Astorga to Vega del Valcarce (24th – 28th April 2007)
Yves Massarde: I understand you believe there is some sort of plague coming out of Mali.
Dr Frank Hopper: We don’t like to say “plague”.
Yves Massarde: What do you think it is, then?
Dr Eva Rojas: A plague. – Sahara, 2005
GENERAL: Away, away!
POLICE:(without moving) Yes, yes, we go.
GENERAL: These pirates slay.
GENERAL: Then do not stay.
GENERAL: Then why this delay?
POLICE: All right, we go.
ALL: Yes, forward on the foe! Yes, forward on the foe!
GENERAL: Yes, but you don’t go!
POLICE: We go, we go
ALL: Yes, forward on the foe! Yes, forward on the foe!
GENERAL: Yes, but you don’t go!
POLICE: We go, we go
ALL: At last they go! At last they really go! – The Pirates of Penzance – W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
The next morning we discovered the downside to staying in the wonderful Albergue San Miguel in Hospital de Orbigo. Our rucksacks had been invaded by bedbugs. ‘Chinches,’ the hospitalero said with resignation, and produced some potent and no doubt deeply environmentally unfriendly spray. We sprayed half-heartedly, promised to do it again later in the evening, and set out.
Astorga still seemed disinclined to let us leave, and it seemed that everything was in the wrong place. The post office would not sell us stamps; the supermarket would not sell us cheese. (The refrigerator was broken, making the staff understandably reluctant to sell its contents; this was somewhat ironic, given that we would be taking it up the mountains in no more efficient cooling container than a rucksack.) We did our best to find this amusing. A corner shop was more cooperative in matters cheesy, and we bought a few apples as well.
The day was overcast but warm, and we were excited at the prospect of getting into the mountains of León. The camino was well away from the road, and soon left it entirely. As we worked our way up the incline we discussed how Anne could possibly have such hopelessly blister-prone feet when her great-grandfather had made it most of the way up Everest on the 1924 expedition. We assumed it came from the other side of the family, but subsequent research showed that the more famous Norton had also had trouble with his feet.
I insisted that we stop for a while in Santa Catalina de Somoza, because it had my name. That, and the fact that it was definitely mid-morning by now, made it a reasonable point for a coffee break. We sat outside a bar and admired a pilgrim-shaped weathervane on a nearby house. At the next table was a party of four English pilgrims, three women and a man. One of them lent Anne some foot ointment after she had finished with it; she had fairly horrible blisters herself.
We would be seeing them again.
We walked on. Lunchtime coincided more or less happily with our arrival in El Ganso. We admired, but did not go into, Cowboy Bar, which looked very much as one might have expected from the name. The church porch proved to be an excellent place to eat our rolls and cheese, although I was getting thoroughly fed up with pan de leche by this point. We recalled the bit in 1066 And All That about nobody being allowed to be born, or marry, or die, except in church porches; this particular church porch, the guidebook said, ‘has sheltered countless pilgrims from both rain and sun’. In our case it was sun.
We slogged on up the hill into Rabanal del Camino. We were looking specifically for the refugio run by the Confraternity of Saint James, and passed an obvious rival with a garden festooned with tents on the way. Refugio Gaucelmo, the CSJ place, was at first sight concealed by a coach full of fake pilgrims. We scorned them and their suitcases.
Gaucelmo was a lovely place. The hospitaleros, an Irish couple called Peter and Kathleen, were very welcoming – although disappointed that I wasn’t Irish myself, with a name like that. Unusually, there was a large garden behind the building, quite apart from all the facilities one would expect. It appeared that we had managed to lose the new bottle of shampoo – egg-flavoured, which seemed quite common in Spain, and which we used for washing clothes and skin as well as hair. The shop was able to supply a replacement, not to mention some very juvenile fizzy sweets. A fizzy sweet or six once in a while can be most heartening. We took advantage of the garden by spreading out our sleeping bags, spraying them with bug spray and then sponging them down. It was tedious and rather embarrassing, but finding four-leafed clovers in the grass heartened us. We left the sleeping bags to dry off again and did some more orthodox laundry – including, which was a mistake, my brown microfleece – before dinner. Anne spent most of it with her right foot up on a chair, wrapped up with an icepack – a proper icepack, not ice cubes wrapped in a towel – because her ankle was still playing up.
Afterwards we began saying Compline in the kitchen, before Kathleen popped in to let us know that there was actually a dedicated prayer room, if we would like to use that. We most certainly would. After the Office, we inspected the icon on the wall; it represented Saint James, events from his life both scriptural and apocryphal, and pilgrims through the ages. It was a pity they didn’t sell postcards of it; I found it impossible to get a good photograph, and would have dearly liked a copy. Still, it were better to have loved and lost, etcetera, and all in all the day seemed more successful than not. We went to bed happy to be in a really civilised refugio.
The next morning my microfleece was still sopping wet; I bunged it into a bag and hoped it wouldn’t leak. Anne had another dose of icepack over breakfast. We discovered that the four English pilgrims we had met the day before were also at Gaucelmo. It was already raining, and waterproofs were emerging right, left and centre. I donned my cyberman trousers and my big blue poncho. We were hoping that this combination would solve the problem caused by rain running off my rucksack cover and soaking my trousers. One of the English pilgrims – Sheila – was dressed from top to toe in black, and looked like nothing so much as a penguin in her peaked hood.
We set out in dribs and drabs. The landscape was now more like Dartmoor, consisting in large part of granite and gorse. Within the space of a hundred yards my silver trousers had developed a small tear. As I walked it became a large tear. I resolved to obtain some kind of tape to fix it as soon as we could find a shop. Not a chance. They were soon ripped beyond repair, and I had to take them off.
We walked on into Foncebadón. It was another strategic site in Sir John Moore’s retreat to Coruña, but we found nothing more aggressive than a flock of geese. Even the geese were not terribly aggressive. I recalled the story of Saint Milburga, who delivered the village of Stoke St Milborough in Shropshire from a flock of vicious geese. Anne thought that perhaps she should go on to do a Masters in saints with animal-related miracles. What with Santo Domingo, we had already collected a fair bit of material.
We were approaching what is perhaps the most well-known landmark of the Camino Francés, the Cruz de Ferro. As the name suggests, it is a large iron cross. Over the years a cairn has grown up around its base; traditionally each pilgrim carries a stone with them from home and leaves it at the Cruz de Ferro. It’s meant to be symbolic: think of Christian’s burden falling off and rolling down the hill in Pilgrim’s Progress. We had not done this, having gone for the sensible rather than the penitential approach to pilgrimage. Carrying unnecessary stones in our rucksacks seemed almost on a par with filling our boots with pebbles, or eating yew berries to induce penitential diarrhoea – both authentic medieval pilgrim practices. Anyway, we already had cairn fatigue. We walked around the Cruz de Ferro and glared at it from the shelter of a little hut, where I was able to rearrange my complicated system of waterproofs. It kept on raining and we kept on walking; we were reasonably cheerful, since rain was now something of a novelty. The mist, grey stone and purple heather made us feel at home.
Manjarín is an abandoned village – abandoned except for the albergue run by a man by the name of Tomás, who battles against rain, snow, and the authorities to keep a welcome for tired pilgrims. We hadn’t planned on stopping, but the place looked so enticing, in a countercultural hippie kind of a way, that we went in. A few other pilgrims were there already. Coffee appeared almost instantly, for which I was extremely grateful. We looked at photographs of Foncebadón in the snow, and quite understood why Moore had trouble there.
Shortly after leaving Manjarín we reached the highest point on the Camino Francés, according to the book. It was not particularly obvious, but knowing that we had, at some point, managed to pass it felt like an achievement. It continued to rain. Another crowd of trippers appeared – probably the same crowd of trippers that we had encountered in Rabanal. We did our best to keep out of their way, but when we reached El Acebo we found to our disgust that the bar was packed to bursting with this egregious coach party and that the overflow was milling around in the narrow street outside and all too eager to quiz some genuine pilgrims. To add insult to injury, one of them was wearing that most unhikerlike of garments, a skirt. We found that we couldn’t trust ourselves to keep civil tongues in our heads, faced with such provocation, so we moved on.
Deprived of a sit-down and a chance to attend to suffering feet, carrying on and stopping for the day as soon as possible seemed to be the only thing to do. It was four kilometres to Riego de Ambrós, and we resented every step of it. Had the refugio there been shut there would have been trouble; providentially it opened just as we arrived. Even better, there was a fire – well, a wood-burning stove – in the kitchen. We spread wet things out to dry as quickly as possible and settled down in the kitchen for the afternoon. We even drank the instant cup soup that we had been avoiding on the grounds that instant cup soup was minging. The improvised icepack suffered from proximity to the fire, but there wasn’t much we could do about that. It was not such a bad afternoon after all; there is nothing like being inside in the warm while the weather is audibly miserable outside. Instant soup for lunch was followed by instant couscous for supper, Evensong, and bed.
Having reached the highest point on Wednesday, Thursday morning began with a steep climb down again. The road descended in hairpin bends of the sort seen in James Bond films, and the path did much the same, ten metres higher. The track was slippery and the views were amazing, even through the mist, but we reached Molinaseca with no accidents. We sat for a while looking across the river to recover our breath after the descent. Trees, mountains, water; it was amazing how much the landscape had changed within a distance of three days.
Molinaseca was a relatively large village, and as the camino passed through it joined roads and pavements. It was tarmac all the way to Ponferrada, the next large town. We stopped in the first available bar for what the Americans call a ‘comfort break’. The staff were most obliging and seemed not to object to Anne unwinding and repinning miles of bandage while I sat and drank my coffee. They were so obliging that they gave us cake – free – which is what I call service. It surely doesn’t count as tapas?
Ponferrada was generally friendly. We were unable to have a proper look at the castle, which was undergoing renovations, but when we managed to get ourselves lost around its ramparts a kind citizen put us back on the right track. The right track happened to go past a shop that sold stamps and a small supermarket, which was all to the good. The more modern, less interesting, part of the city went on for rather further than the older, more interesting part, but that was not really a problem because we had better things to do than sight-seeing. We had to get to Camponaraya, where, Mathias had claimed, there was an albergue.
A mural on a church in Compostilla, a couple of kilometres out of the city, cleared up a debate that we had been engaged in for some time. It depicted the four evangelists as their symbolic animals, and, what was more, it had their names helpfully inscribed next their heads. We had never had any problem with John (eagle) or Luke (ox), but I maintained that Mark was the man and Matthew the lion. Anne said it was the other way round. The mural sorted it out: Anne was right. I had been sure that it had something to do with Matthew depicting Jesus as king. If Mark were going to be any kind of big cat, surely he ought to be a cheetah?
I soothed my hurt pride with an ice cream in the village bar. Anne had one too, for solidarity’s sake, or something like that. In Columbrianos my foot began to hurt, the same sharp, mysterious pain that had plagued me while heading into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and crossing the Pyrenees, but in the other foot this time. I was glad to think of the albergue in Camponaraya. On the bright side, I was amused to see that a pole had been erected to divert storks from the church, and that a pair of storks were making good use of it. One does not want to drive storks away – they bring good luck, after all – but in some places they can be a nuisance. A dedicated stork pillar was an inspired idea.
We limped on into Camponaraya. There was no albergue. There wasn’t even an hostal. We would probably have settled for it, had there been one. The best we could do was a pair of doughnuts in Bar Brazal. We made the most of those, and pressed on through the vineyards in the gathering dusk in a state of considerable exhaustion and some pain on both parts. As we approached Cacabelos we passed a stall where two men were handing out free samples of wine; but stopping would have been fatal. We would never have moved again.
Worse was to follow. We met a fellow pilgrim as we entered the village. She had bad news: the hostel was closed. Not even full, closed. We did not like this news one little bit; wherever the next one was, we weren’t in a fit state to walk there. Curling up in the gutter and going to sleep seemed a more viable option.
It did not quite come to that. Refugio or, as in this case, no albergue, Cacabelos was not entirely devoid of beds. It had a number of bars, and one of those bars had a bed going spare. One solitary, just-about-queen-sized-if-you-both-breathed-in, bed, in a cramped room up a flight of crazy stairs. We handed over thirty-five euros without a murmur, laid out our sleeping bags, and had a very good cry. I blew goodness knows how much phone credit talking to my long-suffering boyfriend for the first time in weeks. Anne did likewise, talking to a useful friend from church. We went to bed without dinner. It was a fitting end to the day.
The next morning was a great improvement. The bar served chocolatey waffles, and was showing a Spanish-dubbed version of Fantastic Four on the television. It also had an impressive sello depicting a windmill. We had been too preoccupied the previous night to notice that the place was called El Molino, but that made sense, we supposed.
It was seven kilometres to Villafranca del Bierzo, mainly along the road, and we walked it very slowly and stopped when we got there. We passed a yard full of sculptures, and very few cars. El Bierzo is renowned (in Spain) for its wine, which is not bad, at that. We hadn’t heard anything about sculptures.
We stopped at the albergue Ave Fenix, which was a joyously unconventional establishment with star-shaped cut-outs in the dormitory roof, a young ginkgo tree growing in the yard, and dodgy plumbing. The guidebook advised us, assuming the opportunity presented itself, to partake in a queimada – ‘at a queimada an alcoholic concoction of drink is lit in gathering darkness and, whilst those present are sharing it, tales are told and spells incanted’. The opportunity did not present itself, and I think we were, secretly, rather relieved.
Villafranca was a good place to laze around in. We went down to one of the restaurants for lunch and, since we were nearing Galicia, I tried a bowl of caldo gallego – a Galician-style stew involving haricot beans and bacon. It was very good. Lunch was laid-back. So was the rest of the day. We had a look at the church of Santiago, but, since that was right next the albergue, it didn’t take a huge amount of effort, and we appreciated that after the tribulations of the day before.
Our greatest mistake that day was going for a drink after dinner. We wandered all the way down the valley (Villafranca del Bierzo is built up the sides of a rather steep valley) to the main square and sat outside a café to drink a lemonade. This was all well and good, but it meant that by the time we got back and were ready for bed, several other pilgrims had beaten us to the dormitory. On previous nights we had found that the only surefire way not to find oneself disturbed by snoring was to go to sleep before everyone else.
We were already too late, and passed a miserable night in consequence. There were at least three distinct snorers, one directly beneath us, and each snored at his own pace and rhythm, stopping and starting just when one least expected it. Murderous thoughts ran through my head. The temptation to empty a Platypus full of water over the side of the bunk was almost overwhelming. I staged a half-hearted screaming nightmare, but only managed to disturb people who weren’t asleep. It was a very quiet screaming nightmare.
Still, we made it through the night, and set out cheerfully the next morning – pausing to take a picture of the resident cat. The guidebook offered us a choice of three routes; it did not take us long to choose the one that was shortest and easiest, although probably also the most boring. It ran alongside the main road – which was not nearly so dire as we feared it might be; there was very little traffic, and decent scenery most of the way. Another pilgrim appeared – going the wrong way. Kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many were going to Santiago? It turned out that he had already got there, and was walking the return journey, too. We thought this very keen. We stopped in one bar that had the wood panelling and gloom of a decent British pub. It also had cake, so that was all right. As we plodded on, as the camino snaked around and over the main road, Anne attempted to explain to me the allure of World of Warcraft, to which I attributed, with the arrogance that only a best friend can get away with, everything that had gone wrong with her life in the past couple of months. I still didn’t get it.
We stopped at a small shop in Trabadelo and purchased revolting and E-number-rich snacks. Then, fingers orange from the Spanish equivalent of Cheesy Wotsits, we moved on. The next rest was in La Portela de Valcarce; a plaque on a pilgrim statue helpfully informed us that it was 559km to Roncesvalles, and, more excitingly, 190km to Santiago. Tomorrow we would be in Galicia.
The first albergue in Vega de Valcarce was the Albergue do Brasil, and it looked so intriguing that we decided to stop right there, before we even got into the village. There were hammocks in the front yard, and a covered area described by a wooden sign as ‘Camelot’. Cristina, the hospitalera, welcomed us with open arms. She told us how the refugio was run by a Brazilian organisation, how she would be there six months, how she wished her daughter (who was about our age, she said) would do the camino too. She offered us the chance to share a Brazilian dinner that night; breakfast would also be served. After a little deliberation, we went for dinner, but decided to pass on breakfast. Breakfast, we thought, would be breakfast, while dinner would very likely be interesting.
We passed the afternoon lazing in the hammocks, watching other pilgrims pass by. I looked up the valley and saw the main road on stilts high, high above us. It was peculiarly depressing. How long would it last, I wondered, this lovely land of dust and green? I had probably read too many terrifying editorials in New Scientist. Anne succeeded in distracting me from my gloomy thoughts by pointing out a pond full of trout, and we watched them happily.
By the evening three other pilgrims had arrived who wanted to partake in the repast, all of them German: Elke, Marina and Daniel. Daniel was one of the legendary fast walkers, but Elke and Marina seemed to be moving at what we considered to be a more sensible pace. The food was simple but delicious – a rice dish followed by a bean and egg concoction. Anne loved the place and was not to be prevented from buying a frivolous red feather clip to go in her hair: not the type of thing that a pilgrim would wear, at all, but we took our luxuries where we could find them. The only problem was how to pack it: it ended up inside an empty plastic bottle. I contented myself with buying a length of printed friendship bracelet. Cristina said I had to make a wish, and when the thing broke and fell off my wrist, the wish would come true. Anne said, ‘You’d better make sure it’s not a wish you’re particularly bothered about.’ She knew that I fully intended to sew it onto my blanket.