This isn’t just the next installment of my Camino journey—I also have an exciting announcement and an invitation to you at the end of this post!
When I wake up, I get to choose. I want to get an early start for today’s walk, so instead of a huge breakfast before leaving my boutique hotel, it’s just an espresso, a chocolate croissant, and a little fruit. I’ve loved staying here, partly because the hosts have been so warm and welcoming. When I check out, I thank them for their hospitality and kindness.
“Come back any time,” the older man says warmly, and I think he really means it.
My favorite part of going solo is the freedom to choose any option. From when to get up and where to eat, where to stay and for how long, I get to be as spontaneous as I want, change my mind, and be open to discovery.
The early morning air feels refreshing on my face and neck, retracing last night’s steps along the flat path overlooking the ocean. At the church, the Camino will take me to my next hoped-for destination, Lires.
I know that beyond Lires is Fisterra—my favorite village in Spain—but there’s no need to push myself and hurry to get there in one day. Lires is the perfect stopping point in middle, and a remodeled casa rural (B&B) has a cozy room for me there.
Yes, just nine miles (15km) today seems easy enough, but a quick glance at the elevation map tells a different story.
Huh. That’s a surprise! I stop to retie my shoes and say hello to two early pilgrims who pass by together. After adjusting my pack, I stand awestruck for a moment, looking over the expanse of gray ocean reflecting the color of the sky. A bronze plaque on the mile marker shows only the words “a Fisterra” instead of the distance to the end. I’ve never seen that before.
All geared up and ready now, I begin the journey in earnest, following the Camino alongside the asphalt road with fresh paint lines.
I follow the two pilgrims for a while, enjoying the walk, when a car horn startles me. I whip my head around. A van approaches and whizzes by, passengers wave and their smiling faces barely visible through the tinted windows. I wave back as it zooms off.
Who the heck was that? My heart thudding from the surprise. Do I know them?
And then I realize belatedly that it’s the two Spanish couples I met at breakfast yesterday—the ones who seemed so astonished that I would walk alone and carry everything in my pack. How sweet they remembered me! They must have stayed at our hotel last night for the next section today. The lightness of their encouragement stays with me long after their van disappears around the curving road into the hills. Even walking sola, I am not really alone.
It still feels weird to have a bed waiting for me. Before Covid 19 hit, pilgrims just walked until tired then found a pilgrim hostel nearby. No reservations required. I didn’t even bring a cell phone. However, fewer albergues have reopened since the lockdown ended. Even the open hostels have fewer beds due to Spanish social distancing rules.
For my health and peace of mind, I am making reservations along the way, choosing private rooms so I can sleep without a mask. Although this approach is more expensive and lacks the spontaneity I love, it’s comforting to know a bed is waiting for me so I can enjoy a more leisurely pace.
When I get to the first village, Xurarantes, I hope to find an open café for a second breakfast. I need more fuel for these hills, but instead I find this conundrum.
Two Camino markers. One yellow arrows points to the right has a bronze plaque that reads “A Fisterra”. The other points left toward Muxia. At my feet is a red faded arrow pointing right with a giant F. I do wish it was for “food”. It’s the first time I’ve seen markers guiding pilgrims on both north and southbound routes. Sadly, no café.
Walking through the quiet village, I notice a plastic bag tied to a wrought iron fence. I know there is bread inside—not because I opened it, but because towns too small to support a bakery get delivery. As I walk along, these colorful bags are tied to gates and doorknobs holding each family’s daily bread.
And no, even though I’m hungry, I don’t steal the bread. An honor system only works if everyone is honorable, though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it.
For miles, the hills are forested with eucalyptus trees from very tiny seedlings to towering stands. The paved road turns to damp dirt and small gravel. It inclines more steeply, when I encounter this strange word scratched into the mud.
ALCAZAR. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what this is, so I entertain myself with conjecture as huff up the steep hill. Is it a rallying cry? A direction of some kind? Perhaps the name of an upcoming town? Without wifi look it up, all I can do is wonder. And, honestly, in a world where everyone has answers at their fingertips, the art of wondering without resolution is fun. Maybe it’s a magical incantation!
Around the next corner, I meet two pilgrims coming from the opposite direction, a man and woman. I greet them with a “Buenas dias.”
They echo the same, and stop walking. The woman says in Spanish, “The top is very near. We have been walking uphill for hours!”
We talk about the pleasant weather and where we’re from, none of us in a hurry. They’re madrileños, which I remember means from Madrid.
They seem surprised I’m from the U.S. “We haven’t seen many pilgrims who aren’t Spanish.”
Commenting on the size of my backpack, the man asks how heavy it is.
“For me, it’s normal. It’s maybe 11 kilos.” That’s 25 pounds.
“Oh…” they say in unison. They are walking with small day packs, which means their gear must be sent ahead by van. And it makes me wonder if those who can drive or take a train to start the Camino tend to carry more than pilgrims who arrive by plane. For me, checked-bag fees motivate carrying as little as possible!
The man asks, “Tell me, is there a bar or café ahead?”
Since I’ve already walked their path, I’m certain. “No, sadly,” I say. “Just in Muxia. I only had a small breakfast and want to find somewhere to eat soon too.”
“There are many places in Lires,” he says.
I’m about to thank him for the tip when his wife says, “We have cookies. Would you like some?”
Before I can answer, she takes off her pack, rummages through it, and pulls out my very favorite—Principe cookies—a vanilla cookie with chocolate cream sandwiched in the middle.
“Are you sure?” Trying to appear polite and grateful before diving in.
“Sí, sí.” She extends the open package to me, encouraging. I take three and grin with delight.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You are a Camino angel,” and the smiles are returned.
People are why I love the Camino. We may be strangers who never meet again, but we are community. Every pilgrim knows that hunger is a barrier to finishing this journey, and when someone is able help, they usually do. The same is true for pain, cold, and illness. Pilgrims offer to share first aid supplies, pain meds, soap, even money. Experiencing this thoughtfulness and generosity on my 2013 Camino changed my life.
Before I reach the top, ALCAZAR appears two more times scratched into the dirt. No arrows. No symbols. No other clues. Later I learn that it means citadel or royal place in Spanish. But I never saw any building up there. In Galician (the first language of this land), it means reach. That doesn’t make sense either. So, even with Google, wondering is more entertaining than knowing.
Before I know it, the steep hill changes direction at last gently downward through forest and pastures. I pass ALCAZAR written into the dirt two more times, but now upside down. The word must have something to do with the high point I’ve crossed.
I walk uneventfully until, in the distance, I notice a farmer chasing his herd of goats out of a field. They act like reprimanded kids, sheepish for getting caught, leaping over the stone fence and disappearing.
As pass by grassy pastures of Galician red cows, barns, and a resident cat, the walking lulls me into a bucolic peace.
Suddenly, in the middle of the path, is an intimidating posse. I freeze in fear!
Goats scare me, and these horns look sharp as knives. Six of them spread across the road, like the Billy Goats Gruff. Will they let me pass? Or will I get gouged and knocked down by headbutts?
In a soothing voice, I talk to them in Spanish, hoping for the best. I wait for my inevitable demise, but nothing happens. Do they want treats?
Slowly I proceed forward, and they clip clop to make way for me, then let me pass without aggression. Whew! I look back only to realize they’re following me. I have a posse! Laughing, I continue on. The goats trot behind me for a half mile or more before turning back to the barn.
I feel so happy.
And even though it’s still cloudy, it’s beautiful.
I notice at another example of contradicting arrows along the path. I’m not sure how this would help a lost pilgrim, but at least it confirms you’re on the Camino.
As I make my way through brushy forest, something bright in the distance catches my eye through the leafy trees. Water? I have to investigate. It’s concrete tank storing water for irrigation. To me, it’s beautiful as an art installation, the perfect stillness of the water reflecting the sky. I let the pleasure of this small detour hold me rapt for some time.
As I continue down the path, I hear the laughter and chatter of high voices just ahead. Three women emerge from the forest, and all look up at the same time.
“¡Hola!” I call.
“Buenas dias,” they reply. A spontaneous conversation ensues about where we’ve been and where we’re going. After a few minutes, two of them continue on while the third, Rosa, and I talk longer.
She asks me if it’s my first Camino. When I tell her it’s my third, she’s amazed.
“Why so many times?”
“The first one changed my life,” I share with heartfelt spirit. “It was so hard, but it taught me to trust. The second was a journey of gratitude for all the positive changes that happened in my life.”
“Oh,” she says with emotion. It feels like our hearts are meeting, like long lost soul friends.
I continue, “This summer I’m only walking from Santiago to Muxia to Fisterra, but it is for joy. I am so happy to be back in Galicia, my favorite place in Spain.”
“I am from here, from Galicia.” In her brown eyes, I see love, pride, gratitude.
“You are so lucky.”
Her friends laugh in the distance. She glances their way. I wish I could sit and talk with this lovely person for hours. “I will go now,” she says. “Are you staying in Lires? You’re almost there.”
“Good. Go to LiresCa to eat. The restaurant has wonderful Galician food.”
What if we could all live this way every day? Hearts open, supporting and sharing what we know and have to give. Rosa and I exchange gratitudes and well wishes. Then she is gone, but my heart is full. People are my favorite part of the Camino.
Before I know it, the river just outside Lires appears, I stop again to absorb the beauty. No one is here except me and the trees full of birdsong. I stop to rest.
And because I took a video of that moment, you can pause to rest and enjoy too. (Sound up for birdsong!)
Before the bridge was built, pilgrims crossed this river on large stepping stones. In my guidebook, John Brierly complains about the loss of this “quirky” Camino for the new bridge, but I am content with what is. I soak in the sound of water over stones, the spicy fragrance of ferns, the lush greenness of this land of mist and magic. Without a care, I stay longer than I would ever allow myself if I had company.
Eventually, I descend down down down the steep, narrow road into Lires between whitewashed houses with red tile roofs and greenery. Just ahead, I notice a small brown banner that reads LiresCa in cursive which is attached to a modest, one-story house.
Is this it? I continue further and, around the corner, is a hip, two-story building. It has an expansive patio out front with a view of the Lires River estuary and ocean beyond. Wow.
The hostess seats me and looks pleased when I tell her several pilgrims I met recommended her restaurant.
I love that the menu in not in Spanish, but Galician. Spain’s northwest is a culturally unique place that speaks galego. With enough resemblance to other Latin-based languages, I can decipher most items. I laugh at “fingers de polo con salsa barbacoa”. I wonder how many Americans order this!
As my first real meal of the day, I splurge—not on chicken fingers with barbecue sauce—but local specialties and a bottle of local Ribero wine. In succession, tapas plates arrive with tangy mejillones de lata (muscles), a local cheese, smoked salmon mousse, and fresh bread.
The cheese plate is garnished with several small yellow fruits covered with a papery leaf. They look like tomatillos, so I leave them uneaten.
Before bringing the next plate, the hostess points to the neglected garnish and asks me, “Do you know what they are?”
“Tomatillos?” I guess.
Her furrowed brow tells me she doesn’t recognize this word, but she says, “No, they are capulina.”
“Capulina,” I echo. I don’t know this word either.
“Sí,” she says. “Try one. They’re very special. We grow them in the garden, organic.”
How can I say no? Peeling back the leafy skin, I bite off the fruit. Flavors of pineapple, mango, and apricot burst in my mouth, and my eyes widen in surprise. “¡Son deliciosas!”
The hostess smiles, looking pleased. Vindicated.
Maybe it’s because she’s one of the owners, but it’s not the first time in Spain a host has commented about my food choices. They say, Try this, it’s the local specialty. Or, Oh, salad is boring, the soup of the day is much better. Or they notice I didn’t finish something and ask, Didn’t you like that? An American waitress wouldn’t say a word, fearing a bad tip. Rather than imposing on my experience of the meal, this commentary feels fun and interactive. Maybe this only happens to those who eat sola, but I am glad she urged me to taste groundcherries for the first time. I finish the rest with the last of the cheese.
As if this day hasn’t been wonderful enough, the sun comes out at last, warm and soft. I sigh with deep contentment and savor every mouthful of dessert—a custard with fresh berries—and enjoy the view of the sparkling river as it flows into the sea.
Sated and happy, it’s finally late enough in the afternoon to check in to my casa rural. I wander down the streets to the very edge of the village and discover the casa with picturesque with red roses twining up the wood beams and whitewashed walls.
The owner is a friendly woman who gets me settled in a room much nicer than the one I booked. At first, I wonder if it was a mistake, but she explains that since it isn’t full tonight, she upgraded me to a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony.
You’ve got to be kidding me. This is heaven.
After marveling at the view from my tiled balcony, I flop onto the down duvet, sunbeams streaming through the windows, and surrender to the bliss of a little siesta.
All of today’s choices were mine. The best parts of today—the magic and connection—came because I practiced living in the present moment and was rewarded with wonder, generosity, delight, love, and gratitude. Best of all, these rewards of living in the moment aren’t unique to the Camino or Spain. I can practice this in every moment of my life.
I am one lucky, grateful pilgrim.
An announcement and invitation
If you enjoy my storytelling and want practice telling your own, I’m offering a class this October called Telling Courageous Stories. I’m SO EXCITED to offer this for the first time. If you’re at all curious, learn more by clicking this link: jenniferhofmann.com/class/telling-courageous-stories/