Review: Companion Books for Sufi Meditation

Posted here from my ongoing blog as it has relevance to my Camino walk. Elaborating on two of my spiritual take-alongs while on the journey: Sufi meditation practice and two companion guidebooks. I tell their effect and how they worked for me. It would have been a very different walk without them…

The Lifepath Dialogues

In May-June of this year I walked the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela. During my journey I undertook a daily spiritual practice from the Sufi tradition as a walking meditation. In a post entitled Momentum from my Camino blog The Essential Way, I wrote a bit about wazifa chanting practice, invoking any of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, as a spiritual take-along due to its deepening effect on me. I can’t begin to tell you how important the practice turned out to be during this time. I chose specific wazifas that guided me and shaped focus and experience. When my body was having difficulty, they eased my pain and got me up mountains. When the day on the trail became long and my mind grew bored, they brought my awareness to presence and the beauty surrounding me. When I wrestled with uncertainty or issues, they helped usher…

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The Wabi-Sabi Path

At this writing I’ve been home from travels twelve days after leaving home nine weeks prior. My pilgrim certificate says I finished the Camino in Santiago de Compostela on June 14, my pre and post Camino not counted. Yet it all seems so very long ago. Perhaps it’s due to an enhanced “now-ness” I’m experiencing. The past having served its significance and the future unpredictable, not yet reality; the present doesn’t feel like limbo but something solid at every moment.

Somewhere along my Camino I realized there were two significant aspects in play. The first had to do with clearing mental, emotional, spiritual elements given perfect opportunity to arise through the physical challenges that came about. In an uncanny way, the walk had become my own personal healing timeline stretching way into the past. Thought forms would come to call uninvited. Some quite old to see if there was still any charge. Others newer to see if I would attach or if resolution had occurred. It was a test, a way to walk out the kinks if I needed to do so. Sometimes I did. Clearing is required before anything new can truly emerge. Otherwise the path remains cluttered with things that should have been ejected long ago.

In the very beginning, I made mention the Camino would show we pilgrims what we’re made of. It does. That’s its gift. I also found what I could depend on within myself, and to the depth I held certain values.

The second thing had to do with such appreciation of simplicity and humility, the imperfect, and respect for the path walked.

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In Japan they have an art form, a practice of embracing the world, as much as it is in the creation of something. It’s about finding beauty—to acknowledge what may otherwise be passed by.

Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud…Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time’.

Within a few days of coming home, the Japanese wabi-sabi art of kintsugi came to my attention. On one level it involves mending broken things, in this case china. On another level it’s so much more. In the three-minute video below young craftsman Shimode Muneaki gives an introduction, “Traditionally, lacquer is used to reconnect shattered pieces of pottery and gold leaf is applied along the repaired fault-lines to accentuate and celebrate the fissure, rather than to hide it.”

View The Art of Broken Pieces.

Kintsugi is a visual manifestation of finding beauty in things that didn’t quite fit, perhaps broken, and putting it back together in a way that’s noticeable and acknowledges a new way of being. In the ways I speak of here, my Camino became—for me—a wabi-sabi path of renewal and simplicity.

All these things have shaped what comes. Whether the Camino delivered me beyond whatever threshold I’d foreseen before beginning my walk remains to be seen…but I believe it has. This imagery keeps coming to me: I’ve got one eye where I place my feet, the other eye given to peripheral vision…while my Third Eye is sensing what’s ahead.

I’ll Know I’m Home When

Somewhere along the way, once I got the rhythm down pat, I began to note somewhat tongue-in-cheek differences between daily life on the Camino and home. But the more I listed the more I realized it’s an intimate glimpse of common pilgrim experiences you normally wouldn’t be aware of unless you’d undertaken the journey. I also began to have insights, reminders and resolutions related to some of them that I’ve included at the end.

I’ll know I’m home when…
   … I’m no longer looking for markers every few minutes to tell me where to go, except perhaps subliminally.
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   … I’ll no longer be walking continually for 4-8 hours on a daily basis, with the exception of a brief rest or rest day.
   … I’ll no longer be so consistently in nature.
   … I’ll no longer hear the continual click-click click-click of walking sticks telling me that a pilgrim is coming along the trail.
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   … I’ll no longer hear the well wishes Buen Camino spoken to me by nearly every pilgrim and so many locals, or say it myself, as we pass each other.
   … I’ll have a cat in my lap not observing one from a distance.
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   … I’ll no longer sit people watching, daily, at an outdoor café while having café and croissant, or a glass of wine and tapas.
   … I’ll have more than one change of clothing.
   … I’ll have more choices to wear on my feet than hiking shoes or flip flops.
   … I’ll keep my belongings in a closet or chest of drawers rather than a backpack.
   … I’ll no longer do my laundry on a daily basis rather than weekly.
   … I’ll no longer be required to vacate my lodging each day by 0800, or be restricted in any movement or slight noises between 2200-0630.
   … I’ll know on a consistent basis where I’ll lay my head each night.
   … I’ll no longer wear ear plugs.
   … If I’m sleeping in a roomful of people, I’ll know them all ahead and never in numbers between 12-100 in one room.
   … I’ll have as much privacy as I choose.
   … I’ll be able to sit upright in my bed without bumping my head on the bunk above me.
   … I’ll be sleeping between sheets, not in my sleeping bag.
   … I’ll take a shower for as long as I like without pushing a button every ten seconds to keep the water flowing.
   … I’ll no longer speak three languages, daily, sometimes all within one sentence—the latter because my brain isn’t adequately sorting.
   … I’ll no longer hear five or more languages around me or engage with so many different nationalities at once at any given point, daily.
   … I’ll be drinking French roast—strong and black—in the morning rather than café con leche.
   … I’ll return to my normal diet, rather than the “pilgrims menu” offered in restaurants.
This statement probably needs some explanation. Nearly every restaurant on the Camino offers a lower priced 3-course meal, limited options for each course, with bread, wine, coffee, or water included, typically between 9-12 euros. While offering benefit to pilgrims in the amount of food for a lower cost, they’re high carb, meat and potato meals, nearly devoid of vegetables, no fruit. Lots of gluten. Also typical of the entire other-than-pilgrim menu in Spain. I consumed more gluten, dairy, potatoes and meat in these two months than I’ve eaten in at least five years, maybe more.
My Take-Aways…
   1. It’s important to be alert to the lay of the land to avoid becoming lost or overlooking tell-tale signals that things are off track or hidden. I resolve to sharpen my peripheral and x-ray vision.
   2. Flexibility is a virtue. It’s also important to set your limits and abide by them. I resolve to identify with even more depth and breadth what is true for me.
   3. A simple life in the best sense is a pure one, devoid of clutter in the mind or unnecessary material goods, anything that weighs down the spirit. I resolve to uplevel my sorting and pitching process.
   4. Nature is a great gift, healer and stress reliever. I’m fortunate to live where I do. Nature—miles of it—is just outside my door. I resolve to do these things more: hike, take breaks, sit on the deck, notice the wildflowers—however small—and watch the lizards, birds and other wildlife. Absorb energy given by the moon, sun, stars, wind and rain with intent to return it in ways that are life-giving.
   5. Diverse encounters—people, places, new ways of doing things—make life rich and support intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth. I thrive on diversity and already seek it out but miss it at home. I resolve to discover more opportunities to insert myself in such foreign lands locally.
   6. I undertook this journey through willing choice. If you look at the list, you may notice there are aspects that are similar to those whose lives often aren’t through choice but circumstance. In a certain way, I had a light taste of what it’s like to be homeless, to experience restriction. The more days I walked the more this awareness settled on me. It increased my compassion toward anyone who finds themselves in such a place and has difficulty finding a way through. There’s always a way across a threshold. It also deepened the great gratitude I hold for having the life I do, and the capability of coming up with strategies to navigate the tricky times.
   7. The pilgrims I met on the Camino came from different walks of life, ages, cultures, circumstances, personalities but all held one thing in common: an intent to deepen their lives in some way. That’s the Spirit of the Camino…or any challenging spiritual journey really. It’s an initiation process, one so worth undertaking. You meet yourself coming and going resident in the land you travel and those you meet. You discover who you are. Then the grandest part of the journey is taking it all home to shape your daily living from that point on. I resolve to do so…as gracefully as possible and forgive myself when I stumble.
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   This may seem like quite a list of resolutions, maybe overwhelming. But…for me…it boils down to something core. Being present. When I think about it, that’s what the Camino reinforced to me overall. Be awake—fully. Then all starts to fall into place bit by bit: small adjustments build upon themselves and create alignment. That’s absolutely doable. It’s something I know.

The Unknown World Or…Days 38-40: June 17-19

Finisterre

   When I was still in preparation for this pilgrimage, I wrote a post entitled “Momentum” about the phases of the journey and the idea of sliding my own footsteps into those of pilgrims many centuries old once I began. Now I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like after, in some cases, many months depending on where they started…finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela–the Field of Stars–and the cathedral with all its opulence, pomp and circumstance. But even more so, for those who elected to make the further journey to Finisterre, Land’s End, all the way to the sea. For some, seeing such a large body of water for the first time.
   What it must have been like…gazing out from the End of the World, as it was known at the time. Anything beyond the horizon was unknown and, for all they knew, could have been The Great Abyss. From the Field of Stars to the End of the World, the two seem linked in some way.
   This is where I went to more reflect on my Camino and where it has brought me. Finisterre is a small town, but I elected to stay out of town away from the crowds, overlooking the sea and a short walk away from the lesser frequented beach on the western side called Praia Foro do Mar. I spent most of my time there gazing out at the view and walking the beach. Indeed the ocean seemed to stretch into oblivion. Depending on the time of day, it shimmered, not much differentiation from water to sky, and could have been easily taken in those old times for a pathway continuing to the heavens.
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   I have been sheltered on this journey in a way pilgrims weren’t back then, or for so many people today. Life has been simple. You get up. You walk. Although I had some challenges, I was not attacked or robbed. I had food and water. I had a bed to sleep in. I was not isolated. The outside world was kept at bay. Life has been simple.
   I made the mistake of turning on TV for the first time since I began the Camino and watched the news on Al Jazeera, known for not candy coating the facts. I saw the reports from home on the latest acts of racism and violence. Having been sheltered from these increasingly regular occurrences for the last two months, I can’t describe the level of horror and sadness with which I took this in.
   Somewhere on this pilgrimage, I read where–I believe it was the Dalai Lama–was quoted, “We see bad news because it is news.” Essentially saying, so much good is in the world it’s not news of difference but the bad is. Perhaps seeing that statement was preparing me for the moment I mentioned above.  It’s something to sit with. About halfway through the Camino, a woman from Greece asked me if I thought evil exists. I answered yes. You can’t have light without the dark. Somehow there’s a way to integrate the two and/or accept what is. I know Indigenous traditions that do, the Maya being one. I don’t know much about Buddhism but think something similar is true within that belief system.
   Although I never really left this world, there was a buffer. Now I’m faced with being reminded to provide my own buffer, while still acknowledging these things are there. It’s the world I’m re-entering. To deny otherwise is fooling myself.
   I started this walk asking to learn how to be most present, and continue doing what I love and care deeply about…but with more grace and ease…and give care to myself much more. I come back to this intent, this question.
   When I bought the bus ticket back to Santiago, the agent said, “It’s good for any day. There are no assigned seats.” To my ears I heard a deeper message: This must be the threshold I spoke of at that communal meal back in St Jean when answering why I chose to undertake this pilgrimage.
   I’m at a choice point. There’s no prescribed path but the one I choose. There never is. I’m disengaging from the footsteps of pilgrims past and landing firmly back into my own–although I never left them.
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   In “Momentum” I spoke of the small (but mighty) Singing Bowl my dear friend Hilary Bee had entrusted me to carry on the Camino. I sounded it during key points for me along the way, the most recent standing, facing the sea, at the End of the World. The vibrations of the Camino live within its shape as much as its pronouncements are sent ahead. With gratitude I’ll send it back across the ocean to Hilary in the UK once I’m back home where I’ll sound it to introduce those vibrations to the larger bowl she made, her community supported, and she gave to me. Full circle.
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***
In Finisterre I booked a place through airbnb.com with Rosa Trabo Martinez for a room listed as Einzelzimmer Cape Finisterre. It’s actually a modern three-story home with other bedrooms available and common rooms, bathrooms and kitchen. I had the good fortune to be the only guest while there at a very reasonable rate. Rosa lives next door and was so accommodating to me. And you can’t top the quiet or view. If you’re thinking of going to Finisterre, I highly recommend.

Reflections on Process and Destination Or… Days 33-37: June 12-16

Santa Irene-Lavacolla-Santiago de Compostela

I placed my feet at the end point of the Camino Frances on June 14, having embarked this walk on May 10. I stood before the inlaid stone in the middle of Praza do Obradoiro in front of Catedral Santiago de Compostela that signaled I’d arrived, looked up at the cathedral…and have to admit…I had no response.

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Long before I actually began, I reflected on what it might be like when it was over: elation, joyful tears, soaring heart. To imagine the level of emotion actually was an experience in itself. But it was none of those things. For me, it was anticlimactic. I almost didn’t go to the pilgrims office to collect my certificate. I did anyway but know it will get buried in a file somewhere like my degrees or any other certificate of completion I have–except my folks have already asked for a copy to frame and hang on their wall. I think they’re more excited than I ever am.

Others will probably feel differently who have done this walk. But I’m a peculiar bird sometimes. It’s an endpoint, a continuation, a beginning…no different than anything else. It all merges together…and for me…more about the process that brought me to that point than the original marked out destination. It’s a microcosm in time and intent that serves the macrocosm of my life. I can reflect back on my daily life and inform it.

– What was my intent at the outset?
– What deeper learnings did I have?
– What was meaningful?
– What did I find to be insignificant?

What I’m finding dear are the stories I hold that go with the process, as well as being still even though moving, immersing in my surroundings. What the people meant to me whether they ever know how I was touched. Back in Santa Irene I stayed in an exquisitely renovated albergue, an old stone cottage, that appeared to be run by sisters. Who knows how old it was or all the antiques and vintage photos it contained.

During our deliciously simple communal meal that night I met Cheryl and Olla from Australia. In their early 20s they had backpacked together for a year all over Europe. Now…probably 20+ years later…they are walking the Camino together. Olla said, “It’s different this time.” But friendship endures.

Ever since Leon when we met on the train, I kept running into Lois and David, a couple from North Carolina. They’d surprisingly turn up at unexpected places. The last time I saw them was when I rounded the corner to go into the church near Lavacolla that I wrote about in “Stamp and Confessions.” I told them the Camino was doing a number on them. They had a glow on. It’s validating to witness the process of others, which is also why I love the work I do.

Somewhere before Santa Irene, three people passed me on the trail. I thought two of them were ghosts, because I thought the couple, Athenia and Ross, had gone home to British Columbia a week or more before. We met early that first night in St Jean before Day One. They started out with 3 additional women as a group. Along the way folks scattered as they can do for one reason or another. But before I saw them they’d picked up Scott from the Southern U.S. who’d been traveling with them for a week. We had a nice chat in a roadside cafe before they moved on…and I went back to my slower pace. Athenia and Ross were scheduled to fly home in a couple of days.

This becomes significant because as I had arrived in the suburbs of Santiago, walking toward the center point, I ran into Scott going the other way. He’d already been in Santiago for a couple of days and was then headed to catch a train to Porto to walk the Camino Portugues back to Santiago again. But he paused and congratulated me on making it. He was my greeter, and everyone should have one. It meant something.

I was thankful for these simple things, as well as many more. I wrote about the contrast on the journey. I was to have one more. This one over the top. I went to the pilgrims mass at noon the day I arrived. Perhaps it was different on other days but I tend to think not. I’ve seen complaints in online pilgrims forums.

It was a circus, and I’m sure the priests hated to see the service reduced to such. I did. I’m not one who normally attends any kind of church service. But there’s usually have some form of reverent quiet. Not so here. There were tour groups mixed with pilgrims. It was loud. About 15 minutes prior to the start of the mass, a priest got on the sound system, asked for silence, forbid photography of any sort, and directed those not attending mass to quietly leave…immediately. It didn’t help much.

I did enjoy the nun trying to teach everyone a simple song that would be sung later. It was also heartening to hear the welcoming to different groups or individuals from so many places across the world who’d started at various points. That part felt like we were a global community with common intent. The priest gave a sermon, said prayers. Photos still flashed no matter they were verboten. The place it really fell apart was at the end. This was what people were waiting for…and they rushed the front, snapping pictures. Sorry. I hate to be a cynic. By this time it seemed more like a party trick. This is what all were waiting for: the botafumeiro ritual. I do have to admit curiosity myself. But really?

I found so much more meaning the next day when I found this relatively unadorned Capella and sat in silence reflecting on my journey. Afterwards I wandered the streets and came upon the German pilgrim I’d written about in “When the Spirit Catches You” who sang a quiet song in the forest. We smiled at each other in acknowledgment.

And then the Irishman I’d quoted in “Humility.” He was buying ice cream and said he and his friends had just arrived. They were getting their certificates; he’d done it before. I mentioned I’d gotten there the day before. He looked surprised.

“Well, you know I had to take the train to catch up days and then walking again.”

He gave me a long look and said in the his strong Irish brogue, “You got here, din’t ya? That’s what counts. Did ya get your certificate?”

“I did.”

“That’s good.”

Tomorrow I’m headed to Finisterre on the coast, the place once known as the End of the World. It promises to be a good place for further reflection on the process but not the destination.

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Stamp and Confession

 Lavacolla is where, in the old tradition, pilgrims wash themselves before continuing on the last distance to Santiago. This is where I reserved a place to stay for the night. Shortly before the village there was an old church. A sign outside said: Stamp and Confessions.
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  I went in to stamp my pilgrim passport. Confession? There are many ways of washing oneself clean. I saw no priest. I’m left with any readers here as witnesses, which is more relevant to me personally.

  I’ve never pushed my physical limits like I did with this journey. My body responded accordingly. With outrage, complaining…not so different than the psyche has when I push my ego boundaries.

   A multitude of warnings, some I hadn’t previously documented: shooting foot pain, strain, exhaustion, consistently (alarmingly) bloodshot, watering eyes. Swollen ankles. Troubling but painless red marks moving up to my calves. The latter now gone. I can see my ankles again and my foot has quieted. I had no idea my body could send out so many forms of protest. I paid attention.
  Over my adult years, I’ve continually pushed the limits of my mind and spirit, often intensely, choosing to put myself in unknown, often uncomfortable territories, scary places, different cultures. The spiritual realm has been wonder-filled, in hindsight beyond what I could have imagined. That aspect has always been easy for me. The places where the ego needs to stretch and get beyond limitations, small-mindedness, not particularly easy or graceful but in the end…freeing–always.
  The first book I wrote was really about sorting out so much of what I’d encountered to that point, to find meaning, sometimes awkwardly. There was a chapter I called “Bootcamp for the Soul.”
  Here’s what I’ve discovered: This very physical Camino has been another approach to the same end. Another bootcamp and way to integrate the whole.
  Much, as I’ve written, has been mundane and difficult, a challenge. During the first communal meal…all the way back in St Jean…we were asked to say why we were undertaking the Camino. I said, “It’s a threshold.” People waited to see if I’d say more. But that’s all I could say. There was nothing else.
  In this process, I found beauty in my surroundings and camaraderie in conversations over dinner or a roadside cafe stopping for coffee. I have been reminded what it is to be fully present.
  I walked alone but found myself in community. There were times when I seriously needed physical help. I learned to be comfortable asking for assistance–and angels appeared in my path. I persisted within my physical strength which has brought me to this place.
  These awareness are coming fairly swiftly. I just wanted to jot them down. They may be better formed and more conclusive at some later point.
  This is my confession.
  Better to capture and state now. I’m getting ready for the traditional washing–in this case a shower–and these random awarenesses may otherwise disappear down the drain.

When the Spirit Catches You Or…Days 28-32: June 7-11

Sarria-Ferreiras-Gonzar-Palais de Rei-Melide-Arzua

This is the way it happened. I was sitting in a small but lively Italian restaurant in Sarria at a table to myself. A woman with long whitish hair walked in. I thought to myself, she looks familiar. She came over to my table and asked if she could join me, introducing herself as Lydia. I realized I had not seen her before. We quickly fell into conversation. She said she was from the Netherlands. I mentioned two Dutch sisters who introduced themselves during the communal meal at the albergue the night before Day One on the Camino in St Jean. I ran into them off and on as time went on. They’d begun to travel with three new friends from the U.S. also present that first night. I hadn’t seen them for a long time but ran into them all in Sahagun, the last night they were all together. One of the Dutch sisters had to go home as scheduled, the rest also ending their Camino time for other adventures. I shared a train seat to Leon with the remaining sister, and we then went our separate ways.
Lydia laughed and asked, “Did the sisters mention a friend who was traveling ahead?” I vaguely remembered a mention at the first communal meal. She said, “I’m that friend!” We talked until 10 PM, the latest I’d stayed up to date, finding a number of things in common. Now what are the chances we would end up at a table together in this particular restaurant…when there were many to choose from and in this particular village?
Some time that night I told her about a Swiss man I’d met very early who started the Camino by walking out his front door…in Switzerland. We both marveled. I hadn’t seen him since that brief passing. But the next morning there in Sarria? I met him again just leaving town.
I took both of these synchronous occurrences as a good sign. There existed a sense of excitement in the air. This is where a number of pilgrims begin walking the Camino, perhaps because they have limited time…and you can still get the completion certificate if you walk these last 111 km. There were a number of fresh, hopeful faces–probably exactly the way I looked on Day One–and carousing by young ones. The anticipation was catching…and I took it on.
Sarria
Sarria
Plus the realization that I was actually nearing the end. I was like a horse headed to the barn.
And I was falling in love…in a way I hadn’t for a very long time…with this region of Spain called Galicia. image
The next night I spent in Ferreiras, a place so small I almost missed it. If I hadn’t looked up at just the right time I would have passed the albergue on by where I’d made a reservation. I awoke quite early the next morning, having to wait for enough light to set out. That’s when the true magic of the region became apparent to me through the morning mist. Forest, wildflowers,  fields and tiny villages that probably hadn’t changed much in seventy or more years. My footsteps became quite light. My heart was full. My mind was quite still.
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I realized that somewhere along the way I’d stopped conscious wazifa practice. I wouldn’t presume to say I’d embodied the Beautiful Names I was working with. But I would say they were working me beneath the surface. Hard to describe. But I could feel it.
This morning along the trail through the forest I actually came upon someone walking more slowly than I was. Not due to an injury but because it was evident she was just as enchanted as I was. She’d stop and look. Just like I did. She began singing a soft song in German. It added to my day. I finally passed her by. She may be out there singing still.
Traditional corn crib.
Traditional corn crib.
Tonight I’m staying in Arzua in O Albergue de Selmo, a wonderful place. Not because it’s fancy. It’s not. This little slice of heaven has no more than two bunk beds in an actual cubicle–with a curtain sliding across the entrance for privacy, something quite scarce–a bedside locker for valuables, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms and showers–an adequate number for a change–and a super helpful owner. And because I was the first to arrive and check in, she gave me a cubicle with only one bunk bed, at the farthest end. It’s now late for check-ins. No one is in the top bunk. I must be well loved.
I topped off my day with Caldo Gallego, a bowl of hearty traditional Galician soup–their specialty with cabbage, beans, a little bit of sausage and the ever-present potato–thick crusty bread and vino tinto.
Santiago de Compostela is now within my sight. Only 40 km away to the 0 km marker.