Stage 33, Oct 8, Hospital Alta da Cruz to Melide, 27.1km, total time 7:05 hrs

The belt is coming short of holes to tie up my pants. With the Swiss Army knife I managed to drill a few more, in the attempt to maintain a dignified posture holding my pants up. I am not sure of how many kg I’ve lost, but from the baggy appearance of my pants, I guess I’ve shrunk by two sizes at least. In relative terms I probably eat one half of my normal  intake, and I do 10 times more exercise. If my metabolism has not radically changed since I started, I run the risk of exploding by the time I resume my ordinary and sedentary lifestyle.

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There are situations around certain people or places, that you can immediately relate to aN extraordinary radiating energy. Often words fall short in being able to describe what is the special atmosphere surrounding such people or places, but you can sense the superior spirituality which springs out of some open spaces amidst secular oaks, or certain monoliths covered with mildew stains as they were placed there much before the dawn of mankind by some foreign presence.

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Likewise it happens with certain people who, if I were a stronger believer than I actually am, would probably be incarnations of angels. They look at you directly into the eyes, and you immediately are connected to them forever.

I met Father Xavier casually through common acquaintances and we exchanged just a few words. After I started my inner work on the 7DS, I was in the need to compare my notes with a shepherd of lost souls, and so Xavier seemed the best opportunity for electing him as my sponsor for the dissecting project of my own human nature.

When I met him the second time at a crossroad, he was consuming a frugal meal of fruits. He looked at me with half banana still in his hand, while in less than a minute I vomited upon him all findings so far and my anguish and anxiety to receive a feedback on my research on the forces motivating the sinful behavior in the human nature.

“Xavier, I said, I am confused since I draw a lot more joy and happiness from sinning than I have from practicing a life of virtue. All these “good” behaviors, seem to be unnatural and paved with enormous probation and sacrifice. How can this generate joy?”

“Roberto, he answered, what you are describing is an attempt to attain sainthood. There are much smaller steps to be taken.” He then suggested to reflect on my experience to realize that the joy and happiness resulting from indulging in a sinful behaviour is of materialistic nature and often of short duration. On the contrary, the practice of the virtue, is of higher intensity and longlasting. “For instance, he added, your sharing with me your doubts is an act of Humility which is indeed helping me in facing the doubts of my own”.

Later he made me reflect on how the concept of sacrifice is often associated just to a forced abstinence.  Unless you can attain “sobriety” from a particular DS and therefore freedom of choice, your mind will always pull you down to the fake pleasure of sin. He used expressions often associated to the psychological dependency from substances. “Yes, he concluded, sinning is like taking drugs. You know they will kill you, at least spiritually, but you often cannot break free on your own will. What you need is a spiritual program that can guide you out. May this Camino be the spiritual program that will help you to break free from your own patterns”.

These comments are now shaping up my program. It is somewhat clearer now. I took a simple quiz on the Internet which highlighted which of the 7DS is representing my typical sinning pattern. I have to do some serious work: I have 1 DS as very high, two as high, two as medium and two as low or negligible. Will I be able to make it now that Santiago Is only 51 km away?

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Stage 32, Oct 7, Barbadelo to Hospital Alta da Cruz, 29.4km, total time 7:45hrs.

In broad terms, if the Meseta region after Burgos can be paralleled to Hell, then Galicia is undoubtedly Paradise. This is not only in reference to the superb green and hilly landscape compared to the desertic dry wheatfields of the Mesetas, but also with reference to the attention and respect for the pilgrims and their needs.

For one is the milestone system provided by the land administration that marks with no fail every 500m on the trail. With a sudden relief, I realized I could actually switch off my own GPS tracker and  use the public system to measure my progress, and cut off the endless discussion of which system is most accurate. After all, who cares of precision in a life that is timed by the position of the sun in the sky and the thickness of the dust layer on your shoes?

Today I feel in peace with God and myself. I am fit and strong and despite some late showers last night, the day is clear and sunny.

Last night was one of those nights, in which I felt very uncomfortable in   joining the communal table for dinner, because of the noise and the superficial small talk. I was ready to eat in a corner a leftover of stale bread with some chocolate squares, if it were not for Marivel, a girl from Panama but living in Madrid, also annoyed by the confusion in the main dining room, who was able to negotiate with the restaurant to let us use a small table in the kitchen. With a simple and nice gesture she then invited me and another couple to join her for dinner. Maybe this helped to set my mood for today’s walk.

I took so many pictures today but I will be able only to post a few to document the various shapes of the Camino trail in this magic countryside.

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Need to say though that as small villages are very charming with their stone houses and comfortable front yards, the major cities in Galicia are often ugly and totally lacking personality.  So are so far Sarria, Portmarin and Melide.

The frequency of crosses and milestones decorated with pilgrim’s offerings is rapidly increasing, and the abundance of stone as building material is seen at almost every corner with small tabernacle or remnants of medieval inscriptions.

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Tomorrow I will elaborate further on the key encounter of today, Father Xavier, a French ordained priest who studied philosophy and theology in Rome and spent two years in L’Aquila after the earthquake to help rebuilding the ruined churches and also the devotion of the local people in trusting again God’s ways.

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Without doubts he has been the most influential person encountered so far, and being a modern priest admitting his doubts, he draws a lot of respect.

Unfortunately he opted to stop in Portomarin for the night, while I kept on going until Hospital Alta da Cruz. Later through email he informed me about his intentions to quit the Camino for personal motives. For sure I will keep in contact with him and possibly I shall organize a trip to visit him in his community near Le Puy in central France.

Santiago is now only 71.8km away.

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Stage 31, Oct 6, Triacastela to Barbadelo, 22.5km, total time 5:50hrs

Reverend Augusto Posada Lopez, parish priest of Triacastela. attends to his small flock of devout villagers and a much larger flock of ever-changing pilgrims. He is one of those down to earth priests which know what is in the heart of people and how to address doubts and fears with simple universal words that trascend the barrier of the spoken language.

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During Mass he addressed the audience in manifesting openly the joy of search and discovery, and on the way out he approached me asking why I was not rejoicing: “Father, I said, I am not sure about what to search for”. He hugged me and said: “Hermano, perhaps you have already found what you were looking for but you keep it inside. Let it go out. Recognize Jesus in every fellow pilgrim and listen to what they are saying to you”. Then he gave me few sheets of paper where he drafted some personal notes on the purpose of the Camino, and looked me deeply into my eyes. “Go now and practice Charity”.

On the way out from Triacastela this morning, the words from don Augusto resonated in my mind and once more prompted me to revisit my resolutions concerning the Seven Deadly Sins (7DS). Charity (Caritas) is the virtue to practice to balance Greed (Avaritia). So from a different angle, don Augusto suggested me to start from addressing Greed.

For the records, the 7DS are: Lust (Luxuria), Gluttony (Gula), Greed (Avaritia), Sloth (Acedia), Wrath (Ira), Envy (Invidia), Pride (Superbia). The Seven Virtues to practice in counterbalance the 7DS are
respectively: Chastity (Castitas), Temperance (Temperantia), Charity (Caritas), Diligence (Industria), Patience (Patientia), Kindness (Humanitas), Humility (Humilitas).

Documenting the task is as always much easier than putting the doctrine to practice. As done many times already, I shall leave back a stone when I have worked out a satisfactory self-assessment on each of the 7DS.

The stage today was uneventful and I did not meet anyone worth remembering. The road was mainly crossing wooded areas, between spooky oak trees and loaded chestnut trees waiting another week to openn up and release their sweet fruits.

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Stage 30, Oct 5, O’ Cebreiro to Triacastela, 21.3km, total time 5:45 hrs

The advantage of getting a comfortable accommodation on the top of a mountain, is that you can just cuddle up in the warmth of the bed until sunrise, and then start counting your blessings as the sun   breaks through the morning mist.
I think there is no better natural wonder than watching the start of a new day from atop of a mountain. The bells of the little church added the spiritual dimension to what was already astonishing.

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The descent to Triacastela was very pleasant crossing grazing fields for cattle whose neck bells were echoing in the valley from afar.

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A tall statue of a pilgrim battered by a fierce wind, is posted at the high point of a pass as a sign of respect for the hardships that pilgrims of all times went through to reach the longed destination. Santiago is only 145km away from that point.

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In this very spot, I met Tom, a premier league baseball coach from Palm Springs, California, who retired from the job to assist his cancer stricken mother who recently passed away. Now he seems a bit lost without a bearing and the Camino more than a tribute to his mum, seems a need to gain confidence on himself. Anyway we stuck together for the day, and I even proposed him to share a room at the target destination.

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Another keynote encounter for the day was finally my dreamed-about young and pretty Russian girl, by the name of Maria! However having worked out some of my deadly sins, during the long solitary hours of walk, and in particular Lust, I only entertained her with some polite conversation and I learned that she is assistant curator of the Heritage museum in St.Petersburg for medieval art and history.

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At Triacastela, Tom and I booked a double room in this quaint private Albergue, and I improvised myself as doctor to medicate the terrible plagues on Tom’s feet. The poor guy has been walking in such state if devastation for many kilometres, just because his oldest daughter shall meet him at noon on Oct 10, in the main square in front of Santiago cathedral. To meet this schedule he has to cover at least 30k a day, but I have doubts he can do it. Anyway I did my best as an engineer to cover up his martyred feet.

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Santiago is now only 130km down the road.

Stage 29, Oct 4, Villafranca del Bierzo to O’ Cebreiro, 30.1km, total time 8:15hrs

Most people tell stories about how the spirit of the Camino can make wonders out of the most miserable conditions. I have to witness how I could wake up and start my inner motion engine with a renewed intent and passion. Maybe it was the subconscious motivation to put in as much distance I could between myself and that messy Albergue, but I never felt so good and eager to start the Cebreiro stage, one of the toughest ending with a steep 900 meter hike at the end of the day.

As it happened already many times, the blinking of the fading morning stars, and the motherly kiss of Venus shining low on the eastern sky, made once more the miracle of setting positive expectations for the new day. No regrets leaving Villafranca, even if mentally I made a note to come back and correct the negative personal impression.

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My first hiking friend of day has been Don from New Jersey, a retired dentist doing the Camino with the wife Peggy, trailing and panting  a couple of hundred meters behind him. We went fairly ahead for some while till we reached a treacherous junctions with signage indicating contrasting directions. Don went right as this for him was the least risky option, possibly fearing the nagging from Peggy later in the day. I went off on the left with another two hikers. One was Suzanne from South Afrika, the other was Luigi travelling on foot from Rome. I started questioning him on his motives for a 2500km journey, and he started vomiting all his past life and all the mistakes he has done to motivate the wife to file for divorce and leaving him only with the underpants he was wearing. This was a long and captivating conversation that dragged us for 15 km at least.  I thanked him for sharing his story and experience, finally something deeper to meditate on.

Other climbers were suggesting to stop at the foot of the Cebreiro mountain and to attempt the summit the following morning. I was blessed with a good strength and determination and I am glad I finally made it to the summit on the same day.

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To celebrate myself I conceded finally the luxury of a double bedroom just for me only. It is amazing how good it feels to use a shower for as long as you want and leave all your stuff scattered around the room.

Even if was quite tired, at about 6:30 I took slowly the road climbing to the cross dominating the two valleys on both sides of the divider. I had with me a few other stones I have carried during the ascent from Villafranca to leave behind for other friends.

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As I was sitting down on the grass looking directly at the cross, on my left it was my past, with all what I have been through, on my right was the future for the next few days, with the road descending sweetly into Galicia and towards the end of my experience.

The peace that surrounds this place is incredible. Since there is no WiFi in this remote outpost, I am not sure about when I will be able to upload this update. However I am trusting my regained serenity and my renewed appreciation of my blessings and love to the wind, so that it may reach you anyway.

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In the confort of my 6.5 square meters I checked again and again my gear and quite happily I trashed about 350 grams of unnecessary stuff mostly toiletries for the just-in-case type of occurrences. I am still considering to trash the 350 grams of the sleeping bag. I believe I have still a lot if work to do on myself to let go of the false reassurances of the material objects.

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Stage 28, Oct 3, Molinaseca to Villafranca del Bierzo, 29.8km, total time 8:31hrs

A relatively tranquil stage to get nearer to the mountain range which separes the province of Castilla y Leon with Galicia, the province of Santiago. The target is still to reach Santiago on October 12, and then to continue up to  Land’s End (Finisterre) for additional 3 or 4 days.

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As I crossed the farmlands in the Bierzo region at the feet of the Cordillera, the grapes harvest was in full activity and there are tractors everywhere pulling trolleys filled with all grape varieties.

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Not always I am able to keep a positive mind, and today is one of those days. I do not feel good, and I am a bit depressed and demoralized. I do not want to mingle and feel less and less social, ducking the drinking or dinner invitations.

I am a bit disappointed on my overall physical conditions. The legs are still hurting in the usual places, and some of the original blisters have yet to heal.  New soreness is now affecting the other muscles involved in the steep climb and likewise descent from the Montes de Leon yesterday. The recovery is slow and I am facing tomorrow the other challenging stage with the passing of O’ Cebreiro. I think I am going to stop for the night at a midpoint, and then go over the mountain pass the day after.

I think also to put a stop in checking-in at the cheapest Albergues. It do not understand why in days like this, instead of pampering me a little with some good food, or perhaps a pastry, I insist in this self-inflicting punishment because my body, mind or spirit are not in a top form.

Need to say though, that as I entered the Albergue in Villafranca, the attendant offered me immediately a welcome glass of fresh water, and helped me to carry the backpack to the room. Maybe this little gesture of respect for the pilgrim, or else, convinced me to stay in that messy place.  After the good feeling of the kind gesture faded away, I felt immediately miserable but at the same time happy to endure once more a great deal of discomfort.

Despite of other people I knew before invited me to dinner in the main square restaurant, I opted for communal dinner at the Albergue, which consisted in a vegetable soup, a fried egg with chorizo and watermelon.

Most people, including a newly married Japanese couple, seemed quite happy about it and politely were exchanging questions about the country of provenance and the other usual Camino topics: when did you start, where are you going, how are your feet/legs, and so on. Next time I would end up doing the Camino or similar other walks, I will prepare a set of photocopies, with all my answers, to cut short all these casual and superficial conversations around dinner tables.

As soon as you try more specific questions such as for instance the spiritual motivations, or what people look for in the Camino, then the conversation comes to an immediate stop.

I do need someone though to talk to go much deeper but this frightens people and hence I will not join possibly the communal dinners from now on.

The room I stayed with 10 other people, was truly a refrigerator: 11 degrees indoors. I pulled in two extra blankets over my liner sheet, and nonetheless I shivered all night long. I wore all my clothes to protect me from the cold and I sweared to myself to never do this again.

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Stage 27, Oct 2, Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca, 25.6km, total time 7:34hrs

A day of solitude and spiritual intensity. The mountain track started at 1150m and climbed up to 1570m in a superbe alpine scenery in amidst of low rhododendron bushes, fountains and remembrance crosses.

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At the top of the ascent is the famous Cruz de Fierro, a simple metal cross atop of a tall wooden pole, which has been traditionally used by pilgrims to leave stones with special auspices for themselves and for their loved ones.

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The pile of stones is now several meters high, and in addition to stones, pilgrim leave personal objects with thankful messages of love and peace. I felt trapped in the spiritual intensity of the place which mire than any one reflects on the humility and on the universality of a pilgrimage. I left the stones given to me by my family members and friends and which I carried with me all this time, and I have added a few more.

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I picked up from the pile one for me and will carry it back home as a commitment to continue the inner Camino also when the physical one shall come to an end.

On the long and extenuating descent, I kept thinking at the words of the friar in Rabanal about the searching process of the pilgrim. I thought about my Camino so far. With no intention of sounding grand, I figured out it was similar to the journey of Dante in Hell, Purgatory and Paradise so admirably described in the Divine Comedy. In reality Dante’s journey was through the Seven Deadly Sins and the necessity of men to work out own shortcomings against each if them through prayer and practice of virtue.

I will dedicate the next stages to meditate my shortcomings to each of the Deadly Sins as my personal search.

I am travelling totally alone. After a very brief encounter with Lynette this morning, she volatilized into thin air. I hope she’s good and that she maintains the committment to complete her own Camino all the way and how she wants to do it.

The interactions with the other pilgrims is becoming more and more essential as everyone is folded in the achievement of its own purpose and all respect this need.

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Stage 26, Oct 1, Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, 21.1km, total time 6:04hrs

At Rabanal, the small local community of Dominican friars holds every day at 7pm a short but very mystical function with Gregorian chanting for pilgrims. The short sermon in 4 languages,  identifies the pilgrim as who is undertaking a journey of discovery of the Truth. The symbol of Santiago can be the key to continue the inner journey even when the physical journey has come to an end.

Now, the imminent conclusion of my physical journey, is opening up the question of what will come next. Have I really changed? Will I be in the state of peace to face the challenges of my coming of age, and eventually the sickness and death?

Walking up and starting to walk has been my routine and my life for the past 27 days. Will I be able to go back to the other so different routines of my previous life? Will I be able to discover the Truth on the next 13 days left?

I cannot be distracted by mundane priorities such as comfortable accommodations or gourmet foods. I need to maintain focus and continuing my Camino breaking the distracting links, as I abandoned along the road the boots that were hurting me, so I have to abandon along the way all the relationships that are defocusing me from my purpose.

During the stage I passed through Castillo, an interesting village reconstructed according to the medieval plan.

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The weather continues to be a blessing with deep blue skies and dry hot afternoons.

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At Rabanal, I opted for sleeping in the municipal hostel in a dormitory together with other 40 people or so, to balance out the splurging of the past two or three days. It is incredible how effective is to focus in this quite poor environment amidst if so many other researchers of the Truth.

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One can choose his path and has to do his own Camino. For me I found solace in mixing my footprint with the many others that passed on the trail, and hoping that there will be many others besides mine.

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Stage 25, Sep 30, Villar de Mazarife to Astorga, 31.5km, total time 9:35 hrs

It is correct to think in terms of a standard code of conduct to classify a pilgrimage as such? The stages offer so much variety of overnight accommodations, from communal dormitories to individual rooms in multistarred hotels; there are pilgrims that take along only the stuff they can carry on their shoulders, others that use point to point baggage carrier services; some go for cheapest meal the euro can buy, some go for the best meal the local gourmandise can offer. Without prejudice, there is no right or wrong, and probably it is not correct to think in terms of standards. All boils down to the individual motivations, and the individual awareness of what these motivations are.

In total honesty, after almost 26 days on road, I am beginning to have doubts on what my real motivations are. As I continue to compare with other pilgrims, I can endorse almost all different answers on that subject: but what is mine? If I do not find my real inner motivation, I cannot even modify my behaviour to suit better the purpose. Of course, I do enjoy better hotels and fine dining when available, but is this really what I am after? Is it “correct” that I enjoy such treats sharing the benefits with “strangers” instead of with my own family?

At the beginning when the challenge of an endurance walking marathon was likely at the top of the fan of my  possible motivations, I could not care less where I was sleeping, or what was I eating. With the rapid redimensioning of the physical performance target and instead in the sudden acceptance of the reality condition resulting from the pain in my legs, I found inner relief in contemplating the natural scenery around me and on the monastic rule of living with less. My rate of expenses per km, reached the minimum value at euro 2.04/km, and was determined to get it lower towards euro 1.50/km. Even this mental status was challenged once I started to build ties with fellow walkers who were looking for shared accommodations to attain a higher level of comfort at a budget price. I started to accept the fact that I was still a committed pilgrim, since I was duly walking the stages and carrying all my weight. The option of sleeping in a more comfortable room and eating better menus, was too appealing to be ignored.

Even tonight in Astorga, given the rather long stage, and the likely late arrival, I accepted to stay in a 3 stars hotel found on booking.com, and to treat my travel companion to a restaurant suggested by the hotelier. I am happy of the decision, but I am concerned that this trend will weaken my commitment to the Camino done according to the basic lifestyle and minimum confort.

On the lighter side, I have to accept that no better choice could have been done, since the Hotel “Casa de Tepa” is an absolute treasure. The resident owner of the mansion which is dated 1790 and hosted in its history even Napoleon Bonaparte, don Juan de Guillon graciously invited us for a tour of the rooms and the garden. The property warrants a stay of a least a week to enjoy the pleasure of an educated conversation with an exponent if the Spanish royalty, and savour the comfort of a personalized hospitality.

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If I would have insisted in staying at the hostel, I could not have enjoyed such an exquisite hospitality by a old fashioned gentleman and heir of a bicentenarian family. Anyone planning to visit Astorga should not miss staying here for as long as possible.

On the stage itself, not much to say, apart from its length, and the almost 10 hours to complete it. We passed remarkable places like the Puente de Orbigo built by the Romans, the Cruceiro de los Tiburios overlooking the city of Astorga, and where I left some thanksgiving stones for people and friends I care for.

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Stage 24, Sep 29, Leon to Villar de Mazarife, 20.1km, total time 5:36hrs

I eventually managed to break the magic spell with Leon, and restart the journey not before having had a buffet breakfast in the monastery hotel. As it is well known, a discreet handling of a buffet breakfast allows some stocking of extra food for later consumption. In the meantime, the day broke into a glorious morning. The weather forecast was obstinately indicating showers for the whole day, so Lynette and I waited for the day to express clearly its intentions, before stepping out from the austere comfort of the monastery. The stage was meant to be short in preparation of a quite long one tomorrow. In contrast with the beauty of the city center, the exit from Leon was uninteresting and the trail crossed through industrial areas before resuming the old Camino path in the midst of rural farming lands.

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Villar de Mazarife is an inconspicuous small village, as usual, with no apparent signs of life. It has three hostels, and we chose the one below which seemed quite clean and with a nice inviting patio in the afternoon sunshine.

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Arriving at about 2pm, one may be concerned on what to do until dinnertime at 7pm and finally hit lights out at 10pm. Actually, the time to shower and soak then in the sun after a 5 or 6 hours walk, is never enough. Washing the laundry, some small talk here and there, a visit to the local store for fruits and other food, are simple activities that do not fail to provide inner peace and a sense of mental discipline. It’s 9 pm already, the sack has been prepared and ready to go, the alarm is set at 6am. Goodnight.

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