I didn’t sleep well on Monday night. I was awake late with all the dogs barking and men snoring and my bed was next to the toilet, so I got to hear lots of people having their middle-of-the-night pees. And then, everyone got up at 4:30. Apparently the sunrise at the Cruz de Ferro, which was about 7 km away, is a sight to be seen. I wasn’t bothered about missing out on it. It was hard to sleep while they were all getting up, harder still because one of them left their phone on their bed while they were in the toilet, so we all got to hear their alarm going off for a good seven or eight minutes.
I got up at 7:30. It was just me and two American boys left in the hostel. One of them was completely silent. The other was literally Ned Flanders. Literally. He greeted me by saying, “How are you doing this fine morning, neighbour?” and then he went outside and said “My! It’s chilly dilly out here today!” He really said “chilly dilly”.
Anyway, I had my breakfast, collected my still damp washing from the line, and started walking. It was 5 km up the mountain to the next village. And it was the longest five kilometres of my life. It was fairly steep, but the real problem was how difficult the ground was. You had to walk up a gully of stones and rocks through a forest. I’m sure it was a feature of glaciation that I learned about in Junior Certificate geography, but I don’t remember what its name was. Not only was it difficult to walk on, but because it was so narrow, other walkers couldn’t overtake me, as they usually do because I walk so slowly. I was like a learner driver. Queues of other pilgrims were forming behind me until there would be a wide patch and then the whole conga line would pass me out.
I found it horrendously difficult. It took me five hours to cover that five kilometres. I had lunch and stocked up on water for the next stage.
Another hour uphill and I was at the Cruz de Ferro, or the Iron Cross, where all my neighbours had walked to see the sun rise. I can only imagine what walking up that narrow stony gully in the dark must have been like. The cross itself isn’t very big, but they’ve put it on top of what looks like a telephone pole, so it is very tall. It’s significant because it marks the highest point on the Camino.
Many pilgrims bring a pebble or trinket from their home country and place it in a mound at the foot of the cross and say a prayer. However, I think that sounds like nonsense hocus pocus, so I took a selfie instead.
It was now after 2:00 pm and it was getting very, very hot. I finished the water I had brought with me. My map said there was a village with a pilgrim hostel in 2.5 kms, so I was sure I could fill up there. I hadn’t read the guidebook properly. When I got to the village, I discovered that it was deserted, all the old houses were missing their roofs and their windows. There was indeed a hostel, but it was one of those rare old-school ones with mattresses on the floor and no electricity. There were no supplies to be had there.
The next stage of the walk was pure and utter torture. It was all steep downhill. I’m still tense at the memory of it. I spent five hours inching down the side of a mountain, sometimes on the hard road, sometimes on shiny and slippery rocks, sometimes on insecure pebbles and tree roots. When you’re walking like that, with your feet pointed almost vertically down, like a ballet dancer, your knees take an awful lot pressure. It doesn’t take long at all for it to get exquisitely sore. And you have to think about every step. It would be so easy to fall. No matter how tiring the walk uphill, a steep walk downhill like that is pure murder. You also depend more on your walking stick to balance yourself going downhill, meaning that your hand ends up being just as sore as your legs.
As I walked, I was passing some of the most beautiful views in Europe, across mountains and valleys. Did that make up for the pain? Of course not. I had no water and the route provided absolutely no shade. There wasn’t anywhere to sit down either. And I only saw one other walker between 1:00 pm and 7:30 pm. I don’t know where they all were, but it’s lucky I didn’t fall or get dehydrated, because there wasn’t anyone around to help.
All along the Camino, you see memorials to pilgrims who have died making the journey. Usually you only see one or two a day, but yesterday, there were memorials everywhere. A lethal stage. I particularly understood that when the Camino joined the road and you were walking along a mountain road with no space for pedestrians and hairpin bends and cars flying along in both directions and nothing but a valley falling off beside you. It’s actually amazing that more people haven’t died there.
It was boiling hot and I sweated a lot. I also kept reapplying sunscreen so my sweat was mixed with that. Every single pore in my body was expelling moisture. I was like a giant oozing pimple.
At 7:30, I got to the village of El Acebo. I sat down in a bar and ordered a coke and a big bottle of water. The waitress was kind of horrified when I drank the whole litre and a half of water in more or less one gulp.
I had planned to walk another seven kilometres that day. After rehydrating, I tried to stand up and couldn’t. Two of the other customers in the bar had to help me to stand up. Neither my knees nor my ankles were working properly. There was no way I could go on. I got into a hostel and slept the best sleep of my life.
This morning was hot from the very start of the day. Also, because I hadn’t got as far as I had wanted to yesterday, I still had to climb downhill for a few more hours.
Here the steep downhill parts were almost all on shiny, slippery rock face that were really hard to walk on. I have no idea how anyone does the Camino in winter with frost and ice on the mountains. On the most difficult part, a saviour came along. The French-Canadian girl from the day before yesterday saw me struggling and she literally held my hand as I manoeuvred myself down.
The two of us walked together for a while and chatted. She seems to have hooked up with a hunky Hungarian pilgrim who she met a few days ago. The Camino is a total hotbed of hetero hook-ups. It really is like Irish College in the Gaeltacht. I’ve met a Latvian woman who’s got together with a Dutch man on the Camino, an Irish woman who’s got with an English man and a Spanish man who’s got with an Italian woman.
I think my Canadian pilgrim-friend is mystified by me. She started telling me about a castle she was going to visit and I told her I had to keep my energy for walking and I couldn’t do touristy things. She is amazed that I walk from 8:00 to 8:00 every day. How can I relax? Of course, the answer is that I can’t. If I was like everyone else and arriving at my hostel at 2:00 pm, I could avail of the massage services everywhere along the Camino, I could have a mid-afternoon nap, I could do my laundry. As it is, I sometimes barely have time to have a shower before lights out. She suggested that I could just wash my clothes in the bathroom sink. I didn’t explain to her that when your underwear is caked in a mixture of dried blood, talcum powder and Sudocreme that you really want a machine wash. She was also appalled that I wasn’t having dinner every evening. She’s taking magnesium and various other supplements to get her through the day. I think I also shocked her when I said I’d be leaving my walking stick in Spain as I hadn’t booked any luggage with my flight and I wouldn’t be allowed to bring it into the cabin. “But won’t you want to keep it as a souvenir?” she asked. A souvenir? There’s no way I’ll forget this trip.
As I walk along and people overtake me, they often have the same reaction to me. The sight of me, red and sweaty and enormous, makes them laugh. I remember getting the same reaction from other people when I was going to boxing classes in Trinity. I’ve got used to it now, but it did annoy me at first. Americans and Canadians are about the only nationalities who never laugh at the sight of me. I really need to get moving on my plans to end up in Vegas.
The town at the foot of the mountain is an affluent and beautiful town called Molinaseca. As I entered the town, a red hot panting sweaty mess, I was confronted with the most beautiful sight. Every person in the town, men, women and children, were in their swimsuits, jumping in and out of the river. I stopped for lunch and luxuriated in the raw semi-naked Spanish masculinity all around me. All my favourite parts on display – hairy armpits, perfect nipples and treasure trails of hair under their belly buttons. I lunched for longer than was strictly necessary.
The heat made the walk into Ponferrada harder than I expected. Ponferrada was my destination for the afternoon. I’ve now walked 500 km. Only 208 to go. Because I didn’t do the distance I’d planned yesterday, I’m going to have to do at least one super long day before I finish. It’s still far from certain that I’ll actually make it. But I’ll try my damnedest.
When I opened my bag, I discovered that I’ve lost one t-shirt. I think it might have fallen out somewhere up the mountain. When laundry is a challenge anyway, one less t-shirt isn’t great news, but I guess it’ll make my backpack lighter. The day after tomorrow is famously the most strenuous uphill day of the whole Camino, so a lighter load might be a blessing.
Ireland won a match in the European Football Championship tonight. As I go to sleep, I can hear Irish fans celebrating on the main road outside my window in Ponferrada. For some reason, one of the fans is just repeating Pope John Paul’s line from his youth mass in Galway in 1979. That’s right. There’s some young Irish man in a small city in northern Spain, roaring “Young people of Ireland, I love you!” in a bad Polish accent at the top of his voice.