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Life’s Not Just Blossoms and Busty Beer Taps

This morning was a very flowery walk, on this bright Sunday right at midsummer. The Solstice is called Sommerwende in German–summer’s hinge, summer’s turning point. in a tiny village I ran into a personal Gabriel angel carrying lilies.

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As I’m sitting here at this very moment church bells are ringing madly. Congregants are carrying an effigy of the Virgin into the hills to a shrine, some combination of Solstice with the Virgin. The Catholic Church always covers all its bases.

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Flowers were strewn in the path of the effigy. I think that’s what I saw in another village I walked through today, the sidewalk blossoming with wildflowers for a block or so. The trailside flowers are spectacular too. See why I said it was a flowery day?

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The bells just stopped… they literally pounded the heck out of my ears for a half an hour. There’s no way to miss that it’s midsummer. I started out in the church to see it, but I felt like a voyeur. This celebration is for the village, not for me. The ancient bells turn 360 degrees, mounted on a huge wooden top that rotates on an axis. Centrifugal force keeps them turning. They have not stopped after all. The turn of the season is worth a little noise.
I was so lucky to stop in this village to witness this. I got a lovely bed in its own cubicle, with a view out the French doors. This hotel is built in an old monastery and the owner is a pilgrim himself and built in some luxury pilgrim lodging.

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I am walking much too slowly to do the entire Camino in just six weeks, what with flowers and paintings and magic soup and monasteries. I am about twice as slow as the guidebook. I’ll be going on to Galicia to finish up and get my Compostela. Galicia is Celtic and believes in its witches. The main witch of Galicia is made into beer taps. She’s very inspiring, and whispered to me that it was okay to skip ahead.

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It’s this kind of breezy day, with high horsetail cirrus clouds all prancing toward the west, in the direction of the Camino.
Your slow Camino wanderer, Suzanne

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Soupa Magica

The thunder rolled down the valley like waves crashing on the beach, with lightning flashing an irregular strobe. We didn’t care, tucked away into the smallest (10 people), most magical albergue, an ancient village building where all the rooms slope and exposed beams are not a designer fashion.

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The village has only 50 souls and no stores. The Pan (bread) truck, a white van I’ve seen everywhere in Spain, skids into the plaza and begins earsplitting honking. For many minutes. Bread is a matter of urgency.

I’ve had the feeling this whole trip of being enclosed in a kind of bell jar of bird song, and even more strongly here. Swallows thread the sky with the invisible silk of flight. The village is cradled in rolling farmland, much of it in poppies. I walked through many fields of blossom today. I could not help but remember the Wicked Witch of Oz crooning “Poppies…”

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This albergue is the home of Acacio and Orietta. They are good friends with the author Paolo Coelho and there’s a book in which you can leave a message for him. Their business is run entirely on donation. Both of the couple have walked he camino many time. Their house is full of books, warmth, easy chairs, and superb hospitality.

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Cameras can’t catch the implacable golden sweep of the wheatfields, and a photo can’t convey the warmth of that dinner. “Soupa magica” is Acacio’s term for pilgrim soup, a combination of soup and the Portugese sopa.

It’s difficult to write about the Camino. A lot of your inner experience is private. The writing tends either to become Shirley Maclaine-ish or degenerate into a kilometer-sore foot-lodging blog. Orietta told me that a way a pilgrim can give something back for all the kindness extended is by the sharing of experience: being hospitable and open in your heart to sharing what you know.

Thank you, Acacio and Orietta. Acacio is an passionate advocate for the inner necessity of the Camino. He also has much hidden knowledge about the history and soul of the Camino, but you’ll have to ask him yourself, over a bowl of Soupa Magica.
Suzanne

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Chicken Church

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Writing you from Santo Domingo, where the magnficent Gothic cathedral keeps live chickens inside to commemorate a milagro, a miracle. I’ve been waiting all trip for this because I had a dream about it some months ago
The day started badly but ended well. Every night I take off my glasses and put them in a stuff sack in the bottom of my sleeping bag along with phone, passport and money. When I took them off this morning, an earpiece had broken off. In a foreign country, this can seem to be a really big problem, but I closed my eyes and thought “What would Scott do?” He’s the guy who can fix anything.
Here’s what I might do, before I became a wise Peregrino: panic, don’t change schedule, stick glasses with duct tape, have lousy, sticky and disfunctional glasses for the rest of the trip. Here’s what Scott would do: while away several hours until an optician opened and have them fixed. So I had a coffee, potato and egg tortilla, and an Aquarius (fizzy Gatorade type drink, supposedly with electrolytes). For two hours. And painted a few notebook pages. The nice thing about the illustrated journal is that it always gives you something to do. And I got them fixed.

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By that time it was late in the morning, so I decided to take the bus to Santa Domingo. And I’m so glad I did. It turned into a completely relaxed, pleasant day. I had one of those extended lunches at a cafe facing the cathedral. I went to the small prayer meeting offered by the brothers who ran the albergue. I did laundry and visited the backyard chicken coop that supplies the cathedral chickens, who are not even on ground level but in a ridiculously backlight sort of alter a story high so you can’t even interact with them. Now that was disappointing, but I went back to talk to the patio chickens.
The albergue is lovely. The cathedral is grand and I think I saw Santa Domingo’s skull, but I’m not sure. He was a supercool saint. He came from a poor, lower class family and so the church nixed his becoming a priest. He said, fine, and proceeded to build a pilgrim bridge, a hospital, and improve the roads and highways… and founded a town and a cathedral. The church’s loss was the pilgrim’s gain. Domingo was a do-er and fixer, as is Scott, and like Scott, he can often be found with a few chickens at his feet. It was a day where a possible mishap was transformed into a fine, unexpected travel day.
True confession: I LOVE deciding things on the spur of the moment. What a luxury, what freedom. I’m grateful that everyone has been so kind– the optician fixed the glasses without charge because I’m a pilgrim. It’s the little things. Buen Camino, Suzanne

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Scenes from Logrono to Navarette

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Anti-bull killing for sport. I agree. It must be a horrible way for an animal to die.

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I love these abstract pilgrims! I’m the one on the right.

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The virgins are growing very strange, dense, and encrusted, very asiatic. I am in deep water here. Though adept with Christian symbols, I often have NO IDEA what’s going on. The churches are magnificent, creepy Twilight Zones, where it seems the saint figures might well come alive and walk around. Often they fill an elegant Romanesque shell with gold Baroque madness floor to ceiling, as if an insane pastry chef had frosted a plain loaf with dozens of giant glittery sugar roses.

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I just lost paragraphs of writing. NO wifi and 90 beds in a room.. but free! Wish me luck tonight in the sea of (hopefully serene) sleepers. I’ll write more when I actually have wifi to support all the photo uploads. Buen Camino, Suzanne

Hotel: Thrill of victory or agony of da feet?

Wednesday, June 18
Just words, I think, for now, no images. Whew! I just escaped teeming Dorm Land, no place for me or my phone to recharge. Am in a delightful small nowhere bar, sitting on a chair near an electrical outlet. I have no table– there are outlets near tables but none of them work. They were cheerful, though, and directed me proudly to the random outlets that did work. My “table” is a bar stool. I am nursing some kind of tart rose. Thank you, Bar La Oca, for the smiles. I find Spain enormously welcoming.

The 90 person dorm room tonight will pose a challenge to my mild claustrophobia. It’s now a dangerous maze of packs in the tiny walkways. Paranoid, adult thought: hope there’s not a fire. The hip young have ruthlessly taken over all the communal tables for complex, delicious dinners…. I never cooked like that in a hostel. The albergue is donativo, free. My own dinner was a melon with some Serrano ham strewn over it and eaten in front of the shallow river. I guess I managed to download some photos after all. All are at the end of the post.

I know that before I walked I wanted to know some details. Just to say, I did walk 17 km today, about 11 miles, going very slowly for my feet. It was mostly through vineyards and the paths were either gravel or paved. Weather has been perfect the whole trip, in the 50s at night and warming during the day, not dissimilar to Santa Rosa. Here are some practical details for you.

Showers are complex because you have to stay decent before you step in, and carry all your valuables, as well as your toiletries and the clothes you change into, with you. So you are jamming and balancing. Everything of any value comes into the shower with you. The tile floors are uniformly slippery. Then you get in and press a knob like the controlled flow knobs in sinks in public restrooms, and 10 seconds of either freezing, lukewarm, or scalding water comes out, then cuts off. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat!

American’s packs are too big. The Europeans are cruising along with packs about the size of a daypack. I have lightened mine up some… never mind what. But I have pack envy. There are no silk sleep sheets. Everyone has an ultralight bag about the size of a football or a bottle of water. They have a tiny lining, very similar to my Marmot Nano 55, which has worked great for me.

Girls, my most prized outfit is a loose tank and a running skort with shorts under it. I use it for after hiking, swimming, and to sleep. The all purpose wardrobe! Dress it up with a scarf!

My day: wake up at 5 AM. Take my roll of clothing and toiletries out of the dorm, to a restroom or kitchen, to dress. Drag pack out. Drag sleeping bag off bed and stuff in other room. Rearrange pack, sometimes for a half hour or more. Wash. Wish for coffee, but drink a liter of water if I can choke it down. Other people are up, tripping over each other. Tend to feet for the day with whatever combo of fixups you have: tape, moleskin, compeed, bandaids, antibiotic cream, anti friction cream, what have you. Put on shoes. This isn’t easy, as you aren’t allowed to keep your shoes with you, but must put them on a shelf in another room. Same thing for poles. When you get your shoes on, marvel how good they feel without a pack on.
Then lurch out and start your day. Stop for a coffee at the first bar and sneak eat your yoghurt, then walk on. Sun’s getting warmer now… stop on trail, pee, put on hat and sunglasses. And walk.

Today I met some beautiful people, and it was just like the films where you have soulful talks while walking through lush vineyards. Oliver, French, was great: we discussed mind-body issues and how the brain can’t interpret where pain originates. He’s in the straw hat. Then Billy, an American college student I’d seen twice, struck up a series of questions about The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Joseph Campbell’s mythology. “Have you heard of Joseph Campbell?” he asked politely. He made a beautiful metaphor…. he said that he thinks the Camino is, for him, a coming out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur, following the golden thread. And the golden thread is just one step in front of the other, and you don’t know where you’re going, but he trusts it.
I probably won’t ever see them again, but that statement lacks the high drama it might have in other contexts. You just never know. You spent some good time, and that’s enough. I talked to some women, as well, but none of them would allow me to take her photo because we all, er, don’t exactly look our best. I, for example, resemble a plump nun while walking, completely covered head to foot with long loose pants, long loose shirt, and one of those dorko cover-everything hats with a wimple, I mean flap, in back. In purple. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I just wanted to say, I have never felt in danger this whole trip. I have felt cared for and protected the entire time.

I usually stop walking around 12 or 1. I learned a lesson about pushing too hard. You can read the story below

This took place last Sunday and Monday, after realizing I had really wrecked my feet– and my aplomb– with the fabled 21k day.

I took a taxi to Logrono today for another rest day and checked into another pilgrim dorm. My mood was low. There are several kinds of dorms, municipal– run, perhaps for hundreds of years, by the city, parochial, run by the church, and private dorms which have sprung up everywhere. I chose a private dorm, and it wasn’t a good choice. I’m finding out that often the better bet for true hospitality can come in institutional packages, from people who’ve been housing pilgrims for a couple centuries or so. The dorm I chose was a private one, which can be great, but can also be oriented more to the tidal wave of pilgrim dough than the pilgrim. They can be sloppy about hygiene.

I unloaded my stuff, had a shower with soap I bought from the Euro version of a dollar store. The shower was not pleasant, with a dirty floor and warmish water. Then I went for a walk. When I returned,the room had that body smell, which unfortunately was a stinky redux of the night before.

I’m finding out that a disturbing night has a real impact. The night before, it was the awful body odor, like unwashed clothes of the homeless, emanating from the towel and pack of a man across from me. The Italian guy in the bunk directly over was grossed out too. Luckily my bed was by a window. We asked the manager of the albergue to talk to the guy about moving his pack outside, but he never did. The Italian guy’s girlfriend offered me some Vicks to rub under my nose, the same thing the coroner uses for examining corpses. I should have taken it.

I don’t know how much I want to write about a bad mood or event. They happen in travel and in life. But my feeling of oppression increased in the Logrono dorm I had chosen . By chance, I was the only woman in the room and it felt, not dangerous, but just too much. I was filled with regret about not just waiting around for a few hours for the normal church dorms to open. My impatience tripped me up, just like it did with the 21 km day. Hmmmmmm…. could there possibly be a lesson there?

My mood darkened, dangerously so. When you travel alone, you have only yourself to rely on, and a bad mood poses a real handicap. My feet were really hurting– I could feel an infection starting in the sole of my foot, the same sole that would have to step into public showers. So when I saw a hotel, I just walked up and checked in, then walked back to the albergue and picked my stuff up.

Scott had to talk me down. I stayed off my feet in a sterile business hotel, with deep bathtub. It took two days for my feet to heal up. I felt guilty, impatient, grateful, sad, stuck in sterility when life just teemed outside. And it was a hundred percent my own bad decision.

I am so lucky I have the bucks to take a hotel when I want or need to. But it still feels like a tiny bit of defeat. Strange, I meet many people who feel defeated if they can’t do 30 to 40 km, 20-plus miles, a day! We all have our points of pride.

I think that 30 Km is a very long day even for the twenty somethings. People are really getting injured going that far. In my own mind, which is still full of judgement, I call them “The New Penitents,” punishing themselves through painful walking. I’m sure they think of me as a dilettante. By the way, all the “recommended” divisions of the Camino are 20 to 30 km. I have so enjoyed going more slowly.

I think I’m really more of a wanderer than a trekker. I’m considering visiting the one of the oldest monastery sites in Europe tomorrow, back to the 6th century. It wanders off the beaten path. But then, so do I. Buen Camino, Suzanne

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A Wine Fountain, Foot Fish, and a Lesson for the Turtle

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Things began swimmingly in Irache at 7:30 AM. To my surprise, the wine fountain was operating! This is an amenity for pilgrims. Some Koreans had filled entire water bottles with the wine that flowed from the taps…. not really kosher, as everyone is supposed to have a cup, glass or swig of it. There were only a few drops left being coaxed out of it by a German man, who was kind enough to share a tiny bit with me. Perhaps those two tablespoons had to do with my lack of discretion later in the day.

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I had been walking comfortably for days at turtle pace. My legs, feet and general health have been fine. Since I leave around 6 AM, I have often completed my walking day by 11 or 12. I had chosen my albergue and set down my pack, when I ran into two spry Spanish gentleman, both over 70.
“It’s too early to stop,” they said. “It’s only 10 km more.” Scott does this sometimes, but his schtick is that “it’s only 5 more minutes.” Silly me, I took them up on it. Their age must have influenced me; surely I could do as well as two happy geezers. But they were Hares, the nemesis of The Turtle.
A part of me wanted to see if I could move at a faster pace. I found out later that the distance signs for hikers were actually wrong. It was 15 km more… ten miles more after I had already completed my day. No shade, no cafes, no albergues in between. Just heat-shimmering golden fields.
Heat really affects the feet. At the end of my day I was exhausted and, for the first time, blistered. I had hiked 21.2 km, or about 14 miles, with a full backpack. I never did this much distance in a day before, not even in my teens or 20s backpacking.
By avoiding walking mid day, and only walking to my comfort level, I had avoided blisters until that time. The albergue I ended up at was somewhat dirty and uncomfortable, with a vaguely sleazy feeling. Most of the pilgrim dorms are very clean and businesslike. But it was good enough. I made a tomato salad in the kitchen and fell into bed.
The next day I walked in the morning to Torres del Rio, a fabulous little village with a spectacular Templar church, very Da Vinci code. It was truly gorgeous in its simplicity inside. The tower on top is not a bell tower, but a lighthouse in the middle of the fields, to light the way for pilgrims!

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When I saw that one albergue offered a bed, an evening meal including 2 courses, desert and wine, and access to a hotel swimming pool, I took them up on it for 20E. The hotel had a cleaner fish spa, so I let little fish nibble all the dead skin off for 15 minutes, then had a foot massage. (A video is on Facebook– I can’t post videos with this blogging setup. ) Then I swam… watery bliss!

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My feet, for the time being, are healing. I’ll take a bus to Logrono and start from there. Hubris is a danger on the Camino. Listen to your own inner voice.
The teacher in me finds endless lectures devised from my own Camino to give you, dear reader. I suppose I shall do another post called Camino Lessons at another time, and spare you now. Buen Camino, Suzanne
P.S. To add insult to injury, I left my carefully selected all-purpose soap and hair conditioner in the sleazy albergue. A pilgrim with no soap is a little too close to a midlevel pilgrim for my taste! It’s a offering to the road gods, and will be missed.

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I Feel Like You’re Walking With Me

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I’m sitting here in the cool, clean Estella public library. It’s beautiful… they have incorporated gothic pillars– and I’m sure they are genuine– into an ultramodern design, very striking. I was just blessed by the priest in the church with the view you see above in a small group of 10 pilgrims. I was the only American, as I often am, and was so glad that I worked up the courage to go.
I wanted to pass this blessing on to you. Most of my readers are friends old and new, near and far. Your reading this means so much to me. Traveling alone is so much a matter of attitude, and seeing your remarks and comments make me feel like your spirits are on the road with me.

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The blessing was quite personal. The village priest took our names and had a short conversation with all of us. Then we took pictures, right there in the cathedral smack in the middle of mass, as a group. I was thinking of friends and the problems we all face as I was walking. I came upon a ruined church in the countryside
with an alter where people had written their hopes, dreams, and why they were walking… eerie, lovely and strange. We are creatures who suffer, but also rejoice.

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Estella is a good time town. If I could, I would have you all to the meal I had over an extended two hour lunch in the square. Even the town’s motto is about eating: midieval foodies! A quarter bottle white wine (Navarra chardonnnay), water, the appetizer, melon with Serrano ham,
then lamb stew with big red roasted pimento peppers, and a cake with caramel and a honey drizzle for dessert (14 E). The cake was for Scott’s birthday, which I missed.

Life is full of troubles, but pleasures too. The words of the blessing card I got from the priest end with “so that we may reach the end of our journey stregnthened with gratitude and power, secure and filled with happiness. I with that for you.

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Yum camino, Suzanne

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Divine Beauty vs. Iphonzilla

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Each day of walking is like a world, and you can never tell what will happen. All of these photos are from one day, yesterday. But they don’t tell the whole story. In the midst of all of it, there were mishaps, enough of them to really jar me and test the travel spirit.

I left the adaptor plug for the Iphone in a socket in that village that starts with a Z. Panicked, I ran around stores to try to find an adaptor. A lovely lady at an art store had some, but Iphonezilla didn’t like them. Finally I went to what they call a “China Store” and bought a fake Iphone charger with the proper prongs. Now my phone takes hours to charge, but no it works. I wrestled with that horrible question of attachment to the device. I do a lot on it: photograph, blog, Facetime with Scott. Perhaps some of you know the feeling of running around in a foreign culture with that emergency feeling in the pit of your stomach. It took hours. I bought watercolor paper I didn’t need to patronize the art supply/ hardware store lady, and some cologne I probably did need at the China store for all their help with my phone. Iphonezilla ate a large part of my day, then would not charge, keeping me up late, as you should never leave your phone unattended. I wanted to talk to my husband Scott on his birthday.

My weird vasculitis was acting up again. I’m vain enough to not show you a picture of it; it’s disfiguring but not dangerous. In fact, it was a conversation starter. I got 5 versions in 5 languages of “Are you all right? And what is that?” Then everyone would tell me it was heat rash or an allergy. But it got me introduced.

That hostel was industrial and no nonsense. When you’ve hosted a thousand years of pilgrims, you know how to do it. Already fried from the phone thing and the leg thing, the snoring thing in my room of 8 women almost did me in. I slept not more than 2 hours last night, really pissed off at the snore monster, a spry French woman in her seventies.

Then the day began again, and after walking, a compassionate hospitalero (inkeeper for pilgrims) snuck me into a private room to catch up on my rest. This simple act of kindness touched me deeply, and saved my day. The following photos are from this, my 4th day on the road. Estella tomorrow— maybe. Buen Camino, Suzanne

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Camino Secret Gem

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Hola from the extremely slow pilgrim. Today I didn’t walk 12.8 km. I’m between Pamplona and Puente de la Reina. That’s all you need to know. And I’m in a little gem of an albergue, drinking white wine on a red tablecloth in the late afternoon and writing you, dear reader.

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This giant baguette filled with chorizo will last me for 2 more days. The soda and sandwich cost 2.70 E. It could have been beer, no extra charge. I get a full course dinner for wine and desert here, my first meal with other pilgrims. I slept like a baby last night in a room full of elderly Frenchmen; apparently I was in a French “wave”. Today I ran into- not literally, thank goodness– herds of the not-rare-enough species MAMILS– Middle Aged Men in Lycra, normally on bicycles, sending their luggage, include colognes, ahead. Not all of them, of course.. everyone has been sweet and polite, the way life should be. And I am a MAWILC, a middle aged woman in loose clothing. We are the only ones wearing long sleeved shirts and pants. Ah, those limb-exposing, sleek youngsters are lovely.
Got up at a respectable 6:30 and the whole albergue was leaving. Everyone leaves at once, but the waves soon vanish, especially if you’re hiking slowly. And I stop, I confess, to photograph and sketch. It”s my Grand Tour, after all; I choose to be Ruskin-esque and enter the world through my pen. But it takes TIIIIIIIME.Time to see the wheat and smell the poppies. If I stopped to smell every rose in Spain, you’d never see me again.

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Tip: I tear out pages with maps from the Brierley guidebook and carry them in my pocket. It’s helped me several times when I’ve had to ask directions: nothing like a hard copy. And my small compass mounted right on the chin strap of my backpack is really invaluable. I feel like a child with an address label sewn in. Do they even do that anymore?
Since you read this far, I enclose the abstract photo of roses blowing in the wind. Ultreia!

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Walled Spanish Garden, with Pilgrim Totem animal

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How far have I walked today? I think I’ll keep that a secret for now and tell you how far I haven’t walked. I haven’t walked 25 km. And I ended up in paradise, the Mirabel Roncal. It has a walled garden from long, long ago with museum like lawn ornaments, beautiful rooms, tables and gardens everywhere, and a great pilgrim totem, a turtle pond.

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I am the turtle, eating a fine lunch in the garden with a beer from a soft drink machine, and olives and olive oil bought from the same snack automat. I added my own spanish seedless pear–Scott, take note!–and cheese, and a garden full of roses. Why would I want to leave?

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I don’t really deserve such beauty, but there it is anyway. It’s a hard life, being a pilgrim.
Re the not-walked kilometers: the standard guide, Brierley, divides the Camino into stages. I will be sure to tell you each day how far in the current guidebook stage I didn’t walk. Remember my icon, the turtle.

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I am saving my complaints, philosophical ideas, spiritual opening, etc. etc. for another blog. Don’t worry… you’re not getting off that easy. But for now the birds and butterflies drowse in the sun, and there may be a basque dinner to eat. The owner liked my sketches of the place, so maybe I can dine out in fine Basque fashion on those. Now back to bliss. Buen Camino, Suzanne