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!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

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)


  1. Martha,
    Fabulous writing of these vivid accounts. I felt like I was with you. I bet your dad was.
    You'll have a great book you could publish if you keep writing like this all year.
    Meanwhile, life at 210 High St. is peaceful.
    Muchas gracias,

  2. Such a beautiful accounting of your pilgrimage. You sound like you were truly pilgrims connecting with all the past pilgrims.

  3. Lovely. We await the poem from Laura and Conor's creative writing. So glad you're having the trip of a lifetime.

  4. Marta,

    Caminante, no hay camino - se hace camino al andar.

    I'm so excited to hear how you've started out your year! We'll be with you in spirit as you continue your adventures - looking forward to more news.

  5. very nice to read about your progress and amazing adventure. it sounds like the best way to start what promises to be a very meaningful and formative year for all of you guys.

  6. Martha, Thank you so much for your terrific descriptions of the towns you stopped at along the way. The photos are great too. We can see you and the surroundings and share your experience as much as humanly possible this way. It is really appreciated!!!

  7. Martha, thank you for the inspiring description of your journey. You remind of what is important in life – simplicity, the beauty of the natural world, connection with fellow human beings and a reverence for those who have gone before. You bring us joy! Love to all.