Lost in the Fog

With my new novel Lost in the Fog about to be published in early 2020, I'm embarking on a three month trip to Europe. A big part of it will be hiking the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile sojourn through Northern Spain. This blog will try to capture moments of the journey. David Lynch once said "getting lost is beautiful", and I hope my voyage will embody that definition.

It was early morning of September 25th when we left Azorfa with the sunrise casting rays on our backs. When we crested the hill into the vineyards, I turned around to see it and smiled. J’Nell and I were now 2 weeks into our westward trek across Spain to Santiago de Compestella, and moments like these continued to be special.

Our first stop of the day was Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which has the legend of the Miracle Chickens. Whether or not you believe in the life saving poultry, inside the cathedral they actually have live roosters there! They also have a couple of El Greco paintings that were outstanding.

Leaving town at 1:30 pm via the bridge over a dry riverbank, it seemed we were the only ones on the Camino. A lot of people end their day with the miracle chickens, but we still had another 7 or so kilometers in the heat to Grañón.

We had not reserved anywhere, and when we reached the cool murals built into the town walls there, thankfully J’Nell had remembered that at the church of San Juan Bautista, you could stay there on mats for a donation.

Other than camping, I’m pretty sure I’d never slept on a mat. And I’d certainly never slept above a church before. But I’m very glad I did as it was a special experience, one of my favorites of the journey.

The people who run the albergue at San Juan Bautista make you feel part of the church and their family. And with the communal meal you help prepare, the Pilgrim’s Mass right underneath where you will be sleeping, and the group activities by candlelight, you also bond with all the people staying there. I highly recommend it to anyone walking the Camino.

While I was raised Catholic, I am no longer an actively practicing one. Other than weddings or funerals, I hadn’t attended mass in probably 20 years. But with the Camino existing due to it being a religious pilgrimage and with us visiting so many amazing churches, I felt I had to attend at least one Mass. I’m glad I picked Grañón for it, and also that I participated in the voluntary activities after dinner.

A group of about 15 of us gathered in the alcove above the back of the church by candlelight, and we each took turns reading a prayer (in our own language as they had it translated). Then the candle was passed to each person, and you got to say why you were walking the Camino (while there were only 2 other English speakers in the room, I could feel the emotion from everyone even if I couldn’t understand all the words). And lastly, we all held hands and and then one-by-one were asked to turn left and give that person good wishes on their pilgrimage.

The woman who I spoke to was younger than me from Basque Country, and I tried in my best Spanish to say nice things to her. When she teared up and hugged me afterward, it made my day. I would see her on the trail a couple days later, and she hugged me again and called me her Camino Hermano.

Leaving Azorfa

The town is very proud of its miracle chickens

Fresco in the church showing the miracle

El Greco painting in the cathedral museum in Santo Domingo

Approaching Grañón

San Juan Bautista, church and albergue

Grañon to Tosantos

I surprisingly got a good night’s sleep on the mat, and after our communal breakfast at the church we were on the road and walking by 7:45 am (early for us). We got a terrific sunrise behind us again, and I couldn’t stop turning around and snapping photos. One of my favorites is of the church where we stayed silhouetted from the rising sun.

The day featured a lot of open fields, haystacks, and what J’Nell would aptly call Sad Sunflowers (rows and rows of ones in various stages of decay … had we been there a couple of months earlier they would have been stunning). We then would then have to walk quite a bit alongside the freeway (though there was a patch of grass along with a metal barrier to separate us). In addition to the trucks zooming by, the path was very rocky and it not only aggravated my blisters but I started to get some pain in my Achilles (thankfully both would subside).

Belorado was the next town we would reach, which is the main stopping point for many people. We only had lunch there, and when we were back on the Camino, we hardly saw anyone during our almost 5k walk to Tosantos.

We arrived in town early, and after claiming our beds at the clean and cozy Los Arancones Albergue, did some laundry and had a couple of beers in the sun (it was probably around 80 degrees). After walking up the hill to see a shrine built into the mountain and finding it closed, we would return to our albergue and eat one of the best dinners on the Camino with two very cool retired ladies from Missouri.

Leaving Grañón

Sunrise behind San Juan Bautista

Sad Sunflowers

Cool Templar Mural in Belorado

Terrific albergue with great food

Cool mountain shrine … That was closed

The 137 miles J’Nell and I have walked since St. Jean Pied de Port

In the most popular Camino de Santiago guide (written by John Brierley), it has the whole pilgrimage broken down into 33 stages (how much to walk in a day and where to start and stop). It’s an outstanding book (not just from a how-to standpoint, but also a spiritual one), and it’s no wonder nearly everyone we meet has a copy. If you followed it exactly, you could theoretically finish the whole journey in a little over a month.

We’re not on that pace.

J’Nell and I are taking a more leisurely approach. And after Logroño, we decided to get off the starting and ending points from the guide whenever possible, as they tend to be less crowded. We also just like doing shorter days (20-24k, or 13-15 miles, seems to be the sweet spot), and often the book’s stages are longer.

Logroño to Ventosa

If we were following the guide, we would have walked another 6 miles that day, and there was no need for that after our super fun fiesta in Logroño. In fact, strapping on the backpack and leaving our comfy bed at the hotel to hike seemed like a terrible idea. But we did, and Ventosa was a relatively short distance from what we’d been doing.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal of that day (September 23rd) that I wrote at a sidewalk table:

Sitting here at this mostly empty cafe in this charming hilltop town enjoying a San Miguel cerveza. The owner/bartender of this place is so nice, and the olives he gave us as a complimentary bar snack could be the best I’ve ever had. We need to start thinking about dinner (its either here or the one other place …Ventosa has a population of under 200) as Quiet Time at the albergue is at 10 pm (standard for the pilgrim hostels).

What a contrast to the fiesta we just left in Logroño . We arrived in town today at 3 pm to Albergue San Saturino (named after the church in town), which was only 11 euros per bed and clean, friendly, and cozy. After showering we walked up to the 16th Century church (it was closed but was nice to admire from the outside), and then took in the sweeping views of a valley of red dirt interspersed with the green of the vineyards and darker green of the trees in the distance.

We could also glimpse Alvia Winery below, and made the trek down to see if it was open. You have to arrange in advance for a tasting or tour, but thankfully the shop was abierto for business. The very friendly lady there explained the different wines they sold in English, and we got their famous Tempranillo for only 6 euros. Spanish wine is terrific and inexpensive, the way it should be everywhere.

But how about that walk today? It started with the cutest 7 or 8 year-old girl as we were leaving Logroño say completely unprovoked, “Buen Camino, peregrinos”. Sweet, touching, and emblematic of the wonderful people here.

While it took a while to walk out of the city proper, we did go through a nice park and saw reddish-brown squirrels, a gaggle of large geese, and a feeding frenzy of fish (a woman was throwing bread into the pond and they were swarming). We continued to the pretty hilltop town of Navarrete with a 16th Century church (Iglesia de la Asunción) with one of the grandest alterpieces I’ve ever seen (carved of wood and glittering with gold). Before reaching Ventosa we would also pass through lots of vineyards with grapes plump and purple.

Alterpiece (or Retablo) at Navarrete

Our Second Spanish Winery visit

Taking the alternative route to Ventosa

They look ready to become wine!

Walking through all these vineyards sure makes me thirsty.

Ventosa to Azofra

Here’s my journal excerpt of from September 24th:

Sitting here at a table in the communal area of our albergue in this tiny, appealing town drinking a glass of vino tinto. We’re continuing to go off the book for our Camino, and also doing shorter days of walking (win, win!). Like Ventosa, there’s around 200 residents here, two bar/restaurants, and one church that was great to look at but closed.

The walk today was lovely (not a word I normally use, but apt … and maybe the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis we’ve been meeting are rubbing off on me). It was mostly vineyards stretching out to mountains far off in the distance. And those clouds! As great as I thought they were yesterday they were even better today.

The other highlight was visiting Santa María la Real in Nájera, an 11th Century Monastery that includes a Church built into the red cliff mountainside. Its a gem of a place (we were surprised to see so many pilgrims just trucking on by it), and we’re very glad we stopped. The inside of the church is dramatic and gothic, but what sets it apart from the others we’ve seen on this trip is the miracle cave.

The dude who discovered the cave, King García III, was out hunting in 1044 when his falcon flew inside it. Legend goes he followed after his bird, and the King found an image of Mary and Baby Jesus on the wall and then then ordered the church to be built. Whether you believe the miracle or not (and either way, I think this could make an outstanding episode of Drunk History) it’s a damn fine cave and seeing it was a special experience.

Sunrise leaving Ventosa

Magical Clouds

The Miracle Cave of Nájera

Heading towards Azofra … More cloud porn.

Pre-dinner beers and journal time.

Where we stayed in Azofra

Sunrise after leaving Los Arcos

Trying to keep up with the blog while walking the Camino de Santiago has been challenging. The typical day is to put in the miles, get to our Albergue (hostel), hand wash our laundry, write in our journals over beers, eat dinner, and go to bed. We’ve also been meeting amazing people along the way, so there’s socializing as well.

Squeezing in time to blog has been a fail on my part. But since starting the adventure, I’ve received many nice comments, texts, and emails from friends, family, and even strangers who are enjoying reading my posts. So I am committed to keep ’em coming … even if they are infrequent.

In effort to catch up, here’s my recap of 4 days on the Camino: 2 walking and 2 rest ones in Logroño for their annual Harvest Fiesta.

Estella to Los Arcos

When researching the Camino, J’Nell and I read about so many interesting things we needed to seek out during our 500 mile walk. One that particularly piqued our interest was the Irache Wine Fountain in Ayegui. While it might sound like a myth or fairytale, I can indeed report there is a fountain open to the public in Spain that dispenses wine free of charge.

We heard that sometimes it isn’t running, and when we arrived around 9:30 am with nobody else there I was a bit worried. J’Nell was the first to test it (we used these little juice containers we bought in Estella), and, hallelujah, there was vino flowing. It was tasty rosé and a good morning pick-me-up; we capped-up what we didn’t finish and put it in the side of our packs for later.

After continuing our hike we eventually reached a higher vantage point and we could see the sheer cliffs off in the distance we viewed yesterday, and also a concial hill we were heading towards. The mountain is called Monjardin, and there are ruins of a castle on top (St. Esteban). Getting closer as we ascended, the moon was rising just to its right and it was magical.

After stopping for a rest and and an ice cream at Villamayor de Monjardín, we would then descend into the valley past vineyards, olive trees, and asparagus & squash plants. When you turned around, you could see the mountains and castle ruins receding, but they were still imposing. It had to be in the mid 80s with no shade and we were getting weary, but luckily got a 2nd wind when in the middle of nowhere we passed the woman playing the accordian under the tree. A special moment.

There would be another wonderful surprise later that day as we continued in the heat through the dirt trail with no shade or town in sight. We figured we were still about 1.5 hours to Los Arcos when we spotted the mobile cafe with covered seating. I got a beer and J’Nell a local orange soda, and our rest gave us enough energy to trek to our destination. We showered and hand washed our clothes after checking into the first place we found that had availability, and then toured the beautiful Los Arcos church and had some drinks and dinner in the town square.

Wine Fountain is flowing!

Moon rising next to the castle ruins at Monjardin

Eduardo’s Cafe Movil, an Oasis for the thirsty pilgrim

Cathedral in Los Arcos

Los Arcos to Logroño

This day would be the longest distance we’d walked (around 18 miles) and my feet were throbbing by the end of it. Thankfully there was plenty of cloud cover and breezes to mitigate the heat, and we got (what for us was) an early start at 7:45 am. If we left later and it was hotter, I’m not sure how we could have made it that far to

Though very difficult, we were treated to some outstanding sights during the hike that day. The first was in Torres del Rio where we got to see the unique 12th Century octagonal Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, which likely was built by the Knights Templar as a connection to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Its a very small church, but one of the most special I’ve stepped inside.

The next to note was, after a good climb, the sweeping and gorgeous views of the Navarra Region (where we’d been but would soon be leaving for Rioja). And my third favorite part of the day would be the lovely 800-year-old hilltop town of Viana. The cathedral was closed for renovation, but the facade was outstanding, the square charming, and as we were very hungry, we’d end up getting a 3 course lunch with wine. Probably not our best decision with a couple more hours to walk, but it was very tasty.

After checking out the cool ruins of San Pedro (13th century, destroyed in the 19th), we left Viana and set out in the late afternoon for Logroño. Other than 2 bikers we chatted with, we didn’t seen any other pilgrims the whole way there. We figured lots stayed in Viana, and the ones who went to Logroño left much earlier in the day.

We would spend 3 nights in Logroño and fully enjoy the wine harvest fiesta we were lucky to be there for. While so much fun, it was strange to be around thousands of people partying after the solitude of the Camino. On Friday evening when we arrived, with all the music and food and crowds and drinking, it was like stepping into the pages of The Sun Also Rises (swapping Logroño for Pamplona).

During our time there we would be absorbed by the fiesta and have an amazing time. But in addition to the wine tasting and partying, we did visit the terrific churches in town and enjoy the historic areas and cultural aspects. We also chatted with lots of truly wonderful locals who were proud to share their festival with us visitors.

Knights Templar (probably) Iglesia de Santo Sepulcro

Inside of Santo Spulcro, based on the octagonal church in Jerusalem

I dig a good sweeping view

Heading into Viana

Ruins of San Pedro in Viana

Fiesta Time in Logroño

Wine tasting in the main square

Iglesia de Santiago in Logroño

It seemed everywhere you turned there was a parade … this was on our last night when we were at the laundromat

Fiesta Fireworks