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A Spanish Pilgrimage 2010. Week 5

Wed May 19. Riego del Camino to Villabazaro. Todays distance 39km. Total distance 656km complete/344 to go.

At last, my first day on my own. No disrespect to anyone else who has been with me, I had planned to be solo for a few days at some point during this hike. For the eight hours hiking I wave to a couple farmers and “Hola” to a few people and thats it. This is a completely different feeling, no need to think about anyone behind me or to talk. Honestly I think I will want some company again soon enough.

Odette set off with Noel and a couple others earlier today and was obviously worried about me being on my own. “No need to worry.” I offered her with confidence. I am writing this two days later and she still does not know that I got totally lost, this is how it went down……

The first 31km was easy, then I decided to get some extra distance in from Benavente to Villabazaro. The guidebook is kind of crap when you compare it to the German/French versions so when you pick up a trail of arrows you sometimes have to go with your gut. In this case I was correct to a point, I should have turned right 2km out of Benavente but I carried straight on and ended up on the bike route. The bike routes tend to be longer and use the roads and camino agricoles, also the arrows are spaced further apart. As I was hiking through an unknown village my logic was making some sense, go over the river and continue straight on, I thought this was a slight amendment from 2005. When I didn’t cross the rail tracks I knew I had gone wrong, no problem I am still on the yellow arrows that identify the route. The sun has climbed higher in the sky and the backs of my arms are getting warm, my water is quickly going but I decide not to stop at the shop d’oh! Watch that come back and haunt me later.

Finally I see the white walls and red roofs of a village, its been a little over 8km by my estimate and I figured if I turn right and walk for a couple kms I will at least get some shade from the buildings and be able to get directions. So I turned right and ignored the yellow arrow that was pointing up a hill, that was another reason why I wanted to go this way, its all flat! The sun is so high in the sky that I cannot tell which way is east or west just that I think I am heading North, when you are tired of hiking you cannot be sure of any of the stuff you have in your head and I soon got disoriented when I got into the village and read some road signs. As I entered the village I passed a bar, and shops that were closed for siesta. I went to the Church and dumped my bag with passports and money on the floor and walked around for five minutes, leaving my bag on its own out of my sight! The Church was closed and I could not make out the name of the village from the signs but at least my bag was still there. I continued through the village in the direction of the motorway to find a sign with the name on it, all I found was the river that I was supposed to cross and signs to other unknown places.

So now I have a basic idea of the layout of the town, usual stuff one bar, one shop, farmers and minor roads. My next option is to go into the bar and ask some questions, so off I went, threw my bag on the floor and asked for a Coca-Cola. I then emptied my bag and almost fell off my chair when I thought I had lost my phrase book. Once I found it I ventured to the bar and started to ask the Landlady, as usual I start with the “No Espanyol” then I asked for directions to Villabazaro, basically you just point at the name on the piece of paper. She takes me outside and shows me the church and then with her hands directs me whilst speaking Spanish, we go back inside and she tries to draw a map. I can decipher certain parts of the sentances and hand movements but I am just not sure what she means. The old farmer guy in the bar comes over and draws a map that is not quite oriented correctly (I had already seen the river so knew something of my current surroundings), I sort of knew what he was getting at but I was tired so I tried asking for a Taxi, what a surprise there is no taxi in the town. In my mind I just want him to drive me, but we go on our merry dance of repeating the map and me using my phrasebook to ask if it is possible to walk the route. When he offers to drive me my eyes light up and I almost forget to pay for my drink. I offer to buy him a drink when he gets back but he just wants to help me out.

We both go outside and put my backpack in his trunk, he drives down the road and through the junction I saw earlier and his map makes sense, its 4 or 5 km when we get to the bar at the village, this is where I need to go to get the key for the refugio. I thank the old farmer guy and he leaves with a smile, sometimes helping people gives you more pleasure than receiving something in return.

I am home free, this is going to be easy. Ha ha, this is me and I speak no Spanish. I go into the bar and a wild eyed Landlady stares me down, everyone turns around to look at me, how do I go from a nice village with helpful people to the “she devil” and a village with no identifiable shop. When I ask about the refugio and tell her I don’t speak Spanish she talks as fast as possible and goes off of the subject. If I know the context and they speak slowly I can generally get an idea of where the refugio is and what they want me to do with the key. Anyway I just agree and then leave to find the place, last house on the left (isnt that a horror film where everyone gets killed by some village idiot?) is what I have, the key has no address on it. I walk up the street to the junction at the end, the mailbox has a family name on it and so does next door, no signs for albergue. I walk back down to the bar, check my pdf guide on the computer which is also no help. I figured that if I take a piece of paper and a pen then we can draw a map, I start with the bar and then road. After plucking up the courage I walk back towards the bar. As I pass the back yeard the bar dog almost breaks down its metal gate to bite me, its teeth dripping wet with slobber as his lips curl back. I guess this town just hates me.

As I go back into the bar, everyone turns around again and the “she devil” rolls her eyes back so far I thought I would never see them again. Not interested in drawing a map she walks outside and I follow, she waves her hand and says “Finale.” and some Spanish that means left, I figure that out when she almost hits me in the head when trying to signal left. I trapse back up the hill, walking a couple hundred metres to the left, when I see nothing I am trying to figure out how I can leave town without going back to the bar, do I keep the key, throw it down or am I brave enough to go back to the bar. It would have been the latter option, but luckily the last house in the village is the refugio and I am the only one here, woohoo!

I lie down on the sofa and make a mess in the sitting area and on two beds, I shower and clean my clothes then lie back on the sofa, bursting blisters, burping loudly and generally being alone. Then the door moves and in come my three Spanish buddies, oh what fun I am going to have. The guy who speaks English tells me that the lady was complaining that I knew no Spanish and apparently come from Germany, we have a laugh about it. If I knew nothing I would not have found the place but I admit I could do better. I clear my stuff up a bit and then go off to look for the shop and take the key back to the bar as I thought that was what the “she devil” wanted.

I can’t find the shop and its hot so I go to the bar, prepared to give the key back and have a drink. If she could have killed me with her eyes I would lie on the bar floor right now, smoking from the holes she burnt in my head. She remonstrated with me, something about three guys, I answered I let them in and they are showering. In the end I walked out, threw the key on the table in the refugio and I refuse to go anywhere near her again. Slight issue with that is no food.

Do I hike on at 18:00, the sun is burning me after about a minute outside. I lie on a free bed and sulk for an hour or two, not quite asleep and not quite awake. My three Spanish friends tell me they are going to watch the soccer and is it okay to come back late at 00:00, I say “No problemo.” and we are all buddies again. I sit back inside thinking about my stomach, there is no cooker or microwave and I only have fruit bars or oatmeal. I notice the coffee machine on the table, ah-ha what can we do here. I clean out the water reservoir a bit then put a filter in without coffee, I run a cup through and use the coffee flavoured water to clean my bowl of the greasy residue of sardines. The next cup I run through is pretty clear so I throw a load of sugar on my oatmeal and it works out pretty well. This is good enough to last me until the first village tomorrow.

As I sleep on the bed just after 20:00 another group of Spanish hikers come in. I did not even wake up as the other three came back in at 00:00. What a strange day.

Thurs May 20. Villabazaro to La Beneza. Todays distance 31km. Total distance 687km complete/313 to go.

The only food I have are three fruit bars from Canada. I leave at 06:00 with my headlamp on and as I go through the first two villages I look for the shop, holy crap what is wrong with Spain, there is no shop in sight. I ate two snack bars and when I eventually got some food at 16:00 I pig out on chips and candy.

Todays hike was tough, my feet hurt and mentally I am a little off. When I get to La Beneza I find the Albergue and it is locked with a sign saying to call a number. I get my phrase book out and prepare a few phrases, “I dont speak much Spanish.”, “I need the key for the Albergue.”. I call the number and the guy seems upset that I woke him from his siesta and something about 20. I figured someone would be round in an hour to let me in, I remember something about house 22 being where the key is so I pull out the laptop. As I read the document the door of house number 20 opens and a nice lady comes out with a key, I explain I speak little Spanish and she shows me around speaking slowly so I understand what she wants me to do with the key, the forms, the showers, pretty much everything. I like her style 🙂

A few days ago when I was a little annoyed at the Spanish town with the shop shut and barmen acting like idiots I had a bit of a run in with three or four Spanish guys. What happened was….at each place you sleep you get your credencial stamped, in El Cubo I lined up like you should and was waiting whilst the Hospitalero stamped a few of the credencials. As he got to the person in front of me another guy from behind me passed his credencial to the guy who was waiting in front of me, basically jumping the queue. Instead of the Hospitalero giving it back he then started to stamp it and prepare the receipt for the cash. I was already having a bad day and that sealed it, the toys came out the pram. They understood what I meant, credencials were waving around in the air, I was shrugging my shoulders with my hands out. Then I stamped back to my room and told Odette what I thought of it, pretty much everyone heard what I thought and if they spoke English they got the gist of it (swear words included).

Since that incident four days ago I have bumped into them everyday, currently I am in a 50 bed albergue sharing a room with them. All the other beds are empty, its quite cosy, me and my three amigos. We are polite to each other but still cautious with each other, we talk when we need to and avoid each other for the rest of the time. One of them is pretty good at English and I think they are all pretty good people, just that incident sets the tone for our relationship.

I always get to the albergue first though, today I let them in and told them where to go to get the stamp. Then I told them how to find the supermarket….see I can be civil.

Fri May 21. La Beneza to Astorga. Todays distance 25km. Total distance 687km complete/256*** to go.

***The total distance to go has been altered, as I have come via Astorga, I save 30 or 40km. John, K and Odette are all going via the Camino Sanabres so have a little more to go.

Today and possibly tomorrow I will stop at Astorga. I have a couple blisters on my heel from my new shoes, they have formed under the hard skin of the old blisters and are pretty painful. I have to carry my boots which is adding extra weight and my bag is already heavy, so they will either be donated to someone or sent back to England. I tried to wear them again yesterday but after an hour or two they hurt my achilles, however they do give me better ankle support than the shoes or sandals.

At this point I have finished the Via de la Plata, from here I can do a couple of things. The first is to take the easy way out and go back to England to visit my sister and maybe go back to Canada early so I can enjoy everything I like about home. The second is to get on a train and travel around Europe a bit before going back to England as scheduled. The third is to carry on to Santiago and then Finisterre for another 10-14 days. Yesterday I was ready to get the first ticket out of Spain then I realised I was free to do anything I wanted and I do not need to go to Santiago to get a certificate from some guy to say that I completed a pilgrimmage. It would not be quitting as I have completed the Via de la Plata and do I really need to carry on?

Today is another day and Astorga is a nice city and there are more pilgrims around, they seem to range in age too. It helped that the Hospitalero was nice to me, she was not as nice to the person before me, but still ranks highly. This town seems different, the service industry seems to want to help, the Tourism Office was good, as was the Post Office. Apparently last December it got to -18 celsius in Astorga, that is colder than Canada (well Vancouver anyway).

My decision, (even though the hike sucked again, I hate roads and I saw no other pilgrims during the five hours) is to stick it out until Santiago, this could change within a day or two. I also need to stretch my body out. I have too many old injuries that are not recurring but I know when I need to back off a little, to help things I am dumping my boots so my backpack is lighter, hopefully someone else will be able to use them.

Lets see what happens later, hopefully I will meet some new people.

Sat May 22. Astorga to Rabanal del Camino. Todays distance 20km. Total distance 707km complete/236 to go.

So far it has been busier but not as busy as everyone was telling me….”Its a holy year, you won’t find a bed.” blah blah blah. The albergue was busy, not full and I got a massage from some Spanish guy for 5 Euros, he done my legs and they felt pretty good. The only issue I had last night was every half an hour someone would get up and go to the washroom, the dormitory had about 60 beds in it so this went on all night. Still I was up at 06:00 and out before most people had finished snoring. I left my boots at the albergue with a note “GRATIS” maybe someone will pick them up.

The hike was pretty good, more wilderness than most other days and I lost count of the other pilgrims I spoke to (native English still). As I entered Rabanal I sat down and drank a can of coke and a couple Brazilians and an Italian came and sat next to me, we had spoken earlier in the day. I was now being labeled as “Mr Canada.”. They offered me some of their food which I turned down, politely. There are benefits to being on your own and this route is much busier, more people to talk to and more people to share food with.

Time to make a decision, rest my feet and legs or carry on. I went for the former and went into the expensive and small shop, bought some fruit for immediate consumption and went to find the albergue. I was the third person in there. It had wi-fi so I updated the blog, showered, washed my clothes and then walked around town a couple times trying to find some entertainment. All I found was three Spanish ladies looking for the albergue so I showed them the way.

By the end of the night, after my baked potato with baked beans I went to bed and found that I was in the middle of the snorers, not just the men but the women too. A few of them were overweight which just makes the noise like a bass subwoofer. I can handle one night of no sleep, hopefully tomorrow night is better.

Sun May 23. Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada. Todays distance 32.5. Total distance 739.5km complete/203.5 to go.

This was a really good hike, reminiscent of hiking in Canada. There was an incline, there were pine trees and there were great views (I didn’t take any photos though, just google it!). That brings up a question for me, I see so many people taking photos of the same scene, why? Just get it off the internet and photoshop yourself in if required!

When I got to the hostel there was a queue of 10-15 people and the hospitalero was handing out free drinks, later the hostel got fairly busy but I do not think it was anywhere near capacity of 210 beds. When getting my credencial stamped the hospitalero seemed to be impressed that I had done the Via de la Plata, not sure why although I have already hiked the same distance that many on the Camino Frances will hike by the end.

Ponferrada is a fairly large town so I had hopes of getting some food from a decent supermarket and cooking something good for dinner (good by my standards is baked potato with peas/tuna or baked beans). After walking around in the mid day sun for a few hours it became evident that even the large supermarkets in Spain like to shut on Sundays. Maybe I will have oatmeal for dinner. I thought I knew the way back to the Albergue, whoops, if you want to see the worst parts of a town follow me without a map. Just like in Toronto I manage to find the rougher neighbourhoods, good job I look like I dont have any money apart from my wallet with 300 Euros bulging out of my pocket.

Eventually I made it back to the albergue and got my ice out the freezer, preventative icing seems to be a good idea, I took my sandals off and sat in the kitchen with one foot on the tile floor and the ice pack (ziplock bag with water in it) on various parts of my anatomy. The hospitalero who I had told once I knew no Spanish decided that I should not have my foot out of my sandal and on the floor and told me in Spanish, a blank look ensued, then he said it all again and again. Soon enough he pushed my sandal and I realised what he meant….they should talk slowly it helps.

Many of the towns in Spain have the shops open again at 17:00, so I ventured back out and managed to find a very small grocer, about all I could get was bread, some fruit and an ice cream. Later that evening I bumped into one of Odettes friends from Zafra, I was sick at the time but recognised Thomas/Andrew (I think he has two names), he had cooked himself and Fernando some pasta, as I went past to grab my soup and bread he offered so I accepted without hesitation, I did share my bread. Fernando and I had a Spanglish conversation about how far we had come, how far we were going and how he liked the ladies. Thomas then decided he wanted to practice for his medical career and fix up my blisters…..this is how you become known in the albergues.

In the courtyard we found a spot and I put my foot up on his leg, Fernando came out, my three Spanish roommates came and watched and just about everyone who passed had a look. When Fernando had a go some people even took photos! The jokes were mainly in Spanish but it was all pretty good fun. To finish the day off I just need a good nights sleep.

Tip for anyone sharing a room, do not share with any males, they just snore. Two nights without sleep and counting.

Mon May 24. Ponferrada to Trabadelo. Todays distance 32.5. Total distance 772km complete/171 to go.

Up at 06:00 and out without disturbing my Spanish buddies. Most people seem to hang around in the morning but I left with a French lady and we kind of got a little lost. We bumped into Thomas and Fernando who were reading their guide too, they are planning a 53km trek and continued to try and persuade me to join them, I declined but they will ask again later. After a while we get out of town and I end up passing a few people and then stopping for a break. I had thought Thomas and Fernando were long gone but they were all smiles when they saw me, Fernando trying to persuade me to go with them.

Just before I got into Villafranca I bumped into a young Spaniard hiking from Leon and living in Madrid. She spoke some English as they learn it in school. We had a five minute conversation whilst I drank my tonic water…I got a tip a little while ago about tonic water quenching your thirst – it works and I like the taste. The weather has changed slightly, it is not as hot but it is humid and I am sweating a lot more.

In Villafranca del Bierzo Thomas and Fernando are sat on a bench and as I was leaving town I went over to them to tease them about not getting very far. After declining the invite again I am not sure I will see them again in this lifetime.

Trabadelo now has two hostels and I accidentally booked into the private one, 2 Euros extra. It is nice but not as many people and mainly Dutch and German, I think most people follow their guidebooks so you will find a majority of the same nationality in the same places, one albergue was advertising exclusively in German. As I only have a book which tells you where the albergue is and the number of beds I have no preference for a location although I like a supermarket in the town. Trabadelo “super”market is very expensive, again, and the potatos are not great but the bottle of red wine helps everything down.

Looks like I may be lucky with only one other male in my room, I am hoping for a good nights sleep and maybe an early start at 05:30 or 06:00. The hike is on the sidewalk so it should not be hard to follow in the morning light.

After writing all of the above I met an English guy who was friendly and then did not want to talk to me when his blonde Dutch lady friend showed up. So I went up to the bar to see what was going on. The bar is run by a Dutch couple who speak various languages and purchased the shell of the building two years ago. In the first year they made enough money in April to close for the rest of the year! They stayed open until November and then closed until this April, this year they have already covered all their bills and they really enjoy what they are doing. The barman said his favourite Dutch player of all time is Cryuff (Johan not Jordi) and they do not often see people from Vancouver but more Quebec and Toronto.

After I had finished at the bar I went back to my room, the dutch people turned out to be German after a quick conversation I had with one of them. When they came into the room I was semi asleep and they decided to have a conversation complete with laughing and giggling, I now really want to disturb them in the morning but I doubt I will do anything.

Tues May 25. Trabadelo to Triacastela. Todays distance 42.5. Total distance 814.5km complete/129.5 to go.

Got up before anyone else in my room and I prepared for the hike in the kitchen so I did not disturb anyone. On the way out and down the stairs I was searching for the light switch and pushed the only one on the wall….ha ha….it was the doorbell, without any intent to disturb everyone I did! I do not have to feel guilty about it but I did laugh to myself for most of the morning.

The original title for this post was going to be Awesome! I had been promised rain yesterday that did not come, this morning it came within five minutes of leaving. I enjoy hiking in the rain if I am dry and warm, I have all my Goretex gear on and I am happy to hike with the rain hitting the back of my head. Once I got through the 5-10km of sidewalks I started the climb to 1330m, I walk up at the same speed as on the flat so overtook quite a few people. The rain stopped at the right time so I could hike without my jacket and not sweat too much. I stopped to take a few photos of the mountains as the scenery was Awesome. At the top the wind was blustery and cool and it was overcast and more Awesomeness. Then it started to rain again so I geared up and carried on, the rain was cooling and the weather was Awesome, rain at the right time, sun at the right time. I was happy but a few others had their heads down and were not looking too happy.

As I neared the end of the hike there was a diversion over a steep hill, we were heading down and the wind was very strong, it too was Awesome and then it rained some more before it got sunny and I stripped back down to shorts, t-shirt and sunglasses. The diversion took us into an unmarked village and on the way down through the village I bumped into two people from San Francisco, a Swiss lady who would complete 2500km by the time she arrived in Finisterre, two German ladies and a lady from Miami. There were some arrows on the road pointing down a narrow steep path, I was the first down but when I was rearranging my gear the three ladies passed me. I followed close by and we went over streams and through a couple of fields before the trail just stopped, a brick wall and barbed wire blocked the way. The five of us looked at our maps and guides with no idea where we were due to the diversion, we bumped into the San Francisco couple and they were also lost. So I led the way back up the trail to the road, on the way we picked up the woman from Miami and as I got the road we picked up another 15-20 lost people, French, German and maybe a few other nationalities.

Apparently the original group I was with decided that I was the expert hiker from Canada and I was now their leader! The new group of 15-20 people seemed to agree with them and everyone left it to me. I spoke to a few of them to determine if they knew where they were, no luck, just that a lady in the town had pointed them down the road we were on. I reasoned that the road led somewhere as it was maintained with asphalt and not a camino agricole. So my decision was to continue down the road until we can identify the village we are in or we hit Triacastela. As we walked down the road for five minutes one of the local farmers was herding his cows, a couple of the Germans spoke English and Spanish but were too hesitant to talk to him so I took my map and jogged 50m down to the farmer. Pointing at the map I got an instant answer….translated to “For Triacastela just carry on down this road, for no more than 3km.” So off we all went, I was at the front with 20 people following my every move. After a kilometer or two we came to the main road and the first yellow arrow pointing in the direction of our travel….woohoo we are no longer lost! At this point I left everyone else to it, I generally walk a lot faster than everyone else, my main concern was the time and the availability of beds in the albergue. I saw the municipal albergue first and it looked busy with people walking around the outside so I decided to carry on to find another albergue.

In the next albergue I bumped into a girl who was speaking English, she was with her family from Australia. As I have been starved of conversation I latch onto anyone I can communicate with and it worked out well as her parents fed me, I offered wine but only had to part with one glass. After the food and small talk where I seem like a nice guy who is responsible, hard working and so on I went to find some entertainment. I bumped into a guy from Holland who seemed to always be drinking at the bar so I asked “Do you wanna go for a beer later?”, easy enough the response “No thanks, I am going to take it easy.” and he hopped into the top bunk. Oh well, off to the bar on my own 🙂

Triacastela is fairly large as far as these small Spanish towns go, so I walked around all the bars, empty, empty, empty, empty. In the end I went for the one that looked well kept. I walked in, took my seat at the bar in front of the door, no other people were on this side of the bar. As I enjoyed the cold drink I heard a couple of voices with American accents….these days all I need is to know that people speak English, the rest I just blag on the spot. So I started to move around the bar and saw the couple from San Fran, this will be an easy one. “Hows it going?” the guy had his head turned talking to another family but I got a response from Anna “Good thanks.”.

After that I went through the days story with Anna/Toby and another two ladies and a whole family from Arizona. It was all good until someone mentioned the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, what am I supposed to say when surrounded by 8 Americans…..”All I can say about the Olympics is….We won the gold!” that almost got me strangled. The family left soon after and the others continued another conversation so I turned to get another beer and chill out on my own.

After my beer I ordered another and then the Australian parents came in, the towns are small so you always see people you know. Apparently I can be a charmer when I want and they both seemed to like me, I even got a comment from the Mother, “You seem like a good catch.” that is a little too friendly for me so it went sideways from there. They seemed to want to share their views on finance, religion and family, so I offered my views and we had a good conversation about various things in our past, present and future. They are strong believers in working hard, strong family ties (something like 20 grandchildren) and devout christians. After an hour the guy got dragged out, I think he would have stayed and had a laugh with me but he snores after alcohol so the wife moved him on. I had a promise that they would pray for me the next day, we said our goodbyes and off they went. Its good to have intelligent conversation with controversial subjects without people getting too upset, I tend to play Devils Advocate and will argue the opposite point just for fun.

What more could I ask from the day, good weather, good entertainment getting lost, good food, good company and maybe the Ozzies will absolve some of my sins for me. Awesome!

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