Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pedrouzo and Santiago de Compostela: the final days of our Camino

The dreaded 32-kilometer day was finally upon us. The longest walking day of the Camino had been described as consisting of mostly flat terrain by Dr. Gyug (whose descriptions of ´unpleasant scrambles´ and ´rolling hills´ were often a matter of great debate throughout the trip). We decided to try and hit the road by 6:30am in order to get the day over with as soon as possible. Poor Gabrielle couldn't send her bag ahead to the next hostel and had to walk the first couple of kilometers with two backpacks. After a brief stop for our staple breakfast of café con leche y pan tostado, we all headed off again with a little more energy. This day was personally one of the most enjoyable days since the whole group walked together for a long portion of the day. The always fast-paced walkers (namely, Peter, Al, Melanie and Dr. Gyug) broke ahead, and the larger part of the group stayed together. Ellen and Sarah found themselves a little lost without a cell phone or a map and were overjoyed to have found that the group waited for them at a café to enjoy lunch. The whole group then embarked for the last leg of the journey to Pedrouzo. When we finally arrived in the town, the group passed by two reminders of home – pizzerias! - on the way to the albergue. After getting settled, the group then split some pizzas and siesta-ed after the long day. In the evening, the group all went to the restaurant right next to the albergue and ate dinner together in the back room. Everyone discussed their feelings about the upcoming final day of the trip and the arrival to Santiago. We decided to start walking at 5:30 the next morning and all fell asleep after a long, exhausting, but rewarding day.

And so it came. The last day of what for many of us felt an endless journey. It was a long trip, this is true, but when we rose early on our final day of walking, the reality of its imminent end began to sank in. It was dark in the streets of Pedrouzo when we left. Each of us had, surprisingly, gotten ready in a timely manner. Powering through the familiar pains in our knees, feet, and shoulders, we began hiking through the dark woods. The walk that day was a short 20 kilometers, and so we hiked on to el Monte De Gozo, the hill just outside of Santiago where we had agreed to meet so that we might enter the city as a group. After a quick look around the chapel and immense sculpture located at that famous last resting place, the group began its descent into Santiago. We didn´t see the Cathedral in the distance as we had hoped, and so we delayed our feelings of anticipation for just a while longer. Word quickly spread that Dr. Gyug had described the trek through Santiago's suburbs as a long one. Spreading into almost a single-file line, we followed the ancient way of St. James through the modern part of his city. We knew proudly that we were pilgrims, and everybody recognized us as such. Eventually the black-top streets gave way to cobbled roads. With many of us walking the fastest we´d walked in days, the group stepped fervently into the Plaza Obradoiro which spreads before the great Western facade of the Catedral de Santiago. Our reactions were as varied as our experiences on the road. Some of us choked back tears. Others smiled and laughed. All of us hugged one another and accepted congratulations from Dr. Gyug.

In pictures the early 18th century Baroque facade of the cathedral had looked dark and excessive. Perhaps it is those things. But to us pilgrims, to us who had walked half the width of Spain to see it, it was breath-taking. James, flanked by his loyal disciples, the discoverers of his remains, looked down upon us from the central gable. On the towers to his left and right, images of his mother and father greeted us as well. After dropping our things off at the nearby hotel, we rushed to get seats at the noon pilgrim's mass. Wisely, Dr. Gyug had us sit in southern transept so that we could see the immense censer, the famous botafumeiro, swung above our heads. After mass, we explored the church's interior. We peaked into the five radial chapels around the back of the choir, we took a look at what was visible of the 12th century Portico de La Gloria under restoration, and we stood in line to hug the 13thcentury statue of St. James above the altar. After the brief student tour of the city, we ended our day in Santiago with the drinking of a ritual queimada to ward off evil spirits.

So, what did we learn? What will we take away from nearly two weeks of testing our physical, emotional, and spiritual limits? For some, the experience was spiritual. They saw the face of God in the kindness of strangers and holiness in the solidarity of pilgrims. For others, the Camino was largely a matter of physical endurance. We learned to really feel ourselves move, to overcome pain, and to respect the power as well as the limits of our bodies. As a group, we became closer. We came to understand each other and human relationships in general in new ways. We gained a new perspective on geography, on wildlife, on the influence of history, and on the immense potential of the human will. Our trip was painful at times, but it was filled with pleasure as well. It was long, but it was far too short in the greater trajectory of our lives. Some of us will return, and some of us have decided to move on from the way. Will any of us forget it? Absolutely not.

So to all future pilgrims and to all people on their own journeys, Buen Camino!

- Xavier Montecel and Sarah Sullivan

Our Queimada

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


8 June 2011

We´re embarking on a slightly shorter walk today, so we´ve indulged in an extra half-hour of sleep. The road today was flat with a few rolling hills, but the walk itself was only 14 km - much less than some of our previous days! Even starting at 7:30, we crossed the medieval Furelos bridge into Melide before noon. Our albergue wasn´t even open yet, so the group took the opportunity to explore the surrounding area and refill on coffee.

Dr. Gyug treated us to a communal lunch of pulpo (octopus) and, after a brief siesta, we were off to tour the city. Melide is a 10th-century town built primarily around agriculture and tourism from the Camino. It started out as a somewhat smaller settlement, but in the early 14th century petitioned the then-archbishop for permission to construct fortifications and collect taxes, thereby securing legitimate defensible town status. All was well for almost two centuries, until the local protectors got into a power struggle with the new archbishop. Fighting and riots broke out and the walls around Melide were destroyed; the Church´s response to the uprising was that the town was forbidden from constructing any more fortresses.

It was a shame that the only vestige of the city´s earlier appearance was really in the bridge that greeted us when we entered Melide´s outskirts, but the stones from the original walls were used in constructing the convent of Sancti Spiritus, which we were able to see. Seeking further testaments of the area´s history, we visited the nearby Museo da Terra de Melide and encountered a host of archaeological and artistic treasures from Melide and its surrounding regions from throughout the centuries. Our last stop was the Capela de San Roque, which is the modern structure rebuilt from two medieval churches. The front portal is particularly compelling, being the granite original from the 10th/11th centuries.

A 34 km walk looms before us tomorrow, but it will be our last stop before Santiago! It´s hard to believe that we´re so close to our destination after all we´ve been through thus far, but we´re crossing our fingers for an amazing (and dry!) last couple of days.



June 6, 2011

Most of the group (with the exceptions of Dr. Gyug, Allison, and Helena) got a bit of a late start leaving Sarría, perhaps due to the generally gloomy weather this morning. A couple of hours into our walk we experienced our first, and hopefully last, taste of the infamous Galician rain. Nevertheless, this intrepid group of pilgrims pressed on, having prepared for this contingency psychologically and with plenty of raingear.

In the midst of the rain Peter and I passed a significant milestone. Or, more accurately, a kilometerstone. Specifically, the stone marker that designates that on is 100 kilometers from Santiago. Most of the stone distance markers have little stones stacked in cairns on top of them or some kind of graffiti, however this one was covered in jubilant, colorful writing in a dozen languages and was both covered and surrounded with stone cairns and tokens from peregrinos. Peter and I stopped to take a few photographs for posterity, and wound up walking the next stretch with an older French gentleman for whom we took a picture at the marker. He informed us during our conversation that he had been to New York twice before to run the marathon; once in 1999 and before that in 1989. Neither Peter nor I had the heart to tell him that he has been running marathons since the year we were born. Just another example of the sort of amazing and dedicated people one meets along the Road.

The biggest difference between today and the previous days (besides the rain) has been the increase in the number of people on the Camino. Sarría is a popular starting point since it is a big city that is the minimum distance from Santiago required to get the compostella. It is easy to pick out some of these newcomers; their clean clothes, jeans, sneakers, or lack of equipment are dead giveaways. In a way I found myself frustrated with some of them. I saw a young woman wearing what seemed to be a preschooler's backpack emblazoned with a Nike swoosh, a pair of brand new running shoes, and walking with two trekking poles. This was not the smelly, dedicated, beleaguered comrade I had come to know. Then it occurred to me, with some sense of shame, that starting from León I must have seemed like that kind of "inauthentic" pilgrim to that sixty-something French gentleman who walked all the way through Switzerland. Really, I felt kind of second-rate compared to all of those people we had encountered that started at Le Puy or St. Jean. Perhaps all that means is that I need to come back though. We´ll see.

Arriving in Portomarín today, the river basin that Dr. Gyug informed us is usually full was at a very low level. As a result we were able to see the old Roman bridge and the ruins of the old city of Portomarín as we crossed the Miño River into town. In the 1960's a dam was built that caused the water level of the river to rise. Franco, wanting to preserve the town, ordered all the buildings moved, stone by stone, to new locations on top of the hill where the modern town is currently situated. The highlight of the historical sights is the Church of St. Nicholas. Built in the 12th or 13th century by the Knights Templar, the church combines the architectural features of a fortress and a Romanesque church.

On to Palas de Rei tomorrow!

¡Buen Camino!

-Nicholas P. Garcia

Monday, June 6, 2011

Miracles do happen...You just have to believe

Sarria! I certainly did not believe that I would live to limp my way this far. With only 21 km between Triacastela and Sarria, we left our albergue around 7:30 am in hopes of arriving fairly early in the day. The road was pretty flat, our knees welcomed this break since many of us were injured due to the harsh terrains. On the way to Sarria, I was fortunate to see inside the Monastery of Samos before it closed for the day. It was beautiful (as you can see below) but the stairs leading up to it did a number on my knees. The monastary was everything I imagined it would be with high ceilings and intricate details. I would have liked to stay a bit longer and take pictures but there a monk was waiting to escort people out. With about 10 km left before we arrived at our destination, Gabrielle and I limped on.

After walking along a seemingly endless road, I finally arrived in Sarria and toured the town with my group after a brief nap. The first stop was the Iglesia de San Salvador. The church was built in the 11th century and has an early gothic style evloving from Romanesque architecture. Above the entrance of the side door was a figure with his palms up facing out and his hands are supposedly blessing everyone that passes by. From the church you could see the only tower that remains of the medieval fortress belonging to the town. Next we climbed a short hill which brought us to the Monasterio de Magdalena.

This monastery was founded in the 13th century as a pilgrim hospital by Italian Monks of the Blessed Martyrs of Jesus. Presently, the building houses a small cloister and is a private school. Fortunately for us, there was a strapping young lad who was willing to let our group tour the building, of course that was after he corrected my Spanish. After the tour and our daily reflection ended, half of the group headed to La Iglesia de Santa Marina to have their credenciales stamped. Soon after we all met for dinner at ¨ O Meson das Tapas¨ and enjoyed a delicious 3 course meal. Dr. Gyug ordered octupus for our table which was not as bad as I imagined, really chewy.

There was a fellow peregrino at the table across from us eating alone on his birthday. The waitress asked us to sing Happy Birthday to him when she brought out his desert. So that is exactly what we did, in English of course, what did you expect, Spanish? Monsieur Francois, who is half French and part Trinidadian and Tobago, joined our table for the rest of his dinner. On our way back to the hostal we saw a lot of the people we had met over the course of our trip. It was always a pleasure to encounter people who understood how much of a struggle it was to reach each destination, but they were always genuinely excited to see that WE ALL MADE IT, AGAIN.

No pain, No glory!


Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 3-4: Villafranca- La Laguna- O Cebreiro

In the opinion of this intrepid Fordham peregrino (and I suspect that none of my fellow travelers would disagree) that the last two days have been the most taxing--- physically and emotionally--- of our journey thus far. For the entire trip, we´ve gazed in horror at the elevation map surrounding O Cebreiro, a tiny hamlet atop the mountain range that separates Leon from Galicia. It is near nothing but the sky, some cows, and a handful of similarly tiny villages which guard the mountain passes into Spain´s most isolated province. The week of anticipation of the trek to the summit made the mountains, so long in front of us, appear taller and foreboding with each passing day. As we retired Thursday night, our fate could be delayed no more.

We rose at 5am, determined to get an early start in what promised to be an especially demanding journey. After some fits and starts getting out the door, we found ourselves along side the regional highway. In a paradoxical occurrence, the shoulder of the expressway is actually the most authentic of the three possible routes into the mountains, as the highway was built along the original Camino. Perhaps the most frustrating portion of the day was nearly 15km spent following the highway and, later, its branch into a series of small towns in the valley between the peaks we intended to ascend. The anticipation built further, as field after field and farm after farm passed by. Out location grew more remote, but the terrain remained frustratingly flat: we knew an enormous assent was in store (the elevation map said so!), but grew ever more impatient with its slow arrival. All along the winding roads, there was a collective exhortation of ¨we can do it! Let´s just get it over with!¨

What hubris. Over 15km into a hot afternoon, the incline hit. We entered an oak and chestnut forest just as the ground turned sharply upward. The path was unrelenting in its rockiness, while the foliage around us provided shade, yes, but also kept the air still and hot. For nearly three kilometers the unrelenting rise continued with sharp twists and turns as we tacked back and forth across the face of the mountain. At one point, I found myself stopped with three fellow Fordhamites, greedily gulping water and Aquarius (the Spanish Gatorade substitute) when three French women in their mid-60s rounded a bend, bade us ¨hola,¨ and continued on with nary a break, chuckling to themselves (undoubtedly, about how four young-bloods needed a break while they carried on). Talk about impressive.

But as… unpleasant… the experience of the climb was, it yielded some remarkable vistas. Within the forest, we glimpsed unspoiled woodland life, occasionally spying some secluded glade that might have housed Heidi of literary fame and her family. And, as we reached the end of the first set of forest, we emerged into a brilliant, sunlit series of wild fields, grazing grounds for a few particularly intrepid cattle and their indomitable farmers. These high fields commanded extraordinary views of the valleys below. We wandered the otherworldly pastures between prairie grasses twice our height as the path looped across a last face of the mountain, through one more glen, and then, mercifully, into La Laguna.

We were received with a chorus of applause by a ground of Spanish bicyclists who had stopped in the bar to have a cerveza before continuing down across the opposite face into Triacastela. Some of our number had made it on foot, while others fought off injuries as long as was humanly possible—even Dr. Gyug found himself in need of impromptu open-foot surgery to remain in working order. Every single one of us, after a much needed shower and a caña de cerveza, collapsed in a collective heap of exhaustion for a nearly 3 hour siesta (long even by Spanish standards). We ate a fantastic menú del día, eating just enough and drinking perhaps too much in the otherwise empty dining room. Our hostel had only 20 beds, 16 of which were filled by Fordham and our tag-along doctor, Juan. Chatty from the wine and energized by the day and by the nap, we finally retired late.

Fordham Camino groups in the past have walked from Villafranca all the way through to O Cebreiro, but the unavailability of hostels had prompted our stop in La Laguna, only 2km from O Cebreiro, which I was charged to research. We rose a bit later than usual and ascended to O Cebreiro, the views of the valley all the most spectacular as we reached the mountain´s peak and bathed in the glow of the sunrise. Galicia is historically “ibero-Celtic,” and has an extraordinary Celtic influence dating back over 1500 years. The town itself seems like something out of Ireland, with lush, green foliage growing in every crevice of squat, square stone buildings, a departure from La Laguna only 2 km behind. Celtic tunes emanated from storefronts, and we found ourselves in front of the Church, which emitted a combination of Galician bagpipes and Gregorian chant. Santa Maria la Real is a square, small pre-Romanesque church which purports to be the oldest along the Camino, erected in the 900s. Legend tells of a miracle which occurred in the 14th century, where an frustrated Spanish priest was interrupted while saying Mass, during the Consecration no less, but a peasant who had walked the mountain in a blinding snowstorm to receive Communion. The priest chastised the peasant, asking why he would risk his life in the storm just to see a miracle which was purely symbolic. At that instant, the bread was transformed into flesh, dripping blood which poured down his robe and onto the altar. The remnants of the host are saved in a chalice gifted by Queen Isabella, and the chalice appears on Galicia´s flag.

The day still had hours of hiking ahead, and we were, every one of us, sort and in various states of injury. Nonetheless, we found ourselves atop a peak looking west toward the Galician plains and, ultimately, Santiago, just beyond the halfway point of our journey, filled with a sense of both great accomplishment and some trepidation for the challenges ahead. But the thousand year old O Cebreiro, despite its small size and physical and cultural isolation, maintained a certain infectious indominability, as it has for pilgrims for centuries. As each of us took for ourselves this dogged determination to persevere, the road down into the valley seemed a bit more manageable.

--Peter Morrissey

Villafranca del Bierzo

The walk from Ponferrada to Villafranca was quite enjoyable, although much longer than the quick stroll we were treated to the day before. After the nice rest we enjoyed in the bustling city of Ponferrada, where we enjoyed churros con chocolate (amazing!) and a fascinating tour of the castle, we were refreshed the next morning and ready for a hike through the vinyards of the Bierzo region. It was interesting to see the humble beginnings of the vino tinto that we so often enjoy with our menus del dia!

I walked with Gabrielle and Nadege for a long stretch towards Villafranca, and we stopped several times along the way to take in the fantastic views of the Bierzo landscape. We even passed an arrow formed with cherries on the road pointing us in the direction of our destination. Seems like a waste of the deliciously in-season snack! A bit later, over an energizing lunch of sandwiches and granola bars, we discussed our plans upon arrival at the hostel, most of which included a shower and siesta after a long hot day. I walked by myself for a bit afterwards before meeting up with Sarah, Vinny, Ada, Andy, Xavier, and Helena, and we all shared stories and laughter along the final stretch into Villafranca.

Finally, the Iglesia del Santiago came into view and we knew we had finally reached the town. This 12th century Romanesque church is home to the `Puerta del Perdon´, which is known along the Camino as the door at which pilgrims who become ill along the route and cannot continue may recieve the same absolution as they would in Santiago. This church, which appears more like a fortress with its thick stone walls and small, highly-situated windows, was founded by the bishop of Astorga in 1186. Inside, there is a small Baroque chapel decorated by various holy images, and upon seeing it in person I was awestruck by its beauty. We spent a few peaceful minutes in the church later in the afternoon, which gave me time to think about how grateful I am to have made it this far, and to have the opportunity to travel through beautiful medieval Spain where thousands of other pilgrims have walked for centuries past.

We also saw the Iglesia de San Francisco, which sits atop a somewhat threatening set of stairs, especially after a long day of hiking. This church, founded in 1214 by St. Francis himself on his own pilgrimage to Santiago, has a famously intricate ceiling decorated in the style of Mudejar, which involves complicated tiling patterns and elaborate brickwork. Unfortunately the church was closed so we couldn´t take a look inside, but I imagine the level of detail on the ceiling makes it hard to concentrate in Mass!

Later, the group split up for a while to wander the town, and I enjoyed a late afternoon ¨snack¨ of not one, but two delicious Hawaiian pizzas with Sarah, Nick, and Helena at a quaint restaurant in the plaza. After the first, we couldn´t help but order another. Hey, when in Spain! Then, after a tour of the town as a group, we all went to the supermercado and picked up materials for a potluck dinner (I know, more food!) Outside, Sarah got involved in what appeared to be a cutthroat game of monkey-in-the-middle with some children from the town, and finally we had to break it up so we could settle down for dinner in the town square. Our meal included vino, bread, chorizo, and LOTS of cheese. Yum! After dinner, we laughed over the nightly game of mafia before strolling back to our hostel to rest up for the grueling climb to O´Cebreiro the following day. Peter will tell you all about that!

Buen camino!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Yesterday we made it to Molinaseca, on the last day of May, after a long day filled with climbing up and down steep mountains and many cases of knee pain. The morning started out like any other, a little on the cooler side, but beautiful. We met outside of the Albergue and began our journey into the clouds. We began the day knowing that this would be the toughest day in terms of steep inclines and declines.

The walk to La Cruz de Ferro, an early way point for peregrinos on their way to Santiago, went well and we felt strong and happy to finally see it in person. The tradition is to bring a stone with you and throw it at the base of the cross leaving behind something that you regret or wish to change. Ellen and I made it to la Cruz de Ferro with Dr. Gyug and threw our stones at the base and marveled at the view.

The next part of the day was rocky, in both senses of the word. The terrain changed to steep downhills lined with loose rocks. For Allison and I it was also a time for miracles. When Allison was walking she began to have knee pain and just when she thought she could not make it down any further a Dutch couple stopped and wrapped her knee and gave her pain medication. As I was walking my knee pain was intensified by the downhills and at one point as I was slowly decending, three older men from Bilbao came and asked me what was wrong. They put a cream on my knee and waited for me at the bottom of the hill, where they carried my backpack, allowing me to make it to the next town, Al Acebo.

The rest of the day went on much the same with the terrain changing slightly,the towns getting smaller and the temperature increasing. When we finally made it to Molinaseca I immediately saw la Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias on the right and I knew we were there. The town was much more beautiful in person than any photograph can capture. Later in the evening I gave my presentation by the river Miruelo as everyone soaked their feet. We shared our stories of the day and the people we met along the way.

Yesterday was truely a day of grace and miracles and it really shows that when you think you cannot take another step the camino always finds a way.

Buen Camino everyone!