Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim

New BOOK Notice!
Not a guidebook, no maps, no long-winded legends or history – just lots of stories and helpful suggestions to anyone planning their first Camino or just waiting to go back. Geared toward American Pilgrims, this book is a must-have, must-read.

It’s the perfect companion to your standard guidebooks, like John Brierley, the Confraternity of St. James guidebooks, or Wise Pilgrim.

Look for it on Amazon ($6.99 US) December 10, 2017 in paperback and January 8, 2018 on Kindle!


Volunteering at the Albergue in Ribadiso

So, what is it like to volunteer on the Camino de Santiago in Spain? I thought it might be helpful if I gave you some quick background and an idea of what a day is like – then, you might say, “That’s neat. I could so do that, too!”

I have walked the Camino on several occasions, the most recent being in May 2016, walking from Burgos to Leon. I have covered most of the Camino Frances, as the most famous route is called, and I have rather unusual experience doing it, walking mostly in December instead of the summer months. I can tell you where to stay, what not to pack, how to negotiate the emotional highs and lows, and I can tell you what it’s like to finish, ending up in the wonderful medieval town, Santiago de Compostela. It is in the cathedral there that the earthly remains of the apostle James are laid to rest. 
Is it really him? That’s hard to say. I did read once, that in the late 19th century, they opened the silver casket and found the remains of three individuals and a piece of masonry, presumed to be a fragment of the original church in that location. Does it matter if it’s really him? No, of course not – but, for over 1,000 years, pilgrims from every country on this planet have walked this route, and others, to find themselves in the presence of this small, silver casket. 

Walking the Camino is one of those famous bucket list items. People I know say routinely, “Gee, I’d love to be able to do that some day,” but only two of my friends have actually done it. Once you do complete your “Camino,” it’s fair to say you are pretty expert in a whole host of tasks; including how to walk with blisters on both feet, how to dry clothes quickly to avoid having to pack wet things, what to pack, what NOT to pack, how to stay warm when it’s cold and dry when it’s wet. And that simple background, coupled with experience walking, is the basis for what makes a great volunteer.

I’ve been fortunate to have volunteered on 4 separate occasions – once, in 2014, in the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office in Santiago de Compostela; twice at The Abbey located on the way into Pamplona in Navarra; and now, in a municipal albergue in the tiny town of Ribadiso, roughly 40 kilometers outside Santiago, next to the Iso River.

The Pilgrim’s Office had a program, sponsored by the English-speaking Cathedral Chaplaincy with teams of four English speakers at a time would be housed in a furnished apartment and work for 4 hours each day greeting pilgrims, managing the line into the office, and selling the mailing tubes that would house your newly minted paperwork showing you have completed your Camino. It’s called a Compostela. You bring a pilgrim’s passport on the way with you and in each place you stop, you collect a stamp that shows you were walking that day. A minimum of 100 km will net you a Compostela if you collect at least 2 stamps each day you walk.

The Abbey required similar skills – which was a good thing! I had read about the project where a South African pilgrim and his English partner were walking the Camino together when they saw a property that was in near total disrepair. So, over the course of many months, they bought it from the Catholic Church and began renovating it. The goal is simple – to return it to use by pilgrims who pass by the property each year by the thousands. I was there, greeting pilgrims, talking about the project, and encouraging pilgrims to consider volunteering there themselves, for one week in 2015 and one day in 2016. The project is ongoing and each week it gets closer to being operational. 

In Ribadiso – I also get to talk with pilgrims. Today, we brought plates of fresh cut fruit to the edge of the property and offered small cups of water to entering pilgrims. The albergues, as Camino hostels are called, typically do not open for the day until 1 o’clock, so pilgrims who arrive early have to sit outside. It was the perfect thing! We could hear their stories, learn where they were from, try to see what they needed, and share some fruit.

This work is not for everyone – today, the hospitalera (the lady who runs the albergue) said to me, you need to be a Psychologist to be good at her job. Which is partly true. People who have walked over 20 kilometers each day for over a month – something too that is typical – will need different things to feel safe and comfortable staying overnight in rooms filled with both familiar faces and strangers. Today, we are housing 62 pilgrims in bunk beds and another 20 or so campers in the back field.

Accommodations for volunteers vary, I’ve been told, but the places I have stayed have been plush. Hot showers, warm beds, fully stocked kitchens and a place to wash your clothes. And endless pilgrims to look after.

That’s the thing. The expression I have heard is not that we house pilgrims but we “protect” them. It’s important. It’s necessary. And I will probably do it again. Well, after the current 15-day stint is finished!

Back at The Abbey

What a treat and such a gift to be able to volunteer again just for the day at The Abbey.

This beautiful property is right on the Camino and I was able to greet dozens of pilgrims today – in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and French! It’s so fabulous to speak even a few words of welcome to pilgrims from so many places: Minnesota, Texas, California, Vermont, Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Korea, Australia, Ireland, England, Illinois, Iowa.

And the best? I got to ring the bell! Then I scampered down to the lawn to make this little recording.

Buen Camino to all who visited the Abbey today! 

To help save The Abbey: https://www.gofundme.com/theabbey-es

A New York City Feminist on the Camino de Santiago

10519769_383768088476274_1878756365606993755_nHaven’t you all done this? Connected on Facebook with someone you’ve never met because they were raising money to restore a 12th century fortress in Spain? I’m not alone here, right?

O.K., maybe it’s not what everyone does, but it’s what I did. I picked myself up in the Bronx and flew to Madrid, took a train to Pamplona, and volunteered for a week to help two complete strangers with their overwhelming renovation project. And I am so glad I did.

I am a pilgrim. I have walked along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain on more than a few occasions in the past six years, both alone and with my children. I have two Compostelas – the certificate you gain when you arrive at the end of the way in Santiago de Compostela, home to the magnificent medieval cathedral that houses the remains of the Apostle James, the patron saint of Spain and the object of this pilgrimage route.

Pilgrims have walked to Santiago de Compostela for centuries and many, many thousands of them have walked right by The Abbey – a 12th century fortress near Pamplona that became a 16th century abbey, that became a local parish church, that became abandoned, that was recently purchased from the Catholic Church in Spain by two pilgrims who are determined to renovate it. And that surfaced on Facebook with a link to a GoFundMe page where I donated a few dollars.

Their project spoke to me.

And then I tried to go back to what I was doing.

Such an epic fail. I started checking in to see how the fundraising was going. Some days were better than others. Then I started following the project more closely on Facebook and on the Camino Forum – a virtual center of information on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. They were clearing debris. For a time, they housed a forlorn pilgrim who needed new hiking boots. So they started a separate fundraising campaign to buy him new boots. They cleared the patio of a layer of concrete and uncovered a stunning geometric pattern of old stonework. They found religious vestments and when they realized they could not save them after years of water damage and neglect, they burned them and scattered the ashes in the garden. And on Saint Lucy’s Day this past December, in honor of the former patron of the church, they rang the bell in the bell tower in her honor.

So I messaged them on Facebook and just told them I was coming. I said I would help any way I could, that I could paint, or haul rocks, or hammer nails, or whatever they needed. I just wanted to help. The response was about as amazing as it gets – “Come, yes, but we would just need someone to greet passing pilgrims so we can keep working, because when we stop to talk to people, the work just takes so long. And, if you could, give tours of the church.”

I was in heaven – seriously. I spent ten years taking art history courses at Columbia University in medieval architecture and I love nothing more than telling stories to my fellow pilgrims.

The routine was simple enough. I would get up every day at 5:40 a.m., get out of my hotel in Pamplona not later than 6:15 a.m., and head to the single and only open café to get breakfast and pack something for lunch. From there I would make my way to the edge of the main section of town where I would be picked up at 7:00 a.m. and driven out to The Abbey to work. Once I was there, I would stash my things in the church and head up to the road to start greeting pilgrims. And, because my language skills far outnumber my math and science skills, I spoke to them in French mostly, then English, Spanish, and Italian, with apologies to the Brazilians that I only know how to say “Good morning” and “Thank you” in Portuguese, and many apologies to the Germans that even though my father’s family came from Germany to settle in Indiana in 1854, I only know about six words of German.

I met a woman from Indiana, too! The conversation went something like this: “Hi, where are you from?” “Indiana.” “No kidding, I went to high school in South Bend!” “Really? I have cousins in South Bend. I go to Indiana University!” “Really? My son goes to Indiana University!” And where were we? We were halfway between Ilarratz and Eskirotz on the Camino de Santiago, standing in front of a 12th century fort being renovated by someone I met on Facebook.

I was fortunate to be able not only to work at this amazing project for the week, but to meet so many other pilgrims and to hear their stories. I worked with a young Danish pilgrim who had walked for a month to get to this point. She was ready for a break and decided to help out as well for the week before she would start walking again. I just saw that she finished the pilgrimage and had found her way to Finisterre – the end of the earth on the Atlantic coast of northwestern Galicia.

A mother and son stopped to talk one of the days I was there. He was home-schooled, she was nervous about him, and I ran into them later that night. They could not find a place to stay, having limited Spanish and not wanting to stay at the pilgrim hostels. So I took them to my hotel where they were able to find a nice clean place for the night. And a man came by. He was older, heavy set, and he told me he had started his pilgrimage in France at the site where his father’s plane had been shot down during WWII. He told me he had met the son of the man who saved his father’s life by pulling him out of the water after the plane went down. I even met a woman who was on her way to meet a friend of mine in Logroño!

Most astonishing, given that I connected with The Abbey via Facebook to begin with, was the morning I was sitting on the patio at the entrance to the church when a man shouted at me from the road, “Are you Anne? Hi, Anne! I read about you on Facebook!”

All told, I greeted pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, South Africa, South America, the Middle East, Ireland and the UK, Canada, Mexico, and the US. I went back and forth among my four languages for hours each day: “Buenos días, bonjour, buon giorno, welcome to The Abbey. This is a 12th century fort, which became a 16th century church, which became abandoned for ten years, which my friend from South Africa just bought with his partner from the UK. They are also pilgrims and they bought it from the Catholic Church in Spain to return it once more to use by pilgrims.” Some people would ask timidly if they were dressed appropriately to enter the church, others wanted to know if it would be O.K. if they came back to help when they finished their pilgrimage, or would we mind if they took some photos? And two pilgrims – on two separate occasions – just walked in and started to sing. The acoustics in The Abbey are quite perfect for singing.

The garden was overgrown and now it has been planted with apple trees. The grass is cut, and the house that sits just behind the church is being renovated, too. It will become a small pension where pilgrims will be able to stay for free – if they want to do a little work on the project. My new friends are planning to live there once that part of the renovation is complete to save the expense of living offsite.

After a week, reluctantly, I left to spend a long weekend with my daughter in Madrid and then I came back to what passes for real life here in the Bronx. I will go back to the Camino, either in October or December, to walk again. I find tremendous spiritual clarity in walking long distances on this route and in speaking with other pilgrims. And I love to travel alone.

I did it all for a very personal reason: I like to think that if I were to buy a medieval property in Spain to renovate it for pilgrims, people would come and help me, too.

Published originally on The Broad Side – here. Photo credit (top) – Neill Le Roux

What is Breakfast Like on the Way to The Abbey?

I am spending a week volunteering at the restoration of a 12th century fortress on the Camino de Santiago just outside Pamplona in the magnificent countryside of Navarre. I greet passing pilgrims who walk by while the new owner of the property works on the project. They are on their way to Santiago de Compostela in far off Galicia, while he works to create a moment’s refuge for them here.

I am staying in Pamplona at a regular hotel, not an abergue or pilgrim’s hostel. Since the hotel does not serve breakfast until 7:00 a.m., I wander out each day with my camera and my little daypack, my bottle of water filled, and my iPad to go to the only cafe I have found that is open at that hour – the Taberna on Carlos III.

This minute cafe with three tables is part of a chain of small restaurant cafes. There is a refrigerated case with hams and cheeses, some yogurt and some sodas and the rest is bakery. Every day, I show up around 6:30, 6:40 a.m. to get my coffee, my juice, and my toast. While I am having breakfast, they make me a sandwich so I have something to take for lunch.

The juice is made in a large silver contraption that funnels oranges down two chutes to be pressed into an aluminum pitcher, then ceremoniously poured into my glass. Typically, I like a croissant “a la plancha,” meaning toasted on a press, but here they drizzle it with honey and it’s just too sweet for this hour of the morning, so I opt for French bread toasted with a little butter.

I used to be a cafe con leche guy but last December, my daughter turned me on to cortado. It’s the rough equivalent of a cafe con leche if you used only half the leche and it’s really great. Since there’s so little milk, it’s not so sweet as a cafe con leche and I like to think it gives me tremendous credibility with the locals when I order it.

The locals. This is the spot for the locals – even though it is on one of the main drags because there are no tourists up at this hour and the Camino does not go by the place. In theory, I would guess it is mostly people on their way to work or to open the shops and banks. But in practice, it is more of a lesson in Spain.

When I go there this morning, a few minutes earlier than usual this week, I had to ask the woman behind the counter where the “vieja” was. Where is the old lady? It was the first time this week I had not seen the Maroon Woman, and in typical New Yorker fashion, because I didn’t see her here, I started to worry about her.

Maroon Woman is roughly my age, I would guess, maybe slightly older, who has worn the exact same outfit every single day, having breakfast here every single day, but eating something different every single day. She is boxy, with a maroon knit jacket, a maroon knit skirt, and a maroon patterned T-shirt. She has white-stitched loafers and her hair needs to be introduced to a comb at the very least. She says barely a word past the order to the counter woman – she comes, she eats, she leaves, I guess, because by the time I have finished and packed up my lunch, she also has  finished eating but is still there.

There is a young girl too who gets her breakfast here. She too wears the same thing every day and I have not focused on what she orders because I am fascinated that a 30-something would not be more fashion-conscious, but clothes are expensive and no one cares that she has the same leather jacket, the same cream cardigan the same jeans, the same suede boots. In so many ways, she is like the Maroon Woman.

A late 40s woman comes in last. She wears her gray hair up over her right ear, caught by a single Bobby pin. She wears the same shoes, the same coat, carries the same bag and only once did she take a table to sit with another woman.

The last of the regulars might be the manager. He is very good-looking, early 40s and he takes a copy of each newspaper to place it on a wooden dowel that goes into a display so people can read with their cortados.

Then I pick up my sandwich and my Aquarius, which is a kind of flat, lifeless lemonade that I love, and I take off. I can only imagine the conversations about me after I leave.

22 May, 2015

Mourning the Dead at The Abbey

There is a small, vey small, public cemetery at The Abbey that houses only a handful of markers for the families in the nearby villages of Ilarratz and Eskirotz. The church, formerly the parish church of St. Lucia, would have served both communities.


Every few days, someone from the towns comes by to tend the graves. There is no shortage of plastic flowers, as is the custom in most graveyards, particularly in Spain, and someone has planted pansies. But just the other day, an older woman, mid-fifties I would assume, left a bouquet wrapped in plastic at one of the graves. It would have been the second anniversary of a man who was only 65 when he died. Possibly, her husband.

There is one grave marker that show three members of a single family who died within days of each other in 1971. Possibly a flu epidemic, or other disease, these people are remembered here under a name that is possibly their sister or mother, it is hard to be sure, not knowing what happened.
It is also hard for this city girl to imagine what life would be like, living in a village with a population of barely a handful of hearty souls. The Basque way of life out here is not easy. The weather is miserable, even now in the end of May. And yet, somehow this culture, this area remains some of the most beautiful and generally the best looked after of all the Camino.
What is remarkable is how reverent most pilgrims become when they walk into the church or pass by this lovely cemetery. Men remove their hats, women bow and cross themselves, and two young girls this week asked if it would be proper for them to enter the church wearing shorts. And all the while, I think of the property being neglected for so long, not serving the needs of pilgrims, barely supporting those with loved ones in this graveyard.
There is one marker that is the oldest and the most touching. It marks the graves of three members of one family: the father, the mother, and the son who most probably died during some local conflict during the Spanish Civil War. Ernest Hemingway made it all seem so romantic, but families lost their children, children lost their fathers.The other graves are more modern looking, certainly more recent.
A cemetery that most likely houses the remains of the many monks who would have lived here centuries ago is identified on a map from 1871, up the hill across to the other side of the Camino and the modern road. There is a man in town who found skulls on the property and someone claims Moors are buried here as well.
Most days no one comes to this cemetery. But pilgrims who visit The Abbey sometimes stop to pay their respects to the strangers buried here. 


Fragrances and Flowers at The Abbey

One of my favorite memories of walking the Camino de Santiago is the fragrance.  There is pine, rosemary, lavendar, eucalyptus, sage, and acres of freshly mown grass. This afternoon, walking between the two small towns on either side of The Abbey, I was reminded of that glorious fragrance. Not pine today, not eucalptus, but a blend of rosemary and lavendar that was the perfect complement to the heavenly scent of grass cut along the roadside. 

There are wild roses growing in the garden now. They climb up the wall or stand alone and they are splendid reminders of how resilient these flowers are. Typically tended and cared for in formal gardens, they stand here as if they owned the place and the fragrance of one is stunning, the fragrance of the other, non-existent. There’s no practical reason why, and the flowers are lovely all the same. 

Wild flowers fill the fields now in displays of purple, yellow, white, and abundant green. It can be a challenge – when you really want a nice green lawn – to have all of these flowers showing up without an invitation. But to me? With my camera? It’s hardly a challenge, but rather an opportunity to get some nice evocative shots of these beauties.


There are some sweet new fruit trees planted now at one end of the field across from the church and you can see right away that in practically no time, this will be the perfect spot to put some lounge chairs and hammocks to offer pilgrims a short respite from walking.  And Just look at the garden – strawberries, onions, and potatoes.

Today, two Korean pilgrims walked by and ended up staying the day, overnight in the next town, and back to The Abbey tomorrow – just to help. Two English pilgrims stopped later, walking not west to Galicia, but east on their way to Rome and Jerusalem. They vowed to return in a few months’ time – just to help.

After all, it’s what we pilgrims do, isn’t it?

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