Sunday, February 13, 2011


I consider walking my first Camino in 2007 to be one of the best things that I have done in my life. It wasn't long after my return to Canada that I started to think about an encore. The die was cast when my wife suggested that I use the walk as a fundraiser for Rotary International (we are both Rotarians). And so was born "The Walk to Beat Polio", a project that would ultimately raise in excess of $54 thousand to assist in the eradication of polio from the world.


On the first day of my 2007 Camino, I met a fellow pilgrim from Hungary, Janos Szakal. We became good friends and walked together for about two weeks before separating but agreeing to meet in Finisterre, which we did.  On our third day together we fortunately met Krisztina Toth, also Hungarian. Since Janos spoke no English and I no Hungarian, she helped cement our friendship as she and I could converse in both English and German.

Janos, Krisztina and I in Finisterre at the end of the Camino in 2007

Returning to Europe for my second Camino provided the opportunity for my wife and I to visit Janos and his family in Debrecen prior to my departure for Sevilla. A final evening dinner in Budapest paralleled the dinner with Janos and Krisztina in Satiago de Compostela before we parted ways to return to our respective countries in 2007. We continue to keep in touch.

Our 2008 farewell dinner in Budapest with spouses and friends


Public transportation in Europe is great. It took the equivalent of  $6 and just over an hour to travel by tram, subway and bus respectively from Buda to the airport terminal. At the airport I was told that my luggage could only be checked through to Barcelona despite both legs of the trip being on the same airline. If it weren't for the time and distance I would have preferred the train!

I arrived in Sevilla at 11:15 on October 4 and took the airport shuttle to the Santa Justia bus station. Since it was after midnight the buses were no longer running and I took a taxi which I assumed would drop me off at the front door of the hostel.


The driver dropped me off at the Plaza de la Encarnacion and then directed me down a narrow side street.  Fifteen minutes later I was completely lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleys. A couple who spoke English rescued me and walked me to the entrance of the hostel, which I would never have found without their help. Because it was so late I had to take one of the less desirable upper bunks but surprisingly, I still got a good night's sleep despite a lot of noise.


Sevilla is a gem of a city and well worth visiting for a day or longer. Its early history goes back to Roman times. In the 11th century it became a part of the Moorish empire before being wrestled back by the Christians in the mid-13th century. The city is dominated by the massive Gothic cathedral which by volume is the largest in the world, surpassing both St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London.

La Giralda, the 94 m-tall former minaret is the only remaining vestige of the mosque that used to stand where the cathedral is now located. It was used as both an observatory and a place to call the faithful to prayer before it was converted to a bell tower. The view from the top is superb.


* A number of Rotarians and other people pledged support based on the number of steps that I took. So I attached a pedometer to my backpack to record my daily steps. The final number was an astonishing 1,247,785.

Three and a half weeks of inactivity had taken its toll. The last ten km of the walk was a killer in the 30C heat.

Obviously promenading on the streets of Budapest, Debrecen, Vienna and Prague coupled with too much food and drink  is not the best training for the Camino.

I set off at 9:30 from the traditional starting point, the statue of St. James surrounded by the rest of the apostles in an archway on the west side of the cathedral.

Right across the street was the first of thousands of yellow markers that would guide me to Santiago de Compostela.  This one was barely noticeable at the bottom of the wall by the sidewalk.

As I walked through the outskirts of Sevilla a man leaning out of a big white truck yelled, "Buen Camino Amigo! Buen Camino!".

"Gracias" I yelled back. It felt great.

At Santiponce, barely 10 km from the start I met Marcel and his partner, Tryny from Holland. This was good news as I had not expected to see many pilgrims on this sparsely travelled trail this late in the year.

On the outskirts of Santiponce I toured the remains of the ancient Roman city of Italica.  The amphitheater was the fourth largest in the Roman world. As I walked across the floor it was easy to visualize the titanic gladiatorial battles that had taken place there.

The last 12 km was an absolutely straight farming road that bisected sullen harvested fields as far as I could see. There was not a speck of shade and the sun was hot.

I came across a low point in the road that was filled with dark muddy water and surrounded by thick brambles. Testing the pool with my walking stick, it became obvious that I could not go through. The only option was to skirt between the edge of the pool where it was shallow, and the brambles, which were thorny. About half way across I lost my balance and being top-heavy with the backpack, I was headed for a muddy bath. Fortunately, a last desperate effort with my walking stick saved me.  Even as I caught my balance with the stick, a vision of being extracted by a small crane popped into my head!

I was sitting  in the town square when Franck from Belgium arrived. We were to see each other daily for the next two weeks.

To get into the clean but spartan albergue you had to get the key from the local police station which turned out to be closed. Apparently the police also take a siesta in the afternoon.  Eventually someone came along to open up and shortly thereafter Marcel and Tryny arrived. 

Franck and Marcel


The bar next to the albergue was open early and the four of us had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and tostadas. Overnight, the clouds had rolled in making it a pleasant day for walking. At first the trail took us through gentle fields of ripening olive trees but it didn't take long for the path to turn rocky and much steeper. I think the rocks had been placed there solely to be tripping hazards for those who were too bold or didn't pay attention, so I became very focused and walked warily for the last 10 km. 

Castilloblanco de los Arroyos is a pretty hillside town with white houses, trimmed  in various colours and decorated with wrought iron balconies and window grills.

View from the roof of the albergue

The albergue, located on the second floor of a community centre, is quite nice but the citizens are not so nice. During the night someone came up the stairs and stole all of Katerina's toilet and make-up articles that she had left in the bathroom. Pretty brazen.

That evening we got together at a local bar and indulged in a well-earned hearty dinner, liberally washed down by all the red wine we could drink.  It was a perfect ending to the day!

I enjoyed the home made sign outside the bar. Now is this where they have a pilgrim's menu or do they refuse to serve pilgrims?


Today was going to be a challenge. The first lengthy day (~30 km) with many hills and a significant climb towards the end. A smoking hot day and some problems with my arthritic right knee would add to the discomfort and challenge.

The first 17 km of the walk is on the shoulder of highway SE185. Fortunately there was little traffic. This stunning entrance to a "finca"(farm property) made me wonder what the house  that was hidden from view looked like.

It was even more fortuitous that the gate to the Parque Forestal de El Berrocal was open otherwise I would have had to walk the whole way to Almaden de la Plata along the highway. Once in the park the flora changed dramatically with cork oaks as far as I could see.  Made me think of the many bottles of wine I've uncorked.

The last steep uphill of the day was the climb to the Cerro del Calvario. There were virtually no switchbacks - almost straight up the whole way. The track was more suitable for goats.  My heart was pounding and I had to stop to catch my breath several times but in the end the views both north and south were stunning.

The trail can be seen to the left.

The white-washed buildings in Almaden de la Plata were magnificent in the sun.

Note the rocky trail.

The albergue is great with full facilities, hot showers and a well supplied kitchen. The local restaurant that served a menu del peregrino was closed so the four of us made a communal dinner with salami, tuna, bread, olives and lots of red wine. It was a satisfying end to the day.


The first part of our day started with a beautiful walk through acres of holm oaks that were overflowing with herds of free roaming sheep and black pigs while vultures circled overhead looking for an easy meal. I kept a wary eye on some of the large pigs but they seemed to feign indifference to pilgrims.

Then came the gates.

The clang of the first gate I opened and closed was still ringing in my ears when I came upon the second gate...and shortly thereafter the third. By the time I had exited the 25th gate I had barely walked 10 km. Enough gates already!

In the middle of nowhere I walked by this very posh finca. It was a stunningly beautiful home that was totally incongruous with its environment. It even had manicured lawns!

Near the quaint little town of El Real de la Jara where Franck and I stopped for a coffee was a memorial dedicated to Jose Luis Salvador Salvador who played a prominent role in the modern revival of the Via de la Plata. It is dedicated people like Salvador that we have to thank for the trails that we walk.

It was blissfully quiet as I continued walking through the holm oak forest. All I could hear were the sounds of my feet and walking stick hitting the ground, the squeaking of my backpack harness and the birds that  disturbed along the way. It was heavenly.

As I rounded a corner I saw this magnificent ruined "castillo".  With a couple of million it could be as good as new.

Unfortunately the last ten km were along a busy highway, never a pleasant walk. My legs ached, I was very tired and with 3 km to go I ran out of water. As I entered Monasterio I spied a bar. The water tasted as good as anything I can remember, but the beer chaser was even better.

The albergue was closed (a new one was under construction) so Franck and I decided to share a room in a hostal.  The Dutch couple didn't arrive and we thought it unlikely that we would see them again.


At Monasterio the trail passed from  Andalucia to Extramadura, a vast but relatively flat and sparsely populated region of Spain. 

The biggest challenges for pilgrims are the long distances between towns and villages and the scarcity of facilities and supplies. Yet this is the best place to view the cultural, architectural, and engineering achievements of the Roman Empire. I could hardly wait to get to Merida, a UNESCO World Heritage site some 110 km ahead.

A typical view of Extramadura
The yellow arrow on the rock is hardly necessary.

The first half of the of the day was a pleasant walk through oak forests on a trail that was enclosed by dry stone walls that continued the whole way. Off in the distance I could see the whitewashed town of Calera de Leon.  Pretty to look at, but not my destination today.

At the half way point the scenery changed completely to open bleached grasslands with few fences and trees. At one point I saw a carved wooden map of the Via de la Plata and right beside it was a red metal box. Inside it was a video cassette case with a pen and book for pilgrims to leave words of encouragement for those following. I wrote, "You must have courage to make your dreams come true".

Approaching my destination I saw a man ploughing his field. It was as if I had stepped back 100 years in time. The pace of life in central Spain is so different from its major cities.

Franck and I stayed in the albergue turistico, a superb and luxuriously restored former Franciscan convent . The 12 euro fee included breakfast. What a bargain!


The first five days although very hot (~30 C) had been almost perfect for walking. But it was about to change. I was awoken at 6:00 AM by the sound of rolling thunder, lightning flashes and rain.  When we left the albergue turistico at 8:30 it wasn't raining but we could hear the thunder and see the lightning all around us. It felt ominous. We stopped briefly in Calzadilla de los Barros for a coffee

This sign manufactured from fired tiles highlighs the tourist
 attractions in  Calzaldilla de los Barros.

As we continued, the thunder got louder and nearer. The sky to the west became ominously dark and it was apparent that we were about to get very wet. I stopped to get out and put on my poncho but it was already too late.  The rain gushed down like someone up there had flushed a toilet. All I had time for was to drop to the ground by my backpack and use the poncho as a shelter. Heavy rain and hail pounded me for over 15 minutes. That stuff hurts!

The oncoming storm

It rained for the rest of the walk (16 km) to Zafra. The trail was a mess. It seemed to be a conduit for water draining from the adjacent fields and in some portions it was like walking upstream. The trail had become a raging torrent of water which pooled in low areas so there was no choice other than to walk right through it. Where there was no water, the soil had turned to sticky brown clay that stuck to my feet thereby adding to the burden. There is little difference between wet and wetter so I just kept going.

I couldn't help thinking, "There must be an easier way to raise money to eradicate polio."

I was never so happy to get to the albergue so that I could get out of my wet clothes and soaked boots and start drying out. Franck and I looked like drowned rats when we arrived. A long hot shower restored me to humanity.
We stayed at a new private albergue with a lovely central courtyard. The regular rate was 15euros but peregrinos paid 12 euros which included breakfast.


The weather had definitely changed. We left Zafra in a light drizzle and a bit of fog. It wasn't a problem since we were well prepared. Because of the rain I was unable to periodically stop and take care of my feet.  On my first Camino it beame a habit to clean my feet and socks and apply vaseline to my feet every two hours or so.  As a result, I never got so much as one blister.  I worried a bit about my feet as I walked the 21 km in a single go, but luckily I arrived at the end with happy feet.

On the outskirts of Zafra are the remains of a convent that goes back to the 15th century, the Torre de San Francisco. All the remains is this lonely sentinel watching over the pilgrims as we file past.

One of the things that I like about the directional markers in Extramadura is that you can rest and eat while sitting on them. There are very few places to sit along the rest of the Caminos other than in the main squares of towns and villages and sometimes that means you have to walk miles before you can take a load off your feet.

The trail was muddy from all the rain. I felt like I was carrying a part of Spain with me with every step as the grey clay-like mud clung to my boots leaving large craters in my wake.

Our muddy footprints.

We passed the Gothic Iglesa de Nuestra Senora in the main square in Los santos de Maimona

There is no albergue here, so, Franck and I stayed at the Casa Perin , something like a B&B but without the second B.


Kilometer after kilometer of grape vines interspersed with groves of olive trees made this a flat boring day. Boredom was broken by occasional groups of workers harvesting grapes and olives.

Note that there are no trellises for the grape vines that go on forever.

These olive harvesters wanted me to take their I did.

This guy was happily doing it the old fashioned way.

The only excitement was how to traverse an elevated railway line underpass that was compltely flooded.

Note the yellow arrow on the wall of the underpass.

We were surprised to meet the Dutch couple in Torremejia. We all got together to have dinner at a local bar. The price seemed excessive but Marcel, who speaks excellent Spanish, managed to get us a discount.



The 16 kilometers to Merida passed quickly in anticipation of viewing the many archeological wonders from the Roman era.  There is no grander entrance to a city on the Camino than the 60-arch Puente Romana. This is one of the largest and best examples of a Roman engineered bridge in the world. It was finally limited to foot traffic in the 1990's.

The next three hours were spent touring and viewing Merida's Roman past. Here is a selection of photographs.

The Diana Temple, unfortunately with a newer building in its interior .

The anfiteatro. Note the patrons awaiting the start of the "games".

The 1st century BC, 6000 seat Teatro Romana is located immediately beside the anfiteatro and continues to be used for presentations to this day.

As you leave the city there are more incredible sights. The 15 metre arch, the Arco de Trajano was located on one of the principal Roman streets (Kardo Maximus) in the city.

Lastly there are the remnants of the immense 25 metre high Acueducto de los Milagros that was part of a system that provided water from a reservoir some six km from Merida.

The reservoir, Embalse de Proserpina, was the biggest in the Roman Mediterranean world with 21 metres thick walls that extended for almost 500 metres.

I struggled for the remainder of the day and finally arrived in Aljucen as it was getting dark. I went to bed at 8:30 and fell asleep at 8:29.


The tenth day covered 38 kilometers under a blazing hot sun. The first half passed quickly as it was not overly warm early in the morning. The landscape consisted of holm oaks, pasture (the land is too rocky to be arable) and endless kilometers of scrub land. We stopped for a leisurely lunch in Alcuescar.

The rocky trail near Alcuescar

Franck near Alcuescar

The last 17 kilometers were pure hell! The only things that made it interesting were the occasional Roman artifacts that I saw as I walked along the ancient Roman Via de la Plata trail.

"Miliario" (Roman milestone) built into a stone wall

The authorities in Extramadura have installed "stepping stones"
in areas prone to flash floods

Hot, dusty and dry

The tiny albergue in Aldea del Cano had two rooms with two bunkbeds each and five mattresses for overflow sleeping on the floor. The two rooms were already occupied. Strangely one of the rooms had duffel bags - clearly not something a pilgrim would be using. It turned out that the four occupants had arrived by car. By rights they should not have stayed at the albergue but there didn't seem much point in arguing so Franck and I slept badly on the thin mattresses. But it didn't seem fair considering that we had walked 38 km to get there.