Camino Postcard 36: Brea to Santiago de Compostela

16-17.5.19

The last day of our Camino! Joy and sadness intertwined.

After paying the dinner bill (see yesterday’s post), we set off from the pensión. There were no cafés in Brea itself – or at least, none that we saw – so we kept walking until we found a bar a couple of kilometres up the road. Afterwards, and admittedly not for the first time, I briefly considered a career as an action photographer:

We walked along the roadside and came to a hut with incense burning on a small table. A sign there proclaimed a great truth:

Sometimes a simple moment of joy is all we need to remember how lucky we are

Well, we can debate whether we are lucky, blessed or whatever but either way the sentiment is a good one.

On the table was a stamp for our pilgrim passports; we stamped ours before inhaling the incense one last time and heading on our way.

This morning, we met more doggos. Ellena greeted them happily. If Dogbook existed, she would have so many friends by now. The second time we saw a dog its mother watched on from a distance as she went about her work.

It was an overcast day and soon enough, rain started to fall. Off came the backpacks and out came their rain covers.

We stopped for lunch 15 kilometres from Santiago, at a place called Amenal. One thing I regret about the Camino is not making a record of all the non-pilgrim meals that we ate. There were one or two really nice ones. The café-bar we stopped at today comes into that category. The pizza was nice; really nice! If you walk the Camino past Amenal, look out for the café-bar that has the round ‘Kilometro 15’ sign outside it. That’s the place to go to for good food.

We continued – by the roadside, and then into woods. The road followed us, and it gave us an opportunity to remember an earlier event. In my first blog post in this series, I wrote this,

During the afternoon, I saw two pilgrims taking a break by a roadside crash barrier. A good idea! I wanted to do the same there and then but didn’t want to invade their space or stop so close that they could see I was copying them. Even when exhausted, propriety reigns! So, I walked a little further on and took out my bar of chocolate. Dear reader, I don’t think I ever enjoyed food more!

Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

The two pilgrims, of course, were Ellena and Carolin. The woodland road we were now walking alongside also had a crash barrier beside it. So, with the Valcarlos Route in mind, we stopped and took photographs of us all resting on the barrier – this time, together.

Carolin and I:

Me and Ellena:

It was a fun moment!

Once the photos were done, we moved on – onwards and upwards through the woods.

There is a scene in the film Inception when Ariadne (Ellen Page) – while in a dream state – makes a Parisian street bend upwards until it is directly above herself and Cobb (Leonardo Decaprio). As we came out of the woods, we saw a road climb so sharply that it too seemed to be intent on curving backwards over us. I was not overjoyed at the prospect of climbing it, but, as Ellena said, when you get closer to roads like this, they never go up as sharply as they appear. Thankfully, this proved to be the case.

We got to the top. Although it hadn’t been as bad as it looked, we – I – still needed a rest and so we dived into a café a bit further on. Here, we were hit by an influx of pilgrims (TPs looking for toilets) for the first time since the Portomarín to Palas de Rei road.

We continued on our way. We passed Santiago airport and tried not to think about the fact that in a week’s time, we would be saying goodbye to each other there. The rain was falling more heavily now. Just past the airport, we dived into a bar as much to escape the rain as for a drink. We were now just 12 kilometres from Santiago.

It was still raining when we left the bar but we pushed on nonetheless. In time, we came out of the woods, left the last village behind and arrived at the Monte del Gozo. Here, we looked out for the statues of the two Arriving Pilgrims.

I had been eager to see the statues ever since I watched Martin Sheen and co walk up to them in The Way. We almost missed them, however, as the road was a little distance away from the statues’ location. Actually, it was so far that we only just spotted them in the near distance.

Something else that didn’t help is the fact that in the film (released in 2010), the statues appear to be on an unkempt hill whereas the Monte del Gozo now is a very well landscaped park.

Our first actual sight of Santiago came while we were still on the road but our first ‘official’ pilgrim view came with the statues. Here’s what we saw.

You can just see the spires of Santiago cathedral in the centre of the photo – our destination! After thirty-six days and so many kilometres, we were almost there.

Almost, but not quite, and not today.

Today, we headed off to the town’s east end where the apartment we had booked was located. There, Ellena and Carolin rested while I went in search of a supermarket for provisions.

17.5.19
The reason we didn’t go to the cathedral yesterday was because it was about four kilometres from our flat. Having walked 25 kilometres yesterday, we were happy to go to the cathedral tomorrow; or rather, today.

After packing our backpacks up, we closed the apartment door and started the final part of the journey. We left early – before nine o’clock to allow plenty of time to get the compostelas before we had to catch the coach to Finisterre, which was scheduled to leave Santiago at midday. As we knew that there might be a queue at the pilgrims’ office for the compostela, we reckoned to get there early – between nine and ten AM – so that we had plenty of time to pick up our compostelas before leaving town.

That was the plan. It didn’t work out like that.

We arrived at the cathedral square. I have to admit, doing so was an underwhelming experience. We were here. We had finished. Well done us? Yes, but now we have to go to the pilgrims’ office. No time to waste – we should have left the apartment earlier; the bus leaves at midday and ten o’clock is already drawing on.

We came, we saw, we left sharpish. So much so that I was only able to take a two or three photographs of the cathedral. I didn’t worry, though; there would be plenty of time to take more when we returned on Monday.

We found the pilgrims’ office and joined the queue in the courtyard outside. It was another cloudy day and soon the weather turned on us. Fortunately, it was only very light rain and within a few minutes we were at the doors to the corridor leading towards the reception where the compostelas were being issued.

We stepped over the threshold into the building and— stopped. Stopped. The minutes passed. No movement. More time passed. Still no movement. I checked my phone. It was somewhere past ten o’clock. We still had time but only if the queue started moving. Steady progress would do. If the queue was going to be like this the rest of the way, though, we would miss the bus.

While we waited, I went onto the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group on Facebook and asked if it was possible to pick up one’s compostela any time after today. I quickly learnt that it was. When I told Ellena and Carolin this, we agreed to leave the queue and come back on Tuesday – at opening time. I didn’t know if I would receive an answer from the CPDG and was so very grateful when I did – if you are interested in any of the Camino routes and are on Facebook, I thoroughly recommend the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group to you. The people there are friendly and always ready to offer help and advice to any who ask.

We had intended to walk to the bus station but time was now against us. So, we took a taxi instead. At the bus station, we tried to work out how to buy a ticket for the coach to Finisterre. Very fortuitously, we met Ellena’s American friend Buddy (man not dog) who was was just returning from the coast. He put us on the right track and soon we were on our way.

Just like that, then, we left Santiago. Our Camino was over. Now, we were – what? Recovering former pilgrims? Plain old tourists? Something in-between? If you are thinking about doing the Camino be warned! Once you become a pilgrim, I don’t think you ever stop. I don’t think you can. The spirit of the Camino becomes a part of you; the experience of it is tattooed onto your spirit. This is certainly what I have found since returning home on 23rd May. I am only a former walker. I am still, though, a pilgrim, searching for meaningfulness, for an authentic way to live, for God. I am searching for the Camino in my life at home. I haven’t forgotten the Camino Francés, though. Far from it. How I would love to be back there! I think a part of me still is; walking the Way in the shadow and shade, and always will. I would very much like to walk the French route again. Whether I will or not is in God’s hands. If I do not, I shall try my best to not mind too much – as Newman says, He knows what He is about – but instead, live with gratitude for the Camino that I did undertake, and finished on 17th May 2019.

Camino Postcard 35: Melide to Brea

15.5.19
Down a country road with wooded hills in the distance; past a sleeping cat and graffiti that read ‘Fellowship of the Camino’ – that made us feel very epic and heroic; past three more cats, one of whom eyed us very suspiciously; we stopped for the cows as they crossed the road from one field to the other, and once more caught up with Lilian. But only for a short while. It was another hot day, and she stopped at a café for a drink. We ploughed on.

Not long later, we came to a roadside ‘café’ – actually just a wooden box with a single banana inside it; other pilgrims had got here before us. Hopefully, they had given a donation to the money box as well.

Through the woods and across a brand new bridge that spanned a brand new motorway – so new it was still closed. It felt very eerie crossing this empty road that would soon be busy all the time.

We finally stopped for lunch at a café called the Casa Calzada. There, we saw a pilgrim and his dog take their rest before heading off together, and were greeted by a little jay who may have been a new friend but more than likely just wanted some food.

We walked past a lush green field; I saw a roadside saying ’80’ seemingly half way across it. I smiled at the idea of animals being told to limit their speed to 80 kilometres an hour. The reality, of course, is that the sign was on the far side of the field and was warning drivers on the road there to limit their speed.

After a drinks break, we left the roadside and headed back into the woods. There, the light of the sun made the field just beyond it glow brightly. I took a photograph to try and capture what I saw but it did no justice to the sight at all. Some gifts are for keeping, others just for the time in which they are given.

Twenty-five kilometres after starting, we arrived in the hamlet of Brea. We had decided to stay at a pensión called, appropriately enough, The Way. Lilian had caught up with us again and came to the hotel to see if they had any spare beds. Unfortunately, they hadn’t, so she left to find somewhere else to stay.

The Way was a pretty plush place. Our room was spacious and had a nice shower. They had a pool outside but although we were now well into May it was not yet in use. If I am ever blessed enough to do another Camino, it will not be in the summer; despite this, I envy summer pilgrims who get to use hotel swimming pools. What a feeling it must be to jump in after a hot day’s walking!

Dinner at The Way was scheduled to be served at six PM. It arrived, though not until a little while later. The slow service was compounded for some by the food not being to their taste. To their credit, the owner tried to provide an alternative but this was one of those days when nothing could be done.

What happened the next morning was more unfortunate than the meal. When we checked out, we were told that we needed to pay for our dinner. I was convinced that we had done so when we checked in yesterday. The son of the owner was brought in and after checking the records confirmed his mother’s statement. To this day, I am still sure that we did pay it but maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. So, for that reason, and because the Camino is no place for disputes about meals, we paid the requested amount of money and went on our way.

The previous evening, we returned to our rooms and relaxed. Or tried to – for tomorrow would be the last day of our journey; we had decided to walk the 25 or so kilometres that remained between us and Santiago de Compostela. The end for which we had come but which we did not want to happen was almost upon us.

Camino Postcard 34: Palas de Rei to Melide

14.5.19
After walking nearly fifty kilometres over the last two days, we decided to cut ourselves a break today and walk just fifteen. I think everyone was grateful especially as it was another hot day.

What happened? A good question. I have no diary entry to go on and took too few photographs. Why, Past Me, why?? To make things worse, half of today’s photos in my album are snapchat pictures and there’s no way I am showing you those so don’t even ask.

What the actual, MJM?

From the photographs that I did take, I can say that we passed under a bridge that said ‘Jesus loves you’ which is a cheesy thing for a bridge to say but still true nonetheless and is a whole lot better than ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’.

After writing the above, I remembered that as we approached the bridge, my boot lace came undone. We were on an incline so I was going to leave it until we reached the bottom before doing it up again. Not knowing this, a kind pilgrim came to let me know that it was undone. He didn’t want me to trip up on myself. As always, the kindness of strangers is one of the greatest things about the Camino.

Further along the way, we came to the Casa Domingo, which bore one of the largest shells that it was my privilege to see.

We passed through woodland, and after a while, stopped for drinks at a little outdoors café. Well, I think it was actually someone’s house and the seats were on their driveway. But anyway, it was such a lovely place! Not because of how it looked, but on account of the owner’s gaiety. He had a big smile, was very friendly and funny. He was a true balm for our sore feet and any troubled souls.

Further along the road, we passed St. James.

By-the-bye, last Thursday (15th August) was Assumption Day. For Catholics in England and Wales it was also a Holy Day of Obligation so I went to St. James’ church in Spanish Place (London) for Mass. I visited St. James’ just before leaving London to start the Camino to ask God’s help to walk it and for St. James’ intercession. Ever since I got back home, I knew I had to go back to say thank you to both. Upon arriving at the church, I made sure I sat within sight of its statue of dear James. It was an emotional experience doing so. I very nearly blubbed. And it’s funny because I have to admit, up till that point, I never felt very close to St. James. I may have asked for his intercession and prayers during the Camino but I didn’t feel any significant connection to him – but now; in that moment… I was very grateful.

A little further up the road, we spotted a cat in a field. The tall grass gave it perfect cover for any stalking it might wish to do. When we spotted it, though, the kitty was happy to just watch the pilgrims go by. We watched it watching us for a couple of minutes before leaving it to itself.

And then, we were in Melide.

Or rather, the village of Furelos, which has been consumed by the town. There, we saw a beautiful medieval bridge.

Before crossing it, we had lunch in a little café-bar called the Mesón A Ponte. It was a neat place – the seats were on the ground floor and the bar on the first. If I remember correctly, swords were mounted on the wall. You’ll never go wrong at a place with mounted swords; unless, of course, they are taken down and used against you. In this day and age, though, that can be considered to be very unlucky.

By now, Lilian had rejoined us. After lunch, she went on her way again. We crossed the bridge and walked through Furelos. I wish we had stayed here – with its old brick buildings and tight roads it was an ideal place to stop at.

We kept going, though, into the town, up a road and round a corner and then a few more before coming to the apartment which we had booked for the night.

We arrived at it a few minutes early so wandered into an ice cream parlour for a little treat. After meeting the owner of the flat and taking the keys, we relaxed. We washed our clothes. There was no drying machine but the flat did abut a single room that was accessible only from the ground floor flat (we were on the top and first floor). Windows made it as warm as an airing cupboard, so we put our clothes on the window sill and hoped a. that they would dry by tomorrow and b. that they wouldn’t fall to the floor below. They dried, kind of, but fortunately, did not fall down.

In the evening, the three of us watched a Spanish drama on TV. I say drama but unfortunately the language barrier caused any dramatics to be lost on us. The fact that a good forty-five minutes of the programme was spent with the characters sitting round a table and eating dinner did not help either.

During the whole of the Camino, we saw relatively little television – none in the albergues and a restricted amount in the hotels and apartments. What we did see, though, was dominated by another programme. I shall come back to it when we arrive in Santiago…

We saw a watchful kitty

Camino Postcard 33: Portomarín to Palas de Rei

13.5.19
I ended the last blog post on a happy note, but the 32nd day of our Camino did have a sting in the tail – I had another blister on my thumb. Fortunately, this one healed in just a few days rather than taking two weeks.

On our second misty morning in succession, we made our way down the great stone staircase and out of Portomarín. For a couple of minutes, we walked along the city-side of the Rio Miño before crossing it once more.

This took us back in woodlands. There were quite a few pilgrims in front and behind. And also, a tractor, taking some felled pine trees away. Our path took us up, up, and – no, not away – just up again until we were actually above cloud level!

What a sight. The valley must have its own microclimate.

As we made our way to the heavens, we saw Lillian ahead of us. We called out to her but while we turned the heads of the pilgrims in front of us, she never heard our cries. A forced march followed until we were close enough to again shout LILLIIIAAAAAN! This time, she heard, and we were reunited.

Today was a really tough day. The heat told on us and Ellena’s knee was in a very bad way. The presence of so many pilgrims around us and the possibility that they were TPs was also aggravating. It didn’t help that there were so many of them that, at one point, we had to walk on the side of the road because there was no room on the pavement.

We eventually stopped at Palas de Rei but should have done so much earlier. Indeed, as with yesterday, that was our intention. But again, as with yesterday, we couldn’t find an albergue. We struggled on under the burning sun. Towards the end of our march, I ran out of water. Memories of the Valcarlos route came back to me and I didn’t enjoy them.

Palas de Rei is 25 kilometres from Portomarin. We managed to walk 23 of them. Seeing the clouds beneath us had been the high point – literally and figuratively; the Spanish man who had replied to Ellena’s greeting of Buen Camino with Buen Camino and then And I hope you die in Spanish under his breath had been the low point. Imagine being a pilgrim and saying that to someone. Either he was a complete jerk or, for charity’s sake, let’s just say he was having a very bad day for whatever reason.

Another thing I should say is that the ill willed pilgrim was a low point because by the time we stopped at a roadside restaurant and bar I was thirsty and Ellena very poorly. Even though we were so close to Palas de Rei, she could go no further on foot.

After we had had a drink, I asked the barman if he could call a taxi for us. Thank the Lord for the kindness of Spanish people. However, when he called, none were available. He advised me to ask him again in a little while. So, we sat down, had a bite to eat and hoped for the best.

Eventually, with prayers in my heart, I made my way back into the bar. The barman called… and five minutes later, the taxi arrived. Praise be. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.

Of course, we got looked at as we put our backpacks into the boot. We ignored them. This was our Camino and it was the right thing to do.

I did wonder, though, what this taxi might mean for our compostelas. Would we not receive one because we had not walked the entire last 100 kilometres?

That was a problem for another day. Today, the taxi took us to a cheap hotel at the far end of town. We checked in and took our rooms.

By the way, when I say checked in, I mean that we did so after booking the room on booking.com. We used this app for all the hotels that we stayed at from Sarria onwards. We didn’t want to run the risk of just turning up and finding that they had no rooms. That would have been demoralising. The app was very easy to use and a great help to us.

The hotel we stayed was called the Hostal Ponterroxan. The hotelier was very polite if a little forgetful in bringing the wine at tea time (or perhaps just busy) but very friendly. If I was passing through Palas de Rei again, I would definitely go back to there.

Once in our room, we each took a shower and settled down.

I mentioned two low points earlier. Let me mention another high point to even the scales. For today we met the Canadian pilgrim whom we had last seen on our way out of León (I mentioned him here). His wife had recovered from her injury and they were now walking together.

Camino Postcard 32: Sarria to Portomarín

12.5.19
We dragged ourselves out of the lovely hotel we stayed in last night and… stopped. Lillian was still with us but she had gone in search of a cash machine.

Before long, however, she returned, and we set off. One thing I regret about the Camino is not taking more time to explore some of the places that we stopped in. That was fine with the hamlets and villages where there was not a great deal to see but places like Sarria had a lot to offer and I rarely took the chance to explore. This was partly due to tiredness at the end of the walk, but also tardiness. Money was also a reason – in order to preserve it, I never went anywhere that had an entrance fee; that included cathedrals.

The sky was cloudy overhead today as we left Sarria behind and walked into the countryside. There were pilgrims in front of and behind us but we were not yet deluged by them. This would happen a little further on and tomorrow. After that, they pretty much disappeared as quickly as they came. I still don’t know what happened to them.

We entered a woodland and paused to take photos at a train track (non-electrified!). Train tracks are a very potent symbol – of the future and past – but I have to admit, they resonate with me because one of my most favourite films, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café begins with the camera travelling along one.

A train track also plays a very important part in the Fried Green Tomatoes story but I’ll say no more here in case you would like to watch the film (I heartily recommend it to you!) (And the book; Fannie Flagg is a great writer).

After taking our photographs, we passed a group of German pilgrims. I learnt a lot about the country from Ellena, not least that it is a strict one in terms of behaviour. I wonder what it means, therefore, that we met so many Germans walking the Camino. Are they rebelling against their country’s strict you-must-work-(hard)-to-be-valid outlook? I think that – whether or not they are walking the Way for religious reasons – they are, and I am pleased for them. To walk the Camino is to recognise the wildness, the messiness, the incredible nature of life and to refuse to stay in a box that someone else created. For this reason, I’m a little sad that we met relatively few British people. I hope it isn’t the case that in Britain we live life’s wildness in things like drinking and sports, so much so that we leave no space for the deeper – true – wildness of the Camino.

Crossing a bridge, we came to the huge bole. It was so big, Carolin was able to fit inside and do a very passable impression of a tree spirit.

The path now went upwards – another good stretch for the legs – before turning at a hairpin. We came out of the woods. The clouds were very low now, and it was very misty. We stopped at an albergue-café-tourist shop to get our pilgrim passports stamped. This was important because in order to qualify for a compostela in Santiago, the pilgrim has to get his passport stamped twice a day from Sarria onwards.

We had already got our first stamp at a café in Sarria so this one took care of the twice a day obligation. Or did it? I think it may actually have been our third one.

But anyway, I have just remembered something. So, in yesterday’s post I made a lewd reference that has probably lost me such readers as this blog enjoys, or enjoyed, so let’s go the full hog and mention Hitler.

In Sarria, a friend from home sent me a video of a man in a bar dancing. He turns to the camera, and lo and behold, he looks exactly like Adolf Hitler. Here is the video.

I love the juxtaposition of Hitler, a bar, and dancing. It’s so perfectly ridiculous. And yes, it’s also offensive, so don’t watch it if it is likely to hurt or anger you.

Further up the road, we met two horses who were either very interested in us or in the possibility that we might have some sugar to give them. Probably the latter. Sadly, though, we had naught to give but our love.

Hm. Buried in that line somewhere is a quotation from G. K. Chesterton.

… I’ve just looked it up – the key is the word ‘naught’ – in his poem The Ballad of the White Horse, he writes ‘I tell you naught for your comfort’.

As the morning progressed, the sun burned the mist away and it turned into a hot, a really hot, day. We soldiered on, and managed to keep going all the way to Portomarín – 25 kilometres from Sarria. It was a mighty effort under the hot sun and we all felt it. Why did we go so far? Well, my memory is hazy on this point, but I’m sure we didn’t mean to; I’m sure the original intention had been to stop at either Mercadoiro or Vilachá but for want of an albergue that turned out not to be possible.

(I know I said yesterday that we didn’t bother with albergues after Sarria but the situation was a fluid one. If we had arrived somewhere and saw an albergue in front of us, we would probably have taken it)

So, we staggered across the long bridge that took us over the Rio Miño and almost collapsed when we saw that to enter the city, we had to climb a large stone staircase. Summoning our last remaining strength, we made our way up it. At the top, we paused to consult Brierley. There was a hotel just round the corner – the Casona da Ponte. As we were all feeling the heat to breaking point, we went there.

The Casona cost a few more euros but was just what the doctor ordered. Clean, fresh and comfortable. The receptionist/barman was very friendly and, I cannot lie, very handsome. I enjoyed being there.

We had dinner/tea at a café round the corner from the hotel, and as we walked there, we heard a familiar voice from the hotel next to ours – it was Lillian (she had walked ahead of us during the day). We met her in the café.

And so, after washing our clothes, the day – with its beautiful view of the Rio Miño – came to a gentle end.

Camino Postcard 31: Triacastela to Sarria

11.5.19
My copy of Brierley shows that there are two paths leading out of Triacastela. One turns left and follows the path of the rio Oribio, going through at Samos before continuing along the line of the river to Aguiada where it joins the right hand route. This route goes through woodland and across the Alto do Riocabo before passing through Furela and onwards to Aguiada. We took the right hand route.

It was a sunny day and before long we met the equally sunny Lillian. She was well and truly bitten by the Camino bug – as I write this she is currently walking the Camino Portugues.

Somewhere in the woods, we found a very rustic looking albergue with a sign saying ‘WiFi Zone’ – except ‘WiFi’ had been crossed out and ‘Hugging’ added above it. Hm. Hugging or WiFi, which would you rather have? I’m English so obviously would infinitely prefer WiFi, or at most a firm handshake.

We stopped for breakfast in the albergue and had a lovely little meal. We also met a lovely dog – Buddy. He was a service dog so we weren’t supposed to distract him, but while his owner had breakfast, Buddy was allowed to come over to say hello. He was quite big and very fluffy; he had a very serious face. If he was a human he’d be professor of something or other at Oxford.

A few days ago, Ellena took a passport stamp and stamped her hand with it. Today, I copied her. The rustic albergue’s stamp was a pair of lips. Well, they looked like lips alright but which kind I shall leave to your imagination.

Not long after leaving Buddy and the lips (a great name for a 50s pop band btw), although technically the latter came with me, we met two dogs playing very enthusiastically with each other. They joined us and one tried to jump on Ellena as she knelt down to pet it. He’s trying to exert his dominance over me, she said. Fortunately, it only took Ellena standing up to put alpha doggo in his place so he he went back to playing with his friend.

Further on, we passed a tiny house that seemed to be doubling as a shop – selling prints. I can’t imagine how one is able to sustain a business in the middle of a wood. The prints may be of the greatest quality, but how many pilgrims will want to carry them through the day to Sarria?

We continued on. It was now cloudy overhead and may even have rained a little later in the morning. If so, it didn’t last and before long was brightening up. More of an issue, perhaps, was the climb as we climbed the Alto do Riocabo. One puff step puff after puff another puff. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but it was a good stretch for the legs.

We stopped for a rest at a house with an open garden and assorted fruit and drink available for purchase. Here, we met a pilgrim who had arrived there a week or so before us and decided to stay awhile. What a lovely freedom to have to be able to do that!

The facilities at the house, or rather, garden, were extremely rustic – it had an open air compost toilet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women in the party declined to use it. I did my best but however good this kind of toilet is for the land I have to admit it is not wholly comfortable from a human perspective. Still, there was a copy of Romeo and Juliet by the toilet to distract oneself with so that was something.

Another thing that we saw at this garden was a collection of scallop shells. The house owners encouraged all pilgrims to leave theirs there – according to them, real pilgrims got their shells after finishing the Camino in Santiago. Yeah, right. I don’t care what real pilgrims do, you’re only taking my shell away from me over my cold, dead body.

Anyway, after a nice cup of coffee, we left the garden and continued on our way. Down into the valley we went, and then up again. By the time we rolled into the town whose name I won’t mention because I’ve forgotten it, it was not only sunny but very hot. We stopped at a café for lunch. There, we met Buddy again. Another dog was also present and he waddled over to say hello if by hello I mean beg for food.

In truth, today was the Day of Dogs because further on down the road we met a beautiful Alsation chilling out in a high garden at the side of the road. He looked as noble as the hills, ancient as the sky and I should move on because frankly when did you last see a noble looking hill?

We climbed a staircase made out of paving stone embedded in the ground, met a cow and her calf – like the Alsation she was on high ground but also behind a fence so we could get very close to her and the calf without incurring any risk. And then, we met a few beautiful roses, saw a memorial stone (?) written in an oriental (perhaps Japanese) script and were in Sarria.

And here, in a sense, our Camino ended. For we knew that from now on, we would see a whole lot more pilgrims on the route – those doing the last one hundred kilometres only – and the thought of this irritated us intensely. Yes, there would be some who were doing the last 100 for legitimate reasons: time, health, etc and we had no problem with that, but we despised the tourist pilgrims (TPs as they became) who were coming to do the last 100 as a bucket list exercise or simply in order to get the compostela on the cheap.

None of this might have mattered to us so much except that competition for beds at albergues along the way would now increase dramatically. There may even be days when we missed out because the horrid tourist pilgrims – who didn’t even carry their bloody backpacks with them – got there before us.

So, in Sarria, our more carefree Camino ended. From now on, the shadow of the TPs would be upon us. We dealt with it by simply not bothering with the albergues anymore. In each stop between Sarria and Santiago we stopped at a cheap hostel. Or, in the case of Sarria, because it was hot and we were too tired to go searching for an albergue and risk being turned away, a not to so cheap hotel.

Camino Postcard 30: Villafranca del Bierzo to Triacastela

10.5.19
For the first time today we had to take a taxi for a non-medically related reason.

I say had as if we didn’t have a choice. Of course, we did. It just wasn’t much of one, that’s all.

For if we kept walking, we ran the risk of our money and time running out before we reached Santiago.

Money could, hopefully, be managed; time, however, could not.

But how? Our Camino didn’t have to end until 23rd May – the latest day that Ellena could to return to Germany and to work (I having quit my job in January had no obligation to return to the U.K. at any particular time; Carolin’s new course didn’t begin until September so she was under no pressure either). That was thirteen days away. Thirteen days to complete under 200 kilometres? Easily possible.

However, after we finished the Camino, all three of us wanted to spend a few days recovering in Finisterre on the Atlantic coast and then return to Santiago to relax there. That gave us just about a week to finish the journey.

The desire to go to the coast married the fear over money and time and persuaded us to hire a taxi to take us to O’Cebreiro. To be honest, even if we had had lots of money and time we might have got one, anyway; Ellena had been bitten by something during the night and it had made her foot red and sore.

So, we piled into the taxi and raced away down the woodland road.

At O’Cebreiro, we took some photographs of the beautiful valley below. As you can see in the photograph, the clouds were so low, we were lucky to see it.

O’Cebreiro was a small but beautiful village. The shops and albergues were made of a darkish stone. A souvenir shop had a thatched roof. I tried to take a selfie next to a stone statue of St. James and we met a shy dog which Ellena befriended. I wish we could have stayed the night there.

Having jumped ahead of time, though, we now had to keep it behind us. So, we got walking. Outside the village, the path split. The lower path went along the roadside, the upper path into the woods. I think the lower path was the quicker one but we decided to take the higher. This was because we thought it might be the one to lead us to the Alto San Roque where we hoped to see the famous statue of the saint.

As it happened, the two paths rejoined each other long before we got to the statue but before then we were treated to a lovely walk through a pine forest that looked straight out of Middle-earth. The trees were black pines so Tolkien would have felt completely at home there.

Up till now, the weather had mostly held but it was in the woods that it threatened to fail and we had to stop and put our rain covers over our backpacks.

The threat of rain did not ruin our day. How could it? We were in beautiful surroundings and had got into the habit of playing music out loud from our iPod and phones. As you might imagine, The Lord of the Rings soundtrack got a good airing today.

We came out of the woods, descended a shallow slope and rejoined the lower path as it snaked past the tiny hamlet of Linares. Presently, we were back in the woods again and climbing up until just over the crest appeared San Roque himself, looking out past the valley ahead and I guess to Santiago and Heaven.

When we arrived, a group of cyclists were also taking photographs at the statue. One of them kindly took the photograph of us, below. Unfortunately, none of my photos of San Roque are very good – the sun was behind him so made all my photos of him very dark.

After spending some time admiring the statue and taking photographs we moved on. We stopped at Hospital de la Condesa. Here, we took our second taxi of the day to Triacastela. Now, I am sure this was part of the plan, but I also remember Ellena being in some pain, particularly from her bite, so we may have chosen to take it for her sake.

Either way, we drove to Triacastela, arrived in good weather and checked in to an albergue with a hospitalera who talked… and talked… and talked… LOUDLY. Boy, did she have a lot to say! And just when we were trying to rest.

While Ellena and Carolin did rest, I went in search of a chemist. There, I bought an ointment that would hopefully help Ellena’s bite. Along the way, I stopped and had a beer in a local bar. There, I accidentally tore a ten euro note in two! Don’t ask. It was just an accident. Given the money situation, a spectacularly badly timed one, but there we are.

Speaking of accidents, I had a few of them at the albergue: I was on the bottom bunk, and this one was a low bunk so I forever had to be careful when lifting myself up. I was not forever careful enough.

And so, I leave us sleeping into the night with our next destination being Sarria beginning the last few days of our Camino. As I do so, I say goodbye to my journal: today’s entry was the last to be written. I wrote it tomorrow, presumably in Sarria. What a shame I couldn’t keep it going just a few days more!

Camino Postcard 29: Acebo to Villafranca del Bierzo

9.5.19
This morning, we took a taxi from Acebo to Villafranca where we decided to stay for the night. Ellena was feeling better after yesterday’s difficult walk from the Cruz de Ferro but her joints were not yet healed sufficiently for walking to be considered.

In Villafranca, we checked into a private albergue and were given a room with three beds. After a rest, I went in search of food. It was not a wholly successful search – the ‘take away’ that I found on-line turned out to be just a bar. On the way back to the albergue I found a supermarket so bought some drink and snacks. Just round the corner from the albergue there was a bar. Through the raindrops on the lens of my glasses I saw that it sold food – hot food – so dived in.

When I left the albergue, the weather was overcast but dry. By the time I made my way back, however, the clouds were low and it was raining. I was wearing my flip-flops: not good for finding grip on a wet pavement!

Today was the second day on the Camino that we were obliged to take a taxi and do no walking. It would be easy to see this as a failure. I don’t. A failure would have been to give up and go home. Today was in its own way a success, especially for Ellena. It was a success because she persevered on the Camino despite the pain – the physical pain, of course, and the emotional pain of having to take a taxi when conventional opinion all but demands that to do the Way one must walk.

Ellena will disagree with me but I still say that she is one of the bravest people I know: brave for doing the Camino in the first place, and brave sticking at it in defiance of conventional opinion, which can be such a powerful and oppressive force.

As you’ll see in upcoming posts, we had to take a taxi tomorrow and the day after. Of course I would have loved to have walked every inch of the Camino, but if it is a choice between doing that and taking transport and in so doing learning about humility, pain, and even love, I know which Way I would follow.

Camino Postcard 28: Foncebadón to Acebo

8.5.19
We left Foncebadón on a cool and cloudy morning. A large wooden cross greeted us as we began our climb up the hillside to the Cruz de Ferro.

The clouds were very low; as we walked we passed them shoulder to shoulder. This was the closest I had come to them since the first day when for a few minutes towards the end of the Valcarlos route through the Pyrenees I had wondered if the clouds would engulf me entirely. The fear of them doing so and of getting lost managed to gee me up even though I had been walking for over eight hours and was now very tired.

Fortunately, the clouds today bore us no ill will; so, while they did block our view of the valley below for a short time, they kept their distance and soon drifted by on their own business.

The Cruz de Ferro was one of the places that, before the Camino, I looked forward to seeing. According to tradition (started when?), pilgrims bring a stone from their home country and drop it at the foot of the cross. Doing so symbolises them leaving behind whatever burdens them. For this reason, they say a prayer at the same time. I brought a stone from my garden, dropped it next to the cross and prayed. I must confess, though, I didn’t and don’t feel especially unburdened of anything that weighed on me before.

In a way, I dropped my stone back in January when I quit my last job. I had been with the company as a Temp for nearly four years and in that time worked in three different roles. I had been good at the first two and enjoyed the work. One, however, hadn’t worked out and things had got very stressful. By Christmas last year, I was walking around with what felt like a literal weight on my shoulders.

It was no one person’s fault. For my part, I just wasn’t very good at the job I was doing and for the company’s, it’s training and management was lacking. As a result, things got worse and worse until New Year this year when I decided to walk before I was pushed. When I made the decision to quit, the weight on my shoulders disappeared just like that; it felt amazing. I was walking into the unknown: perhaps into financial hardship, but I didn’t mind, I had left my burden behind. When I left the office for the last time, I fairly bounced down the stairs like Tigger.

To this day, I am disappointed as to how things turned out at the company. It wasn’t my first time working there – I had done so previously for ten years but in the five years since my first departure it had changed so much, and in – I believe – an unhealthy fashion. Once upon a time few people quit their roles there; now, we received e-mails telling us that this temp or that was leaving on a regular basis.

Of course, I’m mixing things up. The stone that one drops at the Cruz de Ferro is a symbol of one’s burdens. The stone that I dropped on 9th January this year was a psychosomatic illness caused by stress. Perhaps that’s why I was able to drop one and not the other: it’s easier to quit a job than an internal burden. Actually, it isn’t easy to quit a job at all – I know this only too well – but when one becomes resolved to do it, it can at least be done just like that. Burdens that one carries around with oneself will not simply be dismissed by a flick of the wrist and the crack of a stone upon the ground.

The truth of that or otherwise is a conversation for another day. For now, at the Cruz de Ferro I said my prayer and came down from the hill of stones. Regarding the latter – before arriving at the Cruz I had expected to see it completely surrounded by stones. As I walked closer to it, however, I saw that underneath the stones was earth – I guess the better to keep the pole on which the iron cross stands upright.

Ellena and Carolin came up behind me and deposited their stones. We met Joey. He was suffering from shin splints but still walking. He eventually made it to Santiago, where I met him in a — let’s keep that a secret until we get there!

We were all grateful to be at the Cruz de Ferro; what we were not grateful for was the woman who told Carolin to get out of the way so that she – the woman – could have her photograph taken. You meet some fine people on the Camino; unfortunately, you also meet some selfish ones as well.

When we left the Cruz, we did so reluctantly. If we could have done so, I think we would all have stayed there longer. Perhaps, though, we were being like Peter on the mountain and wanting to stay too long.

Coming down from the Cruz de Ferro was a long, and though not steep, arduous process. It started well enough with a fairly shallow path and a nice break at an unmanned food and drinks stand (payment by donation). Taking Brierley literally, I had expected the path to Acebo to be downhill, then up, then down again the rest of the way. In reality, it was down, and up, then down, then up, round a corner, several corners, down, up, down, up a hill, and then down and finally, Acebo.

The hardest part of the journey came towards the end when we had to walk down a long path which was covered with loose stones and rocks. It wasn’t as bad as the descent from the Alto de Perdón but lasted for longer. I nearly slipped on a couple of occasions and was scared of falling over and hurting myself. Ellena’s knees began to hurt badly. I wondered at one point if she would even be able to make it to Acebo. What would we do? If we were going to call a taxi, we should have done it at the Cruz; doing so in the middle of nowhere, away from the road, was not an option. Thank goodness I had opted to stop at Foncebadón yesterday – walking this path after a long day of walking would not have been pleasant at all.

We did the only thing that we could do – keep going, carefully, prayerfully, hopefully, fearfully, finally – we came off the loose stones and stepped onto tarmac. Below us was Acebo – another hamlet; at its far end was the albergue that Tony had recommended to us.

When we arrived at its gates – another first – we found them closed. The albergue had not yet opened for the day. They soon opened, however, to let some delivery vehicles in; we followed them through and the receptionist kindly let us sit down in the reception area until they officially opened.

Happily, that didn’t take too long. We checked in and were given a little dorm with six bunk beds.

The albergue we stayed at is called the Albergue La Casa del Peregrino and on the whole I would give it an 8/10. The only place it fell short is in its showers. Normally, you switch a shower on when you are in the shower space. At the Casa, however, you had to step out of the shower and turn a lever on a pillar and then step back into the shower. When I did this, I got scalded. It took several goes to switch the shower on and several more to get it to an acceptable level of heat. Not long after I did, it switched itself off and that was that – I was done trying to work it out. Aside from the shower, the Casa is well worth visiting. The service and the food was good, and all the beds had their own plugs, and if you wanted you could stay for more than one night there. If you do and you figure the showers out – please leave a comment below! All in all the albergue was quite luxurious, and at ten euros very well priced. If only I could have worked the showers out, it would have been 10/10.

At the Casa, we washed our clothes and enjoyed a beer (grande) in the little bar. While there, Joey arrived and joined us. It was a lovely end to a spiritually good, though physically tough, day.

This is my favourite tree photo from the Camino – it reminds me of the cover of Tolkien’s book ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Camino Postcard 27: Santa Catalina de Somoza to Foncebadón

7.5.19
We woke up feeling capable and ready. Today, we would walk to the famous Cruz de Fierro, and then onwards to Acebo – 28 kilometres from start to finish.

Why Acebo? Tony was ahead of us and had sent a text message to say that the new albergue there was worth staying at.

As you might imagine, though, things didn’t quite work out as we had planned; Ellena wasn’t feeling great and my leg and back hurt. When we reached Foncebadón, I was given the choice of whether to continue or stop. My heart really wanted to continue, to walk through the pain and see the Cruz de Fierro and get a serious amount of kilometres under our belts. My head, however, was quite the opposite ‘Dude,’ he said to me, because yes, my head is from California, ‘come on; listen to yourself – literally; specifically, your leg. He needs a rest. And so does your back. Take it. Take it.’

Yes, my head speaks to me in Californian and bold. And a good job, too, because it made me take notice. I listened, and we stopped. And, dear reader, as you will find out tomorrow, it was just as well we did.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the day. We left Santa Catalina bright and early. Happily, a stretch of flat ground lay ahead. To get to the Cruz de Ferro, we would need to climb four hundred metres but that section of the path would not begin until we had passed Ganso, five kilometres down the road. Plenty of time to mentally and physically prepare for it.

I don’t remember much about the weather today, but I know that it was either damp or rained as my backpack is under its bright green waterproof cover in one of the photographs taken of me today. Because putting it on was such a higgledy-piggeldy operation, I only did so if I was absolutely sure that it was going to rain. Or if it had already started doing so.

Speaking of rain, did I tell you about my most awkward – and hence only – experience during the Camino of putting water proof trousers on?

Let me do so here. It was early on the first day, as I trudged along the Valcarlos route through the Pyrenees. The rain had started and was getting heavier so I decided to put the water proofs on. To do so, I stopped in the forecourt of someone’s farm house.

After making sure that no one was around, I pulled my wet proof trousers out of the backpack. At first, I tried to put them on without taking my boots off. Duh. All I managed to do there was make the inside of the water proofs dirty. So, I took each boot off and stood on one leg so that my sock didn’t get wet. The self-recrimination began. Why did I not do this earlier? It’s raining much too heavily now.

After pulling the water proof trousers on, I knelt down to lace my boots up again. I had trodden on one of them but despite that and the rain I had avoided getting my socks too wet, thank goodness. All’s well that ended well – just about.

Do you know this quotation? Let me know!

I was also relieved to be on my way because during the whole operation, I had been worried that the farmer would come out and tell me off for being on his property. Thankfully, though, he never did. Despite that, this had been an anxious and time consuming exercise. It convinced me that it shouldn’t be done again: the water proofs either had to come on at the start of the day if it was or looked like raining or not at all.

In Zubiri, I decided the latter should be the case and left them behind. My regular trousers were made for hiking. They should be able to deal with any rain.

This digression has given Ellena, Carolin and I time to walk through the countryside, past a very angry bull in the field on the opposite side of the road and an equally chilled out bull in the field on our side. It has given us time to arrive at a nice café where we threw off our backpacks and stopped for a break. The sky was still cloudy but now, thank goodness, no rain was forthcoming.

We walked through Rabanal where we saw a pilgrim with a beautiful service dog called Buddy. The buildings here, as so often in Spain, had really beautiful stonework.

Presently, we climbed a hill and came to the one street town of Foncebadón. Here, Ellena let me decide whether we should continue or stop. After I had decided on the latter, we checked in at a rustic albergue named the Monte Irago.

Our first choice of albergue at Foncebadón was a little too rustic even for us

As with one or two albergues before it, the Monte Irago’s dining room was in what would in a hotel be the reception area. There were three or four long-ish tables where the pilgrims could all sit together. I don’t recall seeing a dryer so after showering, I put my clothes out on a stone fence to dry. By now the sun had come out. It was also very breezy but there were plenty of stones lying about to put on top of the clothes. I just hoped that no opportunists would seize the moment.

There were only two down sides to the Monte Irago; one was that the bunk beds were fairly tightly packed together so moving around wasn’t as easy as it could have been. The other is that while the showers were blocked off from the dorm by a door, the door couldn’t be locked. If you stepped out of the shower to dry off, therefore, you were liable to have an unexpected and unwanted visitor. Unfortunately, the showers were not of a size to make drying yourself inside them very easy. With that said, it could be done, and if I was passing through Foncebadón again, I would definitely go back to this albergue.

Another place in Foncebadón that I would go back to is its one pizzeria – L’isola Che Non C’e: Neverland. The pizzas were absolutely mmmm! Delicious! As the pizzeria’s name suggests, the owners were big fans of Peter Pan. His imagery appeared inside:

and out:

The second star to the right

The two guys who ran the place were also very friendly. I highly recommend it to you.

We ate our pizzas just a couple of hours or so before tea time and so were still pretty full up when the hospitalera served tea at the Monte Irago. Carolin skipped the meal altogether and Ellena stayed only for a little while. I remained at table but did not try to eat too much. I did, however, have a lovely conversation with a Frenchman who, if I remember correctly, was walking the Camino in stages having started at a place called Le Puy.