Notes from Carcassonne

Friday, 11/3/17

I’m sitting at the breakfast table at our AirBnB at the edge of the town of Carcassonne. This is the table where Bob and I had an epic battle of Croque-Carotte last night after dinner. Croque-Carotte is a game for little kids whose rules are apparently something like Chutes and Ladders; you command four plastic rabbits as they climb a plastic hill, but, once in a while, a hole opens up under your rabbit, dropping it into the darkness under the plastic hill and making it start over, presumably. The box says that the game has 4 out of 5 stars for luck and 0 out of 5 stars for thinking.

Bob and I opened our new bottle of Jack Daniels and wrote our own rules. Landing on another rabbit knocks him back to start. Falling through a hole is death to the bunny, not a “start over.” When all your bunnies are dead, they can be resurrected as zombies, coming up through the holes in the ground and staggering the wrong way down the hill. Touching a zombie bunny is death. Any bunny that has made it to the top of the hill is a queen; she can resurrect a zombie bunny of her own team but is killed by enemy zombies. And more rules of this kind. Many more.

When we pulled out this game off the shelf, I set up the camera and put it on a 10-second timer. Bob said we should look like the excited kids on the box, so we tried it, and, for some reason, the picture worked perfectly. We played Croque-Carotte for hours, inventing new rules every few minutes. I treasure Bob’s plaintive comment, very late in the evening, when I finally crushed his puny hopes and dreams: “You zombified my Bunny Queen!”

I met him in Barcelona on 10/31, at the Generator hostel, an excellent hipster crash site near La Sagrada Familia. We bought burritos at a place where the burrito guy spoke excellent English, where you could pay using a credit card, and where they had moved beyond cash registers – customers feed bills and coins into a chute on the front face of the counter. Barcelona is a modern marvel, vast and incredible beyond the dreams of a place like Santiago or Burgos or Leon.

And then we walked to La Sagrada Familia. The horrendous west façade and a swarm of tourists were the first things we saw, along with the omnipresent cranes and scaffolding, but the building is still stupendous. The sign said that the next available tickets were for six in the evening – more than three hours away – but we shrugged, went through security, approached the ticket counter, and were given tickets that allowed us in immediately! We didn’t know why we had gotten a special privilege, or even whether that’s what had happened, but we were delighted to be allowed inside while the sun was high and the stained glass glowed.

The entrance is on the east side, through the breathtaking Gaudi-designed façade. The interior beggars description. We took dozens of pictures, rode the elevator up one of the spires, tried to figure out where the enormous central tower is going to go – theorizing to our deep amusement that the huge cubical scaffolding, which leaves no room at its base for any construction, will allow them to build it from the top down – and then, as we left, found the basement, where there is a museum with some of Gaudi’s drawings, models, and his fantastic inverted catenary string visualization tools.

The cathedral is scheduled to be finished in 2026. We will have to return.

We walked south into the Gothic Quarter to get a couple of beers – maybe 20 minutes or half an hour of strolling while we discussed the Catalan flags that hung from the wrought-iron balconies of the apartments. Bob had landed in Barcelona on the same day as more than a million pro-unity demonstrators clogged the streets, making international news, but Bob hadn’t heard about this and booked a walking tour in the old district, somehow missing the entire event! The tour guide should have put his own profit aside and said something like, “Although a walking tour of the old district would be a good experience for you, you should know that an important and globally unique outpouring of public joy is happening right now that you would probably enjoy much more.” But that isn’t what happened, so there’s nothing to do but move on.

We sat at an outdoor table near some propane heaters and drank our Estellas while the light faded. When Bob said he was in the mood for Italian food, I checked TripAdvisor and found “Macaroni,” a nearby restaurant that was well reviewed. Bob was surprisingly familiar with this part of town (near the Picasso Museum), so we set off to find the restaurant. Our pasta was delicious, and the décolletage of our friendly waitress was charming and very French. As we paid for our meals, half a dozen kids in Halloween costumes swarmed into the restaurant. Our waitress had nothing to give them. One of the kids shouted through the door of the kitchen, demanding that his father come out to admire him and his friends.

The street had a few bands of happy kids and their parents, but the surge of trick-or-treaters ended almost immediately. Some teenagers were in Halloween regalia, but they were mostly self-absorbed and on their way to parties. We stopped to gawk at a machine that was embroidering the word LUST onto a billed cap (a promo item for a local porn company, we learned later), and Bob bought a hat for his friend, Nancy, that had BAMFTR embroidered on it. (“Bad Ass Mother Fucking Trail Runner” – an inside joke.) Then we caught the Metro back to Generator and called it a day.

Our train left the Sants station at 7:20 in the morning, forcing us out of bed before 6:00. The instructions in the email that accompanied my PDF tickets said that a hard copy was required at the station, but luckily a young woman behind the desk at Generator was profoundly helpful and printed this for me as though being useful and kind were the most natural thing in the world. The streets had occasional groups of tired, drunk young people, on their way home from all-night parties. We found our platform, car, and seats without incident, and were in Perpignan before 9:00.

In the Perpignan station, Bob gave cheese and crackers to a black guy who may or may not have been homeless – he was so well spoken, and so tidy, that he didn’t fit the pattern, but his eagerness for the food was unfeigned – while I figured out the details of the car I’d rented. I had apparently screwed things up by renting a car from an office near the airport, instead of at the train station. No big deal. We would walk the 15 minutes into town, see the sights for an hour, and then catch a taxi or bus to the airport to pick up our car at 11:00.

The palm-lined Boulevard Charles DeGaulle was absolutely deserted. No restaurants were open, no cars were on the street – it was as though the village were two weeks into a virulent plague. Also, Perpignan has almost nothing to look at. We walked through the old part of town to the church, which was an unremarkable slab of vertical bricks, with buttresses that Bob thought were entirely decorative but which I thought were doing real but ugly work. Then we started trying to figure out how to get to the airport. Taxis were not to be found. Buses were running, but when we compared the posted schedules to the numbers of the buses that were going by we couldn’t make them correspond. So we walked the kilometer to the tourist information office, next to the canal, and found that it had a metal shutter pulled over the door. The sign said that it was open for convenient hours every day of the year, almost, except Sundays, Christmas, and November 1st. November 1st? What the hell?


We knew that it must be possible to get from the train station to the airport, so we walked back down that long boulevard again. Have I mentioned that we were carrying everything we owned all this time? As we walked up to the station, one of the only taxis we’d seen all morning pulled up and disgorged a passenger. The driver asked us if we’d called and requested a taxi, but the way we wrung our hands when we said “No” seemed to sway him; he threw our bags in the trunk and off we went, to the address I showed him from the email on my phone.

This address was for a Dollar Rent-a-Car on an access road near the airport, but, when we got there, there was no Dollar sign anywhere, there was no street number corresponding to 253 Rue Etienne Bobo, and besides, the rental places that were clustered there – Hertz, EuroCar, and so on – were all closed and locked. After a moment of despair, we decided to go to the airport proper, where there were sure to be living human beings. The fare was 35 Euro by the time we were dropped off.

We approached the EuroCar desk, because someone was sitting there, and told him that we had no reservation, no. He had no cars, he reported regretfully. We said that we had had a reservation at Dollar, but Dollar n’exist pas, c’est dommage. Mais non! He told us that we could talk to the Hertz guy, who was also the Dollar guy! After a few minutes spent talking to this friendly person, we were given a perfectly acceptable car, which was parked outside in the lot. It had been a stressful few hours.

Bob did the driving on the way to Collioure. Everybody from this part of France had apparently decided to use their November 1st holiday – the Day of the Dead, of course, and no, I can’t explain why this hadn’t occurred to us earlier – to descend on Collioure to soak up the cuteness. The village maintains four parking lots on the surrounding hills, all of which were full. We drove slowly through all the rose-colored houses and then on, winding along the Mediterranean, to the next village, where we were finally able to park the car. We had an expensive but perfectly delicious and 100% French lunch at a café overlooking the harbor. We were surprised to find that we had ordered steaks – chosen only because they came with “frites,” a word we understood – but it went down well with the bottle of wine we had accidentally ordered when we’d tried to order two glasses of vino tinto, I mean vin rouge. We couldn’t stop ourselves from speaking mangled Spanish to the amused waitress, a good-looking woman in a sheer top, who called us “amigos” when we left.

When I booked us a room at the Hotel Templiers in Collioure, I knew it was charming and old, crammed with art from the Fauvists and locals who had made the village famous 100 years ago, but I hadn’t been aware that its bar was Patrick O’Brian’s favorite place to relax, and that he had met Picasso there, where the two men agreed that O’Brian was the right man to write Picasso’s biography. What a lucky break! The woman at the hotel’s desk had never heard of O’Brian, though. No one in the bar had heard of him, either. There were no pictures of him on the wall (although there is a picture of Picasso, posing with the owner). Even the woman at the tourist information office had never heard the name before in her life. What the smoking sulfurous hell?!? This is like going to Stratford on Avon and having people answer questions by asking, “William Who?”

We walked up and down the breakwaters in the harbor, watching with amusement as a little sailboat capsized in the stiff breeze and then repeatedly failed to right itself, as an aluminum skiff nearby tried to assist. Bob accidentally soaked his shoes while testing the temperature of the water. We had dinner at the Hotel Templiers, of course, admiring the art on the walls and watching Real Madrid getting its ass kicked by Tottenham on the TV in the corner.

The following morning – yesterday morning! – we walked the hills around town, looking for the grave of Patrick O’Brian and his wife, Mary. I had found a description of the cemetery that said it was near a roundabout above the village, and I only found one such roundabout on the map, so that’s where we went. After exploring every one of the roads that branched off from the roundabout and finding nothing, though, we admitted defeat and walked back into the village, where we packed our bags and settled our account. Bob is paying for practically everything he possibly can, by the way, to lessen the amount he will owe me when this is all over; a good plan, as long as we are careful to record everything he spends, without fail. I had rechecked my phone, back when we were within the hotel’s wifi range again, and found another roundabout, not too far from the one we’d just explored.

That was it. We took pictures of the grave and observed sadly that it seemed to us to also be the grave of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. We need to somehow ensure that there is a painting of O’Brian on the wall of the bar, and, ideally, a bronze of two figures on the breakwater, one a large man with his hair in a queue and his hat athwartships, pointing out to sea, while his slight companion in an old wig ignores the pointing figure and instead bends over a handkerchief in his palm, in which is rendered an anomalous bronze beetle.

The drive from Collioure to Carcassone is unremarkable except for being drier than we expected. Motorways without detours through villages, all the way. Carcassonne is famous for its medieval walled city, but Bob and I have hardly glimpsed that part of town. We have been too busy with housekeeping chores, relaxing at cafes, and being lost.

We parked the car in a lot at the edge of the village and walked in, stopping at the Tourist Info center for a map and directions to our AirBnB. We had lunch in a fine square whose central fountain seemed worthy of half a dozen photographs. We wanted vin rouge, but our waiter said that they were out, and that we had to drink rosé. What? Bob thinks this is possible, and that the waiter was making the best of a bad situation, but I think it’s impossible that a French café might run out of red wine, especially since there were two grocery stores within a hundred yards, and that the waiter was just screwing with us for some unknown but fundamentally nefarious reason.

We met Jeanne, a profoundly charming French woman of about 60, next to our AirBnB at precisely 3:00. She rode up on her bike and air-kissed our cheeks as blood dripped from her hand onto the stones underfoot. It was nothing, she said. She had been bitten by her parrot. Our apartment has an excellent location and two bedrooms and a big sofa and an ill-equipped kitchen and Croque-Carotte – we couldn’t ask for more.

When we retrieved the car from the far side of town we had a hell of a time trying to drive to the AirBnB – the maze of one-way streets kept pushing us in the wrong direction. We drove past the parking lot where we’d begun the effort four times before deciding that the only way to get there was to go completely around the village in the wrong direction, an expedient that finally worked.

And now I had better use my phone to find a laundromat, so that we can attend to that chore and then, finally, achieve the ambition I’ve had for the last 35 years and actually visit the medieval city of Carcassonne! We’ll have been in town for almost 24 hours before we finally get there.

Bob, in the lower right, admires La Sagrada Familia.

Spiral staircase in one of the spires.

Gaudi designed upside-down, using weighted strings to find the right shapes for load-bearing curves.

A cat in Perpignan watches Bob with anger and revulsion.

Our room at the Hotel Templier was not part of a bordello, despite its appearance.

A bronze frame is mounted on a pole at the quay in Collioure.

Patrick O’Brian may have sat exactly here, reading his newspaper.

Patrick and his wife, Mary, lived on this street before moving to the edge of town.

The End

  • Oct. 25 – Santiago de Compostela to Negreira. 21 km.
  • Oct. 26 – Negreira to Olveiroa. 33.4 km.
  • Oct. 27 – Olveiroa to Muxia. 34 km.

At four o’clock on Friday afternoon I was following the trail through a grove of eucalyptus when I rounded a bend, the trees opened up, and there, in front of me, was the sea. The shock of it felt like a blow. My Camino was over. I still had several miles to walk – south until the trail curled around the entrance to a peninsula, then north again to Muxia, a little town where the peninsula ends – but that view of salt water was the moment when I stopped looking into the future as a place where I would be walking every day.

It is 791 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, then another 88 from Santiago to Muxia – 880 kilometers, more or less, or about 550 miles. I spent 39 days walking this distance, including five layover days in big cities. This means I walked for 34 days, averaging 25.9 km (16 miles) on every day I walked. This is only five or six hours of walking every day – enough time to feel fatigued, especially early in the journey, but little enough to have given me many luxurious hours in church courtyards and in the narrow canyons of ancient streets. In retrospect, I think my pace was about right.

I am struggling to find a way to describe the meditative aspect of doing so much walking that neither overstates the case – making the endeavor into a kind of search for Zen enlightenment – nor diminishes it, since it seems to me to have been the most important part of my journey across Spain. There is no direct analogy here to the disciplined meditation of the far East, that I have attempted a few times and failed at miserably; I almost never attempted to control my thinking while I was walking. What I’m talking about is much simpler than that.

Your feet hurt. The sun is hot. The pack straps are nipping at your shoulders. There is a large rock in front of you that you need to step around. A yellow flower. You plant your pole in the dirt and put a little weight on it. A figure far in front of you pauses and shades her eyes with her hand.

There was always room in my mind for more than this immediate experience, but, for hour after hour, whatever I might have been thinking was secondary. The important thing was the walking. Even the previous paragraph, in which I try to list sense impressions, conceptualizes them too strongly. These were not ideas so much as they were the workings of a healthy animal.

The intake of breath before laughing. The moment between stubbing your toe and the arrival of the pain. Realizing that the baby is asleep. A fresh stick of gum. When you know you’re going to sneeze, whether you like it or not. Uninterpreted life.

My insistence on this idea reveals, among other things, how easy my life has been. Most of my labor has been with my mind, or, sometimes, and often as a variety of entertainment, solving problems while using my hands. Almost entirely mindless physical effort has been rare and brief. I had a taste of it when walking the John Muir Trail, fifteen years ago, but that hike took only three weeks and covered less than half this distance. I had almost forgotten the value of the experience.

The mist clearing in the morning. Snails on fennel. The smell of smoke. White dust on your boots. A woman tucks her hair into her cap. Lichen on a bridge. Warm sweat on your back. Shreds of eucalyptus bark underfoot. A glimpse of the sea.

This is the last entry in my account of walking the Camino de Santiago. Writing it has been a pleasure. Thank you for giving me an audience.


The view of one of the cathedral’s towers as I left my hotel in Santiago.


I saw this graffito with great relief, since it was my first good indication that I was walking toward Finisterre – the end of the world.


The view back toward Santiago as the sun begins to rise.


Me and a way-marker.


A chicken atop a steep bank.


Wind turbines line all of the ridgetops between Santiago and the Atlantic.


I saw a number of German Shepherds that had been put to work as cattle dogs.


This must have been a nice little place before the roof fell in.


My first glimpse of the sea.


A surf fisherman.


Above Muxia.


This sanctuary, Virxe da Barca, marks the end of this branch of the Camino. It is at the tip of the peninsula, just above Muxia.


The end.

The Romance of the Genuine

  • Oct. 22 – Melide to Santa Irene. 30.3 km.
  • Oct. 23 – Santa Irene to Santiago de Compostela. 22.9 km.

A couple of days ago I met a man from England who was finishing his 14th Camino. We had both been awakened by the stir of early risers at the albergue in Santa Irene, 23 kilometers east of Santiago.

“Can you believe the rudeness?” he asked. “What is the point of getting out of bed at five o’clock in the morning? The sun doesn’t come up for more than three hours! And you’re going to wake up everybody else in the room, and why? Because you don’t care about other people, that’s why!”

The Camino isn’t what it once was, as far as Terry is concerned. The people who are sending their bags ahead or who are skipping sections are just cheating. “And yes, you can lie to the people who are giving out the Compostelas in Santiago, but they think they’re lying to God! Are they mad? I can’t conceive of it!”

Terry had just had the worst night’s sleep of his entire Camino, so it seemed right to cut him some slack. Also, I recognized this brand of invective. Too often, I hear words like this coming out of my own mouth.

I arrived in Santiago on Monday the 23rd, in the early afternoon on yet another beautiful day. I sat in the square in front of the cathedral, pulled off my boots, and watched pilgrims taking selfies and giving each other hugs. I didn’t recognize anyone in the crowd. The cathedral is covered by scaffolding on the outside and the altar on the inside is half obscured by tarpaulins; the aesthetics of this building, as a destination, are a let-down.

This cathedral is supposed to be home to the mortal remains of Saint James; that’s why people have been flocking to Santiago for the last 800 years. The story of how his bones got here is frankly ridiculous, but that hasn’t prevented millions of people over the centuries from walking enormous distances to get here. Me among them.

I’m not very clear about the fundamental nature of authenticity. If I had two big books on the desk in front of me, on the left a Shakespeare First Folio, and on the right a perfect facsimile of a First Folio, with no detectable difference between the two volumes, the book on the left would be a treasure, and the one on the right would be a curiosity. Even if there were no way to tell them apart. I believe this with no shadow of a doubt, despite how nonsensical it is to make such a distinction between identical objects. It’s pure muddle-headed romance.

Terry has an idea about the genuineness of a proper Camino that I don’t share. He thinks that walking every step of the way and carrying all your gear on your back is an actual Camino, and that every other variety is a shameful fake. I see what he means, when I think about my First Folios, but my example of the identical volumes proves to me that the most important thing about this sort of authenticity resides in my attitude, not in the things themselves.

I am sure that the bones in the cathedral, a hundred yards from where I’m typing these words, are only bones, and that even if they were the bones of a saint they would still be only bones. But that’s because I don’t have a romantic attitude toward sainthood or any faith in the reliability of the church. If I were an illiterate farmer, 500 years ago, these relics would not only have the romance of history, they would be a physical connection to heaven. A First Folio would be nothing by comparison to such a thing.

I tried to explain this point of view in conversation with my friend Xiang Hua, a week ago. She only laughed.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to continue my Camino. I will have to walk for three or four days to get to the Atlantic Ocean. I had been torn about whether to go to Finisterre or to Muxia, two common destinations among those of us who haven’t had enough walking when we get to Santiago, but Terry convinced me that Muxia is the place to go. He said it’s a pretty little town, right on the beach, where big waves come crashing down. This recommendation was enough for me.

If I were to go to Finisterre, I couldn’t actually get to the water; the bluffs leading down to the beach are too steep. But in Muxia, I can get my feet wet. If I go to Muxia and take off my boots and wade into the water, I will have walked all of the way across Spain. Not 99.9999% of the way. All of the way.

I know this is ridiculous. Don’t bother to point it out.


“But I swore I wouldn’t tell it and here I am tantalizing you.” She yawned gracefully in my face.
– The Great Gatsby


I am not a car guy, but look at this thing. Look at it.


Cow.


The Camino opens up into the morning mist.


The view as the mist retreats.


The unfortunate facts about the cathedral and my face.


Receiving your compostela has all of the mystery and reverence of a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.


A typical breakfast, with my compostela in a tube.


The French guy who hissed while he palpated his blisters walked on those blisters all the way to Santiago.


I was lucky enough to witness the dramatic censer-swinging at this morning’s Pilgrim mass.

Entering Galicia

  • Oct. 16 – Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo. 24.1 km.
  • Oct. 17 – Villafranca del Bierzo to O’Cebreiro. 28.9 km.
  • Oct. 18 – O’Cebreiro to Triacastela. 20.7 km.

Ponferrada is famous for its twelfth-century Templar castle. The remains are largely intact and are stupefyingly vast; the idea that an enemy might ever have had the temerity to attack this place seemed ridiculous. An information placard, with a helpful English-language translation, said something like, “Between the 10th and the 15th centuries, castles like this were like the nuclear bombs of today. They were an excellent dissuasion.” I rolled that word around in my head for a while. “Dissuasion.” Is this an artifact of the translator having had recourse to a thesaurus, or is there a common Spanish word like “dissuasion” that made including it in the English translation seem natural?

The invention that brought an end to castles is the same thing that brought an end to the knight-errancy that Don Quixote loved: gunpowder. Cervantes has Don Quixote complain about how a bullet could go through his temple during a battle before he’d had the chance to display any courage at all. The technology that they used before gunpowder is still on display inside the castle; there is a heap of round rocks, each slightly larger than a bowling ball, near one of the walkways, and, under a nearby roof, a catapult, loaded and bent back by a rope, ready to go.

After touring the castle and buying the menú del dia at an ordinary restaurant in the square under the church, I returned to my sterile and unremarkable albergue at the edge of the medieval quarter.

The next morning, the pilgrims were abuzz. Had I been outside? How dangerous is it? Will it get worse? Should we simply take buses to Sarria? I spent some time that morning readying my most recent blog post, so I was slower than usual getting out of the albergue. A conversation with a young man at about 9:00 in the morning made me realize that the situation was interestingly serious. “Haven’t you noticed?” he asked. “It is 9 o’clock. The sun should have come up half an hour ago.”

Smoke from nearby wildfires had prevented the sunrise.

There was nothing to do but put on my pack, start walking, and see how it was out there. Ash fell onto my clothing and irritated my eyes. Most of the pilgrims who hadn’t used transportation to jump forward beyond the smoke were wearing dust masks or bandanas tied around their faces. I wasn’t very alarmed, though. The forecast was calling for rain, and the smoke, while undeniable, didn’t seem to be getting in the way of breathing. I walked for a while with a Chinese woman who was dismissive of the worries we’d been hearing. “Haven’t these people ever been to Beijing?!?” she asked.

My destination was a little town named Villafranca del Bierzo. It was barely visible in the murk as I descended the hill into town.

I chose an albergue based on its architectural façade, a strategy that often works, but which wasn’t very successful in Villafranca. The charming exterior of the building hid an grim and institutional interior, characterized by linoleum, generations of thick brown paint on every wooden surface, warning signs on every wall, and the smell of bleach. It was the kind of place where Jack Nicholson might be taken for a lobotomy. The crabby woman at Recepción pointed out places of interest as she led me up the stairs to my room. “La cocina,” she said, gesturing at the kitchen. “Okay,” I said. “La cocina,” she snarled, pointing at the kitchen again.* I had only two roommates: a chubby young man from eastern Europe who seemed never to put on a pair of pants, and a French guy who hissed and grimaced as he palpated his blisters.

I had dinner that night with the two men who have dubbed me Jimmy Stewart; these guys have been on exactly my schedule for a few days. We were joined by a young woman from Oxford who, as it turned out, was a big fan of Philip Pullman, and was excited by the news that the His Dark Materials trilogy was about to produce a fourth book – a mathematical peculiarity, but something to look forward to, nevertheless. She and I bonded over our fondness for the British sit-com, “Peep Show,” while one of the Canadians declared his allegiance to “Two and a Half Men.”

On the following morning, well before dawn, the French guy waddled to the window, opened the shutter, and said, “Écouter.” Rain was drumming on the roof outside. This was the first rain I’d experienced since leaving Bayonne, a month and 400 miles ago.

I had a spectacular walk out of Villafranca, up through bracken and oak, on an alternative scenic trail that I had completely to myself, along a ridge as the rain slackened and the clouds, suddenly calmer, poured placidly over low passes, and then down through miles of chestnut orchards, kicking the burrs in front of me as I walked. This route gained 1000 feet that the walkers who were down below didn’t have to face, but they were walking along a busy highway, and I was alone and surrounded by beauty and quiet. The smoke had been washed from the air and, as it turned out, the rain had extinguished the fires.

By midafternoon, I was climbing through hillsides that could almost have been in England’s Lake District. Villages full of slate-roofed houses, forests that are beginning to show fall color, and pasturage, high on the hills, each field neatly framed by an old stone wall. The views got better and better, the higher I climbed. I crossed the border into Galicia at 4:30 in the afternoon.

About 30 feet ahead of me, a Japanese woman uncorked a fart that sounded like a trumpet from Mordor – a high, dying wail, promising no pity and no remorse, heralding the death of all hope and culture and morality, a clarion of futility and despair. She stopped a few feet later and turned to me with a kind smile. “Buen Camino!” she said.

A few minutes later I was at O’Cebreiro, a tiny village at the crest of the ridge that was my destination for the day. I spent the night at O’Cebreiro’s municipal albergue, one of Galicia’s chain of government-inspired albergues which my guidebook characterizes as “one of the better examples of a rather uninspiring uniform design.” I wasn’t sure what that description meant until I carried my pack into a room that seemed to have been filled with long ranks of veal-fattening pens. This place didn’t even provide doors on the shower stalls. I may stay in a Galician municipal albergue again, but, whenever there is an alternative, I’ll take it.

Today was a very easy day – only 20 kilometers, mostly downhill, to yet another charming village of stone, slate, chestnut, and cow manure. I’m back on Brierly’s schedule, I’m sorry to say; if I had walked for another few hours today, I’d have been so close to the next big town, Sarria, that tomorrow’s walk would have been over by 10 in the morning.

Brierly divides the walk between this village, Triacastella, and Santiago de Compostela into six stages. Six days of walking. I expect to go a few days further, to Finisterre, but it remains the case that I am much closer to the end of this walk than I am to its beginning. I am not ready for this to be over.

* She had heard my “okay” as “Oh – que?” and was aghast at the stupidity of an American who had never seen a kitchen before.


An older couple enjoys the evening in Ponferrada.


The Camino, pilgrims, grapes, poplars, and smoke. I have not played with the color balance in any of the upcoming photos.


House, trees, and smoke.


The church at Villafranca del Bierzo, and smoke.


A good place to lobotomize Jack Nicholson.


The rain clears along the ridge as I leave Villafranca.


The first of what I’m sure will be too many pictures of cute little villages in northwestern Spain.


Geraniums.


Looking back into the valleys out of which I had just climbed.


A bust in O’Cebreiro of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro (1929-1989), the parish priest whose efforts revitalized the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago.


The fattening pens in O’Cebreiro’s municipal albergue.


A statue of a pilgrim struggles with the wind at a high point on the trail. You can’t see them in this photo, but someone has applied Bandaids to his toes.


Another charming village.


This may be excessively obvious, but I’m not sure how else to caption this photo, so here goes: Cows.


Chestnut burrs remind me of Miyazaki’s soot sprites.


A nearby sign says that this chestnut tree is approximately 800 years old.

Don’t Throw Me in the Brierly Patch

  • Oct. 6 – Castrojeriz to Frómista. 25 kilometers.
  • Oct. 7 – Frómista to Calzadilla de la Cueza. 36 kilometers.
  • Oct. 8 – Calzadilla de la Cueza to Sahagún. 22.6 kilometers.

After half an hour of being ignored inside a fly-blown restaurant in a tiny village whose name, Calzadilla de la Cueza, I hope never to type again, I moved outside, to the plastic tables where I could hear pilgrims talking and drinking. Nobody paid any attention to me out there, either. Is it a hygiene problem? Do I look too well-fed? Are there secret hand signals that no one has taught me? If someone had approached me, I would have given them money, hoping that they might be grateful enough to bring me a beer – the profit motive should have brought camereros to my table with all the avidity of the moscas that seemed so fond of the end of my nose.

But then I overheard an American say that he was going to move inside, since it was after seven and the dining room was open. How did he know that? And why, during the half hour I spent sitting in there, did no one approach me to tell me it was closed?

I ended up sharing a table with Ardesh, a Hungarian who had driven his car to Pamplona and is now bicycling the Camino with his little white dog. He has an ingenious trailer rigged up for his dog, but the dog hates it, so now the trailer contains all of Ardesh’s gear and the dog rides in a pack on Ardesh’s back. We talked about camping, dogs, the difficulties of learning languages – a wide range of things. He said that living in Hungary isn’t so good, because of the politics. “But of course, you in America now…” he said, with a meaningful look. “You are so right,” I agreed, with a rueful countenance.

Ardesh told me that Hungary has a problem with Gypsy communities that are insular and poorly integrated with the rest of Hungarian society. “They do not want to educate,” he said, “And they do not want to mix with people who are not Gypsies. It is like your American problem with negroes.” After a moment of shock, I realized that, despite all the nuances I wanted to use to modify this, and the uncountable exceptions, I agreed with Ardesh more than I disagreed with him. Ardesh thinks that the solution to Hungary’s Gypsy problem is desegregation. Despite how poorly it has worked in the United States, I continue to believe something similar about race problems in America. By the time the apple tart arrived, Ardesh and I had solved some pressing social issues. We licked our forks clean with real satisfaction.

I’m glad I didn’t leave in a huff before dinner, as I’d been thinking of doing, back when I was swatting flies and feeling ignored. I said something about the importance of patience in my last post; I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I’m in too big a hurry to look it up right now.

I’m more sympathetic now than I was a few days ago to the comment I quoted earlier, that doing the Camino across the meseta was like “walking across Kansas.” There isn’t much to look at out here. Even the fields are only theoretically interesting: “Here’s where they might grow wheat, although now there is only stubble.” “Here’s where they must grow sunflowers, judging by the withered debris.” “Here is a vast expanse of dirt.” It’s dull. This also helps illuminate another comment, which I may have heard for the first time in Roncesvalles: “The first part of the Camino is physical, the second part is mental, and the last part is spiritual.” This is the mental part, all right. Thank God for podcasts.

John Brierly’s book on walking the Camino is the universal reference among English-speakers out here. Yesterday, when I reached the little town where he suggested pilgrims spend the night, it was only about 1:00 in the afternoon. His typical day’s walk is a little more than 20 kilometers. At about three miles per hour, I cover 20 kilometers in four hours – the time between leaving my albergue in the morning and lunchtime. My blisters are under control, my legs feel good, and walking is the new normal. Even though the next town was another 17 kilometers down the road, I decided to go for it.

By the time the little town whose name I will not type hove into view, I’d walked more than 22 miles – a new high for this little adventure, and something I haven’t done often at any time in my life. It was surprisingly untraumatic to just keep walking all day long. I kept expecting to have some physiological reaction – collapse, cramping, uncontrollable weeping, something – but instead I just washed my laundry outside in the sink, played with a curly-haired puppy, and got irritated at camereros.

I stopped at about 1:00 today, partly because I need to divide the stages between here and León, the next big city, into reasonable chunks, partly because I thought I should be careful about my legs, despite how good they feel, and partly because this town, Sahagún, is full of ruins from the days of the Knights Templar. It turns out that there’s another good reason for staying here, though – this town is not one of John Brierly’s recommendations for places to spend the night. What this means is that I am no longer part of the wave of pilgrims that washes from one of his recommendations to the next. All of a sudden, I am not part of a big group of pilgrims in Spain. I’m just in Spain. All of a sudden, the Camino is relatively empty. This is much better.

A marker outside my albergue here in Sahagún says that I’m halfway to Santiago. I’m just getting warmed up!


A view from the hilltop castle in Castrojeriz. The road pointing at 1 o’clock from the church is the Camino.


Castrojeriz.


Walking into the moonset while leaving Castrojeriz, early in the morning.


The sun begins to rise on the meseta.


Another lovely old church.


The Camino became less crowded when I stopped following Brierly’s schedule. The nearest pilgrim in this photo is at the crest of the road, between the trees.


This photo encompasses the entire village where I spent the night last night.


This scarecrow’s sign reads, “Good Roadicant Any More.”


A waymarker as I approached my current town, Sahagún.


Spanish kittens roll their r’s while they chew on my fingers.