Camino 5 – 24 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca
I’ve never heard such snoring as in the albergue dorm, and I apparently snore pretty badly. I didn’t really sleep. As one ceased, the next started. I saw N sitting up in the gloom at one point. She had her iPod plugged in her ears and turned up to kill the noise. The girl on the upper bunk next to mine also sat bolt-upright and remained there for some time. I’m not sure now whether I slept at all. It gets so bad that you’re past it.
At some point, people started switching on torches and rustling around in rucksacks. Most had showered the night before and now pulled on their clothes for the day.
At six, the light was switched on. It was officially time to wake up. Downstairs, breakfast was being prepared.
Bleary eyed, I swung my legs out of the bunk and felt for the ladder with my feet, feeling like I was about to pull the bunk over with me. I found my flip-flops and went to brush my teeth.
Moysin and Delmar were quietly packing their bedding and we exchanged dazed good mornings.
It was cramped between the bunks and we tried not to step on each other’s stuff as we dressed and packed. A light breakfast was being prepared in the kitchen. I wandered to the outside toilet for my morning ablution, then sat down beside N in the kitchen. Pilgrims sat in a small huddle at the table as the two wardens busied themselves providing coffee and toast. It seemed strange to be waited on, but that was the way they played it.
We heard that the monks were back from their team-building and would be singing Lauds. N and I weren’t sure. We went out to tie on our boots and followed the rest out into the village. The church was right outside and a warm glow was already coming from the door. It was just before seven and still dark.
We drew level with the small entrance and a monk was standing handing out prayer-books. Somehow it felt right to go in. Maybe it was just the history of the place.
The chapel of Santa Maria dates back to the XII Century and is beautiful in a stark, ascetic way. Looking up, large areas of plaster have already fallen from the domed ceiling, exposing stonework. The rest clings miraculously to the masonry. I was careful to position myself away from looser pieces. The chapel is reputed to have been built for the Knights Templar, who gave protection to pilgrims.
In the event, Lauds was beautiful and moving. I tried to follow as much as I could in the book. I used the Mass as a vessel in which to launch the daily prayers I usually offer in the shower for those who might need them.
Lauds concluded with a blessing for pilgrims, following which we filed out into the silvered morning light. The monks stood outside to see us on our way and we thanked them as we left.
N and I took our second morning selfie and followed the others along the path, taking a last look back at the rough stone buildings of Rabanal. Our legs were initially stiff, but gradually warmed up. The rain had stopped the previous evening, but we kept our waterproof rucksack covers on in case.
As the sky lightened, the sun began to climb. Pretty soon, we were in the village of Foncebadon, where we stopped at a tiny café with a small pile of rucksacks outside.
Inside, we could barely fit around the table. We ordered bocadillos de bacon. The bacon was sliced off a joint that the owner carried from the back of the café in his hand. As I watched him slice it on the machine it reminded me of the local grocer, Mr. Watson, who served my mother when I was a kid. It was sliced on the same type of stainless steel machine into thick rashers, which arrived at the table in warm rolls with coffee and orange juice.
We were joined by an older American couple. We slid along to make room and struck up a conversation as they ordered bocadillos. They were having their luggage moved on from stop to stop in a van and had pre-booked hotels. Many pilgrims, including the woman who’d been turned away from the Gaucelmo albergue, do this. Like her, these two were in their seventies and, as they were still making the pilgrimage on foot, had our respect.
We finished our breakfast and squeezed out of the café, saying our goodbyes and shouldering our packs.
We continued along the trail up the steep pass of Irago, skirting oak woods. Along the way we got talking to two Irishmen. N rightly pointed out that one of them looked like my uncle, who’d died a couple of months before. We stopped and chatted with them at occasional viewpoints. One of them pointed out a stone and timber shelter that served as a toilet. Apparently it was disgusting, people having shat haphazardly on the floor behind it. It’s hard to think how it could have been improved, but we gave it a wide berth.
All along the edge of the woods, crosses had been woven into a wire fence using twigs, items of hiking equipment, boot-laces and anything else that came to hand. I casually pushed two twigs across each other on the ground with my foot – adding to the spirit in my own little way.
As we crested a hill, we saw el Cruz de Ferro, or the Iron Cross. The metre-high metal cross, mounted atop a tall telegraph pole-like post, is a highlight for pilgrims. It stands beside a road on the summit of Puerta Irago (1,505m), where it is alleged to have provided travellers with inspiration for centuries.
Cyclists wheeled around in the road in slow arcs or left their bikes on the verge to join walkers and people who’d parked up their motorhomes to take in the cross.
Around its base, a mound of stones was slowly being added to by pilgrims. N gave me a stone she’d brought from the park across from our flat in Weston and I placed it carefully by the post.
A friend, who’d come this way ten years ago, asked me later if I’d found it a bit weird. Freaky. To be honest, I don’t know. It is what it is.
Another group of Irishmen asked N if she’d take their photo on the mound of stones. We took a couple of our own. Among the small crowd, I saw Moysin and Delmar from Brazil. We smiled and chatted for a while in broken Spanish.
We took one more photo, drank some water from our bottles and headed on. Our goal was an albergue on the far side of a village called Molinaseca. First, though, we had to climb to the summit of Punto Alto, at 1515m the highest point on the Camino.
Occasionally cyclists on mountain-bikes came clattering down steep trails behind us with no chance of stopping on the loose gravel. It was all a weary peregrino could do to move to one side in time. The more thoughtful of them shouted a warning as they approached. Where the route afforded it, most cyclists stuck to the metalled road, slogging up the winding hills or speeding down them with knobbly tyres howling. Most exchanged a cheerful “Buen Camino!” as they passed.
The common language on the Camino is Spanish – unsurprisingly. If in doubt, say “Hola!” “Buenas dias!” I picked up “Buendia!” from the villagers.
Greetings from fellow pilgrims would become increasingly important.
Turning a bend in the road onto a small summit, we met an apparition. Four road-cyclists crested the hill, thin as rails in matching white lycra suits. They were young women in tight formation, powering along with blonde hair streaming in pony-tails behind them. They had to be German – they wore bands of colour similar to the German football strip. Their presence on that hill was a surreally Wagnerian mystery.
Although warned to avoid the road for safety, sometimes clambering and slipping on stony tracks was just too much for knees, ankles and sore feet. We walked a section of road with an Austrian man in his seventies whose feet were in a bad way.
He’d walked from St Jean in France. He’d been walking through Leon with a woman whose feet were in a real mess and managed to convince her to detour to the hospital. A doctor examined her and finished up performing minor surgery to cut away the worst of the damaged flesh.
The Austrian asked the doctor to examine his own feet. Removing his socks, flesh fell away and hung in flaps. For flesh, he used the term “meat” turning my stomach and making me dizzy.
The doctor cut away the dead “meat” and gave antibiotics for the infected blisters. After a couple of days’ lay-off, he was now back on the road. The woman had disappeared, though she could be just a day’s walk behind. We listened to his advice to check our feet and not just continue if the pain stopped. Numbness, he told us, is the worst sign of damage.
At some point, we moved back onto the track and left the Austrian walking along the road.
Interesting cactus-like scrubland surrounded us on the hills, giving an exotic feel to the moor. Grasshoppers bounced along the path in front of us and large hairy caterpillars crawled between the scrub. We rested at a table beside a trailer-bar for Nestea and a chat. Further on, musicians played traditional instruments in a clearing, busking for the odd handful of change. The sun beat down through the afternoon.
We made Punto Alto and wondered whether to maybe take the road down the descent or stick to the track, which was loose and difficult. We spoke with a few of the others and elected to use the track.
The way became rocky and steep. My legs were becoming tired and achy – thigh-muscles were tight and pulling. By the time we re-joined the road, I was sweating heavily and wearying fast. Molinaseca was still more than ten kilometres distant.
At a crossroads, we met a silver-haired heavy-set man standing in the road. N was looking for some cover to pee and I thought I’d have a chat to distract him. When I looked closely, I could see he was struggling. Sweat was pouring down his forehead and face. He kept mopping it away out of his eyes.
The sun was high and it was cruelly hot in the hills. He was an American walking alone and had also started out from St Jean. He was a big, solid man with a lot of weight to haul over 800km through mountains.
We spoke for a while and he assured us he was fine. He seemed pretty well equipped. We left him sitting on a rock and continued on our way. I wasn’t really happy leaving him and the thought of it would haunt me for days after. I couldn’t get the image of his struggle out of my head, nor that of him sitting alone up on the hill.
We walked until we reached the road into the village of Acebo. A smattering of pilgrims sat outside an albergue on the left. N asked if I wanted to stop. I didn’t, just wanting to get to Molinaseca. We drank some water and carried on, sweating in the afternoon heat. The overhanging buildings reminded me of Chester or my hometown, York.
The narrow road stretched on and on and I kept myself going with songs – Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” playing end-to-end in my head. My legs ached from the descent and I had to stop a few times to rest them in the shade. The rucksack probably weighed eight or ten kilograms but eventually you don’t feel it. Quietly, though, it takes it out of you. I began to feel that I couldn’t go on to Molinaseca, almost six kilometres further.
Eventually, we made Riego de Ambros, another small village almost deserted were it not for the flow of peregrinos. Halfway through, I saw a stone plinth in the shade of a building. It was a natural seat and I had to stop.
A building immediately opposite had a vaguely familiar look. The lettering beside the door confirmed it was an albergue – it was like a mirage. I rallied the last of my energy to walk over the road. Inside, the place looked good, but was empty apart from a small group of Italians and someone showering upstairs. The old-hands were already making themselves at home.
We sat and waited by reception like well-behaved children, hoping and praying the place wasn’t full. We waited about an hour and a half. More people arrived. The person in the shower turned out to be the Austrian who’d asked N to take his photo in Bar Cowboy. He had a very heavy cold and stomped noisily around the place.
Presently, a car drew up and a young man opened up shop. We were in line behind several others. I was in pessimistic mood, imagining walking on to Molinaseca having already lost the hour and a half. Soon we were at the desk, showing our pilgrim credentials – stamped along the way. I was so relieved to get in. We took off our boots and stowed them in the rack, then found a bunk. It was a great design. The bunks were upstairs, built into wooden cubicles with sliding doors – ideal to reduce the sound of snoring. The building was like large converted barn, with heavy timbers bolted under the roof.
We unpacked our sleeping bags, showered, and crashed in our bunks for an hour or two. More of a doze than a sleep, we rested and enjoyed the quiet. Later, we did our first clothes-wash and hung everything to dry in the courtyard where we sat and read for a while, a million miles from Weston.
It was a good place to reflect on the simplicity of this routine. Shower, eat, sleep, walk. Hard walking, day after day, but the space and tranquillity are a salve for any troubled soul.
Day two confirmed I’d fallen into an unfit state. Seeing fit, resourceful septuagenarians, who press on over hills with aching knees and blistered feet made me think what I might be like in twenty years if I carried on with my lifestyle. It confirmed the need to make some changes.
A fairly secure salary makes change less easy, as does a home and a relationship that works. We tested the latter when N was away for a year and it seems strong. My biggest concern is my 79 year-old mother – widowed now for three years and becoming ever more alone just when she needs people most.
After resting, we wandered out into Riego de Ambros to find a place to eat and walked right into the Americans we’d met over breakfast in Foncebadon. They introduced themselves as Will and Terri. Smiles and warm handshakes exchanged, we were heading off the main street to what seemed to be the only bar. The young man who’d opened up the albergue was serving drinks. It looked like the family had the village pilgrim business sewn-up.
We had our second menu del dia / pilgrim’s menu for ten euros, meaning we had two bottles of pretty decent wine on the table. The evening became a long and ranging conversation, comparing notes and finding a surprising amount of common ground. For just one night, we were old friends. One of those evenings that restore the spirit.
Afterwards we headed off under the stars, dogs barking in the hills. Will and Terri had a pension in the village, we bedded down in our cubicle and slid the door shut. At the opposite end of the albergue, the Austrian coughed into the night. I slipped into my first deep sleep for days.