Time walked – 8 hours, including
Total distance walked – 15.3 miles
Miles to Date – 407.8 (Ray) and 398 (Wendy)
Weather – Warm, low 60’s to hot, 80 degrees F
Terrain – pavement, gravel trail, cobblestone streets
Ray and I woke up in a modern, clean albergue with four bunk beds in each room. By Camino albergue standards, this one was a five-star, but once again we did not sleep well. The original plan had been to stay in the cheap albergues six nights a week and then find a hotel with good wifi for working once a week. Ray and I both felt like the true or purist Camino experience required staying in the albergues. I had read that it is best not to overly plan the Camino, and it didn’t take long to learn that lesson. Between the snoring, the smells and the sounds of rustling plastic, zippers and Velcro, Ray and I did not make good albergue sleepers. The previous night had proven that it did not matter if we had six bunk mates or 36, we were doomed to finding a private room.
We left the albergue at 7:00 a.m. and followed the Camino markers through Ponferrada. When we’re both grumpy out of the gate, I have a hard time finding photo-worthy opportunities to preserve our Camino memories. Ray focuses entirely on how long it will be before he can have coffee, thinking that a good café con leche cures all ailments. The markers lead us through narrow streets lined with tall buildings that seemed more like alleys. Because the buildings displayed an excessive amount of graffiti I understood why Carmen had pressed on after not finding her hostel. It seemed that we had stayed in the nice part of town. I realized, however, that Carmen was dealing with the afternoon heat and I was in a foul mood. The streets opened up into a small plaza, and I convinced Ray to let me take a photo even though he wasn’t feeling it.
When we crossed over the river leaving the city for the suburbs, we had hope for the wide open spaces.
The path continued on pavement and sidewalks for most of the morning. The suburbs were quiet in the early morning, and we only saw a few pilgrims as we walked. The mural on the Iglesia Santa María in Compostilla caught my eye, and my mood lightened at the memorial to the peregrinos. It was a solemn reminder of the millions of pilgrims who had walked for centuries before us seeking penance, self-reflection, enlightenment and discovery.
Probably because I was so tired, the normal, morning aches and pains of the Camino were not going away as we walked. We hadn’t had food or coffee so when I saw a bar restaurant ahead, I told Ray that we had to stop. It wasn’t like the quaint little places where we usually stopped that catered to pilgrims. We walked into a narrow building with bar along the left side and four tables in a row on the left. I dropped my backpack into a chair and turned toward the counter, eyeing a photo of a large plate filled with eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and fresh-squeezed orange juice for €5. I ordered two café con leches and two breakfast plates. I knew that my day was going to get better when the man behind the bar questioned my choice of two breakfast plates, raising his eyebrows in surprise.
I had completed the order before Ray was able to remove his backpack. He was also surprised when I told him that we were having a full breakfast with bacon and eggs. We have eaten eggs on the Camino for dinner as well as on hamburgers, but we have not found them on a breakfast menu. I had been a little leary of eating a big breakfast for fear that it would slow me down, but I was needing something to boost my mood and my energy. The coffee and orange juice were ready first with the food quickly following. I didn’t even think of taking a photo before shoveling it in my mouth. Ray’s breakfast didn’t last much longer than mine and it was just what he needed as well. I thanked the guy behind the counter as we walked out, telling him in Spanish that it was the best breakfast in all of the Camino. He smiled while giving credit to the chef, his mother.
Six miles from where we had started for the day, Ray and I were still walking on pavement. We passed a few small farms with sheep and cattle in the adjacent fields, but no real outstanding views. The roads were flat and it was getting hot. The most inspiring part of the walk was the glimpse of the mountains on the horizon.
As we approached the next small town, I realized that a part of the Camino is walking through some not so lovely views. Growing up in a country home while longing for the city, I found it funny that I do not enjoy walking through the towns next to streets with vehicles whizzing by me. Ray and I have laughed about the fact that the cars are probably not going very fast, but it sure seems like it when it’s been so long since we’ve been in one.
By the time we reached the gravel trail, my feet were hot from walking two hours on paved roads. I sat down on a park bench next to a water fountain, removing my shoes and socks to cool off my feet. Mentally it was tough to sit and wait while other pilgrims walk by, not because I wanted to beat them but because I wanted to get where they are going. It seemed like such a waste of time to stop, and I could not figure out why I was having such a hard time understanding the importance of foot care. The closest thing I had to a realization was that I still thought I was invinceable or at least would recover from the pain quickly. I wondered if I somehow thought I deserved the suffering, but dismissed the thought for another day.
We finally made it to a two kilometer stretch between vineyards as the sun beat down on us. There was very little shade, so I was checking my map app regularly to see when we would reach our next location. Even in the backseat of the car as a child I was obsessed with maps. Was my lesson from the Camino more patience or the freedom from my anxiety to plan ahead? I thought that the answer was probably both, but I doubted my ability to learn either before reaching Santiago. Margarita had sent an email to Ray from Panamá. She wrote that the lessons of the Camino were in our future. The words struck me as significantly profound and satisfied me to simple take one step after another, content in moving forward.
We could see the edge of a town where we would have lunch, entering an industrial area. A shaded rest stop was full of pilgrims and I picked out Carmen as one of them. Ray was just as happy as I was to see her. We realized that we had formed a Camino family with people who we had known for only a short time but had become an important part of our journey. It was time for me to let my feet air out again, so I found a spot beside Carmen and took off my shoes.
Ray went on and said that he would get the colas ordered. Carmen and I walked together into Cacabelos finding Ray relaxing in the central park, surprised that we had caught up so quickly. The three of us found some outdoor tables at a restaurant around the corner and settled in for lunch.
Carmen and I got a kick out of our purple backpacks side-by-side. She had named her backpack, Bertha, and thought I should name mine as well. I told her that Ray had been teasing me about my purple shirt, my purple shoes and my purple backpack, calling me Barney. I decided Bernadette would be a better name, so we snapped a picture of Bertha and Bernadette on duty while we ate our lunch.
The three of us followed the trail out of Cacabelos back to the highway. About two kilometers out, we had the option of taking a longer, more scenic route or sticking to the road. I got ahead of Carmen and Ray, waiting for them at the split. I weighed my options and tried to convince them that we needed to walk the shorter route, but they did not agree. I knew I had the choice to walk separately along the road meeting up with them later, but the scenic route through the vineyards was tempting. Since we both had made reservations for the night, there was no hurry other than the afternoon heat. I decided to walk to the first curve on the scenic route before making my final decision, but by the time I reached the bend, I was not turning back.
The trail climbed through the hills following the electrical lines between the towns. While the vineyards provided more scenery, the electric lines provided a constant buzzing sound.
One part of the path was lined down one side with cherry trees. Ray was convinced that they had been planted purposefully for pilgrims. Carmen had read a sign on an earlier part of the path, written in Spanish, that said the pilgrims could help themselves to the cherries as long as they left some for the owner. I had seen the sign as well, assuming that it said to leave the cherries alone. As Carmen and I discussed whether or not the cherries were ripe enough to eat, Ray climbed into the field and picked some for us to try.
Although not the bright red variety that we were used to, the cherries were delicious. Ray filled Carmen’s hat like a bowl and we enjoyed our juicy snack. Carmen spread out her hiking skirt on the dirt in the shade of the cherry trees, and sat down to take a break. Ray and I walked on, making plans to meet up with Carmen for dinner. She had treated herself to the luxurious Parador in León, and I had reserved Ray and I a room in the more modern Parador built in Villafranca del Bierzo. I was hoping she could meet us there for dinner.
The rest of the walk was dusty and hot. We passed through a small, primitive village that Ray thought should be a ghost town. With the trail dipping and climbing, time seemed to stand still. A single house sat on top of a hill surrounded by vineyards. The driveway had tall weeds growing down the middle and the sides, leaving Ray and I to conclude that it no one lived there or it was possibly a vacation home. Either way, it was very remote and entertained our imaginations for awhile.
By the time we reached Villafranca del Bierzo, my feet and legs were exhausted. I did not regret taking the time-consuming scenic path, but wondered what I had missed the other way. The streets were made of cobblestone which conjured a few torturous descriptions of what it felt like on the bottoms of my feet.
The Parador was not as easy to find as the map indicated. Ray realized that we had walked past the entrance as I kept walking down the sidewalk. After seeing the grand Parador in León, I was looking for something more out in the open than this Parador built perpendicular to the road. It looked just like the internet photos, however, and was a fraction of the price of the ones in León or Santiago. I drug my sweaty, dusty self to the counter, slightly embarrassed to be checking in to the hotel.
Ray immediately recognized the classic cars belonging to members of the Morgan Classic Car Club parked in the hotel lot. He had stopped to take a photo to send to his dad. I joked with the desk clerk asking him if the cars were available for rent to Santiago. He laughed but did not answer, and I was glad to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible.
I sent a message to Carmen asking her to check in when she reached her accommodation. Ray and I were concerned about her being by herself in such a remote area, especially the creepy little town. Ray decided to take advantage of the hotel sauna, while I was anxious to get clean. I hadn’t taken a bath in fifteen years, but the large tub looked inviting. I showered first to get the dust and dirt off, then soaked while the tub filled with warm water. Not being a tub fan, I made sure not to fall asleep so that I could appreciate every minute.
The only bad thing about staying in a hotel was the lack of laundry services. We could have paid to have each item washed for a fee, but they needed a 24-hour window. When I finished my bath, I squirted the rest of the shampoo into the water and stirred it into bubbles before throwing in our dirty clothes. I manually agitated the clothes for awhile, then let them enjoy a lengthy soak. When Ray returned from the sauna, we rinsed and wrung the clothes, and he strung a line from his kit for them to dry. He has successfully done this in a few places for us, but I didn’t think about taking a picture until we brought our hillbilly ways to a Parador in Spain.