sandy soil of El Bierzo

as we’re decompressing from that nightmare of a presidential campaign season, I thought I’d bring you some nice, soothing pictures of cultivation in Spain.

the soil in the Bierzo region of Castilla y Leon is very sandy — which makes it exceptionally good for growing both roses and grape vines. for several days around Molinaseca we saw incredible rose bushes in all manner of places — in gated front gardens, in the middle of an intersection, tucked next to a wall that lead to an underground garage … when we set out from Molinaseca at our slightly-later-than-usual time (7:15 a.m.) the roses in a garden a few doors down from our hotel had already gotten their morning soaking. probably a good thing considering how hot the weather got that afternoon …

on the way to Villafranca we also saw fresh cherry trees which, if I remember correctly, many farmers spray with something unpleasant to deter people from plucking ripe fruit off the tree (and cutting into their merchandise). we also got a lesson on the reason the hills between Villafranca and O’Cebriero are so good for growing grape vines when we stopped for a snack and some wine in Cacabelos.

over the course of the Camino, we listened to a lot of podcasts, as well as a couple of audiobooks. for some reason, the only day for which I can routinely recall to what I listened was this one — day 26. as we progressed along the busy main road in Camponaraya and on through a rare stand of trees I listened to episode #465 of This American Life — What Happened at Dos Erres. we stopped at a cash machine just as I got to a graphic part of the story and it was jarring to come out of such a gripping, awful narrative to a mundane if busy city street. later on, as we wended our way along the side of a quieter roadway (not entirely sure we’d managed to stay on the “alternative” Camino path), I listened to episode #212 of the Nerdist featuring Brent Spiner; recorded at a live show Phoenix it was the complete opposite of This American Life. and Andy could not understand why I kept laughing as we were struggling up another damned hill with sweat pouring out of everywhere and precious little water to slake our thirst.

he understood better why I was laughing when he got around to that episode a day or two later.


the journey from Roncesvalles to Zubiri was our first lesson in the short-comings of our guide book. while it recommends continuing on to Larrasoaña — a further 5 or so km — with the afterthought addendum “if you’re feeling muy fuerte” we were more than ready to stop in Zubiri for the night. it was the first of many experiences in one of the numerous small villages that make up the majority of the stops along the Camino, as well as another albergue experience that quickly amounted to a strong preference for private rooms with fewer snorers and private showers wherever they might be found.

Zubiri is named for the bridge that connects the Camino to the town, crossing over the rio Arga. the name comes from Basque and roughly translates to “town of the bridge.” originally constructed in 1097, the current bridge dates from the 14th century. it’s known as the Puente de la Rabia because of a tradition (or legend) that held that walking around the central pillar three times would cure a domesticated animal (e.g. sheep, horses, cows) of rabies. until the 20th century farmers would bring their animals to receive help from the 5th century virgin-martyr Saint Quiteria, whose remains might have been found or ended up here.

the second day was challenging in a whole new set of ways. it still hadn’t really set in that we were in this for the long haul, though I worked assiduously on not thinking about how many days of walking we had left. even though on some level I knew we couldn’t possibly be facing 33 more days as arduous as the ascent over the mountains into Roncesvalles, I didn’t have any evidence yet to prove otherwise. swollen feet were my worst enemy the duration of the Camino and they showed up with a vengeance on this day; my body wasn’t prepared for the reality of walking for hours every day, for days on end.

physical pain aside, the countryside had a lot to offer, all of which differed from what we saw the on the preceding day. apart from a few days in the middle as we crossed the plains of Castilla y Leon, the terrain differed every day — offered new and incredible vistas and presented unique challenges. on this day, for example, we saw our first group of domesticated animals moving as a herd. after a brief rest and not-yet-underwhelming bocadillo in Espinal, the main road through town was briefly swarmed by sheep moving out to pasture. the shepherd and his dogs kept everyone in line, plodding along determinedly, the old sheep straggling along at the rear with periodic canine astonishment to stay with the group.

in all honesty, I am surprised we didn’t see more herds of farm animals moving through towns. we saw plenty of animals out in fields, sure, but only two or three in being shepherded to a new destination. suppose the farmers were up before even the peregrinos seeing to their animals and getting them out for a nice long, sunny meal in the pasture.