Camino Day 25 – Ponferrada to Villafranco de Bierzo

We get a relatively early start, and see the Dane (his name is Kennet) again for breakfast. It’s ambiguous about whether we shun him or he shuns us – at breakfast, Brenda sets her bag down, and he sits with it, but after we order from the bar we set ourselves up at another table, without our bags, and he doesn’t join us. Either way I feel a bit relieved and a bit guilty.

It rains for most of the day, and its not too bad. Brenda’s pack protector is a source of great amusement for us. It’s a simple black poncho, that covers both her and her pack. But her pack is so tall that we can’t see her head from behind, and the uniformity of it makes her seem like a monstrous hunchback.

We have coffee and breakfast in a couple of places, and plan to walk a bit beyond Villafranca de Bierzos, to cut down on St. John’s ambitious-sounding 28.6km itinerary up to O Cebreiro. At one of the places, Dorcinda argues with a woman who tries to cut her in line for the bathroom. For a while, Brenda walks alone and Dorcinda and I talk. Later, I walk alone while Dorcinda and Brenda talk. We see Kennet again as we shelter in Villafranca from the rain in a cafe. He looms behind us and says hello, I turn in surprise and turn away, showing him my back while Dorcinda and Brenda exchange a few words.

The rain breaks a little and we venture forth. But it picks up again, and we have a change of heart. Our shoes are soaked through before we reach the end of town. Dorcinda wants to push on, a full 10km more, and Brenda and I are wavering. “I hate this,” Brenda says. “I hate this. Did I mention I hate this?” We pass an albergue, and it’s left to me to cast the tie breaking vote. Brenda looks utterly defeated, and I decide to stay. The first two albergues are full, but the second one suggests we stay at a rehabilitated monastery in the middle of town. We head back in the direction we came.

As we turn back, we see Kennet striding in the opposite direction. A sinister figure in his dark hood and the poncho over his pack making him seem like a dripping hunchback. In fairness, we probably look much the same, though somewhat more colorful in our attire and more miserable in our faces. Where are you going? he asks. I sense both judgment and despair in his voice. Albergue, we say, and he says, oh you’re not going on? We leave him there on the bridge. I laugh a little because he seemed so determined, then so bewildered on seeing us pass. Part of the reason I’d wanted to press on was to put a little distance between us, and now turning back seems like an even better decision. I dance a little as we cross the bridge, and Brenda says, I think it really has gotten to his brain.

At the monastery, the receptionist manages to be incredibly busy and harried and also incredibly inefficient. There is an older Spanish couple already there, complaining about having to share a room. We don’t care. We’re dripping and morose and well accustomed to sharing bedrooms with strangers. The receptionist asks if we want the 8.50 room or the 5 room. We have to ask whats the difference, and she says that the more expensive room has fewer beds. She says four, but when we choose it, she puts us in a room with 5 beds, with the Spanish couple. The receptionist takes our money, but her change is in another room. She takes Brenda’s money, goes away, and comes back with change. She takes the Spanish couple’s money, then goes away, then comes back with change. Then she takes our money, goes away and comes back with change.  She’s frazzled. She tells us to wait in the kitchen, where its allegedly warmer, while she deals, slowly, with the next group that comes in. It’s just as cold in the kitchen, and there’s no where to sit.

The Spanish woman in our room complains loudly about all of their things being wet. Before long, the Spanish couple has transformed our room into a maze, stringing their laundry everywhere, even bringing two chairs in from outside and stringing a makeshift clothesline between them. This doesn’t bother you, does it? the woman says as she places the chairs in front of the bathroom door. She doesn’t ask it, exactly, she just sort of states is as fact before buzzing on to the next thing. We roll our eyes but do not argue with her. She hangs her laundry over the turned-off radiator, which is directly behind Dorcinda’s bed.

Dude! Dorcinda says, guaranteeing that she won’t be understood. Her tone gets through, though, but the woman says again, in Spanish, this won’t bother you, will it? The woman’s other topic of conversation is food. She seeks saying that she’s going to go down and eat soon, and repeats it, until she finally does. When she returns, she asks, in surprise – you haven’t eaten yet? She says something in Spanish quickly to Dorcinda and asks me entendes? Dorcinda, only catching the last bit says No. The woman laughs. No me entiendes! Like its the best joke in the world. She forgets or declines to make herself understood and bustles away. Her husband says little, but he smiles placidly at Brenda and promises that he will snore. She just glares. He makes good on the promise during an after-dinner nap, and we dread spending the rest of the evening with them.

Dorcinda is excited to find a free dryer, but it turns out it actually costs 4 euro. The receptionist corners me on my way downstairs to ask if I’m using the dryer. I say no, it’s someone else, and she tells me to tell them its 4 euro. Then she goes around on a patrol of the rooms, opening our door and sniffing around, before asking “is everything okay?”

I go down to the bar for a quiet place to write. It’s fine for a minute, but a whole classroom of shouting children piles in and does their damnedest to make as much noise as possible. Real fire alarm voices on these kids. Something funny or surprising hppens and they all shout in unison. The roof shakes, and I worry for the structural integrity of this recently-restored monastery building. Not to mention my eardrums.

After a while, we give up and decide to get dinner. But the monastery courtyard is cold, and we’re freezing, and no one is there right away, so we leave. We wander down to a place and get a fairly extravagant 15 euro menu. They also have a 10 euro menu, but its the same boring options as we had last night, and the night before. So we splurge to get ox tail stew and and churrasco. It’s mediocre, disappointing for the price. The dessert is something between milk and cheese, but has no flavor. Its served with a jar of honey, but there are two large flies in the jar. Dorcinda spots them, and me and Brenda exchange looks of despair as we try to decide who will talk to the waiter about it. Dorcinda volunteers, so I teach her a little Spanish. “Hay dos moscas en la miel.” She says this brightly and clearly to the waiter. Thats all the Spanish I know, she says and he laughs. Aprendiendo, poco a poco. It allows him to save face while bringing out new honey.  The dessert is so bad and bland that I eat only enough to make a show of it, the old “no thank you” helping.  I gather half of it in one huge scoop, fill my entire mouth, and swallow it without tasting. It is soft and smooth, so the trick works, and it makes Dorcinda and Brenda laugh.

There are other Americans from the restaurant and we hear the waiter describe them as hermanos peregrinos, and I’m like no, WE’RE the hermanos peregrinos. We say hello, and later they ask advice on dessert. We steer them towards the apple pie, which can’t be any worse than whatever the hell we just ate.

When we leave, our waiter hands Dorcinda the card of an albergue. Yo te recomiendo. I recommend, he says. Okay, Dorcinda says. She throws it in the garbage as soon as we are outside. Outside, we catch a whiff of bad air, and Brenda, who’s been grumpy all day, says “this whole town smells like wet socks.” I see a little girl wandering around behind her mother, and I think, this town can’t be ALL bad. Then her mother says, let’s go, we have to go dancing. It doesn’t quite register at the time, but this, too, is an ill omen.

Almost to our hostel, we hear what sounds like a barbershop quartet singing the U.S. national anthem. Curious, we detour to the main square, and find out that its a recording, played as a band sets up on a huge stage. Our hearts sink again. There’s going to be a loud party in the town square. And our hostel is right next to the town square. We trudge upstairs. The Spanish woman comes back and fusses around complaining that everything is still wet. She goes around the room, touching everything and tsking, esta mojado.  Essa mojado. She’s a regular detective.

Everything that seemed good about this town turns out to be shitty. We are staying in a pretty monastery, but we have to walk through the whole compound to an ugly dormitory with a really loud annoying woman. We escaped the Dane, but we couldn’t escape the rain. There are flies in the honey.

Just as bad, I’ve heard “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by professional dispirit Charlie Puth at least 5 times today. I heard it in the pulperia, on the way to villafranca. I heard it THREE TIMES IN ONE FUCKING BAR in Villafranca. And again at the restaurant where we ate dinner. I heard that dumb J Lo song “Ain’t Your Mama” quite a few times as well. Maybe the rain really is getting to my brain.

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