I often tell people that I worked in Grañón for a single day when I walked into the albergue as a pilgrim in 2009 and my muñquito was visible so I got put to work cutting bread, helping to make a salad and saying the dinner oración.
I had already also heard stories of the albergue from Mary Virtue when she served there as a hospitalera with the famous Father Jose Ignacio in October of 2005. I have been trying to visit or work in albergues that we send hospitaleros to as a part of the Hospitaleros Voluntarios service of the Federacción de los Amigos del Camino. I was also aware of Grañón as having the distinction of being the oldest (16 years) and possible the model on which our service is founded. It is also carefully supervised by Marina Saiz who is one of the most enthusiastic and effective hospitaleras I know.
I did not however ask for it as a posting. Ana Barreda who knows that I like to go to a new place every time in order to understand them better if one of our Canadian trained hospitaleros gets a posting, gave it to me when I applied to work in May this year (just ahead of a wedding for a pilgrim friend from 2005 in Madrid). Ana always tells the Spanish that they will go where they are assigned and may not ask for a specific place (but understands that our North American volunteers may need more flexibility than that).
I had tried to interest a hospitalera friend to come and work with me but her response was that Grañón was too daunting an example to try to attempt. I also knew from Karen and Dayton who worked last year in Estella that it would be busy and there would be many extranjeros at this time.
I arrived in Grañón with another hospitalero from Madrid who was driving me there to take part in a English course for hospitaleros that I was helping present the weekend before I was due to serve. The course was just a kilometre and a half away and after the course, the hospitaleros all went to Grañón for a dinner of chicken baked in the oven of the local bakery. We were fortunate to witness the wonderful oración process that Marina Saiz uses on the nights she is at Grañón. This happens often as she lives 70 kms west in Burgos but has friends and family in Grañón.
It was at this time I met my partner in service, Margrit Wipf from Switzerland. I had met Jesus, the local priest for Grañón the day before at the course we were running. We were introduced to Marina (not Saiz) and Jose Manuel who were our predecessors in the albergue for the last half of April. It was April 29 and a couple of days early but since we were already there, we were oriented to the functioning of the albergue. Marina took Margrit into the kitchen and instructed her on how she organized things there including a making a salad and patatas a la riojana. Jose Manuel showed me how to clean out the fireplace and turning on and off the hot water heating system. They also took us shopping and we actually said goodbye to Marina on May 30 at the bulk food store appropriately named “El Peregrino” which is a Spanish style Costco which is to say it is 1/100th the size but has 10 times as many things I would like to buy including La Rioja wine for 6 Euros for 5 litres.
We were taken around the town of 300 people to meet the barkeepers of the three bars, Peli, Alberto, Anastasio as well as Jesus and Susanna who ran the bakery. Those who know me at all will not be surprised when I started to sing, “Oh Susanna don’t you cry for me” when I left the bakery which I quickly turned into a tradition (of only 17 days duration).
Jose Manuel left on May 1st with some regret I am sure and I moved into his room beside the kitchen in the exact geographical centre of the albergue with one dormitory above, the other below and the washroom/showers on the other side. Margrit was smarter than me and took Marina’s room the day before which was on the second floor beside the lower dormitory. This gave her a better chance not to hear every creak and flush that the albergue could emit in the night.
Margrit and I sat down to talk about how we wished to organize the service. We had moved into action upon Marina’s departure but as Jose Manuel had wisely said, “I am showing you what Marina and I do but when you are responsible, do it the way that you wish.” Margrit set off to clean out and organize the entire kitchen and I started to apply the bug spray that was used to control las chinches (although this was really a three day process).
We soon found that every day was different and our motto became “Every day a new surprise” but it is probably best to describe the average day from the time the pilgrims left in the morning.
We would sit down over coffee and a cookie or two from the local bakery. We talked about the previous day, the pilgrims, made a shopping list and counted the money from the donation box. Providing dinner, wine, a mattress on the floor and breakfast, we averaged just under 10 Euros per pilgrim (except on the days when two nights when “homeless” pilgrims took the “Put in what you can, take what you need”. totally literally. This transpired that we were away from the albergue, shopping one time and visiting a monastery for lunch with the priest Jesus Garcia but more on this later.
We then cleaned the albergue, clearing out the wood stove heater first, then sweeping and mopping floors and shower stalls. Occasionally a pilgrim would appear having only walked from Santo Domingo 6 or 7 kilometers away and we would ask them to wait outside or in the bar until we were finished. On a few mornings we had sick or injured pilgrims and the sick I put in my room while the injured just helped out. The pilgrims would almost always be gone by 8 a.m. so we started cleaning between 8:30 and 9 and were mostly done within an hour or two.
We had to go shopping almost every day which was probably the biggest change for me from previous placements. I had worked in a couple of places where we cook for the pilgrims but never at such busy times of the year and the regular sized fridge would not hold more than two days worth of meat, vegetables and yogurt for about 40 people on average.
The first few days I happily walked to Santo Domingo de la Calzada and met Margrit there. She could get a ride with locals, or a taxi service and once we both got a ride in at 11 a.m. with a office worker who worked mornings in Grañón and afternoons on the other side of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. We would take a taxi back with 6 to 9 bags of groceries and often boxes of wine and milk.
The second week Jesus was much more available to drive us and due to the festivities in Santo Domingo de la Calzada with closed streets and limited parking, he preferred to go to Belorado where we almost always met “our” pilgrims of the night before. We also bumped into German hospitaleros we had met before we started who were staffing the parochial albergue there.
There were often pilgrims already in the albergue when we arrived especially in the second week when the weather improved significantly. We would try to orient them to the albergue with a spiel that went something like this:
“Welcome to Grañón. We are glad you are here. Would you like water, coffee or tea? My name is Tomas. (handshake - hugs and kisses are saved for the morning unless greeting other hospitaleros) Grañón is a special place. It is staffed by volunteers. It has been open day and night for sixteen years. The door is never locked. This is the only albergue on the Camino that does not require your credential or give you a sello. If you wish a sello, you can get one at the bar for free. The sello of Grañón is the smile and welcome you get when you arrive or the hug you get when you leave. This albergue is donativo. You put what you want and what you can into the donation box (which says on the lid deja lo que puedas o toma lo que necesites). The money pays for the food and needs of the albergue for the following pilgrims. (At this point with some pilgrims if I wanted to tease them and test their ability to follow my English or Spanish, I would say, “The pilgrims last night left no money in the box, so we are not eating today”).
We then told them where the washrooms, laundry and clotheslines were. We talked about the fact that we did not have beds but only mattresses on the floor, optional mass at 7 p.m. the communal dinner at 8 p.m. and the optional oración following the cleanup. We also asked them to behave like family clean up their own dishes and since they may have finished their water and possibly their glass of tea or coffee, we had them start with this. We then asked them to sign into the book which only had a space for their name home city (in Spain) or country (for extranjeros) where they started and where they had stopped the night before. This was placed beside the number so we know our dinner count. Pilgrims who arrived at noon or before from Najera where warned that we did not want them getting up at 5 to disturb others but to stay in bed until 6:30 or so. Most obeyed but of course a few “locos” did not.
Most pilgrims could be greeted in English or Spanish but is was wonderful to have Margrit there as she comes from the German speaking area of Switzerland and speaks Italian and French as well as her fluent English and Spanish. I called on her when pilgrims wanted those languages and we really met the pilgrims based on who was available at the time. We also spelled each other off if one needed a nap which was an occupational hazard given our working hours.
We were joined in our second week by Barbara a Polish girl with better Spanish than I will every have who is lovely in all ways and was able to greet pilgrims in Polish and I think Russian. (We had both). We also had a deaf couple who were quite surprised and pleased when I started signing to them. We added Barbara smoothly to our team but cut her some slack for morning duty with the pilgrims when we noticed she could not stop yawning at 7 in the a.m. Barbara had just taken the hospitalero training course offered in Logroño and was there to work her way into the service although as I told her she would, she went from being a novata to a veterana in a few days.
We averaged about 40 pilgrims a day with a high of 58. A couple nights we used up all of our mats on the floor and had people down in the chapel on the rug and with blankets under them. We would take them up or down to the most available dormitory and let them choose their spot. We had to warn them not to block the entrance to the coro (choir loft used for night time vespers or the hospitalero room door.
The first week the weather was quite cool and the pilgrims would sit around the fire or go to the bar. The last 10 days were quite warm so they mostly sat around the plaza in front of the albergue or on the street at the tables outside the closest bar.
Margrit took charge of the kitchen for the purposes of dinner and started her preparations in earnest about five p.m. She often had some people peeling potatoes and occasionally a guest chef who claimed that he could cook was invited in to help out. Her menu included a colourful and healthy salad (one platter for every six pilgrims = 1 table) with her signature balsamic vinegar, oil and spices dressing and a rotation of patatas a la riojana, garbanzos (chick peas with chorizo and vegetables, lentejas (which is a small greenish bean dish) and on only a couple of occasions due to Italian guest chefs pasta.
I tried to have some food for the vegetarians and did cook a sopa de ajo, vegetarian caldo gallego, a disasterous tortilla de patatas (frying pan woes) and a couple of quick we have vegetarians we were not expecting throw in beans, corn, peas and add spices ambrosia.
At seven in the evening (afternoon in Spain) most would go to mass. Jesus, the priest started to call them up at the end of the mass and deliver the pilgrim benediction used in the nightly vesper service which is exactly like the one used in Roncesvalles with the name of Grañón substituted.
Later he threw the curve ball at me by asking them to read a line from the benediction in their own language. This took some coordination on my part which I pretty much got down to a fine science by the last day. The first time this happened and I was expecting it, I started with a Spanish pilgrim who had the sheet with the words and understood perfectly what he was to do but hissed to me, “No tengo mis gafas”. (I don’t have my glasses with me.)
When the mass ended at 7:30 p.m. I had the pilgrims help me set up the folding tables which emerged from my room and the folding chairs which were under the stairs. We placed a bowl, glass, utensils and napkins based on the count from the registration book plus 3 or 4 depending on whether Jesus, the priest or another visiting hospitalero was there. At the max we had to take benches out of the choir loft and one night, the lock to my door jammed shut so we had 38 pilgrims to seat for dinner and the two regular tables which stayed out all the time to do it with. It worked. I often teased the priest Jesus with the words “Aqui pan y pescados” (Here we have the loaves and fishes).
We also had 10 Bulgarian cyclists arrive at 8 right when we served and the occasional guest we were not expecting.
We always read a prayer in three parts always starting in Spanish and then moving on to the other languages of the albergue. After Barbara arrived it always concluded in Polish but in between we had English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Croatian, Dutch and Hungarian. The parts were written down and I tried to spread around the speakers over the room so that it was accessible to all. I did do it in sign language on the night we had deaf pilgrims.
The lines go like this: “In a world that if often cold and dark, we are grateful to follow yellow arrows to places of light and warmth. In a hungry world we are thankful for food for our bodies, our minds and our hearts. In a lonely world we thank You for the gift of family and friends.” Amen
We then put the salad, bread cut up from the 12 to 18 loaves brought from the bakery (with some reserved for breakfast) and water on the table. For the second course potatoes, beans or pasta always with their healthy amount of vegetables and meat mixed in, we put a liter of wine on each table to serve six or more pilgrims.
Dessert was yogurt or fruit salad. One night we had a birthday cake which I got at the bakery and managed to decorate with an arrow, a scallop shell and the name of pilgrim who arrived with but not the birthday boy. He took a picture of the cake and then informed us that his name was not Hans Jürgen but Nils.
Following the meal, I would stand up and ask the pilgrims to thank the cooks. Margrit was justifiably proud of her cooking and liked to comment that her friends in Switzerland would not believe that she was feeding up to 60 people a night. Not only did she feed them but many told us it was their best meal of the Camino.
I would then tell the pilgrims that there was an expression in English, “Sing for your supper” (Cantad para cenar in Spanish) and that we were all going to sing together. They looked at me quite incredulously but within a minute they were almost all singing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I only sang the first two verses and I stuck the chorus midway through each verse again to give them more of a chance but they clearly enjoyed it and due to “Shrek” and the number of singers who have covered this song pretty much every pilgrim knew it.I told them that was a song written in Canada then asked them to sing a song from their own country. (We had warned them when they arrived that we would ask for this although we tried not to put undue pressure on anyone). It was most often quite wonderful as the songs floated around the room and through the windows out to the street. The Spanish could always be encouraged to sing with the aid of the porrón. The French could often help with the Ultreya song and this was also popular. The most consistent performers from a country were the Koreans who almost all sang beautifully and opened the other pilgrims eyes (often very wide) for what they had to offer. The singing sometimes even continued as we put away the chairs and tables and cleaned up. Pilgrims who had musical ability with piano or guitar (which are both present in Grañón, would often sing or lead the singing in exchange for a cleanup exemption. We had professional musicians as well as talented amateurs but I believe most pilgrims found this experience magical.
Following the cleanup which was mostly done by the pilgrims, we had those who wished to go to the Oracion (Vesper) service come to the Coro (Choir Loft of the church). This candlelit service was conducted in up to eight languages. There was a set service with a time for the pilgrims to pass a candle and stay silent or speak expressing their feelings, a poem, prayer or song. The service concluded with people expressing their wishes for their Camino to a neighbour and hugs all around.
In the morning we had coffee, tea or cola cao and tostados calentitos. The pilgrims washed their own dishes, refilled their water bottles and gave us goodbye hugs and best wishes. They had arrived as wilted flowers and left as friends and family. Many wanted to know where on the Camino they could receive a similar welcome and expressed that in the Grañón experience had truly made their pilgrimage feel real and authentic. I always recommended the parochial albergues although by policy, I am not able to recommend or denigrate another service.
On May 16 we left Barbara and Salvatore who had arrived from Italy the afternoon before in charge. Margrit walked off to take the bus north with intentions to walk the Camino Aragonese and Camino del Norte. I followed the pilgrim stream west to arrive in Burgos as a peregrino three days later.
We felt deep satisfaction and pride in the welcome we had extended, deep gratitude for the support and assistance we had received from the town of Grañón, the priest, Jesus, Marina Saiz, our predecessors and our successors as well as the pilgrims themselves.