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Adios España!

The last step on our journey; we took the bus from Gijon to Bilbao and then from Bilbao to Irun, not knowing that the bus would actually go all the way to our final destination just across the border, Hendaye. Hendaye is a resort town in France, on the southwestern-most point on the border with Spain. It was a good day to travel as it rained steadily all day. The rugged, mountainous countryside made us realize how much more difficult the Camino del Norte is (we had initially planned to do that Camino). We are happy with our decision to have started with the Camino Frances!

We were ready to get off the bus in Irun, thinking that it was the final stop but then Michael noticed another passenger staying on the bus and asked him if the bus was continuing on. The answer was yes so we hopped back on. (In Bilbao we had tried to buy tickets to Hendaye but hadn’t recognized the Spanish form “Hendaia” as one and the same!!) We crossed a bridge and presto – 5 minutes later we were in France. The bridge spans an inlet from the Atlantic called “Le Bidoasoa” – the border between Spain and France runs right down the middle. We had booked a hotel close to the train station as we would be catching an early morning train to Paris. The bus stopped across from the station! What an easy last step!

I wish there was some way to thank Spain, it’s generous, always welcoming, warm-hearted and helpful people, the agencies responsible for maintaining the Camino Frances, the many wonderful ‘hospitaleros’ at the albergues and Hostals/Pensions that helped make this journey not only memorable for us but also affordable. As we walked along, day after day, through village after village, each with its own special flavor, we often talked about what it must be like to have this endless, constant stream of people inundating your neighborhood/village/country, day after day, regardless of season or year or even century for that matter….and remain so friendly and interested in us as ‘pilgrims.’ Many times we remarked about the huge amount of trash, mostly in the form of discarded tissues, littering the “Way.” As a matter of fact, once, in a lunch break chat with a Swedish couple, it was suggested, “Why do they make the tissues white? They could at least make them a dark color.” LOL!

Now, as we wait to take the train to Paris and for our final departure from Europe, we find ourselves equally excited and just a bit apprehensive to leave Spain and to resume life in N. America. The Camino is deeply life-changing, in a way we can’t fully understand at this point. We have a lot of processing to do. The Camino and Spain have been our home for the past 60 days.

THANK YOU BELLA ESPAGNA!!!

Next Stop – Gijon

From A Coruna we took the bus to Gijon, also a large, coastal city. For much of the drive we got glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, the drive was once again a lot longer as we stopped at few out-of-the-way towns, even though it was an “Inter Urban Bus.”

The city of Gijon (pronounced Heehon) is larger than expected but it’s our favorite so far. We arrived mid afternoon after a 6 hour trip and did what is now becoming our routine: went for a cervesa/vino blanco at a wifi bar/cafe where we could locate ourselves on the map while at the same time, checking on Booking.com for a hotel close to where we were (close to the bus station). We have discovered that we like to be close to the station for easy access to the buses on travel days but also because very often in the city where it’s easy to lose your bearings, there are often signs pointing the direction to the ‘estacion de autobus.’ We check into our hotel/hostel/pension, drop our packs and usually set off to explore our newest neighborhood. Here is a map (our very enthusiastic man at the reception desk explained where things were in detail LOL). The old city is the part in between the two sandy beaches towards the top of the map with the circle drawn around it.

Found a marvellous hotel, Hotel Central:

By the time we set off to explore, it was evening. We found the beach and the promenade and so many people out enjoying the unseasonably warm weather;

The next day we explored the old city with the fort on the top of the hill with beautiful views:

Pigeons bathing in the old fountain:

The port:

Lots of beaches in Gijon and I learned from the sweet man at the reception desk of our hotel, that they are some of the best surfing beaches in Spain.We walked one way along the beach, barefoot, captivated by the antic of the dogs and their owners:

Stopped at a seaside bar for a cervesa. When I went into the ‘Ladies’ I found these floor to ceiling pics in the cubicles. Michael found the same in the men’s (of the opposite sex of course) LOL:

And on the way back were equally entertained by the many surfers, watching them try catch just the right wave, wondering what the criteria were:

We loved our stay here in Gijon.

A Coruna Spain

We left Muxia early, on the 6am bus, arriving in A Coruna after 8 some time – and no, it took much longer than 1:18 as we stopped at numerous small villages. Our first step was to stow our packs at the bus station, find a wifi cafe for coffee and find a place to stay for the night. That accomplished, we set off to explore this Galician coastal city – there was lots to see….

A Coruna has a most unusual layout….

With the port on one side….

And the beach on the other….

A Coruna boasts the world’s oldest Roman lighthouse called “The Tower of Hercules.” It turned out the Romans built very comfortable stone benches (at the base of the lighthouse) where we caught a 30 minute snooze in the sun.

After more than 15km of exploring, our feet protesting, we stopped for “Nordes” Gin & tonics in the sun, recommended by a couple of pilgrims we met there. It was a most interesting-flavored gin – excellent!!

Today, we visited the old city and happened upon a most beautiful old church dating back to the 13th century. The door was open so we went in. An unseen male choir was practicing – the most beautiful chanting/singing was coming from somewhere inside. We sat listening, enthralled, for a long time. It was the day for church and monastery visits I guess as we kept coming across them with their doors open. We happened by at just the right time because later, their doors were all locked up tight.

Checked the weather forecast – wind and rain for A Coruna tomorrow so we are heading east along the coast to check out the next town – either Gijón or Bilbao.

AFTER THE CAMINO – Muxia Days

We are in Muxia. It’s our 9th day here – we have another 5 days before heading off on another adventure – the adventure of getting back to Paris and from there – HOME!

But first, let me tell you about Muxia because it’s such a unique and beautiful spot:

It’s actually a tiny peninsula jutting north out into the Atlantic Ocean. Our Air B&B is situated right at the beginning or neck of the peninsula, on top of a hill and we are on the top floor. (This is a view from the beach at the entrance onto the peninsula.)

You can clearly see the peninsula and the 2 hills shaping it. We have lots of windows: when we look out the bedroom and dining room windows we see the sunrise in the morning and we see the business side of the village….the port where the fishing boats come and go….the restaurants and bars….and so on. When we look out the extra bedroom and den windows, we see the other side of the peninsula…the other side of Muxia….more residential….and we see the sunset….when the sun is out that is! When we go walking every day, we choose which way we want to walk around the peninsula.

At the other end of the peninsula is another large “hill” on top of which is an old stone cross and at the top of which you get a 360 degree view (I call it Stone Cross Mountain). Just past that hill is an old church (which I believe still celebrates Sunday Mass every week).From the church you can descend onto the rocks that form the northernmost point of the peninsula and those rocks I call the “Martin Sheen Rocks” because that is where, in the movie “The Way”, he tossed the rest of his son’s ashes. We also call it “The End of the World” (although Finisterre has that official but dubious honour) – the waves roll in all the way from N.America with nothing to stop them. It’s a most beautiful spot and we have spent a part of each day there, just sitting on the rocks, watching the waves crash in, always in different sizes, formations, directions, volumes, and shapes, marvelling at the amount of energy unleashed by each one.

Every day we walk in one way or another around the peninsula. Sometimes we walk in an entirely different direction, towards the mainland. Then we encounter a couple of beaches, a wooden walkway, and a little used road that wends its way around another point before it stops. Wherever we go, it is beautiful. The previous week was stormy, windy, cold, and either rainy or misty. This week has started with blue, blue sky and sunshine. SPECTACULAR!!

So that’s Muxia. Yesterday we went to Finisterre, just a short trip by bus south, down the coast from Muxia and it too is beautiful but much bigger and much more touristic. The big attraction is the old lighthouse at the very end of the point, the very “End of the World” as they believed in the medieval days. We sat and contemplated Camino experiences; enjoyed the sun; admired the lighthouse; dipped our feet into the Atlantic Ocean; sipped wine. A great day bu still, we are happy we decided to stay in Muxia.

Despite the quiet beauty of this place, I must admit to a certain feeling of dis-ease….a very strange sort of feeling that is difficult to describe….boredom maybe? Homesickness maybe? A feeling of ‘not knowing exactly what to do with myself.’ We walk, talk, eat, sleep, cook….all of the everyday things one does at home so why do I feel so much dis-ease? I think maybe it’s because for almost 40 days, I knew exactly what each would be about…walk, rest, eat, walk, rest, drink, walk, eat, sleep and repeat the whole thing 40 times. To all of a sudden stop …. well, I find I am confronting my issue of always needing to be busy: teaching with all of the tasks that made teaching so satisfying (and frustrating too) being with kids, watching their amazing variety of learning styles, seeing them grow, marking, planning, creating, organizing….and more; with the chores of daily life; with physical fitness; with going adventuring and discovering new places, making new friends….! All of a sudden, I don’t have “things to do” and I feel restless…like a turtle hibernating in its work shell and only now pulling my head out, looking around and seeing the world in a whole new light.

Michael and I talked about “walking into retirement” and now I laugh because that’s exactly what we did … inadvertently …. because the “Camino gives you what you need” we heard from several fellow pilgrims….you get the life lessons you need….! So yes, we are receiving our respective lessons now. The joke is on us!

 A Typical Day on ‘The Way’- Living in the Moment

Not that there’s really any day that’s the same, we did start to see a bit of routine develop. But I should go back just a bit…..we did initially try to plan every day, setting an end point for each day but discovered very quickly that most days never went according to “The Plan” we had made. Either the distances were longer or shorter than we were prepared to do each day (every day you feel different both emotionally and physically), the terrain you covered each day varied so much (some days there were many steep ups and downs or you walked a lot on boulders which is hard on the legs and feet), or maybe there were long distances to cover with no cafes or albergues in between so that when you’d get somewhere, all you wanted to do was to eat, drink, and rest; or it was raining and you were wet, or it was hot and dusty and you needed a sangria/cervesa/cervesa y limon, or you found a great ‘pilgrim supply shop’ you simply had to go into and shop….the list goes on. 
We were using a great guidebook which had been highly recommended to us, written by John Brierley. (As we walked along, we saw copies of the same book stuffed into numerous N. American pilgrims’ pockets and packs (Brierley must be making a killing since we saw so many and such a variety of editions!) Brierley divided the Camino Frances up into 33 stages; each stage with comprehensive maps, diagrams, lodging, and food. We learned that a sort-of “Brierley’s Brigade” as Michael called it, had developed along ‘The Way’ – many pilgrims who followed the Brierley book stayed at each beginning and end village/town/city at each stage. The distances for each day fell between 18 – 30 km/day. After some experimentation, we decided we wanted to listen to our bodies as to when to stop and to stay at the albergues in places between Brierley’s stages. Oftentimes there were fewer people, smaller albergues, and different choices in ‘Pilgrim Meals’ in these places. We stopped , usually at the first albergue we’d come across since our sore feet, legs & lungs and/or growling stomachs insisted.
So we gave up planning where we would stop to eat, drink, stay each night and learned to live in each moment. (Being a planner, this is something I have strived to do all my adult life.) The moment we awoke started our day. Sometimes if it was quiet or if we still had our ear plugs inserted and our masks still on, we could sleep past 6. If not, we’d get up with everyone else using our flashlights and headlamps (so as to allow sleeping pilgrims to sleep) or when the lights were turned on by some brave soul after 7am. (Sometimes that brave soul was me as I hated packing in the dark, afraid I’d leave some vital piece of equipment or clothing or toiletries behind.) Early on in our walk, when we were still part of ‘Brierley’s Brigade’, we would get up very early if the distance was far so that we could get the ‘required’ kilometres in.
Sometimes our ‘coffee moment’ started before the day’s walk began if the cafe was open early; other times, our ‘coffee moment’ happened along the way after an hour’s walk; sometimes (rarely) even after a 3 hour walk. We preferred to have a coffee and something to eat before we started but sometimes we started with just the water in our camelbaks. Then, finding a cafe that was open and serving breakfast was pure ecstasy. Most often, breakfast consisted of “cafe Americano con una pocita de leche” (coffee with a tiny bit of milk) with a croissant for me and tostada (TOAST –  which turned out most often to be warm slightly singed bread – few places had a toaster and threw the bread briefly on the grill) for Michael. Once I finally learned how to say “scrambled eggs” or “huevos revueltos” in Spanish, we sometimes had eggs for breakfast/brunch. We got so we actually liked to start with just a coffee, walk for an hour or more, and then stop for breakfast/brunch.
‘Rest moments’ happened very spontaneously depending on if: 

– you came across an unexpected and interesting coffee place – one playing Spanish guitar music… one on wheels…..;

 
– you came upon a Halloween parade;


– you are from Wyoming and just happened to come across a “Cowboy Bar”;


– you just had to stop and shop on THE WAY;


– a photographic opportunity beckoned; 

 
– you wanted to stop at a “landscape altar” (as Brierley so aptly named the many beautiful natural places) that simply called to you to come and spend some moments in silent contemplation; 

– a church with an open door, music playing, candles lit, invited you to come in; 


– you had a ‘hot spot’ needing the application of vaseline, sore feet, socks that had twisted around, or blisters that needed attention; 


– you spotted a vineyard with grapes or maybe a fig tree with ripe figs….! 


– you came by a ‘Donativo’ rest spot where many items/foods were on offer all by donation


– there was a particularly comfortable looking bench to sit on either in the sun or the shade – whatever the current conditions dictated;

– you found an outfitters shop for pilgrims and HAD to go in;

– you had to stop and enjoy the “Cow Concerto”;


‘Rest moments’ happened frequently some days and rarely on others. Sometimes a ‘rest moment’ even turned into a night in an albergue….and that is a whole other story altogether and the subject of another blog.

We also had ‘conversation’ moments and ‘silent moments’. Simply walking, placing one foot in front of the other for hours on end, clears your mind. You stop thinking about all the daily stresses and worries of everyday life. All of a sudden, you find you are having ‘moments’ of a totally different nature. Moments that:

– involve spontaneous singing of or whistling or humming of marching tunes you haven’t heard since you were a kid

– make you sing songs about the sun as it rises in the sky behind you, warning your legs and the back of your head as it lights up the sky behind you in magnificent colors of orange, fuscia, magenta, and yellow (You Are my Sunshine, Yellow Submarine, Here Comes the Sun….and many more)

– have you asking each other questions of a more spiritual nature and what you believe and why such as the connectedness of everything, the divine, universal energy, God.

 – are silent for what seems like hours

Living in the moment and making decisions when they needed to be made, made the walk relaxed and comfortable. We had the luxury of knowing we could stop whenever we wanted, whether it was for photography, to talk, to contemplate, to visit churches, to take the roads less travelled (aka the scenic route), for sickness, and that we’d still have as much time as we needed. We allowed ourselves a lot of extra time – over 60 days – for the entire walk. Brierley suggests that the walk can be done in 35 days but we wanted to take our time. Our average mileage turned out to be around 22 km/day with daily distances ranging from 8 to 30 km/day. We did the whole thing in 38 days including 2 rest days for sickness.

Black Magic, Angels, and Miracles on the Camino

Black Magic, Angels, and Miracles on the CaminoBlack Magic- on a Friday, late afternoon – bad luck we ran into last week when we followed the advice in our guidebook and took the bus from Mansilla to Leon in order to bypass the heavy traffic coming into Leon, a large city here in the north of Spain. Michael in a moment of haste, left his “murse” (man’s purse) on the bus. He didn’t realize it until we were halfway to our albergue so we had to make the decision: return to the bus which most likely would already have left the station, or check into the albergue and ask for some help there. We decided on the albergue option. There, we met our first angels, Christina, Paul, & Jose, the hospitaleros at the albergue S.Maria de Carbajal, a convent in the old city. As soon as we explained what had happened, Jose was on the phone to the police in both Mansilla and in Leon. They recommended we take a taxi and return to the Mansilla bus station, so that’s what we did. No sooner had we started back in a taxi, than Paul called to say that the Guardia Civil had gone to the station to check and that it wasn’t there and that we should return to the Leon National Police to fill out a police report which we did. Not a word of English was spoken by anyone at the police station. The report we filled out was in both Spanish and English. Finished! We were sent on our way. The police couldn’t even send us in the right direction.

It was as we stood on a street corner looking at our map, trying to figure out how to get back to the albergue, that another angel popped up. He led us all the way to our abergue!!! (Meeting again two days later …he asked if we’d found the bag and when we answered NO, he said we should just stay in Leon!) We checked into the albergue and immediately Michael got on the phone and cancelled all of his credit cards. Thankfully, all of mine would still work. Thankfully also, Michael had his wallet and cash in his pocket. The passport and iPad were the issue. We could deal with a missing iPad but….the passport would be a very big issue … we would have to go to Madrid, to the US embassy there to apply for a new one AND that would take three weeks. 
The bad luck wasn’t quite over. That night, unbeknownst to me because of my super duper Walmart silicone earplugs until 2 am, Michael was ferociously sick, vomiting violently all night long. I think the last episode being around 0530. I had no idea what caused it because we had eaten exactly the same thing and I was fine. Our three angels at the albergue insisted we stay another night and let Mike sleep most of the day.. they would clean and organize around him as he slept. I, on the other hand, had to leave.  
Off I went, not dressed for the cold – armed with map and guide book. Within minutes I was totally lost without my trusty navigator (Michael). Seeing a woman walking by carrying a pack, I asked her if she was a “peregrino.” Indeed she was; Alicia arrived the night before from Menorca and spoke fluent English and Spanish. She became the next angel. She was headed for the cathedral and invited me to join. The cathedral was closed so she bought me a coffee and we sat in the freezing cold outside so she could have a smoke. She kept covering me up with her sweater. We went to the cathedral when it opened at 9am followed by another site, San Isadora, where I believe the Holy Grail is kept, but after that, she spent the rest of her time helping me by walking to the bus station, calling numbers for the bus line, the police (both in Mansilla and Leon), the Police lost and found ….. and so much more….she did so much for me. Finally, I bought her a smoothie before she had to catch her bus to Villafranca to start her Camino there, and returned to see how Michael was doing. He was weak but, much better than before. 
Leaving Leon the next day, Sunday, Michael wasn’t able to go much farther than 8km. We got a private room in a Hostal. Mike still wasn’t eating much and I wasn’t too hungry either, having caught another version of my cold and maybe a bit of Mike’s flu bug. The next morning we tried to call the embassy to talk to a human….no luck there – only got the message telling us to write an email. USELESS! That was Monday morning. 

We made the decision to walk on for two days, allowing time for the bag to be turned in. It had disappeared on the weekend when everything was closed…. maybe it still would be accounted for. With nothing else to do so we walked on, admittedly feeling despondent & considering throwing in the towel on this experience.
We walked and as we walked we started to feel better. We saw a sign asking, “Are you a pilgrim?” It was a rest area off the beaten path. Michael wanted to stop and I wanted to take pics of the stork’s nest on the church. What a delight. Fresh squeezed orange juice, chocolate, fresh fruit….lots of stuff all by donation. There we met are biggest angel of all, Manuel who ran the place, and Barbara, an angel who helped translate to Manuel what had happened. Manuel called all of the numbers that angel Alicia had written down for me, without luck. But, he wanted to know where we would stay that night, just in case something turned up; as he promised to ‘try’ again later. 
Although we had planned to stay at Villavente; we ended up staying only a short distance further at Villar de Mazariffe. We went for a snooze and at 645pm were woken by a knock on the door to tell us that there was a man waiting to see us. Mike went up first. By the time I got there, I saw Manuel from the rest stop in Oncina, giving Mike his bag, with all the contents intac. From what we could understand of the situation, the bus driver had found the bag, contacted the Leon police who contacted Manuel.

Tears began to flow as we learned that Manuel had driven his motorcycle all the way to Leon to pick up Mike’s bag….drove to the village where he thought we might be staying….Not finding us there, he stopped at every albergue on the way back until he found us!!! I still cry to think of his great kindness…without any expectation of reward….just for the sake of helping and giving. We bought him a beer and then we met our next angels, Renata and Sylvia from Brazil. We wanted to know the details of what had happened and asked them if they could translate. So we told the story in English to Renata, who translated it in Portuguese to her sister Sylvia, who in turn translated it into Spanish For Manuel and that’s how we found out all the details.
And that’s the Miracle of the Camino for us.