When I left the grubby mountain-top hotel on Sunday morning, everything was shrouded in a heavy mist. It was hard to see where we were going. Luckily, the descent from this mountain was relatively easy.
For the previous few days I hadn’t made it to the village I’d planned to, being off by five or six kms every time. This built up to such an extent that I was looking at my plans and it was looking less likely that I could make it to Santiago on time. There are only so many hours a day that you can spend walking. No matter what way I looked at it, I would have to do a 40 km day at some stage. Eep!
The villages of Galicia really are different from what I’ve been used to so far on the Camino. They are prettier than I said in my last post. They are mainly very old, built out of grey stone sometimes with stone roofs too. I’m still absolutely baffled by the cows in villages thing. I live in a little village in County Longford and never once have I seen a local farmer lead their cattle through the middle of the town. In a Galician village, you can have a bar and a church and right in between there’s a milking shed or a farmyard. So much cow dung all over the pretty villages. I suppose they’re used to it, but it’s very foreign to me.
My guidebook tells me that “Galicia’s material poverty has left her with spiritual wealth”. In other words, the writer is glad that the local people are poor because it makes them holier. You might have guessed that I don’t agree with him. Later, he says “This is rural Galicia at her best; green and often wet underfoot with the earthy smell of cow dung.” He used the word BEST. The best thing is the smell of cow dung. Really? Also “wet underfoot”. He enjoys squelching through cow shit. I don’t know. It’s a very useful guidebook and it’s really got me out of some tight spots along the way, but I think the author might actually be insane.
I was feeling determined to go as far as I possibly could. After 6:00 pm, as is now usual, I just kept walking. I had no choice. My flight was only days away. And it wasn’t easy. I had to go up a relatively steep hill, which is never enjoyable after a full day of walking. And then, it had one of “those” downhills. Really steep on shiny rock face that it’s almost impossible to get footing on. This slowed me down a lot. It’s still the aspect of walking that I’m worst at.
It was getting dusky as I walked through little cow-shitty villages on the mountainside. I’m quite scared of dogs. Over the last few weeks I’ve got kind of used to them running up to you, barking and bearing their teeth and jumping, looking evil. I haven’t been bitten yet. But at night time, when there is no one else around in the village and dogs run up to you, barking or growling, it’s even scarier. If one of these dogs tries to savage me, no one will hear me scream. When dogs run up to me, my hand tightens on my walking stick. I don’t really know why. It’s not as if I have the heart to beat any living creature with a stick. I can’t even imagine doing that to Ed Sheeran.
I survived the night-time dogs. I also survived walking on the road after dark while cars whizzed past me at country speeds. I hadn’t passed anywhere to stay in a while. It was after the time when the pilgrim hostels close for the night. Would I have to sleep rough?
Finally, at about 11:00, in a little village called Pintín, I saw a guesthouse. It was all locked up, but I rang the bell. After a few minutes, a middle-aged couple answered the door together. They had their coats on and they told me that they’d been about to leave for the night.
They put me in a room with a big shower. The woman said I wouldn’t fit in the showers in the other rooms, even though this room had a few bags of their personal possessions in it and was clearly not always used for guests. I slept well that night and got up early the next day.
I wasn’t quite at the bottom of the mountain as I started my day’s walk so I had to go further downhill. The incline was so steep that I found myself doing what I’d done in the first week of my Camino and started sitting down and dragging myself down on my bum. It’s really an unpleasant way of travelling.
Because I was now near Sarría, the roads were becoming really packed with pilgrims. Sarría is the last point at which you can start the Camino and still get a certificate. You need to complete 100 kms on foot to Santiago to get one and a lot of people who only have 5 or 6 days, especially Spanish people, start their pilgrimage there.
It was funny to see new pilgrims. They are like me in many ways. There are now far more people still walking after 5:00 pm.(Even though I also saw people stopping for the day and booking into a hostel at 10:45 am. Imagine.) People are much more likely to be sitting down, taking breaks. I came across one young Polish couple, who were occupying three benches. They seemed to have entirely unpacked their rucksacks and had spread everything they owned out. They both had their boots off and were looking at their feet sorrowfully. I started chatting to them. They asked how far I’d come. I told them 600 km. They had come 8 km, and were regretting ever having started.
I also met a German man who us travelling in traditional Bavarian mountain gear. The embroidered leather shorts are comical, as is the Robin Hood style hat, but his backpack was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It was like a laundry basket strapped to his back. At first I thought it was a dog basket and he was taking his pets on the Camino, but you could clearly see that the basket was full of socks and his lunch.
As I was halfway up a hill (it’s been a tough few days of ups and downs) I was catching my breath, when I met a woman from Cork. She told me she was travelling with a group of 11 other Cork people. They had started in Ponferrada and were doing as much as they could in 2 weeks. I’m not in Cork very often, and I miss the Cork accent. There is no word more delightful to hear a Cork person say than “Ponferrada”, with both of the “a” sounds lasting for about 17 seconds each.
I encountered lots more cows yesterday. In one village, a farmer waved me back, telling me not to come forward yet. Two men were yanking a rope and attempting to pull a cow out of a shed. The cow wasn’t being very co-operative. Eventually they got the cow out and then had to load it into a trailer. In order to get the cow to get up into the trailer, all three men started hitting her bum with sticks. After a minute of this spanking, the cow got up into the trailer. Cows are weird.
In my anxiety to make my goal, I kept walking even later than the previous day. I was determined to get to Portomarín. It was pitch black as I approached the town and I had a few near misses with cars flying along the road. There was a sign up offering a choice between a short route of “elevated danger” and another, safer route that was 400 metres longer. I decided to take the safe route. It was so dark and no one was around. I didn’t want to fall or get stranded on the dangerous route.
The path took me into an alleyway between the back of a row of buildings and some shrubby overgrowth. All I had for light was the torch on my iPhone. It was terrifying. Not all of the buildings were occupied – some had windows broken and you could hear all kinds of strange noises both from the deserted houses and from the bushes. There was rubbish everywhere. Sometimes the path was narrow and sometimes you had a choice of paths, but there was no sign to tell you which way to go. The pathway went on for about 10 minutes, but it felt like I was walking there for hours. I was feeling shaken up when I emerged on the other side.
There was a bridge to Portomarín and then, after 15 hours of walking, a huge set of old stone steps to get up to the town. I was dizzy as I made my way up the steps, but finally, I was in the town.
It was 11:45 pm. There was a pilgrim hostel with a busy bar downstairs, so it was still open. I asked at the bar if there were beds, but it was full. There was a hotel next door. I had to wake up the receptionist. He blearily came to the door and told me it was full as well. Once again, I felt as if I’d have to sleep rough. I saw another hostel, and I rang the doorbell. I have always known Spaniards as people who stay up late at night. The exception to this is people who run pilgrim hostels. A grumpy middle-aged man stuck his head out of an upstairs window. He was shirtless and had clearly been in bed. He asked what I wanted and I asked for a bed. He told me I could have one but I had to go straight to bed and I couldn’t have a shower. I agreed.
After a few minutes he came downstairs, fully dressed. His wife was with him – she’d clearly hurriedly got dressed too. He told me it was far too late to be arriving at accommodation. I lied and told him I’d got lost. As he continued to be grumpy while he checked me in, his wife was quietly sweet, clearly embarrassed by her husband’s mood. She asked me where I was from and where I’d walked from while he filled in the registration book.
They took me into a room of about 20 people. They weren’t particularly quiet and they woke everyone. They were nice modern bunk beds and luckily there was a bottom bunk left. The velcro of my sandals has never been so noisy as when I took them off that night. I tried to get undressed and get into bed as quietly as I could.
I lay in bed, far too psyched up from my day’s adventures, especially the terrifying bit in the dark at the end, to sleep. And it was a noisy room. One pilgrim couple had a little baby with them, who cried a few times in the night. (I am surprised at the amount of people who walk the Camino with children.) I got less than two hours’ sleep.
I was grumpy when I got up yesterday. I was tired from lack of sleep, but also from the wear and tear of so much walking. I hadn’t given my ankles enough rest and they were aching from the start of the day. And it was a hot sunny day with lots of uphill. I walked more slowly than I had in ages. After a while, I got started properly and got back into a rhythm. It is easier when you only have a short time left.
At one stage, I came across three young Irish guys, about 20 or 21. They were walking without their shirts on, and only in short shorts. They were also carrying their backpacks in their hands, like briefcases. They must have been working on getting an even tan. I am amazed that anyone on the Camino can care about anything other getting from point A to point B. That’s generally all I can focus on. I can’t focus on tanning.
Yesterday was a painful day. Not only were my ankles acting up, but I got horrible friction burns. Because I’ve been arriving everywhere late, I haven’t washed my clothes in a few days and that certainly doesn’t help with avoiding friction burns between my thighs and in my crotch. My body can’t wait for me to finish. And I can’t wait to smell like a normal member of society again.
I stopped walking at 10:00 last night. I have two days to walk about 60 km. I can do it! But it will mainly be adrenaline and tears. Keep your fingers crossed for me.