Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay: Days 25 and 26

Our 31 kilometre journey to Villafranca del Bierzo takes us through the lush vineyards of the Bierzo region.

Before imbibing we must pass through the bustling city of Ponferrada. Established by the Romans as the centre of a lucrative mining district, the city has had its ups and downs. First destroyed by the Visigoths and then by the Muslims it was finally rebuilt by the Catholics. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay: Days 23 and 24

Today we begin our two-day ascent of the highest peak on the Camino Francés route. It starts gently. Today’s climb is a mere 200 metres stretched over the 21-kilometre path from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino.

Leaving Astorga we can see our eventual destination. The mountain range hovers on the distant horizon, warmly glowing in the early morning sun. As we progress on our leisurely walk, evidence of an ancient mountain lifestyle becomes apparent. This is the land of the Maragato people. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay: Days 21 and 22

If arriving in León had been an experience in urban exploration, leaving the city was no less so. Its industrial fingers stretched out from the city centre, following major motor routes on their way to other metropolitan dots on the map. Our pilgrim path followed the busy N-120 – which itself followed the newer, faster, grander A-71 – leading us westward for 24 kilometres to San Martín del Camino. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay: Day 20

The walk into León is a wet but short 19 kilometers.

It’s a rare opportunity to journey on foot from the perimeter of a city to its core. For instance, who has ever walked from semi-rural, semi-urban Headingley at the outer edge of Winnipeg to the Exchange District at the city’s core? The Camino forces that opportunity on each pilgrim as he or she is transported from some bucolic rural landscape, through forest paths or along charming canals and into the messy backlots that surround big cities like Pamplona, Burgos, León and Santiago. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay: Days 18 and 19

Rain. It has a way of stripping away sentimental thoughts. Yes, the colours are more vibrant. And there is a fragrance of grass in the air.

But the grey sky presses down as we tread through puddles – boots, socks and feet ever more damp. The rain pelts against our glistening rainwear. Water ripples across our glasses, distorting the flat Spanish landscape.

Rain. It frames our travels for the next two days. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Day 15

We left Castojeriz enveloped in a cool early morning fog, soon shot through with long shadows cast by the rising sun as we climb a steep slope to the Meseta plateau. This was the start of our 25-kilometre walk across flat land and deep blue skies towards Frómista.

We had heard from fellow pilgrims that the Meseta was a cruel, unrelenting and boring place to cross. A number contemplated bypassing it by bus or taxi. To us, this was inconceivable. Here was an opportunity to tramp across a prairie environment not unlike our own prairie home in Manitoba. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Day 12

The 26-kilometre path to Burgos crosses a vast swath of human history.

It starts with a midday traverse of Atapuerca. Here, in limestone caves below the Atapuerca Massif, archaeologists uncovered (in 1994) a cache of human remains stretching across a pre-Christian era of 127,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. These are the oldest human remains in all of Europe and, by far, the largest repository of those remains. The caves are off-limits to mere living descendants but we can ponder our pagan past as we mount the massif. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Days 10 and 11

The 23-kilometre trek from Santo Domingo to Belorado contrasted two worlds.

To one side ran the slick, modern national highway N-120. Its twin ribbons of factory-fresh asphalt crossed the flat, brown landscape, requiring costly overpasses to lead pilgrims from one side to the other. Cars fly through this flat land, missing the details of an agricultural economy struggling to stay afloat. I can’t claim to be an economist, but the visual evidence of small villages pockmarked with ruined buildings is everywhere. It’s not that the urban decay suddenly started after Santo Domingo. It has gradually seeped into our consciousness over the past days of walking. But here, against the monied optimism of super highways connecting city super-centres, the collapse of small rural economies is all the more apparent.

The day suitably ends in Belorado, a charming town with a matter-of-fact rural attitude.

Leaving Belorado the next morning, we pass by more ruined buildings. The trail now parts way with the highway and begins its slow climb to San Juan de Ortega, 24 kilometres away, a pleasant day of walking through fields. At least for us.

Fortunately, we had looked at our Brierley guide soon after arriving in Belorado, the night before. San Juan, our next-day’s destination, had a meagre population of 30! And there was only one albergue and one pension! On the phone, we managed to secure what was (we later found out) the last room at San Juan’s sole pension, La Henera.

San Juan de Ortega was indeed a tiny hamlet with the Camino being its sole means of support. Pilgrims poured into town that afternoon, most forced to bunk in the dormitory-style albergue, nestled in the ruins of the stone monastery. Sound romantic? It proved less than wonderful at the practical level, as fellow pilgrims later reported there was a master snorer in their midst!. By contrast, our private room in the brand new pension (within eyeshot of the albergue), was embarrassingly palatial. Dining at the one small restaurant in town was a further challenge. Its few tables were in high demand by famished walkers.

San Juan de Ortega was established in the early 1100’s with the sole purpose of assisting pilgrims on the Camino. We can thank Juan Velásquez, a local man of humble background, who set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1109, got shipwrecked on his way home and prayed to San Nicolás de Barí that, if saved, he would devote the rest of his life to helping pilgrims. It worked and Juan followed through on his promise. San Juan became his hospice in the woods and, although it garnered early patronage and grew to include a church and monastery, the hamlet constantly struggled to survive.

The Church of San Juan de Ortega was likely built by Juan in the 12th century and then added-to repeatedly through the 15th century. This is the still-functioning core of the hamlet. About it are the massive walls of the deserted monastery. We walked around the perimeter walls with their uniformly distributed punched openings, once windows looking out from a thriving hospice. And then through the few quiet streets of the hamlet with their occasional ruined home.

Juan’s promise lives on as a vulnerable counterpoint to the modern world.

Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Day 9

Today’s 24-kilometre walk would lead us to three unique religious experiences.

We left Nájera at first light on another beautiful blue-sky day, the sun rising over our shoulders, casting its long shadows towards our destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. We soon arrived at the 500-person hamlet of Azofra and made the proper decision to wander off the Camino path to the Cistercian Abbey of Santa María de Cañas. It would add a few kilometres to our day’s walk but John Brierley’s guidebook, the bible of all English-speaking pilgrims, suggested it was a well-spent journey. Continue reading

Walking the Camino de Santiago: Days 7 and 8

It was still cool and dark when we left Los Arcos on our long 29-kilometre journey to Logroño. Soon the blackness gave way to deep blue skies, criss-crossed with orange contrails as the sun made its way over the horizon. Continue reading