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On the Pilgrim Trail: On to Santiago


A stork's nest

High on a ridge in Leon

A village door
by Jeanne Tasker

[Second in a 2-part series on hiking Spain's Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail. From Summer 2008.]

The adventure continues. Non-stop rain dictated our next moves, so the intrepid mother and daughters decided to take the train all the way to Leon, bypassing much of the flat central plains of northern Spain.

We were now in the bailiwick of the legendary Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon. Married in 1469, they were known as “los Reyes Catolicos”, creators of modern Spain. They were responsible for implementing the unification of Spain and, with the conquest of Granada, defeating the Moors in Spain. They also were responsible for the infamous Inquisition, in which Jews and Moors (even those who were “conversos” to the Catholic faith) were tortured, killed, or driven from Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella are, of course, most famous for authorizing the expedition of Christopher Columbus, in 1492.

From Leon, a strategic bus ride to the small city of Astorga put us ahead of the rain for a while. Walking from Astorga, we reached the tiny village of Murias de Rechivaldo about lunchtime. This is a town with major reconstruction underway; fallen down piles of stone rubble were cheek-by-jowl with beautifully restored villas. We wondered who were financing and occupying these obviously expensive restorations, possibly wealthy city dwellers that used them as weekend houses? Many are in the middle of nowhere. We sat at the Café Felix, with three glasses of white wine and complimentary wedges of cheese and proscuitto for snacks. Across the street was an ancient, toothless crone with her dog pack - an enormous boxer and four Pekinese - and a singing canary hung on the wall above her.

We also saw, in Murias, our first stork’s nest, on the top of a high chimney. The enormous nests are made of wood twigs and always have a mother stork in residence. We were to see more along the trail, in the most improbable places, glued onto the skinniest of spires or balanced on very narrow chimneys. And the birth rate in Spain is very low!

On to Rabanal del Camino, our planned destination that day. Along the way, we kept meeting up with a 60ish woman, an Estonian, who was hiking the trail alone. We couldn’t figure out why she always seemed to be ahead of us, when we were sure she wasn’t all that hardy. We called her the “teleporter”. We guessed that she teleported, a la “Beam me up, Scotty”, for kilometers to remain ahead of us.

The next morning, a glance at our elevation maps showed a steep uphill walk ahead of us, but we took it in our stride. At the top of the high ridge, the trail meandered between fields of purple heather and yellow broom, with sweeping views of the Montes de Leon mountain range. It was the steep downhill to El Acebo, where we had a quick lunch at the local bar that had our knees howling! After more than 20 kilometers of hiking that day we reached Molineseca, “Dry Mill”. It is a charming old town of stone construction with a river running through it. We watched “los viejos”, old folks, working in their kitchen gardens around town, starting very early in the morning and commencing again in the later afternoon, grandmas in dresses, aprons, and high rubber boots, grandpas in overalls, berets, and boots.

A “short’ walk of 7 kilometers the following day ended in Ponferrada, a very historic small city, centered by a huge stone castle. A shop called “Godivah”, across the street from the castle, beckoned to us footsore travelers. It specialized in coffees, candies, sweets, and helado. I had the most delicious ice cream, ever, dulce de leche. Refreshed, and carrying a bag of candies, licorice, gummy bears, and chocolates, like little kids, we headed for the Tourist Information Office. They are everywhere along the Pilgrim Trail and are very helpful to hikers. We needed to determine how we were going to navigate the rest of the way to Santiago. With the help of the agent, we developed a plan.

She recommended the Hostel Encino, most charming of all of our overnight stops, an old stone building almost opposite the Castle of the Knights Templar, soldier/monks who dominated the area long ago. We toured the castle, pretending we were shooting arrows and pouring boiling oil from the ramparts! From there we spotted a nearby Italian restaurant where we would enjoy dinner that night. As the only patrons, I think we were very much appreciated because we were given complimentary after dinner drinks of limoncello, a lovely, lemony liqueur.

From Ponferrada the next morning, we took a local bus to the village of Cacabelos. Once there, we walked more than 25 kilometers through rolling hills with vineyards, pink wild roses, purple vetch, penstemons, daisies, elderberry bushes, brilliant yellow broom, cerulean cornflowers, and seas of red poppies in bloom. There were many people working in the fields. We picked cherries from trees along the trail- sweet and thirst quenching. It was a very steep downhill to Villafranca del Bierzo, where we stopped for a very overpriced lunch, and continued on to Trabadelo. We called our hotel that night the “truck stop motel”, very like places one finds in the hinterlands of the U.S. Nonetheless, it was clean, had comfortable beds and offered a good, cheap pilgrim’s menu for dinner.

In the midst of a drenching rain the next morning, we abandoned plans to walk and took a tiny local bus, big backpacks on our laps, from Trabadelo to Pedrafita. From there, we hoped to be able to arrange further bus transportation to Santiago. A very kind lady took us in charge and suggested going by way of Lugo (more rain!) and walked us through the steps necessary, including two bus transfers; more of the random acts of kindness we encountered on the trip. At this point, our final day of hiking was axed, as it was clear that the rain was not going to stop. So it was by bus that we crossed from the province of Leon into misty Galicia.

Arriving in Santiago a day early and in the midst of a downpour, we followed the advice of a cabbie at the bus station and booked a room at the NH Hotel, a contemporary new hotel within easy walking of the Cathedral Plaza. Interestingly, there is a striking juxtaposition in Santiago of centuries-old buildings and cutting-edge modern architecture and outdoor sculpture.

One day of exploring Santiago and buying gifts, witnessing a group of the pilgrim faithful who were singing/chanting their way to the cathedral, and the next half-day of attending the Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral, rounded out our stay in Santiago de Compostela. The mass was an incredible, spiritual experience, the ethereal, sweet soprano voice of a nun leading the calls and responses. Handsome baritone voices from the congregation were a counterpoint to her soprano. A priest mentioned the countries of all of the pilgrims who had registered that day. Blessings were given in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Latin. Several priests served Communion to the entire, large congregation. Hugs, kisses, and handshakes of peace followed.

We departed Santiago that afternoon via Vueling Airlines, an inexpensive and quick way back to Paris. We agreed that it was the bonding experience that we had hoped it would be; challenges emotional and physical were overcome and surmounted; personal comfort zone lines passed, and new experiences embraced.

Images remembered from Leon to Santiago de Compostela: The people we saw and met - the crone with her faithful dogs; people in the fields; the “Teleporter”; a group of kids from the University of Richmond and their professor, doing a course on Spanish history; and the wonderful Spanish lady who bustled us, like a mother hen with her chicks, through bus stations, and made sure that we were on the proper bus to Santiago. It is called, serendipity.

(Read part one in the series, "In Basque Country")

Details:
To begin the pilgrimage trail in France, as we did, it is simplest to fly into Paris and travel by train to St. Jean Pied de Port, a village at the foot of the Pyrenees near the Spanish border. The high-speed TGV has daily service from Paris to Bayonne (approximately 4 hours). Visit www.raileurope.com.

Spanish-owned Vueling Airlines has frequent service from Santiago de Compostela to Paris and Barcelona Visit www.vueling.com.

Detailed information on Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage trails and how to plan the journey, may be found at www.csj.org.uk, the official site of the Confraternity of St. James.

Jeanne Tasker has hiked the woods of New York’s Adirondacks, the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado, New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, Germany’s Black Forest, France’s Belle Isle and the lush valleys of the Dordogne. In this issue, she looks back on her recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. A former early childhood teacher, active community leader, mother of five and grandmother to eight, Jeanne is now planning her next adventure, to Corsica.

- Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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