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.
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.
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 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.
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.