The Cheltenham Literature Festival (and a Bonus Book Review of Travels With a Stick)

The email came as a surprise.

“I am getting in touch to invite you to this year’s Cheltenham for a panel event about modern pilgrimages.”

“This year’s Cheltenham”…as in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, in Cheltenham, England. The oldest festival of its kind in the world, Cheltenham is a big deal. It draws tens of thousands of people to its 10-day annual event, selling hundreds of thousands of tickets to conversations about fiction, art, current events, children’s literature, and yes, travel. Authors from David Cameron to Helena Bonham Carter were there this year.


And so was I. Somehow, the event organizers came across Walking to the End of the World and invited me to be one of the 900 presenting authors this year, joining Richard Frazer, author of Travels With a Stick, and “wild camping and extreme sleeping adventurer” Phoebe Smith for a conversation about “Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims.”

I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

The Festival:

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Last week I flew to England, took a bus through the rolling green hills of the Cotswolds, and spent two incredible days in a literary wonderland. The scope of this event—from the emerging outdoor murals of literary luminaries to the small details like the book art in the bandstand-turned-“bookstand”—was enchanting. I spent a full day wandering around, browsing the bookshop and sampling the food and listening to authors from Raynor Winn (I reviewed The Salt Path here) to historical novelist Philippa Gregory.


Then finally, on Wednesday evening, it was my turn. I was fitted with a fancy mike tucked behind my ear, whisked through the rain to a small green room, and then herded onto a stage, where for the next hour I sat in a spotlight and talked about my experiences walking the Camino de Santiago.


I confess I don’t remember much of what I said. I know that Phoebe brought up how I’d been anxious about answering the call of nature when outside in actual nature (which is something I talk about in the book), and I got tangled up in what to call a bathroom in England (toilet, we decided, or more casually, a loo). But that was the exception. Most of our conversation was more thoughtful. We talked about what drew us to walk, and who we met and what we learned along the way. We talked about Camino miracles and practical tips for walking.

Richard, I can say with only delight, stole the show. He was warm and funny, quick with a quote and an anecdote, and comfortable in the format.

And his book, I’m happy to report, is just as lovely as he is:

To be a pilgrim you don't have to jump through hoops or sign up to doctrines you'd rather question -- you just have to set off!

Travels With a Stick:

In some ways, Richard Frazer’s journey on the Camino feels so familiar to me. He started walking in Le Puy. He struggled mightily with his feet. He considers beer a suitable afternoon anesthetic. We even stayed in some of the same places – readers of Walking to the End of the World would recognize the “bossy” gite owner in Livinhac as Martine at Le Coquille Bleu, who taught me how to do laundry the correct way.

But in most ways, Richard’s book opens new doors and new ideas. As a minister, he brings a traditional spirituality to his writing. Where I am flip, he is thoughtful. He walks alone and reflects on the things he sees and hears, bringing a well of knowledge about both classic literature from CS Lewis to Alexander McCall Smith, to reflect on the human condition.

“You begin to listen to your own silence in a new way. The silence, the monotony, the empty-headedness becomes a deep voice challenging our settled thinking and upsetting the pretence that we have found an equilibrium in our lives that will see us comfortably through. The silence, the emptiness allows us to be filled by something beyond—a deeper wisdom than that which the endless chatter and commentary of our day-to-day minds can offer. This may come unbidden to the pilgrim and may well be a shock as the journey takes hold of her.”

And while he is a minister, Richard is also a man deeply committed to social justice work, and deeply aware of the challenges of his own faith community, and he sometimes brings the perspective of an outsider.

“The pilgrim world is a world that embraces the new, invites transformation and reimagines the new… Maybe the magic of the pilgrimage is that it represents an undomesticated, untamed spirituality, and that’s what resonates so powerfully with so many people today who have become disillusioned with organized religion.”

It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that the very act of pilgrimage was illegal in the United Kingdom in the 16th century, as part of the English Reformation. Pilgrimage was considered one of the corrupt practices from Rome, superstitious and idolatrous. Religious art and relics were destroyed, monasteries were closed, and a part of history was lost. Today, pilgrimage routes are being brought back across the UK, with individuals like Richard Frazer (as well as groups like The British Pilgrimage Trust) leading the charge.

Travels With a Stick is a reflective story, more than it is a guide to the trail, tracing the thoughts and emotional journey of a man walking in a new place, catching his breath after long years of service. I found myself marking pages to return to and making notes of ideas worth considering.

Back to Cheltenham:

And then the event was over, and we were whisked back through the green room, back through the rain, to the vast bookstore, where a line of people waited to have us sign books and share stories. Because Camino people are often book people, and book people are often drawn to the reflection and simplicity of the Camino.

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And somehow, I get to be a part of all of it.

The Pilgrim Statue of Astorga (#CaminoTuesday)

Over on Twitter, the hashtag #CaminoTuesday is becoming a thing. Someone (I don’t know who) announces a new theme every week, and people post their photos and stories that fit.

Today’s theme is “modern statuary and sculpture,” of which there are plenty of examples along the way. But for some reason, this previously unpublished photo from my 2015 walk on the Camino Frances is the first one that came to mind:

A modern Camino pilgrim in Astorga

You may recognize this gentleman, if you walked through Astorga. He stands just outside the municipal albergue, and I wish I’d thought to get a picture of the plaque beside him, or take better notes. Some quick Google work doesn’t bring up much history about the statue–like why the poor man is carrying a suitcase–but I did learn some things about Astorga, which has long been a refuge for pilgrims on the way to Santiago.

According to the website Camino Adventures:

Astorga has a long tradition of aiding pilgrims, at one time there were twenty one hospices located here, second only to Burgos.  Unlike other towns and cities Astorga provided shelter in their albergues to the homeless and indigent.  There was a problem along the Camino Frances of the homeless continually walking the route and staying in pilgrim hospices.  Some places took measures to discourage this practice, however in the 16th century as the popularity of the pilgrimage declined several hospices in Astorga agreed to house the homeless. There is evidence of confraternities selling off land during the 18th century to pay for this continued practice.

Well, that makes me like it even more.

I’ve written before about our night in Astorga, or more specifically, our very wet, rainy morning there. Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace is well worth a visit, and I’ve heard good things about the chocolate museum, as well. (Although the day I passed through, I chose a nap instead of a tour.)


If you want to get in on future #CaminoTuesday photos and stories, you can follow the hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. (And while you’re there, follow me on Instagram and Twitter, too!)

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Holloways

Two Camino pilgrims walk through a Holloway near Arzua on the Camino Francés

If you’ve walked the Camino de Santiago, you’ve likely encountered a holloway, though you may not know it.

According to Atlas Obscura:

“Appearing like trenches dragged into the earth, sunken lanes, also called hollow-ways or holloways, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. They’re one of the few examples of human-made infrastructure still serving its original purpose, although many who walk through holloways don’t realize they’re retracing ancient steps. The name ‘holloway’ is derived from ‘hola weg,’ meaning sunken road in Old English.”

Read the whole article and see photos of holloways around the world here.

What better reminder of how many feet have walked these ways before us?

A Night at the Bullring

I was sitting in a restaurant this week, waiting for friends to arrive and half watching the giant TVs overhead, when a report on a bull jumping a fence in Spain caught my attention. Perhaps you’ve seen it? During a festival in Caparroso, Navarre, a bull released into a ring made a mad dash for the corner, hurling itself over a wall and continuing out into the street. (The story has a reasonably happy ending: no one was seriously hurt, and the bull made its way out of town and into a nearby river, where it was captured and loaded into a lorry, presumably never to be sent into a ring again.)

Photo: Click to see the full story


It reminded me of a story I haven’t told here before, about the night in Los Arcos where I watched a similar, but less newsworthy, bullring festival.

In August 2017, I returned to the Camino Frances to walk for a week with my friend Laurel, who was setting out on her first Camino. We started in Pamplona, and on our third day, we arrived in Los Arcos in the company of a new friend, Saskia from the Netherlands. (Los Arcos, for those of you who followed my first Camino journey either here or in the book, is the home of the Church of the Sensory Overload.)

We arrived footsore and tired and maybe a little cranky. It was 2:00 in the afternoon, but I’d been pushing the pace, worried about not having a bed in the albergue. (I’m a worrier. Every day I was with Laurel I pushed her past her pace to make sure we arrived early, and every day, we were among the first to check into the albergues. We never came close to not having space, and Laurel is a saint for putting up with me.)

The gigantes on parade in Los Arcos

As the three of us started to wind through the narrow streets of town, I noticed that something was different from when I was there in 2015. There were wooden barricades nailed to every door and ground-floor window. It was almost as if they were preparing for…bulls?

A few minutes later, we heard the sound of a band, and then the narrow street was engulfed not by running beasts, but by gigantes and cabezudos (giants and big-heads), the classic costumed participants of many Spanish festivals. They were part of a parade or procession of laughing, talking, happy neighbors all dressed in white and red.

The cabezudas of Spanish festivals swing a soft mace-like weapon at small children and young women. Because that’s not creepy at all.

The creepy clowns swung their mace-like balls at us as they passed, and the whole thing was over in seconds. One of the things that was apparent right away is that these festivals are not tourist events. They’re not put on for the Camino pilgrims or the British tour vans passing through. Pilgrims were welcome to watch, of course, but we were mostly ignored (as it should be…these communities offer a lot to the passing strangers with backpacks already).

This is a local celebration of…well, I never did figure out what. Can anyone help me out here? The white clothes and red scarves popped up in many parts of Navarre, and at times I was told they were tied to San Fermin, or to local patron saints, or…???

The walking parade didn’t explain the fences, though, and as soon as we were settled in the albergue (of course there was plenty of room), I limped back to the town square to see what I could find. A Brazilian woman I’d met a couple of times told me that there was a temporary bull ring about a block away, in a place where I distinctly remember a parking lot two years before. By 6:00, the plaza was shutting down, the restaurants were pulling their tables inside, and more fences were going up. We followed the crowd to the ring and squeezed onto one of the rapidly filling benches, close-but-not-too-close to the front row. Saskia and later Laurel joined us as the shows started.



First, I should say that this wasn’t bullfighting. It was bull running in a ring. Teenage boys and young men jumped into the ring to play chicken with a collection of animals carefully watched by the bullring manager, a serious man who stood by a gate near us. To be honest, mostly the bulls looked bored, and not all that interested in the kids amped up on testosterone and beer. But every now and then the manager would make a low whistle, and a bull would gather himself and charge, scattering the boys who scrambled fences to get away.

The bullring manager (left) would whistle or call to the bulls and remind them to charge, while boys too young for the ring tested their courage by getting as close to the bull gate as possible.

I got the sense that these bulls had done this routine a few dozen times already, in villages all over Spain. Which meant, I was relieved to see, meant that no one was going to kill them for sport. But bored bulls don’t make for much of a show. (Well, unless they start jumping the fences, I guess.)



Our pilgrim group wandered off after a couple of hours, during a break in the show when a truck pulled in to load the tired bulls and unload some new ones. It was late by Camino standards, and we were hungry. But the show kept going—and seemed to pick up in intensity—after we left. An ambulance raced out of an alley with lights blaring while we ate dinner in the plaza, and some friends who stayed at a hotel in town reported that the bullring was busy and noisy until the wee hours of the morning. Because even the smallest villages of Spain, it turns out, know how to throw an all-night party.

When I first started planning to walk the Camino, my only exposure to bulls in rings came from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Now, I’ve sat ringside, surrounded by friends from 3 different countries, laughing at the antics and learning about the culture. I’ve danced with giants, been chased by clowns, and prayed for the safety of both boys and beasts.

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” – Mary Anne Radmacher


The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage (An Almost Wordless Wednesday)





Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.


— The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage by Sir Walter Ralegh

(click here to read the full poem)


To find out more about this saint donned in pilgrim garb, check out Saint Roch: The Burlesque Saint of Bad Knees and (Maybe) Pilgrims


Photo taken in the Church of Santa María de la Asunción in Navarrete, Spain, on the Camino Francés

Why Do We Walk? Summer Reading Book Reviews

“Why are you walking?” It’s the second most popular question of the Camino, after only “where are you from?”

Everyone had their own reason to put their life on hold, pare their belongings down to what fits in a pack, and set out on foot. I met people grieving the death of a spouse and  those celebrating victory over cancer. I know people who walk for God, and those who walk with a whole lot of questions about God. For sport, for fun, to prove a point…we’re all there for something.

As I’ve said here before, I walk as a chance to re-set. When I’m burned out by the relentless pace and the easily deleted experience of life online, I go looking for old trails and holy places, seeking for something that matters, something that lasts. But also, I want an adventure and a story to tell at our weekly taco dinners. (I certainly found that.)

I started thinking again about that “why do you walk” question recently, because of a couple of books I finally got to read.

This isn’t my summer for a long walk. After Camino returns in 2017 and 2018, and the intensity of the book release and tour over the last winter, I knew this would be a recovery year. But if I can’t take a long walk, the next best thing is to read about them, right?

“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.”   – Charles Scribner, Jr.

And that’s exactly what two travel narratives did for me this summer.

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The Salt Path and Thirst are both memoirs by women about their very long walks. But the similarities between each other, and from our Camino experiences, only go so far, and not just because they happen on opposite sides of the Atlantic.


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Heather “Anish” Anderson is a hardcore American long-distance hiker. Last year, she hiked the “Triple Crown” of U.S. backpacking—the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and The Pacific Crest Trail—in a single year. Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home is about her FKT—Fastest Known Time—Pacific Crest Trail walk in 2013. She hiked all 2600 miles, from Mexico to Canada, in just 60 days. That’s 40 miles (64 kilometers) a day, EVERY DAY. No rest days. Heck, according to the book, not even a decent rest night. It takes a lot of hours to walk 40 miles. And did I mention she did it all self-supported? That means no gear car or friends to carry her stuff. And no friendly Camino-style albergues. She carried a pack with her food and water and a tent to sleep in every night. And she was clearly taking enough notes to create a lovely, thoughtful book about her experience?

Why did she walk? The only word I have to describe Anderson is “driven.” She’d known since she was a child that she wanted to set some kind of record. She’d known since her first brush with wilderness hiking at the Grand Canyon that she loved long distances. In fact, by the time she started her PCT hike, she’d sacrificed almost everything for it. She’d left a home, a job, even a marriage, for the pull of the outdoors.

“As an adult, I often lost sight of the fact that, to most people, running fifty miles at a time wasn’t a normal weekend activity. Nor was knocking off a sixty-five mile loop on a weekend backpacking trip…It was easy to forget that I approached long distances—distances that 99 percent of people would only consider traveling by a vehicle—as casually as others approached a Saturday matinee.”

And then:

“I want to set a record because of the challenge. Is that really why I’m here? Or am I here because I need to thru-hike again, and the record is merely justification to repeat what most people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Perhaps thru-hiking was the only way I could cope with modern life. Some people drank. Others used drugs. Some zoned out in front of the screen. My escape was the trail, where life was not easy or comfortable.”

It can be hard to relate to a drive like that, hard to imagine the push that would risk a person’s health just to beat a clock. Or maybe that’s just me, because I like my long walks to come with beds and beers. But the story itself is entrancing, with lyrical writing to balance the harshness of the conditions.


It's Pineapple Time

Raynor Winn, on the other hand, was in no hurry. After she and her husband, Moth, were cheated out of their home and livelihood, AND THEN received a devastating medical diagnosis, they set out for the South West Coast Path, the UK’s longest waymarked trail, to walk while they sorted themselves back out. They wild camped along the way, not by choice but because they were stuck living off a meager 25 pound/week government stipend, which barely covered the packets of noodles and occasional bag of chips. Unlike Anderson, the Winns took their time, walking just a few miles a day, to accommodate Moth’s health and their open-ended situation. The Salt Path is her reflection on the experience, from those initial days of panic and loss, through the seemingly impossible physical challenges, to the hope and healing that came from the sea.

Why did she walk? The only word to use seems to be “forced.” What else is there to do when the whole world is pulled out from under you?

“The first few times we’d been asked how it was that we had time to walk so far and so long, we had answered truthfully: ‘Because we’re homeless; we lost our home, but it wasn’t our fault. We’re just going where the path takes us.’ People recoiled and the wind was silenced by their sharp intake of breath. In every case the conversation ended abruptly and the other party walked away very quickly. So we had invented a lie that was more palatable. For them and for us. We had sold our home, looking for a midlife adventure, going where the wind took us—at the moment it was blowing us west…that was met with gasps of ‘wow, brilliant, inspirational.’”

Anderson chose to give up her home and walk. The Winns did not. But still, the trail captures them.

“On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, our life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and the sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way. Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence.”

The Salt Path is a little short on detail as a hiking narrative, likely written for a UK audience more familiar with the landmarks casually mentioned. But it’s a deeply moving reflection on the reasons why we walk, and on the ideas of home and security. And it’s also surprisingly funny in places I least expect it. I can see why this is winning awards and getting attention on both sides of the pond.

“We all walk our own Caminos,” I heard over and over on the Way of St. James. It turns out that lesson applies to trails around the world, as well. Thank goodness for books to show us how.


Do you have favorite hiking narratives, or stories of long walks that made you see your own in a new light? The comments are open for recommendations!


PS. The book links above go to Amazon, because that’s the one place that I think all of you, regardless of location, can find these books. And yes, they are affiliate links, because if you happen to click through and then buy anything at all, it helps me pay my domain and hosting fees. However, if you have a chance to buy from an independent bookseller, or check a book out from a library, or buy directly from the nonprofit publisher, do that. The Salt Path was recommended to me by my local bookseller, and I bought it there, and I checked Thirst out from the library (though I will eventually buy a copy from the publisher, which happens to also be my publisher).

My 5 Favorite Albergues on the Camino del Norte (that aren’t Güemes)

My Instagram feed is full of people on the Camino del Norte (check out Nadine Walks and Ben Camino and OTCamino), and I am filled with both memories and a little jealousy. I want to be walking on cliffs overlooking moody oceans!

(Oh, wait, I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I spent last weekend on an island with friends, where I took a good hike on cliffs overlooking moody oceans. Okay, nix the jealousy.)

Whidbey Island WA

But those memories… I know I never finished writing the day-by-day reflections from last spring’s walk on the Norte. The whole releasing-a-book thing got in the way. And it might be too late for me to go back and recreate that level of detail, but I did start thinking about some bigger picture posts I wanted to write to help others planning their own adventures.

Let’s start with where to stay on the Camino del Norte—or at least the first half of it. Eric and I walked from Irun to Llanes—about 375 kilometers (230 miles)—over 17 days in May 2018. That’s only half the time we spent on other trails, yet narrowing this list down to 5 was surprisingly hard. My Top 5 lists of the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés were made with a lot less waffling. And in the end, I could only do this by cutting the obvious one: Güemes.

I’ve written extensively about my stay with Padre Ernesto, and it was utterly magical and memorable. But you don’t need me to tell you about Güemes. Everyone goes there. Every guidebook recommends a stop there. It’s not an option; it’s a legend.

So here are my 5 favorite, but lesser-known, albergues on the Camino del Norte, in the order I found them:


Convento de San Jose, Zumaia:

I chose to walk a short day just for the chance to stay in this still-active convent, and it did not disappoint. We were there on a rainy afternoon, and I spent a long time exploring every corner of this volunteer-run donativo of small, simple rooms and airy green courtyards and garden.

“Even more than the famous grand cathedrals, it’s in places like this—worn around the edges and dented by passing time—that I feel most connected to the Camino as something sacred. This pilgrimage is woven into some of the earliest expressions of the Christian faith, tended and guarded by generations of faithful believers who dedicate their lives to the story behind it.”

(Click here to read my full story of the night in Zumaia)

Note: several of the older guidebooks and websites say that San Jose is only open June-September and has an 8-euro cost, but I was there in early May and it was open and definitely donativo.


Albergue Aterpetxea, Izarbide

Five kilometers past Deba, and about 300 meters up, is the private Albergue Aterpetxea. Tucked into the rural hills, the pilgrim accommodations are in a converted barn. There aren’t many windows, but there are lawns with picnic tables and comfortable-looking lounge chairs that would offer plenty of rest and light on a sunny day (I assume; this was another day of rain for us), plenty of lamps for warm light, and a separate area with couches and a warm fireplace. The owners keep a small bar and snack shop open all afternoon and offer a fantastic communal dinner. It was around their table that my Camino family formed (Peter from Australia, Michele from Spain, Olivier from France, and the two Giggling Germans), so perhaps I’m biased, but this kind of experience—in the quiet countryside, cared for by a family who have been here for generations—is where my Camino grows deeper, and where real relationships form. It’s easy to disperse and get distracted in towns, but remote albergues are where the real stories are often made.

(Click here to read my full story of the walk to Izarbide, and my encounter with Kiwi the dog)


Monasterio de Zenarruza

We almost stopped in Markina-Xemein. It had been a long, relentless slog to get that far, ending with a knee-breaking descent. There was a lovely town square and an albergue that looked inviting. But according to my guidebook (the unbeatable Village to Village Guide), just 6 kilometers away (and 200 meters of ascent) was the Monasterio Zenarruza, with its 14th century church with evening vespers, its moss-covered cloister, and its communal dinner. Of course we hoisted our packs and set out.

And Zenarruza was everything I could have hoped for. Silent except for the bells of the livestock across the road, cared for by a small group of aging monks who sold strong beer and fed us a simple dinner of pasta and beans—you could feel the long history of the Camino stretching out around you.

(Click here to read more of my experiences, and the history of Zenarruza)


Albergue de Peregrinos de Larrabetzu

The Camino isn’t just about isolated mountaintops, though. Tucked on the top floor of a building just off the town square of Larrabetzu is a new (2017) municipal albergue. Another donativo run by a friendly volunteer, covered by signs in the indecipherable Euskara, and filled mostly with twin beds (no bunks!) and big windows, this space was a comfortable, welcome surprise on the outskirts of Bilbao. In the late afternoon, the square outside the albergue filled with local families, and I spent happy hours on a bench by the front door, watching kids play and parents visit and grandparents watch it all.

(Click here to read about my afternoon in Larrabetzu, and the Basque kids who tried to teach Eric their language)


 Albergue de Peregrinos Saturnino Candina, Liendo

We arrived in Liendo hot and dusty—the rain had finally passed and the Cantabrian sun was out in force. Most people that day walked on to Laredo, a few kilometers beyond, but seventeen of us stopped for the night. Liendo is a comfortably small village, big enough to have a couple of bars with pilgrim menus, and small enough that even I couldn’t get lost. The municipal albergue is a modest but comfortable building in the center of town, across the street from the church. There’s no full-time staff; the first pilgrim to arrive for the day picks up the key from the local bar, and someone comes by at about 4:00 to take money and stamp credentials. When Eric and I arrived a little after one, there were two pilgrims already there—an older Spanish man and a younger British woman, sharing a bottle of wine. We hadn’t even taken off our shoes off before they invited us to join them, and we found ourselves sitting at a cozy kitchen table, laughing with new friends.

And that’s the way the afternoon went. There was something about the sunny, open building, with its stocked kitchen and big front lawn and comfortable beds, that encouraged lazy, friendly camaraderie. The beds filled quickly, and we worked together to figure out and share the (free!) washing machine, and to plan our walking stages for the days to come. And when the sun finally went down, I slept better in Liendo than I think I did anywhere else on the Norte.

Tip: Stopping in Liendo also sets you up for great morning walk. The trail from Liendo to Laredo is one of the prettiest parts of the whole Norte, but it’s also challenging and better tackled in the morning, when fresh, rather than the end of the day.


El Convento, Santillana del Mar

The town of Santillana del Mar is one of those places I could either love or hate. It’s intensely medieval, and it knows it. The Cicerone guide to the Norte calls it “all cut rock and tourist kiosks.” It’s beautiful and full of good food, but there’s also a museum of torture and long cobblestone streets full of former cow barns that now sell leather purses.

Just past the tourist center, but still within the historic center, is El Convento, an active convent that is converting its empty space into accommodations for tourists and pilgrims alike. According to a sign in the lobby:

“Our establishment is part of Proyecto Eleos, an initiative born from the proclamation of the extraordinary year of mercy in the year 2016 by Pope Francisco. With your stay you contribute to creating jobs for people at risk of social exclusion and support fair trade networks in third world countries.”

But The Convent wasn’t just a social project. It was an incredibly beautiful, restful place. Open, airy hallways, led to two-person cells with tall ceilings and windows. Eric and I washed our clothes in the original convent laundry, and hung them in a walled courtyard full of flowers and cats.  The indoor spaces were as comfortable and well-stocked as the outside, and there was even breakfast. It was a welcome retreat from the noise of the town, and out of everything I saw, the place I would love to visit again.


So there it is: recommendations for 6 (everyone stops at Guemes) of my 17 nights on the Norte. I guess I had a pretty great experience. 🙂

How about you? Did you visit any of these? Or what were your “shouldn’t miss” places on the Norte?

Corpus Christi in Mazarife

Today is the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi. It’s not a date that draws a lot of attention in the United States, but four years ago I encountered it in full measure in Spain, where it seems no festival or saint or holy remembrance goes unacknowledged, and I’ve been curious about it ever since.

We were in León, where we’d taken a rest day from our pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago to explore the city and wait for friends to arrive. Our base for the night was the church-run albergue, the Albergue del Monasterio de las Benedictinas.

We toured the cathedral, watched the crowds, and ate as many tapas as we could. We ended up in the cobblestone courtyard in front of the albergue, splitting our attention between a fútbol game on an outdoor TV, and the two older Benedictine nuns who moved from window to window in the convent above the albergue, hanging red and green buntings from the windows.

preparing for Corpus Christi


The next day, someone in the square told us, was the Feast of Corpus Christi. There would be a parade and a festival in the church.

According to The Catholic Company:

St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon in Belgium (1193-1258)…was a nun and mystic who had a series of visions in which she was instructed by Our Lord to work to establish a liturgical feast for the Holy Eucharist, to which she had a great devotion.

After many years of trying, she finally convinced the bishop, the future Pope Urban IV, to create this special feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, where none had existed before. Soon after her death, Pope Urban instituted Corpus Christi for the Universal Church and celebrated it for the first time in Orvieto in 1264, a year after the Eucharistic Miracle in Bolsena.

We didn’t stay in León. One rest day here was enough. Instead, we woke in the golden dawn and wound out of the city and across twenty kilometers of open land to Mazarife.

We were crossing a field, the town already in view, when the explosions started. At first, I thought they were gunshots. Was someone hunting in June? Someone else suggested that a farmer was shooting blanks in order to frighten birds off the crops. That made more sense, and I just hoped we didn’t look like birds.

When we checked into our small albergue, our hospitalera mentioned Corpus Christi. “The parade will start after the noon mass.”

We were always game for a parade. So soon as we’d washed the road dust from ourselves and our laundry, we set off to explore.


We found the church set above the small-town square, a modest building with three giant stork nests in the belfry. A few other people gathered in the limited shade. They didn’t say anything, but there was anticipation in the hot summer air.

Shortly after we arrived, a solemn-faced band of men and women with bagpipes and wind instruments assembled and waited. They wore traditional dress, the women in long skirts and head scarves, the men in vests and jaunty red cummerbunds.

They pointedly ignored us.


Finally, the bells in the tower began to rock, just a little at first, and then with such vigor that they spun all the way around in noisy celebration of…well, whatever Corpus Christi celebrated. The storks flew away. The church doors swung open, and the parade started.


“Very early (in the fourteenth century) the custom developed of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a splendid procession through the town after the Mass on Corpus Christi Day. This was encouraged by the popes, some of whom granted special indulgences to all participants. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) solemnly approved and recommended the procession on Corpus Christi as a public profession of the Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.

First there were about a dozen children carrying a litter with a statue of baby Jesus. Then four women, in perfect Sunday dresses and heels, carried a litter with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Then the priest, swinging his censer of incense, led four men carrying a litter with a crucified Jesus. The rest of the congregation followed, all wearing their Sunday best. The band moved in to bring up the rear.

Corpus Christi

A man walked in front of the children, and I saw that he was holding a long tube. He fiddled with it, and then boom, we had found the source of those explosions.

Fireworks. In the middle of the day. In the middle of a crowd. In the middle of the summer. In a town made of wood.

Safety codes here were obviously different.

The band played, and the parade moved off. We stayed where we were. Somehow, it felt rude to follow them. A religious celebration like this was no place for tourists.

From Catholic Digest:

Corpus Christi is then an opportunity for us to carry the Living Christ out into the world for all to see. This being such a momentous event reflective not only of our faith but the Catholic family as a whole, it has become customary to dress well for Eucharist procession; Sunday best no matter the day… Carrying Christ through the streets in celebration of his life, resurrection, and infinite grace, we publicly testify to our faith in life everlasting and victory over death.

Instead, we retreated to the shade of the local bar, ordered a pitcher of sangria to share with other pilgrims, and waited for the party to come to us. It didn’t take long. (Mazarife is a town of just 350 people, clustered on a few streets.) The families from the parade came back and filled the space, still in their fancy clothes.

The procession was done, and the celebration was just beginning.

Why Your Friends at Home Don’t Care About Your Camino

When I came back from my first long hike on the Camino de Santiago, friends and family would politely ask, “how was your trip?”

If you, too, have walked part of the Camino or come home from some other big adventure, you understand the dilemma.

I could give a short, trite, insufficient answer. It was great! It was hard! It was beautiful!

Or I could try to tell them how it really was. How it changed my sense of the world. How I cried sometimes in frustration and sometimes because of the beauty. How every single day was different. I could tell them about people I met for just a day or two, who are going to be my friends for life. I could describe the architecture. I could launch into just one of the dozens of stories of the unexpected that filled every day.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this latter approach didn’t go well. The eyes of my well-intentioned friends or colleagues would glaze over. They’d tune out. They’d change the subject.

I was describing some of the most dramatic moments of my life, and they were clearly bored.

How we spent our afternoons
Okay, Eric’s not really bored here.

And it wasn’t just me. An article on Forbes last week, not-so-subtly titled Why No One Cares About Your Travels,” described the results of a scientific study that was done to measure this disconnect.

 It turns out it isn’t (primarily) about jealousy; the problem is about context. Your adventures are unrelatable. Most people are simply more interested in talking about familiar things than they are curious about the new things that you want to introduce to the conversation. Yes, there is a social cost associated with leaving the herd and having unique experiences.

That disconnection from friends and family—what Forbes calls the “social cost” of adventure—adds to the emotional and mental challenge of re-entering “normal” life after something like the Camino. Back in March at the American Pilgrims on the Camino’s National Gathering, the breakout hit conference talk was from Alexander John Shaia, author of Returning from the Camino, who says in his introduction that “the Camino is filled with a ‘muchness’ that requires sorting.”


So when you come home from an experience like walking the Camino, or some other grand adventure, what should you do? Where do you process?

Here are a few things that worked for me.


Stay connected to the people who shared your experience.

Stay connected to the people you met on the trail. If you’re on social media, befriend or follow them. But also, send emails. Share photos. Maybe even visit them. No matter how far away they live or how different their “normal” lives seem, they’ll be the ones who will understand this part of you best.

My Camino del Norte family, 2018

Stay connected to the people who love what you love.

There’s a reason that Facebook groups like American Pilgrims on the Camino and CAMIGAS draw tens of thousands of members. This is our clubhouse, the place where we come to share photos, articles, memories, and tips. (In fact, I found that Forbes article from a link in a Facebook group.) These are the people who will know why you smile at the thought of coffee and milk and why you still say “gracias” automatically sometimes in restaurants.

Not a “share online” kind of person? Find out if there’s a local chapter of your national Camino organization or confraternity, and attend their events. (Here’s a list of current US Camino chapters.)

more guest books (and a nice shot of Spot)

Write it down.

Instead of trying to hold your memories close by talking them out with others, write them down. One of the best things I did after my first Camino was starting this blog as a place to make connections. I wanted to share my stories and experiences, show off some photos, and spend some time processing through what I’d just done, in a space that was available to anyone interested, and not required for anyone who wasn’t.

Or, you know, you could compile it all in one place and write a book. 😊

Look forward, not back.

My first Camino walk—the crazy long thousand-mile one—was four years ago now. Eventually, even Eric and I had to admit that our life-changing Camino stories were starting to feel a little stale. We’d regaled everyone we knew with the tale of the miracle sheep on a mountain, and the resurrecting chickens, and the neverending shoe dilemmas. It was time to stop living in the past.

Which, of course, meant only one thing: it was time for a new adventure. No, we couldn’t take another three-month sabbatical and cross two whole countries. But I’ve made shorter trips to the Camino Frances and the Camino del Norte. And in between those trips, we let the spirit of the Camino and the things we learned lead us elsewhere. Walking became part of our travel plans. Meeting people from around the world became more important. And so there was the week we spent day hiking a long-distance trail on Canada’s Sunshine Coast, and a year later, a week exploring the hot springs and glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. We started day hiking in our own mountains on weekends, and last month we went to Arizona for the first time to see the Grand Canyon.


In other words, we keep creating new stories.

Four years after I discovered this new side of myself, I’m still traveling and walking, and my friends are probably even less interested in hearing about subsequent adventures. But that’s okay, because I have options.

What about you? If you’ve walked parts of the Camino or had some other incredible travel adventure, how did you bring it home? What do you do to both hold onto it and not overwhelm the people who stayed home?


The Retablo of Navarette

Retablo: a devotional painting, especially a small popular or folk art one using iconography derived from traditional Catholic church art. More generally retablo is also the Spanish term for a retable or reredos above an altar, whether a large altarpiece painting or an elaborate wooden structure with sculptures.

(from Wikipedia)

A few days ago I was reading a pre-release copy of a memoir written by a new friend and Camino pilgrim from Connecticut.* I love to read pilgrim travel narratives, because I love the chance to see places I’ve been through new eyes. So much of the Camino experience is subject to weather and mood and the people around us, not to mention pace and time of day. Thousands of people have walked right past the chapels and towns that I hold close to my heart, and I’ve read stories about their deeply meaningful moments in places I barely remember.

In this case, the writer mentioned in passing the Church of Santa María de la Asunción in Navarrete, the town in Rioja that’s just past Logroño. He and his companions popped in to explore, but found it all to be dark and uninspiring.

And I remembered…

I stopped in Navarrete in 2017 during my short return to the Camino with my friend Laurel. It was mid-August, and the sun was sharp and hot in mid-afternoon. The town was preparing for a festival of some kind, so the bars were busy setting up and moving tables around in the plaza. I set out with an American from Pennsylvania named John to explore the town a bit. The church was, surprisingly for this part of Spain, unlocked, and we ducked into its cool stone interior.


I remember the afternoon sun shone through a few windows set high on the walls, reminding me that these rural churches were as much defensive structures as holy places of worship. The artwork was ornate and Baroque, obviously heavy on the gold that Ferdinand and Isabella were bringing back by the shipload from the New World.


But I, too, found the place dark…until I found the coin box.

I’d seen something like it a few times before, in churches where congregations were small and maintenance was expensive. They would open their doors to tourists and pilgrims, but if we wanted the full experience, it cost a euro.

I knew that John was Catholic and interested in church artwork and history. I waited until he was near the altar and then, without saying anything, dropped the coin in the slot.


His gasp of delight was absolutely worth it.

The retablo of Navarrete was ornate to the point of gaudy, every inch covered with shiny gold, writhing demons, stoic saints, flowers, altars, and who knows what else. I could have spent a whole afternoon just examining just this one wall and still have not seen every detail. I could have spent days trying to imagine the lives of the hundreds of craftspeople who must have been involved in making it.


And all of that in a town of just 3,000 people.

And all for a euro.

Just another surprise from Saint James.