soggy way to Palas del Rei

view out our window into someone’s back yard

one perk of the increased number of peregrinos after Sarria is the ease with which could find food and lodging. we’d had a room booked for Palas de Rei in what turned out to be a modern, comfortable, and highly solicitous hotel (Casa Benilde). our arrival coincided with two political events of varied importance: June 5th marked the date of the Recall election (of which we all know the outcome) and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. staying in a modern hotel meant we had an array of cable channels, not just the usual over-the-air basics and caught some of the coverage including her arrival at Buckingham and a flyover by an aerial acrobatic team with World War II Spitfires.

the rest of the day, hike included, didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though I wrote of not feeling physically taxed in the way I’d been on previous days. looking through pictures dredges up hazy memories that pale in comparison to what surfaces when considering the more challenging days. I suppose that four days of hiking fewer than 25 kilometers in favorable temperatures will do that to you. in more than a few ways, the character of the Camino had changed; less sweltering to be sure but also less solitary by quite a long way.

though evidence along the Camino to Palas de Rei suggests settlements dating to the pre-Roman era, little of substance remains. for example, a 7-meter wide ditch leading to a 7-meter wide wall lead up to the current outskirts of one town. outside another (Castromaior) ruins of a Roman camp were discovered, as well as assortment of ceramic vessels. written records of this stretch also refer to it as an “open-air brothel” where prostitutes would approach peregrinos individually to offer their services. for the pious peregrino, the “appropriate” response was to report such wanton women for excommunication, shaming and a punishment of a severed nose. not surprisingly, these women were also often accused of robbing their marks.

evidence of a proscribed burn along the edge of the highway

neither of my reference books have much to say on the town itself. it serves as an administrative center but only boasts a population of just over 2,000 (still huge compared to many towns we’ve been through, of course); the bus from Lugo to Santiago stops here though little remains of historic significance in the town. legend holds that the Visigothic king Witiza (who reigned from 701-709) built a palace here, from which the town takes its name, though none of that alleged structure remains. rather, the town has more in common with its medieval self, wherein agricultural hamlets surrounded the “big town” as they do today.

down the hill into the rain shadow

the hike down from O’Cebreiro proved dramatically different than the ascent the previous day. it was overcast and windy in the passes and stayed much cooler well into the middle of the day. (once we got to Triacastela and the day washed off, I was a bit wishful for a warmer pair of clean pants.) the main roadway down from O’Cebreiro cuts over a 1,264 meter pass at Alto San Roque, where there’s a large statue of a peregrino gripping his hat and bracing against the wind. (of course we had to cross the road and pose with it.) the bronze Monumento do Peregrino stands atop the peak near an old hermitage of the same name. the first record of the hermitage dates from the early 17th century and is known for its unique architecture and wooden facade.

not long after posing with the statue, we stopped for a quick bite at a small cafe in Padornelo where a hopeful, speckled rooster hovered around our table, hoping for flakes to drop off our bocadillo. it wasn’t the last close-encounter we had with livestock or wildlife in Galicia which, similar to western portions of Ireland, has a disproportionate human-to-livestock ratio. because the Camino often follows farm tracks and narrow back-roads, we encountered lots of evidence of cows or sheep heading from their lodging in one of the tiny farming hamlets that led to Triacastela off to their pasture for the day. on one memorable occasion, we encountered a herd of lovely caramel-colored cattle heading uphill rather late in the morning. two younger Spanish women (maybe college-age) walking just ahead of us seemed fascinated by the cows … in a way that made it seem obvious they must live someplace where one doesn’t run into cows very often. or ever. one of them walked right up to one of the cows to pose for a picture; the cow, obviously freaked out by this strange person approaching her, stopped and halted the progress of the herd up the hill. the farmer, who was leading them to pasture, came storming up at the rear of the herd and ripped into both of them for stopping the cows. I couldn’t understand precisely what either side was saying (as it was in Spanish) but the sentiment needed no translation.

for much of the descent, as the guide book alerted us (correctly and reasonably for once), was through clouds — visibility wasn’t more than a few hundred meters at best for quite a ways. it was a nice change from the heat of the previous days, even if my hair did some wacky curling. the increased precipitation meant an array of new flora, including blue lilies, wild roses, blackberries, hawthorn, broom, gorse … as well as more fauna. likely because of the smaller human population, there’s a diverse wildlife population in Galicia, too. apparently, if we’d been observant, we might have seen evidence of wolves, harriers, short-toed eagles, martens, wild boar, sparrow hawks, and ermine. if I’d been Galician wildlife, though, I’d have gotten as far away from the tromping peregrinos as possible and leave no trace of myself behind!

O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

golden raspberry white-chocolate torte

one reason I chose to travel when I did this year was to have something memorable to say about my golden birthday. three years ago, I went to a club in North Park with two friends who were California natives. two years ago I went to the San Diego Zoo, then out to one of my favorite places in San Diego — the beach in Coronado. last year, I went out to Blue Mounds State Park with my parents for a hike on what was a decidedly, wonderfully fall day.

this year, I was in Prague. lovely, lovely Prague (even if it was sprinkling most of the day). I certainly didn’t want to go without some special birthday treat to mark the occasion, so after a morning of wandering around the city I popped into the Prague Bakeshop just a few blocks the fashionable Pařížská and Old Town Square. there, I enjoyed a cup of reasonable Earl Gray tea (the Czech Republic is not known for either its coffee or its tea) and a perfectly delectable white chocolate torte with chocolate crumb crust and fresh raspberries. I was never been much of a white chocolate person, but I do believe the Czech Republic might have me swayed in its favor now and forever.

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two weeks + forty-three hours

in short, the Czech Republic was fantastic and much, much more on my adventures later. they are not so heavily history-oriented as my trip from last year, which is due in large part to my own limited knowledge of Czech history. I hope to remedy that to some extent now that I’m back and blogging; dust off the research skills and learn more about the places I’ve visited, the sites I’ve seen, the detours I inadvertently took …

but before I get to all that, I need some rest. why, yes, I did take it much easier this year and stretched my time out in several places over several days (namely, Cesky Krumlov, Olomouc, and Prague), and felt remarkably well-rested every morning in spite of occasionally-uncomfortable beds and a more or less constant nocturnal soundtrack of snores in various keys.

you see, it was the return that did me in. you might have heard of this “weather” that the East Coast experienced over the last several days. this weather that flooded the Carolinas and affected “millions” (according to a CNN estimate that I blearily registered sometime about 8:00 a.m. EST today) saw me stranded at J.F.K. International in Jamaica, New York. right now, let me just wish a great big frak you to: the uglier side of mother nature; the JFK Airport; crying, poopy babies; mis-directed luggage; the most pointless re-routes in the history of the airline industry; and traveling for forty-three hours to get home to your bed. (the home to which your luggage has still not been returned, despite statements to the contrary from local gate agents.) on the Prague-NYC flight, a guy ahead of me regaled his seat companion of his arduous 29-hour journey from Detroit to Amsterdam and I thought, “yesh, that sounds like it would suck.” if only I’d known how in time I would come to long for such a measly, short-lived travel nightmare.

but, as I said, I had a fabulous time in Czech and in spite of the nightmare at JFK, there were a few helpful gate agents (one of whom just worked through my options on the computer as I struggled to keep from sobbing unrestrainedly at the counter over a cup of hot water and honey I’d procured from the Starbucks to stave off my developing cold-throat). am I ever going to fly through JFK again in my life? HELL NO. double hell no. I recognize it’s impossible to avoid Delta now that they’ve eaten up Northwest, but I don’t anticipate flying them internationally again. as a rule, I’ve had much better luck with United and American (even going through O’Hare in the dead of winter) and it seems smart to stick with what I can rely on. one day I might be able to look back on the experience and laugh about getting stuck in New York during the “storm of the century”, but that day certainly isn’t today and the next hundred days don’t look so good, either.