Day 39 – Portomarin to Castromaior

It’s a really short walk of 9km, to see how my knee behaves. We leave the absolutely beautiful town of Portomarin and get onto the scenic path through enchanted forests. We left only at 7am and leaving with us, are hundreds of pilgrims, all of us headed in one direction.

It feels strange! On the one hand, we’re in awe of how many people are on the St James Way, some for adventure, others for the exercise and others for the spiritual experience! There are many, many young ones, average age of 17 possibly! Maybe it has something to do with the time of year. Some have music playing loudly, so their friends can listen too, others are chatting or singing loudly. They’re having a good time! It’s a different atmosphere!

On the other hand, we miss the quiet, peace and solitude of the last 690km, when it was just us on the path and we could hear the crunch of our footsteps, the chirping of the birds, walk carefully to avoid stepping on the hundreds of snails that crossed the path with their little houses on their backs. It’s different now, but we’ll come to love this too!

It’s easy to distinguish between the fresh legs and the long haul walkers. There’s noticeable weariness in the later.

There are more dogs and children (all ages) in this last 100k stretch. There’s even a parrot that has its own back pack, worn by it’s pet mom!

In the last 680km it was customary to wish everyone you passed a ‘Buen Camino’. The greeting had come to mean more than just a good wish. When someone said it to you, especially the locals, you felt encouraged, you felt recognised, you felt included! Sometimes we’d stop to chat and figure out which countries we were from, or which town we were headed to for the night! Familiar faces were seen frequently as we were probably less than a 100 walking through the villages any given day. Today, we had to search for familiar faces and when we did see one, there was immense joy! Also, it was rare to hear Buen Camino! Maybe as old timers the onus was on us to welcome and include the new walkers with the greeting!

The Pension we’re staying at is lovely, in a tiny village called Castromaior. It’s going to be a peaceful rest day! My knee seems ok! Not perfect! Tomorrow we head to OCoto. Maybe we’ll download some podcasts and put our earphones in our ears!

In the evening we walked down to the Castro de Castromaior. Recent excavations discovered this 4th Century BC site.

This partially excavated hill fort is next to the Way of Saint James and it is believed that it was occupied until more or less the 1st century A.D.

An intricate system of ditches, walls, embankments and palisades surrounds the entrance to the settlement, where the houses have straight, regular walls and are grouped into neighbourhoods.

After the visit to the excavation site, we went for dinner to the only restaurant in the village. It was bustling with activity in the morning with many pilgrims on the way stopping for bocadillas and coffee. It is quiet now with just the seven pilgrims staying in the 2 albergues in the village. Joining us for dinner are a Brazilian couple and a retired Polish gentleman. A good meal with lots of red wine, the conversation is interesting. The Polish gentleman is a mountaineer having scaled many heights. An accident in the Arctic resulting in him being airlifted to the US o save his life, had kept him from climbing for a while. St Pope John Paul IIs visit to Santiago in 1982 and a few years later, again, to address the world youth meet there, had made the Camino popular among Polish catholics. Henrik remembers seeing it on the news and had vowed to do the Camino when he could.

The Brazilian couple Michelle and Antonio were Catholic too and very devout. They related many events during their walk from Leon onwards that couldn’t be called ‘happy coincidences’ but miracles! The conversation was beautiful and helped us to dwell on the meaning of the Camino for each of us! Feeling blessed that we had this wonderful meal with these wonderful people!

Day 38 – Sarria to Portomarin

John walked alone today while I took a taxi again. The knee still hurts and since we have a hotel booking, we decided to do it this way. I really want my knee well again to do the last stretch at least. My cab ride was quick and the driver pointed out all the points along the highway where the pilgrims would be walking in and out and crossing! He points out villages by their name and then slowed down near the steps coming down the hill to enter the outskirts of Portomarin. He seemed very concerned that I’d be missing out all this!

Trying a new format here as John had lots of good photos to share, of the walk.

John had great company in Sarah, an English lady living in the Netherlands. We’d crossed paths on previous days. A HR professional, she too was on a break from work! She’s a really fast walker, so John walked at his normal fast pace.

On the way, John stopped at an elderly lady’s little cafe for something to drink. She was trying to sweep her place but seemed to be having some difficulty doing it. So John took the broom from her and cleaned the space. She was so overcome with gratitude that she asked him to wait there and ran home to bring her camera and some food for John. Just as she came back, Sarah, Johns walking companion that morning, came into the store. The lady told her in Spanish, how John had helped and how she was so happy to have this handsome Indian in her store and she wouldn’t want any money for the food! Many photos were taken and empanadas eaten!

Portomarin is on the banks of the Miño river. In the 1960s the Mino river was dammed to create the Belesar reservoir, putting the old village of Portomarín under water. The most historic buildings of the town were moved brick by brick and reconstructed in the new town, including its castle-style main church: Church of San Juan of Portomarín. Being Sunday we were able to attend the 12.30 pm service here.

We stepped out for an early dinner and walked into a restaurant across from the church. We had some Galician soup, grilled salmon and white wine.

The table next to us is filled by a young couple. She keeps turning to look at us and seems to be wanting to start a conversation. We smile and she immediately asks if we are from India and then we launched into a long conversation. Olga had spent a year as an art teacher in St Lawrence, Sanawar and had traveled around India during her time there! She loved India! Her partner was also a frequent India traveller and was in Mahabalipuram a few months ago. Olga then pulls out her Camino scrap book. She had jottings, tickets, dry leaves, souvenirs and beautiful sketches she made of places we’d passed. They had started their cycling from Leon. She wants us to write in the ‘Devanagari script’…she insists! I write a few lines and then she asks John to. John explains he’d studied in Tanzania and Zambia and didn’t write Hindi. So she checks if he could write something in Swahili. To jog his memory, she sings a Swahili song much to everyone’s delight!!! Olga is one of those people who just radiates joy and positivity! We were lucky to meet both of them!! Saying our byes, we leave. I leave my handbag with my passport and money behind and came back a couple of minutes later to get it and both of them have big smiles and clap as they point to the restaurant owner who has it safely kept away. Bidding them goodbye again, we head to our beds for the night.

A very special day, meeting very special people…Sarah, the little cafe owner and this wonderful couple!

Day 37 – Samos to Sarria

The knee isn’t any better. In fact it’s worse and I’m not able to put much weight on that leg. So we decide that John walks to Sarria while I take a cab. We eat breakfast at the hotel. The owner, Moses’ dad, is on duty in the morning. It’s a buffet breakfast and he brings us our coffee. After breakfast he helps us arrange a pick up and drop, with a taxi driver who’s having coffee at the hotel restaurant, to come by at 11am to pick me up. John heads out on his own.

Some videos of the beautiful path to Sarria, with John’s comments!

Sarria is a biggish town, filled with pilgrims. It’s the starting place for many who do the minimum distance of 100km required to get a Compostela certificate.

The taxi ride was 20min long. The wonderful lady who brought me to Sarria, insisted on carrying the heavy backpack to the pension across the river. About 20 minutes after I reach, John reaches too. He takes a quick bath and we head to the Pharmacy. It’s Saturday and most commercial establishments close by 1.30pm, to open again only on Monday. The pharmacist suggests a stronger balm, naproxen and rest. From there we head to the supermercado to pick up some snacks and fruit. We see a pizza place on the way and decide to pick up our lunch from there.

We enter the pizza store and place an order for a medium sized vegetable pizza, in broken Spanish. The gentleman taking our order, suggests some options for vegetables and then suddenly switches to Hindi! Flabbergasted, I ask him to repeat and he replies again in Hindi, are you from India or Pakistan? Then starts a long conversation in Hindi and he shares how he and his family moved to Europe from Pakistan five years ago and he had worked in Ukraine and France and now Sarria. His wife and two kids live here too and they are one of only two Pakistani families in Sarria. Most Indians and Pakistanis he says, go to Barcelona for work.

He piles our pizza with lots of cheese and vegetables. Suggests we get some fries too and a drink. We comply. Then when it’s time to pay, he refuses to take any money! He says we made his day by talking to him in Hindi. John insisted on some payment and this time he refuses saying he can’t take money from his sister!! We’re all overcome emotionally and thanking him profusely we leave!

We head to the room to eat and take a nap. In the evening we head to the laundromat, eat a variety of churros from a roadside stand and then head to the supermarket to pick up some colouring pens and pencils, a colouring book and some chocolate. We go back to the pizzeria and ask for him, Tanveer Tahir Hussain. He’s happy to see us and when we hand him the bag, he’s flustered and refuses it. Then I tell him that the gifts are for my brother’s children and he accepts them! Meeting him warmed our hearts so much!!! We are all people living ordinary lives and we do so with love and brotherhood! Politics just ruins everything, for everybody! We’ll never forget the generosity and love of our brother Tanveer!

The St John the Baptist festivities in the town start early in the evening, kicked off with a street drumming group. The music and dancing continue early into the morning!

Today’s meeting with Tanveer really warmed the cockles of our heart! How easy world peace would be to achieve if we got rid of politicians!

Day 36 – Fonfria to Samos 20km

I woke up with a pain in my hip and knee. The consequences of walking two consecutive days of 30plus km seems to be showing! A hot bath lessened the pain. So we set out on a path of descents.

Our first stop in 6km was Triacastella. A small town with lots of stay options for pilgrims. Very few cafés were open. So just a quick coffee at a small place and we reach the exit point where there are 2 stones, offering 2 paths to Santiago. Turn left and you go to Samos and then to Sarria or turn right and walk to Sarria. Most people took the turn to the right. We turned left as we had booked at Samos for the night.

The walk is absolutely beautiful, through narrow paths winding their way around tiny villages which seemed uninhabited. Just as you think that, you’ll see a cat or a dog or hear some mooing.

Every little village has a teeny tiny church and a graveyard.

Sheepskins piled up on the left

We stopped briefly for lunch in a one-cafe village. The food here was delicious! We had sangrias with the meal. Met two wonderful Americans – a mother and daughter. The daughter’s talk and warmth reminded us so much of Niki. The mother on hearing about my pain, mentioned she was a marathon runner and had similar pains before, jumped up so show us some stretches and exercises which she felt would help. Crossing your feet and bending down to touch your toes, an exercise my friend, Neeth, had taught me during our previous Camino from Lugo to Santiago.

About 2km from Samos, we reach a point from where you can see the town below. The largest building is the active Benedictine monastery, established in the 6th Century AD.

Near our hotel – two weary pilgrims

By the time we reached the hotel, my knee and hip are paining rather severely. The pharmacy is right across the road, but closed as it’s 2pm. We check in, do our afternoon chores and then John heads out to check the pharmacy and the mercardo again. It’s all closed. He talks to the hotel owner’s son Moses, who speaks English well. Moses tells us that it’s the Feast of St John the Baptist and it’s a national holiday. Everything is closed except one mercardo, one restaurant and the Monastery. He says the pharmacy in the next town, Sarria, maybe open, but that’s doubtful too, as the celebrations are big and it’s almost the weekend. His mom, who is also behind the counter, helping as it’s a busy day at the restaurant, sees me wincing in pain and asks us to hold on and not go anywhere. She disappears for a while and comes back with a knee brace and some crepe bandages. We’re hesitant to take the knee brace that she seems to have benefited from in the past, but she won’t take no for an answer. So we head to the room and I put on some balm and then the brace, which fits perfectly!!!

The knee feels better and we head to the Monastery which is about 300m away. There are 5 or 6 guided tours during the day and the last one is at 6.30pm just before the 7.30pm mass.

We buy tickets for the tour in the shop at the entrance. The shop also has chocolate and many other things made at the monastery. We pick up some chocolate including a large bar for Moses’ wonderful mother.

We wait in the waiting room for it to turn 6.30pm. While we wait there are many unfamiliar faces, possibly tourists and cycling pilgrims. Carlos from the previous day joins the group just as the large door opens and we are let into the Monastery. The monk taking us on the tour speaks in Spanish and everyone but us, seems to understand. Seeing our blank faces, Carlos comes by and offers to be our interpreter for the tour!!

Established in the 6th century it flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries and played an important role in helping pilgrims along the St James Way. In 1956 a massive fire that started in the liquor making part of the monastery, gutted a large part of it and it had to be rebuilt.

Paintings on the walls after the fire in the 1950s
Relics of St Benedict
The altar with a suspended crucifix
With our interpreter Carlos

The tour was over by 7pm and a steady drizzle had started outside. We decided to skip mass and go back to the hotel and rest my leg.

Thankful for the angels who came our way today!

Day 35 – Trabadelo to Fonfria

Today would be the most challenging walk so far! Not just the distance but also the difficulty level! We are going to climb 1200mtr and this would be through pretty strenuous paths and to top it all, it’s drizzling and cold.

We leave sleepy Trabadelo in the rain. It’s cold and we wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee! The petrol bunk is closed, as well as everything else in the village.

Just before Ambasmestas, approximately 4k down the road from Trabadelo, we see an open cafe. We enter a warm room with a few pilgrims inside. The cafe owner, is making churros on the stove. He’s been to North India a few times and is really happy to see us. His friend, a Dutch lady, who has her eye on a property in Trabadelo to turn into an albergue, is helping him this morning. She walked the Camino Frances a few months ago and felt the need to come back and start an albergue herself! She’s a certified yoga teacher and has spent a few months in Kerala learning yoga and ayurvedic remedies. She hopes to provide Indian food and meditation at her place when she opens. We also meet the owners dog, a handsome boxer, who is a therapy dog. The Dutch lady tells us about the cafe owner’s recent bout of cancer and how he got the dog for company and comfort! The doggie is very friendly and sits with us for a bit. John sneaks him a small piece of churro much to his delight. We eat the hot churros and drink some delicious coffee, wish them both well and head out into the cold.

Making churros

As we head into the mountains we see bridges for the highways. The height and length are really impressive!

Las Herrarias, about 10km from Trabadelo has horses you could hire to take you up the 8km trails up the mountains. The ride is 40 Euros. Tempting it was! But we decided to use our feet.

The trails up are narrow, mildly rocky and slushy. It’s a mixture of mud and poop.

Three cheers for our Columbias

Every morn as the path beckons

The Columbias get laced tight.

Asphalt today, one reckons

Impact on the feet will be light!

Neat bow, feet ready in seconds.

We set out and asphalt it is

Until we hit the mountain path

Jagged stones lie amiss

Ankles good support they hath!

Without the Cs, hit or miss?

Poor Cs get covered in dung

As we climb to O Cebrero high

Shared the path with goats young

Cows, horses and cloudy sky.

Feet safe! A ditty must be sung!

At La Faba we meet Carlos Jesus Clarke, half Spanish, half British, who is from West London. He’s taken a break from working and decided to walk the Camino for the adventure of it. As we continued our climb, we shared our experiences of the journey and he told us about finding unexpected spiritual connections and relating it to his Catholic upbringing.

Very smart dogs herding cattle
Although the pallozas started to appear over 1,000 years ago, these rustic round stone huts with thatched roofs were actually inhabited by villagers all the way up until the 1960s.

O Cebrero is where many pilgrims flock to discover the village that experienced the Miracle of the Eucharist, or the legend of the Holy Grail of Galicia, for themselves. It is widely believed that around the year 1300, a man named Juan Santin was such a devout Christian that he never missed mass for anything. One day, a fierce storm ravaged the village, and the priest assumed that no one would turn up. When Juan entered, the priest was surprised and made fun of him by saying that it was not worth braving the storm just for a little bread and wine. The legend continues that to punish the priest for his words and lack of faith, God turned the bread and wine into real flesh and blood.

In 1486, the Catholic Kings returned through the village after their visit to Santiago de Compostela, and after hearing the story, they gave the church two crystal flasks in which to keep the relics.

Baptismal font
150km to go

Just before reaching OCebrero, we entered the Galician region of Spain. The countryside turns stunning and strangely mythical looking. The cobblestoned village was filled with pilgrims and too few restaurants, so we continued our walk and about 5km later we stopped for lunch in a tiny village & treated ourselves to the famous Galician soup – caldo gallego (a stew made from cabbage, potatoes, white beans, sausage and chorizo). We had the vegetarian version and it was wholesome, filling and warm.

As we leave the bar, it starts raining. Geared to walk in the rain, we hit the path again. Cold and wet, we reach Fonfria after many climbs and descents. Casa Galego is warm inside, has a washer and dryer and a well stocked bar and restaurant. There’s no need to step out and we’re thankful for that!

I must mention here that all the albergues, pensions and apartments we’ve stayed at have always been looked after by the owners themselves with maybe family members to help. We’ve never seen hired help. The same goes for the cafés and restaurants on the way. The owners do everything from cleaning to changing linen, cooking, taking food orders, to managing the bookings etc, and with all that, being extremely warm and welcoming to the pilgrims! Very hardworking people!

Day 34 – Camponaraya to Trabadelo

We left Camponaraya around 6.30, planning to get breakfast at Cacabelos, around 7km down the road. A pleasant walk through villages with pretty houses, we soon found ourselves outside Cacabelos. We see the ruins of a monastery and then look out for the yellow arrow! Can’t find any! There’s a French trio also lost like us. We walk in front of the old Iglesia, but nothing there. Finally in a park, there’s a stone with a pale yellow arrow, pointed in a direction which has no road or path. Taking a gamble, we head down the main road, west! We find a human finally who affirms we’re on the right path!

Then the Camino left Cacabelos along the highway. We hadn’t noticed as the stone markers in this area seemed to be hidden or hard to see. The French trio calls out to us and we turn of the highway and follow them.

Family picking pears
The berry tree being raided by the French and Indians

We followed the track through beautiful vineyards around Camino Viego. The walk is now through fruit gardens and vineyards with berry trees on road. Along with our French friends we pick the tree for a few. This is wine country again. There are many bodegas on the way to our next town – Villafranca del Bierzo,

This town reminds us of Ooty or Kodai! The Iglesia de Santiago was a church dedicated to Santiago pilgrims, too ill to reach Santiago. The church provided absolution to the pilgrims at the Puerta del Perdón; the door of forgiveness was located on the church’s side. The Castillo-Palacio de Los Marqueses was near the Iglesia de Santiago. It was a part-time home of the Marquis of Villafranca.

French monks of the Cluny Order founded Villafranca del Bierzo. They built the monastery, El Monasterio de Santa María de Cluniaco, following the discovery of Santiago’s body in 813 A.D. The monastery served the needs of many pilgrims who passed this way. The village became known as Villafranca, or “town of the French,” as the monks were French. It is a national tourist destination. Saint Francis of Assissi established the Iglesia de San Francisco while on a pilgrimage to Santiago.

After a delicious lunch of pasta in this pretty town, we head towards Trabadelo. Just as we leave the town we run into an English lady we’d shared a dorm with, in Villamayor. She had news on the others there. It seemed like we weren’t the only ones who got Covid there. Most of the others too had coughs and colds and were forced to take rest days! So it looks like we’ll be seeing many of them in Santiago!

The walk to Trabadelo was around mountains, by the highway with the river Valcarce by our side. It began to rain as we drew close to the village. We pulled on our rain gear and trudged to the hotel in a steady heavy drizzle. Chris is sitting outside! So happy to see him there. It had been a long day and a long walk – 30km almost!!

The phone card seemed to be out of charge and we needed to top up. Fortunately there was a gas station opposite the hotel where we could do this! A very helpful attendant there assisted us with the recharge. Every encounter with the locals is so overwhelmingly positive and such to lesson and reminder to be the same, when we get back home!!

Day 33 – Riego de Ambros to Camponaraya 21km

Forgot to mention the beautiful sunset I finally got to see last night, around 10.30pm. Our room faced the mountains and as the sun set, it warmed up our cold room.

Also, found this nice map of the Camino Frances on the wall in the home.

After an early start in the cold, we descended the hills to reach Molinaseca, a pretty town by the river. As you enter the town, is a church that had to have the front door covered in metal plates as the farmers that visited would take splinters of the door when they came to pray.

Metal plated door

Slate mining is one of the major industries of the region and is used widely for roofing. The last 3 villages we passed while coming down from Cruz de Ferro and the next few would have all their homes and establishments with slate roofs- such a pretty sight from up high.

The next town on our way, is the last big town before Santiago – Ponferrada, the second largest town in the region of Leon. It’s a large town with a lot of Templar architecture, a castle, churches and a modern city with ugly skyscrapers. We stopped here for breakfast and were happy to bump into our friends again…Chris and Resh and Ash.

In 1178, Ferdinand II of Leon donated the city to the Templar order for protecting the pilgrims on their road to Santiago

We continued our walk towards to Camponaraya. Now it was a flat walk towards our destination. We stopped in a tiny village to change from our shoes to sandals. The best place to stop is always the space outside church, as there are always benches, shade and a water source for pilgrims to use.

We saw a gentleman in his own chair with books on the bench and church music playing on his phone or maybe a player. He greeted us and continued doing what he was doing. He was making notes, reading the Bible and seemed to be preparing a sermon. He had cornered the sunniest space in that square.

We reached Camponaraya and after a great lunch of lamb stew and paella & Resh and Ash for company, we headed to our home for the night.

We came out in the evening to walk along the high street, but some fruit, etc. A couple of German ladies who we’d seen on many days, passed us looking really worried. It was around 6pm and they didn’t have a place to stay & they were too tired to walk 6km to the next town. We pulled up the Camino Ninja app on John’s phone and after a few calls we were able to find 2 beds for them! The app is a blessing for people on The Way with detailed lists of places to stay in every town and village, a rating, the pricing etc.

After our good deed for the day, we went to bed. The Camino has taught us so much (another post just for that) but the greatest lesson is empathy! We’re all in this together!

Day 32 – Rabanal del Camino to Riego de Ambros 21km

Today we climb to an altitude of 1499m, the highest on the Camino Frances. It was close to freezing cold when we left Rabanal del Camino…4deg C. We trekked up the beautiful hills in the dark and the breeze was cold! We walked through fog for about 6km to reach Foncebadon, a tiny little town in the hills. We stopped for a bite and a hot cuppa before climbing higher. It was great to see Chris here! Warm from the delicious coffee we headed out into the cold again. And then we reached the Iron Cross – Cruz de Ferro!

Chris captured this beautiful moment for us

(Source- Leslie Gilmour- http://www.caminoadventures.com) Absolutely not to be missed on the way is the Cruz de Ferro. Also known as the Iron Cross, it is set on a gently sloping hill that also happens to be the highest point of the French Way…this cross is a bit of a mystery even for historians. Erected atop a five-meter wooden pole, most people believed that it was built for a very practical purpose — marking the way for pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances during the winter when everything is covered in a thick layer of snow.

Some historians believe that it was a place used by the Celts even in pre-Christian times and that it was a part of an unknown ritual, while others believe that the ancient Romans used it to mark a border between two territories. Speculations abound, but the most popular belief is that the cross was put there by Apostle James himself. As the tale goes, St. James was passing through the land on one of his evangelical missions, when he encountered pagan priests who were performing a ritual that involved human sacrifice. Full of righteous anger, he grabbed a stone from his pocket and threw it at the pagan altar. Guided by the Lord, the stone shattered the altar into a thousand tiny pieces, and St. James erected a large cross in its place to mark the power of the Almighty.

Today, according to custom, if you bring a small piece of your own home town along with you, you may place it at the foot of the hill and symbolically “leave your burdens behind.” If you like, you may say a prayer and enjoy the profound peacefulness that envelops both hill and cross.

John carried a stone from his father’s grave to leave here – a stone he had carried always with him, ever since his dad’s passing from cancer in 1983. I had picked up a stone along our Camino way a few weeks ago. My prayer was for all my friends and family who’d suffered with Covid, lost loved ones to it, those who found they have some kind of cancer, are being treated for it, or have passed from it and lastly for all of us with mental health challenges. It’s been a couple of difficult years for many and my prayer was for all of us – for healing, for strength during treatment, for the families left behind.

It was quiet at the cross. People getting photos taken quietly, people saying a prayer, people thinking in the silence of the significance of the place. Our friends Chris as well as Reshma & Ash were here at the same time.

From here we headed down to Riego de Ambros. It was a steep walk downhill, along tough trails filled with stones and rocks.

We hardly noticed the strain as the chatter was non stop! Resh and Ash take a year or two off every few years to go see the world. They pick interesting ancient routes like the old silk route, Cairo to Cape Town etc and immerse themselves in travel and culture along the way. Very very inspiring!

We checked into our home for the night in Riego de Ambros, a lovely home owned and run by a lovely lady in her 80s. She suggested we head to the Toni’s for dinner and that we did. Toni from France had opened his little albergue and food truck just 3 weeks ago. On his menu was rice and Indian lentil curry! Without hesitation we ordered two plates and we weren’t disappointed! It tasted fantastic!!! He later told us that he’d never felt this much pressure before – cooking curry for a couple of Indians- the first Indians he’d ever met! He also offered us some vegan tiramisu that he said had flopped, but that was good too.

With avocado on the side

With a full stomach and hearts warmed with the couple’s warmth and their dreams for the future of their business, we headed to our home for the night.

Day 31 – Astorga to Rabanal Del Camino 21km

One month of walking! It’s been a joy! Can’t wait to get up every morning and walk across the canvas for the day!

Leaving the beautiful town of Astorga, we hit the highway. A little outside town we see a chapel opening. A prayer and a sign of the cross with the holy water there, we head to Rabanal Del Camino.

The sunrise looks like the sky is ablaze! We heard news of the fires in parts where we’d walked, close to Pamplona as well as to the south of Astorga. One or two of the albergues in Puente del Reina (after Pamplona on the way) were badly affected by the flames, not to mention the loss of pilgrim business as they had to close paths in the region. Yesterday John smelt fire in Astorga and we heard from others who’d dried their clothes on the line, in their hotels, that there was soot on the clothes. The winds had carried ash from the fires south of Astorga!

Rabanal del Camino is a beautiful town with a lot of options for pilgrims to stay. Cobbled streets and stones houses with pretty flowering pots, the town is picturesque! The climb into the mountains starts from here and because of the beautiful trails there are a lot of tourists in town.

The church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, from the 12th century, declared as a Site of Cultural Interest and one of the few remaining temples of the Leonese rural Romanesque is where we go for Sunday mass at 12.30pm. It’s a humble church and serviced by the Benedictine monks from the monastery near by.

The weather has changed. It’s raining in the afternoon and there’s a chill in the air. Tomorrow’s hike up into the mountains is something we’re looking forward to! It’s one of the most special parts of the route to Santiago!

Day 29 & 30 – Leon to Astorga via San Martin Del Camino

About 45km between the two beautiful cities and we decided to do it over 2 days. The midway point is San Martin Del Camino, a little town with albergues aplenty for the weary.

About 7 or 8k out of Leon, we hit Valverde de la Virgen with a run down church whose steeple has been taken over by storks and their nests. It’s a common sight across Spain…the birds love the high perch and don’t seem to mind the bells going off every 15 minutes! A little further down the road we pass the Bascilica of the Virgin of the Camino, a beautiful modern church with the most impressive facade!

The walk is along the highway, which is busy! After a point it’s annoying and we may as well be walking on Bellary Road in Bangalore!! Just as our annoyance levels were rising we see our Canadian Indian friends Reshma and Aashif, in a cafe on the roadside. We get in and chat for a while. Reshma introduces us to the owner of the cafe Maria, who is delighted to have so many Indians at her place. She’s thrilled when Resh points out that we’re actually from India. She then wants to give me a hug! I’m sweaty at this point and not sure she should be hugging me, but she doesn’t care and gives me the tightest warmest longest hug ever, followed by two firm kisses on the cheek! She is a follower of Amma and of a lot of Indian spirituality practices! Her warmth and love really took all the negativity about the highway out of me!!! A tight hug can do wonders!!

Emily from Seoul was also at the cafe! We’ve been seeing her on the way, at masses in the evening at churches, but had never spoken! She had some pictures of us that she’d taken and wanted to share. We exchanged email addresses.

10km later we stop for some respite along the highway again and share a table with Resh and Ash again. As the conversation flows, about their wanderlust that’s taken them to every corner of the world, to their families and growing up, we’re amazed to hear that their parents lived in Tanzania and Zambia. John and his family were there too around the same time. So John and Resh and Ash had a great time recollecting their past. After a beer too many, we set off again to reach San Martin del Camino, in the blazing sun and vehicle fumes.

The Albergue we stayed at was small and given that the town was tiny, we opted to eat the pilgrim dinner at the albergue, cooked by the family. That was a great decision as we met wonderful people that evening, had a tasty meal and lots of interesting wine and liqueurs. At our table were Andre and Evelyn from France, wonderful young Ying from HK and amazing Chris from Munich who is great fun, a genuinely wonderful person and someone we’ll always stay in touch with. After dinner we were joined by Shane from Canada and Kelly from New Zealand, who brought over a great whisky liqueur from their table. The night was long, but the camaraderie was wonderful!

The next morning we set out for Astorga. About 8km down the road we reach Hosptial de Orbigo which has the longest medieval bridge on the Camino Frances. It’s 300 feet long and it’s easy to imagine the knights galloping down the bridge! It’s an amazing feat of engineering, too, for the medieval times.

It is believed that the Romans built a bridge that was part of the Via Aquitania that connected Asturica (Astorga) with Tarraco (Tarragona) and served to transport the gold from Las Medulas through Hispania. It was in the Middle Ages (XIII century), when the bridge was constructed and was rebuilt several times over the years. They say that in January 1434 M. Suero de Quiñones requested permission from King Juan II to hold a tournament. In love with Ms. Leonor de Tovar, M. Suero agonized his love fasting and holding on his neck a heavy ring every Thursday. To win the admiration of the lady he challenged all the knights who dared to come and fight on the bridge Orbigo, promising to prune up to 300 lances. The tournament was held in July lasting 30 days and 166 spears were pruned. A year later M. Suero married Ms. Leonor and 24 years later one of the knights defeated in the joust ends the life of M. Suero. (Source- tourism castilleyLeon)

Past the bridge, we reach Estabanez de calzada where we pass a home with its yard open to everyone. There’s a gentleman, probably in his 70s who sees us pass and calls us in. He tells us a Sikh couple had passed a little earlier and is happy to see more Indians. He walks to his cherry tree in the back and picks a good number of cherries, goes into a room, comes back with them washed, in a bowl, and a banana cut in half, for us to eat. He stamps our Camino credentials, shows us souvenirs on his walls and wishes us well! Such affection! We were overwhelmed!

We continue our walk through hilly areas. It’s pretty and the weather is nice! As you reach the top before the descent to Astorga you come across the bounty of Tomas who has a table laid out, under canopies, with hammocks and beds to rest on. There are fruits and nuts aplenty, cheese, oranges and a juicer, the sweetest watermelon. Pilgrims stop to rest their aching feet. The boho space is welcoming! Tomas is a meditator and has visited India and is happy to see us! He wants to know more about South India as he hasn’t been there. Refreshed after our rest here, we head down the path.

The first sight of Astorga from a distance is breath taking. It’s set on a hill with Roman walls. As we walk down we see a merry musician who sings a special song for us!

With that melody in our heads we climb up Astorga. The streets of the old town are narrow and cobbled. It’s the weekend and the cafés are overflowing with townsfolk and tourists and peregrinos. We find our hotel for the night and love it! It’s an ancient house and has been in the hotel owner’s family for the last 300 years. The rooms are built around a central courtyard. The furniture is lovely and so are the paintings! Wish we had more time to spend here!!

After our afternoon routine we head to the cathedral, the Episcopal Palace built by Gaudi and the town square to see them up close. We end the day with a visit to the local sweet shop to pick up the Astorga specialty – a puff pastry called mantecada de Astorga. It’s delicious and we have way too many!!!