Camino 11b – 29 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Sarria to Portomarin – Part 2
We walked on into the afternoon, counting down the half-kilometre markers to Santiago. It could be a dispiriting pastime with more than eighty kilometres still to go. The path undulated through woods, giving way to views of the Galician countryside. We crossed a small river over a stone walk-way that must have borne the footprints of centuries. We stopped for a moment. The Irish lads had gone on. Despite the weariness and discomfort, it felt good to be there.
The electrolytic salts and Ibuprofen seemed to be working and leg-cramps that had crippled me the day before were no more than a dull ache. Ahead of us, though, was a three hundred metre descent over five kilometres to Portomarin, which looked pretty precipitous in places on the map. The long, unbroken descent to Sarria had done for me the day before.
Nothing really helped with the blisters. Our feet were just sore. All we could do was keep going and inspect them if something felt wrong. We’d been warned to watch for numbness. At the end of each day’s walking we changed the dressings and washed our feet, dowsing the blisters in Betadine, but there wasn’t much more you could do.
The scene was becoming more sociable. It wasn’t as though we’d been particularly stand-offish previously, but we seemed to be chatting to people a lot more. Maybe it was just a growing familiarity, or the growing number of pilgrims on this section. It would be interesting to start from St Jean to see if it was just the two of us settling in.
Taking the bus from Ponferrada to Villafranca meant we were a day in front of people we’d left Astorga with, but a few of the faster ones had made up the advantage. One of those was David, who was walking with a German woman called Astrid. They’d been in the hotel opposite Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace on the night we arrived in Astorga. N tells me we met them both in a café in a village somewhere in Castille y Leon, but my memory has failed me.
We came across them again on the path between Sarria and Portomarin. They told us that neither of them had the appetite for staying in noisy albergues and had booked into hotels ahead as far as Santiago. We’d decided to compromise, using both albergues and pensions depending on how exhausted we were and whether the opportunity for an affordable pension came up.
David and Astrid were good, gentle company and, like many, were happy to chat or walk along in silence. I guess that’s what makes a good walking companion. Part of the conversation was always about people – asking whether someone had been seen in the last couple of days and what spirits they’d been in.
Through the afternoon, we bumped into a few more familiar faces and became acquainted with some new ones. Maria, Claudache and Lionel, a lithe trio in their mid-to-late sixties, provided a friendly exception to “Hola!” and “Buen Camino!”, with “Bonjour!” and “Ca va?” allowing us to practice our meagre French in return. We stumbled on Jurgen and Ursula along the way and already it felt like a meeting of old friends.
Through the trees, we began to spot buildings on an adjacent hill. Shortly after, we emerged at the broad gorge across which Portomarin is reached. The historic town was an important centre along the Camino de Santiago, but the rio Mino, which flows through the gorge, was dammed in 1962 to create the Belesar reservoir. The remains of the old town lie submerged along the banks of the river.
Unusually, the water level had fallen to within the riverbank, exposing the ruins as a grey etching of the old town plan. We stared down, looking over the railings of the modern bridge. Piers of earlier bridges protruded from the river. As we zig-zagged, dodging cars to photograph this strange scene first from one side, then the other, Cyril appeared with his trailers and walked across gorge with us.
We stopped on a small junction where a man was washing his car with water from a drinking fountain. It was a relief to stop walking for a while and bask in the afternoon sun. N and Cyril consulted the guide and discussed albergues while I watched the man wash his car. Cyril headed across to a large municipal albergue overlooking the river. We continued up the hill into town.
In the square stands the Templar church of San Juan, moved stone by stone from its original site beside the river. It remains an imposing rectangular redoubt with its large rose-window gazing back to its former home.
We stood for a while trying to get our bearings. This time it was N who was feeling most fatigued and sore. I was being indecisive about accommodation, she was becoming annoyed at my indecision. She sat on a wall by the church while I wandered along adjacent streets in search of a bed for the night.
After a couple of false-starts, I found a small private albergue with a courtyard where we could relax in the sun. The warden was a pretty, dark-haired woman. She pointed out a couple of top bunks in a corner and I paid her ten euros per bunk to stake our claim, then walked back to the plaza.
An hour later, we were showered and lounging in shorts and flip-flops. I could feel the heat of the sun on my skin, but I couldn’t be bothered to move except to point my blisters at its rays. Around us people read or chatted. No one really moved.
Hunger eventually got the better of us and we went back into the dorm to change. I heard a familiar German voice. It was Kirsten, with whom we’d taken the bus from Ponferrada. She and a friend had taken the room next to us in Villafranca’s Hotel San Francisco. Our first conversation had been in the dingy hotel corridor, where she complained conspiratorially to me about the cramped room. It was good to see her again and we shook hands. She was with another German friend she’d been bumping into for almost a month.
Back in the plaza, N and I scanned the tables for a peregrino menu. So far there had been little to choose between them and they’d stood us pretty well. Portomarin was noticeably busier with visitors than most of the places we’d stayed in so far and the cafes and bars were geared up for the trade. We wandered up and down a couple of times, then chose a table at random.
A tall, slim man, wearing a soft peaked cap came sauntering up to us. He was a Canadian called Daniel. We’d met him somewhere on the road, where he told us he was having trouble with his feet. He’d just spent a couple of days laying-over in Sarria, playing guitar in the Italian restaurant on rua Maior in return for food and drink.
David and Astrid had earlier told us about a party that developed there the night before as we ate in the Spanish place next-door. The party centred around a singer-guitarist who had the inebriated peregrinos joining in and raising the roof with standards from Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It sounds like the proprietor didn’t dig his music as much and asked him to move on as the revellers were leaving.
Daniel gave his side of the story as we ate. He grinned as he recollected being shown the door. The peregrino menu wasn’t up to much, but we washed it down with a couple of glasses of wine and wandered into the evening. I needed to stock up with rehydration salts and Ibuprofen. We shook hands with Daniel.
Fortunately, shops keep late hours in Spain and we walked into a small pharmacy. A woman was standing behind the counter wearing a white coat. I took her to be the pharmacist. Using my poor Spanish, we managed to hold a reasonable conversation and I soon had my salts and Ibuprofen. I bought sufficient to repay Stephen if we met the Irish lads out on the road.
That night, once the light was eventually turned out, we settled down to sleep in the dorm. After some shuffling around and zipping of zips, the first snorer started. I had a big, heavily-built Frenchman beneath me. He was a nice, friendly bloke but once he began snoring, the noise was unreal. N and I sat up across from each other. I saw her fit her ear-plugs. No ear-plug is up to the task of keeping that racket out. Pretty soon they were joined by others. One seemed to be coming from close by Kirsten in the far corner.
Someone dragged their mattress into the kitchen and closed the door behind them.
I saw a young bloke opposite get out his iPod and plug it in. I just lay looking at the ceiling. I knew this would be agony for N, who was already heavily sleep-deprived anyway. The Frenchman stopped. That, at least, was something. I twisted around in my sleeping bag and found a comfortable spot.
In a short time I felt him roll over beneath me. Straightaway, the noise started again. I rummaged around in the dark to find my ear-plugs. I switched my head-torch on. They were inside a plastic carrier bag. It was one of those crispy bags that makes a hell of a noise, adding to the disruption caused by the snoring, but I kept going, determined to find them.
In the end, I gave up, rolled onto my back and hoped that tiredness would take me. I saw N roll first onto one side, then the other.
I must have dozed at some stage. It seemed like no time before people were stirring, heading to the bathroom and packing bedding away.
When the light went on, it wasn’t hard to spot the guilty. They were the keen fresh-faced ones, packing with gusto, impatient to hit the road. Around them were the dazed and dishevelled, dropping things on the floor and muttering in low voices. Among the bleary-eyed, in the far corner, were Kirsten and her friend.
“Did you hear all this noise?” she asked. “I think it was the worst night.”
It was pretty awful.
N looked shattered. She suggested we try to get into Palas de Rei early to find a pension. Another albergue was out of the question.
“Yes. I think we also try.” agreed Kirsten.
We brushed our teeth and packed our stuff as quickly as we could. Feet were carefully eased into shoes and we headed out to the still-dark street, leaving the confusion of the dorm behind us.