Camino Day 26 – Villafranco de Bierzo to O Cebreiro

Again, it rains. But for the first part of the day, its not too bad. We get our coffee right before leaving Villafranca de Bierzo. I admire a series of drawings up on the wall, mostly of pop culture figures like the Joker and Harley Quinn. The owner said a local kid comes in and drinks a coffee while drawing and hangs it up when he leaves.

We pass Pereje, where we’d planned to stay the night before. In the street a pilgrim hands Dorcinda a cafe con leche, she’s accidentally ordered one too many and doesn’t want to return it.

On the road, we sing songs trying to ward off the rain. I Can See Clearly Now, the Rain is Gone.

Later when it rains, we sing songs in defeat. I’m only happy when it rains. Here comes the rain again.

We walk a good 15km before stopping for lunch, and get a coffee and a half sandwich.

The final 12 km is rough, its uphill, it starts raining and blowing cold wind.  I am woefully unprepared for cold, despite being ready for the rain. In O Cebreiro we’re turned away from three charming looking inns, before settling at the albergue. It is horrible. The beds are so close together that I’m practically snuggling next to the woman in the next bed. The showers are cold and there are no doors in them, so I see a few more naked butts than I wanted to. Theres no way to warm up and I was already shivering before the aborted shower.  There are at least 100 beds in this room (we’re beds 50-52, and they’re filling up in consecutive order)

We lay out our sleeping bags and try to warm up in them, and end up lazing around for a couple of hours.

I read a bit about Don Elias Valina Sanpedro, who is buried in O Cebreiro and is a hero to the author of our guidebook. It was Don Elias who spearheaded the revival on interest in the Camino in the 80s, painting the yellow arrows that we are all so familiar with, and devoting the last years of his life to restoring and promoting the Camino trails. It’s too cold and wet to even think about visiting his grave site to pay our respect, though.

We consult John Brierly’s guide religiously, which, for my atheist self, is a double-edged affair. The practical writing in our pilgrim bible is a wonderful guide and reassuring presence as we plan our way forward, one day at a time. But the Book of John is also full of religious advice that inspires a lot of scorn, ridicule, and eye-rolling. Each day contains a “mystical path” which is pure nonsense, and a “personal reflection” that includes a lot of anger and judgment and self-aggrandizement and projection and imagined oneness. He sure cries a lot – six times in 33 entries, by my count. There are a lot of wrinkled people smiling at him, which occasionally sends Saint John into fits of wild delirium. One time, Pious John nearly passes out when he hears some nuns singing. And when he sees a shepherd halfway through, St. John of the Briars writes:

“It was not until I liked my thirst from the pilgrim fountain that I noticed him. He stood 100 meters from me and yet I could see every facet of his wrinkled face. He wore a smile of such unconditional love that I became enraptured by the embrace. Surrounded by his flock of quietly grazing sheep, this shepherd held the focal point of a biblical picture of such sublime proportions and colors, that I was momentarily transported to an overwhelming sense of pure bliss. … While leaning on his crook, he raised his hand slowly to greet and bless me. Tears rolled down my cheeks in a flood of joy. No words passed between us and none are able to convey the sense of total love and acceptance I felt from this stranger who yet seemed so familiar. My heart began to ache with the unfamiliar intensity of this greeting. My hands spontaneously went to my longing heart. Namaste, I whispered. ‘When the God in me greets the God in you, in that, we are One’…”

Later, we head back to one of the inns that turned us away and get tea. The woman there doesn’t know shit about tea, which she candidly admits when someone else asks whats the difference between red and black tea. I have no idea, I never drink tea, she says. She further displays her ignorance when she gives Dorcinda regular black tea instead of the mint infusion she asked for.

We hear people ordering soup and decide it sounds perfect. We get caldo gallego, which is just cabbage, potatoes and white beans, and empanada de atun. The soup is just what we needed. Brenda wants to know the name of the soup, but accidentally asks Como te llama? Mathilde, the old woman answers. We laugh and the two French women next to us laugh as well. They’re a young woman and her grandmother. The younger woman speaks spanish and some english too, and she’s translating for her grandma. I say I’m translating for my sister, and they say its nice to see families traveling together. They settle down to play Uno as we sip our soup in contented silence.  We sip whiskey after the soup, and swallow some raw garlic to ward off the possibility of catching cold.

We admire Mathilde’s poise- she does everything herself, cooking taking orders, adding wood to the fire. She speaks only spanish but speaks it clearly and loudly so she’s easily understood. She moves at an unhurried pace, and it relaxed and efficient, a stark contrast to the twitchy prison warden in Villafranca de bierzo.

I’m dreading the next day, which is supposed to be very cold as well. I’ve only got one long sleeve shirt and one pair of long pants, and both are damp from today.  We’re nervous about today’s experience so we decide to walk only 20km tomorrow and we book a place ahead of time.

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