Sunday, March 3, 2013

Bert's Camino de Santiago: For the Love of Spain . . .

 There is a small and picturesque town in southern France called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port where thousands of people come from all over the world to start a very popular pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago. It is a 780 km trek to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela located in the northwestern part of Spain and it can take 4 weeks or more to complete.

For many, the “Way of St James” is made for religious reasons, but there are just as many who do it for the adventure, to "find themselves" or to discover the greater meaning in life whatever that may be.

A bit of history here, I have come to know Bert through my blogging friend, AnnieNC (Churches in Venice). He had heard about my impending trip from Annie (thanks so much Annie) and he was so kind to get in touch with me and over the past couple of weeks, Bert has generously shared his wonderful experiences, useful tips and some of the beautiful photos he took on his trip.

There are several pilgrimage routes to Santiago, the most popular one is called the Camino Francés  (the French Way) and it starts in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This is where Bert’s Camino de Santiago begins.

Going on long walking trips is nothing new to Bert. In 1998 he walked from Llanes to Tarifa and in 1999 he also biked across Spain with his young son. Kudos to both of them for that accomplishment. Bert tells me that unlike some of the other modern day pilgrims, he really had no religious reasons for walking the Camino. For Bert, his Camino de Santiago was born out of his love for Spain and his enjoyment of walking.

And so, in 2003, with no extensive training or planning, Bert took his rucksack, a little trolley he affectionately named Hilda2, his guidebook, his camera bag and set out on his Camino.

Bert kept a written journal of his experiences, identifying the towns he passed through and notable landmarks along the way.  I learned so much from him and I really wanted to share it with others who may be planning on doing the Camino de Santiago too.  I asked Bert if he wouldn't mind me posting some of his photos and to share what I have learned from him.  He graciously said yes and even allowed me to share excerpts from his journal.  And for those of you who are big fans, Bert also shared a link to his Flickr Gallery where he shares his wonderful photos of Venice, Italy (Bert4545).  You should go check them out.  That is another thing that I along with Annie have in common with Bert, our absolute love for Venice!

I have read a couple of books, searched the Internet for information and watched dozens of YouTube videos on the Camino de Santiago but there is nothing more valuable than having a person like Bert to share first hand accounts of his experiences and to ask questions about the logistics.  Bert has been a tremendous help and an inspiration.

As I mentioned, Bert started his Camino from the very beginning of the Camino Francés Route and has seen some beautiful sights that I will be missing, so I was so glad that he also shared some of his photos from earlier on his Camino.

This photo was taken in Agés, Burgos. Don’t you love the sign, 518 km to Santiago....

Here is a picturesque view overlooking the town of Hontanas (Burgos). Stunning!

Here is a very cool photo which was taken at the town of Grañón (La Rioja). It is a parade of locals walking on Good Friday.

Due to time constraints, I will not be doing the entire Camino Francés Route, but I did not want to do the minimum 67 miles either which is what is required to obtain a Compostela certificate. After watching this wonderful YouTube Video, I have decided that I would like to start my Camino de Santiago from the town of Astorga.

I mentioned this to Bert and based on his experiences, he believes that I should have more than enough time to walk to Santiago de Compostela within my time frame. Bert was so nice to go through his journal and photos so he could share the details of his Camino experiences.  I have to say I really enjoyed it!

Logistics for this trip will be a bit complicated. I will most likely fly into Madrid, stay for a night then make my way by train or bus to Astorga. These two dates along with my return flight are probably the only set dates that I will have on this trip. Everything else in between will be a fly by the seat of my hiking pants kind of itinerary. I will be carrying a cell phone and I will use the available Internet offered in my hotels or albergues to make any needed bookings or changes to my lodging arrangements. Since I’m traveling so light, I may even be able to buy a cheap flight to Madrid from Santiago de Compostela to save on travel time. But I won’t make those arrangements until I get there. We’ll see how things go.

Bert recommends that I stay in Astorga for at least a night before my walk just to get provisions, deal with jet lag and take in some of the sights. He points out that there is a beautiful Cathedral here as well as the Archbishop's Palace which was built by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí. As much as I loved my visit to Madrid in 2008, I’m going to take the first means of transportation out so I can have more time to explore the sights in Astorga and also prepare for the start of my Camino. I believe that there is a bus that I can take from Madrid to Astorga which will take 3 hours.

As I mentioned, Bert was so nice to go through his journals and photos of his Camino experiences to share with me.  Here is a photo of inside the very beautiful Astorga Cathedral and another photo of the Archbishop's Palace.

Now a museum of art called "Museo de los Caminos", this is one of only three buildings by Gaudí that you will find outside of Catalonia.
And here's a view overlooking the town (and the start of my Camino) Astorga. Just beautiful!

Astorga to Rabanal - 13.3 miles: Leaving Astorga, pilgrims will pass by small villages and will have some wonderful views along the way.  

Here’s a photo that Bert shared with a view leaving the town of Santa Catalina de Somoza. Beautiful!

I am also learning that there are some interesting rest stops along the way, like the very popular Cowboy Bar located in the town of El Ganso. I really have to stop here! :)

Bert told me that I should walk on the side of the road in the opposite direction of the oncoming traffic.  I also learned that people can do the Camino by walking, riding a bike and even by horse or mule.
Rabanal to Molinaseca (14.67 miles):  The next stage from Rabanal to Molinaseca is quite long and I may stop in one of the small villages along the way just to break it up a bit. Along the route, there are some cool places to stop like the cafe of signs and flags.

Just outside of Rabanal before the town of Manjarín there is a very popular pilgrim stop at the Cruz de Ferro. It is an iron cross at the top of this long pole and at the bottom a huge cairn with stones brought by pilgrims from all over the world. Here each pilgrim uses the time to reflect on their journey. Supposedly, they place their burdens onto their stones and then place it at the bottom of the cross.  Now they can continue on with their Camino, leaving behind their troubles. Here's a wonderful photo of Bert at the Cruz de Ferro.

Now, I know that in the movie Martin Sheen's son, Daniel, dies while hiking in the Pyrénées. And the sad truth is that in real life there are pilgrims who have unfortunately died while doing the Camino. Most of them are due to car accidents while cycling but there are a few who also died from health problems like a heart attack. Here's a photo that Bert took just outside the town of El Acebo. It is a bicycle sculpture memorial dedicated to a cyclist pilgrim, Heinrich Krause. Sadly, this won’t be the only memorial dedicated to a fallen pilgrim that I will see on the Camino.

Bert thinks having reflectors on my backpack will be beneficial, just in case I am walking in darkness. I have a hiking headlamp that is very lightweight, which I will also bring.
It looks like I'll be passing by some very small and charming looking villages on the Camino. Here is a photo of a local walking his cow through the middle of town. So awesome! It was taken in El Acebo and it is one of Bert’s favorite photos. I love it! Bert put this little village on my radar and I would love to stay here longer (maybe even overnight) so I can capture some interesting images.
This next photo is most likely in the small town of Riego de Ambrós just past the town of El Acebo. It is another lovely photo. I'm taking a copy of it in hopes that I can identify and confirm its location for Bert. I really love some of the old stone houses that are in some of these small villages along the Camino. If anyone reading my blog happens to recognize the house in this photo as being in Riego de Ambrós (or elsewhere), please feel free to leave a comment and I will gladly pass it along to Bert.
Molinaseca to Villafranca 19.2 miles:  On the way to the town of Villafranca, Bert took photos of these flowers of an "intense blue".  

Here is another photo of these flowers called Jaras (also referred to as Estepas).  They are Rock Roses and are beautiful.

On this stage I will be going through the town of Ponferrada. I would love to stop here to see the Templar Castle. Here’s a photo of it that was taken by Bert on his Camino.
Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro 18.7 miles:  For this next stage, there is a big steep climb up to the town of O Cebreiro. Bert arranged to have his rucksack taken up to O Cebreiro. In the book I read, the author and other pilgrims also did the same. I think I’ll try to make the same arrangements. Here's a photo of Plaza Mayor.

It appears that as pilgrims we must share the Camino with others and here’s a very cool photo of fellow pilgrims, Jemma and Brian, sharing a path with a few of the local residents. :)

Bert was joined by two fellow pilgrims from America, Erin and Melissa, as they walked on to the next town of O Cebreiro. At this point, Bert was battling a cough, but he pushed on, which is amazing to me. I think doing the Camino is hard enough already, but to be doing it while sick and/or suffering from an injury is very admirable. And if you’re wondering, Hilda2 had her share of hard knocks but with the help of a few minor repairs en route, she too managed to push on. Kudos!

The view along this stage is stunning as pilgrims enter Galicia. This next photo by Bert is near Vega de Valcarce. Beautiful.
Near the towns of Laguna de Castilla and O Cebreiro, pilgrims will see these thatched-roof pallozas (stone huts). Here's a photo of one that was taken by Bert:

Also, be on the lookout for these intricate horréos (granaries), which are used to store grain. Bert said that they are built on stilts above ground so the grain will be out of reach of mice/rats.
Now just before reaching the town of O Cebreiro, pilgrims will be reach the famous border marker entering Galicia. After walking 650 km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, here is a great photo of Bert standing next to the marker. What an amazing accomplishment, Bert!
O Cebreiro to Triacastela 13.23 miles:  Bert left O Cebreiro early after witnessing a “lovely sunset” the night before. After a brief café con leche break with fellow pilgrims, Josef and Elke, Bert makes his way to the town of Triacastela. After walking 3½ km, Bert realized that he had forgotten his credencial (“pilgrims passport") at the bar. Luckily, he bumped into two peregrinos who had picked up his credencial and were on their way to the next albergue to reunite it with Bert. Bert was lucky to crash into them when he did.

Each pilgrim must have an official credencial which serves as a pass to inexpensive accommodations (called albergues) along the Camino. Pilgrims must have their credencial stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or albergue (or refugio) they have stayed in.  The credencial also serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey is accomplished to an official route.  Starting from the town of Sarria, I will need to obtain at least two sellos (stamps) per day at stops along the route.

The stamps according to Bert can be obtained at the albergues as well as in bars/cafes, churches and even some restaurants along the camino.  Bert collected 96 stamps in total on his Camino.  What a wonderful souvenir to have.  I think I would like to do that too.  Before I leave, I will obtain my credencial from the American Pilgrims on the Camino or will write to the Oficina de Acogida al Peregrino in Santiago de Compostela to obtain one.  If that doesn't work out I may be able to get one in Astorga.

Here’s a cool photo of a church in Triacastela.   

Triacastela to Sarria 11.62 miles:  The weather was overcast and Bert made his way to Sarria. There is an alternative route via the town of Samos that pilgrims can take to see a famous monastery.

Sarria to Portomarin 13.92 miles:  Sarria is the town where many pilgrims start their Camino because this is the minimum distance that they must walk in order to receive their Compostela in Santiago. I had originally planned to start here, but I just really wanted to see more towns before it. Leaving Sarria, there are the ruins of the Sarria Castle and the Puente Áspera (a small medieval bridge from the 12th century).

Here’s a couple of very cool photos from Bert. A set of steps in Sarria and a moss covered wall on the path just outside of town.

Portomarin to Palas de Rei 15.41 miles:  In the town of Portomarin is the Church of Saint Nicholas of Portomarin. At first glance, it doesn't even look like a church.  This church was dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone when its original site was flooded by a reservoir in the 1960s.  Bert took a great photo of it here.

Here’s a wonderful view leaving town.

Palas de Rei to Ribadiso (Arzúa) 16.03 miles:  The weather leaving the town of Palas de Rei was chilly and while taking a rest at a local bar out of town, Bert bumped into some Danish ladies who introduced themselves as Margrethe, Synnove, Lisbeth, Ann-Marie and Eva.

Bert took a little detour to visit the Romanesque 12th Century church in the village of Vilar de Donas. Here's a beautiful photo that Bert shared with me.
Ribadiso (Arzúa) to O Pino 13.73 miles:  Leaving Ribadiso de Baixo, Bert passed through some very beautiful places...a beautiful stream and eucalyptus woods.

O Pino to Santiago 12.49 miles:  After 31 days and 780 km, Bert arrived at his destination, the city of Santiago de Compostela. He was greeted by many of his fellow pilgrims and the celebrations ensued. He obtained his Compostela from the Pilgrims' Office and treated himself to a well deserved shower and meal.

Bert told me that there is a nice parador that provides a free meal to the first ten pilgrims to line up.  Bert was lucky to get in twice, a well deserved treat.  From his description of the meal that they served, I'm thinking that this would be a cool thing to do too.   

It was so wonderful to read and see that Bert had found so many of the people he met along his Camino when he arrived in Santiago. 

Bert then went to attend the Pilgrims' Mass at the Santiago Cathedral and here are some wonderful photos of both the exterior and interior.

Here's a great shot of the famous swinging of the huge Botafumeiro.
I don't know about you, but I am very impressed with Bert's accomplishments and I am so grateful that he took the time to share his journals and photos with me. I am especially appreciative that he has allowed me to post some of his photos and the information I learned from his journals on my blog for this post. 
He is so helpful and also provided a lot of useful tips which I will post in Part II of this series.  He is a wealth of information.  In my next post I will discuss more stories from Bert about his Camino (including a journal excerpt), more about the people he met and all the wonderful advice that he has shared with me, so please stay tuned for that.
I will also share an update on my preparations.  Of course, writing this post and absorbing all the great information from Bert's first-hand experiences has helped my preparations tremendously.  Thank you so much, Bert!
Most of the people I have spoken to about my trip are very supportive of my plans but there are a few who think I'm nuts for doing this.  For the most part it is mainly because they are concerned for my safety.  I don't mind that they feel this way.  In the end, I think we go on our Camino for ourselves and that is what is most important.  And the religous part of me truly believes that I won't be walking on my Camino alone.
As in life, they say that everyone must walk their own path on the Camino. Bert said that our Camino starts from the first step we take leaving our homes and I've also read that it continues well after a pilgrim reaches Santiago de Compostela.

From my correspondence with Bert about his Camino in 2003, it is clear to me that the experiences you have while on your Camino never leave you. I do believe that part of the reason that I am doing the Camino is because I am drawn to this kind of life-changing experience. And like Bert, I’m also drawn to the Camino de Santiago . . . for the love Spain.

Buen Camino . . .


  1. This is so awesome! Thank you so much for sharing all this info Kathy (and thanks so much to Bert too). What amazing photos. Bert is such a great photographer. I really want to do the Camino someday. Off to look at Post #2 now!

  2. Hi Annie, thanks so much for your comments. It was all Bert on this one. He was even kind enough to alert me to my errors, which I missed completely. I agree with you, Bert has a great eye and his photographs are very beautiful. I hope you get to do the Camino too someday. It seems like such a life changing experience.

    Have a wonderful week.

  3. What great experience, and thanks for all the pictures and information. I'm planing my trip june 2014 ...Hopefully this will be a great trip .

  4. I met Bert and was humbled to walk with him a couple of days...what an extraordinary human being. May we cross ways again Bert.

  5. Hi, Kathy. Can you put me in touch with Maria?

    1. Hi Bert, I'm sorry, but I don't have Maria's contact information. Maybe she'll see your request here and get in touch with you. It would be cool if your paths can cross again.

  6. Hi Kathy, Maria here. Can you pass my details on to Bert. Xxx

    1. Hi Maria, wow thanks so much for your reply. Unfortunately, I don't have your details to pass on to Bert. Blogger does not have a private message capability like that offered by Facebook. Do you have facebook, maybe you can connect with Bert through private message that way (so as not to expose your personal emails here publicly).

      Let me know what I can do to assist.

  7. She has and is cyber


It's me Trekcapri (aka Kathy). Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment.