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  • Day40

    Palas de Rei to Santiago de Compostela!

    November 5, 2016 in Spain ⋅ 🌧 9 °C

    Palas de Rei- Melide-Arzua-Arca do Pino

    The next four days was a gradual and lengthened descent from the town of Palas De Rei at 560m to 260m elevation at our final destination of Santiago de Compostela. However, the Camino was never without a few steep hills here and there thrown in for good measure!

    These were days of crossing shallow river valleys, clambering over stones and rocks as we crossed small babbling streams and walking through woodland forests. The countryside was beautiful and that vibrant green of the grass in the meadows was always so uplifting.

    One of the most memorable and surprising of this stage was the Eucalypt forests we walked through. We learned later, that these trees were grown for the wood pulp industry.

    The strange sensation was that it felt like being home in our Australian bush, but there was nothing Australian about this environment! The trees were planted in rows and the only sound was an occasional robin darting across the pathway. Our Australian bush is so noisy- but here, not an animal, a bird, an insect. No wonder the early Europeans in our country documented that they nearly were driven mad by the noise and strangeness of the environment!

    Still, it was comforting to be walking over fallen gum leaves strewn across the pathway, like a red carpet paving our way to Santiago de Compostela.
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  • Day39


    November 4, 2016 in Spain ⋅ ☀️ 12 °C

    The beautiful clear, cool days of the previous week in the high mountains finally came to an end. Walking in rain and at times fog and mist helped us appreciate why Galicia is so green and lush! I was also to learn through my stone bruised feet, that by the time we were to reach Santiago a few days later, that this final stage would not be an easy one.

    Most of the 22km walk to the town of Portomarin took us via country roads and tree lined pathways. Again we climbed up to Alto Paramo at 660m and then a steep descent to cross the Rio Mino at 330m would yield an interesting story about its town.

    As you can see in the pics, this river carved a steep mountain valley fed by upper streams and small rivers as well as snow coming from even higher. Testament to the power of this river are the remnants of medieval bridges and the old town whose ruins lay on its banks.

    In recent years, the original town was moved to higher ground on the opposite side of the valley to make way for the damming of the river and creation of a reservoir. Evidence of flood after flood and erosion was everywhere as we made the final climb up into the old town.

    The Romanesque church of San Juan with links to the knights of St John was painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone when it was moved to make way for the reservoir. On the stones you can see the corresponding numbers to assist the rebuilding of this 10th Century church, literally, stone by stone!

    The last pic shows an interesting structure. Walking through the rural villages with their lush vegetable gardens, cows and chickens, these structures became a part of the landscape of every farmhouse and household. Can you guess what they are used for?
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  • Day38

    Sarria - The Final Stage!

    November 3, 2016 in Spain ⋅ ☀️ 11 °C

    Sarria represents the final significant stage on the Camino de Compostela. It is approximately 130km from Santiago and must be reached through a steep descent from a series of 'Altos' or mountain peaks, hills and alpine hamlets. The journey was really a journey upward and downward as we summitted the 'Alto de Roque' at 1230m, 'Alto do Poio' at 1330m, 'Alto Riocabo' at 905m before arriving at Sarria at 440m.

    The Galician countryside was so picturesque! Walking through farming villages, seeing cows being handmilked in the barns, chickens and roosters heralding our arrival and large farm dogs sleeping like sentinel guards for the village. As we approached, one sleepy eye would open and close, allowing us to pass without the dog moving from the middle of the road!

    One other highlight was walking through beautiful mountain woodland forest. See pic. Unlike our Australian bush, these places are very quiet, the only sounds are small birds and the breeze blowing the rust coloured leaves. Only the peal of mountain hunting sometimes broke the silence.

    Arriving at Sarria, we found a town with Celtic origins which had been a major centre for medieval pilgrims with several churches, monasteries and 7 pilgrim hospitals. We explored the old quarter of the town, which had to be climbed upwards of 50 stairs! Believe me, that's not easy after a 25k days walk!
    Unfortunately, the weather turned sour that night and it was too wet to see the ancient castle ruins or the monastery of St Magdalena.

    Many pilgrims make Sarria their starting point and from here, it is a requirement to complete the Camino and receive your 'Compostela' or certificate, you must get 2 stamps per day until you reach Santiago.
    To date our credentials were adorned with coloured stamps from Churches, shops, cafes, hostels and Albergues. The challenge now was to get 2 or more per day!
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  • Day36

    Upward to O'Cebriero!

    November 1, 2016 in Spain ⋅ ☀️ 10 °C

    Having walked along the valley floor from Ponferrada through rural villages, farms and vegetable gardens, we began the gradual climb upward over the next mountain rim. This would take us the next three days and eventually lead us out of Castille y Leon and into the picturesque Province of Galicia.

    Archeologists and Geologists are continuing to confirm and investigate further the existence of a land bridge that once connected Ireland with this part of Northern Spain. This accounts for the similarities in Geology, Culture and the people of Galicia. The luscious green hills and stone walled paddocks with cows and sheep grazing peacefully is not unlike Ireland at all! It was not uncommon for us to pass through a rural village with Irish tunes being played in a cafeteria!

    Our destination was a very special stop on the Camino at a village called O'Cebreiro at an elevation of 1330m. This mountainous climb is the second highest of the Camino and almost as strenuous and steep as the climb over the Pyrenees.

    Usually at this time of year this area would be under fog or even snow, however due to unseasonal temperatures we were blessed to have good weather and be able to experience the spectacular beauty of this mountain environment in all its autumn glory.

    The reds and golds and greens of the forest were breathtaking at times. We walked through a forest of giant chestnut trees, the falling of their treasured nuts and seeds along with the chatter of birds being the only sounds made.

    It was wonderful to stop and experience another kind of natural beauty other than the familiar sights, sounds and smells of our own Australian bush - so far away from here! Boys, I can only describe these Galician mountains and their forests as the kind of forests from Harry Potter movies and books!

    We reached the village of O'Cerbreiro in the mid afternoon and what a surprise awaited us! Being in the Province of Galicia now, the village was an expression of Celtic Culture and history.

    The buildings were reminiscent of old Ireland with original thatched rooves and slate bricked houses, shops selling all things Irish and of course pilgrim wares. Built into the side of the mountain top some pilgrims remarked 'this is like something straight out of The Hobbit!' Every building we went into you had to duck your head!

    Most importantly though, there was a monastery here since the 10th Century and reportedly, St Francis of Assisi came through here making his own pilgrimage to Santiago some 200 years later.

    The Church obviously has a Franciscan history, however, we also learned of a miraculous history. An approved miracle happened here when a priest commented harshly to a farmer who had risked his life under bad weather to come up for Mass saying that he should not have come in the poor weather for the bread and the wine. At that moment the bread and wine became the real body and blood of Jesus. At the same time the statue of Mary now called Santa Maria de Real, inclined her head and smiled. She was a very warm and beautiful image with a lovely smile on her lips. I lit a candle here and remembered you all in front of her statue. It was the Feast of All Saints that day.

    Another special significance was that it was the Parish Priest of O'Cebreiro who personally travelled the Camino and placed all the markers to make the modern pilgrimage more accessible than that of old. The yellow arrows and Plinths were his idea. Thank God for him!!

    Setting off from O'Cebreiro, we climb upward 200m or so and then begin the steep descent over the following day. We are now in our last week of walking the Camino! In 7 days and 156km from here we will reach our destination of Santiago de Compostella!
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  • Day33


    October 29, 2016 in Spain ⋅ 🌙 13 °C

    To reach Ponferrada we had to climb up into a mountain range which would take us to the highest point on the Camino, a place called Cruz de Ferro. At 1500m elevation, we had walked up through forested mountains again dotted on their ridges and peaks by wind turbines- out only markers, like sentinels, the larger they loomed, the closer we knew we were to the top!

    Cruz de Ferro is an iron cross at which pilgrims leave something of themselves ( usually a stone as a symbol) behind at the foot of the cross to symbolise this part of their pilgrimage. It was a very quiet and peaceful place surrounded by pines and wooded glades. We stood and remembered those who had gone before us and all those we loved.

    We also had a local sheep dog befriend us on the path up the mountain. See pic. These dogs were traditionally used by local farmers to protect their sheep and cows from mountain wolves. He stayed with us for about 8k and led us up the mountain path, which was single file through scrub and trees. Every now and then he would stop to turn and check on us as we puffed up the rocky path after him. Whoever said that a companion on the Camino had to be human! I will never forget this lovely affectionate Camino dog who made it his business to look after us on The Way.

    Inevitably, 'what must go up- must come down!' echoed in our ears as we commenced a very steep descent of 900m in 11k. This steep descent pocketed by villages along the way led us out of the mountains and down to the city of Ponferrada which is the capital of the El Bierzo region In Castille de Leon. It is hemmed in by mountains and sits at the head of a very long valley stretching out ahead of us like a canvas. It would take us the next 3 days to walk the length of it!

    Ponferrada's history was both Roman as it was an important settlement and also Medieval. Its name derives from its bridge built in 1082, the first to be built of iron. Hence, Pons Ferrata became Ponferrada.
    It also has a most magnificent castle with an interesting history and was declared a national monument!

    In the 1100s the Templar Knights were made custodians of Ponferrada by King Fernando in 1178. Having inherited the original fort here, the Templar Knights built it into something much larger. Not long after they were, sadly dissolved. The castle stands as a monument to them and their protection of the city and especially the pilgrims who travelled through it on their way to Santiago.See Pic.
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  • Day29


    October 25, 2016 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    The journey to Astorga from Leon was marked by some days of walking in light rain. The countryside had that earthy smell that rain brings. The walking was mostly through corn fields and farming communities. Long flat stretches, mainly along roads connecting village after village.

    It was a different experience to be walking alongside private hunting reserves also! This was a different experience! At times we heard the hunters gun explode the silence In the nearby scrub and this quickened our step considerably!! Later we were told that the quarry was pheasant!

    From here on we were to walk through many pathways which were flanked by hunting reserves. One afternoon, while walking through the late afternoon, a lost hunting dog followed us along the path. It was a plucky little beagle! She sniffed the air continually, then realising we were of no use to her in finding the pack, turned around from us and howled! As we continued on our way, we could still hear her howling for the pack and her owner, still out on the reserve! The howling echoed across the hills so loudly, I was certain she would be found and that this may have happened before!!

    On arriving in Astorga, we found a city with a distinctly Roman flavour. Set atop a steep ridge the city still has some of its medieval walls surrounding and was important during Roman times as it was the junction of several important routes for trade and transportation. The Camino also meets the via Aquitana and the Roman silver route, the via de La Plata which comes up from Seville. There were 20 pilgrim hospitals in medieval times there! By the time they reached Astorga, they would be in great need of help!!

    The great architect Gaudi also designed the bishops palace there but he died before he could enjoy it! It is now the Museum of Pilgrimage! See pic. Trattorias and Pizzerias abound there, but the most important thing about Astorga I think, is that it is famous for its chocolate, complete with a chocolate museum! This pilgrim definitely did not miss out!
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  • Day28

    Building Bridges..

    October 24, 2016 in Spain ⋅ 🌙 9 °C

    Have you ever tried to build a bridge? Ever wondered what might create the strongest bridge? What does it take to build a bridge that might last hundreds or ever over a thousand years? What stories surround a particular bridge and what do bridges symbolise in our own life's journey?

    I have walked over and marvelled at many bridges on this Camino, bridges from Roman times and Medieval times, however, today's walking experience prompted this reflection.

    We finished the day in a place called Hospital de Orbigo. It has the longest bridge on the Camino over the River Orbigo and its flood plain. It connects both sides of the town. It is a 13th Century bridge built over an original Roman bridge and one of the best preserved in Spain. See first and second pic.

    The story of the bridge goes like this: Built in the Holy Year of 1434, a noble knight from Leon, Don Sueto de Quinones, scorned by a beautiful lady, challenged any knight to pass and undertook to defend the bridge and also his honour. Knights from all over Europe took up the challenge, Don Suero successfully defended the bridge.. and presumably his honour, for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken. He and his companions then set off to Santiago to offer thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love and for his honour now restored!

    This town also witnessed the battle in 452 between the Visigoths and the Swabians, battles between the Medieval Christian forces and the Moors, as well as being a major trade route across the bridge since Roman times, especially in livestock.

    On the far side of the bridge, dating back to the Knights, the ancient order of St John Calleberos Hospitaleros set up and maintained a pilgrim hospital there- hence the naming of the town which developed as a result.

    Due to the history of Knighthood here, there is a Jousting tournament each year, which takes place in the arena set up by the bridge. See if you can spot it in the first pic! How's that for a bridge over a river story!

    Secondly, another remarkable bridge we encountered on the Camino in the first ten days, was at a place called Puente la Reina. See third pic.

    This bridge was significant because it was built primarily to provide safe access to the other side of the river for pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Before the bridge was built, unscrupulous river men would promise a pilgrim safe passage by boat. Once halfway across, the unsuspecting pilgrim would be robbed of any value they possessed and thrown overboard to be drowned. Very few pilgrims made it across. The bridge was obviously much needed then!!

    This bridge or Puente is extremely high and remarkably steep. As I observed from below, it's pylons are built to resist flood, featuring an ingenious arched recess to relieve the pressure of high water on the arch of the bridge, whilst being aesthetically pleasing too! From above as you cross the bridge, with every step, the long view of the landscape rises and gives a sense of perspective of how far and where you've come from, but also of freedom as the bridge descends and delivers you safely to the other side, ready to resume the journey ahead.

    So what does a bridge symbolise for us in our life journey? Perhaps a safe passage, a place to stop and take the long view, a change in perspective. Might the experiences which carry us from one learning to another be a bridge too?

    There are also people in our lives that provide bridges for us- our family, friends, those who walk with us.
    These people can teach us that the experience of reconciliation, justice and peace is about bridgemaking. As we grow, we can become bridges to love, peace and justice for others and the world.
    We are a pilgrim people walking our life's journey together, creating bridges for each other and encouraged to live by the message of the gospel.

    St Ignatius Loyola walked across many bridges in his life. He, like our own St Mary MacKillop became a bridge for others, inspired by their relationship with Jesus and the message of the gospel.
    They point us to Jesus, who assures us ' I am the Way, the Truth and the Life ' Jn 14:6

    Might Jesus also be 'the Bridge' too?

    What's your experience of bridges and bridge building?
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  • Day26

    The City of Leon - halfway!

    October 22, 2016 in Spain ⋅ 🌙 9 °C

    Reaching the city of Leon was another milestone on the Camino. We are now just over halfway to Santiago!

    During our travels across the Meseta we crossed over onto yet another provincial area- Castille y Leon. We left behind the Province of Castille y Burgos and crossed over into the surrounding agricultural region which spread out before us its table of corn, potatoes, harvested sunflowers and winter vegetable gardens and fruit trees. The Way often took us along rivers and it was very refreshing after the high plains of the Meseta.

    One day we stopped in a village for lunch with a beautiful and remarkable church built by the Templar Knights in the 1200s. Dedicated to The Virgin del Blanca, it was a very important stop for pilgrims to ask for a blessing before they arrived at the city of Leon. In those days pilgrims were vulnerable and cities were often dangerous places. It was very peaceful inside and simply decorated.

    Leon is a provincial city with a Roman heritage. Settled by the Romans it is named after the 5th Legion who was posted here and who built many of the roads and infrastructure for the city then.
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  • Day23

    Across The Meseta

    October 19, 2016 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    I've heard people say that the desert is 'a nothing kind of place.' Indigenous people anywhere would tell you otherwise- especially our First Australians. I pondered this notion as we made our way for the next 5 days across the unique and somewhat isolated landscape known as the Meseta of Northern Spain.

    This area is a series of desert mesas with long stretches of 20- 27k between villages and sometimes 10-17k with no water sources. We were warned to stock up on snacks and water on these days before we left the village or town! Amazing how far you can go on water fruit, chocolate and muesli bars!

    We followed the ascent up onto the mesas. This was the way the farmers tractors went, walked along the top for ages and then down the other side into flattened valleys of stony fields being ploughed up by farmers on tractors to be bedded down for the colder months ahead.

    This isolated landscape consists of very high plains of elevations around 900- 1000m. The land is put to use and the villages along The Way are mainly agricultural, also having developed along the ancient pilgrim route for care of pilgrims from long ago and today. We were also accompanied by wind turbines flanking us on all sides of the mesas. Spain knows how to use the wind well for alternative energy sources!!!

    The tops of the mesas were very windy and a cold northerly wind bit at our faces as we longed for the next village to come into view- with the promise of a hot chocolate and a tortilla ( Spanish omelette and bread.)

    Highlights were the beautiful ruined 12th Century monastery of St Anton- Augustinian nuns who looked after and cured sick pilgrims of a disease called 'St Anton's fire.' The Tau cross of St Anton you can see in the church window was their symbol and it means love. This cross is visible on buildings, in shops, on signs throughout the neighbouring villages and must have had a significant effect on the faith and tradition of the people here over the centuries.

    Secondly, the village of Castrojeriz, nestled between mesas, with its high ruined castle. In such an isolated landscape, elevation over the village would have been essential! Have a look at the pic and see if you can identify the mesa we climbed up out of the town. We felt higher than the castle! Hey boys notice the incredible work wind and water erosion has done in forming these valleys between the mesas themselves!

    Lastly, at the town of Carrion de Los Condes, we attended a beautiful Mass and was given a personal and communal pilgrim blessing at Our Lady del Camino Church with other pilgrims. We were the only Australians! It was very moving and I Remembered you all there at Our Lady of the Way's shrine in the Church. A few pics to follow.
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