In the very early hours of October 13, 2021, I received a text message from an Australian, Dan Mullins. I was soon to learn that Dan is a well-regarded singer-songwriter and for nearly 20 years a top radio show producer based in Sydney.
Dan has been following my twice weekly “blogs” and asked if I would be willing to sit as a guest on his weekly show, “My Camino, the Podcast”. I agreed.
Friday evening, October 15th, 5:30 p.m. my time, and 9:30 a.m. Saturday his time, we engaged in a wide ranging one hour “chat”. I don’t think that one hour of my life has ever passed so quickly. The interview aired on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
Regarding the interview, Dan wrote:
“Peter Schloss is compiling his Camino journals for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’ll come to know and love the spirit of adventure with which Peter and his wife Christine have lived their lives… You’re going to love this episode.”
Here is the link to our conversation on Dan’s podcast which opens first with Dan’s tribute to Phil Volker who passed away earlier in the week:
Over the course of the weeks that we walked the Camino in 2013 I kept notes which I “wrote” one finger stroke at a time on my tiny iPod-touch. Some notes were lengthy essays, some just short memos, and others merely providing links to photographs taken that day. I shared these missives with friends and relatives by email and on Facebook. Fortunately, I archived these notes. They have proven to be a trove of long forgotten information, valuable in the creation of these detailed posts. The preceding post and what follows below are two of these essays. They are presented verbatim in order to provide further insight into my thoughts and our experiences.
“What is a Peregrino.” Written May 14, 2013 at Alto do Poio, Spain.
On the Camino, we are confronted each day with carved and painted images of St. James, the original Peregrino.
Even though these are often stylized portrayals, if he walked the Camino today there would be no mistake that he is a Pilgrim. Here is a quick summary of his “qualifications”:
Practical Shoes. St. James is usually shown wearing sturdy leather boots, shoes, or sandals. Modern Pilgrims are no different, if you discount the “Crocs” that are worn by some in the evening.
A wide brimmed hat. This important piece of equipment protects the head and eyes from the sun’s assault, the discomfort of rain, and also provides warmth in the morning and evening. Modern Peregrinos usually wear hats. Check!
A weatherproof cape. This simple ankle length woolen cloak sheds rain, is vented, and doubles as a sleeping blanket. Today, we separate these functions among a poncho, windbreaker, and sleeping bag. For those focused on an ultralight pack, St. James may have had the better idea.
A hiking stick. Modern Pilgrims seem equally divided in preference between going “stickless”, using St. James’ classic single walking stick, and employing twin trekking poles. St. James didn’t have the chance to evaluate the latter option.
A water vessel. If the images are to be believed, St. James carried a hollow gourd to transport his drinking water, a simple and eco-friendly solution. He might have smiled upon the modern Camelbak, but I think he would have been appalled by the throwaway plastic bottles that dot the Camino.
These are the essentials for a Peregrino, then and now. The modern Pilgrim may stress over packs, socks, GPS, cell phones and Wi-Fi, but St. James might have seen such items as more a distraction rather than an aid to his journey. I admit that on these matters I often fell to the temptations of the “just in case” dark side.
A few days ago I was presented with another view of who is a Peregrino. During evening Vespers at a monastery, a Monk delivered a brief, but powerful message. He cautioned us to be mindful that Christ walked the Camino. He added that Jesus was disguised as a Pilgrim, and that Our Lord was careful not to announce His identity. I accepted the Monk’s admonition as a homilist’s metaphor. However, the message has been working on me as I find myself thinking as I pass Pilgrims on the Camino, “What if she…, or he…?”
I find that his words have caused me to be a bit more sincere and thoughtful when I say “Buen Camino”, perhaps a little kinder, maybe a little less inclined to judge, exercising more patience.
That Monk and the “disguised Peregrino” that he dedicates his life to serve are indeed intriguing.
Peace Everyone. Have Fun, Do Good, and Be Safe! And of course, Buen Camino! Pete
Over the course of the weeks that we walked the Camino in 2013 I kept notes which I “wrote” one finger stroke at a time on my tiny iPod-touch. Some notes were lengthy essays, some just short memos, and others merely providing links to photographs taken that day. I shared these missives with friends and relatives by email and on Facebook. Fortunately, I archived these notes. They have proven to be a trove of long forgotten information, valuable in the creation of these detailed posts. What follows below and in the next post are two of these essays. They are presented verbatim in order to provide further insight into my thoughts and our experiences.
“What is a Camino.” Written May 13, 2013 at Vega de Calcarce, Spain.
We have encountered some “interesting” notions of what constitutes a Camino, both from people on and off “The Way”. Officially, to earn a Compostela in Santiago, one must have walked or ridden by horseback the last 100km (60 miles) or bicycled the last 200km as a continuous journey. Those are the “rules”, plain and simple.
Nevertheless, we have encountered some “unofficial” takes on what constitutes a Camino. There was a young lady who zipped past me, hellbent on covering over 800km to Santiago in 20 days. In her mind there were grades of Pilgrims and Caminos, based upon speed. She even had a book, “Hiking the Camino in 20 Days”, and she was aiming to be among the fastest.
There was a couple that we encountered who had determined that “Real Pilgrims” carried their packs each and every step of The Way. (Note: There are services that transport your pack from place to place for from 5 to 7 euros a day). Their definition changed when one of them found it physically necessary to use the service.
Another pilgrim declared the journey must be 800km, and “unbroken”, even though it is common for Pilgrims to complete a Camino in increments over a series of years. That Peregrino also changed his view of a Camino when injury forced a hiatus.
Finally, there are those who decry the use of any alternative transportation in the course of the journey. I wondered if this disqualifies the use of elevators.
For most who are on the Camino, or who have completed a Camino, the understanding is that each Peregrino’s Camino is their own. Those who spend time and energy evaluating the journeys of other Pilgrims, miss the opportunity to appreciate their own journey.
The “original Peregrino” was St. James the Apostle, for whom Santiago is named, and in whose footsteps we follow. He traveled The Way to spread The Word. Is it possible that he spent an extra day here and there to deliver his message? Or that he accepted the occasional offer of a ride in an oxcart from a kind farmer or merchant?
We have had the good fortune to become friends with a fellow Pilgrim who is so comfortable with her Camino that it means more to her to enjoy the gifts of friendship along The Way than to focus upon reaching Santiago de Compostela and “earning a piece of paper”. Those are her words.
In life, as on the Camino, wouldn’t it be a blessing if each person focused on achieving their own best Journey, rather than policing and critiquing the Journeys of others?
Peace Everyone. Have Fun, Do Good, and Be Safe! And of course, Buen Camino! Pete
May 12-13, 2013. Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo and Vega de Valcarce.
May 12th was a largely unremarkable day on the Camino. Perhaps that statement is a bit of an oxymoron. By definition any day on the Camino is remarkable when one considers the undertaking and uniqueness of the experience as a whole.
24 km with little change in elevation ahead, we left Ponferrada with the Castillo de los Templarios illuminated by the first rays of the morning sun. Distinctive Camino waymarks guided our path through and out of this city of 62,000.
We walked by vineyards well into their Spring growth,
and of course there were the occasional monuments to St. James the Pilgrim.
13km along our route we entered the town of Cacabelos (pop. 5,000) where the belltower of the 16th Century church of Santa Maria provided roosts for enormous storks.
These huge birds seemed to act as sentinels wherever they found a platform for their massive nests. I wondered at the size of these birds and the weight of their nests. The answers: The White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) measures nearly 4 feet, beak to tail, and often has a wingspan of up to 7 feet. They are migratory birds that winter in Africa.
Carnivores, they are known to eat small mammals, reptiles and other birds. As for their nests, they measure up to 5 feet in diameter, can be over 6 feet tall, and often weigh over 500 pounds. Of course, storks do not deliver babies into the hands of parents-to-be. This ancient legend was popularized in the 19th Century by Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Storks.
Now back down to earth. A few kilometers later we entered a small wooded area where an artisan had established his own “roost”.
He was expertly carving wooden Camino shells and doing a brisk business with passing pilgrims. We were among his customers.
The coin in the picture is to give a sense of scale.
Continuing, we passed an interesting elevated thatched hut, known as a Palloza. These buildings are characteristic of pre-Roman structures which were once common in this region. (It is also possibly a horreo, for the storage of grain)
Between Cacabelos and Pieros the Camino followed a lightly travelled roadway, crossing the Rio Cua.
Nearing Villafranca del Bierzo we passed what was perhaps the most picturesque vineyard on the entire Camino. What a delight it would have been to spend an afternoon there absorbing the ambiance, a bottomless glass of red in hand.
We arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo in mid-afternoon. This quant village of 5,000 inhabitants is dominated by the 13th Century Convento de San Francisco,
the 12th Century Romanesque Church of Santiago,
and the 4 towered 16th Century Castle of the Marqueses de Villafranca.
The north face of the Church of Santiago features the Puerta del Perdon (“Door of Forgiveness”). One of two such “Doors of Forgiveness” on the Camino, the other being in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
It is held that a believer who prayerfully walks through the door seeking forgiveness is automatically granted a plenary indulgence, a pardon for all past sins. The doors are only open during Jacobean Holy Years which are years that the 25th of July falls on a Sunday.
For our night’s lodging we again opted for a hotel rather than an albergue. While we enjoyed the communal experience of an albergue, the moderate price difference of a simple hotel included a private bath and breakfast. We were typically paying 35€ per night for a hotel or casa rural whereas an albergue for the two of us was usually about 14€. By the time we factored in buying breakfasts, the price difference was minimal while the comfort difference was significant. On this occasion we were guests in the decidedly upscale (and at over 50€, more expensive) three star Las Donas del Portazgo. Still a bargain for these two weary pilgrims.
Our room provided a commanding early morning view of the sights of Villafranca del Bierzo, thanks in part to the telephoto optics of my camera. Refreshed, we were “on the road” shortly after 8 a.m..
The Brierley Guide identified this as the 26th of 33 “stages” with the destination for the day being O Cebreiro, 30km distant. The suggested “stage” would also include one of the steepest climbs on the Camino. Whether or not I was up for this, Christine was not. We decided that our personal “stage” would end at 19km in the town of Vega de Valcarce. There was another decision to make for the day; whether to hazard the longer but more difficult yet contemplative “Dragonte” or “Pradela” routes, or take the shorter (and much flatter) route that follows the Rio Pereje Valley. Unfortunately, the river valley, though shorter, also tracked along the busy N-VI roadway.
If it had just been me, a hike into the mountains would have been preferable. However, it was not just me. With a nod to Christine we left Villafranca behind us, following the road and river to Vega de Valcarce.
This route was not without its hazards. However, those dangers were more human than nature inspired. We traded the leg and lung taxing climb on a rocky and irregular mountain path for the traffic and noise of the “low road”.
The chosen route presented its own interesting features. A long walk through a traffic tunnel inspired a rush of adrenaline.
A safety barrier granted some measure of physical protection, but the road noise was unabated.
A grocery delivery van featured huge images of octopus tentacles. A mouthwatering delicacy in Spain, not so much in America. I smiled at the thought.
The tiny Iglesia de San Juan Bautista made for a pleasant stop and a moment of reflection in Portela de Valcarce.
Approaching Vega de Valcarce we were struck by the lofty highway overpass that (thankfully) routed most high speed traffic up and over this quiet community.
Our first order of business upon arrival was to secure lodging for the night. Thankfully, that proved an easy task. Las Rocas, a Casa Rural, was clean, pleasant, and featured a balcony overlooking the river. It would be more than sufficient.
The town featured a fair amount of commerce, and some unusual art in the form of a frightful giant carved from the stump of a tree. Behind the statue stood another elevated Palloza. (It is also possibly a horreo, for the storage of grain)
As we wandered through the small town (pop. 600) I happened to see a barbershop. It had been over 6 weeks since my last haircut and I was long overdue. One would not typically consider entering a barbershop as a risk endeavor, however the language barrier presented some challenges. Christine remained dubious as we entered the shop.
The barber spoke no English, and I virtually no Spanish. Nevertheless I was able to gesture my tonsorial intentions. I have often said that I can fluently point in over 27 languages. In turn, the barber was able to share that it was his 65th birthday. He also made it known that he was happily married and blessed with 5 grandchildren. With practiced expertise he set about to exercise his craft.
There are a few haircuts that stand prominent in my memory. I recall the first time that I was not asked by the barber to sit on a booster seat. I remember as a rite of passage the first time my father had to pay full price for my mid-1960’s crewcut, and the first time that a barber applied hot lather around my ears and neck before finishing the job with a straight razor trim. Sadly, that bit of pampering seems to have gone the way of such hair “tonics” as Hask, Vitalis, and Brylcreem (“A little dab will do ya!”)
One of the most memorable haircuts I ever had occurred in 2010 in Smith Center, Kansas. That “Nine Dollar Haircut” was the subject of a well-received essay written in 2018.
I don’t recall what my Spanish haircut cost, but the gentleman’s skill was obvious. He finished the job by sculpting with a rock steady hand and a gleaming straight razor, another skill that seems to have disappeared in America.
This was another haircut that will live long in the pantheon of my treasured memories.
All that I needed to do to cap a near perfect day was return with Christine to that balcony overlooking the river and pour another glass of wine. Life is good.
Neither of us were in a hurry to leave the comfort of our room and balcony which overlooked the town of El Acebo. A second night under the roof of La Casa del Peregrino would have been most welcome. However, 12 days and 224km lay between us and Santiago.
The day broke with spectacular clarity and so after a continental breakfast courtesy of our hosts, we were off. It took us mere minutes to reach the edge of the tiny mountain village. We paused at an unusual sculpture of a bicycle constructed from heavy gauge concrete rebar.
It was a memorial to the memory of a fallen 26 year old German pilgrim, Heinrich Krause, who died descending the difficult passage out of El Acebo on August 31, 1987.
Our path to Ponferrada would cover 22km. Parts of the 1,840 foot descent were treacherous underfoot. Thankfully, the rocky path was dry.
Little except spectacular countryside separated us from the substantial village of Molinaseca (pop. 800) situated 9km and a steep 1,500 feet below.
Spring was evident at the lower elevations with an abundance of wildflowers in bloom.
A brief pause allowed me to examine a huge Chestnut tree, part of a grove of these mystical trees (“Castanas”).
Occasionally we had to give way to rapidly descending Camino bicyclists who (usually) signaled their approach. It was my impression that it would have been a bad day for all concerned had we not immediately stepped off the path. The trail was such that it took all of their skill to keep (barely) in control down the mountainside.
Our approach to Molinaseca briefly followed a well-traveled roadway but turned into the center of town by crossing an ancient bridge over the Meruelo River, Puente de Peregrinos.
The bridge led directly to the town’s narrow pedestrian way that ran straight through the heart of the village.
An interesting fountain and statue of St. James was worth a momentary rest and picture as we left Molinaseca.
Between Molinaseca and the historic village of Campo there were more wildflowers and, sadly, another monument to a fallen pilgrim. Joseph Carty of Ireland died walking the Camino in 2005, at the age of 78.
4 km after Molinaseca is the village of Campo. We stopped to examine an ancient Roman era cistern. It still produced water, however signs indicated that the water was not potable.
Another hour afoot and we found ourselves entering Ponferrada via the remarkable Puente Mascarón that crosses the Rio Boeza.
Ponferrada (pop. 70,000) is the second largest city in the Province of Leon, and the largest city from this point to Santiago. The city, originally founded by the Romans around 20 BCE, was central to Rome’s largest silver and gold mining region. Ancient mining sites are still visible, among them Las Médulas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The city derives its modern name from the iron reinforcements installed in the bridge over the River Sil, commissioned in 1082.
Proceeding further into the city we visited the 16th Century Basilica de la Encina where Christ is realistically (startlingly?) depicted post crucifixion in a glass coffin. The church was elevated to the status of a basilica due to reports that an image of the Virgin was believed to have been found in a nearby oak tree.
Beyond the Basilica we arrived at the Castle of the Knights Templar (“Castillo de los Templarios”).
This 12th Century fortress was erected in order to provide protection for Pilgrims walking the Camino. The fortified compound covers nearly 175,000 square feet, roughly the size of a modern sports stadium, and was constructed at the peak of Templar power.
Unfortunately for the Knights Templar their power was seen as a threat to the authority of Pope Clement V who in 1312 ordered that they be disbanded and their property confiscated.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that a festival was underway at the castle.
Reenactors dressed in Templar period clothing and sporting arms and armor were entertaining visitors with demonstrations of swordsmanship, the making of chainmail, embroidery, and arrow fletching.
Our day concluded with a walk through the gardens of the Albergue San Nicolas de Flue, where a monument declared that only 202km now separated us from Santiago.
We again decided to forgo a night in an albergue in favor of a simple hotel. On this occasion it was the 2 star Hostal La Encina which provided us with an excellent view of the Castle from our room. (Pictures courtesy of the Hotel’s website)
Before retiring for the night we encountered French Camino friend, Natalie, who I had not seen since Calzadilla de los Hermanillos.
After the drama and dicey weather of recent days, today was a welcome change, shared entirely in the company of my wife, a damsel definitely not in any distress.