Chapter 6: June 15, 2004
Well here I am in Villafranca, more in the less in the middle of Spain on the edge of Galicia. We are working our way into the Spanish part of the Camino. It has been quite different from the French portion.
Before starting our Spanish walk to finish the Camino, we stayed the night in Leon. It was a threatening sky when we got into the city, and we were looking for a pensione to spend a restful night before our walk started. Turned out that was a little difficult. The town was crawling with tourists and pilgrims, and we wandered around, looking and being sent hither and thither in search of the pensione. Lucky for Elena's Spanish! Some time into our search, she asked an older local gentleman out for a stroll. She mentioned we were from Canada and were looking for a pensione. He stopped dead in his tracks. CANADA? He said. YOU COME FROM CANADA? Turned out he had lived and worked in Hamilton for many years, and was now retired. He was pleased as punch to try out his English, and led us around until we found a pensione, on the Plaza Mayor, a large square covered in marble.
Our room was the 'noisy' one, looking out on the square. Peter and Diane had a room a little toward the back of the apartment. When it was bedtime, Elena put in her earplugs, all 5 pairs, and slept soundly. The sound on the square started off as a roar, a human waterfall of noise, as all the restaurants on the plaza were serving dinner and people were enjoying their Friday night. I slept because of the sheer roar of the noise. Later on I woke up. It was 2:30 AM. Respectable patrons were starting to go home, leaving the drunken youth of Leon to sing loutish songs, scream at the top of their lungs, throw bottles against the wall, and engage in teenage testosterone and mating rituals. They did this until 5:15 AM. It was like New Years Eve. Except I was not at the party and I had to get up at 5:30 at the morning! So I dozed for 15 minutes before starting out on our day of walking. I talked to an Irishman a few days later and he had his own story of the strange confluence of daytime and nighttime schedules. He had been leaving a town at 6am. He found himself walking up a street where there was a nightclub still in full swing. Somebody outside the club handed him a beer and dragged him inside. Being Irish, of course he had the beer, and then someone gave him another for the road. The club patrons slapped him on the back, wished him “Buen Camino!” and got back to finishing their party. He started his walking day on the Camino.
Apart from the sleep issues, the Spanish walking part started off quite difficult. We were walking out of Leon, a rather largish city, and it really took forever to get our of the urban sprawl. Urban sprawl! That was not ever a part of the French Chemin. Here, walking out of Leon, we were leaving the Meseta, the long flat middle part of the Camino. Most of the time, the path led along straight roads with a lot of traffic, the hot Spanish sun, trucks and busses roaring by.... it was a little like walking out of Burlington, or Burnaby... lots of concrete, desolation, and not a hint of the beautiful countryside we had left behind. So we grasped at little things to give us a lift. At one point, we saw a long line of ants crawling along, each carrying a grain of wheat that looked for all the world like a little Coquille St. Jacques. The ant Camino!! Then we started seeing the storks. Turns out this part of the world is home to an extraordinary number of storks, which like to nest on bell towers and hydro towers, and are not particularly shy about doing their thing.... flying in and out, throwing their necks back, and clacking their bills to say hello. The first time we saw them was exciting... so were all the other times, actually!
The straight flat bit went on for a few days. We were getting quite disheartened about the Spanish Camino, because we were used to the pristine French countryside, and this was definitely not it. We just wanted to get our day's walk over. After the first day out of Leon, we ended up in St Martin del Camino. We took a look into the dormitory. 140 beds in one room. Not only double bunks. Triple bunks! It was a veritable sleep factory. It looked like cell block #9! Scary! We opted for a more gentle sleeping arrangement in a house attached to the refugio.
The next day - more straight roads, more heat, more highway, more crowds of pilgrims on foot and on bicycle. We ended up in the absolutely charming town of Astorga. On the hill overlooking Astorga, we talked to some German chaps, who mentioned that they had had to help an ailing Dutch pilgrim who had collapsed and needed to be taken to hospital. On a hunch I asked his name. Gert, they said, from Utrecht. Well, I'll be darned. We had met Gert on our 4th day of walking back in Livignac (living muck) in France. We had had supper together... Gert was in much better shape than us, and liked to walk far every day... So of all the coincidences in the world, there was Gert on the road, sick. We had missed him because we had taken an alternate route for a few km.
In the refugio in Astorga, they actually had salt-water footbaths and all sorts of other cool amenities. The cathedral was right around the corner. I was sure looking forward to playing, but first - lunch. We were just ordering food when Gert walked in. He was staying at the hotel, having survived his hospital experience. He was in good spirits and happy to see us. Elena took him in hand, and fixed him up at the local pharmacy with electrolytes, etc. She also ended up looking after another Dutch couple whom she took to the hospital for treatment. You can take the nurse out of the hospital, but.....!
When the cathedral opened, we went there to play music. I set up my tape machine, and began playing. I played 2 phrases, about a total of 33 seconds, when the church police came and busted me. HOW FRUSTRATING. Elena talked to then, and they said, "Well, playing is not allowed. There have been a lot of things stolen in the church lately!" All by tall fiddle players, no doubt. This has been one of my little lessons on the Camino. How much it actually means to me to play music. How important it really is. At home, I can play any time, but when I can't it bottles up inside me and I become very sad... it is a deep hunger that needs to be fed.
After Astorga, the way became much more beautiful. We started going up into the foothills of another Sierra range, and were surrounded by broom, gorse, lavender, heather, wild mountain thyme, oregano, poppies, and all sorts of beautiful shrubs. The smell was astounding. And the scenery got quite spectacular. We found a small shop in a mountain village where they sold Mars bars and knee braces at the same counter. These folks were definitely prepared for pilgrims! We ended up in a town called Foncebandon. Back in the middle ages, it had been an important pilgrim stop, with a hospital and a population of 5,000. But in modern times, or at least until a couple of years ago, it had two inhabitants. Now it is building up again with ex-pilgrims and people wanting to cash in on the Camino. We were too late to get a place in the refugio, but they do not turn anybody away, so we were told we could sleep in the church on mattresses. A church which was open. I locked myself in there just after lunch during siesta time, and played my heart out. AHHHHH. Que Bueno! A little later I played for some fellow pilgrims. The playing here, when I can do it, will be more about sharing with other pilgrims, and less about me doing my solo solitary thing. And that is as it should be.
Good sleep in the church. We started out at the crack of dawn, and after two km of a gorgeous sunrise, reached a cross at the high part of the mountain we were crossing. The tradition there is to carry a stone from home, some little rock from a special person, or special prayer, and to throw it behind yourself at the cross. Peter had told my mother about it, and she had sent him her little stone, which turned out to be a part of our old farmhouse. Our friend Tasha had also sent him a stone. Peter and I stood side by side at the top of the heap, and after a very moving prayer by Peter, and a bit of Peter’s writing read by Diane, we threw the stones. It was a key moment of the trip. The sun was just coming up over the mountain and we were standing there on top of the world, connected to those we love, and those that had come there in the past.
The Camino now is turning into a sea of people moving toward Santiago. It is developing a human intensity that I never imagined. I am interviewing a lot of people about their stories and perspectives about the Camino. Everybody has a unique tale, and they all ring true with what I am experiencing. Santiago is like a huge electromagnet, drawing us in. I can only imagine the intensity in about a weeks time, when we are within hailing distance.
Just a quick food story to finish up. We had walked into a town called Molinaseca, and had sat down for a quick coffee and break. The bar owner served us up a plate of local delicacy. It was a rather strange looking food. Something like squid and pork mixed – a suspiciously high Goodyear factor, and it tasted a little like burnt rubber. Elena finally asked what it was, after we had exercised our jaws on this resistant mass. "Pigs ears - local specialty of the house. They make them really good here.” You learn something new every day. So, if anybody ever offers you pigs ears... RUN. Just turn around and run!
THE PEPPERS OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
It is surprising what you will find on a can in Spain. In the most nondescript supermarket, we found a row of deliciously gaudy icons to rococo Catholic imagery; jars of hot paprika names The Peppers of the Immaculate Conception. The strange food we actually became very fond of in Spain was octopus – boiled, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt and paprika. That’s it. And served with fresh bread. We ate it every day in Galicia, it was just so good. They served it to you on a round wooden board. It is tender and sweet, and covered in weird purple suckers and curling tentacles – yum!
Tomorrow, another mountain before the green hills of Galicia. Now we are only about 190 km away from our destination. The excitement is rising. And our feet are just never as sore as they were in the beginning. I guess you do get toughened up