural way to be. Life is very simple: eat, sleep, walk. We typically buy fresh bread and cheese for picnics along the way so that we need buy only one cooked meal per day. This is a good idea along the Camino, since the quality of restaurant food is highly variable. On foot, we are a captured market.

We have seen many inspirational quotes and travelers’ graffiti, which I find a welcome mental distraction:
“Animo!” in the hard spots, or “Keep it up!”
“Ke keda poco!” towards the end , or “Not much left!” (in internet-style streamlined Spanish)

And my favorite, on a church leaving Astorga early on, a word puzzle that goes somewhat like this:


(“Guide my path, O Lord”.) Visually arresting as a verbal puzzle, it is a phrase that has stayed with me and guides my steps. I am lucky to be able to look past religious differences to use a phrase in my meditation that some might find objectionable because of its male-oriented language.  Traveling with family has challenges that are avoided by the sole traveler. We have an opportunity to put our learning right to work with our loved ones.

Arzúa: So many different travelers: Maria from Valencia who talks with and welcomes everyone into her circle, Michael who walked from Frankfurt, Germany and is a kindred sabbatical seeker, Sander from Holland who accompanied us for several days and kept us all happy with his jokes.  All have something to teach us.

Again, gifts on the road. Someone has made some fresh raspberry marmalade and roasted chestnuts. Both are offered in little individual cups, with a small sign asking for donations to support the work.

Santiago and Salamanca: The day was bookended: The end of the Camino in Santiago and moving on to Salamanca. Night and day and night. We started walking with the nearly full moon shining in the early morning and walked into Santiago in time for obtaining our Compostelas, or certificate of completing the Camino, and attending the noon mass. Then we picked up our rental car and drove from Santiago to Salamanca, arriving late at night in time to see the full moon shining on the yellow stones of the Salamanca Plaza Major. It has been an unforgettable time.
Salamanca, midnight (the party's just starting)