Saturday, August 15, 2020


 I made it to virtual Astorga today, by bicycle. Back in 2008,  I remember watching the line of pilgrims advancing through featureless country next to the highway on which I was travelling by bus.  I had two thoughts at the time;  one that the only two constants in the landscape through the centuries were sheep and pilgrims, and the other, that although I admired the grit of those people trudging by the roadside, I had no wish to share their struggle.  In retrospect, I feel that I should have done it anyway.  By this time, there was no physical reason not to.

I arrived in Astorga around lunchtime, but didn't linger. I visted the market.  I admired Gaudi's Bishop's palace from the outside.  I went into the Cathedral as a matter of course and was unexpectedly enchanted by a tremendous baroque altarpiece.  There was a service going on so I couldn't get up close, but was still very glad that I'd stopped.  

But I had to get on.  Rumour had it that Astorga was Bedbug Central so I needed to get out of town to an albergue that I could get to in the half day available to me.  

It was a miraculous day, a proper new beginning to my camino.  The moment I left town, the scenery stopped being bleak, as we were now on the edge of the mountains of Leon.  The hills were dark and dramatic,  the skies were wide open, and windswept, and the ground beneath my feet a bright orange.  This new dynamism was expressed by a group of choughs, wheeling and calling to each other in play. I had never seen these birds before.   

I was, in a word, enchanted.

That feeling stayed with me all day until I reached Santa Catalina de Somoza, which had a fairytale quality that spoke to me.  It said,  "Stay Here!  You love it!"  So I did.

I stayed in love and enchanted all the way to Santiago.  Every step of the Way.

  Twelve years later, since I can't safely travel to Spain,  I have made up the lost kilometres within my own neighbourhood, and can now grant myself absolution for all those missed kilometres.  Should I do the same for the bits I missed in subsequent journeys?  Not at all.    No guilt has attached itself to those decisions as it did the first time round.

If I learned anything on the Camino Frances, it was that your Camino is yours.  You do what you can, or what you will.  No one should judge you, least of all yourself.  The lessons learned sometimes come from what you choose to do, or not to do, and the why of that. 

Buen Camino, peregrino!

Saturday, August 1, 2020


 "Bicigrina?  What's that?", I hear you say.

A bicigrina is a female pilgrim on a bike.  As of now, that's me, virtually.  It's a hot summer, and I can't handle walking in the heat. I have a lot of kilometres to make up and it seemed like getting on the bike, an approved method for the Compostela, was a better bet if I actually want to complete my makeup camino. 

I would like to say this right up front.  I don't even like bikes.  My expansive rear end requires a tractor seat.  Even with a thick gel pad over the standard seat on my now ancient mountain bike (sic), my seat bones hurt.   My hands go numb fairly rapidly, and I'm in danger of cutting off the circulation to my groin. 

 And then there are the gear changes.  I'm crap at changing gears.  I have small hands, so it's awkward at any time, and I keep forgetting which way is up so I sometimes find myself near the crest of a very tiring hill suddenly without any gears at all, necessitating a clumsy dismount at best.  This foible of mine is what keeps me from taking up scuba diving, or driving a stickshift or a motorcycle, or skydiving.  I just don't play well with technology.


It is mighty handy to do in an hour and a half what would take a full day on foot.  I am eating up the virtual kilometres; and after this morning's 14.29 km ride I finally made it to Virtual Leon.  At the time, I was sorry to have missed Mansilla de las Mulas because I was taken by the romance of graceful squares and medieval walls mentioned in my guidebook: I had planned to stop there overnight, but when I saw the big box stores on the outskirts of the town, I changed my mind.  I had never planned to walk the stretch from Mansilla to Leon anyway, since I'd heard it was both suburban (and thus pavement, which I don't enjoy walking on) and dangerous, as the route lies alongside a major road.  Back in real life, since I as already in a taxi, I decided to go straight to Leon.  

And here I am.  Sore butt, tired legs, sweaty, but feeling accomplished.  I didn't have to get off the bike once today, despite big hills (sic) on my route.  I'm getting stronger every day.  Did I tell you about my plan to ride from one end of the Hebrides to the other on my bike?  You know what they say: even the longest journey starts with a single step!  Ultreia!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


Temperature, deerflies, injury

Because of these three things, I have not been walking in the real world; thus, my virtual camino has come to a virtual standstill.  Since making it to Burgos, I've walked only 18.4 km.  In another two, I'll make it to Calzaldilla de los Hermanillos, in the middle of nowhere.  As I walk along the side of a road that dates back to Roman times, I'm grateful for the meagre shade of newly planted trees, certainly there to attract, and protect, pilgrims along this alternate route of the Camino.  It beats the other route, which lies along a more modern, and busier road.

There's not much to this little hamlet, except for the huge church, and a few streets of terraced houses.  Although I haven't been here in real life, it seems that apart from the minor pilgrim industry, grain is king around here. 

Around where I live, the grain fields are ripe and ready for cutting now.  In the real world, I stick to walking on the verge of the road, because the bush, though much more enticing, is full of horrible deerflies, which not only stealthily take chunks of you, but also seem to inject you with horrible itchy poison, which on me makes welts the size of silver dollars which last for weeks. 

And then there's the leg.  Just as my knee was finally getting back to normal, I started to feel tightness in the top end of my quads, and in hauling myself out of my brother's swimming pool the other week, I pulled the one on my so-called good leg.  What a drag it is getting old. 

But I've been good.  I have tried to stay active and stretch, to be careful about placing my feet and strict about maintaining proper form on stairs.  My feeling is that if I use my legs with the expectation that they will work properly, I'll keep them working properly longer than if I let them off easy.  We'll see.  Of course, all of this overthinking and underexercising is geared towards getting me back on a real Camino, either after it seems safe to do so, or when we are faced with the choice of going nowhere forever or taking a risk to see new things.    Will I heal? Will there be a vaccine?  Has the world changed forever? Time will tell about all of it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


Finally, I’m in Burgos; virtually, that is.

I’m forced to admit that walking any distance is a lot more difficult than it was 12 years ago.  I am more conscious of my inadequate lungs, and my damaged knee joints. But still, it is a joy to walk.  Today as I travelled through rich woods just coming into summer,  I saw stands of trilliums,  wild blue phlox, and a mink not more than three feet away from me as I idled on a rock near the lake.  What a privilege it is to have that on my doorstep.

 As I trundled along, I reflected on what a privilege it has been to walk four different Caminos; to have people who don’t know me at all open their homes and sometimes their hearts to me.  It’s almost never about the money.  Some do it as a symbol of faith, even though many of us who walk aren’t even nominally Christian.  Others do it for the sheer joy of hospitality.  They go out of their way to help.

In Portugal on our first full day of walking, when we realized that 19km in we had taken a wrong turn in a big stand of bamboo, and still had 6km of tough road walking to go to get to our destination, one of us just lost it.  She couldn’t take another step.  We came to a hamlet, very down at heel, and looked about for a phone box or a bus stop or a loitering taxi,with no success. It was, as I’ve heard it said before, as dead as four o’clock, though it was more like five. 

There was no-one around to even ask about how to get ourselves out of there until a dusty Mercedes rolled in and stopped abruptly in front of a ramshackle house. Barking erupted as several dogs on the upstairs balcony greeted their master’s return.    Master was large and rumpled and clearly tired.  It looked like it had been a long day for him too.  When I enquired about public transit, he told me that no, there was nothing like that.  He hesitated for a second, told the dogs to shut up, and told us to get in the car.

He drove like the wind, windows down and dark hair flying.  His tattooed knuckles on the gear shift crunching up and down as we slowed (a little) for the corners. We talked in Portuguese (sort of) all the way to Azinhaga.  He stopped once to ask a couple of kids the way to the hostel and we were off again.  We screeched to a stop in front of the hostel where we had a reservation, he whipped round to the trunk, unloaded our stuff,  and was off again with a big smile, back to the delirious dogs, and probably a nice cold beer.  We called him our Camino Angel; the first of many we would meet.

Our hospitalera, Helena, whose joy it is to make pilgrims feel at home, made us feel as if our arrival was a long-awaited homecoming of a dearly loved one.  Freshly picked figs and grapes and a drink awaited us, followed by a wonderful home-cooked dinner with our fellow travellers in the local tradition with wine and conversation.  Helena shared our meal and watched us tuck in with a glow on her face which told us how she treasured the chance to make us part of her life for a night. Another angel, and this one has become part of my life.  We speak often on social media, and I get to see her put love into action every day.  Knowing her is a privilege.

But getting back to Burgos, it was also a privilege to indulge in a lingering visit to the cathedral. What a confection of artistic virtuosity!  I was awestruck by everything, but looking up at the lacy structure of the domed vaults gave me a hint of the sublime.  Inolvidable!  Unforgettable beauty.

I’m privileged to hold that in memory.

Having finally it made it here to virtual Burgos (38.5 km)  by increments, I’m horrified to see that the next section I missed is 57 km!  I took a taxi from Sahagun to Leon.  It was not my intention to go that far by car, but the walking choices were invidious to my mind at the time; either on the road, or away from the road and any amenities or water for 20 km, followed by another 22km of the same.  I wanted to see Mansilla de las Mulas with its ancient medieval walls and had planned to be dropped off there.  But as we approached it looked like the back of Napanee, all big box stores, and it was only a few euros more to Leon.  I’d heard that the slog into Leon along the busy N601 was not only unpleasant but actually dangerous, with pilgrims being killed there regularly.  It didn’t take much convincing to just keep going.  I don’t actually regret going the last 18 and a half km by taxi, but I wish I hadn’t skipped the section between Sahagun and Mansilla. 

Unlike many people, I enjoyed walking on the meseta, the flat tablelands of central Spain.  Sun, wind, and birdsong are your constant companions, and flat open paths make for easy walking.  Never mind that when it rains, it becomes a sea of heavy cakey mud that has you impinging as much as you dare on the edge of the path to get out of the wallow made by thousands of marching feet.

People who walk the Camino de Santiago find that the meseta is where you find yourself, or where you lose it entirely.  Mile after mile of sameness gets to you.  I liked it in 2008.  But on another journey, along the first stretches of the Via de la Plata in 2014, I began to understand why people had a hard time in the vast open land.  With no points of reference it feels like you will never arrive at any destination.  I absolutely hated it and I had to stop walking. 

Sometimes, when I am walking for health rather than for pleasure, I get that sinking feeling again.  That’s why a walk in the bush is always preferable to walking on a street or a designated trail.

Like I said at the outset.  It’s a privilege, and I am grateful.

On to Leon!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


I've made it through the long stretch through pinewoods that my guidebook mentions; it took a few walks to go a mere fourteen kilometres, a distance I used to do in a long afternoon.  My injury is slowly improving.   I'm using anti-inflammatories, so these walks have been enjoyable, rather than penetential.  The bush is alive with returning birds and burgeoning wildflowers.

As I tiptoed through the trilliums the other day, I found myself thinking it was like walking through a field of stars; it made me smile, since one of the stories about the origin of the word Compostela says that it comes from campo de stellae--field of stars.  The other story is a little more grisly and suggests that it comes from composita tella, which in vulgar Latin meant burying place.  Field of  Stars, Field of Bones...take your pick.  It was a long time ago.

So, anyway, while I missed out on beautiful views, blooming heather, and a medieval monastery, I have instead my very own field of stars, not to mention a swamp full of warblers and swathes of marsh marigolds;  a baby porcupine trundling across the path; a beautiful doe who stood to let me take her photo; and the scimitar-winged silhouette of an osprey; more wildlife in an afternoon than one might see in a month of Camino walking.

  I've been very lucky  to see wildlife on my walks in Spain; I've seen an otter, a fox, a rabbit, a slowworm ( a kind of legless lizard that we don't have here)  and multitudes of lovely birds, but such sightings were remarkable.  I can remember these animal encounters
 precisely because they were unusual. 

 Here just outside my door, I don't exactly take the wildlife for granted, (and I might be unpleasantly surprised if I spotted a bear), but nature is more bountiful.  I don't know when I might be able to travel to Spain again;the lockdown may continue until a vaccine is found; the communal living of the Camino will take some time to revive; who knows what a transatlantic flight will cost in the age of social distancing?  So, there may not be a monastery in my future, but I will have the temple in 'my' woods for a while yet, and it is there I will go to soothe my spirit and refresh my body.

Amen to that!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


It took me three days to walk the next 36 kilometres, my respiratory system bucking metaphorical headwinds all the way.  I had some great experiences though.  I briefly thought about staying in the open air belltower in Granon.  It has to be the most romantic albergue ever, but I was already coming over all Camille-like, and thought I might actually expire if I stayed on the cold floor with the wind howling through. 

In Redicilla del Camino, I spent the evening with an older Belgian woman who was pulling a travois, with her camping gear, as she was planning to camp out in Galicia once she had finished her walk.  I bought a shrivelled onion and the last egg in a tiny hut lit by a single unsheathed bulb, which is what passed for a grocery store in that little hamlet.  We shared those two items augmented with some rice we had found in the cupboard of the hostel.  Later our bounty was increased by a handsome young Barcelonan who insisted that we try pan con tomate, which being a Catalan specialty was obviously best.  We did not argue, just greedily scarfed it down. 

Things got really festive when the bar downstairs, the only hang-out for miles, it seemed, started hopping.  We ventured down but were driven back by thick smoke.  The place was not on fire, but the mouth of every person inside was festooned with a foul-smelling cigarette.  So we lay on our bunks instead and felt the thud of the music through the floor, and listened to the rhubarb rhubarb of animated, alcohol -fueled singing and conversation that continued until 3 am, at least.  That's when I finally conked out; replete with good companionship and the effects of four kinds of medication.

In Belorado, the following evening,  I was reunited with Harold and his Spanish friend, and shared a convivial dinner with them and some French singers from Avignon.  They sang medieval chansons in return for our bilingual version of O Canada.  We would start a sentence in English, switch to Spanish and finish in French.  I was back  on a roll again, or so I thought.

The next day, I set out jauntily for Villafranca Montes de Oca.  I had wanted to stay a little further on at San Juan de Ortega, where the albergue was in a monastery where the dinner was a communal garlic soup presided over a priest famous for his hospitality and kindness.  In Belorado, the night before, I'd heard that the monastery was closed because the priest  had died the winter before.  Villafranca was 12 km from Belorado, and I was pretty sure I could make it that far, but it was a further 18 km to the next albergue at Atapuerca, and I was pretty sure that was too far for me in my current state.  So I did what every good pilgrim does, I kept walking, and waited for things to unfold as they would.

As it turned out, the headwinds that day were very real.  I could barely catch my breath as I leaned into the wind.  I walked about seven kilometres to Espinosa del Camino where I stopped for a coffee and a think.  I discovered that there was a bus stop on the main road.  The forecast was for nasty weather.  I knew that the landscape on the top of the mountain to come was wide open, and it scared me.  I still wasn't sure what I'd do, until the bus came.  I skipped all that beautiful blooming heathland and the ancient remains at Atapuerca and went all the way to Burgos.

That gives me 33.5 km to make up.

I haven't been walking much.  Both Nick and I have had a few rudderless days.  Social isolation doesn't look all that different from our regular life, but the element of choice has been removed.  So we've been rebelling a bit, eating junk food, and refusing to walk. But yesterday was too nice to waste.  We took a lovely walk through bush and  rough country, which settlers had once tried  (and failed) to twist into farmland.  When it comes to terraforming places like this, beavers do a better job than humans..  We enjoyed the gurgle of  a waterfall down the steep hill we climbed, watched herons scrabbling over prime real-estate in the tops of dead spruce trees above a beaver swamp, and spotted birds and butterflies. 

  So far, I've made up 6.0 km   Only 27 and a half to go. I must try  not to let this self-appointed virtual pilgrimage feel like penance, more like Remembrance of Things Past.  If I really wanted to do penance, I'd set that as a task.

Sunday, April 19, 2020


It has taken me quite a while to arrive in Virtual Santo Domingo.  The weather has been Arctic, so I’ve been getting my exercise by riding the stationary bicycle while watching Spanish comedy programs.  It’s not quite the same as walking the Camino.  In fact, it’s not the same at all so I didn’t count it.  Once I finally got back to walking, my virtual journey consisted of a walk to the mailbox and a scramble through the spring woods in the rain.  Nothing at all like walking by a highway under the strong Iberian sun.

Santo Domingo sounds like a nice place, but I saw hardly any of it.  I was much too sick to walk around. I’d like to visit Real Santo Domingo again, healthy.  I arrived in a taxi which I shared with a stringy French pilgrim.  He insisted that we stop the taxi just short of town; I imagine that was so that no-one would realize he hadn’t walked the whole stage.  I don’t know why I didn’t insist on being driven the whole way; likely, I didn’t want to make it difficult for the cabbie to figure out the fare.
I didn’t get much of a welcome at the Casa de la Cofradia del Santo, though I did get directions to the local clinic, where I waited for hours while those with appointments were served; a rather nasty doctor insisted that ‘en Espana, habla Espanol’, though I’m quite certain he spoke English.  With recourse to my Spanish/English dictionary, I haltingly outlined my symptoms in all their gory glory, and received four ,count’em, four prescriptions.  A little astonished by this aggressive treatment plan,  I immediately went to an internet café to check for interactions amongst them before heading to the farmacia. 

The doctor also prescribed rest, but the brotherhood at the albergue were having none of it.  I could stay one night only.  The monk at the desk gave me the card of a woman who rented rooms at the edge of town, but by then I just wanted to sleep, eat, and leave this inhospitable place.  Once the drugs kicked in, I slept alright.  But twelve years on, I’m still holding a tiny grudge about the way those two men treated me.  I should learn to get over it.

I have three strong memories of Santo Domingo. The first is being horrified by the state of one Japanese pilgrim’s feet, torn by the leather strap of her highly unsuitable Doctor Scholl’s wooden-soled sandals.  We met again a few days shy of Santiago, and she was now walking in flipflops!   A testimony to her perseverance if nothing else.

The second is seeing the silhouette of a dog through the closed glass door which led to the private quarters of the keepers of the Cofradia.  It was the German Shepherd belonging to a Spanish pilgrim, who I had met earlier that day,  now cuddled and cossetted in special accommodation.  I remember thinking that I was being treated worse than a dog. 

The third memory is auditory.  Santo Domingo de Calzada is the site of a medieval Camino miracle,involving two roasted chickens who were resurrected as a sign that a wrongly accused, hanged pilgrim had also miraculously come back to life.  You can read more about it herehere.  Down to this day, a cock and hen are kept in the choir stall in the church.  But when I was there, they weren’t because there was construction going on in the building.  I felt a bit cheated. 
But later on in the afternoon, as I was lying in a bit of a fever dream, I heard the cock crow;  a sign of good luck.  I rolled over and went back to sleep, a little mollified and heartened by this sign.  Still sick though.

My real walks of late have been more difficult than I would like.  But like that Japanese pilgrim.  I will persevere.  It has to get better.