The path was comfortable for some while; crumbly asphalt wound through tiny hamlets, a number of which offered horse riding as an alternative to walking the mountain to O Cebreiro. I thought it a wondrous idea, but the notices proved carrots, always leading on to the next notice and promise and then the next – until I suspect one’s belief in their actually being any horses to ride ends up making one feel a complete ass!
After Las Herrerias the path took on a different character altogether. Now I was struggling with the ascent and the rocks and the slippery boulders as a whole lot of pilgrims attempted to jostle past me on the narrow defile.
There was a considerable drop on my right, over which I did not want to hurtle, and I held my place along the ascent with difficulty as faster pilgrims assumed a sense of entitlement. I waited, immovable, while they changed to Indian file and passed me. This same sense of entitlement astonishes me on high-hedged English country lanes too when cyclists blithely ride two or three abreast with no thought under their silly helmets of the possibility of sharing the narrow lanes. There’d be a few less swipes in their direction from irritated motorists banked up behind them in second gear if they went single file. I couldn’t safely go any faster, stood my ground, and bore the frowns. Going single file through the defile interrupted their conversations!
At last the remaining morning rush of pilgrims from Vega and Ruitelán disappeared ahead of me and I could continue at my own pace, plodding along, stopping for breath every few minutes. It was fairly dense but open-leaved forest here, no views but the rocks underfoot. On and on I went climbing and climbing, only looking back down when I paused, not up or forward. It was more than an effort and time seemed very slow in responding to my getting anywhere at all. In due time I came out of deep forest and could see a couple of farm buildings with an arrow pointing straight and an arrow pointing right and saying Albergue de La Faba. I went right, anything to break the intensity of the climb.
I am so glad I did. I came to an eleventh century church and an albergue of exquisiteness and there in the courtyard stands that most famous of all famous pilgrim statues. It was an enchanted space. Pilgrims had already left and the hospitalero spent a few minutes talking to me of the history of the albergue of la Faba. Try as I might I cannot recall the name of the princess who commissioned the statue – Fürstenberg? Württemburg? – my memory has hitched itself to a passing cloud.
The pause refreshes me; I look at my guide profile, pretty impressive I reckon. Another 300 vertical metres to La Laguna ... But now the scenery changes dramatically, I am on top of the mountains and the views unfold as I walk. I see huge quartz crystals on farm gateposts, on roofs of houses, on old cattle sheds, purposefully placed. A young man came out from an impressive house just as I am contemplating his climbing roses and believing the sign that comforts me with O Cebreiro 4 kms and I ask him why the crystals?
I am not at all surprised when he says, surprised that I would need to ask such an obvious question: they bring down the light, conduct energies. Earth wisdom here is not confined to esoteric books in the High Street, it is a genetic inheritance. El Acebo and La Faba are quite my favourite secrets.
The road to O Cebreiro seems easy now; the quartz underfoot really does impart a charge. I remember the first time I set foot on Magnetic Island I was dizzy for two whole days. Quite discombobulated, I couldn’t shake the feeling off but on the third day it disappeared, my head cleared, and I’ve never felt it on there since. The instruments of Captain Cook’s ship went haywire when he came close to the island, hence his naming it Magnetic. The island is granite, and granite is a natural source of radiation; the granite on Maggie Island has huge amounts of quartz and walking on the island gives the same feeling of ‘bounce’.
I am frequently amazed at how similar parts of the Spain I have walked through are to parts of the Australia I love. Now I leave the village of La Faba the hills roll away from the eye, range on range, silhouettes of lilac, mauve, smoke, reminiscent of the valleys of Numinbah, Beechmont, Lamington, Binna Burra, Springbrook, beloved mountains, perhaps not so high, of the Great Dividing Range of southern Queensland. I dawdle, entranced, all feeling of effort suspended.
I once had a dentist in Exmouth who disappeared for three weeks every year to walk. One day I asked him where he went. At that time walk for me was a four letter word; it was curiosity that prompted the question. You won’t know it, he said, it’s the most beautiful place in the world and it’s in Australia. Try me, I replied and he said: Springbrook. I laughed and said, you’re right, and I’ve a block of land up there near Purlingbrook Falls! My book, Patrick and the Cat Who Saw beyond Time, is set right there on that magical plateau of mists and waterfalls, lookouts and spectacular bird life.
My reveries have brought me to La Laguna, the road is easy, winding up and up and beautiful beyond words. Close to what I think must the top, well past La Laguna, I turn to grasp the magnitude of the 360 degree view and see just behind me the two Japanese legends I have kept on hearing other pilgrims speak of. They are seventy-nine and eighty-one, or is it eighty-nine and ninety-one? At their great age it’s academic. They seem tiny, slender, fragile figures as they hug the edge of the path coming to one of the crests. Beyond them I count seven mountain ranges, silhouettes fading to azure smoke in the skyline.
The scene is almost unearthly in its beauty and burns itself into my heart. The Japanese couple are doing the whole Camino. Precious, I think and offer to take a photo of the pair of them with their camera. They are delighted. Not a word is recognised between us.
Then – Galicia! I have reached the painted monolith that marks the boundary between Castilla y León and Galicia! I have come to the last of the provinces of the whole of northern Spain. It is Galicia all the way now. I am almost sad, I love this adventure in spite of being exhausted and in pain one way or another over much of my poor old bod much of the time! But, no blisters! And I have seen some horrific feet along the Way; many pilgrims are forced to drop out. As I stand at the milestone a young Italian offers to take my photo, and takes a couple of others for good measure with the views all around. Who would believe me without these photos ... I can barely believe it myself. And I remember Wolfgang of La Faba telling me Didier made it up in his wheelchair, he took the road, not the path of course, and Wolfgang drove him on to O Cebreiro. How privileged I am to be able to walk these mountains ...
And I enter the village of O Cebreiro. I am charmed by the thatched roofs and round buildings, I imagine winter to be serious here at such heights.
Chris is here, he suggests we have a coffee while he waits for his fellow walker and fellow driver. We learn a little of each other’s lives, he loves cats and I am guided by a Ralph Cupboard sleeping on the window sill of a private house to seek for a room. If I don’t find one, says Chris, as all appear full and I won’t stay in the albergue-of-snores in such a divine place, I can sleep in their car.
The lady with the last private room in the village apologizes that it is pequeño frio, and by golly it is! But it is ensuite, the bedding would satisfy the princess and the pea it is so thick, the wardrobe is stacked with even more quilts should I need them, the window is too high to look out of and I think that may be a pair of knees walking past. No wonder the room is so cold, it is probably the wine cellar! For my purpose it is perfect, and Ralph Cupboard leans against the external window alcove warming himself. Cats along the Camino are not well treated as a rule, I’ve seen some sad ones along the way, and I stopped a man throwing a stone at a very pregnant and hungry mother cat way back, so to know my hostess has three happy ginger cats is a comfort. An atmosphere charged with cruelty is a hard thing to abide in.
The huge key to my room is kept behind a baroque French enamel and ormolu clock in a niche in the salon wall.
Lunch is a succulent stew, meat, falling of the ribs of a rib cage so generous I wonder if they’ve unearthed an Auroch or two. I wash it down with a small bottle of dry local cider which is crisp, thirst-quenching and delicious. A quaint tin cut out pilgrim sits by the wall of the hostel whose food is, I learn, legendary.Full and happy and so proud of myself for climbing O Cebreiro, which doesn’t seem difficult at all now I am here in heaven, I go over to the eighth century church to say thank you – and I am undone ... but the Epiphany and the Holy Grail must wait to be told, for even Ezekiel’s response to his bizarre experience was to sit dumbfounded for seven days; a stretch of time proper for digesting a divine vision.
To be continued ...