May 14, 2013. Vega de Valcarce to Alto do Poio

With 21km ahead of us that included 2 steep mountain climbs, one an increase of nearly 2,400 feet, we were out the door and on our way by 7 a.m.. The 14th Century Castillo de Sarracin loomed above and to our left, a shadowy outline in the early morning twilight.

The first few kilometers tracked along the rural N-VI roadway, which thankfully had very little traffic at that hour.

We continued through the tiny village of Ruitelan which was nestled in the shadow of the towering flyover bridgework of the busy A-6 expressway.

Within an hour of our departure we had reached Herrerias (pop. 600). Leaving the roadway behind us, we began our climb to O Cebreiro. The mountains that surrounded us kept us in shadows for another hour.

The ascending path was rock-strewn. Footfalls of countless pilgrims over the centuries had worn the trail as if it had been intentionally dug.

As we climbed the views extended outward and we were treated to stunning vistas, clear skies, and perfect weather.

About a kilometer before O Cebreiro we encountered a heavily graffitied stone monument marking the frontier border between the autonomous regions of Castilla y Leon and Galicia.

More than just a line on a map, this demarcation also heralds the entry into a culturally distinct region. At times, Galicia looks and feels more like Ireland than Spain. Thick stews are popular, and as one nears the coast dishes of fish, shrimp, and octopus become favorites of the inhabitants, and certain Peregrinos (me!).

Farms are small and their unique stone granaries (“horreos:”) become commonplace.

A regional language, galego, is still spoken. As in other Celtic countries there is a concerted effort to preserve the ancient languages and other long-held traditions. With Santiago de Compostela as its capital, we know that we are entering the final stretch.

 At an elevation of 4,300 feet, O Cebreiro is a tiny hamlet located at one of the highest points of the Camino. Its fame derives from a miracle alleged to have occurred in an ancient church situated in the village.

Dating to the 9th Century, parts of Iglesia de Santa Maria Real (Church of St. Mary) comprise one of the oldest buildings, and the oldest church associated with the Camino de Santiago. The original church was largely destroyed in the early 19th Century but rebuilt on the original foundation between 1965 and 1971. Within the church is the original baptismal font.

Many believe that on a wintery day in the 14th Century a tired priest was saying Mass in this small church. A peasant from a nearby village, having hazarded the arduous climb to the church in a raging snowstorm, entered the church at the moment of the Eucharistic Consecration of the bread and wine.  The priest took exception to the peasant’s late arrival, berated him accordingly, and further criticized him for having risked his life to merely watch a perfunctory religious ceremony.  At that moment the bread and wine were said to have miraculously transformed to the actual flesh and blood of Christ.

The Eucharistic miracle of O Cebreiro was confirmed in 1487 by Pope Innocent VIII. The chalice, particles of the transformed bread and wine were placed in a reliquary that was donated by Queen Isabella. In addition to the baptismal font, the paten and chalice associated with the miracle have been preserved. The church also contains a statue of the Virgin Mary that dates to the 12th Century.

The importance of the miracle is such that the flag and coat of arms of Galicia include the image of the chalice and Eucharist.

At O Cebreiro we found ourselves literally above the clouds.

The village is not only a  literal and figurative “high-point” on the Camino, but it attracts flocks of non-Peregrino tourists. Virtually all accommodations here were booked.

We took time to wander through the hamlet, take some refreshments, and of course some pictures.

This “Palloza”, a design which dates to pre-Roman times, is located at O Cebreiro.  The image is courtesy of the internet.

As luck would have it, when we arrived at O Cebreiro a taxi pulled up in front of us. Exiting the cab was Patricia, a pilgrim from New York. Weeks earlier at Orisson Refuge she had made a tactless public comment when Christine arranged transport to avoid the very difficult climb over the Pyrenees Mountain pass to Roncesvalles. “Real pilgrims carry their packs and walk every step of the way.” Apparently her definition of a “real pilgrim” had changed over the course of the last 700km.

Our destination for the day was 9km ahead, Alto do Poio. Although it is situated at nearly the same elevation as O Cebreiro, the path descends in the interim and then makes a wicked climb over the last 1km to the highest point on the Camino in Galicia (4,380 feet). At the top are two lodging options situated on opposite sides of a road, and little else.

After mentally flipping a coin we registered for the night at Hostal Santa Maria do Poio. It appeared a more comfortable option than the albergue across the way, plus activity outside of the albergue hinted at a full complement of customers.

Checked into our room we moved with beers in hand to outside tables bathed with warming sunlight from the still clear sky. A few minutes later we were joined by our Camino friend, Kris Ashton of Denver Colorado.

Back at O Cebreiro Kris heard that we had recently passed through. She put her walking shoes into “high gear”, hoping to catch us. By the time that she reached Alto do Poio she believed that she had lost us. Fortunately, she saw us just as we sat down across the way to enjoy our restful libations (aka beer!). She joined us for a rest and an adult beverage before continuing on another 3km to her intended destination for the night, Fonfria. We did not know it at the time, but this effectively began the final stretch of the journey into Santiago, the 3 of us sharing company, stories, and cementing a friendship that has endured now for over 8 years. One of the most valuable and enduring gifts of our 2013 Camino.

Peace Everyone. And of course, Buen Camino! Pete

 

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:

“My Camino, the Podcast”, interviewing Peter Schloss
Peace Everyone, 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.

May 13th.

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.

Peace Everyone, and Buen Camino! Pete

 

May 11, 2013. El Acebo to Ponferrada.

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.

Peace Everyone, and Buen Camino. Pete

 

May 10, 2013. Rabanal to El Acebo.

To some walking the Camino the Cruz de Ferro (“Iron Cross”) is at best a curiosity and at worst an eyesore that spoils an otherwise pristine high mountain vista. It is a house-sized pile of stones sprouting an overlarge telephone pole that is capped with a small iron cross.

To others it is a mystical place, a place for silent spiritual contemplation, with each stone marking the passage of one of countless pilgrims who over the centuries have passed this highest point of the Camino on their way to Santiago. Each stone is a burden cast aside and a hope taken up that one’s life may someday be measured favorably in the Final Judgment. To all it is a magnet, an irresistible draw for those walking “The Way”.

In making our preparations to walk the Camino we had not neglected to prepare for this day. Christine and I had each carefully selected stones to carry as metaphors of our life burdens. Mine was small and of red granite. I had “harvested” it over 25 years earlier in rural northwest Missouri, one of thousands that we and our children had cleared by hand from acreage upon which we made a home and raised our children through their teenage years. Although we had sold the home and land 15 years before setting out on the Camino, I had taken a selection of those red granite rocks in 1998 to our next home in suburban Kansas City and then again years later to our current house in the central city where they remain vine covered and almost forgotten beneath a large pine tree.

Why have those stones followed me for the last 34 years? Perhaps for the same reason that a small one from their number accompanied me to Spain and now resides among countless others, 4,940 feet high upon a mountain at the foot of a curious telephone pole that is capped with an undersized iron crucifix.

On the morning of May 10th we set out from Rabanal. I was still filled with wonder at my time spent the prior evening with an aged German monk inside the town’s ancient cave-like chapel (see Part 33).

The Cruz de Ferro was 8km distant, but at a climb of nearly 1,200 feet Christine elected to take a taxi to the cross and wait for my arrival. In turn I walked in the company of Dutch pilgrim, Jacobien Ubbink. 5 years later “Jackie” would graciously host us as guests in her home and show us the sights of Amsterdam as we wound our way through Europe.

It was a beautiful day. The sky reflected turquoise and just a hint of a chill showed as wisps of fog on our breath.

As we walked, Jackie and I each shared parts of our personal stories. She had recently lost her father and was still working through that grief. She reflected that her father often encouraged her to periodically stop and turn to see where she had been.

Where one has been often looks different when viewed from where one is. I remarked at what a wonderful lesson those words provided, not just for a physical journey but for one’s journey through life. Her father was a wise man.

Along the way we paused at fountains to drink and fill our bottles.

The mountains and meadows became more prominent as we climbed the trail through the pass of Irago and arrived in the tiny village of Foncebadon.

Local tradition holds that during the Middle Ages the town was granted a tax exemption in return for placing 800 stakes to mark the path of the Camino as an aid to Peregrinos. Over the years the once thriving town fell to ruin and was virtually abandoned by the 1990’s. In recent years the resurgence of interest in the Camino has brought to Foncebadon a small renaissance in the form of building renovations and the establishment of a store, Albergues, and a café that have become popular on the route.

Our climb continued along a track that passed various nameless (to us) ruins.

In the distance that “curious telephone pole” came into view and beckoned to us as it had for millions of others over the centuries.

At the Cruz de Ferro we were greeted by Christine. She had delayed her departure from Rabanal so as not to spend an excess of time waiting for us at the top. She had been there for about an hour and embraced the opportunity to watch the arrivals and departures of scores of pilgrims. She reported seeing a spectrum of reactions. A group of bicyclists took turns riding to the top of the stone pile, touching wheels to the pole, while others of the group took pictures. A van arrived, disgorging a group of people who each hurriedly cast stones on the pile only to board the van with virtually no pause and then drive off. Poignant was a pilgrim who asked her to take his picture at the cross. With great care he slowly ascended the stone pile and reverently left a pair of crutches at the base of the cross. Kissing the crutches and making the Sign of the Cross, he descended with the same slow care with which he had climbed.

We found that the crutches were among other non-stone artifacts left by passing pilgrims. There were religious items, prayer flags, funeral cards, pictures of loved ones,… and sadly, a baby’s silver spoon.

Christine and Jackie shared a bench at the side of a small chapel near the cross.

They talked of the pain felt over the recent loss of parents, Christine’s mother, Doris Nichols, having died 2 years earlier. Thought of their tearful embrace still stirs deep emotion within me and contemplation of the passing of my father (2009), mother (2020), and father-in-law (2020).

One aside: The iron cross atop the pole is not the original. It is a reproduction that replaced the original cross which may still be seen in Gaudi’s Palacio Episcopal in Astorga.

The three of us continued on together to El Acebo. At times the path changed from mountain trail to lightly trafficked lane. Christine remarked that the song, “I’m On the Top of the World Looking Down On Creation,” kept playing in her head.

We passed the unusual “eco-albergue” at Manjarin which was bedecked with all varieties of flags and banners.

The 35 pilgrims who choose to make the night here are afforded mattresses and the simplest of accommodations. Water is solar heated, and heat is provided by an open fire. A simple communal dinner is served. I would have enjoyed the experience, perhaps on another Camino.

We arrived in El Acebo where we enjoyed cold beer on a delightful sunlit patio.

Christine and I decided to forgo a night in an albergue in favor of the charming accommodations of La Casa Del Peregrino, a simple adjoining hotel.

The evening concluded with a sunset stroll through town, a few pictures, and thoughtful consideration that my Camino had become something far greater than a mere checkmark on a bucket list.

Peace Everyone, and Buen Camino. Pete

PS. It is traditional to say a prayer at the Cruz de Ferro. Along with my stone I carried my prayer, typed on a small piece of paper. After I recited it I returned it to my pack. It remains among my possessions, a memento of a day briefly spent closer to Heaven.

“Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the Pilgrimage that I lay at the foot of the Savior’s cross, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so, Amen.”