Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fordham on the Camino de Santiago

Liz M

Liz K



Between May 28 and June 10, 2007, a group of Fordham students and faculty walked the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain from León to Santiago de Compostela, about 200 miles.

In the middle ages, the Camino was a pilgrimage to the relics of St. James, and a major destination for medieval travelers. The revived camino is a modern phenomenon, with thousands of peregrinos/peregrinas walking, cycling, traveling to Santiago each year, or doing sections of the various trails that lead there.

As was the case with medieval pilgrims, modern pilgrims walk for many reasons, find many things along the way, and tell many stories about what has happened to them, although they all share in the shifting community of the road. This blog is a short record of the experiences of the Fordham group, and some of what struck us at various points along the route.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007


We left Rua before dawn, and in the courtyard of the country-house complex where we stayed the night, the brightest thing was the Coke machine´s red and white glow. For the first half hour of the walk, maybe more, most of the group stayed together, though I think most of us could have guessed from our experience of the past two weeks that we wouldn´t arrive that way in Santiago. We´d settle into our private paces: someone would soon get quiet and fall behind, or perhaps march ahead, or linger at one of the bars we´d stop at along the way.

I´m having trouble remembering the pre-dawn part of the walk. I´ve got a picture in my head of the dark blue sky and the silhouettes of houses and trees against it, or the forests of eucalyptus we´d learned to spot over the past few days, but these are general images I can´t tie to particular conversations or spots on the map.

Later parts of the day I remember better. At one point, Dr. Gyug picked a few sprigs from the wild anise he´d noticed on the side of the road and passed them out to a few of us to chew on. John and I spoke about what it might have been like for medieval pilgrims on the camino. He told me about wealthy pilgrims, nobles who traveled on horseback with caravans of servants and donated to churchs along the way. It was a nice reminder that I´d narrowed my image of the medieval pilgrim a bit too much: I always thought of a solitary traveler in a gray cloak and sandals, plodding along with a wooden cane. I mentioned that I had a difficult time understanding the idea of a religious motive -- both what the pilgrimage could have meant to medieval pilgrims as an aspect of spiritual practice and what it means to pilgrims who identify themselves as religiously motivated in the present day.

Jackie and I reached Santiago cathedral together after winding through the infinite streets of Santiago about a half hour behind Jim and Connor. We found the two of them lying on their backs in the plaza, facing the cathedral doors with their heads propped up on their backpacks. Pilgrims continued to arrive: I saw a woman rock backwards from a sitting position so she could photograph her feet with the cathedral in the background, and a troupe of German pilgrims singing into a video camera held by one of their friends.

Santiago cathedral was astounding. I hadn´t pictured it so elaborate and so huge. Santiago makes sense to me as a final destination: you´re greeted by this magnificent building whose scale surpasses anything you might have seen along the way, and where before there were straggling pilgrims spread out along the path, in Santiago there were throngs of pilgrims and tourists everywhere. When we went to mass at noon, we found ourselves among dozens of pilgrims standing in a ring around the cathedral pews, which were already
packed with families from the local population.

That night we gathered at a local bar for queimada, a traditional Galician drink that´s mixed in a large bowl, flavored with coffee beans and citrus rinds, and then lit on fire. Our bartender stirred the flames and led us through an incantation in gallego, and then stirred some more. And some more. We learned, as we shed layers of clothing in our crowded corner of the room, why queimada is typically a winter drink.
We were able to take some time at the bar to reflect on our experience of the camino. There were some running themes: how we liked that we formed a community within our own group and with other pilgrims we´d spoken with along the way, how for some the last mass and the arrival and Santiago was quite powerful, for others less so. We plan to meet again in September, and I look forward to seeing what we´ve come up with processing our time on the camino since then. For my part, what I´m most curious about is whether the patterns I grew accustomed to on the walk -- the patience I think I developed, and the way of thinking things over (for hours and hours...) -- will endure as time off the camino increases. We will see.

Well, team, that´s all I´ve got -- we made it. Thanks for being such great company on the long walk. Remember: break in your boots, tip lightly, and beware of monocultures. Can´t wait to see you guys again in the fall.

-- Paul

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


After a 30km + walk from Melide on a hot Spanish summer day, we arrived at the little town of Rua. Upon arrival, Dr. Gyug went searching for our hostel for the evening. He was a little distraught because he thought we´d gone too far, according to his original estimation of where the hostel would be. However, suprisingly, the hostel was quite nice, a sort of diamond in the rough, because it turned out to be a ¨country club style¨ of accomodations. (Or at least that´s what everybody referred to it as.)

The next highlight of the day was at lunch, during which Dr. Gyug regaled us with a method of revenge for getting back at the high and mighty cyclists of the camino. The method entailed loosening key spokes on the bicycle wheels that would weaken the wheels just enough that after 3km the bikes would collapse underneath the cyclists. He claimed to never have done it -- but he never claimed not to have wanted to.

Later in the evening we played mafia with Dr. Gyug, who was quite wily in shifting attention from himself to innocent players. We also played one or two rounds of the card game B.S. (There was a quite a bit of lying tonight. ) Some of us capped off the night with a little fútbol, Real Madrid´s final game of the season, versus Zaragosa, on the hostel´s big-screen TV.

-- Connor, dictating to Paul, who types LIKE A MACHINE

Sunday, June 10, 2007


On the shortest of our walking days on the Camino, our destination was Melide, a mere 14km away. In celebration of this quasi day-off, many stayed up past sunset and didn´t awake until 8AM. By Camino standards, this was an all night party followed by sleeping in.

We were punished the Camino Gods for our late departure as the walk was hot, humid, and dusty. We were left sweating more than we would have on most earlier days, still very happy to find our hostel at the entrance to town.

Our first stop on the trip was the famous Pulperia Ezequiel, a restaurant that served octupus. In case you were confused about the main delicacy of the establishment, a stout Galician woman cooked octupi in a large copper pot and hacked away at tentacles as you entered. My personal response, after washing down the pieces of tentacle with copious amounts of white wine, was ¨tastes like chicken¨. There were varying opinions on eating octupus, from delight to disgusted refusal, I landed somewhere in the middle.

Later in the day, I gave my rousing minute and a half presentation on the city. Essentially, the town boasts a dilapidated old city surrounded by a less than impressive modern section. Quaint but nothing to write home about (what irony!!) Although there were several small Romanesque churches scattered throughout the old town, construction and general group exhaustion prevented us from fully exploring the city. Since a pre-dawn departure was planned for the next day, we party animals had to settle on playing hearts followed by a 9PM bedtime, while the children of Melide (literally 5 to 8 year olds) played musical chairs in the bar below to their great delight, and our great disdain.


Palas de Rei

We arrived in Palas de Rei after what now seems (after our having arrived today in Santiago, which makes it easy to forget pain) to have been a brisk walk through lovely terrain. I (Paul) remember passing a church that looked a bit different than others we´ve seen, though I´ll bet it was Romanesque, on the way downhill to our hostal, Bar/Cafeteria Plaza. The dueño was a great help: he escorted me and Jim by car to our room, which we appreciated, though it did take us farther from the cervezas we had been looking forward to.

There was a fantastic restaurant close to the hotel whose menú del día included a terrific paella, a delicious merluza dish, and to wash it down, a marvelous house wine. (We´re digging for synonyms for good here.)

John presented for us under a canopy in the town plaza, where we learned about some local myths, including a French knight -- if we remember right -- who wanted to marry a woman but was then cursed by her older sister, who also loved him. We think. John? We remember at least that someone died and is said to wander the town at night. A number of us stayed out pretty late to look at the stars (this failed, by the way: too bright in town, too scary in the dark), but we didn´t see any ghosts.

We also reflected on our blisters and tan lines, which we photographed for posterity. We all agreed that one very neat thing has been the international nature of the camino -- each of us taking a shot at Spanish, as well as the nationalities we´ve encountered along the way (German, French, Dutch, British -- hello Dan from Cambridge, are you there? -- Danish, Italian ...).

We were so close to Santiago we could taste it. No, nevermind -- I´m mistaking the taste of Santiago for the cheap and suspiciously labeled wine Jim bought at a local grocery.

-- Paul and Connor

Friday, June 8, 2007


Well. En route today we passed our 200th kilometer point, saw many of the horreos (grain silos that look like masoleums), and crossed the river into Portomarin. The town is our lowest point. But higher than it once was as the whole town was up and moved so Franco could flood in a reservoir at the old location.

We all meet up for lunch then got together in the evening at the church of San Nicolas. If Gyug ever asks you... its Romanesque. Unlike some of the other churches we visited this one is famous for the building itself. There is no famous altar or grail inside (just a very pretty fresco).

Back outside in the sun the girls wandered about and the boys bet on football (soccer). Litchenstein lost but its takers won! When we all get home you may not want to mention this, as it will probably still be a sore subject. Instead ask if we enjoyed the famous orujo cider.

--Sasha and Victoria.


Having passed both the highest points of the trip (there was much fighting over that right before it was determined that not everything you read on the internet is true) today seemed, dare I say it, easy. Relatively flat and short. The town itself was large and modernized by Camino standards.

We spent a hefty chunck of time hunting around town for credentials (focusing on local stamps detracts focus from the pain in our feet, and backs, and legs, and burnt skin, and you get the idea). Eventually going to the albergue all the way at the far, high end of town.

The journey did have an unforseen benefit. Food. Food also detracts from the pain (preferably in large inexpensive portions). We found an excellent restaurant for raciones. Which are, for the non initiated, like sampler platters. Only instead of pigs in a blanket, octopus. Now we are not talking about dainty fried calamari for the faint of heart. We are talking large, purple, tentacle bearing pieces of leg. Its called pulpo... and the verdict is still out as to whether it qualifies as edible or not. There were also other types of shell fish and, true to Galician tradition, all were good.

--Victoria and Sasha.


Well... in summation today was a long walk down. Or at least that is what Professor Gyug would have us believe. But in reality, the Camino definition of down is constant ups and downs followed by one monumental down for five very steep kilometers. Bravely maning ahead Liz and Victoria, the injured parties, cabbed in and faced the language barrier. Roughly recreated in English the conversation went: we need rooms for 14. you have six bags so by 14 you must mean 6. no we need rooms for 14. oooohhh 6.

The town itself was small. Small and friendly. But mostly, just small. As such the Fordham group, as we have come to be known, frequented one bar repeatedly. Shaded by the awning (a land mark considering the size of the town) at said bar we were well fed and well placed to socialize amongst our newly formed Camino friends. Then it was off to bed. An utter reversal of expectations as the girls fought for once to be in the albergue instead of the hotel.

Bueno Camino! Sasha and Victoria.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Pedes Manusque

We´re skipping ahead a little today but we´re actually in Palas de Rei, a few short days away from our goal. Today we decided to take some choice shots of what really matters the most -- our feet. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, can you figure out who is who? Also we took a picture of our hands, but that was more because our tans are mildly amusing.

-- Mike

P.S. Everyone misses you Liz!

O Cebreiro

Today was the longest, hardest climb. The first 25km wound through green valleys with the spectacular new superhighway towering high above. The last 8km was a sharp incline with stopping points at two villages along the way. Conversation was at a minimum as concentration on breathing took priority. Although I think that 2 or 3 hours took more out of us than whole days had in the past, we all trickled into town eventually.

In O Cebreiro we were greeted by ¨Celtic¨ fiddle music and tourist trap gift shops. Of course the church did have the Holy Grail, once and for all proving Indiana Jones was pure fiction.

-- Mike

Villafranca del Bierzo

Exiting Ponferrada was one of the most confusing stretches of the camino, since we wandered through the mini-urban sprawl of Ponferrada in about 270 degrees until we finally figured out the right way out of a traffic circle (bewildering invention!). Once we tracked down the right route we passed through a longish hot day of cherry trees and then vineyards. A nice old lady flagged us down and sold us sandwiches and drinks (albeit at a steep price) and a handful of free cherries.
The albergue at Villafranca itself was right at the outskirts of the city. It seemed clean but uninteresting at first, but at night thanks to Paul´s inventiveness we passed the time playing wallsies and stretched the game into hours of entertainment. We also bought cheese, bread, sausage, and local cherries for a cheap communal dinner -- and best of all we tried our first tarta Santiago. The unexpected treat of the day was the view from our albergue terrace, which looked out on the convent, perched on a small hill in the center of the city, sillhoueted against the setting sun and framed between two hills.
-- Mike

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


The 32 km walk from Rabanal to Ponferrada was very beautiful but difficult! The mountains were very steep at some points and though we all left early in the morning we did not arrive in Ponferrada until the evening. The mountains were peaceful and we felt very isolated during much of the walk. On the way to Ponferrada we stopped at the Cruz de Ferro where peregrinos leave rocks for special intentions. Over the years, the pile of rocks and stones has become quite a large hill! We all stopped there to leave our own dedications.
Many of us were too sore because of the steep descent to make it all the way to Ponferrada and had to take a cab from Molinaseca which itself was a 25 km walk.

In Ponferrada we wanted to tour a Templar castle, but unfortunately the interior was closed. The plazas in the city were worth touring (slowly due to blisters) and the weather was improving. We were all looking forward to a shorter day (only 22.5km) tomorrow!

-Liz Michael


Day Three of the Camino was drizzly with a gradual incline, but at 22 km was shorter than the two previous days walking. The town itself was very small and there were more albergues than churches. One of the churches was excavating tombs beneath the structure and we could see open caskets and random bones, which was both very interesting and very creepy.

Along the last stretch of land before we reached Rabanal there was a long fence covered with crosses.

-Victoria and Connie


The 25 km day to Astorga included a stop at Hospital de Orbigo where we stopped at a medieval bridge and jousting field. It was the site for the last major chivalric tournament of the middle ages. When we arrived the flags were flown and and the field was set for a reenactment of the tournament.

Despite the rainy weather, the walk through the hilly terrain was scenic and we could see Astorga over the hills as we approached the city.
Astorga was much larger than San Martin with a cathedral and Gaudi palace that held a variety of artwork dating as far back as the middle ages and as recent as the twentieth century.
The walk was long, but at the hostel the hospitalero helped many of us by bandaging our blisters! We were ready to continue our walk to Rabanal the next morning.

-- Liz Michael