Tuesday 21 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 5

The End of the Road (For Now ….) – Rua O Pino to Santiago

Day 12 - Rua O Pino to Santiago: 25.12k / Ascent 554m / Decent 579m

And so to our final day on the Camino.

After yesterday's long trek, we were expecting to feel tired or to experience the odd niggle this morning. But not so – we were raring to go as we hit the road for the last time, with just a modest 15 miles or so to tackle. Later today, we would walk into Santiago at the end of our pilgrimage - 800k from Saint Jean Pied de Port where we started our plan a little over 2 years ago.

Eucalyptus woods near San Anton

We were greeted by another cool and overcast morning, but it was obvious that the cloud would burn off before too long, just as it had done on most other mornings. In all honesty, the first few kilometers passed in something of a blur, my mind experiencing in a decidedly inward focus. Quite why this should have been, I don’t know: maybe it was simply a time for quiet reflection.

Somewhere on the trail

We stopped at a bar for coffee and got entwined with a group of cyclists and a large group from Hawaii, but an expedient restart placed us between the two groups rather than with them, and after that we managed to have a fairly quiet run at it.

More eucalyptus woods, gravel tracks, little lanes and minor villages came and went. We stopped at a church at one point for a stamp, saw a gorgeously situated cottage ripe for renovation, passed the airport, stopped at another bar, and took the long climb up through Vilamaior towards Monte de Gozo, mile by mile homing in on our goal.  

On the road near Monte de Gozo

Monte de Gozo is the point where, traditionally, pilgrims get their first glimpse of the Cathedral in Santiago and weep for joy knowing they have nearly made it. We had hoped for a good view and perhaps a reaction of some kind (if not floods of tears). But to be honest it was a rather utilitarian spot with an uninspiring modern statue and a very touristy feel - the whole area having been redeveloped for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1989. The famous statue of two pilgrims pointing towards Santiago didn’t seem to be in evidence (apparently, and somewhat surprisingly, it is not on the route) and all in all the whole experience was a trifle underwhelming.

Modern statue, Monte de Gozo

On the upside, though, there was an ice cream seller, so we had one of those to revive our spirits for the last few kilometers into the city. At the bottom of a long, steep hill, we reached the suburbs.

Heading down the last hill to the outskirts of Santiago

Compared with the routes into some of the towns, this was a pretty reasonable experience, and we followed busy streets in a beeline for the city centre. Eventually, we neared the end: new buildings gave way to old, streets narrowed and became flagged, and then there we were in the main square, right in front of the Cathedral - we'd made it!

In various languages, carved into the paving slabs the quote:
"Europe was built on the pilgrim way to Compostela"

Funnily enough, our first thoughts were of a practical nature. Of all the reactions to our arrival we might have considered as the miles rolled by, I don’t think that “practical” would have been top of the list. Emotional, elated, tired, tearful – maybe: but probably not “pragmatic”. However, we had been warned that the queue to get Compostelas was always long, and it could take a couple of hours or more to get our certificates.

So we found the pilgrim's office and joined the queue. The air was somewhat festive, which helped pass the time, although I found myself with mixed feelings: half of me enjoying the experience and the other half grumbling impatiently to myself at the wait. In the end, though, what difference does another hour make after all this time?

Front entrance to the Cathedral, with Portico looking
slightly less "glorious" than usual

Then it was our turn at the head of the queue, and we were called separately to a numbered booth in a system not unlike the Post Office. A few questions and a filled-in form later, and we had Compostelas in our hands and big grins on our faces.

After all the excitement, it was time to check into our hotel, a nice little place about a five minute walk from the main square. We had the usual rest and wash and brush up then popped out for dinner. A selection of tapas at a bar round the corner might seem a mundane way to celebrate our arrival, but it was simple and delicious and for that reason absolutely fine by us.

Days 13 to 15 – Santiago Sightseeing

For the first time in many a while, we did some sightseeing!

Yesterday, whilst queuing for our Compostelas, we were invited to visit Camino Companions, a group dedicated to offering post-Camino advice and guidance - a sort of detox, if you like - to help pilgrims come to terms with finishing the walk and adjusting to the real world once more.

Perhaps that sounds like some namby-pamby self-help book, but our chat with Marion over a proper cup of tea was really lovely. We were introduced to a new poem, too:

When I Am Among The Trees by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

On a practical note, we gleaned that Pilgrim's Mass was held at midday, but that we needed to be there at least an hour before the start if we wanted to get a seat. So we bagged ourselves a seat, and watched as people filed in and the anticipation rose. Early in proceedings, the countries of all those who had arrived in Santiago in the last 24 hours were read out, then the service began.


After the address, communion was taken by those who wanted it. Then the excitement leapt as the eight velvet-robed Tiraboleiros moved in, carrying hot embers and incense - the Botafumiero was going to swing!


To be honest, it’s an amazing sight. A 5ft high, 12½ stone smoking thurible whizzing through the air just above our heads couldn't help but be an impressive spectacle, and it really put the icing on the cake as far as the service was concerned.

Firing up the thurible

Apparently, it reaches speeds of over 40mph. and is attached by ropes to a 400-year-old pulley system in the roof. The censer swings back and forth as the Tiraboleiros pull on the ropes to create momentum, and everyone hopes the pulley mechanism, ropes and knots have been properly checked!

Botafumiero in flight

Censer's working overtime

Afterwards, we took a look around the rest of the Cathedral and embraced the statue of St James. Unfortunately, we couldn't see the Tree of Jesse as the main entrance - the Portico of Glory - was closed for repairs, and not even available as a tour (in fact, the main facade and one of the spires are covered in scaffolding and sheeting as repairs are ongoing).

Tomb of St James

Over the next couple of days, we pottered through the streets, explored surrounding areas, nosed in the shops, lunched in cafés on the Camino route, drank coffee, ate pizza and indulged ourselves on tapas.

Gate in the city walls where Via del Plata pilgrims enter

Several times we bumped into people we had met on the trail (Bruce & Gus, the New York ladies, Anthony & Orla, the Aussie couple from Melbourne) and it was great to congratulate each other and catch up. I didn’t know whether to be surprised by these encounters: on the one hand, all pilgrims were heading for Santiago; on the other, the chance of coming across familiar faces amongst the many thousands of people wandering the city streets seems statistically small.

New York ladies queuing for their Compostelas

Anyway, it was great to just soak up the atmosphere, and even if the restoration work had clothed the cathedral in an ugly cloak of scaffolding and plastic sheeting, it was enough simply to paddle round the streets absorbing the flavor of the city (an analogy maintained by the discovery of the most amazing spice and wholefood shop).

Relaxing in the Parque Alameda

Late on the second afternoon, heavy rain set in. Considering the reputation of Galicia as the rainy corner of Spain, I guess we had been pretty lucky – only one afternoon of rain and a couple of mizzly spells whilst out on the trail, plus this, in two weeks.

Cathedral: view from the Parque Alameda

We left for the airport with mixed feelings: partly sad to have finished the walk, partly happy to have achieved our goal. People often claim the Camino to be a life changing experience, and it’s true – not necessarily as the result of some Damascene revelation or seismic inner shift, but in the fact that those 32 days of walking have provided new experiences and memories we would not otherwise have shared, and offered a chance to really think about everything and re-focus on the important things in life.

Whatever the upshot, completing a long distance route like this in three sections proved to be a great success, and something we intend to do more of in future. The idea of splitting an LDP may seem sacrilegious, but while we are still working it is the only way we can complete longer routes, and any loss of momentum caused by the breaks was more than made up for by the extended sense of anticipation.

All in all, walking the Camino had been a fascinating experience, and completing this talismanic route has provided a memorable way to mark our 50th birthdays.    

Thursday 16 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 4

Long Days & The House Below The Mountain – Sarria to O Pino

Day 9 - Sarria to Portomarin: 24.42k / Ascent 666m / Descent 710m

Today, in a way, marked the start of the final section of the Camino for us. After more than four week’s walking, we would finally pass the "100k to Santiago" mark, the minimum distance a pilgrim has to walk in order to qualify for a Compostela certificate. Because of that, the route from Sarria is much busier as those who simply want to “get the T-shirt” join in!

Leaving Sarria - a good likeness of a pilgrim, plus a mural

We left a little later than usual. Our stocks of plasters and tape had run seriously low, and I needed these to keep my feet comfortable. So we popped into the Farmacia for supplies (I have never seen such a large collection of foot- and leg-related products in one place in my entire life!) before setting off in earnest about ¾ of an hour later than usual.

No wet feet today 

The time didn’t matter too much as we were not committed to a long day, and it was still cool and overcast as we put the town behind us. Like yesterday, we would be threading a line between a sprinkling of small villages and hamlets using green lanes and quiet roads.

Typical of the area, a horreo is used to keep potatoes or corncobs dry

Soon, we stopped at a donativo café for a stamp, and got bound up with the large group of Germans. A short burst of speed meant it didn’t take long to extricate ourselves from the tangle, and although we have very much enjoyed meeting people along the way, we just seemed disinclined to mingle with a big, self-contained group of 25 or more.

Galician piper en route. Traditional Galician music is
Celtic in flavour, and not dissimilar to Irish music

Somewhere near Leiman, we took a coffee break at a roadside bar and rested for a few minutes. Then on we went, through another clutch of little villages and hamlets, where rural life seems to be tootling along regardless of the Camino or the outside world. Near Morgade, we passed the 100k-to-go marker post, which gave us quite a psychological boost. All of a sudden the end was within reach, and it didn't seem such a huge undertaking. Though it had taken over four weeks' walking to get this far, we were in the final furlong with the finish line in sight.

At the 100k-to-go marker post

We took another quick drinks break at Morgade, and again carried on, this time heading for Ferreiros. By now, we needed a proper stop for food, but good seats out of the sun were hard to find. However, a handy wall and a shady tree presented themselves somewhere, I think, near Moutras, and we lunched royally on bread and brie and cherries and dried apricots.

Galicia is renowned for its network of green lanes

The remainder of the day’s walk comprised the descent towards Portomarin, with first the town and then the reservoir coming into view as we passed through yet more tiny hamlets. Eventually, we came out on a larger road that swung round to deliver us by the bridge across the reservoir. A set of steep steps led us up into the town.

Crossing the bridge to Portomarin

We went for a quick wander round town before dinner, and bumped into a few familiar faces. To me, Portomarin had a slightly down-at-heel feel about it – an almost seen-better-days faded glory. On our last trip, we had met a pilgrim who said it was her favourite stop on the Camino when she had walked it on a previous occasion, with a lively fiesta and a good atmosphere. Funny how perceptions can be: we were looking forward to the stop, but found it a wee bit subdued and a trifle sad if truth be told.

Day 10 - Portomarin to O Coto: 34.57k / Ascent 980m / Descent 874m

An early breakfast set us up nicely for the first of two longer days. When planning our itinerary, we chose this split for two reasons: partly to have some longer, more challenging days, and partly to get away from the "Brierley" guidebook stages everyone else uses, in the hope of avoiding some of the busier stretches.

View over the reservoir, Portomarin

As has been mentioned elsewhere, we had planned a mix of shorter and longer days in our itinerary. Whilst averaging about 27.5k (16.5 miles) per day, daily distances ranged from 19k (11.75 miles) at the lower end to 40k (25.00 miles) at the upper.

It was coolish and overcast as we set off at about 7.30am, heading back through town to re-join the Camino, and climbing out of the reservoir basin. Eventually, Portomarin receded behind us and we were out in open country.

Elaborate horreo showing typical features of cross
at one end and decorative finial at the other

To help cope with today’s 21½ mile stretch we had decided to adopt a fairly rigid plan, splitting it into four sections of decreasing length, separated by a reasonable break. This pretty much worked out fine. The first part was predominantly uphill - not steep, but definitely noticeable – with the route more or less keeping parallel to the C535 road. We ate up the distance at a steady pace as we passed through Gonzar and Castromaior before taking a coffee break at Hospital de la Cruz.

The next stage was supposedly about 9k to Airexe, and although all went well, we found the distances were a bit skewed and we ended up passing through the village much sooner than expected. So we carried on to Portas where we had a lovely stop - drinks and ice cream/apple pie - at the Alien Ant Farm (the Casa de la Formica, I think it was). It was a quirky place for a stop, and ideally situated at a little beyond the half way stage.

Wildlife at the Casa de la Formica

We continued, through the village of Lestado (sounds like the villain in a Gothic horror novel) where we passed a lovely-looking B&B (with slightly off-putting name of the Casa Rectoral) and on through Pallas do Rei, the traditional end of stage stop.

Templar cobbles, Pallas do Rei - a town
with a strong military past

Once beyond Pallas do Rei, we had a quick break for bread and cheese. Almost everyone had stopped in town, and we now had the Camino pretty much to ourselves. We crossed a partially made new road that started somewhere away to our right and ended very abruptly in the middle of nowhere a few metres to our left. Perhaps one day it will be completed.

 Outside the albergue at San Xulian.
In the Galician language, the Catalan
 "J" is replaced by an "X"

We had a final stop of the day at the beautiful albergue in San Xulian do Camino, and chatted with a Canadian girl we had seen off and on for the last week or so. Then we traversed a further 5k of quiet countryside before reaching our overnight stop at the Casa de los Somoza in O Coto. 

Simple wooden horreos

We were very surprised at just how much traffic had dropped off after the regular end-of-day stop - something we really appreciated compared to the generally busier mornings – and would recommend the idea of getting out of step with the conventional end-of-stage locations for anyone seeking solitude on the Camino.

On the way to O Coto

We found our digs quite easily, directly opposite a dimly-lit, cramped grocer’s shop whose proprietress, a plump, aging lady, was persuaded to part company with a kilo of cherries.

The Casa de los Somoza. Apparently this translates as
"the house below the mountain".

The Casa de los Somoza was lovely. Although we struggled to find the hosts at first, when we did so we received a warm welcome into their beautiful home.

Hallway, Casa de los Somoza

After a long day on the trail, we took our time over the wash and brush up routine, thinking dinner was any time after 7.30pm. Turns out it was actually, it was AT 7.30pm, and by the time we got there we were late! We were having a communal meal with the other diners, a small group of travelers who were all doing “the last 100k”. They’d booked individually and met for the first time on the trip (like Ramblers or Walks Worldwide, I guess): couples from Oxfordshire and Guernsey, two women friends from NY and a Dutch/NZ couple. It was a lovely, convivial evening of chat and good humour, uplifted by a great meal (soup/salad, meatballs, cake) and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.

A slightly sozzled 11.30pm bedtime was perhaps not the ideal preparation for our longest day on the trail, but hey ho!

Day 11 - Ocoto to Rua Opino: 40.36k / Ascent 1044m / Descent 1231m

Today Missy G's was celebrating a big birthday, so for a present I thought we’d do one of the longest walks we’ve ever done – a whisker over 25 miles. With a long way to go, we had wondered about getting a really early start and skipping breakfast, but a combination of things - good food and good company being just two - decided us to enjoy the breakfast on offer and start a bit later.

Section of Camino on the way to Melide that my parents walked in 2007

Our plan was again to walk the morning session with other pilgrims, then carry on into the afternoon when most had already called it a day. Setting off at about 8.00am, it was ideal for walking - cool but not too cloudy – and we made good progress towards and through Melide (including the short section my Mum and Dad had walked when they visited the area in 2007).

Birthday Girl on a bridge

Melide was quite a pleasant town compared to some along the way, although a bit of minor route finding was needed to get us through it on the right track. Soon, though, we were well on the way to Boente where we stopped at a café for a coffee and a comfort break.

Passing the 50k-to-go point

The next section comprised a series of rollercoaster climbs and descents through woods and villages, cutting a swathe across the grain of the land. Along the way, we passed the 50km-to-go marker, and eventually crested a final hill into Arzua, a fairly uninteresting town that was another stage end according to Brierley but only a lunch stop for us.

We were due another break, but the first few cafes looked somehow uninviting. So we pushed on along the main street until we hit lucky and found a delicatessen selling artizan cheese and charcuterie, so we had our lunch there – a hot chorizo and cheese sandwich and a glass of something fizzy (beer) for the birthday girl. Who says we don’t celebrate in style!

Aged, air-dried and tasty, and so is the ham

I'm fascinated by food shops, especially those devoted to local specialities or artisan products. So I was in my element here: as well as a whole range of charcuterie, there were plenty of local cheeses on display including the distinctively-shaped Tetilla cheese (Tetilla meaning small breast in Galician) which is a particular speciality of Arzua. 

Local cheeses, including the distinctively-shaped Tetilla

We chatted briefly with the Las Vegans we'd first met at O Cebreiro and a few times since (well Gus anyway, who was meeting Bruce later) before moving on. Leaving Arzua, we again found that we’d left almost all the other pilgrims behind. The walking was lovely as well as quiet, with lots of cool, fragrant eucalyptus woods to walk through. However, with a further 18k to do before the finish, we needed to push on. We took another break at Calle – the bar sold its own pilgrim's beer, but we stuck to soft drinks and got another stamp.

It was now past mid-afternoon, and the final 10k of walking took us through more eucalyptus woods and tiny villages – very peaceful and really lovely in a pastoral kind of way. These quiet times spent walking together, often in companionable silence, proved very relaxing in a meditative kind of way. In contrast to last time when I spent a lot of time pondering all sorts of things, I was quite clearly conscious of NOT thinking about things.  

We stopped to eat some cherries near Salceda. With just 3k to go, we passed through Santa Irene on the main road - not an especially pleasant place, and slightly confusing due to a lack of decent signage. We bumped into the old Italian chap who we’d seen on several occasions. He was struggling to find the way to his albergue: we offered to help, but his stylised map didn't correspond with our stylised map, and we couldn’t quite work out where it was. Turns out he wasn't too far away anyway.

A final couple of kilometers spent swapping from one side of the road to the other finally brought us into Rua and our hotel - the O Pino – which was quite a pleasant sight after 40k of walking. We checked in about 6.30pm, had a rest and cleaned up, then went down for dinner – a very nice meal that was only slightly spoilt by a large group of rowdy American women who spent the entire three courses squawking at each other.

Hotel O Pino (photo from hotel website)

Never mind. An early night beckoned, in preparation for the final day into Santiago.

Although the prospect of a long day had seemed daunting this morning, we were fit and prepared, and had really enjoyed meeting the challenge of 25 miles on a 50th birthday. Both physically and mentally, these longer sections – four in all over 30k, and one over 40k – had at times required application, but we had intended to test ourselves against the trail.

Over the last three days, we had walked around 100k, met some great people, enjoyed busy and quiet times on the trail, passed through innumerable villages and hamlets (many of whose names remain unknown) and got a feel for the real, rural Galicia. But tomorrow we reach Santiago and achieve a goal over two years in the making. No doubt, it’ll be an emotional day.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Santiago Calling - Part 3

Galician Fields – Villafranca del Bierzo to Sarria

Day 6 - Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro: 30.67k / Ascent 1534m / Descent 740m

It was a bit overcast as we set off, but the cloud was high and breaking up as we began the climb out of town. In essence today was a walk of 3 sections: a mountainside walk, a stretch along the road, then a climb along green lanes into Galicia and on to O Cebreiro. Like the walk of two days ago, though, the distance and ascent/descent combined to add a bit more challenge to the hike.

Of the three options, the more straightforward one followed the valley road, whilst the toughest one traversed the mountains on the south side of the valley clocking up much more ascent and descent over its 38k.

In hindsight, I think we could have managed the tougher option, but we opted for the middle version which took a high-level route for part of the way then dropped into the valley for a stretch before a final climb to our destination.

Looking back to Villafranca del Bierzo

By Camino standards, the first bit was quite a stiff climb. However, the views opened up quite quickly as we rose, and eventually the path levelled out to contour around the mountainside some 500m above the valley. We walked with Chris and Colin for a while (who we had first met two days ago on the way up to Foncebadon) chatting about this and that as we passed the time.

View across the valley to the hills the "tough" route crosses

It was beautiful – pretty much one of the best parts of the walk, especially once the sun had broken through. We followed the more-or-less level path along the hillside, over open moorland, through chestnut woods and across heathland, bumping into Anthony and Orla from Ireland on the way. A steep descent deposited us in Trabadelos where we stopped for coffee and cokes, some 12k of walking already under our belts. 

The next stretch followed roads for around 9k, a mix of quiet lane and medium sized road through the Valcares valley. High overhead, the new motorway carried commuters effortlessly by, in blissful ignorance of the effort being expended by the stream of rucksack-toting pedestrians beneath them.

Fast lane above, slow lane below

We stopped for lunch in Ambasmestas - beer/coke, crisps and a shared chorizo and cheese sandwich. After a lengthy morning, the chance to refuel was very welcome. It was also slightly embarrassing as I almost forgot to pay! A quick reminder sorted things out without any problem, but I doubt even a sun-ruddied complexion could completely hide my blushes!

Moving on, we passed through more villages before arriving at Las Herrerias mid-afternoon. Another quick stop for drinks and rest ensued - beer glasses in the ice cream freezer proved too tempting on both fronts, and both beers and ice creams were consumed!

I mean, yeah - obviously!

Then began the long pull up to O Cebreiro, a beautiful route on woodland tracks which threaded through tiny villages of gorgeous stone houses, gaining some 620m of ascent over 8k of walking.

On the climb towards O Cebreiro

Sun-dappled lanes

We stopped for spring water in La Faba (where we met Spanish family whose daughter wanted to practice her English on us) and Laguna de Castilla, before crossing the border into Galicia on the final pull up to O Cebreiro. 

View back from near the top of the climb

Entering Galicia

Having been quite sunny at lower levels, here, at 1300m, a thick mist obscured the views, and it was definitely cool. Photographing the compact little village was tricky, especially given the combination of narrow streets, tired legs and sore feet, cold weather and thick mist.

The Casa Rural Venta Celta where we stayed

However, O Cebreiro was clearly a place to savour, so hopefully the morning will be kinder with warmer weather and the views in evidence. It’s a tiny hill-top village of Celtic origin showcasing the unusual thatched, round palloza houses, and is a National Monument. It originated with the pilgrimage route, and is the gateway to Galicia as far as pilgrims are concerned. There is a church, a museum, accommodation and shops selling everything from food to souvenirs and, on a clear night (unlike tonight) you can apparently see the Milky Way as there is little light pollution of any kind.

Our hotel was a humble affair, with smallish bedrooms but a huge, rustic wooden bar and country cooking on the menu. Dinner was good: a great vegetable soup (Caldo Galego), fried egg and chips, flan/cheese and honey and some wine to wash it all down – a lovely way to end a really good day’s walking.

Still life with Caldo Galego

Caldo Galego (Galician broth) is a traditional soup of the region. There are various alternatives (some versions contain ham hock or chorizo, fatty pork, chickpeas and/or chestnuts) but all seem based around the same basic starting point of cabbage (or other green leaves), beans and potato, and it is traditionally served in an earthenware bowl.

Walking through the Galician fields, many are given over to growing potatoes or leafy greens. So we have a question: was the soup devised because of the available crops, or have the crops been planted to make the soup?

Soft cheese and honey

We also had a traditional pudding of soft cheese and local honey – slightly odd-sounding, perhaps, but the mild cheese and sweet honey worked together in the way that cheese-and-sweet often do (for example cheesecake, apple and cheese or cheese and fruit cake).

Day 7 - O Cebreiro to Triacastela: 21.99k (13.75m) / Ascent 480m / Descent 1078m

A much easier day was in prospect today, with an undulating ridge walk followed by a lengthy descent into Triacastela on the agenda. It was a cool, clear morning, and we were treated to a stunning cloud inversion – there was plenty of chance for impressive photos before we set off.

Cloud inversion from O Cebreiro

Our day’s walk began along a shaded mud track, and we were pretty much all on our own for the first few kilometers into Linares, where the little church waylaid us with the promise of a stamp for our Pilgrim Passports. These stamps are important if you want a Compostela (certificate) on reaching Santiago – at least one per day en route, and two per day from Sarria onwards.

Church, Linares

A short while later, we stopped at the Alto de San Roque and took photos of the pilgrim statue – a large and very heroic-looking work that looked even more valiant given the setting. The Spanish family we had met yesterday was also there, and we swapped photo-taking duties. This would be the last time we would see them – they were taking a route via the monastery at Samos, and we would get out of sync.  

Pilgrims at the Alto de San Roque

Heroic deeds will be done

We arrived at Hospital da Condessa in search of coffee, and spent a nice time chatting with Kathy and Alan (who we had dubbed Nigel Slater for his resemblance to the TV chef of that name). We’d seen them a few times before, not least on the way into Ponferrada. They lived in Calgary and spent their weekends walking and cycling in and around Banff in the Canadian Rockies (you can go off people, you know!).

For the next stretch, we fell in with Anthony and Orla, and walked with them until the steep climb up to the Alto do Poio robbed us of our breath. We parted ways at the top: they to grab a drink at the shrewdly-placed bar, us to carry on towards Fonfria where we planned a break.

On the way, we got scammed by a couple of girls purporting to be raising funds for a deaf-dumb enterprise. Now I don’t mind feeling foolish for having been conned (although I’d rather not be), and I don’t even mind being €20 out of pocket, but it’s a shame that some people feel the need to prey on the kindness and goodwill of others in this way, especially those who may already be finding pilgrimage an emotional experience. Fortunately, pilgrimage is also about meeting – and overcoming – adversity.  

We had drinks at the Albergue in Fonfria, and chatted to an Aussie couple from Melbourne. As we set off again, intent on finding somewhere to eat our lunch, we were brought to a halt by the Pancake Lady.

Pancake lady and Missy G

Missy G's mum had remembered her from their trip back in 2007: an elderly lady who makes pancakes and offers them out to passing pilgrims for a few cents. We chatted briefly: she asked if we were married and we said we were celebrating 25 years this year. Pointing to her own wedding band, she drew the number “60” on Missy G’s hand.  

On the descent to Triacastela

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in descent, through Viduedo and a sprinkling of hamlets into Triacastela, where we stopped for another drink break before finding our digs.

Dinner was in the nearby restaurant part of the Complexo Xacobeo in which we were staying. We had a very nice but slow meal: mixed salad with tuna, macaroni with tomato and tuna, grilled salmon and stewed beef tongue - unusual, but nice, and worth a try!

Then to bed, as the strains of Juve vs Barca in the Champion's League final drifted through the night.

Day 8 - Triacastela to Sarria: 18.92k / Ascent 512m / Descent 726m

We had another short day in store today, the shortest of our trip, in fact, at around 19k (11.75 miles).

We began with a quick breakfast at Complexo Xacobeo and liberated some sandwich-making ingredients for later on. It was another cool, bright morning as we set off along the main street and out into the countryside.

On the road out of Triacastela

There were two possible routes to Sarria today – one via the monastery at Samos, the other more direct – and we opted for the shortest: not through any slackness, but because it reckoned to be the most scenic.

It certainly was beautiful, with shady, wooded lanes and great views over the mountains. We took a winding route through a series of tiny villages – real working communities, with chickens wandering the streets and a constant tang of cow dung in the air.

Sun-dappled lane on the way to San Xil

After a short stint on the road, we picked up a sun dappled green lane rising through the woods. As a good number of pilgrims had chosen the alternative route via Samos monastery, it was quite a bit quieter than usual on the trail. The only constant sound was birdsong and, not for the first time, we heard Cuckoos calling away in the distance.

Recreating works of art on walks:
#1 - The Birth of Venus

In San Xil, we took a slight detour to examine the tiny church, and drew the attention of an inquisitive neighbour. To be honest, in villages such as these, off-route pilgrims might be the most newsworthy event of the day.

At the Alto de Riocabo, we again left the quiet road for a gravel track through trees. Away to our left, low cloud swirled around like a repeat of yesterday’s cloud inversion. The skies gradually cleared, though, as temperature rose and the cloud dissolved, and a beautiful day ensued.

The villages and hamlets were so small and frequent that few were signed even if they were named, so exactly where we stopped for coffee is a bit of a mystery - Fontearcuda is our best guess. However, it was small and quiet like everything else, but nice too - especially the cake!

River crossing the easy way

We hiked a few more kilometers, and passed through a few more unidentified villages. Approaching noon, we stopped in Pintin for drinks and a break. A couple of (probably) German women arrived by van to set up a huge picnic - the support group, we think, for a large tour party travelling the Camino – commandeering all of the tables and chairs. I suppose it was good for business in one sense, but what happens to other passers-by who need a rest?

The descent towards Sarria began in earnest from here, passing through more villages as it did so - Calvor, Hospital, San Mamede, San Pedro, Carballal and Vigo de Sarria, to name a few. In general it was steady going, though steep enough in places.

Eventually the path levelled out, and we reached town. It was only about 2.00pm, but we were happy enough with a shorter day as longer days would follow soon enough. The Hotel Alfonso IX was quite a smart affair and perhaps a bit too nice for fragrant pilgrims. So we quickly vacated the lobby and popped up to our room for a wash and brush up and a rest.

Tonight we were again free to choose our own meal, so we had a wander along the main street looking for places to eat. It was perhaps a bit too early, as few places seemed to be open and few of our regular chums seemed to be in evidence. No matter, we found a bar and shared macaroni and a mixed salad.

Dinner in Sarria

Most places offer a pilgrim’s menu, which is normally inexpensive and filling – a choice of three or four large starters, a main course, pudding, bread and wine/water are usually included in the staple offering for around €10. Many long distance walkers find their appetite increases after a few days walking, but we find the opposite, so after a few days of large evening meals it was nice to choose something smaller.

Back in the lower town, we popped into a small supermarket and bought provisions for the next day’s lunch, then retired to the hotel bar for a couple of drinks before heading to bed.

Since leaving Villafranca del Bierzo, we had really enjoyed the scenery and the relative quiet of the trail, especially that arising from the “Samos split”. Those who only walk from Leon (or Sarria) get a very different perspective on the route to those who have walked all the way from St Jean Pied de Port – northwest Spain is much wetter, greener and hillier than the hot, dry flat countryside of Navarra, La Rioja and Castille y Leon – and it is probably true to say that this section is more outwardly beautiful than much that has gone before. However, we still think back very fondly to those hot, dusty days crossing the meseta, and to us they are just as beautiful but in a different way.  

From tomorrow, we expect the route to get busier still as the “last hundred” walkers join the fray. We have also added extra challenge in the way of two consecutive longer days, which will certainly test us, but we are looking forward to that challenge immensely.

Quite how much difference it will make, I’m not sure, but we have made plans to try to get the best of both worlds – sometimes busy, sometimes quiet. The camaraderie that accompanied our previous trip is not so in evidence this time round, although there is plenty of friendly contact this time, too. I guess last time was just a rather fortuitous coming-together of like–minded and compatible individuals. However, we are getting as much out of our quiet moments as our social interactions, so finding the right balance will be a help.