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.

October 3rd – 10:38 pm

San Zoilo Monastery, Room 212

Carrión de los Condes

For many the Meseta, the middle part of the journey, is the mental stage of the Camino, a time for deep introspection.  For J’Nell and me it’s been the social one.  We were going to have a quiet evening last night in El Fromista after visiting its famous 11th Century Romanesque church, but it ended up being another rollicking dinner with the group who are now a huge part of our Camino Family.

We read you usually bond with those who start with you, but that didn’t happen for a few reasons.  On Day 1, we only had fleeting conversations with our fellow walkers.  And since J’Nell and I are taking our time with additional rest days, most of the people we began with on September 12th (I would say nearly all of them) are far ahead of us.

And maybe you’re meant to meet and connect with the pilgrims you do because of a grander plan (there is the saying “The Camino provides”), or else it’s due to what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as “the whims of the Great Magnet”.  Whatever the reason, I feel lucky to have gotten to know all the amazing people along the way and consider them all part of our Camino Family.  There are pilgrims we saw earlier who we’ve reconnected with, ones you walk with for a period of days and never see again, and the new people who come into your life and stay.

Last night at dinner we were introduced to Michelle from Australia, in her 30s with a great sense of humor, and also to Doug and Nancy, a recently retired couple from Canada with terrific energy and spirit.  We also got to know Lea from Germany better (in her 20s and super nice), as we had eaten together before but really hadn’t talked too much.  Doug and Nancy said they’re thinking of visiting Hawaii next year, and it would be awesome if they did.  It got me thinking how cool it would be to see all the pilgrims we’ve connected with in the future!

It was at dinner last night with the group, during the conversation, laughter, wine, and a mysterious herbal green liqueur, that we learned of San Zoilo Monastery, the place where we’re staying tonight.

Our Camino Accommodations have been quite varied.  J’Nell and I have stayed at shared room albergues, private room hostels (sometimes with our own bathrooms), a few proper hotels when we’ve hit a big town, and even the attic of a church.  Tonight, we sleep in our first monastery.

San Zoilo was founded in the 11th Century and has been classified as a national historic monument of Spain.  It has housed kings, cardinals and bishops.  Today, instead of holy people and royalty strolling around, there are now Camino Pilgrims and tourists as its been turned into a luxury hotel.

At $87 a night, while cheap by any standard in the US and lots of other places, it’s by far the most we’ve spent for a room on the Camino.  We could have got a bed at an albergue for 12 Euro, but when are we going to get another opportunity to spend an evening at an 11th Century Monastery?  To be able to feel centuries of history with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture, contemplative cloister, beautiful church, and museum worthy artifacts throughout the hotel?

Monastery San Zoilo was the perfect place to end today’s walk, which wasn’t as picturesque as the first part of the Meseta.  It began with almost three miles along a concrete path on the side of the highway until we reached Poblacion de Campos, where we had to make the decision to stay on the highway or take the alternative “river route”. An easy one to make, as its almost always best to get away from cars and crowds (there was a group of about 20 people ahead of us wearing green shirts), and to walk on a natural path.

The first two plus miles of the alternate route was a straight shot on a wide dirt road through flat farmland, and after a while you wonder if the river exists.  Two people and a tractor passed us, but otherwise we had it to ourselves.  The path eventually turned narrow (wide enough only for people and bikes), and that’s when we finally got glimpses of the river, which in most parts was barely a trickle or else attracting extra files and bugs.   After three miles or so we reached a bridge where the yellow arrow pointed left, and from there it was maybe twenty-five minutes to Villacazar.

We stopped at the first café we saw there (most everyone does as you never know if there is going to be another), and saw Lindsay, the very cool lady we met from England who has purple hair, who we last saw in Larrasoana on day 3.   We left our bags with the her, and we then went inside the 11th Century Romanesque-Gothic Iglesia Santa Maria la Blanca.  We’ve been fortunate to see so many magnificent churches, and this was yet another.  Set on the hill almost looking like a fortress, it features a rose shaped window, an elaborate and well-preserved doorway, and a Knights Templar tomb.

We chatted and reconnected with Linsday while we had coffee and a light snack.  Wonderful to catch-up with her, but we didn’t stay long as we still had close to 5 miles to Monastery San Zoilo.   The day began walking along a highway, and we would end it the same way until we reached Carrión de los Condes.

After checking in, showering, and then touring the amazing grounds of the place, we had a beer with Russ at the bar and walked back into town (the monastery is about a half mile from the center) to see the famous Singing Nuns of Santa Maria.  I had read they started at 6:30 pm, but when we arrived we didn’t find any nuns or hear any music.  So we walked around the church and then went to a café to meet up with the group.  Doug and Nancy heard there were more singing nuns at another place (Santa Clara Monastery), and they would start at 7:15.  We all finished our drinks and rushed over there.

The nuns of Santa Maria sing folk songs with guitars, but at Santa Clara they were a proper choir in full habit.  While very different from what I had planned to see, it was a powerfully moving experience.  Sitting in the pews and looking at the altar, religious paintings and sculptures, all while the nuns’ ethereal songs filled the church, brought me to another time in history.  When we stood up to leave, the nuns came over and gave us all a Tau Cross, which is associated with the Knights Templar who protected pilgrims back in the day, and St. Francis, who slept in Santa Clara Monastery while he was walking the Camino in 1214.  It was one of my favorite moments of the journey.

Later that evening we had our first dinner in some time without the group as we were very hungry and they weren’t ready to eat.  The meal was outstanding (red peppers stuffed with meat and cheese), and we had a nice stroll back to the monastery.  The moon rose over the river, and as we crossed the bridge I was once again transported back in time.  In my mind’s eye I could see a monk from centuries ago returning from town, taking a moment to stop and gaze at the same moon reflected in the same river.

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The “River Route”

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The Fortress-Like iglesia de Santa María la Blanca

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The Cloister at San Zoilo, Where Monks, Bishops, and Royalty Used to Stroll

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Church Altar inside San Zoilo

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Where We Saw the Singing Nuns

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One of the better (and very different from the norm) dinners I had on the Camino

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The Tau Cross Given to Me by the Nun at Santa Clara.   I have Yet to Take Off.

 

The Meseta in full glory

It has been said the first part of the Camino is the physical stage of the journey, the second is mental, and the third is the spiritual. Leaving Burgos we had already walked approximately 175 miles (which certainly tested our bodies), and there was still over 300 to go to Santiago. The Meseta, the high plains of Spain, awaited.

J’Nell and I had read the middle was a lot of people’s least favorite of the walk. The blogs and articles promised hardly any shade, long distances between towns, and uninteresting landscape to traverse. Many pilgrims actually skip it by taking the bus.

We would both love the Meseta, and it might have been my favorite on the Camino. Here’s my journal entries from the first three days:

September 30th, 5:15 pm
Bar Casa Monolo, Hornillos

Sitting here in the main square of this population 58 town with its 13th Century Church looming over us. We toured the interior of it, got a stamp for our Pilgrim’s Passport, and now enjoy a grande cerveza in the sun. Its all very nice, except for the flies. The tiny airborne bugs were also a nuisance on the walk today as well, though a minor one.

Overall it was a pleasant 13 mile journey from Burgos to Hornillos. We’re now in the Meseta, Spain’s so-called ‘breadbasket’ (as something to compare in the US, though a very loose one, you could say its their Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa). This is agriculture country for sure, with open plains, big sky, and plenty of puffy clouds above.

But it wasn’t all flat, and we had a steady incline at the start and a steep decline at the end. Heading down into Hornillos was so beautiful, and other than one biker we didn’t see anyone until a group of six passed us as we were almost into town.

They say this part of the walk is less crowded, and it seemed so today as we hardly saw any pilgrims (but of course, we left at 9am, which is late for the Camino). So happy to be sitting here in this square after accomplishing our 13 miles for the day … and I love that there’s a chicken on the fountain.

Tuesday, October 1st, Castrojeriz

We walked just over 20 kilometers today, which seems to be our sweet spot (more than 13 miles really wears on our bodies), and now are on a café terrace across from Albergue Rosalia, where we’ll be staying tonight. We just enjoyed a beer with Russ, a teacher from Australia who we met last night at our communal dinner at our albergue in Hornillos. Such a nice guy, and honestly, we met so many terrific people last night.

We brought our journals to this café to write (which I’m of course doing now), but I’m glad I had less time with my pen and more in conversation. There’s another communal dinner tonight, and I’m looking forward to it.

Day 2 on the Meseta has been just as incredible as the first. Gorgeous open fields with nobody around except scattered pilgrims and a farmer in his tractor. I love we are so far away from main roads and there are no cars to intrude on our Camino.

And how about those clouds today … amazing! Road, fields, sky, and clouds. What else do you need? I also love the remoteness of everything.

Wednesday, October 2nd – 10:38 pm
Hotel El Apostal, Fromista

Well … last night got a little out of hand. But in a good way. We were staying at the albergue with several of the great people from the previous night, and then we were joined by Sophie from France and Peter from England (who Butterfly and Jeremy introduced us to in Granon … I haven’t written about those two yet, but I will later as they became our best friends on the Camino).

There was lots of wine (most of it included with dinner, but we also got extra), and when that went dry we hit the vending machine for beers (1 Euro each). Albergues are generally lights out at 10pm, but since this was a small one and 80% of us were enjoying each other’s company, we went a bit later. There was also a thick door separating us from the dorms, so the party could proceed without interrupting our Camino neighbors.

It was one of those nights you cannot recreate from your memory, and you just have to remember you were there and it was special. With the booze flowing, Russ, Emelio (from NYC), and Sophie wanted to share their playlists with the group. Outstanding tracks, but I can only remember some of them, like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, and Russ’ great one we could all relate to after a few weeks walking through so many places on the Camino called “Every Fucking City” by Paul Kelly. So much fun!

I’m pretty sure we were all in bed before 11 pm, and then J’Nell and I were on the road by 7:45 today. I don’t see why anyone would think the Meseta is boring or something you should skip. The road, open fields, sky, and clouds … wow. Many years ago when I drove through Eastern Washington, Montana, and Idaho I got a similar feeling of just being amazed by nature.

And today’s walk was gorgeous. We got to visit the ruins of San Anton (pilgrims have been going to this site since 1146!), which were impressive, and so cool there’s an albergue inside where you can stay. We admired the beauty, chatted with some people there about the history, and then were on our way to Fromista.

But first a pit stop at the wonderful little pub across the street. We heard Irish music, of all things, when we left the ruins, and since we were in a very remote spot we were surprised because we didn’t expect a bar until the next town. We had to stop.

J’Nell and I still had an hour plus to walk to our albergue, but we gladly stopped for 2 beers at this bar. The owner was so friendly, nice, and funny. There was also a terrific dog there, and Nells got to relax on the hammock.

Sky, road, and clouds…what more do you need?

A poster of the stamps from our great albergue in Hornillos (El Afar)

Chicken Fountain!

The dinner that started so many great friendships

Always follow the yellow arrow …

Nells and I on the Meseta

The amazing ruins of San Anton

Bar across from the ruins. Cold Beer, relaxing hammock, a cool dog, and a very funny bartender/owner.

I love the Meseta

Such a fun night with wonderful people.

The latest (retro) installment of my walk across Spain with J’Nell on the Camino de Santiago …

Cool colors leaving Tosantos

Tosantos to Atapuerca
September 27th

I’ve come to love the tiny Spanish towns, with their austere beauty and simplicity. Just like Grañón and Ventosa, I could have spent a week in Tosantos relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. But the Camino is all about moving forward, and J’Nell and I had a big walk ahead.

Burgos was two days away, and since it was a big city where we planned to spend two nights and get a much needed rest, the goal was to get as close as possible. Smart planning for tomorrow, but on this day it meant several big hills, a long hike through the forest, and a trek down into a valley over very rocky trails … close to 17 miles on my blisters.

Thankfully the morning began with with gorgeous colors in the sky and mostly flat trails until we reached Villafranca. There we had breakfast with Caroline (early 20s from Massachusetts, super nice, who we walked with earlier) and Charles and Caroline (cool spouses in their 50s from the UK we met the day before). I’ve said it before, but connecting with wonderful people like them is what makes the Camino so special.

Villafranca was a good spot to rest, as the next part of the hike featured a steep ascent into the forest and then an abundance of ups and downs for hours. Trees and hills were constants, and after a while I thought they would never end. Luckily there was a nice rest stop built into a wide clearing in the forest, and after 30 minutes off our feet, we trudged onward out of the timberline to San Juan de Ortega.

It was now past noon and hot, so we stopped for another break for a beer with a view of the church. The café was crowded, there were lots of people in the town, and during most of the walk we were surrounded by plenty of pilgrims. But since San Juan Ortega is a major stopping point in the book, we were hoping we would have quality alone time for the rest of the day.

Leaving town we got that solitude. It was enjoyable having the trail to ourselves, and I figured we would have plenty of options to stay in Atapuerca. In fact, there was a cool town before that (Ages) we bypassed since we were so confident in finding lodging.

We arrived in Atapuerca around 3:45 pm and took photos of the stone markers which commemorate (I think, nothing was in English) the archeological site there that is still yielding important historical treasures. Next was finding a place to stay, and after seeing the municipal albergue booked, we went from place to place with no luck. The town was very small, and with the next stop on the Camino a few hours down the road, things looked bleak.

In the book it said the restaurant Palomar also had rooms, and it was our last hope. I poked my head into it to find two gentlemen eating their lunch. One got up to greet me warmly and give me the bad news they were full. He could have just went back to his plate of food, but instead made some calls to help; he not only found us a room, he drove us up a hill (one we had already walked earlier) to the place. It ended up being a private room in a small, clean house we shared with 2 other pilgrims. We were so grateful and appreciative of his kindness.

So lucky to have all these amazing sunrises on the Camino

Stop in Villafranca before the ups and downs of the long forest hike

Forest selfie

Stone markers commemorating (I think) the archeological site at Atapuerca

Almost no rooms to be had in this town…

Atapuerca to Burgos
September 28th

Nearly all the places you walk through or to on the Camino are varying degrees of small. With a population of over 175,000, Burgos would be one of only 5 proper cities we would experience during our trek. From Atapuerca we had about 11 miles to reach it. We looked forward to the modern hotel that awaited us, a full day of not walking since we booked two nights, and doing laundry in machines instead of a sink.

The morning began with fog drifting and the sun blazing through it. Yesterday we climbed quite high, so with today’s manageable hill we reached an altitude of 3,537 feet. Going up we met a gentleman from Holland who had been walking since leaving his front door two days after retiring! He zoomed past me after we chatted, crested the summit, and I never saw him again.

At the top we saw a group of German pilgrims holding morning mass and singing by a cross. Instantly I began to think of the residents of Whoville getting together on Christmas morning even though all their presents were stolen by the Grinch. It was a beautiful sight.

Continuing west we reached the other side of the mountain, high up with the clouds and the drifting fog. Yes, we could also see an industrial smokestack belching cloud like plumes, which we would eventually walk past, but you gotta choose what to focus on. I chose nature.

After walking down into a small town we then came upon a highway with cars whipping by too fast. We were now deep in Burgos’ urban sprawl. Luckily we had done our homework, because there was a place where you could continue onward along the highway (the more direct route), or get on a natural path. Thankfully J’Nell saw the marker on the road, and we were both in agreement to walk longer to get away from the cars. Though it wasn’t scenic and took you around an airport, it was a great decision.

Hours later and after following a pleasant river park, we would finally arrive in the lovely town of Burgos. Our hotel room had a view of the city’s famous cathedral, and after relaxing and showering, we would head in that direction.

We waited through siesta time (where most restaurants don’t serve food) with beers, and we finally found an open kitchen. It wasn’t until hours after the sunset that Burgos came alive with a nighttime buzz of restaurants, bars, and music. After walking all day on the Camino, it was bedtime for us. Kind of a bummer, but we were too tired to get any Fear of Missing Out. On the Camino sleep is your friend.

The next day we would enjoy staying put in Burgos to tour the city. The cathedral was a highlight, the best church I had seen so far, and we had seen many gems. This one dated back to 1221, and as gorgeous as it is from the street, with its 15th Century spires looming over the city, stepping inside the church is a must. The interior is so chock full of amazing architecture and art, it would take years to examine them all. One highlight is a da Vinci oil painting, where the subject (Santa Maria Magdalena) looks like she could be a cousin of the Mona Lisa.

Another of my favorite places in Burgos was the Human Evolution Museum. It tells the story of the excavation of Atapuerca (the town we had just stayed in), where in the 1970s archeologists found remains of the earliest human ancestors to live in Europe (400,000 years old). Then in 2007 they discovered in the same caves bones of our caveman family that are 1.2 million years old!

Trying to wrap my brain around the enormity of human evolution was too much. But it made me think of all the beautiful churches I had seen on the Camino, the oldest of which had been built in year 1000 or later. Very impressive those structures are still standing, but to think of how long our species (and ancestors) have been wandering around this planet, there is some perspective to have.

I would take those thoughts with me as we left Burgos and walked west on the last day of September.

Foggy sunrise leaving Atapuerca

(Whoville) Mountain Mass

Sierra de Atapuerca at ridge of the Alto de Matagrande (3537 feet)

Keep following the Way, even when there is a smokestack in the distance

Approaching Burgos along its pretty riverside park

Arco de Santa Maria, the entrance to Medieval Burgos

View from our hotel room in Burgos

Catedral de Santa María (13th Century), Burgos’ iconic landmark

As beautiful as it is outside, the interior is more amazing

Leonardo da Vinci painting in Burgos

Museum of Human Evolution

Above Burgos

Pilgrim statue in Burgos