Once my daughter and I completed our first Camino in 2017 (Astorga to Santiago) we responded to the Pilgrim’s Office (Oficina de Acogdia dl Peregrino) to obtain our Compostela. We anxiously waited in line with Pilgrims from around the globe, and once it was our turn to step up to the long counter, we were greeted by a volunteer who asked us a few questions and examined our pilgrim’s passport. He then advised we qualified for our first Compostela. We were then offered an additional document ‘Certificate of Distance’. Although I had not previously heard about this document I ordered one without hesitation.
We were charged 3 euros and received our certificate. which was a beautiful document written in Spanish calligraphy and signed by the Dean of the Cathedral de Santiago. This distance acknowledgment lists our names, starting point, dates of travel and the total Camino distance walked. Some folks have said the kilometer distance is not accurate but this does not matter to me. We also purchased a cardboard mailing tube to safeguard and/or ship our Compostela and ‘Certificate of Distance’ document for only 2 additional euros.
I believe the Pilgrim’s Office only began offering these “Certificate of Distance” documents in 2014 in conjunctions with the traditional Compostela for Pilgrims who reach Santiago de Compostela. The Pilgrim’s office also allows you to request one via email if you were unable to obtain one after your Camino.
Here is a link to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela:
Pilgrim’s Passport or Credential (credencial del peregrino) for the Camino Santiago de Compostela
While traveling on the Camino Santiago de Compostela pilgrims carry small accordion pleated booklet called a credential or pilgrim’s passport. This document is used to identify you as a pilgrim and to track and verify your progress along the camino. The credential has numerous small blank squares, that the pilgrims will eventually fill with inked stamps or ‘sellos’ from albergues, refugios, lodging, churches, police stations, museums, eating/drinking establishments, and tourist sites. Each place has its own unique sellos.
Although it is not required to have a credential to walk the camino, unless you are staying in an albergue ( pilgrim’s hostel), if you want to receive a compostela at the end of your journey, you must carry this document and have at least 2 sellos stamped in it every day from Sarria, Spain until you reach Santiago. The official requirement request 2 sellos per day for the final 100km of walking ( or riding a horse) and 2 stamps per day for final 200km if you are on a bicycle.
Many of the stamps list the town on them and you can obtain one from the innkeeper when you check in at the end of the day and then an additional one from a church or restaurant during while you are walking. You will see stamps and ink pads on most bars when you enter a place to buy a coffee. Just ask any waiter for a Camino sello and he will probably point to it and you will be free to stamp your passport. Excluding albergues, if you do not ask for a stamp you probably won’t get one; it is on you to remember to get your stamps.
Most pilgrims start collecting stamps where ever they begin walking, not just in Sarria. If you start in a far-reaching place like St. Jean Pied de Port, France you might need several credentials because they fill up. Sellos are readily available at most places pilgrims frequent and they become a valuable memento of their Camino experience.
Once you arrive in Santiago proceed to the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office, receive your final stamp and at that point, they will examine your document and if you successfully meet the requirements you will be issued a Compostela which certifies your Camino. You will be allowed to keep both your pilgrim’s passport and your Compostela.
Today we went on a little horse ride up a mountain trail on the Camino.
Elizabeth was still suffering from a blister on one of her toes, and although we tried all the recommended therapies it was necessary to give her foot a rest so it could heal. We decided to skip hiking for a day and to ride horses along the Camino trail instead.
Our next area to walk was up to the mountain hamlet known as O’Cebreiro in Galicia and I found a horse stable called Al-Paso that caters to Pilgrims. Al-Paso is located directly on the Camino in Herrerias and has twice daily trips up the mountain for about 30 euros each. The manager’s name is Victor, and he was a wealth of information about the horses and the Camino. Elizabeth was the youngest rider but luckily there was another young person about 18 years old for her to chum around with. Our group consisted of about 8 riders, 2 guides and the rest Pilgrims from Italy, New Zealand and the USA.
The horses well-cared care for and were given a lot of attention and love by Victor and his staff. There were a lot of flies swarming around the horses’ heads and they were not wearing fly masks, but the assistant assured me that horses were used to it and it didn’t bother them. Still, I spent a lot of the time swatting the pesky insects off of my poor animal’s head during our ride.
Our group rode straight up the mountain and passed many Pilgrims and runners along the way. The ride was smooth but we moved at a quick enough pass that it was fun and exciting. The farmlands and valley views were spectacular and we both really enjoyed this experience.
We only stopped once so the horses could have a drink from a water trough in the center of a small village about 3/4 of the way up. Once we arrived at the top and dismounted we took some photos and then headed to the center of the ancient but tiny village called O’Cebreiro, where we enjoyed local music, some tapas and liquid refreshments.
O’Cebreiro weather is startlingly different from the other parts of the Camino we had walked in. It had a thick mist surrounding it and was much cooler and comfortable out. There are lots of things to see in a small space which has been described as a hobbit’s hamlet. The round stone buildings with thatched roofs are called pallazas and they appear to be right out of a fairy tale. I bought several tee shirts and the prices were very affordable. This is a cool place to spend an afternoon.
As Elizabeth and I continued our pilgrimage towards Santiago, we started to feel like real pilgrims. We seemed to recognize the others everywhere we went and felt comfortable eating and socializing with them.
Just like the other pilgrims, we washed our sweat soaked clothes in a sink each day and then immediately tried to air dry them, because we would be wearing them the following morning. We took a glorious siesta every day after our walk by falling into a deep sleep for a couple of hours around 4:00 pm. This allowed us to recharge and recover from the brutal heat and the steep hills, both up and down. The best part of all was all the stress and concerns from our life back home ceased to exist for us. Camino related concerns were the only thing we worried about, and they were minimal at best. Life was definitely good.
After Cruz de Ferro we walked several kilometers through mostly mountain trails. At one point we saw a paved street abutting the Camino. Parked in a small pullout area was a food truck complete with 5 or 6 plastic tables with umbrellas. This truck stop/rest area was clearly popular because it was the first place to buy anything in a long while. We stopped and had some refreshments including my first beer of this trip. I hardly ever drink beer, but this drink was the best cold one I have ever had in my life. I was so depleted from the heat and the Estrella Galicia beer was so cold and delicious, that I did not care that I was drinking a beer at 10:30 in the morning in front of my daughter. After that day I made a rule that I would reward myself with one delicious Estrella every day until we left Spain.
While at the rest stop we were speaking with a Spanish pilgrim and she explained there were 2 Camino routes available to get to the next town of El Acerbo. One was on the paved road we were on and the entry to the more difficult route was across the street back into a mountain trail. Up to this point we had been walking on loose rock-filled dirt trails and you had to be extra cautious of where you were placing your feet because the rocks were so unstable. My feet were killing me, it was hotter than hell out and I had no desire to fight pesky unstable rocks anymore that day, so we decided to walk on the side of the asphalt road to the next town.
When I grew up, many years ago, the kids in my neighborhood use to race barefoot and I was quite good at it. After walking about 20 minutes on the asphalt route, I removed my hiking boots and walked for the next 45 minutes with just my socks on my feet. Having shed the heavy boots for a period proved to be the most comfortable my feet felt the entire time we were in Spain. My daughter removed her hiking boots as well and walked the same distance in her flip-flops. We were happy campers.
After about an hour we re-entered the other route and started hiking in the mountains again. The trail was treacherous and I fell once, but soon enough we were back in our grove. We passed through El Acerbo and the picturesque village of Molinaseca and spent the night in the city of Ponferrada, which has a population of about 65,000.
At this point, Elizabeth complained of a blister on her toe. On the Camino blisters are a big deal and the pain can dash a pilgrim’s hope of finishing the pilgrimage, so off to the pharmacy we went. In Spain, you don’t have to go to the Emergency Room for some basic medical care instead people go to the local pharmacy. The pharmacist listened to our blister problem and then provided expert treatment recommendations. I then purchased every kind of blister remedy she suggested and then some.
We then walked around this fairly large city and visited a few of the cultural and religious sites, including the exquisite Basilica of Our Lady of Encina.
In the year 2009, my family faced a heartbreaking situation when my husband and father to our 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth died after valiantly fighting the dreadful disease known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). At the time of his death, we both had successful careers and Elizabeth had not even begun kindergarten. It rocked our world to the core, but I decided right away I was not going to allow our great misfortune ruin our lives, so I chose to survive.
After the funeral, I really had no time to properly grieve because I was responsible for a small child and a demanding career. We fell into a routine and with tremendous help from our family, Elizabeth did great. She is now 13 years old and remembers very little of our life before ALS robbed her of her dad.
I found working, commuting and single parenting very difficult, so at age 52, when I had accumulated enough time to retire, I did. I stayed home and raised my then 7-year-old and removed some of the parental burdens from my parents, who up to my retirement were doing most of the child-rearing.
My late husband’s name was Joe and he was a New York City Police Detective. Everyone who met him agreed he was the perfect example of a stereotypical NYPD type of guy, with his thick NYC accent, always impeccably dressed in Paul Stewart suits, quick-witted and sarcastic. He was 6’5” and weighed well over 230 pounds so criminals rarely tried to flee or fight with him or his brothers in blue. He definitely could protect himself and the rest of our family. In 2008 he started slurring his words and losing weight but we did not know what was wrong. In late 2008 it was apparent that the problem was ALS and several months later he was dead.
My husband was a September 11th World Trade Center first responder, as were most of the people we hung out with and knew, but his illness has yet to be formally linked to that horrible time. As most of those who were present while the attack happened we know what really happened down there. There were no respirators or face protection on that day and many, many people have since become sick and have passed on. Our family and friends believe his disease was caused by the toxins he inhaled during those first hours at Ground Zero.
I have wanted to walk the French Way of the Camino Santiago de Compostela since viewing the movie, “The Way” in 2010. Although still struggling with grief, we had built a nice life for ourselves, but I thought if I completed this pilgrimage maybe I could finally put his death behind me. The time was not right because of Elizabeth’s young age and I was fearful of taking her to Europe to walk alone. In 2017 I finally decided the time was right, so Elizabeth and I flew to Spain to walk the Camino Santiago de Compostela.
One of the important stops along the Camino is named Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) and it is the highest point on the way. As you can see from the attached photos, a metal cross is affixed to tremendous wooden pole that is surrounded by a massive pile of small rocks which have been growing larger each year as pilgrims walk past. Pilgrims place a rock in their backpack when they leave home and it stays there until they arrive at the Iron Cross and then they leave the rock at the base of the mound. The act of leaving the stone is to absolve them from their sins and to leave their burdens or pain behind on the mound.
There are several legends of the origins of the Iron Cross, one being it was built by the hermit Gualcemo in the 11th Century to help pilgrims cross the mountains or maybe it was simply erected centuries earlier as a trail marker for when the ground was covered in snow.
While still at home we prepared a nice beach rock with Joe’s name and attached a small replica of his NYPD badge. We carried it to Spain and hiked with it until we arrived in Cruz de Ferro.
When we approached Cruz de Ferro I was immediately struck at how different this site was from all the previous Camino stops. There was a paved path, lots of police vehicles watching the site and busloads of tourist waiting for their chance to climb to the top. Definitely not the quiet peaceful sites we used to on the Camino.
After Elizabeth and I climbed to the top of the mound I could only focus on the thought that what we were standing on had been built by so many others before us and all the new stones we were leaving would soon be crushed by future pilgrim’s stones thus building the pile larger.
Elizabeth and I then left our precious stone on the base with all the others. This was a solemn moment for us and there were tears, but overall, I was overjoyed remembering our love and acknowledging the grief and great loss we have experienced during the past 8 years. Rest in Peace Detective D.
We then continued on the way, happy to be in Spain, grateful to have been married to my best friend and hopeful that life for my daughter and I would just keep getting better.
Today we jumped out of bed and headed out to walk through the Monte des Leon (mountains of Leon). I first stopped at the reception desk to drop off the key and buy some water for the long day ahead, only to find a sign that informed us that reception was closed and those departing should leave the key on the desk. Okay then…
It was still dark out and the was air was misty as we headed up the hill and soon passed a closed café. I kept assuming we would find someplace to buy water for the upcoming walk but I was wrong. As always, around 5:30 a crowd of pilgrims were beginning their daily trek and soon enough we approached a Camino arrow and could see with our headlamp that the trail was leaving the village and heading into a forested area. I knew from looking at a map that the next town was only 6 kilometers away and figured it wouldn’t be difficult. The heat hadn’t started it meteoric rise yet but all we had was about 5 swigs of water left in our water bottle. Most reasonable people would turn around and wait until the town opened up to buy water but not me. I just wanted to stay with the multitude of pilgrims, avoiding a late start and being left behind. Huge mistake.
When the sun finally rose, we could see the landscape had changed dramatically. We were now on a gravelly dirt trail in the mountains. On our right was higher elevation and to our left was a gentle drop down from the mountain slope. We experienced beautiful views but at no time did we see any houses or facilities in any direction.
The heat came in quick and hard, and I was huffing and puffing as we continued forward and upwards. I had put my daughter and myself danger of dehydration and heat exhaustion with my haste to get on the Camino.
After a while, we stopped to rest on a felled tree aka a Camino rest stop, as I tried to figure out how to make this situation right. Camino veterans always say “the Caminoprovides” which is loosely translated to mean that when a pilgrim is lost or out of sorts the Camino will give you what you need, and somehow at just that moment, it did. We were deep in the forest with no cell service or water and thoroughly overheated when two young Brazilian brothers sat down and joined us. They spoke minimal English and I spoke no Portuguese, but they offered us a granola bar. I declined the food and instead asked if my daughter could have a small drink of water because we had none. They shared some of their water with us, I thanked them and we were all on our way again. Many pilgrims have very limited funds and resources, but everyone we met was beyond generous and kind.
We continued on up the mountain range and a short time later we reached the small hamlet of Foncebadon, which until very recently was an abandoned town overrun with wild dogs that supposedly do not like pilgrims. After several famous books and a popular movie about the Camino Santiago de Compostela were released and the Camino regained its popularity and this once deserted town is now being reborn. I believe 10 people now reside there and volunteers routinely visit to assists with pilgrims passing through.
I rushed into the first cafe and purchased at least 5 bottles of spring water and some locally made cheese. This café, as were most, was located right on the Camino trail, literally a few steps from where pilgrims walked by. As we sat outside at the plastic picnic tables assembled for the pilgrims we saw our Brazilian saviors. I gave the brothers several bottles of water but they declined my offer to buy their breakfast. I am quite sure they thought I was some crazy old lady, dangerously walking in the mountains with her child with no provisions and they were right. We would see them again many times on the trail and I will always be grateful for their kindness.
Foncebadon is an isolated mountain outpost with a strange but quaint vibe. It looks like it could be a science fictions movie set but staged in a beautiful country area. It’s main, and possibly the only road is made of dirt and runs straight up into the mountains, but on both sides of the road are all these old, dilapidated stone structures that don’t look habitable; most without roofs or windows. But every now and then someone has gentrified one of these ruins and now uses it as a café or albergue. It’s either going to be the coolest location to visit in about 10 years because of these unique structures being renovated or completely deserted again because too many of these same structures have collapsed. It’s hard to tell which will happen.
In the 12th Century, a hermit named Gaucelmo set up shelter and protection for pilgrims passing through the mountains here. It was an important route toward Santiago but in the late 20th Century it was known more as an abandoned town where wild dogs routinely attacked pilgrims. We did not see any wild dogs ready to pounce on us as we passed, though we did see at least 30 -40 gentle sheep wandering down the road toward us. Elizabeth loved this encounter with the sheep.
After moving on, we were blessed to have experienced one of my favorite moments on the Camino. As we walked the trail the forest opened up and we could now see the most beautiful blue sky and an incredible panoramic view of the valley. We heard cowbells ringing in the distance and saw several horses grazing a few feet from us. We then sat on my towel about 10 feet from the Camino on the side of a mountain saturated with acres of wildflowers and hundreds of bright orange butterflies and had an impromptu picnic of farm fresh cheese, chocolate, rasberries and spring water. Absolute heaven.
At around 3:00 0 in the afternoon we finally arrived at our hotel in Rabanel del Camino, Spain. Although most of the trail had seemed relatively flat, we were now in the mountains region and we started to experience long, steep inclines, including the road through Rabanal del Camino to our hotel.
The isolated village of Rabanel del Camino is a small ancient hamlet with a population of about 60 residents, that sits at the foot of the Mount Irago and has a long interesting history. During the time of the Crusades in the 14th century, the Knights of Templar were widely credited with defeating the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. That same secretive order protected Rabanel del Camino and provided protection to the Christian pilgrims crossing Mount Irago en route to Santiago. Knowledge of the extensive history of Rabanel and the Pilgrimage forces me to understand just how many pilgrims have struggled to walk through its stone streets over prior centuries.
We choose to stay at the El Refugio Hosteria in the center of town, right on the Camino. This quaint family-run inn has 16 rooms and is kept in immaculate condition. The façade of the building is made of stone and the rooms overlook the Monastery, the Camino and you can view the mountains which we would pass through the following day in the distance. We quickly went up to our 3rd-floor room and entered using an old-fashioned skeleton key. I opened the unscreened windows to let in fresh air, while Elizabeth collapsed on her twin bed. Inside the bathroom was the smallest tub I’ve ever seen, only about 2 feet by 2 feet, if my memory serves me right. I filled it with cold tap water and both of us removed our hiking shoes and sweat soaked socks and soaked our feet for a good long time. We immediately felt energized and comfortable.
I then walked across the street to the towns grocery/everything store to buy snacks and water for the next day. I purchased some chocolate and a couple of liters of Aquarius which I wrongly assumed was regular water. Back in the room I tasted the water and realized it wasn’t typical spring water but some sort of sports drink that neither of us liked, so we tossed it out. Yuck. Plan B was to purchase water for the next day from the hotel receptionist before we started out at 5:45am. This turned out to be a big mistake because when we departed there was no one at reception and the stores/ café was closed, so we started walking the Camino without any water in a heatwave. More on this in a future segment.
I then dragged Elizabeth to La Iglesia de Santa Maria de La Asuncion Church across from our hotel. Benedictine monks chant the vespers in Latin each night at this Romanesque church on the Camino. The ancient building had a pretty bell tower but the inside appears to almost resemble a cave. Because this service is well known to pilgrims as a must-see event it is usually packed with locals and pilgrims. I am glad we experienced the vespers but we ended up standing in the back and Elizabeth pouted through the entire Latin mass.
The only caution I have is the chapel is tiny and unless you get there early and are lucky enough to get a set, you will be squeezed in the rear or sides with many other pilgrims and locals. Here is the website if you would like additional information:
We ate a terrific Pilgrim’s meal at the restaurant in our Refugio. The entire gas light eatery was filled with pilgrims enjoying the ambiance, wine, and scrumptious meal. I had the salad with tuna and some pork roast and Elizabeth had her usually spaghetti Bolognese and ice cream. We then went upstairs to our room and past out from exhaustion.