Hours later hunger compels me to dress and look for food. I am thoroughly taken in by a touting restaurateur and led down into a dungeon off the main square. The square is bright and full of happily dining people, why don’t I stay and eat here? But it is a weak moment and I am now semi-blind, my eyes hurt, my legs hurt, I suppose I want to be cared for, coddled, and not have to make a decision as to where to eat.
I order, but am given mussels not mushrooms, the main course is a mediocre something, and I am overcharged on my debit card by a rather large amount, fifty percent in fact, but I am too blind and cramped to register it until back in my hotel and horizontal. Once home in my room I lay on my bed, dealing mentally with the man, too unwell to go back and right the wrong. As the only deliberately negative experience along the entire Camino I decide to let it be. I can’t even recall the name of the place to shame him in print forever.
At night the 36 C drops to 8 C and the radiators go on. I am cosy and warm, and welcome the thick blankets which I had earlier pulled off. In the morning my eyes are normal and I watch pilgrims going spritely down the street, but I will stay another day, let my legs return to normal. I buy organic kefir and peaches, full, sweet and dripping with juice, the like of which I haven’t tasted in decades – these have been allowed to live out their allotted span to reach perfection on their trees in the sun.
Cherries I still have from the trees along the way, and I add a delicious organic gazpacho soup to my purchases, made by, so the packet tells me, Saint Teresa. The little grocery store on the corner of the plaza has everything delicious and I indulge in the breads and cheeses too. It is owned by a woman who seems to care much for her produce ...
As I cross the plaza I meet the cheating restaurateur – he has the grace to squirm under my gaze and scuttles down the lane back to his dungeon! Why! I think, not entirely surprised at his rapid disappearance, he knew what he was up to and guilt has caught him. I’ll bet he thought I’d be gone in the morning with every other one-night-pilgrim who passes through Villafranca ... but here I am, standing here as large as his guilt! I’m rather pleased that I didn’t return to chide him by quoting Papal Bull, Book and Candle for stealing from a peregrina! What did a friend once say: karma is never cruel but it is uncannily accurate!
I woke in a low moment actually, one of those moments of self-doubt and feeling – I dislike the word but it suits – ugly. Flashes of Mother’s Mantra you are fat, you are stupid, you are ugly ricochet around my head. Funny how it surfaces to hit me in the face, so to speak, when faced with a mirror. I console myself with the thought that Pericles apparently felt the same about the shape of his head too, and concealed it for posterity to remember him by always wearing a shining and handsome helmet. We, Pericles and I, share a keen sense of democracy and fair play – small coin for a woman who, when all is said and done, would just love to be pretty and loved. I smile at the comparison and know that I have, at least, a shining and beautiful humour.
Downstairs I meet Ann from Brighton, we had met at Gaucelmo. She stayed last night at Cacabelos for €5 and found the place beautiful, only two beds in each room, she tells me, and the rooms are built in a horseshoe around the church. I felt worse then as I had told myself to stay there, marked it in my Michelin Guide. Walking on to Villafranca cost me my eyes, my legs, and €60 for two nights in San Francisco! A CD of songs by Loreena McKennitt is playing in the café; I share with Ann the breathtaking youtube film by Hikmet Sesinoy, a Chechnyan whose wild mountains, dancing men, fleet-hooved horses, flying hawks and exquisite women, lifts McKennitt’s song Night Ride Across The Caucasus to a level of pure enchantment.
Ann notes it in her diary, will watch it when she gets home. I walk with her to the edge of town, we hug goodbye, she looks at my feet: they don’t look like they’ve walked any distance at all, she laughs, they’re beautiful! I laugh too, I only told them they were beautiful this very morning, I respond, as Ann hugs me again and adds, out of the blue, and you are beautiful too, Zoé. I know a shadow passes my face; I nod, tell her I probably needed just those words just this morning, thank her, and watch as she walks down the pilgrim path and over the bridge. She has chosen to take the mountain path of the three available out of Villafranca.
Following the road I continue to a café for café con leche, ponder on how timely things are, how right things just happen when the heart cries. I pass a very large building and glance up, aware of a huge poster hanging on its wall. Something calls me across the road to look up and I strain to read it. Good Heavens! This Revelation is telling me that St Francis was here in 1214, 800 years ago. Is it possible? I didn’t know that and I’ve read much of St Francis and furthermore I spent ten days in Assisi over Christmas and no one told me anything about Saint Francis on the Camino then.
Mind you, no one who is Christian knows he spent two years with Sultan Malik al-Kamil either, not trying to ‘convert’ him – really, people are so self-congratulatory – but sharing like with like as men of God. Sultan Malik, the nephew of the great Kurd, Saladin, whose exemplary behaviour towards even the worst of the barbarous Crusaders shames us now, was something of a mystic, and great souls recognise each other.
In the time it takes to photograph the poster all these thoughts run through my mind; am I re-tracing footsteps of past lives? I have my own Kurd stories and I ponder on the fact of my being here at all. Am I rounding off karmic circles? Completing things? I’ve led such a strange life, been so obedient to its inner dictates.
In the comfort of my journal I write the story of St Seraphim in his forest; a woodman or someone comes to him for spiritual advice and said Father Seraphim I can hardly look at you, your face is shining like the sun, the light dazzles me. Saint Seraphim placed his hands on the man’s shoulders and said you can see me like this because you are lit by the same dazzling light.
As a man is, so he sees. Blake said that about men chopping down trees too. It’s almost a commonplace; we see in others what we are, or what we potentially are. Such a comforting thought, one day I’ll be nice in spite of Mother’s Mantras! I like nice people! And then I remember Father Bede, who stayed with me shortly before he died, telling me I had the consciousness of the Holy, and that I must continue his journey to the Black Madonna for him and for women. These are mighty thoughts for a morning.
I return to the Pilgrim Bridge and photograph the striding stone peregrino just as the three Americans arrive. They are such nice men, we meet and pass from time to time but now we stay awhile and talk, they too are having a rest day as one of them suffered from the boiling walk yesterday. Two are walking, the third is unable to and drives a car to meet them at their hotels each evening. They are diplomats, one is based in Paris at the American Embassy, they have walked together many times over the years. They tell me they have ditched their John Brierley – dreadful book, say two of them, found the guidebook of Alison Raju and admire her intelligence. We chuckle again and Chris points out the easiest of the three possible roads out for tomorrow.
The Dragonet, or is it the Dragonte, is not for me, nor the Camino Duro thank you; their names are enough to deter a tired peregrina.
I wander back to the mediaeval part of town and up to the Door of Pardon, Puerte de Perdón, where in days gone by pilgrims who were too ill to continue on to Santiago de Compostela would be cleansed of their sins by touching the door. I too touch the door and a great sigh escapes me. I’ll deal with my sins later. But for now I think that being here and not in Cacabelos is exactly where I am intended to be or I would not be aware that I am following Saint Francis’ footsteps.To be continued ...