Apóstol Santiago is charming. Pine cathedral ceilings, spotlessly clean old timber floors and the promise of an evening meal and breakfast. After showering I sit by the roses on an old stone wall. The stones are cool after walking in the high 20’s for five hours over two mountains. I find somewhere to eat and have trout stuffed with ham and my ambrosial nectarines later.
Passing Korean pilgrims, terrified of the sun’s rays on their skin, are dressed in sub-arctic wear. Last night in the dorm one Korean tried to shut the window closest to me. No! I say, leave that window open! We are twenty two people in this room and we need fresh air. “Open?” he quivered, “all night?” And he donned his arctic wear to wear in bed! At dinner last night he had told us the temperature would reach 40 C today – as he zipped up his thermal jacket. Michael took one look and burst out laughing.
No one is in the bunk above me but it seems everyone else in the albergue is hunching up to my end of the three dormettes because they’ve all experienced another Korean as a killer snorer. This pilgrim has been left in a roomette on his own because of it! There are only eight of us and beds for twenty-three. I would have been alone but for the snorer ... Oh well. No one in my section snored – but sod’s law prevails. I climb up to the top bunk as no one was above me and lay by the open window, a deep structure set in the two foot thick stone walls, to catch the breeze and have a moon bath. I didn’t need earplugs until – oh the cats! I lay listening to the huge new timbers of the old house creak and crackle and settle in the cool night air – and then the cats howl. Like banshees they are, gathering from all quarters of the village, right under my window which is covered with stiff wire mosquito netting so I can’t pour my water out on to them. I confess howling cats under the window or on hot tin roofs are more than even the most dedicated feline aficionado like me can bear. Meanwhile the Korean snores on in the first roomette, counterpoint to the cats’ descant.
Breakfast is a bowl of hot milk, or coffee, and a slice of bread and jam. Last night’s dinner was a bowl of spaghetti unrelieved by sauce ... glad I lunched well.
So I leave Acebo, noting a photo on the wall that shows it completely under snow during winter – no Camino then. It is a very picturesque place.
On I walk to Riego de Ambros, a gingerbread village of tumbling old cottages and roses and the road disappears where the yellow arrow points me right and then left. There is no path. I look somewhat aghast at the river bed, the yellow arrow is directing me down this raw river bedrock.
It is perilous. I descend foot by inching foot, suddenly conscious of my feet and their history. Goodness I don’t want to fall here – it is a hidden place and I am alone. I walk with my walking stick propping me, placing my feet sideways on the steep rocks. I slip, all goes flying, and the weight of my mochila hurtles me into the high banks of broom and brushwoods. I manage to get up, pick up the walking stick and burst out laughing at the irony of everything – mostly the walking stick story. Willa’s walking stick – and therein hangs a tale to tell at the end of my Camino. I shake it heavenwards laughing as I thank her for being such a bitch that I now have her walking stick and it has saved my fall!
I continue down, down, down this dramatic and dangerous descent with no views and no end in sight until at last the narrow river bed opens out to wider softer earth. The scent of fox, and I startle a mole running blind to find his hole. It is the third or fourth mole I have seen along the Way, scurrying blind to find its home.
A café in a field – welcome sight. A very rude NZ man arrives demanding coffee, hot toast – I said hot toast – he snarls – with butter, now as the pretty lone young woman was making my scrambled eggs and coffee. A vulgar queue jumper, he was oblivious to me, the young woman, and the scenario. I said excuse me ... attempting to salvage both my scrambled eggs and the young woman’s confusion – she dropped everything at his rude demands – and the man turned and told me I should relax and enjoy the Camino experience. His sort beggars belief.
Ponferrada. I’d only walked sixteen kms but such a difficult walk made me ache all over, I have descended one thousand metres, and Ponferrada is boiling at 36 C. There are no hotel rooms to be had. I sit in the foyer of one and weep with exhaustion. The kind receptionist gives me two glasses of water and rings the albergue which I couldn’t find. Yes, plenty of room, they tell her, though I dread another dorm and sleepless night.
On I walk to the splendid Saint Nicolas de Flue. We queue in the foyer by a fountain for tired feet, some pilgrims are sitting on its wall doing a thing so sensible that I wrestle with myself for not being able to do the same – dangle my hot feet in the cold water while reading a book or chatting... I’m so not good in crowds! The hospitalero takes me to a room of four where I am given a bottom bunk – the small wing was for women; marvellous. And Nicolas de Flue?
He was a Swiss saint circa 1400 honoured by Catholics and Protestants for the permanent national unity of Switzerland, apparently he survived for nineteen years with no food other than the Eucharist. A farmer, he was illiterate, and a visionary of considerable insight. I send up a prayer of gratitude – this is a grand albergue, with good facilities.
In came Martine, a Frenchwoman. She is in much the same state as I, exhausted and momentarily tearful. She is 65, has walked from Arles, with knees. From Arles! A mere 1450 kms, no wonder her knees are complaining. Showers do wonders for both of us and off we go to find sustenance. She joyously splashes her face in the cool water of a street fountain. We late-lunch together; a gracious man in Restaurant Templarios will offer us a large mixed salad – the restaurant is closed for the afternoon and the chef has gone home but we can see he pities us old women! An American woman follows us in, sits with us, and demands x y z from the menu. We, embarrassed because she appears to be with us, tell her the restaurant is closed and the owner is graciously giving us a mixed salad, not a menu, eat it or don’t. She demands from him, he looks puzzled, repeats what he can offer, she is rude, and she gets up and leaves, she doesn’t want to eat any of that, she says, looking scornfully at our wonderful salads.
Martine says she has met her earlier on the Camino, says she hates pilgrims, albergues and much else, only stays in hotels and Martine wonders what the Camino will teach her.
Grace isn’t one of the lessons to date.
I am taken with the castle, though I prefer old monasteries, but once more I am particularly charmed by the public sculpture. A vast wisteria spreading along whole blocks of old houses is supported by an ingenious series of bronze sculpted ‘roots’ from its span to the ground.
I am impressed by the imagination and by the generosity of public funding to allow its creation.
14th June to Villafranca – the hottest day, the worst day and a 24 km walk.
The ugly man from NZ walks ahead of me as I leave. Actually he is a good looking man, but like many of his type was obviously told so by his mother and the demands he makes on the world to fall at his feet can likely be laid at her feet. How many good looking men have been thus ruined! His wife is limping and I soon pass them along the pretty river walk. He quips: iggs ind baycon this morning thin? And I respond lightly with: not if you’re queue-jumping again which sets his face in stone. I ask his wife about her knee. She is quite unaware of her husband’s rudeness of yesterday. She and I chat merrily, take a couple of photos of a painting of Our Lady of the Camino on the outside of a church, while pretty boy fumes. I smile; I can be cruel!
The air is filled with the intoxicatingly heady scent of long avenues of flowering tilleul, linden, lifting my residual tiredness from another disturbed night’s sleep. No snoring, but our windows opened on to a bus stop on the street and the full moon brought forth the sleepless of Ponferrada to gather there and discuss how to develop their Templar Castle into a theme park – or something. Then, suddenly, to my surprise and delight, I notice a red squirrel ripple down a tree trunk; I see his long ear tufts russet glowing in the dawn light. I photograph and wait, he reaches ground, turns, sits up, crosses his rufus paws across his white bib and I photograph again. Distant and out of focus, but Squirrel Nutkin all the same.
I meet Joy from Wollongong, a town I once lived in, a town D.H. Lawrence once lived in, a town close to the great Royal National Park, Australia’s first, and the second in the world, declared protected in 1879. Joy is 75, small, wiry and fit. We have café con leche, she gives me a yoghurt which in this heat won’t keep, and we walk a while together. Further on we stop at a cool way-stop under trees with plenty of water, I wet my scarf and drape it over my shoulders before I trudge on to Villafranca. The bitumen of this stretch of road reflects its heat back to me and, though I do not yet know it, the temperature will reach 36 C by 6 o’clock this evening. I am struggling. The church albergue of Cacabelos looks marvellous, I have marked it in my Michelin for its recommendations, but it is too early for it to open and I decide to continue on to Villafranca del Bierzo.
The trail of pilgrims shows us all suffering along this stretch. A hill looms ahead, I attempt to hitch hike. Of course no one stops; other pilgrims are doing the same! It is an endlessly weary asphalt walk with little shade – I have seven kms to go. There is no sign of the town, not at all. Then down steep cobbled lanes to outdo Clovelly there is – Villafranca. But something terrible happens to my eyes – they are stinging, tears are streaming down my face and I cannot see. I cannot see at all! I’d wet my scarf and so wash my eyes – it is horrible, I simply cannot see.
My feet are cramping and my heel feels bruised – I lurch into a human, a young Spanish man as it happens, and he takes me by the arm down the steep cobbles, slowly, and with great concern leads me to the doors of Hotel San Francisco. He leaves, and the receptionist leads me upstairs to a room. My eyes burn like coals and my legs are rigid. Even stretching, which I mostly forget to do, hurts too much. But, no blisters. A shower first, in a bath with a wondrous wide shelf to sit on, and then horizontal. Feet up, legs up, I rue having eaten my cucumber or I’d have put slices of it on my eyes. I cannot open my eyes, but I rest in the bliss of cool cotton sheets, a breeze from the balcony and I decide to stay two nights. My hair is silently turning greyer by the minute in protest at the shock to my body of doing half marathons at my unfit age.
The significance of San Francisco, Saint Francis, will slowly dawn on me. There are no accidents.
To be continued ...