Camino Day 24 – Acebo to Ponferrada

We get up in Acebo, and Dorcinda is angry. While I’ve slept through most of it, the Galician cyclists have been jerks all night, coming in and out, leaving the door open, lighting up the room with their phones, whispering loudly to each other. We decide to shell out 4 euro for breakfast, based on the promise of coffee, but even that is a mistake. The coffee machine is a keurig type that takes a long time to pour each drink. It stops working just as Dorcinda tries it, and her coffee turns out terrible. She gets back in line to get a new one, but this time it breaks more permanently. We leave, unsatisfied.

We walk with Brenda to Molinaseca, and the road is crowded this morning. We leave several pilgrims in the dust. Most stop to let us pass as we come thundering down the mountain, but a few are truculent and pretend not to notice us, forcing us into a traffic jam behind them. We race past them as soon as the road widens to allow it.

We have a coffee and breakfast in Molinaseca, which seems like a charming place. The first place we see, with a terrace by the river and bridge, looks really nice, but its closed. There’s another place nearby. There’s some confusion about our order – we try to order a single “special breakfast” for 4 euro for Dorcinda, but the waitress first brings a nonspecial breakfast (OJ and toast) and then brings two special breakfasts (eggs and bacon). I get depressed, wondering how I’m going to explain or argue with her, but Dorcinda just brought it back, and I didn’t have to say anything. Brenda eats two breakfasts by the time we leave. We’re the fastest pilgrims on the road but the slowest pilgrims in the cafe.

We walk the rest of the way to Ponferrada, and check into a hotel near the center of town. They put an extra bed in a double, and we stay with Brenda. We shower and write a little, since we’re early and everything is closed for siesta. After 4:30. We go to the castle, which is disappointing. There is a ruin, and new wooden exhibit areas, and little effort to link the two. The audioguide tells me that there were only nine knights when their leader petitioned the pope for recognition of a new knightly order. There used to be a fireplace room below the count’s thinking room, so he could make his important decisions in a comfortably warm room. There’s another book exhibit, which is neat, but, as with the rest of the place, there’s no real information, just, “here’s some copies of old books.” There’s one unusual book printed on black pages, which I’ve never seen before. I ask about it, and the curator has the knowledge almost at the ready. She double checks something, and tells me its the Libro de Horas Negros, 15th century, from Flanders, of Galenzzo Maria Sforza. On Pergamino negro. If you like that one, she says, you should  look for Libro de horas de Durazzo, with purple pages, in another museum in Spain. I tell her I just might, even though it’s definitely outside the scope of this trip.

When we get back to the hotel, we see the not-so-great-Dane sitting outside, and greet him. Our hearts sink. He’s staying at the same hotel as us. Turns out he was with us in Astorga, and he stopped at the same podunk town before the Cruz de Ferro where we’d planned to stop the night before.

We worry about the rain some more, and go into a sporting goods store, but the selection is oddly incomplete (only women’s socks, for example) and very expensive. We go into a different shop, where I find a cheapish long sleeve shirt for the colder weather ahead, and we restock on toothpaste. A lot of interesting-sounding dinner places are closed, so we eat at a place in the square where people are gathered. It sucks. It may be our fourth-worst meal (after Ciruena, San Juan, and the place with the bed bugs). The waitress is a dwarf comedian with a slightly rude sense of humor, she mocks Brenda’s “vale” pronunciation, for example, and says de nada exaggeratedly, loudly, when we thank her for clearing away the first plate. The wine is bad, but not as bad as last night, and Brenda toasts “We are going to conquer the rain tomorrow.”

Camino Day 23 – Astorga to Acebo

We decide to deviate from the book of John in order to stay at Ponferrada, a templar town and one of the last cities before Santiago. There’s supposed to be an impressive castle there, where maybe the Holy Grail is hidden, or maybe just some lost Templar treasure from the last days of the order. Jack Hitt’s book devotes a chapter to the city, too.  But the Brierly book would have us do just 20k to end up in Molinaseca, just before Ponferrada, and then do a 30k day to end up in Villafranca de Bierzo, bypassing Ponferrada in the morning. So we plan to walk an extra 5km, and then do 25k to end in Ponferrada.

At breakfast, while I’m waiting for coffee at the bar, a woman with a quavering old lady voice approaches and asks if I can help. I tense, remembering the extravagantly helpless woman in Ledigos. But this woman turns out to be much more reasonable. She wants bandaids because her backpack straps are chafing. I not only have a lot of bandaids, but I also recommend putting vaseline on, which she is glad to try.

We stop at Rabanal, which is a charming little town, very different from what we’ve been seeing. It’s mountainous, greener, stony houses built up and down a hill. Dorcinda stops in at the hostel where her friend once volunteered. And then we get a pizza for lunch at my request.

On the way out of town, Dorcinda says she regrets stopping for lunch, and then runs far ahead as the road winds up a mountain path. I don’t have time to stay I regret stopping for an extended tour of a hostel I won’t be staying at. What I jerk, I think, as she leaves me far far behind. I get my earbuds in and storm up the mountain, faster than every pilgrim except my sister.

At the top, in a little town beset by flies, we start to look for a hostel. The first one we try, a newer looking building, charges 10 euro and extra for towels and such, and says you can’t bring food or drink in. We don’t like the vibe and leave, and while we’re deciding our next move, we see Brenda coming up the path.

She encourages us to go on, saying she wants to see the Cruz de Ferro in the daylight. It will be daylight at 8am tomorrow, I say. But before long we agree to move on, reassured by Brenda’s promise that its only 1k to the cross and 2k to the next hostel.

We reach the cross and have the place to ourselves for a moment. It doesn’t impress me visually, but I see the pile of stones left by pilgrims and it seems like a reward, however humble, for our work so far. We write some stuff to leave with our stones – mine is some nonsense about it’s been  nice ride, let’s keep it going a little longer. A little more music, a little more loving, a few more tours. I forget exactly, and was spitballing some hippy-dippy stuff to fit the mood.  I learn later that you’re supposed to imbue the stone with things you want to leave behind. Oh well. I didn’t bring a stone, so I borrow one that Dorcinda has carried, on my behalf, since the Pyrenees. I also leave a penny and a guitar pick from NY. Brenda has a special stone, a veined crystal that she picked up in Spain when we was 12 or 13. She is far more devoted to this tradition than I am. Shortly after we leave our stones and take photos, a busload of German tourists trundles up, ruining the moment. Suddently the cross, instead of a reward earned after a long, hard journey, is just a cheap roadside attraction, one that you can drive up to whenever you want, and, now that you stop to think about it, why would you want to?

The next “albergue” is a templar-associated lodge, a tumbledown shack attended by two old weirdos (friendly weirdos, but still). It has no showers, no toilet, no running water. To think, we worried that its 35 beds might fill up. We press on, and the templar guy advises us to go off the Camino for a bit, recommending a shady, more level path. If you walk quietly, you’ll see deer walking with you, he says. He draws us a map, and the German tourists descend once more, impatient at the man’s slow map-drawing while they maneuver to buy knickknacks and get stamps.

The map proves to be less than useful, and we never find the promised route, but the Camino itself offers spectacular views, though little shade. We play our harmonicas a bit on the last stretch towards town. We arrive at our next albergue at 6:30, our latest stop yet.

We join forces with Brenda to fill up a washer and dryer,  usually a luxury, but this time a necessity, given our late arrival time. We eat dinner, and meet an old german woman who is grateful for the fact that we share our nasty table wine with her. We’re happy to be rid of it. It’s a bit of a reunion at the hostel – Brenda’s German friend Tomas is there, as are the Canadians Mary and Brian. We take photos with the sunset.

In our room, there are a bunch of Galician cyclists and they’re pretty loud and annoying.

Camino Day 22 – San Martin to Astorga

We get up at 7 for breakfast, it’s not quite ready. At 7:10 or 7:15, the hospitalero opens up and gets us breakfast, and sits down in a chair near the bar. He immediately dozes off and snores gently. A guy comes in and hesitates to wake him, but he notices him and straightens up, saying “dime” with almost enough confidence to dispel the notion that he’s asleep on the job. I think the guy is delivering mail or something. Moments later, the gentle snoring starts up again.

As we start walking, it’s cold and I remember I should buy a long sleeve shirt or something. I joke that as soon as the sun is higher in the sky I’ll forget that I need it, which happens to be true.

We walk past Hospital de Orbigos, and the bridge. There’s some legend associated with this, jousting or something,  El Cid or Charlemagne, but I can’t recall it offhand.

There is a tour group or something going through, and this bridge is crowded.

We pass and are passed by the couple from our last dinner, they seem to be walking a little slower but stopping as frequently. We don’t really stop to say much more than hi.

We get coffee and sandwiches in …, and then stop again at another oasis, this one more hippyish. We’re grateful that they have healthy food – fruit and juices. We mix orange and carrot juices, eat a plum and a slice of watermelon. It’s self service, donativo, and delicious. We sit in the shade with  an Australian with white hair, who’s just started his walk from Leon. We say what a great place, and he complains “yeah, but there’s no beer here.” Later we laugh. Beer isn’t at all rare on the Camino but free juice and varieties of juice? This was the real treasure.

Getting to Astoria is a bit frustrating. We see the city from a hilltop (and stop to take a picture of a particularly nice rose) and descend. Before long we’re forced to take the stupidest pedestrian bridge I’ve ever seen to get over the railroad tracks. It is long and winding, and goes in three levels of ramps on each side. In the half hour (est.) that it takes us to cross the tracks, not a single train passes by. Then we enter what we think is Astorga, with views of the cathedral in the distance, but is actually a whole separate city. We don’t stop for coffee, (but the lesbians from the night before do) and press on, re-entering the wilderness before climbing back up into Astoria proper. Dorcinda leaves me behind again, and, rather than racing to catch up, I put headphones in and listen to three songs. Ratatat is pretty good walking music. NOW we’re tired.

In Astorga, we realize that what we thought was the Gaudi Hotel is the episcopal palace. The Gaudi Hotel is just a regular building across the street, with VIEWS of the palace. This softens the blow, from last night, of learning that the place is full up and unavailable. We head to the best restaurant in town, according to the reviews, and get lunch. It is a ridiculous place, open more or less from 1pm to 4pm, and really only serves one dish, cocino de magarato. We don’t know what this is, but seemingly every restaurant in Astorga advertises it, so we get that. Dorcinda opens the door a crack and immediately retreats. Maybe we should eat somewhere else. The patrons are fancy looking and we are ashamed of our dirt and sweat. “We’re sorry we’re so dirty ladies and gentlemen, but we didn’t have time to take a bath, we’re pilgrims!” I take the lead and enter the restaurant.

The host seats us right by the door, which allows us to stash our packs in the corner, but also, I think, offers poor advertising for anyone else who peeks into the door. I need not have worried though – soon the place is jam packed, and some of the people entering are regular folks with kids – I hold the door open for a woman struggling with a stroller, and her son follows her crawling through the doorway on hands and knees. He stands up, and his hands are filthy, making us feel less self-conscious. We’re no longer the dirtiest people in the room, thanks to a small boy who probably doesn’t know any better.

Ordering is surprisingly difficult, they talk fast and don’t offer menu or options, but we manage. Essentially, the guy asks, are you here for the thing? And I ask, can we share the thing? It’s priced per person, he says, and includes bread and wine. Vale, I say.

We are given a tub of bread and a bottle of wine. A few moments later, we get a bucket of assorted meat, boiled I guess. There are things in there I definitely would not order – a square of just fat, a joint of some kind with no meat except skin, chunks of pork boiled with the skin and hair still on, and a rubbery strip that I’m pretty sure is intestine. We start with the chorizo, which at least is a familiar kind of bad. We drink a lot of the wine to wash down the meats, and I guilt Dorcinda into eating more than she wants of this stuff. I longingly recall the juice stand, and how happy I was to eat light, fresh, vegetarian food. I shovel another bit of soft fat into my mouth. We eat more than three-quarters of our bucket, and I’m proud of us. We’re pretty full and ready to move on.

The waiter asks us if we want garbanzo beans, and I realize our mistake – this was just the first course. We look around and realize that no one else has eat as much of their meat bucket as we have. There’s a family of three next to us, and they eat barely half of their meat bucket. We eat beans, and then pork noodle soup, and then have dessert – a cream pudding – with digestifs and coffees.   By the end, we’ve polished off our bottle of wine while the family near us leaves about two-thirds left in the bottle. We’re embarrassed for a whole new reason – we’re barbarians, gluttons. I wonder if there’s a willy wonka like contest – whoever eats all the food put in front of them automatically becomes the new heir, the owner of the place. I imagine the wait staff swapping stories about us later – did you see those two pilgrims? They were small, but they must not have eaten all day – they polished off the entire bucket of meat!! No, no, the other will say, I’m pretty sure its because they’re Americans – everyone in that country is a competitive eater – have you seen the hot dog contest at Coney Island on TV? Strange people, those American, he’ll say, wisely shaking his head.

Stuffed to the gills, we waddle over to a nearby hotel. Dorcinda wants to treat herself for her birthday so we pay for a spa treatment. But it’s a repeat of the restaurant to some degree – we have no idea what we’re getting into. We walk to the spa, and say, we’re here for the thing. The woman at the desk says, oh, the thing? Right this way, and hands us a robe. We change into the robe and, unsure, keep our underwear on underneath. After we’re robed up, she explains, it’s basically a warm pool with air jets and showers. There is steam sauna and a dry sauna, heated chairs that I don’t know how to use, a foot washing station for pilgrims, some showers, and a oil shower car wash gauntlet thing that I don’t understand. We have one hour. We try pretty much everything, except the chairs, and some of the in-pool shower things are surprisingly strong, offering a better than expected back and shoulder massage. We dry off, put clothes over our wet underwear, and head out. I use a hair dryer for my underwear, and it works pretty well.

Next we head for a chocolate museum. Astorga used to be a big chocolate making city, at one point having more than 400 chocolate factories  in town. We struggle through a room displaying the tools for making chocolate “a brazo” and “a piedras” and between the machines and skimming descriptions in spanish, come to a very vague understanding of the process. The next room, however, has a video with English subtitles and it all starts to come together. There are also rooms displaying advertisements and packaging, chocolate presses and moulds, and a description of some of the big chocolatier families in Astorga and around Spain. At the end, we get free chocolate and dumb postcards.

Next up, we want to see the palace and the cathedral, but we’re running low on time, so we go with Gaudi.

We rush through but are impressed by the stained glass, the whimsical and functional and elegant that is Gaudi’s calling card. I think I’ve seen most of his buildings by now, but should double check that. In the basement, we see stone remnants of earlier churches – bits of worn statues, broken columns, empty stone sarcophagi. This is like the church’s knicknack drawer, I think. Stuff that serves no purpose, but once was worth something to somebody, so you’re loathe to discard it completely.

At the end of the day, we attempt to head out to a pinchos bar we’d heard of, just in the same square as our hotel, but when we get there, we’re sickened by the thought of stuffing more food or booze into our bodies. Its too bad, the square has a nice lively saturday night atmosphere. We go upstairs and write for a little before bed.

Camino Day 21- Leon to San Martin

We start off pretty slow today, forgetting to set an alarm. Dorcinda comments on how bright it is outside, and I check the clock. It’s 7:30! I jump out of bed.  We get packed and I forget my pole so we go back upstairs. It’s hidden by the curtain and I feel dumb. After an easygoing breakfast, we pass the monastery on the way out of town. Dorcinda wants to stay, she’s at 40 percent and wants convincing. But I’m at 25 percent, and we move on. We walk around a little bit and appreciate what we’re missing.

We meet Alice and her mom again outside of town. They’re traveling with an American from Tampa named Eddy. He said he saw us earlier and tried to catch up with us but couldn’t. Not before noon, buddy, I think. We’re the speedy pilgrims.

We stop for second breakfast and everyone gets OJ except Dorcinda who gets coffee. Alice says she found the special dessert mentioned in our guidebooks for this region, but she’s wrong – she’s just got regular magdalenas, bland dry cupcakes. Still, it is a sweet gesture and we are grateful. Eddy had worked on something in educational software, but he was laid off and has been traveling. We joke about both being retired. He’s  got a little over two weeks for the Camino before some volunteer home building thing in Africa, so he started in Leon. We are shocked to discover that its 12 at the end of second breakfast so we speed ahead and leave our temporary companions behind.

We walk along the roadside for a long time, and for once rue our decision not to take the scenic route. Every now and then the wind blows some foul odor into our faces.

We stop for a moment at Villadangos, which is St. John of Brierly’s recommended stopping point. We get ice cream and powerade and Doritos, just before the store closes at 3, and eat it outside the store. I notice a shirtless kid in the window and we make some snarky comment about protecting ladylike modesty. The shirtless girl, joined by her sister, in a white shirt, notice us and knock on the window. They’re maybe eight or 10 years old. Dorcinda smiled and wave and the shirtless one flips us the bird. I look down and ignore them. They knock and flip us off some more. I hope they’ll knock loud enough that their mother will notice and yell at them.  The shirtless one opens the window and yells at us. Eh! Gillipoyas! We eat our ice cream, slowly, appearing unfazed. Most places we’ve gone, people have been very welcoming of pilgrims. But not Villadangos, I guess.

While we’re sitting, another pilgrim asks us if we’re staying and we say no. He says, unfortunately, he will stay here. He was thinking of exploring the town a little, but this is pretty much it; he’s disappointed. He tells us wistfully about Hospital de Orbigos, 11km away, where he will probably stay tomorrow. They let pilgrims paint there or something, and his friends have told him its one of the best parts of the whole Camino. Dorcinda, I think, is tempted by his description and seems to consider walking 11km more. As for me, I don’t care what some rando’s friends say, 11 km is a long way to walk.

We stop at the next town, about 8km short of the recently-promised land at Orbigos, at San Martin. We get a double room for 20 euro, with two dinners and two breakfasts its 45.

At dinner, they put all four dining pilgrims together, so we chat with a lesbian couple. Sinead from Australia and ? From Estonia. We’re pretty sure we saw them outside of San Juan de Ortega, where we’d wondered if they were mother and daughter – Sinead is much larger woman, and seemed to physically be looking out for her smaller companion. They’ve been together for three years and are about to break up – Sinead is going back home but the other one is staying in Valencia. We don’t ask why they’re splitting now, and how they’re able to stay so close now, knowing that the end is near. They tell us that they took a bus ahead to avoid some unwanted attention from German admirer, a fellow pilgrim. Dorcinda and I discuss the only things we know about Estonia, some composer for her, and cybersecurity for me.

Camino Day 20 – Mansilla to Leon

On the way out of Mansilla, we meet a few familiar faces. First, Alice and her mom, who have trucked on at the same pace as us despite the fact that Alice’s mom was nursing a sore foot the last time we saw them. We talk for a while, but they’re going slowly and we stat to drift ahead.

Just then Anthony (the guy from Sydney, who we met wayyy back on Day 1) greets us and we walk with him a while, grateful for the slightly faster pace. His beard has grown in, and he’s gathered a following of three young pilgrims, walking after him like baby ducks after their momma. The three little pilgrims. The followers drift ahead, while Anthony talks to us. He says he also spent a day in Burgos, where he was surprised by a cousin. While there, he took a bus out of the city to an outdoor shop to buy new sandals, which he said are difficult to find now that the season is changing. We tell him about our awful tourist train experience. He complains about an 18 year old American who stomped and slammed doors, we complain about snoring Italians. Dorcinda thinks he’s grown more judgmental, I’m not so sure.  He doesn’t introduce us to his pack though, and when he leaves us behind to catch up with them, he immediately retakes the lead and appears to be giving orders. We speculate that, as experienced pilgrims ourselves, we could be an unwelcome disruption to the pecking order – three parents is too many for a pilgrim family.

The way into Leon, although only 18 km, is harder than we expected. The scenery is at once dispiriting and fascinating. Don’t get me wrong – it’s ugly as hell. Strip malls, construction sites, industrial zones, highways. But after weeks of walking on country roads, through small towns, in cities built for walking, this is the first stretch of the way where walking is a truly alien activity. This land was shaped for cars. It is valuable as empty space to be filled, for storage and shipping, for its proximity to the city, but is not a place for people, not a place to linger.

Leon, once we get to it, is a great place for walking, with its narrow twisty medieval streets and charming little cafe-lined plazas. Where Burgos was open, grand, and bold, Leon is cozy, ancient, charming.

In Leon, we get a fancy lunch and skip dinner, eating at Becook, which has vague but almost-universally positive reviews. The place settings advise us to BeExperience and BeVanguard. It’s a fusion place, so it’s kind of hard to describe, which accounts for the vague reviews, but it IS good.  We have octopus ceviche, scallops in thai curry sauce (we try to keep two shells, but they don’t let us), and some roast duck. And a dessert called the “Dracula” which is Coca-Cola flavored ice cream, vanilla cream, and some truly vile strawberry candies that are so dry that they stick in your teeth and make your mouth hurt no matter how much liquid or ice cream is in your mouth to counteract it. It comes with a bowl of dry ice underneath, so it smokes attractively and mysteriously.

We meet Alice again at the Cathedral and are impressed by the sight. Our guidebooks weren’t kidding about there being a lot of stained glass windows. Somewhere, I read that there are too many windows, in fact – the stonework is structurally unsound and needs to be repaired far more often than other cathedrals. It’s worth the extra effort, though.  I tear up a little bit at the beauty of the building – one side effect of the Camino is a softening of the emotions, an inclination to sentimentality. And what better place than here?

The audioguide threatens to put me to sleep within seconds of turning it on – this woman’s voice is uniquely boring, and I think I’ve heard her before – maybe at Casa Battlo? I turn it off and wander the cathedral in ignorant bliss.

The cathedral’s museum  has a couple of relics, saints I don’t recognize. They’ve got a lot of statues of St Sebastian, arrowed, and I wonder if he has some local connection.

After the Cathedral, we go to the basilica, and find mass in progress. We sit, then stand, as appropriate. At the end, they invite the pilgrims up for a special prayer and a song, and we decide to do it. The priest points out that there are people who speak all different languages, and asks where people are from. He jokes gently with the spaniards – Valencianos understand Spanish, right? You’re Spanish, even though you’re from Cordoba. We are reunited with Brenda, who stared in rapt attention during the prayer.  She and her German friend Thomas follow us to a rooftop bar for a drink but the place is full up and we don’t have reservations. We decide to stay and have a drink and watch the sunset but Brenda and Thomas go to search out food. We send them to Becook.

Day 17 – Villalcazar de Sirga to Ledigos

I slept horribly. Franco the Italian was quite a snorer – I put my earplugs in and wrapped my pillow all the way around my head, but it barely helped. I also itched quite a bit. And the beds, mine included, were really squeaky.

We breakfasted with the Franco, the Dane, and the Czech women, and headed out, making good time to Carrion de Los Condes. The church here contains a scene of the 100-maiden tribute to the Moors, and the town was supposedly the scene of El Cid’s legendary revenge against the Counts of Carrion, who married, then abused, two of his daughters, stealing their dowries and leaving them tied to a tree. I finally look up El Cid, Mio Cid is literally “My Cid”, a term of endearment used by the narrator and by characters in the work.[2] The word Cid originates from Arabic sidi or sayyid (سيد), an honorific title similar to English Sir (in the medieval, courtly sense). (Wikipedia)

We see Alice again, and the Austrian smoker from last night, and join them for coffee. They leave and are replaced by the Dane and Italian. We are bored with them, and I leave to go to the bathroom – something from yesterday isn’t sitting well in my stomach. Dorcinda is annoyed with the Dane, who assumes that everyone here has traveled from some further town, and we decide to try to leave them behind. It seems impossible to him that someone could start out their day at 8 a.m. There’s nothing outrageously bad about his behavior, but a lot of little annoyances – his assumption that everyone he meets is American (similar to my obviously wrong assumption that everyone is German), his creepy eyes and smile, his annoying voice and accent, his hesitance to drink Spanish tap water, his confidence in his progress despite the fact that he’s just started in Burgos, and just a general boringness about him.  My walking stick has disappeared from the last hostel, the first time that I’d ever left it in the common area, and I buy a new one, heavy and wooden, in Carrion.

After Carrion de los Condes, we walk a desolate 17.5km stretch to the next town, broken up only by an “oasis” a little more than halfway in. We get orange soda there, but they start packing up soon after we get there, closing up shop by 1130. We walk for much of the day with Alice, who we meet just as we leave Carrion de los Condes. After the oasis, my foot starts hurting and I say I can’t walk any faster. They say that they’re okay with taking it slowly, but they quickly leave me far behind. My mind wanders to a more solitary place and I put in my headphones for the first time in more than two weeks. When they finally decide to stop and wait for them, I spurn their pity and keep walking ahead, hitting my stride now because of the music. A bit further on we meet Siming, who slows me down and talks to  me. We chat for a while, the girls catch up, and we walk again as a group. Siming is appropriately outraged at the theft of my walking stick, “Wow, that is jerk!” and I’m amused by his mangling of the word albergue.

We split up at the next town, Alice to reunite with her mother and Siming to walk ahead to the next town. Dorcinda and I get ice cream and a large bottle of water and consider staying here, as planned. But the threat of the Dane and Italian catching up spurs us on, sore feet and all, to the next town. There are only two albergues in this town, and both are just large shared rooms, no privacy available.

The road is hot and hard, and I’ve got painful new blisters when we arrive. We shower and snooze for a few minutes, wash our laundry, and dully browse the internet. This is a fancier new albergue, and we splurge for a double room (40euro) to avoid potential snorers. They have laundry and drying options, which seems luxuries. This is my favorite herbergle yet, I say. I’m too tired to write – maybe it’s because I’ve walked 17 miles on a piece of bread, a chocolate pastry, and a small ice cream. I mope about not getting more likes from Facebook posts. We are petty pilgrims today. We lounge around the bar, fiddling with our phones and not ordering anything, until 7, when we get our pilgrim dinners. It’s the best meal we’ve had for days – Dorcinda gets a pork knuckle? And I get grilled swordfish, and we’re very happy. Baked apple for desert, lentil stew for starter, and a 5 euro bottle of wine.

We’re glad to have a private room, after last night’s snore fest. But we can hear another guest snoring through the walls, and we laugh at the ridiculousness of it. It’s not intrusive, though, and we laugh ourselves to sleep.

Camino Day 19 – Calzada de Coto

We rise early, and get a decent night sleep despite the large room. I didn’t even need earplugs. As I brush my teeth the old frenchman turns off the light before entering the bathroom, thinking that the room is empty, and that he’s turning the light on as he enters. I don’t really have time to object, and he opens the door to find me glaring at him, toothbrush in my mouth. He is apologetic and I shrug it off.

At breakfast, the old french pilgrims jealously guard the good bread, leaving us with just pan cruciente, which is excruciatingly dry no matter how much jam we slather on it. The coffee is drip, and bad. Dorcinda leaves ahead of me, and before I follow her, I say goodbye to the hospitalera. She follows me to the doorway and I wave again. She seems hesitant about something. Dorcinda tells me later that she wanted to hug me – she had said earlier, while I was in the bathroom, that she hugs all the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

We walk 6km? to breakfast and we see two old cyclists. They passed us on the way in and are impressed that we caught up so quickly. We also see one man from our hostel. These are the only pilgrims, the only PEOPLE,  we would see for most of the day, starting a long lonely stretch of 18km between towns. We load up with a relatively luxurious breakfast – coffee, eggs and either chorizo or bacon.

The day, as predicted, is hot. We walk for a long way on paved highway, and wonder where the roman road begins. We see few signs of life, no pilgrims or cyclists, few cars, even. There is a train in the distance.

Eventually we meet the Roman road, and it is hard going. The rocks are big and uneven. Despite the exhortations of the book of John, I do not feel particularly connected with antiquity. I feel connected with the heat of the sun on my neck, the sweat on my back, the pain in my feet. We stop at every shady spot – few and far between – to drink water and stay hydrated, and I nearly finish my bottle, which is something I’m loathe to do. This is as remote and difficult as the 17.5km stretch a few days ago, without the company of Alice to speed the time, and without the break of an oasis to sell us cold drinks half way.

Finally, mercifully, we see Reliegos ahead. In town, we buy smoothies, the first calories since breakfast so many hours and miles ago. It’s wonderful. We debate about whether to move on or to stay for a while and decide to press on. The next stop is Mansilla de las Mulas, and it puts us at 32km for the day.

We stop at the second hostel we see, a pleasant and clean looking place called Gaia. It’s cheap too, just 5 euro each. We settle in, and I see a bed bug. I report it to the hospitalera, who is distressed and apologetic. She kills the bug and sprays mattresses. We spend an hour hemming and hawing and researching bed bugs, but decide to leave and stay at the hotel nearby instead.

In Mansilla, we wander around town for a bit. We find an old alley with a door through the old city walls. Just beyond there’s a little meadow and some trees. Just inside the door, there’s a spent box of Don Simon wine. I haven’t seen the stuff since my Martos days, when I was well acquainted with the cheapest types of alcohol that I could afford with my low-paid part-time teaching work. Not a bad place for a bum to get pissed on boxed wine, I think. We seek out a place to eat. Our guidebook and a shopkeeper who sold us cookies both recommend La Curiosa, but the kitchen there doesn’t open until 9, and that won’t do. We consider the bar next to La Curiosa, which charms us with the sound of a slightly off-key piano, played casually by one of the patrons. The woman at La Curiosa recommended Las Delicias, though, and she doesn’t steer us wrong. We get a decent menu, and I get drunk on the bottle of wine they give us to share. No writing tonight.

Our feet have new or worsening blisters. I decide to lance the blood blister on my foot, and it seems to go pretty well.