Camino 4 – 23 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Camino 4 – 23 September 2014
Astorga to Rabanal del Camino
My ongoing cold was making me snore more loudly than usual, filling the night with tension. N’s alarm woke us up in darkness and we quietly showered and pulled our things together into rucksacks.
Downstairs, there was a small bar area serving breakfast from half six, but no sign of life. We sat for a while with another group, but kept ourselves to ourselves. Eventually the waiter appeared and produced coffees. I ate a breakfast cake, sealed individually in cellophane – UHT cake – then we paid the bill and left.
Outside in the glistening plaza, stall-holders were beginning to set up for the day. We stood in the rain-shadow of the hotel, pulled covers over our rucksacks and plunged head-first into our ponchos. We were about to set off when N held me back.
Both tired from lack of sleep, we smiled into the lens of her camera for our first morning selfie. Damp, dark Plaza S. Bartolome formed the backdrop.
The night forgotten, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked up through Plaza Espana where we’d had a re-heated paella the night before. Over in the upper left corner, we picked up our first Camino de Santiago sign and followed it through the narrow streets, past a panaderia baking the morning bread.
The cathedral and Episcopal Palace were away to our right as we followed the road north out of Astorga, pausing once more to photograph ourselves in front of a large Camino sign. Then we crossed the N6 autopista and were heading out on a path towards Rabanal. Daylight was slowly building through the rain and mist. Ahead and behind us pilgrims, singly and in small groups, picked up their stride.
It was becoming properly light as we left Astorga behind. The rain eased and stopped. We chatted together as our feet picked up a rhythm. I could feel that I was out of condition. N, on the other hand was loping along, physically transformed from her year in Malawi, where she’d had to walk everywhere. I began to feel very second class.
I thought back to years before when we used to go hill walking and N trailed behind breathing hard and complaining about the pointlessness of walking up hills. Now, she effortlessly strode ahead and I had to keep asking her to slow down or, worse, just lapsed into gloomy introspection, tagging along behind.
About half-an-hour out, I realised that I’d forgotten to look back and take in the leaving of Astorga – forgotten to photograph it for posterity and Facebook. I’d done exactly the same thing a year before as we walked up and away from the cabin on Mt. Mulanje. We’d spent the night there and met a wonderful character, hostel-keeper Boneface, who commuted up the mountain weekly well into his eighties. It was a scene you just can’t recapture, and I clean forgot to look back. I’d just done the same with Astorga. There’s not much point in turning around and walking back – it’s about the moment.
For the first time, I took in the openness of the Spanish countryside – so different on foot than from a train or bus. It was liberating to be there. I thought about freedom from my job and about the history of the route,which I’d tried to research a little before coming. I thought about the characters of a story that I want to develop and whether I might bump right into them over the next ten or eleven days.
We were walking in the ancient region of Maragateria, home to the Maragata people with their distinct culture and identity. We passed through the first of many stone villages along the route – often not much more than the buildings lining the narrow road.
The guides describe them as Jacobean. At first, I thought the reference was to the Jacobite movement and the Stuart rebellions of seventeenth century Scottish and English history, quickly realising that it was unlikely. Perhaps there's a link that I'm unaware of but, in the context of these Spanish hills, the reference is to Jacob as the Latin name for James the Apostle. The reference is to the pilgrimage route itself.
By lunchtime we were ready for a break and came to one of the many cafes and bars that serve the pilgrim. This one has a certain something about it. It stands in the village of El Ganso at a kink in the road.
Its name is “Bar Mesón Cowboy”. Its door is like the entrance to a bee-hive with peregrinos coming and going or loitering on its step. At first, we couldn’t get in. My feet were becoming sore and someone was blocking the way as he entertained a table of men by the door. I became impatient: “Perdone!” I shouted. It turned out he was the owner. The men at the table were a group of Spanish cyclists.
The place was like a long shed with a bar at the far end. It housed a collection of Camino-related trophies and other objects d’ arts, including an old table-football game and a rake. Behind the counter were flags and hats that people must have left over the years. We ordered cokes. The owner went back to the cyclists. At the side was a patio, busy with people eating.
Leaning against the bar was a wiry, bearded man who was watching the action. He finished his drink and walked over to the group. He introduced himself as Austrian and asked N if she would take his photo with the owner. He handed her his camera with strict instructions about the shot.
N carefully aimed and pressed. He looked at the picture. He wasn’t happy. He gave the camera back to N and tried to grab the proprietor again, but it was too late. The busy man had moved on to something more exciting in the patio. The Austrian put his camera away, deeply unhappy and left. We shrugged.
The cyclists clunked out on their cleats to continue along the trail. We drank our cokes and headed after them, leaving Bar Cowboy for the guide books.
Our calves stretched as we continued out of the village and on through a large wooded area. For the first time as we peeled away from the road we saw twigs and other objects woven into wire fencing to form crude crosses.
It was a steady uphill walk on to our overnight stop.
Rabanal del Camino is a village of great antiquity, but barely supports a population. At its centre are albergues and an ancient church with a small monastery adjacent. The church has the typical local style of open bell-tower and is tiny. It’s said to date back to the Knights Templar.
We arrived at around half past one, walking past a modest camp-site on the right that advertised massage for weary pilgrims. We carried on past another albergue. The albergues are cheap pilgrim accommodation, often municipally run.
We wanted to stay in the Gaucelmo albergue, which is run by the Confraternity of St. James, based in London. The Confraternity had issued our Pilgrim’s Passports, essential for use of the albergues and to obtain a Compostela certificate, should we make it to Santiago.
We thought we were in good time, but there was already a queue when we arrived. The door was locked, with a notice stating it wouldn’t open until 1400. I noticed a few people I’d seen in Astorga and along the route. The rucksacks keeping places in the queue reminded me of Greyhound stations in the US.
Eventually the door opened. The queue formed up and we began to move into the courtyard. An English lady began to count us off. She counted twenty and closed the door behind us. Moments later, there was a knock at the door. It was someone who’d saved a place in the queue but been forgotten. Now we were one over. N and I were almost at the very back. We’d been talking to a girl from South Africa who’d been travelling the world and was now doing the Camino backwards from Santiago to St. Jean. She volunteered to go and find another albergue.
The warden told us that capacity was restricted by two-thirds because of bed-bug infection. We’d read about the bed-bugs before we came out and assumed they were endemic. Apparently there was an albergue in Astorga that was running with them. Someone from there had infected the Gaucelmo the day before and they’d had to fumigate two dorms.
We started filtering through into the reception area to register. It was a long, slow process. The warden gave us an overview of the facilities, rules and regulations. Her husband slowly processed us.
As we were switching off to endure the wait, a lady in her seventies was separated out and escorted back to the door. From what we could make out, she’d had her bag brought forward by a minibus, as many do, but there was a sign on the door stating that pilgrims who have had assistance, such as their baggage carried, are not permitted. The woman argued her case but, in the Gaucelmo, rules are rules. As complete novices, we fell in with the rules. It was still early enough for her to find other accommodation in the village.
We reached the front and were processed in. Boots were left at the entrance and we were shown to the dorm and our bunks. N and I had adjacent upper bunks.
Over in a corner, several people were already sleeping heavily. They occasionally stirred, but were otherwise unconscious and oblivious to the noise of unpacking and conversation around them.
Once we’d settled in and showered, we went out in search of food. The village was quiet other than for pilgrims, who often outnumber residents at night. We found a bar further along the road and drank beers in a courtyard covered with a Perspex roof and lined with ripe vines.
Rain began to clatter on the roof. We were going to move on, but the rain put paid to that. The only food on offer was a menu del dia being served in the restaurant. We walked through to look inside. It looked formal. Hunger took us down the steps and we were waved to a table, covered with a neat cloth.
Across from us was a younger couple, boots off airing their feet and charging their phones. They turned out to be Spanish. Over the other side of the room was a small group of older people, either German or American, I can’t remember.
We looked at the menu. Three courses and a drink for ten euros – some of the dishes were traditional Maragatan food. I ordered pasta soup and a local pork stew. A bottle of wine came with the menu. The stew was perfect. The whole meal was exactly what we needed. We took our time.
Eventually, the Spanish couple left. Rain continued to pour outside. We must have spent more than two hours in there, replenishing ourselves and reading the guide. Tomorrow’s walk was going to be a stiff climb to the highest point on the Camino at 1500 metres.
We spent the evening sitting on the old timber balcony overlooking the courtyard of the albergue. Around us, people busied themselves washing their clothes and hanging them to dry. Someone played a tin whistle inside.
One of the wardens sat by us and introduced himself. He told us that he was on a two week rotation from the Confraternity in London with his wife. We talked about the village and the monastery next door. Normally, many pilgrims attend Vespers in the chapel, but the monks were away on a team-building exercise (honestly). It was hoped that they’d be back in time for Lauds at seven a.m.
Back in the dorm, I noticed the couple we’d first seen on the bus from Leon to Astorga. I stopped to say hello on my way back from the bathroom. They were Moysin and Delmar from the south of Brasil. I’d spotted Moysin’s green and gold baseball cap already. We shook hands and exchanged what words we could. I shuffled back, smiling, in my Ipanema flip-flops.
In the bunk across from me were two American girls. We nodded a greeting just before the light went out around ten and I waved goodnight to N, across the way.
The first snorer started pretty much straight away. A well-spoken woman on the bunk beneath me muttered “Here we go”.