My Stages on the Camino (2016)

  1. Camino 2016Seville – The journey begins. On my first Camino in 2013 I spoke little Spanish and often felt I was missing out on fully immersing myself in the Spanish culture (that and my total lack of ability to decipher simple directions from locals or even order a meal).  On my second Camino I resolved to learn at least a beginner’s level of Spanish. To that end I spent the first two weeks in Seville in a Spanish Immersion program that focused on Semana Santa. My favorite place in Seville is the Alcázar, which is a wondrous palace built for the Moorish kings. I especially love the hidden Los Baños de Doña María de Padilla.  I also  had the opportunity to go on a day trip to the ancient city of Cádiz on the Spanish coast.
  2. Seville to Merida – Having walked this segment before in 2013, I assumed it would be a relatively easy hike the second time through. Nope. It turned out to be a particularly rough and disillusioning segment. For example, on the third day I walked 30 kilometers from Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata. I knew it would be a hard stage. There are no towns or resources on the route, the majority of the walking is done on asphalt and with only a kilometer left to go you are confronted with a grueling climb up a steep hill (Mt. Calvary). When I was about 15 kilometers into the stage and sore and tired from the constant pounding of the asphalt, I suddenly remembered that the first time I walked this stage I promised myself I’d never walk it again! So for all my experience I seemed to be forgetting even the simplest things. To make matters worse, I became horribly sick in Villafranca de los Barros and had to take a taxi to Merida to recover. It was in Merida that my Camino in effect started over.
  3. aDSC05553Mérida – Mérida is one of my favorite cities in Spain (along with Seville, Salmanca, Astorga and Burgos). Founded in 25 BC by the discharged Roman soldiers of Emperor Augustus, Mérida has more important Roman monuments and artifacts than any other city in Spain. It is fascinating to walk through the narrow winding streets of the city and become lulled by the sense that you are in a typical town in Spain. Then you turn a corner and before you is a glorious Roman temple! For me the highlight of Mérida is the Roman Ruins which are amazingly well preserved. Sadly, during my two day stay in Mérida I had to deal with a case of the stomach flu and cold, rainy weather, so my pictures are not as striking as those I took on my first Camino. However, I did have a fascinating time hiding from the rain in the National Museum of Roman Art. From reading many European history books I expected to see statues of Roman Emperors and war heroes that were grandiose and idealized. I was pleased to find that the statues in the Mérida museum were of merchants and local leaders that were done in a style that emphasized their humanity. 
  4. Merida to Cáceres Things began to settle down on this stage. I met some great friends. The pain in my feet from blisters became manageable. The morning light was magical. I began to feel comfortable.
  5. Cáceres to Salamanca – And then the rains came. The low point of this segment was the stage between Fuenterroble de Salvatierra and San Pedro de Rozados with rain, 25 mile an hour winds, near freezing temperatures and in the middle of it all a river 200 foot wide that was fed by the heavy rains. There was no bridge over nor alternate route around the river. It had to be crossed on foot. Several of the pilgrims who tried crossing the river in front of me were experiencing water up to their waists. So off went my shoes and socks and, with only a little reluctance, my pants. I gingerly crossed the water praying I did not fall over on the slippery rocks. Seeing a 68 year old man in his underwear crossing a river is not a pretty sight, but I made it.
  6. Salamanca – On a rest day, I wandered into the Convento de San Esteban in Salamanca. I was first struck by the scale of everything. For example, the vestry where the clergy change into their garments was the size of a basketball court. But then something else began to sink in. What would lead a country to create these astounding edifices of religion and art in every city and many of their towns? Much of it can be explained by the crass side of human nature – competition, greed, ego and power. Yet, there also seemed to be something much deeper, something that spoke to the spirit of Spain. So it was from that experience that I began to wander into cathedrals, churches and chapels over the next five weeks searching for the soul of Spain and my own.aDSC06174
  7. Salamanca to Astorga – There is something about walking to Benevente that always seems to create a challenge. There are two basic routes into the town. One is an abandoned railroad line that crosses the river. It requires walking 4 kilometers on ballast – the sharp granite rocks used by railroads to hold the ties in place and which quickly become painful to walk on. Plus the railroad bridges are falling apart and a challenge to walk on without falling through. Plan B is to walk an extra 5 kilometers to the main highway that goes into town. However, with the extreme flooding in the area this spring, major portions of the road were under water. To top it all off, once you finally arrive in Benevente from an exhausting walk, you will find one of the most poorly maintained albergues on the Camino. I have to admit I was so tired and frustrated after the Benevente stage that I joined my friends on a bus to Astorga for a well deserved rest day.
  8. Astorga – I think I hold the Guiness World Record for the most times a pilgrim has walked into Astorga in a single journey – three times. First I walked into Astorga at the end of the VdlP, then I walked from St. Jean to Astorga on the Camino Frances and on the last day walked back from Foncebadon to Astorga.
  9. Pamplona – At the end of my journey on the VdlP I took a train east across Spain to Pamplona where I met an old friend. We had made plans to walk together on the Camino Frances starting at St. Jean Pied de Port in France.aDSC06391
  10. St. Jean Pied de Port to Logroño – I never really understood the opening scene in the movie “The Way” where Emelio Estevez’s character, lost in the fog, walks off a cliff on his way over the Pyrenees from St. Jean. While steep, most the stage from St. Jean to Roncevalles is through pasture and forest. There are some precipitous inclines, but they are relatively easy to avoid. Or so I thought. The day we walked over the Pyrenees the fog was so thick there were moments when we could only see 5 or 10 feet in front of us. We even came upon a group of volunteers planting small flags in the ground as additonal guidance for keeping the pilgrims on the trail. Without the flags, it was not difficult to imagine becoming lost and falling down the side of the mountain.
  11. Logroño to Burgos – The Catedral de Burgos was the highlight of this stage. The artistry of the sculptures and alters was astounding.aDSC07101
  12. Burgos to Reliegos – I love Seville and Astorga, but Relliegos has a special place in my heart. The owner of the El Albergue de Ada was a gem. Put aside that the albergue has a meditation room, the owner worked all day cooking a delicious communal vegetarian meal for the pilgrims. But the high point in town is the Bar Elvis with a constant stream of 60’s and 70’s rock and roll playing in the background and the walls plastered from the well wishes of pilgrims. Not your typical small town cafe in Spain.
  13. Reliegos to Astorga – After the beauty and cosmopolitan culture of Astorga, Pamplona and Burgos, I was looking forward to visiting León. However, the city seemed very rough around the edges.
  14. Astorga to Foncebadon – The last two days of the pilgrimage were the culmination of the entire pilgrimage. I first walked from Astorga up to Foncebadon and the Cruz de Ferro where I left behind a scallop shell in memory of Denise Thiem. The next day I turned around and walked right back to Astorga, passing each pilgrim and wishing them Buen Camino!