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Camino Frances (Part 8) : Cruz de Ferro ... placing the stone

Astorga is a stunning medieval town with a gothic cathedral. After settling into a less than ideal Albergue (there were 80 beds on the floor we were), we made our way into the village to do some sight seeing. Day 25 dawned and we set off heading for Rabanal del Camino some 20 kms (12.8 mi) away. A fantastic walk and one where we bumped into some old friends: Lola, who was still going strong and Suzanne who was struggling and Jenny and Wayne from Australia. It was a beautiful steady climb back into the mountains of Spain. The views were getting better with every step we took and the flora along the path transported us into what felt like a heavenly garden.

It was a really great day, overcast and cool. Days tended to melt into each other and as i am sitting writing this blog, I am overcome with the immense emotion of this part of the walk.

We were on our way to the Cruz de Ferro where it has become custom to place your stone. There is a tradition on the Camino whereby you bring along a stone from your homeland which represents a burden, perhaps a deep pain, or even a momento of a loved one. I placed a stone for my friend in Roncesvalles way back at the beginning of my Camino. Along the way we found many a shrine where pilgrims had left their stones/momentos and the like. But the place is the Cruz de Ferro. It is where the tears just roll down your cheeks, where you are humbled into a quiet meditation as many a pilgrim fall to their knees and weep. It is the place where you lay your burdens down and a place that marks the final stage of the journey.

This section of the Camino takes one over a beautiful mountain range down through Asebo and into Molinaseca. A tough downhill walk but thankfully the last of the "knee-killers". Day 26 was a fun and easy short walk into Ponferrada where we spent the afternoon sightseeing in the town and resting before tackling our next couple of long-walk days.

I was so grateful for the light black scarf I had packed. I draped this over my head, over my hat and made sure that it stayed wet. There was very little by way of shade along this section and it was by far the hottest day we had experienced so far. We walked through vinyards, cherry tree orchards and glades. In spite of the heat, it was one of the days I will remember well. Walking into town, we bumped into many pilgrims we had met along the way. It was almost as if we had all converged and so needless to say, dinner that evening was hugely festive. We met up with another four South Africans too!

The following morning we headed out spending most of the day tracking the road into Vega de Valcarce and another wonderful camino party. The hosts of the Albergue were amazing and we landed up partying until the early hours of the morning along with two guys from Italy. We couldn't speak Italian and they barely spoke English, but language was not an issue.

What was amazing (and writing this, I can feel that feeling even now) is that at this stage of the journey a subtle excitement is building deep within. As we climbed into the mountains again the next day, our senses overloaded with the beauty of the world around us, we crossed over into the province of Galicia and the final part of the journey to Santiage de Compostela.

Making our way up to O'Cebreiro

At the summit of this range is the beautiful medieval town of O'Cebreiro. I can't begin to describe how amazing I was feeling - I thoroughly enjoyed a day of uphill walking!

Helen and I had lunch, sheltering from a down pour before we headed on down to our Albergue in Liñares. The following morning I awoke feeling like I had been hit by a train. My chest was sore, my head hurt and I knew that I had caught a decent cold. I opted to take a taxi to our next Albergue in Triacastela and was very fortunate that they allowed me to get to my bunk before official opening time. I spent the day sleeping after Helen had got meds for me from the local Farmacia.

I was grateful that Helen decided to stay with me. When you are not feeling well, its always nice to have a familiar face around and that she was - my Camino sister. One huge lesson I learned on this Camino was to listen to my body. The next morning I was feeling a whole lot better and set off after breakfast. As I said before, an excitement was building and I finally realised what it was. This was the day we would reach Sarria - the City that marked the official last 100 kms (71 miles) of the Camino Frances.

Helen and I decided to walk the route to Sarria via Samos as we had been told that visiting the Samos Monastery was worth the detour. I am so glad we did! There were no villages between Triacatela and Samos, so we could not stop for our standard early morning breakfast and coffee.

Samos Monastery

We arrived in Samos late morning and after enjoying a much needed breakfast and coffee, we spent the next 3 hours touring the monastery and the cathedral of Samos. There were still 9 monks in residence in the monastery which was amazing. Many pilgrims overnight there too. We headed out and made our way to Sarria. While we only walked some 19 kms (12 miles), the day was long and we arrived at our Albergue late that Sunday afternoon content in the knowledge that we were just that much closer to the final stages of our Camino. I too was feeling like my old self. I was thankful that the walk was relatively easy and grateful that I had shaken the bug.

Sarria officially marks the final stage of the Camino Frances and pilgrims have to prove that they walked this section in order to obtain their participation certificates for the Camino Frances. By the time you reach this stage of the Camino, you would have walked around 690 kms (428 miles). By now you would be in the groove of waking up, walking, meditating, eating communal meals and enjoying 'the Way of St. James'. You would have forged relationships with people along the way, some you would continue to bump into and some never to be seen again. By now you would also have learned the unspoken rules of the camino, developed an amazing ability to sense if a pilgrim needed company or not and an ability to listen, truly listen. You have also developed a love of the sounds of nature and the sound of your steps on the gravel, both of which have become part of your journey. So it is with a rude awaking when leaving Sarria, you encounter the 'Tourist Pilgrim' and there were literally hundreds of them! The Tour busses drop them off along the route and collect them after a the day's walk. They walk in groups, chatting and laughing loudly, speaking on their cell phones with little regard for the pilgrim who has been walking for weeks already and with absolutely no knowledge of the unspoken law of The Way.

'Tourist Pilgrims'

Gosh this was a real baptism of fire and very quickly I decided to change plans and find a way to walk ahead of the crowds. It was at this time that you realise the value of nature's music, the sound of your own breath and the sound of your shoes on the gravel. One step at a time, one breath at a time. By now too, I had become aware of the stirring of emotions from deep within - the sense that the end was near, that I did not want this Camino to end and that I needed to slow things down and really enjoy the next part of the journey. The challenge was doing that without being stuck in the crowds of 'Tourist Pilgrims'. It was also this day that friends of mine (who had started from St Jean Pied de Port a week after me) caught up to me. What a joyous reunion. And so we walked together into Portomarín some 24 kms (14 miles) from Sarria.