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.