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

 

 

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”:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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