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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Finally - Slowing Down!

I think that after 50 years I may have discovered that I can slow down! Ever since high school I was made as competitive as possible: first my Phys Ed teacher, then my speed skating instructor, then 2 years of sports college and 2 years teaching Phys Ed in the army. Always I had to be the first, the fastest, the quickest, the highest jumper. 

Even when I trained for the Camino I walked fast, at least 5.7 km per hour. As a result when I walked the first half of the Camino over the last three weeks, I seemed to be marching instead of walking. That too may have resulted in the injury that caused me to have to sit down for several days in Leon. 
Today I decided to take it SLOW, and what a difference it made. It took me a while longer to get where I wanted to go, but I noticed much more from the surrounding area. I did not pass every pilgrim in front of me as I had done for the first 350 km. As a matter of fact I was being passed and I did not mind it for once. My previous injury did not come back because I did not need to push off as hard as I used to with each step. It worked!!

Today I left Leon after 3 days of forced recovery. First 2 hours to get out of town and then back up onto the meseta. There seemed to be a little more variety this time. Maybe I noticed it because I was sick and tired of watching crowds of people the last 3 days. Because most people only spent 1 extra day in Leon, I moved with a new "community of people". The ones I had seen several times in refugios or rest places before Leon were replaced with a new bunch. You could also see who started the Camino in Leon because their legs were still milk white while those who had been on the Camino for weeks were dark brown from the sun. 

In spite of slowing down I did 22 km by noon and now I am sitting in a nice albergue in Villar de Mazarife, again, don't even try to find it on the map, it barely makes a speck.
Tomorrow in the direction of Astorga and after that the terrain should become harder, but also more interesting. We"ll see. 

Half Way

Landed in Leon, that is half way between Pamplona and Santiago! 
Time for a few days of rest so my feet can get back to normal if they still know what normal means. Found a cheap little hostel next to the cathedral and the first thing I did this morning was to visit the cathedral. It has the largest expense of stained glass of any medieval cathedral in Europe, absolutely beautiful with the sun shining though them from the outside. 

Last night I attended a pilgrims' mass in another church. Did not understand a word of it, but the atmosphere and singing was nice to just sit back and let come over you.   

It has been rather boring the past week, and the next 1-2 days don't promise anything different but based on my memory and judging by my guide the rest of 'The Way' should get more interesting again as well as harder. The elevation maps in my guide are showing some rather high hills in my near future. 
Cathedral of Leon, Spain
My guide is good as far as info about albergues / hostels / refugios and for elevations, other than that it is useless to find your way. However the trail itself is so well marked that you can find it without too much of a problem the entire way. Lots of signs, small as well as large with the well known camino emblem are showing you the way. And if there is not a sign there are arrows on buildings, on corners, on the road itself, on curbs and anywhere you care to look. 
It seems impossible to get lost unless you are not paying attention. It is starting to get busier because several other caminos are joining the main trail. Plus that numerous people are starting their walk somewhere along the trail such as at Burgos or Leon. 
Well, I am taking a few days rest so the next blog might take a few days. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

From Burgos to Leon

Boring, Boring, Boring
Ever since I left Burgos almost a week ago I have been walking on the meseta, straight roads mostly flat high country with few trees in sight and mile after mile after mile of grain fields and nothing much else. 
That is nice for a day, but day after day the same in the hot sun does get tiring. 
Much of the time I am walking along the road, just off the road on a specially designed path, but still along the road. Tomorrow does not offer much else, so until I get to Leon in 2 days it is boring. 
In general the path is not bad, firm gravel, but also sharp rocks from time to time and since my left foot is acting up again it is rather painful at times. Today I saw a doctor about a huge blister but she just shrugged and sent me on my way. 

Last night I was in Sahagun, a city I remember well visiting with Rob 15 years ago. Sat at the same outside bar on the same plaza where we sat 15 years ago. Just watching the people do their thing. Young boys playing soccer, old folks sitting on a bench where they probably sat for years, couples in love sauntering from one end to the other around the plaza. 
Last night I stayed at an albergue in an old church, totally renovated, very nice and a fair amount of privacy which is something few albergues offer. In the middle of the night a terrific bang that seemed to shake the whole place, someone fell out of the top bunk in his sleep. I learned a few new Spanish curse words listening to the poor fellow.  
Just a village scene

Tonight was nice, I met another Canadian couple from Nova Scotia and they had made a stew of all kind of vegetables and sausages. They invite 8 other peregrinos and I brought a couple of bottles of wine. We had a great time conversing in English, Spanish and French as well as sign language. Unfortunately they had left the very hot peppers in the stew too long and the poor soul who had the stew from the bottom of the pan spit flames after a few bites. Even half a bottle of wine did not put him at ease. 
One of many churches along the way.

I am sitting in a cafe because it is the only place in the village that has wifi. A soccer game is starting on TV. I don't dare mention my Dutch background after the beating the Dutch gave Spain during the World Cup Soccer a few weeks ago.
Well, two more days to Leon, the biggest city between Pamplona and Santiago and I plan on taking a few days off there to take it easy, rest my feet and take in the sights. It has a wonderful cathedral, worth a visit. I might even take in a mass since it is a special place.
Boy, these Spaniard are getting into their soccer game, the noise around me in deafening. 
Better call it a night, till the next time, probably from Leon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Of Windmills and Lost Socks

I just sit down for a late lunch and before I notice it I have an open bottle of red wine plus a glass put in front of me. No questions asked about what I want. This is what you drink with your lunch. Fortunately I have already made my bed in the albergue next door and can sleep off my early drink after lunch. 

One of the few Spaniards who doesn't talk all day...
Two days ago I left Burgos and the trail immediately starts rising out of town. I am going up onto the meseta over which I will walk almost the entire next week. It is a high plateau, ranging between 800 meters and 1100 meters. Walking across the top of the table mountain is fine, but hiking up it at a12% slope. Or coming down it at 18% is hard and tiring. However the views across the top seem to go on for ever. Fortunately there is a little wind on top and that makes it quite pleasant because otherwise it can be extremely hot in August on the meseta. Most villages on the meseta are located in a fold of the terrain and you always have to hike down into them and after a drink or lunch back up to the top of the meseta. 

The Spaniards consider themselves great hunters and the result of it is that I have not seen a life animal expect cats and dogs anywhere. No birds in the sky except a few house wrens in the cities or swallows around a church. Not a dear, rabbit or anything else out in the field. Especially on weekends you constantly hear gun shots around you in the fields. What they are shooting at I have no idea because nothing has been left alive around here. Last February I was hiking in Andalusia in southern Spain and thought I noticed evidence of wild boars. However I was told the turned up soils were the result of farmers and their trained pigs looking for truffles. It is earily quiet everywhere you walk, no birds in the sky, no movement in the fields. 

On weekends there also is a noticeable increase in cyclists on the trail. The Spaniards love to go out biking and you better watch out as a hiker, although I must say, 99% of them are very polite. Except that a bike bell does not seem to be part of a mountain bike's equipment and they surprise you time and time again when they come up behind you. 

In one of the last blogs I wrote about how pilgrims travel. On Monday I walked into Burgos and noticed a 'pilgrim' getting on a city bus to take her from the edge of town to downtown. It was not a pretty part of the hike, 1 1/2 hour of walking through traffic and an industrial area, but taking the bus is not part of hiking the Camino in my opinion. 

One of the many changes I see now compared to 15 years ago are the forests of huge windmills. Just like in many other places in the world Spain has taken to building large windmill parks to generate electric power. Smart way to go, but it sure scars the viewscape of the countryside. The other change I may have mentioned, the Spaniards are spending billions on renovating older buildings and building new infrastructure. Everywhere, even over a small village, you see huge construction cranes swinging their loads through the air. 

Three days ago I lost a sock, it took me days to find a sports store that sold the kind of socks I want. Finally this morning I managed to buy a new pair of socks. A few hours later I slide into my sleeping bag to sleep of  the too-much-wine-at-lunch and what do I feel in the bottom of the bag, sure, the lost sock. Now I have at least an extra pair. 

The day I left Burgos I felt energetic and hiked 30 KM, I ended up in a quite village called Hontanas. This morning I did not feel as energetic and only did 20 km, so now I am in Itero de la Vega. (Population 190) so don't look for it on the world map.  

Need to do my laundry so talk to you later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Who are these people who want to walk or bike hundreds of kilometers just to get to a particular city? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier blog Santiago de Compostela is a holy city and especially in the Middle Ages millions of people from all over Europe walked or rode their horse to Santiago for religious reasons. Nowadays many people still do so for religious reasons, although many others do it for a variety of reasons: it is an historic long distance path, it is easier than for instance the Continental Divide or Pacific Crest trail where you have to prearrange food drops because you are crossing so much wilderness. It is much easier than the Trans Canada trail which is still incomplete and is missing many sections. It is extremely well marked and you rarely wonder where the trail runs.
Nowadays about 55% of the pilgrims are male and (obviously) 45% is female. Many females are walking it by themselves and it is safe. Eighty seven percent of the people walk it, 12% do it on a bike and nowadays only 0.5% do it on a horse. Even 0.03% do it in a wheelchair (66 total in 2013).
How old are these pilgrims? Well, 28% are under 30, 56% are between 30 and 60 and still 15% are over 60. That last statistic surprises me, because the number of people I have seen of my age or older I can count on 2 hands. 
Where do they come from? Well, not surprising, 50% of the pilgrims are from Spain, then Germany and Italy each 'supply' 14% of the pilgrims, Portugal 10%, the US 9%, France 7% and good old Canada does have 3% of the pilgrims on the trail. 
There are many roads that lead to Rome, so there are also many routes that lead to Santiago. Of course in the Middle Ages people left from home and made their way to Santiago. My brother Rob in 1999 walked all the way from Amsterdam before I joined him in Pamplona to for the last 720 kms.
Nowadays 70% of the pilgrims follow the most common route, The Camino de Frances. However 14% are coming via the Camino de Portugal and the remainder are using one of the 9 or 10 other routes through Spain to Santiago. 

In an earlier blog I stated that last year about 150,000 people made their way via de Camino to Santiago. Well, the latest figures from the Head Quarters in Santiago show that I was way too low: it states that in 2013 over 215,000 people did so and in the last holy year in 2010 272,000 people made their way to the holy city. 

I am taking a rest day today in Burgos and spent a very interesting few hours visiting the cathedral in the old part of Burgos. Beautiful.
Tomorrow back on the trail, only about 20 km awaits me tomorrow, should not be a problem (famous last words)

Talk to you soon.

Kees in Burgos

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Article in Rotary magazine

We interrupt the regularly scheduled update from Spain, to bring you this article that appeared in Rotary magazine. Thought you might enjoy it.

New albergues, even new provinces.

Finally my feet are getting with the program and have stopped complaining about the daily mistreatment I dish out on them. Yesterday I did 32 km and today 23 without any problems.

Wow, I am very impressed with the tremendous new infrastructures the Spanish people have developed over the last couple of decades. Brand spanking new highways, new subdivisions, a whole new city (Ciruela) have sprung up in places where I just saw raw land 15 years ago.

Also the infrastructure they have developed for the Camino is really impressive. Where 15 years ago you had to walk on the edge of the highway are now separate pathways, adjacent to the highway, but protected by guard rails and sometimes vegetation. I suspect that the Camino is being developed and maintained by provincial departments because signs often refer to a provincial department. Many cities have gone out of their way to develop nice picnic sites, parks and campgrounds. Not every thing is well maintained, but they sure are doing their best in my opinion.

Today I even walked into a new province: Castella y Leon, from La Rioja. La Rioja was really interesting. In the beginning I saw nothing but vineyards, and more vineyards, mile after mile. Finally after more than a day walking through those, a few sugar beet fields showed up and then grain fields, km after km of rolling grain fields, no end in sight. And today suddenly sunflower fields, still grain fields, but also colorful yellow sunflower fields. 

Tonight I landed in Belorado after a 23 km day which was a lot easier than the 32 km yesterday. In two days I expect to be in Burgos and probably will take a day's rest. The weather is absolutely fantastic for hiking, 25-28 degrees, sun, but also clouds from time to time and a little wind to keep cool. Hopefully it will stay like that for a while.
More later.

Friday, August 15, 2014


Friday, August 15.

It is a special holiday in Spain today and everybody is enjoying a day off. Fortunately the stores and bars are open.
My last blog entree was from Wednesday afternoon I think. I was staying in a refugio run by a Dutch religious organization. That evening after a communal dinner, someone tried to make me believe something I could not believe. But his stories reminded me of a book I read 40 years ago called God's Smuggler, an intriguing book about a Dutchman who smuggled bibles in his VW Beetle to countries behind the iron curtain. We had a cordial discussion about religion but after an hour I think he classified me as a lost soul.
Refugio Lorca

The next day I walked 20 km and by 1 PM found a refugio where I was welcomed by a very friendly nun who spoke excellent English. "Six euros for a bed, lights out by 10 and at 6 AM we wake you with music," she told me. OK. This morning at 6 I heard some very faint chanting. It gradually grew louder and louder and by 6:30 the Gregorian chants were blasting through the refugio. Nobody was sleeping anymore. I laid back in my sleeping bag and enjoyed the chanting for half an hour before I got up. That was the first time I was awoken by Gregorian chanting, very very nice. I'll try it on Margriet one morning when we are back home. 
(Note from Margriet: not sure if this means Kees will do the chanting or if he plans to play a CD of actual Gregorian chants... The story reminds me of waking up in Saudi Arabia to the call for prayer coming from minarets).

Cathedral Pamplona
So why in the world would anyone want to walk a minimum of 100 km - and many people walk 750 km - to a city for a look at a statue in a cathedral?
That's what I wondered 18 years ago when I first read about the Camino de Santiago.
Well, as the article in Reader's Digest explained at that time, Santiago de Compostela in the north western corner of Spain is considered the third most important holy city in the world for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Around the year 800 the bones of apostle James were discovered in the area. Ever since Christians have been making a pilgrimage to the site. Of course a church was erected on the site and it became a cathedral of great beauty soon after. During the Middle Ages literally millions of people made the pilgrimage. Considering the fact that the European population at that time was many times smaller than today's population it was quite remarkable to have that many people make the pilgrimage. During the 18/19th century for some reason the pilgrimage became less well known. Not until the 1990's did it again gain in popularity, primarily as the result of some articles in magazines and several books from people who had walked it.
By the mid 1990's about 50,000 people walked the trail. However by 1999 150,000 people hiked it because it was a holy year (this happens about once every 10 years).
By 2013 the annual number in a non-holy year had shot up to 150,000 and in a holy year it is closer to 250,000.
I met a German lady who had just lost her entire family, husband and three children in a horrific car accident and she walked it to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. I met a Brazilian lady who hiked it because she had read a book about it by a famous Brazilian writer. I met a Belgian man who was in his 80's and who claimed to have walked it 18 times. (He said he did at least 50 km a day!!) A Japanese fellow said his minister told him he needed to do it to find himself. Unfortunately all he found were some robbers who took his money and camera. I ended up sending him copies of all my pictures so he had at least some positive memories. Many people just want to experience the culture and the history of the ail. Some like myself want to do it because it is a challenge.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

100 KM done, 620 to go!

August 12 and 13

Well, the first 100 KM are done, only 620 left. The last 2 days we have been lucky. Dark clouds all around us, but no rain at all. It sure helps to keep the temperatures down during the day. When the sun is out is get easily up to 30 degrees, but with a cloud cover it stays down around 25-27 which makes it just a little more comfortable. By leaving at 7 AM or even earlier, you get most of the hiking done before 1 or 2 PM when the heat starts to make walking uncomfortable.
I am not following the official stages which are described in most guide books of the Camino. Those stages usually lead from town to town but I try to find the smaller villages to stay in.
So on Monday morning (August 11) I left Lorca, half way between Puenta La Reina and Estella. Estella is famous for its beer, although it was too early in the day to try it. Ten km past Estella I stopped in Villamayor de Monjardin after a tiring climb up a steep hill.
The next day via Los Arcos on to Torres del Rio. That was enough for the day because after that village some very steep up and downs awaited. I'll leave those for early next morning when the weather is still cool.
The landscape is interesting, but not spectacular. More and more vineyards are appearing, this area is famous for its wines apparently. The hills are primarily brown and yellow since there has not been much rain lately, few trees to be seen. Lots of old buildings, many just ruins.  Every village has a great church or even cathedral, often worth visiting.

Wednesday morning I left Torres del Rio and immediately had to climb several steep hills to gain (and loose again) several hundred meters in elevation. By 1 pm I walked into Logrono and finished the first 100 km of the planned hike.
Even though my feet are still giving me some grieve I am glad that the head of the monster has been slain. Tomorrow is a long stage (30 km) which I am not going to do in one day I think. When I walked the Camino in 1999 with Rob we did do stages of 30 and even one of 38 km, but with 15 more years on this body I am not going to try that again. Twenty km per day is fine and that will get me well in time to Sarria where I will await Margriet' s arrival a month from now. I think I will be aiming for Ventosa tomorrow.
Til then!

Monday, August 11, 2014

One Determined Pilgrim

Day 4 on the trail.
Yesterday was a 'killer' hike, today was slightly easier. I still don't recognize any of the trail locations we walked 15 years ago. I wonder if they moved Santiago and had to built a new trail to get to it!
Nothing looks familiar, until I got to the overnight place today in Villamayor. Here I have been before. It is a regufio run by a Dutch religious organization so I can join in the service they offer tonight (if i am not asleep already). We left late, the last ones to leave at 8 AM. However, there are some people on the trail who are really hurting and hobbling along so we overtook several within the first 2 hours. How they ever will make the next 650 km is a wonder.
It is a lot quieter today. The first 2 days we walked, it was weekend and obviously many Spaniards are joining the trail just for the weekend. Still more hills than I liked, but that is Spain for you. My feet are not doing very well, the balls of my feet are hurting pretty good and I may have to take an extra rest day soon. In the last 20 years of hiking (including the 1999 Camino walk) I never had a blister and in the first two days on the hike now I have 2 blisters. Exactly on the same location on both feet so I blame the new insoles of my boots for that problem. Anyway even if I have to crawl the last 650 km I plan on making it. The first 3 days we did about 60 km so a pretty good average of 20 a day.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot more people are speaking English these days here in Spain. Especially the owners of all these new refugios are able to communicate in English. In 1999 nobody over 35 could speak any English and now I have not had a problem yet between their English, my few words of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. I get what I want.
The refugio tonight is again a dormitory style with 8 bunk beds. Next to me is a deaf/mute man. I wonder if he snores being mute?
Well, off at 7 AM tomorrow because by 9:30 the sun is already too hot to walk comfortably, so up earlier from now on.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Will It Be Better the Second Time Around?

In 1999 I walked the Camino the Santiago with my brother Rob. When I mentioned the Camino to people back then, I got a blank stare. Hardly anybody had ever heard of this 1000 year old pilgrim path that runs from the France/Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, a distance of over 700 km or about 450 miles.
When I mentioned in 2013-2014 to my hiking friends that I was going to walk it again, they either had done it themselves or they knew someone who had done it. This trail has become very popular over the last few decades. Where in 1998 about 50,000 people hiked it, in a recent holy year about 250,000 did the same thing.
In order to qualify to have hiked the Camino you officially only need to do the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 by bike. However, just doing the last 100 is not really 'hiking the camino'. It requires the endurance of the hardships for the full 700 km. Including sore legs, blisters and any inconvenience you can imagine. People have made this pilgrimage since the year 800 and in the Middle Ages literally thousands of people walked it every year. The benefit is, apparently, that you cut your time in hell in half when you walk the Camino. So I figured that if I hike it twice I am scot free and will go straight to heaven :-)

After many months of preparation I was ready to leave. Margriet will join me for the last 100 km (just to be sure she qualifies for half her time in hell). However I will start in Pamplona, the first city after the Pyrenees where the trail starts. The reason I start there is because the first couple of days you only walk downhill and several friends have had to quit right then and there because they got shin splints so bad that they could not continue. When I walked in in 1999 with Rob I joined him there after he had walked from Amsterdam, several thousand kms. Unfortunately Rob succumbed to cancer a few years ago and even though we had promised each other that we would do it again together, we were never able to do so.

So this time I was going to do it by myself, until a few weeks before I left, a mutual friend of Margriet and I, Lies, whom we have known for 45 years, announced that she would join me for the first 2 days. OK, that was fine.
Margriet took me to the airport last Wednesday to get on the plane for (eventually) Pamplona. Victoria, Seattle went fine, no problems with the customs thanks to my Nexus card, on to Amsterdam via Delta Airlines. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a crammed place but at least you can watch as many movies as you want, so it is not too bad. In Amsterdam my luggage arrived no problem, which was an improvement since last February when they left my pack in Paris.
Got on the Iberian Airlines flight to Madrid, but it left 20 minutes late and as a result it lost it landing sequence into Madrid. We circled for an hour and then we had 5 minutes to make the connecting flight. I raced over to that gate and found my friend who was going to join me in Pamplona racing to it at the same time. That was a surprise because we had agreed to meet on the steps of the cathedral in Pamplona the next day at 11 AM. So, we made it but our luggage did not.
Lies went to her hotel 20 minutes from the airport which she had arranged beforehand and I found a hotel close to the airport to await the luggage. Since there are only 2 flights between Madrid and Pamplona a day, it made no sense to sit and wait so I went into Pamplona the next day. I had to buy a few things anyway, so that worked out fine. We explored Pamplona and walked the first 5 km of the Camino through Pamplona. I went to the  airport at 9 PM and lo and behold there were our packs.
The next morning we were planning to leave early, but when I called Lies at her hotel she had not slept well and was not sure she would make it very far that day. By 10 am we did make it to the spot where we had left the trail the previous day. Lies did fine that day, we hiked, climbed and cursed our way though some of the hardest 14 km the Camino can throw at you.

Day 2 announced itself with dark clouds and a forecast of thunderstorms that day. However, we decided to take a chance and go for it. First we had to take a bus to the point where we left the trail yesterday at the southern end of Pamplona. There the real hiking started. Lies did not feel very well and was not sure how far she would make it that day. However, after the first few miles she started to improve and felt a lot better. Lunch at a small village 2 hours out of Pamplona. There we had to make the decision to tackle the hardest pass we would be facing on the first part of the Camino. Or to stay put for the rest of the day. Lies decided that she felt good enough to continue, so off we went. I had trained a lot in hilly country but Lies, living in Rotterdam never had that opportunity and obviously that played a role in her falling behind quickly. However she is a determined person and did make it to the top of the pass and down on the other side. By that time we had done probably 15 km and those were some of the hardest 15 km the pilgrims face in the first half of the Camino. We found a nice refugio in a small village on the other side of the pass and stopped for the night. These refugios are like hostels with 20 or 40 people together in one large room in bunk beds. We had the first pick of the beds, but within a couple of hours the beds filled up in the room. These refugios are between 5 and 10 euros a day and a pilgrims meal is from 10 to 15 euros, ($15.- to 22.50). Not bad, although it does add up after 30 days on the trail.
A quick shower, washing sweaty clothes, a beer and a nap or email and a meal - and we felt better. Lies and I had agreed that we would walk up for 2 or 3 days and then we would each find our own way to Santiago. I wanted to have some time to reflect by myself and be alone.

The changes I noticed compared to 1999 are (at least so far after only a day):
• in 1999 I noticed about a dozen pilgrims the first day on the trail. Today it was more like 50.
• In 1999 there were no mountain bikes on the trail, now there are numerous ones and not always very considered of the slower hikers.
• There are many more refugios, hostels and hotels along the route ( a good thing)
• the trail obviously is much more known and popular. It has become a multimillion dollar tourist attraction for the Spaniards.

These are just the initial changes I noticed between 1999 and 2014. More about it all later.