Camino Day 32 – Arriving in Santiago

We pass the town of Lavacolla and stop for second breakfast. Traditionally, this is where pilgrims would bathe themselves before entering Santiago itself, and some speculate that the town’s name is a bastardized reference to this (lava = wash, culo = ass, or cola = tail, so the town’s name would roughly translate as Asswipe. I am rooting for this interpretation, since Dorcinda and I have already visited a place denigrated as el culo de Espana on our previous trip).

The town actually does smell like butts, but despite that, there’s a large crowd gathering and we have to fight for seating. We sit outside and are surrounded by people who seem very pleased with themselves. A Spanish man does handstands outside. An old Canadian woman, toes painted mint green, takes this as an invitation to show off, and attempts a handstand of her own. She almost manages, but then pouts, “It’s not a competition. I’m in my 60s.” We can’t help but overhear her conversation, since she’s just at the table next door and is a loud talker. She’s a tour guide, and she mocks the idea of pilgrim suffering, which doesn’t endear her to the three of us. She’s got just four people on her tour, and she books everything ahead for them.

We leave Brenda behind today, since she has a plan to walk into Santiago to meet her brother and best friend from the Netherlands and attend mass. She plans to stay at Monte de Gox Dorcinda and I press on ahead, since we’re nearly there, and have no problem sleeping in the city before doing all of the touristy stuff in the morning.

We walk into Santiago, with all the other pilgrims streaming in around us. The first view of the Cathedral, our destination, is a disappointment – the entire church facade is covered in scaffolding. I had read a lot about the Portico de Gloria, the arch above the entryway, and had talked it up to Dorcinda, since it features medieval instruments played by the Elders of the Apocalypse during the day of judgment. For all the heavy import of their task, they seem to be remarkably casual, tuning and chatting, as if preparing for a mundane concert. I thought that the historical instruments would appeal to the music historian in her, but it turns out that the entire Portico has been disassembled and removed for restoration.

We take a quick look around the Cathedral, and walk in the back entrance to hug the golden statue of Saint James, placed above and behind the altar. There is barely any line  (I remember it being very crowded when I visited with Ian back in my teaching days, but I believe that was a Holy Year, and it was during Easter), so we give a quick hug and speed through to see the relics stored below.

We arrive in Santiago just a bit before the 7:30 pm pilgrim’s mass, and I convince Dorcinda to go. For once, she’s more tired than I am, and would rather skip it and go to mass in the morning.

It’s standing room only, and we’re already tired. The mass includes priests, former pilgrims themselves, from all over – including the U.S.A, El Salvador, Slovakia, and elsewhere – but the service is entirely in Spanish, and I apologize to Dorcinda for dragging her here. The only English spoken during the service is one short prayer, and then a translation of the head priest’s reminder that Communion was reserved for Catholics only.

We are amused by the fact that St. James continues to be hugged by a steady stream of pilgrims and tourists throughout the entire service. The statue has a wide-eyed look on his face, as if he’s perpetually being surprised by huggers sneaking up from behind, or perhaps even being throttled by his well-wishers.  We try to get photos or videos of the hugs, but its too far to get a clear shot.

The offering is collected by an old lady with a velvet sack. Since many of the donations are in 1 or 2 euro coins, there is a steady sound of clink, clink, clink of coins, during the offertory hymn of “Holy, Holy Holy.” It is comical to see her toting around an actual sack of loot that I consider the possibility of robbing her and running out of the Church.

The priests invite Catholics to approach and take communion, and we get in line.

“I’m not letting those Catholics deny me the host of Christ!” she says, indignant.

The announcement of communion was accompanied by a little bell that sounded like an old-fashioned call to dinner. I rub my tummy. I am pretty hungry actually.

We are given wafers by the American priest, but no wine.

“No wine?” I say.

“Those Catholics sure are cheap,” Dorcinda says.

“I thought that’s what we were chipping in for!”

Dad would be proud of our irreverence, Dorcinda says. When another group of attendees stands up to join the Communion line, Dorcinda notices.

“When they get up for Communion, let’s steal their seats,” she suggests.

We continue on the topic of money.

“This is not the fanciest church we’ve seen, by far,” Dorcinda complains. “They’re raking in major money, and they didn’t even paint the ceiling.”

“Not a single stained glass window,” I add.

Dorcinda says that Dad might have gone to Communion twice, something he’d been prone to do at times, especially since it was forbidden.

“Not for those nasty crackers,” I say.

“You just called Jesus a nasty cracker!”

I imagine it, ignoring the priest speaking religious Spanish that I can barely understand. If the body of Jesus was actually bread, or crackers. Gingerbread Jesus. “This is my body,” I hear, in the high-pitched cartoon voice of the Gingerbread man from Shrek.

A couple of other people at mass give us odd looks, and we try to suppress our giggling.

And then, at the end of the mass, we are treated to the swinging of the Botafumerio, the massive silver incense burner that is the Cathedral’s signature artifact. We had been warned not to expect it, and were told that it was only used on certain days, or on days when people paid the church to use it. We were either misinformed, or perhaps the collection had been successful enough to warrant it, but either way, it is an unexpected treat.

The censor was originally used to combat the smell (and potential disease) of the pilgrim masses cramming themselves into the cathedral. Nowadays, it’s more of a tourist attraction, but it’s still a hell of a show. The arc goes from left to right for most attendees, and the massive silver plated censor reaches heights of 21 meters and speeds of 68 km/h (Wikipedia). It’s impressive, and after standing in place for a moment, we rush forward for a better view from one of the side chapels. The organist, whose playing has been relatively muted and unadventurous throughout the mass, adds to the sense of the majestic by bursting into a higher volume with a flurry of notes.

Camino Day 29 – Barbadelo to Gonzar

We’re still mad at each other when we stop for breakfast.  Brenda asks how she can help, and I grumpily tell her not to ask me to be positive right now.  Dorcinda cries and says she wants to walk alone. I apologize, as best I can, and try to explain why I was so angry. But we separate for a time.

Dorcinda and I make up over the course of a few hours, and I cry later on. Brenda leaves us alone for a while, walking ahead. I spend most of the day walking alone, trying to take note of all the small things I would not have seen if I were walking and talking.  There are surprisingly few pilgrims on the road, given how many we saw around O Cebreiro. Here are some notes I took along the way:

I sipped water from a leaf in a graveyard gutter

I supped from the shell of a snail

I let my fingers linger on a mossy rock

Trailing through the soft green and wet dew

I saw in a hole in a wall a cylinder of spider web

I wondered if it could catch my breath

It quivered and tried, but my breath went on through

I stepped over the jawbone of a deer

Or perhaps, a cow

Teeth still intact, all in a row, half-buried in the leaves

I saw a cradle of thorns, slung low between two branches

There’s a cross in the woods outside of Portomarin, where we resume walking together. Taking a closer look, Dorcinda knocks down a passport sized photo of a woman. The photo is labeled “Debs. 1982 – 2012.” There are other photos adorning the cross, and we wonder who was first. How common is it for pilgrims to carry the same size photos of their deceased loved ones? How did they know or decide to leave them here, of all the places along the 500 miles we walk?

In the hostel at Gonzar, we meet a woman from Lithuania and I note that we’ve now covered two-thirds of the Baltics. We’ve still got a few days left to meet someone from Latvia to complete the full set. She’s part of a small group that is really booking it to Santiago, walking 40 km days.

Our host offers us home-made wine, which is refreshing enough and remarkably cheap.  The grapes grow right on the hostel itself.

Sleep does not come easily in this hostel, even though its not terribly full.  One man sleeps on some kind of storm blanket in place of a sleeping bag. It’s basically shiny yellow wrapping paper, and it crinkles obscenely with the slightest movement.

Camino Day 28 – Triacastela to Barbadelo

Near the end of the day, we pass Sarria, which is just over 100 km to Santiago. It’s the final starting point for pilgrims who want to get their pilgrimage certified by the church in Santiago, so the road becomes significantly more crowded from here on out. We allow ourselves a few unkind thoughts about these new pilgrims, and congratulate ourselves for having come so much further than they did. But our attitudes quickly change to acceptance in the view of far more vehement expressions of unwelcome.  I guess sometimes the Camino makes you MORE of a judgmental jerk and less open minded.

There’s more graffiti on this stretch of the Camino than I’ve seen before, most of its the same hippy-dippy wannabe spiritual stuff we’ve seen before, but it’s peppered with surprising hostility to the new arrivals. “Hey tourigino! Jesus didn’t start in Sarria!” One graffiti’d way marker declares, with an agreement written right below “Absolutely true!!” and another seeming agreement “Yeah. Fuck pimpins.”  Never mind the fact that, Jesus reportedly died about 1000 years before people started walking this way to honor one of his disciples. One day from Santiago, I’m proud of what Dorcinda and I have done, but I know that many people have walked further, or, through no fault of their own, could only walk a much shorter road.

Before dinner, we try to make an effort to be more social with the other pilgrims in our hostel, which include an older man we met in O Cebreiro and a woman from Toronto who is limping badly. We’re mindful of becoming a little more insular and cliqu-ish than we were at the start of the road, since we’ve been walking so long with Brenda, and seem to have little in common with most of the pilgrims who have just started out. There’s also a younger German man and a man who speaks only French, and the German attempts to translate for him. We talk about where we started, and Brenda is encouraged to hear that many of the other pilgrims have come, like us, from St. Jean, or other places beyond O Cebreiro.

At dinner, Dorcinda and I fight and I go to bed angry.  It’s the dumbest thing really, but it casts a pall over the whole end of the trip. I once again take a chance on some food I don’t know, dessert this time, and get some kind of bland pudding. Dorcinda asks to taste it, and when she does, she bursts out laughing, drawing everyone’s attention. It’s so terrible she says. I say its not that bad, and I mean it – I am happy to take a chance on something new, without judging good or bad right away. Just to experience. That’s part of the whole trip for me. But she offers to give me some of her dessert, saying I can’t possibly keep eating what I ordered. I hate that everyone’s looking at me, that I’m being made an object of ridicule and pity, so I snap at her. Stop talking to me. It’s awkward and does little to relieve the tension of unwanted attention.

Camino Day 27 – O Cebreiro to Triacastela

We return to Mathilde’s bar for breakfast.  It is cold and rainy again, but we must press on.

It’s 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and we’ve now seen three days of rain. Again, we sing to ward off the rain, but Dorcinda and Brenda do most of the singing, including  “The sun will come out, tomorrow,” and “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” All donativo! Dorcinda jokes.

We walk separately for a while, and for once, I race ahead of Dorcinda and Brenda on a downhill route. I’ve got my headphones in and let the music push my pace.

Near Fonfria, about halfway through the day’s itinerary, I stop at a gnarled old tree that has a sign with tourist information. The tree, a chestnut, is 800 years old, making it as old as Santiago’s Cathedral and almost as old as the pilgrimage tradition itself. There’s a bit of information about chestnuts being an important part of Castanyeda or Magosto celebrations for All Saints Day. I wait for Dorcinda and Brenda to catch up, so we can pose for a picture hugging the tree together. Dorcinda and Brenda ask what song was playing when I picked up my pace and took off, but I don’t tell them.

We continue to pass the time by reading poems from the free “world poetry” app we downloaded along the way, and Dorcinda finds some good ones.  What the Hyena Said by Lindsay, Vachel.

We try to revive the dumb riddle game with Brenda, and I come up with a hit: what Spanish food, is a mermaid with no friends? Mer-loser! Brenda is endlessly entertained.

At dinner in Triacastela, I take a chance on Callos a la Gallega as a starter, but it’s gross. It’s fatty greasy stew with random pork bits thrown in. The waiter notices that I barely touch it, and he takes pity on me without any request, bringing me the more wholesome Caldo Gallego as a replacement free of charge.

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.

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.

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.