Day 33, Xunqueira to Orense. All Saints Day

November 1st, 22km

Letizia and I were so excited about the thermal baths in Orense we were chanting it as a mantra as we left in the rain this morning. But now that we’re here and warm and dry and clean and tired it’s all a bit much. They’re not in walking distance and when there’s only a few hours at most every afternoon for doing everything one might like or need to do, anything above and beyond really does take a big effort.

It’s been scattered showers today, never pouring and never giving sunshine for long enough to take off the raincoat. We four had a lovely morning coffee a few kms into the walk and somehow ending up singing James Taylor and telling stories of the best concerts we’d seen. These sweet and improbable moments of closeness in the funniest places make the long and uncomfortable bits worth it ten-fold. After this stop que had what felt like a bit of a slog on secondary roads into Orense which is quite a big city.

I was about to write ‘it was unremarkable’ then I thought: is that right? What did we come across? Well, I ate six delicious figs from two trees, cool and rainwashed and purple and sweet. And we passed through the industrial area of Orense which was kind of fascinating. There was a quadruple chimney belching smoke or steam in a strangely beautiful way, and the debris of the city: packing tape flying around and collections of cigarette butts where the workers obviously gather for their break; skips full of industrial offcuts and large rubbish, grime in every corner… as well as the natural debris of autumn: dead poplar leaves on the ground, dry stalks, fresh green weeds. Every surface is concrete or asphalt. It’s fully hideous. I don’t know how else to put it. But the Camino has to enter the city and can’t leap over its grotty outskirts. And I think it’s important to see these places too, otherwise it would be just another kitsch tourist trail.

Then there was sweet Seix Alba, an old pueblo (now) just out of the outer edge of Orense, with narrow cobbled streets and overhanging balconies. L’s leg hurts and my feet are sopping wet from holes in both boots where the glue has unstuck, booo! But what’s that? A sign for an artisanal bakery with a special note that pilgrims must come and try the empanaditas. Do we need further encouragement? I think not! The lovely lady in there has sold out of hot and savory, but the cabinet has pains au chocolat and an escargot as big as a dinner plate, magdalenas and palmitas dipped in chocolate. We can’t go past the pains au chocolat and they cost 85¢ each and are warm and golden and chewy and huge and have a massive lump of chocolate in the middle. So we stand in the warm shop, two very happy, wet, sore peregrinas.

The albergue is up a very very long street and is in an old convent surrounded by a garden of rosemary and thyme, just a stone’s throw from the cathedral. The showers are hot and hard, the hospitalero is a bit leery, but who cares? The beds are clean and Orense is ripe for exploring! (Actually, for me this more looks like bar hopping while I write journal and blog posts in between coffees and wine. Happy goose!)

For dinner we choose a hole in the wall restaurant called Casa do Pulpo (the octopus house) which turns out to serve the best tapas ever and Galician cider. Thickly cut smoked salmon on brown bread, deep fried calamari in little soft bap rolls, bitey melty goats cheese with anchovies and gherkins. And you just keep going back to the counter and pointing to the next one you’d like.

It’s just four more days walking to Santiago, and then another three to Finisterre, the edge of the world. But I’m not thinking about that, not one bit.

Love, Wildgoose

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Day 32: Laza to Xunqueira … all hallows e’en

October 31, 38km (and didn’t we know it!)

The day begin with a steep climb, the steepest and longest yet. It was a wonderful strong ascent, cold and sweaty in dense fog with none of the ‘stunning views’ the guides promised, but a good feeling running all the way through and hurrah! My leg pain-free for the first time since ages, before Salamanca. What a relief that I haven’t been grinding an injury further into the tender obeying flesh. Michael and I kept pace with each other and were the first to reach the summit and the little pueblo of Albergería where the famous and wonderful Rincon de Peregrinos, or ‘Pilgrim’s Corner’ is to be found. As we approached the door and began the rigmarole of removing rain gear and packs an early version of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ starts playing loudly. The first door leads to a kind of anti chamber with its own chiminea and has a door to the toilets with a danger sign common around here, ‘Caution, contents under high pressure.’ *grin* I can tell I’m going to like it here.

Walking into the main room, you are struck by a kind of awe, a humorous, playful, ridiculous, moving sight of scallop shells each bearing pilgrim’s name nailed to every wall, pillar and post and all over the ceiling. Every pilgrim who passes has been adding to the collection since 2004 and the wonderful Luis is presiding over it all with a genuinely warm if slightly bemused smile, as if even he can’t believe how it all turned out. As I walk up to the bar and greet him he says “eres la Australiana?” – are you the Australian (girl)? And I think my mouth dropped open. Because every single person on this whole Camino who decides to show friendship by calling out what nationality they think I am has said “Alemana? Deutsch?” And I’m like, noooo, Australiana, and then we move onto kangaroo / Crocodile Dundee jokes and then they tell me about their child / niece / second cousin twice removed who lives in Sydney and that’s that done. So when this sweet guy looks at me and asks me if I’m the Australian, a part of me is like, oh hello! Yes! Someone ‘recognises’ me, somehow. It turns out that our beloved Philippe (shepherd’s crook, black beret, Lutizia-baptising, 3km an hour singing pilgrim, manzanilla con anis Philippe) has passed just two days earlier and has left a note for Letizia and I. Oh blessed pilgrim transmission in a tiny mountain pueblo in the strange wonderful Rincon de Peregrinos. The sacred note is handed over and is full of greetings and wishes and a plan to meet in Santiago in a few days time. Oh joy!

Michael orders a bottle of wine for we four which we enjoy with cheese and jamon and stale bread and it’s all perfect. Luis shows me the shell of another Aussie, Tony Kevin who wrote a wonderful book about walking the Vía de la Plata, and he seems to know where the shells of this and that person are. We’re stamping our credenciales and taking photos and huddling around the chiminea as sweaty damp clothes turn cold.

* * *

The next 8km are downhill with lovely views over Vilar_ and time for another coffee and a bocadillo, and still 15km to go to Xunqueira (pronounced Shoon-kay-ira). It is tiring agricultural Camino interspersed with magic Oak forest Camino and the fairies have been here Camino. We see a dog sitting on the roof of a house, a ginger cat on a mountain of tyres, two torties on a wall, a mean fox-eared corgi barking at us like he’s going to go for the leg, an enormous placid teddy bear dog, more squashed salamandas 😦 and the first of the wonderful Galician corn-drying houses which sit up proudly on their staddle stones and display the wealth of the house. A good honest display of wealth I think to myself.

Today is all hallows e’en and a freezing night in Xunqueira. Kids are dressed up as scary creatures, running around squealing and eating chestnuts roasted on a brazier outside the church. I carve a few windfall apples like they’re pumpkins and L and I cook up a marvelous dinner on the albergue stove. Included is an enormous wedge of creamy local cheese that probably has more calories than even a 35km walk can burn off. Ha ha! The albergue has broken heating and no blankets but with an extra jumper and socks inside my sleeping bag all is toasty. I have bright shiny silicon earplugs as protection against a new industrial strength snorer.

All is well!

Blessed feast, friends.

Love, Wildgoose

Day 31: A Gudiña to Laza … or: All among the blooming heather

Day 31, about 36km

Had an excellent sleep in the ‘provisional’ but wonderful albergue and started the day in O Peregriño with cafe con leche and my standard breakfast which is soaked sunflower and chia seeds, wheat germ and a couple of dried figs, with a yoghurt and piece of fruit mixed in. Yum! Apart from my hearty healthy breakfast I’m on a true Camino diet which includes jamon ibérico sometimes, and local cheeses whenever we can find them, lots of coffee and red wine and bocadillos (baguettes) with tortilla and tomato and dark chocolate and ‘flan’ which is a sort of Spanish crème caramel and nearly always a dessert option as part of one’s Menú del día. And apples, figs, chestnuts, walnuts and blackberries and grapes found along the way. Letizia and I self-cater when we can which is dependent on whether an albergue has a kitchen and whether there is a shop, and a shop open, to buy supplies. We do pretty well! It’s still possible to eat out. Cheaply in Spain. Good coffee is about 1€ and tapas are often thrown in for free, a glass of wine can be about 1.50€ and a three course menú with wine and bread, between 8 and 10€. Yes, we do pretty well.

The first 20km today were up high, high in rippling mists and through empty stretches dense with heather and gorse and broom, watching valleys come and go on either side, each with their little pueblo nestled in the folded hills. It felt like we were on the roof of the world as the clouds enfolded us, rained around and on us, and passed, leaving jewel-like colours and full hearts. Once Michael pointed out two deer way down in a valley, nothing visible but their white tails bobbing up and down. He is ahead, setting the pace, with his red pheasant rain poncho and always cutting a dashing figure against the mist. We pass through four mostly abandoned villages: mucky central street, stone buildings in ruins with only a few standing and maintained. Barking dogs, vegetable gardens with cabbages and leeks, and cats crouched in doorways are pretty much the only sign of current occupation. It’s lonely and beautiful and wild up here.

Then at midday we’re at our just-past-halfway point, in Campobecerros, in the cosiest, sweetest little bar for lunch. Granny is sitting in an armchair by the stove reading the paper. Above her is an enormous deer head mounted on the wall and two budgies trilling in a tiny cage. Bottles, memorabilia, Camino bits and pieces, photos and trophies are all stacked behind the bar. The remake of the Karate Kid, the Jackie Chan one, is playing on the TV. A friendly Mr and Mrs provide coffee, ice for my leg, outstanding bocadillos, wine for Michael and Renato and then, to top it off, a homemade dessert of coffee creamy slice of deliciousness served with a thick wedge of Mrs’ quince paste. It is impossible to put into words but the simplicity of the hospitality here in these little places, the feeling of being invited to a warm hearth, the few words exchanged about the weather or the Camino, are such a delight. I leave feeling so warm, revived, full in the heart and just a bit more human.

In the afternoon we descended through a pine forest, down through the deciduous woods and to a lush valley where we will spend the night in Laza. It’s a new albergue all glass and slate with an excellent kitchen and all clean and modern. Is it strange, though, that these albergue’s all seem to be missing some of the intangible qualities? Clean and functional they are, but less welcoming and warm of heart. And disposable sheets? I’m sorry, but WTF? My favourite albergues and my criterion for judging a goodie, is whether it makes us more a community of pilgrims, whether we leave more generous and hospitable ourselves. This is the quality I’m looking for.

May your home be graced with the quality without a name,

Love, Wildgoose

Day 30: Lubián to A Gudiña

October 29, full moon and (almost) howling wolves, 26km

It’s another clear and freezing morning bright with frost and my first without painkillers for many days. I have a bit of concern, but yesterday afternoon I bathed my leg in the purest coldest slate-tumbled stream, drank, listened and prayed. And I think whatever has been hurting will be getting better now. I realised that my course of action with the Voltarin was really just more wishful thinking and ignoring the pain by blocking it with a drug. I thought of my poor shin in there still hurting the same but not able to communicate it to me because I wasn’t listening. So I decided to listen. Plus the voltarin has run out. What I heard was: don’t go so fast all the time. And, just walk so soft and maybe slow that you can actually feel the living country beneath your feet. And, sometimes the solitude you would like is to be found at the back of the pack not up front. And, hey girl, be graceful about being slowed down by something out of your control, because it’s going to happen more and more as the years pass. Learn now that it can be a blessing in its own way. So up today’s mountain we go, slowly, slowly, leaning on my two sticks and watching and listening.

L and I saw a young deer pottering through the forest oblivious to out held-breath wide-eyed happy faces, its white tail bobbing as it disappeared into the bracken. The path is just stunningly lovely: yellow and ochre and brown oak leaves carpeting underfoot and acorns crunching. They are so fat they’re almost spherical. There is grey slate and rainbow slate and cloaks of frost over the trees and bushes. After a couple of days of mad photographing I’m having a break today. Ooh, it’s hard at first! I’m still composing shots in my head and can’t help but think that this one will be the most beautiful of all. But it makes me stop and look, to drink in colour and vistas. Let that be enough. There is quiet and birdsong. A loo with a view.

There was a black and white tiny cat lying in a pool of sunshine on a wall just inside the border of Galicia which we passed a couple of hours into today’s walk. She was so friendly and rubbing and purring and licking our hands. I thought draped around the neck she would be a good addition to the winter warm clothes. I asked a farmer walking by for our first words in Gallego, the dialect spoken here, which is sort of midway between Castellano and Portuguese. Buon camiño! He said.

Standing under one of giant chestnut trees here is like being inside a room of stained glass windows shining in yellow, gold, chartreuse, caramel and ochre. The sheltering rich presence of these trees cannot be described. Come walk this way, and come in the Autumn!

Galicia’s Celtic origins are palpable today as we pass through small pueblos. Bell towers have spiral carvings and church yards are planted with Rowan trees, the people have a very different look as well: light eyes, blue and grey, and fair skin.

It is so wonderful to be here in Galicia. The rural life here that grows in and around and is entwined with the fig trees and hand-cut slate rooves and mossy steps and gardens and goats and the chestnut trees that year in and year out provide a wild harvest for the people… it is real and vital and humble and touches me deeply in a warm greeting on a muddy street or a handful of chestnuts offered or a freezing drink from a fountain. I’m not tooo sentimental about it. Just let me walk with it for now.

Love, Wildgoose

Day 29: Puebla to Lubián … Or: frozen pilgrims served with chestnuts

October 28, 33ish km

It was a bit of a shock stepping out of our snug albergue this morning. Daylight savings finished last night so we got an extra hour of sleep, but I could have stayed in bed a lot longer. A clear and pale blue sky was a frozen dome above the sleeping Sunday morning town. Alvaro said, yeah it’s cold! Probably about six degrees. Six degrees? I says, more like six below! He jumped in his van to take it ahead and ride back to meet us on his bike and called out from the window: it’s not minus six, it’s only minus three! It’s so cold it’s impossible to hold onto my sticks. After just a minute or two my hands are numb and painful. So I keep them clenched in my jacket pockets and grip the sticks under an arm. Awkward.

The landscape as we wend beside the Tera is beautiful and otherworldly. Poplars shine in the sky golden yellow and their leaves crunch underfoot fringed with ice. To either side the thistles and dead summer leftovers are dusted with silver and from a distance is all soft grey-white. When the sun catches a field it sparkles and glints in tiny rainbow prisms. Ice in puddles makes shadows on the mud like clumped snowflakes. There’s such a contrast between discomfort of body and delight of the spirit as this new beauty graces us. It is an intimate and wondrous showing. A drip constantly sits at the end of the nose. The red nose.

A few hours later and the sun is high in a cloudless sky. Letizia and I are grinning like cats as we stretch and sunbathe in a white-stoned plazita. The mountain pass, and highest point on the Camino Sanabrés is behind us, and we are eating our salads with hard-boiled eggs, fresh walnuts – a gift from Marie in Santa Croya a couple of days back – and dark chocolate.

Lubián sits in a forest of oaks and chestnut trees, a little pueblo with as many ruined houses as still-standing ones. They are all as beautiful to my eyes as each other: stone walls and slate rooves, moss-covered walls and gardens full of cabbages, leeks, pumpkins and the tail end of the summer crop eeking out the last of the sun’s ripening rays. Spanish pilgrim Miguel Angel shows us hot to roast chestnuts on the electric stove and we eat mountains of them, plucked fresh and fat from the track.

Camino gastronomico!

Buen provecho amigos,

Love, Wildgoose

Day 28: Mombuey to Puebla de Sanabria … Or: once a pilgrim always a pilgrim

Saturday October 27, 34km

Today’s walk is for A, Peregrina of courage, spark, humour and grit. She knows what to do when there is a fork in the road! One day we’ll walk together again with the girls as well.

* * *

We were so relieved this morning to wake to clear skies after rain in the night and endless bloody forecasts of more. I don’t trust the weather report on TV but it plants a seed of trepidation in the hardiest pilgrim. Spain is drenched at the moment, but somehow we seem to be staying in the clear. Renato made a check of the skies when we were getting ready and pronounced ‘tre estrellas’ so we were pleased.

It’s cold! The early walk takes us through oak forests through corridors of clear light and over carpets of leaves. Tree trunks are covered in the pale green bushy lichen I call Old Man’s Beard and there are strings of puddles the width of the track. I trail behind the group for a wee break and find myself a few minutes later in front of a marked detour. What to do? Where have my friends gone? There’s some safety tape dangling from a bush but not exactly restricting the passage to the normal Camino. So I did what I thought you’d do, peregrina, and said bugger it, and went through. It’s Saturday so no one’s working on the heavy machines. Soon I come to the reason for the detour: the, ummm, Autovía being built. And have to leap across a wide gutter and stumble-scramble down an embankment and up the other side. I hope the track I can see leading off is the one I should be on. And a few minutes later, vindicated! Back on the way marked by yellow arrows. Phew!

Later on I’m back with Letizia and we come to a village with trees just dripping apples. I took a wind fall one, but L in good Italian spirit got us a couple of rosy ones from a tree. We’re also eating blackberries as we walk down walled lanes and, oh A, we’ve arrived in chestnut country! Do you remember? You once said that walking past fallen chestnuts was like walking past chocolate and not taking it, and so it is! They are shiny and rich brown, plump and everywhere on the ground. There are heaps of people out wild-harvesting today, both chestnuts and mushrooms, as the first good Autumn rains have just fallen. One couple wouldn’t let me walk by without filling my pockets with chestnuts. Camino abundante!

For lunch we had the best bocadillo ever: tortilla and queso in fresh fat bread, and a ración of mushrooms, which came with garlic and thyme and floating in olive oil. Oh the pure pleasure of such a meal, with a walker’s appetite. I had my leg up and with ice on it while we ate. I’m on a high dose of Voltarin which is not ideal, but unavoidable for now. Do you remember when you got tonsillitis and going together to the clinic in Astorga? The doctor seeing us ahead of the whole waiting room and giving you antibiotics for free?

The afternoon walk was a bit long and a bit grizzly as it tends to be, you know the last few hours before arriving when the delight of the morning has gone and the legs and feet are feeling the kilometres? But we saw the mountains we’ll be climbing tomorrow or the day after, shining in blues and greys past the green and Autumn-painted forests. It gives a thrill of excitement!

Here in Puebla de Sanabria we are happy in a well-appointed touristic albergue whose lovely clean bathroom, good kitchen and warm rooms makeup for the chilly reception from the so-called hospitalero who got a bit mad at us when we wanted to put our hand-washed clothes in the dryer. Actually they did take about four hours to dry. In the kitchen were new faces: Adriano and Antonio well into a bottle of red and cooking up scrambled eggs with mushrooms they’d apparently been given by the hairdresser when they went for a beard trim. So imagine this, true pilgrim hospitality, they were not cooking for their own dinner but would put a fork in the hand of anyone who came into the kitchen. Later Letizia and Álvaro cooked spaghetti and a feast was made with bits and bobs that everyone had.

You would have loved it A. From my way on the Camino Sanabrés I send you blessings, joy, lightness of heart and pilgrim grit.

Love you, and love to R and the girls,

Wildgoose

Day 27: Santa Croya to Mombuey

October 26, 40km

The Mombuey albergue is a small stone building with a bathroom off to one side and five bunks and a single bed crammed down one end. If you want to make your dinner there’s a microwave, if you want to hang up your washing there’s the end of your bed, and if you don’t want your boots to stink out the place you put them in the street. And didn’t we have a brilliant night there, ten of us like sardines in a tin. There was Juan and Antonio cooking castaños in the microwave and three French pilgrims walking away from Santiago sharing chocolate, Michael and Renato napping in identical red jackets in identical positions on their side-by-side bottom bunks, and me on my top bunk feeling a bit sore and sorry with ice on my shin while being all wrapped up in my sleeping bag. Lavender oil was applied liberally to keep the chinches from even considering coming close and the smell alone makes me feel better about a dodgy mattress. (Since the 90° wash of all clothing and insecticiding of sleeping bag and pack there have been no more bites. Hoorah!)

Alexis of the French pilgrims must have seen I was feeling just a bit sorry for myself because he made me a pink balloon poodle. Then after dinner we played a card game called Lobo 77 all sitting on one bed and playing in three languages. Laughing our heads off we were.

It was a long 40km today. And if we were not sticking to a schedule in order to meet people in a couple of days time, it would not be my choice to do such long days. Downhills hurt so I decided to pick up a couple of sticks, which I’ve walked with in the past and love, but have just not sought out for this Camino. I found a nice one of wild rose wood and another of poplar. They help.

If you have sore bits, I also hope you get a balloon dog, plenty of chocolate, someone to fetch you ice and something silly to make you laugh and forget it all. And voltarin.

Love! Wildgoose