Murias to Foncebadon (2012)

We left in a fog but were grateful we had stopped where we did. Walking on to Santa Catalina, we realized in short order that we would have been really stretching ourselves to go further than we did. And we would have missed that lovely house!


Timid Anne

In 1971, I took an art history course at the University of Michigan called “Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Road.” The course was taught by an extraordinary professor named Ilene Forsyth. In those years, her scholarship was disparaged by her peers because she had married into the spotlight of her more established husband, George Forsyth. But her zeal and her commitment to studying the intricacies of these small, dear objects was contagious and I fell hard for medieval church architecture in general and medieval sculpture in specific.

She used a two-volume book written by the American medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter as the basis for the course.Learning about her own work on the sculptural program in the cloister at the monastery at Moissac was just a wonderful bonus. What I could not have known in 1971 was that she would go on to become a very highly respected scholar in her own right and that she would spend the rest of her life exploring every square millimeter of that Moissac cloister.

But Porter’s book was just as extraordinary. As a young scholar himself, being aided by unlimited personal funds, he had traversed Europe in a way most of us do not. He went to Europe as a place the way we might go to Paris or Rome as a place. And because of that broader view, he saw the Camino de Santiago as if it were a thread tying many places together by this common road, this common goal of reaching Santiago de Compostela by walking from one town to the next. Where his predecessors identified schools of art production based on place, like a school of Paris or a school of Rome, he saw that sculpture along the road to Santiago had similar characteristics and perhaps, sculptors and church builders were as itinerant as the pilgrims they served or the troubadours and poets who entertained them.

I was fascinated. As a young art historian myself, the idea that style could travel instead of remain in one location was a game changer in the way I looked at and looked for the subtleties of any given piece of work. Porter believed that if troubadours and poets could travel easily and routinely from one place to the other, maybe when the work was done at one church, sculptors and builders would do the same. This would account for the similarities he identified along The Way: everyone was walking with the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

I kept this in the back of my mind for nearly four decades. Every time I would read something about the pilgrimage road, I would say to myself, “How wonderful to be able to see all of those churches, strung like beads along the road to Santiago.”

And I wouldn’t go. Simply because I determined that I needed three things to appear together in my life in order to be able to go: I needed the time, the money, and someone to travel with. If they didn’t appear at the same time, along with my need to see churches, I figured I’d just wait. So I waited. And I’d read something, hear something about the Camino and repeat the mantra: “I must have three things.” I’d have the money and no time to travel. Or I’d have the time and not the funds. And never once did I have anyone interested in coming along with me. 

Until 2009. That spring, I decided to press my then 19-year-old son into service and I took two weeks off work. I had read up a bit on what to bring, what to leave at home in order to be a successful pilgrim, but I also had decided this was to be more of a reconnaissance mission than anything serious like a full-on pilgrimage. We flew to Paris, visited the Tour St. Jacques, and spent a few days shopping and seeing churches. Then, on to Toulouse, where I finally took a day trip out to Professor Forsyth’s beloved cloister at Moissac. It was glorious.

Just a few days later, we took the train from Toulouse to St. Jean Pied de Port – the most popular starting point for the most popular pilgrimage road, the Camino Frances. We checked into the pilgrim’s office, bought our shells, spent the night in a lovely home, and set out to cross the Pyrenees at dawn the next day. A full twelve hours later, I dragged my sorry self into the tiny town at the other side of the mountains where my son was waiting for me. We were in Spain, we had walked the first stage of the Camino Frances, we were in Roncesvalles. And I was done.

I learned so many valuable lessons in one day walking. I learned that I was still carrying way too much stuff. I learned that I would have to walk at my own pace and not try to keep up with a 19-year-old boy. And I learned that without sufficient motivation, no amount of planning or preparation would get you out the door again the next morning. We took a cab to Pamplona, then a train to Madrid.

But I was hooked. And I knew that now that I had the serious motivation to walk again, I no longer needed anyone to come with me. All I needed was time – because, since I was working full-time, the funds were something I could deal with by putting some money aside.

2010 was a Holy Year. What is that? It’s when the feast day of the Apostle St. James falls on a Sunday and, in his honor, the Cathedral in Santiago opens their Holy Door to allow pilgrims to receive special blessings and to enter the church near the altar. I read an article in the New York Times that said they were getting ready to close it on December 31 and that it would not be opened again until 2021. In that moment, I decided to go. I took two weeks vacation and left on December 25, Christmas Day. It was only a few hours ahead of a devastating blizzard that would close all New York airports for days.

I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Sarria – the starting point of the last 100 km of the Camino Frances. Pilgrims who start in Sarria are eligible to receive the confirming document, the Compostela, saying they had completed the pilgrimage by walking the minimum distance. And I walked for five days, most of the way by myself. I arrived at the Cathedral at 3:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve – only an hour and a half before they closed the door to get ready for the celebration that evening. I did it.

Since then, I have walked from Leon to Santiago with the oldest and youngest of my three daughters, I have walked from Roncesvalles to Burgos with my middle daughter who then went on to walk to Santiago by herself, and most recently, I picked up the trail again in Burgos and walked to Leon. I have worked as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago and twice at The Abbey, just outside Pamplona. I’ve also worked in an albergue, a pilgrims’ hostel, in Ribadiso, just 40 or so kilometers outside of Santiago.

And through it all, through all of these visits to Spain, I wonder how it was that it took me so long to do this when, in 1971, I was so captivated by the Camino. I think I was more than likely a product of that time. Most women I knew in 1971 did not feel empowered enough to take bold adventures, like hiking across Spain by themselves. And to be fair, the Camino was not nearly as popular as it is now. I also wonder what my younger self would have made of it. I wonder too if I would have become the town crier for the Camino that I am now. I can tell you how frustrating it was that first time, finding out how many of the churches were not open when I walked by. I think that’s ironic.

So, I guess this is just the story of Timid Anne from Niles, Michigan: a young girl who fell for the Camino, and the older lady who actually experienced it. It took me just 38 years to get here. I’d like that that shouldn’t happen to you, too. My hashtag these days is #littleoldladywalking

Photo: the tympanum at Conques, another day trip from Toulouse and the cloister at Moissac

Hospital de Órbigo to Murias (2012)

Before we left the glorious Albergue Verde, we asked the hospitaleros about the next stop. When you walk off-season like we do, this can be the best information you get all day: where do we stop next? The answer was simple. They recommended we  pass up staying in the larger town of Astorga and stop in Murias de Rechivaldo.


Walking into Astorga, we stopped by the wonderful Roman mosaic floor exhibit along the road and I took some photos of Gaudi’s Bishop’s Palace. The actual cathedral is lovely but it’s the Gaudi building that you’ll remember. The arrow slit stained glass windows and the play of light and stone is wonderful. I remember thinking to myself that if I were a Gaudi fanatic I might have made the trip to Astorga to see it, but beyond real fanaticism, walking the Camino is the only other way to experience it.

Sadly, all the chocolate shops were closed. Astorga is known for chocolate. We had some the night before and thought it might be fun to try something, but nothing was open when we got into town. We walked past and came into a tiny town where nearly everything was covered in some kind of stone. No dirt, no grass, and only a couple of trees surrounded by stone buildings. It was really lovely.

And again, nothing was open. Well. to be fair, the bar at the other end of the street might have been open, but there really is a limit to the number of bars you can visit in any given week and I was getting close to that limit. So, we spotted a phone number on an albergue – something to the effect of, if you need a place to spend the night, just call us. My daughter rang them up and, with apologies that they needed to stop to pick up breakfast for us, they said they would be there in just a few minutes.

A woman and her brother pulled up and unlocked the front door. Since there were only three of us, she said she wouldn’t be opening the albergue to us but she’d let us into the house. We walked in, set down our poles and backpacks and she explained how the house worked while her brother lit a fire in the living room. Upstairs were bedrooms and across a patio, there was a kitchen with a communal-type dining room and computer set-up. In the summer, the place is probably filled to capacity, but in December, we needed flashlights to get across the patio and did not see another soul in Murias after they left.

I lay down for a while, my older daughter warmed up by the fire, and my younger daughter made us dinner from food she found in the pantry. We had spaghetti with some canned vegetables and bread and I used the WiFi to check into my E-mail account.


In the morning, we made coffee and had bread and butter before locking up and heading out. The fog was so thick we could barely see the road ahead of us as we walked toward Santa Catalina. One of the pilgrims we met in Hospital de Orbigo had told us she wanted to walk farther and had planned to stay there, but we didn’t see anything open there either. That’s always one of my worries – that we’d walk farther, find there really was no place to stay, and have to walk farther still.

I was struck by the kindness of the sister and the brother who trusted us enough to give us that house. It is common to experience small kindnesses along the Camino, but this was anything but small. Being able to warm up next to the fire and know that breakfast would be waiting for us when we got up in the morning – truly extraordinary for three tired pilgrims.

León to Hospital de Órbigo (2012)

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This was indeed a leap of faith. My daughters had never done anything like this, walking with backpacks into totally unfamiliar country, and I was pretty arrogant, thinking we’d just be fine. We were fine – of course we would be fine – but thinking back on the way we planned each of our stages on this trip, I marvel at how completely reckless we were.

The weather for the most part in December in Northern Spain is 50s and rain, 50s and rainy. Not too cold, but damp pretty much every day or every other day. We had great solid black jackets that matched and when we stood together without the distraction of our non-matching backpacks, we looked like gangsters. We were really well-prepared and I felt we were ready. But we traveled on trust: trust that the Camino would provide us with the bare necessities.

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As we got closer to our first overnight stop, we found ourselves walking alongside a small highway. In many sections of the Camino, there is a main road that runs alongside and the suggestion is that the Camino was there first and because it proved to be the most expedient route from one place to the next, the road was built next to it. We stopped walking to have some of an apple we’d brought with us and we were just talking when I looked up to see a wild boar. It ran up to the highway to our left, across the roadbed, down the other side and directly crossed our path about 15 to 20 feet just ahead of us. Then it disappeared into the brush.

I had only seen wild boar in Italy many years ago. And I passed up the only opportunity I ever had to try eating it. This was, let me see, how do I put this? Unsettling. That’s it. It was unsettling. We wondered what exactly we would have done if the thing had taken a sharp right turn and come right at us. On some crazy level though, I felt like we had some wonderful force field around us that would protect us from just that event.


Then we met our first hospitalero – one of the wonderful people who run the albergues where we would spend the night. He was coming toward us on his bike, followed by a dog, and when he reached us, he just asked where we were planning to spend the night. Since we had no plans, he told us how to get to his place and that his wife was the best cook in Spain, that she would make us pasta, and that we would have a nice time.

We walked across the bridge into Hospital de Órbigo and spent the night at the Albergue Verde. I remember lying down, covered with my sleeping bag, just glad to be NOT walking. They served us a wonderful meal and after dinner, they sang to us, accompanied by guitar, and it was so lovely I wanted to spend another night there. In fact, we overslept and did end up spending more time there than we’d planned but I’d forgotten to set my alarm. Sunrise is so late in December it’s easy to sleep in by accident.

After breakfast and photos, we were directed out the back door, across a farmer’s field, toward the Camino. They told us we’d find a rest stop in 10km. where we met up with the Casa de Dioses – at that time, it was a lean-to with teas and peanut butter and a nice little couch to sit on for a few moments. The owner would walk to the next town to carry back supplies and water, but since that time, he has bought a shed and I understand he has made a more permanent place for himself and the pilgrims he nourishes.


NYC to León (2012)

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I always think it’s in the starting that a journey takes its shape. How have I come to this point of departure and how did I decide this was the time I needed to travel? How did I get to a place where a 300 km hike in the month of December seemed like the thing to do? And in this case, how in the world was I able to convince my beautiful daughters to trust me long enough to come along?

In the early fall of 2012, I had already decided I needed to walk the Camino again. As wonderful as my 2010 trip had been, I felt that I needed to know more, to see more, to do more, so I did some research on flights, and started planning. Initially, I thought I wanted to walk again by myself, just meeting other pilgrims – or not – and having the Camino to myself. But something told me to invite my children, so I made the offer to all four and got two takers: the oldest and the youngest of my three daughters.

We left for Madrid after getting lunch near my office at Columbia University where I was working at the time. It felt like we were abandoning the familiar in favor of an adventure, something I didn’t remember feeling the last time. We had shopped together for gear, gone over the itinerary, and packed everything together. We were ready – together. After arriving in Madrid, we had lunch at the train station and then we took off for León, one of my favorite cities in Spain. This is where we started our Camino.

León is beautiful and we had made reservations to spend the night at the parador, the Renaissance convent of San Marcos. It sits right on the Camino and the yellow arrows are just off to the right as you exit, but walking from the train station, I couldn’t find it. I’ve never felt so foolish walking in Spain. I had a map that was just not speaking to me, so we went into a bar and asked for directions and eventually found our way.

We walked by the Cathedral and even in my jet-lagged, lost state, I knew enough to get inside for a few quick prayers. Spanish churches aren’t always open when you need them and sure enough, when we walked by again later, it was shut for the night. The director of the Camino Forum had sent us patches for our backpacks and they were waiting for us when we checked in. Suddenly, I felt calm, I felt at home, and I felt energized that I could do this.

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One of the real benefits of walking in December, is the Christmas markets. Some, like the one in Madrid, focus on all the little pieces that you can pull together to build your Nativity scene, or belén, and others, like the ones in Burgos or León, concentrate more on festivities or food. I had been to this one before and knew where to get the churros stuffed with creme and where to go to see the colorful pageants with the local dancers in costume. What an amazing way to start our Camino.

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In the morning, we had breakfast in the parador and took a cab to a small town just outside the city – Virgen del Camino. The sun was not going to be up for another hour, but we were ready. I told my daughters that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and we started walking in the morning fog – the three of us wearing matching black jackets.

It would have been nice to have another cup of coffee at that wonderful hotel or to be able to offer another few prayers in the León Cathedral, but there is some kind of magnetic pull to this walk that defies description. When you need to do this, you do this. And little by little, with each milestone achieved, my girls and I became first, walkers, then pilgrims.

After all, we don’t come to the Camino to sip coffee and our prayers are best said while we walk.

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Next: Virgen del Camino to Hospital de Orbigo (2012)