Pilgrims of San Antón

Flora and Antonio knew about San Antón. Maybe they had read about it in their guidebook. Ruins of a 14 century church. No electricity. No hot water. 12 beds. Dinner and breakfast included. Cost: by donation. Maybe friends who have done the Camino told them about it. Maybe they stayed at a place earlier in their Camino where the owner told them about it. I don’t know how they knew of it, but they walked through our gates at 11 AM and asked if there were still beds available. “You are our first pilgrims of the day,” I told them. They raised their eyebrows. “Really? We heard we had to get here early because it often filled up.”

“Yes, sometimes it does,” I said. “But we have been here for four days and have not had a full night yet.”

A pilgrim’s first view of San Antón

They looked around, mouths agape. It isn’t often that one gets to spend the night in a church that has been abandoned for 300 years. Stone walls towered above them. Birds flew in and out of windows that no longer held glass. They walked further into the structure, the stones crunching beneath their feet.

Hard to believe pilgrims get to spend the night in this amazing place. And I get to stay for two weeks!

I invited them into the kitchen, where I gave them water flavored with lemon and mint (from our herb garden). I learned Antonio only spoke Spanish. Flora, who didn’t know Spanish, spoke to him and her native Italian and they got along just fine. Thankfully, she also spoke English.

After writing their names, passport numbers, and countries of origin in our registry book, I told them dinner is served at seven. “We begin cooking at six and you are welcome to help if you would like, but it is not required.”

I showed them the dorm room: six sets of bunkbeds. Then I walked them over to the bathroom, explaining that we have limited water, so please don’t waste it. (Though since we have no hot water, pilgrims don’t usually spend too long in the shower.)

Just then, my co-hospitalero, Stefano, walked through the gates. He had just returned from a morning spent in the next town, 3 km (2 miles) away. (Every day one of us walks into town in the morning to purchase food for that evening’s meal. We have a butane powered refrigerator the size of a large microwave, so can’t store too much.)

Steffano making breadcrumbs with our stale bread.

I took our first guests down to the picnic table by the gates to meet Stefano. After exchanging pleasantries, Antonio asked if there was a place nearby to purchase food. Stefano explained that the only place to do so was in Castrojeriz, 3 km away. Antonio declared that he wanted to cook Spanish tortilla for us tonight. “We have eggs and potatoes,” Stefano said, knowing the ingredients of the popular dish.

“How many eggs?” Antonio asked. We all walked up to the kitchen. “Six,” we told him after checking our supply. (Thankfully, we don’t have to carry eggs back from town. The bread truck comes to us every day except Sundays. And it also has eggs and milk.)
Antonio thought for a minute and then asked about our potato supply. I slid back the curtain in front of our shelves and showed him the four potatoes sitting on the bottom shelf in a plastic crate. “And you have an onion,” he said, seeing it behind the potatoes. “That will be good. But I may need more eggs.” (Especially since, on any given night, we have no idea if we will have two pilgrims or twelve, or anywhere in between.) Despite the 90° temperature, Antonio shrugged his shoulders when Stefano reminded him it was 3 km further down the road. Antonio pulled a small day pack out of his larger backpack, and promptly took off.

Two hours later he returned, pulling his purchases out of his pack. A red pepper, green pepper, tomato, and then a half-carton of eggs dripping with the insides of the one that didn’t make it. We all laughed. And then Stefano and I asked him how much it cost so that we could pay for the ingredients. Antonio went on a long rant about how cheap things were in this part of Spain. And that this was his gift to us. Though Stefano and I had only been hospitaleros for two nights, and therefore had to cook only two dinners so far, we were still delighted to have someone else take over the cookhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vy9ulaolqcing duties.

For a video tour of the ruins at San Antòn, click here. 

Italian Men

“Maybe we should open the door a little bit, otherwise I think it will get way too hot in here tonight,” she said. Her roommate agreed, and she cracked open the door to the outside. She laid back down and felt a slight breeze wash over her, but she was still quite warm. And she was the one laying close to the door. Her roommate, she imagined, might not be feeling any of this.   

“Maybe we should open it up all the way,” she said. Her roommate agreed saying, “Whatever you want to do. My only concern is that YOU are comfortable.” She smiled. “I want you to be comfortable too,” she said. But she knew her roommate genuinely meant that his happiness was dependent on hers. After all, he was an Italian man. And she had learned a bit about Italian men in her travels.  

The first time she went to Italy, many people in the US warned our heroine about the forwardness of the men there, especially since she was a mere 23 years old and traveling alone. Indeed, she found them quite to be just that, but not in a way that she found offensive. It wasn’t as if they were making cat calls and whistling. It was mostly compliments. Still, she just smiled and said thank you despite their attempts to continue the conversation. Which she was amazed they did even after she told them she didn’t understand a word of their language. 

Six years later, our heroine found herself in Italy once more. This time she was with her 82-year-old grandmother, her brother, and two female cousins, the latter three all in their 20s as well. This time, it was put heroine’s turn to warn her cousins about the way Italian men approached women so easily and freely. But she was in for a surprise. She now knew to expect and accept the attention, but she didn’t realize that it would not be initially directed at her nor her cousins but at her grandmother. 

 Her grandmother wore her tour group name tag everywhere they went. In large capital letters it read “Angelina,” and then, in slightly smaller letters below that, it read, “Gallo.” Countless Italians stopped to talk to her– they knew the tag indicated she was in a tour group, but she had a very much Italian name. The grandmother, fluent in a dialect of Italian that is dying off with her generation, delighted everyone. And the men? They were smart. They saw she was traveling with three 20 something brunettes and thus they always began by complimenting Angelina on her beautiful granddaughters. Then, they would have further conversation with her, and only after charming her would they ask about the marital status of her three granddaughters.

Even when we were visiting Italian relatives, Grandma kept that name tag on!

 It was during this trip that our heroine realized that the Italian men were not forward just to pick up women. They had a genuine appreciation for the opposite sex. Like they were thrilled to death God had put them on the planet, and they wanted women to know just how thrilled they were. 

In 2005, our now 35-year-old heroine was walking the Camino to Santiago (a network of thousand-year-old pilgrimage trails across Europe). In one small village, she met a German man who was a diplomat in England. After their introductory conversations about their respective journeys, he complimented her on the dress she wore, but then quickly apologized. “I just remembered you are American. I was merely saying that you look nice in your dress, and I don’t mean anything more by it.” 

“I didn’t think you did, “she said. “And thank you.” 

“I’ve traveled enough to know that American women don’t like compliments from men because they always think men want something more,” he explained. They talked about how sad this was. And our heroine explained that she actually enjoyed how freely some European men complemented her.

The dress our heroine has worn on every Camino.

But when our heroine arrived at San Antón to begin two weeks of volunteering along the Camino de Santiago, she had forgotten all of this. She had initially been told that the other volunteer would be an Italian woman. But then learned it was actually a little unclear. Correspondence had been over the internet with someone with a woman’s name, but the picture identifying the person was that of a male. 

 So when put heroine walked into San Antón for the first time, she was surprised to see it was indeed a male volunteer she would be working with. She learned a female friend of his had set up the volunteering on his behalf. 

He was very kind, and in that magical way of things on the Camino, she knew they would work well together over the next two weeks. What she didn’t expect–or remember initially–was how many complements she would receive throughout the day. On her cooking. On her cleaning. On her ideas. And on that same dress she wore on our first Camino. 

Stefano (at the head of the table) and pilgrims preparing dinner at San Antón.

And she knew Stefano didn’t mean anything more by it. She freely talked about the wonderful things her boyfriend Michael did for her. She told Stefano about the surprise 40th birthday party he had thrown for her, and as they sat at the kitchen table Stefano said, “Tell me about it.” So she did. And then she showed Stefano a picture of the painting Michael had commissioned of her on the Camino. Stefano was certainly impressed. 

Her heroine’s 40th birthday gift from Michael.

 And then a pilgrim stopped by, and they went out to greet him. Stefano explained that they were the hospitaleros (volunteers). “I am from Italy, and she is from the United States,” Stefano said, pointing to our heroine. “And she’s the best hospitalera I could ask for.” 

Different Worlds

Keeping up her habit of getting into the cars of people she hardly knows, our heroine used Blablacar.com for the first time today. It’s basically Uber meets hitchhiking. Drivers post where they’re going, when, how much money they want, and how many spaces they have available. Riders search for someone going their way. Why? Because it’s cheaper and faster than public transportation. And you get to meet some locals.

Riders can check out the profile of their potential driver, which includes reviews, photos of the driver and their car, as well as a little info about the driver and their trip. Riders commit by paying via PayPal or credit card. 

Our heroine searched for a ride from Bayonne, France to Burgos, Spain. She found a 31-year-old woman heading from somewhere else further back in France, across Spain, and all the way to Portugal. But both of our heroine’s towns were on the way. They texted back-and-forth to set up a meeting place, and this morning our heroine took a bus to the IKEA in Bayonne to meet her ride. 

Riverfront in Bayonne, France

The car was filled nearly to the brim with people and bags. Our heroine was the sixth passenger. The rider in the backseat noticed the scallop shell on our heroine’s backpack (a universal symbol of the Camino routes and the pilgrims who walk them) and asked if our heroine was going to walk the Camino. “I was walking a route in France– from Le Puy to Figeac, and now I’m going to Spain to volunteer at a hostel along the Camino.” Turns out the rider in the backseat was headed to St Jean-de-Luz, a town on the Atlantic coast of France, to begin walking the Camino Del Norte. It was her first time doing a Camino, her first time doing anything physically challenging. And why? Because her father had died in January and she needed to clear some space in her head, she said.

Thirty minutes later the future pilgrim departed the car outside her destination. Our heroine noticed that she had a cardboard sign on which she had printed “Centre Ville,” the words that mean “center of the village” in France. Though the pilgrim had no Camino experience, she was obviously an experienced hitchhiker. Our heroine wished her “Buon Camino,” and then quickly realized that the new pilgrim had probably never heard the sentiment before, and didn’t know what it meant. But soon the pilgrim would hear it nearly every day from people wanting to wish her well on her journey.

 The group settled back in, and two hours later pulled off the highway for a lunch break. The only man in the car picked up some food at McDonald’s. They then drove to the small village they saw and set up a picnic in the park beside the church. Our heroine went to the nearby bar and had her first tortilla of this trip. (A tortilla in Spain is like a quiche without the crust. Except that it only has potatoes–and sometimes carmelized onions–in it.)

Another hour passed and they reached Burgos. Our heroine first noticed yellow arrows, and then pilgrims with their packs, and realized they were driving along the Camino route. Our heroine encouraged the driver to let her off 3 km (1.8 miles) from the historic district. All four of the other passengers were headed to Portugal and had another five hours ahead of them, and our heroine knew she could find her way to the Cathedral and the nearby municipal albergue (hostel) by following the yellow arrows.

Despite the 90° heat our heroine enjoyed being on the trail again. She was in the newer, modern part of the city and the large buildings shaded most of her way.

 A few blocks into her walk, a man in dress pants and a button-down shirt wished her a “Buon Camino” as he walked past. She said, “Merci,” not having yet adjusted to speaking Spanish instead of French. 

Forty-five minutes later, she arrived at the municipal albergue. The signs at the entrance said it was only for pilgrims. She wondered if they would accept her as technically she had really not walked very far that day. She tried to explain to the men at the front desk, who spoke no English, that she was going to be a hospitalera (volunteer) on Friday at San Antón, but they had no idea what she was trying to communicate. So she just showed them her Camino credential (a small book she had that showed stamps she had collected along the way thus proving her legitimacy as a pilgrim). The men confirmed that she wanted one bed, accepted her five Euros, and then pointed her in the direction of the elevators. 

Leave the Front door of the hostel, turn right, and there’s this!

Our heroine found her way to the sixth floor and to her assigned top bunk. Memories flooded back as she took in the scene before her. Twenty bunkbeds in one room. Towels hanging from the edge of them, pilgrims hoping they would dry by the next day. Sleeping bags spread on mattresses. The din of German, English, Spanish. She was certainly not on a French Camino route anymore. This was the start of a whole other experience. 

Sixth floor of municipal hostel in Burgos, Spain

Lots of laundry drying at the hostel in Burgos

Allergic to the Camino?

Each time she walks a Camino our heroine finds herself, at some point on her journey, with an itchy skin rash or bites. Her retired dermatologist friend says bedbugs, but no one she encounters in Spain seems to think so. This year, she finds the same sentiment exists in France.

On Saturday evening the only window in her room in Cahors opened into a busy street. The door opened into the communal bathroom. But closing one or the other would make the room stuffy. Then someone across the street started playing loud music. Closing the window didn’t help much. Then at 130 a.m. she started itching. She feared bedbugs and turned on her headlamp, but saw nothing. She finally fell asleep around 2 a.m.

The next morning she found bites on her arms, chest, and fingers. Then two more on her right thigh, and one on her belly for a grand total of 26 very itchy spots.

She shows them to her host who says they are not the bites of “punaise” (French for bedbugs). He says bedbug bites show up in groups of three. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. She has read this isn’t true but isn’t in a mood to argue. “Spider bites,” he tells her. “It’s an old house. They’re in the cracks in the stone walls.”

She applies the calamine lotion she received in Spain the last time this happened. She’s given up on caring how it looks to have dried pink lotion visible on much of her body. The lotion helps only for a few hours, but it’s better than nothing.

That afternoon Michel picks her up to drive toward Bayonne, and agrees they are not bedbugs. They arrive at The Alchemist pilgrim hostel in Navarrenx. Jean-Gerard, a self-proclaimed philosopher and her host for the evening, says the same and gives her lavender oil to apply to them. It helps a little and has the added benefit of making her smell nice. 

Navarrenx, France: Michel admiring the artwork outside the Alchemist pilgrim hostel

Our heroine had a room to herself in Navarrenx. However, she arrived at eight, and dinner didn’t get served until 9 pm so she didn’t get to enjoy her room until 11 PM!

The next morning she arrives in Bayonne at 9 a.m. and heads to the tourism office to book a room for the night. She is told there are no hostels here, but a woman next to her exclaims that there is one in her town, not too far away. They try to call, but then are informed that that one has gone out of business. The woman then invites our heroine to spend the evening at her home. Apparently our heroine looks and acts like a person who complete strangers can invite into their cars and homes without worry.

Our heroine accepts the offer. Why not? Her new hostess, Mairielle, brings her home for a much-needed shower and nap.

At some point, our heroine remembers reading something about dipping a spoon into warm water and applying it to mosquito bites to make the itching go away forever. So she tries it on two of her bites, and then applies the calamine again to the others. 

She and her hostess head to the Anglet tourism office so our heroine can use the Wi-Fi to call her boyfriend and parents. Then they take off for a long walk on the beach in Anglet, to the lighthouse overlooking Biarritz. At 8:45 PM, they run through the supermarket buying groceries for dinner before it closes at nine.

Anglet, France: our heroine and her hostess

When they arrive home, our heroine realizes that the two bites that she applied the spoon to have not bothered her. So she applies the same treatment to the other twenty-four. They finally sit down to dinner at 10 PM. 

At midnight, our heroine lays down on the porch cushion that her host has put on the floor for her. She covers herself in the down comforter, and has the best nights sleep of her entire trip. 

Earlier in the day, she had called her boyfriend. They agreed that the best way to avoid the bites next summer is to stay in the U.S.

Conques and the “Furtive Transfer” 

I arrived in Conques at noon on Saturday, July 1, after walking just 12 km (aka 7.5 rainy miles, including one particularly challenging rocky, slippery descent ).

Arrival in Conques

Check-in at the Abbaye St Foy did not begin until 2 PM. So I dropped off my backpack in their courtyard then went for a walk on the streets above the Abbey Chuch of St Foy.

A view from above the abbey church of Saint Foy in Conques, France

The abbey church of Saint Foy. Conques, France.

So what’s the big deal about Conques? You may want to sit down for this one . . .

At the end of the eighth century, a hermit decided this was a nice place to hide out. I would agree. There’s nothing but mountains of trees surrounding this place. And there were some natural springs. Nature? Check. Freshwater? Check. What more do you need?

So the hermit is hanging out, but then a group of Benedictine monks, needing to escape Spain, decided to settle here. So the hermit left.

The monks needed to get people to visit the chapel they built there. Visitors bring their money, you see. (Some things never change!) This was in the 800s and the idea of having relics to attract prestige was coming into fashion. Relics are generally body parts (usually bones) or belongings of a deceased saint.

So how does one obtain such relics? Well, in the case of Conques, you steal them. From the monastery in Agen. In 866.
Some of you may recall that the eighth commandment says you shall not steal. So how does a Catholic monastery get around this one? You don’t call it stealing. It is referred to as a “furtive transfer.” This is the part where I remind you write why I write memoir: true life is just so darn interesting– why bother making up something else?

Anyway, back to my story. So the monks “furtively transfer” the relics of Saint Foy to Conques. “Foy” means “Faith.” Faith was a young woman of 21 years who, in 305, refused to pray to pagan gods and was therefore killed. In Agen.

So now her relics (in this case, the top of her skull) are in Conques, and just as the monks desired, pilgrims come to see them. A gold statue reliquary is built (a reliquary holds relics). Then covered with precious stones as well. This statue reliquary is one of very few that have survived this long without incurring any damage. Thus, it’s a pretty big deal.

By the 11th century, pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela were numerous, and were stopping to see the relics here (prior to and after the furtive transfer, Conques had been gifted other relics as well). The town was prosperous thanks to all the money brought in by these visitors. So they knock down the chapel and build the Abbey that is here now.

Prior to 1910, the relics were housed behind these gates. In 1910, they built “The Trésor” (“the treasure”) to house them. The Trésor, I read, is not a museum for the very fact that they actually take the relics of St Foy out for a procession once a year (on or about October 6).

Then, in the 12th century, they added the Tympanum of the Last Judgement above their door. You have probably seen these in other churches on the way out the door, and there is one in the Sistine Chapel as well. Basically, Jesus sits in the middle and on his right side are all the good people going to heaven, and on his left are some pretty gruesome images of what’s happening to the people that are going to hell. This image was popular at this time as it made very clear to those that were illiterate what could happen to them . . .

I learned all of this over the course of my two days and two nights in Conques. I didn’t necessarily need a rest day as I hadn’t been walking nearly as much as I had planned due to the heat and then the rain. But I’d heard this town was a lovely one. And after two weeks of walking, I welcomed the break.

Pay me later. Much later.

On Saturday, July 1, I left the gîte Domaine de Sénos around 8:30 a.m. I wore my rain jacket, my pack sheltered from the predicted weather by its rain cover. My hands were warm inside lined gloves — I learned the day before that bare hands clasped to hiking sticks on a rainy 60 degree day got quite cold. 

Rain gear? Check.


Ten minutes later, on the outskirts of Sénergues, the trail passed by a covered picnic area specifically built for pilgrims. After meditating there for a spell, I got going. It was only sprinkling, the ground was not too slippery, and I was moving along at a good clip when I suddenly realized I had a problem: I never paidthe gîte  owner!

How could I forget to pay someone who had presented me with this?

Paying for things like food and lodging is handled quite differently here in France as compared to the U.S. When we book a place to stay in the U.S., we either pay in advance via credit card, or our payment is collected as part of our check-in process. In France? Eh. Payment? Yes, yes. Later, they say. 

All of this reminds me of my first time in Venice when I was searching for my hostel. Google maps did not yet exist. And if you visited Venice prior to the Internet age, you quickly learned that there existed no good map of Venice, and life was easier if you didn’t actually try to get anywhere in particular. 

But I didn’t know that yet. I finally found the road I wanted, and the numbers were going in the right direction. I got to yet another footbridge over yet another canal, and the numbers jumped–completely skipping the one I was looking for. I turned around and climbed back onto the bridge and had a look around. A young woman my age was walking towards me. “Are you lost?” she said, in English. “Yes!” I said. She, too, was a visitor to the city: an American. She too had looked for the same hostel and had no luck. “But my friend and I found a great hotel right behind St. Mark’s Cathedral. You should really check it out.” A hotel was certainly out of my budget, and my hesitation and large red backpack probably gave me away as a frugal-minded twenty-something traveler. But then she told me the price–the equivalent of about fifty US dollars. I thought for a moment and decided that, after two weeks of staying in hostels, the least I could do was have a look. 
The young woman gave me remarkably easy directions and I found my way to the Hotel Commercio and Pellegrino. The kind woman at the front desk spoke English. I told her I wanted to inquire about the price of a room. She told me the same price the young woman had. I hesitated once more. “Here,” she said as she slid a key across the counter. “You go and look. If you like it, relax for a while. Later, after you rest, come back down to pay.” Wait. What? I could just go up there without giving her payment, let alone any identifying information? And if I liked it, I could just stay there and pay later? By this point in my trip I had learned that life is a little different in Europe, so I took her advice. I climbed two flights of stairs and opened the door to a dark room just big enough for a twin bed and a desk. The bathroom was even smaller. I flipped on a light, put my pack on the desk, and opened the window. I then pushed open the shutters and the scene took my breath away. The narrow street below. The quiet. The sun warming the day. I laid down on the bed. I was staying. 

Here in France, however, there usually is no “front desk” at a gîte. Or if there is, the owner is not sitting there when you arrive, and sometimes isn’t in the building at all. There’s simply a sign that tells you what room is yours and when dinner will be. 
Such was the case at the Domaine de Sénos. No desk. Just a sign that indicated I was the only person to occupy Chambre 1, despite the fact that, when I entered, I discovered there were enough beds for five people. Around 5:30 a woman knocked on my door and showed a young man in. She reminded me that dinner was a seven p.m. downstairs, asked if I needed anything else, then left. No mention of who she was, let alone of paying her. 

In some gîtes the host would collect payment after dinner, and would say as much at some point prior to or during the meal. But not here. And the next morning the idea of paying was far from my mind. Not even when our hostess joined us for breakfast did it occur to me. In the lobby, as we donned rain gear and packs to head out, our host wished us well. And off I went. 

Gîte Domaine de Sénos


Now I stood on the trail considering my options. I was probably a twenty minute walk from the gîte. But oh how we pilgrims hate to have to go backwards. I certainly would, of course. I had to pay her. But then I remembered the picnic area. That was closer, and maybe she could drive up to it. 
I tried to find a dry spot under a tree where I could put my pack down, but no such space existed. Everything I owned was in plastic bags inside, so I finally just put the pack on some grass. I slid the rain cover off just enough to access my guidebook (where I could find her phone number). I pulled my phone out of my inner jacket pocket and dialed. 

She answered after a few rings. “This is Rebecca,” I said, in French. “J’ai reste la hier soir et j’ai oublié de payer! Je ne suis pas très loin –” I explained that I wasn’t very far from the gîte but she cut me off. “No, no, no,” she said in a tone that clearly indicated that was a silly idea. “You go to Conques today, right?” She said she had a friend with a shop there. She gave me directions and told me to give him the money. “Tell him it’s for Isabella and Benoît. He will know.” 
I arrived to Conques and paying was again the last thing on my mind. I was too busy stopping every three steps to stare in awe at the medieval town that looked like it hadn’t changed in a thousand years. (Turns out it hasn’t much, really.)

My Belgian walking companion, Martine, on our entry into Conques.

 I also happened to walk in on the day of a music festival. A Capella singing groups. A harpist. Guitar-playing singers. 

The harpist was a child of not more than 12, and she was incredible!

Once in a while I remembered I had to find the place where I could leave the money, but then I’d run into a friend, or hear music and walk off to find where it was coming from. 

Or watch the goats go by . . .

Luckily I had decided to spend two nights in Conques. I didn’t really need a rest day. In fourteen days I’d walked what most people walk in ten. But if there’s one thing to know about the Camino, it’s that there are no rules. So if a girl wants to not walk one day, so be it. And if a girl keeps forgetting to search out a place to pay for her Friday night’s rest, well then it’s a good thing she’s got two days to do it.
Isabella had told me to find a shop next to the post office that sells knives and jewelry, and leave the money there. Well, as I wandered the small town I doubted my memory. Did she said “la poste” (post office) or “carte postale” (postcards)? After two different shop owners — both of whom sold knives and jewelry, both of whose shops were next to stores that sold postcards– denied knowing Isabella and Benoît, the second one took pity on me and called Isabella. She listened to Isabella’s directions, then explained to me that I did indeed need to head to the post office. In case you’re ever in Conques, note that in this town of just 300, there are three different shops that sell knives and jewelry. And if you happened to forget to pay Isabella and Benoît, the one you want is indeed next to the post office.