Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

A Tenerife Road Trip

There is no greater freedom than windows down, music up and open road. On a recent trip to Tenerife – a volcanic island in the Atlantic that resembles a flat-based bowling pin and boasts Spain’s highest point, hosts a bustling tourism scene and is packed with colonial history. We rented a car from Hertz to see as much as possible during my quick weekend break. Over a day and a half, we made a huge loop around the island, hitting major cities and natural sites while skipping the heavily-touristed South End.

I left the planning to Julie and Forrest. As locals, they had clued me into what we’d be doing, eating, climbing and drinking. For was even going to take care of the driving.

The Novio and I rented a car when we were on Gran Canaria about six years ago, zigzagging around this near-perfect circular island – there is really no other way to see the islands. 

Day One

Santa Cruz del Puerto

Julie and Forrest live in the island’s capital, right near the port. Julie grew up in La Coruña, right near the port, and despite living a year in Seville, craves the water. She gave me a primer to the city’s few historical sites as we walked through lush urban gardens and decided that having a beer and catching up would serve us better.

The following morning, we were eager to get a start on the day. The majority of the island’s tourism heads to the south, where discos nuzzle up to the black sand beaches and there are holiday package hotels on the primera línea of every inch of beach. Our road trip on the TF-5 would take us to the northern tip of the island’s sites.

Teide

From Santa Cruz, take the T-5 towards La Laguna to the T-24 to the Teide National Park

The Megane climbed steadily through the birch trees towards the geographic center of the island. One of the biggest things on my Tenerife must-dos was seeing El Teide, a volcano which doubles as Spain’s highest point and one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island. The whole national park was mind-blowing, given that the landscape was positively lunar, dry and stunk of sulfur.

We paid to take the gondola up the view-point, which faces the southeast side of Tenerife and the island of Gran Canaria, but also got special permission to access the peak via foot. It was a steep, hot climb, but well worth the views.

La Orotava

From the park entrance, take the roundabout towards T-21, snaking down the mountain until you reach La Orotava.

After a morning of hiking on only a coffee, Forest directed the car towards the western side of the island, known for its wine crop and misty weather. As the clouds rolled off of Teide’s peak, we were left with a rainy, cloudy afternoon.

For lunch, we stopped at a guachinche, or a family run restaurant and winery. For the bargain price of 25€, we feasted on local cheeses and sausages, drank the family’s fruity wine and shared stories of living in Spain.

Puerto de la Cruz

Hop back on the T-5 to exit 32 to T-31 and follow the signs to the center of town.

We probably could have served to get rolled down the volcano to Puerto de la Cruz from the guachinche, but a quick car ride found us in Puerto, the north’s holiday-maker capital. This seaside village was once known for its stately Canarian palaces, but the center of town is overrun with German tourists nowadays. Puerto is also home to Loro Parque, the island’s best-advertised attraction, so it was difficult to not feel strangled by mass tourism.

We bee-lined straight for the black sand beach of Playa Jardín and walked around its old fishing neighborhood, La Ranilla, characterized by brightly colored facades and seafood restaurants. 

The center of town was crawling with people on a market day, so we found a terrace with ecological products for a quick coffee. It almost looked like a Canarian Disney Land – built up colonial houses with wooden balconies, small shops brimming with mojo picón and local wine and botanical plants lining the skinny roads. 

El Sauzal

Rejoin the T-5 to exit 21 and join the TF-172.

As night fell, Julie promised me a drink and a view. In their weekend travels on Tenerife, she and Forest had found a gorgeous terrace bar in the town of El Sauzal, a small blip of a town that seemed to drip down the side of a mountain.

The menu at Terraza del Sauzal was full of food and drink choices, and I settled on a Campari orange margarita. We watched the sun stain the sky pink, then dip into the ocean until the next day.

Day Two

Mirador de las Teresitas

Follow the port towards the northern tip of the island.

The following morning, we followed the road leading out-of-town towards the Anaga peninsula and nature reserve, keeping the port on our right-hand side. Immediately leaving the town of San Andrés, the road climbs to the Mirador de las Teresitas, a viewing point high above a beach of the same name.

The cliff is covered in graffiti and is apparently a sort of drug den, but that morning, we could see across the port to the capital, as well as Teide in the distance, peeking out of the clouds. Playa de las Gaviotas stretch under us on the other side.

I had only a few hours before my flight back to the mainland, so we hopped back in the car and sped towards San Cristóbal de Laguna, a colonial town nestled between two mountains.

San Cristobal de la Laguna

Take the T-5 out of the capital, towards the Tenerife Norte airport.

Apparently airport architects made a huge X on a map of the island as to where NOT to put an international airport, but Tenerife North was built anyway. The wind tunnel where La Laguna, as it’s known locally, sits was windy but sunny and warm for a March day.

The well-preserved historic center is the island’s other UNESCO site and is entirely pedestrian, crowned with a university and the Catedral de La Laguna. While there was plenty of history just under the glossy surface of La Laguna, we decided on beer and a few light tapas.

A few hours later, Forest dropped me off at the airport, and Julie made me promise to come back so we could do the Southern half of Tenerife. For a girl who has lived in four different cities and four different autonomías in Spain, Tenerife must be pretty special if she’s decided to stay on just one more year.

Like road trips? Check out my other posts: Montenegro // La Rioja // Understanding Spain’s Driving Laws

Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Aragón

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve probably not heard of March’s comunidad, Aragón. But I’m pretty positive you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, whose marriage in the mid 15th Century would ultimately lead to Spain’s Golden Age.

Name: Aragón

Population: 1.35 million

Provinces: Aragón is divided into three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel – and really only has two large cities – Zaragoza and Huesca. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and is best-known for its role in forming modern Spain as the Kingdom of Aragón.

When: 15th of 17 regions, March 2012

About Aragón: The region is rich in the historical, architectural and natural senses. Its mudéjar buildings and plush river valleys take a lot of credit, but given how important it has been historically is worth exploring, too. Aragón became a self-proclaimed kingdom over a millennia ago, eventually claiming parts of Italy and Greece, as well as Corsica and a large part of the eastern coast of Iberia. The kingdom grew when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castille, becoming one of the powerhouse couples of Spanish history and reconquering Spain from the Moors.

What remains is a region that seems just as seeped in lore as Andalucia, from the traditional costumes and festivals to the devotion for the local virgin, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose feast day coincides with Spain’s national festival.

Must-sees: Zaragoza has a number of sites in its old town, from the Basilicia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and it’s beautifully tiled roof to the modern Expo site across the Ebro. The region’s capital (and the fifth-largest city in Spain) is also home to the Seo church and the Moorish Palacio de Aljafería, which now houses the provincial court system. It’s a city you can experience in a day, to be honest.

 If you’re into castles, history and architecture, check out the castle of Loarre in the Huesca province, the city of Teruel (sí, existe) and the village that has been ranked as one of Spain’s most beautiful, Albecerrín. Jaca is also full of religious museums and temples.

Outdoor lovers, rejoice! Because of the low population density in the autonomía, there is plenty to explore. Huesca is one of Spain’s snowiest zones, and the Pyrenees are home to a number of ski resorts with outdoor activities of every type. Check out the Ordesa and Parque de la Piedra national parks.

My take: The Novio and I went to visit a friend of his from the Air Force Academy who flies a fighter jet at the nearby base. A ceutí by birth and an andaluz at heart, Gon did his duty to show us around Zaragoza during Holy Week. Unfortunately, crap weather and a flu bug had us all indoors, watching TV and ordering takeout for four straight days.

Gonzalo claims that the draw of the province comes from the Pyrenees mountains, the rich gastronomy and the outdoor activities. We didn’t have a car to use that weekend, meaning we were stuck in the capital (and on the couch, ugh). Thanks to its connection on the AVE, it’s a city I’d be interested in seeing again, and I’m eager to see more of the comunidad.

Each month for the next 15, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

In case you missed it, I featured Andalucía, the region I live in, in February.

What do you love (or not) about Aragón?

Spain Snapshots: A Visit to Spain’s Highest Point, el Teide

The Megane steadily climbed out of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, past La Laguna and into the plush interior of the island. The pines and windy roads took me back to Colorado, but with an occasional glimpse of Atlantic waters.

Gua guas pushed up the hill slowly, and Forrest swerved around them, comfortable as he shifted into third in our rental car and rode the mountain up. Tenerife was formed by an underground volcano 30 to 50 million years ago, and its highest point, Teide, actually gives the island its name: tene (mountain) and ife (white), joined by an /r/ during the colonial period. The entire island is formed from volcanic rock, in fact, evident from the steep ride up and down, and the white-capped mountain is visible from seemingly every rincón of the largest island in the archipelago. 

Once we reached the national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, we parked the car and took the gondola up the mountain. Most tourists don’t venture up to the top, standing nearly 3800 meters above sea level, despite Teide being one of the most visited sites in Spain. The landscape is almost barren, and the only sign off life we saw after starting our ascent were lizards.

Steep rock stairs have been carved into the rock face, but we still scrambled over boulders, stopping for vistas and water breaks every 10 steps because the air was so thin. 

The great crater caused by multiple eruptions in visible from just about everywhere on the island, but seeing it from a bird’s-eye-view was insanely cool.

From the very top, you can see Gran Canaria to the east and la Gomera to the west. We actually hiked above the cloud level that covers the occidental side of the island, watching them get burned off by the warm midday sun.

If you go: Visitors can take the gondola up the mountain at the cost of 25€. If you want to hike to the top, you’ll need to print off an access pass on the national park’s main page. It’s free, but you’ll have to bring a form of ID.

Be sure to dress in layers, as it’s cold at the top, and wear comfortable shoes. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and plenty of water, as there are no facilities after leaving the visitors center.

Have you ever visited a national park in Spain?

My rental car was graciously provided by Car Rentals UK. All opinions (as well as the memories of my stomach dropping during the hairpin turns) are my own.

Visiting Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Spain is home to a whopping 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including historical, cultural and archealogical gems, third in number of sites only to Italy and China. Without knowing it, I ended up in eight of those 44 in 2013, plus the Old Cities of Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Kotor (Montenegro), and my Christmas trip meant revisiting the Old Towns of Salzburg and Vienna and checking out Schönnbrun Palace (Austria), taking a boat trip down the Wachau Valley and visiting the Abbey of Melk (Austria), and walking around the Buda Castle area (Hungary). Of 981 around the world, it’s a very small sliver of them.

It all started with Nina, a Croatian from Split who hosted me while Couchsurfing in Zadar, Croatia, whose dream was to work for UNESCO. While I’m no Gary Arndt, who is on a mission to visit all 981 of them, I’m always delighted to discover that I’m visiting another. As a history lover interested in culture and language, I’ve tried to work the sites into my trips. Given Spain’s political and historical landscape over the last two millennia, it’s no surprise that it boasts nearly four dozen sites, with many more in contention (this also makes visiting them quite easy!):

February: Historic Center of Córdoba (1984)

If you’ve taken high school Spanish, chances are you learned early on about the horseshoe spires of the Córdoba Mosque (in my case, it was plastered on the inside cover of my Paso a Paso 1 book). As a center for learning and once the largest Moorish city in Europe, Córdoba’s former glory is evident in the collection of buildings in its historic center, along with the countless contributions to science, medicine and art that the cordobeses made under Moorish rule. The area is easily walkable.

At less than an hour by bullet train, Córdoba makes an excellent day trip from Seville, and while you’re there, be sure to try its gastronomical claim to fame, too: salmorejo and flamenquínes.

Read more: The Little Sister of Seville

April: University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Again, if you’ve taken high school Spanish, you’ll be familiar with the goofy character of Don Quijote, an aging Spanish knight who goes on a quest to defend the plains of Castilla from the bad guys (which are windmills, by the way) and win the love of the maiden Dulcinea. Written by Miguel de Cervantes over 400 years ago, this story remains one of Spain’s best-known and timeless pieces of literature.

Cervantes was born and raised in the city of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid. This city was planned as a university city by Cardenal Cisneros, who would later become infamous during the Spanish Inquisition rather than for creating a model for future universities and their town-gown relations.

My sister-in-law, Nathàlia, lived and studied in Alcalá before moving to Dublin with her husband (and the Novio’s younger brother), and she invited me out for a day. We toured Cervantes’s boyhood home, learned the history of the university through a guided tour and even got to see a dying breed in Spain: free tapas with your drink.

Read more: The Historical Sites of Alcalá de Henares

June: Doñana Park (1994)

As one of Spain’s few biological sites, Doñana National Parks is one of the largest in Europe and touted for its diversity of biotopes and animal life. Located along the banks of the Guadalquivir and extending all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s also believed to be the site of Atlantis.

Read more: A Horse Lover’s Guide to Andalucía

July: Torre de Hércules (2009), the monuments of the Kingdom of Asturias and the Camino de Santiago (1993)

The Torre de Hércules is the city symbol of La Coruña and the world’s longest functioning lighthouse. Built in the 1st century in Greco-Roman style, it’s one of Spain’s latest additions to the list. The lighthouse can be visited and climbed for 3€, though you can admire it from afar, too.

After spending the month in Coruña, Claudia hosted me in Oviedo. Back when the Moors took over all of Spain, the Virgin Mary appeared to Don Pelayo in Covadonga and ordered him to conquer Spain. He became the first king of the Reino de España in the earl 8th Century, and asturianos retain that their small patch of land, surrounded by the Picos de Europa, is the only real Spain that exists. The Pre-Romanesque churches make up part of the city’s heritage, built in the 9th century above the city. Entrance is free, but be prepared to take the bus out of town.

One of my best memories from the year was walking the Camino de Santiago with my friend Hayley. We did 14 days and 325km on the century-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to rest. I had been to the city half a dozen times, but arriving on foot after so many steps made the Plaza del Obradoiro more special. I only walked 40 kilometers on the French Route, but the tentative list of World Heritage sites include the Northern and Primitive routes. 

Read more: Sunset at the Torre de Hércules, the Pre-Romanesque Churches of Oviedo or What the Camino de Santiago Taught Me

August: La Lonja de la Seda of Valencia (1996), the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela (1985)

After reaching the Plaza del Obradioro in Santiago de Compostela, Hayley and I had just one idea: celebrate with a glass of wine in the city’s famed parador. In the two days we spent in Galicia’s crown jewel, we did little else but wander through the city’s lichen-stained limestone buildings and toast to an incredible journey. Must-sees include the gargantuan cathedral and resting spot of Saint James (you can also hug him behind the altar), the square in front of its facade, the sprawling Alameda park and the numerous bars along Rúa do Vilar.

Later that month while attending the tomato-slinging mess that is La Tomatina, Kelly and I visited the Lonja de la Seda, a tribute to Valencia’s history as a merchant port on the Mediterranean. Erected in the 15th century, the building’s great halls and chapels now provide a glimpse into the trade life through its Renaissance decoration and Gothic architecture. 

Read more: La Lonja de la Seda or the Serendipity of Traveling in Galicia

My hometown pride: the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias of Seville (1987)

La Hispalense is not without its own UNESCO World Heritage site: thanks to Seville’s role in the discovery and exploration of the New World and its enormous Gothic cathedral, these buildings and the Alcázar gardens form the historical complex at the heart of the city (and every touristic plan). Moorish influences on the buildings are testament to the city’s long and varied history, and the buildings are all still used today: the Archivo de Indias houses important documentation pertaining to the New World discovery, the Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Seville, and the palace plays host to the Royal Family when they comes down South.

This, of course, has not been without controversy. UNESCO considered stripping the honor from Seville when the city went ahead with plans to build the Torre Pellí, which became the tallest building in the city after the Giralda owned it for a millennium.

Read more: Spain Life: Reales Alcázares

How many of Spain’s 44 sites have you visited, and which are your favorites? I’m hoping to make it to Baeza and Úbeda and Teide this year, with a repeat in Cáceres and Mérida.

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 2)

Where we last left off, I had literally just climbed a mountain, but I had also scaled a mountain of self-doubt that told me my body was not strong enough to continue. We were halfway there, distance-wise, but coming to grips with the impending end of the journey.

Day Eight // Monday, August 5th, 2013 // Gontán – Vilalba //20km

Money can buy you happiness, it turns out, and we left Abadín before dawn after a few beers the night before and a sound sleep in a comforable bed to the tune of 19€ each. At this point, I’d only opened my sleeping bag once.

We didn’t speak much on the way to Vilalba, a once-powerful city that hosts a Parador. All of the sudden, there were more pilgrims on the trail who we’d never seen before, and we felt rushed to get to the next inn on time with Croissanthead (our so-named mascot for an earlier Xacobeo celebration). We had wine at the parador and met the cook, a man who had walked 15 Caminos in his life. I’d read somewhere that those who live along the trail are obligated by law to protect pilgrims and not do anything to ruin or impede their Camino. Written or not, pilgrims are respected by these townspeople, and not just for the tourism dollars they bring in. We were treated to a snack, courtesy of this fellow peregrino.

Even the local Proteccion Civil officer who ran the large albergue locked up 15 minutes later than normal because we invited him to a shot of orujo.

Day Nine // Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 // Vilalba – Baamonde // 20km

The reality of passing the halfway point in our journey was starting to weigh on me. The simplicity of pilgrim life was so inviting after a year of many changes and transitions for me, and knowing that I’d be finished in just five days got me a little depressed. I no longer befriended pilgrims, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to them once we reached Santiago. José was an exception. Sharing 20 kilometers with him into Baamonde was a treat.

The road that day was littered with small towns, dairy farms and leafy groves of trees and rudimentary stone structures. José is a secondary teacher in Valencia, so Hayley and I immediately had a connection with him and his outlook on life. Almost immediately after meeting another pilgrim, you exchanged the, ‘So what brings you on the Camino?’ question. José’s was simple, and it made me think of my own reasons.

The say the Camino always provides, and it does – from new friendships to a bit of clarity to a stronger body, or even a hot plate of food after a long trek.

That afternoon when we rolled into Baamonde, just 103 kilometers from Santiago, and we had ample time to enjoy the 94 others who were there sharing four showers with us. Afternoon beers, a large and tasty meal in a table that was far too small for us and our food, jam sessions in the patio as we waited out a rain cloud. When you only have one thing in common and nothing else matters, it’s easy to make friends. Besides, that’s what Facebook is for!

Day Ten // Wednesaday, August 7th, 2013 // Baamonde – Miraz // 14.5km

“Be careful of the Santa Campana,” Fernando warned us before retiring to bed. Our walk from the sprawling pilgrim’s inn at Baamonde to the rumored ‘nicest albergue on the Norte’ was a short one, but we’d have to rush – there were just 26 beds in Miraz.

We woke at 5am. It would be dark until nearly 7:30 a.m., but we didn’t have any time to waste. My guidebook told me that we’d walk three kilometers out of Baaaaaaaaaaamonde before turning left over the train tracks. Our flashlights bounced off trees, searching desperately before we got off-track and lost a bed.

Then it began raining. We thankfully didn’t see the witches of the Santa Campana, said to lure pilgrims into sorcery by handing them candles when it’s dark and rainy along the trail.

By the time we got to Miraz around 9:30 that morning, there were already six or eight other pilgrims in line. We set our bags down under the overhang, respecting the pre-established order for beds and joined the others in the town’s only bar. We considered continuing on to Sobrado, but I’m glad we didn’t – apart from a warm bed and blanket and other English speakers (the small albergue is run by the British Cofraternity of Saint James volunteers), we spent hours in the bar, warming up over beers and sandwiches. The rain and the fact that we had to wait forever was made better by the fact that there was a bit of cerveciña to make the time pass quicker.

Day Eleven // Thursday, August 8th, 2013 // Miraz – Sobrado dos Monxes // 25.5km

We took our time walking into Sobrado dos Monxes the following day, knowing that we were nearing the end of the road. It was a perfect day, with puffy clouds within reach and enough solitude to hash out issues and just talk about nothing in between.

The albergue is housed in a 10th Century monastery, and Hayley and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to our weeks working in a haunted monastery in Uclés, Cuenca. The pilgrim hysteria was high, as a Jesuit group was also there, taking up nearly half the beds. After checking in and getting our stamp from the monks who lived on site and raised dogs and cows (which Carmela and I got to see!), Hayley and I escaped to a bar further outside of town. When we finished, half a bottle of wine each later, a stray dog who I’d tripped over earlier in the day was waiting for us, his broken chain dangling from his neck as he drooled over the hot pavement. We tried to lose him, and the poor pup kept getting shooed out of the monastery.

I honestly would have loved wasting hours petting him in the interior lawn of the sprawling, gorgeous palace, but he was not allowed to enter.

Long live Blacky. That is, if he stops tripping pilgrims.

Day Twelve // Friday, August 9th, 2013 // Sobrado dos Monxes – Arzúa // 22km

Fernando gave us a pep talk as we headed out of Sobrado towards Arzúa, the last major stop on the Francés and where our route would hook up with the main pilgrim trail. We’d lose most of our friends on this day who favored a shorter route that skipped the pilgrim town. Many bikers making their way to Santiago passed us, and we knew they’d reach Santiago in time for Pilgrim’s Mass that morning while we still had more than 50km to go.

Reaching Arzúa was a bit strange – there was already a long line outside the municipal inn when we arrived, despite making good time. Most of the private inns were booked up, too. In the end, a hotel offered us a good price for a street side room right near the central plaza.

‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing us a pair of earplugs. I already had some, courtesy of the Novio, but I shrugged and took them anyway. We took long showers, ate a filling lunch and caught up on the news for the first time in days. Here in Arzúa, pilgrims are kings and there are loads of facilities for them. We had ample choices of where to eat, had special deals on laundry services and massages, and found ourselves feeling alone in a booming town – it took us ages to find familiar pilgrims.

Pilgrim culture shock at its finest.

Our second to last sleep was interrupted early the next morning by a bagpipe. The town had some sort of festival, hence the lack of private inns, and its last revelers were playing bagpipes to signal the end of the party. So that’s what the earplugs were for.

Day Thirteen // Saturday, August 10th, 2013 // Arzúa – O Pedrouzo // 19km

We wizened up and book a private pension again, not willing to hurry our penultimate day for sake of a cheap bed. This meant we could take our time walking, stop more often and really soak up the last few kilometers. By now, we were 41km away from the Plaza do Obradoiro, which we decided to split into two days.

This day was among the most enjoyable – frequently stopping for a beer, running into familiar faces, realizing we’d done 300 kilometers and were all but finished. Joining us were loads of bikers (we nearly got plowed into!), many families and scout groups, and even people pushing strollers! We saw the turigrinos - those who sent their packs ahead and just walked with little weight. I felt lighter than on any other day, and even the purge I’d do later that day of things I wouldn’t need or hadn’t used in two weeks seemed to lighten the load tremendously.

I realized that I’d done everything I intended to do on the Way, save arrive in one piece to Santiago.

Hayley stopped just ahead of me and pointed - didn’t you want to leave something at this mile marker? Once in Galicia, it’s easy to see how many kilometers are left until the cathedral because they’re all marked with the distance down to the thousandth. Exactly at 21,0km I left a purple and orange ribbon for Kelsey. I’d scatter several more the following day, too – at the Lavacolla airport, at Monte do Gozo and at Saint James’s tomb.

Day Fourteen // Sunday, August 11th, 2013 // O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela // 21km

I slept terribly. Maybe I was anxious, but it could be because a homeless man walked into the albergue and took a shower, and then an obnoxious family who hadn’t walked much all took showers after 11pm, turning on lights and hair dryers after I’d already drifted into dreamland. I tried to read Shirley McClain’s The Camino, but it was full of weird mystical dreams and meeting random dead Scottish men who give her a locket and then there’s a big black dog that chases her and she sends him a big red heart of love in her bind of some shit.

Anyway.

I was grumpy, but we didn’t have time for it. Every step meant one second less of our journey, one second closer to the end. Memorials and statues were around every corner, and I felt like we were racing to get to the finish line (we did want to arrive by mass at noon). I made sure to stop in the chapel of Santa Lucia, following my protocol to always leave her a donation as my Catholic aunt told me I was to do if I took her name for my confirmation. I was emotional, about ready to burst at any moment.

It finally happened after reaching Monte do Gozo. After leaving a ribbon on the memorial to Pope John Paul II and stamping our passport for one of the last times, we started the trek downhill. I teared up, wiping away my emotion as Hayley warned me to get it together, or we’d never make it.

We stalled as much as possible without losing track of the time, which included shooting last-minute footage, splitting an Aquarius, stopping to admire a part of the city we hadn’t seen on previous visits. It was ending.

As we arrived to the old town, I was overcome with emotion – for the struggles, for Kelsey, for knowing that tomorrow meant Seville and life and the school year and social media. The bagpipe that I’d heard several times on previous visits rang out and I tripped over my feet. Within moments, we’d passed under the arch and into the morning sunlight. The lichen-covered church towered before us, and even though I’d seen it many times, it was more striking and more beautiful and just plain bigger than ever before. We laid down immediately, taking it all in, happy for the journey and the fact that our legs didn’t fall off.

We had 36 hours or so in Santiago, in which we drank beer, ate international food and paid out respects to Saint James. Hayley decided to shop for other clothes to wear on the plane, but I wore my smelly clothes home, concha attached to my bag. I was proud of it, and I wanted to it last until I was back home.

The thing is, the fact that I’ve seen and done something I’ve always dreamed about doing means that it’s going to last forever in my heart and my memories and my photos.

Yes, even this one: creepy doll heads in Lavacolla, just one of the weird things we saw in 325 kilometers.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

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