11 May 2017
The Camino Inglés delights in taking you from sea level, up uncomfortably steep gradients, and back to sea level again. Sometimes this is repeated several times over the course of one day. The route from Pontedeume to Betanzos is a case in point. We started on the waterfront. The bar where we ate breakfast (coffee and cold churros) was on the next street along. (The Japanese pilgrims, incidentally, ate their breakfast in the albergue at ten past six.) After that, we joined the route and it went straight up.
And it’s not as if either of us is unfamiliar with the concept of ‘up’. Our parents live in Ventnor, which is about as close as Britain gets to those Mediterranean seaside towns where the streets are arranged in higgledy-piggledy lines up a cliff. This was something else. (It was also raining.) Within about fifteen minutes (give or take a diversion to look at the church of Santiago, which was shut, and several breaks for me to catch my breath) we’d climbed one hundred and fifty metres and were looking down on the town and the bay.
Once we were out of the town, the gradient became less punishing. The rain, however, continued to fall, and I gave up on any hope of my boots drying out. I kept my waterproof trousers on all day – even after it stopped raining I couldn’t be bothered taking them off, and anyway, they were snug enough to compensate for my walking trousers being a size too big.
We were up and down all day. The first downwards gradient was a gentle one, taking us down through scrubby woodland (a nature reserve, I think) towards a golf course. That was deserted, of course, in this weather. The path led straight across, and then into a copse and across a little brook.
After that there were some fairly tedious bits over and then alongside a motorway, leading at last into Miño. This was a reasonably sizeable town, and had a choice of bars. Sitting outside one of them were three pilgrims we didn’t recognise. We stopped for a cup of coffee in the next one along, and then kept on going.
Downhill, again. Heading out of town, the path led gently down all the way down to sea level, and after that up, and up, and up, above the level of the motorway flyovers. 20%. One in five. At least the maths was easy.
We sat on a bench in a dilapidated children’s playground at the top to get our breath back and eat Naked bars. (Naked bars are very good if you’re hiking with a vegan, or hiking as a vegan. They don’t melt, and they don’t crumble too badly.) Then there were lots of single track lanes. We met two dogs (one a very friendly puppy) on one of them and, a little further down the hill, looked back to find that a dapple-grey horse was following us. We had no idea what to do about a loose horse; fortunately it got fed up with the idea after a hundred yards or so, and turned off into a field.
A rural bus shelter made a decent spot to stop for lunch. More of the same followed: narrow roads, little hamlets. I was surprised to find the road surface not too hard on my feet, but I was still very tired by the end of the day. Then, at last, a field of allotments (and a briefly interested cat), and we proceeded into the walled town of Betanzos.
The Betanzos albergue was big, and well-appointed. There were two floors of dormitories, laundry rooms (yes, plural), boot racks, sitting rooms, a kitchen and dining area, plenty of showers, and wi-fi. Also the heights of joy and depths of despair that come with hearing, and then believing that one has misinterpreted, the word ‘secadora‘. And the joy that returns when it does in fact turn out to mean ‘tumble dryer’.
Granted, there was a very odd mark on the ceiling above the shower that I used (mould, I thought) but generally speaking it was all that one would wish. We bagged bunks, unpacked, went off to take showers, and, as our father would say, ‘went and died for an hour or so’.
There were more pilgrims here than at Pontedeume. The trio we’d seen earlier had turned up here, and turned out to be Spanish; apart from them, there was an Italian man in his sixties, and, of course, the three Japanese men.
I looked at my boots to see how far the line of damp had receded (not as far as I’d have liked) and dragged John out to see the churches of Betanzos and their fabulous Romanesque architecture. I liked the houses, too; as in Ferrol and Pontedeume, many of them were magnificent affairs of three or four storeys, with graceful glazed balconies on the upper floors.
After that we set off to look for O Pasotempo, and food.
The CSJ guidebook described O Pasotempo as –
‘a sort of rural Spanish Victorian theme park erected in 1893 by a couple of local men who made their fortune in South America and came home to share the wealth and cultural excitement with their home town’.
So of course we had to look at it.
It was a gloriously eccentric nineteenth century pleasure garden, dilapidated in a way that was just the right side of the boundary between ‘charming’ and ‘public health hazard’, and filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures. Shells set into the walls. A relief map of the Panama Canal. A panel of clocks – the usual London – New York – Paris set-up, except not, because it was made of plaster, and there were about 25 clock faces in total, and the central one said Buenos Aires. Half mermaids. A mandarin duck. A mallard duck with ducklings. (These were real.) Plaster figurines of intrepid explorers on camels. Caves! With fake stalactites! And dragons! We agreed that it was like Blackgang Chine, only considerably weirder. We loved it.
I had mismanaged my blood sugar to the point where there was no question of holding out for food until we got back to the albergue. But the supermarket that we had passed on the way to O Pasatempo had a café. The café provided sugary drinks and snacks. The supermarket provided longer term sustenance. We stocked up for the next couple of days, then walked back to the albergue to cook and eat some of our purchases. ‘Cook’ in this context meant ‘heat up in the microwave’. It made a change from bread and cheese.
Afterwards, we sat in the sitting room upstairs, reading, and talking to an American pilgrim who was doing a little mending. This was more in resignation than in expectation, as she had been waiting for so long to recover for an injury that her visa had run out, and she was going to have to fly home without completing her Camino. But she was still going to do her sewing.
For my part, I wondered morbidly if I was coming down with a cold. But I embraced the power of denial, and went to bed.
Next time: the most wonderful surprise of the whole Camino. And some eggs.