Camino 8a – 27 September 2014
By Parson Thru
La Faba to O’ Cebreiro
I first started writing these notes up in October 2014. People, places and events and so many conversations were still very fresh in my mind. As I write this now at the end of January 2015, much has faded, but I’m still trying to stick only to what I remember of the pilgrimage. My practice of roughing-out the route ahead, then going back to fill in gaps and tidy up seems to be paying off so far, but there’s a limit to what a man can remember. From here-on-in, I apologise if the story begins to compress a little. Maybe it’s just nature’s editor at work.
Cut to around six a.m. in a very full dormitory in the village of La Faba, Castilla y Leon.
I slept solidly until an alarm sounded in the darkness. It was N’s. Peering around, I could see head-torches picking out rucksacks and an assortment of pilgrim belongings. Gradually, the sound of morning activity filled my awareness. Teeth were being brushed beneath the mezzanine amid the bump and flush of toilets.
I dragged myself out of bed and tried not to wake the American girls behind me. Showered, toileted and packed, we padded over in our socks to find our boots by the door. On the way past, I said good morning to the tall bearded man who I’d seen rearranging himself the afternoon before. He introduced himself as Ziggy – short for Siegfried. We grinned and shook hands, wishing each other Buen Camino.
Outside, a trickle of people headed towards the village under the light of stars. The garden and church looked very different in the darkness. The doors of the albergue were opened to the chill.
We stopped for the morning selfie, then fixed our head-torches and started to walk up past sleeping farms. I mentioned to N how I’d been as quiet as possible so as not to wake the American girls. She looked at me as though I was losing the plot. “The American girls? You’re kidding aren’t you? They left an hour ago.”
I told you. I never heard a thing.
We left La Faba behind and re-joined the Camino route walking up steadily along the track that had defeated me the previous afternoon. The valley into which we had been walking for a day was now a ravine dropping away to our left. We stopped to take in the stars as peregrinos trod quietly past.
After a kilometre we passed through the next village of Laguna de Castilla, where we saw the Italian boys emerging from something that wasn’t much more than a shed. They stood patting themselves to fend off the chill, stamping the ground and smoking cigarettes. They grinned and waved as we called to them from the path.
Too soon, the stars began to fade and the sky lightened from behind us, revealing a landscape of layered peaks with deep, cloud-filled valleys between them. It was just as I’d seen in photos – the images that I’d been carrying in my head for months. It was enchanting and real and we were in the middle of it.
Behind us stood the hills of Castille y Leon and our route so far from Astorga. Ahead, I began to make out the watershed of the valley, beyond which was Galicia. We stopped to take it in. Dawn was unfolding like a rose in the eastern sky. It began to light the clouds whisping above the mountain tops and lying in the valleys. We stood as long as we dared and watched the scene build.
A kilometre on, we passed a carved stone marking the entry point for Galicia. From here, stone markers counted down the half-kilometres to Santiago.
The trail bore around to the right and it came as a surprise for some reason that the head of the valley carried a road. I’d assumed that we were remote from all civilisation. Cars and camper-vans were parked facing the view back to Leon. We crossed the road by a stone monument and joined the flow of pilgrims along a track into the village of O’ Cebreiro.
Cebreiro sits quietly in a huddle of ancient stone as a calling point for pilgrims following the Way of St James. Its church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real, dates from the ninth century. The place is shrouded in mist and rain for most of the year and exists largely due to continuing pilgrimage. Like settlements all along the route, it has benefited from a recent revival in the Camino’s popularity. A friend of mine passed through in 2004 and still carries the spirit of Cebreiro with her. It’s one of those places.
We made it our breakfast stop. Walking sticks and packs by small, deep doorways marked the two cafes. We eased off our packs and walked in. The place was thriving. On the menu were coffee, fruit juice and bocadilla de bacon. There’s something good about the way these places are run. Pride and conspicuous pleasure in being at the heart of something like the Camino.
I spotted Chloe, who we’d got into a slightly drunk conversation on spirituality with in La Faba. She was disappearing down the stairs to the toilets. I shouted her name, but she didn’t appear to hear. Or maybe she did. This would be the last time we’d see her.
I took a walk around the attached souvenir shop and picked up a few postcards. I was determined to send something from O’ Cebreiro to my friend in Madrid – the one who’d been here ten years previously. I bought stamps and asked where the correos was. The assistant (or owner) showed me the other shop across the square, where mail was collected. I wrote a couple of cards over breakfast and we picked up our rucksacks and walked over.
One side of the square is occupied by the church of Santa Maria, whose short domed tower defines the village. In his guide book, Arrondo states that the church was rebuilt in the 11th Century and restored in 1962, the year of my birth. It’s home to the legend of the doubting priest and the peasant, who journeyed from his village through heavy snow to be the sole recipient of the Eucharist. The legend has it that “in full view” the Host turned into “tender meat” and the wine to blood. The story was spread avidly by the Church through the Middle Ages.
Inside the church, a colourful assortment of waterproofs swished around the nave and through pews, cameras and phones capturing everything except the essence of the place. Among this, somehow, people prayed. N asked if I wanted to light a candle, which I often do for the suffering and the dead – just in case. I shook my head.
A monk was seated through a hatch by the door. He was fairly young – in his early forties – with dark hair and beard and dressed in a cream and brown habit. He was busily stamping Pilgrims’ Passports. N took ours and the monk smiled and stamped them. Moments later, what might have been a coach tour formed a queue at the hatch and the monk began charging them a euro per stamp.