It was the summer of 2020.

Spain’s response to the pandemic was much like other European nations. However, there was one notable difference: for almost three months, the vast majority of the population were only allowed outside to go to the supermarket. Businesses were closed all over the world, of course; and people were urged and even compelled to stay indoors. However, most countries to my knowledge made an exception for outdoor exercise. Not Spain. We could not take a walk, ride a bike, or go on a jog.

As a result, by the time we were allowed out for a breath of fresh air, I was intensely nature-deprived. Indeed, during the lockdown I began obsessively buying plants from the supermarket. I even bought a zoom lens for my camera to take close-up pictures of the neighborhood trees. Now, I normally like the outdoors, but it is surprising to me how debilitating it felt to be totally cut off from trees, grass, and sun. Admittedly, it is impossible to determine how much of my anxiety during this period was due to nature-deprivation, and how much due to every other disruption (social, professional, personal) that took place. Suffice to say that I felt withered.

Under normal circumstances I get my fill of forest from the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, behind my house in New York. However, the restrictions on travel that year made it impossible for me to go home. So I decided to travel to the lushest part of the country: Galicia. This region is famous, among other things, for being the end-point of the Camino de Santiago—the network of walking and biking trails that start from all over Europe and converge in Santiago de Compostela. I had walked parts of this trail on two separate occasions, but much of it remained unexplored. After a bit of preparation, I had my pilgrim’s passport and a plan. But it was not exactly simple.

Day 1: Arrival in Las Médulas

Las Médulas is the name of a former Roman gold mine. It is a tremendously important archaeological site and has been declared UNESCO World Heritage. It is also, as it happens, on one of the branches of the Camino—though not on a much-traveled one.

Determined to visit, I decided that I would start my Camino there. But there was a problem: getting to Las Médulas from Madrid on public transportation is not easy. After a week of investigating, I figured out a viable route. First, I had to catch a fast train from Madrid to the city of León, which left at 5:30 in the morning. (The seating system put the few passengers on the train all close together, in flagrant contradiction of social distancing.) Once in León, I had to walk quickly to the city’s bus station to catch the morning bus to Ponferrada, a nearby city. Then, in Ponferrada, I had to immediately get on a local bus (more of a van) to a small village called Carucedo. Finally, I walked about an hour from the bus stop to Las Médulas. I note all this for anyone tempted to follow in my footsteps.

I arrived at my hotel in time for Spanish lunch, having had almost nothing to eat all day. Luckily, there was a table available at the hotel restaurant. I ordered the local specialty: botillo del bierzo. This is a very heavy dish, consisting of pig intestines stuffed with spiced pork, with a side of potatoes and cabbage. The Mediterranean diet, indeed. After so little sleep, and such a hearty meal, a nap was irresistible. I lost consciousness as soon as my body touched the bed. It was only thanks to multiple alarms that I awoke in time for my evening tour of the Roman mines.

Unless you were told, you would probably never suspect that the landscape of Las Médulas was man-made. A collection of orange cliffs jut out from the forested valley, with no obvious sign of human manipulation. However, these jagged ridges were not worn away through natural processes, but with a Roman mining technique known as ruina montium (destroying the mountain). The first step was to dig a network of tunnels into the mountain (by hand of course). Then, enormous quantities of water were transported via aqueduct up to the top, and poured into these tunnels, eventually causing a kind of avalanche. This way, the Romans accessed the large stores of gold in the mountain’s interior. According to our guide, the workers responsible for this were not exactly enslaved, but were indentured servants. In any case, it was brutal and dangerous work, and our guide informed us that many miners ended their own lives.

This story of Las Médulas—a story of environmental destruction and worker exploitation—is, thus, not exactly the most charming story of antiquity. It is a strange irony, then, that this rapacious extraction produced such a picturesque landscape. The faces of the cliffs are so orange that they seem still to be imbued with gold. The surrounding forest is full of chestnuts, heather, holly, and rock rose. After spending the whole morning in a rush of anxiety and impatience, the valley was almost supernaturally calm.

Day 2: Las Médulas to Ponferrada

I awoke early and set out before the sun. I was nervous. Las Médulas is on a leg of the Camino that is seldom traveled under the best of circumstances. During a pandemic it was deserted. The EU’s borders were (mostly) closed to travelers, and in any case most Spaniards still thought it unwise to sleep in bunk beds with strangers. Thus, the albergues (pilgrim’s hostels) along this route were closed, so I had to spend one day going the opposite direction on this route, in order to link up with the more famous French Way where things would be open.

The region is strewn with dilapidated houses.

Normally, when you walk the camino, a series of yellow arrows and concrete markers guide you along the way. But now, I would have to find the arrows and try to intuit where the pilgrim was supposed to be coming from. This seemed rather difficult. I soon found, however, that the route was nearly as easy to follow backwards as forwards, and I relaxed into the rhythm of the road. I was not yet in Galicia, but in a part of Castilla y León called El Bierzo. The landscape was hilly, with a light covering of trees, and the ground dry and rocky. In the morning hours it was cool enough for a jacket. The route took me through several small villages, each full of houses that featured a distinctive kind of wooden balcony that I found quite beautiful.

As I went along, I listened to an audiobook by Jonathan Haidt about how to be happy. I suppose I was in an introspective mood. Yet all of Haidt’s advice seemed trite compared with the simple experience of walking and observing. If you can take an interest in your surroundings, then there is little else you will need to be content. And I was fully absorbed. So much time staring at the ceiling of my apartment had made virtually anything wild and green fascinating. The countryside here had a sort of rugged beauty, which culminated in the Castillo de Cornatel. This is a fortress that sits on a hilltop, believed to have been originally built in Roman times to defend their goldmines. In any case, the castle is now little more than an eloquent ruin. I peeked inside and carried on my way.

Descending the hill, I found myself in wine country. Virtually every region of Spain has its own variety of the drink. The grape from here is called mencía. As I walked, I was passed on a road by an elderly man driving a tractor; his wife sat in the trailer, alongside several buckets of grapes. What a life. Now I was getting near Ponferrada. In the distance I could see the strange geometric form of the Torre de la Rosaleda, the tallest building in the city. My legs and back were aching now. Six hours of walking had gone by and I still had an hour to go. The path took me alongside the Sil River, across it, and then finally to the municipal albergue.

Once there, I was amused by the reception. The institution had developed a kind of sanitation ritual for all incoming guests. My whole body was sprayed with a disinfectant; my backpack had to be kept in a trash bag; and even the soles of my shoes were chemically cleaned. Meanwhile, guests were not required to wear masks indoors, though of course the virus is primarily transmitted through the air. Even at the time, it seemed rather silly.

I ate two hearty meals and passed the time by reading Monkey—a delightful abridgement of the Chinese classic, A Journey to the West. (The story concerns a Buddhist pilgrim, so it seemed rather appropriate.) Unfortunately, I was much too footsore to do any sightseeing, and so passed up the chance to visit the city’s impressive Templar Castle or the Fábrica de la luz, a museum of industry in a former power plant. I suppose I will just have to go back.

The Templar Castle of Ponferrada.

Day 3: Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

I awoke early, before my alarm, at half past five. Outside it was calm and black. The route took me along the river Sil to the outskirts of the city. On the way, I passed the Fábrica de la luz and once again regretted not having been able to visit. It was not long before the western clouds were tinged with gold, and the gray dusk began to dissipate. Behind me, in the morning mist, a rainbow hovered over Ponferrada.

The first half of the walk was not especially interesting. I slowly made my way through suburb after suburb. The residents were just beginning to stir—walking their dogs, making their way to the local café, doing yard-work. Finally, the suburbs gave way to a beautiful stretch of wine country. The sun was shining strongly now, and the vines were an ocean of bright green. I did my best to walk slowly, to take in the scenery. Agricultural country has a particular charm—at once natural and cultivated. I felt a pang of envy for whoever was living in the fine white house among this little paradise.

At about two in the afternoon I arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo. It is a surprisingly beautiful place. Though scarcely three thousand people call it home, it is full of impressive structures: a romanesque church, a large monastery, and even a castle. Being a Camino town has its advantages, I suppose. Better still, the town was full of excellent bars and restaurants. After seeing so many grapes, I could not resist a sampling of the local wine, which I found to be excellent (though I am hardly a connoisseur). By nine I was in my bunk bed. The only other residents of the albergue were two quiet Spanish men. We all said goodnight and turned off the lights. 

Day 4: Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro

I awoke full of excitement. According to (a great resource for anyone considering the trail), the next stretch of the camino was both among the most beautiful and the most arduous. The trail would take me up into the mountain range that separates northern Castilla y León from Galicia. For those completing the entire Camino, the entry into Galicia is a special occasion, since that means they are in the final stretch. For me it was special, too, since I just generally love Galicia.

The beginning of the trail was disappointing. Far from beautiful, the trail ran along a highway and there was little in the way of scenery. I had (happily) finished the book on happiness and began an audiobook by David Attenborough about life on earth. His resonant voice soothed me as I made my way under overpasses and through small villages. In one village, there was a woman with a clipboard waiting for pilgrims passing through. She told me that in the villages I had to wear a mask (I already was, though it was a cloth mask that looked rather like a diaper) and that I had to register in a government website before entering the province of Galicia (I already had). She also told me that the village of Ponfría—which was on the route—was under lockdown because of a local outbreak.

Armed with this information, I kept on going. The sun climbed in the sky and it got hot enough for me to stop and change into shorts. Finally the landscape began to bloom as I left the highway and made my way into the woods. Cows abounded, often sunning themselves on the grass. And every village had its colony of stray cats. About three-quarters of the way there, I was accosted (in English) by a shirtless man asking me for some change. I didn’t have any and told him so. But I was taken aback at the request, as we were really not near any village.

The next thing I knew, I had hit the mountain. The trail led up and up, through a dense forest of oak and birch. It was hard going and after a few minutes I paused to catch my breath. When I did, I looked back to see the shirtless man not far behind, and I got the strange notion that he was after me. This caused me to pick up my pace, and I started rushing up the mountain almost at a run. Besides being irrational, this was a shame since, in retrospect, this was one of the most beautiful stretches of the walk. I climbed and climbed until, near the top, I was surprised by a man on horseback, who was making his way down the steep, rocky path with a great deal of care.

Then the trees cleared and I found myself on the top of a series of rolling hills. Nearby was an elaborate sign that announced my official entry into Galicia. The trail led up and down over the gentle ridges until I reached one of the infinite small Galician settlements which dot the region. This one had an attractive restaurant and I immediately decided I would stay for lunch. I ordered caldo gallego—the regional soup—and chicken. Several tables were already occupied by other pilgrims. As I ate, the shirtless vagabond arrived, and seated himself at a table with a woman, who seemed to know him. They commenced to talk in German. She bought him a beer and let him finish her meal. A group of cows walked by on the street and, of course, some cats were sunbathing.

My entry into Galicia. Note the pandemic beard.

Walking on a full stomach (and several glasses of wine) was not pleasant. Thankfully, my destination was very close. O Cebreiro an attractive little town (population: 121) situated on a hillside. There are wonderful views from every corner of the town and a few well-equipped shops for pilgrims, who constitute the economic basis of the village. Though tiny, there is some sightseeing in O Cebreiro. There are four examples of pre-roman buildings which can be visited, presumably reconstructions of the sorts of buildings in the ancient “castros” (Celtic settlements). There is also the church of Santa María, an ancient building with a legend attached to it.

As it happens, the legend was told to me by a Polish woman staying in my albergue. It goes: There was once a very devout man who never missed mass. One day the weather was terrible, a storm was blowing, but he still came to worship. The priest was surprised and amused by his devotion and joked that mass wasn’t worth all this trouble. Then God, to humiliate the priest, turned the holy wafer into real, bleeding flesh. Catholic legends are always a bit macabre. Anyway, this Polish woman was among the minority of truly faithful pilgrims. She said that she had sold everything in her country to walk the camino and devote herself to God. I declined her offer to accompany her to mass.

A traditional Galician dwelling.

Day 5: O Cebreiro to Triacastela

The sunrise was particularly beautiful that morning.

I awoke late the next day, at 6:30. But that was alright, since I only had 22 km to trek that day, a relatively light day on the Camino. The path took me further up the mountain, until a sign informed me that I was 1300 meters above sea level. There, a statue of a windswept pilgrim presides over the road, providing a kind of solidarity to the passing traveler.

Then I began to descend into the heartland of Galicia. The landscape became ever greener as I went along. The countryside was at its most bucolic, with winding dirt roads cutting across fields ringed with forest. Cows were ever-present, as were there droppings. David Attenborough continued to amaze me with his stories of the natural world. I also listened to some broadcasts of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America—the British journalist’s reflections on American life. In my diary, I remarked of Cooke: “He is like a village priest, weaving together history, folk wisdom, penny philosophy, and current events.” For the record, I have never met a village priest.

The tree is apparently 850 years old.

Finally, I arrived in Triacastela. On the way in I passed the famous Castaño de Ramil, a famous chestnut tree that is a major landmark on the Camino. Apparently it is about 850 years old; it certainly looks like it, at least. The town of Triacastela is small and lovely. It is situated in a valley, surrounded by the woods on all sides. I checked into an albergue owned by a very pleasant man from Ibiza, and immediately went to the restaurant he recommended for a hearty meal. My hunger slaked, I spent the rest of the day just lazing about. But I was extremely happy. In my diary I wrote:

“I feel as though today I found what I was looking for. Galicia always does it. The landscape could easily be upstate New York. The weather is almost perfect—sunny, but not hot. I love the vibrant lushness and the bucolic charm. As I write, I can see cows grazing and hear their bells tinkling. A mother and daughter are nearby, playing on some swings.”

What I was searching for was, apparently, nature and peace. And, truth be told, I can remember few times when I was so absolutely content. This did not make me, however, any more willing to socialize with my fellow pilgrims. Many people love the chance to make friends on the Camino. Not me. When I walk, I want to be alone, and I make sure not to invite any unwanted conversation. I suppose this makes me antisocial and unpleasant. But there are not that many opportunities in life to be really alone.

At least the beard made me look more like a pilgrim.

Day 6: Triacastela to Sarria

This day I had a decision to make. The Camino here forks into two roads: one leads to Sarria via Samos, and the other gets there via San Xil. The path through Samos is attractive because it passes by the Abadía de Samos, an impressive historic monastery. This seemed like obviously the better option until I found out that the monastery did not open until noon; and if I wanted to get to Sarria at a reasonable time (in time for lunch, and before the heat of the day) I would pass through Samos in the early morning. Perhaps I should have done what many other pilgrims did, and go straight past Triacastela to see the monastery in the evening. Having missed my chance, I decided to take the San Xil route, since it is supposed to be the more picturesque.

It certainly was. The morning mist rolled up through the valley, obscuring the landscape in a white fog until the sun was finally warm enough to break it up, revealing the ever-green Galicia underneath. Vines clung to trees and moss to rocks. Birds called in the canopy overhead. I shared the road with cows and watchful dogs. Sometimes the path took me up on a hill, offering me a view of the sweet, almost innocent landscape all around me. It is the sort of place that makes city-dwellers want to move to a farm and start milking cows. 

I arrived at Sarria feeling a little sad. This was my last day on the journey. Though I was enjoying it immensely, the news was increasingly alarming: levels of COVID were spiking once again. It was possible that the different regions would once again go into lockdown (and they would, though about a month later)—which was not good for me, as my identity card was expired and awaiting renewal. Getting back to Madrid felt urgent. So I tried to savor my last day in Galicia.

Compared to the little towns I had been staying in, Sarria, with a population of 13,000, felt like an actual city. It is not a place devoted exclusively to pilgrim tourism. There are high schools and pet shops and locals eating in the restaurants. After lunch, I tried to do a little sightseeing by walking around the Fortaleza, a ruined fortress, but my sore feet made me give it up. So I went to bed early, with a full belly and an empty mind.

Day 7: Sarria to Madrid

Accustomed to my Camino schedule, I woke up in the early morning, even though my train back to Madrid left at noon. With nothing to do, I decided I would hike part of the next section of the trail. So, with my backpack on my aching shoulders, I headed off into the early-morning fog.

I crossed a stone bridge and then found myself in the countryside once more. Further on, the trail crossed a local railroad without any gates or lights to warn of an oncoming train. A little dangerous. It was remarkably misty that morning. The landscape was entirely invisible. The sun was just a vague yellow blotch in the sky, as in a painting by Turner. I could hardly even see ten feet in front of me (that’s about three meters). Out of the sea of fog a flying magpie appeared and disappeared. Somewhere nearby a dog started barking at me. Spiderwebs were covered in water droplets. And then, seemingly all at once, the fog cleared away and I was once again in the beautiful green of Galicia.

After passing through some small villages the trail took me alongside another highway. A truck passed by, carrying live pigs—spreading a stench so bad that I was only too glad to wear my cloth-diaper mask. Finally I decided that I could not afford to go any further and so turned back toward Sarria. All the savoring in the world could not make time stand still. I said a long and sad goodbye to the Galician countryside. I arrived back in Sarria in time to eat lunch before my train ride.

And then it was time to go. This was the seventh or eighth time I had been on this train back to Madrid from the north, and each time it has been a mournful experience. In the five hours of the journey, the landscape dries out; the trees disappear; and the green of Galicia is transformed into the straw color of the interior. But this time was different. More than any vacation I have ever taken, I had achieved a state of blissful peace during my walk. It was a very good Camino.

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