Lost in the Fog

With my new novel Lost in the Fog about to be published, in September of 2019 I embarked on a four month trip to France, Spain, Portugal, and the Caribbean. The main reason for the journey was to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 550 mile pilgrimage. With this blog, I am excerpting from the journal I kept and am sharing what made it so special. David Lynch once said "getting lost is beautiful", and my voyage embodied that definition.

October 18, 2019
Day 37 on the Camino
Today’s Walk: O’Cebeiro to Triacastela

The municipal albergue in O’Cebeiro has an 8 am check-out time, and stepping outside, the mountain air chills my hands and face.  J’Nell and I have breakfast and then walk over to the stone wall at the edge of town.  It’s too early for sunrise, but the sky grows lighter in the stillness of the dawn over the valley, and we are treated to a foggy and mystical view.

Rain is in the forecast, but as we set out it is dry.  Looks like most people left earlier, and we once again have the trail almost to ourselves for most of the day. The path out of town is nice crushed rock and sand, just like yesterday once we reached Galicia.  However, there is a ton of up and down, and it is like a rollercoaster along the hillside.  

Linares is the first place we reach, and it seems deserted.  The fog is thick, and has an almost otherworldly quality as it drifts through the town.  This can’t be much different from what a pilgrim would have experienced in the Middle Ages.

There is the gray of the fog, the gray of the stone buildings, the gray of the sky, and the vivid green grass you glimpse through the diaphanous haze.  Soon we reach San Roque, at 4,167 feet reaching toward the sky, with its famous and very tall pilgrim sculpture.

In Hospital de la Condensa we ring the bell of their church, and it’s a wonderful feeling tugging on the rope and hearing that chime.  Soon afterwards we don our light, plastic ponchos as the mist turns to rain. There is a steep incline ahead and I try to crest it as fast as I can in this weather.  At the top we continue in the inclement conditions for another 3 kilometers to Fonfria, where we warm up with coffee, a sandwich and a cheesecake at a cozy place called A Reboliers.   

We sit across from three young women who are all being positive and spiritual, and are enjoying their good vibes until a guy walks in and interjects himself into their conversation.  It is the same person, tall, maybe in his early 30’s, we overheard complaining at the albergue that morning.  I caught pieces of it while getting ready to leave, but mostly tuned him out.  J’Nell heard the whole exchange. 

She later says his diatribe at the café is almost word-for-word from the albergue.  The crux is he is pissed there were no blankets provided in the municipal (you should never count on that…they did have some but they were all taken), and that we were “kicked out like dogs” in the cold at 8:00 am.  He kept saying it wasn’t “Christian”.  I wanted to clap when one of the women perfectly counters every single one of his arguments with something positive, and put the responsibility for his ailments back on him. 

You can ring my bell …

At a town called Biduedo we see “the tiniest chapel, and continue downward.  We’re finally able to take off our ponchos when the sky clears, and at Fillobil we catch up to the nice Australian lady (cannot remember her name) we first me when leaving Ponferrada.  We talk while heading into the beautiful valley, but then she realizes she left her phone and glasses at the cafe in the last town.  

She sprints back up to get them, and then ten minutes later, just as we about to cross the highway, a car parks at the side of the road.  A woman carrying glasses and a phone rushes by us up to trail.  J’Nell notices the objects and lets her know we had been with the person who left them, and that she is heading back up.

How amazing for that lady to drive down the mountain and run up the path to try and find a complete stranger.  It is the true the spirit of the Camino.  We would see the Australian woman later that night, and while she retrieved her glasses and phone, she didn’t know the effort that had been expended.  She greatly appreciated hearing about it.

J’nell and I keep going down, down, down past the rolling green hills until we reach a small village and are greeted by an adorable kitten who comes right over to me.  I pet her, she rubs up against my leg, and keeps following us when we continue on our way.  The kitten eventually turns around once we reach the rocky path downward.

We next pass an 800 year old gigantic Chestnut tree with its gnarly branches and thick trunk, and it’s only a short walk to Triacastela (named after the three castles that long ago stood in the town).  After showering we get beers and write in our journals at restaurant & bar Complexo Xacobeo.

Trevor would eventually walk in, and we hang with our new friend and have another great talk. He jokes that the thing he will miss most about the Camino when it’s over is being able to talk about his feet problems from walking. Nobody in New York will understand!

We have dinner there, which is quite good and probably the busiest restaurant we’ve seen on the Camino other than in the big cities.  The traditional Galician soup is the highlight of the meal.

October 19th (Saturday)- 6:21 pm
Meson O Tapas bar, Sarria
Today’s Walk: Triacastela to Sarria

Rain-O-Rama.  This is the worst weather day of the trip, and it will pour on us nearly every single step on the Camino.

The morning starts with a visit to reception to ask “Donde esta me ropa, por favor”?  We paid the proprietors 10 euro for them to do it, and last night the woman said she would leave our clean clothes aqui (here), and pointed to the spot.  But they were not aqui when we got back from dinner.  While someone stealing our ragged Camino clothes is unlikely, the thought flashes for a second of how much that would suck.  Thankfully they were still in the dryer.

There are two paths to Sarria, and while one is more remote and takes you to a beautiful monastery, it also adds 6.4 kilometers to the day’s walk.  That was out of the question in this weather, and likely would have been even if it was sunny.  So at 9:30 am we take the path to the right marked San Xil.  

J’Nell and I have mountains, forests, green fields, fog and mist to start the day. It makes me think of Ireland or Middle Earth, and although we are dealing with foul weather, it is beautiful.  The stone walls and moss and overhanging branches in the forest are enchanting.

We are only 2 kilometers into our day when the rain gets heavier.  With our new dark blue ponchos I figure we are protected from the elements. But J’Nell says she is feeling wet, and that’s when we realize the material, while beading water, is not actually waterproof.  Why sell a poncho that fits over your backpack that isn’t waterproof??  This is the first time on the whole Camino I actually experience any bit of anger.

Under an awning for cover, I help J’Nell take off the blue poncho.  She then gets the light plastic one we’ve been wearing that is more like a trash bag, puts it on, and then fits the other one over it.  I am stubborn and still pissed off, and keep wearing the one that doesn’t keep me dry. But truly nobody to blame here other than myself as I should have bought a real one from REI before leaving. I’ll eventually do the same as J’Nell and use the plastic poncho as an inside liner later in the day.

Soon afterward we hit steep hills with rocky, muddy paths and make our way up nearly 1000 feet. Being under the thick forest helps lessen the impact of the rain, but our feet are soaked.  We reach the town of Sans Xil, which consists of some stone buildings and no people anywhere, and we’re completely exposed to the rain all along the mountain pass.  It is windy and cold, and my shoes feel as if I’d gone swimming in them.

I have to make peace with the weather.

We’ve been so lucky since September 12th when we started, and to complain about the weather doesn’t seem right.  Nobody is forcing me to be here.  I chose to walk the Camino, and it is a privilege to do so.  

I think about my buddies B Doane & Bradleigh, Debe, who was a big mentor to me, and my grandparents.  They all passed away in the last decade, and I have a moment in the rain where I feel I am walking for them.  All possibly never even heard of the Camino, but in this terrible weather I am hit with the thought I am doing it for those who won’t get the chance.

Just when you think there is nowhere to shelter from the rain, we reach Terra de Luz, a cozy commune/donativo pilgrim’s oasis. There we see and chat with Sophie from France, who was part of the Meseta crew who became a big part of our Camino family.  I have green tea, a banana, and a cookie while getting a respite from the rain; we will show our appreciation with lots of gracias and also leave a donativo (donation) to help restock for the next group of pilgrims.

We are still 12 klicks from Sarria, and every kilometer would be tough ones in the non-stop rain.  We see plenty of cows, some horses, more green fields, and lots of trees.  We don’t pass any cafes, making us even more grateful the commune was open.

The remaining three miles to Sarria are on a dirt trail that parallels the main road, which has few cars traveling on it on this Saturday afternoon.  Thankfully so, because we are forced off the dirt path onto the pavement because mud puddles and bogs make it impassable. After reaching the edge of Sarria, we cross a river and go through the modern town center to find yet another hill to get to our hostel. 

Nearly at the end of the day’s walk in all that rain, seeing a bunch of steep steps, you can only sigh and chuckle.  We use Google Maps to help us find our hostel called Travesia Rooms, but it’s not where the pin says it should be. We ask a guy outside of a bar for help, and he graciously directs us to walk into the church grounds.  Our place is in in a narrow alleyway ten feet from the cathedral.

The shower in our private room and bath is hot, spacious, with good pressure, and is fully enclosed. I didn’t want to leave it.  Thankfully we also have working heaters, and we dry our shoes, socks, and clothes on them.  There is a café around the corner called La Travesia dos Sonos that is open.   

Cozy and welcoming, we are able to have a cooked-to-order delicious meal available at 5:00 o’clock! Most places only offer a pre-set pilgrim’s menu, and usually not available until 6 or 6:30 pm at the earliest.  At La Travesia we have baked cheese on toast with jam, Raxo pork (little bites with garlic), falafel, and grilled pimientos. Afterwards we walk around the town a bit, which has a nice medieval center and some cool, old buildings, and the sun shines on us!

October 17th (Thursday) – 9:20 pm
O’Cebeiro, Corolo Restaurant & Bar
Today’s Walk: Vega de Valcarce to O’Cebreiro

In the guide book today’s stage was supposed to be nearly 30 kilometers, including a daunting hike up to 4,265 feet.  But J’Nell and I had gotten off the recommended distances/stopping points several towns ago, and instead we chopped our walks up in a more manageable fashion.  On this day we would only need to go 12 kilometers to OCebreiro, but the ascent and terrain would be strenuous.

We started the morning with gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding us, as well as the towering modern bridge so high up in a mystical fog.  The sunrise was casting a Golden glow on the mountains ahead in the misty distance.  We also got to see the Templar Castle ruin upon the hill. Called Castillo de Sarracin, it’s believed to have been built in the 800’s and the restoration efforts are being lead by a Hungarian who went up there a decade ago and had a mystical experience.  It is too far out of the way to hike to and back for us, but would love to visit it in the future.

From the moment we left our casa rural, everything around us was so green and lush with the sun rising and the stunning sky and the puffy clouds.  We would pass cows and sheep, and then only 4 kilometers away we stopped for a coffee and breakfast at a cafe called Las Herrias. It would be the last proper town before almost reaching O’Cebriero.

We would soon take a left off the main road and enter the forest to begin our very arduous and rocky uphill hike. We were lucky the weather was sunny, as several of our friends posted photos via the WhatsApp text group of the same place that were foggy and rainy.

What I loved about this day’s walk is you had to turn around and periodically take in the sweeping vistas.  We hadn’t seen a lot of people all day, but as we approach O’Ceberio several pass us who are likely the overachievers who started early in the morning from Villafranca and did the whole 30 kilometers that’s recommended in the book.  Much respect to them, but of the dozen or so who passed us, few stopped to admire the gorgeous views behind them.  Most were too busy charging forward to make their distance quota.

The colors are so vivid in the mountains, high up there with those white billowy clouds, blue sky, and green rolling hills.  Just being in such unspoiled nature is mesmerizing.  The solitude of the altitude is peaceful and contemplative.

The last town before OCebreiro is Laguna de Castilla, and we stop at La Escuela Bar for a coffee (me) and a Coke (J’Nell).  Great to rest, as the final climb to town is going to be difficult.  Not only is it steep, rocky, and muddy, but you have to contend with the flies and an abundance of horse and cow poop.  The flies stick onto you and it’s possible the whole path is pure fertilizer. The stench increases the closer we get to the top.  But the views continue to be stunning and special!

We finally cross into the Galicia region of Spain, marked by a cool stone with two crests next to a red Templar cross.  In doing so we hit the 3rd highest summit on the Camino at the top of the Cantabrian Mountains.  At the stone wall at the edge of town that looks into the valley, we take more photos and thoroughly enjoy the moment.

We hadn’t booked a room in OCebreiro, which is a popular stopping point on the Camino, and we worry it could be full.  Somehow we find a private one available for 45 euros, but J’Nell is skeptical of the place after checking-in.  While I shower she finds both a dead and live bedbug.   She also reads some recent reviews of the place online, several complaining of the same experience.  Time to check-out!

I’m still in my towel when we get our money back, and I’m grateful J’Nell is so vigilant after detecting the room wasn’t very clean.  But I refuse to dwell on the negative as it was blissful walking up the mountain.  It’s also the only time on the whole Camino we experienced something like this, and I only note it for the record.

Luckily the municipal albergue, which is the largest we’ve stayed at with beds stacked one on top of another, has plenty of space.  What tonight’s dwelling lacks in atmosphere and aesthetics, it more than makes up for in functional antiseptic fascism.  I joke . . . the albergue is only 8 euros, very clean, the staff are friendly, and it’s a place to stay for the night with fellow pilgrims that doesn’t have (we hope) bedbugs. 

After getting settled into our cramped living quarters we head to Santa Maria Real, the town’s church where the foundation dates back to the 9th century.  Before going inside we watch a news lady interview a guy restoring a thatched roof.  Later when we’re at the bar, we’ll not only watch this story on TV with the locals (who are shushing each other so they can hear), but then the journalist and her camera crew come inside for a glass of wine.

Santa Maria is a very important church on the Camino, not for its antiquity but for recent history.  It contains the tomb of Elias Valina Sampedro, the priest who preached there in the late 20th Century, and is credited with the current Camino resurrection. He is the one who first painted the yellow arrows, researched where the original routes went, and wrote the first guidebook on it (in 1984) in centuries.  Very cool to pay him respect as we would not be here if not for Father Sampedro.

There is also a profound pilgrim’s prayer (in English) on a poster beside Sampedro’s tomb. I include a picture of it below for the full text, but share with you a powerful quote here:  “Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end and waited for every pilgrim in need of encouragement, or given my bed to one who arrived later than I, given him my bottle of water in exchange for nothing, if upon returning to home and work I’m not able to create Brotherhood or to make happiness peace and unity, I’ve arrived nowhere.” 

And now I sit here in this bar in OCebreiro with J’Nell drinking a slightly sweet but more smoky Spanish brandy that has a bull on the bottle. It was recommended by Trevor, our recently retired and very witty friend from New York we’ve lately been seeing nearly every place we go.   He just bid us goodnight, and we need to do the same and get back to the albergue for our 10 pm curfew. Though I’d rather linger here longer with my journal and this brandy, as it has warmed me nicely in the chilly mountain air.

October 15th (Tues) – 10:01 pm
Hostal Siglo XIX (Rm 303), Cacabelos
Today’s Walk: Ponferrada to Cacabelos

Drinking a glass (or a copa as I ordered it in Spanish) of Naraya Tinto Mencia.  So nice be enjoying this excellent local red wine in the Bierzo region where it’s produced.  And how about our cozy and funky room at Hostal Siglo XIX?  It’s got a slanted roof, an old stone wall, odd angles everywhere, and the shower is separate from the bathroom and directly faces the bed…with a see-through glass door!  That’s a bit weird, but I love this place.  And at 52 euros for a private room that is spotless and recently renovated, a bargain. 

J’Nell and I also had an excellent dinner at the restaurant downstairs that was three courses and only 18 euros for both of us.  Not only did I have the best steak I’ve eaten in Spain, but maybe the best anywhere all year; it was thick, perfectly cooked with just a bit of sea salt and so tasty! And the staff were all extremely friendly.

Today’s walk was on the shorter side, about 15 kilometers, but still challenging after the tough one yesterday down the mountain.  We didn’t start until afternoon and it was almost all on paved roads, which can exacerbate pain in the feet and joints.  It’s crazy, but my feet hurt more today than yesterday.

We get a late start after savoring our comfy bed and taking advantage of my employee discount at the AC Marriott breakfast for only $5.50 euros.  We then stay in town and visit Castillo de Los Templarios.  I had marked the Templar Castle on the map long before we set out as it plays a big part in Paulo Coehlo’s Camino book (which I highly recommend).

Though part of the castle is closed for renovation, there is plenty to see and it’s a special place. The Templars are an intriguing subject, and I love so many towns along the Way pay homage to them. In Medieval times the Knights protected the pilgrims while they walked the Camino, and it’s very cool to experience their historic castle with excellent views of the town and the (very recently) snow-capped mountains.

Ponferrada is a medium-sized urban center of 70,000 people, but it lacks the charm of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, or Leon.  The sprawling newness of the surrounding city does not harmonize well with the historic, but small city center.  However, the Templar Castle is worth a visit and the AC Marriott is an outstanding place to stay.

Getting out of town seemed to last an eon.  It was more than an hour through mostly industrial areas until we reached Ermita Santa Maria de Compostela, which is just outside Ponferrada.  Built in the 1960s, the church looks Romanesque and has nice frescoes painted on the side the Camino passes. It is worth your time to stop and admire it.

Another 2 kilometers away is Columbianos, which has a nice church on the hill and bunch of historic buildings that are in the process of being renovated.  If I ever come back, it will be cool to see the town once everything is completed.  Though in the here and now, you have to navigate the construction areas, and we briefly lose the yellow arrows before asking a nice local who says we’re going the right direction.

The next part of the walk has orchards and vineyards, as well as mountains off in the distance under ominous clouds.  Stunning views, but it’s almost ruined because we are on the asphalt and sharing the too narrow road with cars.  And although there are not a lot of them, the vehicles travelling it are all speeding.

Fuentes Nuevas is only about 2.5 kilometers down the road, and it’s another crumbling town with lots of character.  We had read that there was a place open for wine tastings there called Bodegas Don Pedrones, and are excited to visit.  But when we make the 5 minute detour off the Camino, it is unfortunately closed.

So instead J’Nell and I go to the next bar we pass for a glass of local red wine that only costs one euro.  But truly the stop is more to warm up by the fireplace, use the aseo, (a term some places use for bathroom), and get off our feet.  Later on in the afternoon we get a chance for a proper tasting at Vinas del Bierzo, a local wine cooperative in Camponaraya. I also buy a bottle there and stick it in the side of my pack for us to drink later.

We still have about 7 kilometers to walk, but it is the best scenery of the day.  After going up the hill past tall trees on either side, J’Nell and I cross a pedestrian bridge over the freeway with great vistas of the mountains.  Next we continue along a people-only path through vineyards that are turning colors like New England fall foliage with rolling hills and those gorgeous mountains off in the distance.

Getting closer to Cacabellos, we meet the 30ish Ari from Montreal. He had passed us a bit earlier, but we catch up to him when it begins sprinkling and he dons his backpack cover. He is very nice and easy to talk to, and shares with us he had lost over a 100 pounds in training for the Camino.   

We also see another woman pass us, and are surprised there are two other pilgrims on the Camino so late in the day when its usually just us. It is 6:30 PM when we finally check-in, and after resting a bit, we dump all our clothes at the laundromat right across the hotel, have a beer a cool locals place on the square, and have that excellent dinner (which included a very tasty mushroom soup).

October 16th – 9:15 pm
Casa Rural El Recanto
Today’s Walk: Cacabelos to Vega Valcarce

We leave town at 9:15 AM to overcast skies in cool temperatures, passing an 18th century wine press and then Bodegas Luna Beberide, the winery that made the outstanding bottle we had at dinner last night.  We are along the highway the whole time to begin the day, and finally turn off it after the 200 kilometer marker.  Soon we are treated to a wonderful hike through rolling hills of vineyards of the Bierzo region.

I believe you could have stayed on the highway for a more direct route, but you would have missed a terrific couple of hours of stunning scenery. We briefly chat with a guy from Germany who’s done the Camino many times, and he says this is his favorite part.  There are mountains in the distance, perfect green rolling hills surrounding us, and vineyards turning autumnal in every direction.  We also have dramatic clouds overhead with the sun coming through in god-like rays.  All the way to Villafranca we see few people, and it is blissfully idyllic.

Around 11:30 AM we reach Iglesia de Santiago, and get to take in its famous Puerta del Pardon. It was here in medieval times you could get full blessing and pardon of your sins if, due to health reasons, you could not continue your pilgrimage to Santiago. The church isn’t open, but I climb up to the door and touch it.  

Strange to think you could go back in time 900 years to this very spot and recreate this experience.  Things like this connect you to historical Camino, and I love that.  Afterwards J’Nell and I continue down into Villafranca’s main square and have lunch on the patio.  Warmer than its been for some time, though maybe still somewhat too cool to be outside; I guess we are missing our Al fresco dining.

Next is a tour of the 11th century Colegiata de Santa Maria church, which features a beautiful Gothic interior and excellent stained glass windows.  Most people end their day’s stage here and stay in Villafranca, and I can see why. However, since we had gone off the book and did a shorter day into Cacabelos yesterday, we continue onward and see scant people the rest of the day.

The remaining steps of today’s walk mostly follow the highway, but the road is not busy and we traverse the pretty valley along the Valcarce River.  Sometimes you can hear the streaming water, other times it’s in your sight through the trees, but you always feel its presence.  Thankfully there’s also a concrete barrier separating you from any oncoming vehicles nearly the whole time.  Though there aren’t a lot of them because a new freeway is the preferred route, there are a lot of twists and turns in the road, and having the barrier adds a level of comfort.

J’Nell and I leave the path along the highway at various points to detour through Pereje, Trabadelo, Ambasmetas, and Portela de Valcarce.  In that last town we go inside the tiny, simple church called Iglesia de San Juan Bautista and it’s beautiful.  We also see a gaggle of geese, and one stuck his neck through the fence gate seeing if I would feed him (video below).  We then spy horses as we amble past to our stopping point of the day at Vega de Valcarce.

We reserved at a casa rural (a private, country house with multiple rooms for rent) called El Recanto, and we had to check-in and get our key at the delightfully scented bakery next door. After showering we get a drink at a bar down the street, purchase wine at the little market, and have our Pilgrim’s meal at El Refugio Del Cazador (which includes our first taste of the local Santiago Cake).  It’s a very sleepy town, and we go back to our room to enjoy the local vinto tinto and write in our journals.