Camino 12 – 30 September
By Parson Thru
Portomarin to Palas de Rei
N and I paused by the albergue in the half-light for our morning selfie. We ate breakfast at a café opposite the Iglesia de San Juan, where I poured the last of Stephen’s sachets of hydration salts into my water bottle. Daniel turned up and we chatted for a while as we watched a stream of peregrinos leaving.
Daniel’s feet were giving him problems. He said he’d probably stay in Portomarin another night and maybe look for a bar to play guitar in. We shook hands with him and headed back down to the river to pick up the Camino. You never quite know whether such partings will be final.
Looking at the map, the climb out of Portomarin was pretty stiff to Monte San Antonio, flattening out a little on the approach to historic Gonzar, then rising again to Sierra Ligonde at 720 metres, by which time we would have walked fifteen kilometres. We came upon small delights, like a waymark someone had made from twigs and fir cones and an impromptu spiral sculpture of stones set out in a clearing – small messages left by strangers.
We continued walking through woods of oak and chestnut, sometimes following woodland trails, other times along the edge of the road. Dense, wet fog clung to the trees, chilling us. On the plus side, the trees and bushes were ornamented with heavy spider’s webs, hanging like diamond necklaces along the path.
Along the road, visibility was down to less than fifty metres in places, making walking hazardous. We kept to the edge and hoped that any cars would be aware that pilgrims were strung out in the murk.
Our feet hadn’t yet hardened up. Seven days in, we were still newcomers. Some people who’d been walking at least twenty days more told us they were mainly over the blisters, having suffered badly early on. We felt the routine was beginning to kick in and we felt part of the Maquina del Camino. Yet, every day was a discovery.
There are moments of triumph and wonderful sights along the way, but it’s the people who really lift your heart. Sometimes, it felt like we were walking in heaven. Around us, people whose common language was that of the Camino, but whose histories and interests were infinitely different. It’s a long time since I’ve met so many interesting and varied people. Good people. I felt very comfortable. The world of ego and bull-shit seemed a long way away.
We wove through the human fabric of the Camino, passing and being passed; pausing at refreshment stops, or waving to friends as we walked by. By lunchtime, the fog had cleared and sun was dappling the ground through the canopy. Pretty soon, we were glad of the shade.
We stopped at a café situated at a broad fork in the path and rested in the cool of the trees. It was easy to strike up a conversation. Familiar faces chatted around the yard. As we were getting up to leave, I heard Cyril’s cowbell and turned to see him just pulling up with his trailers. I hung back, but received a tug from N, who wanted to get to Palas de Rei. Cyril spotted us as he eased the straps off his shoulders. He waved and shouted “Hi Kev!” I shouted back and waved. I felt a strong urge to stay and talk. I looked at N. Next time. I’d see him again along the way.
A little further along, we saw Maria, Claudache and Lionel lounging in a field, a short distance from the path. They had a picnic spread out on a blanket. The scene was blissful and somehow so French. We waved and shouted a greeting as we passed. Lionel stood up and waved as the others grinned.
Ever since the painful walk into Sarria, I’d become quite weary. We were both sleep-deprived. I’d been suffering leg-cramps and sore feet – I was paying the price for the money I’d saved on budget shoes. I’d also been carrying a cold for weeks and had developed a hacking cough. N seemed to be in better physical shape, probably from her year in Africa.
When I look at photos of me along that stretch I don’t see a man who was enjoying himself. I see someone who looks ten or twenty years older, struggling to keep going. And, yet, something transcended the physical hardship. I wouldn’t rather have been anywhere else – on balance. Though I'll admit to a few sleepless nights and periods of pain and exhaustion where I could have thrown it all in for a beach.
The shoes I was wearing were almost brand new, though I’d spent the previous two months wearing them in. They felt pretty comfortable when we left for Spain. To keep costs down, I’d bought them from an outdoor chain and managed to get them for half price because they were last season’s stock. But it felt like I was pushing them beyond their endurance after only seven days of serious walking.
We came upon two men resting by the path. One drank water from a bottle, while the other attended to a sore foot. We paused for a while and rested with them. They introduced themselves as Andrés and Javier, from Burgos. At first I mistook them for brothers. They were old friends, having played football together many years ago. They’d joined the Camino from their home city. We somehow managed to communicate all this with no English, just endless patience and enthusiasm.
A little further on, it became necessary to stop. The soreness on the ball of my foot was intense and something was going wrong around my heel. When I pulled my shoes off, both insoles had migrated backwards. My toes were hanging over the front. It can only have been the constant friction of walking – but these walking shoes were allegedly good for three thousand miles. I cursed my parsimony, pushed everything back into place and carried on.
A few kilometres on, I had exactly the same problem. The insoles wouldn’t stay in place. Every two or three kilometres I now had to stop to fix my shoes. I just hoped there was a shop in the next town to buy some replacements.
Two girls we’d met at the Gaucelmo albergue in Rabanal kept making occasional reappearances along the way. On account of their sunshine personalities and their home state, they became known to all as the California Girls. They appeared again in a village as we passed by, me limping heavily. They were so positive and cheerful, it was like a shot in the arm – or the legs maybe – just seeing them.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we emerged from the woods around Alto do Rosario and walked down the hill into Palas de Rei. We walked past a number of albergues along the narrow lane into the town. Another albergue was out of the question after the sleepless night in Portomarin.
As we came down into the centre, we joined what seemed to be a main road into town, gradually coming upon pensions and bars with people sitting outside, drinking and eating. It was tempting to stop and I don’t know why we didn’t. A little further along, we crossed the road and walked into a pension. There was little to distinguish it from any other.
A large, empty restaurant was just inside the door. An old man sat at a table watching television. A lady in what my nan used to call a house-coat stood by the counter. We asked if there were any rooms free. The lady said there were. It was a relief – we’d walked twenty-five kilometres.
The price was ok – thirty euros for the night. We paid up front and had our pilgrim passports stamped, then the lady showed us to our room. It was small, but pretty comfortable with a window looking onto a side-street. Most of all, it was quiet. I reflected with an attack of guilt that the only person snoring would be me. I hoped N would sleep through it. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t anyway.
We dropped our packs and sticks, eased off our shoes – my insoles sticking to my socks – then collapsed onto the twin beds. Bliss. Two hours later, we had the place looking like Widow Twankee’s with clothes drying from any hook, door or window we could find.
We had a quick look at our blisters – sure enough, the insole problem had opened-up another one on my left foot - then we showered and headed out in search of food. In the lane leading down to the plaza was small shop selling a few items of walking gear. An elderly lady served us. She had some insoles in the right size. I fitted them straight in and immediately felt more comfortable.
There were few pilgrims to be seen, apart from the ones sitting outside up on the main road. The plaza was almost empty, which made me think many people had stopped somewhere before Palas de Rei – perhaps at the albergues just outside.
A short walk into the plaza was a bar. As ever, a television played in the corner – football. There was barely anyone in the place save for the woman behind the bar and two resident bar-flies. We took our drinks outside and sat at a table. A few peregrinos drifted past in ones and twos, seemingly looking for food and company. No one came to our little bar. We sipped our beers in the evening sun and watched.
I spotted Kirsten crossing the far side of the plaza with a friend. I called her, but she couldn’t have heard. I was about to shout more loudly but N grabbed my arm and told me not to. Kirsten probably wanted a quiet evening. Chastised, I returned to my beer and people-watching, just in time to see Ziggy come walking by.
Ziggy spoke no English and we very little German. He was returning from a café. The conversation, limited as it was, centred around the day’s walk, feet and general well-being. His plan was to have an early night ready for an early start. The next day’s walk was another long one: thirty kilometres in all.
We said goodnight to Ziggy and decided to head back towards the pension in search of something to eat. We could always eat in the restaurant there if all else failed.
Just off the street where we were staying were two places right next to each other. We randomly picked one. It had a covered internal courtyard. We found a table and ordered something from the peregrino menu – probably pasta. The meal came with a bottle of wine.
The courtyard was intimate, with tables placed close by each other. There were two small groups chatting and leafing through guide-books. They were a mixture of nationalities. It was going to be strange being back in Weston.
Night had fallen by the time we made it back to the pension. We’d been given the key to a side door to avoid having to walk through the restaurant. The television was still playing. Otherwise, it looked pretty quiet. We climbed the stairs to our room, checked on the laundry and collapsed into bed.
I lay for a while and remembered watching grasshoppers jumping ahead of us on a track earlier that day. A thought came back to me.
The progress of the grasshopper is accidental and haphazard – the way mine has been up to now. But things are about to change. Again, I feel this trip has confirmed what I really need in my life is the company of people who are open, kind and caring. Like the majority of those making this journey.
I knew what I had to do on my return to the UK. It was time to begin planning – time to stop following the line of least resistance. Time to disentangle myself and follow my own goal. This is where the grasshopper and I part company.