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 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.

Monday, October 14th – 9:30 pm
AC Marriott (Rm 401), Ponferrada
Today’s Walk: Foncebadón to Ponferrada

Today was one of the most memorable experiences on the Camino.

J’Nell and I reach the highest point we will travel (1,515 meters or 4,970 feet) on the Frances Way of St James, spend hours up in the gorgeous and serene Leon Mountains, and eventually climb back down a steep and rocky path. With the mist, fog and drifting clouds, it is mystical.

The forecast calls for rain all day, and we wake in Foncebadón around 6 am to heavy downpours.  We both dread having to walk in these conditions, and get another hour or so of sleep in our comfy room. Trasgu is trasgu.

The precipitation is fairly light when we start our walk, though increases as we head toward the cross.  Thankfully thirty minutes later the skies grow lighter and the rain disappears.  Turns out we won’t have to deal with getting wet again until we begin our descent out of the mountains into the town of El Acebo three hours later.

The ceremony at Cruz de Ferro is special, and there are not many other pilgrims with us.  I think about the purpose of my journey and what my stone from Lynn Woods represents as I place it with the millions of others. Going beyond Rabanal yesterday (where lots of people stop), allows J’Nell and I to be at the cross early for a peaceful ritual. 

We continue walking along the ridge and look across the valley to the other side where we began.  It is spectacular with those views and the clean, crisp mountain air. We also don’t encounter many people along the way. 

The rain returns as we hike down, maybe 30 or so minutes from El Acebo (the first real town since leaving Foncebadón), and by the time we arrive there it’s pouring. We stop not only to get dry, but also for one of the best sandwiches (egg and cheese) we’ve had on the Camino.

When we leave the cafe it is only sprinkling, and maybe 4 Km later at Riego de Ambros it stops raining. The yellow 7 Euro ponchos we recently bought do a great job keeping us dry, along with the plastic disposable ones we had kept underneath. Except there is nothing to help our shoes, which are fully soaked.  

There is something about Riego de Ambros that speaks to me. We’ve been through similar looking towns, but I feel a special presence here similar to Castrillo.  The stone houses, many crumbling and for sale, the mountain setting, what we’ve gone through to get here, and the fact it seemed almost abandoned, makes it enchanting.

From Riego it is a steep and rocky descent off the mountain, but the sun actually shines on us!  We had been told today’s climb down was worse than the extremely arduous one into Zubiri we did weeks ago.  At first I didn’t agree, because even with the wet and muddy ground, you could at least step around the rocks and find smooth earth (not an option into Zubiri).  However, by the end of the trail upon reaching Molinaseca, I concur this precipitous hike had been more difficult.

It seemed the slope would never end! You experience the sheer, rocky part for a good length of time, but then the road becomes smoother.  You think the worst is behind.   Psych . . . more perilous, muddy paths ahead. Checking my photos, from 1:50 pm to 3:10 pm we go down that treacherous road with only a few places of respite.

But it was all so cool!  Honestly, the majority of the sixteen or so miles of today’s stage were invigorating.  And even with the hills and elevation change, I feel great physically at the end; my feet never throb, which usually happens after about 13 miles.  J’Nell believes it is because we were cold, our feet going through all those puddles, and the effect is similar to icing them.  That makes sense. 

But maybe the lack of pain has something to do with absorbing the beauty around us all day.  As much as I love the ocean, hiking in the mountains bonds us with our ancient ancestors (the ones I learned about back at the Evolution Museum in Burgos).  I’ve always connected on a deeper level spiritually when I’m thousands of feet above sea level.

Very arduous walking down the mountain, the toughest one of the whole Camino

We reach Molinaseca, the ending point of that day’s stage in the Breirly book, and stand at the bridge admiring the church to our left and the river below.  I turn back towards the mountains and appreciate the strenuous and beautiful trek we’ve endured. A storm is rapidly approaching, and within seconds it downpours.

Racing towards the first awning in town, a guy smoking a cigar on a bench there greets J’Nell and I in English.  He tells us he completed the Camino three years ago and never left (retired and originally from Atlanta, he now lives in the town). He recommends either of the two closest bars for a beverage, and we choose Cafe Donde Maria.  It is dumping rain now and we watch it out the window and hear it pound the pavement while enjoying our beers.   

Trevor makes his way inside (we last saw him at the place in El Acebo we had lunch hours ago), and we have a nice chat.  He tells us the whole time up on the mountain was fog and rain, and he couldn’t see anything.  We also talk with and share a beer with two nice ladies, Rosemary from England and Janet from Ontario. It is a warm and cozy in the bar, a perfect place to hide from the rain.

When we leave the sun returns, but we still don our ponchos for precaution. It is a smart move as the rain comes back the last 30 minutes into Ponferrada.  The whole walk from Molinaseca is on a sidewalk, appreciated after all the rough, rocky paths.  Thankfully there aren’t many cars on the road to our right.

There are two routes into town, one that passes by the bridge and the Old City Center, or we can stay along this path and it’s 1 Km shorter. Normally we chose the more scenic way, but instead go for brevity since it gets us closer to the hotel.  It’s nearing 6 pm, and we will see the bridge and city center tomorrow. 

Sunday, October 13th – 8:08 pm
Room 1 at La Posada del Druida, Foncebadón
Today’s Walk: Castrillo de Los Polvazares to Foncebadón

At 8:45 am J’Nell and I are treated to a brilliant sunrise rising over the exact center of town, casting a golden glow on the cobblestone street.  Simply stunning.  I would have liked to have stayed longer in the enchanting Castrillo de los Polvazares, but as always we must keep moving onward. 

We follow a quiet path on the alternative Camino with the gorgeous forest and amazing clouds until we join the main road.  Before leaving we had coffee, bread and jam at the albergue, graciously left for us by Basia and Bertran, so there’s no need to stop anywhere soon.  We pass through Santa Catalina de Somoza with more outstanding puffy and dramatic clouds all around us.

Leaving the enchanting Castrillo de los Polvazares

The next town ahead is El Ganso, and we are surprised to see so many people on the country road with the mountains rising in front of us.  Since we stayed overnight off a main stopping point in the book, we figured (wrongly) our timing was askew in our favor.  In El Ganso we enjoy coffee and a needed rest at the famous and funky-cool cowboy Bar, which has been open since 1991.

We keep climbing with clear skies to our right and ominous clouds ahead and to the left. Most of the people we saw this morning are gone, likely having already reached Rabanal, the main stopping point in this stage in the Brierly book. We skirt away from the paved road and every step is extremely rocky and uneven. We keep going up, up, up into the forest with these same conditions, and our feet take a beating.

We reach Rabanal and find the Benedictine monastery called San Salvador Del Monte Irago.  They welcome pilgrims to stay for two nights with a vow of silence. Last evening, after our research and discussion, J’Nell and I agree if they have open space, we will take part in their two day wordless retreat.  

With heavy rain on the forecast, the monastery seems like a good place to contemplate the journey we’ve experienced thus far while waiting for the storm to pass.  But unfortunately their office is closed until 2:30 pm, and as it’s only 1 pm, it’s too risky to wait.  To sit around for an hour and a half only to find out they’re booked would be a major bummer. So we charge onward and upwards.

It is another 5.5 Km to Foncebadón, a steady ascent into the mountains over more rocky paths.  But wow, the views!  And we only see maybe five or six other people as we climb.

This 1.5 hours of hiking is challenging, but very special. I take videos in an attempt to capture the quiet beauty of being in the mountains, but of course they’ll never accurately reflect the wondrous feeling of being here.  With the stunning clouds in this high altitude, it brings me back to the magical Day One on the Camino in the Pyrenees.

The air is so crisp and I inhale deeply.  I smell the freshness of the trees and the earth, and hear that lovely sound of bells jangling from the horses, cows, sheep or other animals we cannot see.  Magical.  We reach the town at 2:30 pm, turn back around for a look out at the land we just climbed.

We don’t have a reservation anywhere, and the first place we try, El Trasgu, is full.  Thankfully, directly across the street, La Posada del Druid has one private room left. It will turn out to be one of the nicest places we’ve stayed on the whole Camino thus far- super clean, modern, friendly staff, and has the best shower (fully-enclosed so the water doesn’t go everywhere, great pressure, and very hot) I’ve experienced in all of Spain.

After cleaning up and resting, we go across the street for beers at the Trasgu restaurant/bar.  I wonder what that word means, and when typing Trasgu into Google Translate, it answers me with the same name. This leads J’Nell and I to keep saying “Trasgu is Trasgu”, which cracks us up no matter how many times we repeat it and becomes a comical motto.

I do further digging, and Wikipedia says Trasgu is a mythological creature in Spain and Portugal who is a mischievous goblin.  We don’t find any of those at the bar, but there are several cute, mischievous kittens who roam outside near the sliding glass door.

It is nearly 7pm, and we’ve only eaten a light breakfast to go along with the nuts and olives we got with our beers.  So we walk back to our place for our three course dinner, which we paid 10 euros for each in advance when checking-in. A great meal of lentil soup, ham slices with pepper, and pudding with a cookie and an earthen jug of wine.

Tomorrow’s a big day, one I’ve been looking forward to since J’Nell and I decided to walk the Camino. We will get the opportunity to take part in the Cruz de Ferro ritual, where we will leave a stone we have carried with us from home at one of the most ancient sites along the Way. This will be at the highest point on the whole Frances Route, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level.

The place has been a significant spot pre-dating Christianity, as the Romans and Celts would leave offerings of gratitude to their pagan gods there.  As Christianity took hold in the region and pilgrims began walking the Camino, they would leave stones at this spot. In the 11th century the hermit Guacelmo, who founded Foncebadón, set the Cruz de Ferro (iron cross) on top of a tall oak trunk at the site. The one we will see tomorrow is a duplicate, as the original historical item is at the museum I visited in Astorga. 

The practice of leaving stones there, which has created a large mound surrounding the trunk and the cross that towers over it, continues today. From what I’ve read, doing so symbolizes either letting go of something, forgiveness, gratitude, or some kind of combination of the three.

On a visit to my hometown in July, I collected a small stone from Lynn Woods and it’s been in my pack since starting the trek. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what my rock can symbolize.  I will have these ruminations in my mind when we reach Cruz de Ferro early tomorrow morning, but will not share them here as some things should be kept to yourself.

One of the best places we stayed on the whole Camino
Journaling before bed with my stone from Lynn Woods I will place at the Cruz de Ferro