Day 36 – 22nd October 2015, La Portela de Valcarce to Fonfria.
I think it is time for another nerdy fact alert don’t you? La Portela de Valcarce lies approximately 169.3km (105.2 miles) from Santiago de Compostela. By a quick calculation, I have discovered that I have walked about 607 km (377.1 miles) from St. Jean Pied de Port. Phew, what a trek! And do you know, my trusty Saucony Peregrine 5 trail running shoes are still going strong and I have no blisters? Nope, nada, not a sausage. Of course, this could make me feel a tad smug on this morning but I dare not as I’m fully aware I have a steep climb ahead of me today, all the way up and over O Cebreiro, the last major ascent before reaching Santiago.
Anyway, Fiona and I got up early, as usual. I had a restful night’s sleep, which was good news. I packed up my gear and ventured down the spooky and draughty corridor to look for breakfast. I headed downstairs but managed to go out of the wrong door and promptly locked myself out. Damn! It was pitch black outside. Definitely a petzl head torch sort of morning. Oh so dark, because I was in a valley, and the hillsides and forests cloaked me in a velvety cocoon. The early morning air was frightfully chilly. I tried to open the door to the main bar and restaurant area but to no avail, it was firmly shut. Breakfast was supposed to be available at 7am but all of the lights were out and there was nobody home. I guess this followed on from the rather indifferent service at dinner last night! Soon, Fiona popped out and we decided to set off anyway in the hope of tracking down some sustenance in the next place. Thankfully, there were a few villages on the way within the next couple of kilometres.
Sure enough, we perceived a faint glow of lights at a bar in Ambasmestas and stopped to have breakfast there, enfolded in its comforting warmth. Some of the guys at the bar kept eyeing up our backpacks, which was a bit odd. Maybe they were just curious. We were coming into low season for the Camino, so perhaps they hadn’t seen many pilgrims at this time in the morning. I was glad of a hot cup of coffee to warm the cockles of my heart before stepping out into the cold again.
We forged ahead, while daylight gradually dawned in the valley. We followed the Camino trail along the main road, so it wasn’t particularly pleasant, especially when lorries zoomed past. Every now and then we meandered under the dappled light and shade of the trees, decked out in all of their autumn regalia and we listened to the rush and gurgle of the river beside us. The watery sounds, soothed me in contrast to the traffic noise and served to remind me of the flow of the Camino and how wonderful it is to feel completely in flow with no resistance. We ambled through Vega de Valcarce and Ruitelan. By the time we reached the pretty hamlet of Las Herrerias de Valcarce, we were both ready for a coffee stop and popped into a lovely little cafe on the right hand side, its name now escapes me. Las Herrerias was the last stop before the steep ascent up to O Cebreiro.
On leaving the village, we followed the pathway, slowly but surely up through the valley, away from the main road now and along a minor road, which was a relief. A little while later Fiona suggested I go on ahead as she wanted to walk at a slower pace. I was torn and initially resisted. I found it difficult to part company, as I had with Laurie and Alan a couple of weeks before. Part of me wanted to stay and walk at Fiona’s steady pace, but my intuition, pulled me onwards and upwards, almost with a sense of urgency. Reluctantly I agreed and we wished each other well and promised to be in touch en route, in the hope of meeting up again soon beyond the mountain.
One of the important lessons I have learned along the Way is that every person has to walk his or her own journey, at a pace and distance that suits that individual and according to his or her natural flow. I was eager to make the climb up and over O Cebreiro in the first half of the day, feeling that it would require quite a lot of physical exertion. I had done this before. Its a psychological trick. Climbing uphill in the morning instead of doing a stage that involves a challenging ascent in the afternoon. This meant that some legs of my Camino were shorter than others so that I could conserve energy for a climb the following day and I recalled my walks to Villafranca de Montes de Oca and Cruz de Ferro.
Having said all that, it is hard to let go and trust that everything will be OK, even when each of you walks alone for a while. However, another lesson that kept cropping up for me on the Camino, as if it sprung up from the very ground we walked on, is that the Camino truly does provide. The Way brings to us friendships and company, when needed and periods of solitude, when we our body, mind and spirit requires moments to reflect and contemplate. As pilgrims, we must learn to trust in the Way, and believe that the Camino provides. The Camino reveals to us a simple truth. Abundance surrounds us, not scarcity, which mainstream media bombards us with every day back home to perpetuate fear. When we move towards trust, we find ourselves moving away from the panic that our needs won’t be met, whether that is accommodation, food, companionship or rest. This journey towards trust is linked to letting go of a schedule and not wanting to be in control. Powerful lessons indeed!
I enjoyed my walk through the green woodlands and countryside and passed through the bucolic hamlets of La Faba and Laguna de Castilla. I noticed the Refugio Vegetariano, on the left as I walked through La Faba and made a mental note to myself to tell Alan about this place for his plan to walk the second half of his Camino. The sign indicated tea, yoga and massage, if only I could stop for a while, but no, I felt the urge to press on. Ultreia!
About a kilometre or so further on up the track, I saw the brightly, painted way point, which marked the border between Castille y Leon and Galicia. I experienced a few moments of euphoria when I crossed over into the celtic province. I don’t think it was a lack of oxygen! Was it my sheer imagination or did the energy feel different here? Immediately, I felt immensely at home here amongst the lush, emerald green mountains and ancient woodlands. My body was so tired but it was a good fatigue. The kind one gets after doing a lot of physical exercise and yes, its official, I could now fit two of me into my pair of travel trousers! I had to keep pulling my drawstring belt tighter and tighter each day.
Since Las Herrerias, I spent most of the morning walking alone and yet not lonely. I spoke to my mum and dad in spirit and allowed myself time and space to grieve. My sadness didn’t linger long though, as I remained alert to my surroundings and marvelled at the sheer beauty and majesty of the Galician landscape. I recognised that my Camino journey seemed to accelerate and yet I feel I have been away a long time and my days have been full and rich in so many ways. When I get home, I’ll want to keep on walking to capture something of my Camino and integrate this into my day to day life.
The ascent of O Cebreiro blessed me with beautiful, bright sunshine and clear blue skies. I glanced down over the noble hills and valleys and sensed I was on top of the world. I became conscious of bird song and the loud, thrumming of countless crickets, hidden in the verges. Eventually, with a pounding heart, aching calf muscles and heaving lungs I made it to the top! 1,330 m above sea level, yey! I took my time to wander into the higgledy-piggledy, stone village. Already, teeming with pilgrims and visitors, O Cebreiro reminded me of Piccadilly circus. I couldn’t cope with the busyness of it all so I sought sanctuary in the old church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real. Ahh….peace and quiet! I could tell at once, this church, dating from the 9th century, was a sacred and thin place. I sat and meditated for a while and afterwards lit a candle in gratitude and prayer.
I ventured out into courtyard and spent a moment in front of a bust of Don Elias Valina Sampedro (1929 – 1989), a parish priest, who is credited with restoring and preserving the integrity of the camino. Apparently the familiar and cheery yellow arrows marking the way were his idea. I quietly gave my thanks to him before stepping out into the rowdy rabble that had accumulated outside the cafes. I found a sun trap where I could wrestle with an enormous jamon boccadillo, in somewhat relative peace.
Fuelled up and raring to go once more, I was glad to leave the noise and hubbub behind as I followed the Camino trail out of the village as it snaked its way around the mountainside past the municipal albergue. I followed the ridgeway along admiring the stunning views, feeling once more, like I was tip-toeing along the roof of the world. The scenery was incredibly magnificent and uplifted my heart and soul. The Camino cradled me in the arms of love as I made my way, gently down the steep path and I reflected on the meaning of place. Place can be geographical but can also be found in one’s internal landscape of the heart, mind, soul and strength.
Through the woodlands and the village of Linares, I came to a clearing on top of Alto San Roque (1,270m), where a gigantic statue of a pilgrim loomed large and stood , gazing out across the Galician countryside, like a protective sentinel. I couldn’t resist the temptation to give the pilgrim a big hug.
“When you see a peregrino/a on the road,
Don’t be afraid, instead be bold,
Don’t walk by or give a shrug,
Just step up and give a nice big hug!”
– Sarah Justine Packwood
From there onwards, the way down was deceivingly long but enjoyable and then, just before Padornelo the Camino trail took another turn upwards, to lead me up and over the Alto do Poio. Brierley’s guidebook didn’t make much of this climb, but I found it challenging by then as my body was shattered. Alto de Poio stood at the same height as O Cebreiro, of 1,330m. On the way I walked by a stone with yellow markings and a spiral symbol, emblazoned with the sentence ‘find your place of peace’. Yes, that is very true, I thought to myself. Whatever challenges I might go through, physically, emotionally and spiritually, it is nevertheless possible to find a place of peace within, if only I was prepared to seek and just allow things to be as they are.
I continued, down and down, a gentle but very long descent alongside the main road to Fonfria. I relished every moment in the afternoon sunshine, feeling the suns rays caress my face. I’m a fair weather bird really. All those years travelling to and from tropical climes on humanitarian missions had spoilt me and had somehow re-set my internal thermoregulatory system towards hot (perfect), very hot (manageable), warm (OK) and cold (not bloody likely!)
A distinct fragrance of cow manure assaulted my senses on entering the farming village of Fonfria, named after the cool waters of the local fountain. I pretty much staggered through the village until the end, where I turned off the path and sought out a room in the swiss-chalet style albergue A Reboleira. Wow, what a find! This was perfect. I could tell immediately that it was a top quality albergue, so I nabbed my own ensuite room for 26 euros, feeling in need of some pampering!
After showering, a change of clothes and half an hour sprawled on the big, double bed, I arranged to attend the evening communal dinner for 9 euros at a beautiful stone round house, called a palloza, across the road. This was a magical place. The centrepiece was a large wood burning stove, and behind it on a kind of mezzanine floor, a long and beautifully crafted, semi-circular table welcomed pilgrims into its hospitable embrace.
I joined the long, double line of pilgrims at table and enjoyed one of the best pilgrim dinners, so far on my Camino. I sat opposite Sven, from Germany, who I had met in Saharan and another German guy called Volker. Next to me, sat Sheree from the States. A little further along the table were here companions Stefanie from the Netherlands and Nick also from the US. We tucked into a wonderful, traditional galician vegetable soup, followed by pork, pepper and pea stew with rice, washed down with ample carafes of wine and rounded off with the traditional Santiago almond cake. It was a tremendously jolly and fun evening interspersed with poignant moments, when Sheree and I shared our experiences of how our Camino journeys helped each of us to cope with the loss of our loved ones. I continue to remain in awe of how the Camino connects us up with companions at the right time! Yes, the Camino provides…it is that trust thing again.
Find out what happens next on the subsequent stage of my journey…
Peace, love and light,