Joe writes: It’s dark and misty outside and I am once again sitting in front of a roaring fire trying to warm my very soul. There are seven other pilgrims recovering on the couches and chairs around the fire and the red clay pitcher of wine sitting on the coffee table majically refills everytime it empties. We’ve just walked 24 kilometers, much more than what we’ve typically been capable of. The last 8 kms of which were through pouring rain, lightening and high winds. The best part of the day was finding out that Elaine’s dad came out of surgery and is doing fine.
We’d separated from Dan and Therese several days ago in Ponferrada. They were behind schedule and needed to catch a bus to make up for lost time. I think the lost time was due to them deciding to stick with us with our limited range due to Elaine’s feet problems. I never cease to be surprised at the sacrifices people are willing to make for each other at the slightest sign of need. We really enjoyed their company and it was sad to see them go.
After spending the night in a comfortable but sterile “highway” hotel on the outskirts of Ponferrada we headed back up into the mountains. We were approaching the western edge of the province of Castilla y Leon and we slowly noticed a change in the people as we walked though the small villages along the way. There was a sullenness to them that we hadn’t seen before. I couldn’t tell if it was just their attitude towards outsiders but it was strange to see. Up until now we pilgrims have been greeted with smiles, “buen Caminos”, and people freely giving us directions and local information without even being asked. Now it was like we didn’t even exist, we were invisible as we walked through the center of these villages. We ended that day in the larger village of Villafranca del Bierzo which is nestled into the base of a mountain with a wide clear river flowing through it’s center. We found a nice hostel and after a shower and arranging for laundry service we headed to the local church for evening mass. It was a Sunday so there was a pretty full congregation in attendance. As we worked our way through the crowd to find a seat we again had that feeling of separateness. The two of us sat at an empty pew that could have held at least six. As the several pews in front of us filled to capacity ours remained our own. Did I mention we’d taken showers? As most of you have probably experienced there is a point in every Christian service where you turn and greet your neighbor with a “peace be with you” or some version of that. The Catholics tend to be a little more reserved than us Lutherans who’ve been known to take 5 minutes going up and down the aisles making the attempt to shake hands with every possible person they can reach. Still, the Catholics usually shake hands with those in the pew in front of and behind their own. During this service in Villafranca the time came to greet each other. As we had a wide isle behind us there was no one to turn to in that direction so we waited for someone in the row in front of us to turn around. It never happened, we were completely ignored. This was the first time that has ever happened to me. At the end of each service that we’ve attended during this pilgrimage there has always been some special message about the Camino de Santiago except for now, in Villafranca. So a word to the wise, for anyone doing the Camino I suggest bypassing this town.
Departing Villafranca the next morning we experienced the steepest assent of any trail so far during this trip. It started out as a steep unmarked narrow driveway that we stared at for several minutes while repeatedly looking down at the trail map in our hands. An Austrailian couple walked up and stared and then decided they were taking the alternate (flat) route along a busy highway. Elaine and I have been sticking to the original Camino instead of taking any of the easier alternative routes so we bit the bullet and headed up. We literally had to concentrate on each individual step as the ascending driveway turned into a narrow track that would be completely impassable in wet or snowy conditions. The trail was on the edge of a cliff that provided a spectacular view of the town, the river and the surrounding hills. We stopped at one point and saw the two pilgrims that had chosen the alternative route. They were standing at an intersection obviously in some type of discussion. They happened to glance way up at the cliffs above them and we waved down to them. It took them a few moments to realize it was us way up there, then they waved back. An hour later, while Elaine and I were resting in a chestnut grove perched on the side of the mountain, the couple who hailed from Australia, came walking past us. They decided to give the mountain a try.
It seemed that the steep ascents and descents of that day were arduous for most other pilgrims as well. At one point, I heard a woman call to her husband about the spectacular view at one of the summits and his only remark was, “para tirarce” which Elaine translated to, “for throwing oneself over” as he haggardly looked over the edge of the peak we had just climbed. Our goal for that day was to make it to the base of the third highest mountain on the Camino. We descended down our current mountain and entered a lush river valley that looked no different than what we might find on the Appalician Trail or the Berkshire Mountains. The fast flowing river was crystal clear, no more than 10 feet deep in the deepest pools and had numerous waterfalls. It was also loaded with trout. As the trail meandered between the river and a roadway I, as I often do, started daydreaming about food.
We had chosen to do the Camino in the fall for several reasons. The tourist seaon is over and kids are back in school, it’s the slowest time for me at work, and the temperatures are much more pleasant. An added benefit that we hadn’t counted on was “harvest time”. It seemed like everything was in season. You could easily do this pilgrimage without buying a single ounce of food. First there are the blackberries. For some reason blackberries love to grow on the side of trails. Next there are the almond trees. They were everywhere on the first half of the Camino, including on the side of the trails. You just take your trekking pole and bang the branches and down comes a shower of ripe almonds. Using a couple rocks you break the outer shell and eat to your hearts delight. Next are the vineyards, here you have to be a little more selective. This is a farmers livelihood and he doesn’t want to be loosing his harvest to several thousand pilgrims descending on his vines like locust. But, there are numerous grape vines that have escaped the vineyard and are growing wild along the trail or as fences in the villages. My theory is if I can reach it without my feet leaving the trail than it’s fair game. That said, there are also the vineyards where the grapes have already been harvested. There is little remaining except half naked vines with the leaves changing from green to red to yellow. Hidden under the leaves are still remaining ripe bunches of grapes that were overlooked by the pickers. I didn’t overlook them. Then there are the apple trees. Once again, a quick wack with the trekking pole and lunch falls on our heads. Lastly, there are the chestnut trees we’ve been walking under for the last week. Not just in groves, they grow wild all through the mountains. I’d say that for the last week there has not been a single time that we were out of site of a chestnut tree short of being in the center of a town. The only problem with chestnuts is that they are bitter if not roasted, but then that’s what fireplaces are for. Now, back to the river.
We followed the river for about 10 km until we reached the mountain village of Herrerias. We’d walked a long ways on some steep trails and roads and we were exhausted. Finding a Casa Rural overlooking the river, we checked in for the night. Our room was on the top floor of the dwelling and had slanted, open beamed ceilings and small windows at floor level. Yes, we were in the attic. It was a converted farmhouse, but it was wonderfully converted. Also, we’ve noticed the positive attitude of the people returning as we’ve gotten closer to the Province of Galicia. The follwing day we’ll be climbing the mountain and entering this fierecly independent province with it’s Celtic roots. We had a wonderful dinner including local trout and slept the sleep of the dead for a good 10 hours.
With renewed energy we headed out in the morning and started our ascent leaving the river valley behind us. We are continuously surprised at the apprearence of little hamlets as we climb up through these mountains and turn a corner in the trail. A dozen or so stone farmhouses will appear out of nowhere with cattle, tractors, barnyards, dogs, sheep, and chickens. As we were leaving one village a small, thin, old women in her 80’s came out of her house with a steaming plate of crepes and a jar of sugar with holes punched in the cap. I handed her a euro, she sprinkled sugar over the crepe and I rolled it up. Now that is commerce in it’s finest form! She and I both walked away with big smiles on our faces. We reached the top of the mountain at O’Cebreiro and began our descent into the heart of Galicia.
Today, we made our first deviation from the original Camino path. There was an alternative route available when leaving Triacastela, our home for the night. It was longer by about 8 km but took us through the town of Samos and one of the oldest and largest monasteries in Europe. This route also bypassed another one of these majestic mountains. We’ve had plenty of mountain views and decided that looking up at the mountain as we walked around it has certain advantages as well. We’d made the decision at the last minute as we were exiting the town. Another Australian couple that we’d met along the way was taking the alternate route to the left as we were making the right towards the mountain. Elaine and I looked up at the mountain, had an amazingly quick little conversation and yelled “wait for us!” at the departing Australians.
Our route once again followed a meandering river and the lushness only increased as we moved further west. Starting out on the side of a multi-laned highway we were at first uncomfortable with the closeness and harshness of the traffic. The trail soon left the highway behind and we found ourselves in the midst of a temperate rain forest. There was water dripping off the branches of trees, multiple waterfalls, ferns, flowers, and mushrooms everywhere. Again, we’d be walking on these narrow trails, turn a corner and a small village would appear. The chestnut trees were huge and were part of the wall of the trails that have eroded down into the earth from the centuries of use. It was like walking through a tropical tunnel of greenery. In this region the geology is slate and it is used for everything; walls, roads, roofs, fences, even fence posts. The paths are lined with stacked slate walls to keep the adjoining farm land from eroding into the path. Every now and then, just to be different, they’ll stack the slate vertically on edge to creat these interesting patterns in the walls. We walked past chestnut trees that were easily 10 feet wide and had completely covered the path with a new crop of chestnuts for the hungry pilgrim. Our trail eventually led to the secluded town of Samos after plenty of twists, turns, climbs and descents. The river Oribio runs right through the center of the town and the monistary sits on it’s banks. It was certainly huge and majestic and it was certainly closed for siesta time.
We sat in a Samos cafe with our Aussie friends, Roy and Darlene, and two women from San Diego we’d met a couple days before, Joy and Audrie. Joy and Audrie were new to the Camino and still had that fresh energy about them. We picked on them about how the Camino hadn’t humbled them yet. They agreed and knew the humbling was coming. They were already starting to feel the wear and tear on their bodies. This is also where we were to receive additional wear and tear on our own bodies.
We departed Samos and headed back into the forest to complete our days journey. Our group quickly separated as we traveled at different rates and we were soon alone in the trees and pastures of the hills. In this area of the Camino the trail markings are few and it is easy to get disoriented along the winding paths. Even so, we managed to stay on track but not before a fierce storm rolled in from the west. The Atlantic Ocean is not all that far away now and this is the time of year when storm fronts come into the mountains with cold rain, winds and lightening. We were already pretty exhausted from the additional distance we’d committed to for this alternative track and it now started to become apparent that the distances stated in the guide book were inaccurate. We were having to walk a lot further than planned. The little villages where we might be able to find shelter had disappeared so we were committed to walking through it. The winds were blowing the chestnuts with their thorny outer shells off the trees by the dozens so in addition to the storm we had to worry about getting nailed in the head or face by these falling pin cushions. We walked for two hours in this mess and were practically crawling when we reached the first village we’d seen since departing Samos four hours earlier. A local pointed us down the road where we might find some lodging. Five minutes later, as we were walking down the side of a busy road I hear someone yell, “Joe!” It was Roy, he had been waiting outside for the last half hour knowing that we would come walking by and knowing just how exhausted we’d be. Today was the most beautiful and awful day of this Camino and it sure feels good to be sitting by a fire surrounded by new friends and writing about it.