Twenty kilometres today. A grand walk with only a few small hills brings me to Vilcachá and I decide to stop right here. No one is at home, so I sit in the sunny garden after washing out a couple of things, socks get so dusty, and hang them on the lines in a large open air barn which is near the entrance. A pair of dreadfully sick cats are lying on the grass on the opposite side of the garden. I have never seen such ill looking creatures, so weak and glazed eyed they might be dying. They are too weak to hunt or forage. I do not want to disturb them by going over to them; they haven’t even registered my arrival. I wonder if I should stay here – such unhappy creatures are a sure indicator of the inner health of people too. Cats have a thin time of it in northern Spain as far as I can see, but these are beyond despair. St Francis didn’t come this way that’s for sure.
Eventually the owners of the albergue return. They are unfazed by the feline Death Row on their lawn. I ask what is wrong with the cats, prepared to take my wet washing and continue walking. They don’t belong to us, I’m told, but the Australian next door hates cats and we think she might be poisoning them. We let them lie here in the sun, but we can’t help them. I have my credencial stamped, am shown into a lovely dormitory, choose a bunk, lay out my sleeping bag and then go next door. On the table in the courtyard there is an ugly notice signed by Suzanne warning people not to feed the cats, they multiply. Not that sick they don’t, I fume, and knock, rather tentatively I must admit, heaven knows what kind of monster might appear, at Suzanne’s door. There is no reply, and what will I say anyway?
As I turn back to the street I hear horses hooves and look left to see three stunningly handsome Andalucians, almost plumed, one ridden by a highly costumed rider. They are riding to Santiago, and a marvellous sight they are. Two greys lead and a chestnut ridden by a woman follow a minute or so later.
During a chat with Gordon I’m told that Suzanne has no visa to stay in Spain and no liscence to run her little illicit shop either. There is a veil of ill feeling, fiscal as well as feline, between the legitimate albergue and the illegitimate enterprise of their unattractive neighbour.
I sigh, send the starving and sickly beings all the warmth and love I can without invading their space which would make them use up what energy they have in their effort to move away from a human; I wonder how they eat, but know it is too late now. They cannot hunt, and probably, hideously, are only able to crawl over to eat Suzanne’s poison bait.
Later, a good and generous meal cooked by the two women and Anne Marie tells me if there is a snorer I can come down to the salon and sleep on the huge sofa. There is – and I do. It is a marvellous old building and I am content lying there listening to the wind and the rain on the window.
Breakfast was reasonable, Vilachá has no bar anyway. Gordon, who owns the place, has a marvellous story to tell of how he walked the Camino because he lost his memory after six small strokes, and is the subject, loosely, of Thea Hughes’ novel of the Camino. He advises us not to go up the thousand steps to Portomarín, the rebuilt drowned village that lies beneath the central bridge we will walk over, or to be lead astray by the kilometre and a half detour around the new town only to come back down to turn left at a 200 metres from the same steps, but to bypass it all, continue on past the steps, and walk back over the river by way of an old bridge further along to climb the hills to Hospital de la Cruz.
And that’s what we all do, with great gratitude. It is a silvery morning, crisp and cool and misty, the weak sunlight glancing off the ghostly river under which lie the lives and memories of millennium. Gordon tells us the scheme set to gain from the drowning of the village only profited the planners and the engineers. He is a wry and cynical character and I suspect his insight is accurate.
Dripping in the humidity I reach the heights of Monte Torros, thankful for the slight plateau to Gonzar, and then lurch and stagger up the sheer vertical to Castromaior. It’s only 11 kms from Vilachá, but imagine your lounge wall as being 700 metres vertical and that’s about the incline of the walk, give or take a degree. I reach the second heights of the climb, Castromaior. As I come out of the forest to confront the road I lean heavily on my stick, catch my breath in great gulps, and send up a futile prayer. It has to be futile; I do not know a single human in northern Spain. Holy Mary, I puff and wheeze and pray sans hope, please send me a taxi, a lift, anything ...
Hey! Zoé! I hear it. I think I am hallucinating from exertion, hear it again, and see across the road a car pull up and an arm cheerily waving. It is, miraculously, John, the third of the three charming Americans, John who drives (and who rescues animals in his home state) because he is unable to walk distances. He has pulled up and I am truly incredulous. I leap the ditch between where I stand and the road, run across and voila! jump in the car. He switches off the air-conditioning as I am dripping in the humidity and it would chill me. Angel!
We were wondering how you were, he said, we hadn’t seen you for a couple of days and I decided to look out for you ... I wasn’t quite sure it was you coming up over that rise ...
Even I, used to such things as homely miracles, have to confess this one beats them all; although, walking into a closed restaurant in Rome, a city of merely 6 million people, to find the only remaining diner was Sue, the American woman I so wanted to keep in touch with from our meeting in Assisi, was also pretty impressive. I hadn’t even prayed for that as the odds were so stacked.
John drives on to Palas de Rei, twelve welcome kilometres. His hotel is full, and lovely it looks too, one storey log cabins set in greensward ringed with pine and chestnut trees and wide gardens. The receptionist offers to phone a new albergue in the town for me and John drove me down. It proves perfect. I am taken to a ten bunk room; later a Spanish couple come in and take up residence at the other end. No one else comes in.
I walk the town in five minutes, find The Forge, a café with good food, a pilgrim three course meal with wine for 9€. Later I walk up the Camino steps to a small church dedicated to San Tirso for a sello and am surprised by two Madonnas. One stands on a spiral shell; a Brazilian peregrina, more communist than Catholic she confides, is suddenly overwhelmed, as I am, by this symbol of, she tells me, the Great Earth Mother Goddess. She speaks in capital letters, and I hear them. We sit in equal awe, and a bit teary. Soft music of all the Ave Maria’s ever written is playing. A Korean woman light candles, sits back down with her husband, they remain in prayer.
I watch other pilgrims clump past the altar to the sacristy to get their sello without so much as a by-your-leave or a nod of acknowledgement and I send my churlish thought to the Madonna of the Spiral Shell. How, I ask Her, can you bear such rudeness? In your own home! I hear her smile and her words: I love them all anyway! I wish I did, but accept her admonition with a grin and a giggle.
A quiet night. The Spanish couple at the other end of the long large dorm are perhaps mid forties, rustic, very quiet, no lights on or noise; she is suffering. They are Camino babes, only began in Sarria. I show her the leg stretches, but I think she hurt too much even as she attempts them to understand their benefit.
The Brazilian peregrina had told me there are only three days walking to reach Santiago. Oh no, I think, shocked, how sad, my wonderful Adventure can’t be over. She walks with her husband, they also began in Sarria, and she is suffering. I think of my weeks of aching and pain pain pain, but saying, one just gets on with it, would be poor consolation, so I nod sagely.
And the peregrina's tale continues ..