The weather cooled significantly in the days after leaving Leon, a welcomed change from the hot, dry Meseta. We bundled up in whatever warm clothes we had, which for me included a pair of leggings I purchased years ago at Walmart, but had rarely worn. I'm not even sure how they made the cut when we moved out of Scoopy or why I decided to bring them when we moved to Europe. But since they were the only thing I had other than shorts, I was glad to have them to keep me warm.
When it comes to our travels, I am the planner. Steven will give input if asked, but mostly I have the freedom to chose the route, the destination and duration of our stay. On the Camino, however, Steven took over this role. This was primarily because he was the one with the app and he was willing to make calls and speak Spanglish in order to secure our reservations.
A couple of days out of Leon he made reservations for us in a little town with one of the best preserved and most spectacular medieval bridges in all of Spain. It was just amazing to walk across and, since we had arrived in the midst of preparations for a jousting contest, it's significance seemed all the more important. As history notes, a noble night from Leon, an ace jouster, is said to be the inspiration for Cervantes' Don Quixote. We would not be around for the contest, sadly.
This man and his two grandkids really added to an already awesome scene.
A little group of people gather to set up for the upcoming jousting competition.
Spain is a meat-centric country with few options for alternative ways of eating. Many of our Camino friends are vegan or vegetarian and though they often had the option of choosing "no meat" meals, their paella came with shrimp, their vegetable soups were often made with meat-based broth. The vegans (wegans, if German, and that took me a minute) said the only way to ensure they could adhere to their preferences was to buy, carry and cook their own meals which requires a herculean effort. Some did it, others made allowances for their time on the Camino. There are a few places catering to their needs and, just after the medieval bridge, the albergue Steven had chosen was a popular one along the "Vegetarian Way". Yes, there is such a thing. On the menu for dinner? Paella.
To be honest, it was delicious and the sides, salads and dips were among the best we'd had. But what was really weird about this place was that it was such a throwback to the 70s. Very hippy-ish, to the point of being cliché. To top it off, they served NO WINE, NO COFFEE. They sang Kumbaya. What the hell? Plus, I found the young hospitalerio irritating. (Maybe she should have served wine.) Two days later, we stayed in another vegetarian place, also with a hippy/commune vibe. And this time, when we checked in and were told that paella was on the menu, I said, hell no. Seriously. I was protein starved. Meat starved. We walked to a café in town and I busted out my best Spanglish to order a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches with fries.
Over the next few days we had a couple of significant climbs, the first of which was to Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross. At just under 5,000 feet, it is the highest point on the Camino Frances and the place where we would leave behind our little painted rock. I had been thinking of this day for months and the closer we got the more emotional I felt. We wanted to arrive at the cross in the morning, so we stayed overnight in an albergue in Foncebadon just a couple of kilometers from the top. Friends who had been there a few days before reported snow and wind, but we were due to arrive on a beautiful, sunny day.
Our albergue at Foncebadón. Best breakfast and coffee we had the entire trip.
Inside the albergue in Foncebadón. Clothing optional :) Notice the one inch step to the bathroom on the left?
At our albergue in Foncebadon, we were sitting inside at a communal table when a young man sat down at the end of the bench. He didn't look so good, so we asked if he was alright. "Not really", he replied. He had just begun his walk in Leon and had not anticipated the difficulty he would experience. His feet were blistered and his pack was much too heavy. So heavy, in fact, he was wearing multiple layers of clothing in an effort to lighten his load. We sprung into action, giving him a painkiller and foot care items we solicited from our fellow pilgrims on his behalf. I carried his pack upstairs and secured him a lower bunk while Steven explained how to use a pack forwarding service. He asked if we would walk with him the next day and of course we said yes.
Over a paella dinner (!!!) we learned that our foot patient was a newly minted doctor on his way back to the states following a stint at a hospital in Nigeria. He had with him all his dress clothes and medical books. I wondered if this was hubris on his part, did he think the Camino was a walk in the park? No, he said he was just trying to save money by not storing or shipping his stuff. Student loans and all that, I guess, but he sure paid for it in other ways. Also in Foncebadon we met a trio of Aussie ladies, Judy, Heather and Jody, who would quickly become part of our Camino family. In the days ahead we would gather at the end of a grueling trek to enjoy a drink or three and have a few laughs.
What fun we had with Heather and Judy. Jody was probably still out walking, she was a beast and put us all to shame!
We left Foncebadon early and when we arrived at the cross there were a few pilgrims there, so we waited. When it was our turn I took our little rock to the top, gave it a little squeeze and let it go. I cried a little, but managed to avoid a full-on ugly cry. Letting go of this little rock was a significant moment in our journey, I had planned for it since last December when our kids, and later my parents, passed their burdens to the little rock then signed their names to it. I had felt compelled to deliver it to its place below the iron cross not knowing if we would even make it this far on the Camino, if we might by now have been sidelined with injuries or illness. I took a moment to reflect on how far we'd come and I have to say, I was pretty proud of us.
On the way to Cruze de Ferro.
Our beloved rock finds a new home.
A monumental moment on the Camino.
Proud rock parents.
We moved on to let others have their moment at the cross. As always, the downhill portion was the toughest part of the day. The path we walked was of the rough rocky variety, but it was lined with the most beautiful wildflowers. Bees were buzzing everywhere, but they didn't bother us. We could see far into the valley below and it was just breathtaking. We stopped for coffee and said goodbye to our doctor patient who felt healed enough to carry on.
Dr. Michael, recovering nicely!
Usually Steven was behind taking photos of me, but I got a few of him!
Taxi services are not subtle along the Camino! Jorge, Luis and Felix had a thriving business.
We caught up with Dr. Michael long enough to get a selfie.
By now we had been walking for over a month. We had no injuries or serious foot problems. That we had come this far with no blisters seemed like a minor miracle. That doesn't mean our feet didn't hurt, they did. We were still walking through a few larger towns and the pavement was torture. Still, we had not lost our enthusiasm for getting up and out each day. Well, I did lose a bit of enthusiasm climbing the third highest portion of our trek. Like the Meseta, pilgrims seek other methods of transportation up the steep path to O Cebreiro, a nearly 2,400 foot climb, and that means horses. After a comparatively gentle start, the path soon became a never-ending climb of rocky switchbacks, sections of which go through dense forests that are barely touched by the sunlight. The rainwater seems to never dry and the fly-covered horse poop hardly breaks down. It was hard to breathe (heavily) while keeping my mouth closed so I didn't swallow a fly. Frankly, it was gross and I was glad to get it over with.
Rough terrain on the climb up to O Cebreiro.
Shortly before arriving in O Cebreiro we left the region of Castilla y Leon and entered Galicia, the last region on the Camino. Galicia reaches from the mountains all the way to the ocean. To pilgrims, Galicia is famous for fast-changing weather and delicious food. I had been dreaming of the hearty soups and meat dishes and our meals in O Cebreiro did not disappointed. We spent the night on the mountain in a beautiful private albergue and we had some delicious food that wasn't paella. A favorite Galician dish was a local soft cheese and quince jelly. So yummy! I was on the lookout for a couple of other pilgrim favorites from this region, roasted Padron peppers and pulpo, which is boiled octopus. The peppers were awesome, the pulpo, not so much. We didn't give up on the pulpo, though. We tried it three or four times and finally had some we really enjoyed.
Galicia, finally! Where’s the food?
Judy on the way to O Cebreiro.
We rarely saw horses, but they left evidence in abundance.
Spectacular views on the way to O Cebreiro.
O Cebreiro, a little stone village with Gaelic roots. And good food!
I thought I might cry when my meaty lunch was delivered. I savored every bite!
Local cheese and quince jelly was amazing. What even is quince, anyway?
We navigated through a tick fog on the way down from O Cebreiro.
Hang on to your hat, Chouter! (Spoiler alert! Steven did not make it home with his hat.)
On Day 36 of our Camino we arrived in Sarria where we decided to take our last rest day. We were just over 100 kilometers from Santiago, making this town the starting place of choice for pilgrims looking to earn a Compostela. It's perfect for people with limited time, who can't take five or six weeks from work to walk. It is not a cheap endeavor to live in albergues and hotels and eat out every meal for weeks on end, so when funds are limited, Sarria is the perfect starting point. We saw a lot of students and church youth groups on this section, Dads with sons, Mothers and daughters and more than a few young college grads on an adventure before settling down to new jobs. Whatever the circumstances, let’s face it, not everyone wants to walk 500 miles.
The view from our hotel room in Sarria.
But is the Compostela the only reason to walk the Camino? I'm not sure I realized this when we started our Camino in St. Jean, but the anticipation of arriving in Santiago and receiving a Compostela is a very powerful motivator. It gives purpose to each day's walk. That said, having walked the entire route I can say without hesitation that, for me, Sarria to Santiago was the least appealing section of the entire Camino Frances route. This isn't only to do with the increased crowds or difficulty in finding a place to stay without booking ahead. It really has more to do with how the Camino itself changes. The quaint stone villages give way to ugly concrete buildings in towns that are bigger, busier, and more modern. Everything is more commercial, attitudes change. The experience somehow seems a little less magical. Or maybe we were just ready to be done, that's certainly a possibility. I would say if the Compostela is not your jam, but you want to walk a portion of the Camino, I recommend St. Jean Pied du Port to Burgos. Now that's magical!
In keeping with our usual pace, we took six days to reach Santiago from Sarria. In anticipation of increased crowds, we had booked private rooms for the remaining days of our journey. After we reached the town before Santiago and checked into our room, I cried on and off all afternoon and well into the night. Tears just spilled from my eyes and I could not stop weeping. I was just so emotional thinking that our Camino was coming to an end, that we'd actually made it. I never, ever doubted our dedication to completing this journey, I just wasn't sure we'd be able to. I just couldn't believe we had only one more day to walk. I couldn't wait for it to be over, but I was also very emotional that it was ending.
All the groups passed me, I was very pokey. One of my favorite signs, “Jesus didn’t start in Sarria, but your Mom did.” Lol, but not THIS Mom!
Groups of all kinds travel on the Camino Frances.
This is not typical, just a youth group passing by. Sharing the Way is part of the experience that we embraced. Except the horses, we could have done without the horses.
Leaving early in the morning afforded us alone time.
Walking into the outskirts of Santiago, we were giddy with anticipation. We could see the cathedral in the distance and with each step we drew closer. We walked with more urgency, head down, one foot in front of the other. Pilgrims seem to flow in from every direction, all headed to the same place. Each time we turned a corner, we could feel the excitement growing. We followed a group of pilgrims up a steep road, waiting for the cathedral to reveal itself in grand fashion as we rounded the corner. Wait, what? This isn't it! This is a museum! We were lost. We had followed a group of pilgrims instead of the yellow arrows and we had gotten lost. Rookie mistake.
Our last morning. Heading out to Santiago!
Walking through the cool forest before reaching the city.
Pilgrims, pilgrims everywhere! Head down, one foot in front of the other. This is the mantra that propelled me across Spain.
Hill of Joy Monument at Monte do Gozo, just 4 km from Santiago.
Statue of the Pilgrims overlooking Santiago at Monte do Gozo.
You would think that if they can signpost yellow arrows all along the 500 miles of the Camino they could put a few around Santiago, right? Nah. I didn't know it until afterwards, but getting lost and the lack of yellow arrows are a common complaint on the Camino forums. In any case we made our way to the Cathedral and stood there. A woman from Brazil came up and asked to take our picture. Tour guides on the big buses tell their charges that pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles to arrive at the Cathedral, so she wanted our photo. It was surreal. We were both kind of dazed and numb. I had anticipated some serious ugly crying, but no tears came.
Just steps away from the Cathedral in Santiago!
We made it!!
The cathedral was magnificent but we decided to wait, we were just too weary to take it all in. Anticipating a long line, we instead headed to the pilgrim's office to get our Compostela. It was here, standing before the volunteer looking over my credentials that I began to cry. I could barely squeak out my answer to his questions, I was so overcome with emotion. In that moment I realized just how far we had come, how hard we had worked and how dedicated we had been to completing our Camino. I was immensely proud. Getting lost may have taken the wind out of our sails as we arrived in Santiago, but the experience of receiving my Compostela made up for it in spades.
Steven lining up for his Compostela with a grin of achievement.
My Compostela is in Latin, as is my name!
We spent three days in Santiago recovering and reconnecting with friends. All of our roommates that first night in Orisson had made it to Santiago, as did our wonderful Aussie trio, whom we so enjoyed spending time with. We missed Mike and Keri by a couple of days as they returned home to Seattle while Cathy from Colorado flew off to meet Camino friends in Dublin. Lynda, the dynamo from Australia was still in Santiago, and it was wonderful to meet up and share our experiences with someone who was there with us at the very beginning. I'm happy to report that in the days after we parted, our doctor/patient made it safely to Santiago and got his Compostela before returning to the states to begin his new medical career. He very sweetly gave us some credit for his success, which made me a little verklempt. Another friend, Nina, whom we met after our stay in Leon texted me when she arrived in Santiago. I raced to the square and found her standing there crying. So I cried, too.
With Lynda from Australia.
With our other Aussie peeps, Judy, Jody and Heather.
Celebrating with Nina!
It is common for pilgrims returning to their regular daily lives to feel a bit of post-Camino depression. Steven and I figured that since we would essentially be heading from one big adventure to another, we'd be immune to those feelings. But nah. It doesn't matter what you plan to do next, it's what you've just done that will stay with you forever.
A Statistical Post Script
We arrived in Santiago on June 2 after 43 days. In the month of June, a total of 49,066 pilgrims were issued a Compostela. Of those, 28,028 walked the Camino Frances. Nearly 13,000 pilgrims started their journey in Sarria, while just over 6,000 started in St. Jean Pied du Port, as we did. The remainder joined at various points along the Way. Of the total number of pilgrims completing the journey in the month of June Spaniards made up the largest group. Over 31,000 were foreigners, with Americans making up 13 percent, or 4,240. And finally, 44,744 (91.19%) pilgrims arrived in Santiago on foot, 4,104 (8.36%) by bicycle, 169 (0.34%) on horseback, 19 (0.04%) by sailing boat and 30 (0.06%) in wheelchair. I don't know anything about the sailing portion of the Camino, but it sounds interesting!
And finally, my Fitbit numbers. Holy cow!
As usual we had a hard time choosing a limited number of photos, so here are a few more of our favorites....
It was always a thrill to see storks on top of church bell towers.
Overlooking the historic town of Astorga.
Episcopal Palace in Astorga, designed by Antoni Gaudi.
Cathedral de Santa Maria de Astorga. One of the most Beautiful cathedrals we saw on the Camino.
Along the Camino, we saw bottles of water by many doorsteps. At first we thought they were left out for thirsty pilgrims but the most common explanation we’ve seen is they are there to discourage dogs and cats from relieving themselves. Apparently, the reflection of the water keeps them away.
My favorite type of path, in the mountains with a beautiful view below.
Road walking, my least favorite path.
Another typical quaint street scene.
Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada. They have upgraded their transportation, apparently.
All this road walking was a killer on my poor feet!
Delicious beer. We couldn’t decide what to eat, so the bartender brought us free food. I guess we looked hungry.
When we started in April, all the grapevines were bare. Look at them now!
There were many tributes to pilgrims along the Way, this one is in Villafranca.
We’ve come so far and have a long way to go.
Cyclists did not have it any easier than we did, they just made better time on the flat bits.
Padron peppers and boiled octopus! One in 10 peppers is said to be hot, but I never found one, thankfully
Just what we like to see at after walking 15 miles!
Beautiful Portomarín, built on a big hill.
You will always find pilgrims in the square in Santiago. Some relaxing and laughing, others crying.
The stunning Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral de San Francisco.
Celebrating with our favorite Aussie trio!
The relics of St. James the Greater, the patron saint of pilgrims.
THE END!!! :)
NEXT UP: Escaping the monster heatwave!