Camino de Santiago 14: Mountjoy!

Sarria to Santiago de Compostela (2nd – 7th May 2007)

I was glad when they said unto me: we shall go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.

Ps 121

In Sarria we discovered a novelty: te con leche. Tea with milk. Excellent, we thought; Anne had been missing proper tea. It turned out, however, not to be tea with milk, but tea made with milk: a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it. I was never so glad of my taste for black coffee.

A pleasant, if rainy, morning’s walk along green lanes. The waymarkings now came at regular intervals: concrete pillars, about waist-height, telling you where, if anywhere, you were, and how far it was to Santiago. The count-down was beginning to get exciting.

Just outside Barbadelo I saw my first horreo, a kind of small barn elevated on legs to keep it out of reach of the rats. Local legend says that at night these buildings get up and wander around the countryside; but we were never out after dark to see them.

The first horreo
The first horreo

At Ferreiros, at the less-than-100km-to-go bar (why yes, of course there is one), we had lunch, and another first: tarta de Santiago. This is an almond mixture baked in a pastry case, with the viciously pointy Santiago cross stencilled onto the top in icing sugar. Delicious, but best eaten in very thin slices, if one were planning on moving anywhere after lunch, and after some debate we decided that we were.

It was another 9km to Portomarín, down the hill and across the reservoir. At the bottom of the reservoir lies the old town of Portomarín, all except the church, which was dismantled and moved stone by stone to the top of the hill before the valley was dammed and the water flowed in.

Looking down towards Portomarín
Looking down towards Portomarín

The albergue was modern and spacious, and looked out over the reservoir. There were few other pilgrims, and we lazed away the remainder of the afternoon, stocking up on supplies at the food shop, doing our washing and hanging it out to dry in the laundry at the far end of the albergue, and chatting to an American pilgrim by the name of Sarah. She had lost time with an injury, and would now be unable to walk the rest of the way to Santiago before her flight left.

The next morning, while we sat in the town square waiting for the translated church to open, she caught the bus. The church took its time; we went postcard shopping and said Matins before it opened, but it was worth the wait. A remarkable example of Romanesque architecture before the flooding, the move made it more remarkable still. The portal was another of Master Mateo’s works – not so impressive, we understood, as the Pórtico de la Gloria at Santiago cathedral, but still a fine work. On the top of the tower was a stork’s nest – more friends seen, without knowing it, for the last time.

Waiting for the bus in Portomarín
Waiting for the bus in Portomarín
The last storks' nest
The last storks’ nest

The way out of Portomarín was a steep track through the woods. We took our time and discussed, for no obvious reason, Shakespeare’s propensity for resurrecting dead women in his plays. It took a while to find the albergue in Hospital de la Cruz, and found, when we did, that it was closed. We settled for lunch and went on another four or five kilometres to Ligonde. There we found a small but airy hostel with chickens scratching around outside and a grand total of two saucepans in the kitchen, one very large and one very small. No matter: they served our purpose.

At Ligonde, we met Jim and Daniel, an Irish father and son. Daniel must have been about ten, the youngest pilgrim we’d met. (The youngest we’d met to speak to, anyway; the noisy kids at Logroño didn’t really count.) Jim joined the ever-increasing band of people who were disappointed that I wasn’t Irish myself, with a name like that.

The next morning we made instant couscous in the very large saucepan, ate it, and set out upon the way. It soon became clear that the day’s walk would not be a pleasant one, for me at least: my period had started the night before, and the cramps were excruciating, worse than I’d ever had before or have had since. None the less, we decided to take a detour to take a look at (what else?) an interesting church: at Vilar de Donas, the church of El Salvador has rather fine wall-paintings and the effigies of knights of the Order of Santiago. Dan Brown would have had a field day, and Anne enjoyed herself, but I was in no state to look at anything. We trudged back towards the main camino. ‘I feel sick,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to be sick; it’s a different system, but I feel sick.’

We stopped for a drink and (more importantly) a rest in the bar at Portos, where the diversion rejoined the camino. About a minute after finishing my coffee, I was sick. Then, since the proprietor was evidently keen to shut up for the morning, we moved on.

Progress was slow. Since the only attitude that afforded me any relief was a kind of doubled-up foetal position, which is obviously difficult to adopt while walking, I spent much of the time seeking out and sitting on low walls. Anne shifted more and more of my gear over to her rucksack. Occasional passing pilgrims stopped and asked if there was anything they could do, but there wasn’t, really; we were in the middle of nowhere and the only thing was to press on.

According to the book it was 7.5km to Palas de Rei, and we must have covered most of that. Happily, however, a huge, shiny, new municipal albergue had been erected since its publication, a fair way before the town itself. Unhappily, it had not yet opened for the day; but by now we were both happy to sit on the bench outside and wait to be let in.

The doors opened at one o’clock. Anne saw me safely tucked up in (unusually for me) a lower bunk, before going out to town to find herself some lunch and other useful things. I slept for a good couple of hours, which improved matters greatly. Anne returned with food, some fearsome Bridget-Jones knickers, and the news that there was a small ferret-like creature hiding under the front desk. We looked, but there wasn’t much more to see than a pair of round eyes and a pointy nose; and neither of us is much good on mustelidae.

The showers were effective but singularly lacking in curtain, but at four hundred miles in I’d lost most of my modesty, and no one else came in, anyway. We had thought the kitchen utensil range at Ligonde narrow enough, but the mod cons at Palas de Rei were spectacularly useless. While it was fully equipped with stove, sink, etc, the only container of any description was a plastic colander. We ate bread with salmon pâté and raw carrots, then, since the kitchen was obviously not going to be of any use to anyone else, we commandeered it as an oratory and said Evensong.

By this time I was pretty much recovered and we went out for a wander. As we passed a kind of bar/restaurant in the park the Ely folkies hailed us: they were staying elsewhere in the town. We joined them for a drink and an ice cream; it made a satisfying end to a difficult day.

Back at the albergue, a further failing became clear, apart from the curtainless shower and the pan-less kitchen: the lights could not be switched off. Very odd. We went to bed anyway.

In the morning we were able to proceed as normal. It didn’t look as if we’d missed much by not staying in Palas de Rei itself, so we didn’t linger there, but pushed on through suburbs and villages, keeping a good pace as far as Liboreiro.

Crossing into the province of A Coruña
Crossing into the province of A Coruña

It was a good day for a walk, sunny but not too hot. At Furelos we visited the church of San Juan. The priest showed us the main point of interest: a crucifix in which Christ has only the left hand nailed to the cross. The right arm dangles, or reaches, down. I found it extraordinarily moving: Christ who bridges the gap between earth and God, Christ who is divine in weakness.

We also asked why Saint Roch has a dog, having wondered about this for a while, but the priest didn’t know.

Leaving Furelos, we ate our lunch on tree-trunk benches just outside Melide. In Melide itself we stopped off in a rather dingy bar for a drink. The guidebook recommended stopping for octopus, but we’d had enough of seafood after Sahagún, and pressed on, dodging around a wedding party. Past the 50km mark, now, we carried on and stopped in a lovely church in Boente. It was open and empty, so we took the opportunity to say Evening Prayer.

Another five kilometres, up and over a little ridge, and we stopped at the bottom of the valley. The albergue at Ribadiso do Baixo was just over the bridge, with buildings spread over a large compound. Plenty of washing lines, although something of a peg shortage, but we coped. Supper was back up the hill: spaghetti at Bar Manuel. Afterwards, we stood on the bridge and watched the fish jump. It was a gorgeous, still evening.

Laundry and horreo at Ribodiso do Baixo
Laundry and horreo at Ribodiso do Baixo

Next morning the lazy feeling persisted, and we dawdled as far as Arzúa. Now we were so near, it felt important not to rush things, to make the most of the last few days on the road. We stopped for breakfast, and I muddled the ordering of breakfast completely; my Spanish was still far from perfect. Still, we ate.

We ate again in Calle; while passing through the woods we met a man who recommended the tarta Santiago at a certain bar there. We followed his advice and partook of it; it was indeed excellent. I made a note of the brand for future reference. The next settlement was Salceda, where we had a boccadillo lunch and ice creams, and moved on again. The landscape had changed again: we were now walking through eucalyptus woods, tall twisting trunks and a mild fragrance reminiscent of snuffles. We halted by a spring in Santa Irene and said Evening Prayer in the afternoon sun.

Corkscrew-trunked eucalyptus tree
Corkscrew-trunked eucalyptus tree

The nearer we got to Santiago, the larger the albergues became. Or so it seemed. The one at Arca (or Pedrouzo, or O Pino – it appeared to have several names, and one more than the number of languages spoken in the area) was fairly massive. In early May it was by no means full, but there was still a good number of pilgrims around. There was a kitchen, which looked comparatively well-equipped, but we had no food and couldn’t be bothered, so went out to the restaurant in the village. This proved to be full for the moment, but also to have coin-operated internet machines, so we went online and rejoiced in the fact that –

tomorrow we would be in Santiago –

Then there was a table free, so we went through, and ate, and talked, and filled a few more pages of the pink notebook of deep thoughts.

Tomorrow we would be in Santiago.

We left early, breakfasting in a café up the road. The camino led through more of the eucalyptus forest. A drink in another café, where we met some more English pilgrims, Christians, but not, as I understood them, Roman Catholic. It would have been good to talk further, to compare notes, but we never saw them again. Onwards and upwards: Lavacolla, where ‘Santiago’ airport is. Closer and closer, but the camino snaked all over the place. Finally: Monte del Gozo (“Mountjoy!” cry Roland and Oliver). Monte del Gozo is supposed to be the first point from which one can see the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Of course, the trees have grown up, and one can’t. Instead, we inspected a vast sculpture set up to celebrate the Pope’s visit, and another, smaller, one of a pilgrim assessing the state of her feet.

Down the other side of Monte del Gozo, and into Santiago de Compostela itself. We entered through the suburb of San Lázaro, passing a great arch decorated with portraits of famous pilgrims. Remembering our earlier experiences entering cities, we decided to stop for lunch now, rather than pressing on hungry and grumpy. The Hotel San Lázaro had a long, narrow dining room, and entirely acceptable food – apart, as always, from the puddings.

San Lázaro arch
San Lázaro arch

As we walked, the suburbs gave way to the old city and the architecture became interesting. Jim and Daniel, our friends from Ligonde, caught up with us, to our great delight, and we walked through the old town and into the Plaza del Obradoiro together, to see the great facade of the cathedral rise up in front of us.Collapse


Camino de Santiago 13: Over The Hills And Far Away

Vega de Valcarce to Sarria (29th April – 1st May 2007)

Tom, Tom, the piper’s son
Stole a pig and away did run,
And all the tune that he could play
Was ‘Over the hills and far away’:

Over the hills and a great way off,
The wind shall blow my top-knot off.

Calle Camino de Santiago. Don't be fooled by the roadsign: we went up
Calle Camino de Santiago. Don’t be fooled by the roadsign: we went up

It was a long, long climb up into the mountains and Galicia, leaving the village of Vega de Valcarce and its four banks behind us. The scenery was green and beautiful, and in its verdure and its steepness the section reminded me very much of Stenbury Down on the Isle of Wight, where I’d done some of my practice walks. We climbed about 650m in altitude over the course of the morning. The bar at La Faba provided a much-needed break, although the lock on the lavatory door left much to be desired. I was rather worried that the only way out might be violence.

Looking forwards into Galicia
Looking forwards into Galicia

The path levelled out more or less at the point where we crossed into Galicia. We looked back at the rolling, sunlit, hills – so different from Castile. It was rather satisfying to have reached a new province before lunch.

We ate lunch in O Cebreiro, which is alleged to be of considerable importance in the history of the Camino. To be quite frank, it was a disappointment. The bars were crowded, the tat shops were crowded and full of extremely kitsch representations of witches, the significance of which we never discovered. I found the mass of people difficult to cope with and promptly failed to make up my mind what to have for lunch. We wondered whether to stay or to move on – the original plan had been to stay, but the place was really a bit dire. The decision was made for us: an Irish pilgrim helpfully informed us that the albergue was shut. How ironic, we observed, in a place that the guidebook extols as ‘a high point of the pilgrimage’. But that was that.

We wandered around the village for a little longer. The only other place to stay, the Hostal San Giraldo de Aurillac, was also closed. That was also that, but Anne got quite excited about its very existence, having a soft spot for Gerald of Aurillac following a second-year History module. (I believe that Saint Gerald was the one who was conceived on Easter Saturday or some similar vigil, accidentally, because his father saw his mother in the bath, and the poor things couldn’t help themselves. However, upon realising what they had done they immediately ran to the priest to confess, and as a result Gerald was an unusually holy chap, though not without his own hangups about sex.)

The church was pleasantly cool and quiet. Evidently most of the trippers were not interested in the eucharistic miracle of the bread and wine that changed to flesh and blood, and the statue of the Virgin Mary that inclined its (her?) head in acknowledgment. Nor, if I am honest, did we find it particularly compelling; it did not involve resurrected mules or chickens, or plagues of geese, and of course we were good little Anglicans and therefore meant to react to the Real Presence with mild confusion. In any case, the information around the church was not exhaustive, and all the guide told us was that the ‘statue of the Virgin… reputedly inclined its head after a miracle took place’; we were unaware of the nature of the miracle for some time after we’d left O Cebreiro.

Leaving O Cebreiro was difficult; the waymarkings were unclear. It was, we concluded darkly, yet another symptom of how the village had moved away from its identity as a resource for pilgrims. We ended up on the main road and were obliged to double back on ourselves.

Back on the right path, we met our old friend Saint Roch again, in the guise of a dramatic bit of hill: the Alto San Roque. It was embellished with a statue of a pilgrim, cape blowing in the wind. Possibly it was meant to be Saint Roch himself, possibly not. We did not stop to examine it too closely; I was getting paranoid about there being space in the albergue at Hospital de la Condesa. This time, as it transpired, I had good reason. We claimed the last two of the eighteen beds, and witnessed people arriving half an hour later being turned away.

People who had got there before us, however, included the group we’d first met at Santa Catalina de Somoza. They were folkies from Ely. Linda and John had been doing the Camino in stages over the course of several years; Fionn and Sheila had joined them for the last section, starting at León. They shared stories of wandering round the back streets of Santiago de Compostela with a friend who was looking for a gaita maker. (A gaita is the Galician version of bagpipes.) Sheila was suffering terribly with blisters, so she and Anne found plenty to talk about.

Other than the chickens scratching around outside (the place appeared to be attached to a farm, but was otherwise entirely what we would come to know as standard Galician municipal refuge, complete with green and white livery and identikit sello) there was not much to keep us there. We set off the next morning to be greeted with a snow shower, the first snow we’d seen since Navarre. Then rain. Then sun. We stopped in a bar in Fonfria for tea, coffee, Mars bars, and other delights to revive the weary.

The architecture changed along with the landscape: here is Anne outside a typical Galician church, low, grey-stone.
The architecture changed along with the landscape: here is Anne outside a typical Galician church, low, grey-stone.

The path to Triacastela was at a comfortable distance from the road, and, apart from some apparently suicidal cyclists, a pleasant walk, steep but green. We’d heard Galicia compared to the west of Ireland, being just as green and just as wet. Not having been there, we were unable to judge, but it sounded plausible. The pattern of alternating rain and shine continued until we got to a bar, after which it was rain for the rest of the day.

It was a good bar (Bar O Peregrino Triacastela, if you’re ever in the area.) It served good boccadillos, and nobody objected to us dripping all over the floor. What was more exciting was a young wild boar – actually, I suppose, a tame boar – that was brought in wearing a dog harness and lead. It was evidently a regular; the bar staff came out and made a great fuss of it. We were fascinated; we’d never seen anything like it. We also saw our first horseback pilgrims, who would have been a novelty in the ordinary way, but who paled into obscurity beside the piglet.

Wild boarlet
Wild boarlet

As we left the heavens opened. This was rain with a vengeance. This was rain as we hadn’t seen it since… well, we hadn’t seen rain like this. Snow, maybe, crossing the Pyrenees, but not rain. We quickly decided that staying in Triacastela would be an excellent idea. Even though it was still early afternoon, the prospect of walking 9km to Samos in a downpour was not appealing.

The Refugio de Oribio was the first one we found. The dormitories were spacious; the kitchen was cramped. Most importantly, the shower was hot. There was a computer terminal with net access. It was located in a sort of cupboard, but we didn’t really mind that. Next door there was a supermarket, which we raided for supper essentials and a bottle of wine. We examined the (limited) selection of underwear, the situation in that department having become rather desperate (and shortly to become more so, did we but know it), but were put off by the proportion of synthetics to stuff that wouldn’t end up horrendously smelly. We went back to the albergue and cooked and ate what we’d bought, instead. Having said Compline, and marvelled at the sheer amount of wet lycra the recently arrived cyclist pilgrims had brought in with them, we went to bed.

The morning brought another choice of routes: to Sarria direct, or to Sarria via Samos? There was a difference of 3.5km, but we thought that we wouldn’t mind a look at the monastery in Samos, so headed off in that direction. Or attempted to – we very nearly missed the vital turn at San Cristobo. Once confident that we were on the right track, however, we plodded along happily enough, though were glad to reach Samos – and its bar. The bar provided tea, of which Anne was badly in need by this point. It also contained the Ely Four, who had passed a dismally cold night in Samos, at the monastery itself. They recommended a visit, however, because it was well worth looking at.

It was. The chapel was spectacular, in a gilt-Spanish-Catholic way, but the feature that was really stunning was the painting that stretched around four walls on one of the landings. It depicts the life of Saint Benedict (the monastery is a Benedictine establishment) and is one of those clever pieces where the subjects’ eyes appear to follow you round the room. All the same, the place was chilly, and we were glad that we had stopped in Triacastela.

The path to Sarria felt far longer than the 12km that the guidebook claimed it covered. It was not that it was in any way unpleasant – indeed, we were pleased to see hoopoes on the way out of Samos – but rather that it went on and on. And on. And on and on.

Even once we’d got into Sarria we hadn’t arrived. We stopped at the first bar we came across, because we felt that we were due a rest; there was a small, and irritating, white poodle. We finished our drinks and moved on; we were still only on the outskirts of town, and the evening was drawing on. There was, however, one shop still open on the way to the albergue, shamelessly pandering to the pilgrim trade and selling waterproofs, sticks, postcards and other treasures. (Sarria, incidentally, is just the far side of the magic 100km mark, from where one needs to have walked in order to get the certificate from the cathedral at Santiago.) I succumbed to the temptation to fill in the gaps in my collection of cloth badges.

At long last we made it to the Albergue O Durmiñento, a pleasant, spacious building opposite the church. The hospitalero offered us the chance to share the evening meal; we thought this an excellent plan, but were obliged to go straight out again in order to obtain enough cash for the endeavour. It was worth the hassle: an excellent meal – soup, bread, meatballs – shared with a friendly group.

There was internet access available in the albergue, but the keyboard was so stiff and unreceptive that we gave up on it after a very short while and went to bed – having said Compline and worked out the complexities of the light switch. There was only a little over 100km left to go.