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 4: Pamplona to Puente la Reina

The Camino Begins Again

14.4.19. Saying goodbye to Pamplona, I left the city via the campus of Navarra university. Along the way I saw a tap, and considered taking water from it but as there wasn’t a sign saying agua potable – water drinkable – I didn’t. This was me being super cautious. But did I need to be? After all, if the water was not potable there would certainly be a sign saying so, wouldn’t there? On the other hand, I later heard from one or two other pilgrims, some nasty stories about the taps and illnesses caught from them. I never reached a firm conclusion but as I never drank from a tap after Zubiri I guess I had already made my mind up.

So, I tramped along the side of the road with a bottle half empty. Ahead of me lay hills crowned with wind turbines. They would be a constant and distant companion for some days to come. Today, my path would take me past them and to the top of the alto del Perdón – the Mount of Forgiveness. For a while, the path rose only slightly but as I approached the hamlet of Cizur Minor, the steeper upward climb began and with a couple of breaks never let up until I had reached the top of the alto. Having shed weight from my backpack in Zubiri and Pamplona, however, I found the going easier than expected.

I was a happy walker today – the alto del Perdón features in The Way and so I couldn’t wait to reach the famous sculptures at the summit and walk in the footsteps of Martin Sheen and co. Onwards I marched… until I flagged and paused to take a break.

I stopped briefly in a couple of places. Firstly, at a little plateau where a kind pilgrim took the photograph of me that (I hope) you can see to the left of this text. The photo gives just a hint of the wonderful view we had of Pamplona and the surrounding countryside.

My next stopping point was at the wonderfully named Zariquiegui. Here, I stepped into a church and got my pilgrim passport stamped and then bought some more water in the local shop. There is an albergue in Zariquiegui and as I gulped down my drink, pilgrims sat outside it, enjoying the sun and eating brunch. I tried to go in to the albergue to get another stamp but it was busy and not very big inside. As I didn’t want to hit anyone with my backpack, I made a tactical retreat.

The path wound on. Two or three weeks later I read of an American pilgrim who died on it. Requiescat in Pace. I don’t know why he died but if it was of a heart attack I think he must have brought his death with him. The path to the top of the alto was good exercise, but not especially strenuous. Perhaps the American pilgrim had a condition that was provoked by that exercise, as ‘easy’ as it was. It is a very sobering thought to think that we might be carrying around within ourselves the seeds of our deaths. Say a prayer for him and all pilgrims who have, or will, die on the Way. They die doing well before the Lord.

I reached the top of the alto. After purchasing an energy drink from a van-café I sat down to drink and enjoy the sculptures. Here is a lovely blog post about them.

By the time I arrived at the top of the alto, there were already pilgrims there. Pilgrims were coming and going all the time. I really wanted someone to take a photograph of me beside the sculptures. Who could I ask?

Two young women arrived and sat down. I recognised them. They were the friends I had met on the first day, resting against the crash barrier. One of them was very attractive. Ask them, I told myself. I didn’t. Too shy. Well, then, try not to look at them; it’s rude and they might notice. Okay.

Presently, someone asked me to take a photo of them so that gave me the opportunity to ask if they could return the favour.

After resting, I walked around taking in the atmosphere. Nearby was a police car. I asked the officers if I could photograph its badge. I’m not sure they understood me but they let me. I was keen to do so because, as you can see above, it incorporates the Roman fasces into the design.

I can’t remember if I mentioned this before but in case not, the fasces – which was a bundle of wood and an axe bound together – was the symbol of the ancient Roman Lictors. They would carry the bound wood when walking with the consuls for whom they acted as bodyguards. My heart belongs to Alexander the Great but my before I ‘discovered’ him, I lived in ancient Rome so its always a joy seeing anything that reminds me of those days.

On leaving the alto del Perdón I descended a path that for its first third was comprised of loose stones. It was very treacherous – I nearly turned my ankle several times – so progress was slow. Along the way, my fleece fell from my backpack. Luckily, someone saw and handed it back.

Eventually, I reached the end of the section. (If the Spanish government ever decided to smooth that path out I would absolutely support it. It is the only Camino trail that I hated walking). Puenta la Reina was still 12 or so kilometres away but now the path was smoother and after the town of Uterga, more or less flat. The high point of this section of the walk was being passed by two horse riders and watching them as their horses trotted on.

I approached Puenta la Reina at some point in the mid-afternoon. I was tired and in need of rest. As a result, when I saw an albergue-hotel – the Jakue – at the edge of town, I ditched my original intention of going to the municipal albergue in the centre. The Jakue would do.

One man was in charge of checking the pilgrims in. Fortunately, there were only two people in front of me. And coincidentally, they were the two women I had seen at the crash barrier and alto. I don’t remember thinking much about them at the time. I was probably too tired. I sat down and waited to check in. Presently, it was my turn. One of the women asked me if I would like a beer. Oh, would I ever! I had walked 25 kilometres so a beer would be just what the doctor ordered (possibly; he might suggest water). I didn’t respond in quite that fashion. Instead, I said words to the effect, Thank you; that would be very kind. She bought me one, and invited me to sit with her and her friend. Thus, I met Ellena and Carolin, who, though we were walking a pre-determined path, changed the course of my Camino. As it happens, Ellena has started writing her own account of her Camino journey; you can read her blog here.

We drank and had a good chat before separating. That evening, the three of us ate together, too. In between times, I hand washed my clothes and spent too many euros trying to dry them. I should have hung them outside but it was now late in the afternoon and I did not like the idea of carrying damp clothes tomorrow. Unfortunately, some albergue dryers were not really up to the task of doing what they were made to do!

And that was my day. Quietly momentous.