Tag Archives: Camino Angels

Days 1-5 on the Via de la Plata


[Daisies and pilgrim]

Soon after Guillena, on Day 2.

Well, here I am in Monesterio, on the Internet thanks to today’s major Camino angel: the young guy behind the bar at my hotel (there’s no albergue here), who has let me use his laptop. Finding Internet is rather a challenge since Sevilla, and hasn’t exactly been a first priority.

So … I hardly know where to start. Let me give you an overview.

Weather: Beautiful early in the morning; very hot by late morning; horrifically hot by the afternoon (though quite nice in the shade, of which there is unfortunately not enough).

Terrain: Not nearly as bad as, say, the Chemin du Puy, but considerably hillier than my guidebook led me to believe. There have been a couple of hills that could compare with, say, the descent into and ascent out of Conques on the Chemin du Puy, or the climb to O Cebreiro on the Camino Francés.

Way Marking: Generally excellent. They’ve even put arrows quite frequently along long straight stretches, which is wonderful for paranoid people like me, who start to worry that we’ve missed a turn-off if we haven’t seen a yellow arrow in the last five minutes.

Pilgrims: So far I’ve met one Frenchwoman, one Austrian, two Danes, six Norwegians (but they were all together), one Dutchwoman, one woman from Australia, one Englishwoman (who’s actually heading for Santander), one Italian, and approximately five hundred Germans. Well, not quite. There are three of us under 40 (maybe even under 50). There are probably slightly more men than women. More than half are going all the way to Santiago this time.

Of course, I haven’t met a huge cross-section of pilgrims yet, since at the beginning most people do the same stages. So far the albergues have a number of people in them, but aren’t actually full.

Oak Trees Seen: Approximately five million.

Number of People Who Have Kindly Given Me Directions, Honked Horns in Encouragement, Etc.: A lot. Thank you all.

Languages Spoken: English and Spanish, of course, and French and a little bit of German. At one point I was translating from Spanish to English for a German guy, even though my Spanish isn’t wonderful, and he doesn’t speak very good English.

Blisters: Two—both on my hands, from the beautiful walking stick I picked up yesterday.

Blisters Narrowly Averted By Prompt Application of Anti-Blister Bandages: Two (I hope—one is still a little iffy).

Number of Times Stopped to Root Madly Through Pack to Make Sure Haven’t Left Something Behind: Too many to count.

Number of Items Actually Lost: One—a pen.

Number of Photos Taken: Lots.

Slowest Pilgrim Around: That would be me. Not only do I walk slowly, but I’m constantly stopping to apply sunscreen (I always forget to do this before leaving), dig through my pack, find anti-blister pads, take photos, etc. And then I seem to be among the last to leave, so by the time I reach my destination people who started 15 kilometres are passing me, faces red and determined. They never seem to want to stop and talk.

Day 1: Sevilla to Guillena (about 23 km)

[Camas]

I lost the arrows for the first time at this traffic circle in Camas. A man selling lottery tickets kindly sent me in the right direction, to the road on the left side of the church.

I stayed at Triana Backpackers, which is a beautiful place and has a pilgrim discount and provides pilgrim credentials. But because it’s not pilgrims-only there are people coming and going at all hours, which makes it rather noisy. I highly recommend earplugs.

I never did find that elusive first arrow by the cathedral (though I did, as I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear, find my hat).

I made my way from the cathedral to Triana, where I’d seen an arrow, and had only one problem following the arrows after that—and that was in a town, where I could easily ask for help.

There’s a lot of highway walking, and the route goes through the towns of Camas and Santiponce. After that, it veers off onto a country road with a few hills.

Then it’s straight, straight, straight along the shade-less road. And just when you think you’re about to arrive in town, the road veers off to the right. Never fear! You’re really almost there. There’s just that tricky stream to ford first.

It’s the second of two streams that need to be crossed—I managed the first easily enough with the help of a stick I grabbed off the ground (I hadn’t yet found my wonderful walking stick). The second was trickier to get down to, but an Englishwoman braved the very steep bank, and directed the rest of us to a gap between a fence and a wall of cacti, from where we could slide down the bank and cross without too many problems.

The new municipal albergue is quite nice, with a full kitchen (reasonably well-equipped) and a wonderful hospitalera.

Day 2: Guillena to Castilblanco de los Arroyos (18 km)

[Pump]

The pump in the middle of nowhere.

Apparently you’re supposed to ford the river on the way out of town. I followed the arrows instead, and ended up with a not-great but tolerable highway walk, until I could turn off onto a much more rural road, when the walking got much nicer.

The scenery here isn’t postcard-pretty, and it’s certainly not what you expect from a walk in rural Europe, but the scrubby trees and hills have been growing on me, and the flowers provide welcome bits of colour.

I was told there’s no water on this stage, but there actually was some halfway through (but I wouldn’t count on it not being dry). I couldn’t resist following a sign that said “Water” in several languages, and found a pump in a field surrounded by flowers. Of course I dumped out some of my water and refilled it, just because pump water is so much more exciting than tap water.

The problem with having no towns along each day’s walk (as it’s been for the last few days) is that it’s hard to tell how far you’ve walked. I never know if I have five kilometres to go, or 15.

In this case, you cross a road about four kilometres before town. I found some pilgrims sitting in the shade there, and we walked in together.

I’d heard the albergue might not be great. I found it to be quite basic (and lacking in plates, cutlery, etc) but perfectly fine. Marcos, a young German guy, and I even managed to cook dinner, while he gave me German lessons and I helped him out with his Spanish.

Day 3: Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén de la Plata (30-ish km)

[Descending]

The descent into Almadén de la Plata.

Yes, that’s right. Thirty kilometres. And I lived to tell the tale.

The first 16-ish are along a never-ending highway.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an extremely nice highway, as highways go, through the countryside with about two vehicles per hour. The problem is that it doesn’t end. The arrows go on and on and on until you think surely you’ve done the whole 30 kilometres. But it just keeps going.

For anyone who’s planning to do this route, here’s information I wish I had. There are kilometre signs along the way, counting down to who-knows-where. The first I noticed was at kilometre 15. The entrance to the park, where you turn off the highway, is at kilometre four. Maybe this won’t help you, but I find it helps to know exactly when something is going to end.

The park is some kind of nature park—but it’s not nature as we understand it in North America. The trees are very cultivated. It’s nice, though, in that scrubby sort of way. The problem being that it is currently ridiculously hot and 30 kilometres is a long way for us lesser mortals, and this section stretches on and on and on as well.

I used chocolate to keep myself going.

Eventually there is a hill, by the shell of a house, and the scenery changes a bit. Then you come to a place where I narrowly avoided getting lost (and my Danish friends did get lost)—you have to go through a gate, and walk through a herd of cows.

Then there’s that hill, the worst one I’ve encountered so far. It is extremely steep, and littered with small stones. I’d met up with the Danes, who were no longer lost, by this point, and we puffed up the hill, too exhausted to really enjoy the lookout point at the top. Luckily I’d dug through a pile of chopped-down trees a few hours ago and found my stick. I was definitely happy to have it for that hill.

There was one sight we did really enjoy: Almadén de la Plata, where we would spend the night, which was just down an equally steep descent.

The albergue there was basic but fine. It was just nice to stop walking, really.

If you’re looking for a bar, I’d really recommend La Espuela. There was a Menú del Día for eight euros, and the owner’s constant refrain was, “If the pilgrims are happy, I am happy!” The food was great (as a vegetarian in Spain I am a connoisseur of tortillas con patatas—potato omelettes—and this one was quite good). The owner also brought us tapas and a sweet alcoholic drink of some sort for free.

Day 4: Almadén de la Plata to El Real de la Jara (14-16 km)

[Pigs]

Pigs, right on the Vía de la Plata route.

This was my favourite walking day so far—partly because of the distance, of course. I took the hilly route instead of the highway route, and kept going through the nature park, which was beautiful. The pig farms, with the black pigs of the region rooting around right on the route, provided slightly surreal entertainment. And there was no real highway walking at all.

I was going to stay at the municipal albergue at the entrance to town, but it turned out everyone I knew was at the private one farther into town, so I went there, too. It was a little odd—there was no real separation between pilgrim quarters and the family house, and there was no kitchen at all.

I climbed up to the castle, but it’s been rebuilt, so lacks the atmosphere or proper ruins.

Day 5: El Real de la Jara to Monesterio (22 km)

[Castle]

Just outside El Real de la Jara: proper castle ruins. Note the stepping stones for crossing the water, the pilgrim information plaque, and, beside it, the cube that marks the old Roman road.

The first half of the walk is beautiful, along an almost traffic-free country lane. The hermitage where San Isidoro’s remains rested on their way north was a real disappointment, though—covered in graffiti and surrounded by highway.

After that, there’s intermittent highway walking, before the arrows lead onto a side road. Then there’s a hill, which isn’t horribly steep but just never seems to end. The good news is that when you reach the top, you’re almost in Monesterio.

There’s no albergue here. I bumped into some German pilgrims I’d never met before and we found the Hostal Extremadura. It was full, but there’s a place nearby that’s associated with the Bar Extremadura that has rooms.

So Edith from Germany and I are sharing a hotel room. It has an en suite with a proper shower! And towels! And real blankets! Pure luxury, and all for 15 euros.

And That’s It

Anyway, I should probably give Wonderful Bar Guy back his computer. He keeps telling me it’s okay to use it, but I’ve been here for quite a while. This probably isn’t as edited as usual—sorry, but I don’t have my proofreader here and am feeling weirdly shaky from the heat or the coffee or something.

If you have any questions about this stage, please feel free to ask, either in the comments or through my contact page. I’ll try to answer the next time I find Internet access.

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If you’ve enjoyed this, you may want to read more of my Live from the Vía de la Plata posts.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:59 am
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The Camino de Levante: An Interview with Andy Delmege


[Camino de Levante]

Walking from Rielves to Torrijos on the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The Camino de Levante is a quiet pilgrimage route that runs from Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, through Toledo to Zamora, where it joins up with the Vía de la Plata.

Andy Delmege, an Anglican priest from England, walked a large portion of the Camino de Levante in autumn 2009. He went from Valencia to Toledo on foot, and then took the train to Zamora. From there, he walked the Camino Sanabrés variant of the Vía de la Plata to Santiago.

He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the route and his experiences while walking.

Anna-Marie: What drew you to the Camino de Levante for your first walking pilgrimage? (I gather it was your first?)

Andy: It was my first in Spain. I had done a few week-long group pilgrimages to Walsingham twenty years ago.

I wanted a quiet route where I could encounter Spain and I wanted to visit the sites associated with the Carmelite Mystics. Talking it over with one or two people who know the Caminos well and researching on the Pilgrim Forum and the CSJ site decided me that the Levante fitted the bill.

On your blog, you described the first few days as “hellishly difficult.” Why was that?

[Camino de Levante]

The Camino de Levante near Mora, on the way out of La Mancha.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I was ill. I had a stomach bug and could not eat. Also the enormity of the task I had set myself as well as being alone (there were no other pilgrims and I was walking solo) hit me. If I could have gone home without anyone noticing, I would have done. There were a few very tough few days. I got some medicine and appetite returned and began to make some impact on the mileage, realizing that I could do this.

One important thing was that I promised myself before I started that I would only go home if instructed to by a doctor; this helped me keep with the Camino when things were at their hardest.

In your article The Walking Becomes the Praying, you write that there were three parts to your pilgrimage: the “empty flatness” of the stretch from Valencia to Toledo, walking and driving with friends in the Toledo area, and then a “more relaxed walk” with more pilgrims from Zamora to Santiago. What was it like transitioning between the different parts of your walk?

The first part (which begins with urban Valencia, industrial farming and then some remote hill walking before the flatness of La Mancha) I walked entirely alone. There were no other pilgrims. This was hard but also good.

Some friends from home were coming to Toledo on holiday at the same time as I arrived and I decided I wanted company and to spend time with them. We did a little walking, and then visited Avila and Segovia by car. There was no problem transitioning to this—I was looking forward to the company of friends.

I then rejoined the Camino, deciding to go take the train to Zamora as this meant I could finish the Camino at a more relaxed pace and in order to meet pilgrims walking up the Vía de la Plata. I was anxious about this but was fine once I started to bump into other pilgrims. I formed close relationships with two people in particular.

I noticed you walked with a Spanish guidebook, and I’d imagine there weren’t a lot of English-speakers around on the first stretch. How much Spanish does a pilgrim on the Camino de Levante need to be able to speak and read?

I had done a year of classes and had basic conversational Spanish. I think to be able to do this route you need to be able to ask directions, sort out accommodation and the like. I only met one person who spoke English in the first three weeks.

What was the accommodation like along the way?

There is less pilgrim infrastructure than on the busier routes. There are albergues, but not every day. Some of these are excellent, for example the ones in Algemesi and Las Pedroneras. Others are basic Red Cross shelters. Sometimes it was impossible to find who had the key; other times they turned out to be homeless people’s hostels. It would have been possible to sleep in Sports Centres, but I decided (particularly as I was completely solo) that I would stay in Hostals. I never had a problem finding accommodation.

[Camino de Levante]

Walking the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The route sounds like it can be difficult to follow in places. Did you have any serious problems?

I gather that the way marking is less good than other Caminos (certainly once I got to Zamora and joined the Vía de la Plata, marking seemed superb). I got lost a few times, but generally just the sort of thing that adds an hour or so onto the day. The strip maps in the Spanish Guide were generally good. I found with them, the arrows and a compass I did OK. Finding my way out of towns was quite often difficult.

There were a few times you fell asleep while walking. I didn’t realize that was possible. What was it like?

Towards the end of the very long forty kilometre stage between Almansa and Higueruela there was a small straight road with no traffic. I was exhausted and just plodding until I reached the end. Several times I came to, realizing that I had been asleep. There wasn’t much I could do about this. I didn’t want to stop and sleep because I wasn’t sure I’d get up again if I stopped.

I suppose it did me no harm!

You talk in your blog about the kindness of the Spanish people. What are some of your favourite examples?

Walking in afternoon heat, the manager of a farm employing people with learning disabilities told me to wait and then reappeared with a bottle of ice cold water. Some farmers above me on a hill called me over and presented me with a water melon. Several times, stopping in a bar for a cafe y refresco, the owners refused payment because I was a pilgrim. A nun giving me two kilos of home made biscuits.

You’ve written a little about the importance of rest days. What was your favourite place for a rest day?

[Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón on the Camino de Levante]

Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I have several. Chinchilla is a wonderful historic hilltop town close to Albacete. I had walked a couple of very long stages to get there and a rest was essential. The parish Church is superb with a beautiful statue of la Virgen de las Nieves and a very robust Santiago Peregrino looking down from the roof.

Much later on, I spent a rest day at the private albergue ‘Casa Anita’ at Santa Croya de Tera, a few days beyond Zamora. This was a wonderfully nourishing place. Anita and Domingo were wonderful hosts, feeding us, drying soaked kit and dispensing vast quantities of wine. The Church at Santa Marta de Croya, just across the river, has the earliest statue of Santiago Peregrino and was a place of prayer.

I spent a couple of days at Oseira Monastery shortly before Santiago. This small retreat gave me the space to pray through the Camino before my arrival.

You say: “solo pilgrimage, although hard at times, can also become self-indulgent.” What do you mean by that?

When I am walking by myself my routine, pace, daily mileage, and the like are all about me. I walk and live in ways that entirely suit me. When I walk with others I have to keep other people’s needs in mind too.

You say, fairly early on: “I have learned the hard way not to push to much. The two things I am praying for myself are linked to this and to the pilgrim-pace: to learn to be much more relaxed and accepting, and to learn what it is possible for me to do wisely in a day and to accept this. Reliance on God and others in other words.” Was that something that developed as you kept walking?

It did develop while I was walking. It was something that I had been thinking and praying about before I walked which affects all of my life, not just the days out walking. The space and prayer of the Camino, along with the practical lessons you can learn on it helped a lot with this (although it is something I am still working on).

Can you tell me a bit about how, in your words, “the walking became the praying?”

[Note: This is an excerpt from Andy’s article The Walking Becomes the Praying, first published in the Fairacres Chronicle, Vol. 43 No. 1, Summer 2010. You can read the entire article on Andy’s blog, Pilgrimspace.]

[Cross on the Camino Sanabrés]

On the Camino Sanabrés.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

What I gradually discovered was that the walking became the praying. Alan Ecclestone describes the pilgrimages of Charles Peguy to Chartres: A pilgrimage gets to the holy place at last but what gives it its part in prayer is the slamming down of one’s feet to complete the journey while praying the while for all its features[ii]. In putting one foot in front of another, in the tiredness, in the blisters, in the being at one with myself, the landscape and God, in the mind quietening, in all this, walking, pilgrimage itself, became prayer.

The simple goodness of walking and praying the Camino was a falling more deeply into God. The walking became a deeper loving. The incarnatedness of pilgrim prayer, its coming out of kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile of effort, is tested because the Camino is also a School of Charity. I have already written of how generous the people living along the Way were. One important thing for me was to learn to receive it. It can be more testing to learn to live with other pilgrims. Busy albergues can be challenge. Everyone is crowded into a simple dormitory with some showers, facilities for hand washing clothes, and maybe a kitchen. Everyone is tired. Most people want to get an early night. Some people snore. Some people get up to prepare for walking at four in the morning. Dealing with this is an exercise in the practical love that comes out of praying. It is also part of learning basic pilgrim attitudes. These seem to me to revolve around gratitude; to be grateful for the love and care expressed in so many ways, while accepting the difficulties and discomforts with grace.

Another key aspect of praying and prayerful attitudes that came out of the pilgrimage was trust. Going off to another country to undertake a challenge that was greater than anything I had done before was a risk. I had to learn to trust myself and my abilities, to trust others (and also to discern when it was right not to trust others), and to trust God. This could be seen, for example, in finding accommodation each night. At home know that I will always be sheltered and comfortable. On the Camino I did not know where I would spend the next night. As I walked, I relaxed and the anxiety about whether I would get a bed slipped away. This is an attitude I must work to keep now.

You wrote in your blog: “I do not know what I feel about finishing. I have both loved and hated the Pilgrimage; it has been one of the best and one of the most difficult things I have done. My friend John sent me a text a couple of days ago saying that the benefits will emerge over the next few decades.” How do you feel about it now, more than a year later? What benefits have continued to emerge.

When I came back, people said that I had grown. I think it has made me more confident and stronger (if I can do that, I can probably do anything …). The things that we touched on above about faith, trust and pace are also important and continue to emerge. I learned, and continue to learn, important lessons about my need to rely on God and others rather than myself; on the being realistic about possibility and its limits; and about what my limits are.

Footnote

[1] Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase for Silence, DLT, 1977, p13.

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To read more about Andy’s journey and his thoughts on pilgrimage, visit his blog, Pilgrimspace. (Here are the stages he walked.)

If you’re interested in the Camino de Levante, the Confraternity of Saint James has some good information.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:59 am
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My Camino Angels


I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.

The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.

The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.

I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?

And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.

It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.

And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.

With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.

There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.

When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.

I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.

By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.

A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.

That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”

They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.

Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.

They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.

And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.

I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:16 pm
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