I am ready to leave. I lay awake for ages waiting to hear the first pilgrims pass under my balcony from the albergues up the street as I have no clock to tell me the hour and don’t want to walk in the dark for too long. I finish yesterday with a longish walk around the town and valley, came back to cut toenails and fingernails, wash out Everything, re-pack and have another luxurious bath. I sleep wondrously.
It is 8 C and 6 a.m. In twelve hours it will be 36 C. Today I am off to Vega and Ruitelán, 20 kms, all trees and shade, a flat road and a river running alongside. It is a beautiful walk along the N6; cherries hang well in reach as I pass laden trees and fill a small bag.
Yet this walk has suffered another of John Brierley’s denouncements and dire warnings not to travel it. Really that man! When did he last walk the Camino? Check for accuracy? Wake up and get real? Update his guide book?
Telling tired pilgrims to walk the Dragonte or the Duro because he thinks these paths ‘more spiritual’ really is the limit! Bitumen, according to JB who enjoys a good car that needs bitumen, is not spiritual. Really?
What of the birds, the trees, the ease of walking, the cherries, the river, the riversong, the coolness, the sheer pleasure of not having to puff and pant and lug one’s mochila up and down unendurable hills? All this wonder of the walk along the N6 inclines one to pleasant thoughts, even spiritual thoughts. I wonder what’s a ‘spiritual’ thought anyway? Thinking about murdering a snorer or two is most restorative for my spirits!
And so I do walk along the N6 the whole way, it is under massive trees, serenaded with birdsong and the river runs alongside. The river – with its other alphabet, murmuring from every ripple glimpsed through dense foliage, singing round every boulder, shimmering pink and dark slate from every reflection charms me.
I don’t find I’m thinking much at all.
Only two cars, Guardia Civil on a routine drive, pass me during the entire walk of many hours until at least the village of Vega de Valcarce, which is tiny and certainly not the stuff of spaghetti junctions. All traffic has been re-routed along the triple by-pass of an autobahn hundreds of feet above this green and forested part of the Camino.
I catch glimpses of these soaring highways as the river valley road rounds its bends.
Four military men, their dog and a colourful flag, pass me in Trabadelo.
I understand them to be helicopter pilots in the army, from the Basque country, but understanding in a language I don’t speak has moveable goal posts.
They are peregrinos, off to Santiago de Compostela, a gay sight indeed.
Foxgloves line the banks. Ambasmestas has great coffee, strong and full-flavoured, organic says the barman who takes the most infinite pains to slice Serrano ham and Manchego cheese to make a bocadilla for my journey.
Vega del Valcarce is so tidy, like the spa town of Alet-le-Bains, probably with a similar population count reaching – three figures! I continue to Ruitelán, population, 11?
I wait in the rose trellised courtyard garden of the Pequeño Potala. Their clothes washing sink is outside so I wash my socks and hang them on the lines. Registration will open at midday, not long to wait. It is run on military lines by two men who may be more than friends.
One of them barks: Close the windows! Flies! No Jacotrans now! Put All credencials here! Do not go out this door, come in only, and only once! Go out that door! And ALL pilgrims will eat together at 7.30 ... I demur at the last injunction, preferring not to eat late meals when I go so early to bed – to no avail. Instructions are delivered with the terrific power of a Cerberus barking at the Gates of the Underworld. I accept the reasons but find the machine gun delivery hard to bear after a 20 kms walk with nothing more disturbing than birdsong and wind in the trees.
It is a large judgement to make on two men I do not know and I am happy to be proved too hasty a few minutes later when another side to the military manners shines through.
In came a boy with bedbugs. He had come from Villafranca, from albergue Refugio Ave Fénix which has a reputation for a distinct lack of hygiene since Jesus Jato died. Carlos brought the boy outside to the rose terraces and gave him three huge plastic sacks to empty his belongings into and a set of clean clothes to wear after his shower. Everything will be frozen overnight in a huge ice-cream deep freezer over in the hotel! Freezing kills bedbugs. Other albergues may well have turned away the Danish boy, but here in Pequeño Potala he is kindly received. Bedbugs are the scourge of all the refugios and hostels from St Jean Pied de Port to Finisterre; bedbugs are taken very seriously along the Way, and refugios can be closed for weeks during fumigation of an infestation. Bedbugs are carried by pilgrims from one refugio to another.
Celi translates this as I see the huge red weals of bedbug bites covering the boy’s back and arms. I observe kindness and compassion now flow freely in this little Potala, a far cry from the peremptory welcome of an hour before.
As quite the Cat Who Walks by Herself I find the loud bonhomie of strangers around the dinner table uncomfortable. I recognize my misalignment to the human race but know that hermits in pairs is more my line. Like any good feline I sit quietly and neatly at the table, paws folded, closest to the food, a vast tureen of cream of carrot soup made from locally grown carrots. Carlos asks me to serve it to all, perhaps sensing in me the truer comfort zone of doing something. The meal that follows is superb, and all vegetarian. The cacophony around me makes it easy to silently pay homage to this splendid meal.
A good night’s sleep in a small dorm with three other women, no snorers, windows wide open and at 6.30 a pop style rendering of Gounod’s Ave Maria wakes us, it would waken the dead. We are invited to a marvellous breakfast of hot milk, muesli, real coffee, toast, rolls, jams, honey, boiled eggs, teas of all kind ... as much as one needed. How do these two men do it day after day, night after night, year after year and all for €15? Little Bodhisattvas of Pequeño Potala, thank you!
Today I face the one stretch of the whole Camino over which I have serious qualms. I doubt about being able to climb – O Cebreiro. It is only a ten kms walk but nine and a half of those kilometres are vertical. I will climb 700 metres, that’s over 2000 feet, to reach 5000 feet above sea level. These seem incredible statistics for someone who lives at sea level on the Somerset Levels! I will give it a go.
I have passed so many crosses of pilgrims who died on the Camino I fully expect this climb to O Cebreiro to be the last time I put one foot in front of another on planet Earth! One step at a time and don’t look up, I remind myself.
I check the Jacotrans label on my mochila one last time, tie my boots firmly, pick up my stick and, Gathering All My Determination, bid my farewells.