There is always hope

Robin and I were recently hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. It was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t quite separate myself from the recent losses to our camino pilgrim community. Later, I was able to give this some further reflection, and these songs came to mind. Given recent events they just seemed appropriate, as they seemed to speak to the mystery of movement between loss and peace.

Silent night

The past few months have been fun yet full of camino echoes. So Robin and I have been looking at travel plans and commitments and have decided that if we are going to walk another camino we had better do it this year so that we do not run afoul of the Schengen visa requirements next year when we return to Santiago to volunteer with the Camino Chaplaincy at the Cathedral in Santiago. So long story short we are booked to fly to Seville on November 2nd and then, God willing, we will arrive in Santiago on or about December 21st. We will then spend the Christmas holidays in Santiago and fly home on December 28th.

Robin and I are truly thankful for this opportunity to return to the camino. We are also very happy to be reprising the liturgical music “dream team” of John Rafferty (organist), Stephen Shields (tenor) and Robin Pigott (soprano). These three made some very memorable music this past summer and we hope to top that over the Christmas holidays. It will be a wonderful conclusion to our Via de la Plata and to Stephen and John’s Camino Ignaciano. The pilgrim community is a curious place to inhabit. Just when one seems to feel comfortable in one’s skin something calls us to move just a bit beyond our usual boundaries. This is where conventional wisdom tells us that growth is to be found. We shall see.

Robin and I have always trusted the Spirit to guide us. This pilgrimage, in that regard, will be no different. But, as always, each journey comes as it will and we simply have to embrace whatever circumstances that might draw near. So this is our approach, be open to the Spirit within us, be grateful for the strength and resources to walk, and to be mindful of those who need our prayers.  Now all Robin has to figure out is how to sing Silent Night in Spanish. But we have some time….well sort of….stay tuned!

Crossing the frontier

High winds and heavy rain showers have been lashing the Portland / Vancouver area since last night, and are expected to persist through Saturday. While the weather outside is soaking all those who are out and about Robin and I are snug inside, the fireplace has stolen away the mid autumn chill, and we are leisurely attending to last minute gear issues. Nothing is pressing. We are just doing the final whittling down of our pack lists to make sure we have just what we need and nothing more. A cortado (short coffee with a little hot milk) seemed in order so the whir of the espresso machine has, for the moment, diverted my thoughts from overburdened feet to the pleasant feeling of something hot splashing into my stomach.

Outside our windows the storm has all of nature in motion as we too soon shall be again. It is invigorating to feel the nearness of another Camino. For better or for worse (hard to imagine, but…) our lives are tied to these pilgrimages. We give great thanks for the gift of many days on pilgrim roads, and for how these journeys have enriched us beyond measure. New friends have been found, new lands explored, many many kindnesses received, and our faith has been fundamentally strengthened. We have also honed a new sense of gratitude, and have embraced both the freedom of humbleness, and the joy found in that special peace that comes from the belief that wherever we walk we are never alone.

Plus a few things to check for Christmas in Santiago

So it is with these many warm thoughts coursing through my mind that I am simply content to be still for a moment and imagine once again the life that Robin and I so long to live that lies just on the other side of our windows, the frontier between comfort and challenge, calm and storm, that has always beckoned and has always blessed us. And so, in a few days, we shall go again. Ultreia!

Thoughts from the terrace bar


View from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Vincci de Rabida

Traveling to the Camino from our home in Washington state is always a bit of an ordeal. Long flights, layovers and multiple connections always rise to test our commitment to these journeys. But, now that the dust from the road has been washed away and much needed sleep has been granted we are once again yearning for the pilgrim road that will take us to Santiago. Our few days in Seville have been both fun and restorative. The city is brimming with tourists. Clusters of visitors roam the narrow lanes and alleys snapping photos and buying tickets to Flamenco shows (as we did). We had some things to accomplish and due to the convenient location of our hotel in the Arenal district (close to the cathedral) these were easily accomplished. We picked up our credentials at the Hotel Simon, mailed a box of post Camino clothes to Santiago, and picked up some SIM cards from the Orange Tienda. All of these things were handled conveniently in nearby locations.
Seville is a major tourist destination so of the throngs currently here only a very few I would guess are pilgrims. When we have asked questions regarding the Via de la Plata, even at the Tourist Office, we have drawn some blank stares. Nonetheless we are now set to depart tomorrow and will simply take it as it comes. The weather has been quite pleasant but will rise to near 80 F tomorrow. So we will have a few days of warmer weather as we move northward and that is just fine as winter weather will join us on the road soon enough. We attended the noon mass at the cathedral in the Capilla Real. This prayerful beginning to our Camino is something we always do. Pilgrims always need prayers and blessings and we gladly gather them in as our departure approaches. So for the rest of our last day in Seville we will enjoy some more lazy time hanging out in the rooftop terrace bar at our hotel catching up on correspondence and then we shall return to the Barrio de Santa Clara for another Flamenco show and then bed. Boots on tomorrow for sure and let the Camino begin. Ole!

Our albergue in Seville
First arrow
View from the Giralda Tower
A night out
Barrio Santa Cruz
Robin before mass at the cathedral
Capilla Real

Day 1: Guillena to Castilblanco de Los Arroyos (17.7 Kms)

Setting out from Guillena

Sleep did not come easily last night for either of us. Who knows why the body does what it does. But, as a consequence of restlessness of the body I let my mind wander a bit to contemplate the journey ahead. It is in these quiet early morning hours that much useless detail gets rehashed. I wonder why I do this, but the future seems to have a magical hold on me even though I know most of what will happen is beyond my control. In the end things just happen and you deal with them as best you can as you hopefully continue moving forward. What I should have done at the outset was reflect on the present which is filled with promised prayers and intentions. Reflecting on those things always brings me back to the reality of pilgrimage, and assigns the journey a purpose. So with prayers offered sleep finally came and mercifully allowed night to become day without any further interruption.

Departure day is always exciting. An entire pilgrim road awaits us, and we are eager to get boots on and be off. The day in Seville began without a cloud in the sky. This blank azure canvas promised rising temperatures as the sky was absent of any cloud cover to moderate them. But, it was dry and a cool gentle breeze seemed to promise some relief from the heat that would surely test us as the day progressed. A nice breakfast fueled our enthusiasm as we slung our packs and hailed a taxi for Guillena, 22 Kms up the Camino, where we would begin our walk. The decision to skip the first stage was based on a couple of things. First we do not enjoy long walks along urban streets and roadways. Second, there have been some reports of attempted robberies on the first stage. Third, there is an arroyo (Arroyo de Molinas) where occasionally water levels can prevent crossing. All of these things together argued for a start in Guillena. For others and perhaps even most others a start from Seville is just fine. To each his own. It is all good. We were dropped off at the Hostal Frances in Guillena and after a fast cortado we slung our packs again and this time started out for Santiago. At last we were on the pilgrim road, and feeling great.

Arrows aplenty

We found waymarks were plentiful, and once clear of Guillena, the trail was quite pleasant. It starts out pretty flat, but then you begin a gentle climb that lasts all the way to Castilblanco de Los Arroyos, our stop for today. We did encounter a group of three young Spaniards who are also bound for Santiago. So far that is the extent of pilgrim traffic for our day one. Today’s walk took us through some beautiful olive groves, but in that same section the trail seemed to morph into a drainage ditch. It was quite rocky and narrow in parts and seemed not to offer any other place to go when wet weather fills the ditch with water. Judging by the extent of the erosion there must be some serious runoff coursing through here for some parts of the year. But, today it was thankfully dry, so we just picked our way up through the rocks and gullies. No problem. While today’s walk at 18 Kms is not a long walk we found ourselves quite happy to finally crest the hill and enter Castilblanco. We enquired at the Repsol gas station for the status of the municipal albergue and found it was closed for the winter. The gas station attendant then directed to the Casa Rural (basica) Salvadora, 43 Avenida España, 24 euros for a double, no food available, hence the designation basica (I would guess). It is basic but clean and now so are we so all is good. When we asked about someplace to eat were further directed down the street to the Bar Rincón for a 7 euro daily menu (no wine included), and it was quite good. We struck up a conversation with the owner, Benito, and were able to arrange for a mate of his to drive us 16 Kms up the highway tomorrow where we will walk the off highway portion of stage two to Almendén de la Plata. So our first day on the Via de la Plata has gone quite well. Aside from just being tired nothing else has moved into the concerned about column. Many blessings indeed.

This is the wide part
Lots of olives about
A happy pilgrim
Ask about our birds
The narrow bit
I guess it’s a trail
4 Kms to go


Day 2: Castiblanco de Los Arroyos to El Real de la Jara (19 Kms)

Waiting for Bení

Today seemed to have been perfectly organized and then it wasn’t. We met Benito at his bar at 8:00, had a quick breakfast and then Benito said he would be driving us up the highway to the entrance to the nature park about 16 Kms away towards Almendén. No problem. Robin and I piled into Benito’s suv and bugged out up the highway. Bení chatted away as we rolled up the kilometers. Before long we pulled off the road towards a gate that was manned and more importantly closed. Bení approached and in the ensuing discussion he was told that this gate was closed due to a deer hunting date that was previously scheduled. He was directed to another gate (to the nature park where our Camino path awaited us) 4 Kms further up the road. We arrived at the second gate and it too was manned and closed and we were told that no one would be admitted to the park today as people were in there shooting deer. Apparently in the months of November to January there are a few hunting dates that close the park to everyone else including peregrinos. So for today any pilgrim walking from Castilblanco to Almendén would have to walk the entire distance on the very narrow shoulder of the highway. Not a good option. Back to our situation. We were now closer to Almendén by road then we would have been if we had been allowed into the park to rejoin the Via de la Plata trail. So, thanking Benito for his good efforts we struck out up the highway to Almendén knowing full well that we would now continue walking all the way to El Real de la Jara, another 16 Kms further along. So in truth we wound up walking about 20 Kms total from where Benito dropped us off. Despite the confusing start today’s walk was quiet, beautiful and yes, fun. We followed the marked route (quite well marked) through the Sierra Norte Nature Park, from Almendén. There is an option to walk along the road for the last several kilometers, but the route through the park was so nice I don’t know why anyone would do that. Admittedly, there are a couple of creeks you have to cross and if they were bank full some might opt for the road. I guess that is the only reason I can think of that brings the road option to life. But I am new to this route, and other more knowledgeable folks might have a more informed opinion. We are presently booked into the private albergue, Alojamiento del Peregrinos. They have a nice roof top terrace where our laundry is now drying and Robin and I are are enjoying a glass of vino Tinto as we catch up on our postings. We are off to Monesterio tomorrow. No hunting season to interfere with our progress (that I know of).

Not much shoulder to walk on
We called in here to cancel our reservation as we were moving on
Navigating through Almendén
Outside of Almendén
Encinas (oak) trees
A couple of hills to climb
The final stretch
Arrival El Real de la Jara


Day 3: Real de la Jara to Monesterio (22 Kms)

Leaving El Real de la Jara

Leaving town this morning was a pure delight. The weather was cool, the sky was clear, and it was blessedly silent. The first half of our walk today continued through park like settings. Very pastoral and very pleasant to walk through. It is still early days for us so our bodies are a bit confused as to why they are being asked to carry this new weight and do it for some distance. But they will get the knack of it in a few more days. Eventually we found ourselves navigating through a highway interchange which after a few zigs and zags dropped us off on a direct path to Monesterio. In true Camino fashion the second half was almost all uphill. Nothing to be concerned about just a bit tiring as the days walk drew to an end. Please refer back to the bit about bodies getting adjusted. Monesterio was alive with families out for a meal on a beautiful Sunday afternoon as we walked into town. On the advice received from some of our Canadian friends, Dayton and Karen, we checked into the Parochial Albergue and found a little gem of an albergue. It is spotlessly clean, with a well stocked kitchen, and a nice patio for doing laundry. Last night we met a Spanish army sergeant, Pedro, who spends his free time walking sections of the VdlP. He left ahead of us this morning but we ran into him this afternoon and enjoyed a late lunch together. He returns to Seville tonight. When we returned to the albergue from lunch we met Giselle, from France, she is also only doing part of the route as work obligations will be calling her home in a week or so. So in short, it has been another great day.

My apologies to Dayton and Karen that I did not get to express their connection to this albergue, and their joy in supporting it. But my poor Spanish and the hospitalera’s limited English limited our conversation. Some Camino organizations do fund raising work and send the proceeds to sponsored albergues. The branch of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims that Dayton and Karen belong to supports this little parochial albergue in Monesterio. From what I can see their money has been put to good use, and we are very happy to be here.

First thing this morning
Found at the albergue
Day begins
Robin bound for Monesterio
Monesterio at last


Day 4: Monesterio to Fuentes de Cantos (22 Kms)

View from the Parochial Albergue in Monesterio

Robin and I turned in early last night only to be awakened by a knock on our door. A Spanish cyclist from Bilbao had arrived and was looking for lodging. We got him sorted and then it was back to bed. The morning broke clear as a bell with our new cyclist friend found encamped on the patio. He had dragged his mattress et al outside for a bit of al fresco snoozing. We managed a quick breakfast and headed down the stairs and out into a village coming to life for another day.

Very quickly we encountered a nice German fellow hobbling along with his backpack. We enquired as to his problem and he truthfully didn’t know but his swollen ankle tended towards a diagnosis of tendonitis. Today’s walk would not offer a chance to call it quits once you began as there are not any villages in between the start and the finish. I trust he made the right decision to rest for a day as we did not see him again. We wound our way out of town and into the countryside. It was bucolic, quiet and perfect. Ambling along well marked country lanes we enjoyed the energy found in a breakfast of Iberico ham, eggs and toast, and an apple for good measure. A side note I don’t think you can find a vegetable in Monesterio. It is an unabashed carne capital. Eat meat or be gone (perhaps a wee bit of an overstatement but you get the point). They love their meat. After all the Tourist Office is located in the Ham Museum. I rest my case.

As we moved along through the morning we began to notice the tree cover thinning and then disappearing altogether. We were now out in the open walking through open cultivated fields clinging to rolling hills. This reminded us very much of the Meseta, or perhaps parts of Los Monegros. It was stark and beautiful and the route was so well defined, by markings and country lanes that one could almost switch to autopilot (but then there is always that arrow that you could miss). We crunched through the gravel kicking up lazy clouds of trail dust as we moved from morning past midday. At one point we could see the village of Fuente de Cantos off in the distance, but it took another couple of hours to reel it in. A special note of thanks goes out to our “sunbrellas.” We always carry trekking umbrellas, and today they earned their keep. It was not a blazingly hot day (75 F), but being out in the open, without any cover, the sun can simply run you down. With the change of terrain we stowed one trekking pole and popped open the “sunbrellas” and had a thoroughly pleasant day of it under our mobile sun shades. They kept us cool and, unlike wearing a hat, they allowed the breeze to cool our heads as we shuffled along. Great bit of gear. We have settled into the Albergue Touristico for the night. It is in a renovated convent. It fills all the basic needs and the people who run it have been quite accommodating. Off to Zafra tomorrow where I believe we will find WiFi strong enough to post this blog. All is well. Even managed a rosary today while on autopilot. After all this is a pilgrimage. There might be hope for me yet. Please note: additional photos will follow in a separate post. For some reason the WiFi does not want to handle all my photos in one post.

Day begins leaving Monesterio
Don’t leave home without one
Yes, you are in the open
A first distant glimpse of Fuentes de Cantos


Day 5: Fuentes de Cantos to Zafra (25 Kms)

Leaving the Albergue Touristico in Fuentes de Cantos

A thought came to mind this morning that this Camino has not felt rushed or pushed in any way. There are only a handful of pilgrims walking and accommodations have been plentiful (so far). So no pressure. We just get up, enjoy some breakfast and step back out the door and onto the Camino. At the end of the day there have been plenty of options for food and drink. It is great. So following along those lines we sat down to a coffee and tostada breakfast with a French friend, Giselle. Quiet conversation and simple food got us all ready for the distance we hoped to walk today. A curious note was that at somewhere around sunrise every bird on the property sprang to life. It was as if someone had simply switched them on. It was dead quiet and then it was all birdsong but not quiet melodious birdsong. It was more like I was here before you and you are not taking my place sort of birdsong. Sort of frantic, like crowd noise. But they seemed to be doing fine and no feathery forms tumbled down from the trees so I guess they worked it out. For us it was just the opposite. We quietly turned the key in a door, stepped out into a brilliant new day, offered our gratitude for all of this, and set out for Zafra.

This way to Zafra

Our boots met the trail as road gave way to gravel and we were off again. Nothing magical, no fanfare, just setting out for a good walk. That in my mind is magic enough. We walked into rising temperatures as once again the sky was absent of clouds. It was just a blue expanse from horizon to horizon. We knew today the terrain would be pretty flat and although we had 25 Kms to walk it would not be too demanding. So we took the slow and easy approach and ambled along stopping frequently for photos or a swallow of water. We were doing fine until we came to a place where water had filled the path. Our initial instinct was too stay dry and that set us off in search of a work around. Well that turned out to be a bad idea when my exploratory bushwhacking sent me head first into an arroyo that had a moment earlier looked like solid turf with reeds. No harm no foul. I was able to right the turtle (think backpack) and regain solid ground without any serious damage. We got to thinking what would be the worse case if we slid off a rock fording the stream, a wet boot. What would be the worse case if you tumbled into a ditch. Hmmm? Another Camino lesson learned. A half an hour later the sun was drying the mud on my boots and thoughts turned back to the road to Zafra and the kilometers still ahead.

The hours of the day slip by as you walk and before you realize it the day’s destination looms ahead. And so it happened, we arrived at the city limits and immediately set a course for he Parador de Zafra, our indulgence for the night. Once again our umbrellas saved the day. We carried them the full way and were so thankful we had them. We have now showered, done the laundry, had a beer with a German friend and while on the way back to the hotel stopped by a bar for a glass of wine. The owner was a very pleasant guy and is a huge supporter of all things gastronomic in Extremadura. He rolled out his best Iberico ham, the finest hand prepared olives (his 85 year old father splits each olive withe a single stroke of a mallet), and offered us tastings of the local wines. He was fun, hard working and he won us over. We will shortly be back at his restaurant for dinner. I have a feeling it will be memorable. But for the moment a major wedding has taken over the Parador. There is much celebration, horse drawn carriages arriving, period costumes, and bride with a dress that trailed yards behind her. Quite a scene. All in all another beautiful day.


Robin and Hans