after the distinct character of O’Cebreiro, hiking for 28 days, and the increasing presence of new peregrinos, I found it increasingly difficult to appreciate the character and charm of the some of the places we stayed in Galicia. perhaps the damp weather exacerbated my sense of ambivalence, but the new faces and increased commercialization of the small towns, seeking desperately to meet some unasked need of the new peregrinos didn’t help.

we didn’t have lodging booked in Triacastela and stumbled upon an albergue near the start of town and off the main road. we snagged perhaps the last two bunks in the place, which was clean enough if charmless. the communal space was somewhat odd and didn’t allow for much lounging. we found a restaurant around the corner for our big daily meal and then took a look around the village. even if we’d found the last two beds in the village, I felt a little cheated; while our albergue was on the main highway through town, the heart of the village was the other road, the one we’d deviated from to find our lodging. it was filled with cafes and several different lodgings of varying quality and after having such luck finding quaint or character-filled lodgings without notice, it was a bit of a let-down. one of my books likened it to the contrast found in Puente la Reina (way back on day 4) where the Camino passed along both a major motorway lined with modern (drab) apartment buildings and through the medieval buildings at the center of town.

the three castles from which the village takes its name dated from the 10th century but none remain standing; according to my cultural history book, they were all likely destroyed by Norman raiders in the middle of the 10th century and nothing remains of them today. (could you blame locals for carrying off a heap of already-quarried stones for their own uses?) despite the lack of stately accommodation, the town drew numerous royals for visits over the centuries. in the 13th century, Alfonso IX of León took a liking to the town and visited frequently, even going so far as to appoint the local mayor; his son took a liking to the Galician language, Gallego, and had troubadours perform songs at court in Gallego. shortly thereafter (in 1248), Fernando III gathered town representatives in the village to raise funds for his campaign to reconquer Sevilla. in May 1554, Prince Felipe II (later King … of several countries with varying strength-of-claim) spent the night in Triacastela before continuing to England to marry his aunt, Mary, who also happened to be recently-crowned Queen of England.

on the way to San Martin

we opted for the less scenic route from León to our next destination — off our guidebook’s preferred path –of San Martin del Camino. while probably “less scenic” as it followed more of the highway-hugging sendas, this alternative route provided more amenities and a shorter step count. I guess I should qualify that following the sendas made the trip shorter on balance; we actually walked farther the day after León than our book suggested on the “scenic” route but we had fresh legs and the day after San Martin, to Astorga, was shorter. rather than a 22km day followed by a 31km we had a 24km day followed by another 24km day. no brainer!

our route took us through a series of small towns, most of which had a distinctly different character from small towns we’d walked through prior to León. as towns on the US-highway and/or Interstate system all across America can attest, proximity to a major highway and the national autopista system definitely affects the viability and character of your town. in lots of ways the highway adjacent were the same as the ones at a distance from the highway — quiet with any number of abandoned structures or windows shuttered to keep out early morning sunlight or allow for afternoon napping. it’s quite odd, though, to have a major two-lane highway — one down which lorries come barreling without much warning — bisect your town. maybe you get used to watching for and dodging highway-speed trucks and traffic on your way to get a pack of smokes at the shop across the street. as a peregrino, though, it was nerve-wracking.

in Villadangos del Paramo (the last town of the day before arriving San Martin), we encountered a disoriented Brazilian peregrino in search of a bus stop to catch a ride to San Martin. though we hadn’t any idea, we walked with him towards the “center” of town — really, just an arbitrary distance mid-way through town on the highway — in search of a cafe for answers (and nosh for us). by his estimation, he hadn’t eaten a good enough breakfast in preparation for the day and decided that busing the last 4km to San Martin might be a better idea. sometimes your body makes decisions for you. he had a smoke and got something to snack on while he waited for the bus outside a cafe; we ate our bocadillo and headed onward.

there were several albergue options in San Martin, including the municipal one “directly under the watertower.” we opted for a private one on the road into town and snagged a private two-bed room with access to some chilly showers. it’s one of the only places I remember seeing crucifixes on the walls… we had a tasty communal menu del peregrino, sharing our table with some Quebecois and an Australian couple. dinner conversation ranged all over the place, from housing crises in our respective countries (and Spain), to politics, to our respective Camino experiences. at the end of the meal the proprietor brought out three bottles of liquor as after-dinner drinks, something we’d never encountered before but which our companions had enjoyed occasionally at albergues before. in addition to brandy, we tasted muscatel and a boysenberry non-alcoholic drink that, I have on reliable authority, tasted like jell-o. all the chat and drink kept us later than normal and meant we started out later to Astorga, but it was a good time and I certainly enjoyed the company of our Australian companions. we saw them several more times before the end of the Camino — and if we hadn’t taken that extra day in León we’d never have met them!

El Burgo Ranero

tree-lined sendas — welcome to us if not our guidebooks
the walk between Terradillos and El Burgo Ranero was one of the rougher stretches we covered — we opted for the “alternative” — more popular, less strenuous, though less scenic — route out of Terradillos and nearly missed out on a place to sleep as a result despite the fact that our calculation was supposed to prevent that possibility. we opted for this route because, unlike the alternate destination of Calzada de los Hermanillos, there were four albergues and two hotels and all manner of amenities. sure, the guidebook bemoaned the “improvements” of a gravel senda and the proximity to the highway but following this route cut a couple kilometers off overall route even if it made this day longer. 
one of the few distinguishing features of the Camino stands just outside Sahagún — a forest, now a municipal camping ground, is the site of the Field of Lances from the campaigns of Charlemagne. essentially, the night preceding a battle, Charlemagne’s troops planted their lances in the ground in preparation for battle; when they arose the next morning the lances of those fighters who were heading for their heavenly reward had been covered in bark and leafy branches. needing the lances for battle, the soldiers cut them off at the ground and, after the battle, a grove of trees grew up. some 40,000 Christians died in the battle.
beyond this forest it was mostly wide-open farmland. wool was a major business in the region as early as the 10th century; merino sheep were introduced from North Africa and proved highly resilient in the face of Iberian weather changes. the herds, sometimes as large as 40,000 sheep, were owned by nobles and military orders and tended by local villagers. the migration of these massive herds posed some difficulties that required a degree or regulation as early as the 13th century. a network of paths snaked throughout Castilla, León, La Rioja, north and south; herders were contracted for a year to tend and travel with the herds. nowadays most of the land has turned into agricultural fields instead of grazing, but sheep still sometimes put in an appearance.
there’s not much to El Burgo Ranero, apart from the albergues and attendant peregrino-related services. this day we almost stopped for the night at the preceding town — Bercianos del Real Camino — but after finding the only hotel booked and that municipal albergue didn’t allow access to the facilities until after 1 p.m., we decided to push on in spite of fatigue and shin splints. we’d left a bit late from the albergue (compared to everyone else, at least …) and sat for quite a while in Bercianos debating our options, which brought us into the small, rather desolate town much later than planned … only to have difficulty finding the lodging options (a couple of albergues and two small hotels) … and discover that all the beds were taken … almost. we studied the town map at the outskirts of the city with an Aussie and Scot and still took the wrong road through town; when we found the right one, the guys we’d followed were told “oh no, all the beds in town are taken,” so we went in search of one of the hotels … only to head further in the wrong direction. but that additional delay (ending up at a cemetery outside of town) probably saved us from trekking an additional 8km to the next town to find lodging. we made it back to town and actually went into the bar that served as reception for a hotel/albergue to ask for a room; the young woman whom I posed the question to initially said “no, we’re booked up,” but an older woman (the manager probably, her mother possibly) told us to wait and she headed off to check in the book. she returned with good news and sent us off with the first young woman to their second property. as it transpired, the double room in the albergue building had been requested by someone … someone who hadn’t yet showed up by 3:30 p.m. and who had been told to call if they wouldn’t arrive to check in by 3:00 p.m. the guy who checked us in seemed rather incredulous when the young woman brought us in and explained the situation — “but what about the other guests?” he queried in Spanish, “shouldn’t we wait for them to arrive before giving their room away?” “well,” she replied, “[so-and-so] said they’re here … and they’re ready to pay…” and he shrugged, took our credencials and signed us in. to our immense relief and gratitude. it was even a private room instead of bunks in the sheds out back (which was less shocking than it sounds)!

Hornillos and its albergue

the town that followed Burgos was something of the polar opposite of the sprawling, urban, cosmopolitan metropolis. Hornillos has a population of approximately 70 (according to the 2004 census); we didn’t see much evidence of those inhabitants upon our noontime arrival under brilliantly blue, cloud-strewn skies. there were two lodging options: a small casa rural (that had a sign out front indicating it was booked solid for the night) and the albergue municipal. 
the next option for lodging was some seven or eight additional kilometers — a distance we had no interest in traversing in light of our various physical afflictions. a compact stone building immediately next to the church housed some 40 bunks for peregrinos. of course, most peregrinos opt not to continue on beyond Hornillos and 40-odd bunks and perhaps a half dozen private beds didn’t suffice for our not-quite-peak-season. when the bunks in the stone building filled up, overflow peregrinos are assigned mattresses on the floor of town hall and, once all that floor space is occupied, on the floor of the sports complex behind the albergue building. (see that white building beyond the laundry in the picture at the top — that’s the sports complex.) by the time we got to the showers in the albergue, the water was fully cold, so I suppose sleeping on a gym floor and using locker room showers wouldn’t be all that bad. what can you expect for 5 euros?
Hornillos was our first taste of truly limited options. in addition to one casa rural and one albergue, there was one bar/cafe and one corner shop. while the corner shop proved fairly well-stocked (with a disproportionate share of German snack foods), the bar/cafe only had about 8 tables to seat about 40 — half of the seats in the bar with a more a la carte-style menu (like sandwiches and plates of food) while if you sat in the cafe part (as we did), it was menu del peregrino or nothing as we and, much to their consternation, a group of 8 English-speakers found out because there were no seats in the bar area.
the town plaza and its one bar/cafe

despite the rather bland options (for a vegetarian in particular) on offer for the menu del peregrino, we did get seated with an older Spanish couple in a bid to maximize table capacity. through my limited Spanish we managed to converse a bit about our respective Caminos — the husband had done the walk before and offered some advice on the stretch beyond Astorga. that’s about all I remember about them, despite the fact that they slept in the bunks beneath ours in Hornillos and we saw them pretty much every day until we got to León. apart from eating our meal, stocking up for the following day, and trading between Kindle and paperback, there wasn’t much to do. despite dire predictions of Olympic-level snoring in our room full of middle-aged men, I slept pretty well — doesn’t hurt to fall asleep before everyone else while the sun is still setting — and we were up and on the road before it rose the next morning.


after quickly passing through the tiny town of San Juan de Ortega we came to the slightly-less-tiny town of Agés — sporting nearly twice as man residents (a whopping 60 people!) and five times the lodging options (um, five — all albergues). we spent the last kilometer or two lagging behind a somewhat clique-y group of mostly French peregrinos and when we saw them heading into one of the private albergues on the main street we headed one door beyond and ended up in the municipal albergue. a middle-aged man and his wife ran the place and had pressed their teenage son into service behind the bar and in the dining room.

this albergue was the third we stayed in and the first run by a “municipality” — the church administered the first in Roncesvalles and the one in Zubiri was private. at the one in Agés, some 36 bunks occupied space above bar and dining room and, as usually occurred in the albergues, we had to leave our dusty boots at the door to minimize the amount of dirt we might track upstairs.

one perk to staying in albergues: our fee often included a menu de peregrino and, sometimes, an adequate breakfast. once we got our showers in and had our catchup naps we headed down to the bar for a beer and to wait until all the peregrinos filtered in for the day, the dinner count firmed up, and the patrons began serving dinner. after a brief, distracting stint inside where we caught our first glimpse of a telenovela centered around a military family and set in 1957. attention for that withered quickly and we headed outside to keep company with town dogs, wasps, and other peregrinos.

sitting outside, it became increasingly clear that the books downloaded on the Kindle went much faster than my somewhat hefty paperback (Wizard’s First Rule). my tendency to “dawdle” and write about the day in my journal certainly didn’t help my reading speed, either. but then, if I hadn’t done that, how could I look back and jog my memory about the day-to-day trivialities to share with all of you?


the village of Roncesvalles has served pilgrims coming over the pass since the 9th century and in the late 12th century, Sancho VII El Fuerte ordered the construction of a church, done in the Gothic style. his remains and that of his wife now lie in the crypt of the church. in 1400, fire destroyed the original church building, though other structures survived, including the chapel of Sacti Spiritus, which stands over a crypt where Roland is reputed to have stabbed himself after the defeat in the Pass and served as a burial place for peregrinos that perished on the Camino. a bishop from Pamplona bolstered Sancho VII’s decision by creating a co-fraternity to administer to peregrinos at Roncesvalles. in the 13th century, Navarre underwent a period of prosperity which served to enhance the power of this co-fraternity even more; by the end of the 14th century their strength was such that the Navarrese Crown borrowed money from the collegiate at Roncesvalles. reforms over the 16th and 17th centuries enhanced their position, which were threatened by the French Revolution and instability that followed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

as a first experience with albergues (aulberge in French), the one in Roncesvalles was about what I anticipated from one of the most popular points of origination for the Camino. the space we stayed in was recently renovated and modernized to match the rapidly increasing demand for beds and amenities. previously, up to 120 people bunked in the same large room in the collegiate facility on the main road next to the river. the new building (seen above) was converted from an old youth hostel (I believe) and has something like 300 beds on three floors, which are broken up into little bunk alcoves of four beds with a locker for each bed and had a reasonable three-showers-per-gender-per-floor ratio. the Russian guys sharing our alcove snored like the dickens but weren’t the worst we endured by a long shot (our roommates the next night in Zubiri was muuuuuuuch worse).

Roncesvalles from Col de Lepoeder – today’s peak

a note on language

as I write about my time in Spain, I’m going to stick with the language I used while I was there — mostly Spanish, with a little French and Galego thrown in for good measure. two words I’ll use a lot:

peregrino: pilgrim
albergue/aulberge: pilgrim hostel. just like your average tourist hostel but reserved for use by peregrinos only

more to come soon!